A few weeks ago I was working in our vegetable garden, pulling weeds and watering. A bright yellow flower and some green tendrils caught my eye, unexpected in a corner where red trumpet flowers reign. Taking a closer look I noticed a long, slender vine cascading over the fence separating our garden from our neighbor’s. Besides the cup-shaped blossom, large scalloped-edge leaves gave hints for classification. I wondered about the mystery vine. The only thing certain was its origin: the adjacent side yard. My curiosity could easily have been satisfied had I simply walked next door, rung the doorbell and asked a single question, but I enjoy puzzles, so instead, I decided to wait for more clues.
Mysteries abound in the natural world. We dump our compost bin, and from time to time, find volunteers growing, identities unknown, vegetable John Does until parts become recognizable. Other conundrums exist – weather, for instance. Why has summer never really arrived here, while Mother Nature has wreaked havoc in other parts of the world? Then there’s the disease and pest factor. Why do mature plants, robust and healthy all season, suddenly waste away and die? And how is it that the cherry tomato plant, laden with ripe fruit yesterday, could be plucked completely clean, by who knows who, overnight? Farmers deal with these uncertainties every day, plus even bigger ones like, will the backbreaking effort poured in all season mean superior produce that consumers buy?
The perplexity of life on the small farm eventually finds its way into our veggie bags. You’ve noticed the occasional mystery item listed. As much as we strive to finalize the line-up before delivery day, there remain elements of unpredictability that just can’t be avoided and which can throw the plan off here and there. At harvest-time what looked good yesterday is now sadly overripe, not quite ready, snatched by critters or no longer in the cards due to some other factor beyond our control. Substitutions must be made and suddenly a week that was built around cucumbers, for instance, leaves us scrambling.
Such is the nature of farm bag planning. The good news is that often mystery translates to the most perfect ripe-at-this-very-moment (and not any sooner) produce. This is the essence of why I’ve been a devoted CSA subscriber for more than a decade: every Wednesday a local farmer personally selects the very best of the day, and picks it for me (and you) – no cucumbers perhaps, but what about the load of crisp, just-picked-off-the-tree fall apples? Ready to slice and savor with sharp Cheddar and a glass of local wine – a welcome (if unexpected) way to punctuate a tiring day.
I remind myself of this as I write each week, anticipating a particular harvest that sometimes doesn’t pan out, leaving me to scratch my head and start over at the eleventh hour. Mystery in the farming, gardening and food writing worlds can be puzzling, frustrating, even disappointing, but quite often leads to good fortune, clear out of left field: the anonymous vine growing over a garden fence, or the bounty arriving on a Wednesday that yesterday we couldn’t have dreamed of. Like a surprise party or winning raffle ticket, mystery in the farm bag can prompt a broad smile and a contented sigh.
I’m still waiting to piece all the clues together to solve the case. Leads have us thinking squash. Who knows if we’ll see any mature fruit as proof. If not, we may need to call over the fence for the final word. I’d much rather solve the puzzle on my own, but either way the mystery has left me with something – a reason to write.