By KATIE WATTS / Petaluma Towns Correspondent
Many cultures call the full moon of September the Harvest Moon. Native Americans have other, equally evocative names: Nut Moon (Cherokee), Mulberry Moon (Choctaw), and Moon When the Calves Grow Hair (Dakotah Sioux). The Celts called it the Singing Moon and it was the Barley Moon in medieval England – the time to harvest and thresh ripened barley.
Here in Sonoma County, the Harvest Moon rose on Sept. 18. Sept. 22 is the autumnal equinox, the first day of fall.
Although the popular belief is the Harvest Moon is huge and golden-red, “It’s all publicity; just an illusion,” said Lynn Anderson, president of the Sonoma County Astronomical Society. “It appears different on the horizon because you’re looking through a lot more of the earth’s atmosphere. That acts as a filter – it’s the same reason sunsets are red.” Anderson likes to use the example of an orange to demonstrate atmosphere. “If you stick a pin straight through an orange, it only goes through a quarter-inch of peel. But if you stick it in from the side [on a diagonal] it could be a full inch.”
Step outside and note the differences that come with harvest time. Chinese pistache trees, the west coast equivalent of New England’s autumnal color, turn red, orange and yellow. Sturdy-stalked sunflowers bow heavy heads as blooms wither and seeds ripen. The light changes, especially in the evening, becoming more golden, as the sky appears bluer. With cooler weather, the final flush of roses have deeper tones, what was creamy white in July is now pink. And yellow dandelions have turned to fluffy orbs, their seeds floating off in the wind.
Risa Aratyr, 59, of Sonoma is a Wiccan who’s studied folklore. Wicca, she explained, is the name they give the Celtic Neopagan religion, paying homage to Earth, the Mother Goddess.
“This is the season when you’re gathering in everything,” she said, “the fullness of the harvest, a highly fruitful time of the year – in a sense, our Thanksgiving.” Traditionally, Aratyr continued, this is the time of year to celebrate with music, poetry, dance, festivals, fairs and contests . “It’s a time to celebrate the bounty in a gentle way. The last of the crops are being gathered, the sun has lowered, so there’s a different quality of light. You might be preparing for winter but there’s a sense of bounty and fullness.”
To some, harvest time may be only a olfactory nuisance as the Sonoma Aroma descends, letting our noses know farmers are spreading manure on their fields. However, to the growers of the county – backyard vegetable gardeners to large-scale farmers and vintners — harvest time is a time of reflection, looking back at the summer’s crops and being grateful for what the land produces.
Joanna and Don Raan of Petaluma live in a modest eastside house. Their pleasant, shady front yard offers no hint of the miniature farm at the sides and back of their home. In fact, Joanna joked, “We were wondering about adding bees, chickens and a pygmy goat!”
Last week, their kitchen counter was covered with acorn and butternut squash. “This is where I feel like a squirrel storing up for winter,” Joanna said.
Joanna, 49, and Don, 55, have been gardening since the early days of their marriage, starting with planting tomatoes in flower beds. Now fruit trees are espaliered along a fence that once supported roses. Winter produce – kale, lettuce, broccoli – was planted in late August.
This year’s harvest includes beets, carrots, green beans, cucumbers, zucchini and basil. In addition, they try something new every year – this year it was corn, which did well. Less successful was broccolini – “wimpy stalks; too much space” was the verdict. Fava beans were good for the soil, they agreed, and tasty, but “cooking them is labor-intensive.”
Why do they garden? For one thing, their crops provide a “tasty, healthy alternative” to store-bought-produce, Don said.
Joanna added, “In our modern, urban lifestyle, there are so few opportunities for self-sufficiency. This is easy to do and we feel accomplished. It’s really something when you go into your kitchen and can’t find the counter.”
Randy Pitts, owner of Harvest Moon Winery on Olivet Road in Santa Rosa, was born and raised on the 9-acre winery where his family’s grown grapes since 1976. In 2000, he came on board, and wears a number of hats, primarily those of grower, winemaker and marketer of Harvest Moon’s Gewurztraminer, Zinfandel and Pinot Noir wines.
Pitts is “almost 40” and to him harvest time is crunch time – the crunch of the grape crush. “It’s a crazy time,” he said. “I’m working with a time-sensitive product. Once I make that cut on that cluster, it has to be processed and put in an oxygen-deficient environment as soon as possible.”
It’s not only a physically demanding job, it’s chaotic and sometimes emotional work when one’s partner is Mother Nature. “Every year she makes a different wine,” he said. And though he clearly enjoys what he does, from these frantic, sleep-deprived harvest days to the slow, quiet days of December and January, he joked “I wouldn’t wish it on anyone with a weak heart.”
Kathy Tresch, 59, owner of Olympia’s Orchard on Walker Road west of town, said growing her 50-plus varieties of apples began nine years ago. “My children went to the Waldorf School in Sebastopol. As a fundraising project, they gleaned apples from older orchards, when the orchards were being torn out to grow grapes and the owners couldn’t afford to have the trees pruned.”
The decimation of Sebastopol’s once-mighty apple crop affected her deeply. The culmination came one day when she and the children were driving home and saw a whole orchard, full of fruit, chopped down and dying. “I pulled over and started crying; my kids started crying. Then I came home and told my husband, ‘We’ve been talking about planting fruit trees, now we need to do it.’”
She and her husband, Joe Tresch, own the 2,100-acre Tresch Family Farm, home to Holstein milking cows. When the property next door was saved from being a wastewater pond or dam, they bought the land and began planting apple trees.
Her harvest is a long one, beginning in mid-August with Strawberry Parfait, Sweet Bough and of course Gravenstein, and extending into November when Arkansas Black is among the final varieties to be picked.
Growing apples, she said, “feels like doing something timeless, something my grandparents did. It’s unadulterated, unprocessed, people have been doing it for centuries.
“It’s an honor to do that sort of work, to be among the trees and what the rest of an orchard is. It’s not just trees but a home for birds, beneficial insect pollinators, things that are part of a healthy ecosystem. And it feels good to pick good, healthy, fresh food for people.”
Lennie Larkin, 31, is the farm manager for Petaluma Bounty. The local nonprofit grows produce on its Shasta Avenue farm which it offers at affordable prices to low-income families and seniors.
On a foggy September morning, Larkin led a team of volunteers harvesting greens: kale, chard, basil, loose leaf salad mix and heads of lettuce. “I have endless joy and pride in harvesting,” she said.
“Yesterday I was harvesting Cherokee Purple tomatoes and thinking back to May when I was running around with a team, trying to get the plants in the ground before it got hot; and then remembering two months before leading volunteers who were potting up the tomatoes; and then the days in February, cold and overcast, in the greenhouse, sowing the same seeds.
“Now we’re in the end stage, seeing it in its recognizable form, and being able to share the bounty.”