Temperatures dropped this past week to seasonable levels, and the nippy mornings serve as a chilly reminder winter really is on its way.
One fine day, when the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock … well, that will be that, at least for warmth-loving, tender vegetables. I’ve not many remaining; a few forlorn-looking pepper plants, a Sun Gold cherry tomato, two basil plants. Not pulled and disposed of first, on a freezing morning, I’ll saunter into the garden and find pitiful frost-blackened remains.
I won’t mourn long. There are reasons to celebrate the changing season.
Cold is nature’s sweetener for hardier vegetables, those plants designed to survive and thrive across a range of low temperatures. There are a variety of these tough plants to choose from: cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, collards, mustard, tatsoi, beets, carrots, turnips, rutabaga, daikon and many, many more.
This time of year, day length combines with cold to trigger fascinating changes in plant physiology.
Water movement largely ends when cold weather sets in, and plants’ membranes can rupture if water freezes in their cells. Cold tolerance is made possible through an accumulation of sugars. Mixed with certain enzymes and salts, an antifreeze-like protective brew is produced, helping to protect hardier vegetables.
Starches in carrots, turnips and other root vegetables convert to sugars as well, allowing them to cold-sweeten.
On a more mundane level, mercifully, the onset of cold weather means I’ll no longer feel bound to repetitively wash in salt water pak choi, kale, collards and such. Salt solutions float little green worms and any hidden crawlies to the top.
Protein, my friend likes to say while watching me pick somewhat maniacally through the leaves.
Each to their own, I typically respond.
My salads, at least, I prefer free of unexpected squishy bites and thought-provoking crunchy ones, thank you very much.
In addition to enjoying fall vegetables, autumn is prime time for rebuilding soil in those areas not given over to hardy plants.
What has been taken away, should be given back; the soil is depleted, at least to some extent, of nutrients required to grow the past season’s vegetables and flowers.
Fortunately, nature provides the gardener a bounty of possibilities. Leaves, stems, branches, used bedding straw or hay from the goat barn, manure – all fodder for soil enrichment.
I’m not using a tiller these days, but once upon a time, I would till in these materials, knowing they would decompose by spring. I’m more inclined now to compost them or make piles in the garden. This process is slower, but equally certain, given time and a measure of patience.
Once incorporated, leaves and other material feed earthworms and the millions of microorganisms needed for soil fertility. This is a beautiful, cyclical process we gardeners get to enjoy.
Ellison is editor of The Sylva Herald.