Garden’s bounty requires preparation

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pickled cucumbers

The big pickle jar is packed with sharp, spicy smells and bobbing green pickles. Garlic and peppercorns float along the surface of the brine, while the slender brown stems of dill lay stuffed beneath the cucumbers.

It’s that time of year again — time to put up your garden goods or say goodbye to whatever is left …

Early on in the gardening season, I overheard two fellow gardeners comparing notes about their favorite parts of having a garden. One loved sowing seeds but hated weeding, the other loved keeping up with maintenance once her seedlings began to thrive, but found putting the garden in to be a boring chore.

I am probably more of a maintainer myself, but I think there is a third category of gardener as well — the preserver.

Never ready

All year I dream of this time. The time when the garden becomes food for the winter. When I am thumbing through seed catalogs in January, it is the pantry in October that I am picturing, stocked with jars that shimmer like jewels, all that summer goodness just waiting to warm us through winter.

That does not mean, however, I am prepared for it when it comes around. Most years, I am standing in semi-darkness, fingers chilled to numb, red stubs, pulling green tomatoes off the vines even as the temperature dips past freezing.

The five-gallon buckets filled with these hard-won fruits will then stand clustered in the entryway for days, waiting for me to have a few spare hours to put them in paper sacks, freeze them, or admit they are just too green to be of much use. And those won’t be the only buckets gathered, waiting for my attention.

My dreamed-of October pantry may be a thing of beauty, but as I mentioned in last week’s column, my September kitchen is a total disaster. I’ve learned a lot from the last decade worth of gardens though.

Rather than trying to do all my canning in a weekend, for example, I employ a ‘put-by-as-you-go’ policy. For every zucchini that is chopped and sauteed for the supper table, another is diced and put in a freezer bag.

Last month, I also made pickles when the cucumbers were coming non-stop (mostly from friends, as mine didn’t do well), and a few tubs of pesto when the first round of basil went to seed.

The deep freeze now features a short stack of skinny green beans, and a few precious sacks of imported Colorado peaches (we never have as many of those as we mean to, because we eat most of the peaches before we can freeze them.)

Future food

Still, upon the kitchen counters there currently resides the following: a zucchini as long as my seven-year-old’s arm and twice as fat, a bowl of curing garlic, a plate of chili peppers waiting to be strung and dried, a mug with fermenting tomato seeds (part of a somewhat slimy attempt at saving seeds for next year’s garden) another jar worth of pickles still in cucumber form, wilting beet greens, and many a pasta dinner’s worth of un-stewed tomatoes.

Meanwhile, My husband has allotted today to start digging up some of the potatoes, and there are carrots that need to be dug up too. The winter squash that weren’t decimated by grasshoppers are still hanging from their vines, and the second round of hearty greens that have also thus far evaded detection are poking their leafy tendrils up from the plot beside the asparagus fronds.

In other words, there is a lot of future food in need of our attention.

Lest you think this column is going to become solely a gardening column, I hasten to add: This week our region we will pass the average “first frost” date. By next week, the chances that we will have experienced a first frost are 90%.

As it is every year, that knowledge is bittersweet. To quote the 90s hit song Closing Time, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”

Soon we will say goodbye to the garden and hello to the hearth, the work of coziness beginning in earnest.

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Eliza Blue is a shepherd, folk musician and writer residing in western South Dakota. In addition to writing her weekly column, Little Pasture on the Prairie, she writes and produces audio postcards from her ranch and just released her first book, Accidental Rancher. She also has a weekly show, Live from the Home Farm, that broadcasts on social media every Saturday night from her ranch.

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