The fall of the garden

In September, I become slave to my garden. Each night I pull scrappy blankets, old sleeping bags, towels, shower curtains and holey sheets off our clothesline. With the grab bag of materials slung over my shoulder, or often dragging behind me, I trudge down the garden rows covering each and every tender vegetable. Tomatoes, jalapeF1os, cucumbers, squash and basil each get tucked in tight, protected from the oncoming frost.

Some nights I stand in the twilight garden, fingers, nose and mouth distilling the night air into a preordained number, 35F, surely it won’t get below 35F tonight, 34F at the lowest; I apply this number to the cloud cover quotient, figuring I have at least as good a chance as the weather report in predicting the nighttime lows for my own rectangle of microclimate. From this subtle equation, I decide whether to cover the garden. Lately though, I’ve been taking no chances; I want every last fruit that spangles our bushes of tomatoes. And I want them red and sweet with juice.

This is always the farmer’s plight in high-elevation Colorado.

It might not sound so bad were it only a few scattered days in September that my garden looked like an outdoor laundromat, myself twice a scurrying to cover and uncover. But you must know that this frost danger occurs in the spring as well. I don’t know if it’s worse to have your indoor-sprouted starts, full of promise and possibility for the coming season, freeze in June, or your old, weathered plants, taunting you with half ripe fruit, die before their time in September. I’ve experienced both.

As the fall equinox comes in scarlet oaks and golden aspens, I walk through the garden trimming frost-scarred tomato and squash leaves. And it seems I’ve forgotten a whole category of plants: the humble, frost-tolerant gems. How I give thanks for the broccoli, green florets still bursting from the stalk with no nighttime amendments needed. The cabbage heads, split open from the rainy season, are growing steadily, slated for sauerkraut, though in no particular hurry for harvest. The frost-sweetened carrots are underground treasures that we pull as needed, easily braving the average low of 30 degrees. The potatoes, herbs, sunflowers, chard, bok choi, and kale are troopers, making it through every frostbitten night with no protection. The lettuce freezes every night, its watery insides turning to a frozen mush; and then miraculously by sun-brightened 10 a.m., these same leaves have restored themselves, crisp and ready for a fresh lunchtime salad. These cold-hardy plants seem to laugh as I uncover the sleepy, sheltered tomatoes each morning, lifting the lumpy sleeping bag that still bears my name in indelible ink from Camp Cazadero.

There is a relief to the fall garden. By the equinox, late September, I’ve let the zucchini, yellow crookneck squash and the cucumbers go. I’ve harvested all the jalapeF1os and most of the winter squash. The only plants I still answer to are the tomatoes. With fewer plants in the ground, days shorter and the heat less intense, water needs have diminished. The weeds have given up their will to live, and I’ve given up my will to keep them down. The grasshopper fleets are now represented by one or two sluggish members that give a half-hearted hop out from underfoot in the morning, a small threat.

Finally, there is some rest for the summer-weary gardener – except for the tiny new lettuce and chard sprouts that have just popped up. I need to create a cold frame cover so they can spend their winter growing in comfort.

– Rachel Turiel Hinds




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