DOTT, PA. -- Most of the vegetable gardens hereabouts, if not already plowed under, are on their last legs. But in the truckpatch it is almost as if spring has just begun.
Over there on the hillside, broccoli and cauliflower plants are looking like a million dollars. Down by the road, rows of mustard and turnips and radishes are poking up through the soil. Out back, beds of lettuce and other cool-weather crops threaten to flourish.
In other fields, the third and fourth planting of tomatoes have set fruit and give every indication of intending to produce before the first good frost takes them down for the count.
In the greenhouse, which the farmer doesn't even want to think about, there are seedlings of Shasta daisies, German statice, onions, rapini, lettuce and cilantro that still must go to the field. And for good measure, 100 pounds of garlic awaits planting in early October.
The farmer's city friends and acquaintances, accustomed to the simple cycles of the home garden, often talk about "the harvest" in the truckpatch as if it were a fixed event occuring on schedule each year.
"Which harvest?" the farmer is wont to reply, for the harvest actually goes on constantly from April until the end of November. With dozens of kinds of vegetables, fruits and flowers going into the ground over the course of a season, something is always ready for harvest.
That continuity of supply, of course, is the bread and butter of the truckpatch. Making it all work, more or less on schedule, is the hard part, for the weather and the clock rarely cooperate. In her playful way, Nature makes a frustrating game of this.
Now, as fall approaches, the farmer smiles at the memory of innings played and won by his side. He remembers sensing the oncoming summer rainstorms and rushing to a field -- dropping the task at hand -- to put more beans or whatever in the ground to take advantage of the new moisture. One year the beans came up in four days and there was no way to measure the farmer's smugness.
He now takes pride in the broccoli crop that burgeons on the hillside, but he has to smile about that too. Memory tells him that he groused and muttered when Peterson, his partner in grime, insisted the broccoli absolutely had to be planted in the driving rain of a July day. She was right, as the fall crop keeps telling him day after day.
And yet, great bursts of excitement spring from this game. The sight of a germinating seed struggling to push up through the soil, be it a simple radish or a persnickety carrot, never fails to thrill the farmer and bring him satisfaction.
In a way it is a signal that he has done something right -- put the seed at the right depth, picked at the right time, chosen the right variety, taken all the proper care and precaution. It is humbling as well, for the farmer is awed by the power of a seed and knows that he is not much more than a bit player in the drama of its growth.
If the harvest is a constant thing, so is the planting. Looking back at his journal the other day, the farmer was astounded at what he read and calculated. The first seeding, albeit in the greenhouse, was on Jan. 18; the last, which will be lettuce, will occur next week.
Before the year is ended the farmer and his accomplices will have put roughly 80,000 transplants into the ground -- every one by hand. Each one of these was started in the greenhouse by carefully dropping a seed into a plastic cell, which was then meticulously watered and fertilized.
This does not just happen. Back in January, Peterson and the farmer talked at length about their plan for the year and then devised a sophisticated, if not unrealistic, schedule for greenhouse seedings and outdoor planting. All of this assumed an abundance of time and perfect cooperation from Nature.
The schedule, for example, called for 14 greenhouse seedings of lettuce. This, the farmers calculated, would provide a steady supply through the year and maybe, for once, allow them to have lettuce even in the impossibly hottest weeks of summer.
In the cool of early spring, things went swimmingly. February-seeded lettuce went to the field on March 10 and was sold at a market on April 22. The farmers exulted in their triumph.
The plan looked good on paper, but the reality was something else. Two seedings were missed because there simply wasn't time. Intense heat fried several more plantings, even though they were kept watered and covered with long green shade cloths. And what the heat didn't get, the marauding deer did.
There were other frustrations. The first planting of beans in April was a blank -- too much moisture spoiled the seeds -- and threw the year's entire bean-planting schedule off course. And now, the final planting of beans looks world-class and the harvest crew has gone back to school or somewhere else. The farmer will pick beans.
March-planted radishes failed completely (too wet, too hot, too many flea beetles). July-planted carrots did nothing (too dry). The radicchio planted in the spring bolted from the heat before it could grow to harvest size. Ditto for the fennel. Rutabagas planted too late (the ground was too wet) failed utterly. A couple of plantings of beets made it, a couple more did not.
The coolness of May slowed the early tomatoes and then a blight induced by damp and cool threw them into a tizzy. The second planting grew phenomenally in a low-lying moist patch, just as the farmers envisioned, but ripened late because of the shade from a practically impassable mass of vines.
So it goes in the truckpatch. The frustrations of failed plantings are felt nearly every day, but they are assuaged by successes that seem to outweigh them. And they are tempered by the thrill that still comes from seeing a seed burst into life.
That thrill is seductive, tempting the farmer to take chances that make no sense. Rummaging through his seed supply in late August, he came upon a stock of beans he didn't know he had. There's still time, he rationalized. Plant these guys, he told himself. Get a crop.
And then reality grabbed him by the neck. Of course, they would germinate. And of course, they would get frosted out. Or they would not get picked. The farmer put the beans back in the can and tightly, definitively, jammed the lid into place.
The thrill isn't gone. It's just that enough is enough.
Ward Sinclair is a former Washington Post agriculture writer who now farms a Pennsylvania truckpatch.