Produce sales at Cooper’s General Store always take a hit in August as the gardeners in town struggle to keep up with the plenty that’s now ready for harvest.
This is especially true of zucchini squash.
With such a mild flavor, zukes lend themselves to being pickled, added to salads, stirred into spaghetti sauce, and made into bread to be toasted in January.
And it seems that no matter how few seeds you plant, you always end up with too many zucchini.
It seems that Wil Bennet and his best friend Dave Muzzy may have found a novel approach to the problem of zucchini.
Welcome to Carding, Vermont where life always includes a dash of the unexpected. You can find the little town that no one can seem to find on a map right here in the Carding Chronicles and in the four novels of Carding, Vermont, The Road Unsalted, Thieves of Fire, The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life, and Lights in Water, Dancing.
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“Sorry Lee, but I can’t take them.” Andy Cooper shook his head regretfully from the steps of the loading dock at the back of his general store. “Folks with gardens are overrun with zucchini right now, and they’re flooding their neighbors with ‘em as well. So I can’t even give them away.”
Lee Tennyson sighed, his shoulders sagging under the weight of a bushel basket filled with long, thin green squash. “What am I going to do with them?” he asked. “Even the chickens don’t seem that interested. My wife’s complaining that their eggs have got a greenish tinge to them.”
“Zucchini bread?” Andy asked.
Lee raised an eyebrow. “Do you have any idea how full our freezer is of zucchini bread and our pantry has enough zucchini relish in it to cover all the hot dogs in Fenway Park.”
Andy shook his head again. “I am sorry Lee. Happens this time every year. If you could grow ‘em in January, you’d get a couple of bucks a pound for them. But now?”
“I know, I know,” Lee said. “I thought I would try. These just may end up in the compost pile.”
There are all kinds of seasons in Vermont—fall (our most treasured), mud and frost heave (they overlap), black fly, early winter, late winter, and mid-winter with a little bit of summer thrown in for good measure. Each has their notoriety and accompanying legends but perhaps no other season is quite so infamous as the shortest season of them all—ripe zucchini season.
First-time gardeners always get caught in its trap, thinking that if one zucchini plant is good then three or four must be better. At first they can keep up with the harvest easily, grilling squash with their chicken, grating it for salads, tossing it in with red tomatoes for fresh spaghetti sauce.
But then the zukes really get going, rewarding the gardeners with two, three, four, five, and sometimes six pickable squash a day. And soon it’s zucchini with every meal, and the spicy smell of zucchini bread rises from ovens all over town.
Gardeners beg their neighbors to “take a couple” until the neighbors lock their doors. And then, inevitably, every gardener, no matter how meticulous, finds a giant zuke hiding under a plant’s leaves that’s the size of a sack of potatoes.
Second-year gardeners vow not to be fooled. “Just because there are 20 seeds in the seed pack doesn’t mean you have to plant them,” they tell one another. So instead of four hills of squash, they plant two but because they don’t want the leftover seeds to go to waste, each of those hills has five seeds.
Which means that second-year gardeners usually reap the same harvest as newbies.
But even long time gardeners can get caught with their zucchini down if the conditions are right—enough early rain, a lack of borers munching on the stalks, and long sunny days as August rolls along.
The conditions have been perfect this year so everyone in Carding has more than enough zucchini.
“Hey Mr. Tennyson, we’ll buy your zucchini,” Wil Bennett said as Lee turned to leave the general store’s loading dock.
The good-natured farmer squinched up eyebrows. “Can I ask what you want them for?”
Wil’s eyes flicked to his friend Dave in a way that immediately set off small alarm bells in Lee’s head. “Umm, can we just say that we’re the Society for the Prevention of Unwanted Zucchini?” Dave asked.
“Uh huh, try again,” Lee said.
“Umm, we need them for a project,” Wil said.
“A project? What kind of project? Something for school?”
“Umm, not exactly,” Wil said.
Lee noted the slight smirk on his face. “Okay, what’s this really about?” The two teens showed a sudden interest in their shoes.
Lee looked at the bushel basket on the ground near his feet, and then looked at the two friends. He’d known Wil and Dave since they were born. They were good kids.
“Are you planning to smash them on the road?” he asked.
“Are you going to leave them in people’s cars without permission?”
They shook their heads. “Are you kidding, everyone in town knows where we live,” Dave said.
“Really Mr. Tennyson, we are not planning to use them for destructive purposes,” Wil said.
Andy Cooper, who was still on the loading dock, started to smile. Being the owner of Carding’s general store gave him unfettered access to all the best rumors in town, and he’d heard something only that morning about the pro-am tournament up at the Mount Merino Golf Club that had piqued his curiosity. So he decided to interrupt Lee’s next question.
“You two have friends working as caddies up at the golf club, am I right?” Andy asked.
It took a moment but Wil finally answered, “Yeah. We do.”
Andy pulled his wallet out of his back pocket, and turned toward Lee. “How much were you hoping to sell that basket of squash for?”
“How about I give you forty, and you let these guys take the basket, too. Is that fair?”
“Thanks Mr. Cooper, Mr. Tennyson,” Wil said as they trundled off to Dave’s car with what Lee figured was 60 pounds of squash.
“What was that all about?” Lee asked as the teens drove away.
“Hmph, I heard that the members of the golf club have been stiffing the caddies again,” Andy said. “The tournament starts tomorrow, biggest event of the year for all the snobs up there. I thought it might be interesting to see what those kids are going to do about it.”
Lee handed back one of the two twenties Andy had paid him. “Let’s split it. I want in on this.”
The moon that night was barely a sliver of silver, just two days past new. It was perfect cover for Wil and Dave and the bushel basket of zucchini that they pulled from the back seat of the car.
Dave clicked on a small penlight so he could study his map of the Mount Merino golf course. “You can’t see the tee on the second hole from the club but it’s the first thing everyone sees when they come around these trees. It’s perfect.”
Wil looked over his shoulder and tapped the map with his finger. “The trouble is this motion sensor light. Did you find a big enough bag to cover it?”
“Yeah.” Dave raised a heavy canvas bag above his head.“We should be good as long as we get it over the light without triggering it. I have to admit I’m nervous…”
“You think?” Wil teased.
“But to tell you the truth, these people just piss me off so much, I almost don’t care if I get caught,” Dave finished.
“Yeah, I totally agree.” Wil leaned down to grab the basket of zucchini. “Let’s go.”
Once they arrived at their staging area, Wil and Dave dropped to their bellies to crawl toward the motion sensor light. Wil marveled at how hard his heart thumped as they came up behind it. He was sure that it would suddenly illuminate the entire area and reveal their plan. When they reached the light, they were relieved to find that it sat higher off the ground than they anticipated. That made it easier to bag.
Dave nodded at Wil who flattened the bag out as much as he could. Using just the tips of his fingers, he inched it slowly to his right and in front of the light then passed it to Dave. When they were done, they paused to take a couple of deep breaths.
“So far, so good,” Dave whispered.
“On three,” Wil said. “One, two, three.”
The two friends slipped the bag over the light, moving so quick that only the merest blink escaped. Then they listened for any sound outside the murmur of an early morning breeze through the trees. Had they been caught?
Wil looked at his watch as they retreated to the woods. They had agreed to wait for five minutes to see if anyone raised in alarm.
“Okay, let’s do it,” Wil finally said.
Dave started with a clutch of heavy-duty wooden skewers that he jabbed point first into the ground in a layout they’d practiced earlier. Wil followed with the zucchini, jamming a squash onto each skewer.
Then out came their signs. The first one they set up was a paper banner stretched between two large zukes proclaiming “Merino Members Cheat Caddies.” Then they set up a squash threesome to hold up a sign saying: “No Pay, No Play in the Pro-Am.” A crowd of smaller squash carried “Caddies On Strike” signs.
As they worked, the friends became almost giddy with excitement as they ringed the tee with zucchinis and signs. Finally they came to the last four squash and their last sign.
“We’ve got to take a picture of this one,” Wil said.
They fussed a few moments to get the pose just right, adjusting then re-adjusting the last sign. Finally satisfied, they checked to make sure they’d left nothing behind, shoved everything into the bushel basket that had once held the zucchini then scurried back toward the woods.
But before they left, they trained their cell phones on their final work of zucchini art.
“On three,” Wil said. “One, two, three.”
Their phones flashed, and the young men fled down the path to their car.
The center of town was pretty quiet as they drove past the green. Lights were just going on in the Coop, the signal that the general store was open for business.
“How did your pictures come out?” Dave asked as he pulled to the curb.
Wil peered at his screen for a moment then smiled. “We’re golden,” he said, thumbing his keyboard. “And I just sent them to Vermont Sports World. Their reporter promised they’d be online before the tournament starts this morning.”
High up on the Mount Merino golf course, Andy Cooper clucked to his dog Sable. “I figure the kids are back in town by now,” he said to Lee Tennyson. “Let’s go see what they did.”
The two friends kept close to the wooded edge of the course as they walked. The sun was making short work of the dark and Lee tugged the visor of his hat down.
“What are we going to say if someone asks us why we are here?” he asked.
Andy patted the binoculars dangling from his neck. “No one ever questions the motives of an old birdwatcher,” he said.
They stopped abruptly at the edge of the second tee, taking in what Wil and Dave had wrought. Andy chuckled as he walked around to admire their work and then stopped in front of the final four squash.
“Zukes of the world—Unite,” he read. “I like this one the best. If you take a picture of it, I’ll put it up on the front door of the store.”
Lee squatted down so he could see the squash panorama straight on then raised his camera. “One might think that you’re not a fan of the Mount Merino folks, Andy.”
“Just doing my part to bring a little justice into the world, Lee.” Andy looked over his shoulder in the direction of the golf club. “Besides, it’s a good use of zucchini.”
Thanks for stopping by.