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Summer Sluts, Bastard Zukes and Wannabe Early Girls

While cleaning up my raised garden beds for fall planting, I heard a feline bleating — you couldn’t call it a proper meow. I followed the noise past the row garden into the tall grass beside the garage, where my black cat Khan lazed in a cool low spot. I sat down next to him and looked over the garden with a cat’s-eye view.

The nearby hills of zucchini squash have been especially energetic and sluttish this year, beginning with a volunteer from last year. This volunteer was the love child of the ronde de nice (little round zukes eaten from walnut size to softball size) and a ridged Italian variety (when sliced, they looked like cunning little cogs). Their offspring was a rotund oblong squash with the ridged variety’s rather reptilian skin coloring (indeed, an enormous lizard took up residency under its huge leaves, nibbled on squash and wouldn’t budge even as I removed its dinner). These bastard zukes tasted fine, and tided me over until the new crop was ready. This spring, I’d planted four hills with several yards between them. Two were a tender, organic green variety; one was the ronde de nice; the last was a slim, thin-skinned white zucchini. But even as youthful plants, the moment they began to bloom, they had sex with each other, and I had some white ronde de nice and some very pale green ones. Only the dominant white ones were true to form. Ah well, picked young, they’re all delicious.

In the rows, eggplants, peppers and beans were slowing down, and okra pods, red and green, just starting to proliferate. Detroit, chiogga and yellow beets showed their plump shoulders. There’s a bumper crop of lemons.

My tomatoes were not prolific, but at least I had some. Last year, I spoiled them, planting them in deep, ever-moist compost. I ended up with hallucinogenically lush vines — and a scant late harvest.

This year, I’ve been so stingy with the water I actually starved some vines to death — and still I have more tomatoes than I need. Oxhearts, San Marzanos, Brandywines, green zebra, orange sunbursts, yellow pear. The star producer — a huge vine with at least a dozen fat, flat-bottomed fruits that are about as sweet and juicy as tomatoes get — came labeled as Early Girls, which they positively aren’t. I have another vine of true E.G.s that are small and sweet and slightly heart-shaped. There was clearly a switch at the nursery, and now I’ll never know what these whoppers are.

Presiding over the yard are two enormous eucalyptus trees — one about a hundred feet tall, the other about 85 — planted on the other side of my fence. I call them the King and the Queen, respectively, and feel proprietary about them because I look at them all the time and also paid to have them trimmed, which took five men two full days. My neighbor who uses the alley gave me permission to trim the trees, then sniffed, “If I had that kind of money, I’d cut ’em down.”

The King and Queen’s bark is deciduous, and today it’s coming off. The Queen sheds demurely; a petal of dark bark here and there slips off to reveal a tender, pale-orange skin beneath. The King, however, is a slough fest; his whole surface is breaking up into patches of fawn-brown bark curling at the edges. Big sheets of the stuff have caught in nearby trees and look like animal hides flung on the branches — a caveman’s laundry hung out to dry. As I sit by the cat, a breeze blows through, and there’s a crackling, and a few loose lengths of bark detach and clatter down.

The problem with gardens is that they’re eternally in transition, with some plants on their way up, others on their way out and just a few trembling at their very peak. The scabiosa were really better three weeks ago, and the string beans really delicious in late July. Come back next week, and the catmint will have filled out, and my L.D. Braithwaite roses will be in bloom, floating against the Hollywood cypresslike wads of red tissue paper suspended midair. By then, too, the King and the Queen will be gloriously smooth-limbed again, pink-skinned, naked.

Today, beside Khan, the whole seething garden seems busy and right where it is, at once past, present and poised. Hummingbirds maintain a low buzz in the flowers, like many tiny airborne motors. The cat lashes his tail. All I can see beyond my yard are treetops and sky and fuzzy clouds, and a glimpse of the San Gabriels. High up the King’s branches, squirrels are squabbling — once, I watched a quarreling squirrel fall from a high limb, scolding all the way down. Then silence.

A tiny, precise, mean pinch on my leg, and another, break the mood. Ants. Back to work — I’m going to pull up some of those zucchini. Nobody needs four hills’ worth.


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