Harvesting Before the Freeze

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It happens every autumn, and every year I feel a bit of melancholy and a bit of relief. The weather dips, often accompanied by a cold rain, and we must harvest the last of the garden vegetables before the cold and wet rots them on the vines.

The last tomatoes harvested before the first frost.

Meteorologists predict several days in advance, so we have ample time to plan our strategy. This isn’t something we can complete in an hour. Harvesting isn’t just about picking produce. Once the produce is picked, it must be put up (through freezing, canning, or drying) or put out (given to family, friends, and food banks).

Oven-roasted tomatoes with herbs.

Here in the South, summer comes early and generally stays a long time. Garden planning starts no later than January. As soon as the soil can be worked, amendments are added in — manures, lime, compost, maybe pot ash. Spring vegetables — onions, shallots, leeks, cabbage, broccoli, beets, lettuce, spinach — are planted in February and March. No later than mid-March, tomato, pepper, marigold, and herb seeds are started in the makeshift greenhouse. Squash seeds, butternut, spaghetti, zucchini, and yellow, are planted late April in the greenhouse during the spring rains when no one wants to be out working in the garden beds. Those seeds need only a couple of weeks in the greenhouse; they will be ready to be put into the garden, along with peas, early May.

Newly planted bell peppers.

In the weeks that follow, summer planting progresses. In their due time, carrot, cucumbers, green beans, eggplant, okra, pumpkins, and melons are planted. In June, the tomato, pepper, marigold, and herbs are brought out of the greenhouse and planted. Sunflowers, some will grow 15 inches tall, some 15 feet tall, are planted to encourage the birds to eat their seeds instead of the budding vegetables.

Bell peppers and marigolds in early summer.

For the next several months, we’re in the garden every day, usually for many hours, doing the things gardeners must do: planting, weeding, tilling, harvesting, dealing with garden bugs and beasts. The weeds get put into the compost pile. The harvest gets washed in the garden sink then taken into the kitchen for processing. The bugs are picked off or sprayed with neem oil. The deer are scared away with waving flags.

Summer squash babies and flowers.

While the garden harvest is literally the “fruit of our labor,” the labor is hard and dirty. Bags of compost and soil are heavy. Digging causes achy backs. The days are searing hot, and the ensuing sunburns sting. The wretched humidity causes sweat to drip into our eyes and stream down our already dirty arms. Tomato hornworms can be 4 inches long and an inch around; killing them is disgusting. And things that seem like they really don’t matter are sometimes difficult. Some plants grow too thick and must be thinned. Some plants grow in the wrong places and must be plucked out. We’re gardeners; killing plants is hard.

Sometimes, though, not killing plants is hard. We try to be judicious in our planting. We plant what we know we will eat, and we plant in moderation. But sometimes things don’t work out as planned. Our two spaghetti squash plants yielded more than 40 squashes — close to 80 pounds. Our three butternut squash plants yielded more than 30 squashes — more than 60 pounds. But since we struggle to kill plants, we harvested and froze the squashes and gave many away.

The squash plants had wilted away long before the meteorologist’s freeze forecast, so had the green beans, the peas, the eggplant, and the okra. A few of the veggies, the carrots, beets, and leeks, like the cold and can stay in the ground a little longer, but the summer vegetables, the tomatoes, the pepper, the jalapenos, the cukes, must be plucked from their vines.

Empty garden bed after the final harvest.

In the sweet sunshine on the day before the first fall cold arrives, we fill our baskets with the last of the summer vegetables. We smell the scent of plants that soon will be in the compost pile. We notice the sun a little lower in the sky, casting shadows where none were a few weeks before. We’ll have one more marathon putting up party; we’ll give some fresh produce away. We’ll be tired of cleaning and preserving the mounds of tomatoes and peppers. And we’ll grateful all winter for the delicious food we’ll eat.