Four buckets of green tomatoes, two buckets of winter squash, and one giant box of zucchini -- the last salvaged fruits from the summer garden, and what a haul! We also got to pick apples from a friend’s trees, so we have four grocery bags full of sweet, juicy apples, not to mention the freezer bags already stacked with the veggies we’ve been putting by all season. In short, this week brought the first freezing temperatures of the season, and we were ready.
But that’s not all. A few weeks ago, I filled a few old lick barrels with dirt and compost and then seeded them with spinach, radishes, chard, and other hardy greens -- all things that can withstand a hard freeze -- and put them in the greenhouse. Many of these plants don’t germinate well if it’s too hot, however. With daytime temps in the greenhouse soaring to 100 degrees or more, I figured the whole endeavor might be a fool’s errand. On the other hand, while mature plants can take the cold, tiny seedlings can’t, so it was a gamble either way. Start too early, the little plants might fry, start too late and they’d die in the cold.
Since we always have plenty of wool around the ranch, I decided to experiment by mulching the seeds with wet fleece, hoping that would help regulate the temperature extremes and humidity levels. To my delight the experiment worked, and within days the lick barrels were teeming with green shoots. The night of the first freeze we covered the barrels with blankets, and every one of those little plants was just as bright and perky the next morning. Standing in the greenhouse midday, surrounded by the smell of soil and verdant things growing, the easy heat of the sun bursting through the roof and walls, it is easy to believe summer is just beginning.
Out in the garden it’s a different story. The evening before the frost, the man of the ranch and I knelt, elbow deep in tomato plants, pulling green tomatoes as fast as our frozen fingers would let us. Even the Bean joined in. All summer we’ve been trying to teach him the difference between ripe tomatoes and green “baby” tomatoes, so I am sure he was confused, but also a little thrilled, to pick the babies without an adult chastizing him.
Fingertips chilled beyond feeling, I found myself wishing we’d embarked on the final harvest earlier, when it was still warm enough to enjoy the experience. “Why do we always wait until it’s so miserably cold?” I almost remarked, thinking of all the other years we’d been crouched between vines just like this, scrambling to collect what we could as darkness fell around us. But of course, that is the nature of the first frost -- it’s the moment when your optimism meets reality and you have to admit the season is finally over. To do it any sooner you risk missing out on a few days, or even weeks of ripening.
As we picked, Emmy Rose sat beside us, gnawing on a green tomato. I tried to tell her they were too sour, and she wouldn’t like the taste, but she disagreed. Much to my chagrin, she will eat anything, except baby food, which she sees as beneath her. Like her brother before her, she is a good eater, and that includes rocks, twigs, and clumps of dirt. Unlike her brother, who I monitored fairly closely, she gets more opportunity to savor these treats. I am amazed by how different a parent I am the second time around -- it explains A LOT about the difference between myself and my younger siblings.
Let me explain. I think most folks would agree there is nothing more important than the health and wellbeing of their children. When you have one, therefore, it’s pretty simple to prioritize their needs in any given situation. As soon as another baby gets added, things get infinitely more complicated.
Oh no, the baby has a rock in her hand...But wait, her big brother is running full speed toward the corral full of horses...What do you do? Chase brother, of course, and then race back as quickly as the you can. It’s hard on the nerves, and certainly makes for an adjustment in child-rearing techniques, and it also means second children (and third, and fourth…) get to test things out on their own terms far more frequently than the first ones do.
Emmy is no exception to the this rule, so in addition to experiencing natural consequences more frequently than her brother did at her age, and she also gets quite a bit dirtier. Dressed in her pink fleece coat, and hand-me-down coveralls, Emmy often sports a ring of sand and soil around her lips, and the evening of the first frost was no exception. But, cheeks rosy from the wind, sleeves damp from green tomato juice, our little gal was all smiles. She doesn’t seem to mind the benign neglect as long as she is outside in the middle of the action.
On the western horizon the bright tip of the moon appeared, slim as the curved crescent of a fingernail. By morning most of the plants left in the garden would be a sludgy thicket of browns and grays, barely discernible as plants, but, for a few more hours at least, they stood curling and majestic, a testament to all of the weeding and watering.
I picked up my dirty baby, and swung her onto my hip, then lifted a bucket with the crook of my elbow. Even after her bath, when I tucked her in that night, I knew she would still smell a bit like a seedling, sweet and loamy, blooming beneath blankets piled soft as snow. A wee thing growing up wild and free with a little help from those who love her best.