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McGrath to speak on food gardening. April 30, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Just a brief alert to let food gardeners within driving distance of scenic Bethlehem, PA know that Mike McGrath, former editor of Organic Gardening magazine and host of the nationally syndicated radio show “You Bet Your Garden,” is giving a talk there on May 10.

McGrath’s presentation, “Grow Your Own Kitchen Garden Goodies,” focuses on small-space gardening. He’ll discuss organic gardening techniques and how to choose the right varieties, as well as providing tips on how to stretch your harvest season even if you only have a small plot.

But wait, it gets better! McGrath is partnering with the Greater Lehigh Valley Chefs Association for the presentation. About 80 local chefs and alumni (as well as current students) of Northampton Community College’s renowned culinary school will prepare herb-based goodies like summer rolls and bruschetta for the audience to sample. Yum!

You can read all about it at www.themorningcall.com, which features an interview article, “Little garden, big yield,” with tips from Mike McGrath. You’ll also find recipes for summer rolls and bruschetta so you can make your own.

The “Grow Your Own Kitchen Garden Goodies” presentation is at 6 p.m. on May 10th at the Lipkin Theatre, Kopacek Hall, Northampton Community College, 3835 Green Pond Road, Bethlehem Township, PA. Admission is just $5. Attendance is limited to 300, so the paper suggests that you arrive early to be sure you get in. Maybe we’ll drop by to say hi to Mike and see you there!


Pirates on tap. April 29, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Aaaarrrr!!! We pirate-mad bloggers here at Poor Richard’s Almanac are gearing up for our second annual Pirate Week in mid-May, when the three of us write a week of themed posts on all things piratical. (You can find the ones we wrote for our first Pirate Week by searching for “pirate week posts” on our search bar at top right.)

Normally, we’d have waited ’til then to start spouting pirate lingo and showing off our pirattitude, you savvy? But we just couldn’t resist sharing a few tidbits our friend and fellow blog contributor Richard Saunders found on msn.com earlier today.

Richard, our official blog historian, thought he was going to read an article on Revolutionary history when he clicked on MSN’s link “Where did George Washington drink?” and was directed to an article, “Better with Age,” spotlighting seven historic American bars and taverns. Little did he know that there were a few pirates hiding behind the bars.

Turns out, two of the seven historic bars were owned by pirates. One of these, the White Horse Tavern in Newport, Rhode Island, claims to be America’s oldest tavern (founded 1673). We quote: “For the next hundred years the large tavern also served as the meeting place for the Rhode Island colony’s general assembly, criminal court and city council, despite being run for 28 of those years by a former pirate named William Mayes Jr.”

Har!!! But even the oldest tavern pales by comparison to the ultimate tavern, Jean Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Yes, we are indeed speaking of the famous pirate Jean Lafitte, who apparently set up his “blacksmith shop” with his brother Pierre as a cover for their nefarious activities on the high seas. 

The shop, built sometime between 1772 and 1791, lays claim to the title of  “the oldest continually operating bar in the U.S.,” which makes one wonder if the so-called “blacksmiths” were actually forging pints of rum instead of horseshoes.

Whatever the case, they certainly had the Luck of the Pirates: Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop survived two 18th-century fires that ravaged the rest of the French Quarter, which was rebuilt after the Spanish fashion, leaving Lafitte’s as one of the few genuine examples of French architecture in New Orleans.

If, like us, you entertain piratical leanings, and you happen to find yourself in Newport or New Orleans and feeling a bit thirsty, be sure to drop into the White Horse or Lafitte’s. Order a rum, raise your glass, and shout “Yaaarrr, lads, a pirate’s life for me!” We’re sure at least a few famous ghosts will be joining you.

Planning now for winter color. April 28, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben supposes that the easiest way to add winter interest to the landscape is with evergreens. Here at Hawk’s Haven, we’re fortunate to have inherited two stands of evergreens on our property lines and a majestic native Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) at the front of the yard. We have since added a second red cedar out front and a boxwood—now grown to mammoth proportions—anchoring one of our foundation beds. Over the years, we might have chosen to add evergreens with colorful foliage—blue, yellow, copper—but we refrained, feeling that they just weren’t appropriate to our cottage landscape.

Another source of winter interest is structure—the so-called “bones” of the landscape—paths, steps, walls and fences, patios, gates, arbors and trellises, urns and sculpture. Anything that remains outdoors over winter and that’s big enough to draw the eye.

Those with the time and inclination could brighten the winter landscape with paint: painting the front door and shutters a different color just for the winter, for example, or taking a tip from our friend, the garden designer Edith Eddleman, and spray-painting stands of ornamental grasses (once they’ve dried) to make splashes of color against a snowy backdrop. Or, of course, stringing lights and hanging large, showy wreaths.

But our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have opted for a more subtle approach: adding trees and shrubs with colorful bark to our backyard. This all started a couple of years ago when a boxelder (Acer negundo) mysteriously turned up in an island bed under one of our black walnut trees. Now, boxelders are usually considered weed trees, but our friend Ben fell in love with ours because its branches are bright green.

This spring, we planted out a branch of corkscrew willow (Salix matsudana ‘Tortuosa’) that our friend Ben had rooted. (See our earlier post, “Experiment times two,” for more on this. In this post, I discussed planting two rooted branches, but after Helen from Toronto Botanic Gardens pointed out that the tree would achieve some size—20 to 30 feet—we decided that one was plenty for us, dug up the second, and gave it to our neighbors to plant on their part of the stream bank.) Like the boxelder, corkscrew willow’s new branches are bright green, and they’re also curly, adding even more winter landscape interest.

So far, we were doing well in the green stem department. Then this past weekend, our friend Ben and Silence trekked over to nearby Bowers, PA to Meadowview Farm, to get more organic potting soil and heirloom veggie transplants from James Weaver, locally renowned as the inspiration for the annual Bowers Chile Pepper Festival.

While Silence pored over the enormous assortment of heirloom tomato and bell pepper transplants, our friend Ben strolled through the nursery area. Then I saw it: a variegated red-twig dogwood (Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’) with the reddest stems I had ever seen. As sometimes happens, this one plant stood out from the others in its group like Queen Elizabeth in a supermarket. It might as well have been waving its branches at our friend Ben and screaming “Buy me! Buy me!!!” So I did.

We’ll plant this shrubby dogwood, which reaches 8 feet tall if left unpruned, along the same row of streamside trees where the corkscrew willow now resides. Not only will it give Silence plenty of bright red twigs for winter arrangements, but it will enhance the landscape with its white-bordered green leaves during the growing season. (We already had a stand of white-variegated daylilies—one of our treasures—in this bed, and have added a white-variegated iris to continue the theme. We also hang two large white-variegated spider plants from the maple branches over the bed once danger of frost has passed, carrying the green-and-white theme upwards. And we’ll probably add some green-and-white hostas to the bed as well.

Now all we need are some yellow-twig dogwoods (Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’, aka C. stolonifera ‘Flaviramea’) to plant around the corkscrew willow. Our friend Ben will be on the lookout!

I should add that tree bark, even when it’s not brilliantly colored, can add winter interest to the landscape. Our huge shagbark hickory (Carya ovata), named for its bark, which peels in long strips that remain on the trunk like a hula skirt, is one example. Its cousin the butternut (Juglans cinerea)—which we’re also fortunate enough to have—has the most gorgeous pure silver bark our friend Ben has ever seen. We also have a beauty bush (Kolkwitzia amabilis), with gorgeous multihued peeling bark.

There are plenty of other trees and shrubs with interesting bark, including the beloved crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) and ‘Hertitage’ river birch (Betula nigra ‘Heritage’). Check them (and plants with colored bark) out and see what you can add to your landscape now to add delight this winter!

More wild and woolly blog searches. April 27, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, chickens, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, the wacky and wonderful blog searches continue to pour over the virtual transom. Before our virtual inbox spills over, we thought we’d better share some of the best with you. As always, original search phrase in bold, our response following. Enjoy!

poor richer’s almanac: In the “a penny saved is still 99 cents shy of a dollar” mode.

richard’s almanac meaning of many dishes: We were bemused by this, but suspected a Ben Franklin quote lurking in the wings. Sure enough, turns out our wise hero and blog mentor said “Many dishes, many diseases” long before modern doctors blamed a host of ailments on overeating and rich food. (In old Ben’s day, anyone who could afford “many dishes” went for the richest his cook could provide, typically smothered in creamy sauces. And of course, each course was served with ample alcohol, since water was—quite rightly at the time—considered to carry disease.)

doctors apron leather i want a doctorate: Well so do we, but you can keep the leather apron.  

how to fix dry mac and cheese: Easy! Just let it cook an hour or two longer than the directions recommend.

zucchini 500 wheels: Not fans of zucchini (except in zucchini bread and the golden variety, which can be cooked like summer squash), this search at first terrorized us with visions of untold quantities of zucchini on the move, possibly to a location near us. But fortunately, our friend and blog contributor Richard Saunders recalled that every year, nearby Easton, PA hosts “The Zucchini 500,” a competitive race featuring—you guessed it—highly decorated zucchini “racecars.” And never fear, Richard reassures the searcher, you provide the decorations, but the event organizers supply the zucchinis and wheels.

remove pet vomit from corderoy [sic]: Remove it yourself.

king tut almanac: This will be our next blog. We’ll begin each post with a video of ourselves singing “Walk Like an Egyptian,” and end it by singing “King Tut.” 

tofu truth: Hmmm. “A damp, spongy, tasteless version of the truth that can appear in many guises, especially when you least expect it”?

mrs buff arfington: That’s one confused chicken. One more time, that would be “Orpington.” So stop the barking.

peach grandmother wedding: Just make sure Granny signs a prenup.

And, of course, the ever-popular eating poison ivy: Don’t say we didn’t try to warn you.

That’s it for this round. But we’re sure that, even as we write, more are winging our way!

Grumbling in the rain. April 26, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, gardening, homesteading, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben has actually heard of people who like to garden in the rain. Either these people are deranged, or whatever they do by way of gardening is far, far different from the things our friend Ben considers to be gardening.

Unfortunately, spring is such a busy time in the garden and landscape that even the rain-averse our friend Ben can’t let a little thing like a light rainfall (after two days of downpours) stand in the way of getting things done. So this morning found a reluctant OFB—goaded on by an increasingly sarcastic Silence Dogood—hauling myself outdoors to take care of the following, while Silence, mind you, remained warm and dry inside “writing.”*

First off, our friend Ben carted all the flats and containers of frost-tender veggies and ornamentals that will ultimately go into the garden beds out of the greenhouse for the day and set them either on an unoccupied bed or on the deck. This process, euphemistically known as “hardening off,” bears more resemblance to torture (from the plants’ perspective) on a cold, wet day like this. To make matters worse, normally our friend Ben would haul them all back in again for the night, as I’ve been doing daily for the past few weeks, but since overnight lows are supposed to stay in the mid-40s, I think I’ll leave them out there to fend for themselves tonight. After all, they’ll have to get out and stay out in just two short weeks, so they might as well get used to it. Plant boot camp, here we come!

Next, our friend Ben transplanted this year’s crop of surprise pumpkin-or-squash seedlings. Silence and I love to decorate for fall and the Harvest Home season, from September through Thanksgiving, by arranging a wealth of pumpkins, winter squash, gourds, ornamental corn, wheat sheaves, sorghum—you get the idea—around the front door, on our kitchen table, and on the deck. Then we typically compost the pumpkins and squash.

This move results in surprise squash or pumpkin seedlings emerging from our compost bins and taking over a fair part of the lawn around the compost bins the following year. Two years ago, we had a luxuriant butternut squash spilling over one compost bin and producing an abundance of large, handsome squashes. Last year, it was a delightful and prolific miniature orange pumpkin.

This year, our friend Ben noticed that the compost we’d spread on the hot pepper bed and perennial vegetable bed had somehow sprouted squash and/or pumpkin seedlings. The pepper bed had produced two seedlings with the most enormous seed leaves our friend Ben has ever seen. And lurking under the horseradish in the perennial vegetable bed was a cluster of super-healthy squash/pumpkin seedlings. (I’d better back up and note that pumpkins, summer squash, winter squash, and cucumbers are all related, collectively called cucurbits. Pumpkin and winter squash seedlings are especially hard to tell apart, and if they’re volunteers and could be either, you might have to wait until they fruit to find out what they really are.)

So our friend Ben transplanted the two huge seedlings, a couple of clumps of the smaller seedlings, and a yellow zucchini transplant we’d bought on Saturday to the raised bed behind our Pullet Palace (that is, enclosed chicken coop and yard). I’m pretty hopeful, since Silence and I chose all heirloom edible pumpkins for our display last fall, which should up the odds of getting some good and beautiful edible pumpkins this year from our surprise seedlings. (But Silence points out, correctly, that we need at least one more yellow zucchini and several yellow crookneck summer squash plants.)

The next chore on the list was to pull up an enormous armful of dandelions and throw them to the chickens. Normally, our friend Ben enjoys this chore. Far from another abysmal round of hand-weeding, pulling vitamin- and mineral-rich dandelions for the hugely appreciative chickens is more like harvesting. This natural spring tonic gives the chickens a real boost, and it shows in their delicious eggs.

But like every other rainy-day chore, there was the downside. First, hauling ever-more-slippery containers across the yard. Next, transplanting seedlings with muddy rootballs into muddy ground, then trying unsuccessfully to get the mud off your trowel and hands. Then the agony of knowing that the cold, wet air has made your nose run, and you have a tissue in your pocket, but your hands are coated with mud. Then trying to pull slippery, wet weeds out of the ground with your slippery, mud-coated hands.

Fortunately, by now there was only one chore left: Clearing one path through our Cultivated Wild Meadow and laying down newspaper prior to putting down mulch, once we actually get some. Our friend Ben should explain that our Cultivated Wild Meadow is divided into quadrants. One quadrant houses the chicken coop and fenced yard. The other three contain a combination of meadow plants native to our area and perennial flowers, biennials, and ornamental grasses that we’ve planted in over the years. A cross-path separates the four quadrants, with an antique chimney top capped by a silver gazing ball in the center where the four paths intersect.

Unfortunately, we’ve been rather neglectful of the paths in recent years, and weeds have encroached. So this year, it’s time to reassert authority by laying down thick layers of newspaper and topping them with mulch. Rainy weather is perfect for the newspaper phase of this project, since it will wet the newspaper down to a sodden pulp, which not only prevents weed growth but keeps the newspaper from blowing away before you can get the mulch to go on top of it.

Because of this, our friend Ben approached this particular chore with considerable enthusiasm. Pull any upstanding weeds from the path, put down the paper, weight it with rocks, and let the rain help us weight it down and solidify it. Sadly, we only had enough paper for one arm of the quadrant, but no matter, we’ll continue to accumulate more, since we subscribe to both our local paper and The Wall Street Journal. We’ll keep clearing the paths as we go. And one arm seemed easily doable, where four would be a real chore.

In this case, the rain—our ally in weighting down the paper—became our friend Ben’s nemesis in terms of hauling rocks. We keep the rocks we dig out of our garden beds and other ventures in an unobtrusive pile where they’re accessible when we need them for a task like this. But yow, the difference between handling dry rocks and wet, mud-covered, slippery rocks! Once again, OFB’s hands became mud slicks as I struggled to secure the paper as quickly as possible in case the rain intensified and the winds came up as predicted.

Returning at last to the house, I was confronted simultaneously by a horrified Silence (“Eeeewwww, don’t touch anything, look at your hands!!!”) and our exuberant puppy Shiloh (“Take me out, take me out, take me out!!!”). By now, our friend Ben was a sodden, miserable mass (and I still needed a Kleenex in the worst way).

Gardeners who like working in the rain, I can only ask, “Why?!” And as for you, Gene Kelly, much as I like singing in general, anybody who’d want to sing in the rain has water on the brain, if you ask me. Go soak your head!         

* An incensed Silence, reading over my shoulder, pointed out that she might be dry, but there was no way anyone without fur could possibly be warm in our frigid little cottage. I have to admit, she has a point there.

Best of the week at PRA, April 19-25. April 25, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, we’ve been trying to recap our favorite posts from the past week every Sunday so it’s easy to catch up if you’ve missed one that sounds intriguing. But since our computer was off for repairs last Sunday, this time it’s really the best of the past two weeks. If something catches your eye, you can either search the title in our search bar at upper right, or just scroll down until you find it.

Vital statistics. Some encouraging statistics on the recent revival of edible gardening, plus a brief history of food gardening fads in the U.S.

April is the cruelest month. We’ve managed to have weather in the 90s and in the low 30s this month. For gardeners, this is torture.

Ultimate, easy hummus. Try Silence Dogood’s easy homemade recipe and you’ll never look back!

Experiment times two. Sometimes a gardener’s just gotta get out there and try something new.

Tropical takeover. Silence and OFB take leave of their senses as tropical and semitropical edibles take over their greenhouse.

That’s it for this week! We hope you enjoy reading these as much as we enjoyed writing them!

Tropical takeover. April 25, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood are on a mission from God. For the past few years, we’ve been trying to add more tropical and semitropical edibles (fruits, herbs, and spices) to our greenhouse collection. (Most of them summer outdoors on our deck to enjoy some fresh air and let beneficial insects and rain take care of any pest problems they might have acquired over winter.)

As with most things plant-related, we’ve had successes and failures. Our lemon grass took off in the in-ground greenhouse bed and is now as large as a miscanthus. Our cardamom, however, hates the cold (55 degrees F.), dry winter greenhouse conditions and is barely hanging on. Our ‘Violetta’ purple artichoke (also in the greenhouse bed) is huge and handsome. But something (still undetermined) ate our new ‘Dwarf Lady Finger’ banana plant, leaves, stem, and roots. (We began to wonder if the entire plant tasted like banana.) Our coffee tree was looking very unhappy by the end of winter—I guess 55 degrees isn’t its idea of a good time, either—but with longer daylength and warmer temperatures, it’s been enjoying a growth spurt. But now it has chlorosis (balanced organic fertilizer and compost tea to the rescue!). And so it goes.

Before yesterday, our tally of tender edibles looked like this. Fruits: 4 fig trees, 1 Persian lime, 1 ‘Pink Lemonade’ variegated lemon. Herbs and spices: 1 lemon grass, 1 lemon-scented geranium (pelargonium, and yes, the leaves and flowers are edible), 1 cardamom, 1 lime leaf, 3 rosemaries (not hardy outdoors here), 1 purple-leaf Thai basil, 2 lemon verbenas, 2 bay trees, 2 pineapple sages, 1 variegated ‘Pesto’ basil, 1 variegated Cuban oregano (plectranthus). Vegetables: 1 ‘Violetta’ purple artichoke, 1 ‘Sweet 100’ cherry tomato, 3 ‘Sungold’ cherry tomatoes (the best). Other edibles: 1 coffee tree, 1 ‘Arbequina’ olive tree.

This may or may not sound like a lot, especially in a 10-by-16-foot greenhouse (the structure is actually 16-by-16, but the north side has a 10-foot wood storage shed and straw bale loft to provide extra insulation and warmth during cold weather.) But remember, these edibles are fighting for space with our orchids, cacti and succulents, cannas, clivias, amaryllis, ornamental salvias, geraniums/pelargoniums, and the bazillion other ornamentals that also are too tender to survive outside over winter, not to mention the greenhouse container water garden and the earthworm composter (which overwinters in there, too). When it’s fully loaded, it tends to resemble L.A. traffic at rush hour without the road rage.

That was before. As of yesterday, another much-anticipated selection of tropical edibles arrived from Logee’s Greenhouses (www.logees.com). Yes, we have some bananas: We got two, another ‘Dwarf Ladyfinger’ and a ‘Cavendish Super Dwarf’, to replace our dear departed. Before you think we’ve totally lost our minds, we’re keeping them in the house this time to protect them from whatever until it’s warm enough to leave them on the deck. By the end of summer, their stems will be tough enough to resist attack when they return to the greenhouse for the winter. But there’s still the question of space. The ‘Cavendish’ grows just 3 feet tall, and ‘Ladyfinger’ gets about 5 to 6 feet, which, again, doesn’t sound too bad given our greenhouse size. But height alone doesn’t take into account the bananas’ huge tropical umbrella of foliage. Making room for two umbrellas is going to take some doing come late fall.

We also got a curry leaf tree (Murraya koenigii), a Key lime, a Palestine sweet lime, and a variegated vanilla orchid. Silence has been lusting after a curry tree—the leaves are as essential to many Indian dishes as lime leaf leaves are to Thai, Vietnamese, and Indonesian cuisine—and our friend Ben has been eager to add a Key lime to our collection, with its promise of Key lime pies and margaritas. We’re both fascinated by the idea of growing our own vanilla, though the vining orchid has to reach about 5 feet or so on a trellis before it will flower, and you have about one second to hand-pollinate those flowers if you want vanilla beans. And we were intrigued by the description of the Palestine sweet lime, an unknown cross that produces fruits that look like limes but are sweet. Yum!!!

The new plants arrived incredibly carefully packed and bursting with vigor. But my, you don’t know small until you’ve seen a 2.5″ pot! (Even the bananas were just in 4″ pots, looking as uncomfortable as Mma Makutsi in her too-small blue shoes.) We knew we’d have to pot everything up right away. Grabbing big pots and a huge bag of organic potting soil, we got to work.

One thing that always amazes our friend Ben is how a bigger pot can make some plants look so much bigger than they did in their original pots. This was true of our bananas, Palestine sweet lime, and vanilla orchid (no doubt the trellis added a stately air to the vanilla vine).

The vanilla offered another challenge, since it came rooted in damp sphagnum moss. We potted it up in a mix of organic potting soil and damp orchid bark/perlite/charcoal*, and are waiting to see how it will adjust to its new growing medium. The poor little curry tree and Key lime were so small that they didn’t benefit from the Alice-in-Wonderland effect, but we know they’re much happier anyway.

Needless to say, we’re looking for some happy harvests to come. We’ll plant a ginger rhizome in the in-ground greenhouse bed as soon as we’ve taken the containers out to the deck. And we have tea, cinnamon, black pepper, and blood orange on our “get these next” list. Too bad we can’t grow date palms here!

We should note before leaving you that some of these tropical crops require a second step before you can use them. It’s not enough to harvest olives, vanilla beans, coffee beans, or tea leaves: They all must be cured before they can be consumed or added to food or made into beverages. But we’re willing to take that extra step and see how our homegrown coffee, tea, olives, and vanilla turn out.

* Orchid growers, here’s a tip for you: If you’ve ever tried to grow an orchid in a mix of orchid bark, perlite, and charcoal—the standard orchid potting mix—you probably know that the whole point of this mix is that it holds moisture around the orchid roots while also allowing water to drain freely out of the pots, imitating the rainforest conditions where many orchids originated. But you also probably know that if you pot an orchid in dry orchid bark mix, it will drain out all the water rather than maintaining moisture in the root zone. Somehow, you have to infuse the bark with water before you use it.

Here’s how we deal with this: We bought an old Crock-Pot for a couple of bucks at a local Goodwill or Salvation Army. We fill the crock with the orchid bark mix, add water, and turn the Crock-Pot on low. We leave it to cook all day, and voila! Totally saturated bark mix. The mix stays saturated, too, so you can use what you need and leave the rest in the crock until you need it. Works like a charm!

Blue blooms and happiness. April 24, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. It’s April, and that means I can’t turn around without tripping over pansies. Pots of pansies, beds of pansies, windowboxes of pansies, flats of pansies, all staring me down with their huge, ominous faces. I’ll admit, I’ve always found pansies scary-looking. Their obvious appeal to pretty much everybody is totally lost on me.

I think it’s really just a matter of scale. If pansies bloomed on a tree, I might find them as enchanting as everyone else seems to. They’re just too big and bold for those little plants they’re growing on.

One reason I think this is the problem is that in exact proportion to my loathing of pansies is my love of their smaller, more endearing cousins, violas and Johnny-jump-ups. Here at Hawk’s Haven, our friend Ben and I have tried (and failed) innumerable times at establishing Johnny-jump-ups in our flower beds.

Fortunately, violas are easier. I grow them in containers, and that’s what this post is all about. (And fans of Alexander McCall Smith and his marvelous No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, please pardon the pun in the post’s title. I simply couldn’t resist.)

The past couple of weeks, our local farmers’ market in scenic Kutztown, PA has had flats of bedding plants (as well as herbs and veggies) galore, including violas and (shudder) pansies. One bedding plant that caught my eye was nemesia (N. fruticans), with its trailing clusters of small frilled flowers resembling blue and blue-purple equitant oncidiums. (For those not familiar with these delightful miniature orchids, the foliage resembles fleshy iris leaves and the blooms, borne in exquisite sprays, look like a cancan dancer’s outfit with a tightly cinched waist. In the case of nemesias, that tiny waist is accented with two bright yellow pompoms in the center of the belt.)

Hmmm. Those nemesias looked like the perfect pairing with violas. After perusing the violas, I opted for a pack of six primrose-yellow ones (unidentified, alas) because, unlike most of the others, they were deliciously fragrant. (One great advantage of container planting is bringing fragrance close up. Why not take advanatage of it?) And because I’d chosen primrose yellow, I opted for the blue nemesias (‘Nesia Dark Blue’) rather than the blue with rose-purple overtones (shame on me, I didn’t check the cultivar name, sorry!), buying four. (After confirming with the stand’s owner that they’d stay in bloom through the season.)

Back home, I selected a large pale beige pot from my stash and planted it with the nemesias around the perimeter, two violas in the middle, and the other four radiating out like spokes between the nemesias. Simple but stunning! For $7, I’d created a big, striking container planting that caused all our neighbors to come over, ooh and ah, and ask where they could get those plants. (Yes, I already had organic potting soil and was using one of the many pots I’ve stashed over the years. But hey, the total cost even if you had to buy both was still under $14.)

Buoyed by this success, I rushed back to the farmers’ market yesterday with thoughts of those rose-purple nemesias and mahogany-red violas dancing in my head. (I avoid dark purple flowers, both in containers and in the landscape, as they tend to look like black holes from any distance. So, though I admired the velvety dark purple violas, I wasn’t tempted to buy them.) But alas! The very few rose-purple nemesias left were scraggly and unappealing.

Luckily, there were still four great-looking blue nemesias, and I snapped them up before you could say ‘Nesia Dark Blue’. But now what?

Of course, I could have simply repeated my original planting, and if I’d had a matching container, I probably would have, placing the pair on either side of the greenhouse door. But since that wasn’t the case, I wanted to try something different. One viola that had really gotten my attention the previous week had palest purple-shading-to-white upper petals, pale purple-blue lower petals, and rich purple surrounding a yellow center. This may not sound like a good match for the blue nemesias, but it was, with blue catching blue and white highlighting it, as well as the subtle color match of the yellow centers. The only reason I hadn’t succumbed to this viola (sadly also unidentified) the previous week was its lack of fragrance. Nemesias aren’t fragrant, either. What to do?

Aha, flats of white sweet alyssum (also unlabeled) were on the next bench over. The honey-sweet fragrance of alyssum flowers would compensate for the absence of fragrance in the others, the white of their tiny blooms would echo the white viola petals, and, like the others, the alyssum blossoms have yellow centers, creating an extremely subtle but nonetheless entertaining color echo. Two four-packs of sweet alyssum, one six-pack of violas, four nemesias, and $9 later, I was on my way to another great container planting.

Make that $6. I only ended up using two of the nemesias in this container, again spoking out the violas from the center and planting the alyssum to spill over two sides. If anything, it’s more stunning than the original container.

But why only two nemesias? Well, on the way home, I stopped at the tiny local hardware store because I needed new pruners. Sure enough, there was a rack of violas out front, including the exquisite ‘Sorbet Lilac Ice’ and the jolly, Johnny-jump-up-esque purple-and-yellow ‘Sorbet Sunny Royale’. At $1 a six-pack, how could I resist? No doubt I could match up the ‘Sunny Royale’ violas with something, but I chose to simply pot them up together for a sunnily cheerful burst of color. But the ‘Lilac Ice’ violas would be a perfect foil for the blue nemesias, so I tucked two nemesias in their container.

Today, our deck and greenhouse doorway (where the original container stands sentinal) are ablaze with beautiful color combinations. Four striking, easy-to-assemble containers for a total price of $18 for the plants, $4.50 for a huge bag of organic potting soil, and some recycled containers works for me! Get a jump-start on spring and make some for yourself.

              ‘Til next time,


The trees have arrived! April 23, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood were hugely excited by the arrival of the latest additions to the home orchard and nuttery here at Hawk’s Haven, our cottage home in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. We received two hardy pecans, dwarf ‘Lapins’ and dwarf ‘CompacStella’ cherries, and a ‘Herbert’ blueberry bush from Miller Nurseries (www.millernurseries.com).

Mind you, we’ve tried to grow both hardy pecans and cherries here before—several times—without success. But we chalk that up to too-small planting holes and erratic watering during a long stretch of drought years. (Shame on us!) So this time, we’re taking no chances. A friend with a post-hole digger came and made us planting holes that go halfway to China. And yes, our friend Ben is dutifully lugging out water jugs every other day and letting them have it whether they need it or not. (We’ll scale back on that once it’s clear that the plants are well established.)

We inherited magnificent shagbark and butternut hickories with our property, along with a number of black walnuts, and we added filbert (hazelnut) bushes early on, so if the hardy pecans take this time our little nuttery will be well on its way.

Our new cherries will be joining three apples (‘Braeburn’, ‘Jonafree’, and ‘Freedom’), a pluot, a ‘Reliance’ peach, two pears (a ‘Seckel’ and a triple-grafted tree with ‘Bartlett’, ‘Buerre Bosc’, and ‘Anjou’), a small grove of ‘Select’ and ‘Wells’ pawpaws, and a ‘Meader’ American persimmon. Now we just need to get some plums and we’re all set! We have our eyes on ‘Green Gage’ and ‘Stanley’.

Moving on to the greenhouse, we also have four container-grown figs, a Persian lime, and a ‘Pink Lemonade’ variegated pink lemon. Not to mention our pride and joy, an ‘Arbequina’ olive, a coffee tree, and a lime leaf.

We have bush fruits, too. Our new ‘Herbert’ blueberry will be joining ‘Blueray’ and ‘Ivanhoe’ in the blueberry bed. We inherited a native elderberry with the property, and have added ‘Adams No. 1’ and ‘Johns’ to join it. We have two large raspberry trellises full of ‘Latham’ and ‘Heritage’ red, ‘Allen’ and ‘Jewel’ black, ‘Purple Royalty’, and ‘Fall Gold’ raspberries. And of course we have strawberries, both an assortment of June-bearers and Alpines and some natives especially adapted as groundcovers under trees.

Oops, almost forgot the grapes! We have ‘Concord’, ‘Himrod Seedless’ (a white), and ‘Leon Millot’ (a wine grape). And if you like to lump rhubarb in with the fruits, we have three, a ‘Valentine’ and two ‘Victoria’. 

With all this fruiting and nutting going on, what else are we lusting after for the home orchard besides those plums? Well, our friend Ben still wants a Key lime, and Silence has her heart set on a blood orange. (We’re actually expecting a few other greenhouse fruits later this week, but we’ll tell you about them when they arrive.)

We’d like to add a nectarine to go with the peach. We’d love to get some “no-bog” cranberries to plant as a groundcover beneath our blueberries. And we want to try again with hardy kiwis. (This time, we don’t have a clue what happened. The vines were huge and thriving, and had flourished for at least four years. Then they abruptly died, almost as though someone had snuck into the yard and hit them with Roundup.)

We’d also like to get one of the crabapples that bears fruit you can eat fresh. We wouldn’t mind a few more wine grapes. And of course we’re tempted by those container apples and cherries. We’d like to get an ‘All in One’ almond to round out our nuts, and a Jostaberry and ‘Pink Champagne’ currant to add more variety to our fruits. And okay, another pluot would be nice.

For right now, though, we’re happy with our new arrivals and are looking forward to a very fruitful year! Tell us more about what fruits and nuts you grow and love, which ones you don’t like, and what you wish you had!

Vital statistics. April 22, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Good news for vegetable gardeners! Our friend Ben was paging through this month’s copy of greenPROFIT/GROWERTALKS magazine when my eye was caught by Ellen Wells’s editorial, “Edible Endeavors.” One paragraph provided some amazingly encouraging statistics for all of us who love to grow edibles. I quote:

“This is… what the Garden Writers Association Foundation found in its 2009 Edibles [sic] Gardening Trends Research Report conducted in November: More than 41 million U.S. households (38%) grew a vegetable garden; 19.5 million households (18%) grew an herb garden; 16.5 million households (15%) grew fruits; 7% (7.7 million households) were new to edibles [sic] gardening; about 33% of experienced gardeners grew more edibles in 2009; and 37%  of households reported plans to increase their edible gardens in 2010.”

Wow. How exciting! Finally, gardening with edibles has arrived, not just among the cognoscenti but across America. No wonder Michelle Obama is planting an organic vegetable garden on the White House lawn and venerable nurseries like White Flower Farm and Logee’s are offering an amazing selection of edibles, from tomatoes to olives to coffee trees and vanilla orchids to passionfruit and citrus. But our friend Ben thinks this trend has taken its own sweet time. After all, the last time growing edibles was trendy was in the Victory Garden era of World War II.

Then, with the boom years of the Fifties, growing your own food fell into disrepute. The idea seemed to be that you should grow ornamentals in your landscape and get your fruits and vegetables from the grocery, that growing your own was somehow shabby, not respectable, even trashy. And unfortunately, this perception endured for decades.

The youthful Ben would wander through my beloved Grandma Simms’s backyard with its vegetables, herbs, edible flowers, and even a peach tree, as if visiting Paradise, it seemed so exotic. Certainly, no vegetable dared show its head in our home’s Colonial landscape, and when a German family moved into the neighborhood and began growing corn in their front lawn, they became instant outcasts and were the talk of the whole area. Shocking!!!

Fortunately, influential voices were raised in favor of edibles throughout the “all flowers, all the time” era. There was a big revival of interest in growing edibles in the 1970s, fueled by Organic Gardening magazine, by the popularity of Helen and Scott Nearing’s homesteading classic, Living the Good Life, and its sequels, and by the Back to the Land movement.

Ruth Stout’s books on mulch gardening, The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book and How to Have a Green Thumb without an Aching Back, proclaimed that vegetable gardening didn’t even have to be the backbreaking endeavor brought to mind by truck gardens of the era. John and Betsy Jeavons insisted that yes, it did, with the publication of the first edition of How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine, introducing Americans to the concepts of double-digging, Biodynamics, and French Intensive gardening. But the complexity and one-upmanship inherent in Jeavons’s sytem was countered by Masanobu Fukuoka’s The One-Straw Revolution, which introduced readers to the Zen of gardening and reinforced that it didn’t have to be hard.

A generation largely raised on frozen and canned vegetables, TV dinners, and other “convenience foods” had had enough. But they were viewed as Hippies and radicals, an idealistic and foolish fringe. Flower gardening still reigned supreme.

The one “respectable” voice championing food gardening in the ’70s was that of Jim Crockett, whose pioneering PBS gardening show, “The Victory Garden,” took its very name from those vegetable gardens of old. Crockett grew ornamentals, including houseplants and greenhouse plants, as well as edibles, on the show. But his cheerful approach and easy-to-follow month-by-month format won the show and the books spun off from it a legion of admirers, even in the suburbs. The Stepford Wives and their Toro-riding husbands were still in charge of the landscape, but there were definitely cracks in the veneer.

By the ’80s, it looked like corporate culture was going to be the death knell of vegetable gardening. In the era of Yuppies and “upward mobility”—emphasis on mobility, move every two years at your company’s command and to hell with what that does to family stability, children’s sense of security, and sense of place—who’d want to do anything to the faceless, cookie-cutter house and property you’d bought in the new place? Not only would you not be there long enough to enjoy it, but it might reduce the property value when it was time to resell!   

Thank God, the ’80s also brought new forces to bear on the fight for edible gardening. Edible landscaping, a concept pioneered by Rosalind Creasy in her books The Complete Guide to Edible Landscaping and Cooking from the Garden, as well as by Robert Kourik and others, showed gardeners that vegetable and fruit growing didn’t have to be an eyesore. Bill Mollison’s Permaculture made its way from Australia to America, reinforcing the idea of planting dual-purpose plants (for example, nut-bearing shade trees) and landscaping for self-sufficiency.

Upscale food-plant-focused seed companies, such as The Cook’s Garden and Shepherd’s Garden Seeds, began offering gourmet varieties that had previously only been available in Europe, Central and South America, and Asia. Composting became a backyard phenomenon. City dwellers began rediscovering the venerable community gardens that had been thriving in their communities for decades. And that enduring blockbuster, Square Foot Gardening, took the fear factor out of vegetable gardening once and for all.

The ’80s also produced the largest rise in awareness of environmental issues, including pollution and what chemical-based farming and gardening were doing to our food and our planet, since Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring. Buying organic produce began to move into the mainstream, out of the health food stores and into Whole Foods, Wegman’s, and the like. People began making an effort to eat better and use fewer chemicals. Organic finally went mainstream. But food gardening? Not yet.

Then came the ’90s. Now at last was the era in which chefs and their restaurants, like Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, gained national, even celebrity, attention. The organic vegetable gardens backing many such restaurants were prominently featured in the press, along with the small-scale organic farmers who supplied them with produce.

Potagers and kitchen gardens were hot. Vermiculture, earthworm composting, took the gardening world by storm. Farmers’ Markets came into their own, as more people became hooked on the freshness and variety of the produce and the relief of knowing where their food came from. Heirloom vegetables became the hottest trend in food, and companies like Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and organizations like The Seed Savers Exchange thrived. Martha Stewart and her ilk made food gardening trendy, not trashy.

People also became fascinated with the Amish and the Pueblo cultures of the Southwest, where folks grew and preserved their own food and always had. And books like Eliot Coleman’s The New Organic Grower’s Four-Season Harvest and Leandre Poisson’s Solar Gardening assisted gardeners in temperate climates to produce food even when the temperatures plunged outside. During the ’90s, back-to-basics magazines like Backwoods Home, The Mother Earth News, and Back Home were enjoying a renaissance as they helped people learn basic gardening and cooking skills.

The concept of eating seasonally was gaining ground (pardon the pun). And the threat of Y2K was encouraging more people than ever to learn how to grow and preserve their own food. Other ’90s trends: vegetarianism becoming accepted; edible flowers; broccoli and other sprouts; maitake, shiitake, and other “miracle mushrooms” being added to cooking for health; “spring mix” and mesclun salads; more exotic cuisines (Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Cuban, Ethiopian, Turkish, Moroccan, Spanish tapas, sushi, etc.) going mainstream; “spa cuisine.”

Fruit finally came into its own in the 1990s, too. Books like Lee Reich’s Uncommon Fruits Worthy of Attention, Roger Yepsen’s Apples, and Lewis Hill’s Fruits and Berries for the Home Garden helped make the seemingly arcane prospect of growing your own fruits and berries plausible.

At last, the first decade of the 21st century. The rise of the CSA (consumer-assisted agriculture, aka seasonal subscription farming) is at hand, where people sign up for a season’s worth of produce, paying in advance, and the farmers provide them with an ever-changing assortment of seasonal organic produce. Veganism and raw foods take the stage. Locavores make a determined effort to eat only foods produced within a 100-mile radius. The Slow Food Movement has inspired people to cook from scratch and avoid fast food.

Even mainstream supermarkets are highlighting local produce. With obesity a national scandal and Monsanto a national disgrace, more people are making the effort to avoid “Frankenfoods” and chemicals and invest in fresh, organic foods, fresh air, and health, for us and for our land and the creatures we share it with.

Our friend Ben would like to see edible landscaping come into its own in the new decade awaiting us. Here at Hawk’s Haven, Silence Dogood and I make a conscious effort to plant fruiting ornamentals like elderberries and pawpaws, choose vines like hardy kiwis and grapes to climb our arbors and trellises, choose nuts like hardy pecans and filberts (hazelnuts) when we need new trees and shrubs, plant roses that provide beauty and nutritious, vitamin-C-rich rose hips like Rosa rugosa, and grow cherries instead of flowering cherries, apples instead of crabapples, pears instead of ‘Bradford’ Callery pears, and the like.

We choose herbs for container plantings, grow as many tropical fruits and spices as we can cram in our greenhouse in the winter and on our deck in the summer, and try to grow as much fresh produce as our raised beds and greenhouse can produce. What we’re not able to consume fresh, Silence knows how to preserve for delicious meals in fall, winter, and spring. These days, people don’t even look at us oddly when we say we have a little flock of heritage-breed chickens. They just ask if they can have some eggs.

It looks like almost 40% of Americans are joining us. We hope with all our hearts that soon that number will climb to 100%. Whether you’re growing one potted tomato on a balcony or a potager or a full-scale edible landscape, hooray for you!  Go for it and enjoy. We know we do!

(Er, a footnote is needed here. When covering whole decades of garden history, much is bound to be left out, at least when our friend Ben is acting as historian. The revival of herb gardening prompted by the likes of Jim Duke, Varro E. Tyler, Maud Greave,  Adelle Simmons, Bertha Reppert, and Rosemary Gladstar, among many others, is just one example. Alan Chadwick’s Biodynamic gardens in California, John Seymour’s homestead arts, and the Foxfire series are others. If you think I’ve left something out that needs to be mentioned, please comment here! It would be great to fill in some of the many blanks.)