We had our first hard frost here at the farm early last Thursday morning—late in coming this season, and many of the crops it would have killed were already finished, so practically it made little difference. But mentally that first fall frost is always a significant threshold for me, a sign that our long adventure is nearly at its end.
All this month we have been readying the farm for winter. Partly that involves bringing in all the “hardware” from the field—tasks like unstringing the tomatoes and pulling our their stakes; dismantling, draining, and storing the irrigation system; and winding up the electric deer fence. And partly it means taking care of the field itself. As each section cycles out of production, I mow off what remains with the tractor’s brush mower (a deeply satisfying job), then disc the residue back into the soil. Finally, I sow a cover crop of rye over the now bare soil. Once the rye has germinated and started growing, it will help protect the soil over the winter and early spring.
Much of that work is finished now. There are a handful of lines of drip tape to be wound up, some row cover to be put away, and a couple of sections of the field waiting to be sown in cover crop before it rains next week. Only a few beds of cold-hardy vegetables remain standing. Otherwise, the field is at rest, peaceful and green, patiently waiting.
When people ask about my favorite vegetable, I often say it’s garlic. It asks for so little, and gives so much. Almost all I need to do for a good harvest is plant it in a well-drained part of the field amended with aged bedding from the winter chicken coop and mulch it deeply with straw. I also really like the whole process of growing garlic: seeing it thrust through the soil and announcing the arrival of spring, trimming off the curlicue scapes in June, filling the loft of the barn with garlic plants laid out to cure, selecting and improving the seed garlic, and, finally, planting next season’s crop here at the end of October in defiance of the coming winter.
As our veteran members know, one of our garlic varieties—the one with the purple splotches on the outside of its papers—is a variety handed down through my family for five generations. For the past few years, I’ve been slowly improving my seed stock, and to good effect. The heads are now larger and the cloves more numerous compared to the original ones my mother gave me six years ago. I’ve now decided to give this strain a proper name: Anna Barbara’s Ohio Red, in honor of my great-great-great-grandmother.
We’re just about ready to start planting next season’s crop, either this week or the next. The crew is nearly finished with breaking the garlic down into cloves, a process called popping the heads, and the soil is drying out enough for me to start thinking about preparing beds to plant them in. Once the soil is ready, we can plant the cloves, spread the chicken manure, mulch the beds, and, then, with the last critical task of the season finished, take a deep breath and brace for winter.
To tell the truth, October on the farm is a ragged month. Don’t get me wrong: closing in on the end of the season after seven months of intense work is surely satisfying, as is seeing the yields of all that work packed into the CSA boxes week after week. But eventually everything shows the strain. Now is when farms often experience equipment breakdowns and employee meltdowns (thankfully, neither have happened here this season), and now is when I really begin to feel the weight of the season in my body, all those accumulated stresses and strains manifesting in various repetitive stress injuries. Sometimes it shows up in my wrists, and sometimes my shoulders. This season, it’s in my feet, likely plantar fasciitis, so a post-season trip to the doctor is on the docket, with ibuprofen and ice in the meantime. Which is fine: I chose this vocation, so I won’t complain. But I will say that I don’t know how those farmers who do year-round CSAs are able to pull it off while keeping their bodies, minds, sanity, and marriages intact. There’s something good and true about embracing the rhythm of the season, from the eagerness and energy of spring, the madness and bounty of summer, the weariness and satisfaction of fall, and finally the rest and regeneration of winter, and then on again through the cycle, a steady and reliable wheel, rolling on down though the years.