It's been a warm October. The oaks are all still bright green. Today was warm enough to lay in the garden and read, but I miss all the birds and insects that were here in summer. After reading, I harvested some beets and winter radishes. The radishes are spicier than I thought they'd be; my intention for them is the fermentation jar. But I intend a lot of things. There are two cabbages on my counter that have been waiting a week to be turned into kraut, a roasted pumpkin in my fridge that I intended to puree. I only have so much to give every day, and that's enough.
Most of the radishes are not beautiful. Why did some crack like this, I wonder? Trying new things is interesting and humbling.
The twig-like Illinois Everbearing mulberry now a small tree with big leaves. Under one of them, I found this pumpkin that climbed the fence. Gardens are full of surprises. I was in a very feral and loved unmown yard last week and almost stepped on a gorgeous crop of chanterelle mushrooms. Good things happen whether we demand them to or not.
In the vegetable garden, I'm experimenting with overwintering fava beans. Success seems unlikely- favas aren't known for extreme winter hardiness, and I never have much luck germinating fall crops. But it's always rewarding to learn more about plants I love, and I do love fava plants. The little beans called Sweet Lorane are supposed to be hardy down to 0 degrees. Maybe with a thick blanket of leaves and a mild winter, they'll do alright? Right now I'm just waiting for them to sprout. That could be enough for me: those strong matte-green leaves
Watering may be part of my problem with fall crops. I'm trying to do better. Yesterday I almost forgot my favas, but I watered at dusk when the tobacco was starting to blow its scent around. I'm told that smell is supposed to attract night insects, but the moths I saw were all on the zinnias. Why the zinnias? I'd like to learn more about moths, but we keep different hours. In Wildwood, Roger Deakin writes about a night with the Essex Moth Group, who attract the insect using a mercury lamp and egg cartons. He says no one knows why they are attracted to light- maybe moths are oriented by the moon and stars?
Right now I'm reading a book about ravens. On nice days, I often like to read on the bench in the vegetable garden, but today I hurt my back, so I laid down on the mulch beside it instead. My head was half in the leek and kale bed- one of the less sweet-smelling parts of the garden- but it was still a nice place to read. A friend today said it feels good to be dirty because it makes you feel like you can do things. I know what he means.
This summer, the mulberry tree was growing into the garden fence, so I tied a weighted string around its trunk to bend it. The trunk has already swallowed up the string, but it kept that interesting arc. We'll see which direction it goes next year. Some of us grow fast, some grow slow.
I smothered the grass path next to the vegetable garden with newspaper and covered it in mulch. It looked neat for a while, then the chickens dug through it, and the corn came down, and the gate went crooked. It still makes me happy to look at. The hydrangea and the amaranth are both so heavy-headed right now, and the garden doesn't ask me for much. The potatoes are out, the garlic is in. It's a path I always want to go down.
Late September is a time to start thinking about next year. Last fall, I bought an oversized notebook with the intention of keeping almost-good garden notes, and sometimes I do. My vegetable scribbles for next spring are mostly this:
Plant again: Sargossa lettuce. Ba Ye Qi Sorghum. Einfache Schnitt Parsley. Liebsapfel peppers. Munich purslane.
I wish I had planted: Winter luxury pumpkins. Little pickling cucumbers. Okra.
I'd like to try: Not-so-sweet sweet corn. Green Mountain potatoes. Winter cabbage (again).
These thoughts aren't great, because they're all autumn thoughts. I remember wanting something to do with peas (planting more? less?), but that was April, and I can't actually imagine spring. Planting all those radish seeds felt tiring, but how is that possible? Was the ground really ever cold?
My bedroom window looks over the garden, and beyond the garden is road construction. The crew is taking lunch and laughing about someone's wife's breasts. The neighborhood chickens are loud, too, laying midday eggs. It's a warm day, and it's a beautiful one.
I was pulling mint out in handfuls and got stung by a bumblebee. It died in the mulch soon after. People will tell you not to plant mint because it will take over. They're right, but they're also wrong. Two years ago, I bought one tiny pot of mint, and it gives me tea all summer, jars of dried leaves for winter, and enough surplus pull in big mounds twice a year to use as chicken bedding (do chickens enjoy the smell of mint?) On the other hand, the mint is taking over the whole bed along the house and it looks raggedy- even to me. I used to think the bees would like the flowers, but, dead bumble bee aside, they generally have better things to pay attention to.
So mint is pulled often, and the smell stays on arms and hands a while. Two harvests in one; the mint-naysayers never mention that. I've been thinking about how Wes Jackson says that the world has always been more beautiful than useful. It seems like an important thing to remember.
In the spring, I cover plants to protect them from frost, worry about over-heated fava beans, move seedlings in and out of the open air. This is the time of year, the garden is less trouble and more beautiful. Radishes (blauer winter) sprout between the pepper plants. The dry cornstalks make rustling sounds that are more valuable than the ears. There's a lesson here, but I don't know what it is. Someone told me they like to eat their mint with watermelon, gin, and mangoes. I said I'd try their recipe, but the season cooled, and I thought I missed my chance. The weather's warming again. We always have a little more time than we think.
I was never sure it was worthwhile to start a corn patch. Limited space can make you stingy. But the popcorn I grew this year has been a delight- wonderfully tall with silks that are bright pink before they go brown. It’s Pennsylvania Dutch butter popcorn, and it was the most beautiful part of the garden until this week, when I came home after a rain storm and found half the stalks bent over. I thought the soil was too loose for them (maybe it was), but this morning I saw a chipmunk climbing to the tops of tassels looking for the sorghum interplanted there- a fascinating little seed sorghum from China called Ba-Yi-Qi.
Earlier in the summer, the corn tassels were full of insects, not chipmunks. When the sun warmed the pollen, little sweat bees would flock there, sometimes with a few bumbles. Corn is wind-pollinated, and I had always been told that a field of corn is a desert for pollinators, but that must not be wholly true.
When I was young, we had a garden in a kettle that flooded during wet springs. One year, my dad planted popcorn there, and it grew eleven feet tall. My mom had us dress in old-times clothes to stand in front of it and take a picture with black and white film. We were little then, and I think she was very proud of the corn and the life she was just starting to build. It wasn't the last year my dad grew popcorn, but it was the only year I remember- either because of the size of the stalks or because she took that picture.
Today I watched the chipmunk find a good seed-head, use his weight to tip the sorghum to the ground, eat his fill, and come back for more. I planted it for the birds, but the birds haven’t found it yet. Maybe they never will, but it's still been worthwhile.
The lettuces I’m growing are Saragossa, a German summer crisp lettuce, and Forellenschluss, a German lettuce with red spots. Most of the seed was started in trays indoors, but I also started some in milk jugs outside, and those have the brightest colors and the strongest growth. I often wonder about the early life of the seeds that are sown, and how much the way they are grown will make a difference. Infancy is a mysterious time.
My parents are in Florida, and when I called to see how they were doing, they asked what I'd been up to. "Gardening. Mostly planting bare-root fruit shrubs and trees." "What did you plant?"
Until they asked this, I hadn't realized what a ridiculous, long list it was for a 1/3 acre lot. And this seems to happen every spring. We've been here three years, and every year I think, well, I planted a lot this spring, but now we're almost set. But then the net year, it seems like there's more room for fruit trees, not less. It's like living inside Mary Poppins' purse.
Some of this is creative (or maybe wishful) thinking. Last week I planted three hybrid plum trees- Toka, Lavina, and Purple Heart- in something like the Dave Wilson method: just a couple feet apart so that they'd stay small and keep each other company (Jens Jensen said plums are social trees and like to mingle). And I planted a couple pears- Cabot and Harrow Sweet- close to the house hoping to train them in a loose sort of espalier (or maybe as a two-leader? or an umbrella?). The idea is provide a bit of shade, fruit, and beauty while keeping things compact. We'll see.
All of these could be gardening mistakes, but I generally don't think mistakes should be avoided. In the garden, I'm not sure there's any other way to learn what you love and what love you (and your soil and birds and bugs...) back.
Of course, sometimes space really does open up for a garden. After a bad year of cedar apple rust, I took out the old juniper patch between our house any our neighbors'. I cut it down with some reluctance- I like juniper, and it always gives me pause to remove a healthy plant that's been in this neighborhood longer than I have. But now there's room in the sun for a hazel hedge.
Out with the old, in with the new. Happy spring.
These are the last of my Winter Luxury squash- the ones that took over the garden. I heard they didn't store well, so this week, I cut them open to roast and freeze. In retrospect, it would have been more interesting to save one whole in the basement and see what happens. One of the pumpkins was stringy and thrown out to the squirrels, who didn't seem interested. The other pumpkin cooked up in that dense, fudge-y way that made me love this squash.
I first picked Winter Luxury up from a farmer's market after moving back to Wisconsin. A month later, I found one on display at the local food coop, and an older shopper watched as I put it in my cart. I thought he must be a fellow enthusiast, but he came over and told me that he had grown that pumpkin. He picked it up out of my cart, and looked at it for a minute with real tenderness, like it was still his pumpkin, not mine or the store's.
This year I learned that, like me, Winter Luxury has a history in Wisconsin. The heirloom was introduced in 1893 in Philadelphia, but by the time I was born in the 1980's, the Jung Seed Company in Randolph was the only one maintaining the seed stock. I saved seeds from my best pumpkin this year- something I never bothered with before. The rest were roasted and eaten and there were plenty. Cinderella rode in a pumpkin, and there really is something magic about them. Plant one seed in a hill, and you get trailing vines, half a dozen pies, and several bowls of good snacking seeds.