Letter from Aroostook: Summer tumbling down

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The change of seasons is dramatic here, especially summer to fall, and especially this year. 

For the past eight weeks, the central and northernmost parts of The County have been withering under a severe drought. Little rain and record-breaking high temperatures have meant that commercial farmers – those who grow potatoes, grains, broccoli – and those of us who rely on our own gardens have had to irrigate more. Lakes, rivers and streams are down several inches or more, often to mere trickles, and crops overall are not as good as in past years. 

I’d planned to visit Smith Farms, one of the East Coast’s largest broccoli producers, but with our own garden needing attention, that has been postponed a week as we scramble to gather in the vegetables and fruits that we rely on for winter meals.  

There is always one day in late August where we wake to a new tang in the air, and the realization that the beeches, poplars, and even a maple or two along our field have begun to change color. It’s a bit early this year and fills us with a sense of urgency to get prepared for the winter.

But this year’s harvest won’t be as bountiful. A late frost killed the buds on the apple and pear trees, leaving only plums, blueberries, and elderberries for winter fruits, since we also mowed down the raspberries to give them a year of growth without fruiting. But all have been affected by the drought, so we’ve put away far less than in other years. Now we’ve turned our attention to the vegetable garden, which has fared well because we mulch heavily with hay and straw, and hubby has watered carefully, always mindful that we could run the well dry.  

We’ve worked early every morning picking peas, green and yellow beans, cucumbers, and zucchini, blanching and freezing, washing and pickling, shredding and bagging. In between, we’ve dined on the second crop of lettuce and beans and waited patiently for tomatoes to ripen for sauce, and corn, a favorite, to tassel and signal it’s ready to pick. In past years we’ve occasionally missed it, and marauding raccoons have snuck in to strip the cobs off for a midnight snack, leaving us with far less corn than we like. 

They almost won again this year, but hubby Bruce noted that the masked bandits had stripped off two ears, and the battle was on. We picked 2 1/2 bushels of beautiful corn, more than 140 ears in less than an hour, and stored them safely in the garage, away from the ravenous raccoons. We wait until early morning to do the blanching and steaming, thus avoiding the heat of this sweltering summer.  

But this morning was different. The air is cool and crisp. The angle of light as the sun breached the eastern horizon was sharper, and the birds are up earlier, adding their morning song to the chirrup of crickets. The season has changed. 

Although up early, we are not rushing to get out into the garden. Instead, we take our coffee out to the patio, settle in to plan the day: digging the first carrots and the last of the fennel, picking cucumbers for more pickles, and gathering the ripening tomatoes. I’ll pick herbs: oregano and thyme, lemon balm and chives for drying. We’ll clean out the last of one freezer and wash it down so when the meat cuts are ready, the freezer is clean and ready to store our winter meals. And we’ll pull out the tarps to protect the still ripening tomatoes from the first frost, sure to come within a few weeks.

There’s a real satisfaction in knowing that although the summer is done, we are prepared for whatever winter might bring. 

Jan Grieco is a retired college instructor and former reporter for The Forecaster. She lives in Perham, where she farms and lives off the land.

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