GARDEN WORKS: Winding Down – Making it count at the season’s end


by Emily Cates

The end is near – of the gardening season! The vines have shriveled, the leaves have fallen, and the grass is turning brown. Though the scene outside may have begun to look rather apocalyptic, for many gardeners there are still many activities that can be done before the snow flies and the ground freezes. Let’s take a look at a few of them, including garden clean-up, preparation for next year, and selective and strategic plantings. Since it’s actually an ideal time of year without bugs and blazing heat and humidity, let’s get to it and enjoy the outdoors.

First things first! Rule Number One at the season’s end is to clean up all debris from spent plants. That way, pests and diseases won’t have a hiding place to overwinter and an encore performance. I prefer to be as thorough as possible, sending the remains to a burn pile. Some folks like to turn poultry out to the garden at this time to help with the clean-up and to leave their own “deposits.”

With plants and weeds cleared away, I like to dig up the garden with a spading fork, paying extra attention to grubbing out unwanted roots and rhizomes. While we’re at it, why not add some organic matter? It might be a good time to clean out the coop, hutch, shed, or stable and incorporate the manure and bedding into the garden. Other amendments, such as Azomite and other supplements for the soil, can be mixed in as directed. A nice, thick mulch will keep these valuable materials from getting washed out, and will facilitate easy garden care in the springtime.

At this point, we could put the garden to bed; or, if we’d like to plant garlic – hold off on mulching until garlic is planted. Also, it’s a great time of year to plant trees! As long as there is adequate moisture in the soil from planting time until the freeze, a tree, shrub, or vine should do just fine and won’t normally need to be watered extra in the spring. Go ahead and move, transplant, plant – whatever – and make sure it get’s plenty of water.

Speaking of trees, it’s a good idea to label them and wrap their trunks to the snowline with a tree guard. (I prefer tin foil! So inexpensive, useful, and recycle-able!)

It’s the end of the gardening season for sure, but for the wise and savvy gardener, it’s just the beginning of activities and refreshing times outdoors!

GARDEN WORKS: Stampede of fun – Stomping grape juice the old-fashioned way


by Emily Cates

My eyes dart back and forth between another tub of apples waiting to be made into sauce and a shimmering colander of freshly-picked grapes. “What shall I do?” I wonder as I try hard to figure out what to do with my precious few moments of spare time. As I picture in my mind the other day when my neighbors and I got together for a grape-stomping party and how much fun it was for the kids to stomp around on the grapes to make juice, the grapes won out and the rest of my day’s activities were set.

Making grape juice is refreshingly simple and an exciting departure from the occasional drudgery that can accompany preserving jar after jar of produce in the autumn-time kitchen. From there, the juice can be enjoyed right away, left a couple days to develop effervescence, or aged further into wine or vinegar. (I’ll leave it to you to determine how you wish to proceed.) For now, though, let’s look at the joyous occasion of extracting the juice the way it has been done for ages. From the vine to the press, we’ll see how to handle grapes in a way that will produce some of the yummiest juice in all the land.

The first thing we could do, if we’re up for it, is to invite friends for a stomping party. If pressed for time, we could have the grapes already harvested; if there is time, let’s invite friends to help us harvest and hand them an extra pair of pruners. It can be a lot of fun that way, especially for kids who can see where the scrumptious juice comes from and who have a part in its production. (Of course, juice-making can be a relaxing solo endeavor as well, though I really enjoy watching the expressions people make when they smoosh grapes between their toes!)

How the fruits are harvested makes a huge contribution to the quality of the juice. I personally use whatever variety is ripe, sometimes blending different varieties to taste. Since I never bother to spray my grapes with pesticides or anything, I occasionally do find “organic” things on them we would not want to eat.

Spiders, especially, seem to enjoy spinning webs on or near grapes. Yellow jackets and ants will clue me in on to deliciously ripe fruits by their presence. And where individual grapes grow touching each other, there is a greater chance of something taking up residence in this area. With all this in mind, while harvesting, before the clusters are placed into the basket, make sure to carefully inspect each individual grape and toss any that are substandard.

Unripe, overripe, diseased and insect-ridden fruits should be discarded – preferably into a container, and tossed away from the vines for the chickens or compost pile. If the grapes are thoroughly picked over and rinsed clean, they should be in beautiful shape when ready to press.

At pressing time, place cleaned grapes into a sturdy colander set into a stock pot or something similar that is not iron, aluminum, or Teflon-coated cookware – always keeping in mind this could make a mess! Whoever stomps on the grapes must have impeccably clean feet. (While we’re at it, let’s sing/dance/ make up songs about juice-pressing!) The juice is then strained through a sieve and poured into clean glass containers of choice. Make sure everyone has a taste! Ahhh….delectable! Now you have participated in an activity that has delighted mankind from the ages of long ago.

GARDEN WORKS: ‘Tis the season for applesauce

As the cool nights awaken to crisp, breezy days, the smell of cooking applesauce fills the kitchen. That’s what this article is about, making applesauce! Many thanks to Roberta Bailey for teaching me how a while ago. I’ll share with you all a few hints if you’d like:

There’s no fancy recipe or anything. Simply use apples that are good enough on their own. I forgo adding sugar or spices, as I’m interested in the unique flavors of the fruits — especially if these flavors are particularly suit-able for sauce. (The sauce can always be doctored up later if need be.)

When I have a large quantity of apples, I tend to be particular and choose the ones that are ripe and in good shape; these are the ones that make superior sauce.

Of course, some varieties are better than others for sauce. An old tree in my backyard makes the best single-variety for canned applesauce I’ve ever tried. No one seems to know it’s name, and I call it “Dutton Gold.” While any old apple presumably could be used- the ones that cook up creamy, with the right balance of sweetness and tartness, and a hint of spice – are guaranteed to please. If you have access to the varieties Black Oxford, Cortland, Gravenstein, Northern Spy, Roxbury Russet, Sweet 16, Tolman Sweet, Wealthy or Wolf River, then by all means, make good use of them!

Drops are fine for sauce as long as they are washed well and used up quickly – preferably the day they are gathered. Some trees have the habit of dropping apples as they ripen, others drop because they are bad. I won’t pass up a good apple because of a bruise or wormhole, but I’ll make sure to inspect carefully and trim out any bad spots, staying clear of apple mold.

The advantages of tree-picked fruits are that they’re usually better than drops cosmetically and have a much wider window of storage and processing opportunities. If you’d like to make applesauce right away, then use tree-ripened (as opposed to storage) apples. Storage varieties improve their flavor while in storage, so if you prefer, you can make good apple-sauce from these in the off sea-son. Also, instead of going through the time and energy-intensive activities of canning a large amount of sauce, you could just take out a small amount of stored apples and cook up enough applesauce for a meal or two.

Depending on what’s on hand, I’ll make either a single variety or mixed sauce. I simply scrub and rinse the apples, slice them off the cores, and place them into a saucepan. To really jazz it up you can add elderberries, aronia, or other brightly-colored berries for visual appeal. I pour in just a sufficient amount of filtered water to keep them from scorching, then cook on medium until tender enough to run through a food mill or Foley. Usually I will run the pulp through a few times to really wring it out. Then I’ll heat it up again if needed and into the jars and water bath it goes for 20 minutes. That’s it!

GARDEN WORKS: Plum yummy! Delightful plums to grow and enjoy


by Emily Cates

What a busy time of year, plum full of chores to finish and fruits to process! Whilst hauling a cartload of garlic plants from one corner of the yard to the place where I clean and prepare them for curing, I happened to walk by the plum patch. Then and there my nose was greeted with the delightful aroma of ripening plums. Visions of plum cobblers danced in my head! Yes, I thought, I will pick these as soon as I bunch the garlic….. (which, by the way, I didn’t finish until 2 a.m.). Thankfully, when I was finally able to get out there and pick the plums, many were just right for harvesting. I was able to pick enough Purple Hearts and Cochecos to share at a family reunion and make a cobbler or two.

In fact, as I type, I am finishing a snack of plum cobbler with banana custard, trying with all my might not to besmirch the keyboard with a sticky, gooey, yummy mess. So with the lingering perfume in my yard and the delightful flavor on my palate, I am compelled to extol the virtues of this wonderful fruit in this article. We’ll look at what types of plums are most suitable for growing in our area, cultivation tips, and personal favorites. If you like plums, this is the article for you!

Plums, known as Prunus sp., are divided into several groups, among them are: American Plum – P. americana, P. nigra, P. besseyi, and P. maritima; Asian Plum – P. salicina; European Plum – P. domestica. Hybrids of American and Asian plums are commonly offered in the nursery trade as well. If you plan on growing plums, remember that they generally need to be pollinated by an adjacent plum tree from same compatible group with an overlapping bloom time. European plums are oftentimes self-fertile and are unable to pollinate or hybridize with American or Asian plums or their hybrids. So if you only have room for one tree, consider planting a European plum. Conversely, if space is not an issue, American, Asian, or hybrid plums are a great option. Remember, too, that more than one variety of plum of the same group can grow on a tree if it’s grafted! European plums take several years to bear and are oftentimes larger trees, while the others can bear sooner and are mostly smaller, more compact trees.

American, Asian, and Hybrid plums (Group A) appreciate full sun, well-drained soil, and a site where late-spring frosts are avoided. They generally are cold-hardier than European plums (Group B) – which are more tolerant of heavier soils. Group A plums have tendencies toward suckering like crazy and forming thickets, while Group B plums tend to grow as a single tree. Though not always the case, Group A can be susceptible to a disease called brown rot, and Group B is more likely to have problems with black knot. Make sure to prune off and burn any branches with abnormalities, especially if you spot something that looks like a dog pooped in your tree (black knot). Good airflow and sun exposure can do much to keep a plum tree healthy. Other than a yearly late-winter pruning, an application of slow-release azomite and a nice mulch, plum trees are relatively easy to care for if you keep ahead of their diseases. Resistant varieties might be a good choice for areas where plum pestilences are common.

I never spray my plums and always have enough to share. Some folks have problems with the plum curculio and apply Surround, a spray made from clay. The Fedco Trees catalog (in which you’ll find most of the trees mentioned in this article) suggests planting garlic in the plum patch. Chickens are said to be good predators for these pesky bugs, and cardboard laid on the ground under the tree smothers the curculio pupae. Japanese beetles can be a problem for time to time, though the trees will recover. If you’re worried, shake them off the tree into a bucket of soapy water. Yellow jackets will appear as the fruits ripen to perfection, and they seem busiest in the morning and on sunny days. You might beat them to the plums on a windy, rainy, cloudy day, or at sundown.

Now for my favorite part of this article! Really, the best way to find out if you like the taste of a plum is to try it. Right now the Purple Heart, Cocheco, and Black Ice plums are ripe. These are my favorites from Group A, simply because they are early and delicious. Purple Heart is hands down my favorite, is possibly the best plum in the world, and probably would be yours, too. No other plum compares with such an intense, spicy explosion of fragrance and flavor. The tree is susceptible to black knot, occasionally will get a bout of brown rot, and has an odd tendency to grow a curve in it’s trunk. I can certainly overlook these issues in favor of those fabulous purple, medium-large sized heart-shaped fruits that are delightful however you eat them- whether fresh or in desserts and sauce. Cocheco is the most beautiful plum tree I’ve seen- with red leaves, bark, and fruit. The upright-growing tree is healthy and vigorous. The soft, sweet medium-small round plums fade from red to an orangey-pink when ripe. They are delicious fresh. Black Ice is a wonderful, unique, large, round, dark purple plum with a scrumptiously sweet and mild flavor that is wonderful eaten on the spot. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever tried them cooked because they simply do not make it to my kitchen! Other delectable plums from Group A include LaCrescent, Pembina, Superior, Tecumseh, and Underwood.

Of the Group B plums, Stanley – a large blue European oblong sweet plum- is among the best flavored of the prune types; It’s great fresh, dried, and in desserts and sauces. The “Gage” – type plums, such as Golden Transparent and Green Gage, are small, round, candy-sweet and wonderful.

Wild and seedling plums – though usually inferior in qualities than named varieties, make delicious sauce when fully ripe. They’re great when you’re feeling a bit on the wild side. I double dare you to try them!

Well, I better get back to the garden. Until next time, enjoy the dog days of August and all the delightful fruits and veggies that are ready to be savored right now.

GARDEN WORKS: Could this be an answer to a free, locally-available source of nutrients for your garden?


by Emily Cates

Every now and then a reader makes a suggestion for these garden articles, and I always welcome ideas and discussion- even criticism. The other day, though, someone brought something to my attention that I believe we should look closely at and really consider. If anything, I think we should at least start a conversation about it, as there is a great possibility to positively impact our local community.

The “free” mulch placed between rows in Ann Austin’s garden. Photo courtesy of Emily Cates

So, I was talking with Ann Austin the other day. She and her son Eric live on China Lake and take frequent walks on the causeway. They were walking and talking and had a realization while looking at the shoreline: As one examines that end of the lake, it is apparent that there is an excess of organic matter that washes up on the beach over by the Landing and northeast shore. It is a beautiful beach in a prime location, though marred by the buildup. “Could we”, thought Ann, “turn this unsightly mess into something useful?” After all, she has personally seen the benefits when this organic matter washes up on her property and she rakes it up and uses it as a mulch and soil amendment. “The best part,” she adds, “is that it’s free and there is no worry of adding weed seeds to the garden.” I have seen her gardens and concur that they are thriving and beautiful, with minimal weeds. See for yourself in the pictures in this article!

The benefits of using fresh-water seaweeds in the garden and compost pile have been known anecdotally to gardeners for ages, though researchers have recently begun to study them more closely. In addition to being a good source of nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus and minerals, fresh-water weeds and algae can be applied without the danger of excess salt, like what is found in ocean plants such as kelp. Since the freshwater seaweeds live in the water, there are no terrestrial weed seeds that will grow in a garden. Some lakes and ponds that are overrun with invasive or excessive aquatic plants are weeded mechanically, and as long as these plants are applied on soil well away from water bodies, they can be a great asset to building the soil. (Even pond scum from that mosquito-infested swamp in your backyard could theoretically be worth it’s weight in a bag of fertilizer from the garden store- if you’re adventurous!) Need convincing? Check out this link about using freshwater seaweeds: and pond scum:

If you live within sight of China lake, there is a good chance you pass by this potential resource for your garden every day. I know I have, and the thought of driving several miles in the opposite direction to haul a load of manure while this local supply of nutrients sits untapped seems silly to me. It’s no secret that China Lake- like many others with agricultural activities near their watersheds- has an excess of nutrients as a result of runoff. Why not recycle these nutrients as they manifest themselves in the organic matter of aquatic plants?

Some of the many healthy plants in Ann Austin’s garden. Photo courtesy of Emily Cates

I have observed that the area by The Landing is cleaned annually and the municipal workers haul off the debris. Of course their efforts are appreciated and I think they do a good job, but I also notice that the problem persists into other times of the year — especially when gardens are ready for mulching and amendments. Could gardeners load themselves up with a few buckets or so of the stuff? I’m not talking about dump truck loads, just enough for the average resident’s garden and flower beds.

On the other hand, I do have some questions that I am hoping will contribute to a meaningful community discussion. First of all, what’s in the stuff? Surely it’s loaded with nutrients, but what else? I would appreciate an in-depth analysis of the material to ensure there are not elevated levels of harmful substances that are included in what runs off into the lake- such as heavy metals, pesticides, petroleum products, sewage, pharmaceuticals, and even radioactive “hot particles”. These contaminants are persistent in our environment, and most do not normally break down in the average compost pile. Since many folks and myself are conscientious of what we put in our bodies, certainly the sentiment would ring true in our gardens as well.

Secondly, is it legal to harvest the organic matter? If so, how much is permissible to collect? At what times would gathering it be preferred? Perhaps this activity could take place in a time and manner that would not adversely affect local businesses, The Landing in particular.

Lastly, and most importantly, what is the ecological impact? Old-timers reminisce how this area of the lake was once clear and the preferred place for swimmers, but claim the current problem began when Rte. 137 was built through the wetland to bypass the village. Would regular harvesting and utilization of the buildup prove beneficial? Would it improve the quality of the water and aesthetics of the lake? Or would it have unanticipated consequences? Since I do not have the answers to these questions, I am calling on everyone with notions on how to improve our community to please contribute to this discussion if you can.

In conclusion, I’ll let us reflect on these thoughts: Could we solve our problem of a beach with an unattractive attribute and make it into something useful and pleasant? Ideally, we could envision a cleaner, more appealing causeway and shorelines that could be enjoyed to their full potential, along with our surrounding community filled with vibrant, beautiful gardens.

GARDEN WORKS: 10 plants you should be growing in your garden (part 2)


by Emily Cates

Click here to read part 1!

Part 2 of 2

Okra. Artichokes. Celery. Squash. Melons. How do these wonderful words make you feel? Do you imagine yourself with a scrumptious bowl of gumbo, a savory dip, a crunchy snack, a versatile side dish, or an ambrosial dessert? All of these mouth-watering dishes can be made from ingredients grown in your very own garden. With a little care, these veggies can bring much delight to your dinner table. In this article, we will conclude our short series on warm-weather plants that would be happy to grow in the garden now, looking at a few helpful hints and suggested varieties mentioned at the intro.

Let’s start off by taking a peek at okra. These good-looking plants with their lovely flowers are reminiscent of hollyhocks, rose-of-Sharon, mallow, and hibiscus. Some varieties are knee-high, while others reach a few feet higher toward the sky. They are cultivated for their cowhorn-shaped green seed pods which are harvested when about thumb-sized. These pods cook up slimy, but are beloved by many folks as the ingredient that makes legendary soups, and for their high nutrient content. Okra likes hot weather, moisture, plenty of room (planted 2′ or so between plants), and a loamy, weed-free soil with well-rotted manure mixed in. Named cultivars worth trying include ‘Clemson Spineless,’ ‘Star of David,’ and ‘Red Burgundy’- which sports beautiful red-hued pods. Start indoors in peat pots and set out four to five weeks later, after all danger of frost has passed – or direct seed into warm soil.

Artichokes are actually a kind of thistle whose unopened flower buds are harvested and prepared as food. Their cultivation results in a tasty treat for the veggie connoisseur. If you’re new to them and wonder how to prepare, cook, and eat them, here’s a helpful link:

Since they can be tricky to germinate, I would recommend finding a preferred source of transplants. Set out into IRT black plastic into good soil, feed heavily, and keep watered but not waterlogged. Provide lots of space, about 10sq. ft. per plant. Harvest before buds begin to open, and enjoy!

Celery is a plant that rewards the patient gardener with crisp, delightfully-flavored stalks. Some forms – such as celeriac, are grown for their fleshy root that is a European favorite in stews – and cutting celery for its bold-flavored leaves. Even the seeds are used to flavor savory dishes, especially in Eastern cuisines. Celery plants are slow to mature and might need a little extra care, but are worth growing. Start indoors in March and set outside when apple blossoms fall from the tree. Grow in rich soil, and be sure not to let the plants dry out at all at any time. Light autumn frosts are tolerated, but not any colder than that. Celery grown for its stalk will benefit from being blanched- that is, having something like plain cardboard wrapped and gently secured around the plant to keep it light-colored and mild-flavored. Look for the varieties ‘Brillant’ (celeriac), ‘Diamante’ (celeriac), ‘Par-Cel’ (cutting) and ‘Giant Red’ (a beautiful red-colored celery).

Squash, along with corn and beans, is an integral part of the “Three Sisters,” an essential trio of crops that sustained indigenous peoples in the Americas for centuries. They are highly variable and extend the whole rainbow of colors, shapes, sizes, and flavors. Some squash are completely boring, bland, and tasteless, while others are absolutely exciting, flavorful, and delicious. Grow the right ones in the right spot, and you will never forget their potential. Pumpkins, which are in essence the same as squash, are primarily grown as ornamentals and for livestock fodder in many places. However, a few pumpkin varieties make some of the best pies and pickles in all the land, and others are grown for their hull-less “naked” seeds that are delicious as a snack. Squash and pumpkins are heavy feeders and will grow very happily on a manure or compost pile. Bush types can be grown in relatively small spaces, while varieties with long, rambling vines will reach from one end of the yard to the other, and even climb trees!

They love warm weather and can be started a week or two early and set out before the second set of true leaves have appeared (be careful not to disturb the roots), or direct-seeded into warm soil. There are so many varieties to choose from, a delightful dilemma indeed. They range from delectably sweet hubbard, buttercup, and butternut varieties to more mildly-flavored summer squash and zucchini. Cultivars of note are: ‘Gele Reuzen'(pickling, possibly the same as ‘Jaune Gros de Paris’), ‘Burpee’s Butterbush’ (butternut for small spaces), Sweet Mama’ (buttercup), ‘Sweet Dumpling’ (my favorite!), ‘Zeppelin Delicata’ (another favorite!), ‘Carnival’ (beautiful, delicious acorn type), ‘Blue Hubbard’ (sweet and large), ‘Styrian'(naked seeds), ‘Long Pie Pumpkin’ (the best pies), ‘Dill’s Atlantic Giant'(giant pumpkin!), ‘Spaghetti'(spaghetti squash), ‘Benning’s Green Tint Patty Pan’ (unique scalloped good-tasting summer squash), and ‘Costata Romanesca’ (heirloom delectable large zucchini).

We’ll conclude this article by focusing on melons, ambrosia on a vine. Whether we’re growing the honeydew, cantaloupe, or other types like these, or the familiar watermelon or unfamiliar citron melon, they will all cause applause if they are a success. What else can we grow that makes us sit starry-eyed in the garden in the hot part of the day, stuffing our faces with sweet, juicy, refreshing fruits, with no regard for the juice running down our chins and onto our shirts?

Personally, I believe melons are one of the yummiest fruits you can grow. Give them full sun and similar soil as you would squash, but grow them in black plastic IRT mulch under agricultural fabric row covers to enhance success. The IRT mulch will provide additional heat units, and the row cover will protect against cucumber beetles and other pests – just be sure to uncover the plants during pollination. Like squash, they can be started early in peat pots to get a jump on the season, though direct-seeding is fine if the soil is warm. Here’s a few cultivars to look for: ‘Hannah’s Choice’ (muskmelon), ‘Golden Gopher’ (open-pollinated muskmelon), ‘Blacktail Mountain’ (watermelon for short seasons), ‘Cream of Saskatchewan’ (small fruits, cream-colored incredibly delicious flesh, thin rind, my favorite watermelon!), ‘Moon and Stars’ (unique spotted watermelon), ‘Orangeglo’ (orange-fleshed watermelon), ‘Peace’ (yellow-fleshed watermelon), ‘Sorbet Swirl’ (multicolor-fleshed watermelon), ‘Sugar Baby’ (old reliable standby, icebox-type watermelon). Citron melon is a kind of watermelon that is not sweet and is used to make candied citron. It is fairly uncommon, but you can find seeds and a recipe in the Sand Hill Preservation catalog.

Actually, most of the seeds mentioned in this article can be found there, or check out FEDCO, Johnny’s, Pinetree, Baker Creek, Territorial, or other seed companies that offer seeds for our climate. Happy planting, enjoy your garden!

GARDEN WORKS: 10 plants you should be growing in your garden right now, Pt 1


by Emily Cates

Part 1 of 2

For as long as there have been people who gardened in a climate such as ours here in Maine, the frost-free season has been eagerly anticipated. Much joy and excitement prevails when the ground is ready to plant heat-loving garden plants. Usually the date for all this falls upon or around Memorial Day. With that a few days behind us, let’s look at some warm-weather plants that would be happy to be planted anytime now. In this article we’ll include corn, beans, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. Next time we’ll discuss okra, artichokes, celery, melons and squash. In each article, we’ll also examine a few tips on growing them and making the most of our efforts.

Corn, a traditional provision of the Americas from ancient times, finds its way to our table in many forms, such as popcorn, cornmeal, sweet corn, baby corn, grits, hominy, and ornamental “Indian” corn. A large percentage of corn grown worldwide is actually cultivated as animal feed. The rest of the crop comes in an infinite variety of color patterns and flavors.

Most of us are acquainted with yellow or cream colored corn, but it is exciting to harvest brightly-colored ears of multicolored corn varieties. My favorite ornamental strain is ‘Earth Tones’ dent, and if you get a chance to see it, you might concur. Popcorn, which is a variety of corn that pops when dried and cooked due to the shape of the kernels, is delicious when homegrown. Look for a popcorn with the name of ‘Pennsylvania Dutch Butter Flavored’, which is so yummy when popped up on its own without adding anything else for flavor. The variety ‘Dakota Black’ is pretty good too, and ‘Calico’ is an ornamental popcorn.

If you’re looking to grow corn for cornmeal, try ‘Painted Mountain’, ‘Abenaki Calais Flint,’ or ‘Hopi Blue’. Grow ‘Japanese Hulless’ for baby corn when immature and popcorn when mature. Interested in a sweet corn that has that old-fashioned flavor without being too sweet? Try ‘Golden Bantam.’ ‘Country Gentleman’ is a good old-timey corn that is unique as it has no rows and the kernels are arranged in a zigzag, shoe peg pattern. Corn is a heavy feeder that likes full sun, and pollinates best when planted in row blocks rather than a single row. It cross-pollinates with other varieties- even from miles away- and the resulting ears will show the results of this; so keep in mind if planting near other corns pollinating at the same time.

Beans are a versatile addition to a garden. Being a legume, they fix nitrogen for the soil, as well as providing a green vegetable, shell beans, and dry beans for soups and such. Like corn, they come in a dazzling array of colors and forms. Green beans need not be green at all! ‘Dragon’s Tongue’ has cream-colored pods with purple stripes. ‘Royal Burgundy’ has striking purple pods, as does ‘Velour,’ which is a haricots vert type. ‘Red Noodle Yard Long’s impressive thin burgundy pods grow over 15 inches long and the rambling vines require something to climb on. Actually, varieties of beans called ‘”pole beans” are thought to be better tasting than bush beans. Grow them on poles, “tipis,” or a trellis of some sort. Recommended are ‘Northeaster’, ‘True Red Cranberry pole’, ‘Golden Gate,’ ‘Kentucky Wonder,’ ‘Christmas Lima,’ and ‘Purple Podded.’ ‘Scarlet ‘Runner’ is a type of vining ornamental bean with pretty red flowers and big, beautiful black and pink bean seeds that look almost spray-painted. Dry beans of every shape, size, and colors imaginable are also available. Look for ‘Tiger Eye,’ ‘Appaloosa,’ ‘Jacob’s Cattle,’ ‘Drabo,’ ‘Ireland Creek Annie,’ and ‘Calypso.’ Beans have moderate nutrient needs, and excessively rich soil will produce excessive vegetation. Stay out of the bean patch when it’s wet, as they can be susceptible to diseases. Plant with summer savory to improve bean growth.

Tomatoes are perhaps one of the most beloved garden vegetables. Once thought to be poisonous, they delight many gardeners today with a rainbow assortment and exquisite flavors. Really, I could devote a whole article on tomatoes, but I will restrain myself from doing so this time! I shamelessly grew and tried literally hundreds of different named varieties to find the best ones, and I’ll share with you some of my favorites: ‘Lillian’s Yellow Heirloom,’ ‘Cosmonaut Volkov'(red slicer), ‘Aunt Ruby’s German Green,’ ‘Amish Paste,’ ‘Yellow Pear,’ ‘Pink Brandywine,’ ‘Sungold,” Black Cherry,’ ‘Heart of Compassion,’ ‘Federle'(paste), ‘Opalka'(paste) ‘Cherokee Purple,’ and ‘Green Zebra.’ There are too many to list all of the ones I like, and some years the winners are losers and vice versa depending on weather and other conditions. But the above mentioned varieties have been consistently victorious. Since they are long-season plants, start seeds indoors in February – April, or plant seedlings from a friend, farm stand, garden store, etc. Every gardener seems to have some secret for growing the best tomatoes, and I admire the lore and legends I hear. I have found over the years that in my garden, tomatoes prefer to grow on a trellis and they like compost tea, seaweed/fish fertilizer, clean wood ashes, and mulch. Give them plenty of nutrients, but not too much. Good companions could include aromatic herbs such as basil, chives, thyme, and cilantro.

Peppers are likewise delightful in their diversity, ranging to sweet and mild, to blistering hot and spicy. Like tomatoes, the colors can be astonishingly beautiful and varied. Peppers can be big and blocky, long and skinny, round, tall, squat, lobed, or even mushroom-shaped. Look for ‘King of the North'(sweet, bell), ‘Chocolate'(sweet), ‘Round of Hungary'(sweet), ‘Beaver Dam'(mildly hot with seeds and ribs, sweet without), ‘Boldog Hungarian Spice'(paprika), ‘Czech Black'(hot), ‘Matchbox'(hot), ‘Purple Cayenne'(hot) ‘Hinkelhatz'(hot), ‘NuMex'(ornamental, hot), and ‘Mushroom'(hot!). Start indoors March – April, or plant seedlings from where you got your tomatoes. They can be a challenge to grow in some years, and like to be pampered with windbreaks and anything that shelters them from extremes of heat or cold or moisture levels. I find the most success when I plant peppers into black plastic IRT mulch. Pick the first fruits of the year as they mature, since the more you pick, the more will grow. Tomatoes, okra, basil, and onions are some of the plants said to be good companions to peppers.

Eggplants, too, are varied, and a perfect choice for a gardener looking for a challenge. I’ve found they appreciate similar conditions as peppers, with a good amount of compost (not too much) and black plastic IRT mulch. Start indoors or use seedlings. Look for the most possibly dependable varieties ‘Rosita’, ‘Applegreen’, ‘Pingtung Long’, ‘Diamond’, and ‘Rosa Bianca’.

Whatever varieties you prefer (there are infinite varieties to choose from!), you can find seeds from FEDCO, Johnny’s, Pinetree, Sandhill Preservation Center, and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. See you next time for the rest of this article. In the meantime, happy planting!

Read Part 2 here!

GARDEN WORKS: Gathering what nature provides in springtime (Conclusion)


by  Emily Cates

Conclusion (read Part 1 here)

In Part 1 of the previous article about foraging for wild foods in the springtime, we explored “The Forager’s 10 Commandments.” With that under our belts, we’re ready to hit the trail and forage. Whether it be on a garden path or in the deep woods, nature generously provides delicious, edible plants for our enjoyment and health. I’ve singled out six of them for today: dandelions, fiddleheads, groundnut, Jerusalem artichokes, nettles, and ramps. Though they are universally known to be safe and are usually easy to identify in our area, please use good sense and sensibilities when dealing with them. Consult your physician if you have health concerns and questions.

I have tried every and regularly consume most of the plants we will talk about, and I hope you enjoy them as much as many other wild-food enthusiasts and myself do.

Center, in bowl, groundnuts. Counter clockwise from top left, fiddleheads, Jerusalem artichokes, ramps, nettles and dandelion greens.

Now we will take a minute and explore the wild foods mentioned above. Let’s start with dandelions. Taraxicum spp. are a commonly known weed with a rosette of jagged, lance-shaped leaves and a yellow flower which turns into a white globe of fluffy seeds that float around when dispersed. The entire plant is edible and most often harvested in the spring and fall when its bitterness is minimized. It is said to be good for detoxification and for building the blood. I like to steam the greens and serve with olive oil, apple cider vinegar, and a pinch of salt. Delicious! When young, the sweet flower heads are good too, raw or cooked. Some winemakers tediously pull off the flower pedals, leaving the green sepals at the base of the bloom, and make them into dandelion wine. (I haven’t tried this yet successfully, but if you have accomplishments in this area, I would like to hear from you!) Also, the root makes a lovely herbal “coffee.” I simply dig up, scrub, slice into pieces, and roast. The dried root can be stored in jars whole or ground. Maybe not exactly like conventional coffee, but wonderful in its own right in the evenings or when relaxing.

Most folks in this area are acquainted with fiddleheads, the unfurled fronds of the Ostrich Fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris. Commonly found in groups of about three to 12 along the banks of rivers, streams, and brooks, they are identified by being coiled, close to the ground, and about an inch in diameter. A brown, paper-like covering clings to the coiled part, and along the stem is indented with a U-shaped groove. Fiddleheads must be cleaned before use, a potentially time-consuming activity if large amounts are harvested. I’ve heard of someone using a pressure washer to blast off the brown papery scales, and the job was done in a jiffy. I always just clean them by hand – it’s not as bad a job as it sounds as long as you don’t have more than a few pounds to process. Be sure to cook thoroughly, they are delicious with balsamic vinegar and olive oil. For more information on fiddlehead identifying, cleaning, cooking, and recipes, check out this link from the UMaine Cooperative Extension.

Groundnut, Apios americana, has the history of being essential to the survival of many peoples, including natives of the era of pre-European contact, and also the settlers of early colonial America. This twining, climbing, leguminous vine with marble to golf-ball-sized tubers grows vigorously and is oftentimes found at areas where Native Americans once inhabited. The pink and maroon flowers are especially fragrant when they appear in August, and one can even smell them before they are seen. I recall walking by China Lake many times as a child smelling this fragrance, wondering for a good part of my life what it was. How delighted I was to finally discover what it was and that it was edible when cooked! High in protein, the tubers can be cleaned and then cooked in a variety of ways that highlight their nut-like flavor. They are said to keep indefinitely if dried.

Jerusalem Artichokes, Helianthus tuberosus, is a native, vigorous, tuber-forming species of sunflower. Another plant commonly found around abandoned Native American sites, sunchokes – as they are also known – can be dug up anytime of year and their water-chestnut like flavor and texture enjoyed raw or cooked. I have a hard time recommending it because of the spirited gas it produces in many folks, myself included!

Stinging Nettle, Urtica dioica, is one plant you really don’t want in your garden – but if it is, then it at least can compensate for its presence by its culinary and nutritional qualities. This plant actually stings when brushed up against, releasing irritating substances such as histamine via tiny hypodermic-needle-like trichomes on the leaves, stems, and rhizomes. The plant does not sting when cooked or dried, however, and makes a very pleasant and rejuvenating spring green with a spinach-like flavor. One look at the cooking water and there is no question this plant is plum loaded with minerals. I love to drink this infusion and the pick-me-up it gives. Just a tablespoonful in a quart jar of water makes a dazzling bright green concoction that can be enjoyed throughout the day as needed.

Ramps, Allium tricoccum, is the last but certainly not least, foraged food we’ll look at today. Before I go on about the glories of the wild leek, I must pause to caution everyone to be mindful that this herb with unparalleled gustatory virtues is considered a species of “special concern” with regard to its conservation status here in Maine. If you ever forage this precious treasure, please do as the Cherokee do in Appalachia and cut it above the roots so that it can grow back. It would be a sad day indeed if the ramps disappeared!

This plant is so beloved that numerous festivals each springtime in the Eastern U.S. are dedicated to ramps. Great numbers are often harvested for these festivals with no regard to conservation. I don’t mean at all to spoil the fun, but I think all who love ramps should be mindful of how they are harvested so this highly esteemed wild food will continue to delight humankind. As with many alliums, ramps is perennial, bulb-forming, and leek or scallion-like in appearance, fragrance, and flavor. (Actually, a better description might involve the declaration that it is the most delicious leek or scallion ever, with a wild side.) I never had a chance to try them until last year, and I was so happy I did. I put them in a stir-fry, and wow!

So, here our journey into the wild ends for now. Enjoy springtime and all nature has to offer in this beautiful time of year.

GARDEN WORKS: Gathering what nature provides in springtime, part 1


by  Emily Cates

Part 1 of 2

Who does not love a beautiful day in Springtime? The floral-laden scent of a spring breeze uplifts and awakens the senses, while the singing birds and buzzing bees provide a beguiling resonance. Who would not enjoy these wonders of nature at such a glorious time of year? Many of us, still weary from a long winter, do appreciate it wholeheartedly. In addition to the promise of a fresh new gardening season, there is also a harvest to be had. “What? A harvest? Why, the peas have barely started growing!” “We just planted our potatoes. How could anything be ready? ”

A few familiar garden veggies, such as carrots and parsnips, can be overwintered and dug up now. Asparagus, the perennial whose crisp, succulent spears are enjoyed as they appear and grow to harvestable heights, is most likely ready to be cut at the present. In this article, though, we’ll look at lesser-known offerings that can be found in the garden or nearby, this time of year. These beloved wild edibles such as, dandelions, fiddleheads, groundnut, Jerusalem artichokes, nettles, and ramps are provided by nature and have been enjoyed by many folks for millennia. They are likely encountered as weeds in the garden or discovered as wild plants while hiking. It’s these “others” that are often overlooked, rather unjustly, as they are some of the most nutritious additions to a springtime diet.

Let’s get ready to explore! Because there is a lot of information in this article, lets do it in two parts. This time, we will look at what I’ll call “The Forager’s 10 Commandments.” Next time, we’ll go over the wild edibles mentioned above and noteworthy qualities and cooking suggestions. Be ready to be curious and maybe try something new and exciting!

Before we begin our exciting excursion into the wild world of foraged foods, I would like to share with you The Forager’s 10 Commandments. Number One, it’s important to be certain of the identification of what we’re harvesting. Bring a field guide and a Smartphone to look things up. Two, we want to forage only in areas we have permission to be in. Three, we should make sure the soil it is growing in is un-polluted (at least 30 feet away from the road or buildings that might have lead paint or any other chemical concerns). Four, let’s guarantee the continuity of what we intend to harvest and take only what we actually need, leaving enough for the plant to regenerate itself. (Of course, exceptions would be weeds like dandelion and nettles.) Five, try unfamiliar foods in small amounts for the first and second times to rule out allergies. Six, watch out for ticks and be sure to wear a hat and light-colored, long-sleeved clothing tucked into tall boots if possible. Natural bug-repellant might be on the list as well, be sure to follow directions on the container. (Do tick checks when you get home!) Seven, don’t get lost. Eight, bring something for hydration and a snack if it’s a hike. Nine, bring a friend for company if at all possible. Ten, share a meal with someone less fortunate who would appreciate what you have harvested. The unwritten rule is to have fun and enjoy nature to the fullest!

Read Part 2 here!

GARDEN WORKS: When rain is your friend


by  Emily Cates

Thank heaven for the rain! As I awoke this morning to the thunderous sound of raindrops pounding the ground, I thought what a relief it was to have a day where I would not feel so bad for staying inside. While the freshly-planted trees and shrubs from last week’s Fedco tree sale (also May 5 and 6) get a hearty dose of water from the sky, I sit here at my computer, typing, and listening to the downpour. Officially, the drought here in Central Maine has ended, though a conservative approach to using water is always the course of wisdom. In this article we will look at the pros and cons and a handful of ideas – some old, some new – on how to harvest the benefits of rainwater.

There are a myriad of benefits and a few risks to using rainwater in our area. Let’s start with the benefits: It’s free, simple, pre-“softened,” and (so far) legal. What more could a gardener want? With an inch of rain, you can capture .62 gallons per sq. ft. of each non-permeable surface area. When you apply this formula to the buildings on your property, the amount of potential harvestable water can be substantial. Consider this disquieting fact: according to the EPA’s website, the average American household uses more than 300 gallons of potable water each day, 70 percent of which is used indoors. What about the other 30 percent used outdoors, an average 90 gallons (Wow! Seriously?) a day? Depending on a few factors, such as time of year and amount of rainfall – rainwater collection, along with mindful usage – might be sensible drops in the bucket to help alleviate our thirst for water.

Unfortunately, there are risks to using rainwater: As much as we would wish otherwise, the upsetting fact is that rainwater is not always as pure as nature intended. You see, mankind has got into the habit of polluting the earth, and what goes up into the air comes down with the rain. Substances such as heavy metals, pesticides, industrial emissions, radioactive particles, and other harmful toxins are potentially lurking in rainwater. Also, in our neck of the woods we have acid rain as a result of being downwind of substantial fossil-fuel burning areas of the northeast. Do the benefits of using rainwater outweigh the risks? That’s a decision you’ll have to make. It can be filtered, but at what cost? “Well, it’s going to rain on the garden,” we could reason. “Why not use water that would just run off anyways?” Something else worth noting is that several states have laws that ban or restrict the collecting of rainwater. As ridiculous as it sounds, it’s true – but at least we do not, as far as I know, have such restrictions here in Maine. So why hold back? Nature sure doesn’t when it rains like it did last night. Let’s see if this is a project worth exploring.

The simplest, old-fashioned way to collect rainwater is by using a barrel. Divert the waters on your roof onto a downspout that flows into a rain barrel, and now you’re talking! Elevate this barrel to a level that is higher than your garden and you’ll have a gravity fed system of irrigation. Use drip irrigation tubing plugged into the barrel’s spout on one end, with the other ends strategically-placed in the garden and orchard, and the efficiency of this system will be greatly enhanced. Here’s a nifty link to an article on making a rain barrel out of a recycled food barrel.

Okay, okay, so putting a rain barrel in the middle of the garden could possibly present an aesthetic challenge. I’ll admit it. But your garden will thank you for it with lush growth. Also, never underestimate the power of making a statement with a rain barrel! Soon, hopefully, everyone will be in on the merits of them and they’ll be a mainstay in every garden. Now if Martha would do a show about that….. Hey wait, check this out, and this.

You can also divert water into a cistern, which is a below-ground collection reservoir. One drawback with cisterns is that a pump or similar system is probably needed to draw the water up. Other problems with cisterns are that they can be the cause of unwanted moisture if situated in a basement, can be a danger if improperly constructed where people or animals could fall in them, and the water has the potential to become stagnant. Be sure that the cistern is made from ingredients that do not leach harmful substances into the water. With these considerations in mind, a cistern could be another helpful tool in the water conservationist’s toolbox. Here’s a link for cisterns.

With these ideas in mind, the value of conserving water is priceless. In our area with China Lake, rivers, streams, ponds, waterfalls, and swamps within sight, we may tend to take water for granted. I recall growing up in a time when few of those around me gave much thought to the significance of having a dependable water supply; it was just assumed it had always been there and always would be. Thankfully, attitudes have changed since then and I see a much greater appreciation for this most precious resource. Water-saving appliances and devices are the norm, and it is not as much en vogue to have a lawn showered with sprinklers in the heat of summertime. Since there is no good reason to waste what we do not need to use, let’s always have a mindful approach to how we use water.