Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Goaled Rush

Today marks the one-week point in my three weeks off from the bus. Little by little, I'm ticking off some of the things on the list, and working hard not to add very many.

Last night was the first frost. I had gone out to the barn in the early evening, knowing the temperature was supposed to reach the lower 40's. I wanted to get plastic up on the unfinished door and gaps in the south wall, so that the barn will stay warm as the weather chills off. I'm hoping to plant fall greens in there soon.

It was a nice night, with about a 3/4 moon beaming in through the plastic roof. I puttered at a nice easy pace and got a lot of little details worked out. Somewhere along the way, one of the lights in the double halogen work light went out. Then later the other winked off, and I was left working by pure moonlight. How peaceful and beautiful! And so quiet....

I walked outside. Oddly quiet. Then I realized the crickets had stopped singing. And I realized that there was frost glinting on some ground cloth laying outside the barn.

THE NIGHT had arrived. Even though things were soaking wet from yet MORE rain (at least 7" in the last couple weeks), I knew they would freeze by the morning. The stars twinkled above me in the clear, dark depths of the universe that was waiting to absorb whatever meager heat it could from the earth.

I kicked into high gear. My first thought was for the basil. Even if it doesn't quite freeze, basil wimps out somewhere around 36-38 degrees. Looking around for something to cover it, I grabbed a couple rolls of lumber wrap we picked up out of the dumpster on a recent venture to the lumber yard. It's great stuff: strong, lightweight, and large. One piece covered half of a bed of basil. In the morning, the basil underneath was black wherever it had touched the lumber wrap, but the rest of each plant was ok. Oddly, the basil that didn't get covered at all looked ok, too. Go figure....

Next, the tomatoes. I started out with a bathroom break and fresh batteries in the headlamp. Emily smiled from her cozy chair in the living room, knitting serenely under a nice quilt. "First frost!" I announced. "I'm from Texas," she stated firmly. "Too cold."

I actually do like the crisp chilly weather of fall and winter, though I sympathize with my friends from California and Texas. I've learned how to dress really well for cold weather, and find it exhilerating. "It's actually really beautiful out," I said as I headed off towards the tomato jungle. The plants have really put on a growth spurt in the last month, and there are a lot of good-size green ones hiding under lush foliage.

I picked tomatoes--red, orange, yellow and green and everything in between--for about 2 hours, as fast as I could pick, never mind the vines. I filled almost 6 of my big bulb crates, probably close to 250 or 300 lbs. all told. Emily came out and helped for awhile, and confessed that it WAS really pretty--just too cold. Of course, she wasn't wearing Goretex from head to toe, which I was because I knew how soaking wet the vines were. I didn'tmind the wet, just dressed for it, because I knew it was serving a purpose.

By the time I got back to the house, my fingers were totally numb. The rest of me was comfortable. Wow did that hot shower at about 2 a.m. feel great!

Apparently all the water on the leaves worked its little miracle, because despite a lot of visible frost on things this morning, the tomato plants don't appear to have been damaged much. Water gives off heat as it changes from liquid to solid, and this heat can be enough to keep the plant tissue underneath the frost from freezing. Fractions of degrees make a real difference in the amount of damage to the plant. Thus water sprinklers are commonly used to protect against frost in high-value crops like citrus.

So maybe the tomatoes could have stayed on--maybe my dedicated rush to harvest them was "in vain". But there comes a time when it just needs to be OVER for the season--no more having that impending frost hanging over my head; just get it over with. I never really mourn the passing of the tomatoes. I'm usually tired of picking them by frost time. In fact, the annual frost night is often a welcome milestone in the gardening year.

Today, we rearranged the furniture in the barn--entirely dismantling the old system of pens and gates, and roughing in a new layout. Another rush to meet another goal...tomorrow morning a load of lambs goes to the meat processing plant. I was pleased to find that the new handling layout, building on memories of reading Temple Grandin's books, does encourage he sheep to move through more easily, even when full of scary shadows at night. It's also set up so that Toss can help to move the sheep into the chute, which she did very well. I ran the sheep through several times to get them all sorted out. Each time, she followed the last sheep into the chute, then sat there grinning at me--something she's never done with the former arrangement.

In a few hours, after a bit of sleep, I'll rush off on my next mission. Little by little things are taking shape. It's a good feeling. The visible progress motivates me to keep going, despite the scarcity of time for sleep.

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