Signs and Glories

Now that fall seems to have arrived decisively, the dress code here is all sweaters, bib overalls, and wool hats. Plus rain gear and muck boots. The harvest goes on, whatever the weather.

It’s not just the weather that’s been heralding the new season. Two weeks ago, a flock of sandhill cranes glided low over the field, bugling their strange, ancient cry back and forth to each other. I’ve already written about the wasps and the bees hustling up the last of summer’s sweetness before the cold drops down on them. And I haven’t checked lately if the bats in the barn’s loft have left to hibernate, but, if not, I expect they will soon.

We’ve had a couple of mornings with patchy frost—the latest one this morning, light enough to only blacken and crisp the tops of the most cold-sensitive plants in the field. The pods of the milkweed are starting to open and send their wispy seeds along in the breeze. By the barn, the leaves on the sumac are starting their annual fire-red show, and all along the edge of the field, the trees are just starting to turn color.

Signs abound all around us. And though the days grow short, and the light dims, there are yet glories here to witness.

Time Grows Short

We’re in the home stretch now, for sure. Last night’s frost advisory is a sure sign of that. The days have been so lovely that the advisory caught me off guard, actually, and I didn’t hear about it until the nightly news—too late to do anything about it. But it didn’t frost (though it did get very cold), and any crops that might have been damaged are just fine. Still, it’s a wake-up call. Time grows short, and I best get ready for winter.

The first order of business will be to harvest all those remaining frost-sensitive vegetables—mainly peppers and eggplant, at this point. After that, we will turn our attention to cleaning up the fields: winding up all our drip tape, dismantling and storing the irrigation system, unstringing the tomatoes and pulling their posts, and generally putting away all the supplies and equipment no longer needed for the season.

Once all that hardware is out of the field comes my favorite fall chore: mowing off all the spent crops. It feels so good to chop up all the season-end chaos and make it disappear. Then I will disc that organic matter back into the field where it will break down and feed the soil food web. Finally, over top of it all, I will sow a cover crop of winter rye to protect the soil throughout the winter.

Then, one last fall chore: planting next season’s garlic. But that is a tale for another time.

The Sting and the Sweetness

I’ve been thinking about wasps lately. Probably because I was stung by one Monday. Crew member Jenny was too. The field was full of wasps that day, searching out the last drops of summer sweetness before season’s end. In fact, there’s a yellowjacket nest in the ground at the southeast corner of the hoophouse, and the residents stream in and out all day long.

There was a time when I would unthinkingly reach for the can of poison to end a nest like that. Then I attended a talk at a farmers’ conference one winter where the speaker explained how that was what he would do, too—until he learned how many cabbage worms each wasp eats. (I forget the exact number, but it was notably large.) The speaker went on to describe how he now not only doesn’t kill wasps, he tries to encourage their nests around his farm.

His point was driven home for me the following season. One morning I was spraying an organic control for cabbage worms in the fall broccoli when I noticed yellowjackets swarming up as I disturbed the plants. Looking closely, I saw that they were indeed feasting on the bug I was working so hard to eliminate. So now when I find a wasps’ nest, I let it be, if I can. Even if, once in a while, I do end up feeling it’s sting.