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A garden must be put to bed, too

Winter is coming. The deer mouse will huddle with her family, as I will with mine. But first, there is work to do.

The author's western Pennsylvania garden in warmer days.Daryln Brewer Hoffstot

Putting the vegetable garden to bed for a Pennsylvania winter is bittersweet. I’m grateful for the garden’s abundance but sad the season is over. With so many chores to do, though, there’s little time for contemplation. Trellises have to be taken down, morning glory vines and scarlet runner beans unwound from the white wood. Tomato stakes need to be pulled and the gigantic dahlia bulbs hoisted out of the ground and put in the barn to overwinter in a vat of sawdust. The potato beds — weedy now, the tubers having been dug and some already eaten — are ready for hoeing, in preparation for a cover crop of winter rye. The spent raspberry canes and the wispy asparagus fronds need to be cut back, and the nasturtiums — still bright spots of orange and yellow in an ever-graying world — must be yanked, lest they scatter their multitude of seeds, as they so want to do. One can have too many nasturtiums.

I consider picking sorrel to make sorrel soup, a favorite of my mother–in-law — she, long gone now, who taught me so much about gardening. But I will have time for that later, sorrel being the most satisfying of crops, the first to peek out of the soil in my perennial-herb bed in spring and the last to leave. The basil, not so hardy, is withering from cold and turning black, so I pluck some leaves for one last batch of pesto.

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My 10-foot sunflower stalks droop sadly, tired of holding up their majestic faces, but I leave the seed heads for the goldfinches, which dart in and out of the tall blooms like dogfighters. My terra cotta orb is plucked from the meditation circle in the garden’s center, and I dig up Jerusalem artichokes to send to a friend in Groton, Mass., who puts them in a delicious tart with chard. I leave the remaining borage blossoms for the bees. Trying to extend the season a tad longer, I drape white row covers over the last planting of lettuce. Gardeners never really give up.

Our two dogs keep me company — a crusty old golden retriever with a nose that would make any hunter proud, and a goldendoodle puppy who hasn’t a clue but follows the other hound enthusiastically. They dig wildly in the dirt, chasing some poor, hapless creature — probably a chipmunk or a vole, or the rabbit I suspect nibbled at my melons earlier in the season. The dogs rarely catch anything.

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Something tells me at just the right moment to pick up my weary head and look through the white pickets to see, scurrying away from me as fast as she can, a brown-furred deer mouse, a new mother with four babies clinging desperately to the teats on her white underbelly, and a fifth baby — in her mouth.

The dogs are on her scent and charge enthusiastically in her direction. Normally, I would holler to stop them, but I know they will lose this race, thwarted as they are by having to go around the fence, not through it. Still, watching in what seems like slow motion a mother mouse drag babies on her low-slung belly across thick grass tweaks my maternal DNA, and I think I would do exactly the same — attach my children to my breasts or in my teeth and carry them away from impending danger as quickly as my human feet could muster, exactly as I felt in 2001 when Flight 93 flew over this garden. I am relieved when the mother mouse darts into the stone wall — the one my husband found solace in building when his mother was ill. The mice find a safe haven — at least for now.

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It will be a long, cold winter for those mice, as it will be for us in our drafty log farmhouse. The mother mouse will huddle with her family, as I will with mine. When the days grow longer, I will muse over garden catalogs, contemplating repairs to the raised beds, the plowing and the planting, hopeful for a season better than the last: fewer asparagus beetles, more rain or less, or a monster pumpkin, which is all my husband ever wants.

The deer mice, having become torpid in the coldest weather, their body temperatures dropping to 68 degrees, will awaken and have more babies. And since they have three or four litters a year, each with three to seven pups that don’t travel far from where they are born, I will encounter the deer mice again next spring, burrowing under the straw mulch. We will share this patch of earth together, their families and mine, all of us connected, carving out our brief lives on a small Pennsylvania plot.

Daryln Brewer Hoffstot is a freelance writer living in western Pennsylvania. Her book “A Farm Life: Observations from Fields and Forests” will be published by Stackpole Books next April.

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