Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Oh, to live in Zone 7!

We are travelling for an extended Thanksgiving holiday by visiting friends and family in the Mid-Atlantic. Late November is a wonderful time to wander down to this area from New Hampshire, because it's like travelling back in time - suddenly it feels like October again. True, the days are shorter and the foliage is past peak, but it's staying well above freezing at night and on sunny days, which we've enjoyed so far, it's getting into the 60's.

On Sunday, we went to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, which is a large marshland complex on the Chesapeake Bay on the eastern shore of Maryland. Large may not be the proper word to describe this marsh - it's truly impressive, this refuge covers 27,000 acres, much of it marsh.

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We saw bald eagles, Canada geese, snow geese and ducks and also encountered the infamous marsh denizen, the mosquito. It was really interesting to see where the geese go after their V's fly southward from New Hampshire in October - the DelMarVa peninsula (Delaware-Maryland-Virginia) is a main wintering grounds for the Atlantic population of Canada geese.

We saw the most vibrant and luscious rows of kale and cabbage in someone's yard on Sunday driving back from the refuge. And I realized how much more hospitable southern climes are to growing vegetables. Instead of this mad rush to try to get plants in the ground in the spring so that they have a chance of maturing before the frost comes, you might take a more leisurely pace here. Or... you might work just as hard in the garden but for longer. As it is, in New Hampshire, I'm actively gardening from March (sowing seeds indoors) through November (with arugula) even though the frost-free "growing" season is only 121 days, according to Old Yankee Magazine. It's sort of nice to have a few months off to pursue other endeavors. But how tempting to have a growing season with 200 frost-free days!!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Experiments in Benign Neglect

On the morning of November 3rd, I went out to my carefully covered "fall salad" garden bed and, to my horror, the sheet was stiff with frost and the arugula was positively crispy with frost. I had a sad drive into work that day, believing that the arugula would turn black and slimy from being frozen to death. Despite my conscientious efforts to cover the bed each night with an old sheet, even when it meant running outside in my pajamas at 11 o'clock because I suddenly was clutched by a feeling of dread that I had forgotten to cover the bed. The looming spectre of frost-killed salad was enough to get me out of bed every time, but my efforts had been futile! I was so downhearted that I didn't even bother to put the sheet back out on Wednesday night, or to look at the damage done on Thursday morning.

I have never thought myself to be a drama queen, that role has always been filled by another member of my family (hmm, wonder who that might be?), but I must admit that I completely over-reacted in this case. Imagine my surprise when on Thursday afternoon, I came home and the arugula looked chipper and green and completely unscathed by the frost. Arugula - 1; Jack Frost - 0.

I should say that I do not just have arugula in the fall salad garden, but it's the only thing worth looking forward to eating. (Plus, I have a love affair with arugula.) The spinach looks anemic (oh, the irony) and the scallions, carrots and lettuce haven't done much at all.

Since I discovered the resilience of fall salad plants to frost, I've been much less concerned with their overnight tuck-in. I'm trying an experiment of how long I can go before a really hard killer frost (or snow! or ice!) does these tough little plants in for good. It's wonderful because I have turned my attentions toward the hordes of green tomatoes that require substantially more attention lately ("ew, this moldy tomato just collapsed in my hand" and "how many more times do I have to make tomato sauce before this is over?")

I am going to go pay some attention to my lovely little arugula right now, because we're making quiche tonight with farm eggs, caramelized onions, ricotta and Jarlsberg. (And many many thanks to the drama queen for providing the eggs!)

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

You say tomato, I say enough already

If I were a model of the "conscientious gardener" I would be able to look back at my minutely detailed, comprehensive garden journal entries and tell you exactly when our first killing frost hit. Garden records are incredibly interesting and also provide a good source of information on interannual climate variation. I think that records of this type have been used to document certain aspects of climate change, such as changes in first and last frost dates. However, science will not gain much from my garden journal as consistency in my records is sorely lacking... sorry to let you down, Michael Mann.

So I can't really say when our first killing frost hit. Sometime after Columbus Day because I remember wrapping the tomatoes in white sheets and thinking that I wish it were closer to Halloween, so that we could have garden ghosties! At any rate, it's been almost a month since the tomatoes and other hot-weather-loving plants retired for the season.

However, I took care to pick all the green tomatoes before the first hard frost, and then I also gleaned green tomatoes from our friends' garden. I pulled enough green tomatoes to make 6 pints of green tomato relish (somewhat like pickle relish that you put on burgers.) That still left me with scads of green tomatoes, which are slowly slowly turning red. I've been foisting them off on my neighbor every week, and making small batches of tomato puree every week or so. I'm really impressed because I've never had good luck ripening tomatoes indoors before - some tomatoes get moldy or develop scary rotten spots, but overall, the tomatoes are ripening quite nicely.

I feel that this is a success story and it's all thanks to our good friend, ethylene! Ethylene is a very fascinating plant hormone - unlike other hormones, it is gaseous and is released from ripening fruits to accelerate the ripening process.

But I must say that these tomatoes do not taste summer-fresh, they taste like grocery-store tomatoes. I would not recommend the large tomatoes for eating fresh, but they cook down really nicely. The cherry tomatoes are still tasty enough to eat fresh on salads, and also make a lovely flavorful sauce.

As successful as this year's indoor tomato ripening may be, I'm sort of looking forward to a time when I won't have trays of tomatoes covering numerous horizontal spaces (I've already been kicked out of the kitchen, except for one small tray). I anticipate that the tomatoes will be completely ripened by the end of November, and then it's just a short while until it's time to place my order for next year's seeds.