Tuesday, February 15, 2011

After the Freeze

I spent the weeks of December and January worrying about the upcoming spring weather.  We have to eat all these greens, I kept telling Lee, and we did eat a lot of greens, though even as I harvested bowlfuls of greens I was happy to leave just as many plants in the ground, for all those future salads.  I thought I was staying one step ahead of the impending greens-flowering season, harvesting the most bolt-prone lettuces and greens first, but I wasn't even considering the possibility that I could lose my future salads to weather extremes from the cold end of the spectrum.

Then February began with a long, deep freeze punctuated by a rare snowstorm.  Most of the plants in my gardens survived, though I did lose a few lettuces in the front yard and all of the lettuces in the backyard.  After the storm, I removed dead plants and the frost-killed leaves from surviving plants, and cleaned the gardens up for recovery.

Then we were hit with another arctic blast.  Last Wednesday morning, I ventured out into the frigid wind to cover the front-yard garden in Plankets only to discover that all of the plants were coated in a fine layer of ice, frozen solid.  I spent the rest of the morning wondering what I should have done differently – should I have covered the garden the night before, and if so, how would the Plankets have fared through the heavy rain that preceded the front, or should I have covered the garden at six in the morning, when I woke to the sound of all the screens on the house banging as the front dropped temperatures?  Luckily, the garden unfroze that day and we were able to cover it before the deep freeze of the next two nights.  Still, the damage of the freezing rain was done, and I knew that, once again, I would be removing dead plants and frost-killed leaves from the garden.

On the other side of those two weeks of extreme cold, my gardens are reduced.  In the backyard, only collards, spinach, and cabbages remain, though I still hope that the beets and chard will regrow from their mulched roots.  From the front-yard garden, I lost the fenugreek, most of the parsley, and most of the lettuce.  After the snow, I harvested all of the remaining tatsoi, which were making visible preparations toward flowering, and most of the remaining bok choy, leaving only a few plants to continue growing.  Both the tatsoi and bok choy were crowded, raggedy, and heavily insect-damaged, definitely past their prime.  Next year, I need to remember that the Asian greens grow the fastest and should be harvested first, as fall greens.  After the snow, and again after the next deep freeze, I also had to remove many of the largest leaves from the chard plants.  They will survive but this starting over increases their chances of flowering this spring.

The toughest loss for me to accept is that of the lettuces.  They have been perfect eating size for several weeks now and I have been harvesting them as needed, taking the tallest, most bolt-prone first, and leaving the rest for another week of salad eating.  In the backyard were a few small red oak-leaf lettuces that I wish harvested sooner, but they were growing slowly in the low-light conditions, so I thought I had time.  In the front yard was a large, beautiful head of Buttercrunch lettuce that I was saving for ... well, I'm not sure what I was saving it for, but just that I was saving it because I love saving the best for my future self.  That lovely lettuce survived but lost most of its outer leaves, and, even if it does regrow, it is too late to recapture that moment when it was exactly just ready for harvest.

I did have one row of plants in my backyard garden that were actually invigorated by the weeks of freezing, snow, and ice – the mâche.  Mâche (Valerianella locusta), which is also called corn salad or lamb's lettuce, is a lover of cold weather.  In fact, I've had trouble growing mâche because it won't germinate until the soil is cool, which isn't until mid-November in Austin, it is slow-growing, and it really flourishes in the coldest weeks of winter, which we often don't have.  Once the weather warms, the mâche bolts as fast as spinach, so its window for growth is quite short and, in some warm years, non-existent.  But I continue to try to grow mâche because it is delicious, with a sweet, nutty flavor, and difficult (though, in recent years, no longer impossible) to find at the grocery store.

Mâche (Valerianella locusta)

Yesterday, as I was clearing the remains of the lettuce from the backyard garden and noticed that my row of mâche was looking particularly vibrant, I decided that it was time to harvest.  A few weeks ago, I might have tried to wait, or to harvest part of the row and save the rest for some more-auspicious future date.  But if the freezes have reminded me of one thing, it is this: feast when it is ready because next week's weather, and therefore next week's harvest, is uncertain.  So I harvested the whole row and Lee and I enjoyed big bowls of mâche salad for dinner.  I slept particularly well last night, and, given that mâche is in the Valerian Family of plants, I can't help but wonder if the salad helped my sleep.  Or maybe it was just the satisfaction of finally harvesting part of my garden at the exact right moment – just after the freeze but before the hot days of early spring that are soon to follow.

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