The above photo was taken at the base of Mount Holyoke Range in Hadley, Massachusetts, a few days ago and late in the day on one of our coldest to date this fall. The brilliant colors have muted and the nature of each thing is exposed by the cold and the reticent sun. Some are oblivious, though their time will come. Some are reluctant, while others surrendered early on, without much of a fight. Soon, all will sleep, but in these early days of November all the players meet on stage late in the afternoon for one final farewell party.
The best part about a four season climate is that just at the point of saturation of heat, of dying, of cold and snow, of birth… oh, and of course, of tomato, everything shifts… until we meet again after a long and patient wait. I’ll pass on the store-boughts throughout the late fall, winter, spring and even early and mid summer. Doesn’t matter what you call it. It’s only it, when its time has come. In the meantime, I’ll patiently savor the memory and the expectation.
This was not a very satisfying growing season for me, though my garden didn’t seem to mind too much. At one point I thought I had lost the rice and would have to start the process over again next year from scratch.
Then some stalks appeared bearing young grains. The plants didn’t do all that well and were pretty stunted and the smallest ones only bore a few grains, but I had planted quite a bit and eventually it added up to a harvest better than last year.
I’ll know better by how much once it has dried and been threshed and winnowed, but at least I know that I’ll have plenty of seed for next season.
My back yard starts off low and climbs a quick slope to a plateau. Most of the lowlands are wetter and the plateau is dryer. I’ve been growing a seed supply of Wheat and Rye down in the lower yard. My ultimate goal was to move them farther away from the house and into drier conditions. We had a very wet and humid early summer this year which was hard on the wheat and rye.
So, when I went to replant, I dug some new beds up on the plateau. There is a circle of low maintenance plants already established, so I decided to allow the circle to grow in rings of new beds in which I would plant my various grains and beans. So my wheat and rye are now part of a ring outside of the circle. It’s coming along fine even though I planted pretty late in the season.
The rye is much taller than the wheat, so I planted it in the center of this first ring flanked on either side by the wheat. It will be a treat to see it growing up on the plateau. Can’t wait.
When my tomatoes started bearing fruit, they did what tomatoes do – fall over. We had a bad case of tomato blight here in the valley several years ago and each season it would return more or less. I had been using metal wire tomato cages back then and I finally decided to stop using them, thinking they might carry the disease forward.
Last year I cut down several trees to bring in more light, and I cut them up for firewood. This season many of the stumps, cut close to the ground, developed new shoots. Then in early August I harvested them to use as tomato stakes.
There were a lot of plants and as usual, I was pressed for time, so I played around with some ideas for supporting them. Now that everything has died back to expose the frames, I took these photos of what I came up with for my two tomato patches. I just used sticks and string, but it worked well.
Now it might be a coincidence, but there was no blight in my garden this year. I’ll use these for kindling and start fresh next year.
The night after I harvested the peppers and anything else that looked vulnerable, we were hit with a hard frost. I left a few on the vine just to see how they would fare. I haven’t checked yet, but the leaves on those plants were done in.
My beets survived. This was my best beet crop so far – not a lot, because we don’t eat a lot, but good greens and good sized beets.
I planted my onions way too late but now have a nice patch of scallions that survived the frost. This photo was taken in late September.
Earlier in September, I planted garlic to winter over and here they come.
I had some potatoes pop up earlier in the season and planted my peppers and tomatoes around them. Now that the frost has done it’s work on those plants, I’ll start digging for potatoes.
Tonight is the coldest so far in the fall of 2013. There was a little frost this morning and it has finally started to affect the more susceptible plants, so I thought I’d better harvest whatever’s more likely to not survive. The peppers and tomatoes were grown from seed I saved last fall. I just finished seed saving again this year and added some cucumbers to the mix. Not a bad haul for absentee gardening!
I was not the only one in my garden that was feeling stressed this summer. I had a wonderful array of starts from seeds planted indoors in trays including peppers, tomatoes, basil, celery, and leeks. They all landed on the deck when the weather warmed up enough and then unfortunately, never made it into the ground in a timely manner.
The deck became much too hot an environment and I lost the celery and leeks. The tomatoes and peppers ultimately produced well and for the first time in a long time there was no tomato blight. Still, had they been planted sooner, I think the crop would have been enormous. There was plenty of basil though not a lush crop by any means.
My stress came from seeing the stressful conditions they were enduring without my being able to attend to their needs.
The same was true for the hardy vegetables (cabbages, kale, broccoli, etc.) I planted directly in the ground from seed, way back in March. They too were allowed to sit too long before transplanting and had the additional burden of being crowded out by weeds. Again most recovered and have done quite well considering, but probably would have done much better much sooner had they not had the added stress of crowding for so long.
The real heartbreak though was the rice crop. Last year, from seeding to harvest, everything progressed quite naturally. This year, because of the lack of time, I scattered the seed pretty tightly in a bed prone to crab grass weeds. I was hoping to crowd out the weeds by sowing so densely.
The rice took off like gang busters and soon the whole bed was thick with rice seedlings. However I had to prepare more area to receive the seedlings, which kept getting delayed. I noticed that, compared to last year, the seedlings were much more yellow-green in color and when I went to transplant found that the crab-grass managed to mix in with the already dense planting, making the transplanting a much slower process as I separated out the rice seedlings from the grass.
All in all, I remained hopeful after transplanting, but as time went on, noticed that the seedlings were not taking off like they did after last season’s transplanting. It took a long time for the plants to turn darker green and only a handful of plants reached anything close to full size.
I was beginning to think all was lost, but then some rice stalks started to emerge. I wouldn’t characterize it as abundant, but given how much larger an area I had planted, I was beginning to feel as though I would end up with about the same amount of seed as I started with this year. Grateful that I would be able to at least have a second chance, I relaxed and let things take their course.
It is now October 23 and I am planning to harvest this week, about a month and a half later than I normally would be harvesting rice. However, I started late, the plants were stressed by overcrowding and weed competition and the weather has been pretty mild, so I decided to give them as much time as possible to mature.
The healthiest plants, though nowhere nearly as large a last year’s plants, have a good number of grains and are characteristically drooping, ready for harvest. What I find interesting, though, is that the less healthy plants are trying their little hearts out, even it it means only producing a couple of grains. Those grains are no different than the one’s from the healthy plants, just fewer in number.
I’ll show some photos of the harvest stalks and in another month after they have cured and been threshed and winnowed, I’ll take some photos of the final product.
Perhaps next season, I’ll be more careful not to get ahead of myself.
I have been growing out grains successfully for the past several years, gradually building up a seed supply. I started the rice with a single stalk and the wheat with six plants.
This year I did the same with vegetable seeds, namely several varieties of tomatoes and peppers, plus a single variety of Russian Kale. I am overwhelmed by the abundance. Just a few tomatoes and peppers from last year’s crop provided enough seed to produce around 100 seedlings.
What that means is that, if I keep it up, I will never need to buy seeds again for those plants. I am concerned about the overuse of the word sustainable, because it becomes too conceptual, when in fact it is a phenomenon as dependable as the sunrise.
One underlying principal that I have been exploring in this garden experience is human proportion. How much land, how many plants, how much time for what yield would it take to feeding a small family?
I’m a long, long way from accomplishing such a goal, but those relationships are what I am trying to understand through my garden experiments. This summer, my garden grew disproportionately to my circumstances. Disaster might be too strong a word, because in fact there were many successes and quite a bit of produce made it to our table. However, it was stressful, knowing clearly what I should be doing and by when and not even being able to come close to accomplishing what I had in mind, except at the last possible minute, if at all.
The good news is how little effort it takes to get good results. This was a good sized garden and often weeks went by without my entering other than to harvest something for dinner.
Of course the bad news is the lack of planning and missing deadlines, resulting in some crops not making it and the garden looking pretty ragged.
What I do have though is an established infrastructure that should make next year’s efforts more productive.