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.
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.
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.
September is one of my favorite months on the farm. The days grow short, the weather cools, and the end of the season hoves into view. It’s an abundant time, as our days fill with harvesting. It’s a weary time, too, for the same reason. Counterintuitively, it’s also something of an easeful time—by now, most things that were going to go wrong, have already gone wrong, so my anxiousness dials down as the days pass. And, so, this is something of a hopeful time, as I have room in my head to dream about what could be possible next season. Of course, it’s a beautiful time, too, with the goldenrod and the rudbeckia and the asters and all the other late-summer flowers in full bloom. Above all, it’s a thankful time, for all the previous reasons, and for so much more.
Last week the crew brought the last of the garlic into the barn’s loft to cure. I always breathe a little easier once that job is done and the season’s harvest is safe, out of the ground and under cover. An important step, but only one in the year-long cycle of growing garlic.
The next step, once all the garlic has cured for a couple of weeks, is to trim the stalks and the roots and gently clean the heads. Then, we grade the heads, looking for damage or disease and sorting them by size. At this point we set aside the garlic we will be using for seed in the fall, choosing the largest heads with the greatest number of cloves. This way, we bring forward the best genetics in our garlic stock as well as adapting it to our farm’s particular climate. With the garlic cleaned and sorted, and the seed garlic set aside, the rest is distributed to the CSA shares or sold at market.
In this climate, we plant garlic sometime between the middle and end of October. I’ve planted later, into the second week of November, and have been fine but knew I was flirting with disaster. Running up to the planting day, we spend a little time in the loft “popping” the heads, gently breaking breaking apart the heads into individual cloves. These cloves are what we plant out, the “seeds” of the garlic. They are planted just like you would crocus bulbs, pointy end up, blunt side down, and about two inches deep. Once planted, we topdress the beds with the chicken litter from last winter’s coop and then deeply mulch it with six to eight inches of straw to protect it through the winter.
And then we wait.
The following spring, once the ground thaws and the days warm, I begin checking the garlic beds. Usually by mid-April I will see the little green fingers of new growth thrusting through the straw mulch. Throughout the rest of the spring and early summer, the garlic grows in the lengthening days. Sometime around mid-June we harvest the scapes, the flowering part of the plant. And then we watch for the plant to begin to die back. Once this process starts, we know the garlic has grown as large as it’s going to, and we begin the harvest. Sometimes, when the ground is soft, the garlic comes right out with a gentle pull. Sometimes the ground is harder and we need to deploy the digging forks. In either case, we work as gently as we can so as not to bruise the heads. And then the whole harvest is spread out in the loft to cure, and the cycle begins anew.
Right now, we’re staging an all-out assault on the weeds. When the crew and I are not harvesting, we’re weeding. For extra help, I’m calling in favors, offering blandishments, extending veiled threats. Like a general, I’m reviewing my tactics and deciding where to apply my resources to the best advantage: Where is the insurgency most serious? Which assets are most important? Where is the battle already lost? And where can it yet be won?
I know I need to be careful when using martial imagery when describing my work on the farm. As I’ve written elsewhere, my relationship to this place is more of a dance than a fight. But in this case, I think, the analogy rings true. These weeds, by robbing the crops of light, moisture, and soil fertility, do threaten the harvest. How numerous they are outstrips my resources to fight them all. So victory here depends on determination and thoughtful tactics.
And the clock is ticking. On the one hand, if these crops are going to have time to bear a good harvest before the end of the season, they need to get free of the weeds now. And on the other hand, as the harvest ramps up, we have less time for everything else, weeding included. So, this week, we fight on.
Our first summer here on the farm, I started planting in the part of the field where it seemed most logical, closest to the barn. That turned out to be not the greatest choice. After years of conventional farming, the soil there was depleted and compacted and poorly drained. I fought with that soil one more season before moving on to other, better spots in the field.
But I wasn’t going to just abandon that soil. My plan was to put in a soil-enriching cover crop of crimson clover and then let it alone for a while to give it some time to heal. The cover crop thinned out after a couple of seasons and became a little weedy, dandelions chief among them. That was okay, I thought, because I surmised that the plant’s long taproot might help break up the compacted subsoil and bring nutrients to the surface. And from time to time I would mow the weeds and pasture the chickens there, letting them do some of the work of restoring the soil food web.
This winter I decided it was time to break ground there again and see if the soil had improved. In early summer, I cut the spring weeds short with the brush mower, then plowed them under. I waited for the sod to break down a little, then ran the disc through it to break it down further. Yesterday, I attached the three-point tiller to the tractor and made our beds for this week’s transplanting. And wouldn’t you know it, that soil had improved during its long fallow period. The final test will be how the plants perform growing in it, but I am encouraged to see how much the soil healed itself with only a little bit of help from me (and the chickens) in such a relatively short period of time.
Hopeful, is what it makes me, both for this farm and for this old, battered world of ours.