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Explosions in the garden

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You pray for rain and pray for rain. Finally, the sky lets loose, and the tomatoes explode. Thick-skinned and wrinkled after so much heat, sagging on the vine, the poor tomatoes sometimes just can't absorb all the surging, fresh nutrients that wash in after a storm. If you're the home gardener on the sidelines, you stand by helplessly as natural chain reaction unfurls right before your eyes. The tomatoes are lost.

From their treetop outposts and thoroughfares, the gray squirrels sense the movable feast as the splitting tomatoes fall to the well-mulched earth. Plentiful acorns have been their staple breakfast until now; eager for variety, the marauders skate across branches and over fence posts for luscious salads of heirlooms, Early Boys and Beefsteaks. It's the way of nature, sure, but it still confounds and laments. I always want the daily summer harvest to go on forever. With the right amount of regular rain, plus a few cool days here and there, we'd be picking right up to September.

For weeks, our refrigerator has held the bounty, shared with one and all. Overflow was taken to town and shared. Every few mornings, I'd make a deep dish platter of sliced tomatoes topped with soft mozzarella cheese and fresh picked basil, and marinated in balsamic vinaigrette dressing. Those mornings are almost over.

This year, drought and searing heat have made for some curious sights and memories: A pumpkin vine has looped its way five feet up into an apple tree while looking for a safe place to rest. Birds that suggest Hitchcock have nested in the blueberry thicket, raising quite a racket when we come to pick, especially if I move the ladder into their domain. Colorful, towering sunflowers suggest some Julie Taymor installation; they undulate in any breeze.

Many summers ago, as Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" played, a bunch of newly transplanted suburban kids moved in near the farm. What they lacked in green thumb experience, they made up in eagerness and ingenuity. They put fish heads under the corn plants and harvested bushels of okra and yellow corn. They canned boxes of tomatoes and beans.

But their most surprising success was with marijuana. With some seeds and stems and a little chicken manure, their crop sparked. Harvest time presented some obvious problems, of course, but again, necessity fostered creativity. From the kudzu, they liberated an old, short, tin-roofed chicken coop about 50 yards from the house—if you were walking in a roundabout way through the weeds, that is. With clothesline, they created a dry, cozy, very fragrant, tucked-out-of-the-way room. As the basil and mint were coming ready at the same time, they put those by, too, hanging everything neatly upside down. It was a full house.

Late one night, they got understandably paranoid. (Maybe you've been there?) Grabbing the box of Mason jars piled in the kitchen from a previous, feverish day of tomato canning, they headed for the herb house. They stuffed the dried leafy harvest into jars, dug a few holes in a field nearby and smoothed over the loose orange clay. For months, someone would go outside with a shovel trying to remember where that last jar might be. Now their harvest was one that lasted, all right.

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