Tag Archives: weather

When Life Gives You Hailstones, Make Polentil

Two weeks ago, we planted a beautiful field of heirloom tomatoes grown from seed we’d saved last fall. Later that evening, hail destroyed almost every plant.

We’d never seen a hailstorm like this one: three hours of pea-to-ping-pong-sized hail breaking in waves against the foothills, pummeling first from the east and then circling back even more fiercely from the west. We couldn’t even leave the house to check on the tomatoes, so constant was the hail and lightning that lit the sky like pinball machines in an arcade. Tornadoes destroyed 28 homes just miles east of us as the storm’s “tornadic activity” spun black clouds of hail over our region, leaving a twisted mess of sheered trees, damaged roofs, and cracked windshields behind.

As soon as daylight broke, we walked out to inspect the damage. An empty field greeted us where lush tomatoes had stood the day before. I had to look twice to be sure it was the same field we’d left full of hearty tomatoes. Now, broken stems marked where each beautiful plant had died.

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All the crops were tattered, but the tomatoes fared the worst, a loss not only of plants but of the countless hours spent saving and planting seeds, tending the greenhouse, watering, and transplanting into specially prepared fields. Even in good conditions, tomatoes are a high maintenance vegetable but we love them enough to make all the work worth it. Thinking of the effort wasted on row after row of ruined plants, we were all in a bit of shock at the damage they’d sustained.

Luckily, we had started many more seedlings than we needed in the spring. We were able to “cup up” most of what we lost. They’re two weeks behind and not as robust as our first crop, but we’ll make do. If the season’s a long one (we always hope for a late first frost), we’ll have good tomatoes.

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We cancelled our farm pick-up for members that first Saturday after the storm. With spinach and lettuce torn ragged and the fields muddy from two days of rain, we had nothing to pick. We’ve only cancelled a couple times in 24 years as a CSA, all for weather events, like the flood of September 2013 when our farm was barricaded behind the security barrier to our nearby town and most members were too busy evacuating to pick up vegetables anyway. Still, we know that farming in this region, we’ve been lucky never to cancel for hail before.

Instead of picking vegetables for the members that Saturday after the storm, the barterers came to cultivate the onion and carrot beds compacted from the hail and rain. We broke up the crust starting to form on the topsoil and weeded as best we could in the sodden soil so the finger-sized onions and tiny carrots could grow more easily.

Mid-week, a welcome crew of barterers and volunteers showed up to transplant the rest of the peppers, eggplant, and basil, which fortunately hadn’t been set out yet because of the cool weather. We cultivated many more beds, working down the long rows to ease the soil compaction and finish the weeding delayed by the recent rains.

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Last Saturday’s pick was meager—kale, scallions, arugula, spinach, baby bok choy, and garlic scapes. “Hail kale,” our barn boss wrote on the board, since it didn’t amount to much. Although not all our members are attuned to them yet, scapes were the standout vegetable that day. A scape is the shoot of a hard-necked garlic plant, the part that will flower and form a new seed head. Removing the scapes puts energy into the garlic bulb rather than the flower, forming a larger bulb. We used to compost the scapes until we learned we could cook with them too. Now we chop and use them just like garlic in stir-fry, sauces, or on bruschetta, or preserve them chopped in olive oil in the fridge.

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We also served pancakes, since last Saturday had already been scheduled for our annual pancake breakfast. Despite the skimpy pick, or maybe because of it, we wanted to celebrate the farm and say thanks to our members for supporting us during tough times, as well as during more fruitful seasons. This year, we learned again what tough times could mean. As always, folks brought toppings to share—strawberry butter, homemade salted caramel, fruit preserves, canned applesauce, even home-tapped maple syrup from a son’s tree back east. Nothing like sharing a multi-grain pancake and fresh toppings with friends to lift one’s spirits.*

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Last night, John and I sauteed our garlic scapes, scallions, kale, and spinach as a topping for what we call “polentil”—cooked lentils stirred with soft goat cheese into polenta just before it’s cooked to firmness, served with a glass of our own chai-spiced honey mead. We layered the polentil with tomato sauce from last year’s tomato harvest and topped it with the hail greens and alliums. It may not have been much, but it couldn’t have tasted better or been more filling.

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This week’s pick looks pretty much like normal, a decent size and offering for late June. The broccoli’s coming on, spinach and kale have sized up, and stunned lettuces have grown through their hail-laced moment. More scapes are on their way, and everything else isn’t far behind. Before we know it, we’ll be back in the bounty of the season, the time when a share puts lots of hearty meals on the table. The gardens have their own recovery plan; we just help it along. As with any season, we’ll do our best to follow the land’s lead: we work, we wait, and the earth gives again.

 

*You can find our pancake recipe in A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography

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When the Rain Came

The rainstorm last night brought much needed moisture to our area.

But that’s just the weather report. So let me start again.

When the rain came, I was playing old-time music on the back porch of our Sunflower Community Room. We gather there once a month to share three hours of old-time groove with a revolving group of dedicated experienced and aspiring musicians. I’m not much good on the mando yet, but I know when a song really moves, when the music seems to find itself in the rounds of repetition, part A following part B, whirling us away in merry abandon until someone lifts their foot to signal the last go-round.

We were playing on the screened porch to try to catch any breeze a breathless evening offered when we glanced an unanticipated flash of lightning strike west of the farm toward Long’s Peak. I hadn’t checked the weather report lately, having conceded the inevitability of many hot July days to come. Our June temps were the hottest on record since 1977 and May and April were similarly record-shattering in terms of warmth. We’d been so many weeks without a real rain here, even the possibility of rain had grown dim. With only a few slight showers in the last two weeks bringing little rain but many lightning strikes to start some of Colorado’s worst fires, any sign of lightning was sobering. I’ve lived here long enough to know that lightning near Long’s means a storm is on its way. Still, a real storm didn’t seem particularly imminent.

I don’t know which song we were playing when the rain came. John says it’s all the same song anyway, and he’s got a point. Old-time music draws on endless variations of melodies within a given key but the fact that each is named and remembered proves their distinction. The names themselves are part of the music; names like Bear Went Over the Mountain; Sally’s Got Mud; Sweet Milk and Peaches, Run Down Boot, and Squirrel Hunter portray the down-home feel-bad feel-good sense that playing old-time brings.

Perhaps we were playing Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom, a traditional song that pre-dates that president (a relatively newer “old-time” song, Nixon’s Farewell, commemorates another). And then the wind picked up, blowing one strong gust through the porch that sent me flying into the community room to shut doors and windows before the tablecloths were thrown askew or worse. Still, I didn’t think the storm would amount to much and went back to the circle to join another round.

When we were knee-deep in the next song, the rain began, barely a few drops falling before the thick clouds opened over Stonebridge, pounding the tin roof over our heads. When lightning cracked above us, we raised our eyebrows, glancing outside at the dimming light, but kept our groove as the rain poured down.

Which would finish first, the song or the storm? Another flash of lightning decided the point. The rain had more staying power than we did. As we finished the song, we turned to each other, surprised at what we’d come through. We brought the rain, we laughed. A real rain. A cloudburst. A thunderstorm that promised more to the fields than anything we’d seen in months.

The rain lasted 10 minutes and left puddles in the ruts of the driveway outside. A few people left to get home before dark and a few more arrived with umbrellas. As we began another song, the wind blew cold air across the porch. After so many weeks of heat, it felt good to be chilled. Until it didn’t and we moved inside to finish the evening with a few last old-time songs.

As we left the Sunflower Room with our instruments, the nearly full moon filled the puddles in the road with light. The night breeze hummed the storm’s exuberant passing, a melody of moisture replenished, crops revived, and farmers and musicians refreshed anew.

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Still Winter

In the bleak midwinter

Frosty wind made moan,

Earth stood hard as iron,

Water like a stone.

Christina Rossetti,  1830-1894

It’s January, and still winter. Still winter because nothing is moving. The ice in the ditch is frozen; we have to haul water for the chickens in a bucket filled from the kitchen tap. Laundry freezes rather than dries on the line. I pin towels and socks as quickly as I can but my fingers numb and slow me down. At least the sun is shining. At least the snow stays in the mountains for another day.

In my grandmother’s diaries, she starts each entry with a weather report. Farmers depend on the weather so recording its changes helped her mark the years, but in rural North Dakota, the weather meant something more.  My grandparents lived in the country so snowstorms meant no trips to town and no visitors dropping by until the weather cleared.

One entry makes me smile at the typical understatement of her voice:

Sat Jan 29, 1966: This morning it’s 40 below so won’t be very warm today.

In my grandmother’s make-do world, “Won’t be very warm” means “Won’t be going anywhere today.” I can imagine her watching the wide wintergray sky from the kitchen window while she baked her weekly loaves of bread. She was a slim woman and in her later years, never seemed to get warm. For her last Christmas, we gave her a thick wool sweater to take away the chill; after she died, the smell of her face powder lingered for years.

Winter in North Dakota is unforgiving. An incautious mistake—an empty fuel tank, bad tires, turning down the wrong dirt road–can mean death in a blizzard that shrouds the prairie in icy white. And winter stays into spring there, as my grandmother’s diary confirms.

Fri March 4, 1966: 12 degrees above hi for today. It’s nice here today but not so warm. Is close to zero. We were lucky to miss being in the storm the last three days. Some lives lost in S. Dakota.

I baked a pie.

Here and on the next page, my grandmother tucked two newspaper clippings about the days-old storm.  “Snows Wrath on Our Path” warns one. “Holy Cow! No Snowplow!” cries the second.

Luckily, my grandparents missed that blizzard and got to town so that my cousin could try on the dress our grandmother had been sewing for her of “tissue gingham.” But, Grandma Smith admits again in her understated way, “The wind was so howling, I didn’t like it.”

Christina Rossetti wrote the Christmas poem “In the Bleak Midwinter” as an allegory of the life of Christ. I learned the poem in junior high choir as set to music by Gustav Holst and never forgot its austere yet eloquent first verse. I think of it often in January when it’s still winter.

I think too of my grandmother, watching the sky for snow and waiting for the roads to clear so that she could venture into town to visit family and buy supplies, perhaps even some fabric for my Easter dress in Colorado.

Here at Stonebridge, winter is a time when both the land and the farmers rest, at least until it’s time to plant onions in the greenhouse. The land sleeps under a coat of white and the frozen ditch quiet silent in its banks. But even in the stillness, small movements stir the air. Wooly mice and voles tunnel under the snow for harvest remains; red-tail hawks with their snowy breasts survey the fields for any movement that portends dinner.

And inside the house, the busy-ness of our lives turns inward: we knit, spin, write, and plan the next season’s gardens. With the fire glowing in the woodstove and the root cellar stocked, we are safe in our farmhouse, waiting and watching for spring.

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