The Cost of Frost

The weekend before last began warm and beautiful. A few leaves were still on the trees, but the forecast was for a sudden change in the weather. I did some organizing and cleaning as the cold front blew its way through the treetops and into my yard.

In the time since then, my garden has seen a beautiful collapse of the leaves and plants. They’ve been invisibly broken apart by the jagged edges of internal ice crystals as we’ve finally had many nights in the 20’s and low 30’s.

Below are a series of photos that I took in this time period. You can spot the same plants as the frost changes them. Some colors deepen. Some leaves grow translucent. Some grow leathery.

After the frost had worked its way into everything and most of the final leaves had come off the trees, I spent the day with my leaf blower coaxing all the leaves on the ground into one garden bed or another. As part of the process, I took down my bean trellises and found a few final dried beans to add to my collection. There was a mixture of pretty limas and several more Mostoller Wild Goose pole beans that I think are gorgeous.

And finally, something freshly cooked but completely out of season–blackberry jam! For many years, my blackberries have fruited well but never produced enough at one time to make much of anything. Mostly, the birds would eat the berries as they ripened a couple at a time. Patchwork’s blackberry bushes were larger, so if I wanted to make jam I could collect enough berries there.

But for the last few years the Patchwork bushes haven’t done well. John’s eaten all the jam I had from recent years, so I decided I needed to do something differently. This year I collected the blackberries in my garden and froze them one at a time. By the end of the summer, I was pretty sure I had enough for a batch of jam and over Thanksgiving weekend, I finally had time to make it.

I used my strainer to separate out all the seeds, running the pulp through the hand-cranked machine over and over to try to get as much moisture out. I knew I wouldn’t have any pulp to spare. In the end I was a cup short, but thinking back to some jam I’d seen sometime this year, I steeped some sage leaves in hot water and added the water to the blackberry pulp.

The result? 4.5 jars of particularly delicious jam!

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You’ve Peaked, Evansville.

Every fall in Evansville there is a beautiful moment when the leaves have changed gloriously and enough have scattered across the ground that we are surrounded by a world of autumnal color. The streets are lined with reds, rusts, pale oranges, and yellows. My back yard is bathed in golden light filtered through the maple leaves, and it’s the color of happiness. But, the moment is always brief and an instant later the branches are bare and the leaves on the ground are dry and grey.

(Click any of the photos below for a bigger image and a slideshow of the changing leaves.)

My garden has fully embraced autumn. We didn’t have freezing temperatures until a few days ago, so most things were still growing though they seemed to anticipate the killing weather. Many leaves were tinged with orange and yellow and seed pods were prominent. I picked the last of my beans and brought my house plants indoors for the winter. The Ladies enjoyed adventuring in their new jungle in the kitchen.

Meanwhile, a few photos of the cats. We keep working with Larry to improve his behavior, though he’s still a challenge and very bitey. One thing that we’ve discovered he loves: clicker training. So far he can touch a target with his nose, stand on a mat with all four paws, and sit. He seems happy to do it and happy to have very positive interaction with John and me.

Of course, the Ladies are simply delightful, as always.

All three have the following advice as winter approaches:

Find a warm spot…

 

Enjoy your warm bed…

Wrap your tail around your nose to keep it warm…

And enjoy the changing seasons.

 

Turning to Fall

Now there’s the promise of cooler days mixed in with the warm ones. Last night was cold enough I needed to bring my houseplants inside. They’ll go back out tomorrow for more direct sun and fresh air, but it won’t be long before they’re in for the winter.

I’ve got some final tomatoes still ripening. The Atomic Grape variety has been getting nice and ripe and I’ve decided I like them better than I thought. The color still isn’t as dramatic as it was in the seed catalog, but they’re still pretty, especially in big clusters.

I’ve been picking my lima beans. A couple weeks ago I got a nice collection of both fresh and already dried. They’re tasty and beautiful. It usually takes all summer to get a nice crop ready to pick. The hearty begonia flowers are gracefully descending into seed pods and the toad lilies are blooming, so it must be time for fall. The zinnias and marigolds continue to bloom and add nice autumn color.

A big, fat, orange cucumber is hanging on a dying vine with drying beans nearby. It is the image of early fall. And the corn has been pulled and sits by my front stoop looking festive. A few weeks ago I was sitting next to someone at a gathering of nonprofit professionals and he kept talking about going out to his farm to get some corn to decorate his nearby nonprofit. In Patchwork Central style, I got my fall decor from my yard and not from my second home.

And finally, the cats are enjoying the changing seasons from the back door. We’ve been trying to try to prepare for merging the household, so Larry has even gotten in on the garden viewing action. The merger hasn’t gone great so far, so keep us all in your thoughts. About a week ago we let them all meet, but Larry just got excited and chased the Ladies around the house. He just wanted friends to play with. The Ladies didn’t like his game. John and I continue to try to train him not to communicate with us using his teeth, but it looks like that work will be ongoing. He’s a much tougher to than average cat to figure out. Meanwhile, the Ladies continue to be their usual lovely selves.

My Least Favorite Season

I love the changing of the seasons. I love snow in winter and the stark brown of the landscape. I love the emerging greens in the early spring and the lushness of the new plants after they fully emerge from the ground. I love midsummer when the garden is still expanding to fill the space and the vegetables and fruits are fresh and new. I love the crispness and deep colors of autumn.

However, late summer into early autumn gets me down every year. The lush expansion of my garden is over and things are starting to sink into themselves. The jewel tones of fall have yet to appear. Everything is simply brown and crispy. When rain comes, there isn’t the fresh, green rebound that happens earlier in the year. Everything seems tired and ready to quit, but it’s way too hot. The last fruits hang on the plants. They’re not ripe and may never get a chance to ripen before the frost. It’s now clear which plants were failures. They’re the ones that are crustier than the rest or are simply represented by empty spaces filled with my hopes for what could have grown.

Right now I’m ready for fall and not eager to be out in my garden.

Nonetheless, there is beauty to be found here and there. There was my one perfect ear of shoepeg corn (along with several imperfect ears), finally a few morning glories and sunflowers, one zinnia that managed a happy bloom, the sweet autumnal clematis in bloom, interesting bugs, my favorite hosta blooms, and, indoors, four flowers on my spectacular orchid.

Of special note is my okra. I grow it mostly for its beautiful flowers. We’ve eaten some of the pods, but most have quickly grown too big to be tasty. I’m trying to dry those pods to make okra-sicles for this year’s Christmas tree. With three young cats, I have a feeling that all our usual the glass ornaments will stay in storage this year.

And finally, the cats. The Ladies have been spending as much time as they can sitting in the back door and surveying their domain. They carry themselves with the grace and decorum of royalty.

And then there’s Larry. He’s sweet when he’s giving us hugs and kisses and when he’s playing. But then he attacks us and it’s brutal. He doesn’t understand that RAWR! is not the best communication technique.

From what we’ve read, bengals love heights so we got him another cat tree. He helped us assemble it then added a couple RAWR’s for good measure. He loves it and sleeps on the highest platforms. While we were setting it up, he also did another thing that I’ve read bengals do: he was intrigued by the metal parts and started to carry one away with him. He was foiled by an evil box flap that he thought was solid but that collapsed under him.

He’s finally been cleared of his parasites, so now we can work to try to integrate him with the Ladies. We’re very cautiously optimistic. Wish us luck.

 

Rare Harvests

I have figs! I have figs!

Perhaps six years ago, I got to taste a fig straight off a friend’s fig tree. It was the most unique and amazing flavor. I decided I wanted to grow my own, and so the saga began.

The winters here are borderline for growing figs. The first winter mine all died. The second winter I wrapped them in burlap and moved them to a protected corner of the yard. And they still died. I thought.

After I planted new ones, the roots of the previous years’ sprouted fresh. That winter I brought them inside when it got below 20 degrees outside, but then it stayed cold and they stayed indoors and came out of dormancy. They leafed out and sprouted fruits but didn’t get enough light and the tiny figs fell off.

Last winter I brought them inside when it got below 15 degrees outside, but got them back outside quickly. The winter didn’t have too many cold snaps, and they happily started growing at the first signs of spring. Like every other year, this summer they were nice and green and leafy. Unlike other years, I saw figs forming!

I held my breath, ready for the figs to drop too early, but, no! They turned dark and heavy with sugar. Would the flavor be as extraordinary as I remembered?

Yes indeed.

Another rare harvest is the butternut squash. I got four small ones off of that volunteer vine! It looks like it’s true that the squash vine borers don’t like butternut squash because the vines never succumbed. I will definitely plant more in the future. The only problem came when we brought Larry the cat inside after he’d spent a month roaming my garden. It only took a week before the squirrels were making a mess of it.

I’ve also harvested a couple melons (one too early, sadly), the corn is looking good from a distance but aphids have damaged the ears, the okra is blooming (really the flowers are the main reason I grow okra!), I’m collecting one blackberry at a time in the hope of having enough to make jam (though with Larry the cat outside, the birds and squirrels left me more berries this year), the beans finally started to amount to something, the flowers are blooming, and tomatoes continue to ripen (although I have yet to taste some of the most intriguing varieties including Dragon’s Eye and Cosmic Eclipse).

Larry the cat has been doing OK in his life indoors. He is a difficult cat, which we anticipated when we brought him in. He has tons of energy, he is a gawky teenager, and his brain seems to short out regularly which results in people being bitten. He’s loving, too.

This morning I felt like I bargained for his soul. It turns out that he belonged to the relative of a neighbor but had come to live with the neighbor when the relative lost her apartment. No one at his new home could stand him indoors, so they put him outside. Then he disappeared for the last week and everyone was worried.

I told them we’d taken him to the vet and were treating him for problems that the vet had found. I told them I could tell that he’d been cared for. I offered to take over caring for him and said I had been planning to see if we could work him in with our other cats. His previous caretaker seemed a little relieved and agreed.

She did make sure I knew his real name is Raja and that he’s part Bengal. She said if she could find them she’d drop off his vet records.

He always turns to look when he hears voices across the street. He still considers her his person.

Meanwhile, the Ladies are a little stressed about another cat being around, even though we can’t officially introduce them all until Larry’s intestinal parasites clear up. The one good thing for them now that he’s indoors: they can sit uninterrupted at their back door once more. They can’t complain too much about their life of leisure and luxury.

Growth

Looking over photos from the last month in my garden, I can clearly see its mid-summer expansion. My new raised bed holds corn, okra, edamame, and red raspberries. Just when I’d doubted that the corn would produce anything, it shot up and started to tassel. Hopefully it doesn’t fall over before it’s all said and done. I harvested my soybeans this week. The okra is just now starting to think about blooming. All is good.

Expanding even more are my mystery vines. This spring, I spread compost on a section of my garden before planting melons, one squash, and cucumbers. Lots of little volunteer vines of some kind popped up from that compost, and I was curious to know what reminders of good food past they would become. I kept a few and clearly they were something big. The plants headed out of the official garden space (partly due to my attempts to steer them away from the plants I’d meant to plant).

I went out of town for a short vacation at the end of June and when I got back, I got a note from the person garden-sitting for me that marveled about how well my squash plants were doing. So, that was the grand reveal. I checked the backyard to see what she was talking about and found a beautiful little butternut squash forming on the vines.

I haven’t intentionally planted winter squash for years. I tried it twice and had the heartache of watching them wither and die as squash vine borers burrowed into the heart of each vine and did their dirty work, pooping sawdust-like excrement where the plant met the earth. I looked for remedies, but there was nothing that seemed like it would work for me. It was also a heartache that after the plants died I had a big hole in my garden that represented the missed opportunity to grow something else that would have thrived in my space. With not much space to grow things, that lost opportunity is huge.

The first little squash on the vine has been joined by several more. I’m sending positive thoughts their way and hoping to get at least one ripe one before squash vine borer or some other disaster strikes. It will be a great achievement to eat a squash meal grown in my garden. [Though while working on this post, I saw an article that said butternut squash is less susceptible to squash vine borers, so maybe my happy compost accident will lead to future years of fruit!]

The one squash I intentionally planted this year was a quick-fruiting summer squash. I hoped that it would be able to stay ahead of the squash vine borer and produce some fruit for me (the borers have to have a certain number of warm days before the larva stage that burrows into squash vines becomes active). I did manage to get a couple mature summer squashes from the plant, but then the borers swooped in and killed it.

The melons and cucumbers are doing fine, but I knew they would. They aren’t bothered by the borers. Actually, I’m not that fond of cucumbers, but they grow so well. And their flavor has its good points.

And there is a lot of other great growth and bounty to be had around my garden and kitchen:

  • June apple season came and went. I managed to get enough lodi apples to make a batch of applesauce, although I’m ready to upgrade my squeezer and may go online to get a vintage one like my mom used to use.
  • I also picked and froze gallons and gallons of blueberries. By now, the people at Wright’s Berry Farm in Newburgh know me by name.
  • My “Bobcat” orchid is blooming again. It looks like a bunch of roaring cats’ muzzles.
  • I have a couple planter areas where I add annuals every year. I use similar types of plants, but each year’s arrangement unfolds differently and I enjoy the subtle variations. One such spot is my brick pile garden. Another is my mosaic planter.
  • I harvested my carrots and I’m enjoying some blackberries and the first of my tomatoes.

Updates and Visitors

I’ve been working hard to get several updates made to my garden and yard before a couple groups of friends were scheduled to visit. On top of the usual cleaning, weeding, organizing, and planting, this spring I started on a new raised bed, a new set of perennials on a new side of the house, and a new piece of garden art.

It was a lot of work and things aren’t finished yet, but some new vegetables are already coming up in the raised bed and I’m  enjoying the way it all looks. The highlight is the new bottle tree taking shape on the stump of the apple tree at the front of the side yard. I’ve been thinking about this sculpture for a little while, and I’ve been on the lookout for the perfect piece to go atop it. I found a fantastic concrete raccoon holding an apple. I shaped the stump somewhat so it would look less stumpy, I carved space on top for plants to grow, and I started adding bottles. It’s still a work in progress, but here’s what it looks like now:

I was so excited to find such a trashy good raccoon sculpture. I found it and the rotary hoe blade under it at a local architectural salvage store. The paint job when I found it was pretty uninspiring, so I repainted it. It has such a perfectly gleeful raccoon look on its face that reminds me of the meme:

It’s always great to have garden visitors in real life in addition to my virtual garden visitors, even though I always pressure myself to try to make everything look perfect. If you’re ever in my neighborhood, feel free to stop by, too! Among the things my guests brought was this photogenic magnolia bloom:

For those unable to visit my garden in person, here’s a quick tour of many of my garden beds and plants. The overview: my other concrete raccoon now looks classy in comparison, I added more tree jewelry, the hostas are happy, a hollyhock is blooming, I added a little flapping wind spinner, I’m trying to grow Alpine strawberries, the red hydrangea is blooming, and I picked the garlic scapes. (As always, click on any photo to see the larger version.)

Another bit of art that’s now out is my collection of goofy garden markers created by the kids at Patchwork as part of Art & Company. They learn how to make art and then sell it and get a “company” dividend based on their investment of time and good behavior. I love the misspellings.

Here’s a collection, along with some ceramic fairies and a real fairy from my garden:

And finally, the cats. The back door is their happy, happy place. Lady Ygraine has been enjoying it for well over a month, but it’s been less than two weeks since Lady Morgaine decided to join her. They are very sweet together and even had their tails entwined the other day. Not pictured: the occasional times Ygraine puts her arm around Morgaine, growls, and pushes her daughter off the chair so mommy can have some “me time”. In Ygraine’s defense, Morgaine does tend to get a little too excited sometimes. Twice she’s been so engrossed in what was going on outside that she attempted to jump with all four feet onto the 0.5″ strip of wood framing the window and then fell off it with a bang that scared everyone.