Dateline: New Paltz, NY, October 19th, 5:30 am. I bet my garden is colder than your garden. I was startled this morning to see the thermometer reading 23 degrees F. Not much I could do at that point about protecting “cold weather” vegetables still in the garden, some covered with floating row covers and some in “plein aire.” The thing to do under these circumstances was wait for the sun to slowly warm everything up and then assess the damage.
I ventured out to the garden for a survey in the sunny midafternoon. Joy of joys. None of the cold-hardy vegetables was damaged by the cold. Romaine lettuces stood upright and crisp, arugula was dark green and tender, radishes were unfazed, and the bed of endive, escarole, and radicchio looked ready to face whatever cold the weeks ahead might offer.
That 23 degree temperature reading came from my digital thermometer read indoors from a remote sensor out in the garden. Most surprising was the reading from the old-fashioned minimum/maximum registering mercury thermometer out in the garden. This thermometer remembered the night’s lowest temperature as 20 degrees F. Brrrrrrrr.
Moving, figuratively, to warmer climes: the Mediterranean. I’m taking the Mediterranean diet one step further by trying to grow some of the delectable woody plants of that that region.
Figs are a big success, and not an unfamiliar sight well beyond their natural range. I’ve tried all the usual methods of growing them in cold climates. I’ve grown them in pots brought indoors for winter; I’ve bent over and covered or buried the stems to protect them from cold; I’ve swaddled the upright stems in leaves, straw, wood shavings, or other insulating materials. All yielded some fruit, but none of these methods beats having a small greenhouse with the trees planted right in the ground. Handfuls of soft figs, so ripe that each has a little drip from its “eye,” follow each sunny day and should do so for a few more weeks.
Bay (as in “bay leaf”) also does well, this one potted. After 20 years, my bay laurel is a handsome little tree, trained to a ball of leaves atop a single, four-foot trunk. The fresh leaves are much more flavorful, almost oily, than dried leaves, especially the old, dried leaves typically offered for sale.
Three hopeful Mediterranean transplants are my olive, feijoa, and lemons. I purchased the olive tree in spring, whereupon it flowered and has actually set a single fruit! The feijoa, also known as pineapple guava, has two fruits on it, which might not seem like a big thing except that those two fruits represent the culmination of about 15 years of effort. (More on that some other time.) True, feijoa is native to South America, but it thrives and is often planted in Mediterranean climates. The same goes for lemon, except that it is native to Asia. My Meyer lemon hybrid, like the olive, was potted up this past spring and sports a single fruit.
The long shots among my Mediterreans are pomegranates. My two plants – the varieties Kazake and Salavastki – are cold-hardy, early ripening, sweet varieties from central Asia, so should do well here in a pot. (They are cold-hardy for pomegranates, down to a few degrees below zero degrees F.) They have yet to flower and fruit.
In a few weeks I’ll move all the potted fruits to the sunny window in my very cool basement, where winter weather is very Mediterranean-esque.
Persimmon is another tree grown in Mediterranean countries, although it’s not native there. Up here, I grow American persimmon, an outdoor tree that is cold hardy to below minus 20 degrees F.. Besides yielding delectable fruits, it’s a tree that requires almost no care, not even pruning. Some of the tree’s branches are deciduous, naturally dropping in autumn.
Heavy winds of a few weeks ago took the persimmon’s self-pruning theme too far and blew the top off my 20 year old tree. Fortunately, my three other persimmon trees remained unscathed. I’ll just trim the break from the decapitated tree and it will be fine. That dead wood need not go to waste; it’s used to make high quality golf clubs. Not for me; I couldn’t get out of the garden long enough.