First Frost

I have a friend named Sally Gwylan with whom I talk just about every Monday. We’re both enthusiastic gardeners. This time of year what the weather is doing is of paramount interest.

On Monday, October 25, Sally and I discussed the long warm trend we’d been experiencing and how, what with the cloud cover and everything, it seemed likely that the gardens would get at least another week. Then, that very evening, Sally called back.

“I just checked the weather. The wind has blown the clouds out. We’re likely to get a frost tonight. I’m heading out to get those last cucumbers.”

I passed on the report and Jim raced outside to take advantage of the last light. He picked any tomatoes that were showing a blush of color. He also picked a bucket of green tomatoes. (We used these to make an excellent green tomato relish – my maternal grandmother’s recipe).

Since twilight was shifting into full dark, we decided to take a gamble on the remaining peppers and squash.

The next morning, I could see that the plants had definitely been damaged. I waited with trepidation for the air to warm. Albuquerque is at a mile high, so it wasn’t until mid-morning I was fairly certain that the damage had been bad but not complete.

The pepper plants were gone, but the fruit didn’t show any sign of frost burn. About two-thirds of the squash leaves were blackened and collapsed, but the under-story showed leaves that had survived. The zucchini we’d left were un-damaged and I picked all that were longer than about five inches.

Oddest was the sweet basil. We had a fairly dense planting stretching about four feet long. The plants were tall and bushy – just under chest-high on me. As I inspected the basil plants, I found areas where a branch was covered with wilted and blackened leaves, but the branch next to it still had green leaves. Nor was the survived/killed division neatly placed. Some branches that stuck up and out (and therefore logically were more exposed) were fine. Others right next to them were ruined.

Very weird.

As the following week unfolded, the garden made a bit of a recovery. More tomatoes showed color. We picked these to finish ripening inside. The cucumber vines, which I would have sworn were dead, yielded two more good-sized cukes, as well as a couple of little ones. There’s at least one zucchini considering getting on with growing.

But the end is in sight. I always dread this time of year, because I enjoy the garden so very much. This year in particular, where I grew so many of the plants from seed, it’s a little like losing pets. (You can look at “Wild Pink Haze,” April 14, 2010, to get a glimpse of these baby plants).

On the other hand, I find myself thinking about next year. Or even this winter. A neighbor gave me seeds for some hollyhocks that flower such a dark purple they’re nearly black. I’d like to start some of those. Then there is the question of lavender. I didn’t have any luck with my first batch, but I could try again over the winter. I might end up with seedlings for the spring.

As sorry as I am to see the garden of Summer 2010 go, I’m looking ahead, anticipating the next challenge. There are paths to be built. (We’re making our own pavers). Beds to be re-mulched. Branches to be pruned.

A while back (May 19, 2010), I wrote a wandering called “Forgetting a Child” about how a writer needs to always look ahead, not back. I see now, as I look at my beloved garden, nibbled nearly to death by approaching winter, that this philosophy extends into other aspects of my life as well.

Neat discovery…

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6 Responses to “First Frost”

  1. Paul Says:

    I always learn something from these postings. Now I know more about gardening.

  2. heteromeles Says:

    Nothing like a well-placed metaphor. I was just up admiring what the frosts were doing around Flagstaff. What I like is how plants play with time. It’s different than the way we humans do things. Dying is okay to them, as long as they sowed their seeds for the next time.

  3. Ann M Nalley Says:

    When I was living aboard a 42 foot power boat for a couple years, I missed having a garden. I bought two bush variety tomato plants to keep under the cover of the back deck. They did all right, but obviously needed more sunlight, so one day a week or two later, I brought them out onto the prow of the boat so they could have some full sunlight. I went back below deck and lost myself in other chores. About an hour later, the boat began to rock as a sudden wind arose. For a second, I didn’t think much of it: then I remembered my tomato plants. I raced on deck to find nothing more than some wind-blown potting soil. I felt like I had lost cherished pets (I couldn’t really say for me it was the same as losing a child, but it was a horrible, guilty feeling.) I never bought plants aboard again. “To everything there is a season…”

  4. janelindskold Says:

    Funny, though. Modern humans now live independant of time and, to a certain extent, even season. I read in an article on clothing styles that heavier wools etc. are going out of fashion permanently in response to central heating and heating in vehicles as well.

    Is this why there is such a resistance to aging and the signs of aging?

    We don’t want to admit that even to us there is a season?

    Leaves are starting to yellow on the trees. We don’t get many reds or oranges; I’m sure “heteromeles” could give the technical explanation. It has to do with the lack of certain chemicals.

    However, I did pick a few more tomatoes…

  5. heteromeles Says:

    Oddly enough, I can’t tell you why the leaves are yellow, instead of reddish, and just to add confusion, I saw some gorgeous reds on the high-mountain sumacs and poison ivy in Arizona .

    There’s a fair amount of dispute about why leaves change color at all. The best answer to date involves sunscreen.

    The reds and yellows in most plants are carotenoids, the same things you’re supposed to eat to keep your eyes healthy. Carotenoids are relatively simple molecules, composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen (this is relevant), and they’re good at capturing photons.

    Then there’s this little beast called chlorophyll, which along with all the DNA, proteins, and similar gadgetry in the cell, requires nitrogen, phosphorus, magnesium and about a dozen other elements that the plant has to get out of the soil.

    What happens when a leaf dies? As most of you know, they turn yellow. Why? The plant is attempting to recycle all those dozen elements, so that it can reuse them somewhere else.

    But what about carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen (CHO)? They’re effectively free. The plant captures then in air and water, and uses photosynthesis to build things like cell walls and carotenoids. Plants tend to have too much CHO on their hands, not too little, and they don’t recycle it. (Aside: This is why trees have wood (made of CHO) holding them up, not bone or muscle. Wood is a wonderful way of using the excess CHO. Wood does all sorts of useful things, and it is metabolically inert. Great stuff, wood.)

    But that doesn’t answer the question of why leaves turn yellow or orange, does it? Here’s where the scientists start arguing. The problem (we think) is that leaves are great at collecting sunlight for photosynthesis. But what happens when the plant wants to shut down the leaf and recycle all those dozen photosynthesizing elements? There’s still a lot of light hitting the leaf, and it’s going to do bad things if the energy isn’t corralled somehow (plants get sunburned too). The answer is carotenoids. These chemicals are cheap, disposable, and they trap the light energy, letting the plant recycle the other elements in peace.

    So why do the leaves turn yellow some years, and orange in others? Got me. All I can say is, the plants are way smarter than I am, when it comes to using recyclable solar panels.

    And all of this doesn’t answer why carotenoids are named after carrots. The orange part of the carrot is underground, after all…

  6. janelindskold Says:

    Very neat!

    I’ll have to nose around here. I believe there’s a chemical that our native trees don’t have, but that is common in trees in the east. When the green drains off, yellow (or whatever) is left.

    Thanks!

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