The blush is off the rose but Old Man River keeps on rollin' along

The blush is definitely off the Rose de Berne. Even Old Man River looks a little dried up.

The blame can be placed squarely on my wife. She should have known better than to listen to the lunatic ravings of an obviously half-baked mad dog out in the noonday sun.

Hey, I had been out in the garden for several hours last Sunday afternoon, when the temperatures broiled into the 90s.

"Jack Frost is stretched out on some beach, slathering his pale self with industrial strength sunscreen and slugging down brewskis — he's done for the season," I told Maureen. "For the first time ever, we can finally plant our tomatoes before Memorial Day."

"I really think we ought to wait," cautioned Maureen, a gifted gardener born with two green thumbs. "I've got a bad feeling about this."

Our property on Sterling Creek Road south of Jacksonville is nearly 2,400 feet above sea level. Moreover, because our garden is in the bottom of a little valley, it is susceptible to late frosts in our microclimate world.

But I reminded her that the heirloom tomatoes we bought at Hanley Farm's annual historic plant sale, including the Paul Robeson and the Rose de Berne, are not today's namby-pamby varieties.

"We're talking about Old Man River here," I stressed, then attempted to mimic Robeson's memorable baritone in the musical "Show Boat,"

"He keeps on rollin' along ..."

But I was drowned out by Waldo's howling. Apparently the pooch doesn't appreciate show tunes.

"What about the Rose de Berne?" I asked, partly to stop the howls. "She is from Switzerland. She sniffs her nose at mere Sterling Creek cold."

Perhaps the sun was also getting to Maureen. She agreed we could plant all seven tomato plants and nine pepper plants. But she insisted we hold back on our other fair-weather veggies.

We both wanted to try the Paul Robeson because we figured a black heirloom tomato originating from Russia would add needed variety to our garden. We also admired Robeson's lifelong efforts to make the world a better place, both as a singer and a human rights activist.

The heirloom Rose de Berne seemed to have ample potential with its rose-pink fruit and sweet flavor. The vines produce fine yields of sweet-flavored tomatoes once grown in historic Switzerland, the literature promised.

The plants, which also included Romas, Early Girls and cherry tomatoes, looked great the next morning as we headed off to work.

But Monday evening found the wind picking up and the temperature dropping.

"We should cover our plants," Maureen said. "I've got a bad feeling about this."

"No worries — Jack Frost is history for the season," I assured her.

But I noticed the wind did seem to have a bite to it.

The plants were covered the next morning — with a thin layer of ice. The thermometer read 29 degrees Fahrenheit.

"Un huh," Maureen observed.

"Yes, well, it happens," I wisely agreed.

The leaves of the Rose de Berne looked like cooked spinach. Old Man River was drooping. And two sweet peppers looked like they were not long for this world. Other plants looked a tad wilted.

I meekly followed Maureen as she poured room-temperature water on the stricken plants. There was no debate about covering the plants Tuesday or Wednesday nights when temperatures dropped to 32 and 33 degrees respectively.

Early Thursday morning, it was a relatively balmy 37 degrees.

But the leaves of the Rose de Berne still looked like Swiss cheese by Friday. The two peppers remained in their death beds. Old Man River seemed to be holding his own but was still looking a little green around the gills.

"I've got a bad feeling about this," I confided to Maureen.

That's when she broke out into song.

"Old man river, he keeps on rollin' along," she sang in a voice as sweet as a meadow lark.

Waldo did not howl, the cur.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

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