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