The Autumn Turn of the Year

Peter Heffelfinger
Photo: Evelyn Adams

by Peter Heffelfinger

With the coming of fall, the garden enters its third major seasonal shift. After the plantings of early and late spring, and the harvest of summer, autumn is the time of final plantings before the onset of winter. In late August and into September, winter varieties of lettuce, as well as semihardy greens such as broccoli raab, mustard, and leafy turnip can go into beds, perhaps protected later on with floating row cover in case we ever get a serious bout of cold.

Given climate change, we now have an increasing period of moderate fall temperatures before the first frost date. The seasonal bridge between summer and winter keeps getting longer and longer. For local gardeners at least, that means more time for fall produce. The fall crop of snow and snap peas should be about halfway up the lattice work by now, with harvest by the end of September, coinciding with the early fall warm days often called Indian summer. Fall and winter cabbages, planted out in late July, should be well leafed out, along with the collards and kale. A late crop of broccoli will be a final gift from midsummer plantings.

Summer Successes
The Romanesco cauliflower, with its Fibonacci pattern of green spirals, was a particular success this year. It did not bolt as easily as the regular cauliflower, perhaps because I piled a thick layer of large brassica leaves on the developing heads to screen them from the intense sun. I also tried a self-blanching endive variety this year, with moderate success in the heat. Cucumbers grown on trellises in the hoop house did particularly well: the standard Marketmore cukes, plus pale white Armenian slicers, as well as the Boston pickling variety. I put up many jars of brined, N.Y. Deli-style pickles, with copious amounts of fresh garlic, dried cayenne peppers from last year, bay leaves from the herb patch, and spices. Fresh grape leaves on top will keep the pickles submerged in the brine, with the jars stored in a fridge rather than heat-processed. I look forward to a long winter sampling of half- and full-sours. Note: cf. “Fermented Vegetables,” by K. & C. Shockey, Storey Publishing, 2014 for additional recipes.

Other fall crops are Italian dandelions, which will last all winter, as well as a few quick runs of standard radishes for salads. I am also trying overwintering onions (from Territorial Seed), a long growing variety that is started in early August, set out in the fall, and harvested in late spring. Garlic and shallots do well in our mild maritime winters, so why not other semihardy alliums? Otherwise, the fall and winter leeks, as well as the Brussels sprouts, held up against the heat of late summer, given they had regular watering during the dusty days of August.

It is also time to plant cover crops to maintain the tilth of the soil. I rely of annual rye, since it is cheap and can be sown right up to November. I keep it secure against seed-hungry birds with a layer of row cover laid directly on top of the bed until the sprouts are several inches high. Other cover crops available: red clover, Alaskan peas or hardy fava beans, each of which will supply more nutrients, if needed, than annual rye. The main thing is to grow some kind of security blanket over bare soil, to prevent erosion from rain, and to supply a quick boost in the spring when the crop is tilled in. It also looks nice to see a healthy green crop flourishing during the grey days of winter.

Apple Pressing
In the early 1980s I bought a new, hand-cranked apple press in Wenatchee, with a heavy oak frame, a solid cast iron and steel screw-press assembly, and a crusher/roller fitted with small stainless steel teeth. With two slotted basket frames for holding the mash, one could process apples at one end and press at the other. The sharp teeth reduced apples easily to mush, once you got the cast iron flywheel up to speed. The idea was to pop the whole apples into the maw one or two at a time, but at a steady pace, to keep up the momentum — no need to cut up apples. The key element is to have soft, fully ripe fruit. Unripe, hard apples make heavy grinding and slightly sour juice. Ripe apples have fully brown pips/seeds at the core.

Gathering from old orchards, or gleaning from backyards, will supply a wide variety of apples, from Gravensteins, to Kings, or Spartans. Do not bother with early, dry Transparents; leave them for the deer. A personal favorite, at the end of the year, is Winter Banana, with a bright waxy yellow skin and a blushing pink dab on the side, which stay on the trees through early winter. The important thing is to not press too early in the season, when apples are just coming on. Wait until late fall, even up to Thanksgiving, to assemble a good assortment of apples for pressing. Once collected, let the apples sit for a few days to soften. You should be able to smell their aroma from a short distance.

Once pressed, the juice can be kept fresh for several weeks, as long as you decant it at intervals to remove the yeasty lees that settle to the bottom. For quick, fizzy cider add a few raisins, though it will become vinegary if left too long. A traditional New England use for fresh cider is Shaker-style applesauce: in a stainless steel pot, boil one gallon of fresh cider down to one third; reduce to simmer and add several layers of one half-inch thick apple slices. Do not stir! Let the slices remain whole as they slowly turn translucent. The result is all essence of apple — no extra spices needed. Otherwise, the fresh juice can be frozen, canned, or made into apple wine/hard cider using wine yeast in glass carboys fitted with fermentation airlocks.

Hard Cider/Cidre/Sidra
While sampling English pubs in the 1960s, I discovered Merrydown, a slightly sparkling British apple wine made with Champagne yeast, served in pints alongside the usual cellar-cool beers and Guinness. Pale yellow in the glass, not too sweet but moderately strong in alcohol (8.2 percent alcohol by volume), it definitely gave one a mellow buzz. It was created in 1946 by three wine hobbyists, using a 300-year-old oak cider press. I was reminded of all this while attending a Cider Tasting class at the WSU Extension recently. Back in 1981, there was only one commercial hard cider operation in the U.S.; now there are over 800, including many of course in the Northwest. The flights to be tasted were to be all craft ciders, i.e., no mass-market Angry Orchard!

American ciders tend to be stronger and sweeter than European ciders, as well as more experimental, seeking out nontraditional tastes that might appeal to an audience new to hard apple cider or to pear cider (perry). We started out with 2Towns Bright Cider from Oregon, a straightforward basic taste, as well as a sample from the Cider Making course held onsite at the WSU Extension. Then we moved on to classic, English imports: Crispin and Schilling, developed over the centuries in the southwest counties of Devon, Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire. I felt like a Hobbit given the keys to the cider cellar. From there, we followed the ancient cider trail over the Channel to Normandy, for Le Pere Jules and Etienne Dupont ciders. Both were very “brut” or dry, with a head of “mousse” or bubbles that clung to the side of the glass — perfect companions to the traditional buckwheat/wheat crepes of the region.

Soldiering on, aided by a variety of nibbles to cleanse the palate, we came to the Spanish Basque area, with its cloudy, unfiltered cider, more bitter/sharp to complement the assertive, spicy tapas of the region. Lacking carbonation, it is skillfully decanted by bartenders from way overhead into the glass to aerate. Finally, we ended back in the USA: a Finn River cider from the Olympic Peninsula, a creative local take on Spanish Style Sidra, made with yeast to slightly carbonate. Around the world in what felt like 80 sips. Cider has come a long way.

Peter Heffelfinger, a Washington State University master gardener, has gardened organically on Fidalgo Island and the Skagit Flats for over 40 years. He has given workshops in year-round gardening for Transition Fidalgo/Eat Your Yard, Christianson’s Nursery, and at the Washington State University County Extension Service. He is a Salish Sea Steward, working on the invasive green crab survey.