The Other Half of Gardening

Peter Heffelfinger
Photo: Evelyn Adams

by Peter Heffelfinger

Appropriate to the fall season, the squirrels are rushing about the tops of the Douglas firs, sending a bumper fall crop of cones to the ground, where the bushy-tailed rodents will harvest and hide the seeds before the rains return. When I add pine nuts to summer basil pesto, I think of all the work that goes into gathering those expensive, white seeds from the genus Pinus. Behind every organic or gourmet delicacy, now conveniently available year round, whether in sealed bags, glass jars, cans, or in fresh frozen packets, lies a legacy of intensive labor. For the home gardener, preserving one’s own crops creates a personal storehouse, full of favorite foods, both staples and specialty items, hand-raised and carefully saved for the winter.

Preservation choices include canning, freezing, drying, brine pickling, fermentation, or burying root crops in buckets of sand. Plus, there is garlic stored in paper bags or as braids, onions and shallots on screens, potatoes under cover in boxes, winter squash in a back room, and late fall apples in cool fridges. Not to forget bunches of Greek oregano and other dried herbs, or the hot red peppers drying on the entire plant hung by its roots. During the growing seasons, as I harvest fresh produce for immediate use, I think of my garden as a personal farmer’s market. In autumn, the added chore is to create a varied, long-lasting food supply chain utilizing all the things one has nurtured through the summer. A home-grown “super” market will be in the pantry: supremely local, surely organic, and suited to one’s own taste.

Last year, in an attempt to broaden my repertoire of food preservation, I concentrated on fermented hot sauces and kim chi; this year, it was brine pickled cucumbers. “Boston” pickling cucumber seeds were planted early in the hoop house, with a wire trellis for vertical growth for easy picking. The cukes were fermented in a salt solution at a cool room temperature for up to several weeks, with fresh grape leaves and glass “followers” added as a top layer to keep the cucumbers submerged in brine. After fermenting to one’s taste, the jars are stored for up to a year in a fridge. No canning, no destruction of beneficial “ferments,” and, hopefully, no soft pickles. The goal is the traditional New York Delicatessen full-sour pickle that is crunchy, translucent, and redolent of garlic, bay leaf, spices, and a hot pepper or two (or more). As the supply of fresh pickling cucumbers dwindled over the summer, any remaining jar space was filled with green tomatoes, which are always available in great number. It also helps to have a good supply of fresh garlic on hand. The recipes in “Fermented Vegetables” (by Kristen & Christopher Shockey, Storey Publishing, LLC, 2014) call for 15 cloves for a gallon of whole pickles and two full heads for a half gallon of sliced rounds. One can never grow too much garlic.

To make room for all the gallon and half-gallon jars of pickles, plus a few sauerkrauts, as well as the hot pepper ferments to come, I added a simple, large fridge in the storage area: no freezer section, no vegetable bins, just lots of wire racks. What they call a “garage” fridge for bulk items, usually beer I guess. I think of it as my personal delicatessen cold case; all it needs is a see-through glass door so I can ponder my creations before I select a jar.

Tomatoes: to save space in the freezer, I core and then blitz them whole in a food processor, then simmer in a large pot to separate the juice and the pulp. I sieve off the pulp for freezing, and use the remaining juice to cook with as a stock for grains or soups. This year I had tried a new Roma type, Granjero, which was pendant shaped and mostly flesh, with little extra juice, as usually happens with regular tomatoes. To ripen any green or slightly yellow tomatoes at the end of the harvest, lay them on newspaper in a warm room; they don’t need to be near a sunny window, they just need to be warm enough to eventually turn somewhat red. They will be usable mostly for cooking, lasting up until Thanksgiving or longer. Be sure to cull out any moldy ones. Excellent for cutting in half and frying with eggs. Never let a green tomato go to the compost.

Plantings for Fall and Beyond
I finally planted snow and snap peas in time at the end of summer to have a fall crop. They started to give peas by mid-September, perhaps not quite as sweet as those in the spring, but a welcome crunch after all the zucchini. Mustard, bok choy, arugula, mache, and other semi-hardy fall greens are sizing up before the cool weather slows them down. They will be covered by small hoop houses of floating row cover to make them last deep into winter. The fall and winter cabbages, which will need protection only if we get an extended hard freeze, are sizing up nicely, along with the super-hardy collards and kales. The year-round garden doesn’t go to sleep or lie fallow in winter, it just tents out as needed under little Quonset huts of white row cloth.

As an experiment during the hot summer, I planted a row of Burgundy bush beans on July 15 to see if they would take advantage of our ever-extending growing seasons. By late September, they were just starting to form tiny beans, but, on the advice of my garden mentor, a retired, long-time nurseryman, I covered them with floating row cover against the night chill. The soil is still warm enough, he said, but the overnight temperatures are becoming too cold. I open the cover half-way on a sunny day, but they need to be tucked in at night with that lightweight blanket to make full beans.

Continuing the same purple color scheme, in mid-September I transplanted starts of three varieties of over-wintering, wine-hued brassicas: Purple Cape Cauliflower, very cold-tolerant for early winter harvest in January and February; Purple Broccoli ‘Rudolph,’ an English variety that matures in time for Christmas (with a bright purple nose??); as well as Purple Sprouting Broccoli, which grows slowly over the winter, and then gives abundant purple sprouts in early spring. I tried Purple Brussels Sprouts last year, but they didn’t bud up as well as the standard green variety. My regular Brussels sprouts this year are fully grown and ready for harvest once the first frost arrives. which will cause the plants to develop sugar as an internal antifreeze. Just in time for the holidays — no bitter sprouts allowed. Finally, the fall and winter leeks are maturing, ready for any weather, no protection needed.

Last plantings in October will be annual rye for a cover crop on bare spots in the garden, as well as beds of garlic and shallots for next year. The planting cycle will be ending for the year, but gratefully the pantry is full.

Editor’s Note: This is the final Northwest Gardening column until the spring of 2019.

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.