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My eyes opened this morning at six o'clock to a dark room lit by a gray sky of low-lying clouds rushing in from the north. In the pre-dawn silence my day spreads out before me, a feast of garden tasks, the "must do" items moving to the top of the list, propelled by the second freeze arriving this weekend.

The first frost two weeks ago took the tender plants -- the zinnias, dahlias, Mexican sunflowers, cleome, nicotiana, summer squash and basils. But cooler temperatures signal happy times for spinach, arugula, mustards, kale, lettuce and sorrel. Today I'll harvest lettuce and spinach for a lunch salad. Sorrel is the key ingredient in a pungent, tart soup made with chicken stock, freshly ground nutmeg, and dressed with a dollop of sour cream. Polenta, slowly cooked in a double-boiler, is the perfect accompaniment.

Hardy greens, a mix of arugula, mustards, kale and spinach, harvested when still young and tender, need only a slight dab of butter, and a five-minute softening on the stove, their piquant flavor a welcome complement to morning omelets.

Today I will sow more hardy greens in the outdoor structures covered with Lexan, a tough greenhouse plastic, which protects the seedlings through winter. In a mild winter like last year's, I harvested greens in January with only a few layers of Reemay, a filmy polyester fabric, draped over them. If this winter is more severe, hopefully the seeds will remain dormant in the soil, waiting for the first warming days of early spring to sprout, providing us with vitamin-rich greens in March or April. After a long winter of store-bought veggies, the taste bud pizazz of this first harvest of spring greens mixed with baby chives and scallions is a memorable treat.

Knowing snow is in the forecast, I want to be sure to harvest a few things that will preserve better if picked dry, like thyme sprigs, lavender flower spikes and sunflowers. Several years ago I sowed a thyme grown for its culinary pungence, Thyme de Provence, and five small plants give us all the thyme we need for winter soups. I cut the plants back, being sure to leave a good three inches of growth to protect the plant through the winter. The sprigs go into a brown paper bag, the top of the bag is folded securely, and it is left in a dark, dry closet to dry for about three weeks. Once dry, the sprigs go into a thick plastic bag, loosely rolled up into a tube, secured with a thin rubber band, and stored in the herb cabinet. When I need some thyme, I roll the tube of dry thyme sprigs slightly between my hands to crush and release some leaves from the sprigs, open the bag shaking the leaves to the bottom of the bag, and pinch out the amount of thyme I need. This method of leaving thyme leaves whole provides the fullest flavor, releasing the oils just when you need them.

I'm charmed by lavender's floral mystique and adore its fragrance. In France, as the lavender harvest draws near and the volatile oils are at their peak, clean wet linens are draped over lavender plants to absorb the fragrance as they dry. Though I don't grow whole fields of lavender, last year my friend Kim and I made lavender wands, fresh lavender spikes braided tightly with thin satin ribbons. The wands are placed between linens in the linen closet to impart their fragrance for months to come. Synthetic lavender oils never convey the subtle nuance of the real thing, so I consider the effort of growing and collecting the flowers very worthwhile. Besides, it helps foster my fantasy that I live in the Provence of the Rockies.

The process of collecting seeds from the garden goes on through the fall. Ripe seed heads are dropped into brown paper bags, labeled with name, date and garden location, and put in a box to be cleaned, the seed separated from the chaff later on some cold winter day. Two new favorite plants this year I want to be sure to repeat next year are Rattlesnake, or Quaking Grass (Briza maxima), and Panicle Larkspur (Delphinium regalis). Quaking Grass is a an annual Mediterranean grass, one-foot tall in my garden, grown for its panicles of nodding spikelets resembling rattlesnake rattles, which gracefully hang from thread-like stems. Panicle Larkspur, another easy, sun-loving hardy annual 18 inches tall, has ferny leaves and flowers on branching spikes (unlike the usual single-spiked larkspurs). In bloom it looks like a violet-blue baby's breath.

I need to remember to sift through the harvested garlic cloves, break off several husky single cloves and plant them now for next year's crop. Shallots, another self-generating plant, are mainstays in roasted vegetable melanges throughout the fall. The smaller ones are stored in a brown paper bag in a cool, dark cupboard to be planted next May.

Russian Mammoth sunflowers produce the largest flowers of any sunflower, this year's largest measuring 12 inches across. Plump white seeds with black stripes spiral tightly into the disk's center, a marvel of nature's symmetry. I cut the seed head with a long stalk attached, dry them thoroughly for a month, then braid them together, much like braided garlic cloves, using thin wire and a glue gun to hold the arrangement together. The braid is hung on a wall out of reach of nocturnal mice that may have temporarily avoided my cat's endeavors.

On this gray day as I go about my duties in the garden, I feel the bite of winter's claws closing in around me. No gradual mellowing into old age here, brilliant fall colors turn to rust, ochres and browns in a week's time. Fallen oak leaves crinkle underfoot on the path to the house releasing smells of decay, an earthy sweetness. With most of my chores complete, I settle down to a warm bowl of sorrel soup and soft polenta, savoring rich gifts from the garden.

-- Laura Spear is owner of ForestEdge Gardens in the Black Forest. You may e-mail her at tlspear@earthlink.net.

by Laura Spear

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