Sunday, October 28, 2012

What I Love About Dahlias

Here it is, almost November. Among the various tawny shades of ochre and russet is a sprightly tone of pinkish red. Though beautiful in any season the perfect petals of the October dahlia seem especially so now, when the rest of the garden is marching steadily toward senescence, that is to say, death and dying. 

 But what I love most about dahlias is not their conspicuous spring-like colors—it is that their centers are almost always alive. 

Literally, alive. 

Oblivious to cold winds and camera lenses, a bumblebee will bed down in the soft golden heart, staking his claim. You may see an occasional slight movement of his hairy legs, and if you could catch sight of his tongue (also hairy), it might also be in motion. But from a casual observer’s point of view he looks content, sleepy, drugged even. There is no hurry at all to get back home; it is not his job to bring back supplies. In fact, he might very well spend the night clinging to the center of a dahlia blossom. Oh, he may be mildly concerned with dabbing a bit of his scent here and there, but that is early morning work. Afternoons and evenings are for hanging out with friends. 

Like a grasshopper with a taste for pink petals. 

The two seem at peace with the fact that their interests are separate and non-conflicting. I’ll take the petals, you take the pollen. If one or the other gets too close for comfort, each simply adjusts his position. 

And carries on.

October bumblebees are so much more laid back than August bumblebees. This has mostly to do with sex. Males are born only after the colony dwindles, late in the season. Most of the busy female workers are dead by this time, and the point of the activities (or lack thereof) is less about the survival of the hive and more about the survival of the species. All the Johnny-come-latelies need to do is eat, and mate. 

A short time after male bumblebees make their appearance the new queens emerge—the progenitors, the rulers of the hives of the future, the heroes of orchard owners everywhere. A queen will fly to where a male has left his scent, and wait. Presumably, she’s an early riser. 

Because by mid-morning, at least in my garden, the men show no interest in doing anything but luxuriating in dahlia pollen.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

2012: A Good Year for Tomatoes

October 13th is a tad early for a first frost in Allentown, PA. But there it was decorating blades of grass and dusting the few fallen leaves. The 28° blast of cold air was decisive. It blackened pepper leaves and wilted the few tomato plants that managed to escape the blight. Last year the temperature didn’t drop below freezing until October 29th, and even on that late date the frost was spotty. 

When gardeners express their sadness during this season of drawn-out dying, others invariably respond with something like, “but it’s the best season of the year! The air is crisp, and the colors are beautiful.” True. But …

Skipping past the details of the list of losses (sultry evenings on the patio, the promises of buds, early morning gardening sessions), I will move right to praising the bounty. 2012 was a very good year—for tomatoes. 

Rather than trust the weather to bring rains when rains are needed, and sun to dry the leaves and protect them from disease-bearing spores, I planted most of the tomato plants at the Glasbern Inn under cover this year, with drip irrigation. And what a difference that measure of control made! A few even escaped this week’s frost.

In this beautiful pile: Brandywine, Evergreen, Zebra striped, Costoluto, Purple Cherokee, Mariana, Carmello.
Brandywines were full and ribbed and pink; Purple Cherokees practically (but not!) bursting. Sungolds in the upper garden cracked while those in three crowded rows in the open-ended cold frame continued unchecked through heat, drought, and rain. Costolutos were picture-perfect! By mid-September Chef Yianni was crying out for mercy. He had created a masterful salad that showcased the colors and ribs of the giant heirlooms. He had smoked the greenhouse Arbasons and Mariana reds and transformed them into a unique, amazing ketchup. He had skinned and jarred Sungolds and Black Cherries by the thousands. 

He was exhausted.

When October 13th arrived with its season-ending shot, we had already moved on. Celery root and salsify, savoy and cone-headed cabbage, arugula and mizuna, carrots of all colors, and beautiful heads of Nevada and Two Star lettuces now fill our bi-weekly cart. Oh there are still a dozen or two summer stragglers. You might think the fall tomatoes would be cherished, but we’re over them, and that goes for the peppers and the eggplants too. Until next year. 

Spring. Beautiful spring, bursting with promise, surging with energy. Tomato seedlings will fill the greenhouse; bumblebees will seek out the yellow flowers. My list of favorites will have expanded to include newcomers with enticing descriptions. 
Carmello: an OP tomato developed in France

One thing is certain. The list will include a medium-sized French red by the name of Carmello. Tasty, reliable, ultra productive, and a necessary part of my latest kitchen challenge—creating the ultimate grilled cheese sandwich. 

But that’s a story for another time.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Pigeon and the Giant

This story begins early on October 28, 2011, when a mass of cold air moving across the mid-Atlantic states met up with a low-pressure area originating from the Carolina coast. The fury of the collision brought wild winds and, the next day, a momentous October snow. The silver maple trees on Cherokee street, still bearing a full load of green and yellow leaves, became heavily laden with nearly 7 inches of heavy white wetness.

Or, maybe it can be traced much further back to the historical causes of the extreme weather events that are more commonplace than in years past, whatever they might be.

Or, maybe it has nothing to do with the freak October storm, but simply springs from the natural decline of living things. After all, the silver maples on Cherokee Street are “of a certain age.”

We can speculate all day long, but that does not change one fact: branches snapped and fell with the sound of gunshots all afternoon and evening of October 29th. On Sunday morning the ground around the houses on Cherokee Street was liberally layered with large limbs.

It just so happens that the Pigeon Tremex, a non-stinging wasp known as a horntail, is particularly fond of weakened or recently deceased limbs of certain trees, including the silver maple. It is likely that they saw, or smelled, or sensed, bounty in this disaster.

Or, possibly the horntail wasps were a contributing factor of the wreckage, exacerbating the weakness of the limbs that ended up littering the ground on that Sunday morning. Because their cream colored grubs live buried out of my sight within the wood, and because I did not inspect the trees for carcasses of female horntail wasps (which have been known to die midway through the act of depositing their eggs into the trunk), or look for the telltale small round holes through which the adults exit, I cannot say for certain that the strange-looking wasps with spines pointing out of their hind ends were present at all. But, as you will soon see, I have reason to suspect that they were.

Yes, I will get to the point. On Sunday, 11 months almost to the day following the rare October snowstorm that may (or may not) have factored in to the decline of the silver maples on Cherokee Street and the subsequent assumed presence of pigeon tremex horntails, I felt the slightest brush, like from a feather, as I was preparing my houseplants for the indoors. Clinging to the side of a pot was a fearsome insect. Actually it was more curious than ferocious, with its dainty waist, and a 3-inch needle projecting from its posterior. Being the savvy researcher that I am, I did a google search for “wasp with long tail.” Wasp was my best guess at the insect’s identity—based not so much on its form as on its hornet-like, “get-one-inch-closer-and-I-will-cause-you-pain” stance. I was right. It was a Giant Ichneumon wasp.

You’re probably wondering how the pieces of this story tie together: an October snow; weak-limbed silver maple trees; a specialized wasp that is drawn only to certain trees that can host a certain white rot fungus, and only when the trees are in a certain state of decline; and a wasp with a 3-inch needle-like “tail.”

As specialized as the pigeon tremex horntail is, the giant ichneumon is even more so. In order to survive, its larvae must eat the horntail grubs that are eating the decaying wood. Amazingly, the adult female giant ichneumon can sense what’s happening under the bark of the tree. She walks along the dead or dying limbs, antennae outstretched like divining rods, until she detects the location of a horntail grub beneath the bark. Then she puts her “tail,” which is actually an ovipositor sheathed by two filaments, to work. Bracing her abdomen with the protective sheaths, she drills through the bark into the tunnel of the horntail larva with her threadlike ovipositor, paralyzes the grub with a sting, and deposits her eggs into it. After a time, the horntail is no more. The following summer, the giant ichneumon emerges in its place. A female ichneumon is greeted by a crowd of eager males—they are able to somehow sense where and when she will make her debut. In no time at all she is out roaming the logs, instinctively, magically (or so it seems to us) finding just what she needs to find.  

We are all integrated in the natural cycles of life and death, decay and regeneration, and the lives of pigeons and giants might intersect from time to time with ours. Their bizarre and somewhat threatening appearances make them stand out from the crowd. We might label the giants “beneficial” parasitic wasps, and the pigeons “pests.” Doing so suggests that we believe it is all about us. Or it could just be that words are not up to the job of characterizing tangential, or parallel, relationships.

Trees age. Limbs crash to the ground. Seen and unseen creatures fulfill their specialized functions. The story continues … indefinitely. There are no happy endings. Or happy endings abound. Take your pick.