The hard frost last night killed the last of my vegetable garden. The tomato plants that usually stayed green and even produced small tomatoes until early December were brown and wilted this morning. Normally, the dead plants would have been an indication that I needed to clean out the garden in preparation for next spring. However, last year I made an interesting discovery.
Last fall, as the first frosts were setting in, my family embarked on a major house renovation. Hidden behind the giant dumpster in the backyard, the garden wilted and died unnoticed. One January afternoon, I walked our dog around the house and let her through the gate to run in the fenced back yard. As I stood waiting, I noticed the garden.
Over the small fence that divided the garden from the main yard, I could see the stalks of okra plants with dried pods still attached and the wire frame with a few shriveled cucumber vines. Then there was the dangling, brown tomato vine that had been so prolific and heavy in its prime it had broken the sturdy bamboo pole from which it hung. I immediately felt guilty. I had ignored the garden and left an ugly mess for any passerby to see.
As I stood there contemplating cleaning up the garden, a female cardinal landed on one of the okra stalks and started picking at the stem. Then her mate joined her. I wandered closer to the garden fence and more of the garden came into view. Large, green marigold plants, still blooming, were sprinkled throughout the garden. They looked more lush and vibrant than they had all the previous summer. A giant oregano plant had taken up half of one of the raised beds and spilled over the side. There was still life in the garden.
If I had followed my normal pattern in the fall, I would have pulled the dead plants and even the scraggly marigolds out and left the bare beds to lie fallow for the winter. However, by waiting, I had left a space for life. Plants that I would have not given a second thought to pulling up had rebounded and were bright spots of color on a dreary winter day. Even the dead plants were providing shelter and food for birds and animals. As I walked away from the garden that day, I had a new plan. No longer was I wondering when I had time to clean the garden, but how long could I wait to clean the garden.
This morning, I look out the kitchen windows while drinking my coffee. With our house renovations mostly complete, we have a wonderful view from our kitchen of downtown Raleigh and our now dead garden. I wonder how long I will have to watch before I see signs of life.