Pleasures of Fall Growing

Oct. 8, 2010

Swish, swish, swish of raking a sound of creation

By Jim PathFinder Ewing

We went to Starkville Monday for our Mississippi Sustainability Institute board meeting and saw mile after mile of brown grass, not from frost, but drought. Keep watering your fall garden!

When we returned, I raked bags full of pine straw from our backyard for the garden as mulch to hold moisture between the rows. In the swish, swish, swish of raking, I was reminded that nothing says “fall” more than raking leaves!

By now, if your fall garden is taking off, you should see lots of young plants emerging. A lot of those sprouts, alas, are weeds.

Don’t despair. While you should gently pluck them out, to be frank, if you’re going to grow organic, you’d better get used to weeds.

To be even more frank, it’s best just to make friends with them. After all, what’s a weed anyway, but a misplaced heirloom.

One of my favorite books is Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Farmer by Tim Stark. It’s about a man living in New York City who decides to grow tomatoes because he can’t stand the tasteless ones in stores. He chooses organic heirloom (nonhybrid) varieties and ends up being a much-sought-after supplier in upscale Manhattan restaurants and markets.

It’s a wonderful story. But it hit home for me because he details how he went back to his roots in Pennsylvania to grow larger crops and his farmer neighbors despaired over his refusal to use chemical nitrate fertilizers, while tsk-tsking his weed-filled fields.

We know about that.

In our little 5 acres, we have lots of weeds. But we also have lots of bees, bumblebees, butterflies by the hundreds and birds galore. I have chairs in various places so that no matter where I am or what I’m doing, I can just sit and watch the living tableau unfold: A stunning array of flowers with vibrant blues, violets, reds, purples and yellows that are so beautiful as to bring tears – all serenaded with the hum of life, as the pollinators gently tend to them.

It is the element of nature that is so missing in most of our lives, reminding us of the beauty of creation all around us, and how truly insignificant we are in the grand scheme – if we don’t botch it.

Which brings us back to the basics. The weather is turning cooler at night.

For frost in your 4-by-8 “Jim’s plot,” just throw a light blanket over it when the temperature dips, or light plastic, and remove immediately after frost threat is gone.

At ShooFly Farm we use Agribon. It’s a light fabric that’s available at garden stores or online in various weights for row crops, garden beds, shrubs, fruit trees or deck containers. You can buy a 50-foot roll for around $20. It will add about 4-6 degrees of protection.

When we seek to extend the life of our garden into the nongrowing season, we are not fighting against the tide of the seasons, but allowing those plants that endure cold weather to remain hardy.

Eventually, all of our devices to protect against coming winter – like age itself – will fail, succumbing to the inevitable. But we will rejoice in the days we have and the bounteous harvests of each day, even if they are only a handful – something to relish with our daily bread as a product of the earth we share.

This changing of the seasons is to be enjoyed as the first chill winds blow, reminding us that life is precious, worth savoring with each bite.

Note from wife Annette:

It is not too late to plant mustards. Mizuna mustards, a type originally from Japan, are fast-growing, vigorous and prolific, and extremely cold resistant. I have harvested them through December. They have frilly serrated leaves, making them a beautiful edible garnish.

Young leaves can be eaten in salads. Mizuna has a tender-crisp texture, and the flavor is very mild/sweet compared to other mustards. They are great stir-fried, with your favorite seasonings.

NPR interview with author and organic tomato farmer Tim Stark:

Contact Jim Ewing on Twitter @OrganicWriter, or Facebook:


Don’t burn those leaves!

Use them as mulch between the rows to retain moisture. Or put them in your compost pile or where you plan to plant next spring, letting nature break them down.


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