Friday, October 28, 2011

In Pursuit of the Proper Cold Front

September 5 & 15.  The first two cold fronts of the season didn't do shit.  Pardon the attitude and the language, but, after months of blinding hot temperatures, highs in the 90's with no chance of rain felt more like a distant memory of summers past, or a reminder of how we defined hot as balls back before 2011, than of any real reprieve from the ongoing hottest and longest summer on record.  You have to be in Austin, in September, having spent the summer here, to understand how anyone could refer to 95˚ F as a "cold front," and this year I just wasn't buying it.  Cold front, my ass.

Being surrounded by plant death didn't help my state of mind.  My gardens were abandoned, emptied of even the drought-hardy pepper plants, the ones that I had expected to survive through the summer and until the first freeze, shortly after the Stage 2 Water Restrictions notice arrived in the mail.  Only two of the perennial herbs that I planted in the spring, the rosemary and the sage, still grew in the front-yard garden, while the thyme, oregano, and tarragon plants had turned brown and crispy about the same time I gave up on the okra.  In the strip next to the driveway, about a third of the drought-hardy perennials, "water-wise" plants specifically selected for their ability to withstand oven-like summer conditions, had been lost to the heat of July and August, while their remaining neighbors were hanging on for their lives, barely any bigger in size than when I planted them in the spring.  Around my house and my neighbors' houses, long-established shrubs – those anonymous boxy ones that have been there forever, surviving countless Austin summers without care or watering or anyone's second thought – were also turning unhealthy shades of yellow and brown, killed by this summer.  And all around town, trees of all ages were dropping their leaves early, turning unhealthy shades of fall early, or simply dying where they had grown for so many years.

By the last week in September, when the high temperatures had climbed, yet again, back into the 105˚ F range, my mood as a gardener had sunk from, This is my month off, to, I don't know if I can start again.  I was depressed.  I knew that, according to the calender, it was time to plant broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage transplants, but I couldn't imagine planting anything young and green into such a cruel world.  I also knew that, in just a couple of weeks, it would be time to plant seeds, for lettuces, fall greens, and winter herbs.  It was my favorite time of the year, time to prepare my garden beds for fresh new rows of seeds and to get lost in the seed section of the plant store.  But instead of feeling the delicious anticipation of the cooler growing season, I was stuck in the inertia of the never-ending summer.

September 30.  The third cold front of the season knocked the temperatures out of the triple-digit range for good.  I woke early (for me) on the second morning in October and headed out for a walk.  As I walked down the street, I was struck by how quiet the neighborhood was in the late morning.  So quiet that I could hear my own footsteps crunching through the dry grass of the greenbelt.  I looked back at my neighborhood and realized that, for the first time in months, all of our air-conditioning units were silent at once.  I didn't appreciate how loud all those engines were until they were finally silent and, relieved by the absence of that constant humming, my shoulders dropped a few millimeters away from my ears.

The next day I began watering my gardens and compost pile.  To garden again, to trust the universe of central Texas to provide life-sustaining conditions once again, still seemed like a foolish idea.   Yet I was beginning to grasp the fact that, while the heat would eventually break and give way to the cool season, we weren't necessarily going to get the ground-soaking rains that my garden needed to start growing again.  So I began hand-watering the beds that I planned to plant, hoping that some of the moisture would soak through the thick layers of summer mulch and bring the soil back to life.  I was also hoping that the water would loosen the soil enough to be worked.  Later that week, I dug the remaining taproots of okra, eggplant, and fennel plants out of the garden beds and, in doing so, discovered that beautiful, dark, crumbly garden soil was still there, hiding under layers of leaf and alfalfa mulch.

For me, nothing is more motivating than turning, and smelling and feeling, a shovelful of fertile soil.  Within hours I had a garden plan and a list for the nursery and I was ready to begin again.  Rain was predicted for the weekend and, though I wasn't expecting the universe to pull though with an actual rainstorm, I figured that it was time to buy those broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage transplants.  At the garden center, I found trays of leggy baby plants, grown to be ready for planting a few weeks earlier.  I carefully selected fifteen plants – 5 broccoli, 4 cauliflower, 3 cabbages, 2 collards, and 1 Brussels sprout – of fifteen varieties, plus a few herbs to replace those that I had lost, plus a handful of seed packets.  As soon as the next front arrived, I was ready to plant.

October 8 & 9.  The fourth cold front brought ground-soaking rains.  Finally.  I wish I could say that I enjoyed the rainstorm, because I do love a thunderstorm, but I spent most of it indoors, without windows, at work.  And I was grumpy that weekend because I knew that I was scheduled to work ten of the next eleven days, at exactly the time that it was finally time to plant my fall garden.  So, to my coworkers, I apologize, because I simply didn't have the patience to deal with another pallet of unexpected, unordered cereal in the midst of the usual backstore chaos, knowing that on the other side of the back doors, outside, it was finally raining.

After the storm passed, I transplanted the baby broccoli, cauliflower, cabbages, and Brussels sprout into the garden along the south wall of the house.  Almost immediately, temperatures rebounded into the high 80's, which felt downright summer-like along that south wall.  My baby plants wilted in the midday sun and the smallest of the cabbages, the one with only two sturdy leaves, threatened to perish in the heat.  I hand watered the transplants every day and told them to hang on for cooler days.

The fourth front might not have brought much cooler temperatures but the fact that it did arrive in the midst of a ground-soaking rain was a huge relief.  Without rain, fall planting feels calender-driven and robotic: I will plant now because it is time.  With rain, it feels like time to plant, which may not seem like much of a difference except that, for me, gardening is most rewarding when I am working with the plants and the seasons: put the right plant in the right place at the right time.  So, after a summer of fighting against heat and drought, a good fall rain was like hitting the reset button for me.  The ground was soft, the rain lilies were blooming, and it was time to plant.  I transplanted the baby collards and herb plants, a thyme, an oregano, and a horehound plant, into the front-yard garden.  Then I dug compost into each bed and carved rows for planting seeds – lettuces, Asian greens, mustard, two varieties of kale, fenugreek, carrots, cilantro, and parsley.

Inside the house, the cold front triggered the fall-cleaning urge in Lee, who spent most of the following week moving everything out of his jam room, cleaning and resealing the floor, and rearranging his furniture.  I am usually the one to disrupt the household with my projects, but this time it was Benji (the cat) and I who tiptoed around musical equipment, giving each other distressed looks (and she did some yelling), before finding a safe place to curl up on the front-room couch.  It was interesting to be on the observing end of a clean-out, feeling that manic energy instead of generating it.  I understand better now why Benji and Lee scurry to the back of the house with anxious looks in their eyes when I decide that it's way past time to scrub the kitchen floor.  By the weekend, the clean-out energy, and various clutter that we didn't need anymore, had reached the sidewalk in time for our area's Bulk Trash pickup.  The clean-out vibe quickly spread down the street, and, within hours, every household on the block seemed to be getting rid of its least-comfortable chair.  After dark, Bulk Trash pickup turned into a your-trash-is-my-treasure swap, so that most of the piles of discarded stuff disappeared before pickup even began.

October 18.  The fifth cold front of the season was windy and dry.  It brought the cooler days needed for my broccoli-family transplants to establish and begin growing in earnest in their protected, south-facing garden.  In a matter of days they seemed to double in size, growing from spindly transplants into wide- and many-leaved plants whose leaves were almost touching.  In the front-yard, windy conditions dried the top of the soil where I had just planted so many rows of seeds and I feared that I would have lower germination rates as a result.  But I kept watering every day and soon thick rows of seedlings began to break through the soil.  The Asian greens and mustards were the first to germinate, of course, followed by the kales, fenugreek, and lettuces.

Later that week, I planted seeds in the shady backyard garden.  This year I only planted seeds of plants that were able to tolerate the shady conditions last year, red-leaved lettuces, chard, beet greens, and spinach.  It was a risk, planting my favorites of all the fall greens, the beet greens, chard, and spinach, in the less-than-ideal, shady conditions of the backyard.  But it may give me a later, spring season of greens to harvest from the backyard long after the fast-growing mustard-family greens have gone to seed in the front yard.

On Saturday Lee and I dusted off our state park pass and headed to McKinney Falls for a hike around the Onion Creek loop trail.  The creek was low, barely flowing over the falls, but actually held far more water than I expected.  And the trail was lined with the new, green leaves and round, pink flowers of Wood-Sorrel, a fall wildflower that had been encouraged out of dormancy by the rains two weekends earlier.  Slowly but surely, the lives that went on hold back in May, hidden inside our houses or waiting in dormancy underground, were starting up again.

Wood-Sorrel (Oxalis drummondii)

October 27.  With the sixth front of the season, the hot season has finally given way to the cool season.  Not that we won't see warm temperatures again soon – the cool season in Austin is defined by change, not by cold weather, which is always temporary here.  But the north wind tonight is actually cold, and standing outside in it made me cold, as in uncomfortably cold, a state that I haven't experienced in months.  The truth is, I don't like being cold.  And that is when I know that the seasons have changed in Austin, that we are officially in the cool season, when I feel cold enough to remember how much I don't like being cold and to just as quickly realize that, given how much I have been complaining about the heat all summer, I'd better get ready to embrace the season of change.  

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