Here in our peaceable kingdom there's never a shortage of things that need doing from March to October. It's only in the other four months — after the autumn harvest, and while we winter over — that I can relax, reflect, take stock, and plan. We have reached that time.
As we pull the curtains early after supper to shut out the dark these days, I see the wide old window sills piled high with gourds. They're all volunteers from the tired gourds we tossed out on the snow last January (Some are bumpy. Those are the ones I like best) and the sight starts me summing up the year's harvest.
Our vegetable garden did well last summer. We have tomatoes, beets, applesauce, rhubarb, relishes, pickles and jams jarred to last the winter. There's corn, peas, beans, broccoli, and green soybeans in the freezer. The old dirt-floored root cellar in the basement holds six bushels of potatoes, three bushels of beets, and smaller amounts of carrots, rutabagas, parsnips, and turnips. The potatoes are heaped in the cellar and covered with dirt. The other vegetables are stored in big cans set on the floor. We'll concentrate on eating the root vegetables while they're still good and move on to the frozen ones when the beets turn flabby and the carrots start to wobble.
We filled our home freezer long before we ran out of good things that we wanted frozen, so we rented a six cubic foot freezer locker in town for $8.00 a year and keep our extra vegetables and meat there.
Notice I didn't mention pumpkins and squash. We did plant them but the squash borers and beetles came early and stayed late. Maybe next year!
We also lost our entire crop of garlic when we turned our backs and the weeds took over that row of the garden. Crabgrass can really zap an easily-overwhelmed crop like garlic. Next year we'll get that grass out while it still looks innocent. Really. We will. We may neglect something else, but we can't afford to lose another crop of garlic!
We'll soon finish the sweet onions, a real fun crop this year because they got so big and kept so well. Last year we harvested them in August and hung them by their tops in the garage after they'd cured in the sun for two days. By September they were all squashy in the middle. This year we cured them a few days longer, cut off the tops leaving an inch or so of neck, and stored the sweet onions spread out in a warm, dry (now cold) room. And they've kept and kept, giving me a fine oniony glow of satisfaction whenever I notice the prices on the sweet onions during one of my bike trips to the store. When our mild ones are finally gone, we'll dip into the three big net bags of strong onions hanging from nails over the cellar stairs.
We dug sweet potatoes until hard frost and hope this year's surplus will keep better than last year's kept. All our sweets were very slow to reach any respectable size and we blame the unusually cool summer. Sweet potatoes like it hot and we had many cool nights in our area. Of course, if our sweets are runty again next year, we'll have to find another excuse.
I guess I'll have to mention the fruit sooner or later. Truth is, we have nothing to brag about in this department (unless you count the rhubarb, which produced plenty for the table, storage, and giveaway). OK. (Deep breath). Here's the grand fruity total:
PEACHES. Superb. All ten of them.
PLUMS, APRICOTS, PEARS. Still sleeping. They blossomed in the rain. Perhaps the bees couldn't make it.
APPLES. Three whole apples.
QUINCES. Loaded with pretty blossoms. That's all.
RASPBERRIES. A fair crop, but they're sour!
GRAPES. Few but good. We haven't bought grapes for several years (so these tasted extra good to us) but we lost our later grapes to the woodchuck (we hadn't bagged them because birds didn't seem to be a problem).
BUSH CHERRIES. Good crop but the chickens got out and ate them.
SOUR CHERRIES. There were eight.
STRAWBERRIES. Picked 51 quarts of good Robinsons ... but will someone please remind me not to buy everbearing plants again? They're very seedy in the summer.
BLUEBERRIES. A fair crop, which is embarrassing for we've had such good blueberries in other places. Come to think of it, though, that was when we had a polite and manageable garden and gave them more attention. Big dose of leaf mold and wood chips coming up!
ELDERBERRIES. Several gallons of big, juicy berries. Less intense in flavor than the wild ones, but good.
We still eat more wild fruit than tame and, by now, we have our own secret haunts where we've come to depend on the trees and bushes. We even talk half seriously about making the rounds of our wild favorites with a carload of manure.
The largest of our two pigs—the barrow—was butchered in early fall. He gained fast because he hogged all three sections of the feed trough. The gilt didn't get much as long as he was around. But, as Mike noted, he wasn't above enjoying the warmth of the she-pig's muddy bulk when nights turned cool.
The meat is very lean, probably because we fed the hogs mostly greens. The female, though, (due to be butchered in December) may be fatter because we've fed her more corn. Our neighbor lets us pick up the dropped ears his mechanical pickers miss. We've scavenged a good many bushels already and plan to make a small corn crib by covering the rototiller crate with chicken wire.
These cool, tangy days are good for biking. We steer an erratic course, swerving to avoid the last of the woolly bear caterpillars making their slow way across the road. In Loren Eisely's book The Immense Journey, he describes a woolly bear, hurrying "across a ledge, going late to some tremendous transformation, but about this he knows as little as I." I've always liked that and find myself returning to it each fall as I munch on ground cherries and gather pods and wisps of dried things.
Through the probable winter to the impossible spring ...." (From Packing a Photograph From Firenze by William H. Matchett, 1953)
That's one of those head echoes from a favorite poem that, just now, seems to me to say it all. Spring? Soon it will seem possible. Then we'll be carting manure and mucking out the pig pen and making rows and planting trees. Still planting? Oh, always. Every year we plant trees.
Will we be too busy to absorb the spring, to experience it? (Granted, spring's impossible, but—well, last year it came). There's the transplanting we didn't finish in the fall, seed starting, pruning of grapevines and fruit trees, rototilling, stake cutting. No one tells us that we have to do any of these things, though. It's what we chose, and so there's satisfaction in knowing what needs doing, and getting down to it on just the right day.
A March blizzard? It can't last (we always say.) So we spread newspapers on the kitchen counter, get out the flats, the planting mixtures, the hopeful seed packets, the old forks. And plant seeds. Some things we start very early indoors, late in February: the peppers—for they're slow—and the early cabbage, broccoli, and tomatoes. In March we plant flats of late tomatoes, flowers, lettuce, and the oddies (asparagus seed and Baron Solemacher runnerless strawberries this year) we couldn't resist in the seed catalogs.
Soon all the old, well-marked windowsills are full of starter flats and pots, and the cats have trouble finding a spot with a view. Greg found one of those cozy, cowl-like cat baskets in the curbside trash and brought it home, but we might as well store potatoes in it. Our cats still prefer a sill. Any dried arrangements I put in one of the few windows unsuitable for growing plants must allow a large blank space for curled-up cat.
If we have a sunny day in March when the ground is open and the west wind not too fierce, we transplant things like the peach tree we put too close to the corn patch, the fig trees that need a more protected spot, the seedling mulberries we want to put in the hen yard, the raspberry suckers we'll use to fill gaps in the row. When we first came here, we studied our acre as best we could, and planted a LOT, right away. Things unfold, though. Vagaries of wind become apparent. The birds drop things for us. We'll probably still be transplanting next year.
We get in to Lancaster from time to time. An old city, full of flavor. It has alleys and secret places and courtyards and old marble steps and two farmers' markets. It also has one of our favorite discoveries of the year: Body and Soul Natural Foods Store. With our own meat, vegetables, eggs, and milk, there's not much we need at stores. When we do go, we like to buy at a people place like Body and Soul.
John and Marlene Stauffer opened Body and Soul last year on the first floor of their old brick house. What a switch from the sterile, clinical atmosphere of so many "health food" stores! Mobiles, books, African bracelets, bells ... bottles and sunlight in the windows ... community bulletin board ... free samples of dates, sunflower seeds, snacks and such on the black marble fireplace mantle ... and, of course, whole foods. The Stauffers aren't trying to "make money," just a living. Their markup is low. In fact, their prices on some whole foods are the lowest I've found.
John and Marlene bought a little of our lettuce, peppers, and beets when we had garden surplus. Even selling in small amounts and irregularly helps us to pay for the seeds, and — just as important, we think — makes real food available to those who are hungry for it. Greens seem to be especially popular, since they go so well with the grains and pulses that more and more of us now appreciate.
Grains and pulses, seeds and nuts are more than ever full of possibility for us now that we have a copy of Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappe. We're eating our way through book one, most of the time. Our copy is out on the kitchen desk.
Diet is all about getting off the top of the food chain by substituting vegetable protein for some of the animal protein we ordinarily consume. It's a brand new idea for us: that combining two or more of these whole food protein sources increases the usable protein in both. Rice and beans, for example, if eaten together in the proportion suggested by the author's studies, have 43% more usable protein than when eaten separately. And to think of the times when, as a visiting nurse, I tried to persuade my Puerto Rican families to replace their rice and beans with other protein sources! Folk wisdom wins again! The recipes in Diet are good and the idea of complementarity is so well worked out and based on such solid facts ... it's an important, human book. The first few meals prepared from it more than paid for our copy of Diet.
But I didn't complete the answer, did I? Will we be too busy with fork and cart, seeds, and string to enjoy spring? The answer doesn't come as yes or no, but rather as a trend: coming to see purpose in work, joy in swinging the shovel, here-and-now in a forkful of earth, the day in the seed. Becoming available. Becoming. And that's spring.