The gardening season this year was neither the best of times nor the worst of times. The only superlative is how long it lasted. As of Oct. 26, we’d still had no frost, nor was any yet in the immediate forecast. (According to U.S. government data, this makes 2017 the second latest frost for Portland – I live in nearby Cape Elizabeth – since 1940; in first place for that record, thus far, is 2014, when the city’s first frost arrived on Nov. 3.) None of our edible crops failed, but none produced so much that we had to prowl the neighborhood giving away zucchini or raspberries. Neither did we have to supplement our crops with purchases from local farmers, except for vegetables like sweet corn that we no longer grow.

The first frost wasn’t the only thing that was late this year. Everything got off to a slow start, with cool, wet weather until early June. Then, when the temperature finally got warm enough to let the plants get established, the rain stopped.

Even though we irrigated regularly, heat-loving plants such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and squash never produced much. Although it was dry, it wasn’t especially warm. We didn’t get our first tomatoes until late July. Though we had enough to have some with lunch every day, we never had a bounty. Despite the lack of frost, we’ve had only four red peppers so far this season – we will have a lot of green ones to pick as soon as the forecast predicts frost.

The winter squash did do well, but few were big enough to harvest until October. The production was sort of a surprise, as the first small winter squash didn’t even show up until I was already harvesting the summer squash.

Another surprise was our apple crop – if you can consider two apples a crop. When we had the house built in 1975, we inherited an apple tree with our property. Over the years, it has occasionally produced fruit, but those apples were deformed and wormy. Then, a few years ago, we removed the many invasive plants that surrounded the apple tree, planted a flower and shrub garden in their stead, and left the apple tree for its blossoms. In August we noticed three apples on it; when one of them fell off and got eaten by wildlife, I picked the other two and brought them inside. They were flawless, and my wife Nancy made delicious apple-walnut bars.

The slow start with a good finish wasn’t limited to vegetables. The hydrangeas bloomed so late that Nancy and I worried we’d get no blossoms at all. But late in the season the blossoms finally came, large, lush and vibrantly colored. The perennial hibiscus always blossoms late, but ours waited until October to bloom – in some previous years we’ve already had frost by then.

A lot of spring-blooming plants got confused as the year progressed. State Horticulturist Gary Fish posted on Facebook a picture of a fruit tree showing blossoms in mid-October. After I viewed his post, I saw a lilac and some forsythia with fall blossoms in Cape Elizabeth. These trees and shrubs had gone dormant because of the dry weather. When a little rain fell in October, the plants’ timing mechanisms thought it was spring and sent out a few blossoms.

All of which has me worried about how these plants – now spending their energy on out-of-season flowers while surviving harsh conditions – will fare next year. Trees, shrubs and herbaceous perennials can withstand a year of drought, and last year’s was significantly worse than this year’s, but two consecutive dry years could weaken or kill some plants.

Our newly installed shrubs seem to be doing well. Our witherod viburnums look healthy, and I ate one of the two berries that ripened. They can’t compete with blueberries, but I’m hoping the birds like them in future years, when they’re old enough to produce more. The shrubs we planted this year – bottlebrush buckeye, clethra and “Ken Janek” rhododendron – all look healthy, and the sheep laurel actually grew quite a bit, not something I expect from shrubs in their first year.

When I wrote my midseason garden assessment, I noted I’d so far picked a sum total of three blueberries. I picked more as the season progressed, but we never had more than a quarter cup at a time. Next year, I want enough to have at least one blueberry pie.

The new asparagus bed is now established, and next year I will be able to harvest a lot more from it. I cut a few spears this year when I saw that younger spears were coming, even though you really should wait until the third year.

One other thing I got out of this year’s garden is a lot of steps on the Fitbit. With the weather so dry, I watered all the container plants and new shrubs by hand just about every day.

It kept me in shape and out of trouble.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: [email protected]

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