The Labor Day weekend rain, four tenths of an inch in my rain gauge, could not have been timelier. The flawless weather of the past several weeks was perfect for the Fair and likely drew few complaints from visitors. However, as drought conditions emerged, it was another story for farmers and gardeners. Watering has been doubled up, insufficiencies in irrigation programs revealed, and signs of stress have appeared everywhere, in domesticated and undomesticated landscapes alike.
It is impossible to over-emphasize the importance of composting, mulching, and using composted woodchips to build up soil and offset the detrimental effects of dry spells, as well as other extremes, but now is an apt moment.
A soil scientist could better explain the processes that take place in the breakdown of organic matter into compost and humus, but my own experience satisfies me sufficiently. Microscopic bacteria and fungi are at work, but I do not need to see them. Go out in the early morning and see what is wet with dew. Bare “dirt” is dry. Soil containing lots of organic matter — earthworm casts, leaf mold, compost — is dew-soaked and wet, due to its ability to attract atmospheric moisture out of the air and hold it.
Whatever your yard, lot, or garden generates, in terms of biomass waste, needs to go on a compost pile and be returned to the soil from which it originated.
It is good for your land and it is good for your municipal landfill! The lawn, flowers, or vegetables that are grown with this reinforcement are far more resilient, drought-resistant, floriferous, tasty, or nutritious than they would be without it. Although many of us could care less, it is a personal carbon sink as well.
When you see a tree or shrub with some leaves already turning yellow or red at this time of year, you may sure that you are seeing signs of stress. Drought stress is draining those parts of the plant of their green chlorophyll (which is almost like human blood) and revealing the underlying pigments that the chlorophyll’s presence masks. It is autumn, but prematurely.
Maples, with their shallow root systems, are particularly vulnerable to drought, or to the radiant heating of the soil that takes place at this time of year, but drought stress is not limited to them. Although maples (genus Acer), are the favorite tree of millions of Americans, this is one reason that I do not recommend planting them here. They are beginning to suffer chronically in this plant hardiness zone. Think Canada: the trademark tree of cool, northern, forest conditions is becoming too marginal for 7a.
However, if your maple or other woody plant is turning red in August, mulch the root run area, and then water it. Compost, leaf mold, straw, mulch, composted wood chips: all will moderate the soil temperature around the root system and help to attract and hold in moisture.
Though the thrum of cicadas is still rattling high in the oak trees, it is time to return to school. The earliness of it is a shock, since it seems as if the last day of school was only just the other week. I am thankful I no longer have to pack school lunches; the situation has become vastly more complicated by allergies and dietary preferences, leaving aside kids’ traditional pickiness. Kristin Kimball of Essex (N.Y.) Farm, the author of The Dirty Life, has some practical suggestions in this post about school lunches on the farm website,
The time of harvest is also here. My husband becomes Mr. Green Bean and takes responsibility for freezing them. He has recently expanded his repertoire to include making and freezing kettles of Garden Special, an indispensible, all-purpose base of tomato, onion, green pepper, and celery (our valuable collection of Mermaid Farm yogurt containers thus finds its ultimate purpose.)
The cellar, with its dehumidifier running anyway, holds trays of drying shell beans and mystery bags and bundles of drying herbs and seed-heads. Strewn around my kitchen counter are trays of halved and seeded paste tomatoes for the purpose of making Tomates confites, a delectable oven-roasted product that may be frozen or preserved in olive oil. (I am re-printing it because it is such a versatile way to preserve tomatoes.) This year I tried putting them in my closed cold-frame to pre-dry before turning on the oven, which becomes a “hot-frame,” achieving 150°F.
Tomates Confites (from Chocolate & Zucchini)
- Ripe ‘Roma’ or ‘San Marzano’ (paste type) tomatoes
- Freshly ground pepper, sea salt
- Chili pepper flakes (optional)
- Dried herbs, such as rosemary, oregano, thyme (optional)
- Olive oil
Preheat oven to 210°F. Cut tomatoes in half and ream out seeds with your thumb (save juice and pulp for another purpose). Place cut sides up on a well-oiled or silpat-lined baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, spices if using, and drizzle with olive oil. Put into the oven to bake for two or three hours, keeping an eye on them. Use warm or cold in pasta, salads, sandwiches, spreads, soups, etc. To freeze without clumping, freeze the baking sheet for a couple of hours, after which you can transfer the tomatoes to freezer bags or containers.
Aviram Rozin, in a recent talk at The FARM Institute, described the reforestation work of his organization, Sadhana Forest. In arid, deforested parts of India, Haiti, and Kenya, Sadhana Forest’s projects focus on indigenous reforestation, water conservation, food production, and introduction of sustainable practices. They have enjoyed a high success rate due to practical, low-tech methods of propagation and planting, emphasizing long-term sapling survival above sheer numbers of planted trees.
An enlightening facet of Sadhana Forest’s projects has been the searching out of tree species to plant in each locale that are not only native, having food, fodder, or medicinal properties, but which are also oxalogenic. This is the ability to go beyond sequestering atmospheric carbon, which all trees and forests store in their tissues, to actually transferring it into the surrounding soils, in the form of calcium carbonate, for long-term storage.