Late Saturday afternoon, it felt like we were going to have a frost that night. The air had that cold, bright, still feeling that I associate with a frost. I decided to cover the Red Shiso in season extender cloth, a material that usually keeps the Shiso protected from very mild frosts. Nothing much can protect it from a serious frost.
After supper, when I went to check Weather.com on the internet for its hour to hour temperature prediction, a night time low of 40 degrees at zip code 03770 was indicated, with colder temperatures predicted for Sunday night. Gosh, how official the computer screen looked with all its charts and graphics. At 1 am it would be 41 degrees but feel like 40 degrees with a dew point of 40, humidity 96%, and a wind of 1 mph coming from the NNW. Lulled into LaLa land by this barrage of information misinformation, I turned my Shiso alarm bells off and slept like a baby.
I try to harvest the Red Shiso as late into the fall as possible to give it maximum sunshine. I have a zillion theories about why our Shiso sometimes dries a deep maroon and sometimes dries a paler maroon. My theories about color variations include ideas about different seed lots, too much rain, too little heat, basically as many theories as a farmer can spin. One thing that appears to be really and truly true, regardless of other factors, is that the more sunshine the Red Shiso gets, the deeper the maroon color. This means I try to leave the Shiso growing well into these gorgeous clear days of fall sunshine.
I also try not to flirt too outrageously with frost danger, because Red Shiso is very frost sensitive. Like tomato or squash foliage, Red Shiso foliage is very tender and almost melts in a mild frost. Last Saturday night was the first night I could almost smell a frost. I knew my nights of Red Shiso Russian roulette had begun.
But still, I went to bed, thinking I had things covered, literally and figuratively. Weather.com had said it was so.
Sunday morning, my first inner alarm bell rang when I noticed that there was a frozen puddle of water on the back deck. As I stepped onto the deck to examine the frozen puddle, I noticed the air was extremely still, almost hushed, another bad sign. Then I noticed swaths of frozen grass swooping down through the gardens. Next, I noticed the roof of the screened porch out in the hayfield was covered in frost. By this time, I was sprinting towards the Red Shiso. Weather.com to the contrary, this had not been a 40 degree night.
Mercifully, the Angels and Elementals protected the crop. Frozen grass encircled the Red Shiso. Much of the season extender cloth had blown off the Red Shiso. The little bit of cloth that was in place was crackling with ice. Yet, most of the Red Shiso was covered in heavy dew, not frost. As I inspected the Shiso more closely, I saw that the occasional Shiso leaf was frosted, but almost all of the crop was fine. Thank God and all God’s helpers! This is the one crop I must have each year to keep going. Its the main ingredient in our stabilzer and a vital part of every bottle of our Flower Essences. I don’t even let myself imagine what it would be like to lose a whole year’s crop. It was challenging enough when two of the crops dried with very few maroon leaves and the majority of the crop too pale for use.
As I literally wept with relief, I thanked my Angelic and Elemental partners who protected the crop. Then I held a pow wow with them to see if I should start harvesting the crop. The consensus from my upstairs partners was that I should start to cut and hang the Red Shiso as soon as the sun had dried the heavy dew.
As I waited for the sun to dry the Shiso, I sat out in the sunshine reading Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Hummingbird’s Daughter. Set in Mexico during the late 1800’s, the story begins with a charming little girl, Teresita, discovering her gifts as a healer when she is trained by a yaqui shaman named Huila. This is a woefully simplistic description of a beautiful, complex, enchanting epic written in an amazing kind of layered prose.
What I was thinking as I sat waiting for the Red Shiso to dry was that this book was one of the only books I have read in which someone teaches another person how to talk with plants or even mentions that it is possible to talk with plants. Huila’s work with Teresita begins as a very matter of fact process laced with humor. Huila notes that it is important to be able to talk with plants so that if you are traveling and someone gets the runs, you can talk with the plants you don’t know and have them tell you which one will help with this “flood of caca”. Her dramatic description gets Teresita laughing, but also gets her engaged in paying attention to what plants say.
When do any of us realize that we don’t process the world like other people? I am still learning that most people think my ideas about reality are… well… caca. Talking with plants may be nonsense to some, yet for me, it has been one of the loveliest and most solid things in my life. Gardens have always been filled with beloved friends. Yet so has everywhere else. There are always forgotten hedgerows, waste grounds, sandlots, or cracks in the pavement where a plant friend has sprung to life.
I am never without company. I see old friends everywhere, on every walk I take. I can stop to visit with these plant friends or not, but always there is the moment of recognition and delight in meeting again. This time of year on my lunchtime walk with the dogs, I greet a clump of Pearly Everlasting then note a cluster of Silver rod before admiring to a tumble of Asters. Always there is the exchange of gladness as we meet and greet.
Right now, my favorite walk ends in a downhill whoosh through a meadow covered in exuberant Goldenrods. As I move through their celebration it is probably as close as I will get to crowd surfing in a mosh pit, but it works for me.
Wherever I go, I remember what was growing there. I forget so much, but somehow I always remember where plant friends live. This has come in so handy when making Flower Essences. And if I am traveling, as Huila tells Teresita, I talk to every new plant I meet, certain that each one is a new friend and excited that perhaps this new friend will want to become a gift bearing Flower Essence.
Huila explains to Teresita that we can talk to plants or rocks or mountains and they will talk back. As a child, it never occurred to me that you couldn’t talk to a plant. And what a blessing that no one ever interfered with my life with plants by saying to me, “Now of course we mustn’t speak to plants.”
By mid morning, the Red Shiso was dry enough to be cut and hung. I got my clippers, asked the Red Shiso where it wanted me to start cutting and then set to work. It was peaceful. The Red Shiso looked lovely and dark as I threw bundle after bundle on sheets on the ground. Every so often I would haul a laden sheet to the Red Shiso building and tie bundles to the rafters. I knew that if I thought about how much there was to cut, I would feel overwhelmed, so I just kept cutting and hanging. Jim came and worked with me for a couple of hours. That was a great help.
As it began to get dark, we had cut and hung almost two thirds of the crop. I paused to ask the Angels and Elementals if they wanted me to keep going. I remembered the year when a heavy frost was coming and the Angels and Elementals had said that I needed to get the whole crop in. I had cut bundles into the dark, filling sheet after sheet with cut Red Shiso. In the cold starry night, I dragged the filled sheets into the Red Shiso building. It was a long night!
The good news last evening was that the Angels and Elementals said I had cut enough for the day. Jim and I covered the remaining Red Shiso with double layers of season extender cloth. At midnight, we turned a sprinkler on the Shiso and let it run until dawn. We thought the water coming out of the well at 50 degrees would bring a little bit of warmth to the Red Shiso. The Angels and Elementals were calm that this would be enough protection. They said the uncut Red Shiso was safe.
A fog blew in after midnight. Early this morning, when I saw this fog out my window, I knew there had been no frost.
Weather.com had predicted frost. The Angels and Elementals had said no frost. There was no frost.
As a modern day Huila might say, “You can talk to everything, but don’t look for answers from the wrong things. Sometimes the nose on your face or the plants at your feet are going to know the weather forecast a lot better than some data served up in a box.”