Winding Down

Autumn is upon us. The harvest moon came and went on September 9 in this year of 2014, and the equinox passed on the 23rd of the same month. Now it’s October, and the season of the vegetable garden is dwindling to an end. It’s winding down.

That expression – winding down – brings to mind a gradual tapering off, a gentle decline, or a peaceful amble into the sunset. Do I wish!

That’s not the way my vegetable garden comes to a close. No. It demands attention. It stamps its withering feet and insists. I never realized how much time and effort the harvest involved until I kept track of my garden hours one year. Back in 2009, I discovered that only forty percent of my time went to preparing the ground in the spring, then planting, tending, and weeding through the summer, and finally clearing the ground at the end of the season. Sixty percent of my time (120 hours) went to the picking and processing of crops for off-season use. A full 86 of those harvest hours were crammed into September and October.

The day to celebrate the harvest – Thanksgiving Day – arrives on October 13th this year in Canada. I’d love to be able to put up my feet and joyfully contemplate its rapid approach, but I’m too busy grubbing, scrubbing, chopping, blanching, chilling, layering, freezing, canning, and NOT panicking.

Happily, the zucchinis and vegetable marrows will produce fresh delights for my table until the first frost kills them. They make no special demands on my time. Even better, I can ignore the beets, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and chard, for now. They will fend for themselves even as the temperatures drop. They laugh at a simple frost.

But, on the heels of taking down the corn patch, I must store the potatoes. Then the onions need to be readied for the winter. I’ve barely finished canning the last of the plums, and the late-ripening apples nag at me to pick them and turn them into applesauce. The picking and saucing of apples will be hours and hours and hours of work.

And that’s not all. We’ve enjoyed a warm, dry September and into October, so the bush beans are still producing edible beans. They need to be picked. Again. Looming in the centre section of the garden, the scarlet runners continue to mature. I will strip the beans and take the vines down at the last moment, hopefully on a dry day, and definitely before the first frost.

I’ve already brought in the pumpkins – all 42 of them. I rinsed, dried, and set them out in sunlight to mature their flavour for two weeks before converting them to purée. That two week deadline gallops ever nearer. Do I need to mention that it will take many hours to convert 42 pumpkins to dried seeds and frozen purée? I thought not.

Who, me? Worry? Poised to pounce, the cold, drenching monsoons of autumn hover off the coast, and I’ve still got the apples, pumpkins, scarlet runners, and bush beans getting all up in my face needing to be harvested, processed, and bedded down for the winter. Pshaw, I say. Piffle!

I am NOT panicking.

Pumpkins

Mine, All Mine.

BlackberryBucket
It’s summer now, but just imagine it is the middle of winter. Outside, the wind screams to get into the house, spring is too far off to even be a promise in the air, and summer is a myth. What you need is a taste of summer, and you can get it without buying tickets to the Caribbean or surrendering your last shred of dignity to the penetrating glare of airport security.

How? Just unseal a jar of hand-picked, home-canned Himalayan blackberries, the free-for-the-taking berry that grows in wild snarls of briar along ditches and over abandoned lots. One spoonful is all it takes – eat it straight from the spoon or have it over ice cream – and instantly you are transported to sun-bleached August.

Ahhh!

But – and there is always a but, as you know – before you can enjoy these berries in the winter, you have to pick them in the summer. If you are lucky, you are a loner, a hermit who lives down a long, abandoned country road well lined with briars. Your nearest neighbour is beyond a distant hill, and strangers never venture down your road. The booty is all yours.

Here in Richmond, BC, access to that most delectable taste of summer is not so simple. Construction is everywhere. New buildings mushroom out of ground once blessed with waist-high grasses, rust-and-emerald pheasants, and sprawls of Himalayan blackberry vines. Three times over the last five years, I have lost prime picking patches to the scourge of those who must tidy wild things. Improvement, they call it.

As more good patches vanish, competition for the remaining blackberries rears its thorny little head. On the happy side, most people can’t be bothered to leave their ceiling-fanned couches or their air-conditioned autos to pick this crop. On the unhappy side, those who are willing to take on the August heat are ferociously keen.

Accessible blackberry patches grow on public land for all to see, so there’s no way to claim ownership of a good patch. You either get to the fruit before everyone else, or you get no fruit. Every year, as the season approaches, I plot my strategy, and check the progress of the ripening. My specialty is getting to the patch when it first ripens – before anyone else has noticed the vanguard fruits have turned from red to black.

Come with me as I head to my neighbourhood briar patch. It’s early in the morning, and I’m ready to glare down any intruders in my patch. Clearly, I have perfected my glare; this morning the brambles are mine alone. Because I’m no fool, I wear thick boots, thick sweatpants, and a long-sleeved shirt. Yes, the weather is too hot for such clothing, but I would rather melt into my boots than be eviscerated by the thorns. As a nod to beating the heat, I wear a broad-brimmed hat to shade my eyes from the rising, scalding sun.

At first, I coyly stand out of harm’s way and pick ripe berries at the edges of the briar patch. I delicately reach one hand around the vicious thorns and pluck out the berries, taking care to extract my hand without contacting the many curved sabers on the vines. I’m too clever to get scratched. Yet.

Naturally, the best fruit, the plumpest, ripest, juiciest prizes, hang just out of reach of my safe zone. Naturally, I cannot resist temptation. I venture into the brambles, step over one vine, and duck under another. Standing on tiptoe, I snake one arm through a maze of vines and pluck big fat, black fruits that fall into my cupped palm, then tumble from palm to picking bucket.

As I pick, the vines I have walked over spring back into position. One of them smacks me across the back. My shirt protects me, mostly, from its lash. Another vine snuggles across the back of my left calf. Both of them gently grasp the fabric and tickle the skin beneath. No problem. I will extricate myself with care when I have gleaned all this amazing fruit. I pick on.

Then a hint of movement catches my eye. My eye notices, but my brain ignores. Bad brain. Bad, bad brain.

Suddenly, a fiery sword is thrust into my forearm. I look down and see a wasp the size of a 747 on my sleeve, its stinger buried in my arm. Even as I focus on my attacker, it is already moving further up my arm and getting ready to stab me again. Below my arm, I see a rising swarm of 747s. Unknowingly, I have intruded on the territory of a wasp nest hidden somewhere nearby in the brambles.

Retreat! my brain screams.

Fat chance! say the vines on my back and leg.

Wham! The wasp stings me again.

Then my body jolts into survival mode, and I twist, turn, dodge, bend, contort, rend, and thrash my way out of the blackberry patch and to a safe distance from my attackers, now moodily sinking back into the briars. My silent screaming (it is silent, isn’t it?) makes my ears ring. My back and my legs are thorn-clawed and throbbing. It feels like someone used a sledgehammer to drive two red-hot spikes into my arm.

Having fun yet? asks my inner cynic.

Wasps are scary. Can we go home now? asks my inner wimp.

I look down at my picking bucket and sigh with relief. Not one fruit has been lost in my flailing escape from the wasps. Although instinct demanded all speed, my inner miser refused to allow the loss of any berries. They are mine. All mine.

Unfortunately, having just begun, I haven’t picked enough berries yet. A car slows nearby, and I can sense the driver’s eyes measuring the fruitfulness of my blackberry patch. I move further down the briars, out of the territory of the wasps. Gingerly, I start picking again, eyes alert to any movement among the vines, keen to spot any new nest of stingers before they strike.

The sun bakes down on my shirted back, and winter looms on the horizon.

A Beginning

The main harvest is underway. It has begun. Non-gardeners may be surprised by this. They won’t associate July with major harvest and storage of garden produce. Isn’t that for the fall of the year, they wonder. After all, that’s when Thanksgiving Day happens.

Thanksgiving, that notorious celebration of eating too much despite knowing better, marks the end of all the reaping and storing of crops. We rejoice as the final crops – late-ripeners like pumpkins and corn – come to their conclusions. However, through the summer, there are many earlier crops that must be picked, processed and hoarded for winter feasting. For example, here’s how I deal with the bush beans as they come ready.

BeansLoose

Bush beans, as their name implies, grow low to the ground, and the harvester (that’s me) must scrunch down, ooch along between the rows, scoop aside foliage, and try not to break off any delicate stems or leaves. Royal Burgundy, the variety of beans I grow, are dark purple, and they love to hide under leaves and behind stems. The trick is to find all the beans that are ready to pick. That’s all the beans that are ready to pick. Good luck. There’s often at least one that plays hide-and-seek better than I and escapes detection, for now. Later, much later, I will stumble across it during another bout of picking. By then, it will be smugly mature, fibrous, seedy, and entirely undesirable.

Once I have found all the findable beans, I carry my bucket o’beans to the kitchen, dump the beans into a cleaned sink, fill it with water, and rinse them. I snap the stem end off of each bean – each of the zillion-trillion-bazillion beans it takes to fill the bucket. If you were to stop by my kitchen at this point, dear reader, we might chat.

 

Too bad you have to work, you say.
Work? Maybe it’s work, maybe it isn’t, I answer. It suits me fine.
What? You can’t possibly like doing such a tedious job.
And why not? It’s not every day a fellow can snap the stem ends off a jolly lot of beans.
Gosh, you do make it look interesting. Why don’t you let me snap a few?
Mm, I’d like to, I really would. Honest. But it has to be done in a particular way. Not everyone has the knack – not one in a thousand, maybe not one in two thousand can do it right.
I’ll be careful. Just let me try. Here, I’ll give you half my apple.
Oh, all ri… No. No, I can’t. It won’t do.
All my apple. You can have all of it.
Well, I hate to, but seeing as you want it so much…

 

Yes, you really should stop by for a chat.

Once the stems are off, I gather the beans into bundles, and cut them into inch lengths.

Half-way there… Next step is the blanching of the beans.

Using my biggest pot, 2/3 filled with water brought to a boil, I put a modest layer of cut beans into the bottom of the pot’s liner basket, and plunge the beans into the roiling water. They will turn green, as is the nature of these ephemerally-purple beans. On goes the lid, the water re-establishes its boil, and I set the timer for three minutes.

BeansBlanched

Getting closer. While the beans blanch, I fill a well-scrubbed sink with clean, cold water. When the timer sounds, I whip the basket out of the boiling water – taking care not to drip any of the scalding liquid on any exposed skin – and plunge the beans into the cold water. While this first batch of beans cools, I re-use the basket to give the next layer of beans the spa treatment.

Not done yet. I scoop the beans out of the cold water, drain them on a well-cleaned draining board, and lay them out on cookie sheets. Next, I place these laden trays in the freezer compartment of my refrigerator to fast-freeze.

Hours later, I take out the trays of frozen beans, scoop them loose, and bundle them into freezer bags. With a short length of straw, I suck out excess air before notching the last of the seal on each bag. Now they will take up residence in the big chest freezer downstairs.

BeansBaggedVictory!

But only the beginning. So far, I have frozen 4 bags of beans. Last year, I put up 18½ bags, and there were none left over when the garden began to produce this season. As the title says, it’s a beginning. That means there will be many opportunities for you and your friends to make trades for turns snapping beans. Bring something to barter – a kite, a few tadpoles, drawing chalk, coloured glass, an apple, or whatever is your favourite treasure. I’ll hate to concede my place at the sink, but, if you bargain well, the result will surely be a triumph.