One day in September, the exact day a matter of the weather, the wheelbarrow path from wood pile to porch will be strewn with the golden leaves of yellow birch, one of the first trees to turn color in our garden. Only shaded leaves on the inside of the tree canopy will have fallen at this point, the outer leaves remaining on the trees, dark green, continuing to transform sunlight into sugar. Their day will come.
Deciduous trees and shrubs begin to shut down in September while the vegetable garden’s sunflowers, oblivious to the morning’s chilly air, open new flower heads even as goldfinches peck seeds from the old heads. A hard freeze will soon put an end to all this, but for now their bright yellow faces tower over beds of potatoes, squash, and carrots.
Color slowly fades from the September garden, greens turning yellow and brown, branches thinning toward bare. Potted hyacinth beans with yellow-brown paper-thin leaves would have been retired to the compost heap if not for the dark red pods clinging to their topmost branches.
In many New England gardens, early September is the beginning of harvest season in earnest. While August gardens supply a trickle of tomatoes, cucumbers, and summer squash, the first week of September turns the spigot wide open. Suddenly the garden overflows with these crops as well as tomatillos, carrots, onions, leeks, and the first potatoes. Cucumber vines crawl through rows of bush beans as they crank up their yield and winter squashes grow on vines weaving through corn stalks with ripening ears.
Methods of dealing with September’s surplus vary with crop type. Tomatoes can be canned or frozen, cucumbers pickled, and many crops, such as potatoes, onion, winter squash, leeks, and carrots can be stored as harvested, if you can meet their requirements.
Potatoes to be stored should not be dug until the tops have died and dried. They can even be left in the ground for a few weeks after the tops have died, if necessary. Dig the tubers carefully to avoid bruises and cuts, setting any damaged potatoes aside for immediate use. Do not wash or scrub potatoes intended for storage but carefully brush off the excess soil.
Once dug, potatoes need to be cured for a week or two in a warm (60 to 75 F), moist, and dark location. We use a corner of our basement, laying the tubers in single layers on wire racks. Curing will help heal any minor wounds on the tubers.
Once cured, potatoes are best stored in a cooler location with temperatures near 45 F. This is difficult to achieve in most homes (unless you have an extra refrigerator), so pick the coolest corner of the basement, a location that is also humid and dark. The closer you get to these temperature and humidity requirements, the longer the potatoes will keep.
Winter Squash and Pumpkins
Avoid frost on the pumpkins! If winter squash, including pumpkins, are to keep in storage, they should be harvested before exposure to frost. Harvest them when their rinds have hardened and the fruit have developed a deep, solid color. Leave about three inches of stem attached to pumpkins and two inches attached to other winter squash. Do not try to store a squash if the stem has been completely removed.
Cure pumpkins and winter squash at 80 to 85 F for seven to ten days, then store in a dry, well-ventilated location with temperatures near 55 F (45 F for acorn squash). In olden days, gardeners would store winter squash beneath their beds.
Harvest carrots for storage in late fall, before the soil freezes, and while the soil is dry. Cut off the tops to within one-half inch of the root. Soil can be removed with a quick rinse but the carrots should not be scrubbed.
Once dry, place the carrots in plastic bags perforated with small holes and store in a cold (32 to 40 F), humid location. Carrots can also be stored in the garden by placing a deep layer of straw mulch over the plantings as the weather gets cold but before the ground freezes.
Summer leek varieties that are intended for harvest in the fall, like ‘King Richard’ and ‘Tadorna Blue’, are best left in the ground and harvested as needed until the first frost. They can be kept in the ground even longer if they are covered with a thick layer of straw or shredded leaves. At some point, however, before a hard freeze, you will want to dig the leeks still in the garden bed and prepare them for indoor winter storage in the following manner.
Place two to three inches of a damp medium such as peat, clean sand, or sawdust in a five-gallon bucket or large tub. Do not get the medium too soggy or it will cause the leeks to rot. Stand the leeks with their roots on the medium and push them down to establish good contact between the roots and medium. The roots do not need to be completely covered, just firmly in touch with the medium.
Stored in this manner, the leeks will continue to grow, very slowly, rather than going totally dormant. Trim the tops a bit and store the the bucket or tub in a cool dark place with some humidity, checking the medium occasionally to make sure it stays moist. Do not remove any of the outer leaves until you use the leeks.