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Garden-time, out of season

It seems odd to be writing about last year's garden in February, but this was a strange season.

Early spring, early autumn, climate indifferent to the solstices, shrugging off the equinoxes.

I placed my hoses and mulch last February and had cold-tolerant seeds and plants in the ground by March.

The cool early season was great for the herb garden. I could afford to pick the various mints like tea leaves -- just the tender tips, clean and succulent. Dried then vac-packed and frozen, they'll stay pungent for years.

The belladonna emerged in full vigor while it was still cool, as did the garlic chives, tarragon, celery-flavored lovage, and self-seeded cilantro and snapdragons. Multiple pickings, all finest-kind.

Strips of woven row-crop cover protected tiny carrot and lettuce seeds from sun, insects, and wind until they germinated. Mere weeks later, the rows yielded baskets of multicolored roots and leaves.

Summer came early too - with a vengeance. Triple-digit temps for weeks on end.

The beets, beat up by a hail storm, never fully recovered, but we still had enough. The same hail knocked off two thirds of the peaches and all the apricots, but the survivors were very tasty.

Some harvests were borne premature. The corn had fewer earworms, but the stalks were stunted by the hot winds.

Onions and potatoes maxed out early, serendipitously during our daughter's visit. Nicholas enjoyed pulling purple onions, piling them in the wheelbarrow, and spreading them on the shed floor to cure. He also, er, cultivated the ability to spot dark purple potatoes among the clods I scattered with the spade fork.

Some of the stored onions were starting to sprout or soften by this past October, so I juiced some and shredded some for the freezer; the rest went into the basement fridge, where they're still in good shape for fresh use. Put a couple sacks of potatoes in the fridge too, to inhibit sprouting.

Beans didn't do well. The vines looked OK, but the hot wind kept them from blooming normally. We had enough for fresh use, but none to freeze. Fortunately, the freezer still contains a goodly supply, vac-sealed in 2011.

Like those of several people I talked to, our tomatoes were sub-par. Drip-watered and fertilized, the vines grew vigorously despite the scorching sun, but they wouldn't set fruit until relatively late. Such fruit as did materialize seemed disinclined to ripen. As the first hard frost threatened, I picked a bunch to ripen indoors. This worked out fairly well; though there weren't enough for major t-juice production, I had plenty to dehydrate.

Cool-dehydrated tomatoes are versatile. They can be crumbled into pasta sauce or chili, where they should be used sparingly due to their intense flavor. Dried tomatoes keep well when placed in small jars and covered with hot olive oil, then allowed to seal. Sometimes garlic and rosemary can be added before the oil, to provide a more complex flavor.

But if you want to make ketchup or any concentrated tomato-based sauce, dehydrated tomatoes are the way to go. Just grind them briefly in a blender, add enough water to achieve the desired consistency, and finish with any vinegars, herbs and spices your recipe suggests. A brief simmer brings out the full, rich tomato flavor. Contrast that with the standard practice: mash up tomatoes in a kettle and then boil the crrrap out of them -- along with many of the vitamins and enzymes that make them nutritious -- until enough water and fragrance has steamed away to leave behind a reddish-brown gunk.

I grew some gourds again this year -- the "birdhouse" variety, composed of two globes, the smaller atop the larger, separated by a slender neck, like an hourglass. The two small hills erupted despite the withering heat, scaling the makeshift supports and spanning the gap to the adjacent tall trellis, usurping that space too. I pruned off hundreds of blossoms, small fruit, and new tendrils to focus the plants' resources on building good-sized mature gourds from the first fruit to set. I still harvested fifty large gourds, which will make baskets, bowls, vases, and perhaps an actual birdhouse or two.

Previously it was miniature birdhouse and little "spinning bottle" gourds. I fashioned one of the latter into a baby rattle for granddaughter number two, who arrived in January. The design is based on the larger Gourd Dance rattles from our Rez days, including a white buckskin-tipped handle with fringe. Granddaughter number one adopted hers as her favorite toy, and her frequent chewing (or gumming) didn't seem to bother the buckskin fringe.

I planted some late spinach -- too late, but still in time for a few salads, along with the persistent arugula, which lost some of its wasabi-hot piquancy with the onset of cooler weather. Waiting for the greens did delay the process of retiring the garden -- cleaning away the biomass, feeding it into a shredder, spreading it on the bare soil, and tilling it in. Finally got it done, though not before next year's seed catalogs started arriving. It's such a relief to get it all cleaned up, but the pain fades from memory when colorful new catalogs beckon. What would Ulysses do?

If last year's heat is becoming the new norm, gardening could become a whole lot less fun. Alas, since global warming isn't a fabrication, we're in for a rough ride.

Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family physician who grew up in Stockton and now lives outside Hays. hauxwell@ruraltel.net