Harvest Moon

Last Friday was the harvest moon. Garden-growers have been harvesting all summer: lettuce when the nights were still cool, then kale, then tomatoes and peppers, then squash and figs and apples–it’s just now that the ripening seems to be most rapid.

Summer is a time of slow and steady growth, and right at its very end comes the bounty. Many folks think of harvest as a word synonymous with autumn, but really it’s a time that bridges summer and fall. Go to any orchard and they’ll tell you that a lot of people don’t show up for apple picking until October–they wait ’til the leaves have changed and the days have a chill because they think of apple picking as a fall time activity. By the time they get there, the season has passed, and the apples are all overripe and picked over.

Now’s the time for apple-picking, and it’s a long-running tradition here in Missouri. Eckert’s has been in the same family for 7 generations. Centennial Farms has been in operation since 1821–so long ago that President James Monroe signed the document that granted its founder his land–and it’s now been in the same family since 1854. Being born into a family like that must be something like being born a royal–like it or not, one of the siblings is going to have to grow up to take over the throne and run the apple kingdom.

Modern life has made harvesting into a leisurely day-trip activity, but we owe our fall fun to the farmers who’ve been working to keep it alive and well all summer. Our apples and pumpkins and peach preserves are the product of a spring’s worth of preparation and a summer’s worth of upkeep. In these last few days before autumn, we fill up our bags and collect summer’s leftovers.

The Arrival of the Orb-weavers

We’ve found ourselves again in a distinctly in-between season. For now, the 90 degree days and still-growing gardens are shouting over the whispers of autumn. We look to the trees for hints of fall, but one sign of the season is glittering, nearly invisible, in between the branches: the webs of the orb-weavers.

Orb-weavers are the designers behind the classic image of a spider web. They spin in a spiraling, circular shape. If you’ve been noticing more spider webs in the past few weeks, it’s because there are more out and about. This is their mating season, so they’re all out in the open trying to find each other.

There’s not just one orb-weaver. There are all kinds, and many of them are eye-catchers. Most female orb-weavers are characterized by a large and especially colorful abdomen. The black and yellow garden spider is one such spectacle. Their size makes them intimidating, but they are actually a huge benefit to yards and gardens because they feast on the pests that would otherwise torment our plants. 

The spiders that are laid this fall will overwinter in the egg sac, then hatch and mature this coming spring and summer. In late summer fall, they’ll come out from hiding again to create the next generation of orb-weavers, and to tell us, without a doubt, that autumn is well on its way.

Dominoes

All the time, nature is working, and summer is the culmination of its work. Autumn is a time of preparation. Winter is for saving energy. Spring is for birth and for growth. Summer is what it’s all for–a time to live.

It’s September now, and Labor Day has passed, so the secret is out: summer is beginning to end. From here on out it’s the falling of the dominoes. At the end of summer, a whole year’s growth begins to fade away into next year’s generation. This time of year is the end of that great cycle. Now we are plunging toward fall, and winter in turn, and back toward spring and then summer again.

With this end comes a deep and unshakable sense of sadness. It becomes easy to slip into a nostalgic and wistful mood. It must be partly the fault of the ghost of our childhood brain. Fall means the return to school, and thus to responsibility. An undeniable slowing down follows the end of summer vacation, even for those who didn’t have one. There are fewer festivals, no more families visiting the botanical garden in the middle of a Tuesday morning, a dwindling number of nighttime activities as the twilight starts to move in earlier. All season long the city has been reeling from a feverish thirst for summer fun. And now, as the trees stop producing leaves and begin to drop them, we slow down and start getting reflective.

Something about this time of year is inherently bittersweet. Soon the air will be crisp and the nights will be cool and the days will be warm instead of hot. We know that summer is ending, but on its tail comes autumn, bearing its own gifts.

Emerald August

In late July and early August, the trees are rich. Their emerald leaves shimmer in the rain and in the wind. It’s the deepest, greenest time of year. Now, late August is here, and with it the first signs of a changing season. If you close your eyes, the sound of the locusts and the weight of the humidity tell you that it’s deep summer.

But a keen eye will tell you something’s shifting—look down, and you’ll see that slowly, very slowly, the least healthy of the leaves are browning, and still-green acorns litter the sidewalks. Even more striking, though, is the dulling of the leaves. The sycamores were some of the first to fade. The tips of the gingko leaves are rimmed with yellow now. You won’t see it if you’re looking at the whole tree, but get up close enough to pluck a leaf. The little fan looks delicately dipped in paint. The locust trees are yellowing, too, and soon their little leaves will start to swirl, falling and flecking sidewalks like leftover confetti from last night’s party.

Those trees are the most pronounced in their changes, but now the others begin to join them. Look closely and you’ll see that those lush leaves are starting to get dusty. They’re not yellow yet, they’re not falling, and most of them won’t until mid-October. It’s still summer, without a doubt. But the seasons don’t just stand still—they never do. And so the trees trade August’s luster for September’s dust.

Call of the Cicada

The song of summer evenings is has risen to a blaring ruckus: It is the call of the cicadas.

Familiar as that noise is, there’s some serious confusion about the bugs that create it. Here in the Midwest, we refer to them colloquially and erroneously as locusts; really, locusts have nothing to do with cicadas and are much more like grasshoppers behaving with mob mentality.

And adding to the locust-cicada confusion is the common knowledge that cicadas are only supposed to emerge  every 17 years, lying in wait underground. But those periodical cicadas aren’t the only cicada there is—there are all kinds of cicadas out there, and most of them are annual visitors.

In Missouri, the Dog Day Cicada, Swamp Cicada, and Scissor-Grinder are a few that make their presence loud and clear from the moment the heat begins to creep into the day. Their noise grows louder all afternoon and crests, finally, in a wild and desperate whir just before nightfall.

Nothing evokes late summer like that loud and longing whine. The cicadas sing their loudest in this month of August, just before the intense certainty of summer heat, summer green, and summer humidity begins to fade. With September’s arrival they will gradually quiet, dropping out of the chorus one by one until the evenings are calm. In the same way that their raucous shriek grows as the light disappears from the sky, their ringing rises to its peak as summer starts to fade. When they leave, they carry the life out of the air with them, having sung the season to sleep with commanding fanfare.

Deafening August

Mid-August.  So it’s back-to-school and pools closing and cinnamon brooms appearing at the grocery stores. We adjust our consumables to match the false ending that the beginning of the school year creates. But summer is a long ways from over. The constant hum of bugs will tell you that much—crickets in the morning, cicadas in the evening, katydids in the night. And this week will see some of the season’s most hot and humid days yet.

August is the month that demands to be seen. It’s wet and hot and loud; like a big fat final har-umph before abundant summer starts to give in to tempered autumn. Here in St. Louis, August is so humid that tropical plants thrive on patios and at the Botanical Garden. Anyone who spends time outside knows that autumn is still a distant thought in the mind of the natural world. Nobody can smell it coming on the wind just yet—we must stand in the smell of our own sweat and bugspray until deafening August has had its say.

Harvesting Honey

In the world of beekeeping, late July and early August is harvest season. Spring and summertime means hard work for honeybees, just as it does for farmers. Bees depend on pollen for a food source, and they won’t leave the hive once the temperature drops below 40 degrees. That means they have to produce like crazy all summer long to make sure the hive has enough food to survive the winter.

So the bees process some of their pollen to make the nectar they eat, and for some of it they create little wax caps so they can save it for later. Over time, this capped nectar loses some of its moisture. And that’s when it becomes sweet, thick, golden honey.

They depend on that honey as a source of food throughout the winter, so you would think it would harm them when we harvest it. But the bees produce a huge amount of extra. Even a modest hive will produce 30 pounds of honey or more. The bees don’t set a certain quantity and then stop when they reach it. They just push forward, full speed ahead, until the last flower has died and they can push no more. Beekeepers can calculate how much honey their hive will need to survive the winter and harvest the excess with that in mind. Even if the worst does happen, and they notice that the bees are running low on their stores, they can feed sugar water to the hive to help supplement the honey.

To harvest honey, the bees must first be encouraged to leave the super, which is the section of the hive where their extra food supply is stored. Different methods can be used to get the bees to migrate to different parts of the hive. Bees have a powerful sense of smell, so the easiest way to get them to leave is to fill the super with a scent they don’t like, like smoke or almond extract. Then the frames are inspected to pick the best candidates for harvest. For the bees’ sake, the friendliest way to get to the honey is just to remove the caps. If only the caps are removed, the bees won’t have to rebuild the whole honeycomb structure when they get their frames back. Lastly, the frames have to be spun at a high speed to get the honey to run out, and as soon as it’s run through a simple mesh filter, it’s ready to sell, just the way it is.

Beekeeping has been going on for a very long time. We have images of humans collecting honey from as long as 10,000 years ago. It’s not hard to believe, though. Can you imagine what a discovery it was to stumble upon rich, sweet, liquid gold? Anyone would put up with a few stings to get their hands on that.