Sunday, October 31, 2004

The Illuminated Gourd

Halloween. All Hallow’s Eve. Day of the Dead, All Souls' Day. All names for this holiday hovering around the end of October, with each tradition giving a nod, sometimes very well disguised, to the approaching winter. A time when harvest is definitely a memory and long nights can give rise to flights of fantasy.

Today the sun moves in and out of clouds, the wind is cold and blowing leaves everywhere. A perfect brew of fall colors and smells with a chill to remind us that winter is emphatically waiting around the corner.

Halloween is rich in traditions, sometimes conflicting. But one part of the holiday that most agree on is carving pumpkins. Pumpkins for carving have been bred for size and other appealing jack-o-lantern qualities. These come at the expense of flavor so if you are really interested in fresh pumpkin you will need to look for pumpkins bred for sweet flesh.

Pumpkins came late to the carving party, however. Turnips were carved in Ireland. This tradition was brought to America, where pumpkins were more abundant than turnips, and our modern day preference for the illuminated gourd was born.

When I light the candles in my newly carved pumpkins I get an eerie but exciting little thrill. I like to think this harks back to a deeper collective consciousness, but whatever the source, this particular tradition is one of the most evocative. I line them up,stand back,and hugging my sweater close, admire my handiwork.

Scary, somber, silly faces seem suspended in mid-air, shining through the cold dark. Quintessential Halloween.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Fall lettuce

My fall lettuce is an enigma this year. I planted purchased seedlings since I have never had luck with fall lettuce from seed. I selected varieties much as I select seed for spring planting; a nice mix of color and texture. I went with Red Sails, Red Romaine and Buttercrunch. These were set out in early September, in a planter that gets morning sun.

The results have been interesting. The red color is almost absent, unlike my spring plantings, and probably due to the afternoon shade. The stalks are elongating but not putting on a flower head. The lettuce is still delicious, meatier than spring lettuce and not yet bitter.

I have a theory. Lettuce is a long day crop, needing over twelve hours of daylight to set seed, and hot weather has been demonstrated to hasten bolting. The seedlings were set out as the days were getting shorter but a couple of weeks ago we had a period where temperatures hovered around 90. Photoperiod trumped heat, resulting in the growth that precedes flowering, but lacking long enough days, the flowers did not follow.

All this speculation aside, I have been downright stingy with this lettuce. Planting seedlings means I do not plant nearly as many as in the spring when I start them from seed. And the lettuce is the last fresh green I will enjoy until April. So I mete out a few leaves to be mixed with market lettuce and spinach. My reluctance to use it all reminds me of long ago, playing outside as dusk descended. Just as I couldn’t bear to let even a photon of light be lost by going indoors I now find myself, an adult, unwilling to let the lettuce go as long as there are any leaves left to last until a killing frost. Curious

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

A not so simple gift

My bulb order from Colorblends has arrived! Not only are the bulbs fat and fresh but a bonus gift was included – a rain gauge!

I am fascinated with weather but have never done more than cursory observation. However, noting daily weather details appeals to the technician in me. For several years I happily helped with a southern Oregon phenology, tracking bloom dates for certain representative flowers and trees, and egg deposition and development for particular insects. I was endlessly fascinated with poring over previous years and noting similarities and differences from year to year.

And now my own rain gauge. A simple free gift has me haunting ebay, looking around for barometers, minimum-maximum thermometers, paraphenalia coveted by lovers of climatic minutiae.

But it truly does get worse, if you can imagine. If I record the data in a spreadsheet I can map and graph weather data for my own garden. Do you see where this madness is going? Never mind that weather collection data is readily available for this region, and in vastly more sophisticated form. This would be my own garden! Carried to its unhealthy extreme I could get a GPS unit and locate said rain gauge with excruciating precision. GAWD!

(Taking a deep breath)

I am familiar with the use of weather data for tracking and observing effects on fruit development, disease occurrence and other horticultural concerns. But don’t I get enough of that at work? Why not just smell the flowers when I get home?

Notwithstanding I am grateful for my new gift. Now that the rains have started it will be nice to observe the rain in my own microcosm. I have always been suspect of weather data that bears no resemblance to what I observe outside my window.

But I think I’ll leave prediction to the professionals. Weather prediction has a Delphic quality to it, oracular prophecy borne of divine spark, and certainly not to be trespassed on by a climatic bookkeeper.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Basil silliness

I thought the Indian summer would last longer. Planned a picnic in the park, a lazy affair of finger food, a blanket, books and sky gazing through yellow leaves. I woke this morning to wind and fast moving clouds with sun peeking in and out and electric blue patches of sky teasing me into thinking the storm might blow over. It did not. The wind stopped, the rains came. Time to put on the prognosticator’s hat.

This is a gambling time of year here in the northwest. The rain will help bring a new flush of leaves on the basil, especially if some sun follows. So the odds makers get to work. I visit no fewer than three weather predictions, choosing the one I like the most. Clouds will keep the night temperatures above freezing. But when the needed sun arrives the danger of frost looms. What is the pesto addict to do? Every year the same balancing act plays out. I want to get another batch of pesto. The basil is still producing, though flower heads have begun to appear since the last harvest. To cut or not to cut? The gardening faerie on my shoulder starts to whisper.

In previous years reemay protected the basil from the early light frosts.

A little protection can eke out an extra two or three weeks.

With temperatures last week edging toward 90, a warm weather crop like basil might be expected to keep growing a while longer.

It’s the same annual song every fall. When it comes to my basil (i.e. pesto) I have brought rationalizing to an art form over the last several years. It seems I cannot give up on it until the heavy frosts come or the leaves become small and slightly bitter. So the basil stays. I’m sure I knew what my decision would be from the outset. But why spoil the fun of second guessing the weather? A small personal joke, a ritual enacted with reliability each year and never failing to make me smile at my foolishness.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Remind Me of Apples

When picking apples I imagine the poet Robert Francis, with his ladder and picking bucket, finding inspiration for his poem Remind Me of Apples.

Apple picking is a feast for the senses. On a ladder, looking up through the leaves, the apples hang bright red contrasted against the deep blue October sky. The air has a cool edge to it, but the sun is warm on skin. The scent, almost floral, lingering in the trees reminds me that the apple is a cousin of the rose. Who wouldn’t want to call up these images while standing in the parched garden of late August?

'Gala apples'

I had the good fortune of picking some Braeburn apples at work last week. The station’s apple block has four popular commercial varieties: Gala, Fuji, Braeburn and Granny Smith. But several years ago we had a large varietal block with plantings of numerous old and new varieties that ripened over a long period of time. One of my most pleasant assignments came when I was instructed to go out to the apple block and start tasting different varieties. If I found one that was ready I would pick a box or two for employees to enjoy over the winter. This would go on for several weeks and was one part of my job that I eagerly anticipated each year. I still miss that old block.

Although these sensory pleasures are reason enough to love to apples, their incredibly rich history is a bonus to anyone interested in horticultural lore. Firmly based in antiquity, the apple shows up in writings as early as fifth century B.C. Mitch Lynd, a seventh generation apple grower, has put together a summary of worldwide apple history. He touches only briefly, however, on the history of cultivation, an area of study that continues to fascinate both amateur and professional horticulturists.

7500 apple varieties are cultivated worldwide, 2500 in the United States. Only 200 of these are grown commercially. What of the remainder? The interest in heirloom apples keeps the old varieties alive. The Lady apple, also known as pomme d'Api or simply Api, is still in production today and is said to date back to Roman times.

The fascination with growing heirloom apples, (or any other cultivated fruit, vegetable herb or flower) strikes a deep chord with me. The idea that I can grow something now, in 2004, that was grown so long ago somehow creates a bond, a kinship with my ancestors. As we move along at a breakneck pace, this commonality of garden experience offers a curious comfort, an opportunity to close my eyes and imagine a gardener like myself picking apples, the same sun warm on her shoulders as is now on mine. This goes far to restore a sense of perspective and never fails to help reorder my thinking.

Robert Francis probably had no idea of the cascade of thought his poem could trigger. Or maybe he did. So if you get a chance to pick some apples this season, take advantage of the opportunity. I hope your mental journey while doing so is as enjoyable as mine.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Small garden musings

E. A. Bowles, in the last chapter of My Garden in Autumn and Winter, sums up his garden philosophy:

So if only the owner of a garden will plant enough plants of the most different types and habits procurable, there ought to be never a day in which he cannot find some pleasure in watching growth or decay, structure of bud, leaf, blossom, fruit or stem, no minute of the daylight hours of the working days in which there is no interesting or health giving work to be done; and no bed of the garden that will not provide some offering for a friend, whether it be cut flowers, ripe seeds or divisions of roots.

This mirrors my own feelings with regard to gardens. But my tiny garden space is such a constraint. It is difficult to think in the large and flowing terms encouraged by such a philosophy. I would love to indulge old loves and new fascinations in my garden. Daylilies, irises, salvias, roses, herbs; all deserve their own space to flourish and provide the diversity of intangible and tangible rewards that Bowles describes.

In the interest of full disclosure I must admit that my very small herb bed has gone quite wild, being overrun by those two wantons, wild marjoram and rose yarrow. This past year I gave in to a seductive but flawed attitude; if I do not have the space to create the kind of herb garden I covet then I won’t even be bothered with working with what I have.

Of course this kind of petulance is necessarily short lived. What gardener can look very long at a potential space, however small it might be, and not begin drawing up mental plans? There a numerous design books that address small garden spaces and I am nothing if not a good pupil. With some pleasantly diverting selection and some daunting excavation maybe I can renovate the herb bed to include sufficient 'different types and habits procurable' to provide daily interest.

Maybe all gardeners have similar stories, but somehow I always picture other’s gardens as flawless. This rosy illusion is not unlike the domestic harmony I imagine behind lighted windows at dusk. Both happy fictions.

But this year’s herb bed episode has given me pause. If such a small matter can intimidate me would I even be capable of handling a large gardening space if fate suddenly provided one? I like to think so and will continue to hope for the opportunity to find out.