Excerpted from A Householder's Guide to the Universe: A Calendar of Basics for the Home and Beyond, by Harriet Fasenfest, with permissions from Tin House Books (c) 2010. The following excerpt can be found on Pages 319 to 323.
In the last chapter I spoke of cover crops, particularly crimson clover. Its growth creates a tight mound of green foliage with a fine yet densely matted root system. I like to throw these seeds amid my winter crop of collards and kale and see where they sprout. If, for some reason, my winter vegetables bite the dust, at least there is something to keep the soil in place. But clover is for September, while fava beans and field peas are great to plant as cover crops in October.
Getting a Soil Fix
Fava beans and Austrian field peas will fix nitrogen in your soil. What exactly does that mean? Through a biological process the foliage of the plant pulls gaseous nitrogen from the air, and beneficial bacteria “fix it” in nodules on the plant’s roots. When it comes time to turn the cover crop into the garden bed the following spring, you are “adding” the nitrogen from the plant into the soil. For many gardeners, growing cover crops is one of the most important things you can do to increase soil fertility, particularly in an organic garden. So the way I see it, what could it hurt? I make a point of sowing crimson clover, fava beans, and Austrian field peas and wait to see what sprouts. What I have discovered over the years is that both crimson clover and field peas will stand up to a hard frost, whereas the luscious, near-succulent fava bean will not. I still try planting favas every year, though it is a little heartbreaking to watch the sprightly spring green shade of fava turn limp and olive-drab. That’s what a hard frost will do.
Besides cover crops, October (and even September) is the time to sow your garlic and shallots for next year. Now that is cause for celebration. I am endlessly amazed at how easy it is to grow these alliums, and how abundantly they yield. You plant one little clove out of the bulb you harvested earlier in the summer (or from one you buy in October at the nursery), and you get a whole head of garlic the following year. In the case of shallots, one clove will yield a cluster of bulbs—sometimes as many as eight or nine. I cannot fathom why shallots are so darn expensive at the market. Growing them is child’s play. The same with garlic, so do not miss the opportunity. You will be proud as punch when you harvest, cure, and, in the case of garlic, braid them in strands to hang in your pantry. Really, it is very easy, and aside from my storage onions and tomatoes I doubt I make more consistent use of anything I grow. What, really, does not benefit from the addition of garlic? It can make a meal from the most meager of ingredients pasta, olive oil or butter (or both if you are so inclined), and garlic (roasted, sautéed, or fried). Yum. So rejoice when the time comes to plant garlic, because, quite frankly, it is one of the few things in the garden you will be rejoicing about at this time of year.
Too Much of a Good Thing
Now, that isn’t a good attitude, is it? I know. There are those people who love every last little minute they can spend in the garden. Honestly, I’m not one of them. I am over, over, over working in the garden by the end of October—which means I’m kinda over, over, over it at the beginning of the month, too, if not completely so. This is too bad, since there is lots to be done before I can safely ignore it. I must harvest the last of my tomatoes (or rather, green tomatoes—more on them in our kitchen section), eggplants, and peppers, and also make a last-ditch effort to eat all the lovely salad greens that have obliged me so abundantly again. (When will I learn about moderation?) All through October I am harvesting the spinach and turnips I sowed in August, as well as the celery that has finally amounted to something. Wow, now there’s a plant that needs some time. I think I planted starts around May or June and they’re getting bushy only now. I can harvest a stalk every now and again as I need to. I think with a little cover they should stand up to the earliest frosts, though I’ve never tried that before. We’ll see. In addition to the last of the summer and early-fall harvests, I am pruning my raspberry canes, gathering up the now decayed runners from my winter squash, and generally cleaning up and straightening all the lingering flower stalks and vegetable growth that have hung around for the last hurrah. All of this goes into my compost pile to undergo its long winter decomposition. We just load it all in and wait to see what good comes of it the following spring, when I need to ladle it onto the beds.
Making (or rather encouraging) compost is a bit of a trick. The professionals can make it seem pretty complicated for us newbies, but I generally ignore most rules in favor of what’s easy. I know that might be a bad thing, but I don’t care. I just throw in most of my garden waste (excluding diseased plants) and see what comes out. There is certainly tons of information out there about just the right formulas, how and when to mix it, different layers, etc., and maybe one of these years I’ll get scientific about it. But for now my general composting process involves two bins; at any given time the contents of one of them is in a more advanced state of decomposition than what’s in the other. The one I start in fall is ready in early summer. The one I get going in early summer is ready by fall. That’s only a general approximation, but somehow it seems to work.
The crux of the matter is heat. A compost pile with no heat will decompose really slowly, over the course of a full year or two. A compost pile that is hot will break down pretty quickly, sometimes in as little as a month. So heat is the goal, but I don’t worry too much about that either. Sometimes the pile is hot and sometimes it’s not.
I guess my only rule is that once I deem a bin off limits for any new garden waste, then it is officially off-limits. I let the family know not to put any more stuff in it, because I’m letting that baby cook. Apart from turning the pile every so often (mixing it with a garden fork) and adding moisture when it gets too dry, we let it be. Somehow this has worked for me, but it is far from a science. I salute you if you are more systematic. Coming up with a formal composting system just hasn’t made it to my frontal lobes yet. Besides, like I said, I’m really over it all about now, so it’s all I can do to load up the fall compost pile. I know I should take advantage of the remaining sunny days October offers, but sometimes—well, I just don’t, at least not as enthusiastically as I should. But then again, I know that the day will come when I wake up and take care of business. As in early spring, when you have to all but hog-tie me to keep me out of my garden, I will awake one October morning and be out like a flash before the sun has fully risen, overalls over my pajamas, to do my garden’s bidding. I wait for those days, because experience has taught me that I can get more done in an hour fueled by full-speed conviction than I can in four hours of a drag-my-ass kind of day. I guess we’ll call it the miracle of biorhythms.
I Ain’t Nothing but a Chicken
I should not be too hard on myself. I think I’m doing what the rest of the natural world is about to do. Like the chickens my friend wrote to me about the other day. She told me her chickens stop laying in October, when the days begin to shorten. She could do what industrial egg farmers do and keep her chickens in a constant state of production by using artificial light, but that would make them little more than egg-laying machines, rather than the lovely little participants in the larger farm ecology that they are. Well, just like the chickens, I’m feeling a little egg-shy. The days are getting shorter, and I don’t feeling like producing all that much. I’m getting ready to batten down the hatches, turn inward, and go quiet. At least, I’m getting ready to put the garden to bed and myself into the kitchen. I suppose that makes sense; there seems to be a logical rhythm to the process—sun out, I’m out; sun in, I’m cooking.