51% alpaca bedding, 49% deadline stress
Believe it or not, November is almost as frantic a gardening month in upstate New York as May, because something irrevocable happens right before it ends: The ground freezes as hard as iron. You can beat it with a shovel, you can shout, you can cry, you can pull your hair out in frustration, but you are not budging that soil before April.
Out in the countryside of Washington County, where I have my vegetable garden, the basil was dead by September 15, and the intervening two months of occasional frosts have been a slow stepping down into a dim cellar towards an unseen floor. It’s easy to be lulled into a roasted-tomato, roasted-root-vegetable kind of stupor in September and October, because harvest season inevitably means eating too much great food before it rots on the back porch.
But then, suddenly, things get nasty in November. The skies are uniformly gray. There are early morning fights with the children, who refuse to put on their down coats even when their mother deems them necessary. There is nagging of the husband to put the storms back up. The day arrives when weather outlook is so bleak, the gardener does not even feel like going out.
But the gardener had better be dutiful, because stuff just has to happen. Dahlias, cannas, and gladioli have to be lifted, the tulips have to be planted, potted edibles like rosemary and my lime and fig trees have to be brought in, the outside containers have to be emptied and stored away, or they will crack over the winter. The goldfish, which had dozens of babies over the summer, have to fished out of the icy water in my shallow pond and installed various places for the winter, and ditto the water plants.
Even more needs to happen in the vegetable garden. Things have to be pulled out and eaten or frozen or put into a cool spot in the cellar–or else, horrors, wasted. This is particularly tricky for me because my vegetable garden is at a weekend house, and abrupt mid-week declines in the Dow Greens Average tend to take me by surprise. For example, I’m kicking myself for missing my moment on the swiss chard, which I would have liked to chop up and freeze, instead of buying bags of pricey Cascadian Farms frozen spinach in mid-winter. I also left one row of potatoes in the ground too long in my wet soil, and they rotted. And a lot of the tatsoi yellowed up before I could get to it.
On the other hand, there are still ridiculous amounts of food to be hauled out of my garden: celeriac, parsnips, carrots, turnips, wonderful green and pink radishes, scallions, kale, cilantro, arugula, self-seeded mache, brussels sprouts, cabbages, and radicchio. And the really winter-tough stuff, like the brussels sprouts and kale, I don’t particularly want to harvest until I have to, because they taste so much better fresh out of the garden than when they’ve been hanging around the back porch for a week or two.
At the same time as I’m dragging my feet on the harvest, a giant pile of hay and alpaca manure sits brooding behind my fence, waiting for the garden to clear so that it can be forked onto the my beds, where it will serve as both fertilizer and mulch for next season. It, too, will freeze into an immovable pile soon after Thanksgiving. And if I don’t move it by Thanksgiving, then I’ll have to do it first thing in spring, when I’ll be breathless enough as it is, trying to get the garden ready for planting in the brief three-day window between the melting of the last snow and the arrival of 90-plus degrees.
Parsnips: dug, stored, off my conscience
How do we Northeastern gardeners stand the stress of these deadlines?
A nice zinfandel with the roasted root vegetables helps. So does knowing that even if I fall down completely on management in the final quarter of the gardening year, it’s been a fantastic season nonetheless. I’m not a perfectionist in the vegetable garden, I’m just an outrageous success there. I’ve had so many great meals of homegrown vegetables in 2008 that even if I fail to store another root, the glow still ought to last until early 2009 at least.