A number of years ago I read in Barbara Kingsolver’s bestselling Animal, Vegetable, Miracle about the vegetannual, an imaginary plant that, if it were real, would pass through every stage of a plant’s life during each complete growing season, from the spring through to the fall. If the garden were envisioned as a plant that revealed its first, nutritious green leaves each spring, and expired at the end of each fall with a spectacular, rainbow-colored gasp of root crops, that garden-plant, according to Kingsolver, would be called the vegetannual.
The process by which fruits and vegetables ripen is as predictable as the tides: Leaves ripen first, followed by buds, flowers, green fruits, ripe fruits and, finally, root vegetables and hard fruits. Loose green leaves, like spring lettuce, are followed by mature leaf heads and flower heads like broccoli and Brussels sprouts, then cabbages and cauliflower. Berries ripen early. Fruits mature into colorful plums, peaches, and apricots. Snow peas, baby squash, and sweet cucumbers ripen followed by crisp green beans. Profusions of red, yellow, green, and orange peppers proliferate.
By August, beefsteak tomatoes come into season. Crisp, colorful apples become ready for picking. The nights begin to cool. At long last, the large, hard-shelled pumpkins, melons, and winter squash ripen, their seeds tucked safely inside for the following year’s growing season.
Throughout the season, the green leaves of root crops like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, and beets continue to draw nourishment from the sun. As their leaves convert the sunlight into sugars and starches, they transfer these energy-rich molecules into their roots. These are the plants that will store the calories and carbohydrates intended to sustain us through the cold winter.
Then the garden rests, awaiting the day when, once again, it sends up fragile green shoots to meet the sun.