Sunday, December 22, 2013

It's the Solstice!

Note: we've added pics of the recent snowfall as nature is also a big part of our celebrations.
Winter solstice. December 21. Nightist of nights and day of least light with each day forward seeing more light. The winter solstice has been a time of celebration since the Celtics of Neolithic times. It is the celebration of the deity responsible for harvests and fertility. This is a time for feasting, music and dancing.
Bough'd under weight of snow
Solstice celebrations are rooted in ancient traditions from before the time of Stonehenge. Before the discovery of faiths from the East, like Buddhism and Hinduism. Before a religion from the Middle East was imported to Europe and later to the Americas, imposed many times by the sword.
Lion's Mane mushroom on maple
What is known of the earliest history of the Celtics is that they originated in Central Europe. Their culture spread north to the British Isles, south to Gaul, the Iberian Peninsula and France and into Bohemia and the Po Valley in northern Italy. This was during the Iron Age where they were skilled in these crafts. They were responsible for some of the earliest farming methods in Europe.  They were described as hairy and wearing colorful attire. We children of the 60’s can relate to that.
Great big burl on oak
They established communities of farmers and metal workers with a sophisticated system of laws and spirituality. Communities were made up of family farms with communal land to provide for chiefs, priests, the old, poor and sick. Common lands provided for grazing and foraging. There were annual assemblies that including feasting, music and tribal business. Land disputes were settled and petty crimes were tried. Chiefs and officials were democratically elected and could be either male or female.  Here in Limerick we have an annual meeting to take care of our town business, including electing our Selectpersons and voting on budgets and expenditures. With our New England puritan background, it seems we’ve forgotten the music and feasting that were an integral part of our Celtic heritage. Hope I don’t get burned at the stake for suggesting that we include a feast and barn dance to be part of the next town meeting. I’ll bet attendance would be enhanced if we did. 
Red Pine baby
A unifying bond between Celtic tribes was the Druids, the ancient priests. They were at the pinnacle of a highly evolved religious system than included meditation, belief in reincarnation and in a supreme being. The Druids travelled freely throughout Europe, including forays into Greece and Rome. A Solstice ritual was for Druid initiates to meditate while in a state of sensory deprivation by sitting in the dark,  coming out on the morning of the Winter Solstice to be released into the brightness, representing a rebirth.
Big rock snowcapped
Our early ancestors were a non-literate society, so written records of their practices come from cultures that came into contact with them. Julius Caesar, in 50BCE, said they “know much about the stars and celestial motions, and about the size of the earth and universe, and about the essential nature of things, and about the powers and authority of the immortal gods, and these things they teach to their pupils”.  Aristotle also referred to them, as did Livy’s Early History of Rome. The Druids, as well as Celtic tribal practices, were driven underground when a new religion spread into Europe from the East. Remnants of our ancestral heritage remain in many hearts and minds yet. 
Clump of maples

We celebrate the 2013 Winter Solstice, appreciating the roots of our ancestral past and embracing the current spirit of the Druids to make sense of the present and to prepare us for the future. The past is not to dwell on. It is to understand where we have been. We are moving forward in a world far different that what it was when Stonehenge was built, when Buddha sat under a tree, when Jesus sermonized on a mount. Technology has created a world of convenience. We have become separated from fields, forests, and harvests and tending herds. Without understanding our roots, our lives may be disconnected from who we are. Eating and drinking, singing and dancing,  and making love are the basics of life. These are what our ancestors celebrated in a simpler time. These are still the building blocks of our humanity, and we can focus on these basics of life while wandering through the maze of modernism. -G.H.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Beyond the Garden

...and giving thanks

Most of our blog posts have been about our gardening adventures, for us, a four-season event. It begins with a  spring harvest of over-wintered veggies and foraging from emerging perennials like lovage, chives, and asparagus. This is followed by summer-long tending of the usual and classic garden varieties from cukes to zucchini. In fall there’s garlic planting, and setting up the cold frames and winter is about harvesting those hardy greens.

Although gardening is a big part of our lifestyle, there’s more to it. We’re wannabe homesteaders. Homesteading can include many do-it-yourself activities, and the one right now involves a sawmill. Due to the gracious generosity of a friend, we have borrowed a Wood Mizer band saw mill for cutting our trees into boards.

With big projects in our future we’ve had to take down some trees to make room. Some of these are sugar maples up to about eighteen inches in diameter. Way too precious to be burned as firewood, thanks to the sawmill they are now repurposed as one-inch thick planks. Maple boards may come in handy as they are good for floors, cupboards, and fine furnishings. The first batch of these are now stacked, to let them dry for a couple of years.

And the large pines, some over a hundred feet tall and more than two feet in diameter are too big, clumsy and heavy for the sawmill. These required an investment into a chain saw attachment to pare them into posts and beams. The chain saw mill, with a 36-inch bar, can handle twelve foot lengths that are needed for timber framing. Some eight by ten inch posts are now drying, with more to follow as the big trees come down.

Most of our homestead is forest, and forest will continue to occupy most of the property. When we do have to take down a tree, we don’t want to take it lightly. We want to see it put to good use. Native Americans used the forest with respect and dignity. When a birch tree was cut to provide bark to make a canoe, they thanked the tree for providing this resource. Though we need to remove some trees, we also want to do so with a spirit of respect and thankfulness. That’s our guiding force for everything we do here. -G.H.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

November's Garden, and Potato-Turnip Soup

There’s nothing better than a delicious bowl of steaming garden soup as the days become chilly and short. Even though most of the garden has been harvested and stored, undaunted by the frosty nights, there’s still perennial and hardy annual vegetables for the picking, and perfect for making that bowl of soup!
The lovage has suffered some slight wilt, but is still good to use.
Perennial onion has provided for us since spring, and yet endures.
Wild garlic has popped up after a summer's absence and offers its pungency for raw and cooked dishes.
Kale has come into its season; turning sweet with the frosty nights.
Giant red mustard, having reseeded itself to produce a second crop, provides a bright burgundy color for the autumn season along with a crisp, spicy flavor.
Fully grown turnip is left to reside in garden soil until a need for it arises.

These are excellent candidates for brewing a wholesome and flavorful soup stock. Add to them some freshly stored potatoes, carrots, and onions from the root cellar. 

Potato-Turnip Soup
This garden soup is luscious and rich.

1 tbsp of butter
Medium onion, chopped

3 medium potatoes
1 large turnip
3 large carrots

Any combination of ingredients plucked from the garden- I used perennial onion, wild garlic, a couple of leaves each of kale, red mustard and lovage, all chopped fine. 

1 tbsp each of dried marjoram and thyme
Sea salt, freshly ground pepper

1 tbsp of butter
Several slices of turkey bacon

3 or more cloves of finely minced fresh garlic

In a dutch oven, melt and heat 1 tbsp of butter until sizzling. Add the chopped onion and cook until the onion is browned. Dice the potatoes, turnip, and carrots into small pieces and add.

Add the finely chopped garden ingredients.

Add water until it is about two or three inches above the vegetables. As the soup cooks, add water as needed to make the soup to your preferred consistency. This soup can be made thin, or it can be thick and substantial.

Heat to a low simmer, then allow to cook until the vegetables are softened, one to two hours (or cook it in a crock pot on low for most of a day).

Keeping the soup on the heat, use a potato masher to finely mash the vegetables. This will thicken the soup; add water if it is too thick. Add minced garlic, marjoram, thyme, salt and pepper.

Cook the turkey bacon in 1 tbsp of butter and add it to the soup. Cook at a low simmer until flavors are incorporated, about 15 to 20 minutes.

Ladle into serving bowls, and top each bowl with a sprinkling of finely chopped garlic. A dollop of sour cream may be added also. -jmm

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Shelling Beans

It’s clean up time in the garden. Preparing beds for spring by working in compost, raking leaves into pathways, and collecting spent stalks into piles for next years’ compost are a part of the zen of the season. Communing with nature in the beautiful weather of early fall seems as productive to the psyche as gleaning the last of the produce is to the dinner table. Right now we’re harvesting the last of the purple pole beans.

They’ve served us well this year. It could be either that they grew well, or that we planted lots of them. These were grown from seeds saved from the year before, and there was a large envelope of them. Six tripods and six poles were each planted with three bean seeds per pole. The plants twined their way up the poles, with a few missing the poles entirely and meandering into squash vines from where each of them were found, untangled, and redirected.

The pole beans politely waited until the bush beans finished producing, and then almost suddenly began to appear in clusters. Many of the young beans were picked by handfuls, cooked, and eaten right away. Many others were blanched, and schlepped into the freezer.
Purple pole beans have white seeds
The last of the beans matured and then went ignored for awhile. We have now selected the best and largest of them, splitting open the pods to save seeds for next year. And, left were many, many more over-ripened beans on the vines. How easy it would be to pull up the plants and toss them onto a compost pile! But, why waste a good bean seed? So, we are preparing them as dried beans. After popping open the pods and spilling the seeds out onto pans, they are left to dry. The dried beans will be stored in glass jars.

Purple pole beans are fabulous as dried beans. To cook them, soak overnight along with a piece of kelp, then cook at a low simmer until softened. Enjoy them in chili as we have. Click here for Gil’s Fabulous Beer Garden Chili recipe. -G.H.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013


I opened my eyes this morning. I waited to feel the stiffness in my shoulders, the ache in my back, the cramp in my legs. Not there!! Even after spending the day before as an amateur lumberjack. Lugged a chainsaw through the woods. Cut and hauled brush. Loaded logs onto a portable sawmill. Stacked the milled boards. Harvested fall produce from the garden. Hiked through the woods with the dog. After such a day, this sixty-some year old body could have expected some pain, cramps and stiffness. But, they weren't happening.
Murphy does yoga too
I blame this on yoga. Last night I spent 10 to 15 minutes doing a simple yoga routine. No medication. Just yoga and stretching. This morning I was ready to do it all again. Lumber milling and stacking. Turning compost piles. Gardening. And our dog Murphy will make sure we take our walks in the woods. Tonight I'll lay on the floor and stretch and twist. I'll sit and flex my legs. I'll get into the downward dog and the cat positions. I'll stand and crane my neck.

Tomorrow I'll wake up and look for the shoulder stiffness, the back pain and the leg cramps. But, I'll bet they won't be there. Thanks to yoga! -G.H.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

We are in the Newspaper!

Our local newspaper, the Waterboro Reporter, on 4 Oct., 2013 ran an article about our gardening and landscaping efforts. We are very impressed with the article and completely tickled to be written about. The newspaper has graciously allowed us to republish the article in its entirety here on our blog. Here it is:

Making use of the land
By Shelley Burbank

At first it was just a woman and some land. When Marsha Michler bought acreage on a wooded hillside 14 years ago, there was nothing there but forest. “I couldn’t find any signs of agriculture here,” she said, stepping across a hand-built cobblestone patio in front of her house. “I think it’s always been just forest.” Clearing a spot in the woods, she had a house built and worked on creating the patio out of stones she dug out of the land.

When Gil Harris joined Marsha a few years later, the two began to experiment with different types of gardens to see what would work best on the rocky, tree-covered soil. Judiciously cutting a few trees here and there allowed sunlight into the space. Michler and Harris began to slowly build up a variety of gardens–raised beds, horseshoe gardens, hugelkultur (soil on top of wood) gardens, traditional row gardens and cold-frame boxes. One huge, old pine log provided a perfect growing medium for strawberries and then cucumbers.

Due to their hard work, Michler and Harris are now able to eat year-round from food harvested just outside the kitchen door.

It didn’t happen overnight. “We worked at it a little at a time,” Michler said. “We moved things here and there.” The little-at-a-time approach produced some amazing results. Michler built 237 feet of stonewall just by excavating near a ledge in back of the house and forming the wall a few rocks at a time, day by day. She plans on continuing it down the length of the property. An asparagus bed that Gil dug the first year he moved in now produces delicious perennial veggies in the spring. Perennial chives, lovage, onions, wild garlic, sorrel and red mustard provide greens throughout the growing season, some self-seeding wherever they find a friendly spot.

There was a learning curve. “After spending all summer digging roots and rocks, I decided raised beds are the way to go,” Harris said with a laugh as he described the first summer he spent working on creating a vegetable garden area in back of the house. Instead of digging into the soil, now Michler and Harris experiment with different kinds of raised beds. Into these beds went squashes, beans, herbs, flowers, beets, and chard–just to name a few of the varieties.

There were also happy accidents along the way. When her house was built, Michler had a few trees cut. The logs and branches were piled up under some trees in front of the house. “It was hardwood,” Marsha said. “I didn’t have a saw. I didn’t have a stove to burn wood. So it stayed right there.” Instead of moving the wood, she began to fill in the spaces with leaves and compost. The three-foot high pile began to sink lower. She brought in some dirt to put on top and planted a mock orange shrub, a quince bush, and some shade-loving perennials.

Although the couple didn’t realize it, they were creating a hugelkultur garden bed. Hugelkultur is a gardening concept becoming more popular with people looking to create sustainable growing environments around their homes. Hugelkultur is the practice of creating raised garden beds out of rotting wood. As the wood breaks down, organic materials become available for the plants. The punky wood also helps retain rainwater, cutting down on the need for using additional water for the garden. Michler and Harris cover their piles of logs and branches with leaf litter, remnants of summer plants and table scraps. They top the mound with soil and organic manure from a local dairy farm, and into this bed of organic nutrients go the greens, vegetables and fruit plants.

The couple uses other garden concepts as well. One that stems from the permaculture movement–a sustainable environment design that attempts to mimic natural ecosystems–is the keyhole garden. These are shaped in a semi-circular design facing south to catch the sun all day. The keyhole–a pathway up the middle of the garden–allows for easy access to the plants. This design takes up less space and is more efficient at capturing the sunlight, ensuring more growing space and fewer walkways. Usually, larger plants go in the back, while the smaller plants are placed up front so everything can catch the maximum amount of sunshine.

Marsha’s and Gil’s keyhole garden was built on top of pine boughs and then layered with the compost and leaves and soil. It became a salad garden, with everything needed for a healthy salad in one handy space. Nearby, a large pine had been cut down because it was too close to the house. Marsha noticed that the double trunk formed a perfect frame for a new growing spot. “We put in huge amounts of dirt and manure. The branches rotted down really quick,” said Marsha, who planted strawberries in the log garden the first year. However, the chipmunks loved the fruit so much that the following year she decided to grow her cucumbers there.

The couple enjoys fresh greens throughout the winter by growing hardy plants in wooden cold-frame boxes. “We were inspired by Helen and Scott Nearing and by Eliot Coleman,” Gil said. The Nearings and Coleman are well known in sustainable-gardening circles for the many years they’ve been homesteading in Maine. The Nearings, some of the original “back-to-the-landers” in the 1960s, experimented with living off the land and wrote and lectured about their lifestyle. Coleman worked for them, homesteaded next door, and eventually developed some of the winter-gardening concepts that Harris and Michler are now using, including cold-frame gardening.

“Our first cold-frame was straw bales with a window over it,” said Harris. Michler added, “The straw attracted slugs, though.”

Because they were pleased with how well the hardy greens did over that first winter, the following year they built wooden cold-frames. This year Gil is experimenting with stapling sandpaper to the outside of the boxes to deter the slugs. Mache–a delicious dark green–will actually grow all year even in the coldest winter months. The arugula will grow in to the fall and then remain green for the picking. “That could go all winter,” said Gil. “We’ll also have lettuce until January.”

Just how much time does all this take? “It’s definitely part time,” said Marsha. Both Harris and Michler have sedentary jobs, and so getting out into the garden is a good respite, both physically and mentally. “Philosophically, I believe it is good to be self-sufficient,” said Harris. “We even enjoy shoveling snow. After a storm it’s usually a nice day.”

“It’s what I call immediate nutrition. If you can pick something and immediately eat it, it hasn’t been trucked, hasn’t been warehoused,” said Michler, who is a talented artist that works with fiber, jewelry, and quilting. She is a published author of craft books put out by Krause Publications. She also recently started self-publishing her books “because I love to do the whole thing, the layout, the cover art, the writing, the photography. With publishers, I had to let go of the layout, the cover, even the title. I love doing the whole process. I think it through that way.”

This holistic approach to her work jives with the couple’s holistic approach to their land. “We look at the ideas and see what we can use. We’re experimenting. We’ve begun to save a few seeds–squash, nasturtiums, beans,” said Harris. They have also begun a huge hugelkultur bed that will one day be grass for pasture for a horse and possibly their own beef and poultry. Already, the soil and branches have sprouted a green groundcover. “See how springy it is,” Marsha said, pressing on it with her foot. “This was all dug out, and when there was a heavy rain, it was a brook running down to the neighbors.” Now the area absorbs the water, and the area is well on its way into being integrated into the overall landscape design scheme.

The land nourishes the couple, and when there is abundance, the couple shares with the wider community by donating produce to the local food pantry. Marsha explained that the Cooperative Extension now has a program to log how much food is being donated into the food pantries through a voluntary program called Harvest for Hunger.

Marsha and Gil plan on continuing to shape their property and experiment with permaculture and other gardening techniques. In hopes of inspiring others, they blog about their experiences at http://theexistentialgardener.blogspot.com. To learn more about Marsha’s art and books, her website is http://www.jmarshamichler.com.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Spring Rolls

Right at the end of summer, after turning basketfuls of cucumbers into pickles, with many more snapped up by Gil’s work associates and a five pound bagful donated to our ASC cause click here for the story on that- a local food pantry, (many thanks to all of our giftees!), still a few more and a few more keep coming in on the vines albeit in a more gradual fashion than earlier. It’s great to have them. I thought of spring rolls. I love cucumber in spring rolls.

Spring rolls aren’t dependent on a cucumber harvest; they can be made at any time of the year out of ingredients you may have on hand. Made out of your own produce, they are light appetizers filled with flavors of the garden. And a great way to serve raw veggies. After enjoying them at our favorite Thai restaurant, as a treat preceding our favorite duck and veggie stir fry, a lovely dish with little baby ears of corn, we figured we could make some of our own.

Here is how to make spring rolls. Once you make them you will see how easy they are to prepare; if the process looks daunting in the photos it really isn’t. Adapt the fillings to what you have available. The list here consists of what we had at the time. Optional ingredients could include basil, arugula, other aromatic greens, and lettuce. Mix and match according to what your garden has to offer, and to your preferences.

To make the spring rolls shown here I used:
Cucumber, sliced thinly lengthwise
Giant red mustard, rolled lengthwise and sliced thinly
Perennial onion, thin-sliced lengthwise
Mint leaves, whole (they could be chopped)
Carrot, thin-sliced lengthwise

You will need:
Spring roll wrappers
Small quantity of thin bean or rice noodles, cooked according to package instructions
Dipping sauce (a recipe follows)

As you prepare the vegetables, arrange them onto a plate. Place warm water into a deep plate- a pie plate works well.

Soak one spring roll wrapper in the warm water, holding it under the water for about twenty seconds. Take it out of the water when the wrapper is softened, but not too wimpy to handle.

Place the soaked wrapper onto a clean surface such as a countertop. Place the following just below the center of the wrapper and up to about an inch of the ends: a thin line of the rice or bean noodles, then a thin line of each of the prepared veggies.

Fold the sides of the wrapper inwards over the fillings. Pick up the bottom edge of the wrapper, bring it up and around the fillings, and tuck it in under the fillings fitting the wrapper as snugly as possible.

Finish rolling the spring roll, then place it on a plate. Make more until you have a sufficient quantity.

With a sharp knife trim off the ends, then slice each roll to make four sections, placing them upright on a serving plate.

Place the dipping sauce into a small container. Spoon a small amount of dipping sauce over a roll before eating.

Light Savory Dipping Sauce
This recipe comes from Crescent Dragonwagon’s excellent cookbook, Passionate Vegetarian. Feel free to adapt ingredients to suit your tastes.

2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup tamari or shoyu soy sauce
1/3 cup rice vinegar
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp minced peeled ginger
1/2 tsp toasted sesame oil
1/2 tsp srirache or other hot sauce (optional)

Combine all of the ingredients. Place into a small bowl for serving, and sprinkle with a small quantity of chopped peanuts. -jmm

Friday, September 27, 2013

Our Trip to the Common Ground Fair

We made our annual trek to the Common Ground Fair on the opening day this year. This is our kind of fair, no ferris wheels or cotton candy. 
Horse farming demo
There are sustainability workshops, organic gardening displays, livestock handling events and low impact forestry demonstrations.
The Organic Garden parade
We stopped by a timber framing exhibit to talk about the barn we're planning to build. The timber framer talked to us about post and beam sizes, and barn styles. We needed to confirm the sizes of the posts we need. 
Next we looked at a wood stove. It was much more than an ordinary one. This one would heat the house and cook your food. There was a connection to hook up a hose for heating a hot water tank. And another to connect to the radiant heating in your floor. We were very impressed.
The blacksmith shop
While Marsha was at the fleece tent, Gil wandered into the Social and political action tent. We all have our priorities. Gil consorted with activists of various causes and alternative ways of living and thinking.  

Marsha bought a completely gorgeous seven-pound silvery-colored award-winning Romney-mix fleece to card, spin, and make into things. 
We arrived at the place to hear a keynote speaker who would be talking about lacto-fermentation, a subject we are interested in. But the sun had warmed up the day and the speech happened to be taking place right in the warmest place on earth that day. We sweltered for about 5 seconds and then went over to the book seller's tent and bought the book.
A self portrait
Then it was lunch time. We had our usual lamb sausage made from sheep raised two towns over from us, and with homemade salsa that truly rocked. We have this every year at the fair. Always wonderful. 
Liberty Tool Company
On the way home we stopped in Liberty Maine. "What's in Liberty?" asked Gil several years ago when we first went. Liberty has a tee shirt store right across the road from a used tool shop. We bought some organic cotton tees, and then headed across the road.
A dizzying array of used tools
Gil looked and looked and looked and could not find the bench vise he wanted. Oh, well, maybe next time. We did find a few hand tools to augment our projects. Then we were on our way home.
And now we're looking forward to next year at the fair. -G.H.

Thursday, September 19, 2013


The pungent, hot flavor of horseradish (Armoracia rusticana), a perennial plant related to mustard, wasabi, cabbage and other brassicas is stupendous by itself or added to sauces and served alongside seafood, beef, and veggie dishes. We plucked out a root the other day, and ground it up to make a jarful of horseradish.

This perennial grows easily in moist, rich garden soil and should be established in a permanent spot where it is not likely to spread. Bits of roots and the surrounding branches of roots that are left behind as a plant is pulled up tend to result in new plants. For this reason, be careful not to add root pieces to the compost pile or till it into the soil. You could end up with horseradish all over your garden. It is sometimes grown in a keg or barrel to keep the patch from spreading. Here, it has been growing for fourteen years, and harvested only a few times. It’s in an isolated spot bounded by rocks. The half dozen plants have shown no signs of trying to escape their little plot.

The horseradish root is a long tap root with finer lateral roots. Investigation of a ten year old plant growing in Nebraska showed that the tap root had penetrated fifteen feet into the ground. Click here to read this study. The plants, grown undisturbed for ten years had two-inch diameter roots. The roots of our plants are a more typical half-inch in diameter.
Freshly pulled horseradish
Horseradish can be grown as an annual, and this is how it is handled commercially. Pieces of root are planted early in the season, and the roots are harvested after a hard frost kills the leaves. Grown as a perennial, the plant needs a cold winter to force it into dormancy. It is adapted to growing zones 2 to 9, an ideal plant for a Maine garden where things can vary from zone 3 to about 6, depending on location and the severity of a winter.

Start horseradish either from plants or root cuttings. You might be lucky to find some in a ditch, as it is a weed in some areas. One plant is usually enough to provide for a family, but if you have a special hankering for its pungency, you may want to grow a few plants.

There are several ways to prepare the root. Marsha’s dad had an annual, autumn tradition of grinding horseradish roots using a hand cranked meat grinder. This was done outdoors, and may be the old timey method.  It can be grated or shredded using a hand grater. Our method is modern and quick.

First, thoroughly scrub the root, then scrape or peel off the outer brownish surface with a sharp paring knife to reveal the whitish interior. Cut the root into one inch chunks and put them into a food processor. Add a quarter cup of water. Up to this point the root won’t smell like much, but once you start the machine, watch out. Push the pulse button and stand back- the fumes are potent and can make your nose run and your eyes water. You might prefer to do this outdoors.

As the root grates, volatile oils are released that also release the heat. Adding vinegar stops the enzyme action. Add a quarter cup of vinegar right away to make a mild batch. Wait three minutes to add the vinegar to make a hotter, more pungent batch.

Horseradish is a source of fiber, vitamin C, and folate. It contains 7 calories per teaspoon, and has no cholesterol. Refrigerate after processing as unrefrigerated it will lose its flavor. It will keep in the refrigerator three months or more. If using horseradish in hot dishes, add it just before serving since cooking it destroys the flavor.

Here are some uses for this amazing root. Add horseradish to :
  • bar-b-cue sauce and shrimp cocktail sauce
  • sour cream to use as an accompaniment to veggie dishes
  • mayonnaise along with some chopped onion to make tarter sauce to go with seafood
  • softened butter to go with beef dishes
  • mashed potatoes (adjust amount as per your taste preference)

Horseradish is also a critical ingredient in Virgin and Bloody Marys.

And here are a couple of insightful quotes:

The Delphic oracle told Apollo that the radish is worth it's weight in lead, the beet worth it's weight in silver, and the horseradish worth it's weight in gold.

Dagwood Bumstead once said to Blondie, "My kingdom for some horseradish."

Well said, Dagwood. -G.H.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013


The flowers of anise hyssop, catmint, and bee balm have been drawing lots of buzz for most of this summer. Bees and other insects have been busy and there’s been humming and buzzing everywhere as we walk through the gardens. But this is nothing compared to what’s going on with the pennyroyal. Pennyroyal is a ground cover plant that sends up flower stalks about a foot tall, with flowers that are little fuzzy spheres encircling the stalk.
An unidentified bug on pennyroyal
The pennyroyal flowers must be extra-sappy with nectar because they are almost always swarmed with bugs. These are mostly bees; itsy-bitsy ones, medium sized ones and big fat bumbles. One day I happened to notice a really strange looking insect in the pennyroyal. Not quite a Darth Vader of the insect world, but it was nasty-black with some specks of yellow, and with a skinny, thread-like waist. I looked it up. It appears this strange looking thing is a Mud Dauber.

Thanks to the pennyroyal, I am introduced to a new bug. These are some very interesting critters. It seems they prey on spiders and drink nectar. The female lays an egg, enclosing it in a casing made of mud along with a spider numbed by her venom. When the larva hatches its immediate source of food is ... you guessed it, the spider. 

Apparently daubers have a liking for caterpillars. Espying a rose leaf swaying madly back and forth on one of my wanders through the garden, I turned the leaf over. And found a mud dauber looking like it was about to do something nasty to a little green caterpillar. 

Anyway, back to the pennyroyal. What is growing here is Mentha pulegium, or European pennyroyal. Mentha is a genus of plants in the mint family. The European pennyroyal is a ground hugging creeper, and is the shortest plant that I’ve ever seen. Patches of it form solid masses that literally hug the ground. If you are looking for a plant to be a ground cover, this one can cover the ground. It just might be a good weed inhibitor. 
A patch of pennyroyal
Like any of the mints it is said to be potentially invasive. I can see how that would be, because it is establishing itself in hard-packed clayey dirt with no problem whatsoever. Either this is its preference, or it is capable of far greater abundance in amended soil. Growing along the sides of a stone pathway, it shows signs of wanting to creep between the stones. This would be a welcome attribute.

Whatever you do, don’t eat or ingest any part of this plant. Many sources state that it is toxic to the liver and can be deadly, unlike many other of the mints which are edible. Avoid any oil of this plant, as that is especially noted as toxic. My research indicates that small uses of the leaves, fresh or dried may be safe, such as tucking a sprig into clothing for a mosquito repellent, and that dogs might have a tendency to roll in it, protecting themselves from fleas.

Pennyroyal can be purchased as potted plants, or seeds. Mine were started from a packet of seeds. Once planted, it seems to spread almost magically. It is hardy up to zone six, giving it an unreliable hardiness here in zone five. Even though it could disappear in a cold winter, I’d reseed it. Pennyroyal is an interesting plant. -jmm

Thursday, August 29, 2013

We are an ASC

That one plum tree can put out so much fruit is boggling. The tree overwhelmed us this year, making up for last year’s  plum absence. We suspect there was a frost then, unnoticed by us as the tree was in full flower. This year the tree flowered and then fulfilled on its promise.

One branch of plums provided for eight pints of plum chutney (click here for the recipe), another branch for another eight pints. Yet another branch allowed for six bags of plums to be frozen for pie fillings, cobblers, and crisps. All of this canning and freezing turned my fingers brown with the tannin, and used up only about half of the plums.

Naively hoping that one baked dish would use up the rest of them, I baked a cobbler. Foolish me. I then picked two dutch ovens-full and prepped them for jam. Again, I went through the routine. Washed, plucked stems, halved, pitted, lemoned, and filled two large cooking pots. That was it; I’d had it. I was done.

Out to the tree I went and picked every last plum. Relieved every last sagging branch. Got out the Japanese handsaw and cut down a really tall branch that I could not reach. I plucked it all clean. I did not wash, stem, pit or lemon these. Packed them into grocery bags and carted them off.

To the local food pantry. This felt good. Bags of plums that I do not have to process. We signed up with the local Cooperative Extension for them to quantify our donations. Last year, gardeners in this county contributed 40,000 pounds of produce to food pantries. Many farmer/gardeners have become CSA's: Community Supported Agriculture. We are now an ASC: Agriculture in Support of Community. This, too is a good feeling. It feels gratifying. It seems like this connection is one that can work for us. -jmm

Plum or Peach Cobbler

Cobbler is something we look forward to this time of year as the tree fruits ripen. Easy to make, and freezes well. This is my adaptation of several cobbler recipes; some use a lumpy, biscuit-like dough, but I like mine smooth...! This recipe makes a lightweight dough that seems to compliment the fruit. Delectable! 
Plum Cobbler 

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Combine in a mixing bowl and mix well, then place into an 8 x 8-inch baking pan, or a glass 7 x 9-inch oven-proof glass pan (with a plastic lid for frige or freezer storage):

6 cups halved, pitted plums or sliced peaches
Dash of lemon juice
1/2 cup raw organic sugar (not needed if the fruit is very sweet)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp cornstarch

Place in a mixing bowl and mix thoroughly:

1 or 2 eggs, slightly beaten.
1/2 cup honey or raw organic sugar
6 tablespoons butter, melted
1/3 cup sour cream
1/3 cup water

Combine in a small bowl and mix well, then fold into the egg mixture:

1 cup whole wheat flour
2 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt

Place spoonfuls of the batter onto the fruit, and spread to cover. Bake for 30 minutes until the fruit mixture is bubbling and the topping is lightly browned.
To thaw a frozen cobbler, place covered in oven for 20 to 25 minutes at 350 degrees.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Midsummer Pie

Makes one 9-inch pie

Fruits and berries are ripening, so why not celebrate with a scrumptious fruity pie! Our garden has provided the fruits listed in the recipe, but feel free to experiment with the fruits in your garden, or with some of this and some of that purchased at a farmers market. Combinations including berries of any type, apples, peaches or other stone fruits will work for this recipe.
Blueberries ripening

6 cups of mixed fruits such as raspberries, blueberries, rhubarb
1/2 cup raw sugar
1/4 cup of whole whear flour
1 tbsp cinnamon

Place ingredients into a large bowl, stir thoroughly. If you are using apples or stone fruits, add a dash of lemon juice, and stir. Allow the filling to sit for 15 minutes while making the streusel topping and the pastry crust.

Streusel Topping

1 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup raw sugar
2 tbsp molasses
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 cup chilled butter

Place the raw sugar and molasses into a bowl and mix until they are combined. Add the flour and cinnamon and mix well. Add the chilled butter, cutting it in with a pastry blender until the mixture is a coarse texture. Set aside. 

Single Pie Crust

1 cup minus 2 tbsp of whole wheat flour
Dash of salt
1/4 cup chilled butter
1/4 - 1/2 cup of ice cold water

Place flour and salt into a mixing bowl. Stir well to combine. Using a pastry blender, cut in half of the butter until the mixture resembles small peas. Cut in the remaining butter. Sprinkle with a small amount of ice water and toss with a fork. Repeat until the dough holds together when you pick it up and press it together. Place the dough onto a floured surface and press it flat. With a dough roller, roll out the dough into a circle a bit larger than the pie plate. Fit the dough into the pie plate, fold the edges under and crimp.

Scoop the filling into the pastry crust. Evenly spread the streusel over the top.

Bake for ten minutes at 425 degrees, then turn oven temp down to 350, and bake for 30 additional minutes or until topping is browned and filling is bubbling.  -jmm

Thursday, August 8, 2013

A Tree Stump in the Oasis

Carving a place for a house out of woodlands leaves plenty of stumps behind. Although most of them have been excavated or cut even with the ground (a lot easier than digging them up), the one in the middle of the oasis (see the oasis post here) has stuck around. It dates back to when the house was built, making it about fourteen years along.

The oasis, an area between house and driveway and with a pathway separating it from the rose garden was a little isolated area of forest. It had several sweet birch trees and assorted undergrowth. This oasis was my first experience with transforming forest into cultivated land. I went up the road to the hardware and bought an ax.
A good place for heather 
After the trees were out, I added some plants into the area. Around the base of the stump seemed like a good place for heather that had been brought from the previous residence. And it seems happy there. Its long stems lie against the stump making it look like it is rooted into it. An illusion- the roots grow into the ground around the stump.
Colorful things grow on the stump
After fourteen years the stump has a patina like an antique thing covered in mosses and lichens. Quite beautiful with all of those tiny, tiny things thriving on it. It’s a true wonder. 
A parking place for containers
The stump is useful for more than propping up heather. It’s also a parking place for rusted and earthen containers- yard art in lieu of pink flamingos. Aged, rusty, dented, torn and chipped, the objects seem right at home on top of the mossy, rotting stump.

How long does it take for a stump to rot? Will the rusty bucket give way before the wood turns pucky? By virtue of its natural beauty it deserves a spot in the oasis and will stay until it finally rots into nothing. It’s kind of nice to have a stump in the yard that will not have to be wrangled out of the ground. -jmm

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Arugula Salad

A thickly sown patch of arugula is about to go to seed. This plant really should be succession planted- sowing the seeds every week or every two weeks throughout the growing season. But, with all kinds of non-gardening stuff happening this year, it was easier to plant it all at once. 
And now, there is a lot of it. First, I made an organic pasta salad, lining the bowl with bright green arugula leaves. I took it to a pot luck and it went over extremely well. Next, I made pesto, substituting arugula for basil, and using it as a topping for mashed potatoes. Mmmm, very tasty. Tonight, I made arugula salad. Try this and you will never go back to ordinary lettuce. And there is still more arugula out there in the garden. Ideas, anyone?

Serves two.

3 cups freshly picked and washed arugula leaves
1/2 cup almonds, halved
1 pear, cored and sliced
2 oz. chèvre (goat cheese)
your favorite olive oil viniagrette dressing

Cut or tear the arugula into bite sized pieces and place into a salad bowl. Add the dressing, and toss. Arrange the nuts, fruit and cheese over the top.

Substitutions: use walnuts in place of the almonds, and apple instead of the pear. -G.H.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Stinging Nettle, Part 2

Yarn, potherb, butterflies, tea, and fodder: 
what’s not to like?

(Click here for the earlier post about Nettle). Besides its reputation as a weed, nettle is considered to be a herb. So, what is a herb? According to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, a herb is "a plant or plant part valued for its medicinal, savory, or aromatic qualities." In the case of nettle, we can rule out aromatic since it isn’t very scented. This plant actually has more in store for us than the remaining two qualities of medicinal and savory would indicate. Although it is a sting-eee weed, nettle has some interesting benefits.

Essential for a butterfly garden
If you have a garden area for harboring butterflies, consider nettle if it is not there already. According to Wikipedia, there are between 24 and 39 different varieties of nettle, and not all of them sting. They are food for caterpillars- your future Red Admiral, Peacock, Comma, and Small Tortoiseshell butterflies eat it. 

Good for knitting
The stalk of the plant is fibrous. Nettle fiber is processed in a way similar to flax; a labor-intensive process that involves rotting away the unusable parts, and then carding and spinning the resulting fiber. Nettle yarn is similar to linen; both are stringlike and the knitted fabric has a soft luster. Not an easy thing for d.i.y.; click here for an artist’s blog post showing her experiment with making nettle yarn.
A drawstring bag knitted of nettle yarn

A fresh green to eat in late spring
In late spring, before the garden gets going, nettle leaves are available for a potherb. So, what’s a potherb? According to a dictionary app for iPad, a potherb is "any herb prepared as food by cooking in a pot." Only the young leaves of nettle should be eaten. The book, A Modern Herbal*, says to pick the leaves when the plant is no more than 6 to 8 inches tall. Instructions in the same book say to wash the nettle, then to place it into a saucepan without adding any extra water, and to cook it with the lid on for twenty minutes. After cooking, drain, and chop it. Then eat it as is, or sauté in butter with salt and pepper to taste. Cooked nettle can be added to any dish that calls for greens or spinach. Use it in place of chard in the recipe, Swiss Chard Pie.

You can make beer out of it
The Modern Herbal gives a recipe for making nettle beer. I also googled “nettle beer” and found a number of sites with recipes. Click here for one of them.

Squelch your allergies
Nettle is said to help suppress seasonal allergies because it contains antihistamines which help relieve nasal congestion and sneezing. Nettle can be used either dried or green as tea for allergy relief. According to The Modern Herbal (a very useful book!), steep two to three tablespoons-worth of leaves in a cup of hot water for ten minutes. 

Add it to the medicine cabinet
Research turned up a number of medicinal uses for the herb. These include using the juice of nettle for stopping nosebleeds and certain types of internal bleeding. A tea of nettle is good for purifying the blood, and is also said to be good for the kidneys. Another old timey prescription consists of flogging oneself with fresh nettle in order to ease rheumatism or to warm oneself in cold weather. Do your own research before trying any of these, and let it be known that this blog is not a recommendation for any particular use of nettle. 

Benefits and hazards for livestock
Nettle is said to be useful for supplementing livestock feed- apparently containing too much protein to be used by itself. Added to feed, cows give more milk, hens lay more eggs, and the health of a sickly horse improves. This isn’t, however, something to grow in a pasture. Grazing animals prefer to avoid it, and it must be cut and dried for them to eat it. Here is a source telling how a horse develops a painful skin rash from rolling in nettle.

Great for compost
This plant makes a good garden helper and compost builder. Nettle tends to prefer good soil. Look for vigorous growth, strong stems and healthy green leaves. Wimpy growth is telling you the soil needs a boost. As nettle grows, the plants absorb nutrients from the soil. Cut the plants back and toss them onto the compost pile to reclaim these valuable nutrients.

That’s eight great reasons to nurture at least a small patch of nettle near to the garden or pasture. Our little patch recently flowered. On one of the hottest days of this summer I clothed myself from head to toe. And then chopped the patch to the ground. Now, there are little sprigs of leaves coming in, and I’m using them for tea. -jmm
*A Modern Herbal, by Mrs. M. Grieve, originally published in 1931, and republished by Dover Books in 1971.