Sunday, December 30, 2012

How I'm Building a Stone Wall

In the previous post, click here, I talked about the stone wall I’ve been working on. In this post I’ll try to explain my process. It took some time to figure out how to get things to work. The challenge of dry stacking a stone wall is that, essentially, it’s gravity that holds it all together. There’s no mortar or concrete. Here’s some of what I figured out.

First, there are a few precautions regarding safety if you are considering building a stone wall. Do all lifting with bent knees, and don’t pick up rocks that you cannot safely maneuver. Learn to gauge your strength, and only do what you feel physically capable of.  

Wear gloves that protect your hands. On days that stones that are wet or damp I wear rubber-coated ones. Leather works well for dry stones. Fleece-lined leather ones are needed for working in chilly weather. Gloves are to protect your hands from rough surfaces, not from falling stones.

Never set a rock or stone in place. Instead, drop them in place. As the rock is falling downward, as a precaution your hands should be moving upward. Dropping a stone often creates a loud and sharp sound, so wear ear protection.

Avoid any temptation to influence the rock's landing. After it lands, and only then, feel free to grab onto it and twist, turn, or even roll it until it settles in. If a stone or rock misses the wall, jump backward quickly. Did I say 'wear work boots?' They are a good idea and steel toes may be helpful, but it's still a good practice to never let a stone or rock land anywhere on you.

Now that you’ve got all the warning stuff, here’s my take on the actual building of a stone wall.
The largest rocks form the bottom of the wall.

The biggest rocks go on the bottom. These are rocks that are too big to be picked up, but can be rolled. I transported some of these by rolling them across the field. Others were brought in the tractor bucket, by far the easiest way to do it.

The biggest ones are set along the property line. I line them up along the string I ran earlier to get the wall exactly straight. Running a string is really the only way to make a perfectly aligned wall. I simply tied a string onto one property marker, ran it to the next one, pulled the string tight and tied a knot. These stones should be set, if at all possible, so they end up with a flat top. It’s easier to build upward if the surface is somewhat level. 
The string used to line up the rocks is at the top of the photo, and there is a row of rocks for the back, and one for the front of the wall. 

A second row of rocks is then lined up along the front of the wall. I don't use a string to mark the front. This is eyeballed and based on experience.  I've learned that a certain width is too narrow to withstand the layers of stones that I want to add later. This is one reason I've pulled apart sections of wall to restack them as mentioned in the earlier post. The base of the wall must be of a width that will accommodate the layers of stones that will make up the height. The wall naturally tapers inward as layers are added.

After lining up the front stones I then fill in between them with small stones. These are called rubble. Rubble consists of all of those smaller stones that are too small to use for stacking.

After the center is filled in, the wall is ready for stacking. Everything from here on up will rely on your stacking abilities. Here are some things I've learned about this.

Each rock stacked onto the wall should be stable as it is set, or it should lean slightly inward toward the center of the wall. Rocks shaped long and narrow help to stabilize the wall if they are set to run toward the center rather than lengthwise. Sections can be done by fitting smaller stones together and then capping them with a large flat one.

I often scrounge for pebbles and small stones to fill cracks and gaps on the top of the wall. I rarely chink stones into the sides of a wall- they tend to fall out and are not needed for the structure of it.
Looking downward: stones are fitted together to create a layer. Note the narrow stones that are set to run toward the center. 

The very top of the wall is best finished with large, flat stones covering as many openings as possible. Squirrels will shuck pine cones on your wall, and leaves will fall on it, and this stuff turns into woodland compost and eventually trees will begin to grow out of the top of your wall. Because of this I try to seal it as well as possible.

An important thing to forget about when building a rock wall is time. Never mind the amount of time it takes and just get out there and move rocks when the weather and bugs allow. It’s finished when it is. -jmm

Monday, December 3, 2012

I'm Working on my Stone Wall

I've always admired stone walls. They configure the countryside around here, outlining fields and roads and often determining property lines. They are especially nice in those farmyards where someone took pains to neatly stack stones into picturesque walls. Others are more rustic looking, having served the purpose of getting a field cleared of rocks.

Our fieldstones are many different shapes. There are rounded ones, broken ones that might have a flat side, triangular or wedge-like ones, and all too few slab-like ones. Some of my favorites are rare to find; thin, wide saucerlike pieces that got broken off of ledge. Occasionally you find one that is shaped like a shallow bowl and could be used to make a birdbath. Fieldstone sizes vary from pebbles to stones, and to rocks that are too big to move. None of these are shapes that easily fit together.

When this piece of land came along, a stone wall was the only thing lacking. Over the years I’ve started garden beds and various landscaping projects. Piles of stones and rocks accumulated, so eventually I got the idea to try building a stone wall. I hadn’t a clue about building with rocks. I lined them up, and then proceeded to stack them. Most of this early work has since been taken apart and done over. You learn by doing.

The wall I’m working on is 237 feet long, and most of it has been rebuilt at least once. This fall I’ve been rebuilding sections of it for a second or third time, and hopefully for the last time. I’m determined to get it right. After starting this wall I have begun work on several more stone walls, just as lengthy. It will be a few years, but I’m determined to have stone walls.

Somewhere along the way I did some research. I found that one should begin with a trench and fill it with rubble or pour in concrete. I do not find that practical nor apparently did New England farmers who stacked their walls on the surface of the ground alongside their fields. The filled trench is to prevent frost heaves, but if any frost heave happens to topple a section of wall, I’ll simply rebuild it. Not a biggie. I know how.

In my research a question emerged asking why some walls are low, and whether they could have sunk. So I wondered whether my walls will sink into the soil. This land is not tilled soil, but is the same forest ground that has been here since the last glacier, so I figure probably not. Yes, rocks would sink into tilled soil. It’s full of air spaces. I wonder, instead, if many years of leaves being caught beside the walls caused trees to root into the leaf mulch and thereby the ground level rose. This is what happens if you try to make compost in the forest. It becomes fodder for roots.

In our recent 4.0 earthquake, I went out the next day to find that not a stone had dislodged from my stone wall in all of that shaking. Maybe it helped some of the stones to settle in better. Or maybe it’s a testament to my stacking abilities. Not at all sure, but it made my day to find the stones intact.

In a next post I’ll reveal a few things I’ve learned about dry stacking a stone wall. -jmm

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Say it ain't so, Ben and Jerry

I'm disappointed that California voters didn't pass proposition 37, the bill that would require labeling of products containing Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO's). Fear was the impetus behind companies spending 45 million dollars on misleading ads to defeat the bill. They are afraid to let consumers know what is happening to their food supply. The vote was close; 47% of California voters spoke in favor of wanting GMO labelling.

Here, courtesy of Wikipedia, is a concise definition of GMO’s (click here to read more of this article):
A genetically modified organism (GMO) is an organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. Organisms that have been genetically modified include micro-organisms such as bacteria and yeast, plants, fish, and mammals. GMOs are the source of genetically modified foods, and are also widely used in scientific research and to produce goods other than food. The term GMO is very close to the technical legal term, 'living modified organism' defined in the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which regulates international trade in living GMOs (specifically, "any living organism that possesses a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology").

The European Union requires labeling of genetically modified products. China, India, and 47 other countries also require labeling. Click here for the Green America list of countries requiring GMO labeling. Why not in the USA? Shouldn't we, too, have the right to know what is in the food we buy and eat?

Requiring labeling would reveal that much of the food on grocery store shelves are or contain genetically modified ingredients. Much of the corn grown in the U.S. comes from seeds that are modified (think high fructose corn syrup). Soy, canola and cotton crops are dominated by GMO plantings. Alfalfa is one of the latest crops under siege, and will be a staple in the diet of beef cattle. Sweet corn seems to be next.

I took a look at the list of companies that contributed to the "we don't want the public to know what we are putting in their food" advertising blitz. (Click here for the list of companies voting "no")There are the usual suspects. Monsanto (who also gave us Agent Orange), Dupont, Pepsi-Cola, Kellog and Heinz. I was surprised to see some names of companies who make organic products. Further inquiry told me that some of these natural and organic companies are owned by conglomerates that are full fledged GMO users. Odwalla, Honest Tea and Simply Orange are owned by Coca Cola. Naked Juice is owned by Pepsi Cola. General Mills and Smucker also own companies using natural or organic labels. 

With these GMO-using companies hiding their contributions behind their more healthy-sounding subsidiaries, some of the public was duped into thinking that these companies were against the labeling of genetically modified products. I have to believe that the smaller companies would have supported Prop 37 if they had not been bought by the larger conglomerates.

There were some even bigger surprises on the list. (Click here for an Organic Consumers Association article on this). Kashi, who has products in health food stores, Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, is on it (owned by Kellogg). Then there was the biggest surprise of all. Say it ain't so; Ben & Jerry's. I guess my boycott will have to include Cherry Garcia and Chunky Monkey. (Unilever, who contributed $467,000 is the parent company owning Ben & Jerry's).

So, what can I do as a citizen concerned about the contents of the food I shop for? First, I can buy organic products whenever possible. One of the requirements for foods to be certified as organic is that they are free of genetically modified ingredients. Second, I can boycott products made by companies that contributed to the 45 million dollar ad campaign.

And third, the best solution of all, is that I can grow as much of my own food as possible. I can use heirloom seeds, and save seeds from year to year, helping to preserve the genetics of these old varieties. -G.H.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Molasses Cranberry Squash Bread

This time of year, as the weather turns chilly, the warm, spicy scent of a seasonal nut bread baking in the oven is a welcome aroma. Anyone coming in from the outdoors is sure to ask, "M-m-m, what's baking?" And you can tell them, "Molasses Cranberry Squash Bread." Ah-h-h, the pleasures of harvest baking...!

Use fork-mashed squash, or non-stringy pumpkin. The cranberries and the nuts are optional; use either, both, or neither as you like. Raisins can be substituted for the cranberries. Suggestion: double the recipe to make a second loaf for the freezer.

Recipe makes one 9 x 5" loaf.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Cream until blended:
1/2 cup butter
3/4 cup raw sugar
1/4 cup molasses

Stir in:
2 eggs, beaten
Sour cream and water combined to equal 1/3 cup
1 cup mashed cooked squash

Combine, then stir into the squash mixture and mix thoroughly:
1-1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
Pinch of salt

(Optional) Stir in:
1/2 cup chopped nuts
1 cup dried cranberries or raisins

Pour mixture into a greased 9 x 5" loaf pan. Bake 1 hour and 10 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean and the bread has shrunken slightly from the edges of the pan. Allow to cool, then remove from the pan. -jmm

Friday, October 26, 2012

Garden Enemy Number One ... cutworms

Garden enemy number one. Is it cutworms? Or slugs? This could be a tough decision, but this year the cutworms are definitely on top of the list. Slugs do a lot of damage including chomping so many holes in leaves that the leaves begin to resemble lace. Cutworms chop a plant right off at soil level, and that's it, the plant is done.

I had started cabbage, broccoli and Brussels sprouts seeds in cold frames for transplanting into designated garden spots. As soon as they came up ...
Chomp. Gone. All of 'em gone. I brought home some pepper seedlings and planted them in a composted plot. Next morning: a pepper plant laying on the ground. The following morning: another.

And so I went into panic mode. What to do? Where to find the weapon to confront garden enemy number one? After some deep pondering and soul searching, I decided to google this problem. I typed "cutworms" into the search field.

One suggestion called for Dixie cups. I got some Dixie cups, cut the bottoms out of them, and put them around the seedlings and young plants, pushing them a couple of inches below the soil. This worked. None of the stems were chomped.

The University of Minnesota Extension Service offers the information that cutworms are the larvae of several species of night flying moths in the Noctuidae family. The term ‘cutworm’ comes from the fact that they cut down young plants as they feed on stems at or below the soil surface. Cutworms attack a wide range of plants including tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, and cabbage. They are active at night, and spend days in the soil, so you may never see them.

It seems that low-growing plants are a destination for native moths to lay their eggs. Many weeds fit this description, and weeds left in the garden in fall to overwinter may harbor hundreds of these eggs. Non-native, or Migrating moths mate and lay eggs from early spring to late summer.

Control of cutworms is said to begin with removing all plants from the garden beds in the fall after harvest. This is followed by tilling the garden beds. This helps to expose, and hopefully destroy over-wintering larvae. Repeating the tilling in the spring is recommended to further this process.

And then, in case you haven’t gotten all of the cutworms, here are some more remedies found in the Google search. We will certainly be trying most of these in the spring.

*In the evening, spray a mixture of insecticidal soap and water around the plants. As the cutworms appear, hand pick them off and dispose of them. You can use a coffee can to put them in and cover it with the lid.

*Spread cornmeal around the plants. Cornmeal is a tasty treat for cutworms, but deadly. They can't digest it but cannot resist it. They overeat the cornmeal and die.

*Set chickens loose in the garden in the fall. Apparently, Chickens find cutworm eggs and larvae quite tasty. This won’t work in spring when the plants are just beginning to sprout. The chickens would also eat the plants.

*Diatomaceous earth spread around the plants is another suggestion, but it must be reapplied after a rain. The sharp bits cut the cutworms when they crawl over it, causing them to dehydrate and die. Cutting the cutworms sounds like a fitting end for garden enemy number one.

Regardless of any of these remedies, spring transplanting will include Dixie cups around the seedlings. A gardening friend offers another, similar remedy. She pushes an ordinary nail into the ground alongside the stem of the plant. We've tried this too, and it seems to work.

We are hoping to see no cutworm damage ... at all ... in our 2013 garden. I'm putting some red wine into one of my Dixie cups to drink to this. Cheers! -G.H.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

It's Clean-up Time

The closet is full of squash. The freezer is crammed with bags of beans. Potatoes, and jars of pickles and relishes fill the shelves of the root cellar. There’s frozen basil, braided garlic, and a crock of sauerkraut. Hot peppers are strung up and hung to dry in the kitchen window. Although beets wait in the garden for the last minute before a hard frost in case they might grow just a tiny bit more, as do the brussels sprouts, for the most of the garden it’s time to clean up.
The last of the garden was gleaned as we pulled up the plants.

We do this every year. This year we’re being ultra careful about it because there was more cutworm damage than we’d care to see (we’ll be doing a post about that). We go around and yank up all the spent plants and throw them onto piles for compost. Then rake up fallen tree leaves and, along with manure, add them in layers to the piles. If autumn gives us plenty of warm days the piles will be turned once or twice. If not, they will be compost by spring anyway.

Fallen leaves are aplenty in this forest environment giving us lots of material for a number of things. Among them are garden pathways. A thick cover of leaves on them serves several functions. Most importantly, the paths stay weed-free all summer. If weeds were allowed to grow there, one of us would have to spend a lot of time weeding, and the same one of us is not into that.

Another benefit is that worms get very busy eating the bottom of the leaf layer. Worm castings are considered a beneficial manure, thus providing nutrients to plants growing alongside the paths. We’ll probably do a post about this sometime, but meanwhile, click here for a source telling about the wonders of worm castings. 

Vining plants like cucumbers and squash spill off the beds and set their fruits on the paths. Lying on mulch, they are clean when we go to pick them.

Yet another benefit of leaves in the paths has to do with slugs. Unwanted populations of the shell-less snails have been growing in the past few years due to excess moisture from our (sadly) changed climate. Using straw or hay as mulch seems to encourage them, but the leaf mulch doesn’t appear to have the same effect. 
Murphy, the ever-wary garden dog inspects the perfectly layered pile of compost.

After filling in the garden paths, more fallen leaves are raked into a piles and reserved for mulching next summer’s potatoes. They are perfect for that, although we do have to check on the mulch as the potatoes grow. Worms eat away at it and it can all but disappear. Adding more saves the potatoes and keeps the worms fed.

Then, the final thing to do with the garden beds is to go over them with a four prong cultivator, fluffing the top layer of soil. We hope this will discourage the afore-mentioned cutworms. The soil of the beds is then left bare for the winter. Any undesirables might be either bleached away by the sun, or frozen out over the winter. This is what we’ve done for a good number of years, and it seems to work for us.

And, while we're cleaning up, there is also some fall planting to do. It’s garlic planting time. Garlic needs cold temperatures to induce bulbing, making October an ideal time to plant. We gather another pile of raked leaves and reserve them to cover the garlic after the soil freezes. Click here for our post about garlic.

Some of our prior blog posts are about our cold frames, into which are now planted winter salad greens and spinach. Click on “Cold Frames” in the righthand column for our posts about those. Cleaning and planting seem to be on the October agenda! -jmm and G.H

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Favorite Plant: Purple Pole Beans

Trust me, we wouldn’t rave about beans unless we really thought them worthy of it. Beans are a mainstay amongst garden veggies and most often don’t attract much thought. They are mostly trouble free, easy to grow, one of the most reliable of the veggies, and there have always been plenty to pick. It would be easy to take them for granted.

Normally we have little debate over which variety to choose from the seed catalog. We simply get Provider Bush Beans, and a yellow, wax bean, also a bush type. The bush beans put out a great crop in the space of a short garden row over several weeks. Then the plants are yanked and stacked on the compost pile. A crop of spinach or other fast grower can be planted in the now-empty row with plenty of time to grow before a frost. Or not, depending on mood, the weather, other commitments, or even whim. It was this way for years.

Then one year, in a mood or on a whim, I decided to try the three sisters; the traditional combo of corn, beans and squash. A new place had to be found for this, since the garden beds are already predestined for their designated crops. The new area started with three separate mounds of composting material (for info on what we compost, and how we do it, see the post on composting here). Onto these went some dirt and composted manure. Over each mound I set up a tripod of three tall poles tied together near the top. Finding poles is easy here. We simply do some thinning in the woods, a benefit to the larger trees.

Next, I planted the seeds. Because I never really trust things to grow anyway (based on some past experiences), I didn’t bother to stagger the plantings. Corn is supposed to be seeded first. The beans and squash are supposed to go in when the corn is off to a good start. The beans can then climb up the corn, while the squash simply gads about around the feet of the other plants. As it turned out, however, the corn grew into feeble foot high stalks and no farther. The beans climbed the poles, and the squash rambled all over the nearby countryside. For squash and beans, the experiment was a success. And, we haven’t continued to plant the third sister, corn. 

The beans happened to be purple pole beans, a seed catalog selection based on something-that-looked-interesting with no practical considerations intended. My preference for the color purple was the only prerequisite for choosing this style of bean. Purple would be fun, a color boost to the garden. And, of course I didn’t expect they would grow and climb the poles and produce beans.

But grow they did, producing a bountiful crop that came in later than the bush beans and kept going way into fall. They are easy to pick; they grow in bunches and you can grab a whole handful at once. Wonderful to eat; they turn deep green when cooked, and are excellent for freezing. Everything you'd want in a bean! 

We have been saving seeds ever since. Saving the seeds is easy. Leave the beans on the vine until the pods turn brown. Pick them, open the pods, and spill the seeds onto a plate. Leave them to dry for a few days, then put them into a paper envelope. Viola, next year’s beans! -jmm

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Freezing Basil

Fresh from the garden, basil, Ocimum basilicum, is an aromatic delight. It has a pungency that goes airborne, steeping the entire yard and then the house when leaves are picked and brought into the kitchen. A natural room freshener, it floods your nasals with a deep aroma that lasts for awhile. According to Wikipedia, basil is related to mint, and there are more than 160 varieties of it. It is a half hardy annual that does not survive a frost.
Basil in the colander ready to wash.

Fresh is the ultimate way to use this plant. Although it’s common to find dried basil in the spice selection at the market, drying it leaves only a hint of its heady scent. We’ve found that freezing basil preserves much more scent and flavor. While there's nothing like fresh, a package of basil taken from the freezer has a lot more of the basil aroma than the dried variety.

There are three varieties of basil in our garden this year. They are Genovese, the most common basil and the type found in most supermarket produce sections; Thai, with smaller leaves and its own aroma; and Lime with a distinctly citrus aroma. Lime basil is a new variety for us this year.

Drying the basil.
Over the summer we've made a few batches of pesto, herbed up our soups and stir fries and included basil in salads. After picking leaves for these things, more leaves grow; the plants keep on producing. Because of this there is plenty to put away for winter, and now that fall is here, it’s time to freeze some basil.

Here's how we do it.

Pluck the leaves from the stems and wash them in cold water.

On the pan and ready to freeze.
Dry the leaves between two layers of towels.

Place the leaves on a baking sheet, spreading them out to prevent clumping.

Put the baking sheet in the freezer for a few hours or overnight.

Take the pan out of the freezer, package the frozen leaves in a large bag, and put the basil back into the freezer.

We use the frozen basil by taking a small handful out of the bag, chopping it and adding to cooked dishes. Freezing basil causes it to wilt, making it less suitable for uncooked uses.

The process of preparing basil for freezing takes only a small amount of time. It's a way to enjoy its fabulous aromas and flavors all winter long. -G.H.  

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Friday at the Common Ground Fair

We always look forward to going to the fair but this year we were so excited about it that Gil told Marsha to set the alarm for 5:30 a.m. Nobody in this household ever gets up so early on a day off but in our anticipation we got up anyway. It was dark. It was cold. The coffee was too hot. After two navigational boo boo’s we finally got on the turnpike. And arrived at the fair in plenty of time to wait twenty minutes for it to open... (insert a smiley face here!).
A goat cart.

The rest of the day went very well, and we spent most of it attending hour-long classes and learning some good stuff. In the first of these Gil learned a method of cutting down a tree with a chainsaw and getting it to fall exactly where you want it to. This method we had not seen before, and it appeared much safer and easier than others. The teacher was very good, and talked a lot about safety issues.
The teacher has felled the tree exactly where he intended.

Finding the excavation pit for the next class was a little bit of an exercise because it had no marker or sign. But we took a few guesses and a few wrong turns and eventually met up with the teacher and got there. This teacher was a soil scientist. He explained that much of his work is to help farmers make the best use of their land. Although the pit didn't look like much at first, the talk was fascinating. We learned how to identify the various colored layers of sand, clay, and buried topsoil, and the difference between undisturbed soil and that which had long ago been cultivated. We heard about how the latest glacier- it had been a mile thick over Maine- affected things. We walked away with new insight into our own piece of land.
The horses are waiting to haul away the felled tree.

Following our usual lunch of organic lamb sausage (really yum...! with chopped fresh-veggie hot salsa), we learned about how to raise a steer in our yard. This was excellent not just because the teacher told us everything we need to know from buying the animal to having it processed, but it also let us know that this is something we can do here, even with our limited area of pasture.
Carved wooden faces.

Finally, famous author Harvey Ussery lectured us on some of the ways that an unheated greenhouse can be used. Marsha having gotten up way too early took a nap so you would have to ask Gil about what he learned.
A famous author's truck.

On our way out we browsed through some of the art and craft displays, and then the farmer's market. We bought our usual two cabbages for kraut-making and some garlic for planting. And, last but not least, since we are fond of name-dropping: we found that we had parked by famous author Eliot Coleman (Four Season Harvest). A great day at the fair! -jmm

Monday, September 10, 2012

A Book About Manure

One day I was browsing on the Kindle ebooks site and came upon this little gem of a book: 
Farm Gardening with Hints on Cheap Manuring,
Quick Cash Crops and How to Grow Them, by Anonymous.
Published by Johnson & Stokes, seed growers and merchants, 1898

What first caught my eye was the reference to manure, and second that the book is free. Manure might not factor large in your agenda, but it is meaningful for us largely because of our cucumber, zucchini, and winter squash yields this year. They are the best we’ve ever seen, a fact we attribute to farmer Mike's organic cow manure.

The book is in the public domain due to the year it was published, 1898. 
I was curious about what would be said on gardening and growing things from then. It was interesting to find that compost was mentioned. What happened to compost between then and now? My father gardened, but without a compost pile. Weeds and used-up plants were tossed into garden pathways and roto-tilled in the following spring. Same with my grandparents. My then-father-in-law threw weeds and spent plants into the garbage can until one year his plants refused to grow, a problem dismissed as "the blight."

Then suddenly, in the mid 1970's, compost became part of down-home philosophy along with making your own granola and using whole wheat for baking. I made a compost pile in my garden. My mother made one in her garden, and I thought it was a new thing. Um, no. Now, after all these years I discover that “compost” was in the vocabulary all the way back to 1898. This is like when someone tells me, there’s nothing new on earth. Well, i guess: there’s nothing new on earth.

Enough of my rant, and back to the book. The first chapter is called "Making the Soil Rich," and is about manure. After a short mention of lime- it either produces remarkable results or makes no apparent difference, Anonymous states: "Barnyard manure is the best of all known fertilizers. Not only is it complete in character, but it has the highly valuable property of bulk. It opens and ventilates the soil, and improves its mechanical condition to a remarkable degree. Humus is a name for decaying organic matter."

The chapter goes on to cover the three basic nutrients; nitrogen, phosphoric acid, and potash. It tells how to store and work with manure, and the statement is made that once spread, manure should be dug in right away. This is a proven truth in our orchard. Manure does nothing to change the soil if it lies on top. Like Anonymous says, it has to be dug in. Digging up forest floor is no small feat. We've blogged about the difficulties of converting from forest to garden soil.

Anonymous also talks about green manure, and the growing of legumes to provide nitrogen, ideas I’d figured were invented in the 1970's along with compost.

Following the information on manure, Anonymous talks about vegetables, each one individually. This is excellent information. If you want to know about growing a particular plant type, look it up here. The information is divided into categories including how to plant, cultivate, fertilize, and prepare each one for market. The information will be helpful for someone who wants to sell at a farmers market, as well as for any home gardener.

We learned quite a bit with the entry on asparagus. Anonymous says to plant the crowns 15" deep. This is twice the depth given by our gardening catalogs. The ebook suggests that shallow planting leads to skinny stalks. It also says that asparagus needs lots of manure. This information was sufficient to get us out to the asparagus patch to pile a mix of dirt and manure onto our skinny stalks.

In the section about beans we learned: "The soil of a new bean patch is sometimes inoculated with soil from an old patch, to get quick action of the bacteria..." Our gardening catalogs somehow neglect to tell us this, encouraging the purchase of "inoculant" instead. Hmmm, another tidbit that is good to know.

And there's much more. This is a great little book to have in our collection, and well worth the time it took to download. (If you don’t have a Kindle reader, the Amazon site offers a free version for a computer, and there is an app for a free ipad reader). -jmm

Thursday, August 23, 2012


In addition to writing about our experiences with plants, I like to dig deeper, yes thats a pun, and pull together more info than I alone could offer. Lovage, Levisticum officinale, for instance is a very ordinary plant for us. It’s been growing here for fifteen or so years, is a real mainstay, and I guess we kind of take it for granted. It dawned on me one day to do a post about it, and I looked it up online. The results were startling.

Lovage is uncommon. Rare is the gardener who grows it, and even though it is of European origin, it is uncommon in England. An English author muses about this, click here for the article. This author, like others, extolls virtues of the entire plant; leaves, stem, roots and seeds are edible and useful. For our own purposes we use only the leaves. They are plentiful and we pick as needed- we don't store lovage. The leaves have some similarity to celery leaves but they are are larger, thicker and a deeper green.

Lovage has a strong celery flavor, and is useful as a celery substitute either raw or cooked. The plant does not supply the shape of celery. For that you need celery. We use it for the flavor, never-minding the shape, and are generally happy about the savings. Celery is expensive and for most of the year we don’t need to buy it.

The plant is a four to six foot tall, hardy perennial and very easy to grow. A testament to the perseverance of lovage is that ours struggled in less than optimal soil conditions for years, barely surviving. The plants have improved along with the health of the soil, and they are now taller, greener, and much leafier.

It’s one of the first plants we start using right away in spring, as soon as there are several leaves and the plant can afford to lose one or two. Leaves are produced way into fall, with a heavy frost ending its growing year.

Around midsummer, when lovage goes to seed, we always hope that several new plants will get started. It’s an important plant, far from invasive, and we always want to have several to harvest from.

There are many uses for it. Finely chop a handful of leaves and add to green salad, potato or pasta salad. Chop the leaves finely or coarsely and add to stews, soups, or just about anything that is cooking in a pan on the stove. It is good with chicken, lamb, beef, eggs, potatoes, etc. And it is especially good for creating a rich soup broth. Common to us but not to many others, this is a plant we don’t want to be without. -jmm

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Kitchen Classics

The Limerick, Maine Public Library has published a cookbook; Kitchen Classics: Limerick Public Library Community Cookbook, filled with recipes contributed by local residents. There are many that we can’t wait to try; Garlic Ginger Bok Choy, Braised Green Cabbage, Rhubarb Cake, and Chocolate Zucchini Cake among many others.

And ... we are ever so flattered that they have included several recipes from our blog!

The cookbook is part of a fundraiser for the library to purchase a web-based catalog system. To obtain your copy of Kitchen Classics, send $10 plus $3 for postage and packing to:

Limerick Public Library
55 Washington St.
Limerick ME 04048

Or, if you are nearby, find it at local businesses or the library. -jmm

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Salad Art

This time of year is good for salad making. Our salad plants are year -round with the use of  cold frames, but right now our salads are especially full of flavors and colors. The multi-hued greens of freshly picked leafy plants beautifully set off the colors of the many other things we add.
The brilliant colors of summer salad

The leafy greens include three kinds of lettuce, and arugula, upland cress, and lovage. To this we add perennial onion, chives, cucumber, tomato, carrot, red and yellow peppers. Colorful additions to this are raddichio, purple cabbage, and chive blossoms (all purple); blueberries or raspberries; and brilliant orange and yellow nasturtium flowers.

This makes a full bodied salad that is a seasonal luxury. It seems to call for the uncorking of a bottle of rich, red bordeaux wine, and a wood-fire grilled t-bone steak as a side dish. It is edible art. G.H. and jmm

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Aromatic Herbs

Now, after the roses, daylilies, and most of the perennials have bloomed, the aromatics have started to flower. Aromatic herbs are scented herbal plants.
Last year I started catnip (nepeta cataria), lemony catnip (nepeta cataria ssp. Citriodora), anise hyssop, (agastache foeniculum), and lemon balm (melissa officinalis) from seed. They are of the mint family, and are distinctly aromatic. Lemon catnip and lemon balm are lemony, and anise hyssop has a scent like licorice. Even though they have different names, they have some common characteristics.
For the most part, the flowers are unexceptional. Fuzzy looking, whitish or purplish and tending to blend in with the landscape. They are not about to compete with your daylilies, bearded iris, roses and peonies. Quite the opposite; there is not much interesting about these flowers.
Anise Hyssop with a squash vine climbing over it. 
The plants are all similar. They are green and leafy, but are not a showy specimen for your yard. They can even be a little weedy looking. Especially the catnip right now; it is squashed. We have a kitty neighbor who wanders through and it seems she likes to take a roll in it.
They are seedy. Even though perennial, they will spread seeds all over your countryside. Why the plants evolved as perennials is a mystery to me, their behavior strongly resembles reseeding annuals.  In the year after flowering, many little babies emerge. This is not a problem for us, the extras are easy to pluck out, and we are always looking for materials for compost (click here for the compost post).
So why are we entertaining these lovely specimens? Because they have some characteristics that are really positive.
I hear the catnips are a better mosquito repellent than deet. I haven’t tried it, but it is said that the effectiveness of catnip is ten times better than deet. (If you are wondering about using deet, google: "dangers of deet.") Some sources say to rub the leaves on your skin, others say to mix oil derived from them with oils of other plants that also act as repellents.
The flowers attract bees, bugs, and butterflies. Bees seem to really love them, and I’ve seen the plants completely buzzing with bees. Apparently bees are attracted to the sweetness of the nectar. We enjoy keeping the bees happy.
I use the leaves and flowers for tea, usually combining a sprig of one of them with a leaf or two of mint; they make a wonderful scented cuppah. At the end of the growing season I grab them up in bunches along with a few other plants and dry them for winter tea. The flavor seems less strong after drying, so I mix my winter tea with purchased green or white tea.
The aromatic herbs benefit our compost, our bees, butterflies and other insects, and are good for tea. My plan is to let them spread throughout perennials borders and around the veggie plants. As we establish hedgerows along the pasture, they can seed themselves there too. The aromatics are weedy, but welcome! -jmm