Saturday, September 24, 2011

Preparing for Jack Frost

It’s been such a weird summer weather-wise that there’s no way anyone can predict how soon Jack Frost will return from his summer vacation.  I’ve known him to arrive as early as August and as late as mid-October.  A frost, unlike a freeze, doesn’t necessarily reach every nook and cranny of a property, so smart gardeners pay attention to which areas of the yard are prone to a rime of white in the early morning and try to plant their vegetable garden in a protected spot unlikely to be plagued by those early undeserved frosts.

One night last week frost was predicted so I got out the old sheets and bedspreads to cover my tomatoes and peppers, the only vegetables worth saving.  With global warming, it really makes sense to cover things since early frosts are often followed by weeks of warm weather. My spider plants were still blooming, but I'd used all the pink and white ones and the purple were too tall to cover up.  As it turned out we didn't get a frost that night anyway.

Keeping track of the dewpoint is a good way to be forewarned about the possibility of frost. Frankly, I find the whys and wherefores of the evening dews and damps very confusing, so I’ve been reading up on the dewpoint.  I’m still confused, but here’s what I’ve learned. Dew is the result of water condensation.  The earth absorbs heat during the day and loses it through radiation at night. Over 80 percent of this lost heat is taken in by water vapor and carbon dioxide in the air. If the air is dry, the drop in temperature is increased through evaporation, which has a cooling effect the same way sweat does.

As air cools, it is able to hold less and less water vapor.  When it can hold no more, it condenses, forming dew, and the temperature at that moment is the dewpoint.  So?  What’s that got to do with frost??
When dew forms it releases energy and that energy allows the temperature near the ground to remain at the same level as the dew point. Therefore if the dewpoint is hovering in the low 30s, one should prepare for frost.  If the humidity is high, so is the dewpoint, and the chance of frost will be minimal.

A night of dry air with clear skies and no wind indicates a low dewpoint.  That’s when we should scurry around with the old sheets and bedspreads, bushel baskets and anything else we can find to cover up tender vegetables - bush beans, tomato vines, pepper plants, melons. I doubt if many gardeners bother to protect their zucchini, having had enough. 

I have very few vegetables left in my garden, except the Brussels sprouts which are no bigger than peas and are just waiting for Jack to arrive.  My tomatoes, the golf ball-sized ones, are still producing, so I plan to go out today and gently uproot their vines and hang them upside down in the garden shed where they will continue ripening. 

I hope Jack Frost hasn’t blown his cold breath across your gardens before I post this column.  When I look across the meadow at the forest’s edge I only see a single maple tree making a splash of orange, but quite a few trees with leaves that have turned a dreary brown, as if we’d suffered a severe drought.  With all the water Irene drenched us with, that doesn’t seem possible. 

As it turns out  those brown leaves have actually been caused by Irene.  The vast amount of water she dumped on New England has produced horrible fungus and mold, sickening the leaves. Poor Vermont!  Let’s hope the leaf peeping tourists don't find that state's autumn colors a dismall beige and brown instead of a rainbow of gold and scarlet.  Irene has given Vermonters enough trouble.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Vine for Beer Drinkers

        New England is such a jungle of wild vines at this time of year I find it almost scary.  Just look at that bindweed (I refuse to call it a morning glory!) It is positively strangling my bank of flowering shrubs. The lacy cucumber vine that makes beautiful ladders was too delicate to withstand Hurricane Irene, but the woodbine is still walking the tightrope of telephone lines overhead, and the grape vines are covering roadside trees and shrubs in  heavy shrouds of greenery.

Many years ago one of my readers, Mrs. Thomen, called to ask if I was familiar with the hop vine.  She described it as “a prickly, rambunctious rambler,” and invited me to come and dig up a section of her plant so I could learn firsthand about its growth habits.  She also warned me that it could grow 30 feet in one summer.

Locust Hill has many vines – clematis, euonymus, ivy, akebia, and a silver lace vine hiding the propane tank.  They are all well-behaved. The one that behaved badly, a bittersweet vine, I got rid of. Did I really want such a poorly behaved vine hopping all around like a rabbit? Well, yes, if it could provide me with a new garden column.

Mrs. T’s plant was a member of the hemp family, Humulus lupulus, a perennial.  Two other varieties, the Japanese hop and the one with variegated leaves, are both annuals.  After much thought I planted the vine at the foot of the deck at the back of the guest house where it wouldn’t matter if it misbehaved.

Despite poor soil and only morning sun, the hop vine climbed up the netting I’d hung down from the second story deck and clambered right over the railing.  In its second year it produced flowers.  They weren’t very pretty, resembling small burdock burrs, and were soon followed by the hops, papery pale yellow cones with a pinkish tinge that soon turn brown.  They have a very distinctive smell.

Because I’m not a beer drinker, I didn’t realize until I began reading about hops, that beer contains a very important ingredient from this vine.   “Magic and Medicine of Plants,” published by Reader’s Digest, informed me that the glands in the female fruits are what give beer its “pleasantly bitter taste.”

“The Complete Book of Fruits and Vegetables” by F. Bianchini and F. Corbetta, published in 1975, offered me some even better quotes. “Hops have an estrogenic action, feminizing and anaphrodisiac, so that besides serving as a sedative, it is believed by some to be the cause of disorders afflicting hard beer drinkers.”

They went on to say,“Beer drinkers suffer from obesity, sterility and hepatic degeneration, or more simply put, a corroding liver.” Wow, you never know what tidbits you can dig up when you start researching a plant.

The young shoots of the hop vine can be boiled in a little salted water and lemon juice and eaten as a vegetable.  I’ve never tried them, but supposedly they have a taste similar to asparagus.  The spent hops (I’m assuming that means the ones from which the feminizing qualities have been extracted) can be used as a mulch, and when mixed with dried blood encourage phenomenal tree growth.

The leaves of the hop vine are three-lobed, bright green and do not turn color in the fall.  The stems contain almost microscopic prickles that help to hold the plant in place as it climbs.  It makes an excellent summer screen, and the distinctive odor of the cones might just mask that pail of unemptied garbage on the back porch.

The new shoots climb by twining, continually revolving clockwise.   Darwin actually measured the speed at which the hop shoot twines. It makes a complete revolution every 2 hours and 8 minutes.  Think of that!  Do you suppose Darwin sat and watched a hop shoot twining for 2 hours and 8 minutes?

One April daughter Trum took home to Oregon a piece of my hop vine and planted it to shade her south porch.  I flew out to visit in late June and saw that just one shoot had begun climbing the string Trum had provided.  Each day we measured its growth.  Phenomenal! In that one week it grew so high we could no longer reach high enough to measure it. 

Well, I guess by now you know more than you wanted to about the hop vine.  Except where to buy one.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Hurricane Irene

I hope all of you survived Irene better than I did.  Because Locust Hill Road was totally blocked by live wires, I was stuck at the top of the hill. No power, no water, except in the cellar where there was enough to float my freezer full of freshly frozen vegetables from the garden and about fifty pounds of beef, part of the Fords’ “rent” for hay fields and pastures.  

A celler full of water                   And a floating freezer

I was the only house on the road without a generator, busy mopping up leaks, pulling spoiled food from the freezer and lugging water to the bathrooms from the pond. Missing the entire first week of the U.S.Open was painful for this tennis enthusiast, but trying to read by flashlight at my age was even more painful.  Irene dropped enough large limbs from my dying sugar maple to keep the wood stove going for a month, and I picked up so much bark and dead branches that I'll have enough kindling  for the entire winter. 

 I can remember being without electricity off and on over the years when a night or two without light  was an adventure  – getting out the kerosene lanterns and the candles, playing games with the kids,  naming all the things we couldn’t use -  the TV, the toaster, and the telephone, just to name the T's.   And with a gas stove to cook on, it was almost fun. Irene's devastation was  not fun, but I'm not complaining.  Compared to all the folks whose houses Irene destroyed, I was lucky. I got power back in six days, and water in seven when the drowned water pump in the cellar got repaired.

Without a working computer, writing to keep busy meant the pencil and that big yellow pad of paper, which didn't appeal, so I never gave a thought about a subject for my next column.  So here I am, with nothing but my thoughts on Irene.  I trust I'll come up with a garden topic by the weekend.  In the meantime, I wish you all luck in whatever clean-up you're facing.