Sunday, January 27, 2013

Winter Doldrums

When I stand and survey the backyard these days the usual allure is missing. The garden does not draw me; the weather is too cold. Granted, the temperature gets up into the high 50s and even mid 60s during the day and at least part of the time the skies are clear and sunny. But the psychological pull -- usually so irresistible -- is just not there. The chilly air, the cold ground, the wan sunshine seem to highlight the brown freeze-blasted plants and the scruffy bare branches of the trees. (No doubt, people in less temperate climate zones are justified in muttering: "Wimp.")

There is certainly plenty to do out back: clipping and pruning, putting wood chips on the paths, composting and mulching, on and on with a long list of usually enjoyable tasks that really need taking care of to get ready for the return of the planting season.

The relative lack of greenery exposes, in mute reproach, all the half-finished tasks from last autumn. The northern part of the garden is pretty much in limbo, suspended animation, waiting for the next surge of activity, like Sleeping Beauty awaiting a kiss from a Prince Charming who is simply not very motivated just now and prefers to stay inside and leaf through garden catalogs or read books on soil building. (Updated below.)

The only organized area is the southeast corner where several beds of winter greens have been supplying our table through the wet, cold months. There is a sense of order here if you don't peer too closely and notice that the plants look a bit storm battered and muddy, with slug-infested, decaying outer leaves. But nobody lingers here either. The most we can usually muster is a quick dash to pick what's needed at the moment, then a dash back to the warm kitchen. Wimps.

UPDATED: February 9, 2013. It must be said that, recently, a real Prince Charming has been doggedly clipping away at the towering rose thicket. Thank you, H.!!!!

Monday, January 7, 2013

Twelfth Night Tomatoes

Every year it's the same thing and every year it's different. Maybe that's the real appeal of gardening. The regular annual cycles provide a way to hold on to the minutiae of daily life, the precious details that slip away unless they are gathered into patterns. Long after you've forgotten what happened last year, a similar milestone shows up and a whole sequence of years comes into sudden focus.

I think that's how it became a kind of ritual to celebrate the last of the tomatoes. And there's usually been a handy holiday to coincide with using up the final few jewels collected from withered vines hanging in the garage.

In 2011 we had tomatoes on Valentine's Day (and beyond); the year before we celebrated with New Year's tomatoes; before that we've had Christmas Eve tomatoes. Part of the ritual has been to see how long the season can stretch, so we've been pushing the celebration later and later. But this year New Year's came and went and I realized we weren't going to make it to Valentine's Day. Last summer wasn't such a great season for our backyard tomatoes and the supply overwintering in the garage was meager to begin with. By this weekend we were down to a handful of Sungolds.

No worries. There was a perfectly respectable holiday just sitting there waiting to be noticed. January 6: Twelfth Night! What does it matter if we have never observed the last of the twelve days of Christmas? It was a fine time for one more feast. Since we were over-feasted and over-feted from the previous twelve days, we settled for a brunch, strictly in-house.

There were enough Sungolds for scrambled eggs with fresh parsley and thyme from the backyard, blending two garden seasons in one festive dish.

B. produced a handsome loaf, so we had homemade whole grain bread.

We also had a King cake, or Rosca de Reyes ("kings' ring") because, well, you know -- Twelfth Night. The Magi arrive bearing gifts. Celebrated with a special cake. I went to a local Mexican market to buy one ready made but the ones for sale there were clearly intended for large extended families. They made me think of the scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding where the groom's family -- two nervous Anglo parents bearing a small Bundt cake -- comes to meet the bride's family -- a crowd of uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, second cousins and two very jovial parents presiding over a large feast.

So I went to Trader Joe's and bought a teeny coffee cake, some cream cheese, and various fruits and nuts to decorate the top. I hid in the cake one of those foil covered chocolate coins, because that's what you do with a Twelfth Night cake, hide a token in it. We weren't exactly sure what it means if you get the piece with the token. In the British tradition it evidently means you are king or queen of the revels; in the Hispanic tradition it means you have to make the tamales for Candlemas on February 2. But it didn't matter because no one got the coin until much later when the leftovers disappeared and whoever got it is not openly admitting to it, perhaps concerned about making those tamales. It wasn't me, I know that much.

Anyway, it was a very fine brunch. We toasted the occasion with goblets of water, the wine of heaven. And the Twelfth Night tomatoes still had their homegrown savor.