“Doing great! We haven’t had a frost yet!”
“Oh. Uh huh. That’s nice.” Acquaintances nod at my nutty weather report. No frost yet—whatever.
No hard frost as of October 21 may not sound like much to non-farmers or non-gardeners but it’s momentous to those of us on Colorado’s Front Range who work outside in the soil.
In fact, we’ve been working joyously in t-shirts this week, doing things we usually do in jackets. I spread compost around the base of the roses to help get them through a predicted dry winter and John tilled compost into the fields in preparation for fall-planting shallots and garlic. A few of my roses are still blooming and I even picked a bouquet of zinnias for a friend’s birthday dinner.
Early last week our county extension agent sent around a frost warning, so we harvested all that we could to give our CSA members last Saturday–except some smaller peppers just in case it didn’t frost.
And it didn’t.
But that’s okay. The tomatoes and eggplant had pretty much given up with the colder nights and we were ready to pull the stakes and store the twine for next year. John picked the last few of the lonely cucumbers, melons, and summer squash a couple days ago and then tilled the vines into the field.
Yesterday afternoon I walked out to the big field to see what was left. Along the bank of the irrigation ditch, I startled a redtail hawk from the limb of a cottonwood. It flew before me over the tops of the trees. Two weeks ago I surprised a great-horned owl from a similar spot but it flew in front and then around me, close enough that I could see the spots on its breast as it spread its wings perpendicular to the ground. I’d never been that close to such a large flying owl before and it took a while for my heart to settle down. The redtail wasn’t quite as dramatic but thrilled me nonetheless.
So what’s left? I found the peppers still ripening on the plants; we can pick them to give this Saturday or next, which will be the last pick-up of the season. A few small round eggplant are still hanging. Maybe they’ll be big enough for one more ratatouille before the first frost really hits. I found one large Mennonite tomato going red and a few pastes that we’d missed in our previous gleanings. That’s it. I picked some peppermint on my way into the house to make the last watermelon/cucumber salad of the season.
But first frost isn’t just about harvesting plants. At Stonebridge Farm we take our first frost predictions seriously. Around the beginning of September, we start the frost pool for bartering members to pick their first frost dates. Whoever wins garners bragging rights and the title of Frost Queen or King, as well as the largest jack o’ lantern to carve at our end-of-season party on the last Saturday of October.
The frost pool’s pretty competitive out here but the best part is that the winning date is so unpredictable. Who would have thought in September that those daring folks who chose October 24th or 25th would have any chance of winning? Usually the rule is closest date without going over wins, but with no frost predicted until the beginning of next week, the winner this time might be the latest prediction.
We have elaborate rules for what “first frost” means: not just a little nip, but blackened basil and zinnias. This year the frost is so late that we’ve harvested almost all the basil plants already, leaving just a few on which to base the official decision. The zinnias I didn’t pick are pretty faded but we’ll leave them in the field until the frost hits as a back-up to the basil indicator.
Timing’s essential too. Since frost usually comes early in the morning, we date the first frost on the day of the morning we find the blackened basil and zinnias rather than the day of the night before.
Predictions are fun, but most of all, we anticipate first frost because it means our season is almost over. We may still harvest roots and greens that can grow in the cold, but the riot of the harvest is finished—the tomatoes, peppers, basil, eggplant, and squash are a fait accompli. We will have to wait nearly another year for those warm weather crops to ripen again.
A couple days ago, John and I decided to celebrate this long fall by ending the workday early to sit on the patio of a local restaurant, enjoying the late afternoon sun. We were the only people sitting outside, which we found odd on such a glorious day, and, even stranger, the servers were putting away the patio furniture and umbrellas while we toasted the autumn foliage. Soon we were the only table on the patio and we joked that we were the last people to sit outside this year. In this seemingly perennial fall, it’s hard for us to stay inside.
Today we finished the last of the big fall chores: planting 14 beds of garlic for our members next season. With our expert Thursday crew, we cracked the garlic bulbs we’d saved from this year’s crop to plant back the cloves for the next. We started the morning in jackets but soon were in shirt-sleeves as the sun warmed our backs. We don’t always get to plant garlic in sunshine so we welcomed the chance to savor a few more rays before they’re gone.
No frost yet.
But we know it’s coming.