Most of the winter has been quite dark here in southern New England. That is, until the second week of February when a snowstorm dropped over a foot of snow. It is amazing what a difference snow makes to the light of winter. December and January were gloomy. All was brown, rust and gray with watery, limpid light. Snow transformed the landscape but the snow of February is doomed more quickly than the snow of December. The sun is getting stronger and the temperatures can and did fluctuate wildly. The back field gave way from white to bare in a matter of days. With an average February temperature of 40ºF here, February is a bridge to the coming warmth of spring. March will be ten degrees warmer than February and just perfect for working outside without breaking a sweat or battling bugs. That is the expected but expectations are not always realized. This past weekend we had three days of over 60º weather. Three days is quite enough. The initial warmth is welcome even while it is unsettling. Unsettling because gardeners know that plant dormancy is necessary for their survival. If a plant breaks dormancy in February here in my garden, it is often doomed. Cold weather and frost will put an end to those green bits of new growth on most plants. There are exceptions of course. Eranthis, winter aconite, shrugs off the cold. It just closes up at night and when morning arrives opens its sunny petals. The early crocus are also a hardy bunch. Those which are leaning against the base of the foundation open first and cooler temperatures keep the blooms happy much longer. Snowdrops are often the first of the little bulbs to bloom here but they are a bit later than the aconites this year. Hellebores with their thick leathery leaves and flowers are really the 'honey badger' of all flowers. Nothing bothers them. Not the deer nor the cold. They bloom starting in December depending on the weather. Their blooms will handle a heavy load of snow. They shrug it off multiple times with none of the exasperation of the winter weary gardener. I will thank Mother Nature for a spring preview and also thank her for returning us to more normal, bracing, late winter temperatures.
It hung from the ragged vine with blue shoulders shining in the late fall light. It wasn't the only one. I picked several. They were firm but unripe.I picked them all before tossing the vines and pulling out the stakes. These tomatoes, while not in my garden, were ones I had started from seed and given to my daughter, Emily. Indigo Blue Beauty. That about sums it up. For an heirloom tomato it is quite prolific. It has dark navy/black shoulders at a young age and as it matures they ripen to deep aubergine while the bottom of the tomato turns bright red.
Two weeks ago I went to my daughter's to help her with fall bulb planting and garden tidying. She lives about 20 miles east of me in the city of Cranston. Emily has created a small, suburban garden complete with a bit of lawn for play, containers for fun, vegetables for sustenance and a party pavilion. The party pavilion is transformed into a carport for winter. This garden is an oasis for a busy life. She has incorporated a few vegetables into her tiny plot of land. Tomatoes, eggplant, squash and one year she planted corn behind the shed. Only a dozen stalks but they were lovely if not overly productive. This year there were two or three tomato plants which I started from seed and gave to her. By the time November rolled around, bulb planting time, the vines were spent but there was still fruit hanging from the vines. I picked four firm tomatoes. Emily had had enough so I took them home to ripen on the counter. One by one three of the four tomatoes succumbed to rot. The fourth ripened. One tomato is really not enough to share especially when the quality is unknown so I made the executive decision to eat it for lunch. It is said that the worst garden tomato is much more flavorful than the best store bought tomato. I believe that is true. This little beauty was divine. The flesh was still quite firm when it ripened and it resisted the knife just a bit as I sliced it for the plate. I had little expectation of any true garden tomato flavor. The first bite was a revelation. I was transported back to the last warm days of summer as I tasted the tang and tartness only a well tended, garden fresh, hand picked tomato can possess. I wish there had been more to share but it is December, DECEMBER. As Christmas Carols played softly in the background, I ate that last tomato with a bit of burrata cheese, some olives and flatbread. Gardening is regional and in New England, the growing season is shorter than in many areas of the country and the world. Some people love to break the record for having the first tomato of the season. I am happy to have this last tomato of the season in New England, in December. The best things in life truly are free.
When an artist comes to visit the gardening disappointments of the past summer disappear. An artist brings with her a unique perspective when she views a garden. All of us have a bit of an artist within us but one who hones and practices her craft professionally sees the land, the landscape, the layout, and the individual plants, both foliage and flowers, with a trained eye. Recently Ellen Hoverkamp came to visit.
Ellen shared her floral scans, tips, advice and knowledge recently with my garden club at our October meeting. Ellen was a captivating speaker. Since she was traveling I offered her a room in my home for the night and she prevailed. We sat up into the night chatting and getting to know one another and the next morning she walked with me in the garden. An October New England garden is not at peak. There are bits and pieces of interest here and there and sometimes there is fall color but in general, plants are waning as is the gardener's enthusiasm. This year was a particularly difficult gardening season. Gypsy moth caterpillars ravaged trees and plants in June. July came and went with little rain to help regenerate foliage. August came and so did the deer with their new offspring. Gibbs has not yet learned that deer are not welcome here within the garden limits and he does little to discourage them. This gardener threw her hands in the air and went golfing-the game did not improve but the gardener's spirits did. It was into this neglected garden that Ellen and I walked. She with clippers and a pail and me with a camera. It is a revelation to see one's own garden through someone else's eyes. Especially those of Ellen who has such an original talent. Her art is beautiful. She collaborated with well known horticulturist and garden communicator, Ken Druse, on a wonderful book, Natural Companions which features her floral scans and Ken's prose. I know Ken only as many other professional and amateur gardeners know him- through his many award winning books and his radio show, Real Dirt. Ellen snipped and we chatted. Ellen has visited many wonderful gardens and has cutting privileges in quite a few of them. I was honored that she cut from my garden and, of course I hope she will come back to visit when the garden is beautiful in June. These are the scans she made from my garden tidbits. Through her work, I was able to see the beauty that is still quite visible in the garden if only one knows where to look. Through her visit, I gained a new friend. Thank you, Ellen.
Note: Ellen's works are available on her website and on Red Bubble under Ellen Hoverkamp. She also writes a blog and has a list of her upcoming lectures and gallery sales both available as well on her website. Click on the purple text to visit them.