Friday, November 11, 2011

Autumn Transitions

I’ve been thinking a lot about the progression of fall this year; I mean, I usually do, anyway, because it’s a dynamic season, intense and dramatic, manic-depressive. But with Teale’s Autumn across America fresh in my mind, I’m more thoughtful about it than usual.

Unlike in springtime, where there’s no clear-cut time when the growing season officially begins, in fall, the first hard frost and freeze slices a distinct boundary between animation and dormancy, juiciness and dryness—the vibrancy of “red autumn” and the dullness of “gray autumn.”

Here in Central Missouri, our average frost date is about the middle of October, which also happens to be our usual fall color peak. A hard freeze can zap the fall color pretty abruptly. Then, the abcission wind comes in late October or early November, often with rain and dreary skies, to knock the leaves off the trees and thus prepare the trees for snow and ice. (Remember the abcission wind? We talked about that last year!)

So much of autumn seems to be about preparation for the winter.

But although we had wind and rain this past week, we still haven’t had a freeze yet, or even a hard frost.

There are many pleasant things about this situation—for example, Sue and I were able to bring in our tropical plants at our leisure. We dug up the elephant ears and hibiscus a few weeks ago, and Sue brought in her bonsai that can’t survive the cold. The Fukien teas and what-all. Some years, we get caught by surprise; we put off bringing in the plants until the last minute, then suddenly they’re predicting a freeze, and we’re out there with our spades, sometimes in the dark or the rain. Which is not quite optimal!

And then there are the brugmansias, which have multiplied over the years like bunnies. Like hibiscus, they must be brought indoors during winter. We’ve found, however, they only really begin to bloom about the beginning of October, so they’re usually in full bloom when we tell them, like moms tell kids on summer evenings: Time to come in!

So we always have to trim back the bruggies so they are, say, not taller than ourselves, which usually means hacking off all the glorious, footlong flowers. And we cart them and their big pots indoors. Into the basement. It’s kind of sad.

This year, Sue couldn’t bear to chop all those blooming heads off, so she set them, pots and all, at an angle. We have sideways trees in our basement! They’re blooming right now, even as I type this on the third floor of our house, and I can smell them all the way up here.

And we swapped the screens for storm windows again. By the way, there were big numbers on the “cussometer” this year—but it’s long story I won’t go into. Here’s a picture from my parents’ collection of my Grandpa and Grandma dealing with the storm windows. It was the early sixties, and judging from their smiles, the storm windows fit better forty years ago!

I also, quite at my leisure, picked all my basil and made pesto the same day I picked it.

Another day, I picked all my cayenne peppers and dealt with them: The smallish green ones went into freezer zip bags—they will heat up my Indian curries this winter! The mature, red ones, I dried: Trimmed off the green calyx on top, sliced them once lengthwise, spread them on a huge cookie sheet, and let them enjoy the dry warmth of Grandma’s incredible oven, all night long. Next morning, I turned them into “dynamite dust.” Lookie!

I didn’t deseed them or remove the “membranes.” (Hey, want a more precise name for that pithy stuff? It’s the placenta, that middle part that the seeds grow on; and the part that connects it to the fruit wall is the septum).

Dynamite dust!
It’s just whole, ground cayenne. None of that sissy stuff for me! Good for what ails ya!

With all these preparations, though, there was no rush; we just found time here and there to get it all accomplished.

And yes, it’s rather pleasant to still have flowers around—chrysanthemums, and all that autumn-purple ageratum that grows around this yard for free. My herb garden’s still going at it; just today, I picked a handful of red-veined sorrel and some mint to go in a little salad at lunch.

. . . So when will it freeze?

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