Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Day at Common Ground Fair

Common Ground Tees
The Common Ground Fair in Unity, Maine is put on annually by MOFGA, "Maine Organic Farmer's and Gardener's Association." It's a 2-1/2 hour drive for us, a ways off the highway, and into the countryside of mid-Maine. The drive for us is well worth it and we try to get there every year. Most of the topics we are interested in are represented: gardening, fiber arts, homesteading, livestock, timber harvesting (the low impact variety), and green technology. There is a farmer's market with organic produce, candles, chutneys, herbs. American Indian culture has a huge tent, and there are arts and crafts booths galore. Fedco Seeds always has an apple display of heirlooms grown in Maine, one of my favorite things to look at. The fair goes for three days but we make it a day trip and take in all we can. One day is not enough to take in a few lectures AND see all the exhibits, so we always save some stuff for next year. 

This year we attended talks on Permaculture, “Poop de Jour,” and Keeping Chickens. 

Permaculture lecture
Permaculture was an excellent lecture that covered lots of territory (as I blogged earlier, permaculture has lots of topics), and the speaker happened upon a topic we have been wondering about- how to terrace our orchard. We now have a better idea of how to create swales and pathways, and to introduce a herbaceous layer on this hillside area. We’ll blog our orchard activities as we get this project going.

“Poop de Jour” sold us once and for all time on human-ure. We’d been pondering that rather magnificent conglomeration of underground architecture commonly called a septic system, and coming up with a lot of reasons to not have one. We’ll be blogging our “green” house ideas as they materialize (a project that is a few years in front of us yet).

The lecture on chickens didn’t really apply to us so we left early. We’ve been putting our research more towards ducks anyway.

Here are some photo highlights of the fair:
A drumming circle

The political action tent

Plowing with horses

Timber framing demo

Tomato hoop tent, marigolds and chard
The fleece tent

Parade: "We all Live in the Garden"

We did our shopping on the way out buying cabbages for sauerkraut (we'll blog sauerkraut making next), a pair of stainless steel wine glasses (good for traveling), admiring many fabulous-looking cucurbit varieties (squashes and pumpkins), marveling at the twelve different varieties of garlic at one booth, and sampling some wonderful chutneys at another. And now we're looking forward to next year's fair... -jmm

Friday, September 24, 2010


The stevia plant (Stevia rebaudiana) is native to the Southwestern U.S., Central and South Americas, and is related to sunflowers. Its usage originated in South America where it has been used as a sweetener for centuries. The Guarani natives of Paraguay call it “ka’a he’e”, or "sweet herb". 

Stevia is non-caloric and super sweet. It can be used either fresh or dried, with no loss of sweetness in the drying process. The leaves are said to about 30 - 40 times as sweet as sugar (commercial extracts of it can be as much as 300 times as sweet as sugar), although individual plants are said to very greatly in their sweetness. In the garden we try it for sweetness by plucking and eating a leaf.

According to the seed company, Johnny's Selected Seeds, stevia is a plaque retardant and tooth decay inhibitor. It also repels insects as its sweetness causes aphids, grasshoppers and other pests to avoid it. Be aware though, there are other invaders that may inhibit your crop. A friend of ours stopped growing stevia because her children would pick and eat all the young leaves, leaving nothing left to harvest. Garden pests come in all shapes and sizes.

Stevia has been an experimental crop for us. We were able to start a few plants from seed in the garden. Stevia is known for its iffy germination, so if you can find plants you might be better off.  Last fall I potted up one of the garden plants and brought it indoors for the winter- it is perennial to zone 9 but can be potted up and brought indoors in cooler climates. We used it sparingly and it kept on growing. This spring the pot was set outside and has been thriving all summer. The long stems twined themselves around our porch rail. I recently trimmed it back and dried the leaves. Stevia doesn't survive frost, although cool weather tends to enhance its sweetness. 
Stevia, being a sweetener, has many uses. I simply crumble some dried leaves into teas, sauces and any recipes calling for a little sweetness. Add stevia to tomato sauce to counter the acidity of the tomatoes. Add it to a cup of tea, use it to sweeten dressings and sauces. In larger quantities (you will have to experiment to find the desired amounts) it can be used in cookies, breads, and other baked goods. 

 Why isn't this amazing herb better known? The USDA, in conjunction with the sugar industry and makers of sugar alternatives saccharine and aspertame, has declared that stevia can only be legally sold in the U.S. as a "dietary supplement". It is perfectly legal, though, to grow stevia yourself. Although available in health food stores, growing stevia yourself is a great way to enjoy this alternative to sugar and other processed sweeteners.

Drop us a line or two in the comments here and let us know your experiences with it if you have tried it. -G.H.

Monday, September 20, 2010


Recently we attended a talk on the subject of permaculture. The speaker began by asking us what our concerns are regarding the world we live in. The words global warming, sustainability, pollution, population are a few of the words that popped up from around the room. Almost everyone contributed a word and each word seemed to evoke some kind of crisis.
She then began to explain what permaculture is. The word “permaculture” is a composite of the words “permanent agriculture.” Permanent agriculture may seem like an oxymoron- we are accustomed to the idea of food coming from huge fields that are tilled under and newly planted every spring, and plied with chemicals of many kinds. But those fields are a big reason why the idea of permaculture is an important one. It is an idea that addresses the issues we are concerned about- mainly sustainability and how we can better care for the environment. 
Permaculture is a way of using land that creates maximum productivity and sustainabliity at the same time. It consists of methods that work with the earth, not against it. It is organic in the best sense of the word. And, it goes beyond what we know of as agriculture by making use of methods that work with nature. What i find most captivating about it is that it gives us a way as individuals to actively help this planet to heal. Through these methods each one of us can create a healthy food-providing environment in our own yard.  
The methods apply equally to backyard gardening as they do to acreage. The speaker showed her plan for her 1/2 acre suburban yard. She had scoped out the various areas of the yard that differed from others. Some of these are self explanatory such as sun exposure, but others not so immediately evident such as a strong current of wind through the backyard requiring a windbreak, and a swampy area in one corner- good for plants that like wet feet. The heat from the house on the south side- good for strawberries and lots of other things. How the east side of the house always seemed like the perfect place for the family to gather. She explained how observation helps us learn what different areas of the yard will be good for.   
And this is just the beginning of the concept of permaculture. It also involves using native plants, creating guilds which are groupings consisting of a variety of plants, making maximum use of veggie garden space, swales and other means of capturing and using rain water, using plants to draw nutrients from the soil, creating habitat for beneficial insects and other helpful wildlife, and i guess you can see by now that permaculture is a broad concept with many sub-topics.          
This is an area of land use methods that we are currently researching and exploring. We’ll be blogging on various topics within this subject as we begin to explore them ourselves. -jmm

Monday, September 13, 2010

How to Build a Cold Frame

It is easy and inexpensive to build a cold frame. Certainly a good project for frugal people like us. Basically, a cold frame is a wooden frame with windows set on top. 
We’ve seen some pretty expensive versions of cold frames that have built-in irrigation systems and self-opening windows. Cold frames need a little watering here and there, but not enough to require an irrigation system, in our opinion. The enclosure helps to retain moisture, and so does the soil as long as it is high in organic matter (compost). As for opening the windows, my method is to prop them up with a little stick. The windows need to be raised when the sun is out and temperatures are above freezing otherwise it can get warm enough in there to bake the plants.

This cold frame is an extra-long version using three windows.

Windows are often free for the taking if you know someone who is replacing theirs. Or you might try the local dump, or check around the neighborhood on large-item pick-up day. Our windows happen to be 34” wide by 31” long, and we use two side by side, making our useable soil space about 68” wide by about 27”. A little note on the windows is that ours are double-pane, giving an extra bit of insulation. People who use single-pane windows sometimes need to throw a blanket over the frame on really cold nights. We have never needed to do this with ours. 
Here are some basic instructions to make a cold frame.
Go to the lumber yard for 2x12 and 2x8 boards. You will need one 2x12 the width of the two windows, 68” in our case. Get the 2x8 the same length. Then you will need two lengths of the 2x12 for the sides of the frame, for us this is about 29-1/2” - about 1-1/2" shorter than the length of the window to allow for some overlap so the window can be lifted. You can have them cut to size at the lumber yard but it is cheaper to saw them yourself. Use a good hand saw or a circular saw. 
Attach the sides onto the ends of the front and back pieces. Use corner braces to fasten them together. These make the frame more stable than simply screwing the lumber pieces together. The corner brace packets come with the screws needed to attach the front, back and sides of the cold frames.
Work on a flat surface so all the boards stay lined up. Use an electric drill to start holes for the screws, and a good old fashioned screwdriver unless you use the drill with a screwdriver bit. 
It's a good idea to check that the windows will fit nicely before putting in the final screws (there's likely to be some variation between your windows and ours in how they will fit onto the boards). When the cold frame is all put together, the windows rest on the back and front boards of the frame. They should fit snuggly side by side with a little overlap on the front so they can be lifted easily.
We have placed our cold frames over existing raised garden beds or set them up in new spots. When using a space that was not previously gardened, prepare the soil below it with loam, peat moss and plenty of compost. Ideally, prepare the spot a month or so ahead of planting and apply manure. Set up the cold frame with the 2x8 facing toward the south. Place it directly on top of prepared soil. Now you're ready to plant seeds that will grow your late fall, winter and early spring produce. -G.H. 

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Cucumber Basil Salad

Serves 4
It seems we throw half the garden into our cuisine these days, and cucumber salad is no exception. Basil adds the perfect zest to this side dish.
We used pickling cucumbers in this but other types can be used as well. Picklers are multi-useful; good for both brined and canned pickles, and equally great for slicing raw into green salads, and of course for cucumber salad, and oh yes, cucumber sandwiches too!  
Be sure to serve bread alongside this salad - the olive oil and rice vinegar dressing is a great dip for the bread after the cucumbers are dished out.
1 large or 2 small cucumbers, thinly sliced
1 tbsp salt
1/2 medium onion, diced
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 medium sweet green pepper, diced
4 Tbs finely chopped fresh basil
1/2 cup brown rice vinegar (apple cider vinegar may be used instead)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Ground white pepper to taste (or black pepper)
Place the sliced cucumbers into a bowl and sprinkle with the salt. Add cold water to cover the cucumbers. Let soak for 20 - 30 minutes. 
While the cucumbers are soaking combine oil, vinegar, onion, garlic, pepper, basil and ground white pepper in a bowl. Allow to stand for 15 minutes for the flavors of the herbs to infuse into the oil and vinegar. 
Rinse the cucumber slices in cold water to remove the salt. Mix the cucumbers into the oil and vinegar mixture. Let sit for 10 minutes, then serve. -G.H.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Winter Squash and Saving Seeds

Winter squash is a staple for us, so we were greatly disappointed last year when some of our squash crop did not match the catalog description. These resembled extra large zucchini with some of the coloring of Delicata. They had nothing to offer for flavor. The one thing they did very well however, was to last the winter flawlessly. They had grown a very hard shell which had to be chunked up with a shovel to make compost out of them (who can eat bland squash?)  
Butternut squash climbing the
pole with the pole beans

This year we changed our supplier and did our seed shopping in the *Fedco Seed catalog. This by the way is a great catalog to read on a snowy day in January when gardening is something you can only dream about. They give you plenty to read in this little book- great descriptions and many informative sidebar tidbits. 

Back on the subject of squash, according to the catalog there are six different species of them, with three of those commonly available to gardeners. Anyone who saves seeds needs to be aware of these different species. Squash seeds are very easy to dry and keep- and available in handfuls whenever you cut one open for cooking. 

Delicata squash on the stone wall

However, as Fedco explains, if you plant two varieties within one species, through the process of pollination they can mix with each other. This means you can get some weird looking “things” in your garden that you never expected. So, to save seeds it is important to grow only one of each species. And, even if you’ve taken care to plant only one of a species, squash grown by your neighbors as much as 1500’ feet away can share pollen with yours. Much to look out for! And, apparent from the strange crop we got last year, cross-pollination can even happen to a seed supplier.

Summer squash and pumpkins belong to these same species also. There is actually no such thing as a pumpkin, they are all squash. Here are the three species with some of the common varieties within them.

Curcurbita Pepo: Delicata, Spaghetti Squash, Acorn Squash, Jack-o-Lantern Pumpkin, Zucchini and other summer squash.
Curcurbita Maxima: Hubbard Squash, Buttercup Squash.
Curcurbita Moschata: Butternut Squash, Cheese Pumpkin.
Although seed saving may be risky in regards to next year’s crop, it doesn’t hurt to try it as long as you have the space to also buy seeds and plant your stand-bys. Who knows, you might even invent a new variety! And too, plant at least one variety each year that you haven’t grown before. There are plenty to pick from, and there’s exquiste eating to be had from many of them. -jmm

*Fedco Seeds, P.O. Box 520, Waterville ME 04903-0520 This catalog is full of great info and exquisitely drawn porttaits of plants.