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Why are tulips so short-lived? August 22, 2014

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The thing about bulbs is that most of them are so long-lived. Plant them once, and they either come back reliably year after year, or come back and multiply year after year. They’re one of the easiest and most dependable flowering plants, something you can plant once and look forward to every spring thereafter. This is true of daffodils, grape hyacinths, hyacinths, crocuses, glory-of-the-snow (chionodoxa), star of Bethlehem, snowdrops, Siberian squill, and numerous others.

Planting them is ridiculously easy, too: If you’re planting a sizable group of bulbs, dig a trench deep enough to cover the bulbs (shallow for small bulbs, deeper for daffs) and long and wide enough to contain the number of bulbs you’re planting, set the bulbs in root-side down, put the soil back over the bulbs, firm the soil by walking over it, the end. If you’re just planting a few bulbs in an existing bed, tucking in some grape hyacinths, snowdrops, crocuses, and/or daffodils, a narrow trowel will open a V-shaped slit in the soil (again to the appropriate depth) and you can just drop the bulb in (making sure the root end is facing down) and step on the slit to firm the soil over it. This avoids the big holes that “official” bulb planters gouge out of the soil, potentially damaging the roots of nearby perennials, and saves the steps of inverting the bulb planter after each bulb, knocking out the soil, and then replacing it in the hole.

So, our friend Ben wondered, what’s the deal with tulips? Once planted, daffodils grow and multiply for decades without further effort from you. But tulips? Apparently, most tulip hybrids bloom for one or at most two seasons. So-called “perennial” tulips, such as the Darwin hybrids, bloom for at most five years, typically blooming for three before declining. Yet they’re at least as expensive and as much trouble to plant as daffodils. Many gardeners simply treat them as annuals, planting them every fall, then digging them up after they bloom and discarding them.

This wanton waste didn’t sit well with me, and besides, I wondered why they behaved so differently from the rest of the spring bulbs. I consulted my good friend Google and found an answer from ornamental horticultural expert Rob Proctor. He pointed out that in their native land, tulips endured poor, rocky soil, cold winters, wet springs, and hot, dry summers. In these conditions, they were true perennials, just like daffodils, returning to bloom every year. He compared the climate to Colorado’s.

Apparently, our problem is that we cosset our tulips to death. We water their beds all summer, encouraging bulb rot; we feed them or plant them in rich soil (or both); our climate isn’t cold enough in winter or hot enough in summer. Our friend Ben read a fascinating tip, that in Britain, where summers aren’t known for being hot and dry, gardeners dig up the tulips when their bloom cycle has ended and their foliage is starting to decline and bring them inside hot, dry greenhouses to “cure,” then replant them in fall, thus encouraging many years of bloom.

Of course, this still sounds like a lot of work, and you’d need a greenhouse to pull it off. Is it worth it? Er. Our problem would be trying to remember where we’d planted the tulip bulbs, what they looked like versus the daffodil bulbs they were interplanted with, and how on earth we could dig them up without exposing our entire bulb border, a major undertaking. We had such a gorgeous display of daffs and tulips interplanted in our border last year it was breathtaking. But Silence Dogood and I have agreed that we’d better leave everything as is for next spring and see what happens. Maybe we won’t get a single tulip, or a single blooming tulip, but at least our daffodils can stretch out. And if we do get a few more tulip blooms, that will be great.

Perfect peach crisp, plus salad. August 17, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. It’s peach season here in scenic PA. Our friend Rudy just gave us a whole bag of fresh-picked peaches. Thing is, ripe peaches aren’t great keepers. Like heirloom tomatoes, you’d better eat them in a couple of days or else. And there are only two of us. What to do?

Well, there are plenty of ways to eat ripe peaches. Salads are one of my favorites. You can toss peach chunks, blueberries, diced red onion, and slivered almonds on a bed of arugula, add some extra-virgin olive oil, a splash of balsamic vinegar or lemon or lime juice, and some salt and fresh-cracked pepper, and enjoy a luscious salad. Or mix things up by subbing avocado and pistachios for the blueberries and almonds. Fresh mint leaves pair perfectly with peaches on a bed of Bibb lettuce with crumbled blue, gorgonzola, or feta cheese. Or make a cocktail in your salad bowl with Bibb or Boston lettuce, peaches, raspberries, crumbled pecans, and an olive oil and champagne vinegar dressing.

But when gifted with an abundance of ripe peaches, one of the most delicious ways to use them all is to make a peach crisp. Sure, save a few for eating fresh and adding to salads. But crisps are so luscious, flavorful, and easy to make, it would be a shame if you didn’t at least try one. Unlike pies and cobblers, crisps don’t require a pie crust, so you need no technical piecrust-rolling skills, no ability to create a piecrust lattice on top, no horrendously messy counter.

Here’s all it takes to make the best fruit dessert since fresh blueberry tart:

For the filling:

Butter a round 8-inch glass cake pan and add a touch of water to the bottom. Slice enough fresh yellow peaches into chunks or slices to fill at least 2/3 of the pan. If you wish, add blueberries, red raspberries, or pitted sour cherries on top. (We like the rich gold of the peaches with the blue and red of blueberries and red raspberries or sour cherries, but any one of the three makes a lovely add-in, as do, improbably, seedless green grapes.) Sprinkle sugar and cinnamon or cardamom over the fruit.

For the topping:

Combine 2/3 cup unbleached flour, 1/3 cup brown sugar, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, and 1/4 stick butter softened at room temperature. Work the butter in with your fingers to make panko-like crumbs. Next, work in 1/2 to 2/3 cup rolled oats and spread the mixture over the fruit in your glass pan.

To make:

Bake at 350 degrees F. for an hour, covering the top with aluminum foil for the first half-hour, until the fruit is cooked and bubbly and the topping is crisp. Serve warm with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, or dished up in bowls with cream poured over the crisp. Yum!!!

‘Til next time,

Silence

Morning rituals. July 31, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, gardening, homesteading, pets, wit and wisdom.
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Do you find yourself beginning every morning the same way, with some soothing activity that brings you a little calm, peace of mind, and feeling of security before you plunge into your day? Maybe it’s as simple as picking up a cup of your favorite coffee from Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts on the way in to work. Or maybe a walk or bike ride every morning sets you up for the day. Sometimes a hot shower or a soothing rub of body lotion is enough to make you feel pampered and centered.

We have a friend whose morning would be a disaster if he couldn’t pore over the baseball box scores, and another who begins every single day by reading the comics, convinced that a good laugh is the right start to a good day. Another rises early every day to meditate. For yet another, it’s worth getting up an hour early to go to the local diner and indulge in the “farmer’s breakfast”—pancakes, eggs, sausage, bacon, homefries, and toast, with plenty of coffee to wash it all down. (Gulp. But it’s heaven to him.) One relative couldn’t imagine a morning beginning without attending morning Mass.

Of course, we have our own morning rituals here at Hawk’s Haven, too. Silence Dogood is not what you’d call a morning person, yet she wakes with the light. In the interval between daylight and the return of consciousness, she likes to keep things calm and absolutely quiet. She sits at her computer and reads Yahoo news and her e-mail, then visits a few favorite sites, and then will write a blog post or two to kick the day off. Our friend Ben, meanwhile, will put on some coffee, take our beloved black German shepherd, Shiloh, out for her morning walk, feed the chickens, water the garden, and get the papers, which he (and, eventually, Silence) will read. OFB enjoys hot toast or croissants or English muffins and marmalade or hot pepper jelly and lots of butter along with that morning coffee and the papers. Silence can’t even look at food before 10 a.m., and then she’s more likely to opt for fruit and cottage cheese or a quinoa salad.

It doesn’t really matter what you do in the morning, as long as it makes you feel good and sets you up for the day. But we do think that morning rituals, whatever they are—doing the same things at the same time every morning—will get your day off to a healthier, more empowered start. We even think that applies to the eye-popping diner breakfast, morning walk, and meditation equally.

That’s because so much of the modern workday is about powerlessness—you do this for this many hours in this exact place and you’d better do it just the way we say and produce these results, even if that’s impossible, or else. Your time, your life, your mind are not your own, your talents are unappreciated, you’re just another faceless cog on the wheel, a “worker bee,” as a heartless boss at one old company described his employees.

But before work, you’re in charge. You have the power. No one can tell you what to do, can make you keep up with 50 social media sites while also doing your job for the same pay but ever-increasing hours, can put you on call after you’ve already put in a full day’s work. The difference between morning ritual and the lack of it can be the difference between feeling in control and out of control. So don’t feel ashamed of that Mickey D’s Egg McMuffin you pick up every single morning. Think of it as an empowering ritual.

The CSA conundrum. July 21, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. Last night, my brother and sister-in-law stopped by en route to pick up our nephew from summer camp, and our friend Ben and I took them to a lovely old country inn for supper. Rather than talking about anything most people would talk about, we got into a discussion about the problem with CSAs (technically “consumer-supported agriculture,” typically organic vegetable operations that are supported by advance subscriptions and provide “shares” of vegetables each week during the growing season).

Here in scenic PA, we have a marvelous CSA just five minutes from our house. It not only provides a diverse selection of organic produce throughout the growing season, but it has a fantastic U-Pick garden where members can pick strawberries and raspberries, flowers, green and yellow wax beans, hot peppers, cherry and paste tomatoes, and a wide assortment of herbs. The farmers also partner with local organic farms to offer fruit shares, cheese shares, bread shares, pizza shares, mushroom shares, and free-range, grass-fed meat shares, as well as wild-caught salmon.

It sounds like a dream come true, and we enthusiastically joined up and belonged for several years before finally giving up on it. Why would we do such a thing, when it was so conveniently located and the produce was so well grown (and we really loved the U-Pick garden)?! We could get things at our CSA that we could find nowhere else: garlic scapes, tender Japanese turnips that were great sliced thin in salads, French breakfast radishes that we ate as the French do on buttered slices of baguette. And the fruit share was full of incredible varieties you’d never find in a store. I drool every time I read about the mushroom shares, which weren’t available in our day.

But we had to stop. It cost a great deal to sign up for a full share, and what you got depended on what the farmers planted and which crops flourished, not what you wanted or would actually eat. So, on a given week, you might get one ear of corn, one tomato, and what seemed like 50,000 pounds of Swiss chard or turnip greens or radish tops or the like. Now, I love radishes, beets, and those Japanese turnips, but I do NOT love bitter turnip greens, prickly radish greens, or Swiss chard and beet greens, which both taste like dirt. (And don’t dare tell me that sauteing radish greens makes them taste good, unless you’re also fond of stuffing fiberglass down your throat.) Plus, how are you supposed to feed two people with one ear of corn or one tomato?!! And sure, if we got a half-share, we’d only have gotten 25,000 pounds of Swiss chard and etc. But then we wouldn’t have even gotten our one tomato and ear of corn.

We wanted to support our CSA. We loved our CSA. But we really needed to buy food we would eat, in quantities we could use. So we finally gave up and now rely on the farmers’ markets near us and on our own veggie beds. (You can’t get any of the other shares, like fruit and mushroom, if you don’t belong to the CSA, sob.)

I felt like a total failure because we stopped supporting our CSA. I was too ashamed to mention it to anyone. So you can imagine how surprised I was to hear my brother and sister-in-law start talking about their CSA subscription and how challenging it was for them. Now mind you, they live in a city—Washington, DC—not farm country like me and our friend Ben. And they only subscribe for a quarter-share (not an option here, we’d get a handful of stuff, but apparently they’re still overrun, lucky them). But their experience was still like ours. Their kids don’t eat vegetables, unless you consider French fries vegetables, so they need to consume the CSA produce each week by themselves. And they too are overwhelmed by things like beet greens and, in my brother’s words, “vegetables we’ve never even heard of.”

Like us, they hate to waste food, and since they get so much in their week’s share, they end up eating whatever it is frantically every night of the week. Okay, so let’s hypothesize that you get a gargantuan bag of spinach in your share. (Would that we’d ever been so lucky.) You can add fresh spinach to your salad, cook some into an omelette or frittata, saute it with minced garlic and olive oil as a side, cook it down in a tiny bit of water and serve it up with salt and balsamic vinegar, or add it to saag or palaak paneer, lasagna, pasta, or you name it. But what if you’ve gotten a gargantuan bag of amaranth greens or Jerusalem artichokes or amaranth seed heads?

Oh, dear. There’s no question that supporting our local organic farmers via CSAs is the right thing to do. Perhaps OFB and I are just suffering from a breakdown of the imagination. But until further notice, we’ll be patronizing the local Mennonite farm stands, farmers’ markets, and growing our own.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Boston ferns as outdoor accents. July 11, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. This year, I’ve noticed a lot of big, beautiful Boston ferns for sale outside local groceries. I’ve been very tempted to buy one, too, but worried about where I’d put it, since to me, Boston ferns are Victorian-era houseplants, and there’s only so much room in the cottage home our friend Ben and I share for houseplants. What a shame to pass such fabulously healthy-looking ferns by!

Then, last weekend, OFB and I went down to Annapolis, MD, where the plantings in general were restrained and gorgeous, but Boston ferns of all things took the spotlight. Outside the Annapolis Visitors’ Center, containers of Boston fern, a purple-leaved coleus, and a red-flowered begonia stole the show. Such a simple grouping, but the impact was perfect. I couldn’t imagine Boston ferns surviving hot, humid summer weather (I could barely survive it myself), but there they were, looking like the top contenders on The World’s Healthiest Plants.

Seeing Boston ferns in such an unlikely setting taught me a few useful lessons: First, never assume a houseplant has to stay inside. Second, less is more when it comes to impact. And third, consider your placement and pots carefully and remember the importance of echoing.

Now I want to rush off to the grocery and make sure I can get some of those Boston ferns before they’re gone.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Trading time. June 25, 2014

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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have always loved our handymen. Neither of us is the least bit handy—screwing in a lightbulb and flipping the switch is a major accomplishment for us—and this trait runs in both our families, so it must be genetic. Our handymen (and our parents’ handymen, and presumably their parents’ handymen), by contrast, can do pretty much anything, professionally and affordably. From building a deck to repairing a leaky roof to replacing a faulty electric circuit to making a stone firepit to getting the clothes dryer back up and running, handymen are the best. We salute you!

But hey, what if your handyman worked for free? Most of us choose handymen rather than pros because we can’t afford professional service fees. A free handyman would be a huge boost to our tiny budget. So would a free tree pruner, petsitter, and auto mechanic. So you can imagine what a shock our friend Ben had this morning when I happened upon an online article from All You Magazine called ‘We Make Ends Meet Without Money’.

The trend to supply time-valued services for free in exchange for free services is apparently nationwide, but the article focused on five Vermonters who were connecting through a local time/service exchange, the Brattleboro Time Trade. Residents who sign up for the Time Trade can ask for services, such as lawn mowing and stacking wood, in exchange for babysitting, homecooked meals, dog walking, and clothing repair. Or, say, financial advice, massages, elder care, weeding, and music lessons. The possibilities are endless.

The article suggests checking out two websites, timebanks.org and hourworld.org, to see if there are already time banks, as they’re called, in your area, and if not, how to set one up. They suggest starting with at least 10 members and appointing a paid coordinator/administrator to take care of the online and phone work. They recommend that the members have clearly defined skills, post them on the site, and have the exchanges put in writing so both parties are clear on what’s expected and when.

In our case, that would mean exchanging our own highly honed writing, editing, vegetarian, cooking, gardening/horticultural/herbal, archaeological, paleontological, historical, collecting, art, chicken-raising, and in-depth knowledge of literature skills for some hands-on work. It would be so great!

But our friend Ben has a question: When will Big Brother, in the form of the IRS, show up and tax this classic form of barter?! Barter has always been popular with the underclasses, who are just trying to get by, and hated by the upper classes, who feel robbed of additional income, through taxation, of the goods/services being exchanged. Our friend Ben fears that this initiative will find itself taxed in a Hunger Games scenario, with The Capitol pouncing on the impoverished and helpless Districts and forcing them to give every last drop of blood in exchange for a crumb of food or a rag of clothing.

Barter is a time-honored means of exchanging goods and services the world over, from the earliest human history to the present. It enables those who couldn’t otherwise afford goods and services to have them. (Another Hunger Games reference: Those who know the books and films may recall the heroine, Katniss, exchanging a squirrel, destined for the stewpot, for a ball of yarn and the mockingjay pin on the black market.) Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood wholeheartedly approve of the barter system, and especially since it’s a great way to get to know your neighbors and make new friends.

Fast and easy strawberry-rhubarb pie. June 23, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. It’s the end of local strawberry and rhubarb season here, which makes me want to cry. The local strawberries are so much more delicious than those store-bought, hard, tongue-curdling whitish berries you get in the store. You can smell the homegrown berries the minute you enter one of the Old Order Mennonite farm stands in our area. (They’re horse-and-buggy people like the Amish.) And the rhubarb is slender-stalked and tender.

Do our friend Ben and I grow strawberries and rhubarb here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home we share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA? You betcha. But we have a little problem. Every year, the birds—who apparently know to the second when our strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and elderberries will be ripe—beat us to the crop. In the case of the strawberries, chipmunks (who invariably eat half a berry and leave the rest in plain sight just to torment us) and slugs also eat their fill. As for the rhubarb, ours grows into such huge, gorgeous ornamental plants that I can’t bear to harvest the stalks. Thus, on to the Mennonite stands.

I’m going to guess that rhubarb plants don’t flourish in hot, humid climates, since I’d never encountered rhubarb in any form while growing up in Nashville. But up here in scenic PA, it’s one of the first fresh treats of spring, along with strawberries, asparagus and young dandelion greens (unsprayed, please). I quickly fell in love with rhubarb’s distinctive flavor, stewed and spooned over vanilla ice cream or stirred into yogurt, made into pies (I actually prefer an all-rhubarb pie to the famous strawberry-rhubarb pie), or made into rhubarb jam.*

We’d had such luscious strawberries from a nearby Mennonite farm stand that we ate the entire box plain, then rushed back for more. But this time, the girl who took our order dumped the box of ripe berries into a plastic bag. By the time we got home, the berries were mushed and pouring out juice. I quickly put the bag in the fridge. We returned for more berries (in the box this time), and I saw the slender, tender rhubarb stalks on sale, so I bought a bunch of them as well.

To make the most of that luscious but mushy bag of strawberries, before they got moldy, I decided to try my hand at making strawberry-rhubarb pie. It was my first try at making any pie but pecan pie. You see, in the South of my childhood, pies were a lot different than they are in the North. There were pecan pies, chess pies, banana cream pies, chocolate icebox pies, and for super-special occasions, rum pies. Fruit (with the exception of bananas) was baked into cobblers, not made into pies as it is up here. Cobblers are so easy, so delicious, and so accommodating that it seemed ridiculous to put a blueberry-peach, raspberry-peach, blackberry, cherry, peach, or [your favorite fruit here] filling in a piecrust.

At this point, I wish I’d made strawberry-rhubarb cobbler. (In case anyone reading doesn’t know, a cobbler tops a jammy fruit filling with a crumbly, crunchy mix of flour, oatmeal, salted butter, and often spices like cinnamon, cloves, or cardamom.) We’ll get to why in a minute (I have to take the blame for actually asking OFB to do something without supervision, but that’s another matter).

To get started, I consulted my good friend Google to check out strawberry-rhubarb pie recipes. Yuck! Every one of them had you make a piecrust, and either a second piecrust for topping the pie or enough extra dough to make a lattice top. Making a piecrust involves cutting very cold, chopped-up butter (or lard or Crisco) into flour until it’s totally incorporated, then rolling it out on a chilled marble slab or your counter. Eeewww!!! If you hate touching greasy things like I do, much less cleaning up a floury, greasy counter, making piecrust is not for you. (This is also why I don’t buy delicious, locally made rhubarb or strawberry-rhubarb pies: I’m a vegetarian, and the crusts are all made with lard.)

Then, the recipes all had you cut up the rhubarb and strawberries, mix them with a cup of sugar, dump in flour or cornstarch to thicken the filling, and dump it raw into the piecrust before topping it with the second piecrust or latticing and baking it. Everyone warned that, without the thickening flour or cornstarch, the juices would destroy the bottom crust.

At this point, I decided that I was going to create my own recipe for strawberry-rhubarb pie. I don’t know about you, but I grew up in a household that considered the addition of flour or cornstarch as a thickener was simply blasphemy. Either one drastically degraded the flavor and texture of any food—soup, gravy, sauce, macaroni and cheese, you name it—to which it was added. No flour-or cornstarch-enhanced recipe ever passed our lips. Instead, our home rule was to use top-quality ingredients like cream and butter and simply take the time to cook them to the proper consistency.

So we stopped at the grocery and I asked OFB if he’d prefer a standard, Graham-cracker, or shortbread crust (all ready-made and pressed into their aluminum pans in the baking aisle). OFB chose a Keebler shortbread crust. Sounded good to me.

Once home, I chopped the rhubarb stalks (rhubarb leaves and roots are poisonous, only the stalks are safe to eat) and put them in a heavy Dutch oven (I love my LeCreuset enameled cast-iron Dutch ovens) with a little water to keep them from sticking and burning as they cooked. Then I got out that bag of runny, yucky strawberries and totally grossed myself out by pulling off the stems and then chopping them and adding them to the rhubarb. When I’d finally chopped them all, I poured the juice into the pot as well. I also chopped some of the fresh strawberries we’d bought and added them.

As the rhubarb and strawberries cooked down, I added a ten-ounce jar of rhubarb jam to both intensify the flavor and thicken the filling. You could add strawberry jam if you wanted, but then you’d totally overwhelm the rhubarb flavor. Or you could add apricot preserves or apple jelly or even marmalade or what have you, but you’d definitely be changing the flavor.

Everything cooked down perfectly into a rich, thick, jammy pie filling, full of fresh fruit and with no yucky thickeners. I was very happy, but by that point, I was also very tired. So I asked OFB if he would spoon the filling into the shortbread crust and put it in the fridge while I got ready for bed. HUGE mistake, as I found out the next morning. OFB admitted that he’d put the filling in the crust, then attempted to pick up the aluminum-foil pan, at which point it had apparently folded in on itself and distributed a supernova of shortbread crumbs into the filling.

I still can’t imagine why this could have happened. That the crust might have broken in half is one thing; that it imploded all over the filling is implausible to me, yet, in the immortal words of Sherlock Holmes, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” The results of my wonderful pie now looked like vomit. I was devastated. I can’t eat something this gross, so I’ve made OFB swear that he’ll eat it with ice cream and whipped cream.

Before writing this post, I stuck a finger into the filling to make sure it actually tasted good and wasn’t gummy. And yes, make this and you’ll be so very, very happy: It’s delicious, fruity, fresh, and just the right texture, juicy but not runny. But if you make it, do what I’ll do next time: Put the crust and aluminum base on a plate before filling the crust, and put the plate into the fridge along with the plate so it can all set.

Fans of rhubarb, rejoice! And don’t forget that Ben & Jerry’s vanilla ice cream.

‘Til next time,

Silence

* I’ve only found one source of rhubarb jam, Kitchen Kettle Village in Intercourse, PA. Fortunately, you can order it online at http://www.kitchenkettle.com or call to order at 1-800-717-6198.

Should you try to grow tulips from seed? June 22, 2014

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Our friend Ben has been fascinated by this question since Silence Dogood and I ordered a gorgeous pastel tulip mix from White Flower Farm last fall. We also ordered their famous daffodil mix, The Works, and interplanted the tulips with the new daffs. This spring, we had the most gorgeous show of daffodils and tulips that Hawk’s Haven, our cottage home in the precise middle of nowhere, PA, has ever known. (And our daff display, thanks to the previous owners, has always been pretty spectacular.)

We felt good about spending the gift certificate from Silence’s beloved brother on The Works, because we know that daffodils will multiply every year and keep the show going and growing, almost certainly outliving you. But we felt guilty about getting the tulips, since, in contrast to daffodils, most tulips bloom for a year and then decline. Even the so-called perennial tulips like the Darwin hybrids typically only bloom five years, max. Only the tiny species tulips are true perennials, and their blooms are more crocus-sized and look nothing like what you and I think of as tulips.

Yikes. Our tulips were stunning this year, but we expect to see foliage and no flowers next year, and nothing thereafter. However, many of the plump, healthy bulbs produced not just gorgeous flowers this year, but huge, plump seedpods that are continuing to grow and ripen. Our friend Ben wondered if there was any hope that we could grow more tulips from the thousands of seeds in those plump pods.

I checked in with my good friend Google, and quickly realized why people bought tulip bulbs instead of growing their own. Obviously, the carefully bred hybrids you bought would look nothing like the seed-grown tulips you raised. But getting potentially thousands of free tulips every year would certainly console us for not getting premium hybrids. That wasn’t the reason people don’t grow tulips from seed. It’s the time/care factor.

This is the same reason most people don’t grow another bulbing plant, onions, from seed. You can get a lot more onion varieties if you buy seeds rather than sets or starts. But almost everyone buys sets or starts instead. That’s because, if you grow onions from seed, you get tiny, thin, threadlike seedlings from the seeds. You have to nurture them like the most delicate preemies, eventually setting them out into a carefully watered and weeded garden bed until, at the end of the season, you get not onions but onion sets, those thumbnail-sized round bulbs you generally buy and plant in spring to harvest onions in fall. You have to carefully dry your homegrown sets and store them through the winter, then plant them out in late spring to get onions the following year.

Most people aren’t willing to go to the trouble, especially when planting storebought onion sets is the easiest thing imaginable: Push the set into the soil until only the top protrudes, firm the soil around it, put the next set in about an onion’s width away, and so on. Before you know it, you have onions.

Not so with seed-grown tulips. Yes, you can let those fat pods turn from green to brown, then cut them off and harvest the seeds. But if you’re serious about growing them, you need to stratify them all in moist sphagnum moss and sand in plastic in the fridge or a coldframe, then carefully monitor the seedlings through the SIX YEARS it takes for the bulbs to reach blooming size. Yowie kazowie! No wonder everyone buys their tulip bulbs every year.

We loved our White Flower Farm pastel tulip mix, but damned if we’re buying it every year. Nor is our friend Ben about to sacrifice those perfectly splendid, plump tulip seedpods. Instead, once they’re dried and brown, I’ll scatter the seeds everywhere we want tulips. Winter will stratify them every bit as well as a refrigerator. Maybe they’ll grow and maybe they won’t. I guess we’ll know six years from now. Why do daffodil bulbs live, multiply, and bloom year after year, and tulip bulbs decline and die? Our friend Ben has no idea. But the tulips have given us a chance, through their seedpods, to keep them alive, and our friend Ben is going to take it.

Dead wood can be good. June 20, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. Our wonderful tree pruner decided to switch over into landscaping about ten years ago, and I’m ashamed to say that we haven’t had our trees pruned here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and I share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA, since that time. (I should say “voluntarily pruned,” since our local electric utility has taken to scalping and shaving whole sides off trees, including evergreens, in an attempt to preempt storm damage. It might have occurred to them that evergreens evolved to resist snow and ice damage, but nooooo.)

Our former pruner had everything we wanted: horticultural knowledge, so he only pruned out dead and diseased or damaged wood; affordable rates; and commonsense (so he took all the safety precautions and didn’t end up flying). We had him come twice a year to keep our friendly forest of trees shipshape. And we’ve been agonizing over his career change ever since.

We’re not eager to bring in an unknown pruner who charges thousands of dollars and believes that trees should be “topped” into hideous balls, like so many pruners around here do routinely. (One of our favorite bumper stickers says “Topless Trees Are Indecent.”) And since we want all downed wood chopped to size for our firepit and woodstove, rather than hauled away or chipped, we fear the costs would skyrocket.

What to do?!! We don’t own a chainsaw, much less know how to use one, and damned if we’re putting ourselves in harness and climbing trees. Some things should be left to the professionals. No point in ending up like Bran Stark. We prefer enjoying our trees from below the leaf canopy.

However, over ten years of not having pruners come attend to our trees, a lot of big branches and many smaller ones have died. This past bizarre winter did in a couple of large shrubs, and hurled forked branches onto the limbs of others. There’s a lot of dead wood around here that needs to be taken down and cut up. So we finally decided to bite the bullet and find a new pruner to clean things up.

Then, this noon, something happened to make me reevaluate a large-scale pruning sweep. I love sitting out on our deck with OFB and our beloved black German shepherd, Shiloh, surrounded by colorful, fragrant, blooming container plants, with our deck water garden brimming with plants, fish, snails, and sometimes frogs, and our creek, Hawk Run, burbling away just beyond the deck, with a sweeping view of our property on the other side of the deck bridge. But in summer, by about 11 and continuing to about 2, the sun falls on the deck and makes it too hot for me to handle.

Normally, I just hide in the house until the sun moves on. But today OFB persuaded me to sit by our firepit under the shade trees on the far side of the creek. I was looking in despair at all the new dead branches sitting there had brought into view—how many thousands of dollars were we going to have to pay to get them all cut down and cut up?!!—when I heard a racket going on directly overhead.

Yikes! There was another dead branch. This one was covered with lichens and mushrooms and had two perfectly round holes in it, doubtless bored by our resident woodpeckers (we have downy, hairy, and red-bellied woodpeckers, though the holes were too small for the latter). The racket was not, however, being made by woodpeckers, but by a pair of wrens who had nested in one of the woodpecker’s holes and were flying in to feed their clamoring babies.

I love wrens (and woodpeckers, for that matter). Wrens are tiny, fearless brown birds that are instantly recognizable by their long, straight beaks and the way they hold their tails up when they perch. They have often “visited” me in my home office by landing on the a/c outside my window and strutting around. They’re incredibly cute and seem unafraid of anything. I’d seen that they’d actually nested in one of our birdhouses this spring, but had no idea that they would nest in abandoned woodpecker holes.

“Ben! You have to see this! Wake up!!!” I tried with limited success to rouse OFB from his fresh-air-induced slumbers. But I was absolutely riveted. Both parents constantly flew to their nest with bugs to feed their babies, who chittered appreciatively (though I thought more appreciatively when the bugs were bigger and juicier).

The adult wrens displayed great intelligence, heading to a blooming privet nearby, which attracted innumerable bugs with its flowers and fragrance. And they were tireless, taking turns bringing their catch to the nest-hole, popping in to feed the babies, then returning to the hunt. If anyone ever doubted the importance of birds in controlling insect populations, I wish they could have seen the scores of bugs brought to the nest in the hour or so I sat there.

At first, the wrens were rather perturbed that OFB, Shiloh and I were sitting almost directly below their nest hole, and there was a fair amount of fussing directed at us before they disappeared into the branch. But, again displaying intelligence, they eventually realized that we were posing no threat, and the alarm calls ceased and were replaced by contented calling to their offspring. (“Look what I’ve brought this time! What a beautiful day! Just wait ’til you can fly!”)

Well. I think we’ll still need to hire pruners this year. But that’s not a branch we’ll let them take off.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Tulipomania strikes again. May 7, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading.
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It’s daffodil and tulip season here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and Silence Dogood share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. To cheer us up after the horrible winter that still hasn’t fully left us—tonight’s low is predicted to be 34 degrees—our tulip and daffodil display is our best ever.

That’s because OFB’s brother and his family gave us some nice gift certificates to White Flower Farm over the years, and this past fall, they offered phenomenal deals on their daffodil mixture, “The Works,” and a pastel tulip mix that was simply too gorgeous to believe. We decided it was time to cash in our certificates and purchased one of each mix. When they arrived, we mixed the tulip and daffodil bulbs—incidentally, the fattest, healthiest bulbs we’ve ever seen—and planted them on both sides of the path leading from our parking square down to our front door.

What would come up? What would the flowers look like? Would they bloom at the same time? Would the daffs and tulips look good together, or would they clash? All winter long, we speculated. The answer is that yes, they are blooming at the same time, and yes, they look great together. No, we wouldn’t have chosen every single tulip and daffodil in the mixes, but then, we wouldn’t have known to choose others that are, as it turns out, our favorites.

The daffs are unquestionably a great investment. No animal or other pest eats daffodil bulbs, which are poisonous; no disease affects them; and they multiply year after year during their very long perennial lives. (Think peonies and 50-year spans.)

Tulips, on the other hand, are simply an indulgence. Even the longest-lived, so-called “perennial” tulips like the Darwin hybrids bloom for five years at best; bulbs like the ones we bought will be unlikely to bloom a second year, though they may send up foliage, teasing us with hopes of blooms that never come. Species tulips are, in fact, true perennials, but they’re the size of crocuses and, while colorful enough, bear no resemblance to what most of us think of as tulips.

So why did we buy this tulip mix, knowing that we’d probably only see blooms this spring? Well, we had a gift certificate. It cost no more than a lavish flower arrangement, but would last much longer. And, okay, we love tulips, but never splurge on them because the flowers are short-lived and the bulbs seldom produce a second bloom.

In short, I guess we were suffering from modern-day tulipomania. The original tulipomania struck the Netherlands, specifically Holland, in 1636. Tulips, which originated in Turkey, had been imported into Holland and found the climate to their liking. The colorful flowers became a big hit. And then, multicolored flowers with bold color combinations and exotic “flamed” petals (such as white blooms with red “flames” on the petals) began turning up in growers’ fields. Pandemonium ensued, and prices shot up.

The phenomenon became known as tulipomania, and it became famous as the first financial bubble. At its height, a single bulb of one of the rarest varieties, such as ‘The Viceroy’ or ‘Semper Augustus’, could cost more than ten times as much as a skilled craftsman made in a year, or as much as two tons of butter, 1,000 pounds of cheese, 4 fat oxen, 8 fat swine, 12 fat sheep, 2 hogsheads of wine, 4 tuns of beer, a bed, a suit of clothes, a silver drinking cup, 4 lasts of rye, and 2 lasts of wheat combined. For ONE bulb.

Who was paying these prices?!! Wealthy collectors and speculators. Tulipomania was fueled by a number of strange and rare phenomena colliding, creating mass hysteria and zero common sense. First, the 30 Years’ War had been raging throughout the Germanies and sucker-punching the Netherlands, leaving it weak and depleted. Next, the bubonic plague was raging through the Netherlands at the time, creating a carpe diem (“live for today”) attitude, be it a lust for beautiful bulbs or a love of wine, women and song. And finally, most bizarre of all, no bulbs were actually changing hands during these transactions. The Bitcoins of their day, tulip bulbs were bought and sold on the open market by speculators who had zero interest in planting or selling actual tulip bulbs, only in making a fast buck.

Tulipomania peaked in 1636, then crashed in February 1637, when nobody showed up at the weekly bulb auction in Haarlem. (And yes, New York was originally settled by the Dutch, which is why it has “Harlem.”) To add to the irony, even if everyone who’d been bidding on tulip bulbs had been an avid gardener or collector, they wouldn’t have realized that all those exotic color combinations and “flames” on the petals were caused by a virus, which weakened the bulbs and ensured that the tulip varieties couldn’t possibly be seed-propagated and would die out in a matter of two or three years.

Today’s tulips don’t have viruses, even if they do display gorgeous flames of color. But they’re still usually one-season wonders. Which is why we’re considering our stunning display a one-time event. Unless somebody gives us another gift certificate.

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