Reflections On A Season Gone By -Winter 2015

by: Russ Morash

At the very edge of my garden plot, I tried to grow two cherry tomatoes in cages as I have done elsewhere in the garden every year going way back. The cherry types usually beat the main croppers to harvest by two weeks or so but, strangely, not this year. When they started to ripen they were slower and smaller for some reason, yet other varieties in the same row performed

as expected with no sign of disease or insect predation. Why? Could I have a soil problem in this particular ground? Maybe a professional soil test could narrow the possibilities, but that’s not as simple as it sounds.

Years ago we had a University of Massachusetts Field Station in Waltham, Mass. where a back-yard gardener could have soil analyzed quickly and cheaply, but no longer. Now, you must go online, fill out a form, pay a fee of $15 (an extra $6 for nitrate analysis), send a cup of dry soil by mail to the UMass testing lab in Amherst and wait two weeks or so for the results. They do warn you to be patient as they are so busy and their testing machine broke down recently. Who’s going to do all that?

You could get a home-testing kit, which is cheap enough, but interpreting the results may cause you to seek help from a university professor in soil chemistry and you know that does not come cheaply. So what’s a poor back-yard tomato grower to do?

Well first, “do no harm,” as Hippocrates warned. Take it easy on the fertilizers, as pouring on nutrients when they are not needed is costly to the gardener and po-

tentially devastating to the shellfish we all love. So what I will do on my plot is none of the above but follow the advice on lime and liming suggested within the very useful Royal Horticultural Society website, a simple home pH test will tell me I need a bit more lime to help unlock all those nutrients my cover-cropped soil contains.

Elsewhere in the vegetable garden, the Gilfeather rutabagas with their tasty white flesh seem unaffected by the cold weather. They grow on in the late-fall garden and will have attained their maximum football size before joining the groaning Thanksgiving board where they will be in great demand. So too the durable Brussels sprouts which get tastier with frost and more so the fresher they are cut from stalks still growing on since the spring planting. Walla Walla giant sweet onions will not keep much longer in storage before they go soft but what a great crop for us this year from seeds planted in February.

The parsnips will slowly lose their green tops before long but not to worry, as they are comfortably relaxing underground, gaining that remarkable sweetness we will enjoy next April.

There’s not much chance of running out of potatoes this winter as four rows have produced more than we need. But not so the tomatoes, of which every one the chef has turned into a freezer of fresh tomato sauce we can use topping everything on our menu save ice cream. I note no one seems desperate enough to eat the kale.

A few small pumpkins and some ornamental squashes are nice to have as table decorations but we are still not quite ready to eat and enjoy the Waltham butternut squash (named after the same Waltham field station as above) until it achieves its maximum russet color, indicating the fruit has fully ripened and sweetened.

We recently screened a Netflix offering called “The Chef ’s Table” about a farm-to-table restaurant in New York in which the innovative chef is promoting a new squash delicacy combining the best features of both butternut and acorn types in a mini size better suited to home and back-yard gardens. Called Honeynut, this improved variety out of Cornell’s agriculture school is on my list to grow next year.

As winter deepens, the gardener has more time to read of the offerings of seed sellers and dream about where he would rather be. Thus, when we were in production with “The Victory Garden” years ago we used this time of year to visit notable gardens that offered holiday displays of memorable distinction. One year we journeyed down to Longwood Gardens, a treat for the gardener at any time of year but particularly so at the run-up to Christmas, with the grand conservatory there in full dress with thousands of living plants and illuminations to the delight of the visitors. You’ll never look at a poinsettia again without thinking of how they do it at the late Mr. DuPont’s estate in Kennett Square, Pa.

In other years I remember visits to Cooperstown, N.Y., home of baseball’s hall of fame, but also known for decorating the tiny upstate village at Christmastime with thousands of lights adorning hundreds of trees along with some of the best horticultural decorations on nearly every house and barn in the area.

Once we were invited to a holiday festival held every year during the season when we took our “Victory Garden” crew to Colonial Williamsburg. What with the dazzling horticultural displays, the decorated houses, the numerous seasonal special events and a costumed staff that helps to extend the illusion, a visitor is transported back to an earlier rendition of the holidays when King George was in charge.

Then there was the year we celebrated a “Victory Garden” Christmas on Nantucket complete with lightship-basket making, Stroll shopping at Murray’s, caroling along Main Street, a history turn by Nat Philbrick at Mitchell’s, a scallop trawl with Spanky out at Madaket, Christmas-tree decorations at the Whaling Museum, and a grand feast with All and Andrea at The Company of the Cauldron. What pleasant memories.

The gardener’s winter looks long, perhaps, when peering out from under the first snowfall, but by the time the seeds are ordered, the broken tools are fixed, the supplies replaced and all those gardening books are read, there’ll be little enough time to keep watch over the newly-planted seeds of onions, leeks, violas and parsley. I wouldn’t have it any other way. ///

Russ Morash is a life-long gardener and founder and former producer of PBS shows including “The Victory Garden,” “This Old House” and “The French Chef.”

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