GARDEN WORKS: Pickles anyone? Nothing beats old-fashioned pickles

Mmmm… Homemade pickles!

Emily Catesby Emily Cates

Pickles are a fabulous way of capturing the essence of the late-summer harvest and preserving it for culinary enjoyment well after the season is over. In times past, pickled vegetables were an important staple for many cultures. Without the use of modern canning equipment, pickling was done the old fashioned way by lacto-fermentation. Even today, the art and traditions of preparing these delicious foods this way has continued in many ethnic groups and in families who prefer this method.

Most folks today are only familiar with pickles that are canned with vinegar and sugar. Unless we have Old-World grandparents who kept a crock full of fermenting vegetables in the cellar, the concept of lacto-fermentation may be foreign to us. What exactly is lacto-fermentation? In its simplest form, it is a process of utilizing the culture of lactobacilli to create an acidic environment in which the food ferments and is preserved. Bacteria which cause spoilage are unable to proliferate in the lactic acid and in the presence of acid-loving bacteria.

A similar process is used to make other foods that are familiar to us, such as yogurt, vinegar, and sourdough bread. Pickling cucumbers, sauerkraut cabbage, and dilly beans are well-known pickling vegetables, but did you know almost every vegetable can be pickled? And did you know that in some places like Scandinavia and the Arctic Circle, foods we might not associate with or recommend being pickled, like meat and fish, are fermented? If you would like to read in depth about lacto-fermentation and try some incredible recipes, the books I have found most helpful are Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz, and Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon. There are occasionally lacto-fermenting workshops at MOFGA to help learn the art hands-on. Dive in and get cultured!

So why bother going through the trouble of making old fashioned pickles? One taste is all you need to be convinced. Of course, if you are pregnant and are having a pickle-craving phase, these really hit the spot. And in addition to their excelling culinary qualities, lacto-fermented vegetables are loaded with beneficial microorganisms and nutrients unlocked by the fermentation process. These pickles may help with digestion and provide valuable enzymes missing in modern diets. Like a mad scientist, the pickle-maker experiences the awe and wonder of seeing vegetables, water, and salt being transformed into a bubbling elixir of life. Partaking of these deliciously transformed vegetables releases feelings of joy and satisfaction of having perpetuated a rare and ancient art of food preservation. Still weary of trying this at home? Here are some hints: Next time you are at the natural food store pick up a jar of “Real Pickles” and see if you like them. Reserve the liquid to pour into the crock if you start a batch of homemade pickles. This gives the microorganisms a jump-start and helps to ensure a better chance of pickling success. A handful of grape leaves will keep the pickles nice and crunchy, whether you make them the modern or old fashioned way. And don’t forget to add fresh garden herbs to make an especially memorable batch.

The equipment to make pickles is surprisingly simple. The fermentation vessel can be a crock, a clean food-grade plastic pail, glass canning jars, or anything similar. There is no need for expensive equipment, though brand-new crocks can be obtained from outfits such as Lehman’s at a premium price. My vessel of choice for pickling is the removable crock from a slow-cooker. They are oftentimes in abundance when the cooker part no longer works and the whole unit is discarded. Then the crock part is the best part! Look for these at lawn sales, thrift shops, and even the swap shed at the dump. Friends and family are always eager to get rid of spare and no longer useful crock pots, and I am happy to oblige. Antique crocks that your grandparents used are not advisable, since they may contain lead. So, to be safe, stick with newer vessels. And make sure all equipment is clean and veggies are sound, fresh, washed, and scrubbed.

There are different versions of lacto-fermenting vegetables, some perhaps better than the ones I have experience with, though the following basic method has been successful for me. Don’t be afraid to experiment with what works for you with materials you have on hand. Fresh vegetables are placed whole or in pieces into a crock, mixed with a ratio of 3 tablespoons for every 5 lb veggies with non-iodized sea or pickling salt, and covered with pure, un-chlorinated water and cheesecloth. The cheesecloth and veggies are weighted under the water with a heavy dish or some kind of weight, and covered tightly around the top rim of the crock with another cheesecloth or lid to keep out dust and insects. If you use a lid, make sure it’s not airtight so that the fermentation gasses have room to escape. The crock is placed at room temperature during the initial, most active phase of fermentation, and then moved to a cool but not freezing place for long-term storage. Try tasting the pickles after three days if the room temperature was above 75-80 degrees, a while longer if it was cooler. Successful pickles will be zesty and have a bite to them. To save crock space, I remove pickles from the crock that taste nice and tangy and which are fermented. I place them into clean, wide-mouthed quart canning jars, cover them with brine, and store them in the fridge, checking the batches occasionally. A well-preserved batch can last for months and sometimes years.

Nature does most of the work, but it is important to check on the crock daily while fermentation is vigorous. Sometimes a batch will really get going and overflow the crock, so be prepared just in case this happens. If a film forms on the top, simply skim it off by lifting the cheesecloth from out of the brine. Rinse the cheesecloth thoroughly, and then return to the crock. If the batch goes bad, you will know. Oh my, will you ever, and your neighbors, too! Compare your batch to the lacto-fermented pickles from the natural food store if you are unsure of the success of a batch. Surface mold will not affect what is under the brine, but a batch that went bad is unmistakably foul. As long as the ph of the crock’s contents is acidic, harmful and spoiling bacteria are not supposed to grow. If ever in doubt, send a questionable batch to the compost. It makes sense to pickle in small batches so if you get a bad one, only a part of the hard-earned harvest will be discarded. Keeping records will help to determine what is behind success or failure.

Making old-fashioned pickles, along with winemaking and cheese-making, is truly an art. If the first time is less than successful, don’t give up! When you succeed and master this art, you and your family will enjoy a delicious and healthful delicacy that one can really take pride in making.

GARDEN WORKS: Not for the birds! Protect your berries from aerial assaults

An example of bird netting.

Emily Catesby Emily Cates

“Swoop! Dive! Flap!” go their wings as they raid my beloved berry patch, their beaks voraciously plucking choice berries with no regard to how many backbreaking hours I’ve spent growing them. As I attempt to harvest the leftovers and shoo them away, the birds whiz by and release their droppings in what seems like a sinister game to deter me from “their” buffet. I can’t help but feel under attack!

Does this sound familiar to you? Most berry growers at some point have experienced competition from our flying feathered friends. This article was written for those of us who need tips on how to protect berries
from hungry birds, or at least to keep their damage to a minimum. The tricks up our sleeves include visual and auditory deterrents, netting, and other ideas that will hopefully help a hardworking gardener keep her sanity.

I’ll start with the least expensive option— visual deterrents. Materials that reflect sunlight and move around in a breeze may create an illusion of fire and frighten a bird away. Aluminum pie pans strategically hung around the garden work accordingly. “Flash tape”, a long strip of coated metallic material, has been quite effective in my garden – even for cedar waxwings. It is unrolled and strung slightly twisted from one side of the garden to the other in several parallel rows, or dangled from branches. FEDCO and Johnny’s carries it (and most of the products mentioned in this article), though a thicker, more effective version is found online.

“Scare balloons,” faux owls, and other predator facsimiles may or may not work as well as the real thing, and should be moved around often for maximum effect.

Now – thunderous drum roll, please! There is a product on the market that uses explosions to deter birds. No kidding! If you (and your neighborhood) like loud noises and bright flashes, it might be perfect for you. This thing-that-goes-boom attaches to a propane tank and intermittently blasts off at random, unpredictable intervals, terrifying every living creature in its vicinity. Let me know how it works for you.

Since birds such as cedar waxwings are bold and descend upon the berry patch in groups of several birds, they are especially difficult to control. And, no, you can’t just wait there for them with a .22, since songbirds are protected species. As annoying as it sounds, you actually have to place a barrier between the berries and the birds. Behold the bird netting! If you have just a few plants, it shouldn’t be a great big deal. More than a few, however, and it could become expensive. Just remember, though, that this might be the most effective method.

Another way to keep birds out of the berry patch includes planting native trees and shrubs that they prefer away from the garden. The idea is that they will be attracted to these instead of the garden, though I wonder if this will actually summon all the birds in the neighborhood to your spot. Serviceberries, as delicious as they are, can be especially problematic – as the cedar waxwings will decimate them before they’re even ripe and then move on to the berry patch. However, I’ve found that mulberry trees produce so many mulberries that there are usually enough to share.

Whatever deterrents are employed, it’s important to remember to use them before the berries begin to ripen. Once birds are established in the garden, they are harder to get rid of. If you need advice, the folks at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife are a good place to call.

However, we enjoy our berries, may they NOT be for the birds!

GARDEN WORKS: Ode to a woodchuck

Emily Catesby Emily Cates

I’ve got me a whistle pig, what should I do? Make him my friend, or put him in a stew? Groundhog. Woodchuck. Gopher. Whistle Pig. Who can deny the feelings of angst a gardener feels upon hearing these names or spotting one anywhere near the garden? Marmota monax – as it is properly known – is a common, mostly herbivorous large, brownish-gray rodent that burrows underground and has a reputation for devouring beloved garden plants (I like to use the name woodchuck derived from the Algonquian wuchak.)

Since woodchuck babies are sent out of the nest around early July to strike out on their own, encounters at this time are likely. This notorious character needs not a lengthy description: You’ll oftentimes see one standing in a field erect like a prairie dog, slinking across the tree line, or running when chased away. M. monax can even swim and climb trees if necessary. Potentially dangers when cornered, a woodchuck’s teeth and claws are not particularly pleasant to tangle with. Also, their burrows are claimed to be destructive to farm equipment, livestock and foundations. Also, they can become infected with and transmit rabies. However, I am compelled to come to their defense! Several years ago I wrote a column about this critter, and I must confess that since then I have gained more experience and a change of attitude towards them. While I have accepted the possibility of individual woodchucks in certain situations can develop bad habits and appetites for our gardens, I am not convinced that all of them deserve to be on our most wanted list. This article was written for and dedicated to the understanding of these creatures. If you’re curious as to why I would even think about defending the reputation of a woodchuck, then read on to find out.

First of all, please allow me to explain how I developed sentimental feelings toward woodchucks. (Insert derisive laughter, snickers and sneers.) I should tell you that I currently have two woodchucks near my garden area. One lives out back of my home in a retaining wall (Phil) and the other (Phyllis) at a tree line near a mowed area that borders part of the garden.

Phil – the one out back – is easy to watch through my windows. The birds let me know when he’s out and about, and it’s fun to spy on him as he gorges himself on Queen Anne’s Lace. Afterwards, he plops himself down on the retaining wall and sprawls about in the shade. I have yet to see him venture into the garden.

Phyllis oftentimes comes out of her hiding places and watches me as I weed the garden. While she seems to enjoy mostly clovers and grasses in the mowed area, I will occasionally catch her nibbling lamb’s quarters and pigweed in the garden. She hasn’t yet decimated anything of value, though I have seen one bite taken from squash leaves, and a dozen or so stalks of winter rye were found shredded. My tomatoes have begun fruiting, but she leaves them, the melons, garlic, onions, carrots, cabbages, potatoes, peppers and the fruiting shrubs and trees alone. Surprisingly, she hasn’t touched the peas. What will she do when my beans are in flower? I often wonder if it would be different if my garden was perfectly weeded – if she, for lack of choice, would be eating garden goodies instead? My hunch is that a lot of problems with woodchucks are the result of a lack of sufficient wild foods for them to consume, and then they develop a taste for garden goodies. Does the lawn need to be flawlessly mowed and the garden perfectly weeded? I should also mention that woodchucks will occasionally dine on slugs, snails, grasshoppers, and other small pests. This is only around one percent of their diet, but seeing how they need to eat one-third their body weight in vegetation every day – this could become significant.

Another factor to look at is the sonic critter chaser I installed a couple of weeks ago in the back corner of the garden. This year the deer have made an appearance despite my efforts with fencing. The critter chaser emits a flashing light and an annoying noise in the range of hearing of animals such as deer. I think it works, so far so good. (I wonder if deer damage is mistaken for woodchuck destruction?) Since my device has a setting for small animals as well, I could set it to repel woodchucks if I saw damage directly attributed to them.

Because the woodchucks at my place are used to my presence and I am aware of their habits and nesting areas, it would be fairly easy for me to construct plans to get rid of them if needed. While doing research, I happened upon some options that might interest you if you have problems with woodchucks.

The hint I most wanted to share involves dumping used kitty litter and mixing it into the soil around the entrances to woodchuck burrows. (If someone did that to my home, I’d want to move out, too!) The only problem with this method is the possibility that the critter will move on and become someone else’s problem – unless, of course, there is plenty of habitat and an abundance of predators to keep things in check. Foxes, coyotes, raccoons and hawks all prey on woodchucks. Dogs are especially good at keeping them away, but there is the danger of a beloved pet being injured or contracting rabies from woodchucks. Another option involves enhanced fencing. In an area where there is plenty of forage for woodchucks, a regular welded wire fence or something similar over three feet tall might be sufficient; however, if the varmints are determined, the fence can be buried a foot into the ground, turned out in an L-shape. Also, two strands of electric fence – one four inches near the ground, the other six to eight inches above the ground are effective not only for woodchucks, but for raccoons and deer as well.

I will admit that I am still on the fence regarding whether woodchucks are friends or foes for a garden. And perhaps as we get closer to autumn their appetites will pick up and I will regret defending them. But, for now Phil and Phyllis are fascinating to watch. If they’re not bothering anything, then why not preserve them and enjoy their antics?

GARDEN WORKS: It’s planting time! Helpful hints to get your garden growing

photo by Emily Cates

Emily Catesby Emily Cates

Finally, after what seems like forever, the soil in the garden is ready to plant what we’ve all been waiting for: tasty tomatoes, sumptuous squashes, wonderful melons, among many more. After a tough winter and tardy spring, we’re going to make up for lost time. To get things growing, we have a few tricks up our sleeve. This time we’ll look at planting strategies and growth promoters.

This year’s planting season is definitely behind schedule by a couple weeks or so. But don’t despair, it should all catch up just fine with the right care. Early plantings, unless covered somehow with a hoop house or cold frame, won’t grow much faster than if they were planted when the soil warms up. So no worries for slacking this time.

However, I would certainly recommend planting long season, commonly direct-seeded veggies like corn, squash, beans, melons, pumpkins, and gourds right away. We definitely want them to have enough time to mature before our first frost in the fall. Tomato, pepper, eggplant, and others that are planted as seedlings will also appreciate being set out ASAP.

Cool-weather crops that are direct-seeded like peas and spinach have probably missed the boat as far as spring sowing goes, but will be happy to get a second chance to be planted in about a month for a fall harvest. Lettuce and salad greens like to chill in the shady part of the garden when summertime sizzles.

Black plastic mulch speeds up the growth of heat-loving plants and keeps weeds at bay. Also, floating row covers provide an added layer of warmth and protect plants from pests, providing the cover is removed when needed during pollination.

Most important is a nice, rich, healthy soil with adequate nutrients for the plants to grow fast enough to catch up. Liquid fish and seaweed fertilizers can be applied as directed. Compost and aged manure are great mixed into the garden or top-dressed as needed. I’ve read a ratio of 1:10 organic matter to soil, but heck, that seems minimal to me and I just load it on with fine results. Squash especially grows like crazy when planted in a manure pile, and that’s just what I want. Now if the weeds weren’t as enthused.

GARDEN WORKS: Wake up sleepy head, maple sugar time is here

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 be 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 seven 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 – Distracted gardening: How to cope when you can’t tend to the garden


Emily Catesby Emily Cates

Dear readers and garden friends, I’m sure you’re wondering where I’ve been the past few months. Well, I’ve been caring for a family member with a prolonged illness. Truth be told, I haven’t had a chance to write until now. Anyone with their hands full understands it’s not always easy to garden (or write about gardening) when you’re busy!

However, I’ve had plenty of time to think about what to write, and this article is just about that – gardening on the go, when there’s not a lot of time and energy to do so. Let’s take a look at some helpful hints that can get us through the season when we’re unable to be there in the garden as much as we’d like to be. Among a few ideas we’ll explore are mulching, delegating, and preparing for next year.

First of all, always remember that Nature will go on regardless of what we are able to do ourselves. Many noteworthy gardens of times past have been abandoned and rediscovered. Most importantly, it helps to think of ourselves as part of a bigger picture. It’s the bigger picture that can help put things into perspective and not get discouraged.

Even if we don’t get a chance to do anything and the garden goes completely wild, what’s the worst that can happen? Look on the bright side: the land gets to rest. The soil will likely retain a measure of richness. Yes, weeds will grow and form offspring, but can always be removed at a later time. In many cases, the area could simply be mowed over, the soil underneath waiting patiently for future activities.

Countless times this season I’ve found it necessary to take deep breaths and to tell myself, “Begin again.” Remember you are in good company with others throughout all times and realms who could use encouragement. Don’t hesitate to accept assistance if someone offers to help! Oftentimes I’ve found the best memories I’ve had gardening were helping others with their gardens, or when they’ve helped me with mine. The fellowship in such a space outdoors can bring joy to all involved and make each day easier to deal with.

From a practical viewpoint, mulching is one of the best options to keep the soil workable when garden work is on pause. It’s what Nature does on its own, after all. This can be accomplished by living mulches – such as ground-covers and cover crops – or by adding layers of materials such as straw, plain newspaper, untreated cardboard, and the like. Tin roofing, old rugs, and garden fabrics do the job as well (albeit on the unsightly side). Either way, weeds are suppressed and the soil ready to be turned next time it is convenient.

Also, remember that a garden need not be exclusive. If we are unable to work in the garden, then perhaps we could share it with someone else who would also benefit from taking care of it, happy to maintain it and grow some veggies for us and themselves. And if it looks like our garden is a good candidate for becoming a legacy, then what better way than to pass this legacy along to a new generation? What better way to show gratitude to the land that sustains us than to keep it sustained?

Well, thanks for reading. I hope your season is as productive as possible, your harvest happy and abundant. Your feedback is certainly appreciated, so if you have any helpful ideas, hints, and even recipes, feel free to comment on our website or Facebook page – or send us a good old-fashioned letter!

GARDEN WORKS: Livestock and the Garden

How they can benefit each other

Emily Catesby Emily Cates

Usually when most folks think of animals in the garden, it worries them. After all, who wants their veggie patch trampled and eaten, with fresh poop in its place? While I would shudder to think of that as the outcome, it is possible for both garden and livestock to thrive with carefully managed inputs from each other. In this article, we will look at a few small-scale concepts for small animals, and explore the possibilities for anyone who desires to get the best from both worlds, animal and vegetable.

A few keys to this involve timing, choice of crops, choice of animals, appropriate fencing, and shelter. When these are combined in thoughtful proportions, it can be an important part of attaining a measure of sustainability. So to begin our short trip into the world of gardening with and for livestock, let’s look at what could grow well together. As you read this, try to spot the symbiotic cycles that are created- such as the chicken eats the corn, then the manure is used to grow the corn, which feeds the chicken- and so on.

The first example here might really surprise, delight, shock, or disgust you. I’ll mention it here to get it out of the way: Mealworms! Yes, these insects can be conveniently raised in a kitchen or a closet in a plastic set of drawers and fed flour or crushed-up cereal, with a slice of potato as a water source. Not only will poultry delight in eating them, but they are edible for people too and taste nutty and pleasant. As an added bonus, their frass (manure) can be mixed into potting soils or added to the garden as a soil amendment.

Next, we’ll look at birds. Poultry manure is strong stuff; when it’s time to shovel out the chicken coop, I try to make sure it’s mixed with bedding as I incorporate it into the soil, waiting a couple of weeks until planting. Alternatively, the careful use of a movable pen or “chicken tractor” moves the birds to a spot where the birds scratch around, eat weeds and seeds, and contribute their “deposits” to nourish the soil. For added nutrition in the birds’ diet, we could move them to a plot where we grew treats for them like greens, pumpkins, grains, and sunflowers.

Certain types of birds can be let out into a fenced-in garden area in the daytime and closed up safely in a shelter at night. Bantam (miniature) breeds don’t cause as much damage to growing plants in areas in which their presence is desired to control pests. Other birds — such as geese — have been traditionally used to weed unripe strawberries, then moved to another area once the berries are ripe. Orchards and permaculture in particular can benefit from this kind of setup. I’ve seen birds-especially ducks- quite happy when they were able to help themselves to garden leftovers and windfalls.

Rabbit manure is a fine soil amendment in convenient little “pellets.” Bunnies likewise adore (much to our chagrin) all sorts of garden veggies. As long as they are kept away from unintended consumption of the garden, they are an acceptable, adorable companion.

Pigs lend value to the preparation of a garden, though they are oftentimes difficult to contain (especially if they grow up into big pigs) and need sturdy enclosures. Their natural rooting instinct can be harvested and put to good use in tilling up an area or turning a compost pile. Drill some corn kernels into a compost pile and a piggy will happily do some digging to get the rewards. And, of course, they will squeal with delight when handed garden rejects and refuse.

What about goats? Yes, their manure has been responsible for earning a few blue ribbons. Yes, they are good at mowing the lawn in areas that the lawn mower refuses to go. Yes, they eat all those veggies that didn’t quite make the cut. Yes, yes, yes! But my eyes glaze over when I think of the trouble they’ve made throughout the years whenever they’ve escaped their assigned side of the yard, gone to places they weren’t welcome, crashed my garden parties, gnawing on every fruit tree and seedling in sight. I get it why people want goat milk, meat, and manure — I totally do!

And yet, I hesitate to recommend them unless they have either a person who can be their nanny at all daylight hours (unlikely), or a fenced in area they will never, never be able to escape. Or, the garden should be fenced-in accordingly. At any rate, when you get goats you do so at your own risk…don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Happy gardening everyone! I hope you’re all enjoying the summer harvest and all its pleasures. Oh, and if you would like more information about anything in this article and you have access to the Internet, check out a reliably-sourced video on YouTube. If you’d rather read a book, The Encyclopedia of Country Living by the late Carla Emery is one of the best.

GARDEN WORKS: 10 plants you never want in your garden space

Japanese Knotweed – one of ten plants you shouldn’t plant in your garden.

Emily Catesby Emily Cates

No! Don’t do it! If you’re thinking of planting any of the plants in this article in your garden, think again before you make a mistake.

Though it’s certainly a lovely time to be outdoors working in our gardens, our toils could increase a not-so-lovely hundredfold as a consequence of just one indiscretion. This article is meant to prevent that. Read on to examine just ten blunders an unwise gardener could commit.

10. American Plum (Prunus americana). This wonderful tree with delicious fruits will oftentimes freely sucker from its roots and form thickets with occasional thorns. Who wants that in their garden? Plant plums where they can be mowed around, easily pruned, and thoroughly enjoyed.

9. Autumn Olive (and possibly other Elaeagnus spp. including Russian Olive). Shrubs in this family are oftentimes highly-touted as soil-building and edible landscaping plants. However, some of them are also known to be invasive. Mowing around them is an ineffective means of keeping them in check, as birds and other wildlife love the fruit and will spread the seeds. Some sources claim invasiveness is not a problem with this plant in our area, though from observing colonies of Russian Olive nearby in Winslow and China, I have seen first-hand how they can definitely get out of control. If you must have the fruits, then- instead of planting – make friends with someone who already grows it who doesn’t mind sharing.

Chinese Lantern

8. Chinese Lantern (Physalis alkekengi). These cute ornamentals can really take over. No need to plant them; if you’re looking for a few to put in floral arrangements, enough folks have them around to find a bunch someone is willing to part with.

7. Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus). Don’t. Just don’t.

6. Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica). I grew up with a colony of this intriguing bamboo-like plant in my yard. Thankfully it was contained enough in an out-of-the way spot, but other neighbors were not so fortunate. The super-villain of invasives, I have yet to see it eradicated successfully. (Please let me know if you have!) Though, I might add, knotweed is also regarded as a super-hero by those suffering from Lyme disease who claim to benefit from its medicinal properties. And though this invasive oftentimes forms monocultures and crowds out native plants, at least I can say the “bamboo forest” was a lot of fun to play in as a kid!

5. Hops (Humulus lupulus). I made the mistake of planting this vigorous vine beloved by brewmasters and herbalists in a raised garden bed one year. It took several years thereafter of meticulously digging up each rhizome fragment to get rid of it. Hops is a great plant if given its own space with something to climb on – preferably away from the garden.

4. Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana). It’s one of those plants that is beloved in the kitchen, but hated in the garden. Coexistence is possible, but for best results, plant in an area you can mow around.

3. Comfrey (Symphytum officinale). First, the pros: The plants are full of soil-building nutrients and make some of the best compost tea around. Comfrey likewise makes a good companion plant for orchards. Depending on the cultivar, it is also highly esteemed by herbalists in first-aid salves used externally. However, one must be fully aware of the cons: Comfrey has a lurid reputation for being invasive. Keep it far away from the garden, keep it mowed, and keep it harvested before it goes to seed. And never till or chop the roots, lest it take over
the planet!

2. Nettle (Urtica dioica). I have a love-hate relationship with this plant. While I thoroughly enjoy highly nutritious steamed nettle greens in the springtime and making cordage with the stalk fibers, oh how it stings! No matter how hard I try (with garden gloves, mind you), I just can’t seem to get rid of it. In the meantime, I try to focus on all the good qualities of nettle, and then kick myself every time I brush up against it in the blueberry patch.

1. Blackberry (Rubus spp.). Okay, here’s Number One on my list! Go ahead. Call me a dummy. I deserve it because years ago I planted a row of blackberries in the middle of my garden. What was I thinking?! Now every year since, I have the added task of pulling out multitudes of thorny canes that refuse to go away and jab at me through sturdy work clothes. Thankfully a lot of them have worked their way over to a spot next to the garden where they are tolerated. The original plants and their progeny seem to have slowed down slightly in areas where I persistently attack them with loppers and mowers. But to this very day I regret even liking the taste of blackberries. Let this be a lesson to save others from such pain!

Thanks for reading. If you know of other plants you would like to add to the list, feel free to send a comment on our website or Facebook page. Until next time, happy gardening!

GARDEN WORKS: Is spring really here? Tips for a productive garden this time of year

Emily Catesby Emily Cates

Well, lookie here! Could it be? Why, yes, I think it is! Finally, the moment where I can actually go out to my garden and really feel like I can do something other than twiddle my green thumbs while looking at seed catalogs. The snow has melted in most parts of my lawn, and well-drained areas and raised beds are ready to be worked. And I figure it’s good to get going before the going gets good for the pesky black flies. I’m sure all of us who love to be outdoors can appreciate that, so let’s take a look at a few activities we can do to welcome Springtime. We’ll make sure the soil is ready to work with, and things we can do whether it is or not.

How do we know if the ground is ready to be worked? The soil should have the consistency of a wrung-out sponge when squeezed. If it forms a sticky ball, be patient and wait for the ground to dry out – or you’ll run the risk of damaging the soil structure.

Raised beds have a great advantage this time of year, as they are usually well-drained and ready to be worked before lower-lying areas of the garden. (I dug one up the other day and could’ve planted it if I had time!) I prefer to mulch my raised beds heavily if I get around to it in the fall so that when I dig them up in the spring, they are much easier to work. However, since mulch can hold in the cold, it might be a good idea to move it to the side in early spring until the soil has warmed, and then replace after the bed is planted.


The plots in my garden that I care for are dug exclusively by hand with a spading fork. Of course it would be easier to till with motorized equipment, but I do have weeds like quackgrass that spread by rhizomes.

To chop them into the soil would simply multiply them beyond my management capabilities – more work for me than just digging by hand and meticulously removing as many weeds and roots as I can while preparing a bed. I’ve found that over the years, I have less and less of a quackgrass problem when I carefully dig by hand and mulch – either with living mulches and cover crops such as oats – or straw, cardboard, old wood chips, or black plastic mulch. Now if only my aching back was as pristine….

The best plants for cold weather include kale, spinach, peas, carrots, leeks and other alliums. And don’t forget that trees, shrubs, and vines should be planted while they are still dormant – a ways before most garden plants are ready to plant. As soon as you can dig a hole, you can plant a tree! Don’t wait for it to warm up to do this if at all possible. (See details for the FEDCO Tree Sale below!)

Cold frames, hoop houses, high-tunnels, row covers, and similar items combined with cold-loving plants can really jump-start the season. Be sure to make good use of them if you have them handy.

Oftentimes there is no getting around areas that are slow to warm. North-facing places, especially, are the last to be ready for action. At times, this can cause considerable delay, though there might be a couple of things we can do. Some folks cover the area with a layer of clear plastic to help it heat up. Another possibility is container gardens: just fill large tubs with the planting mix of choice and go from there. Black containers will heat up their contents quicker.

If working the soil and planting is just not an option, it might be good to put some time into preparation, such as building up a compost pile and a mulch heap in a handy place near the garden. Stocking up on soil amendments is never a waste of time, as is clean-up of plant residues from the previous season. Without a doubt, we can find something to do!

Few things get me in the mood for Springtime more than the annual FEDCO Tree Sale. Located on the Hinckley Road, in Clinton, the sale runs Friday and Saturday, May 4 and 5. Be there if you can, you won’t regret checking out their vast assortment of everything you can imagine growing in your garden and the supplies to help you. It’s a lot of fun and a perfect trip to take with family and friends. See you there!

GARDEN WORKS: Gardening from an easy chair

Emily Catesby Emily Cates

Plan your dream garden while it snows

As I type this article, snow is gently and gracefully descending from the sky to my yard. I look out the window, captivated. It’s hard to be inspired to work in the garden when it’s snowing. However, there is a different – and some say as exciting – way to get your green thumb fix, all in the comfort and convenience of a cozy armchair. If snuggling up to a seed catalog comes to mind, then we’re on the same page. What other publications evoke such passion and nostalgia?

Our mailboxes and the cyber world are filled with all kinds of catalogs this time of year, begging for our attention. The glossies have their impossibly perfect pictures of flawless specimens, raising our hopes sky high that our gardens will likewise produce such beauties. One catalog offers what seems an unbelievable deal and another has a coupon for a specified amount of “free” merchandise (or shipping) if the cost of your order reaches a certain total. Another catalog claims unmatched quality and another has varieties that are “exclusive.” And yet another catalog is brimming with full-color photos of rare and endangered varieties that are so unusual you would wonder what planet they were from.

So many choices! So much hype! How can a practical-minded gardener keep it simple and affordable, yet remarkable and pleasant? Here are some hints, I hope they help:

First, I should mention that the best seeds are likely the ones you or your friends and neighbors lovingly saved from last year and thoughtfully maintained. However, when purchased seeds from a catalog are desirable, check the reviews for the seed company. Dave’s Garden and other online forums are oftentimes helpful to sift out the “bad seeds.” Also, make sure their offerings will grow in our cold northern climate. (Some companies actually grow their crops in warmer locations, yet market those varieties as being suitable for northern growers.)

Usually it is possible to tell if they are a “seedy” enterprise or not, especially when their catalog is honest in its descriptions as opposed to inflated hyperbole. Be realistic! A good rule of thumb is to order from a catalog where the seeds were grown in Maine or another location similar to ours. I have always had good results doing business with Maine companies such as Fedco, Johnny’s and Pinetree. Give these guys a try; each is a unique, high-quality seed company that has never disappointed me. All of them offer valuable heirlooms for small gardens as well as worthy commercial varieties for markets. Look for early bird specials, consider group ordering possibilities, and save on shipping by picking up your order whenever practical.

If you are looking for something truly unique that cannot be found anywhere else, read the descriptions carefully. Pay attention to the days to maturity and growing zones. Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company and Sand Hill Preservation Center are both seed companies I would highly recommend for rare and heirloom varieties. Also check out the Seed Savers Exchange and Territorial Seed Co if you are interested in something different. Happy seed-searching!