Winter loosens its grip

The last snow finally disappeared from the northern-most part of our yard about three weeks ago. Little bursts of color from the crocuses emerged from the thawing ground (only to be mown down by the too numerous rabbits eager for some fresh greens). Daffodils shot up rapidly, trying to make up for the slow start to spring, and the forsythia branches look more yellow each day, although no blossoms yet (I am never sure if the branches actually do turn from brown to yellow, or if my imagination plays a trick).

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Weather is always changeable this time of year—cold weather, and snow, can still make an appearance (and did this week). However, more than any year in recent memory, this one has been crazy. We’ve had extreme cold and mountains of snow which lingered too long. An occasional warm day was often followed by bitter temperatures (just two weeks ago Rebecca was still lying under the wood stove for warmth). Experts say this unpredictable weather is the “new normal.”

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Indoors, we’ve been preparing for the summer garden. Celeriac, parsley, kohlrabi, pac choy, cabbage, and greens have been growing for several weeks under lights and on heat mats. Tomato, pepper and eggplant seedlings are popping up. Soon I will start more herbs indoors, as well as cosmos, zinnias and marigolds which go around the vegetable beds to add color and attract bees.

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This weekend we will sow peas directly in the beds. Cherisse has been reinforcing the frames, which after many years have begun to come apart, and fortifying the soil with compost, some horse and cow manure from our neighbors, and organic fertilizers. We may also plant some greens (especially the colder-loving spinach), and possibly carrots and parsnips.

We can see the red nubs of rhubarb emerging, and asparagus will hopefully follow in a couple of weeks. So despite the long winter, it was not, after all, endless.

Fall

Summer has made way for fall. Despite unseasonably hot temperatures (“unseasonable” is the new norm), the trees around us have erupted in gorgeous colors. Falling leaves pile up on our woods’ path.

Lettuce still grows (slowly) in the garden, but my hopes for a fall crop of kohlrabi and bok choy fizzled. Something devoured the first emerging seeds, and most of the second attempt. The few survivors seem too small—and are growing too slowly—to make it. We’ll see. So far we’ve had little success extending our growing season into colder months, but there is always next year.

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I admit to a slight feeling of relief when the growing season is finally over. We still have plenty of work—weeding (of course), pulling out dead plants, and fortifying the beds. Cherisse is getting manure from our neighbors (they have two cows and a horse), which we will work into our soil. I ordered snowdrops from White Flower Farm which I’ll plant this weekend. With a couple valiant exceptions the flower garden has died, so I need to cut back, pull out and mark places where I will move things around come spring.

Spring glimmers in the distance: the Fedco tree catalog has already arrived, and their seed catalog won’t be far behind. For now though, we have autumn, with vibrant color, cooler temperatures, and shorter days.

Seems we’ve just gotten started

What happened? Next weekend is Labor Day. September. The unofficial end of summer.

Carol Burnett used to close her show with “Seems we just got started and before you know it?, comes the time we have to say, ‘So long.'” It feels like summer has just begun, although I can see that the flower garden has peaked—while still lovely, the flowers have begun to fade. The vegetable garden has entered a waning production mode. Although we are still planting a few fall crops, like greens and kohlrabi, our focus is on harvesting the steady, though not abundant, flow of vegetables. Cucumbers have been our best crop. We were never overwhelmed by summer squash and zucchini—we’ve had just enough to eat fresh, plus Cherisse has made several loaves of zucchini bread, frozen to enjoy throughout the winter. Our eggplants looked better than ever, and we’ve had some nice fruits. The same with our pepper plants. However they, and our tomatoes, seemed to halt their development, perhaps because we’ve had unseasonably cool nights this August.

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Bunnies mowed down our parsley, though I may yet be able to freeze some. Our basil flourished for awhile, and then suddenly looked like it burned—although that doesn’t seem possible. We’ve made just one ice cube tray of “pesto”—basil pureed with a little olive oil, which we’ll cook with this winter (usually we have bags of pesto cubes). The lettuce and swiss chard have done well, and while the cabbage took a hit from worms we still have some nice (smallish) heads. The celeriac looks good, and will hopefully see us well into winter. Our carrots taste great but some suffer from carrot flies (we just cut off the bad ends). We had several nice melons growing, but lost them to slugs or rabbits (or both).

Our fruit has done well this year. Strawberries were abundant, and our blueberry bushes produced a steady supply through July. Two peach trees are covered with fruit. One is ripe, and good, but the fruits didn’t get very big (perhaps they weren’t thinned aggressively enough). I am eagerly anticipating a big crop of Asian pears—one of our trees is covered with them, and they look perfect so far. We have three apples (total) on our five trees, although that is three more than we’ve ever had, so I call that progress.

By all those measures, time has clearly marched on, so I must ignore the voices saying “wait, we’ve just begun.” Once upon a time, time did stand still, in the best possible way. Twice recently I’ve been reminded of the summer nights I spent in Boston, with my work softball team, our ranks rounded out with our friends, mostly ringers. The day I started at Yankee magazine I was told we had a game that night, and we were short women players…did I know anyone who could play? I called Cherisse (a ringer), who was working at MIT, and I raced home to get shorts and a t-shirt. That was the first of many, many lovely evenings, playing softball, drinking long-neck Rolling Rocks, yelling and cheering while the sun set over a baseball field. Once the game ended we’d join the other league teams at a nearby bar, and we’d hang out eating terrible food, drinking more beer, and knowing that life was grand and time would always stop for us.

Eventually we all moved on, finding other jobs, starting families, buying homes. Responsibilities, pressures, a bad economy…all these things shifted our priorities. I love my life and don’t want to go back in time, but I remember those summer nights, when there was nothing but the crack of a bat, a red sun in an outfielder’s eyes, the whump of a ball hitting a baseball glove…that made me feel so completely in the present.

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Now I think “surely September isn’t next weekend.” But it is. Soon the garden will die off for a few months, and I’ll abandon that unfinished list of outdoor activities, and move on to other things. I’ll accomplish a handful of those, only to be startled by the 2014 Fedco seed catalog, which will remind me to order new seeds. I’ll think back on what did and didn’t work in the garden and imagine a fresh start. It happens each year, and in its own way, the relentless passage of time feels reassuring. I’m glad we’ve had this time together.

“Slow down…

…you move too fast, you got to make the morning last.” My sister and I sang that song enthusiastically, in the back seat of our car. When we got to the “Feelin’ Groovy” chorus, we belted the lyrics out with gusto, albeit tunelessly.

This weekend, slowing down was the only possibility. The weather, in the 90s and with high humidity, made it impossible to even consider any outdoor project. Just walking to the chicken coop, my steps grew slower and slower.

I looked at my flower garden ruefully. This time every year it seems that I lose control. In the spring I watch the perennials get bigger (and a few weeds I am never positive about until they become huge and proclaim their identities). I think “Oh, I need to move this flower and that one”—they self seed and begin to crowd out the ones I actually planted myself. But other jobs seem more pressing, and where would I move them anyway? I can’t bear to discard a plant, so I am often stymied by what to do with them.

Then suddenly everything is big and bushy, with some flowers growing taller than I thought possible, competing with their neighbors. This weekend I vowed to tackle the flowers; just a couple hours a day would restore order. Instead I examined, from the relative cool of the house, the crazy, haphazard collection of purples, pinks and yellows, duking it out, and thought “Next weekend.” The butterflies and bees love the garden though, and I can see bees of all sizes moving from blossom to blossom. So all is not lost.

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Garden bounty

While “everything in moderation” might be a sound strategy in principle, it doesn’t apply when you have a bumper crop in the garden. In that case, you consume huge quantities of the fruit or vegetable until it peters out…ideally around the same time you think you couldn’t possibly eat any more (until next year).

Each night Cherisse has come in with 2-3 quarts of beautiful strawberries. We purchased 25 Sparkle plants years ago, and I’ve been rotating the daughter plants from bed to bed ever since. However over time the strawberries have spread on the ground (plants climbed over the beds and established themselves, and some may have self-seeded). These bonus plants make it challenging to walk around the garden (you have to avoid stepping on strawberries), but they are very healthy—and very productive.

Our strawberries are the best I’ve ever tasted (with the possible exception of some we once had in New Brunswick, Canada). Sweet (with a little tartness) and juicy, we eat them on cereal, pancakes, waffles, shortcake, in daiquiris, or plucked right off the plant and into our mouths. We share some with the birds and slugs (and for awhile the chickens, until Cherisse put a fence around the garden), but we’ve got plenty.

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The asparagus has had even longer run; we’ve picked large bunches every day for weeks. Now the time has come to let them go to seed and store up energy for next year. We’ve had a lot though, and are happy to wait until next May for more.

In early spring we planted a small amount of snap peas which have offered a steady supply of fat pods. Most get eaten in the garden. The dogs love the shells, and sit waiting for you to scoop the peas into your mouth and hand over the good part. (Once a pea fell to the ground; in turn they picked it up and spit it out.) A few peas have made it to the kitchen, and were added to stir fries or salads.

Early planting has also rewarded us with an abundant supply of lettuce, arugula and spinach. For the first time we’ve had great success with bok choy, possibly because of the row covers which we’ve kept on all the beds. This seems to have deterred the small cabbage worms that decimated our bok choy in the past (and our cabbage). We can’t keep out the slugs, but they don’t do as much (or as rapid) damage.

All of this will carry us through to the summer fruits and vegetables. Blueberries get bigger, as do our our tomato plants, peppers, eggplant, squash, carrots, parsnips, celeriac, cabbage, kohlrabi, and melon. Looks like good eating ahead.

 

June arrivals

In the blink of an eye May turned to June. Interesting things happened in the past month, many worth revisiting. For today, the highlight comes in a fragrant, pink mass of blossoms. The peonies, which my mother moved from her parents’ house in Hackensack, NJ, and we in turn moved from our summer house in Madison, CT, flowered en masse. The first arrived Friday, then more on Saturday, and now they are in their glory.

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Firsts

Several “firsts” have occurred in the past few days. I have loved magnolias since my childhood. A stand of them can be found in Central Park by Cleopatra’s Needle, and my mother, sister and I used to ride our bikes there every spring to have a picnic under the trees. They seem so lush, almost tropical. Unlike the tidy crabapples and cherry blossoms, magnolias have oversized flowers that open in a glorious mass, and then fade dramatically by dripping huge petals to the ground.

A few years ago I purchased a magnolia, and it seemed doomed from the start. We were doing some work with a backhoe, and the tree got clipped and severely damaged. We thought we’d killed it, but the next year its wounds had healed. The tree continued to grow, slowly, never blossoming. Then one winter during a storm, several major branches broke off. The following spring we almost pulled it out to plant a new tree in its place…but as if hearing the death knell, it began to grow again. Now the trunk is misshapen but sturdy, and for the first time, ridiculously large blooms appeared. They are sweetly fragrant and luminous—you can see them glowing in the moonlight.

Our first fall in the house I planted lots of bulbs, including about 25 tulips. Year after year they emerge, only to be eaten to the ground before even a hint of a flower…until this year, when one lone tulip surprised us. We kept expecting to lose it, but the other day it opened to reveal a bright yellow flower.

We’ve had peaches for a few years, and last year, two (delicious) Asian pears. But we’ve never had a single apple blossom on any of our five trees. We asked at Fedco (where we’d purchased them) what might be wrong, and were reassured that apple trees simply took awhile to get established. Yesterday we discovered our first apple blossoms…so we have a chance at apples this fall.

And always a thrill, the first asparagus of the season is emerging. We’re having an auspicious spring.

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Promises

With recent warmer temperatures we’ve seen a surge in new growth. Our forsythia resembles giant yellow balls, and the crab apple, viburnum and quince have large buds. Daffodils bloom in succession, and one lone tulip has (so far) escaped the annual decimation (if it flowers, it will be the first we’ve had in nearly 10 years).

All of this beauty delights us, but not as much as the promise of food to come. The lettuce started inside and transplanted last week grows under its protective row cover. The peas which had only begun to pop up a few days ago now look thick and healthy. Spinach, beets and greens emerge in straight rows. The swiss chard, kohlrabi and cabbage started indoors has joined others planted directly in the beds. And, with no assistance from us, the perennial rhubarb rises up on strong stalks.

This will be the extent of our outdoor planting, until warmer temperatures arrive for good. Until then, peppers and tomatoes grow on heat mats under bright lights. Parsley and celeriac, while not robust, get bigger. The eggplant seeds have not yet germinated but I expect them soon. I just planted melon, flowers and herbs, so it will be a few days before we see any sign of life there. New growth surrounds us everywhere, though, and with it will come sweetly scented air, buzzing with bees, and our own vegetables, picked fresh.

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Springing into summer

This Easter Sunday we got a start on the vegetable garden. We turned over some of the beds and planted peas, sage, dill, kohlrabi, pac choi, Swiss chard, parsnips, carrots, beets, and different greens. The chickens passed through from time to time, eager to dig around our nicely turned earth looking for worms, so we kept shooing them away.

We covered all the beds with Agribon, protecting them from foraging chickens, giving them added warmth in this changeable weather, and hopefully curtailing some of the pests that plague us each year, like cabbage worm (which decimates the pac choi and cabbage).

We’ve so much to do this spring, pruning fruit trees, weeding the asparagus and rhubarb, preparing the remaining beds…the list seems nearly endless. But getting seeds in the ground is such an accomplishment, we can’t help but feel encouraged. Other seedlings grow upstairs, on a heat mat and under fluorescent lights, and more will be planted over the next month. Summer gardening has begun.

Hints of spring

Each March, Smith College’s bulb show brings a welcome glimpse of spring. Color dazzles the eyes and sweet scents remind you that warm days filled with flowers will come again.

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Spring bulb show

Final snow?

March weather is capricious, and the weekend after the bulb show snow fell for 24 hours. We awoke to a beautiful morning, and went out early on our cross-country skis, before the warm sunny day claimed the last (perhaps) vestiges of winter. By nightfall most of the snow was gone and mud season had begun.

Signs of spring

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In the thaw our own early bulbs appeared. Under matted leaves we found crocuses—purple and yellow spots of color in the dull ground. The leaves, which offer a layer of protection to the garden all winter long, now impede the growth of plants awakening from their winter hibernation.

With chickens overseeing my progress, I raked carefully around the already flowering bulbs and uncovered shoots of daffodils, hyacinth, and even the bearded lilies and peonies. Exciting as this is, it heralds the start of Outdoor Work. With the snow now off the garden beds, we need to address the soil, amending it as we can (and lamenting we didn’t do this last fall). We’ve more raking to do, pruning, and cutting back overgrown areas, tempering—just slightly—our enthusiasm for the signs of spring.