Archives for posts with tag: The Northeast

Another day, another polar vortex.  It seems that the atmosphere has reached down from the northernmost region of the earth and trailed a frigid finger of arctic air across the exposed back of the northeast.

To say that it has given us the chills would be a gross understatement; the temperature was two degrees below zero this morning.  This winter is on track to become the coldest one of my life.

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At breakfast last Saturday morning (pancakes and eggs at our favorite local joint), we started in on early planning for this year’s garden.  The first thing we concluded is that we are not really early.  By some reckonings, we should have sowed seeds for thyme last month and could be starting other herbs right now.  The second thing we concluded is that, once again, we are behind schedule.

Luckily, the choices of what to plant this year were relatively easy decisions even though a fair amount of thought went into each one.  We started with the list of plants we grew last year and then applied a few different criteria to assess their success.

The most important criterion for each vegetable is our answer to the question, did we like it?  It doesn’t matter how well it grew or how much it produced if, at the end of the day, we won’t eat it.  Of last year’s crops—those that actually yielded fruit—the only one that did not absolutely thrill us was the Aunt Ruby’s German Green tomatoes.  They were not bad, per se, but they didn’t leave us wanting for more.  Consequently, we will not grow them again this year.

There was one plant whose fruit we could not taste.  The Delicata winter squash did set fruit—several of them—but was not able to develop any of them to maturity.  And that leads to the next criterion, performance.  Plants that did not thrive last year may not be suited to our particular microclimate.  Then again, we may not have given them what they needed, either.

So, what besides the Delicata did not perform?  Well, the Kabocha winter squash produced only one specimen by the end of the year and it was a small one at that.  That’s two strikes against the winter squashes and based on this meager showing, I was tempted to say that we should try other varieties this year or skip them altogether.

However, roasted with a little olive oil and salt, the Kabocha squash was absolutely delicious.  It passed the first criteria with flying colors even though it showed weakly on the second.  Similarly, although we were not able to sample the produce of our Delicata, it is one of my favorite varieties (we often buy it at the farmers’ market).  Therefore, we will try the Delicata and Kabocha squashes again.

The next criterion then is, why did these vegetables underperform?  My best guess is that we underfed them.  I haven’t reported on last year’s testing yet (look for a future posting) but soil properties are a definite suspect.  The areas we planted with the squash were newly formed last year and have not had much chance to stabilize.  This spring, we will probably need to enrich their soil and fertilize them more frequently.

The same could be true of the summer squashes—both the yellow crookneck and pale green zucchini—and the cucumbers—one a pickling variant and the other a slicing type—all of which we planted in more or less the same area (the ground surrounding the planters) and with roughly the same soil (equal parts of compost and peat moss).

Despite these similarities, however, their performance was quite different.  Three of the four summer squash vines were hugely productive (especially the alpha crookneck; see August 6, 2013) whereas the cucumbers produced only a modest quantity of fruit before fading away in mid-summer.  Two other factors could account for the differences.

First, the amount of soil we introduced for the cucumbers was much, much less than for the squashes.  This is partly because of their location between the pool fence and planters but mostly because the cucumbers were the last seedlings we planted.  By that time, we were tired!  Our native soil is rocky and very difficult to dig but we will have to face up to doing more of it this year.  Adding to and amending the soil will be an early spring chore.

Second, the cucumbers were stricken hard by powdery mildew and once afflicted, perished rapidly.  It is not clear (and probably never will be) whether this was due to their undernourished state or simply because the varieties we planted are more susceptible than others to powdery mildew.  The squashes, on the other hand, seem better able to continue to produce after contracting the disease.  Each of the squash vines was still setting fruit into the fall.

Both of these are factors we can mitigate—or try to mitigate, anyway—and so we will plant both types of summer squash and both types of cucumbers again.  To help control the powdery mildew (which is endemic in the northeast), we will plant in new locations.  I will also arm myself with a spray bottle full of baking soda solution which I will apply early and often.  With diligence—and luck—we will have more squash and cucumbers than we can eat this year.

I’ve been doing a lot of snow shoveling lately.  We had two big snow storms last week (the first major storms of the year) that left about a foot of snow on the ground.  In lieu of lifting weights or running (my usual fitness regimen), I’ve been following the snow-shoveling workout.  Perhaps I should develop the concept for a DVD or maybe it’s a franchising opportunity.  But first I have to figure out how to make it work in warm climates.

And that may prove important because it seems that many biomes which were once reliably cold throughout the winter are now mutating into climates that would be found much farther south.  Here in the Northeast, for example, last week’s snow was followed by warm days with temperatures in the 60s.  With the accompanying warm breezes, it felt like December in Florida, if not Hawaii.

The balmy days melted most of the snow, the remainder of which was washed away by an almost-tropical rainstorm that followed.  Today, it is as if the snowstorms of last week never happened.  It makes me wonder, why did I bother shoveling that snow in the first place?  Is there a deeper motivation than simply getting from my front door to where the car is parked?

The cycle—snow, shovel, melt, repeat—reminds me of the mandala sand paintings of Buddhist monks.  (Last year, the wrapping of Christmas presents put me in mind of the same thing; see December 22, 2012).  A snowfall creates a blank canvas on which we carefully create an intricate design (although because this is a process of removal, it is more akin to etching or carving a woodblock).  We plow roads, clear pathways, and dust off our cars, taking away only what is necessary to reestablish the transportation routes that are the otherwise invisible patterns of our daily lives.

And then the weather changes and our creations vanish, melting away into oblivion.  Here, the analogy to the sand paintings is more literal, as the carved snow transforms into water and is absorbed into the earth or trickles into storm drains or streams and thence, eventually, into the ocean.  We realize the impermanence of life, recognize the relative unimportance of material things and are healed in the process.

If only it healed my aching back as much as my psyche.

After an unusually warm July, we’ve been experiencing a strangely cool August.  It is great for sleeping (no need to run the air conditioner) but it is not so good for the garden.  The humidity remains high (unavoidable in the northeast in summer) and, consequently, there is a heavy dew every morning.

Anyone growing cucurbits (squash, cucumbers, melons) knows that these conditions are conducive to powdery mildew.  And the evidence in our garden is proof.  The leaves of all of the squash plants—summer and winter—are covered with the white fuzz.  It seems to be increasing daily, almost as I watch, despite periodic (but, admittedly, infrequent) milk sprays.

Luckily (and so far, so good), the mildew has not affected squash production significantly.  New leaf growth is still quite strong, there are plenty of blossoms and the pollinators have not been interrupted.  We will still be eating squash for a few weeks (at least) to come.

Where powdery mildew seems to have the greatest negative impact is on the older end of the vine, nearest the roots.  This portion of the vine has already produced fruit and its leaves would be dying back anyway.  However, the mildew seems to speed up the process.  The question has now become, will the rate of mildew progress overtake the vine’s growth?

Driving north on the New York State Thruway, on the way to Saratoga Springs, I noticed that several clumps of brown leaves pockmarked the foliage of the many normally verdant trees that line the right of way.  It looked strange—the lush green of the deciduous forest is one of the characteristics that distinguish summer in the northeast from other, drier, places I have known, such as the Central Valley of California where I grew up (everything turns straw-colored there).

At first I wondered what could be afflicting the trees, most of them maples, which I think of as resistant to disease and insects.  And then it came to me:  the brown and drying branchlets are sites of 17-year cicada eggs.  Female cicadas gnaw shallow notches in the branches into which they deposit their eggs; the notches cause the branches to die.  This phenomenon is considered the only significant downside to the emergence of the insects which otherwise cause no permanent damage (even if they do create a mess).

I do not recall observing any dead branches after the last cycle (in 1996) but I have noticed a few on some of our trees this time around.  Luckily, the condition is temporary and the trees should return to normal next year.