Friday, September 20, 2013

Gardeners' holidays: Harvest Home

Of all the quarter- and cross-quarter days in the year, the fall equinox is one of the few that doesn't currently have a holiday attached to it, either sacred or secular. Many of the old festivals still have their modern descendants, like Groundhog Day in February and Halloween in October; the spring equinox is linked to Passover and Easter, and the winter solstice is tied to Christmas. Even lesser-known holidays like May Day and Lammas have a few lingering traditions attached to them. But practically no one except orthodox Wiccans actually celebrates the fall equinox anymore, and it's a pity. Because really, Keats's "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" is the most satisfying time in a gardener's year. The hard work of digging and planting, weeding and watering, is mostly done, and all that remains is to gather in the fruits of our labors. The next six weeks—from the start of fall until Halloween—are really the culmination of everything the gardener has worked for all year long.

In our own garden, the zucchini has finally passed its peak and the plants are slowly drying up (though there are two more wee squash that we should be able to harvest before they fade completely). Our cucumber vines also seem to be pretty much played out, with just one tiny cuke left on the vine that we may be able to pick and add to the big jar of homemade pickles in the fridge. Our tomatoes, however, are still producing like mad—particularly the Sun Golds, which I've concluded we planted way too many of this year. (Next year, I'm planning to restrict the number to two, and ideally I'll keep those two isolated from the rest of the tomatoes so they can't take over the whole trellis.) We're picking more of them than we can possibly eat whole; earlier this week Brian processed about a quart of whole tomatoes into a small batch of thick sauce. Turns out that the Sun Golds make a very tasty sauce, especially for pizza; however, it's important to label it as "Sun Gold sauce" before stashing it in the freezer, because in color it's pretty much identical to butternut squash puree.

And speaking of butternut squash, we've got a plentiful crop of those on the vine. I counted seven good-sized squash ready to harvest, not counting the one we picked already—and there might be some smaller ones that I overlooked. It's not quite as big a crop as we got from the volunteer plant that seeded itself next to the compost bin back in 2010, eventually taking over the entire side yard—but it's the best we've managed to do so far growing butternut squash from seed, and I'm fairly pleased with the results. Next year, I think I may put them in the ground even earlier and see if we get a bigger harvest yet.

Our pepper plants, sadly, have been a bit of a disappointment. The one seedling that we thought might be big enough to plant didn't survive, and the three plants that we bought at the spring sales—a Chocolate Beauty, a Paladin, and a White Hungarian—have produced only tiny fruits. They're pretty enough, particularly the White Hungarians (which start out not so much white as pale green and then ripen to a reddish-orange), but they're not providing us with all that much actual food. I guess we'll have to keep experimenting to find varieties that can thrive in our garden and still produce well.

Elsewhere in the garden, there's a somewhat scraggly assortment of scallions and leeks ready to pick whenever we want them, as well as all that Ventura celery that we planted to fill in the gaps in the rhubarb bed. So far, there's little sign of the lettuce and spinach that I planted last month; however, I did find one unmistakeable lettuce leaf poking through the ground, and several tiny sprouts that might be incipient spinach, so there is still some hope of that crop of fall greens. Meanwhile, our arugula, which produced almost nothing in the spring, has suddenly started flourishing, so we should be able to get a couple of good salads out of that. The parsley is thriving too, and the basil has grown up into a veritable jungle. I'm seeing a massive batch of pesto in our near future.

So how are we going to celebrate our harvest? Well, given what we have in the garden at the moment, this would appear to be an ideal time for one of our favorite dishes, pasta à la Caprese. The recipe comes from The Clueless Vegetarian, perhaps my favorite of all the vegetarian cookbooks on our shelf; author Evelyn Raab calls it "the perfect midsummer pasta," but around here, it looks like the start of fall is actually the perfect season for the combination of ripe tomatoes, fresh basil, and ripe bell pepper that goes into the sauce (steeping together with olive oil, garlic, and a touch of salt and pepper to produce, through some sort of mysterious alchemical reaction, a product that's far greater than the sum of its parts). However, as it happens, we just had pasta earlier this week (with pesto and some of those ubiquitous Sun Gold tomatoes), so instead, Brian is turning several of our larger tomatoes into a batch of salsa to accompany tonight's quesadillas. And, to complete the celebration, we've just invited over a friend to join us, because half the joy of the harvest is in sharing the bounty with others. A Happy Harvest Home to all!
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