Ruth Bass | It's a long time from May's seeds to September's harvest

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RICHMOND — In the spring, weed-free, flower and vegetable gardens lift spirits, their promise given in green daffodil shoots piercing brown leaves, over-wintered garlic greening up and onion plants becoming upright. In September, the view is far less artistic, both kinds of gardens no longer weed-free and filled with rambling vines, drooping hydrangeas and the hard, black heads of retired, love-me-love-me-not daisies.

Chopping off unsightly remnants of summer's flowers or bolted lettuce holds only the satisfaction of getting it done. But with a look past the deer tracks and bug-chewed sunflower leaves, however, the garden fulfills its promise. It's the season when someone says it was an odd garden year, the green beans on the failure list, someone else says we always say that. So, it's never perfect.

But under those brown, dried potato vines lie treasures to be mined, with the digger challenged to find each potato, gently avoiding the slice that means it will have to hit the cooking pot that night. Perhaps it's the fun — everyone in this family thinks it's fun - of the search, or perhaps these potatoes really do taste better than the big guys from Idaho.

While the sugar maples get ready to put on their annual display, vines in the vegetable garden wither and reveal a few pumpkins, butternut squash, acorn squash, a giant zucchini that tried to hide and lots of carrots from the second planting. (The first, after a drenching April, produced only three plants, including one carrot that would have won a 4-H prize for size and shape.)

The tomato plants, often brown and yellow by now, remain green, daily producing bunches of the cherry-size-plus big ones that cover a piece of bread with a single slice. Taking a tomato sandwich to work usually results in mushy tomato and soggy bread. Former Berkshire Sampler columnist and Berkshire Eagle pressman Ken Keehnle solved that problem by slathering on the mayonnaise but putting the tomato slices in a separate container. Cucumber sandwiches survive transport better, and this year a few are still available, green and a little crooked amid awful looking vines.

Annually, a fat caterpillar persists in the curly parsley. He/she looks a lot like the monarch caterpillar but has some green stripes. His chrysalis, when he stops chewing and starts building, will produce a black swallowtail butterfly, as long as I avoid the territory he's claimed as his own. When it's time to clean out the garden clutter, the parsley will stay, along with the leeks (still growing) and the Brussels sprouts.

Some people have vegetable gardens that look like pictures in a magazine right to the end. Here, I long ago embraced my husband's idea that once mid-August came along, the veggies were on their own. He never was much for weeding anyway, although he was a master of delicately threading his way with the rototiller.

Some people also have landscaped flower gardens, but not here. The ornamental grasses wave throughout the winter, the hydrangeas turn a lovely brown color, the milkweed pods pop open and send a million silky seeds into the wild, creating a feast for the increasing number of monarch butterflies, and red berries on an unkempt holly bring the bluebirds that haven't gone south. In the spring, gardeners take chances on seeds, fertilizer, rain and sun. In September, they cash in their winning tickets.

Ruth Bass is an award-winning journalist. Her website is www.ruthbass.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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