The Wheel Turns

… to Harvest!

Vermont finally got some of the summer heat that the rest of the country has been enduring for weeks. Well, sort of. We managed a 40°F jump up to the lower 90s, but without the humidity. It’s not supposed to last, and we’ll likely be back to highs in the 60s by Tuesday. I think we probably saw our hottest temperatures back in late May. Which is just bizarre and confusing. It’s also not good for tomatoes, chiles or melons. However, the cool temperatures are great for greens and peas and strawberries!

Still, weather notwithstanding, the summer is plodding on, and we have definitely made that switch in the year’s energy from generating and planting to fulfillment and harvest. This is my favorite time of year, the waning half when every sort of life-form is gathering in and preparing for the end of the growth cycle. For most of our food plants, this means setting seed wrapped up in whatever enticement the plant’s mobile partners like — fruit, grain, pods, and so on — or seed casings that will float on wind and water or latch on to those with legs, especially legs with fur. Some just make seeds without much of the special packaging. These mostly rely on us to turn those seeds into a new generation of plants next year. They have adapted to being human food plants and dispensed with putting energy and resources into all the trickery and bribery necessary to seed dispersal. Some hardly set seed at all. For example, I’ve never seen a potato seed. Even for those varieties that still bother making them, we normally dig up the tubers (and kill the plant) long before that happens. 

We’re coming into potato harvest season. I love fresh dug spuds, especially that first meal of colcannon to celebrate the harvest. I don’t have potatoes this year, except sweet potatoes (which won’t be ready until late in the autumn). But there are farms all around my town that grow an almost Peruvian palette of taters. Blue, black (which are more purple to my eyes and can have meat in a range of colors, from the same purple as the skin to nearly snow white), golden, red, bakers with brown skin and pale meat, bakers with red skin and tawny meat, fingerlings in all sorts of colors. It’s sometimes difficult to find a standard Idaho, but then why bother with those when there are so many others, most of which are more delicious and nutritious than the typical grocery store starch bomb? My favorites are pinto golds (which taste like fluffy butter) and Adirondack blues (which are the nuttiest potato I know). 

This being the end of June and the Strawberry Moon, the strawberry harvest is in full swing. Every farm stand has a table with jewel-red berries spilling out of their quart buckets. Many farms offer pick-your-own to those who would like to shorten the time between picking the berries and eating them. Every hour after the fruit is severed from the plant turns more of those tart-sweet sugars into indifferent starches, so it makes a big difference. When I’m not harvesting directly, I try to get them from farmers that have picked them that morning. 

My strawberry vines are fairly productive this year, and for whatever reason (touch wood) the rodents are not beating me to the berries. I pulled a couple quarts of strawberries out of the garden and then bought four more from the farmers’ market. I intend to go back for more. This year I’m freezing most of the berries (those that don’t get eaten immediately…). Freezing is easy and fairly energy efficient if you have a smallish chest freezer that is kept in a cool place in your home (mine is in the basement and uses less electricity than this computer, to more good in my opinion). To freeze whole berries of any kind, just clean them, cut off the inedible tops, place them on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper and put them in the freezer. The only things to remember are to use firm whole fruit so that the only exposed flesh is facing down (leads to less freezer taste in the meat) and to make sure the berries are not touching each other (so that air can circulate around each fruit). When they’re hard, bag them in freezer bags — being sure to label and date the bags, of course. Could not be simpler!

I love making jelly. Everything about it. I like the methodical and meditative process. I have many happy memories of jam-making from my own childhood and from the days when my sons were shorter than I am. Everybody loves giving and receiving home-made jars of preserved fruit. And this year the weather is so nice, it wouldn’t even be uncomfortable in the kitchen. But I just don’t eat enough of it. I am probably the only person in this country who simply doesn’t like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Also, I prefer the rich nutty flavor of good bread to the overwhelming sweetness that hides the toast flavors. Though… I do like that now and then, just not much. In any case, I still have a largely full jelly cabinet that is probably going to have to be either composted (so I can save the jars) or donated at this point. However, every last quart of frozen berries is gone. So I figure that’s my best way to preserve the harvest. That it’s so painless is just icing. It’s likely there will still be some canning later in the summer because I love plums and apricots and they don’t freeze well, though both make excellent dried fruit if you have a dehydrator or live where things dry on their own.

While at the farmers’ market, I also came across these leeks. For reasons unknown, I did not receive the leek starts I bought for my garden. (I think they plan on shipping them for a fall start, which is probably smart in this climate, but that might have been nice to know before I ordered them.) So when I saw these enormous beauties I just had to buy them. I also found some generically Asian head cabbage at another table and had a couple parsnips and turnips in the fridge (store bought…). Now there is cabbage-leek soup making my house smell mouth watering. A whole vat of it so that I don’t have to cook for the rest of the week. Just warm it up and eat. The most I will have to do is pick some greens and snow peas as I’m coming through the garden after work for a bit of fresh side salad.

Which is good because I am already working more hours than I really want to at the bookstore. The store is losing its long-term assistant manager who has run the place for the last twelve years. The store manager is new and has had a rough start for various reasons, mostly plague related. So after this week, there will be nobody who knows how to do most of the daily tasks. It’s falling on me to figure it all out. We’re lucky July is slow.

But still that means I’m not going to have as much time to cook, and one-pot meals that I can just warm over are the difference between getting dinner and… well… not. I suspect this method of dealing with the harvest is probably good for even those who are working from home — especially with all this excessive weather — because there is far less heat generated in the kitchen. If you make things like cucumber soup or gazpacho you don’t even have to reheat it. And if you’re really slick, you can freeze quarts of it for quick meals in the busy late months of the year.

Since this weekend was so hot and I didn’t much care to be out in that, I put the garden tasks on hold. Anyway, now it’s largely maintenance, which means weeding (bleah!), though there is also a large pile of mulch to move into place. (Definitely NOT doing that task in 90° heat!) I broke down and bought a kit to make one more raised bed, this one with an acrylic cold frame lid that will fit nicely in a patch of sun right off the side of the house by the kitchen door. That whole business still needs to be assembled as well, but it’s a fairly easy project that, again, is not critical right now. In fact, I have the box sitting out in the grass where the bed will go. If I procrastinate a bit more, I’m thinking the grass will be mostly dead by the time I get to building the frame. So that’s “really” why I’m putting it off today.

I have lettuce seed for a variety that Johnny’s Select Seed claims will be hardy to about 22°F. There are also the usual winter spinach, cabbages and roots. I figure a cold frame near my kitchen door will keep me in fresh salad at least through December. Then I might be able to start a flat of seeds in the basement that can be planted out in early March, for more greens by the equinox. I am pretty much done buying greens at the grocery store. Even our co-op, which carries only local produce, is selling expensive veg that looks… well… terrible. Especially the spinach and lettuce. It’s all wilted and desiccated even now, in the middle of the main harvest season, with all this ideal spinach and lettuce weather. I don’t know what has changed, but whatever it was made for a drastic slide in quality — paired with an outrageous jump in price (like everything else)… I’m not willing to pay $7.50 for a flaccid head of lettuce. Or maybe any greens. But greens are my primary source of vitamins. So I’ve set up my own personal supply — which will, depending on the cost of the little bit of lumber I still have to buy, likely pay for itself in about two dozen salads at current market prices.

While hiding from the weather, I made the change from the flowery stuff I have for spring and early summer to the warmer tones of late summer and Lughnasadh. Harvest being my favorite, I usually find any excuse to pull it all out as early as possible. Also, I have a very low tolerance for pink. So that too prompts me to put away the May to Midsummer stuff as soon as I can. 

I have a penchant for Americana. Down in Massachusetts, I lived in an 18th century farmhouse, an actual piece of living history. I also volunteered for the Townsend Historical Society, which looks after a home that has remarkably well-preserved Rufus Porter murals and embellishments throughout. Both those experiences inspired a love of the things that people used to make for themselves, using whatever they had on hand.

I tend to call Americana not the propaganda and advertising stuff that’s been slathered all over the world since WWII (and which most people see in their heads when they hear the term), but actual craft made by actual people to grace their actual lives (what is called “primitive” art by some). These are things that talk about the real people of this country, not the abstract country itself (definitely not its foul corporations). This is how I celebrate the holidays of late summer. (I’m from out West. I don’t believe in fireworks. Full stop.) So my bookshelves and mantles are adorned with odd figures covered in stars and candy stripes, little vignettes from days when people made things because they wanted to make their lives beautiful, as well as shells and stones I’ve picked up and carried around with me for years (if not decades).

This year, I am less inclined than ever to celebrate this country. Instead of glorifying its dubious birth with loud bangs and smoke, I’m rather inclined to let it die quietly and then bury its toxic carcass well away from civilized society so we can’t even smell the rot. In any case, I think we’ve passed the point where this edifice can do anything positive for any of us. It’s time, instead, to make our own ways based in real places and real lives. So going into the Dog Days of summer this year, I’m very focused on building a new world, but one rooted in what works and preserves what nurtures. The Supreme Court and the ludicrous Right can just implode out there in their fascist fantasy land. I’ve got a full harvest of garden and friends and beauty and comfort and craft. And real stories to tell in the lengthening nights. I need nothing else. I hope you are also building this durable contentment into your own lives. It is the best, indeed, the only way to live!

Let the wheel of the year turn on!

©Elizabeth Anker 2022