For the gardener, every summer in Washington is a wild ride. The heat moves from bearable to unpleasant to wretched, and it is variably too dry or too wet. The one unrelenting element is the humidity. Eighty-seven degrees in Washington is not the same as 87 degrees in Madrid.
I worked the other morning in the vegetable garden and had to stop after an hour. The humidity had sapped my energy and caused every item of clothing to become saturated, proving that gardening is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration. There are people who profess tolerance, even a liking for this climate. One nods, politely.
The ride this summer has been wilder than ever, with alternating periods of flood and drought, climatic spasms that must alarm anyone with an open mind, or at least an open window.
Oddly, the veggie garden is doing better than one might think. In a less fraught season, my tomato plants are beaten down by disease at this stage, but this year they are thriving. I put this down to the selection of small-fruited hybrids — great for oven drying, by the way — the fact that I got them in earlier than usual, and the fact that I did a lot of soil work and straw mulching. I pulled a row of still productive bush beans not because they were sick or afflicted with the bean beetle, but because I had other pole beans and needed the bed for something else.
I have taken the lush tromboncino squash, which grows measurably by the day in this heat, and trained a dozen or so vines vertically on strings to form a living curtain on two sides of the arbor. Some of them have wandered outside the garden fence, where I count on the deer trimming them back. Vine, gardener, deer — every party likes the arrangement.
There have been some difficulties (the gooseberry bush got sick, the borage rotted away and the parsnips failed to germinate), but these are normal road bumps in any growing season.
As the garden luxuriates in the tropical heat, the gardener is refreshed by the impending makeover. The reward for a hot, humid summer is a long, mellow, fruitful autumn garden that other locales see truncated by early frosts and gray skies. With a bit of luck and some guile, I can harvest through December, and anticipate weeks of garden-fresh vegetables, salads and soups.
Mid-August is the threshold for this transition. I begin to clear beds, dispense with any warm-season veggie that is looking seedy, and fix my mind on the cooling weeks ahead. Retail therapy completes the treatment, and I have just ordered far more seed and far more varieties than I have room for. Most are cabbage family plants — brassicas — of which there are many more than you might imagine, especially with the greater availability in recent years of Chinese and other Asian varieties.
Both kale and collards perform beautifully, enduring light frosts without missing a beat. I have grown a little weary of the pretty Red Russian, and even the striking and flavorful Black Tuscan, and have spurned them for two more earthy varieties, Winterbor and its purple-leafed version, Redbor, which are curly, hardy and bred for their flavor.
White and purple kohlrabies taste the same (to me), but the purple varieties look far more stylish in their autumn beds as they begin to bulb up. I’m going with a variety named Kolibri.
Chinese or napa cabbages take the heat better than Western varieties but are quick to head up and great for autumn cultivation. Pak choi is even more willing. It develops rapidly in the cosseting warmth of late summer and will be ready to harvest in six weeks, earlier at baby stage. It’s also one of the most attractive vegetables in the garden, and for added oomph, I’m sowing a red-purple variety named Rosie.
September signals the return of lettuce varieties to my garden, and autumn for me is the time for heading lettuce. Lettuce seed is slow to germinate when the soil is too warm. Commercial growers start theirs indoors now and set them out as transplants. I worry about planting baby lettuce while the garden is still pretty hot and prefer to wait until late August, sowing it directly into the garden but in drills that are an inch or two deep, where the soil is a bit cooler. If the germination is spotty, I carefully open up the row between seedlings with a pocket knife and throw in a few fresh seeds.
I like to sow mini varieties, which are speedier than full-size versions and take up less space, always a consideration in my small community plot. The shortening days also mark the return of arugula, quick to germinate in the warm soil and far happier than in spring when the flea beetle does its shothole work.
Where will all these new plantings go?
I devoted one long bed to a pumpkin patch, absurd given its constraints, and I will keep a couple of the vines of the choice Japanese variety Red Kuri but rip out the rest for greens. The carrots are ready to be pulled — the rabbits are beginning to notice them — and the narrow beds that were supposed to be full of parsnips will do nicely for the Chinese cabbages. The tomatoes and their beefy cages will be gone by Labor Day to make way for the lettuce. The days of keeping tomatoes going until October are behind me.
By then, the garden will be full of pretty greens, and I can vividly anticipate moments in the better weeks ahead. The leaves will begin their dance, the skies will be limpid and blue, the migrating monarch butterflies will be dancing about the place. A cool order will define the garden, and I will relax, knowing that I have drained the swamp.