What is it about the autumn kitchen garden that is so appealing? Leaves are turning yellow and brown, drying and dying, rustling and falling from stalks and vines, mildewing, shriveling and collapsing. Yet in the golden light of autumn mornings or late afternoons these dying plants are so beautiful, every bit as beautiful as the vigorous fall and winter crops growing robustly in beds around them.
One appeal of these changing leaves may be that they signal the ripeness of vegetables that have been maturing slowly all summer. Corn, dry beans, potatoes, onions, winter squash have finished growing; some already begin to fill the winter larder, others are ready now to dig, pull or shell.
But while there is a satisfying sense of harvest, I think the pleasure in these spent plants comes less from the vegetables they’ve produced and more from their dying leaves. They mark the end of the season’s cycle in the kitchen garden in the same way that the yellows and browns, russets and reds in the larger landscape mark the end of summer, the coming of fall and winter and the restfulness of these seasons compared to the rush of spring and summer.
Or perhaps the appeal of the kitchen garden this time of year comes from the mix of dying summer foliage and vigorous fall and winter green. In among the fading summer plants there are beds filled with robust winter crops: kale, Brussels sprouts, rutabaga, turnip, celery root, parsnips, leeks and hardy salad greens. Planted in June and July, they too are part of the restfulness ahead. Settling into the cooler season, they will hold in the garden, sweetening after some frosts, ready for harvest when we want them and like the storage vegetables part of the winter larder.
Though I look forward to each spring’s new planting and growth and to summer’s abundance, fall is my favorite season, the softer colors and slanting light, the slowing down, the rest ahead and time to reflect on the year past.