If Texas is Hell for Women and Oxen, New England is Hell for Tomatoes

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I know, it’s totally apocryphal, this saying that some old woman sometime somewhere said that “Texas is heaven for men and dogs, and hell for women and oxen.”  It’s as hairy a chestnut as the old “If you don’t like the weather around here, just wait five minutes and it will change.”  While I think it’s absurd to apply that latter saying to a region that is known for heating up into the 90s and starting droughts – all in mid-April – which then do not lift in any sense of the term until Halloween, I would agree with the deployment of that saying in New England.  The weather here is both changeable and inherently unpredictable.

In Texas, understanding the weather was pretty easy:  you had no real hope of escaping the hellish summer from April until Halloween unless you went somewhere that involved a change of planes.  In the spring (March and April, right up until the heat settled in) and in October (maybe late September) you knew to check the weather map before leaving the house in the morning to see if (when) some cold front from Canada was going to slam into the over-heated hot sticky air provided by the Gulf and generate explosive results involving things like hail and tornadoes.  In the summer, if you’re on the coast, you check the weather every 3 days or so to make sure that there aren’t any hurricanes likely to hit you in the near future – and if you’re inland, in the central part of the state, you check every 3 days under the (usually) vain hope that a tropical storm will run aground in the lightly populated areas south of Corpus and dump a load of rain on the middle of the state.  In the winter, you knew you had to wear  your long-sleeve t-shirt and check the sky to see if you want an umbrella.  The weather where I’m from can be violent and dangerous, yes, but if you’re paying attention you have a pretty good idea of what is going to happen and when it’s likely to happen.  You could always tell the people who didn’t pay attention, because they’d show up to work in short sleeves in the morning, and find themselves covered with gooseflesh and freezing as they went out to lunch because a Blue Norther (the weather system that “moves faster than a snake with a bee up its ass and blows the world inside out and freezes the linin'” – thanks to Larry McMurtry for this apt description) that everyone else has known about for the last three days and know to expect it sometime this morning has swept in…absolutely as forecast.

Wisconsin was pretty much the same way.  You had to check during the summer because rain and cool fronts were possible, you had to check during the winter because snow and very low temps were possible, but typically, you had a very good idea of what was likely to happen over the next week.  The forecasts might err somewhat in quantity or magnitude depending on the storm tracks, but if they said “snow” or “rain” or “sub-zero temps” you could take that stuff to the bank.

I was very happy about the predictability of the weather.  I liked knowing what to expect, and I liked learning some basic meteorology.  Then I moved to New England.

New England is not like this.  A physicist-friend of mine explained it to me after I complained about the appallingly low forecast accuracy of my local meteorologists, and roundly called their competence into question.  She tells me, and I’m repeating this as I understood it, not as she said it, that the weather in New England is a more chaotic system than it is in the areas I’m used to.  It has something to do with the mountains being so close to the ocean, and something to do with the way that the currents in our part of the ocean behave, and something to do with our position adjacent to Canada, and something to do with the Great Lakes being off to our west where a lot of weather comes from, and something to do with the mountains themselves.  That part I remember pretty well: she said that even though the Appalachians are old and low and smooth (and beautiful!) they are also a very wide range and very dense, and that because of these two factors, they “act like a much taller mountain range” in terms of their effect on the weather.  This makes sense to me – Mount Washington up in New Hampshire is not a terribly tall mountain – it is only about 6,300 feet tall – but it is generally regarded as having some of the most extreme (cold and windy) weather in the country.  Even people who live and work around fourteeners in Colorado know about and are impressed with Mount Washington, and that is saying quite a bit.  In any event, all of those factors my friend outlined, she said make the weather inherently unpredictable in New England…so my impression that the forecasters are basically pulling numbers out of a hat at random is not that far off the mark.

Yes, I said, but that leaves me with a problem:  I still need to be able to plan.  I do not wish to haul an umbrella along all day if it is very unlikely that I will need it, nor do I wish to be caught out in the rain and not have one.  I do not wish to be driving my sportscar in a blizzard, but I need to be able to either take a different car or cancel class before everyone winds up on the campus.  Etc.

A large part of my professional training involved becoming a shade-tree statistician – I have about 24 hours of graduate statistics classes, and I use that information if not on a daily basis, certainly on a weekly basis.  So, thank heavens, a solution to the planning problem asserted itself in fairly short order. I use an approach that involves a type of triangulation.  If I am in a situation where I need to plan (I am traveling, I am working, I have outdoor activities I wish to do) then on a daily basis, I  consult three different forecasts:  weather.com, wunderground.com, and noaa.gov.  If there is what I consider to be an acceptable degree of convergence between the forecasts, I incorporate the forecasts into my planning (because they are probably reliable).  On the other hand…if there is little or no convergence (say, the probability of precip is given as 0 by one source and 50% by another, or there is a 10 degree spread in between the forecasts issued for the daily high temp) I consider that the information is totally unreliable and I change my plans so that unexpected weather won’t adversely affect me.  If I can, that is.  If I can’t, then I have to plan for the entire spectrum of possible events, which is very tiresome and leaves me feeling a little bit like a pack-mule.

So the weather in New England is not as bad as it is in Texas, and we don’t often get dangerous weather, and when we do, it’s usually of very short duration.  But the weather here is bizarre and unpredictable.  So back to the Tomatoes.

Three summers ago when I moved into my new house, I found that I had a 4 foot x 4 foot square of dirt behind my back door to Call My Own and do with as I please (I live in a row house, so this isn’t as weird as it sounds).  “AH!” I said, “at last! TOMATOES!”  I have wanted to grow tomatoes for private consumption for YEARS.  Possibly for DECADES.  Fresh tomatoes are heavenly.

So I dug up my dirt and I ordered three heirloom tomato plants and awaited them with excitement.  And awaited and awaited and awaited…because I did not realize that our last frost day is in the books as, well, basically, Memorial Day. ‘Maters don’t go in the dirt until the beginning of June.  And then even the rapid ripening varieties have 50-60 days from fruit set to harvest.  Which meant I couldn’t count on any fresh tomatoes until late August…and the first freeze date is mid-September.  Talk about a short growing period…

To make this worse, the weather that June was abnormally cool and wet.  I don’t think we saw the sun two days in that entire month.  By the end of it, I was thinking less of the potential for tomatoes, and more of the potential for building an Ark.  It was cool, too – we had the AC in the house on only to prevent mildew from growing on every surface.  These are not optimal conditions for growing tomatoes.

To make it even worse, some dingbat at the regional distribution center for one of the Big Box Stores failed to notice the unmistakeable signs of Late Blight infesting the flats of tomato starts they shipped out to New England.  The cool rain did a great job of growing those Late Blight spores, and the wind that came along with the endless series of Nor’Easters did an even better job of spreading those spores to plants that – like mine – had been free of the stuff when I put them in the ground.  What I remember of July and August that year was waging a nonstop organic battle against the infection, trying to buy enough time to score some fruit before the plants gave up the ghost.  It was…moderately successful.

Last summer it was not cool and wet…it was hot, humid, and dry.  We had water restrictions from mid-summer on because we weren’t getting the usual amount of rain.  Fortunately the public hue and cry from the previous year prevented a recurrence of the Late Blight problem, but as it turns out, hot and humid are ideal conditions for the development of Septoria Leaf Spot.  Which – and I had a brief heart attack over this – looks a LOT like Late Blight in its early stages.  Again, it was a 2 month battle to keep the plants alive long enough to harvest fruit.

This summer, I learned my lesson (mostly) and planted one heirloom and one Sungold (an early-fruiting fast-ripening cherry tomato – these are the golden orange cherry tomatoes you can often buy at the supermarket).  Again, we had a very cool June, although not an abnormally wet one.  Then we had about 5 weeks of rapid-cycling bipolar weather that swapped ends between Jolly Cold For Summer and Bloody Freaking Hot.  And then we just stayed Bloody Freaking Hot and started a mini drought (which cleared up this last week). Apparently these are ideal conditions for the development of Blossom End Rot. The Sungold is going gangbusters and has actually grown tall enough to start invading the 50-foot juniper tree behind the house…but the Green Zebra at this point has 6 tomatoes on it, no blossoms, and one of the tomatoes definitely had blossom end rot as I discovered when I attempted to harvest it.  Yuk.

The Sungold clearly does not care what kind of weather it’s having.  I love the heirloom varieties.  I really, truly, do.  So much that I went nuts when I discovered a huge table of them at the Whole Foods yesterday.  But I am starting to think – just starting – that this may not be my private Tomato Heaven.  There are still a few non-viral tomato diseases that I haven’t personally experienced, so I might as well give this another year or two…but I have a feeling that Sungolds, and lots of them, lie in my future.

Rockport, Massachusetts, Old Harbor in late June. It was every bit as chilly as it looks like it might have been.

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About Lori Holder-Webb

I'm a Southern Woman by birth and a Texan Woman by upbringing...and yet I find myself living in New England and married to a New York City boy. Up here we use the same currency as we do at home, and I don't need to travel with a passport, but the commonalities pretty much end there. The language is different, the jokes are different, the people are different, and the weather and terrain sure are different too. I moved away from Texas in 2002, and ever since then, I've been the stranger in the strange land... I've had some questions about the name of the blog - if you were not alive, or living abroad or under a rock, or in grad school during the late 1980s, Oldsmobile attempted to shuck its stodgy image with a series of commercials intended to bring brand appeal to the younger generation: this car, they said, is not your father's Oldsmobile. If you have a morbid curiosity, hit YouTube for William Shatner Oldsmobile...it will take you right there.

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