What You Discover When You Garden at Night

When it’s too hot to garden during the day, what is there to do but garden at night? Neither floppy hat nor gobs of sunscreen will lure me into the glare of a hot and humid, possibly record-breaking, 90-plus-degree day. Or, as our local meteorologist reports: one with a heat index of 103. So instead, I venture out into the garden after dinner, dogs in tow, surveying the raised beds in the coolness of evening.

I carry a basket full of seeds, green string to tie the tomatoes higher, and wooden stakes and black markers to record once again what I have sown, some new crops and others a repeat of those planted earlier in the season. It is midsummer now and the lettuce, radishes, and shallots are fading, but the basil and tomatoes, beans and zucchini are finally coming into their own. A little more rain and warmth and I will be able to make my first tomato sandwich, one of the driving forces, no doubt, behind planting a vegetable garden.

At dusk, a hush settles over the garden and reminds me of a time when I did not speak during a meditation dinner at a retreat some years ago. Eating without speaking made me notice details I would have missed had I been babbling: who wore a wedding ring, what morsels people left scattered on their plates. Even the food tasted different. My garden in the evening is somewhat the same.

Without the brilliance and the chatter of the day, the competing noises, the busyness and the hurry, my little plot is a deeper level of quiet, maybe even more peaceful. As much as I adore the daily refrain of eastern towhees, Carolina wrens, and baby red-tailed hawks on their first flights, screaming “Ma! Ma! Look at me!,” many of the feathered creatures on this farm are calling it a day, too. The bees have gone quiet as well, having finished their daily sipping of borage, an herb I allow to self-sow just for them.

I do hear, though, the whistling of the wind off the ridge, and despite the pleasures of being in the garden at night, I still pray that wind will bring rain and usher in a much-desired cold front. Maybe nighttime gardening will become one of the necessities of a warming planet.

When I garden at night, I notice entirely different aspects of the natural world. Swooping overhead I see our one lone bat, though my husband claims this summer he’s seen two in the early mornings. One or two, it matters not, as I know well that most of our Pennsylvania bats are gone.

I concentrate more fully on the magical twinkle of fireflies, trying to discern the males’ distinctive flight pattern, looping upward like the letter J, as they look eagerly for mates during their life span of just three or four weeks. Watching them is extra special to me since I learned that a male might get eaten if he swoops down to a ground-dwelling female of one particular species. “Femmes fatales,” the firefly experts call these predators.

A deer snorts in the woods next to the garden fence. Perhaps in the dark I am too close for comfort. I hear the crickets sing. “They make the hills echo,” as Gilbert White wrote in “The Natural History of Selborne.” I see the first stars.

As the light fades, I plant a second crop of cilantro and arugula, guided by the bright white of four tuteurs in the garden’s center. I can still see just well enough to hoe my rows, plant my seeds and scribble on my wooden markers. I crack open the dried pods of Shirley poppies and scatter the minuscule black seeds to the ground, imagining the coming glory of red, white, and pink blooms that will grace my garden next spring.

I call my companionable canines, willing as they are to accompany me anywhere, at any time. They do not ask why I am pulling weeds, digging garlic, or winding cucumber vines up a trellis at night. One of the three just wants me to feed her raspberries. It is so dark as I leave the garden to bid good night to the chickens and close the coop that they are already tucked in and I needn’t round up the laggards.

As I approach the house, I see in the southeast, just above the treetops, a nearly full, brilliant orange moon begin to rise. I hear bullfrogs moan in the pond and coyotes howl in the woods. I’d like to be able to say I saw something miraculous gardening at night, a mama porcupine and her porcupette, for instance, which I’m dying to see, or at least that I heard the lament of the barred owl, but it is just a lovely night in a Pennsylvania vegetable garden.

Isn’t that miracle enough?

Daryln Brewer Hoffstot’s book “A Farm Life: Observations From Fields and Forests” was published this spring by Stackpole Books.

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