I cut back one of the artichoke plants yesterday, after returning home from Orlando and finding the artichokes had opened into beautiful purple flowers and were crawling with ants. A tipping point, for sure. Every garden like mine has a tipping point, a point that turns the young, vibrant rows of new vegetables and flowers from the first spring seed planting into overgrown plants gone to seed. At the tipping point, there is too much growth, where everything is growing so much and so rapidly that the rows, once neat, now meld into one another; things get big and unruly, so that the smaller plants are hidden underneath giant leaves.
It's painstaking work, the constant trimming, thinning, harvesting things to be eaten, dead-heading flowers so that new growth can happen, new buds can form. I go into the rows and take on one plant at a time, cleaning and trimming, then move to the next, until everything goes to seed and has to be pulled out completely. In a way, it's a race against time, trying to squeeze out the last small leaves from a stalk of arugula, before the intense heat destroys them completely. They don't do well with the intensity of direct sun, much preferring the cool spring weather (just like me).
The summer vegetables and flowers rotate next—the ones that like the summer heat, that seem to need the sun and longer days. Keeping up with the staggering of plantings so that no ground is wasted is the plan of the garden, year after year. The rows of beets can stay where they are, hibernating in the ground until I'm ready to eat them, even though I could use the space. Raspberry vines have been tied to the fences around one of the raised beds, to make room for a bed of summer squash; the bush beans I planted in between the rows of beets have been coming up, struggling to survive the hungry snails that are after their leaves. The summer season is the most vigorous, a feast for the eyes and a huge amount of pleasurable work. The joy of looking out and seeing the garden flourish feeds me in a way that almost nothing else does.
My mother used to tell me that my grandmother always had a refrigerator stuffed full of neatly wrapped food. Although she didn't have a lot of money, opening the refrigerator and seeing it full made her feel rich, in a way that I think seeing my garden out the windows of my home makes me feel. Gardens teach you about seasons; even in California, where the weather is mild, my garden shows me where we are in the calendar year. Now, we are at the tipping point, the highest point of the growth season, the longest summer days. From here, things will start to fade, subtly at first, barely perceptibly, and then it will start to show much more clearly. It will be harder to get things to grow, take longer for a seed to germinate, until finally, growth will stop all together; long overstretched branches will be trimmed down to the ground, and the garden will have to wait until next spring to rotate and flourish once again. Like a pregnancy, I’m sure, we forget the pain and hard labor of a garden, anxious to plan the next one as soon as the current garden is finished.
When Buddhist monks enter a monastery at a young age, they immediately meditate on their own death. Death is not hidden but is in plain view at all times. In one of the meditations, they visualize themselves aging, decade after decade, becoming frail and weak, becoming ill. They envision their own death and cremation and watch as the ashes from their cremated bodies seep into the ground to be used to nourish the soil. Death is right over their shoulders throughout their lives, at every stage, never hidden, as natural as the sky. Our dogs age rapidly, seven to one, compared to us; we can almost see the changes in them day by day. As we try to fend off death and aging, our dogs show us how gracefully it can be done. Death is not a failure, not something to avoid, but a natural process of life. In this time of energy and rejuvenation, these long days of summer, I watch the magic of the garden teaching me so much, as things grow bigger and fuller. My soul is enriched by it, but I know that, just around the corner from the tipping point, things will fade and after that, just as valuable, will be a time of rest.