Thursday, November 24, 2011

Gardening in Wet Soil

Soil conditions that involve too much or too little water present issues for many gardeners. In some areas a short rainy season provides some water while the rest of the year is dry. Various ways of retaining rain water and using it judiciously come into play. Rain barrels, drip irrigation, swales, and thick mulches are some of those.

Here, in the past several years we have experienced unusual and copious rainfalls that dump a lot of water in a short amount of time. One of these was a devastating hail storm that cut a narrow swath through Southern Maine. The hail entirely stripped young fruits from trees and shrubs, and completely leveled the garden turning plants into soggy heaps of collapsed tissue. Onslaughts like these send brooks through the woods where there were none before. This is catastrophic water, and we’ve deepened ditches to prepare for future incidents.
Constant water is another matter. This comes to mind because Roman, who is renovating a home on Chebeaque Island, wrote to me that this may be a consideration around his house. His description reminds me of gardening where I once lived. This was a 1900 farmhouse with a spacious backyard abutting a large hayfield. In talking to neighbors at the time, I learned that the hayfield had been tiled by the Army Corp of Engineers. It was an aquifer. The engineers redirected  water into a brook running down the center of the field.
But tiling it didn’t stop the field from being an aquifer. My backyard, at the edge of it, consisted of soggy soil heavily populated with a tenacious crop of weeds. My visions of rows and rows of veggies bounded by perennial flower borders turned into an enormous amount of work.
In the end I resolved the problem of waterlogged soil, and wonderful crops were able to grow. The soil there was deep, unlike the thin forest topping we have here. It would have felt  tragic to not use it!
Having no book of instructions I acted on instincts, the first of which was to dig soil out of pathways and pile it into rows. This, I believe was the single most important thing that could have been done. The raised beds gave the plants a dry-enough place, while the roots could reach down and find moisture. In the center of the garden I piled a mound of dirt several feet high and planted sage, oregano, thyme, and other herbs. These grew beautifully also. An area was planted in rhubarb, which thrived. I have a photo of my teenage son holding a rhubarb leaf ... it was almost as big as him!
And I did a couple more things. The garden pathways were gradually filled in with leaves, grass clippings, and weather-worn hundred-year-old cedar shingles from the side of the barn. Pathways running along the outsides of the garden were filled in with trucked-in small stones. The stones made an ideal path that was always dry to walk on. Off to one side I planted a Wisconsin Weeping Willow tree. Driving by recently, I saw that the little twig that was originally planted has grown really big! A full grown willow can soak up an enormous quantity of water.
I guess the moral of the story is that with some adaptation even soggy soil can be turned into a beautiful garden. -jmm

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

One with the Land

Autumn Cabbage

Having spent most of my life nomadically moving from place to place, I'm beginning to feel one with the land. I grew up in Southern California, observing acre after acre of field and forest and farm and orchard being converted into tracts of little pink houses. I was not, nor could not be connected to the earth in that scenario. I was drawn to places like Big Sur, Joshua Tree and farm communities like Gilroy, California, the garlic capital of the world. But I was there as a voyeur, a visitor. I was looking for connection but I was just passing through. Later I lived in Washington D.C. and spent weekends canoeing up the Potomac. Living even later near Boston I hiked with my dog in Thoreau's stomping ground. Though these places were inspirational and even therapeutic, I was still passing through.
Winter Forest
American Indians felt a mystical oneness with the land. Who they were was intertwined with the land they inhabited. They were not separate from the earth, but spiritually connected to the land, the flora and fauna. There was no differentiation between the people and the land. The land was the people and the people were the land.
While I have not reached the level of the early Americans and their mystical connection to the earth, I have touched their spirit. Our twelve acres are becoming part of me and myself a part of the trees, the stream, the chipmunks and even the swamp. My hands have been in the dirt in which we plant the squash and the lettuce. When I'm away I think about our twelve acres, I talk about our cabbage and our garlic and our peppers. I no longer think about "getting away", but of getting back to the land I am attached to. While I don't know the technical names of all the plants and trees around me, I do know many by acquaintance. The big oak tree that marks the path toward the stream is the "Three Sisters" because the trunk branches off into three directions. I recognize this majestic tree and pay my regards whenever I pass by. There are unique outcroppings of ledge that have their own personalities. I talk to the frogs in the stream in the summer. I know where the garden snakes hang out. The land is not only familiar but is becoming a part of my consciousness. 
Where once my inspiration was with Jack Kerouac's "On The Road", now it's Scott and Helen Nearing's "The Good Life". Instead of hitchhiking to the Grand Canyon, I'm thinking of what can grow in our garden to end up on our dinner table. I take hikes in our woods with the dog. These twelve acres are becoming a part of me and I a part of them. I'm becoming connected. I am the land and the land is me. -G.H.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Apple Cranberry Jewish Cake

This is my take on a Jewish apple cake that I’ve been making for many years. The  recipe is adjusted for whole wheat flour, and recently I tried adding cranberries- and found they add a nice bit of zest! No need to put frosting on it, but a dollop of whipped cream is a welcome addition. A great cake for coffee brunch, four-o‘clock tea, or for dessert.
4 cups of thickly sliced apples (approximately 4 - 5)
1 cup of fresh or frozen-thawed cranberries
1 lemon
1 tsp cinnamon
1 cup of raw sugar, divided
2 eggs
1/2 cup of butter (1 stick)
3/4 cup of water
1-1/2 cups of whole wheat flour
1-1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp sea salt
Core the apples and slice them into a large bowl. Juice the lemon, add the juice to the apple slices and toss. Add the cranberries, cinnamon, and 1/4 cup of the raw sugar. Mix to evenly distribute the ingredients. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Butter and flour a small (6-cup) tube pan.
In another bowl, cream the butter. Add the remaining raw sugar and work it into the butter until evenly incorporated. Add the eggs one at a time and beat well after each.
Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl and toss with a fork to blend. Add the flour mixture alternately with the water, mixing well after each addition.
Pour 1/2 of the batter into the buttered and floured tube pan. Layer with 1/2 of the apple mixture. Pour the remaining batter over the apple layer, then top with the remaining apple mixture. If there is liquid at the bottom of the apple bowl, pour it over the top. Bake for one hour until firm and slightly coming away from the sides of the pan. Invert the tube pan and transfer the cake to a plate after it has cooled slightly. -jmm