Help! Stop! The season is passing too fast to notice everything. It’s only mid-August as I write this, but summer is aging especially quickly this year since spring rains ended so early. So many months without moisture have caused the maple and other river bottom tree leaves to start yellowing early. Their bright silhouettes make me catch my breath with delight as the slanting sunbeams illuminate them when I drive home through Ben Lomond and cross the bridge. Each time a brisk wind blows, the sharp redwood quills spiral down from their heights, covering the groud with drifts of their bleached feathers. It’s definitely darker in the mornings, oh yes, and the chickadees and goldfinches and pine siskins are back in full force eating the black seeds out of my skeleton sunflowers, storing all that protein for winter.
Aging summer scents always jolt me into awareness of time passing. The perfumed breath of ripe blackberries on the breeze has shifted to acidic apple smell wherever the sun-warmed bruised grounders nestle down into the dry greass in the orchard. If there has been an early rain, we might smell dark spicy bay and moist eucalyptus as we walk through the woods. Anyone who has lived here a long time knows that it’s important to start thinking about pounding rainfall, and begin looking around home and garden to repair neglected leaks and drainage ditches and other problem spots you’ve ignored since spring.
Take extra care to “cover crop”or mulch your garden well. Plant cover crop seeds soon enougth that they germinate and get their roots down into the ground before nights get too long and cold. Late September- early October is a good time to sprinkle seed around. Ground for next year’s garden can be turned shallowly soon and seeded with a “cover crop” to hold the soil together through torrential winter rains and increase its fertility at the same time. Grasses like oats, barley and rye have many tiny root fibers that keep topsoil from washing away, and when combined with bell or fava beans and vetch (which have bacteria on their roots which make nitrogen from the air available to other plants’), they make the perfect winter collector of solar energy for later use. Cut and composted, or trenched in, they will be wonderful fertilizer for next spring. Either rake the seed into freshly turned soil if your summer crops are already harvested, or toss it around under existing crops like tomato vines if you plan to leave them until a killing frost. The seeds will come up better with a little shade, and by the time you pull out the finished plants, there will be a soft green carpet already starting to protect the soil. By the time hard rains come, you’ll have a good covering to deflect those drops and prevent erosion and loss of fertility. A thick mulch (at least 3-4 inches) or horse manure or other organic material will protect the soil as well.
Fall coming means baking sounds exciting to me again. For the last month we’ve been enjoying our favorite dessert of the late summer – actually summer, fall or winter since it involves apples – apples alone or combined with anything else, baked under a crispy cookie-ish crust. You can start with the first early apples and mix them with some blackberries, then use apples and prune plums, then just apples again. Every apple variety has a different taste and texture. You can have them from July until February: Gravensteins to MacIntoshes to Newtown Pippins.
Here’s an apple crisp recipe adapted from The Vegetarian Epicure by Anna Thomas, one of my favorite older cookbooks that still advocates for butter.
Peel and slice about 7 cups of apples, enough to fill an 9×13 inch baking pan about 2/3 full. (You can add 2-3 big stalks of rhubarb cut into 1 inch chunks, or ½ cup halved prune plums, or ½ cup of blackberries. If you use rhubarb, sprinkle with ½ cup sugar; otherwise, no need to sweeten fruit.)
For topping, mix in a food processor or in a bowl:
¼ cup white sugar
½ cup brown or turbinado sugar
½ teaspoon each of nutmeg and cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ cup flour
Whiz the dry ingredients to mix thoroughly or stir well. Add ½ cup cold butter, cut into chunks, and pulse long enough to complete disappear the butter into tiny bits. (Do this with your fingers or two knives if you don’t have a kitchen machine.) Add ½ cup of rolled oats and ½ cup of chopped walnuts or pecans. Sprinkle topping mix evenly over cut fruit. Do not mix together. Cover with foil and bake at 350 for 30 minutes, then uncover and bake 30 minutes more, until crust is crisp and apples are tender. Eat with cream or half and half if you are lucky enough to enjoy this.
Take your bowl and sit outside while you still can, and smell the world changing from summer into winter.