Jerry Nelson: The October garden

Jerry Nelson
Special to the Farm Forum

October blew in on a wild bronco of bone-chilling rains, a killing frost and a spiteful spattering of snow thrown in for good measure. The tenth month continues to maintain its reputation as a mass executioner of gardens.

As inevitable as all of that may have been, it’s always somewhat disappointing when it happens. A part of me secretly hopes that we will somehow escape the icy clutches of winter and have a year-round growing season, strolling to our gardens to pick fresh tomatoes on Christmas Eve. This is a foolish fantasy for someone who lives just a few dozen miles south of the 45th parallel.

This year’s gardening at our house began, as usual, amidst chaos. A sodden spring threatened to cancel planting. One day the sun came out and a light crust formed on the soil, so I quickly tilled the garden with my venerable John Deere “A” and antique IH disc. The result was a smooth, clean, black surface that was as hard as asphalt.

I dashed around the garden, sowing sweet corn here, planting pumpkins and cucumbers there. Hours later we received a pounding rain, which packed the garden’s topsoil even more. Digging a hole in the garden would have required the use of a jackhammer.

I ignored the garden for as long as I could. Finally, I couldn’t stand it any longer and went to check on its progress.

Many of the seeds had sprouted nicely, but I was alarmed by the lackluster germination of the pumpkins. I rushed to a local greenhouse to purchase some started plants.

“Where have you been?” asked my wife when I got home.

I explained the problem with the pumpkins.

My wife shook her head and muttered, “You’re the only person I know who buys emergency pumpkins!”

It makes zero economic sense for me to raise a garden. All of the things I grow can be purchased quite reasonably at our local farmer’s market or at the supermarket. The amount of labor I put into the garden divided by the value of the veggies would likely add up to negative wages. I probably pay for the privilege of producing potatoes.

I grew up on what was essentially a subsistence dairy farm. My family ate the things that we raised in our sprawling garden and we ate the livestock that ate our crops. Minerals from our farm’s soil are literally a part of me. Maybe keeping that direct connection to the land is why I have a garden. Or, as my wife might say, maybe I’m just a little “off.”

Spring gave way to summer and the garden became an explosion of greenery. Overnight, feeble little cucurbit sprouts transformed into tangles of vines that would rival the thickest tropical jungle.

On sultry summer evenings I would stroll to the garden and pick sweet corn. I would chop down the leftover stalks and throw them over the fence to our half-dozen Jersey steers. The steers reacted like kids who had stumbled upon a stash of Halloween candy. They would buck and run in circles and emit an excited “Bwarp!” before attacking the stalks like ravenous beasts. You would never know that they had unrestricted access to lush, ankle-deep grass.

The frost reduced my garden jungle to a mat of shriveled brown leaves. Surveying the tableau, I muttered to myself, “I must have been out of my gourd to plant so many gourds!”

The gourds had ventured far out into the tall grass that surrounds the garden. Gourd harvest was like an Easter egg hunt.

I don’t know why I like gourds so much. Maybe it’s because the weirder and the wartier the gourd, the more people are attracted to it. Maybe there’s some sort of parallel afoot here.

After I’d harvested the last of the full-season corn – Indian corn, Japanese popcorn, tiny ears of blue corn – I chopped down their remains and threw them to the steers. The withered brown stalks rattled in the wind like old skeletons.

I found a few small squashes hadn’t had enough time to mature. I tossed them over the fence and the steers picked them up with their long, grey tongues. I would hear a muffled “pop” as the shell shattered. The steer would then work his jaws from side to side, a look of pure bliss on his face.

I went back into the house to discover that my wife had baked a squash pie. As the first luscious nibble melted in my mouth, she asked, “What do you think?”

It was so good, I was rendered speechless. All I could manage to say was “Bwarp!”

Jerry Nelson