Archives for posts with tag: seasonality

A funny thing happened to our tomato plants as the growing season started to wind down for the year. They went berserk!

Usually, production of new fruit diminishes at this time of year. Fewer flowers blossom and once the weather gets colder, the pollinators stop visiting them. The fruit that remains ripens only slowly, if at all (often, it doesn’t).

But this year, the number of blossoms has actually increased as we have moved later into the fall. And, apparently, the bees haven’t packed it in yet. Most of the blossoms have been pollinated and many fruits have set.

This is particularly true of the Black Cherry tomatoes. All of the remaining branches are supporting multiple clusters of dozens of tomatoes. Most of them are green but each cluster includes a handful that are starting to turn red.

With no signs of frost in the short-term forecast, it looks like we’ll be eating tomatoes at Thanksgiving!

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Our vegetables are giving us a visual reminder that the bright reds and greens of summer have transitioned—gradually, incrementally—into the oranges, yellows, and purples of fall.

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.

We had a relatively warm and bright morning today, something that we will not have many more of (the warm part, anyway) until spring.  So, after breakfast, we performed another round of fall clean-up in the garden.

It is not as if everything is dead or dying—there has been no killing frost so far—and yet, nothing is developing very quickly.  The growth of the squashes, in particular, has slowed to a near stop.  There are plenty of zucchini and crooknecks and even a few large yellow blossoms—all beaming like it was still August—but none of the squashes has gotten any bigger than a few inches in length.

I have to keep in mind that the squashes are summer vegetables and we are now squarely in fall.  The zucchini and crooknecks are past their season and it is time to let them go.

Pulling out the vines was relatively easy.  The only difficult part was finding where they were rooted to the ground.  Summer squashes grow from one central stem along which the leaves and fruit radiate.  After the squashes ripen and are harvested, the leaves wither and die, leaving their section of stem barren.

At the same time, the leading tip of the stem continues to grow outward and new leaves, blossoms and fruit are created.  As a result, after four months of bounteous growth, the vines reach a length of several feet.  The active end gets separated from its starting point and the intervening stem gets buried by fallen trees leaves.  At a casual glance, it looks as though the vines have moved around the garden.

The winter squashes we grew this year develop in a similar manner.  But instead of letting the Naguri squash (a Kabocha-like variety) trail spread out on the ground, we trained it up and around a tripod of garden stakes.  When we removed the vine last week (see October 13, 2013 for photos), it had reached the top of the tripod, within striking distance of the temple bell that hangs there.

The Zeppelin Delicata squash looked as though it would follow the same path as the summer squashes.  Sadly, though, it got no farther than the perimeter of its mound of soil.  It produced only a few fruit, none of which got any bigger than an inch or so in length.  For us, their name was something of a misnomer.  I wouldn’t even characterize them as weather balloons.

Warning:  Insect photo below.

Fall returned this week, like an old friend who had been away visiting others for a few months (family in the southern hemisphere, I believe).  It is good to see the autumn come around again and bittersweet to watch as our houseguest, summer, packs up and leaves.  We had some good times these past three months but we’ll have more fun with a different crowd in the months ahead.

The changing season gives me a warm feeling, even while the weather is turning decidedly cooler.  On the one hand, a swim in the pool has almost suddenly lost its appeal (time to close it soon) and I can actually wear long trousers, having faced up to the possibility a week ago.  In the morning, I need a sweatshirt when I go out for a run.

On the other hand, sleeping is much more comfortable.  The air is crisper—although not yet as dry as it will be in winter—and warms up by late morning.  It can be almost as hot as in summer, in an absolute sense, but the heat is usually moderated by cool breezes.  The sun is lower and shade is more plentiful; it provides a handy respite from the still-intense rays of light.  All things considered, this a good time to be outdoors.

Unless you are a vegetable.  Many of the plants have withered away, leaving only bare spots behind.  I’ve already mentioned the shortening day and increasing solar screening by adjacent trees (see August 25, 2013).  Now, with overnight temperatures dropping into the 50s and 60s, the vegetables’ growth rate has slowed to a crawl.  The tomatoes, green beans and squash are still producing but not as much and not as often.

The vegetables are starting to miss their summer companion and will soon be joining its exodus from the garden.

Warning:  Insect photo below.

Believe it or not (I almost do not), we still have carrots, beets and turnips in the ground.  We’ve been storing them in place until we are ready to eat them.  Based on prior experience, the root vegetables experience no loss of firmness or flavor as a result of continued exposure to soil and the elements.

In the last few days, however, I have noticed that the greens are starting to look a bit tired.  Eight hours a day of unfiltered sunlight takes a lot out of a leaf.  Also, we are getting into fall now and the color of the leaves is changing.  I’m not talking about autumn reds and oranges; vegetable coloratura this is not.  But the green is fading and streaks of yellow and brown run through the leaves here and there.

Besides, these veggies were planted in the spring!  If we had sowed a second batch of seeds in late summer, they might be ripening about now.  The last of the carrots, beets and turnips are well past their intended season.

So, we pulled up all of them.

There were only a few turnips left, anyway (we’ve been intermittently grabbing two or three to add to salads these past weeks).  I’ve been saving their greens—they keep well in the refrigerator—but we found this last batch infested with caterpillars.  Most likely, these are the same critters who chewed the cauliflower leaves into lace.  With their preferred meal long gone, I suppose, they found the turnip greens to be just as delicious.

Likewise, just four carrots remained.  This is due more to the poor performance of the crop than our use of them in the kitchen.  Still, these final four are the best of the season, full-sized and full of flavor.  Two of the four are of the Atomic Red variety.  The color comes from lycopene (or so says the seed catalog), the same beneficial anti-oxidant in tomatoes.  Of the multi-colored varieties we planted this year (also, Purple Dragon, Red Samurai, Royal Chantenay, Snow White and Yellowstone), the Atomic Red have the sweetest flavor (and possibly the coolest name).

I’m happy to say that almost an entire row of beets had been waiting for us.  Most of them are Chioggia, which when sliced crosswise, display concentric circles of red and white flesh (the outside is always red).  There are only a few Touchstone Gold beets and they are generally smaller than the Chioggias.  The sparsity and scarcity (relatively speaking) are representative of their relative performance all year.  Although their color is lovely and bleeds into the leaves, giving them a yellow glow, the golden beets do not seem well suited to our soil conditions.

While we were at it, we harvested the first three ripe bell peppers.  What a happy trio they turned out to be.  They remained in the garden about three weeks longer than we anticipated but the extra time was well spent.  They never completely lost a slight tinge of green but even so, their colors are brilliant.  A long sweat over low heat (along with onions from the farmers’ market) should deepen their hues and intensify their sweetness.

Another reason to eat dinner in a restaurant occasionally, besides the expertly-prepared food, quality wines and convivial atmosphere (i.e., the fun of it) is that it is a good way to glean menu ideas and learn about unfamiliar ingredients (or familiar ingredients used in unfamiliar ways).  Tonight, at The Dutch in New York City, Rachel and I enjoyed a delicious spring dinner that highlighted the season’s early vegetables and provided inspiration for future meals at home.

We started with “Stracciatella Toast, Artichoke, Broccoli Rabe” (the menu employs the trendy practice of naming dishes with a terse list of components), which was basically a version of crostini or bruschetta (I think only native Italians know the difference).  A slice of rustic bread was grilled, topped with melted mozzarella and a jumble of fresh and sautéed vegetables.  It seemed both hearty and light at the same time.

We followed that with “Snap Pea Salad, Poppy-Tarragon Dressing, Green Garbanzo”, composed of the named vegetables as well as a mixture of leafy greens.  I’ve never seen green garbanzo beans before but will have to track them down.  They were like a cross between fresh peas and fava beans and added a similar bright green color, texture and flavor to the salad.  I suspect that they would make a tasty variation on hummus.

We could easily have stopped there.  We’ve been finding lately that after starters and/or a salad, our appetite is almost sated, especially if there has been wine and a bread basket.  The main dishes (which tonight were “Skuna Bay Salmon, Pastrami Spice, Crispy Potato, Beets” and “Colorado Lamb, Farro, Asparagus, Favas, Sweet Birch”) almost become superfluous and often end up in a doggie bag (although not this time).  And forget about dessert.  If we were to recreate this meal at home—and this is likely—we would limit the menu to the crostini and salad.

Restaurants, like food magazines and the fashion industry, are a bit ahead of the actual season.  For instance, our Sugar Snap peas are only at the seedling stage.  Professional kitchens may source their vegetables from southern suppliers or, if procured locally, patronize farmers who grow crops in greenhouses.  However they do it, I can’t say I mind getting an early taste of what is coming.  It extends the season and gives us time to prepare before our homegrown vegetables are ready for harvest.