October 1, 2012

Fair Weather

The finest use for Macoun apples
We picked our second half-bushel of apples at Doe Orchards in Harvard this past weekend.  The Macouns were large, perfectly ripe, and will be turned into Molly O’Neill Apple Walnut Upside Down cakes as well as sundry other treats.  Two weeks ago we picked the last of our sweet corn, gorged on two ears apiece, and froze the balance.  The lettuce in our garden is brilliant green and growing like gangbusters.

For gardeners in eastern Massachusetts, it has been a very good year.  Total rainfall was almost exactly normal (and slightly above normal for September), there were no Irene-type weather events to upend the season.  The last frost was in early May and, as this writing, there has yet to be a ‘first frost’ inside I-495.  It was never oppressively hot for extended periods.  In short, it was an excellent year for plants, whether in the vegetable garden or the flower beds.

As gardeners, we tend to remember the bad years; the ones where it rained for weeks on end or it didn’t rain at all.  We remember the year that our perennials and annuals shriveled under relentless heat or our trees were ravaged by winter moth caterpillars.  The mind retains the heartaches.

This morning (October 1), this
container of annuals on our front
porch was still in full bloom
We seem to forget years like these - the good years - and that’s a shame.  It’s the beginning of October and my container-bound annuals are still in bloom.  The coleus has grown large and lush.  There is still phlox and the eupatorium and asters are ablaze with a profusion of white and purple flowers.  Though the temperature barely touched 60 degrees this weekend, there is still a touch of summer in the garden.  The lawn is an emerald green.

I’m all too aware of the disastrous drought that continues to grip the Midwest.  We have no contract with nature that assures us five months of pleasant weather between the beginning of May and the end of September.  So, when nature delivers New England a spring and summer like the one we’ve had, we ought to celebrate it.

Perfect tomatoes at the
Topsfield Fair
In essence, that was the thought behind the end-of-season town and county fairs that were once a regional staple around the country.  We are fortunate that a handful live on in New England – especially in places like Topsfield and Fryeburg.  In another era, they were the tangible evidence of a good harvest.  Remarkably, they still highlight horticulture (even if the newspaper headlines are given over Ron Wallace’s 2009-pound pumpkin, a world record).

A display of chrysanthemums
grown by backyard gardeners...
You can walk though those two fairs this week and see perfect tomatoes, chrysanthemums, carrots and dahlias; all grown by backyard gardeners.  They were picked on Thursday and entered in a narrow, four-hour window that evening.  They were judged Friday morning and are on display all week.  To me, they put to shame anything on display in a supermarket or florist’s shop. 

... and perfect ears of Indian corn
Horticulturally speaking, fortune smiled on us this year.  You could see it earlier this year in the displays at the Barnstable Fair (July) and the Marshfield Fair (August).  The season will end, of course.  We are already under twelve of daylight and shrinking at a rate of five to six minutes each day. I recognize that those final tomatoes and zucchini aren’t likely to ripen.  But the winter squash are losing those tell-tale green veins that separate the pickable from those that need more time, and the leeks are still growing.  Eventually, though, a cold-air mass coming down from Canada or Minnesota will put a ‘closed’ stamp on the season.

If you want to remember this year, I encourage you to make the trip to Topsfield before next Sunday.  If you’re more adventurous and have a full day, it’s a spectacular drive through fall foliage into southwestern Maine and the Fryeburg Fair, which also closes October 7.  Both are glorious throwbacks to another time.  Both are end-of-the-season bacchanals, yet perfectly suitable for all ages.  Go for the pumpkins, go for the Midway.  Enjoy the sight of a basket of perfect Indian corn.  But go.

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