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The View from Fallengutter Farm

Things That Go ‘Squish’ In the Night

Note to self: Put on glasses — and shoes — when the dog needs a trip to the back yard in the wee small hours of the morning.

Our Alaskan malamutes are generally pretty good about letting us sleep through the night. So when one of them — particularly Fargo, he of the perennially wonky stomach — starts doing laps around the bedroom and then emits that single, frantic, high-pitched “YIP!” right in your ear, you pay attention. And you get up, stumble sleepily down the stairs, and put the needy pooch out on the zipline. Which I did, at 1:30 a.m., a few weeks ago.

I usually don’t even get out of bed without putting on my glasses, but this time I sleepwalked all the way through the kitchen and to the back door without them. Barefoot, too. Which was fine — until I stepped on something squishy right outside the door as I hooked Fargo up to the zipline. And then I stepped on another something squishy.

I hopped on one foot back into the kitchen and wiped slime off my bare sole, muttering rude things about dogs who are prone to dietary indiscretions.

Two hours later, we were headed back downstairs for another urgent trip to the yard. This time I had both glasses and shoes on. And this time I got a good look at what I’d stepped on earlier, because the sidewalk was crawling with grayish-white caterpillar-like things. I ran to get my iPhone and took a photo of one of the creatures that was wedged in the sidewalk seam.

caterpillar

It was about two inches long and about as thick as my index finger. There were dozens of them, and they were squirming with remarkable speed across the sidewalk.

Because I’m such a considerate spouse (and neighbor), I didn’t scream. I brought Fargo back inside, crawled back in bed, and said to my sleeping Beloved Spouse, “We may be under attack by alien worms. Just thought you might want to know.” And I went back to sleep.

The next morning, I queried the Facebook hive-mind for ideas about what the bloody heck these critters might be. Pretty quickly we had consensus: tomato fruit worm larvae. Not tomato horn worms, those iridescent green things with the really funky antennae. No, tomato fruit worms are a completely different species of yuck. They come in several stylish colors.

TomatoFruitWormLarvae

And they’re apparently nocturnal, which explains the 3:45 a.m. rave in the back yard.

Worst of all, they were headed for my ‘Paul Robeson’ and ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomatoes in the raised beds. This. Meant. War.

The next night, Fargo needed to go out in the wee hours again. This time it was Beloved Spouse’s turn to sleepwalk. Downstairs and out to the yard they went, and I turned over and went right back to sleep. Some indeterminate time later they returned, and Beloved Spouse gleefully described hacking at least 30 of the evil tomato-vores in half with a hoe. The sidewalk was a veritable killing floor.

The larvae dance parties continued for a few more nights, and then the worms seemed to disappear almost as quickly as they appeared, never quite making it as far as the raised beds. As we’ve passed our alleged first-frost date here in USDA Zone 6b without a freeze, I’m hoping for a major frost really soon so we see the last of these disgusting creatures.

In other news, Fallengutter’s main garden is winding down for the year. I’m holding off on harvesting the abundant collards until they’ve been touched by frost, since that makes them a bit sweeter. We pulled the Most Pathetic Carrots Ever out of the ground, and I’m utterly flummoxed; I have no idea what could cause such a complete veggie fail. Anyone out there have an explanation for this?

patheticcarrots1_small

It’s not all alien worms and mutant root vegetables, though. This year we planted fennel for the first time. I’ve always picked up fennel bulbs from our favorite vegetable vendor at the local farmers’ market, and bought dried fennel seeds at the grocery store. (And once, thanks to a dear friend who visited Israel and went spice shopping in Jerusalem’s Old City souq, I had a jar of fennel seeds that were amazingly intense and made me realize just how lame the mass-market herbs in American supermarkets really are.) Fallengutter’s fennel plants exceeded my wildest expectations. I’ll be harvesting fennel bulbs and seeds soon.

fennel1_small copy

We’re heading into the holiday season soon, and I’m already poring over my (ridiculously huge) cookbook collection for ideas about pies, soups, stews, and sides for the many dinners that will happen around Fallengutter’s dining room table. I’m looking forward to many happy hours with family and friends over good food and good wine, so that the memory of squishing tomato fruit worms beneath my bare feet will be banished forever.

Gardening is Not for Control Freaks

Susie ErdeyIt’s early September, and the summer harvest is nearly over here at Fallengutter Farm. (Yes, our home is called “Fallengutter.” I’ll explain later.*) There are still a few ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomatoes on the vine. The hot Hungarian peppers are reddening up nicely. And the volunteer collards are still going strong — amazing, since they’re holdovers from last year — so we’ll have plenty to cook down and freeze before the frost nips them too hard. I’ve ripped the bolted lettuce out of the raised beds — well, what was left after Luci (one of our two Alaskan malamute rescue dogs) got behind the fence and helped herself, emerging with her white face dusted yellow with pollen.

This year’s garden has been an education in “managing expectations.” Mine, mostly. Our daily schedules are quite full, as I commute daily into Manhattan by train for my job, and my spouse is an Episcopal priest serving a local congregation. But I resolved that this would be the year when our 22-by-40 foot organic, critter-proofed, designed-on-permaculture-principles, seriously over-engineered garden enclosure would come together beautifully. (Our neighbors call it “the Garden Gulag.” They’re kidding. Or, we think they are.) I had to watch from the porch for the last two summers because of a serious illness, surgeries, and an exhausting schedule of treatments and follow-up appointments. This year I’m healthy.

Fallengutter Garden

We spent January and February poring over catalogs from Baker Creek, Johnny’s, and Territorial Seed. We ordered ‘Mister Stripey’ and ‘Paul Robeson’ tomato plants for mid-May delivery. We sketched out this year’s planting plan on graph paper, taking care to rotate vegetables to different beds. We counted the days until we might start putting our tender seedlings on the porch to harden off.

Our first indication that this year might be challenging was the poor sap output from the maple trees in this part of the lower Hudson Valley. We tapped our lone maple for the first time two years ago, just for fun, and could scarcely keep up with the flow. We emptied the sap pail into 5-gallon buckets and buried them in snow piles until I could spend my Saturdays boiling down sap into syrup. But the winter of 2015-2016 was warmer, with little snow, and we barely got a bucketful.

Then came an unusually warm late March, and the forsythia, magnolias, and flowering crabapples gave in to irrational exuberance and bloomed — and got totally destroyed when early April brought snow and three consecutive nights of temperatures plummeting into the low teens. We hoped the fruit trees would be resilient enough to overcome the shock, but neither our apples nor our neighbors’ pear trees put out any fruit to speak of this year. (Our apple trees also developed cedar-apple rust, and although we applied copper spray, the results were disappointing.)

Cucumbers are a mainstay of our garden every year. We grow them for pickles, for chilled cucumber-yogurt soup and gazpacho in the heat of summer, and as the all-important garnish in Hendrick’s gin and tonics. (Hendrick’s gin tastes terrible with lime. Trust me. Put a nice, thick slice of cucumber in the glass. You won’t be sorry.) We’ve never had trouble with cukes before. But this year — whether because of a dry spell at a critical point in their growth cycle, or some other random reason — nearly all our cukes were misshapen, hard, scarred, and pretty much inedible.

We also discovered, the hard way, that ‘Paul Robeson’ tomatoes need more shade than they got on the north end of the garden. Other tomatoes in the same bed did just fine, but the ‘Robesons’ got scorched and died. (We delight in growing ‘Robesons’ because our town has a shameful history around singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson. Just Google “Peekskill riots Paul Robeson” and you’ll understand why a thriving crop of ‘Paul Robesons’ is a delicious bit of irony in a town that has some repenting to do.)

Mid-August brought Invasion of the Squash Bugs. These ugly critters look like stink bugs but are a separate menace entirely. (You can learn more about them here.) Within a few days, they’d decimated our summer squash and zucchini plants. They seem to thrive in mulch, so we’ll need to clear out the old mulch and hay this fall, plant a cover crop of rye for the winter, and then bring in a new load of composted manure from a nearby farm in the spring.

So Mother Nature had a field day this year with my control-queen tendencies. We certainly won’t run out of provisions mid-winter, though. I still have collards from last year in the freezer, and plenty of frozen basil pesto so we can have a touch of July on February’s bleakest nights. Between our own tomatoes and donations from a neighbor (“Please take this huge box of Romas! I overplanted!”), many quart Mason jars of tomato juice and sauce line our pantry shelves. I’ll direct-seed more lettuce and rainbow chard this week and we should have some good growth before our October 15 first-frost date, and then we’ll put fabric over them and harvest well into the fall. I’ll dehydrate those Hungarian peppers and grind them into homemade paprika — a culinary must-have for this Hungarian girl.

Tomato Palooza

And as every gardener knows, there’s always next year. Only about four months until the seed catalogs start arriving in our mailbox!

* Why “Fallengutter”? Our house is a 1915 Arts & Crafts foursquare that we’ve been slowly restoring to its original glory for the last 16 years. So the name is partly a joking nod to Frank Lloyd Wright. But the house truly earned its name on the first New Year’s Day we lived here, when 30 feet of gutter came crashing down under the weight of 18 inches of wet, heavy snow and heaven only knows how many years of accumulated leaves.