Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Perennial Flower Garden

...and What I Learned

Perennial flowers grow well and profusely here. They surround the house, wrap around an old maple tree, and line up along stone walls. As one example, a twelve-foot-square area includes two rose bushes, a peony, daylilies, coriopsis, lavender, columbine, daffodils and a ground covering of variegated vinca, grape muscari, and johnny-jump-ups- with other areas equally populated. The gardens are full of wildlife: toads, wood frogs, garden snakes, and many bird couples residing in or near (this year we have Phoebe, Robin, Scarlet Tanager, Hummingbird, Sparrow, Chickadee, Finch, and Pileated Woodpecker among others). There is the constant buzzing of bees from spring until frost and many other bugs. It is a wonderful place to wander and observe.
Perennials garden in early spring

From daffodils until asters the flowers bloom like crazy. Some are out-of-this-world scentwise, lilacs and old roses especially, and all summer I'm out there with a scissors filling vases. So much to look at, and smell, and enjoy. If there were heaven on earth, it's got to be a perennials flower garden. All through each winter the sights and scents of these flowers are fully in my mind. Those are beautiful thoughts.

This must sound idyllic, and it may even seem magical when you find out what they are growing in. If the plants had been put into deep, rich soil it would be a no-brainer to understand how they do so well. But most were started eleven years ago on top of sandy, gravelly fill; stuff that bore no resemblance to dirt whatsoever. Loggers, years earlier had left behind a substantial amount of wood chips that since composted into a blackened substance. I hauled this by the bucketful out of the woods and used it to cover the roots as each plant was set into place on top of the fill. It seems the composted wood got them going.

Except for an annual pruning of the shrubs, I don't do much with these gardens. I don't rake leaves out of them. Weeds are incidental. The gardens never get watered. No hauling of mulches or compost.

So what did I learn? That it doesn't take deep, rich, well-cultivated soil to successfully grow a perennials garden. And that very little care is needed. And no, I'm not ready to give total credit to fairies, gnomes, and elves. In a next post I'll compare this type of garden with my observations of the mostly-annuals vegetable garden. -jmm 

Monday, May 30, 2011

Maine Green Party Convention

Our "green" lifestyle includes organic gardening, recycling, buying local, longing for world peace and even green politics. I attended the May 1, 2011 Maine Green Independent Party convention in Brunswick. Socially, it was fun to see old friends and to be with like-minded people for the day. On the business side, we amended by-laws, elected committee members and delegates and listened to pertinent speakers.

A great lunch was followed by small discussion groups and brainstorming sessions with a theme of "Green Party Rising". The day ended with a drumming session to wind down the day and encourage us to keep on promoting the green way of life.

The convention had many themes and I'll focus on some that had special relevance to me.

Wind power is a clean energy alternative to fossil fuel consumption. Critics cite problems with the large blades and the resulting noise pollution and harm to birds and bats associated with horizontal axis wind turbines.

Vertical access wind turbines are an alternative to the horizontal axis turbines. Vertical access turbines are quieter, have easier access since the mechanism is not up in the air, they rotate at lower wind speeds and can be placed closer together. Horizontal axis turbines must be separated at ten times their width due to a slowing effect if placed closer together. We incorporated vertical access wind turbines into the party plank on energy, along with striving for a no-waste policy for energy production and use.

Without getting into all of the Maine Green Party Ten Key Values, one is especially dear to my heart: "Future Focus and Sustainability." This states that our actions and policies should be motivated by long-term goals. We seek to protect natural resources, safely disposing of or "unmaking" all waste we create while developing a sustainable economy that does not depend on continual expansion. We must counterbalance the drive for short-term profits by assuring that economic development, new technologies and fiscal policies are responsible to future generations who will inherit the results of our actions.

In the discussion group session, I shared our own personal green experience. Growing your own veggies, cooping poultry and building with lumber harvested from trees on your land is the ultimate in the local movement. I feel it is important that the Green Party identify with practical green lifestyles and practices. As we come in contact with people and share our philosophy of growing our own, buying local, and consuming less we want to share the Maine Green Party politics as well. There are people who share the "green" lifestyle but don't get involved in politics. I'd like them to know that when the opportunity to vote arises, there is an alternative to the two corporate parties. Lifestyle, philosophy and politics all meet in the Maine Green Party.

Coming home from the convention, it's no longer theory and focus group discussion. It's now planting and weeding. It's chain sawing and pasture clearing. It's homesteading, and living the green life. I love to socialize with my Green Party compatriots and share our dreams of a universal green lifestyle. But it's great to be doing what we believe in. -G.H.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

How to Plant a Tree

A tall brown bag with two trees in it arrived by U.P.S. yesterday. The reason we got these trees is because of some fiddlehead ferns (Ostrich, really). The ferns were planted by a stone wall in full sun- we thought they would look pretty there! But come to find out, ferns prefer the shade of trees. They get a little sunburned in summer, but they are starting to colonize- new ferns are popping out of the ground off of runners. It does NOT make sense to move this little family because who knows how they will do in a different place. 

So we got the ferns a couple of trees to provide them some shade. Now, about the trees. We like the “edible landscaping” idea, requiring the trees to be food providers (we already have a forest-ful of other kinds). So we got two hazelnut trees.
When it comes to planting trees we’ve been through the trial and error phase finding that correctly planting a tree leads to fewer losses on the one hand, and quicker success on the other. Besides which, thriving trees make us happy. And, we’re happy, too, to pass some of this info along. 
So here are the step-by-steps of tree planting.

Step One: get the tools together. The tools shown here are a shovel, a four-prong cultivator, and a grubhoe. The grubhoe you may not need but in our woodlands it is the best thing for hacking through roots and nudging stones out of the ground. If you can dig a hole with nothing stopping your shovel, you are golden. In any case, assemble your tools. 
Step Two: dig the hole. The hole is beyond any doubts the most important part of the entire planting process. A large enough hole will allow the new roots to get started easily. If the roots are cramped by tough soil the growth of the tree may be inhibited or may not happen altogether. Three feet wide by three feet deep is my usual standard for fruit trees, but these are nut trees and the root system is narrow, so I’ve gone slightly less on the width. Don’t scrimp on your digging. Dig a nice big hole. As you can see I’ve pulled out the usual pile of rocks.

Step Three: take a break to read and re-read the instructions that came with the tree. Different trees have different requirements. Follow them to the letter- the tree companies know what they are talking about.

Step Four: add any soil amendments that are needed for the tree to grow. You either know your soil and what grows in it, or you should (prior to getting your tree) have the soil tested so you know what to add. The soil here seems to sustain a wide range of plants, so I’m only adding dried manure. This adds humus to the soil which helps keep it loose (sand can be heavy) and provides nutrients. 

Step Five: well, finally! You get to plant the tree! This is easy now that the soil is in a neat pile beside the hole, so all you need to do is scoop it around the roots using your shovel. Wait a minute! Check back with your instructions to find the correct depth to plant the tree. And first make sure that any dirt under the roots is tamped down -stomp on it. Then add dirt around the root system a little at at time, tamping as you go. Add water after every few shovelfuls of dirt, letting it soak in. The water helps settle the dirt into place.

Step Six completes the task. Make a collar of soil to act as a water dam, and then give the tree plenty of water. Pour it on. Voila! -jmm  

Friday, May 13, 2011

Parsnips... and Burgundy Wine

What food says "Spring" for you? For us, it’s parsnips. Beyond a doubt this is the vegetable of choice for welcoming in a new growing season. Parsnips are the only fresh and meaty (unlike greens which we have all winter from the cold frames) veggie to be gotten from the ground so early. They are a treat before fiddleheads and asparagus even think about popping out of the ground.
Springtime parsnips are special. Their mellow, warm, sweet and nutty aroma and flavor act on us like a welcoming mat at a time of year we’re craving an alive plant that can be turned into dinner. We saute them in butter and olive oil and eat them heaped high on the plate. And with a good French wine, they are celebratory.

Parsnip is similar to carrot- a similar shape and white-ish instead of orange, but with a far richer flavor. Growing them is the same as carrots. They need good, deep soil. If the dirt is heavy or not deep the plants tend to develop several short roots instead of one long, straight tap root. They should end up about 3 inches across and 12 inches long.
The variety we’ve been growing is called “Harris Model.” Harris Model goes back aways, and seeds are widely available including through heirloom seed suppliers. Plant the seeds any time in spring. The catalogs say they need 120 days to mature, and this being all of four months is a very long growing season here in Maine. It doesn’t matter because we don’t pull them in fall anyway.   
Although they can be harvested after a frost in fall we don’t because there are so many other wonderful things to be had at that time. Parsnips are incredibly cold hardy and keep just fine in the garden all winter. You can even enjoy them in winter if the ground is diggable. 
In spring, they can be harvested as soon as the ground thaws. If you are going to eat them they must be pulled up before they begin growing again. After they start growing a hard core develops as the plant begins the process of going to seed.
This going to seed thing suits us just fine. We restrain ourselves from pulling all of the plants. The few left behind will go to seed, with each plant putting out many, many seeds. The self-seeded parsnips start up thickly. It’s important to thin them. Each plant needs a couple of inches around it in order to reach full size.  
A parsnip left in the ground to go to seed

This is a root vegetable that has no particular storage instructions. Just keep them in the garden and dig when needed anytime from fall until spring. In spring we pick and eat, and pick and eat and never mind saving any. And don’t forget a good wine to go with- a fresh veggie straight from the garden at this time of year is a pleasure worth celebrating. Waiting out winter has its awards! -jmm

Sauteed Parsnips

There are many ways to cook parsnips. They can be boiled like potatoes, or shredded and cooked in recipes. The Fedco Seeds catalog states that they make a pie that is “an amazing treat.” (We will try that next year!) Here is our favorite way of cooking them- sauteed until al dente. If you prefer, cook them a bit longer and they will soften. Either way they are wonderful. Serve as a side dish to any meat- parsnips are great with roast beef, baked chicken, turkey sausage, or lamb, or make them a major part of any non-meat meal. Amounts are not given for the butter and oil- use enough to keep the parsnips cooking, from about a tablespoon of each to a bit more for a bigger batch. 
Olive oil
2 tbsp white wine
Parsnips cut into 1/4” matchsticks
In a skillet large enough to accommodate the parsnips so they are layered no more than two matchsticks thick, heat the oil and butter on medium. After the butter melts, add the parsnips and toss to coat. Saute on medium to medium-low heat for about 20 minutes, tossing the parsnips every five minutes or so. When they begin to stick to the pan, splash white wine into the pan and toss the parsnips. The parsnips are ready to eat when fork tender. To further soften them place a lid on the pan for about five minutes. -G.H.