“First Frost”

Fall 2021

What follows is a collection of stories from MOFGA members, staff, volunteers and the community in response to the theme: “first frost.” These stories first appeared in MOFGA Stories segment in fall 2021 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.

We scrambled among the rambling, leafy vines, crating squash as fast as we could and trucked it to the tractor shed for storage. We piled the 50-pound crates, totaling about a ton, full of pumpkins and acorn, butternut and buttercup squash on planks. A killing frost was predicted for that night: the first real frost of the season.

When the squash was all in, we went on to the rest of the frost-tender crops. By sunset, the kitchen was packed with tomatoes, zucchini, green beans and summer squash. Oregano, basil, thyme, dill, marjoram and sage scented the room like steam off a winter soup. In the back room, buckets of flowers perfumed the air: red zinnias, pink and yellow snap dragons, purple larkspur and white baby’s breath (imagine an infant’s breath full of tiny stars!), all rescued in a pitched attempt to snatch summer from the jaws of winter.

We were happy, grateful, doing what had to be done when it had to be done. There’s something deeply satisfying about doing things at the right time, in sync with the seasons, because something larger than us requires it.

When the sun warmed enough to melt the frost the next morning, we walked the fields to see if anything had escaped. Walking among row upon row of charred, slumping plants, it was as if a fire had swept through. We mourned this final blow to summer and were humbled by the visceral reminder of how little we are in charge of things here on this small planet. The cycles swing on, forcing us to give it all up, leave it be — in time to light the home fires.

For a long time, we sat in silence on the truck’s tailgate, watching the light of day break over the blackened fields, lifted far beyond the moment, feeling peaceful, grateful and filled with love.

– Nancy Galland, Belfast, Maine

Back in the late 1980s, we had our eyes on a piece of land in southern Aroostook County and our dreams set for gardening and farming there. But we had never lived much above the 44th parallel, so we wondered what the growing season was like up there at the 46th parallel.

I telephoned Cooperative Extension and asked them. The man I spoke to bluntly stated, “In Aroostook County there can be a frost in any month of the year.” Whoa, that sounded scary. It also appeared to contradict the beautiful, lush, green, warm, breezy environment we had experienced there in June. We talked to a few farmers and gardeners, who agreed this fact was true, but also somewhat rare, especially in the southern part of The County.

So we bought the land and set about creating a large garden in a field of wild grass/hay that was previously a potato field following World War II. We double-dug four 15-by-30-foot beds and decided to plant buckwheat that first year to condition the soil. We sowed the buckwheat in June, planning to turn it under mid-summer and follow it with some oats.

Well wouldn’t you know, there came a frost on July 3 that killed that 3-inch-high buckwheat. I guess Mother Nature decided we needed a message — just to be clear what we were working with and who was in charge. Mercifully perhaps, we did not have another July frost for the next 28 years.

– Audrey Zimmerman, Glenburn, Maine

Frost, you say? Probably one of my least favorite aspects of fall is this landscape-altering feature. Over the years of gardening on MOFGA’s fairgrounds, I have learned to associate the approach of the Common Ground Country Fair as the signal for possible carnage for tender plants. Up until the deep chill arrives, some plants, like the 5-foot-tall grain amaranth, can be real show stoppers. Frost has arrived as early as August 29 — we’ve had a frost-free season of just 90 days — though in freakish years, it can fail to show up until mid or even late October. It’s more common to show up the week of the Fair, and around sunset on a Wednesday or Thursday, I have often scrambled to cover vulnerable plants. Any prediction for frost in the state is a warning sign that it might land on the grounds. This particular area of Unity is somewhat of a frost pocket, and it’s been interesting to compare notes with neighbors with lower-lying property. How cold was it? On a couple of occasions on the cusp of the Fair, we have had a hard freeze, and plants go from a wilted to blackened state. It’s a bit of an eye opener for people camping on the grounds when this happens! One of the positive things about having a frost occur before, or even during the Fair, is that visitors get a reality check: a glimpse as to what we have to deal with. In those years there are crops, like Asian mustards and other greens, whose cold tolerance stands out. Then the message becomes: “Welcome to Unity, remember to extend your growing season with some of these plants, and be thankful if your garden was spared.” Also, it’s a reminder to keep those protective row covers handy! We can usually expect two or more weeks of frost-free weather after the first encounter, so it’s worth the extra effort. 

– Jack Kertesz, Unity, Maine

Transferring to a new high school brings a world of new traditions, opportunities and experiences. My move from a rural public high school in New Hampshire to the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in the even more bucolic Limestone, Maine, certainly met these criteria. My intent was to jump on every opportunity to try something new, whether gleaning in potato fields or building a quinzhee in the snow. So when a trip to the Common Ground Country Fair was offered, I of course signed up. I had no idea what to expect, other than that we would be camping under a tarp with sleeping bags provided by the school and that we were asked to volunteer at least one shift. The fine print stated three shifts (essentially working the entire time we were there) would be rewarded with a free hat. Since safety patrol was an option, I assumed this hat would have an official “safety” logo. In my 16-year-old head, working 12 hours for a $20 hat that I didn’t even know existed seemed like a great deal.

After the four-hour bus ride south to the Fair, those who urgently needed to use the bathroom or needed to check in for work shifts were whisked away while others stayed back and unloaded supplies. Filling in where help was needed, I made transactions for bags, shirts and aprons as quickly and friendlily as possible in the Country Store for four hours, grabbed a quick bite in the Common Kitchen, then showed up for the main event: security detail.

As the darkness settled in, my co-security detail Rick, a kind man in his 40s who had volunteered for years, shared that our main job was turning out lights to save energy and allow campers to sleep peacefully. As we traversed the fairgrounds late into the night and my fatigue and the frosty air set in, we stopped at the school campsite to scout where I would finally be able to rest and warm up once the second shift ended at 12:30 a.m. Somehow, no sleeping bags were available. Rick’s quick problem solving and appeal to humanity set in. He led me to the dumpsters to find clean cardboard to insulate me from the ground. Rick had certainly fulfilled his role in providing for the safety of the fairgoers. I, on the other hand, decided — after shivering all night until a sleeping bag became available at 6 a.m. when someone headed off to the 5K race — not to report to my third shift to earn my hat. Instead, I took a few hours to warm up and sleep. I returned back to my school’s dorm that night with a new appreciation for a roof and a bed.  

– Amy Bigelow, Colchester, Connecticut

In the fall of 1969, I was 14 and my family had moved to my great-grandfather’s abandoned homestead in Benton, Maine. It was supposed to be temporary. My family had come here after my father quit a job that was requiring him to move from Boston to New York City. He worked one last year, on Madison Ave., as an accountant for a failing company whose office was next to MAD Magazine.

The move to Maine was sort of like that saying from Robert Frost: “Home is where, when you go there, they gotta take you in.” This was the best thing I could have imagined happening. The homestead is where I truly wanted to be. My great-grandfather’s house was crooked, drafty and quite rundown. I shared a tiny room with my brother. One morning that September, at first frost, my mom pulled out a package and gave it to me saying, “This was something I was saving for your birthday, but I think you need this today.” The gift was a warm wool jacket.

That first winter exceeded expectations of how hard a Maine winter could be. My room had no heat. When the wind blew, the house creaked and shifted. The window shades flapped in the gusts. I had a fish tank in my bedroom. It froze, fish and all, and broke. My grandmother, who owned the old homestead, offered for us to buy it. I lived there for nine years, and my folks for 20. When my mom died in the fall of 2018, I played a fiddle tune called “Cold Frosty Morning” at her service. There, I told the story of the gift of the wool jacket and that cold frosty morning, long, long ago.

– Dwight Gagnon, Benton Falls, Maine

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