After the Killing Frost

The Heritage Herb Garden at the Ozark Folk Center graces the park with visual colors and textures, sweet and pungent aromas; and helps us to interpret the history of the human use of plants.

Temperatures dropped to the low thirties and upper twenties last week. Basil was cut, buzzed in blenders with olive oil and frozen for sauces. Countertops in the homes of gardeners are laden with tomatoes and peppers of every hue. Butterbeans and peas, some ripened and dried and others with green shells are awaiting processing. All of this bounty, waiting safely inside after several days of a harvesting flurry needs to be stored properly for winter meals.

The tomatoes in my house were quickly rinsed in vinegar water to remove dust and insects. Fruit with blemishes were either culled into the compost bucket or had their edible flesh consumed as fried green tomatoes. The others will continue to ripen; those that were pink are already ready to eat one week after harvest. Some are hard and green; each will be wrapped individually in pages of the Stone County Leader and stored in a cool room. These will be checked for ripening and rotting on a regular basis. I anticipate eating ripe tomatoes from my garden through Christmas or New Year's Eve.

I am addicted to the hottest chiles. I don't pickle peppers, preferring the quick process of drying them. I crush them into flakes as needed to season everything.

Really. Nearly every meal tastes better with a bit of hot pepper and the stimulating heat helps me get my chores done. Here's the thing. After chewing the chile, the heat spreads throughout my mouth. Then I feel it in my throat and my solar plexus. The blood rushes up to my head. I often feel the heat in my eardrums. There are moments of anxiety. Then the brain sends endorphins to ease the pain. Endorphins are hormones that inspire euphoria. Physical and mental work is made more pleasurable. It is just that simple. After the pain comes a great gain, super power!

I do have a friend who put 'Carolina Reaper', the next-to-the-hottest edible pepper on the planet, in a dehydrator in her kitchen. She reported that no one in the closed house could breathe after ten minutes of running the unit. I imagine that the windows and doors were thrown open and the electric dehydrator emitting the choking fumes was quickly removed to an outbuilding!

I dry whole chile peppers in single layers on cookie sheets in the oven at 175° F. They dry overnight and are transferred to jars the next day. The oven door is kept closed and the pepper's hot gases remain inside. Wise people will wear gloves when handling hot peppers, even after they are dried. I am not one of those and am still surprised when sometime later I rub an itchy eye.

This was the first season I have ever grown speckled butterbeans. They grew slowly during our cool, wet spring. As the summer progressed the plants produced fat, tall vines. The patch did not need to be harvested until threat of frost. The beans appeared in August but were slow to fatten the seeds developing inside the pods. They are an heirloom variety that normally produces only three seeds per pod. The gentleman that shared the seeds with me said that his father had been saving and replanting pods with four seeds per pod. Dried pods were divided into two bags, one with the desired four-seeded pods and the other with less than four.

Fat green pods will be shelled this week and cooked into a mess of green lima beans. A jar of the best dried beans will be saved for next year's seed and the rest will be stored in jars in the pantry until needed. The roots of these legumes will leave nitrogen-filled nodules in the soil to feed future plants. The vines will break down in the compost pile this winter and spring.

Though it was sad to pull summer's plants, the cycle of life and the good work of producing and eating healthy, homegrown, organic food continues on. If I don't see you in the future—I'll see you in the past pasture!