The international and national news cycle is heartbreaking. When I can no longer follow one more thread of the Israeli/Hamas war or the Ukrainian War or the chaos in the U.S. House of Representatives, I go outside to tend to the ritual of closing down the garden for the season.
This one little patch of earth is where I can make a difference. I stand at the gate overlooking twelve raised beds that need my care and flourish because of it. October weather changes daily, growing cooler and wetter. The day length is shrinking so fast that the sun scarcely has the strength to burn off last night’s dew. I follow a sequence of chores that nearly 30 years of gardening here has taught me.
Unlike my gardening days in northern Minnesota in the 1980s, there is not an abrupt end of fall gardening here. Our climate in the Pacific Northwest is far milder, even though the latitude here is slightly further north than Duluth, MN. The presence of Puget Sound creates a moderating effect that keeps October temperatures between high 40 degrees F. (8 degrees C.) to low 60 degrees F. (17 degrees C.). By contrast, Duluth has already had its first frost. Whidbey’s first frost date is usually mid-November.
I gather my hand tools and shovel, appreciating the respite gardening gives me from the dire news of the world. My tasks are not avoidance, but a kind of meditation, a way I receive teaching from the ground I stand on.
First teaching: There is a season of flourishing, harvesting, last gifts, and completion. Plants are excellent communicators of this cycle. Our bean and pea plants yellowed weeks ago. When there is no longer enough chlorophyll to keep them alive, I pull them up, move them to the compost pile, and plant a cover crop of rye, common vetch, and crimson clover so the soil in those beds maintains its fertility and composition through the winter rains.
Second teaching: A gardener is in relationship with everything: plants, soil, weather, birds, and squirrels. Figuring out relationships seems to be a major source of the human problems in the world. No, I don’t have any answers except to respond with kindness, respect, and listening. Those three things work in the garden with the critters. I do, however, confess to more than my share of unkind thoughts towards grey squirrels who have forced me to figure ever more clever ways to grow my cover crops. And chasing them around the perimeter fence certainly gives our little corgi purpose in life!
Third teaching: Be patient and move at the pace of nature. I used to pull up most crops by mid-October and put in my cover crops and garlic before the end of the month. These days, two hours is a good workload and I don’t try to move fast. I let the plants finish themselves. Potatoes are still in the ground, so are two rows of carrots.
Fourth teaching: Let nature show the ways to heal and delight. I come to the garden daily for peace of mind. Here, I admire the hardy tomato plant(grown on the deck for extra warmth) using its last push to ripen tiny fruits. I am amazed by a zucchini plant putting forth blossoms, even when there seems little hope for a fruit to ripen. Finding joy in the dailyness of things is a radical act in this challenging world. I pluck a handful of not moldy raspberries and let memories of summer’s red juice burst on my tastebuds. If I can get to the place of admiring the athletic antics of the squirrels, I know the garden has worked its balm.
Returning to the house after a morning or afternoon of gardening, I do not open the news—either on my phone or the computer. I need some indoor integration time with a cup of tea or a conversation with Christina or a friend.
The natural rhythms of the planet have always informed and given me the skills of steadfastness and compassion needed to cope with the human world that so dominates daily life. I take the peace of my garden and make sure it is integrated into my heart and soul. Come winter, my main chore will be feeding birds, keeping the seeds and suet available. in January, I will cut back the raspberry canes. In early February I will release the tulip and garlic tips from their wire cage. In March, turn over the cover crop and plant a line of early lettuce, spinach and arugula. There is always something to do in the garden. Thank goodness.