Now is almost the winter of our discontent, when Mother Nature pairs firmness with fairness. Gone are the fake tans and dogwood blossoms, the overflowing swimsuits and over-ripe tomatoes, as animals start hibernating, trees become dormant, and people start renting British comedies for the long nights ahead.
In order to scale down on energy needs through the cold months, Nature restricts growth and bloom. Her last good show of color and life has gone out with the wishbone. But as she fortifies herself against the cold, she gives us the opportunity to fortify ourselves, as well.
The cost of that opportunity is paid with rakes and blisters. Like spoiled children, our plants make a mess of shedding leaves and fruit as they discard the nonessentials.
Jenny Jenkins-Rash, garden center manager at Sneed's Nursery, recommends a thorough removal of leaves and debris. "When cleaning up your beds, don't just pull them out and put them in the compost heap," she says. Trash anything with leaf spot. And with your foliage, she advises, "If it's died back, remove it. If not, leave it alone." She says the cleanup will get rid of fungal problems that can damage a garden during the winter months.
Going into the cold months, she says, make sure to give your garden water and tuck it in with some mulch for warmth. "It's giving things an extra layer of protection," she says. "It kind of helps with keeping the soil temperature more moderate."
At least Nature sends us into the cold months with a bang. All that chlorophyll-green that drains out of leaves, allowing for spectacular oranges and reds, and less-ambitious browns (that's right, I'm talking about you, oak), gives us a clue as to where all that energy is going: straight down. Plants fatten their roots with stored fuel, where temperature changes are less likely to affect them.
So it's out with the fruits, in with the roots. Fortunately, Nature has stowed a nutritional artillery in our underground friends to help us through the rough months. Roots like echinacea, dandelion, ginger and horseradish are high in vitamin C and other properties that may strengthen our immune systems against cold and flu. They are available at almost any grocery store.
Down the Hatch
Many late-season plants celebrated during the autumn harvest are renowned for their sickness-fighting properties. Apples, walnuts, pumpkins, garlic and onions, plus those kid-hated classics, brussels sprouts, broccoli, spinach and lima beans, are full of vitamins A, C and E. These fall favorites are antioxidants, protecting us from the byproducts of pollution. Along with roots, they build immunity against the dropping temperatures and keep folks healthy in a time when flu shots are as scarce as British comedies in video stores.
In keeping with the feasting tradition established when Thanksgiving was invented right down the road a few years ago, Marion David, a garden associate at The Home Depot in Mechanicsville, offers her belly-fortifying recipe for Pumpkin Soup:
1 cup lentils (red are best)
1 cup split peas
1 can packed pumpkin (not pie filling)
Nutmeg and cinnamon
1 cup milk
Directions: Soak the lentils and peas overnight or cook them in 2 cups water for one hour. Season with salt and pepper. Add pumpkin. Cook for five minutes. Add nutmeg and cinnamon to taste. PurAce and add milk.
Enjoy after a day of raking.
I offer my own contribution to the cornucopia, a healthy indulgence I like to call Baked Spaghetti Squash Surprise:
1 acorn squash, cut into halves, seeded (for the longest time, I thought the dark green, ridged acorn squash was in fact a spaghetti squash; hence the surprise)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small onion, chopped
2 tsp olive oil
1 can diced tomatoes
3 tbsp tomato paste
1 tsp white wine vinegar
Oregano and basil
Shredded mozzarella (optional)
Directions: SautAc garlic and onion in oil. Add tomatoes, paste, vinegar, oregano and basil, and simmer for five minutes. Lay halved squash on baking sheet sprayed with cooking spray, flesh side up. Pour sauce into the hollow of the squash halves. Top with mozzarella. Bake at 375 degrees for 40 minutes or until flesh is stringy, like — yep — spaghetti.
Enjoy with a robust wine and a Hugh Grant movie.