Here in Ohio, autumn can be an unpredictable time of year. We can have temperatures as warm as a mid-July day or leaves falling on snow-covered ground. And it can go from one extreme to the other in as little as a day. This can make fall gardening a tricky endeavor and creating autumn gardening traditions a bit of a gamble.
Yet, one tradition is guaranteed at my house, and that’s picking off the vegetable garden before a frost. During the growing season, we harvest what we need for table use and preserve veggies as they reach peak ripeness.
There are many vegetable plants, like green peppers and Swiss chard, which continue to produce until killed by a heavy frost or a freeze. Not wishing to end the season too soon, I leave these on the plants as long as possible. Picking off the garden is our last opportunity to harvest these fresh veggies for the year.
I have to admit, picking off the veggie garden happens to be one of my favorite tasks. As the final harvest of the year, I often take a moment to reflect upon the success of my garden. As I look around, I’m always in awe at the size of the individual plants. To think that 25 foot (7.6 m.) row of waist-high tomato plants all grew from tiny seeds that I had held in the palm of my hand only months earlier.
So, what sparks this process of saving the last produce the growing season has to offer? It all begins by carefully monitoring the weather. The earliest recorded freeze date for my area is September 21. While it’s rare that we have a freeze this early, it’s not unusual for us to receive a light or spotty frost in late September.
When a light frost is forecasted for my area, I pull out my supply of old sheets and cover as much of the garden as I can. Many years this simple process extends the growing season for weeks, as we often have a cold snap followed by warmer weather.
As the fall season progresses, the time comes when covering the plants will no longer protect them. When the temps are predicted to drop to the mid to low 30’s, I know it’s time to pick off the garden. I gather every bushel basket, plastic tub and laundry basket I can find.
The Final Harvest
For this final harvest, I usually drive my SUV to the garden to make hauling veggies easier. As I fill my baskets, I literally strip every usable pepper from the plant. I pick all the ripe tomatoes as well as high-quality green ones. These I allow to ripen in the house. With any luck, I’ll still have garden tomatoes for the holidays.
I do the same with any remaining garden veggies. When the car is full and the garden empty, the real work begins. For the next few days, I have a marathon of cleaning, cutting, freezing, canning and dehydrating garden veggies.
It’s exhausting, and I often chide myself for not doing more harvesting and food preservation sooner. I’m not sure why I procrastinate every year, but I do. Perhaps I simply want to hang onto the garden as long as possible.