This is one of those years in which we skip spring, jumping from a dragging winter straight into sudden summer. Squally snow last week, upper 70s (°F) and thunderstorms forecasted for this week. I suppose that’s appropriate as Friday was cold St Dunstan’s Day and Saturday was the festival of Mjolnir, the thundering hammer.
I think my garden weathered the weather fairly well. The lilacs recovered from the freeze and are blooming madly. The smaller apple tree is putting out more blooms. I don’t know if last week’s blossoms were frost-killed or just done, but there was a brief hiatus between two rounds of flowers, which probably indicates damage. There were more blooms in the first round, but there are still plenty of blooms that will potentially make apples in this round. In fact, if the first round is not going to set fruit, I might be spared the sad chore of thinning the apples so that the thin branches don’t break under the weight of fruit. Not a task I enjoy. I don’t like thinning anything because it all feels like killing babies. I’m sappy that way.
Several of my roses have frost-killed terminal leaves. I don’t know if this means they won’t flower or just won’t get any larger. It is odd that the ones most affected are the roses that the former folks planted, the older bushes that presumably should be better established and better able to withstand a cold snap. Maybe those varieties are not as cold-tolerant as the bushes I have since planted. Most roses are just barely hardy in my part of the world. To fill out the rose bed that the former folks began, I went to Heirloom Roses and bought the few varieties that are both highly scented — which is, I think, the point of roses — and hardy all the way into Canada.
This was also my strategy on choosing apple varieties, though it wasn’t the flower scent but the quality of fruit. I like tart apples with a good crunch, and I need fruit that can keep in the cold cellar for a long time. So most of the apples I’ve planted are late varieties that have not flowered yet, whereas the old orchard trees at the bottom of my jungle and the two that the former folks left me in the garden were covered in blooms and are now nearly done. The old trees might produce a good harvest. They were done flowering before the freeze and it’s possible that the fruit was already set and protected. But those trees are so hard to reach that I tend to mostly leave them to the rodents. You have to be a mountain goat to comfortably stand on that steep slope, and there’s a ten-foot drop onto the paved road with no protective rail to stop a fall if you slip. Ladders are not an option. The apples on those trees aren’t my favorites anyway. They’re beautiful, bright red and perfectly round, the Platonic ideal of apple-ness. But they have soft flesh and are sweeter than I like. Probably would make great sauce if I was inclined to go to all the effort — and risk — of picking a few dozen. But I have not yet been so inclined.
Yesterday was the New Moon. This is my Flower Moon. It is also the Honey-moon or the Fairy Moon. This is when the green world concentrates all its energies on blatant procreation — with assistance from small flying beasties — all designed to be absurdly and floridly irresistible. This is when a lot of sex happens in the garden, lush petals languidly opening to delicate probosces under iridescent wings. It is also when fruit is setting on all the garden plants, so the garden is ravenously hungry and thirsty — like any pregnant female. If it’s difficult to keep the seed beds moistened for germination in droughty weather, it’s almost impossible when the nightshades, beans and cucurbits start fruit production. So I was very happy that yesterday the drought broke. At least for a little while.
I woke yesterday to a damp world. There had been no rain in the overnight forecast, so I was very surprised. As the day went on, the sun never broke out of the clouds and it remained somewhat cool, so even with the afternoon wind (still… sadly…) the garden stayed wet. Then at dusk the wind abruptly stopped and the clouds opened up with a downpour that didn’t let up for hours. It had slackened to drizzle by the time I turned off my reading light, but it was still falling into the early hours of the morning. We got just under a half inch, not enough to make up for the weeks of dry weather in the deep layers of the soil, but enough to thoroughly irrigate the surface layers where all the seeds and seedling roots need the water.
Hopefully, the moisture will stick around for the next few weeks. I am planting the squashes, melons and cucumbers today. Maybe the beans and sunflowers later this week when the soil is warmer. Beans need soil temperatures higher than 70°F to germinate; the summer cucurbits are a bit less fussy on that. Actually, they just take longer to soften the seed case so that the germ can get the moisture it needs to germinate. So they won’t be ready for germination until later in the week when the soil will probably be warmer after the forecasted summer heat.
I’m also seeding one more round of carrots. I really love carrots and am sad that there are none so far. On the other hand, I think maybe there are too many beets and turnips. I don’t know what happened, but the first round of seeding has filled out with late sprouters while the second round is thickly sprouted. I like roots, but I can’t store the summer harvest in the warm months except if I roast them and freeze them — which takes up freezer space that I prefer to fill with fruit and various squash things. So I’m going to have to share out the abundance, I guess. Or just eat a lot of beets and turnips. Which is an option. I like borscht with rutabaga mixed in with the beets to lend a bit of umami to the flavor. It’s a perfect summer dinner, and all the better because it’s a one-pot meal that lasts through the work-week and doesn’t even need to be heated up each evening. It’s great cold!
I make cucumber soup and gazpacho also, but those are later in the summer when I’m fending off the glut of summer produce. These are all simple meals that can be made on the weekend and stored in the fridge throughout the week, feeding me well all week long — at almost no expense. Though there is the early spring expense of seeds, plants and fresh composted soil. I can’t produce enough fertile soil on my small property, nor do I have an appropriate vehicle to haul it, so I have to pay the Vermont Compost folks to deliver it. Luckily, they’re only a few miles up the road.
Likewise, I have spring seed expense in this garden. I used to save seeds, but in the life overhaul that happened in 2020 (divorce, moving north to a new climate, etc) I ended up losing my seed library. Undoubtedly, much of it wouldn’t have been adapted to Vermont anyway, but I haven’t built that stock back up yet. I also have much less space to store things like onion sets and seed potatoes, so I haven’t worked the logistics of that out. If I can get my neighbor’s antique VW Bug (named Baby…) out of my garage, I think I can build an interior room in there that will stay cold and moist, but frost free. But that’s an expense for another growing season. For the near future, I think I’ll be buying seed stock.
I also buy my chile plants from a New Mexico supplier and most of my tomatoes from local gardening shops. I just don’t have the southern exposure inside this house to start many seeds indoors without grow lights — which I don’t own and are, therefore, another expense for another season, though I suspect that may never happen. My house only has a 100amp electrical circuit, so the older grow lights, energy hogs that they are, would drain my power. The newer energy-efficient bulbs are better for my house, but they are also very expensive and don’t last as long as one might like, given the expense and the toxic nature of the large, dead bulb.
Still, all that expense is less than the grocery store bill without garden produce, much less than eating food prepared by others. And the kitchen garden comes with lots of other benefits. I get to eat the freshest food, at the peak of its yummy nutritional value. I’m fairly certain that nothing is added into my food. (Well, aside from whatever drifts off the road.) I get to do the physical gardening which is exercise, meditative time, artistic expression and intellectually stimulating experimentation all rolled into one activity. And I get to eat the veg and varieties that I prefer. The co-op and various farm markets around here all have great local foods, but I like more heat in my chiles and more tart in my apples than is popular in Vermont. I also love to eat a wide variety of veg, and most farmers tend to plant only a few tried-and-true crops, those that will produce a reliable harvest. I don’t have to make money off of my garden, so I’m free to plant whatever I fancy. A little of this golden beet, a little of that purple carrot. Yellow pear tomatoes and lemon cucumbers. A row or two of mangelwurzel and salsify if the mood takes me. And much more herbage than you can find in the shops.
I have an herby garden. I’ve been growing some of these plants for thirty years. These are, of course, cuttings of cuttings of cuttings by now, but they keep producing flavor and nutrition in every new garden setting. There are several kinds of mint, sage, oregano, and thyme. Savory and parsley and chives. Great bushes of lemon balm and tarragon, lovage and lavender, angelica and horseradish and mallowroot. Fennel, chamomile, and chervil that just keep coming back year after year. And, of course, the roses that I’ve planted all have scented, and therefore flavorful, petals. I grow and use it all, and most of it is perennial.
The only plant that I have to buy each year, now that I live in a cold climate, is rosemary. I have no luck with rooting it in a pot (never had to learn that skill in New Mexico where it grows rampant) and really have no dry, sunny place to over-winter it reliably anyway. So I buy a few starts each year and dry the leaves in the fall. It keeps for many months like that. I’ve also been buying seed for nasturtium, nigella, mustard, dill, cumin, fenugreek and coriander since moving to New England. I never seem to be able to remember to set aside seed to save for planting when I am drying it for culinary purposes — which, in this humid climate, where I can’t just hang it in a paper sack to dry, usually involves a bit more heat than the seed germ can viably withstand.
Since yesterday was the New Moon and the weather decided to act accordingly, I put away the last of my spring stuff. No more eggs. In fact, I’ve found broken eggshells — robin-egg blue and speckled white — in the garden already, so the birds are largely done with eggs as well. I put away the rabbits also though those beasties are never done with vernal fecundity. I would guess they’re on round three by now. Thank heavens for the foxes that keep the rabbit hordes out of my garden. But the groundhog infants have been spotted. They don’t travel far, sticking close to the burrow — which is actually under my front porch this year (she must have moved when my neighbor painted his porch late last summer). So they won’t be menacing my veg until it gets closer to harvest. And they have to be able to navigate the road between my house and my veg patch first. (Sadly, most can’t.) Hopefully, by the time they get large enough to brave that trauma, the summer veg will be mostly done and the fall not yet going strong enough to tempt them.
I did see mom over in the veg beds again. This time, despite the stinky alliums, she tried nibbling on a few peas and lettuces. But she seems very reluctant to enter the pea support tunnels I’ve erected, so she can’t reach the majority of the pea plants, and I scared her off before she could do much damage to the greens. She is remarkably diurnal for a rodent. Groundhogs are not nocturnal, but they usually stick to the gloaming times, shunning bright sunlight. This one seems to prefer to sleep in and waddle about in the middle of the day, so it’s easy to chase her off. In fact, all I have to do is glare at her from my front porch — on the other side of the street from where she is munching — and she takes off. I have her well trained, I guess.
I was busy in the kitchen this weekend. Had to make both hummus and yogurt, plus there was the weekly bread. Then I decided to use up a couple heads of cabbage that I had bought a few weeks ago, intending to make colcannon. But then I used the potatoes for something else and stranded the cabbage in the fridge. So this week’s Pot of Something is a cabbage and egg noodle stew in a goat cheese base with winter savory, caraway seed and sage. Proof that, with just a bit of ingenuity, even something as categorically boring as forgotten cabbage can turn out delicious.
For the next few nights, after sunset, look to the west. The crescent Moon will be visible low on the horizon tonight, climbing higher and growing fatter each night as the week goes on. Later in the week, the Moon will meet up with a very bright Venus, which is putting on its best show of the year, high in the night sky, blazing at magnitude -4.1 early in the month and brightening to -4.4 by 31 May. By next week, the Moon will be closer to Mars, which is not nearly as bright as Venus, but still strong enough to be visibly red near the waxing gibbous Moon. Venus is also moving north in May, appearing to set in the northwest. Throughout the month, if you get up in the wee hours of the morning, look for Mars and Venus to be setting almost at the same time, Mars on the ecliptic and Venus 26° (or five fists) to the north.
©Elizabeth Anker 2023