Thursday, October 16, 2014

Waiting for Frost

Today (at noon) marked the exact mid-point of October. As we cross into the dark side, a strange thing happens—gardeners start longing for a frost. 

Mostly, frost is something homesteaders want to assiduously distance themselves from. They want it to depart their fields as early in the spring as possible and stay away late into the fall—but there are limits. As the root cellar fills and pantry shelves begin to groan with the collected abundance of the growing year, you reach a point where enough is enough. Sure, you could just walk away and let the rest of the garden go, but that's hard to do; farmers are hard-wired to gather everything they grow, and it sometimes takes a frost to euthanize a garden that still has life in it. We're just about there.

 • • •
Homesteading in mid-America means that nine months of the year (September through May) you're paying close attention to whether the forecast calls for temperatures above or below freezing.

In the Winter
Although this is the sleepy time for growing things, there is still plenty of outdoor work to do (it's a farm, after all). If you need to cut wood, for example, it makes a huge difference if the temperature is 25º or 35º. If there's no snow on the ground, then 25º is much better. The ground will be firm and you should have no problem maneuvering in the woodlot. At 35º, think mud.

On the other hand, if there is snow then 35º may be better because the white stuff will melt off the log (less ice to dull your chain saw) and the ground is likely to still be frozen. 

If you're splitting wood, I suggest looking for something closer to 15º. The ground won't be greasy (better footing) and the cord wood pops right open in the cold (plus the brisk temperatures help counterbalance the heat you generate wielding a maul).

In the Spring
When the sap starts rising in the trees (typically in February in northeast MO), everyone starts to get itchy to plant garden. While some things can tolerate freezing temperatures (peas, onions, beets, carrots, potatoes, salad greens, and brassicas) most of the garden has to wait patiently for danger of frost to have past.

Depending on how green your thumb is—and how long you've been without fresh vegetables—it can be an excruciating wait. (Is there anything more delicious than your first homegrown or wildcrafted salad of the year?)

In the FallOn the one hand, homesteaders keep a close eye on Weather Underground (or old ankle injuries) for early warnings of impending freezes so they know when to strip the garden—after doing all that work to get everything planted and weeded, you want to capture as much of the bounty as possible. In the 40 years I've lived in northeast Missouri we've had our first killing frost as early as Sept 15 and as late as Nov 10—which is quite a wide range. Obviously this means big swings are possible in the amount of produce harvested from gardens at the end of the season.

If you last into October though (as we have this year), the sweet corn is long gone, the tomatoes have already dialed it back on their own, and the green beans have dried up. Still going are peppers, okra, and basil, all of which will just keep on trucking until Jack Frost paints them white.

I cranked out a batch of end-of-season pepper relish last week and I believe those will be the last jars we add to our store of 2104 canned goods. In the weeks ahead there will be sweet potatoes to dig, and the late root crops and salad greens will persist into December, but everybody here is ready to trade access to a few more late peppers in exchange for witnessing a population crash among houseflies and grasshoppers.

We're ready now to sing hallelujah and amen to another growing year.

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