Fall’s bounty, wild and cultivated
Early fall, with its garden harvest, is one of my favorite times of year.
Of course, I have a lot of favorite times of year — spring, summer and winter, for example, and also those times in between seasons that are a little bit of two seasons.
That’s what early fall is. Some mornings are frigid, some days are as hot as summer. And while the gardens and the woods are turning from vivid greens to browns, reds and purples, the fruits and vegetables are pouring in.
We’re picking the garden with bushel baskets this time of year, being surprised by a handful of late yellow summer squashes as their winter cousins — butternut, acorn, delicata — ripen. We’re picking and eating corn like it’s summer, but also cutting down another row of spent cornstalks every day to feed to the oxen.
Harvest season is payback for all the time you put into the garden, the evidence of what worked and what didn’t. There are surprises: the pints of cherry tomatoes I found under a tangle of weeds in what was a hot frame in the spring, growing on a plant we must have forgotten to move into the garden. There are second chances: the green beans we never got around to picking, now too tough for fresh eating, that we’ll leave to dry for soup beans. There are outright failures: yes, the deer ate all the pumpkins. And successes: the broccoli that just won’t stop.
What really makes this season so special is the wild food, all those things we had no hand in growing that bless us anyway with their abundance.
Up on a mountaintop last week, I picked some mountain ash berries to make jelly. It’s a mountain I love in May for its wildflowers, in July for its blueberries and in winter for its peace. On the ash berry hike, there were also blackberries for nibbling on the way up.
Last week, the kids picked crab apples and wild apples on their grandfather’s land, bringing home bagfuls for jelly and apple butter. Behind the barn at home and on the bike path near work, the wild grapes are ripe. They make good jelly on their own and better jelly when mixed with the crab apple juice. This year, if we can pick enough, my husband promises to make wine.
The apple crop is great this year, both in the orchards and on the 40-foot-high trees gone wild in the woods that were once homesteads. My sister’s plum tree and my neighbors’ pear and cherry trees also have heavy yields. When I stopped at an apple orchard midweek and commented on the fine harvest, the orchard man nodded. “All the trees got a break last year.”
It’s true. Last year was a bust for most fruit in area, wild and domestic. The bushes and trees blossomed early, then had their blooms killed by a late frost. Local orchards were importing fruit, none of my favorite mountains had berries and the wild apple trees in the forests were empty.
That was sad for me, but worse for the bears and other animals who rely solely on wild food. Last year we saw bears in places we never saw them before — in trees, on highly trafficked hikes and even walking down roads. Without berries and apples, they were scouting for acorns and beechnuts. And garbage cans.
This year the bears are deep in the woods, happy with their own wild harvest. We sometimes see signs of them — scat or scrapings on trees — but we haven’t seen one in person. That should mean they’re finding all they need to make it through the winter.
For us, there are still blackberries and raspberries in the clearings in the woods. There are rose hips to be gathered, for more jelly and to dry for a winter tea with a big vitamin C kick. We still need to make our sauerkraut, and we should be picking kale and Brussels sprouts through October, hopefully.
Our shelves are filling up with jars of salsa and relishes, and our freezer is filling with more vegetables and fruits. That should keep us going in winter, another one of my favorite seasons.
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
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