The High Calling of Harvesting

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The High Calling of Harvesting

Last Spring, when the air started warming and the ground started softening, memories of gardens past beckoned me to plant. But with no tilled patch, I knew I would be limited to containers. So, I made plans for just a few herbs, along with some tomatoes and peppers.

A trip to the local department store yielded two pots and two packets of seeds. Within days, basil and thyme reached out through the soil and began to establish in the store-bought humus. For the vegetables, though, I found a larger rubber horse trough from the local farm-supply store. With a quick estimate in my head, I decided three tomato plants and four pepper plants would fit nicely.

And they did when the plants were small and just out of their flimsy plastic containers. But as the sun warmed their bed of soil and I was faithful to water them, the plants became so large that their stems intertwined with each other. No amount of staking could separate the tomato plants from each other, so I pulled them back en masse from hovering too closely over the peppers.

Days after the staking, I noticed fruit beginning to sprout on all the plants. Success! I thought to myself, even though I had yet to eat a single tomato or pepper.

Within another week or two, the cherry tomatoes grew large enough that they began to ripen, but the peppers were still small. Too small. And the patio tomatoes which were supposed to be as large as tennis balls refused to budge much beyond golf-ball size.

I checked the plants for signs of pests. None.  I evaluated the soil for adequate moisture. Fine. But as I had pushed my finger beneath the surface of the dirt, I discovered the tightly bound roots smashed together in a container that should hold no more than half the plants. Starving for nutrition and prohibited from growing, the plants and their fruit were stunted. I considered pulling some of them out, but in doing so, I knew I would wound them all. The damage had been done.

My efforts weren’t entirely in vain. The cherry and Roma tomatoes which naturally grow small and plentiful provided an adequate harvest. And the herbs neatly planted in their own containers flavored sauces and soups and bruschettas throughout the summer. But the peppers never really matured, and the patio tomatoes stayed hard and flavorless.

I had sown poorly; the harvest proved that. But where do I go from here?

As I drive along the country roads between the cities where I work and live, clouds of dust hang low and wide in the air. High tech combines worth more than our house move deliberately through fields, stalks of corn and spindly soybean plants sucked into the giant heads of the machines.

Farmers work long hours to bring in their crops, but it’s work bolstered by relief, knowing that last Spring’s planting season has paid off. Just last year when a drought bore down on the Midwest, farmers only dreamed of reaping what they sowed. Unlike my garden, which struggled from poor technique, their low yields came at no fault of their own. Still, it made for a slim winter for many. This year, though, the rains came at just the right intervals; the temperatures stayed relatively moderate; and the harvest is piling up big.

A hard frost settled into our area several nights in a row recently, speeding up the end of the harvest for the farmers and finally putting my struggling garden out of its misery. In the next few days as the last of the grain fields fall to the reapers, I’ll pull up the blackened tomato, pepper, and basil plants and haul them back to our compost pile at the edge of the lawn. The dirt will be mixed into the landscaping, and the containers and horse trough will be hosed out and stored for the winter.

Planting season starts in just six months, and I’m expecting a bumper crop next year.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Just across the street from my home, the field of corn that grew to block our view most of the summer now lays flat after harvest. The stalks have been stripped bare and have fallen; the ears full of grain have been plucked and seeded.  It's that time again, at least here in the Midwest. It's the season when the work pays off. On Thursday mornings in October, we have been exploring the harvest. We’ve saved seeds from flower pods, fought pests in the garden, and considered what it means to keep working even when the harvest is a long way off. Want to spend more time thinking about harvesting? Consider inviting a coworker or friend to read all of the articles in the harvest series with you, and then spend some time discussing them together. Print out a PDF version of “The High Calling of Harvesting” with a list of links, resources, and questions to help you.

Other posts about the harvest: