The Late October Kitchen Garden

I’ve been visiting family and friends in New York and New England for the past three weeks and in my absence the kitchen garden has settled into its fall state. The cover crop of Austrian field peas that I planted before I left in all the beds that held summer vegetables has germinated, blanketing the dark soil with small green leaves.  The winter crops of roots, leeks, hardy greens and brassicas, all lush from October rains, fill other beds with their foliage and promise many tasty meals as the days shorten and temperatures drop.

The rounded bulbs of celery root, rutabagas, turnips and beets are just visible under their still vigorous stems while the parsnips and carrots, marked by their feathery tops, wait beneath the soil line. Blue-green spears rise and bend above white shafts of leeks. I’ll add a final layer of mulch to these roots and leeks when the first serious cold spell is forecast and they’ll last us through the winter.

Escarole, chard, mustard, mache and several plantings of arugula are ready for harvest and use as fall and winter sautés or salads.  I’ll soon put hoop houses, ends open, over these cold-hardy greens to shelter them from too much rain.

And the broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage I’d started in flats in mid-July and set out in mid-August have formed heads, tight jade-green broccoli flowers, creamy white cauliflower curds, ruby-colored red and crinkly light-green Savoy cabbages.  I planted only three or four of each and plan to harvest and cook them before the real cold comes and I turn to their hardier cousins Brussels sprouts and kale for the rest of the winter.

Against these many shapes and shades of green the gloriosa daisies (Rudbeckia gloriosa) are still blooming, their yellow, rust and burgundy shades adding rich tones of fall color to the kitchen garden.  It won’t be long before a hard frost blackens these blooms but the same frost will bring out the deep sweetness of these fall and winter vegetables, a fair trade I think.

Winter Squash Harvest

I harvested winter squash on the Fall Equinox this year, a beautiful warm day like so many we’ve had this September.  The plants’ big, floppy leaves had begun to mildew and collapse over the past week, revealing the squash that had been growing slowly, swelling and hardening, developing their colors, all summer.  They were easy to spot now along the vines that crisscrossed the two beds. 

Because I was trying some new varieties this year that looked quite a bit like my regular varieties, I followed the vines from each hill, picking all of one variety, piling them into a wheelbarrow and transporting them to the porch before moving on to the next variety.  As I lined up each variety on the steps, a portrait of the 2012 squash class began to take shape.  Squash are so photogenic and this year’s class was no exception.

Starting at the top row, moving left to right, are Kakai, a hull-less seed pumpkin I’m trying for the first time this year with pepitas in mind and Winter Luxury Pie Pumpkin, a creamy, smooth-fleshed pumpkin, just as its name suggests.  In the next row down are Eastern Rise, a new orange variety I’m trying this year described in the Fedco catalog as “a superb storage squash that comes into full flavor after December”; Nutty Delica, a Japanese Kabocha also new to me this year and according to Fedco “after storage this one may be the best of all the Japanese Kabochas. Complex flavor of its deep golden flesh improves with age, peaking after January;” and Uncle David’s Dakota Dessert, a buttercup variety I’ve enjoyed for the past several years. Across the bottom are two Delicatas, Honeyboat and Zeppelin, Burgess Buttercup and Potimarron, all old favorites for their flavor and storage qualities.

These gorgeous winter squash always seem like a generous fall gift because I’ve put so little effort into growing them.  I start the seeds in pots in late April and set them out in the garden two weeks later.  In mid-June I mulch them and then they are on their own for the next three months until harvest.  They grow and grow, taking over and filling in all the space around them.  Regular watering is all they get. 

And even after harvest, winter squash make few demands and soon provide delicious meals.  I cure them for a couple of weeks in a warm place and then store them in the same cool shed that holds the potatoes.  By Thanksgiving, their starches have begun to convert to sugar and some, like Burgess Buttercup and Delicata, are ready to eat while others will be ready in December, January or later.  Throughout the winter and into early spring, we enjoy them baked, roasted, mashed, alone or mixed with other vegetables, in tarts and pies, in soups and breads.  With their complex, rich sweetness and bright orange color, they are a perfect vegetable to carry us through the winter dark.