Wednesday, September 28, 2011

In Search of Water

This summer just won't end.  For weeks, since the calender said that fall was approaching (hah!), we've been waiting for an opportunity to get outside for a hike, preferably not in the triple-digit heat.  Finally, last week, with a shared weekday off for our anniversary, Lee and I decided that, running water or not, hot summer day or not, we were just going to have to get out in it.

We went to the Hamilton Pool Preserve, a Travis county park where Hamilton Creek, a tributary of the Pedernales River, flows over a ledge, as a waterfall, into a pool in a limestone grotto below, creating a natural swimming hole.  As one of the last places with running water and reliable swimming in dry summers, Hamilton Pool is very popular on weekend days in the summer and regularly fills to capacity.  Arriving late on a Monday morning, we were looking to miss the crowds and have the trail to ourselves.  We were also hoping that the spring-fed creek would be flowing.

Hamilton Creek was running, though barely so.  A trickle of water fell from the top part of the creek into the pool, which was open for swimming, though the water was a murky green.  We walked around the pool, enjoying the cool air along the back side of the grotto, where rock walls out of reach of the midday sun still held, even at noon, the cool of the evening, then we headed out on the trail to the river.

This was the restorative part of the journey, walking beneath healthy cypress trees with their roots in the creek below.  The creek wasn't running quickly, but it was a couple feet deep in places, with cool water that was still supporting fish and turtles and baby cypress trees.  The presence of water made all the difference, cooling and humidifying, in a pleasant way, the air in the canyon along the creek.  For that short stretch of creek we left the drought that has so defined this summer, the extreme and lasting heat, the dry winds, and the lack of rainfall, in the uplands above.  In this way, the preserve is doing its job, providing a refuge for plants and animals through the roughest months of the year.  And providing me a place to breathe fresh, tree-made oxygen and gaze up into the branches of cypress, Spanish oak, and elm trees still holding onto their green leaves.

Along the trail at ground level, the pink-purple flowers of Simple-Leaf Tick Clover caught my eye.  I knew immediately that the flowers belonged to the Pea Family, but it took me a bit of looking to locate the species.  Tick clovers make attractive pink-purple flowers from May through October but are more commonly known for their annoying seed pods that stick to socks and pant legs in the fall and winter, which is why they are also called Beggar's Ticks.  The Simple-Leaf Tick Clover (Desmodium psilophyllum) is the only species of tick clover in this area that has simple leaves rather than the trifoliate (composed of three leaflets) leaves of other tick clovers.

Simple-Leaf Tick Clover (Desmodium psilophyllum)

Blue Mist-Flower also bloomed along the creek.  Blue Mist-Flower (Eupatorium coelestinum) is a late-summer to fall blooming perennial that is common in moist, shady habitats in central Texas.

Blue Mist-Flower (Eupatorium coelestinum)

As Hamilton Creek and the trail neared the Pedernales River, the canyon widened and the trail climbed away from the creek.  The water of the creek disappeared beneath the sandy creek bed into groundwater, so the creek, though running in the section beneath the pool, did not flow into the Pedernales River.  The river itself was also dried up, with rolling mounds of hot sand left where the river usually flowed.  Lee and I walked along the riverbed, hoping to spot a flowing portion of the river around the next bend, but we didn't get far before the course, sharp grains of sand accumulating between our feet and our Tevas motivated us to step into the warm pools of water, all that remained of the Pedernales river.  As far as we could see in both directions, the river was reduced to intermittent pools, and some of the cypress trees along the river were responding to the drought by turning orange-red, getting ready to drop their leaves two months early.

In a few low spots, the sand was still moist, indicating that the river may have flowed, or at least held more discontinuous pools of water, very recently.  Heat-hardy wildflowers were blooming along the riverbank, making the most of the receding water supply.  Small, pink blooms of Prairie Agalinis hid in a tangle of greenery alongside a tall stand of bright-yellow Tatalencho.  Farther down the bank, a colony of White Boneset bloomed.  White Boneset (Eupatorium serotium), a perennial in the sunflower family, prefers the moist soil along streams, where it blooms from August through October.

White Boneset (Eupatorium serotium)

Clammyweed, a sticky plant in the same family as the plants that produce caper berries and peppercorns, has distinctive flowers with pink to purple stamens that are much longer that the white petals.  Clammyweed (Polanisia dodecandra) is common in dry creek beds, along low-flowing creeks, and on roadsides, blooming May through October.

Clammyweed (Polanisia dodecandra)

The showiest and most abundant flowers along the river bed were the orange-highlighted yellow flowers of the Rattlebush.  Rattlebush (Sesbania drummondii) is a woody shrub that is common along waterways and in dry stream beds in central and east Texas.  The leaves of Rattlebush, like those of many heat-tolerant shrubs in the Pea Family, are compound, composed of many (20 to 50) small leaflets.  The seedpods of Rattlebush, which are are flattened around each seed, remain on the plant into the winter, long after the leaves have fallen from the plant.  The mature seeds are loose in the pods and rattle when shaken by the winds of winter cold fronts, giving the plant its name.  The seeds of Rattlebush are poisonous.

Rattlebush (Sesbania drummondii)

Wanting to escape the bright sun of midday and the sharp sand of the river bed, Lee and I returned, high-stepping to kick sand from our Tevas with every step, to the trail along the creek.  Usually I prefer a loop trail, and the chance to walk down a new section of trail for an entire hike, but this time I was glad to return back along the same short trail, to get another dose of what has been almost entirely missing from my life this summer, walking in the woods along running water.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Tomato Review

The tomato season is long past, and it was quick this year.  Before the weather cools and my thoughts turn to fall greens, I want to record how each of my tomato plants did this year.  I grew seven tomato plants this summer.  I bought all of them as baby plants in four-inch pots at the Natural Gardener on March 17, 2011, and planted them the next day.  They established immediately and grew quickly, doubling in size in a week and growing into full-size plants by the first of May.  I began picking ripe grape tomatoes on May 14, though it was another couple of weeks before the full-sized tomatoes began to turn yellow or red.  At the peak of this year's tomato harvest, around the time of the summer solstice (June 21), tomatoes of all sizes filled the kitchen table.  At the end of June, tomato production slowed as quickly as it had accelerated at the beginning of the month, so that by the second week in July, I was only picking a few, small tomatoes every day or two.  I stopped watering the plants in mid July and pulled them out on July 25.

Peak tomato harvest, June 21, 2011

Which all sounds very precise, with specific dates, thanks to the date stamps within all those digital photos.  While the dates will help me plan for tomato seasons to come, the reality of my tomato garden was far from precise or scientific, so, before I proceed with observations on how each tomato plant fared this year, I should make a few disclaimers.

First, this was my first summer to grow tomatoes in the raised-bed garden along the south wall of the house.  I built the retaining wall to make the garden this spring, amended the existing rocky soil with mulch, compost, and manure, and immediately planted.  The soil was very young and non-uniform, with intermixed patches of existing soil, composted organic matter, and raw or partially-decomposed organic matter.  Which was fairly normal for one of my gardens, especially in the first season or two, and it seemed to be fine for the young tomato plants, given how quickly they grew.  In addition to soil differences, each tomato plant had a different location along the south-wall garden, which was built to level out the slope along the side of the house.  As a result, the tomatoes at the west end of the garden grew in the deeper part of the raised bed than those in the east end.  The two tomatoes on the end of the row had fewer neighbors than the others and had better access to light but also had to deal with drier conditions on the edges of the garden.  Altogether, each tomato plant had its own microclimate in terms of soil depth, soil composition, light access, competition, and water retention.  All of which is, again, completely normal in any garden, but means that my results are simply that, my results, observations from my garden this year, not scientific conclusions about the performance of these tomatoes.

Next, I should mention that something ate my tomatoes this year.  Tomato loss is an expected part of growing tomatoes in Austin, where birds snack on the tomatoes, ruining whole fruit with a single peck, and healthy populations of fruit-eating mammals, including mice, rats, squirrels, opossums, skunks, and raccoons, have learned where all the best gardens are.  But, when I say that something ate my tomatoes this year, I mean that something ate my tomato plants, as in the tops of the green vines, which is something that I had never seen before and had never heard of.  I mean, who eats tomato plants?  My best theory was that the very fat green caterpillar that I found snacking on a green tomato was the culprit, or one of them.  I don't know where the caterpillar came from or what it would have turned into, had it lived long enough to metamorphosize into its adult form.  I moved it to my compost pile to fatten up a bit more before it was surely eaten by one of the animals – the fat lizard, the birds, the squirrels, or the roof rats – that frequent the compost pile.  In any case, the tomato-plant eating didn't seem to affect the tomato harvest, as it mostly happened after the plants had set fruit.

Finally, this summer was hot and dry.  By some measures, the hottest summer on record.  Given that warm temperatures at night slow down and eventually stop tomato plants from setting fruit, a hot summer means a short tomato season.  In early June, the plants were covered with green tomatoes, but, as those tomatoes ripened, new green tomatoes did not appear in their place, so that by early July, the plants were almost bare of fruit.  By early July, the plants were also weary from lack of water.  I watered the plants deeply twice a week throughout the season, but all my watering couldn't make up for the lack of summer thunderstorms this year.  We only had two thunderstorms in the tomato season, one in mid May and one in mid June.  Every so many years, we have a rainy June with cooler temperatures, and then the tomato season is longer and more productive, favoring later-season tomatoes adapted to humid, milder conditions.  This year was the opposite, a short, fast, hot and dry season favoring early-season tomatoes and those adapted to hotter, drier conditions.

The first tomato to ripen this year was the Cupid Hybrid grape tomato.  I started eating grape tomatoes off the plant in mid May and soon was picking a small handful of tomatoes every day or two.  The plant continued to produce until mid July, though by then the fruits were smaller and infrequent.  We ate most of the grape tomatoes as snacks straight out of the bowl.  The tomatoes were sweet-tart with good texture and a slight pear shape.

Cupid Hybrid Grape Tomatoes

I think of the Porter tomato as the Texas workhorse tomato.  When I was new to gardening in Texas, a veteran gardener suggested that I get a Porter tomato at the upcoming plant sale because, regardless of how hot, or dry, or flooded, the upcoming summer proved to be, the Porter would produce.  She was right, the Porter tomato always produces, whether we're in stage four of the drought or recovering from the 100-year floods, so every year I try to find a Porter tomato plant to grow.  True to form, the Porter tomato won this season's endurance test.  It began making ripe tomatoes just after the grape-tomato plant in May and continued to make tomatoes into July.  In fact, the Porter tomato outlasted me this year – despite the hot temperatures and drought, the Porter was still setting fruit in early July when I decided that the tomato season was over.  When I pulled the plants, the Porter was by far the biggest plant in the row, having taken over its own space and also much of its neighbors' space.

Porter Tomatoes

So, if the Porter tomato is such a reliable workhorse, why grow any other tomato in Texas?  First, Porter tomatoes are small, "plum tomato" size, and therefore are not ideal for cooking because, in order to make a tomato sauce or soup from a batch of Porters, all of them would have to be skinned, which would be tedious.  Given their size, Porters are best eaten fresh, sliced in half or quartered into salads.  The other thing about Porters is that their taste is inconsistent.  I've heard that they are one of those tomatoes that are loved by some and hated by others, but I think the truth may be more that they are sweet and delicious some years but bland and mushy other years.  Porters are like the insurance policy of tomato growing in Texas – if June is rainy and cool, the Porters won't be great but also won't be much needed, but if it's 107˚ F with oven-like high-pressure winds, the Porters will still be producing garden-fresh tomatoes while all those fancy heirlooms fail to thrive.  This year, this brutally hot and dry year, the Porters were sweet and delicious.  For most of June and into July, I packed Porter tomato and basil pasta salads for lunch, then sliced Porters onto crackers to eat with cheddar and beer as a midnight snack when I got home from work.

Of the full-size tomatoes, the JD's Special C-Tex Early Black was the most productive in the early part of the season, in mid June.  JD's Special made lots of round, medium-sized tomatoes with dark-green shoulders on deep red fruits.  The tomatoes were very prone to cracking – most of the fruits had splits running down the tomato from the stem end or all the way around the tomato, circling the stem.  The cracking was worse following the June rainstorm, leading me to think that the JD's Special C-Tex Early Black tomato, specially bred for our central Texas summers (hence the "C-Tex"), is another tomato, like the Porter, meant to keep us in tomatoes even in the drought years.  I tried to minimize the impact of the cracking by harvesting the fruit early, as soon as the bottom part of the tomato was red, before the cracks were big enough to attract ants.  The ripening tomatoes were then prone to shriveling (around the cracks) and softening, even when the tomatoes were still green at the stem end.

JD's Special C-Tex Early Black Tomatoes

Because of the cracking, the JD's Special tomatoes were mainly cooking tomatoes this summer.  They were the tomatoes that I wanted to use first to prevent spoilage, the tomatoes that needed to have parts cut out of them, the tomatoes that became the basis for tomato sauce and tomato soup.  They did not peel easily, both due to the cracks and the under-ripeness of the top parts of many of the fruits at the time of cooking, but the dark red flesh cooked down into wonderful tomato goodness.  I feel a bit unfair defining those tomatoes so strongly on their splits given that the tomatoes themselves were actually quite juicy and delicious.  And given that the tomato sauce that I made from JD's Special tomatoes, along with a mix of other tomatoes from the garden, was one of the highlights of the tomato season.

The Sunmaster hybrid tomato, another tomato that was specifically bred for hot summers, was the most productive plant in the later part of this year's short season, in late June.  When the other tomatoes were slowing down, the Sunmaster had its heyday, producing many shiny, orange-red, medium-sized tomatoes.  In fact, of the tomatoes that I grew this year, the Sunmaster tomatoes were most like those in the produce section at the grocery store:  bright, shiny, red fruits, free of splits or blemishes, and long lasting.  By early July, the rows of to-be-eaten tomatoes on our kitchen table had dwindled down from a colorful mix of red, golden, striped, and dark-fruited tomatoes to just the red tomatoes, just the long-lasting Sunmasters.  The Sunmasters were also easy to peel, making them ideal for cooking or canning.  Compared to the other full-sized tomatoes, though, the Sunmasters had a fairly bland taste, which was not surprising given their uniformity and longevity.  A garden-fresh Sunmaster was still miles better, in flavor and especially in texture, than those grocery-store tomatoes.  Overall, given the productivity of the Sunmaster in the hot summer, its beautiful, long-lasting fruits, and the rich flavor of the tomatoes after being cooked down into sauce or soup or okra masala, I will be looking for a Sunmaster plant next spring.

Sunmaster Hybrid Tomatoes

The Cherokee Purple, an heirloom tomato known for producing delicious, dark-colored tomatoes, was the least productive tomato in my garden this year.  In fact, I only harvested three or four tomatoes from that plant.  They were delicious, with the fluted shape that I associate with the best tomatoes, but apparently Cherokee Purples don't like the oven-like heat of a hot year in central Texas because the plant was by far the smallest in the row.

Cherokee Purple Tomatoes

The Old German, an heirloom tomato with huge, striped, yellow-orange-red tomatoes, was my favorite tomato of the season.  Sauces and soups and pasta salads aside, the real joy of the tomato season is simple tomato and toast:  toasted, buttered bread with fresh, sliced tomatoes sprinkled with sea salt, nutritional yeast, and a drizzle of olive or flax oil.  Yum.  It's a snack that I enjoy year-round, even with greenhouse tomatoes, but with fresh tomatoes it is especially good, and with heirloom tomatoes, the kind that have seeds throughout their juicy flesh instead of in compartments like the modern hybrid tomatoes, it is dreamy.  This year, the clear tomato-and-toast winner, the tomato with the sweetest, juiciest flavor, was the Old German.  The easy-to-peel fruits of the Old German were also beautiful in cross-section, with golden, orange, peach, and red flesh that cooked down into a sweet, bright-orange sauce.  The Old German plant was not as productive as JD's Special or the Sunmaster in terms of number of fruits, but each tomato was heavy, so that each time I picked an Old German tomato I carried it carefully into the kitchen with that feeling of gardener pride, look what I grew!  The large fruits, which had splits from the stem end, were prone to molding once they had ripened on the kitchen table, so they needed to be eaten fairly quickly.  But needing to eat the Old German tomatoes was a lovely problem to have for a few weeks and, considering the heat of the summer, I was impressed that the Old German kept making its big tomatoes into the first week of July.

Old German Tomatoes

Finally, there was that yellow tomato on the end of the row.  This year I was clever and stuck the plant labels in the ground next to each tomato cage so that, in June, when harvesting, I would know what each plant was.  All of the tags survived except for that tomato on the west end of the row, the tomato planted in the biggest tomato cage in the deepest part of the new garden.  I was sure that it was a Celebrity tomato, a solid workhorse of a producer that grows huge, sprawling vines and makes many fruits, until I realized that its fruits were turning golden instead of red.  Then I looked for the tag and it was long gone, probably lost during mulching.  The plant itself was not sprawling but relatively contained considering its spot on the end of the row.  The plant also was the first of the row to wilt, possibly because it was on the west end of the row, with the harshest afternoon sun exposure.  In any case, it wasn't a Celebrity tomato.  Its fruits were medium-sized, heart-shaped, and golden yellow, and I would guess that it was an "early" tomato, given that, among the full-sized tomatoes, it was the first plant to make ripe tomatoes and the first plant, aside from the non-productive Cherokee Purple, to give up production in the name of heat.  The golden fruits were sweet, with the low-acid flavor of yellow tomatoes, very easy to peel, and had beautiful golden flesh.  Given what I observed about the plant, I think it was a Jubilee tomato plant, but I can't be sure that I didn't grow one-of-a-kind, accidental hybrid that snuck into somebody's greenhouse, given how readily tomatoes of unknown parentage sprout from my compost.

Jubilee (?) Tomatoes