We recently saw the Harvest Moon, the great round fall moon that hangs at first smoldering red and then as an enormous disc of silver during the greatest time of year for farming in New York State. Upstate, this is the time of year when we'd burn our tomato plants, to rid the fields of any fungi they picked up. Three stories up in the air in Brooklyn, at the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, our tomatoes are composted separately from our other bins, turned into soil that we take downstairs to street level and use to plant sunflowers the following June. The well-harvested kale plants take on the silhouettes of funny green palm trees framed against fall's early sunsets, clouds as pink as salmon bellies.
With cooler mornings and a longer time to harvest before anything wilts, we have a lot more space to breathe than during the heat and dryness of the summer season. Two weeks ago we covered our basil with a lightweight fabric against the coming frost, and sowed the last radishes, mustard greens, clover, and hairy vetch. Our crops become increasingly pointed towards their purpose—to go to seed. The peppers, eggplants, and dill are fruiting and flowering adamantly. Although the fall planting looks a lot flatter and simpler than the Rooftop Farm's other seasons, in many ways it's actually a period in which we are functioning best as a green roof, insulating the rooms below while demanding little water for our green crops.
In Harlem's community gardens, bright spots of color erupted where willow trees turned yellow over rows of the brown bones on sunflowers.
Cold weather slows down other life on the farm, too: the summer honeybees are dying. Yesterday I swept the silver tar off the rooftop by the beehives, cleaning up the fallen little insects like a zamboni making its rounds on an ice rink. When honeybees die, the bright orange of the fuzz on their backs takes on a pale, dusty coloration, and their bodies curl up like commas. From eight weeks of intense flying and foraging, quite a few of the bees had torn wings. Some still had bright, round pollen stuck to their legs, little postcards from different weeds and trees around Brooklyn. We extracted our last honey harvest in August. The rest will remain in the hive all winter for the bees to use, returning a robust colony to action in April of next year.
The passing of the summer bees marks the calendar exit of another pollinator. I recently caught sight of migrating monarch butterflies landing on our marigolds, despite our somewhat isolated location several stories up in the air. It's a flower they'll find both here and in Mexico, their destination several thousand miles away.
New York City is incredibly beautiful because the isolated clusters of trees, plants, and animals concentrate the details of seasonal change. Years ago, a friend showed me how to get free entry to the Metropolitan Opera by waiting outside after the first intermission, and asking fancier folks for their tickets as they left for dinner, so we could then enjoy the second and third acts in box seats. I was living in the South Bronx, gardening a massive backyard and sharing produce with the kids who lived upstairs. As we biked the length of Central Park toward Lincoln Center, our dress jackets flew out behind us like the wings of bats. The leaves had just started to empty out of the trees, falling in yellow strokes with each breath of cold wind. Throughout the park, we spotted huge fallout of migratory birds. In Harlem's community gardens, bright spots of color erupted where willow trees turned yellow over rows of the brown bones on sunflowers.
Fall on any farm can be kind of melancholy, but also a particularly honest and elegant season. I started my first farm apprenticeship in the fall, with Keith Stewart, in Port Jervis, New York. The first few weeks on the farm I was frequently sent out to harvest kale, their leaves filling the fields with blue and green. Working knee-deep in brassicas, I felt as though I was wading in the sea. Farming in shortening daylight hours surrounded by the decaying smell of fall forest leaves could be a very lonely job, and I spend a lot of time crying in Keith's mustard mix. I'd just lost my father to a car accident that spring and was homesick, burying my sense of confusion and grief in the sweat and growth of farming. My sadness came out of nowhere, and frequently. A good meal of the sweet fall carrots, the crisp blue width of the sky filled only with silence and clouds, finding a nest of baby mice curled among the straw in the barn, all sent me off in tears. One day, tending to crates of shallots, separating the rotten alliums from the whole, bronze-colored pearls of good bulbs, I was overwhelmed by the strength and beauty of what I was learning. Farming was a chance to feed, protect, and forever have the ability to provide for the people I loved—something my dad had always done for myself, and for my sisters.
That fall at Keith's farm, we planted thousands of cloves of garlic, planning for a July harvest with a crop that would take his farm through December with sales. It was encouraging to look ahead that far, to know literally that our investment would result in a yield still months away. In years of farming I've learned that both daily attention to detail—on an insect-microscopic level—and the continual making of future plans are the keys to healthy crops. Thinning carrots now allows for healthier harvest later; balancing pests and beneficial insects when they first arrive keeps their quickly multiplying populations in check further along.
After the long hours of summer, fall is a particularly nourishing time for the Rooftop. Although spring is traditionally seen as the start of the planting season, it's in the fall that a farmer invests in the next year with cover crops and bulbs. It's at this time of year that I see less the utility of our hands in the soil and more the naked ecology behind good farming. We make room in the cycle of declining production to allow for decay, which in turn feeds the soil for more growth the following year. Although our soil is too shallow for a good garlic crop at the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, the lessons I learned at Keith's and farming elsewhere remain true. This week, we'll save seeds and plan our future plantings while on the streets of Brooklyn the leaves of ailanthus trees turn golden, fall, and end up in our compost bins—building rich rooftop soil for years to come.