Patchwork: Mid-autumn gardening notes

I’ve just returned from a work trip to southwestern Montana where it seems that most people don’t plant gardens. In towns, out on the ranches, I saw little sign of tomatoes or lettuces, even kale or broccoli tended in neat rows or clustered in raised beds. And vegetables that do grow? They fold up early. Indeed, the Bozeman Farmers’ Market shut down in mid-September; the natural foods’ cooperative offered few local fruits or vegetables; a downtown restaurant served us the last of the local greens for the year.
It isn’t easy for a New England gardener, even in a Vermont reeling from recent skirmishes with climate collapse, to get her head around all that space and so few vegetables growing. But after a few hours of leaning into the hard, cold wind, I got it, or rather I feltit. Planting conditions in that part of the country are difficult if not downright harsh, no matter the time of year. Out there, even if you try to thwart Mother Nature and put in, say, a greenhouse or a grow tunnel, the wind will likely rip it right from its foundation, and if the wind doesn’t get it, the snow will. And then there’s the question of water — or lack thereof — not exactly Vermont’s challenge these days.
I returned from snow-capped mountains and frosty nights to this scene: people running and bicycling in T-shirts and shorts as I drove home from the airport near dusk. And then a sultry thunderstorm awakened me that first night back — where was I? Vermont or Virginia? Had I traveled back in time to mid-summer? Near dawn I was buffeted by strange dreams of the garden residents lifting off like balloons or kites, those giant squashes, cucumbers and beans, those two-pound tomatoes waving about in the sky, heading for the house, blown by a rough, dry wind.
In the morning I awake to find the gardens as confused as I am, so I know it isn’t jetlag. The tender plants out in the orchard far from the house have succumbed to frost. Basil, cucumbers and tomatoes have been turned into look-alikes of the Wicked Witch of the East as she withers, legs curling up after Dorothy’s house has landed on her and Dorothy has taken her ruby slippers. But the others, nestled in the lee of other plants or near the shelter of the house? They’re fine; in fact some act as though it’s high summer yet — tomatillos pushing out yet more flowers, eggplants dripping fat purple jewels, peppers reddening into pure sweetness, not in any tunnel or greenhouse but out in the open garden. Bees buzz. Butterflies flit. And upon closer look, I see peeking out from beneath the frost-nipped zinnias full buds about to burst into bloom.
Meanwhile, guided by changes in light as well as by temperature, fall goes about its business: The sumac blazes red against the glowing yellow of the prickly ash at the near copse; golden birch leaves rain down on the lawn; geese ride every north wind; migrating hawks dive to pluck chipmunks from the stone walls; rabbits mow down the carrot tops; squirrels dash madly about burying nuts in every pot on the patio; deer leap effortlessly over the 7-foot orchard wall to gorge on fall lettuces and plum leaves.
How strange.
I am both delighted and dismayed. 
You see, it’s a tricky time of year in the garden — the between time, the neither here nor there time — and this year it’s particularly tricky. As Kate wrote last week, the hunter’s moon hangs in the night sky, which means it’s time to think about planting the garlic and shallots, and yet this season’s residents who occupy the space allotted to the new crops aren’t exactly making way. They’re perfectly content with the status quo. I feel like a flummoxed landlord — I can’t exactly evict them, and yet I’ve got to move the new folks into their homes.
And before I left on this trip, I scrambled to pick everything in sight and stuff it in the refrigerator until I returned to prepare the harvest for winter storage, but here I am back again and it is so … summery … the full fridge looks downright silly. No need to have cut short the growing season.
That’s the tricky part. I should have adapted better. Predicted the whiplash of careening temperatures and wild weather when I decided where to site the new crop of garlic. Put it way out in the frosty reaches. I’ll remember next year. But for now there’s nothing to do but to give into the warm sun, and so I peel off my jacket and forget about planting for next spring. I can do that next week or the week after that.
Instead, I think about how lucky I’ve been this season to be spared a hurricane’s wrath and to garden far from the inhospitable growing conditions of other parts of the country. And so I pick more chili peppers to dry, potatoes to cure for storage, parsley to freeze, tomatillos to turn into salsa, eggplant into chutney. I watch the bees, the chipmunks and birds all at their work next to me. Winter will be among us soon enough — why rush it?
Editor’s note: Barbara Ganley and Kate Gridley, who write our PATCHwork gardening column and get other enthusiastic gardeners to contribute as well, have put their gardens to bed for the winter. As such, the garden column is going into hibernation for the winter, but look for it again next spring. Thanks to Barbara and Kate for a great season in their gardens.

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