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Early fall in the garden

I wrote the title of this post in near disbelief. It’s October. Four days into October, in fact. Summer is not only in the rear view mirror, it’s a tiny speck in soft focus, just visible and fading fast.

Where did summer go?

When the realization hit me on Sunday that September’s end was here, I moped around the house for a bit before grabbing my camera and wandering out to the gardens. Summer crops are winding down while fall’s are coming into their own. Some, such as carrots, leeks, and parsley are happily well-established and ready to hold steady for on-demand winter harvesting. Others, such as fennel and broccoli and a second planting of green beans, are maturing at a nice pace. Garlic and French shallots will be going in the ground in the coming weeks for their long winter’s nap. Rosemary, celery, and scallions will be transplanted to containers and moved indoors, along with my blood orange tree.

A quick survey of the yard made me realize there’s nothing to be mopey about. The garden’s not “over,” it’s simply changing.

When you’re a four-season gardener like myself, there’s always life in the yard, even when it’s covered in snow.

If you’ve followed my gardening posts this summer, you might have noticed that I never mention flowers. I do grow flowers. They’re beautiful expressions of nature’s magnificence. I’m a gardener — how could I not?

But last year, I made the very intentional decision to plant only flowers that bees love — instead of lounging lazily in the sun, pampered and spoiled, I’m putting flowers to work. The situation with our declining honeybee and bumblebee populations is growing ever more critical, and as a gardener dependent on bees for healthy harvests, it’s impossible to stand by and do nothing. To sum up the crisis’s consequences very succinctly: no bees = no food. I’ve heard folks complain more than once that they’ve had very little squash this year, for example. Bees are the primary pollinators for squash — if you don’t have bees in your yard, you’re not going to have squash, period (not at least without a little sex therapist intervention on your part — a Qtip and the willingness to do some swabbing in the early morning hours). Bees matter. A lot.

I’m thrilled that the beekeeping movement has gained so much momentum this year. In suburban backyards and restaurant rooftops, bee fever has gripped the nation. And wonderfully so — these amazing creatures need all the love and nurturing they can get. For my part, I grow bee attractors and bee nourishers all around my yard. It’s a win-win: the bees get food; I get food. (And, on a side note, I no longer feel like I’m throwing money away on the ubiquitous and basically useless summer flowers that overpopulate nurseries every spring. One summer, I spent an astounding $150 on impatiens and petunias that lived in the ground for a mere five months. They provided mounds and mounds of glorious color, but … ouch. If there’s one definitive thing I’ve learned in gardening, it’s that money doesn’t grow on trees. I know; I’ve looked high and low for the seeds.)

In addition to what’s pictured above (perennials, all — buy once, enjoy for many years), bees love the flowers of many herbs, greens, and vegetables, plus other plants that we commonly consider weeds, such as white clover. They cannot get enough of thyme, oregano, and lavender flowers — I keep huge plantings of each around the yard, front and back, just for the bees. (These herbs are also perennials and flower every year … for free.)

The perennial hyssop next to my deck is *the* spot to be if you’re a bee. The light blue candlestick blooms on this plant are positively covered with bees from morning to evening. I also have salvia, zinnias and calliopsis growing in the main garden, plus extra basil in every garden, which I allow to bolt — their flowers last all summer and fall and are irresistible to bees (plus the scent of basil leaves is a detractor to destructive pests).

Thank you, Bees, for visiting my yard this year in huge numbers and giving me such a delightful harvest (including squash!). I’ll be waiting for you early next spring with loads of white clover and flowering thyme.

Peppers and chilies ripen like crazy in September and October, and their sheer and sudden quantity means I concentrate my efforts more on preserving than consuming. I experimented with different varieties of the blocky sweet bell peppers this year — with unsatisfactory results (reticent to ripen to a sweet red before disintegrating on the vine) — leaving me to depend largely on the adorably heart-shaped pimento pepper for my supply of sweet peppers. I’ll be growing more pimentos next year — such an awesome pepper, it is — and return to my old tried-and-true varieties of bells.

Potatoes are such a fun and mysterious crop to grow. Some years, I’ve barely had any to speak of. Others, too many to count. This year, it seems I bobbled the harvesting a bit — not digging deeply enough in my potato treasure hunt — as the potatoes I overlooked have sprouted greenery for a second crop. With a prediction of a warm late fall, it looks like another batch of fingerlings will mature and hide from me ’round about November. Forget my little hand-held garden claw; I’ll be breaking out the pitch fork.

Sadly — and a bit despairingly, I’ll admit — my beloved heirloom tomatoes are rapidly winding down. September here in zone 6a is rainy and cool. Although the plants could continue to produce until well into November, the fruits are not as high quality as in August. The accelerated rain of fall plumps them up, making them susceptible to bursting, and, quite frankly, waters down their flavors. Rain-bloated tomatoes collapse quickly on the vine and whither and leak on the counter.

I’ll miss you, Black Cherries. You are my faves. So long, until next summer.

The sun hung low and bright in a cyan sky as I snapped portraits of nature’s gifts. A surprise cache of blondkopfchen cherry tomatoes under a canopy of leaves. Poblano pepper plants bowing to the ground from the weight of their fruit. Tangerine shoulders of sweet carrots peeking through pine needle mulch. A patch of frilly fennel fonds.

And soon, sadness over the loss of summer was replaced with gratitude. Gratitude that I live in a location where I can garden in some form or other all year long.

Gratitude for an incredible bounty of quantity and variety — garlic, shallots, peas, radishes, onions, scallions, chives, lettuce, arugula, tomatoes-tomatoes-tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, zucchini, potatoes, eggplant, beans, beets, carrots, celery, sweet peppers, hot chilies, leeks, broccoli, fennel, blueberries, apples, blood oranges, saffron, plus a dozen herbs — much of which is resting in wait in my freezer or cellar, earmarked for comforting winter meals edged with summer memories.

It’s good to be a gardener.

Good, indeed.

Karen xo

Rocky Mountain Woman

Friday 5th of October 2012

Bee Keeping is a big deal out here in the "Bee Hive State". I don't keep them myself, but buy a lot of honey from the locals who do.

It's great to be a gardener and great to be an eater who waits for the seasons! I love how you incorporate that into your blog...




Friday 5th of October 2012

I love your "bee plants". I have a couple of bushes on the side of my house (and so help me, I have no idea what they are) that always seem attract the little bumbles :-) It looks like you have had some amazing results from this year's plantings.