So now we’ve had a real frost, and here is October in its full glory: wild with color, light, freshness, and hyperactive squirrels. The maple tree goes red from the top down, like a stoplight for the summer, and the walnut trees wear yellow so bright they clearly stole it from the sun. Then they all throw their leaves, riotously, across the lawn, the garden, the road, or up into the blue brisk air.

We hear an odd noise from somewhere near the garage, the sound of a hard object bouncing off of metal. What can this be? Walking near the garage makes it stop; walk away a bit, and it starts again. Puzzling, I wander out to the garden to gather the last holdout flowers, and turn to look back to the house. I see a pair of small ears poking up out of the gutter over the garage door. I sneak up a little closer, the ears disappear, and the clanging starts again. Small pieces of walnut husk are flying out of the gutter, onto the driveway. Then a small head appears where there were only ears before. It is one of those small red squirrels. He has carried a walnut up there with him, and is bashing it against the metal gutter as a way to husk it for his winter stores.

At first he freezes when he sees me, and runs off. But after a couple of days of this he gets used to me and keeps working in his improvised kitchen, whether I spy on him or not. He has food to process, and no time to fool around.

But I have time. Most of my work in the garden is done. There is, oddly, some summer squash still growing there, and many perennial herbs, but they don’t need much tending. We drive out along the river to the Dexter Cider Mill for hot fresh-pressed apples to sip. The trees toss their leaves into the water and the sky, reflecting each other, and the sky and the water carry them away. The world outside my garden offers a harvest I did not plant. I am happy to take advantage of it.

Frost Advisory

A few days ago we had our first frost warning of the season, so I headed out to the garden with my Number 6 Felco clippers in hand. I cut all the flowerslate flowers that were in bloom or full-budded, all the green tomatoes that were at least half grown, before the frosttucked the cherry tomato vines into their cold frame and closed the lid. I found a few last yellow summer squash – so much easier to find than those elusive zucchinis – and carried all this largesse into the house. I took in my poinsettias and the potted lemon tree.

In the morning there was frost on the front lawn and a skim of ice on the birdbath, but in the garden in the backyard there was no sign that the Angel of Death had been near. Zinnias, cosmos, tomatoes, and squash were still coming; and now an entire warm week is predicted, so the remnant will not only survive, but flourish.

I could just hear my severed tomatoes rebuking me: what are we doing inside on a day like this? Most will go on to ripen indoors, but not with the full flavor of joy that is a sun-ripened tomato’s birthright.

It’s hard to decide what to do with a first frost warning. Even taking into account overhangs and land contour, frost damage is not just patchy, it’s capricious. I chose to err on the side of prudence, unwilling to risk a sad morning of blasted vines, beds full of overnight-blackened flowers, tomatoes turned to mush. But the trouble with poets is, as the song says, we see poetry everywhere. No risk, no reward, in the garden just like life. I carried the poinsettias and the lemon tree back out, but once the tomatoes were off the vine it was too late for them.

So since I wasn’t willing to take risks, I will fall back on being resourceful. Fried green tomatoes, like my mother used to make.

At least I left the basil outside uncut.

Columbus Day

Imagine life without tomatoes. This was the grim situation in Europe before 1492. Imagine Szechuan food without chili peppers, or Irish stew without potatoes, or the Swiss without chocolate. For heaven’s sake, what did they eat? These foods are all native to the Americas, and were unknown to the poor sad benighted Europeans before Columbus stumbled on a pair of continents he didn’t think existed, unleashing new and wonderful culinary delights on an unsuspecting Old World. And I didn’t even mention avocados. Or corn on the cob.

Tomato plants were first introduced to Europe as ornamentals, gracing gardens with their lovely bright red fruits which, for a time, were thought to be poisonous. still comingThis may have been because they’re in the Deadly Nightshade family, or because the acid in them leached lead from the pewter dinnerware of the time, or – my favorite – because they were used in cooking first in Spain and Italy where all those Borgias and Medici were always poisoning each other. But eventually their spectacular flavor overcame these foolish prejudices.

Then there’s the argument, or anyway the conversation, about whether they are a fruit or a vegetable. Technically a fruit, I get that, but I’m not thinking “fruit” when I cook them with pasta and meatballs. Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote in her Little House series that her mother served tomatoes as a dessert, with cream and sugar. I tried it and the taste was good, in a demented-berry kind of way, but I couldn’t get my head around it. I wanted to whip them out of there and lay on the bacon, lettuce, and mayonnaise.

Today commemorates the day when the people, places, and foods of the Western and Eastern Hemispheres became known to each other. Contact was as catastrophic to those with the less-effective weapons as it was beneficial to those with the more-effective ones, the same story all the world over, for as far back as we know. Every group alive today has had a turn at being the conqueror, and developing its own set of arts and sciences to contribute to the whole human enterprise. Somewhere in their past, Aztec farmers nourished, encouraged, and improved the tomato. For that they have my deepest thanks.

October Tomatoes

It’s October and no frost yet, so the garden is still producing. The tomatoes are slowing down with decreasing hours of daylight, but the zinnias and cosmos are in their usual autumn glory, lording it over the faded bee balm, the sleeping shastas. Even the phlox has gone to seed. img_1198How have they managed this in the short time since I set them out in the garden?

The passage of time is indisputable, but subjective. When my son was small he told me he had noticed that time went fast when he was having fun, but slowly when he was doing something boring. He wanted to find a way to fool his time sense into doing it the other way around. My own approach to this problem is to try to inject a little of one into the other – consciously savoring the good things while I’m immersed in them, which slows them but risks diluting the direct experience, and looking for a nub of goodness in the boring or bad ones, which can be pretty hard to find. I was taught this last approach by my father who, once when I was weeping on his shoulder over some undeserving high school boy, told me I should look for the good that might come out of that particular disappointment. I’m sure he was thinking, like finding out this guy is a jerk, but he was kind and suggested other possibilities. He was an engineer, and believed there were always parts in a broken thing that could be saved for future use.

In the garden now, the cosmos and the fallen, burst cherry tomatoes are busy reseeding themselves. Next summer they will come up, as they did this year, in the pathways and nooks between raised beds, adding unplanned delight and useful fruit and flowers to my yard. They are the final touch, the grace note, and in their ripeness and tumble, in the late light on over-ripe produce and nodding, tall, tall flowers, I hear a phrase from a favorite opera: “Oh perfect moment, stay,” the words of a mad philosopher when he finally hears the band of angels singing.