Why discuss cucumbers? Today, they're a symbol for something larger and more important about living in Maine. Call it the garden crapshoot if you will. Like most Maine gardeners, I'm doing it because I want to, not because I need to. However, it's really important and interesting to remember that for the first six or so generations who lived here, a good garden often meant the difference between greeting spring with family members to bury and celebrating surviving another winter successfully. They couldn't hop in the car and drive to Paris Farmer's Union/Agway/Aubuchon/Walmart to grab seeds. Instead they had to decide how much of the crop NOT to harvest and let go to seed so they would have something to plant the following year. Early frost, too much rain, animal damage? These weren't annoyances, they were real life threats and once again, meant the difference between holding that new baby and burying her sister come spring. (If you want to read an excellent book about how life was here in Maine back then, get hold of a copy of Come Spring by Ben Ames Williams. My mother, A. Carman Clark, wrote the introduction to the reprint edition).
Unlike parts of the country with pretty even weather, we never know what to expect from our garden. One year, we might get three ears of corn from two rows of stunted stalks. The next, we might have beautiful pepper plants that refuse to blossom. No two years are quite the same. While 2013 hasn't given us a particularly good summer for tourists or outdoor activities, it has been an awesome year for our garden if you discount the early monsoon that required replanting beans, and the four (now deceased) woodchucks that pretty much destroyed the 2nd bean planting. Last year, it took three plantings to get two scrawny cuke plants that yielded a handful of stunted cucumbers. This year, I planted a packet of seeds bought from Johnny's (a local seed company) and every one came up. We have a crazy-quilt of dark green vines that is currently producing ten pounds of cukes a week. Library patrons and pretty much everyone on lower Pleasant St. are enjoying free cukes. Just behind them, carrots in two small raised begs are getting close to harvest size. In fact, I picked a couple last night that were 3" long and sweet as all get out. Scallions from seed and two kinds of basil flourish behind them. I planted 18 tomato plants (much too close, I now realize) and they are just beginning to go into overdrive. They are hiding red cabbage, pepper plants with abundant fruit and the broccoli I figured was toast after the first batch of woodchucks dined on it. Surprise! it came back from the dead and we dined on big green broccoli heads last night. Three rows of corn which are almost taller than I am, get ever closer to ripeness. My next battle will be with the multiple murders of crows that infest our back yard and can smell a ripe ear of corn from miles away.
Behind the row of post-harvest rhubarb, is a split row, half golden beets (the greens were excellent when we cooked them after a row thinning) and more corn. Two kale plants, also survivors of the second woodchuck attack, are vibrant and will soon be part of two awesome dishes. One is baked kale in vinegar with melted blue cheese on it. The other, courtesy of my sister Kate, is called power soup and is a hamburger/kale soup with vinegar and beef bouillon. The last third of the garden is the most important one every year; Our squash plantation. There are over 100 plants twisting past each other this year. They have already spread onto the lawn and I can see several pumpkins, close to 20 butternut and several green hubbard squash already fruited. We'll let them go until the first hard frost, then store them in our cellar. When cold rainy days hit in October, I'll take a break from writing and cook up batches to put in our freezer. Some, like the cukes, will be shared with family and neighbors.
We also have fruit, but that's usually a bit more dependable than the garden. Last year was an exception as the early heat wave in March fooled the apple blossoms and a later frost pretty much did them in. This year you can hear a nonstop series of thuds as ripe apples fall and I'm excited about finally having a chance to use my cider press, a gift from my wife and daughters two years ago. We're not going to see much from the grape vines, alas, and all the plums fell off before getting anywhere close to ripening. However, we gorged on red ever-bearing raspberries that are now taking a breather before producing a 2nd crop and the gold raspberries will start uber-producing next week. They're bigger, sweeter and have fewer seeds. While we're waiting for them, the wild blackberries are thick as heck, giving up close to two quarts every few days. The crown on this year's fruit crop are the five peaches that will be ready to pick by next week. I wasn't sure either tree would make it through a Hartland winter, but both are flourishing and I can't wait to have a year when they both go crazy. Who knows, maybe I can wean myself off Skittles then.