Gardening is Not for Control Freaks

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It’s early September, and the summer harvest is nearly over here at Fallengutter Farm. (Yes, our home is called “Fallengutter.” I’ll explain later.*) There are still a few ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomatoes on the vine. The hot Hungarian peppers are reddening up nicely. And the volunteer collards are still going strong — amazing, since they’re holdovers from last year — so we’ll have plenty to cook down and freeze before the frost nips them too hard. I’ve ripped the bolted lettuce out of the raised beds — well, what was left after Luci (one of our two Alaskan malamute rescue dogs) got behind the fence and helped herself, emerging with her white face dusted yellow with pollen.

This year’s garden has been an education in “managing expectations.” Mine, mostly. Our daily schedules are quite full, as I commute daily into Manhattan by train for my job, and my spouse is an Episcopal priest serving a local congregation. But I resolved that this would be the year when our 22-by-40 foot organic, critter-proofed, designed-on-permaculture-principles, seriously over-engineered garden enclosure would come together beautifully. (Our neighbors call it “the Garden Gulag.” They’re kidding. Or, we think they are.) I had to watch from the porch for the last two summers because of a serious illness, surgeries, and an exhausting schedule of treatments and follow-up appointments. This year I’m healthy.

We spent January and February poring over catalogs from Baker Creek, Johnny’s, and Territorial Seed. We ordered ‘Mister Stripey’ and ‘Paul Robeson’ tomato plants for mid-May delivery. We sketched out this year’s planting plan on graph paper, taking care to rotate vegetables to different beds. We counted the days until we might start putting our tender seedlings on the porch to harden off.

Our first indication that this year might be challenging was the poor sap output from the maple trees in this part of the lower Hudson Valley. We tapped our lone maple for the first time two years ago, just for fun, and could scarcely keep up with the flow. We emptied the sap pail into 5-gallon buckets and buried them in snow piles until I could spend my Saturdays boiling down sap into syrup. But the winter of 2015-2016 was warmer, with little snow, and we barely got a bucketful.

Then came an unusually warm late March, and the forsythia, magnolias, and flowering crabapples gave in to irrational exuberance and bloomed — and got totally destroyed when early April brought snow and three consecutive nights of temperatures plummeting into the low teens. We hoped the fruit trees would be resilient enough to overcome the shock, but neither our apples nor our neighbors’ pear trees put out any fruit to speak of this year. (Our apple trees also developed cedar-apple rust, and although we applied copper spray, the results were disappointing.)

Cucumbers are a mainstay of our garden every year. We grow them for pickles, for chilled cucumber-yogurt soup and gazpacho in the heat of summer, and as the all-important garnish in Hendrick’s gin and tonics. (Hendrick’s gin tastes terrible with lime. Trust me. Put a nice, thick slice of cucumber in the glass. You won’t be sorry.) We’ve never had trouble with cukes before. But this year — whether because of a dry spell at a critical point in their growth cycle, or some other random reason — nearly all our cukes were misshapen, hard, scarred, and pretty much inedible.

We also discovered, the hard way, that ‘Paul Robeson’ tomatoes need more shade than they got on the north end of the garden. Other tomatoes in the same bed did just fine, but the ‘Robesons’ got scorched and died. (We delight in growing ‘Robesons’ because our town has a shameful history around singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson. Just Google “Peekskill riots Paul Robeson” and you’ll understand why a thriving crop of ‘Paul Robesons’ is a delicious bit of irony in a town that has some repenting to do.)

Mid-August brought Invasion of the Squash Bugs. These ugly critters look like stink bugs but are a separate menace entirely. (You can learn more about them here.) Within a few days, they’d decimated our summer squash and zucchini plants. They seem to thrive in mulch, so we’ll need to clear out the old mulch and hay this fall, plant a cover crop of rye for the winter, and then bring in a new load of composted manure from a nearby farm in the spring.

So Mother Nature had a field day this year with my control-queen tendencies. We certainly won’t run out of provisions mid-winter, though. I still have collards from last year in the freezer, and plenty of frozen basil pesto so we can have a touch of July on February’s bleakest nights. Between our own tomatoes and donations from a neighbor (“Please take this huge box of Romas! I overplanted!”), many quart Mason jars of tomato juice and sauce line our pantry shelves. I’ll direct-seed more lettuce and rainbow chard this week and we should have some good growth before our October 15 first-frost date, and then we’ll put fabric over them and harvest well into the fall. I’ll dehydrate those Hungarian peppers and grind them into homemade paprika — a culinary must-have for this Hungarian girl.

And as every gardener knows, there’s always next year. Only about four months until the seed catalogs start arriving in our mailbox!

* Why “Fallengutter”? Our house is a 1915 Arts & Crafts foursquare that we’ve been slowly restoring to its original glory for the last 16 years. So the name is partly a joking nod to Frank Lloyd Wright. But the house truly earned its name on the first New Year’s Day we lived here, when 30 feet of gutter came crashing down under the weight of 18 inches of wet, heavy snow and heaven only knows how many years of accumulated leaves.

Mother Earth Gardener
Mother Earth Gardener
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