Archives for posts with tag: National Weather Service

We were under a Frost Advisory last night. That’s the warmest of the cold-weather cautionary notices issued by the National Weather Service. It indicates that temperatures may drop into the range of 36 to 33 degrees over the duration of the advisory.

Was there any real threat? No. The overnight low forecast for our area was in the upper 30s, at the upper end of the advisory scale. Frost was possible, especially at daybreak, but not very likely to occur.

Did I cover the garden anyway? Yes. Even as the likelihood of frost or freezing temperatures diminishes, the consequences of their occurrence increases. The farther along the vegetables are, the more exposed they are to damage. Also, the later in the growing season that damage occurs, the larger the investment (of time, energy, materials) that is lost.

It’s a good example of risk analysis. Moderate likelihood multiplied by high consequences produces moderate risk which can be mitigated with low cost (throwing plastic sheeting over the planters is easy, provided I get the warning in time). Overall, the risk to the garden is low.

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You can tell that we’ve finally passed the point at which cold nights can be expected; there is a freeze watch in effect for tonight. I’m not too worried—the National Weather Service does not actually predict sub-freezing temperatures—but I will cover the east planter with black plastic sheeting just to be safe.

The radishes, always first off the starting block, made their appearance three days ago and the Sugar Snap peas, not to be left behind, started to peek out from the soil a day later. There are now seedlings to protect and the root vegetables are particularly susceptible.

With the trellis in place, I cannot fully cover the peas, but I don’t think it is necessary. The pea shoots are quite hardy and even without completely enclosing the planter, the sheeting will capture the heat that the garden acquired during the day.

I wonder what date the National Weather Service uses for last frost in our area? I conservatively use May 5, which has a 90 percent confidence level (i.e., there is only a 10 percent chance that the temperature will fall below freezing). Apparently, the NWS uses an earlier date.

I suspect that they use a lower confidence level, probably at a 50 percent chance of exceedance. Their date—whatever it might be—is less conservative from a freezing temperatures point of view but more conservative from a freeze warning point of view (i.e., its use will likely generate more warnings). Given that the NWS is in the business of forecasting the weather and not gardening, this makes perfect sense.

I’m sorry to have to say it but we’ve entered the grumpy season.

It happens every year, sometime in mid to late winter.  It is almost always associated with prolonged periods of very cold temperatures or a string of heavy snow storms.  Or, in a bad weather year such as this one, both.

The first two or three snowfalls of the winter were beautiful, including a magical dusting that gave us a white Christmas (see December 25, 2013).  But the storms started early (in mid-November or December, depending on the source) and new ones have been arriving frequently.  The Weather Channel (which started naming storms in 2012, much to the chagrin of the National Weather Service and other weather forecasters) is already up to Leon (the names progress alphabetically, just like hurricanes).

Making matters worse, the forecasters have been simultaneously sensationalizing the winter storms (today’s “Leon Leaves Atlanta DEVASTATED!” is typical of TWC headlines) and underestimating their impacts.  As an exasperated friend recently lamented, “Why don’t the weather folks just come right out and say that now ‘snow showers’ means 3 inches?”  Most of us have already seen—and shoveled—as much snow as we care to, and it is only the end of January.

Meanwhile, this month has already established itself as one of the coldest in recent memory if not historical record.  In my experience (24 years in New York), a cold winter means highs in the 30s and upper 20s and lows in the lower 20s.  This year, we have considered ourselves lucky to have a high anywhere in the 20s.  The lows have been in the single digits (including one below zero).  Very rare and very cold.

So, we’re grumpy.  Especially in the morning, before the sun rises, when the temperature is at its lowest, and there is snow waiting to be shoveled.

Luckily, even if the grumpy season is prolonged, it eventually comes to an end.  It is most usually superseded by the mud season in early spring (the severity of March’s weather being a determining factor) and is occasionally interrupted by a gloriously, brilliantly sunny day such as this one.

Do you believe in Christmas miracles?

About a week ago, it seemed that we had a lock on a white Christmas.  Two snowstorms each dropped about six inches of snow on the ground.  Our world was robed in a one-foot-thick blanket of pristine white powder, softer than the fluffiest fleece.  By day, we were bathed in the light and warmth of the reflected rays of the sun and by night, we basked in the cool, silvery phosphorescence of amplified moonlight (or would have basked had we ventured outside).

Then, rudely, we were subjected to 24 hours of steady rain accompanied by temperatures reaching into the mid 60s.  The warm shower rinsed away the snow and by yesterday morning, almost all of it had disappeared.  Any clumps that remained—mostly spots where plowed or shoveled snow had piled up—were icy and grimy, dirtied by the splashing of passing cars and covered by windblown debris.  With no snow in the forecast, our hopes for a white Christmas had vanished.

But then, just before sunset last evening, we noticed a slight sparkle in the air just as the last rays of light were streaming through gaps in the clouds.  We did not give it much thought until later, after our Christmas Eve feast, when we spied scattered glints of reflected light coming in through the dining room windows.  We switched on the floodlights that illuminate our back yard and there before us was an expanse of sparkling white.

Unbeknownst to us as we were eating our celebratory meal, just enough snow had fallen to coat every surface with a thin layer, only a fraction of an inch thick, of icy white crystals.  There was not enough of it that I needed to shovel, or even sweep (thank goodness!), but it was more than enough to ensure that Christmas morning would dawn thoroughly and unquestionably white.

The mini-snowstorm might not have been a miracle—the National Weather Service has missed forecasts before and will undoubtedly do so again—but it certainly seemed miraculous, appearing as it did without warning and in just the nick of time (the St. Nick of time?).   The sight of it lifted our moods immeasurably as we headed off to bed to dream of the presents and stockings that would be waiting for us this morning.

There was a frost advisory two nights ago, a freeze warning last night and there is a freeze watch in effect for tonight.  This is what I would call a winter preview.  I’ll be relieved after next Friday—November 1—when the National Weather Service will dispense with these announcements.  At that point, we can expect that it will be cold at night, every night, until spring.  Frankly, the near certainty of it is much easier to deal with.

The only vegetables remaining in the garden are the eggplants and bell peppers.  The three eggplants still hanging on are smaller than I would like but are (I believe) ripe enough to eat.  So, yesterday, I harvested them (rather than risk their freezing).

There are still many bell peppers—almost a dozen—at various stages of development.  None are large enough to even begin to turn color; all are the traditional green.  To prevent their loss to cold temperatures, I snipped them off to take inside.  When I lined them up on the edge of the planter, there was one of almost every size.  If Goldilocks were joining us tonight for dinner, she would be sure to find at least one of them that was juuust right.

With nothing left growing, I decided it was also time to pull in the hoses and shut the garden down for winter.  I did this with no ceremony even though the action marks the end of the 2013 growing season and heralds the onset of winter.

I haven’t said that much about this year’s crop of string beans but that’s not because there hasn’t been a lot to say.

Most notably, both of the varieties we planted matured earlier than expected.  Based on the days to maturity listed on the seed packets, the Roma II bush beans would, on average, begin yielding ripe beans on Labor Day; the Amethyst Purple, a filet bean, theoretically would have needed another two weeks after that.

But in general, both types of string bean have been very enthusiastic growers.  After pushing out of the ground a few days sooner than average, the seedlings quickly climbed their trellis to a height of two to three feet (and, like the Sugar Snap peas before them, two or three vines reached even higher).  Apparently, the long, hot days of July were much to their liking.

Cooler weather (relatively speaking) in August did nothing to slow them down.  Daily, the vines grew bushier and bushier (both varieties are of the bush type, after all) and produced many blossoms.  These were quickly pollinated (and not just by bees; the flowers attracted many moths and butterflies as well) and by early August, tiny string beans had formed.

By the last week of August—a week early—we harvested our first crop.  At the same time, the vines continued to grow higher, blossom regularly and profusely, and produce even more beans.  Since they started, we have picked several large baskets full (actually, we use a colander) of sturdy, but tender, beans.  We have been preparing them simply, sautéed with butter or, decadently, bacon fat (which adds a smoky flavor).  I particularly like the Roma II beans which are meatier than the Amethyst Purple.

All good things must come to end, however.  As the season has wound down, the string beans have also slowed and the number of new blossoms diminished.  Today, we made what I think will be the final search through the leafy vines to find and pick the remaining beans.

We collected a large bag full of the Amethyst Purple and only a few of the Roma II beans (which was not unexpected; this is, on average, an earlier variety).  It is enough for at least two meals during which we will celebrate one of this season’s bigger successes.

Well, the temperature never dropped below 40 degrees, so there was no real danger of frost.  Yes, 40 degrees is cold—more wintery than autumnal—but not low enough to damage anything.  Still, everybody (people included) will be moving slowly until the sun warms us up again.

Of course, the frost warning underscores the fact that we are in an end-of-season race with the weather.  We have plenty of fruit—tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, string beans and squash—that could potentially ripen if given enough time.  The question is, will a damaging frost or freeze occur before the vegetables are ready for harvest?  It’ll be a closer finish than I think because the days are shorter and the garden more shaded than in summer.

If the summer squashes froze, it would be no great loss; they have yielded many fruits already this year and, in fact, this is the first season that we have actually had enough.  The same is true of the string beans.  We will make one more search through the vines to collect the stragglers before pulling the vines out.

There are many tomatoes left and it would be a shame if most of them cannot reach maturity.  On the other hand, there is plenty that can be done with them when green.

We didn’t get many bell peppers but we did enjoy the few we had (with sausage and onions).  There are several in the earliest stages of development (right now, they are green miniatures of their full-grown selves).  It would be nice to have a few more but I consider this year’s experience to be research into ways to achieve better success next year.

My main hope is that the eggplants can survive until they are ready for harvest.  At their current size of about three inches in length, they would not make much of a meal (although I’m sure that they will be delicious at any size).  If we are lucky, however, they will continue to enlarge until big enough for us to throw on the grill or roast in the oven.  Two of them have a good chance; the others are questionable.

Just before shutting down my computer this evening, I took one last look at the weather forecast.  Some people compulsively check the stock market and others keep close track of baseball (and other sports) scores.  I’m addicted to the weather.

I was rudely surprised to see that the National Weather Service had posted a Frost Advisory for later tonight and into tomorrow morning.  Where did this come from?  Yes, the forecast has been calling for cooler temperatures, with highs in the 70s and lows in the 40s and 50s, but frost?  Really?

And what am I supposed to do with this information, at such a late hour?  The warning was not posted until about 6:00 pm.  That gives me only an hour before the sun sets.

Not that more warning would have been particularly useful.  Although the number of plants remaining in the garden is diminishing, there are still several growing strong.  And all of them are either tall (e.g., the tomatoes and string beans) or spread out (the squashes).  It’s not like I can easily throw a tarp over the entire yard.  (Well, I suppose could do that, but it wouldn’t be easy.)

I imagine that some farmers will be firing up their smudge pots tonight.  A common sight in orchards and vineyards, these oil-burning heaters produce a high-volume of slow-rising smoke—some call it artificial smog—which I always thought enveloped the plants and slowed their cooling.

Turns out they work more like the large fans that other growers—such as an apple orchard we visited last weekend—will be switching on instead.  Both the heaters and the fans circulate the lower levels of the atmosphere, moving colder air at the surface upwards and bringing down warmer air from the overlying inversion layer.

I love the idea of having one of the monster fans in my backyard (I could connect it to my propane tank) but I suspect they are very expensive (no, I’m not seriously considering it).  So this time, we’ll take our chances and do nothing.  Despite the advisory, the forecast low is 44 degrees, well above freezing.  I’m not too worried but we’ll see how things look in the morning.

Warning:  Insect photo below.

We have reached—and moved beyond—the point of diminishing returns on the basil.  It has grown much faster than we can use it and now, the leaves are starting to deflate and turn yellow.  The plants still smell divine—this has been by far the most aromatic basil I have ever grown—and their flavor remains bold and clear.  But the basil won’t be getting any better and could easily start to degrade.

Therefore, we decided to end the season for the original planting (at the southeast corner of the east planter) and clear-cut the lot.  Doing so produced a huge pile of leaves, enough for several batches of pesto.  In addition to the usual recipe—with pine nuts and parmesan—we will vary the nut and cheese options.  One batch will use walnuts or pistachio nuts and another will include Pecorino Romano.  We’ll also make what might more aptly be called basil paste, with neither nuts nor cheese.

The basil’s corner of the planter now looks a bit ravaged, like a miniature tornado tore through it.  Eventually, I will pull out the stubs and roots as part of my fall clean-up.  Meanwhile, the more recently planted basil in the southwest corner of the planter will provide enough green leaves to add to salads, etc., until the first frost.  If we get enough warning (the National Weather Service is not always timely), we will clear-cut this basil as well.

Because I already had the clippers out (and I had to use the big ones; the basil stems were large and tough), I took yet another pass at pruning the tomato vines.  My periodic cutting and trimming has been keeping them partially in control although the branches are still more tightly entwined than I would like.  It is reassuring that the plants remain healthy and robust.

I had been holding my breath, hoping that we might make it through the year without seeing a tomato hornworm.  But, really, what was I thinking?  Sure enough, as I was untangling a couple of Brandywine branches, I uncovered a large hornworm, calmly munching away.  It hadn’t done much damage but I shudder to think of how many leaves it could have eaten if it had been left undiscovered.

This is the latest in the season we have made it without finding any of them.  Last year, the first hornworm appeared in mid-August; in 2011, we had two broods, one in mid-July (which seems very early) and another in late-September.  After three seasons of vegetable gardening, I have concluded that the presence of this particular pest falls into the “inevitable” category.  If you grow them (tomatoes), they (hornworms) will come.

At the other end of the garden, the Purple Amethyst and Roma II string beans have been quietly producing an abundance of beans.  Perhaps stealthily would be a better description.  A casual glance at the plants—a wall of leafy vines clinging to the trellis—might mislead one into thinking that no beans were present.  But after reaching into the vines and pushing the leaves aside, a multitude of ripening beans is revealed.  They dangle vertically, parallel to the vines and protected from the sun by the leaves.

We are growing purple beans, which aside from their color look quite typical, and Italian-style beans, which are wider and flatter with larger lumps (the actual beans).  Rachel grew up with the latter but they are relatively new to me.  They have a distinctly vegetal flavor—their taste might be the definition of green—and are delicious steamed and/or sautéed with lots of butter.

We’re not the only ones who like them.  Several of the beans had been tunneled through by creatures unknown.  They are some type of worm, judging by the entry and exit holes, and left the beans looking like Swiss cheese.

Once again, the odds are against us.  Last night, the National Weather Service issued a frost advisory and tonight, a freeze warning is in effect.  We are more than a week beyond the official last expected frost date but as noted before, that doesn’t mean that frost or freezing temperatures are impossible, just that they are unlikely.  This late in the season, it should be very unlikely.

Have we entered a period of unlikely occurrences?  If I had a jar filled with uncooked rice and beans, would the two be perfectly separated, one layered over the other?  [See The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde.]  Would now be a good time to travel into deep space?  [See The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams.]  Should I run out and buy a Lotto ticket?

Last night, I covered the most delicate seedlings in the garden—the romaine and red leaf lettuces—and tonight I will do the same.  But with a greater risk of freezing temperatures, I will also cover the west planter.  I should be able to get black plastic sheeting over everything except the peas who extend well above the top of the planter (even if their trellis was not in the way).  They will have to tough it out.

Even during the day it is colder outside than it is indoors (just like winter!).  Therefore, I am suspending the hardening off.  It’ll be like a snow day except that everybody has to stay inside.