As the leaves turn color and pumpkins on the vine become more orange by the day, we welcome autumn on the home farm. Harvest season offers reward for carefully tending to the garden all spring and summer growing season: crisp apples, golden sunflowers and homegrown cannabis are soon to be harvested. Life in autumn offers rich color and flavor, and the promise of rain to come. As we passed through fall equinox, we started thinking ahead to next growing season by planning and prepping our cover crops. We're also tucking food away for later with pickling and making jam. Stocking the pantry with applesauce, zucchini relish and blackberry jam provides delicious flavors to future meals. Nothing impresses a friend like a gift of homemade caramelized applesauce (see recipe below). In addition, we're planting dark leafy greens, beets, carrots and radishes to enjoy through the fall and winter, and into early spring. Our mild maritime climate allows year-round cultivation of these hearty vegetables. Like the old fable of the ant and the grasshopper, careful, diligent work now will lead to a full pantry in the cold rainy season — full enough to share with a carefree grasshopper friend.
In addition to good composting and mulching, cover crops offer growing areas a boost in nutrients and growing power. Giving the soil a chance to rest restores nitrogen levels and prevents those pesky weeds from moving in. Deciding which cover crop to choose depends on personal preference and, since many cover crops are edible, which flavors your taste buds crave. Legumes (nitrogen-fixing plants) are a classic choice. Fava beans offer delicious large white beans after growing through the fall and winter, and can be enjoyed fresh as shell beans or dried for savory bean soups and falafel. They can be grown easily on a backyard scale in raised beds or large containers. In the corn-cannabis patch this year, we noticed for the first time a patch of crimson clover around the cannabis plants. They've been companions all summer and we plan to expand the clover throughout the corn patch. Not only does this plant keep weeds away and break up the soil, it also produces the amazing clover blossom. Of any color of clover, crimson clover contains the highest concentration of medicinal properties. Red clover can be applied topically in a balm or salve for healthy skin. It can also be used as a tea and has blood-thinning properties, though you should consult your physician about possible drug and herb interactions. In a salad, clover blossoms add color and sweetness, and in the garden they offer bees sweet and bountiful nectar. Plus, the flowers really pop against fall and winter browns and grays. You can start sowing clover and poppies together now for breathtaking color in the early spring. It's also a good time to plant alfalfa, which is rich in chlorophyll for people and herbivorous pets such as rabbits and goats. It can also fix 200 pounds of nitrogen per acre and 10 tons of organic matter. Chicory, a popular coffee substitute, is another type of cover you can plant now. Chicory greens are edible and the roots can be roasted in the oven and made into a delicious hearty drink without caffeine. It's a good time for oats and peas, too. The oats grow tall and provide growing habitat for peas. For a little extra diversity, you can add bell beans and barley to create rich foraging for home farm sheep, chickens, goats and pigs.
As apples begin to ripen in abundance, its time to get cooking. There are so many delicious and healthy choices: applesauce, apple butter, apple pie filling, dried apple slices, apple jelly. Just the smell of fresh apples cooking on the stovetop is worth it, and applesauce can be enjoyed on its own or used as an egg substitute in baking.
One year, we were gifted the entire harvest of a friend's golden delicious apple tree. To speed up the process of making applesauce, we decided to first bake the apples in the oven and then heat up on the stove for canning. The result was a dark, intensely sweet applesauce with amazingly smooth texture. Here's our recipe:
Caramelized Apple Sauce
All you need for this recipe is your apples. You can preserve the sauce in glass jars using the water bath method.
Rinse the apples, leaving the peels on. Space them evenly on a cookie sheet and bake at 350 F until soft (about 20 minutes). Let them cool enough to handle before removing their cores and skins.
Place the softened apple pulp in a heavy bottomed pan over medium-low heat. Cook them until bubbling (about 20 minutes) and remove from heat.
For those of you with more apples than you can handle, don't let all that deliciousness go to waste. Step one is to pick all the apples once they're ripe. Get out the ladder and some paper bags, and load them up. If cooking is not your style, you can take your apples up to Miller Farms in McKinnleyville for pressing. Leave the house with bags of apples and come home with containers of fresh apple juice. You can also donate apples to neighbors, or to a local food bank, like Food for People, which will take drop-offs or pick up large donations (445-3166). Put some in animal-proof containers in a cool, dry place like the garage or under the house as a makeshift root cellar. Many apples sold in big chain grocery chains are in cold storage for months before being sold. Homegrown apples stored for a few months are much fresher and they haven't been handled and shipped. Their flavor and crisp texture remain intact.
Katie Rose McGourty is the owner of Healthy Living Everyday at www.healthy-living-everyday.org. She prefers she/her.