These Ozarks Hills: Signs of Fall

Oct 7, 2016

This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozarks Hills. I don’t know where it is you live, but out here in the rural Ozarks we’ve begun hearing whispers of fall this past week, as the Autumn Equinox has now passed and is receding into memory.

We feel a little spark of energy in the cooler and dryer air. The leaves of the black walnut are the first to fall and are doing so, revealing the harvest that is already beginning to pepper fencerows and the tin roof on the machine shed.

Those houseplants we put outdoors in the shade to enjoy the summer breezes and the soft rainfall seem to have suddenly become a little more present and watchful. Surely we mean to put aside a day soon to trim them back and scoop up the debris gathered at their bases, check for resident colonies of ants and bring them in. Surely we will. And soon, ok?

And if we live out away from town and its services, and not in an all-electric home, our thoughts are also turning toward making arrangements for the winter’s warmth, and we’re making calls to get on the list of the local woodcutter or our local propane dealer. I seem to be blessed with an abundance of choices in this respect. In fact, my residence has baseboard electric heaters in the living room and kitchen in case the furnace breaks down. They came in handy a couple years ago when the blower motor gave up the ghost. When a part had to be ordered, I turned up a different thermostat and slept on the couch until it arrived, and was very grateful for what I’d thought to be an obsolete system. In general, though, I’ve found it very enjoyable to have a central heating system that relies on a furnace that burns either wood or propane, and in the years I’ve lived here I’ve used both — propane when only a little nighttime warmth is needed, and wood for those February cold spells that come and stay, sometimes for weeks on end.

Last year, though, I was still recovering from illness and the price of energy was low, so I just stayed with propane. I’ll probably do the same this year, although I’ve ordered a couple ranks of wood just in case, and because wood heat is always just a little bit better in the hard cold. It’s a dryer heat and lends more fragrance to the air. And it seems closer, somehow, to nature and those elder days in our memory.

Speaking of all that, we are also coming into what the old ones called the second harvest, that time after the fields are cleared and the garden mostly ended, when the tree nuts are gathered, the beds of winter greens are readied for colder nights, and in some nearby valley the sorghum is being boiled off to make that lovely condensed cane juice that used to be called “long sweetenin’” to distinguish it from store-bought sugar. Now mind you, when you see it on the shelves this month or next, you must check and verify it’s not sugar cane syrup. That’s from Louisiana. Read the label. You want pure, unadulterated sorghum cane syrup. A tablespoon of it mixed with a bit of butter on a hot fresh biscuit is heaven on earth.

This is also the time when, wonder above all, we get to dig our sweets! And I’ve been just itchin’ to tell you about it. I swear, if I couldn’t grow but one thing in the garden, I think the last thing I’d part with would be Sweet Potatoes. And this fall especially, because I’ve rediscovered a variety I grew some decades ago, and was careless with, and lost it. I found it again some years later, when I was writing a gardening column for the newspaper and I complained about not being able to find any.

Then the ones I saved that year rotted, and then I didn’t have a garden for a while and it seemed that after a while the variety as well as those who kept it eventually just died off. Some years later I tried a plot in the community garden and in that year I also found a just a couple of starts at the Baker Creek spring festival north of Mansfield. They weren’t exactly the same, they were too red in color, but had the same odd little leaf described as “Oak Leaf” and completely unlike the heart-shaped leaves of regular varieties. I planted those two starts in the community garden plot that I had, and then some helpful neighbor mistook one for a weed and pulled it up. I got about enough for a meal from the other, and none big enough to save.

But this spring at Baker Creek, I found that young man and he had most of a flat of starts for sale. They looked right, so I bought them all and after sharing some with friends, I put a dozen slips in a little wide row about 12-feet long in my garden.

And last Saturday, with the help of some energetic friends, I dug them. The yield: 46 pounds even, and the largest weighed exactly five pounds. You see, I forgot to mention that the reason I like them so well is that when the weather and the season are just right, they grow monster-size potatoes, sweet as sugar and totally stringless, even though you do have to split the larger ones with a cleaver.

So! now all I have to do is trim up those houseplants and move them indoors, and take the trimmings to a flower-loving neighbor up the way. The wood and propane are on their way, those sweets are curing in a closet with a pan of water and a light bulb for heat, And I have enough sorghum left from last year to keep me until I can score a bit from this year’s harvest.

So, all is well. October 31 is year’s end in the old calendar, December 31 in the new. I believe I have almost enough provender I can make my way past both of them. Now if I can just suss out a little native pecan tree before the squirrels get it, and find me a tree of persimmons ahead of the possums, and drop by Coleman’s Orchard for a bushel of Jonagolds, the world’s most delectable apple — Well, at that point the world can just still go along on its perplexing and troubling way, but life in these Ozark Hills will be just about perfect.