The first frost

The last day before the first frost of autumn. Each year it comes around, dreaded, but half-welcome, too. Does that last tiny cherry tomato, gleaned off the last vine in the pot on the front porch taste better than all the others that brightened summer days and salads? I think so, but maybe it's just me. I find those final cold, red balls of sweetness as bright and poignant as strawberries and enjoy them accordingly.

At least the flies will diminish. Hopefully the mud will soon wane. We sure were spoiled this summer, having nice, solid lanes and roads to drive and walk upon, rather than swamps and morasses to muddle through.

Maybe the frost will at least weed out a few of the wasps and hornets that become so irritable this time of year. It seems that every time the sun shines just standing out in the yard becomes a perilous occupation. Yellow jackets bustle up and bump against you, threatening mayhem if you don't move along. And maybe even if you do.

It certainly is easier to judge the timing of the first frost in autumn than it is the last frost in the spring. That date can be downright sneaky, freezing things you thought were safe. The calendar is a poor predictor of temperature or weather.

First frost marks the last day of the growing season, and requires much attention to detail.

House plants must come indoors to snuggle cheek by jowl at all the windows. Ditto cooking herbs to keep winter meals simmering with good tastes. Parsley? Check. Pot o' chives? Check? Two pots of top onion? Yes indeedy.

By the way, you too can have home-grown, fresh, delicious, green onions all year round. Just gather the little globes that grow on top of top onions (such a fitting name) and sow them in a flower pot. Stick them in a sunny window and they will sprout leggy but luscious greens all winter. Snip with your kitchen scissors as needed and watch them regrow with surprising speed. I use a lot of them, hence the two pots full.

Four batches of leaf lettuce are sown in an assortment of containers as well. The first time I grew lettuce indoors in the winter I planted it in a big Styrofoam cooler. I thought it needed a lot of dirt and messed around with the bungley, cumbersome and far too fragile lump for ages. Totally unnecessary. Leaf lettuce will grow nicely in a standard four-inch pot, although if you want to harvest enough to matter a bigger pot is warranted. I simply stir up the dirt in whatever pots have lost their summer occupants and dump on lettuce seed and lots of water.

There are some real pluses to growing it inside, too. No aphids. No slugs. No mud splashed up by ill-mannered rainstorms. No rude cats using it for a napping nest or worse. I buy the lettuce mix from Pinetree, but most companies offer similar mixtures. The many varieties of red and gold and green are truly attractive and a welcome sight (not to mention taste) on a cold snowy day.

If you are ambitious and have a really deep pot you can grow carrots indoors too. They are not as easy as lettuce, but they sure taste good, and once again, the foliage makes for an interesting house plant. I have grown them several times now and much enjoyed the novelty of pulling a carrot in the living room. Sadly there is never enough space for more than a handful.

The last plants to be lugged inside are the four Norfolk Island pines. They started as tiny, glitter-coated Christmas decorations. Now they are as tall as I am and sprawl all over the living room. It's all right, though. Any one of them can pinch hit as a Christmas tree if we don't end up getting a real one.

The first freezing night means caution with crops like sorghum, Sudex, Sudan grass and their ilk. For a while after freezing they are toxic to livestock, so it's hurry up and wait.

The season brings change to the bird population as well. The woods are awash in wood warblers, dozens by hundreds by thousands of them. What a challenge to identify even one as they flow past. In summer, if not easy, they are at least possible, but in fall plumage, a magnolia is a yellowthroat is a myrtle is a Connecticut. The iBird Pro on the phone comes in plumb handy, but even with it, most of them remain anonymous.

Over the summer of counting crows and cormorants (well, actually no cormorants, but a girl can dream) the most exciting, ooh-ah bird was a blue-headed vireo. Now pileated woodpeckers stitch their way across the air behind the barn and snow geese sail right through the barnyard, honking at a just a little bit different pitch than the Canadas.

I wasn't going to count the fall and winter species this year, but with so many interesting kinds flying by I guess I am going to have to. The results of the spring and summer Northview barnyard and backyard count are not quite fully tabulated, but I think we saw 54 species without leaving the four or five acres where the house and barns sit. Of course living on a nice big hill like this you can see a long, long way, which helps with gulls and ducks.

On the morning after that first chilling freeze all is changed somehow. Suddenly tender plants stand out from hardy ones like melted black crayons in a box of brilliant colors. The frosty air leaves tracks and trails among the greenery, sparing this geranium, wrecking that one. Crisp grasses slump as the sun finds them, leaves whirl faster and faster toward the ground, endings without beginnings everywhere you look.

According to the weather folks, today is probably that last day. I hope you are better prepared than I.

Fultonville dairy farmer MARIANNE FRIERS

is a regular columnist. She blogs