It is an ancient practice: following the main harvest, searching among the remnants of crops to find food that would otherwise rot or be plowed under. Gleaning requires a keen eye and an open mind, with the willingness to value attributes other than immediate consumability.
The gardens around the science building were planted by some of the younger students last spring. Over the course of the summer and early fall, the untended beds grew thick with grasses and other weeds, obscuring any intended produce.
With the growing season for annuals coming to a close and foliage dying back, the gleaners have moved in. The first items discovered usually have the brightest colors: cherry tomatoes, zinnias, the orange top of a protruding carrot. Size and shape also catch the eye: a gourd, a melon, an enormously overgrown cucumber. The tantalizing scent of mint and basil rises as foragers creep through the tangle. They learn to watch their step. There could be a late-season strawberry lurking down there. Along the way, there are other opportunistic edibles to nibble on – sourgrass, garlic mustard, perilla.
What kids also discover, what their gleaning reminds me of each year when I bemoan the weeds taking over, is the diversity of other living things that utilize these gardens-gone-wild. Caterpillars of numerous species climb the stalks, gorging on leaves, pupating, emerging, adult butterflies and moths nectaring on the remaining flowers. Grasshoppers, crickets, and katydids are abundant among the tenacious, invasive grasses, as are the lady beetles feasting on aphids. I think of these creatures as valuable bycatch in the gleaning process, their presence affirming that a garden can be both an ecosystem unto itself and a valuable component of larger systems – far more than a managed, predictable producer of human foods. These tangled, prolific patches of biodiversity will be left for the winter, to complete their cycles unimpeded until the next planting season.