October 28, 2019
The northern hemisphere is now tilted away from the sun during this part of Earth’s annual journey around our star. All living things are tuned in to seasonal changes. Daylength sets biological clocks. Varying periods of light triggers changes in plants and animal behaviour. We are not as tuned in as other life forms since we’ve found ways to overcome the dark and the cold.
With the shorter daylight, come the cooler nights and ground frosts. Morning dew gives way to ice crystals that glisten magically on low lying vegetation. With the ever-shortening daylight, water will soon be in short supply. For this reason, broad-leaved trees shed their leaves but not before putting on a breathtaking display of warm colours. Leaves tumble to the forest floor creating a thick fluffy blanket that protects ground creatures and the underground parts of woodland plants over the winter months.
Chipmunks and squirrels collect what they can from the hickories, oaks and butternuts to ensure an ample supply of food for the long winter. Flocks of blackbirds descend by the thousands into the trees and meadows for a quick meal on their way through to their winter retreat. Geese pass overhead in perfect formation on their long flight south.
Birds that will stay for the winter search for areas rich in food sources. We don’t plow or cultivate our fields in the Fall. Garden weeds that went to seed over the summer are left behind as a food source and shelter for overwintering birds.
In the garden, hornets and wasps search for meals in the decaying fruit left behind. Bumblebees drink the last remaining nectar from the few asters and goldenrod flowers persisting on the edges of the gardens. Many bees live out their final days in the greenhouses where there is always something in bloom. Queens will soon find a place to spend the winter carrying with them the promise of new colonies next Spring. We can help them by leaving natural shelters where they can go into a deep sleep until warmth and food is available again. Lady beetles gather by the thousands in places where they’ll hibernate for the winter. Farmer ants take their aphids underground. On every warm day, honey bees continue to forage for nectar but also gather resins from trees to seal the hives from cold winds. Everywhere you look in a natural environment, there is some activity.
With the relative position of the sun becoming closer to the southern horizon, we increase the angle on our solar panels to maximize absorption of the sun’s rays. Sunlight streams through our large south facing windows providing passive solar heating.
Cool breezes make work in the garden more comfortable. It’s the time of year when much of the harvest must come in or be lost. Potatoes were dug up by early October. All the squash is safe inside. Other sensitive fruit and vegetable plants have been protected with frost blankets to extend their growing season as long as possible. Excess peppers and tomatoes are finally picked and put into the freezer for processing in the winter when we can use a little extra warmth in the house.
When we built our house into one of the hills on our farm, we extended our basement into the areas under the 2 porches to serve as root cellars. One cellar is accessible from both outside and inside which makes it ideal for storing potatoes and other root crops through the winter. It provides a fairly constant winter temperature typical of deeper soil, around 4 degrees Celsius.
There are many vegetable plants that can survive mild frosts and provide fresh produce well into November. Kale, collards, cabbages, winter radishes, onions, leeks, chard, beets, turnips, and carrots do just fine until severe frost hits. Mulching root crops like radishes, beets, turnips and carrots keeps them going much longer.
At this time of year, I dig up many of the garden plants and replant them into our cold frame greenhouses so that we can continue harvesting fresh produce all winter. We enjoy fresh leeks, green garlic, onions, swiss chard, parsley, celery, herbs along with lettuce, winter purslane, corn salad and other greens we grow in our hoop houses all through the cold months.
This is the time of year when we plant garlic into the garden. We loosen the soil with a fork and work pelletized chicken manure into it. Each bulb yields several cloves which we push down into the prepared soil with the neck just below the surface. We then mulch lightly with straw to help keep the frost out in the Fall, moderate soil temperature in the Winter, keep weeds down in the Spring, and slow moisture loss during the Summer. Garlic just needs enough time in the Fall to put down roots before freeze up. The spear-like green shoots easily make their way through the straw in Spring.
Life is not meant to be hectic. If we tune in to the rhythms of Nature, we learn to let go of stress. We accept that some things work out and others don’t. There is no such thing as failure when we work with Nature. Trying to control natural processes is like declaring war on a benign being that gives us life. Ultimately, we lose. Gardening should not be viewed as drudgery. We are enriched and empowered when we recognize our work as participation in Nature’s flows and cycles.