By Carol Ann Sayle
After a frustrating dearth of salad greens, and an almost barren September, we who eat “local” rush into the fall season with huge anticipation. But, gosh, the first couple of months don’t bring much relief, do they? And where is the winter squash? The fall tomatoes? Good questions, and the not-so-desirable answers can be found in our two distinctly different growing seasons: Hot and Not.
Winter Squash, a.k.a. “hard” squash, is nearly impossible to grow in the melting-middle of a Texas summer, so—contrary to official gardening traditions—we plant our hard squashes in early spring and enjoy them in June and July. Salad greens are another thing that are unfeasible during the Hot. Even if they do manage to grow, they tend toward quinine bitterness.
Fall tomatoes are a nice dream, but remember, tomato plants grow and set fruit in mild weather, then the orbs mature and turn red in hot weather. Planted in March or April (the last two months of the Not season), they get their baby fruits going before the relentless heat begins. Did your tomatoes produce well this past June? If not, it’s not your fault—the heat of August began in the middle of May where it stayed through June and July.
And since our summer heat typically abides through September, it’s usually futile to plant tomatoes in June and July and hope that they’ll set fruit that might ripen before the first frost. Of course, we err on the side of futility and plant them anyway, as you just never know (80 percent of the time we’re disappointed).
Ostensibly it’s a shame that we can’t have it all: tomatoes year-round, hard squash in winter, salads in the summer. But the cookbook writers who came up with the idea of local lettuce-and-tomato salads did not come from here. Surely they live up North, in the frantic world of the one (magnificent) season. It’s all or nothing up there—summer feasts and then the threat of torturous fasting as deep winter sets in. Of course, Northerners are rescued from starvation by grocery stores that reflect an everything-constantly-available status. They can get hard squash even in the summer! Just like us.
Truly, we are lucky down here in Central Texas, with the drastic change in crops over our two seasons. The ground never freezes, so local food is always available, and because certain crops are denied us in the off-season (no bland tomatoes messing up our fresh lettuces), we’re likely to eat a more varied diet.
Happily, a radical change now approaches. We’re on the leading edge of the Not season, when the most luxurious jewel-colored beets, sweet turnips and crisp peas will soon abound. Greens, lettuces, strawberries and brassicas planted in September and October get a good start during that time of abundant sunlight (and respite thanks to the cooler nights). Then the fall harvest creeps in, replaces the last summer squash, green beans and cucumbers with the first sweet potatoes and mixed greens, reaching a glorious zenith around Thanksgiving.
Soon our farm-stand tables will groan under the weight of cooler-weather-loving vegetables. And though local tomatoes might be absent, our Texas salads—freshened by frisée and escarole, spiced with arugula and dandelion greens—will be accented with florets of cauliflower and broccoli, slices of carrots, and even strawberries. We will enjoy them mightily, in part because we waited so long for them.