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.

GARDEN WORKS: Antidotes for spring fever


by  Emily Cates

Coping with the mad rush of springtime

Bam! What happened? Spring has thundered through with a crash and a bang! In just a few days, my yard has changed from snow, to mud, and to plant-able ground in some spots. The quiet woods have burst forth with songs of birds and woodland creatures during the day, while the spring peepers serenade me to sleep at night. Canada geese make their return with buoyant honking overhead, their whispering wings moving them through the air as they search for open water. Various insects take off into the moist air laden with the scent of mud, yawning for just a moment before they boldly buzz around. All of this the atmosphere of a season that has sprung, and a stark reminder that one of the most intense times of the year has begun.

A late start to what we have become accustomed to, this springtime beckons in a narrow window of opportunity where tasks must be completed. “Do or die, now or never, get it done!” I’m thinking as I run in circles trying with all my might to tackle the to-do list while there’s still time. Those around me are undoubtedly annoyed with my persistence when I tidy-up the permaculture beds, frantically digging up suckers and daughter plants, looking for good homes for them before they break dormancy. “Oh no, not another plant!” my friends and neighbors exclaim after finding another ‘orphan’ on their doorstep. “All those perfectly good prunings! What a shame to throw them away,” my conscience nags as the clippers do their deed. Of course, the seed swap and scionwood exchange at MOFGA is weeks past, making it an even bigger challenge to figure out what to do with everything. To top it all off, the FEDCO tree sale is April 28 and 29 for customers with pre-orders, and then the next weekend May 5 and 6 for the general public – so I have to make room in the garden for more plants! Some folks would feed their surplus plants and cuttings to their goats in the spirit of waste not, want not. If only it was so easy….

This probably sounds silly, but it’s taken me a couple of days to write this, as I can only get to a sentence or two before I get restless, run outside, and attack another task on the list! If your sentiments are similar to mine this time of year, then we’re in need of some serious focus so as to make the most of limited time. With all this in mind, here are a few strategies that might help take the edges off spring madness without cutting corners. Let’s look at a few time-sensitive tasks such as pruning and planting, along with a healthy dose of prioritizing and planning.

First, it helps to assess the situation. Is the whole garden thawed, or just parts? Unless we have perfectly drained raised beds with soil that has the texture of a wrung-out sponge, then rototilling is out of the question for now. (However, judiciously tilling by hand can be easier on the soil structure and may possibly be done a bit earlier than using a machine.) Got coldframes, tunnels, or row covers? You might have a jump on the season. Still frosty? Forget planting anything tender. Peas are probably an option, along with other cold-tolerant plants such as cole crops, leeks, onions, potatoes, carrots, and radishes.

Also, it should still be okay to prune or plant pruning fruit trees, vines, and shrubs if they’re still on the dormant side. Grapes will probably bleed if you prune them once it warms up – but they should be all right. These plants can be dug up and moved right now if needed. Don’t be afraid to plant them if there’s still snow on the ground; as long as you can dig a hole, you can plant a tree. (I’ve even dug through a layer of frost in the ground to plant trees, and they were fine – despite the inconvenience.) Remember to water the newly-planted!

In addition, don’t forget to remove tree guards and check for winter damage from snow and munching critters. While we’re at it, let’s ensure everything is labeled properly.

Fencing and trellises – which should be a priority – are easier to install before the ground swarms with vegetation and hungry creatures looking to make a meal out of whatever we plant.

If, like me, you did not get a chance to mulch your garlic last fall, then by all means, be sure to do this right away before it sprouts. That way, the garlic shoots will be able to grow up through the mulch, rather than be broken off when the mulch is applied. Speaking of mulch, it may be a good idea to apply it wherever it is welcome before weeds get a foothold.

And, speaking of applying things, folks who keep farm animals find that this time of year is preferred to clean out pens and spread the manure on the garden. A moderate breeze keeps the black flies away, but take care to use the wind to your advantage!

All right, I better quit typing and get back to work! Hope you enjoy this beautiful, productive time of year and all the wonders Springtime has to offer.

GARDEN WORKS: Wondering what to do now? You’re not alone!


Emily Catesby  Emily Cates

Help! I’m confused! Usually this time of year, I am planting trees and maybe peas. Normally, by now, maple sugaring has flown by, and I’m kicking myself for not pruning the entire orchard which has broken bud and is leafing out. And it’s usually on the late side for grafting and propagating. But wait! Hold it there! Is this really April as I type? Sure ­– it’s a glorious day, with the golden sunshine kissing everything outdoors with it’s luminous rays. The heady scent of thawing earth dances in my nostrils. But what is it with all the snow? A foot of it still blankets some parts of my yard and the ground is still frozen solid. Though in the warm spots there is mud, ice surely lurks beneath. The sap is still running in the maple trees without signs of budding yet. The bugs outdoors have awakened and buzzed around bewildered, seemingly not sure what to make of the snow. I must admit that neither do I!

“Son, this is a cold, gray day but spring is just around the corner….”

One thing that is a sure bet with our weather is unpredictability. We know that anyways, but sometimes it helps to be able to know the right time to do things. Otherwise, we can be paralyzed by uncertainty. This spring I am reminded of Ecclesiastes 11:4 where it says, “The one who watches the wind will not sow seed, and the one who looks at the clouds will not reap.” Really, if we keep waiting for the opportune time, we just won’t get it done. In situations like a never-ending winter, perhaps it’s best to follow nature’s lead: Is the sap still running? Well then, keep collecting it. Are those fruit trees, vines, and shrubs still dormant? Go ahead and prune them. And while you’re at it, why not take some cuttings to propagate? What? Is the ground still frozen? How about trimming up that blackberry patch and clearing out those pucker-brushes and such you told yourself you wanted to get rid of!

A real dilemma that could crop up might occur when an order arrives in your mailbox with a box of trees and other goodies from your favorite catalog. If the ground is frozen, where should they go? A savvy gardener knows there are options. If there’s enough thawed dirt somewhere to heel in the roots of these plants, they can be temporarily placed in this area until a preferred area is warmed enough to plant. Check the compost pile or a southern facing slope. No luck? A sawdust pile might do. Or, if these options are unavailable, take a bag of potting soil and put the plants into containers, covering the roots with the soil and watering well. Keep moist, but not waterlogged, and transplant when a spot is ready. Alternately, these plants can be kept in containers for a season or two if it is desirable to do so, especially if they need to grow bigger and get established. As long as they have enough supplemental watering and proper light, they should be OK. Oh, and be sure to keep tender plants and seedlings from freezing, even if you have to haul them indoors every night.

One benefit from a late snowpack is that many fruit trees will wait until later to flower, possibly escaping late spring frosts. Those of us who grow marginally-hardy peaches, plums, and apricots do appreciate it when these trees burst into bloom after frosts, thereby avoiding damage that could mean few or no fruits.

So look on the bright side! Yes, I’ve got spring fever too, but we all know – just as Frog’s father said to Frog in “The Corner,” in Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad All Year – “Son, this is a cold, gray day but spring is just around the corner….”

GARDEN WORKS: EXTEND SUCCESS! Starting long-season varieties now for best results (Conclusion)


by  Emily Cates

For part 1 of this series, click here.

The previous article in this 2-part series looked at practical suggestions on starting long-season plants in our climate. We looked at lighting setups, substrate (growing mediums), containers, watering, and climate control. This time, we’ll explore topics of viable seeds, what to plant, when to plant, and nutrition.

An essential element of germination is ensuring the use of seeds that are viable. Seeds that are fresh and stored in a cool, dry area will have a higher germination rate. If in doubt, pack a few into a damp paper towel, place into a zip lock bag, and store for several days in a warm place. Check daily for sprouts, keep moist, and observe. Sometimes it might be necessary to wait a week or two more, (be patient with certain varieties, it should say on the packet), but after that I?d give up and buy new seed for sure. Also, remember to bring frozen seeds to room temperature before opening, lest they condensate and spoil the seeds. And never leave packets of seeds in a greenhouse, please!

Now let’s look at is what to plant. Long-season seedlings that take a long time to get to a plant-able size from seed are happiest and most productive when started early. If these seeds were sown directly in our gardens here in Central Maine, they likely would not have time to reach their full potential. That’s why we start them early indoors. The cast of characters starring in your grow system could include leeks, onions, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, artichoke, long-season herbs, and perennial flowers. Most likely it will state in the seed catalog or on the seed packet whether or not the seed needs to be started early. Since here in Maine we can get anywhere from 90 to 140 frost-free days, it is important to pay attention to the days needed until harvest that is listed with the seed. Timing is everything, which goes along with our next point:

We want to be sure when to plant. This involves finding out the recommended planting time frame, as mentioned above. Check a seed packet or gardening book for planting instructions and you might find that the time to start the seeds for your favorite plant is now! But not too early, unless you plan on transplanting into bigger and bigger pots later on as they grow- and using up more and more planting medium. Personally, I prefer to start smaller, later-planted seedlings near the later side of the recommended timeframe and let them catch up, as opposed to jumping the gun and ending up with oversized, pot-bound, sulking plants. I?ve even waited until a few weeks or so after the recommended planting timeframes and observed that the later plantings will oftentimes catch up with the earlier ones. I’ve noticed this to be especially so as the moon is increasing (when I try to start seeds), since it appears that a full moon has an affinity towards fertility and growth. That said, I have also experienced the disappointment of growing beautiful plants for a whole season only to have the frost get them just days before they would have ripened. There is oftentimes room for a little bit of error in case of late frosts in fall, though I wouldn’t count on it. The point? Starting seeds is a flexible endeavor and will accommodate a variety of schedules- but if we’re lazy we might miss out.

The final feature of a successful grow system that we’ll look at today involves nutrition. Since most seedlings do not require nutrients until the first set of true leaves has formed, don’t worry too much about it until then. Thereafter, feed an organic fertilizer specific to seedlings as directed about every week and a half or so. My favorite formulas are liquid fish-seaweed blends. The fish gives it a nitrogen boost, and the kelp provides trace minerals and hormones. I just add a little to my watering can when it’s time to fertilize, it’s quite convenient. Everyone seems to have their preferred brand or formula, so do a little research if you can to find out one that suits you best. As was mentioned in the previous article, the best locally-owned places to visit for nutrients and other growing supplies include LaVerdier’s General Store, along with FEDCO and Johnny’s.

Here’s hoping you seedlings are happy and healthy when the above needs are considered. But what should we do when things go wrong? It happens to the best of us! Let’s take a look at the subject of pests on seedlings at another time. Until then, enjoy gardening now in the comfort and convenience of a warm room.

GARDEN WORKS: EXTEND SUCCESS! Start long-season plants now for best results


Emily Catesby  Emily Cates

Part 1 of 2

Are you really, really looking forward to the promise of springtime? I am. The biting cold wind battering the frozen ground has given way to a warming breeze beckoning in aromas of thawing soil. As the heady scent of freshly defrosted mud entices my nostrils, I am hurled into an awakened state where I feel an urgent need to start seedlings. If you find yourself similarly inclined, why not read on? Since our area has a limited amount of frost-free days, plants that take a while – such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, leeks, onions, artichoke, and many more herbs, flowers, and the like – will have a greater chance of success if started indoors now. In this two-part article, let’s explore a few practical suggestions on starting long-season plants. This time we’ll look at lighting setups, substrate, suitable containers, watering, and climate-control.

First, the lighting setup. This could be as simple as a sunny, south-facing windowsill, a unit of grow-lights, or the luxury of a sun room or heated greenhouse. To prevent seedlings from becoming leggy once they’ve sprouted keep the containers as close to the lights as possible without burning the plants.

A second ingredient to successful seedlings is the substrate. Always remember to use organically-produced, fresh, pest and disease-free planting medium, whether purchased or homemade. Products that support germination are fine-textured and oftentimes do not contain soil. (These are especially helpful for starting small seeds.) Examples are peat, coir, vermiculite, etc. When purchasing bags of medium, look for those specifically formulated for germination. (Later on, when transplanting, we’ll use a coarser mix with organic matter to provide nutrition for the growing plants- but for now we’re just interested in germination.)

Another important component is a clean, well-drained container that holds the substrate. Possible candidates could include free and abundant used yogurt cups from home or the recycling center. Wash them well and poke holes in the bottoms, label them, fill with planting medium, and they’re good to go! Also, there is this handy dandy little tool called the “pot maker” which you can use to make countless amounts of pots out of plain newsprint. If expense is not an issue and the desire is aesthetic, go for the plastic flats and 6-packs and such found in seed catalogs and gardening centers. Seeds can be individually or collectively sown in smaller containers, but the resulting seedlings are easier to transplant if they are in flats or containers with a larger surface area. With this in mind, you might want to check out soil block makers, which form blocks of soil which can be placed next to each other in a tray and seeded. They are easy to work with, as the roots are “air pruned” as they grow long, making transplanting the seedlings a cinch.

Besides containers, we’ll also want to think about an acceptable source of water. Watering with plain tap water is fine as long as it’s not chlorinated or softened; use filtered water if there is any question. Keep the seeds and seedlings moist, but not waterlogged. If necessary, additional draining holes in the container can be poked through or drilled. Conversely, a clear cover of some sort can be placed over the container to conserve moisture – just check daily to make sure it can breathe.

Temperature is another factor of importance. 80 degrees F and above are necessary for proper germination, so a heat mat or other source of warmth could be used in a cold room. Elaborate climate-controls are highly effective, but potentially expensive. These are especially advantageous in a greenhouse or grow-light systems where the temperature has the tendency to fluctuate or get too hot. A simple oscillating fan is a useful, low-cost possibility. Get even fancier by hooking it up to a thermostat switch that flips it on when it gets above a certain temperature!

So, I hope this is enough info to get you started. I should mention that you can find as much of these indoor-gardening supplies as you’ll need at LaVerdiere’s General Store in China Village. Also, check out FEDCO and Johnny’s as well. Stay tuned for next time!

GARDEN WORKS: Kombucha: Hooch or healer?

Emily Catesby  Emily Cates

Conclusion: The Making of a “Miracle” Drink

Last time we took a look at the popular, yet controversial health tonic known as kombucha, and a few reasons why people drink it. This time, let’s explore a method behind the making of kombucha, highlighting needed containers, ingredients, and how to ensure a successful batch.

So, exactly how is kombucha made? And what’s that “mother” thingy all about? It’s the same idea as turning fruit juice into vinegar, the same organisms involved. (Ever heard of raw apple cider vinegar with “the mother”?) Instead of fruit juice or cider, however, the sugar source in kombucha is whatever is mixed in with the tea, such as plain sugar. The mother is a rubbery, pancake-shaped symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY), that work together as they feed off the sugars and convert them into acids. You can oftentimes see a mother or pieces of one in a bottle of raw apple cider vinegar or store-bought unpasteurized kombucha. (I’ve used these to start a fresh batch with good results.) As each batch matures – in about two weeks – a new mother layer grows on top of the previous layer. These layers may now be separated to start new batches, or they will eventually pile up and take up all the space in the brewing vessel.

The “mother” in a batch of kombucha.

Speaking of the brewing vessel, be sure it’s non-metallic and not porcelain. Metals and lead can leach out into kombucha. A scrupulously clean, wide-mouthed glass jug with a non-metallic, loosely-fitted cover is a good idea. Start small at first, perhaps with a quart jar, to minimize the risks of losing a large batch if things don’t turn out as hoped for. Also, use organic ingredients such as black, green, oolong, chai, or other teas, organic sugars, and filtered water. Be aware, also, that there may be the possibility of a batch with an alcohol content of 5 percent. In theory there should be a minimal amount of alcohol, since the ingredients and mother are supposed to convert towards the vinegar side – though I have seen for myself that it doesn’t always happen that way in home brews. Keep your eyes out for mold, too, discarding the whole batch, and- if desired – starting fresh with a sterile vessel and a brand new mother. Alternately, if a mother is not available, a half cup or so of a previous batch, or store-bought raw kombucha may be added to the cooled mix before pouring into the vessel.

And, speaking of discarding a batch, be sure to get rid of any surplus mothers or raw kombucha appropriately. Never flush or dump down the drain, or you’ll grow a monster mother in your sewer – Ewww! Your compost pile will happily accommodate, as will your chickens or pigs.

So, now that you’ve heard the do’s and don’ts of making kombucha and wish to proceed, boil some water. Add your tea and sugar, then stir and cool to room temperature. Pour into the vessel and carefully place the mother on top. Cover and wait a couple weeks or so. When it is no longer sweet, it’s ready. Feel free to cut it with varying amounts of homemade juice and/or herbs and spices from the garden. The makings of a miracle drink? Maybe you’ll want to brew some up and then decide.