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Intrepid Urban Farmer: Seasonal Thrills

The cooler temperatures and earlier sunsets are leading my thoughts to inside. That’s the way of autumn. After five months of beautiful outdoor weather with engaging and gratifying garden projects, I am contemplating how to transition this pleasure to the interior sphere. It is the natural cycle of my life.  
 
I am a true Midwesterner. I love the change of seasons. I love it when, in the spring, the asparagus pokes up its first few spears; I love the dead heat of summer and how the tomatoes love it, too (actually, I like how the tomatoes love it more). 
 
I love the first cooler temperatures and the first sign of the leaves turning. My neighbor’s Locust tree leads the way and provides me with an excellent mulch which I just rake into the garden and turn into the dirt. It can’t be much easier than that. 
 
I love winter. The wilder and deeper the snow, the more I like it. Bring it on, Mother Nature! Show me what you’ve got!
 
I find extreme weather a little scary and exhilarating. Thank God the adrenaline thrills of youth have morphed into something a little safer(?). I guess that’s why I am a gardener. I like nature up close and personal.
 
With the seasonal turn and an effort to bring the garden into the house, I am considering some new, better methods of  preserving some of my produce. 
 
Now, of course, I have canned tomatoes, made pesto, and frozen Swiss chard and peppers, etc… But what I am focusing on now is how to store certain crops in cold storage. If you have a cooler spot in your house that will maintain a temperature of under sixty-five degrees, you can store some vegetables by just keeping them well-ventilated and in the dark.
 
This is a storage method that, many times, utilizes a structure referred to as a root cellar. In past, more agrarian times, current organic farming catalogues and survivalist publications this was, and is, a typical tool. Gardening provides common ground for all! This method can be as simple or as complicated as you choose to make it.  I choose simple. Plus, I don’t have a root cellar, I just have a basement.
 
In the past, I’ve had reasonably good success storing garlic and butternut squash. I hadn’t been as particular about the conditions that I had for these successes, and I was lucky to have had them. They were stored in one layer in a couple of large baskets and covered with a towel. I didn’t monitor temperature and, upon further observation, it would have been better to have had it a little cooler.
 
This is generally how I do everything with gardening. Get an idea, slap it out there, and see what happens! I do diligent preparation and reading to be as informed as I can, but my particular gardening setup probably will not match any one reference book, so I read all of them and try to discern which is the best plan, or combination of plans, to take. But, in the end, it is the simple DOING that teaches you. Every dumb decision or lucky accident teaches you.   
 
Currently, I am moving a thermometer around in my basement to find the coolest spot. I am hoping to find a good place to position a storage unit with pull out shelves to put all of my cold storage vegetables in. Garlic, butternut squash, and dried cayennes are marked for this. I am putting wheels on this piece, just in case I end up having to put it in front of the basement door. That may well be the optimum spot.
 
I also have high hopes for the possibility of keeping green tomatoes here. I have heard that if you wrap them in newspaper, they will keep and and continue to ripen well into early winter. It is worth the experiment. I hope it works. I don’t want to discover a whole shelf of rotten tomatoes. I have had enough of those in my life.
 
I will also try storing apples. One of the very best things about autumn is going to your favorite orchard and loading up on apples! Pumpkins, gourds, Indian corn, bittersweet (if you’re lucky) are generally available too. I have been a customer of McGlasson’s on Route 8 in Hebron for many years. It’s always a pleasure to take that scenic ride along the river past Anderson Ferry dodging cyclists encased like sausages in gaudy spandex. I am 0 for 0. No casualties.
 
OK, I was kidding about leaving adrenaline thrills behind.
 
I am a hard case, I guess.
 
In addition to food storage projects, it is time to slowly clean up the garden. Plant by plant, I go through and prune out and pull up plants as they end their run.  It is easier to do it in stages, and this also gives you the opportunity to look at each plant and learn from it.  How well did it do? Was it prolific? Did it suffer from any diseases?Or insects? How did it perform compared to its neighbors? There is a lot to be learned from this observation. Don’t let it escape!  
 
You will also need these observations to decide what to compost. Do not compost any plants that suffered from serious blight or insect infestation. Put those plants out with the trash, properly bagged. I have mentioned this before. It is that important. Give yourself a fighting chance.
 
Soon, it will be time to plant garlic (which I have stored from this past season) and start the cycle all over again. I love the change of seasons. What thrills will the new season bring?
 
Ginger Dawson is The Intrepid Urban Farmer. Read her column every other Sunday at The River City News. Questions? Email: [email protected]
 
Photo: The author's garlic and butternut squash/Ginger Dawson  
 
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