GARDEN WORKS: Wake up, sleepy head! Maple syrup time is here

Left, first you gather the sap from the tree using a spout and bucket. Most “backyard” syrup makers use a turkey fryer as an evaporator. It works very well.

Emily Catesby Emily Cates

Wake up, wake up! No more excuses for hibernation or procrastination, Springtime is here. Yes, I know I know — it’s still cold and there’s plenty of snow, each flake erasing an equal amount of motivation to be outside in the garden.

But let’s look at the possibilities anyways, since eventually the window of early-springtime activities will close whether we complete them or not. Why not enjoy a taste of spring by making maple syrup? Let’s whet our appetites by taking a look at this delicious task.

Ah, maple syrup — the amber nectar of our beloved maple tree, made from the sparkling, crystal-clear sap that is a delightful Spring tonic on its own. At 40-45 degrees in the daytime and freezing at night, this luminous sap flows from tree wounds and can be collected.

Maple sugaring supplies are super easy to find at hardware stores or online, and YouTube has an amazing amount of helpful how-to videos.

It is extremely important to use clean, food-grade materials for anything that comes in contact with the sap and syrup. Avoiding trees in polluted areas might is a good idea as well. Also, never overload a tree with too many taps. The best advice I can think of is to use recycled materials if possible, be safe, and to have fun!

To collect the sap, I gather containers such as traditional metal sap pails, water jugs, or buckets. Then, with a 5/16th drill bit, I drill a hole slightly upwards about 2-2 ½ inches, preferably on the south-facing side of the tree. Depending on the setup, I’ll either hang the pails on the tree by the hooks provided on spiles that are gently hammered in the hole, or I run food-grade tubing to a container set on the ground.

Once there’s enough collected, it’s time to strain it and boil it down. Since I only have a small amount of taps and my wood stove is already running this time of year, I usually evaporate the sap in big pots on the stovetop.

40:1 is a common ratio for sap to syrup, which is quite a lot of work for a small amount of product. Oftentimes, depending on how full my hands are this time of year (and how much of it gets raided by my family or myself!), I’ll make the decision to cook with the sap instead of making syrup. I always try to reserve some to slow-cook a chicken…Delicious!

Large quantities of sap are traditionally steamed off in a sugar house with an evaporator suited for many gallons. (I know folks who make a fire in a barrel on its side with foodservice basins fitted on the top.) The sap boils in the basins and is carefully watched, especially as it thickens. Ladle off any foam and impurities from time to time, adding a drop of cream if it threatens to foam over.

Now it’s down to the nitty-gritty! Tell the kids and pets to wait at a safe distance, and put on a pair of steady hands, because this is hot stuff. When the syrup reaches 7 degrees above boiling, or 219 degrees F, it’s ready to carefully strain and pour off into containers. I prefer mason jars, which are handy for canning the syrup. If desired, process in a hot water canner for 10 minutes.

Enjoy maple syrup in as many ways as your imagination allows. How sweet it is to start spring on such a delicious note!

GARDEN WORKS: Nine tips for starting seedlings successfully indoors

Anyone can do this!

Reprint from February 2015

Emily Catesby Emily Cates

Really? Now? YES! I’ll admit it’s hard to imagine a lush, productive garden when we’re up to our eyeballs in snow. But if we put our green thumbs to work, it just might be what we need to get us through.

Are you wondering which methods and materials you should use? Well, it really depends on the imagination and creativity of the individual. Systems can be as unique and diverse as time, space, and expense allow- even involving minimum inputs made from salvaged or recycled materials. With just a few things in mind, starting seeds is easy and practically anyone can do it. Why not give it a try? Here’s how:

The first important component to a successful operation, whether large or small, is a clean, well-drained container that holds the substrate. Possible candidates could include free and abundant used yogurt cups from home or the recycling center. Wash them well and poke holes in the bottoms, label them, fill with planting medium, and they’re good to go! Plastic or cardboard milk cartons with the tops cut off are another possibility. Also, there is this handy dandy little tool called the “pot maker” which you can use to make pots out of plain newsprint. If expense is not an issue and the desire is aesthetic, go for the plastic flats and 6-packs and such found in seed catalogs and gardening centers. Seeds can be individually or collectively sown in smaller containers, but the resulting seedlings are easier to transplant if they are in flats or containers with a larger surface area.

The second ingredient to successful seedlings is the substrate. Always remember to use fresh, pest and disease-free planting medium, whether purchased or homemade. FEDCO and Johnny’s carry satisfactory seed starting mixes along with nifty items such as soil block makers, pots made from composted cow manure, and “seed discs” (for the horticulturally-challenged!).

The third part of the system that deserves consideration is light. This could be as simple as a sunny, south-facing windowsill, a shop light with full spectrum bulbs (found at Home Depot), or the luxury of a sun room or heated greenhouse. To prevent seedlings from becoming leggy once they’ve sprouted keep the containers as close to the lights as possible without burning the plants.

The fourth piece we want to scrutinize is an acceptable source of water. Watering with plain tap water is fine as long as it’s not chlorinated or from a softener system. Keep the seeds and seedlings moist, but not waterlogged. If necessary, additional draining holes in the container can be poked through or drilled.

The fifth factor of importance is the temperature. 80 degrees F and above are necessary for proper germination, so a heat mat or other source of warmth could be used in a cold room.

The sixth essential element is ensuring the seeds are viable. Using seeds that are fresh and stored in a cool, dry area will have a higher germination rate. If in doubt, pack a few into a damp paper towel, place into a zip lock bag, and store for several days in a warm place. Check daily for sprouts, keep moist, and observe. Sometimes it might be necessary to wait a week or two more, but after that I’d give up and buy new seed for sure.

The seventh module we’ll look at is what to plant. Long-season seedlings that seem to take forever and ever to get to a plant-able size from seed may be happiest and most productive when started early. The cast of characters starring in your grow system could include leeks, onions, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, long-season herbs, and perennial flowers.

The eighth constituent is when to plant. This involves finding out the recommended planting time frame. Check a seed packet or gardening book for planting instructions and you might find that the time to start the seeds for your favorite plant is now! (But not too early, unless you plan on transplanting into bigger and bigger pots later on as they grow- and using up more and more planting medium!) Personally, I prefer to start smaller, later-planted seedlings and let them catch up, as opposed to jumping the gun and ending up with oversized, pot-bound, sulking plants. I’ve even waited until a few weeks or so after the recommended planting time-frames and observed that the later plantings will oftentimes catch up with the earlier ones. I’ve noticed this to be especially so as the moon is increasing (when I try to start seeds), since it appears that a full moon has an affinity towards fertility and growth. The point? Starting seeds is a flexible endeavor and will accommodate a variety of schedules.

The ninth and final feature of a successful grow system involves nutrition. My favorite is fish-seaweed formulas, used as directed. Don’t worry about it until the first set of true leaves has formed and weekly thereafter.

Here’s hoping your seedlings are happy and healthy when the above needs are considered. Enjoy gardening now in the comfort and convenience of a warm room while the cold winter wind is whipping outside!

GARDEN WORKS: Toxic squash, evil zucchini and other dangers in the garden

Emily Catesby Emily Cates

Watch out for that squash! No, I’m not talking about the oversized zucchini endangering anyone who walks under it — or the health hazards of eating undercooked portions of Aunt Maybelle’s Squash Surprise Soup. I mean a real hazard that could lurk in any member of the Curcubit family — toxins known as curcubitacins. Let’s take a look at this widely unknown danger and arm ourselves with the knowledge of how to protect ourselves from it.

As the harvest season is well underway, many of us are now harvesting copious quantities of curcubits like cucumbers, squash, melons, and other delights. Along with the harvest comes tasty recipes guaranteed to please and nourish the body and soul. But let me ask, have you ever taken a bite of a cucumber, or cooked up squash or zucchini—and found it incredibly bitter?

Well, you should know that this bitterness is bad news! Not only is it an indicator that the fruit or veggie has dangerous amounts of curcubitacins, but just a mouthful eaten can make you very sick. Like wind up in the hospital sick, and maybe even lose all of your hair if you survive. At the very least, you’ll get terrible digestive problems on both ends. Who wants that? Not I!

Definitely enough to make one think twice before eating, Toxic Squash Syndrome (not to be confused with Toxic Shock Syndrome) is not something anyone wants to have. Though rare, this illness is potentially fatal, and is a serious risk for the unwary.

How can this be, since these vegetables are a regular, delicious part of a healthy diet? Well, let’s take a look at why it can happen.

First of all, these toxins are naturally occurring repellents. Bitter and poisonous Curcubits are often found growing wild in tropical areas. The toxins, however, have been bred out of cultivated varieties, especially those that are available in seed catalogs. If the professional grower did their job, the resulting seeds offered should be pure, not crossed with other varieties.

I find that mostly to be the case when I grow seeds from seed companies. The seeds grow as advertised and expected, though I do observe fruits from crossed seeds from time to time. If these fruits from crossed seeds were not crossed with ornamental gourds and taste good— not bitter at all— then they probably are not poisonous. But please don’t take my word for it! If in doubt, throw it out. Or use it ornamentally. And don’t save the seeds.

If you are a seed-saver, please ensure your Curcubit plants do not cross with other plants, such as certain squashes cross pollinating with ornamental gourds. The book Seed to Seed, by Suzanne Ashworth, is a good place to start if you have questions about what crosses with what— especially with squash.

Another reason why a plant could produce curcubitacins is because it is stressed. Ensuring favorable growing conditions is a good idea for these plants. Lack of water and/or nutrients, and pest pressure are all stressors that could promote the production of curcubitacins. In this case, your sense of taste is your best defense. If it’s bitter, it’s a spitter!

So, now that we have been forewarned about the dangers lurking in the pumpkin patch, we can rest assured knowing that other than some things to keep in mind, the garden surely is a place of complete delight.

GARDEN WORKS: Exciting times in the garden

photo by Emily Cates

Emily Catesby Emily Cates

This time of year is buzzing with possibilities! The last spring frost of the year most likely has passed us by, clearing the way for warm-weather plantings. And although it’s a bit on the late side for trees, shrubs, and peas, we can be sure to plant greens, cole crops, cover crops, carrots, radishes, potatoes, onions, perennials, flowers, and herbs with abandon. To be on the safe side, it’s always a good idea to wait until after May 31, for tomatoes, corn, squash, peppers, eggplant, pumpkins, and the like. Unless we have another freak late frost, I would say, “Plant away after Memorial Day!”

If the weather continues to be so dry, however, make sure anything planted receives adequate moisture. Drip irrigation systems are preferable to a soaker hose, since a large proportion of moisture sprayed from a hose or sprinkler is lost through evaporation. Watering at night will conserve moisture by preventing water from evaporating in the sun. I noticed this spring that the trees and shrubs I planted needed an extra five gallons or so of water per tree every other day in May. Usually there is adequate of rain this time of year- but this year, like most years as of late, is a typical Maine spring; the one thing you can count on is the weather being unpredictable! Being prepared for this challenge is one way we can stay ahead of the game.

Naturally, there is little most of us can do to prevent a late heavy frost. That pattern would fool many flowering shrubs and fruit trees into blooming only to be nipped by the frost. Though that would mean little or no fruit this year for the affected specimens, we can take to heart that hopefully that wouldn’t happen again the following year. And if it does, it may help to consider planting cultivars that are late blooming, frost tolerant, or extra hardy. Most of our area is zone 4 (-20 to -30 degrees F.) with occasional zone 5’s (-10 to -20 degrees F.). Choosing a perennial plant, shrub, or tree that is rated to grow in the next zone down- zone 3 (-30 to -40 degrees F.), for instance – will ensure a plant’s hardiness. Remember, too, that a heavy snow pack should act as a blanket and keep a plant warmer than if there is low accumulation; so might a heavy mulch.

One thing that certainly doesn’t mind the weather was the weeds. These guys are public enemy Number One in many gardens. Any efforts to minimize them early in the season before they go to seed will help keep them at bay throughout this growing season and others. Cultivating, hand-pulling, mulching, and growing in raised beds and containers are all earth-friendly ways to make the job easier without resorting to chemical herbicides. Undiluted plain distilled vinegar works wonders on the ones in the cracks in the walkway and driveway. Plus, it’s cheap, eco-friendly, and safe to use around children and pets. Give it a try. And if you’re really adventurous, maybe you’ll consider the possibility of raising weeder geese in the garden. Many folks pen them in the strawberry patch until the fruit forms. They eat the weeds, but not the strawberry plants – though it should be noted that they love the fruits as much as we do. (Hence timing is important with this particular venture.)

While you’re planting seeds in the garden, remember to grow some plants that attract beneficial insects. Most of these have umbrella-like flowers such as those found on dill, fennel, carrot, caraway, valerian, angelica, and Queen Anne’s lace. And don’t forget to plant some edible flowers like nasturtiums and delicious herbs like basil. And for a change of pace, try growing heirloom and open-pollinated seed varieties and save the seeds for next year. Or try making a completely new variety altogether by cross-pollinating two different varieties of the same plant that will cross, such as cucumbers. Ah, the possibilities of the late-spring garden!

Emily Cates can be contacted by email at EmilyCates@townline.org.

GARDEN WORKS: How to plant a garden when seed companies are out-of-stock

Luscious tomatoes. (photo courtesy of Old Farmers Almanac)

Emily Catesby Emily Cates

Are you just itching to plant a garden this year? For many, this is the year, no doubt about it! Faced with COVID-19 uncertainty, droves of folks are inundating seed companies with orders, creating backorders and out-of-stocks to the moon and back. So what’s a gardener-in-waiting to do? Well, read on for a few suggestions. Don’t worry, there’s still hope: The answer might already be in your pantry! Yes, let’s look at some seedy characters in the cupboard that just might help us.

Do you have organic potatoes, dry beans, fresh tomatoes, winter squashes, carrots, or bulbs of garlic and onions kicking around? If so, you could have the start of a garden without even knowing it.

While most commercially-cultivated varieties of garden vegetables like tomatoes are bred for uniformity and keeping qualities as opposed to flavor, it’s still possible to grow something from them — even if the results are not as good as their parent plant. Oftentimes seed saved from a hybrid cultivar will produce inferior offspring, but this can be avoided if the parent plant is an open-pollinated variety that didn’t cross with another cultivar.

The chances of having seeds that are open pollinated, true-to-type, and adapted for our area are increased if the veggie was locally grown. That squash you bought from the farmers’ market last fall? It might be kinda mushy now, but you can try planting the seeds after the frost in nice rich soil, or in a compost or manure pile. If the farmer and her neighbors only grew buttercup squash, for example, then the seeds should grow up into delicious buttercups.

The problems with hybrids and cross-pollination are nonexistent with clones. Clones, by this definition, are plants propagated by separating and planting individual pieces of plant material that grow up into individual plants. Think garlic. Or potato, where you can just go ahead and plant a whole tuber that will grow up into a potato plant which produces several potatoes. I like to plant my spuds this way, especially the small ones. Large potatoes with lots of eyes can be divided into pieces with a few eyes per section. Ones that have begun to sprout are desirable, and green areas are fine. Just make sure they look healthy and aren’t treated with sprout-inhibitors notoriously applied to supermarket spuds.

I have heard of folks replanting carrot and other root tops to start a new plant, but honestly, I’ve never tried this. It would be a good way to promote flowering of the plant and produce seeds for saving, provided the guidelines for open pollination and true-to-types are followed.

We’ve all had the fortune of onions deciding to sprout behind our backs. Instead of chucking them, why not plant them and harvest their “scallions” from the garden?

What about beans? Surely you have a jar of dried beans lurking somewhere, waiting patiently for an apocalypse to compel someone to notice them. Now is the time!

Also, those organic wheat berries you planned on sprouting can also be sowed, exponentially increasing their amount as their plants mature and produce grains. Wheat straw is a good mulch—bonus!

If there’s any doubt of the viability of the seed, a few seeds can be folded into a wet paper towel and kept warm and moist for several days up to a couple of weeks and watched for signs of sprouting.

Well, I hope these ideas are helpful. If you have any you’d like to share, we would love to hear from you! Thanks for reading, enjoy your garden.

Emily Cates is a master gardener living in China and can be reached by email at EmilyCates@townline.org.

GARDEN WORKS: Seeds of your dreams: Letters “S” through “T” (Part 6)

Read part 1 here: Seeds from your dreams, Part 1 (A-thru-E)
Read part 2 here: Seeds of your dreams, Part 2 (G-H)
Read part 3 here: Seeds of your dreams: Find joy in a seed catalog, Part 3 (H-N)
Read part 4 here: Seeds of your dreams: Digging for garden gems, Part 4 (O-P)
Read part 5 here: Seeds of your dreams: More ideas from the catalog, Part 5 (P-R)

Emily Catesby Emily Cates

A long winter leaves me weary, longing for the promise of the heady warmth of Springtime. As the snow melts and gives way to mud, my senses are rejuvenated, along with ambition and hopes for a productive season. The search for seeds plays such an integral part of this equation that an enthusiastic grower may make a ritual out of it. How wonderful to sit down with good friends and seed catalogs and imagine the possibilities! In this series of articles we have been looking at an alphabetical list of noteworthy seeds and ideas for a northern garden. We’ll continue on past the letter “S” and beyond. As always, feel free to share your thoughts and ideas with us. I’d love to hear from you. Go ahead and leave a comment on our website, Facebook page, or email me at EmilyCates@townline.org.

Squash – The fruits of this vining plant have so much to offer — a kaleidoscope of all kinds of shapes, sizes, colors, flavors, textures, storage abilities, and unmatched versatility. There are so many to chose from, you could grow a different cultivar every year for your entire life and never try them all. (To get an idea of the splendid diversity of this plant, read Amy Goldman’s The Compleat Squash.) Squash’s historical and nutritional values have played a part in the diets of native peoples in the Americas for millennium. As one of the “Three Sisters” triad of corn, beans and squash, it serves additional benefits of keeping the roots of corn shaded, acting as a living mulch, and protecting the corn from marauding raccoons and other pests. Livestock love squash and some utility varieties, such as Kurbis, were actually bred with them in mind. The culinary ones, of course, are what make it to the table. A large Hubbard squash is fit for a family feast, and a sweet and petit Delicata squash will satisfy a solo diner. While so-called summer squashes such as Patty Pan and Cushaw are delicious in savory dishes, the winter squashes like Buttercup are amazing in pies and desserts. Butternut, Cheese, Kabocha, Turban — these are all decent types for soups, mashed, roasted, you name it. The edible flowers of squash are good, too, when barely opened and then stuffed or stir-fried. Just beware of bees hanging out in the flowers. A heavy feeder, squash prefers warm, rich soil — even a compost pile — and plenty of water during its growing season.

Sunflowers – These cheerful flowers follow the sun and brighten my day with their impressive array of design, colors, seeds, and chocolaty-scents. I’ve never met a sunflower I didn’t like, even the giant ones grown for seeds and oil are a beauty to behold. The ornamental cultivars are a feast for the eyes. I like to tuck as many sunflowers into as many spaces of the garden as possible. Even if the birds end up getting the seeds, the flowers sure make it pretty.

Tomatoes – Much like squash, the tomato has an equally diverse repertoire of colors, shapes, sizes, flavors, types, and uses. Now if you, like myself, despise tomatoes from the grocery store, then you’re in for a real treat! Nothing compares to a vine-ripened tomato warmed from the sun and enjoyed in the garden, on the patio, or at a picnic table. I will admit, whether it’s a handful of cherry tomatoes popped into my happy mouth, or a giant heirloom tomato attacked one slurping bite at a time and dripping all over my face and work-shirt, I’ve found no shame in enjoying a “Tom-ahhh-to.” Keep it classy and serve up a colorful variety of sliced heirloom tomatoes layered with herbs, sprinkled with a little salt, and drizzled with olive oil. Yum! In my search for the perfect tomato, I’ve grown well over 500 cultivars. The following are some of my favorites: Cosmonaut Volkov (red, slicer), Brandywine (medium-large, pink), Lillian’s Yellow Heirloom (large, clear yellow), Aunt Ruby’s German Green (medium-large, green), Pineapple (large bi-colored), Green Zebra (medium-small, green striped over amber), Heart of Compassion (medium-large oxheart type), Opalka (paste), Sungold (hybrid, orange cherry tomato), Black Cherry (black cherry tomato), and Pocket Star (green cherry tomato). Plant tomatoes in rich soil amended with manure or compost, stake or trellis them, use a black plastic mulch, and fertilize weekly with a diluted fish-seaweed formula for good results.

Well, that’s all the space we have for now. But, before I go, I’d like to tell you: the coolest thing is that maple sap is an incredible ingredient to cook with! If you’re tapping trees this year, set aside some sap and cook a whole chicken (with or without fixings) in the sap overnight in a slow-cooker or on the stovetop. Serve as is, or add a little salt and/or herbs to taste. Best chicken soup ever, wow! Try it and let me know what you think.

Emily can be reached at EmilyCates@townline.org.

GARDEN WORKS: Getting through times of change

Elisabeth, 14, in an office in Babelsberg, Germany, in 1954. (contributed photo.)

Advice from a survivor of WWII

Emily Catesby Emily Cates

Well, folks, I was planning on writing another article in my series about good finds from seed catalogs, but with everything happening with COVID-19, I figured it would be prudent to write about something more relevant. In this new era of uncertainty and social distancing, many of us appreciate helpful information on how to get through it all.

While unprecedented to most of us in modern America, these circumstances are surprisingly similar to events experienced by those in our area nearly a century ago during the Great Depression, and also by folks who made it through World War I – World War II in Europe and beyond. In this article I will share with you a few things I gleaned from discussions I’ve had with my mother-in-law, Elisabeth, who survived World War II and lived for decades in Communist East Germany (DDR) before a dramatic opportunity in 1969 led her to Maine. While her story could fill an entire book, I’ll try to highlight the weightier points, and add a few that other family members have pointed out to me.

One of the first things she mentioned was how grocery shopping in the past week or two reminded her and family and friends back home of grocery stores in the former DDR. Many shelves now, like then, are empty as shoppers engage in panic-buying and hoarding. Back then, you had to buy something when you saw it, since you never knew when or if you’d see it again. However, she remarked how unnecessary it is for shoppers here to behave this way, since our infrastructure — unlike the DDR’s — is intact and operating.

Yes, Elisabeth thinks it’s always a good idea to be stocked-up on necessities at all times, but preferably before a crisis, so that others who have a real need are able to obtain their groceries. “You’re not going to starve to death,” she says, “since even if your food gets stolen, you can go outside to your garden and also find edible weeds. You might not get what you want, but you will find something.” I’ll take that advice, since it comes from someone who oftentimes refused to eat so that her little sister would have food.

Another point she mentioned was how useful it was to have a garden. With her thick accent, she affirms: “Plant lots of beans and peas; plant carrots, beets, and other root vegetables.” In the aftermath of World War I, in the winter of 1919-1920, many inhabitants of Continental Europe, including Elisabeth’s father, had mostly turnips to eat. Every recipe you could imagine was made with turnips, including turnip jam. Naturally, when other foods became available, few folks ever wanted to even think about a turnip again. While one could argue we’re not — yet — in the same situation here, the point is to never underestimate the power of root vegetables to sustain humankind through turbulent times. How much better, though, to have a nice variety of them, rather than just one!

As they were able to, many folks in Post-World War II Europe did what they could to get by. Those that had the room and circumstances took advantage of every opportunity to be self-sufficient, including raising chickens, scooping up horse manure from the street for the garden, and bartering. Regarding sweets (from which many of us would be hard-pressed to abstain), Elisabeth’s parents had a huge washtub in their cellar in which they boiled down sugar beets for syrup because they couldn’t obtain granulated sugar. They would have this syrup as a sweet treat once a week and for special occasions. They also raised goats for milk and meat, but on one occasion they fell in love with the baby goat, and after Oma spent hours preparing a roast of it, nobody in the family could eat it. They gave the roast to their neighbor.

The last thing that comes to mind from our conversations is the importance of a meditative space in stressful times. Oftentimes overlooked, but equally important, is the mind-healing properties of a garden. When everything around us seems to crumble, the natural world reassures us of the bigger picture. In the garden we share a place where we can be nourished, grounded, and guided. May we never lose sight of what really matters, and be there for each other no matter what comes our way.

In closing for this article, I’d like to hear your thoughts. What do you think would help us get through tough times? Please leave a comment on our website or Facebook, or email me at EmilyCates@townline.org.

Take care, be safe, and best wishes for the Springtime.

GARDEN WORKS – Seeds of your dreams: More ideas from the catalog, Part 5 (P-R)

Read part 1 here: Seeds from your dreams, Part 1 (A-thru-E)
Read part 2 here: Seeds of your dreams, Part 2 (G-H)
Read part 3 here: Seeds of your dreams: Find joy in a seed catalog, Part 3 (H-N)
Read part 4 here: Seeds of your dreams: Digging for garden gems, Part 4 (O-P)

Emily Catesby Emily Cates

As I step outside and take a walk around my yard, I am greeted by the sound of melting snow and the scent of thawing earth. Embraced by a gentle breeze, I gaze at the garden beds still covered in receding blankets of snow. As this blanket disappears, dreams of seedlings emerge, along with ideas of endless possibilities of what to plant in these beds. With a few trusty seed catalogs as my guide, these dreams and ideas are ever closer to being fulfilled. In this series of articles, I have shared with you a bunch of my favorite finds from seed catalogs. Let’s continue on and look at a few more alphabetically, this time picking up at the letter ‘P’ and going on through ‘R.’ As always, you are warmly invited to share your thoughts and ideas with us on our website or Facebook, or email me at EmilyCates@townline.org.

Peas – These plants do their best when planted as early as possible in areas with moderate fertility, and given something such as a trellis to grow on. Peas are cherished for their nitrogen-fixing abilities as well as their culinary values. Few garden pleasures compare with a pea pod at the peak of perfection, plucked from the vine, and popped into a happy mouth. In my years as a gardener, I confess that only small numbers of peas have actually made it to my kitchen compared to what I’ve eaten right there on the spot — in the plot, at an impromptu pig-out. I dub it the “Garden Cafe,” and no restaurant I’ve ever been to has adequately captured the exquisite experience of enjoying fresh peas as they are picked. From the ones that survive being eaten in the garden, one can choose from shell peas, snow peas, snap peas and soup peas. Purple-podded peas are a sight to behold.

Peppers – These guys can be a challenge in cold areas, as they are more adapted to warm climates. But it can be done. In our area, peppers prefer to start indoors in March-April and set outside after the last frost. Maine-grown peppers need to be pampered and appreciate being planted in a sheltered location with a shovelful or two of compost into black plastic mulch, and foliar-fed a dilution of fish/seaweed weekly. Pick the first fruits as they size up to increase productivity. The vast, beautiful, and delicious varieties of peppers are stunning. Peppers are versatile, with cultivars specialized for snacking, stuffing, frying, ristras, pickling, pimento, paprika, spices, hot sauce, and even self-defense sprays. They come in almost every color of the rainbow, have flavors of varying degrees of sweetness and spiciness, and display many different shapes and sizes. Some peppers make gorgeous ornamentals, and a few even have variegated leaves. Some are masters of deception: they look like harmless sweet peppers, but pack a ferocious bite. Others look frighteningly hot, but are really sweet on the inside. The cultivar Beaver Dam is both sweet and spicy, but the heat can be removed by cutting out the seeds and ribs. It’s my favorite pepper — easier to grow than many others, and multipurpose. Some years I prefer to cultivate a few plants of only this pepper to enjoy it and save the seeds, and then other years I’ll grow a wide assortment of peppers to make it fun.

Quinoa – This popular supergrain grows in cool, dry climates, and could theoretically be a viable crop in our area with the right cultivars. Since I haven’t actually tried growing quinoa (that could change soon!), here’s a website that might be useful if you’d like to check it out: Tips For Growing Your Own Quinoa. I would love to hear from you if you’ve tried growing it.

Radish – These fast-growing, cool weather-loving plants make piquant roots, nutritious greens, and — in some cultivars — scrumptious seed pods. They range in size from cherry-sized spheres, all the way to giant, foot-long daikon radishes. There’s an array of eye-catching colors, too — black, white, cream, scarlet, red, rose, pink, purple, green, and even multicolored. Rat Tail is a rather radical radish grown for its seed pods and used in pickles, stir fries, and more. Radish greens, though nutritious, are probably more palatable to poultry due to their coarseness — though I’ve been known to eat them steamed or stir-fried if no other greens are available. Lacto-fermented radish root pickles are amazing. What’s for breakfast? A fresh, crisp, breakfast radish, of course! Try it for yourself and see how effective it is for clearing the morning cobwebs from your head.

Once again we’ve reached the end of the line for today, but that’s okay. We’ll look at a few more on the list next time. Until then, enjoy your search for garden gems. Let me know what you find!

GARDEN WORKS – Seeds of your dreams: Digging for garden gems, Part 4 (O-P)

Read part 1 here: Seeds from your dreams, Part 1 (A-thru-E)
Read part 2 here: Seeds of your dreams, Part 2 (G-H)
Read part 3 here: Seeds of your dreams: Find joy in a seed catalog, Part 3 (H-N)

Emily Catesby Emily Cates

When I’ve come in from a cold late winter’s day after hauling sap, I like to sit down and settle in with a seed catalog. If you’ve been following this whimsical series on seeds that stand out in the pages of their catalogs, then this article might give you a few more ideas. This time we’ll travel alphabetically from ‘O’ to ‘P’. As always, feel free to share your suggestions on our website or Facebook, or email me at EmilyCates@townline.org. I’m looking forward to hearing from you!

Okra — The mucilaginous yet tasty pods of this plant are adored in gumbo soup and similar dishes where a thickener is desired. It likes heat, fertile soil, and a weed-free plot. The cultivar Cajun Jewel is better adapted to our climate here in Maine, and Red Burgundy produces a beautiful plant with ornamental flowers and pods.

Onions — Onions grown from sets or plants are relatively easy to grow. While they can be started from seed — affording the gardener more choice of varieties — I prefer just to buy some good sets and plants at seed sales in the springtime and plant away. Give them full sun and choice soil, showering them with amendments such as FEDCO’s “Tears of Joy Onion Kit.”

Pac Choi — Probably my favorite veggie in a stir fry, I’m especially enamored with the beautiful and delicious cultivar, Purple. Last year, I grew a few plants in a big container full of compost and they were amazing, even though I’d harvested them a little late and they were frozen. What a treat!

Potato — If this versatile tuber is on your menu, how about trying something new and exciting? My favorite potatoes, many with names that hint of their uniqueness, are: All Blue, All Red, Banana, German Butterball, Kennebec, Magic Molly, Purple Viking, and Yukon Gold. Of course, with such variety — red, rose, pink, beige, yellow, gold, white, blue, purple, marbled, russet, fingerling — comes great temptation to try them all. Give the funky ones a chance and have fun. And have even more fun by saving any mature seed balls that mature on the top of the plant. Extract the seeds enclosed in a seed ball, dry them, and sow them next year in flats like tomato seedlings. Each potato seedling that sprouts is a whole new cultivar! In a couple of years you’ll have full-sized plants and potatoes. Save the best ones and enjoy your signature cultivar.

Pumpkin — Most of us are familiar with ornamental and pie pumpkins, but they are so much more than insipid orange orbs. Have you ever thought of pickling a pumpkin? Grow the cultivar Jaune Gros de Paris (Large Yellow of Paris) and I’ll send you a sweet family recipe. How about nutritious and delicious pepitas like at the store, but better? Grow the “naked seed” cultivars such as Good Egg Godiva, Kakai, and Naked Bear. Want something fun and interesting to look at? You’ll want to check out Cheese, Chioggia, Galeux d’Eysines, Jarrahdale, Musquee de Provence, Rouge Vif d’Etampes, or Turban. For the ultimate pumpkin pie experience try the curiously elongated Long Pie, or silky-textured Winter Luxury. And if you’re in it to break records, consider Dill’s Atlantic Giant, or Big Max for a good runner up.

Parsnip — This root is delicious when matchstick sliced, drizzled with oil, roasted, and seasoned to taste. It needs a long season, deep, rich, weed-free soil, and fresh seed. I always leave some plants in the ground to overwinter, promptly harvesting in early Spring before they regrow. They are much sweeter this way and after an autumn frost. Also, since the seeds are short-lived, I make sure to leave a few more plants to go to seed, replant, and also let them self-sow.

Purslane — Perhaps you’ve encountered the wild form of this plant as a weed in your garden — lucky you! The creeping, succulent, mild-but-pleasantly-tart stems and paddle-shaped leaves are considered a nutritious delicacy. I, for one, adore this plant. Though the weed form rarely shows up in my garden, I always make sure to plant the cultivated variety Golden and it does quite well.

Looks like that’s all for this time, but there’s plenty more for next. Stay tuned and keep in touch. Oh, and let me know if you’re tapping maples this year and how it’s going!

GARDEN WORKS – Seeds of your dreams: Find joy in a seed catalog, Part 3 (H-N)

Read part 1 here: Seeds from your dreams: Coming from a seed catalog to you, Part 1 (A-thru-E)
Read part 2 here: Seeds of your dreams, Part 2 (G-H)

Emily Catesby Emily Cates

The crackle of a cozy fire, the crinkling pages of a seed catalog, the whistling of the kettle bubbling with water for my tea— all creature comforts to accompany me as I search for treasures hidden within the pages. Whether it’s the black-and-white FEDCO catalog that stands out for its literary content as well as its seeds, the Johnny’s catalog brimming with full color photos, or the Pinetree catalog loaded with seeds and gift ideas, there’s sure to be something for everyone.

With all this in mind, let’s take a look at a few more seeds that in my opinion are worth finding as we search our catalogs. Let’s look at letters ‘H’ through ‘N’ this time. If you have any ideas or suggestions, feel free to share them on our website or Facebook page, or email me at EmilyCates@townline.org.

Hyssop, anise – I was actually going to start at the letter ‘I’, but I realized I had almost forgotten about one of my favorite herbs of all time – anise hyssop. It’s related to neither anise nor hyssop, but is an herbal superstar in its own right. With mint-like leaves and cute, purple, spire-like flowers, this perennial herb begs all to make friends with it. The foliage and flowers taste delightfully sweet and licorice-like (in a good way!). Delicious herbal teas and confections await this special herb.

Indian Corn – I know I already mentioned corn in a previous article in this series, but the so-called Indian corn cultivars are a must for anyone who appreciates the beauty and historical value of this plant. Look for Abenaki Calais Flint, Hopi Blue, and Painted Mountain.

Juneberries – I have a few of these wonderful native fruiting shrubs planted right alongside the edge of my garlic patch and beyond. Think of a plant with a variable form – shrub- or treelike – that is one of the first to bloom in springtime. Then think of a juicy fruit with the appearance of a blueberry, with a taste reminiscent of a luscious mix of apples and almonds. That is a juneberry!

Kale – This trendy superfood might have peaked in popularity, but it really shines as a staple in every garden not only for its nutritional value, but for its ability to grow in the cold. When other plants have hunkered down for the winter or expired, kale just keeps on growing. It’s such a delight to harvest it during a December snowstorm, or to dig for it in the snow, like green treasure. It’s sweeter then, too. Look for a variety pack of kales and enjoy its diversity.

Lettuce – What’s a garden without lettuce? I, for one, can’t get enough of the flashy, frizzled, spotted, and speckled kinds. There’s such a stunning variety of kinds, I know I’ll never try them all and console myself with a dazzling variety pack of mixed types and colors. Lettuce, for the most part, prefers cooler weather and doesn’t mind a little shade where it can grow among other plants in the garden.

Melons – If you don’t mind a challenge, grow melons in Maine. With the right selection of short-season cultivars, a bit of compost, plenty of sunshine, and black plastic mulch, it just might work. Look for Golden Gopher, Prescott Fond Blanc, and Hannahs Choice. For exquisite watermelons, find Cream of Saskatchewan (my favorite), Moon and Stars, and Blacktail Mountain.

Nasturtiums – What is a garden or patio without nasturtiums? They look good wherever they grow. Not only are their leaves and flowers adorable, but they are delicious in a spicy, peppery way. Insect pests, however, don’t find them as palatable, and as a result, nasturtiums are often planted alongside other plants in the garden as a natural and aesthetically pleasing repellent. I like how a mix of trailing cultivars cascades over the side of a flowerpot, like a cheerful, colorful waterfall. Look for Alaska Mix, Empress of India, Jewel Mix, Tall Climbing Mix, Peach Melba, and Whirlybird 7-Color Blend.

Looks like that’s all the space we have for this time. I hope you have fun hunting for seeds. Let me know what you find!