Fall is one of the most anticipated times of the year

Fall in the Flathead. It’s a time when the vegetable garden is no longer just an extension of the house and yard, but a second home, or a home-away-from-home in its own right.

And for many, it’s a time when food comes from where it should: the ground.

Gardening is a year-round obsession. The cold days of January and February are spent with one hand around a generously warm beverage and the other flipping through the pages of a seed catalog or book on raised-bed layouts from the library.

Spring provides a slight reprieve in the monotony of anticipation (and spares more than a few pages of any given seed catalog from having the corners folded thrice).

Late spring finds the avid gardener finally making a break from indoors – and the beginning of a relocation of sorts. For some, this is when the visits to their home-away-from-home (aka garden) begins. Some are tidy square plots in the corner of a fence that sees the most sun. For others, the vegetable garden resembles more of a mad-scientist-constructed contraption meant to ward off critters as much to provide accommodating space for vegetables to thrive. And for the lucky ones, the garden is a wide-open space (near the house – that annoying place that needs cleaning, but provides a place to rest in between getting out in the garden).

But fall is the most anticipated time in the garden spaces. A time teeming with energy as most vegetables finally reach their ripened state – or bumper crops of early veggies deliver delightful surprises.

Pumpkin patch

A pumpkin ready for fall harvest in the pumpkin patch grown by Jan Keinas.

Yet fall is bittersweet: There is a swell of pride from having grown fresh, delicious food, but also somewhat of a gardener’s despair. As each proud vegetable is placed in the dinner basket, or put aside for the canning jar, there comes an acknowledgment (however slight) that the harvest is coming to an end.

Thus, for most avid gardeners, fall is a time of conflict. It begins with anticipation, meanders through jubilation, and finally gives way to introspection – when replaying what to do differently next year is a recurrent theme.

But fall in the Flathead has been this way for years. Since the first pioneer homesteaders arrived in the late 1800s, the rich, almost-incomparable soils and micro-climates throughout the Flathead Valley have been host to bountiful harvests beyond imagination.

Most hobby gardeners are not tending a 160-acre homestead, which was typical decades ago, but more modest areas, and far smaller garden areas. However, no matter the size of the garden plot, the purpose seems to have defied the years and somehow remained the same – grow as many delicious, healthy foods as economically as possible.

Fresh Veggies

In the time it takes to drive to the grocery store, Crystal Clark harvested a meal for her family – with unrivaled taste and nutrition, and without pesticides and chemicals.

For example, Jan Kienas has been farming her 4-acre garden plot west of Kalispell for the last 44 years. Since 1970, she has grown as much food as possible for her family. Aside from battling frost, and ever-the-nuisance deer, Jan solves most other problems with a garden hoe – and her hands. Jan can be found tending to her chores in the garden that surrounds her home six days a week in the late summer and fall – sometimes for 16 hours a day. Her hobby may seem like a back-breaking job of more desperation than choice, but Jan summed up her passion just as tidy as her garden rows: “It’s therapy … and it’s delicious.”

For Crystal Clark, gardening is a family affair. Three generations of her family work together to not only grow nutritious food, but to pass down wisdom and know-how from one generation to the next. Crystal has a few garden plots on the land she shares with her in-laws. Her sons Ezra, Jubal and Gideon make gardening seem like child’s play (which for them, it truly is).

And boys will be boys. Their mother Crystal and grandmother Ginger tended to the more difficult chores, as the boys used more unorthodox gardening tools and methods for harvesting the evening meal for the family, including a toy dump truck (aka carrot hauler). The boys made work look easy and made life seem simple again as they snacked on fresh tomatoes plucked straight from the vine, or cracked open snapping, fresh pole beans while tending to their “chores” (and corralling wayward grasshoppers).

Family Garden

Jubal Clark picks a handful of radishes while helping his mother and grandmother in the family garden.

Indeed, for many across the Flathead Valley, fall is perhaps the best time to enjoy one of life’s most simple pleasures: picking food grown from the ground and savoring it at its freshest, ripest moment.

And in that moment, no matter the style, form, or function of the “garden space,” it becomes an other-worldly place. A place like no other, where even time seems to wait while savoring food straight from the garden. But such moments are fleeting and won’t come again until next year – when the garden transforms itself once again.