By the middle of this month, the earliest narcissus are in active growth, sword-like bright green foliage slicing through the accumulated layer of fallen autumn leaves. In my Southern zone 8 garden there is no snow on the ground, although the weather has been cold and wet. We used to get a couple of light snows each winter, a day or so when the roads would close and the world would slow for a bit. Looking back, I see that those days were a gift rather than the inconvenience they seemed at the time.
The ash comes and goes now, a vast improvement over the early days, when great gray clouds lingered in the air for weeks, choking every living thing, trapping us indoors for weeks.
In time it began to settle, silently sifting down with deceptive gentleness, transforming the land into a vast and formless nothing. Day after day I spent outdoors with a wet cloth tied round my face, washing and wiping the leaves in the vegetable garden. Eventually Donnie rigged up a tent system with frost cloths and old metal fence posts that we could simply shake off every morning. Thin and translucent, the cloths let in just enough of the remaining sunlight to keep most things alive.
The crocus will be up any day now, followed by the small, jewel-like blue iris reticulata, the deep purple muscari, and the rest of those daffodils, their bright blooms spanning late winter to early spring. The old cow field beyond the barn has gone from gray-brown to bright green with the appearance of wild onion and the stalks of thousands upon thousands of buttercups ready to burst forth into a tender sea of yellow-gold. They push up through the black slushy mud like bits of light, which of course they are, in a way.
They’re all contaminated of course, but the fact that they’ve returned imparts a sense of normality, and their familiar, weedy faces are a comfort. Like everything else they’re early this year, but they’re still here, like us, and that’s the important thing.
The frost date’s been pushed back, obviously, so now is the time to start seeds for the spring vegetable and flower gardens. Corn, cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, and sweet peas can all be sown in flats to be planted in the ground as soon as the soil temperature stays consistently above 60° at night.
It’s important to mind planting depth; a good rule of thumb to remember is the smaller the seed, the shallower it should be planted. Lettuce and carrots, for example, should be sown on top of the soil, and only covered lightly with compost or topsoil before watering in. Squash, on the other hand, should be planted approximately 1½-2” deep. Water seeds well and cover with plastic to hold in the moisture. When the seeds have sprouted, remove the covers and place them in a bright but protected location, watering only when the soil is dry.
Donnie says there’s probably no use planting any kind of seed this year. Deep down I know he’s right. Nevertheless, I continue on, adapting as I must and making do with what I have. As a gardener I’m curious at how our present situation has affected the seeds we stored last summer. We’d already collected everything by the time the bombs came down, but the poisoned wind that followed in their wake blew through everything at the atomic level, and I wonder now, as any good layman scientist would, whether they’ll germinate.
Donnie is indulgent, even joking occasionally about three-eyed eggplants and corn stalks sprouting legs, but I know he thinks I’m slightly ridiculous. On the bad days, he says I’m ridiculous. On the worst days, I agree with him.
Still, here I am, out in the greenhouse, spreading compost into flats and sowing row upon row of tiny seeds. They are little packets of hope, I suppose.
In March spring officially arrives, and we can plant warm-season vegetables and bedding plants. By month’s end, most anything planted from seed in January and February should be large enough to move out into the garden, though of course the vigilant gardener will keep cloth covers or glass cloches on hand in case the errant frost manages to work itself down this far south. Let’s face it—the weather’s been understandably unpredictable this year, so relying on one’s own judgment is the best advice I can give. Corn, squash, and cucumbers can all be sown directly into the ground this month as well, and peppers and melons can be started in the greenhouse once your early birds have gone on to live outdoors.
Lately the rain has prevented much work in the garden. It has poured for nearly three straight weeks now. Not the clear, cool rains of our youth, but a gray, ash-choked liquid that burns if it stays on your skin too long, and turns tender young vegetable leaves a sickly yellow.
Donnie and I strained it through layers of cheesecloth while we had it and old shirts after that, but the taste is still awful, hinting at traces of lye and who knows what else. Besides, no amount of cheesecloth could take out the worst things lurking in there. Still, we collect what we can in barrels and buckets, storing it in every available container for later, when the hot weather comes. As Donnie says in that matter-of-fact way of his, better to have and not need than to need and not have.
In the beginning, we had some bottled water on hand, but it ran out within the first week. Later on, we found some old lemonade drink mix packets left behind when the grocery stores were looted, but even that’s gone now. Donnie says he will try to get the old well pump working again, but after an inspection, that seems doubtful at best. It was only ever used to provide water to the previous owner’s livestock, and it’s been out of use so long now that its primary component seems to be rust. Still, working on those practicalities saves his sanity as much as gardening saves mine, so I leave him to his tools and his work.
April in the South is probably the most beautiful month, the garden’s last grand ball before the blazing heat of summer sets in. Temperatures are generally in the 70’s to low 80’s, and all of the cool-season bedding plants are at peak flower. Around the beginning of the month, the ubiquitous azaleas come into bloom, coating the land with splashes of pink, purple, red, and white. North American native dogwood, Cornus florida, blooms around the same time, dotting the hills and forest edges with bursts of smooth white blossoms.
T.S. Eliot declared April to be the cruelest month, but here among the ashes, it seems rather kind. Last week the rain finally stopped, and we’ve even seen the sun a couple of times. It’s hotter than it should be, but that was an issue even before the world ended. So far we’ve only lost a couple of tomato plants and a few peppers that couldn’t take wet feet. Yesterday I harvested our third batch of lettuce.
This book was originally Donnie’s idea. A way to keep me from going completely mad in those early days after the war, days when there was nothing but the horror of the news reports, and then nothing at all once the power went out. That first time we stayed in the dark and the cold for three weeks, the Thanksgiving dinner I’d bought but not cooked rotting in the refrigerator, our small Christmas tree standing half decorated in the shadows. Eventually the power came on again for nearly a whole day, and that gave us more hope than anything, because it meant that someone fairly close by had survived and was trying to keep things running. After that it was sporadic, a day here, a few hours there, enough to charge batteries and check in on the death of the world.
In the beginning, we immediately logged onto the Internet to try and find out as much news as we could, but eventually we had to stop that. It was just too much, like turning on a fire hose of misery that blasted you full in the face. I would stare at the screen, absorbing the madness and the chaos through the very pores of my skin, and when the power went out again I’d collapse into despair, ruined by the tragic loss of it all.
Donnie said that instead, I should focus on what we could do here and now, which was repair the house and try to grow food. He reminded me that the garden had always been my refuge, even before the war, and how after the miscarriage three years ago I’d built the vegetable garden, nearly singlehandedly, in just a month. He said the world is a new place now, but that people would always need food, and always need flowers to cheer them, and maybe I could use my knowledge to help whoever may come after us. I think that many more people will need to learn how to grow their own food now, he said. You could help them with that.
May is a time of transition for the garden, when the cool-season flowers are in decline and the warm season plants begin to come into their own. Tomatoes and cucumbers should be producing fruit now, with eggplant and peppers not far behind. Peas and beans can be directly seeded into the garden now, as well as melons and okra. Corn should be ready to harvest soon—remember to gently peel back the husk surrounding the ear and carefully pierce the kernels with your fingernail. If the juices inside are milky white and the kernels full and plump, the corn is ready to bring in.
The vegetables are growing, but without the bright late-spring sunlight, they are stunted. The fallout has irrevocably changed the soil’s composition, and the plants that do grow are sometimes misshapen and twisted. Still, I nurture them, these new plants for a new Earth, and I wonder what will happen to all these food crops once the last of us gardeners are gone. Without our severe love and ruthless guiding hands, will they revert to their wild, ancient forms? Or will they evolve into something else, something that responds to this new reality where we’ve sown poison instead of seed?
I keep thinking of that movie I used to watch with my grandma, the one she said she loved as a child where dinosaurs take over a theme park. “Life will find a way,” one main character says, his eyes affecting a wise and slightly condescending gaze. It’s true enough though: life will find a way, with or without us. The plants will go on, covering the earth with green again. Some other animal that survives our apocalypse will rise up to take our place at the apex. I send a hope into the future that, when the time comes, they find the evidence of our mistakes and learn from them.
Donnie used to kid me about my trips to the local grocery warehouse, the gallons of mayonnaise, cases of beans and industrial sized packages of toilet paper I lugged home, cheerfully regaling him with tales of my frugality. After we lost power, however, we were both grateful for them. Now even those supplies are depleted, and until the garden starts producing reliably, we’re down to nearly nothing.
At this point, we’re raiding neighbors’ houses, but that’s unreliable at best, and won’t last forever anyway. In our next-door neighbor’s house we found a pistol; Donnie says maybe he can go hunting and kill something for us to eat. I made a joke about coming full circle and becoming hunter-gatherers again, but neither of us laughed.
June marks the beginning of summer and the hottest weather of the year. Time for swimming and lemonade on the porch swing in the evenings. Gardening should be kept at a minimum between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when heat exhaustion can set in quickly. Be sure to drink plenty of water and take frequent breaks if you do work during the heat of the day.
June is also the month when canning begins in earnest, beans and okra joining blueberry and fig jam on the shelves of many home pantries. Warm-season weeds are well into their life cycles by this month; keep ahead of them by weeding vegetable and flower gardens in the cooler morning or afternoon hours. Weeds without seeds can be composted, saving the savvy gardener money and eliminating the need for commercial fertilizer in just a few short weeks.
Heat exhaustion is what I originally thought was wrong with Donnie. Certainly he’s sick. But whether it’s radiation sickness, or the cumulative effect of whatever we’ve been exposed to, or something else entirely, there’s no way of knowing. There are no doctors or hospitals operating in the area, certainly not within the distance we can conceivably travel on foot. The power hasn’t come back on in a month, so it’s fair to assume that whoever had kept the grid up has either left or succumbed as well.
He hides it well, or at least he thinks he does, but he’s forgotten that I know him so intimately. I fall into the cadence of his breathing and the sound of his heartbeat as easily as my own. I can see that he’s in pain when we walk to town, though I also know he’d die before admitting it. His skin is blotchy, dry and hot to the touch, even long after the sun’s gone down. Though he still smiles to try and keep my spirits up, his eyes carry resignation in them, and become wearier by the day.
Two days ago he worked on the well, climbing onto the roof to install some solar panels we scavenged from an abandoned house in town, and he very nearly fainted and fell to the ground. He absolutely would not quit until he had the thing running, and I yelled at him through tears as he turned on the kitchen faucet.
I was angry, uncontrollably so, and I screamed until he turned it off again, sobbing on the floor as he walked slowly from the room. Later when I went in to apologize, I found him sleeping fitfully, burning up with fever, and I cried again as I wet a washcloth with cool water from the newly running faucet, laying it across his forehead before falling asleep beside him.
He didn’t wake up for eighteen hours.
In some ways, July is one of the quieter months in the garden. Shrubs, trees, and flowers should not be planted in the oppressive heat, and work turns almost exclusively to maintenance.
Paramount among these chores is irrigation; during dry spells, be sure to keep plants watered well. A deep soaking once a week should be sufficient for most established plantings, but daily watering will be needed for anything in pots. Monitor everything closely, and when in doubt, stick a finger into the soil at the base of the plant. If the soil is dry down to approximately an inch, the plant needs water.
Though spring-planted tomatoes, cucumbers, and corn should finish up this month, now is the time to start seeds for a fall garden. Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts can all be started this month, ready to move out into the garden when the weather cools. This is also the time when winter squash, including pumpkins, should be planted directly into the garden to ensure harvest in October and November.
And of course, heat-loving vegetables can also continue to be planted this month; okra, southern peas, watermelons, and peppers will all thrive during the height of summer. Continue to regularly harvest and preserve any spring vegetables still producing, as the extra may come in handy later, and home canned food also makes great gifts at holiday time.
After so long a wait we finally harvested some of the vegetables I’d planted back in March. Despite my composting and careful watering, the yields were far lower than in previous years, but it’s been enough to feed us.
I don’t think I’ll ever outgrow the pure, absolute joy of tasting a freshly picked tomato, even one that’s been exposed to the worst mankind has to offer. Donnie never did take the pistol out into the woods behind our house, but for the time being our bellies are full, though he continues to lose weight even as my own thinning has leveled off. He coughs now, great choking wheezes that twist his body in two and drain the blood from his face. I only have water to give him; water still not completely clear all these months later, even though it comes from the ground.
Over half a year gone and we seem to be alone here. Though we’ve gone exploring both in daylight and darkness, we’ve yet to find anyone else in this area. There are bodies, of course, long-rotted to ragged scraps of flesh on loose-limbed bone, but not enough to account for the whole population of the town. Did they leave? Were they incinerated by the bombs?
One night I sobbed uncontrollably, convinced that there had been an evacuation we’d missed, that everyone else was safe somewhere while we remain alone behind the wall of destruction. Donnie held me, wiping my tears and telling me exactly what I needed to hear. Honestly, I don’t know how he holds it together. He always does, sometimes for both of us, though the other night I felt his body shaking in the dark, and in the morning his pillow was damp.
By the end of August the days have started to become noticeably shorter. Though summer’s heat is still oppressive, it’s time to begin planning the fall garden. Cole vegetables like broccoli, caulifower, and Brussels sprouts can still be planted from seed, though if this was done last month, the transplants will be ready for moving out into prepared garden soil soon.
Save seed from spring-planted vegetables as they fade, storing them in a cool, dark area. Pull up dead plants and add them to the compost heap, turning it to mix any green material thoroughly with the nitrogen-rich brown. Don’t forget to occasionally water the compost pile as well—the material should be wet enough to clump together but never runny or smelly. Get rid of any odor by mixing in dried leaves or shredded paper.
Today Donnie turned on the old radio for the first time in weeks, and we actually picked up the sounds of what we think might be a broadcast. Too faint to make out the words, but we both laughed with joy at the simple sound of another human voice coming through the antenna.
Having no broadcast capabilities, we can’t contact them directly, but hope burned in our hearts tonight as it hasn’t for a long time. Donnie tires easily these days, and after the radio signal faded back into static, I put him to bed, even though the sun had not quite set. Lately his skin has taken on a grayish pallor. After the weeks of fever, I thought I’d be ecstatic to see that ever-present redness fade, but I think this is worse. It’s as if he is fading before my eyes, slowly becoming a ghost, like everyone else in this town. He helps me around the house and garden as much as he can, but he can’t do much anymore, and it’s easy to see, even for someone who doesn’t know him well, that he is in pain almost all the time.
This month a storm wiped out most of the garden. My guess is that it was a hurricane, but without weather instruments or access to forecast information it’s hard to tell for sure. I was working outside when the first of the outer bands rolled in, and, having lived near the Gulf Coast my entire life, I felt my heart sink as I realized what it surely must be.
I watched as a wall of dark clouds advanced upon us from the south, bringing with it a breeze that tickled my nose with a hint of salt and deposited the old familiar tang of ash on my tongue. I gathered up what vegetables I could from the garden, even those which weren’t quite ripe, in case floodwaters rose and tainted it all. Inside, I tried to be quiet so as not to wake Donnie, but panic took hold of me and soon I found myself on the floor, shaking and cold despite the heat of the day.
Within a few hours, the wind and pounding rain assaulted us, coming from all directions at once. All night Donnie and I lay huddled together, listening to the trees outside groan and crack, and the occasional loud thwack as something hit the side of the house.
In the morning, when I ventured outside, I cried softly so that Donnie couldn’t hear my despair at seeing so much of our work destroyed. The little we had harvested was all there would be for a while; that much was for sure. Trees had been uprooted all around the neighborhood, but thankfully none had fallen close enough to cause us much inconvenience. Debris lay everywhere, roof shingles and branches, and green leaves stripped from limbs as if a giant child had played here and simply gone in when his mother called him to lunch.
There is no garden, and so no garden advice this month. There’s not much I can say in the face of where we are now.
Except this: today I started to cough.
October is one of our most beautiful months, a bookend to March and April’s spring lushness. While there isn’t much in the way of autumn color until the end of November, October brings cooler, drier weather and the beginnings of the fall vegetable harvest. This month the repeat blooming roses and azaleas also put on a fall show, bringing the warm season to a close with a last burst of flower. Enjoy it, as the colder, harder months of the year are now ahead.
Donnie died three days before Halloween. During the last week his decline had been steep, and I nearly drove myself to hysteria, searching frantically for anything that might help ease his pain, for that had become the constant, overwhelming focus of his life.
Down at the pharmacy I’d found painkillers in the weeks before the storm, but he refused to take much of what I’d brought back home, always saying he wanted to save it in case things got worse. I knew he was dying when he finally relented and began taking enough to keep himself either sleeping or semi-conscious most of the time. I barely slept or ate, staying by his side, watching his chest rise and fall, its arc shallower and shallower as the hours passed.
When he died, I felt it like a wave coming in from the sea, passing over me, crushing me under its weight.
It took me eight hours to dig his grave under the live oak tree in the backyard. It seemed fitting, where we loved to sit in the late afternoons, before the bombs left nothing behind but the memory of those starry nights. When I was done I sat beneath the bright pink azaleas near where he lay, as if I had become his headstone, a dirty, broken piece of rock, my features worn to indistinct lumps.
Today I walked in the ruined vegetable garden and found two small ripe tomatoes peeking out from beneath a pile of leaves and caked ash carried in by the storm. I took them inside and washed them off, carefully cutting them into thin slices and adding a pinch of salt before pushing them into my mouth. It was the first food I’d had in two days.
Grief measures out my days; autumn drains the world of color until outside matches in. I feel as if I am camouflaged now, gray as the world, moving through it almost unseen, just a shift in tone against the background. Nothing left but sleep and the work, and I slip between them like a shadow.
Working in the garden gives me purpose. I clean, I plant more seeds, and some days I even harvest a few scraggly, unattractive things that might, with some imagination, be called vegetables. A few satsumas ripened on the shriveled tree Donnie planted a couple of years ago by the back door, and I ate them in one sitting, despite the vaguely rancid taste they left in my mouth. When I was done I had to fight the urge to throw it all back up. Instead I coughed and coughed, bright red blood spattering the back of my hand as I held it up in front of me.
Though it’s nearly winter, I can’t stay ahead of the weeds. They seem to sprout every time my back’s turned, wending their way through even the tiniest cracks between the stones that line the raised beds.
And these are not the weeds I knew before: henbit and chickweed, pennywort and Virginia buttonweed. These are wholly new things, perhaps brought here with the hurricane winds or maybe born from the ashes of the bombs that fell and burned the world away.
Their stalks are ragged and grayish, the color and shape of lichens but with tinges of green. They grow in long, twining vines that slither like serpents and wrap themselves around every other plant until nothing can be seen but their own thick coils. I’ve taken to calling them serpent weed for lack of a better name, but truth be told I am grateful for them, or at least for the distraction they provide. Every minute I spend pulling them is one less I spend thinking about the mound of dirt settling in the back yard.
Each night I turn on the radio for a few minutes, parceling out the battery that’s left as I dole out the last of the crackers. I listen to the static, my pattern-seeking human mind picking out sounds that might be speech or might be the screaming of stars. It’s been over a year since I spoke with anyone besides my dead husband.
With December comes the first frosts and the last of the autumn color. What was left of the vegetable garden has died. What we might call regular plants, those from the world that has passed away, won’t grow at all anymore.
Something new is taking their place, something different, something that loves the broken, infertile world into which it’s been born. I can’t eat them, can’t even come within a few feet without being overpowered by the smell they give off, but I can admire them for what they’ve done: created something out of nothing, taken advantage of what we’ve left behind. They are pragmatists, these new things, making use of the world that exists, not attempting to replicate memories of what was, or dangle from the hope of what might yet be.
I don’t doubt they will be successful. As Whitman said, nothing is ever really lost, or can be lost. The world changes. We are all made of stars, and dinosaurs, and nuclear bombs. Someday we’ll be something else again.
The food has run out, but I’m pretty much bedridden at this point anyhow. The terrible ache that Donnie suffered has settled into my bones, though I think that without someone spooning soup into my mouth, I won’t have to suffer it long. In any case, it gives me time to think and remember happier times.
Earlier I thought I heard a knocking at the front door. Maybe it’s my neighbor Kim, come over to borrow a couple of eggs or a cup of sugar. Maybe it’s Donnie, waiting for me to go out and inspect his latest project. Or maybe it’s the voices on the radio, finally come to rescue me. At least I have this book, something to pass on, something for them to carry out into this new world.
I’ll just hold it here, and give it to them when they come in. Because whatever comes next, we’ll always need gardens.