“Drop Dead!” Says Thanksgiving Day To Upstate Gardeners



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.


  1. Oh my…that is a list of chores! You have taken away all my excuses for feeling sorry for myself that winter is coming to Nashville. It is rare that our ground is completely frozen and many of us can and do garden all year long. On the other hand, you have painted a beautiful image of family, home, wonderful meals and gardening that is warm, cozy and very comforting. Have a good weekend in your garden! gail

  2. I feel your pain in Albany. I didn’t grow a lot of veggies this year, so they’re done; I just snipped the last of the parsley to put on one last batch of pasta with olive oil and Parmesan.

    We raked most of our leaves I and left a light layer on most of my beds; hoping they don’t freeze solid. They’re the smaller spiky maple leaves mostly.

    I put in some new (but mature) rose bushes a few weeks ago because the dolts who moved ina cross the way felt the need to dig out and throw away about a dozen mature roses, hydrangeas, a bunch of iris, vinca, lily of the valley and god knows aht all, oh and cut down a 50 + year old flowering almond tree they said was “diseased.” Idiots. They shaved the area clean and now have erected an ugly white plastic fence.

    Anyway should I mulch those roses; what do you use? They seem to have taken well but I don’t want what is sure to be a hard winter to kill them.

  3. Oh my goodness you just made me glad I’m on the opposite coast. Here in W. Wash. it rarely gets below 30 degrees and the soil only freezes on the surface. I wish you luck on your mountain of chores…and mountain of manure!

  4. Michele, Thanksgiving is the last time I can do anything in the garden too, and I am counting on a weather decent enough to dig one last bed for the final set of bulbs I just got from the Van Engelen sale.

    Congratulations on your vegetable success! Feel free to send over any extra sprouts and parsnips!!

  5. Peg, I wait until it gets pretty cold, and then I mulch my roses with compost. They’re the queens of the garden, they deserve it, and indeed, seem to expect such treatment.

    That’s the great excuse here in Saratoga Springs, too, for cutting down gorgeous old trees: “It was diseased.” Bull.

  6. I drained all the exterior water pipes a few weeks ago, but there is snow a commin’ with gale force winds they say, so I have been doing the real winterizing and battening down the hatches, ie rearranging all the junk.

    Hopefully I will get out there and plant a few sacks of daffodil bulbs, start the vege garden clean up and harvest my last batch of potatoes, which I planted late on your suggestion Michele. Good yes. As good as ice cream, not so sure.

  7. Thank you for making me appreciate how mild the Seattle winter really is. It may be dark, wet and grey. But, the soil rarely freezes more than a couple inches and snow lasts no more than a day, if it even falls.

    Cheers to all your hard work!

  8. Wow,
    I thought I had it bad here in N. California.
    Garden chores abound in November.
    Last weekend I spent unwiring the hanging orchids and bromeliads from the palm trees and brought them into the greenhouse , which also had to be cleaned and set up for winter propagation.
    Then there was all the raking and mulching of the fallen oak and ash tree leaves which in turn were mixed with chicken compost and spread on top of the soon to be planted winter flowering beds.
    The bananas, heliconias, brugmansias and gingers were all being prepped for their in ground mulch blankets to help them resist frost damage when it rears its ugly head in January and February.
    This weekend I will plant the winter vegetable garden with lettuce, chard, sweet peas, spinach, ornamental kale and a few choice herbs and if I have time will start cutting back the wisteria, distictus and passion vines .
    Fall is a busy gardening season here in the temperate San Francisco Bay area.

  9. Chuck B, it’s no joke. I love my part of the world, but we have no spring to speak of. There was still snow on the ground this year the last week in April.

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