Patchwork: That’s not fall in my garden

I know, I know, it’s that time of year again — the first string of geese flew overhead as I thinned lettuce this morning; this evening as I picked beans, light slanted long shadows across the field and the air took a sudden chill. There’s no mistake about fall’s inexorable approach. No calendar needed, nor sounds of football game, marching band, school bell. It’s in the sunflowers heavy with seed flopping over beneath the weight of feasting squirrels. It’s in the garden chatter turning all chickadee, blue jay, goldfinch. No Eastern Towhees counseling — “Drink Your Tea,” no swallows darting about, no robins tugging at worms. It’s in the milkweed no butterflies flitting through the air. At least the bees continue to make their rounds, nuzzling late-season flowers. Without them it could feel a bit lonely around here, a bit like the end of something.
Not so. Not yet. Not here.
If the bees are undeterred, well then, so am I. They appreciate that I haven’t pulled the bolted lettuce, mint or arugula. They hover at peppers and eggplants and tomatillos throwing out flowers as though it’s high summer. Morning into evening the garden hums. When articles announce that “bees are responsible for one out of every three mouthfuls of food” and research finds that problems with pollination have to do not only with a decline in numbers of bees but in missed synchronization between spring flowering and bees emerging from hibernation, I try to do what I can to help them (see Richard Alleyne’s Sept. 6 article in the Telegraph, http://bit.ly/diThve). And so I’m buzzing around as though it’s mid-season, keeping things flowering.
You’re right, it’s a bit foolish, but I’m unwilling to say the growing season is over.
People smarter than I are putting their gardens to bed (see Judy’s column last week). Some have had enough of the weeding, the harvesting, the streams of beans and zukes and cukes. The temperature, the light, the smell and feel of the air beckon slow cooking of roots, soups and stews, not the quick dash I still make to the garden for tomatoes and zucchini to be eaten raw.
I used to put the garden to bed when the first frosts pinched the tender plants and dusted crystals over the kale. My childhood gardening season ended Labor Day when we moved back down the Maine coast for school. Although we’d return on weekends to pull my mother’s carrots still snug and sweetening beneath thick protective mulch, the small garden would be harvested, dug up and covered with the seaweed my father hauled up from the back cove in his small, squeaky wheelbarrow.
You say come in by the fire to dream of next summer’s garden; I say no way. There’s more mint to dry for this winter’s tea — there’s never enough mint tea and no tea mint rivals what’s coming out of my garden this year. More basil and cilantro, chives and dill to make into pesto and freeze. More red tomatoes for drying and green for chutney; more chard, peas, beans and lettuces to grow, more chile peppers to ripen, more lemongrass to turn into broth. More flowers for bees. Eggplant. Beans. Cucumbers.
Carrots, potatoes, kale, winter squash and pumpkins can wait.
I’m determined to push this season to its limits by moving the garden into tunnels. Not all 22 beds, not those with trees and perennials requiring the cycles of cold and heat they’re accustomed to, but annuals: cool-weather fellows like greens, peas and lettuce, but also their hot-season neighbors — chile peppers and green beans, tomatoes and eggplant, basil and za’atar.
We’re re-erecting the short tunnels built last spring, for greens and lettuces — low-growing sorts — and we’re building taller, (five-foot tall) tunnels for everything else out of electrical conduit and garden-cover material. Each 20-foot-by-10-foot tunnel costs about 40 bucks and a little sweat. (See Bill’s Tunnel-making Tips.) Of course, a greenhouse would be awfully nice — but this inexpensive, easy-to-set-up, mobile system will take us further into fall than I’ve ever gone before with cold frames. Baby lettuce and pea salad in November? Mmmm … Hot chile, tomato and tomatillo salsa in December? Moroccan fresh herb jam in January? Who knows? Add a foot of straw to the top of the hardiest sorts each night and we might make it clear through winter.
Yes, it’s beginning to look as though a miniature wagon train has pulled up out back, but that view warms and comforts as the cold settles in over the fields. As I plant garlic late next month, I’ll be picking the neighboring vegetables. By then the bees will be in their hives, and I’ll miss their friendly buzzing at my shoulder, but I’ll hum loudly as I lift the end of a tunnel and duck into the warmth of a little Eden in Vermont’s full fall.
You can find Bill’s recipe for garden tunnels on our staffblog, and past Patchwork columns here.

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