November 7 – 20, 2016
Mt. Washington — It has grown within view of my kitchen door, just beyond the garden fence at the wetland’s edge, a neighbor the whole quarter century I’ve lived in the old schoolhouse, and we just met. I was raking up dried brush, mostly tangled ferns that overhung the foot-wide trail a woodsman and I had trod in April when we cut two trees that were encroaching on the perimeter of the garden. At a step up where roots grew over the path, I took hold of a small tree and looked up. My eyes met a twiggy crown decorated with bunches of shining, burnt sienna colored winged nutlets
suspended like small wooden sculptures backlit by blue sky. Dropping my gaze, I recognized the grey, muscular-looking trunk as the hallmark of American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana.) Its common names – blue beech, ironwood, musclewood – describe its resemblance to beech trees and its extremely hard wood that looks like muscles. Hornbeams are members of the birch (Betulaceae) family.
As autumn turns toward winter and fewer tasks remain in the garden, our attention returns to maintaining the environs of cultivated areas. After discovering the hornbeam, I continued to clear the remains of summer’s tender growth outside the garden fence, uncovering felled saplings and tree branches left behind half a year ago when planting the garden became a priority. These will be cut into firewood lengths. Where trees have grown so tall as to block hours of direct sunlight from the vegetable garden, late fall and winter are good times to harvest them for firewood.
At this time of moving between preparing outdoor and indoor spaces for winter, dig and pot a few of the frost hardy plants still in the ground. Parsley and celery plants will maintain their health in a sunny window while providing fresh accents and garnishes. Carrots, beets and parsnips store well for months in the refrigerator in perforated recycled fruit bags. Alternatively, bury them, spaced apart, in barrels of sand. Mulch most of the parsnips as well as sunchokes and leave them to overwinter in the ground. Kale, collards and leeks should be fine in the garden for another month, although now’s the time to harvest, shred, briefly sauté and freeze quantities of kale and collards to eat into springtime. Before too much longer, cut stems of sage and thyme and hang to dry in bunches.