Tuesday, November 13, 2007

When the Frost Is on the Punkin, Maybe It’s Time to Give Up

I might as well admit it: the season is over. An evening of temperatures in the low 40s a few weeks ago claimed most of the plants that were still growing, and I had to work hard to harvest all the tomatoes and pull up the tomato plants. I was lucky, for the frost that had blackened every plant and shrunken its leaves left the fruit intact. Only one small, green tomato, sticking up on a branch above all the rest, was frozen.

About six gallons of mostly green tomatoes came indoors with me. I placed them in shallow bowls and platters on the dining table, and they have been ripening a few at a time, prolonging the illusion of summer. These ripened “greenies” still have that home-grown freshness and savor. The red ones are still sweet, the green-and-yellows still tangy. The texture is not as firm as it was (moisture loss, I guess), but altogether they are better than I would have predicted.

The last two cantaloupe plants put in a fair effort at producing a new set of fruit, but ultimately failed. Clinging to the withered vines were some half-dozen tennis-ball-sized muskmelons. It was fun to throw the unripe melons across the yard in the general direction of the trash can, but it was also sad to contemplate the unrealized potential they represented. Their predecessors were truly the best muskmelons I had ever had the joy of devouring, tender of flesh and full of honey-like sweetness.

The snap beans grew until the frost, as well, but now they are frail skeletons clinging wearily to their posts. I’ve left them there because the snow peas, which are still alive, have been using them as a trellis. Some kind of rodent is eating the leaves of the pea plants. I doubt they will manage to produce a crop before they are either eaten to the ground or blistered by freezing rain.

Underneath the trellis, my lettuce seedlings have hung on, but I fear that they will freeze soon, too, unless I can find some suitable pots to transplant them into. I don’t know whether lettuce will grow well inside, but it’s worth trying. I transplanted the three basil plants that survived the frost (two cinnamon basil—very special and zingy—and one ordinary basil), and so far, they seem to be quite happy in their sunny window.

The entire row of Swiss chard, stalwart in cold as in extreme heat, endures, crisp, green, and thick-leaved, although the leaves are not growing as fast or large as they did in summer. I have grown to enjoy Swiss chard, and have found that it breaks down pleasantly in soups. It also makes a good stir-fry, as long as there’s something in the stir-fry that is flavorful enough to cut the leaves’ natural bitterness. Best of all, though, is sukiyaki with Swiss chard in it. Somehow, the broth of soy sauce, sake, and sugar brings out all the most pleasant qualities of this vegetable. It softens, but doesn’t get mushy, and its strong flavor subsides just to the point where it adds interest. This makes it superior to the usual Napa cabbage or bok choy.

At any rate, I’m glad to have something still growing out there besides my perennial herbs. I’ve contemplated planting onions, but it’s probably too late, and they would interfere with the rotation I’ve planned for next year. It’s time to plant a cover crop of some sort (more on that later), then sit back, drink some tea, and read—about gardening, naturally. After all, there's no better time than fall and winter to fantasize about what the next summer may bring. Only in the cold season can the gardener unleash her imagination without bowing to practical realities and the day-to-day drudgery involved in Making It So.

Coming up: cover crops, herbs, the fall vegetable roundup (what worked and what didn’t), book reviews, and plans for next year (of course!).

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