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Conspiracy theory for gardeners. January 19, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben is generally no fan of conspiracy theory. Even if the theory turns out to be true, it seems to me that it does no good to sit around wallowing in paranoia when you could be doing something useful and rewarding instead, such as getting on with life.

However. After Silence Dogood and I recently received two long-anticipated gardening catalogues that arrived in our mailbox ripped to shreds, I may have to rethink my position. After all, we regularly receive clothing, home, pet, and cooking catalogues here that invariably arrive in perfect condition, however little we wish to see them. Why would the post office single out gardening catalogues for this abuse?

The answer seems obvious: The post office is involved in a massive conspiracy to wipe out home gardening in America. Either that, or it’s attempting to hasten its own demise by driving outraged gardeners to the online versions of gardening catalogues, which as we all know are never as satisfying as the ones we can hold and page through after dinner. What kind of organization would deliberately attempt to drive itself out of business? Thus, our friend Ben is left with no alternative but to fall back on the conspiracy theory. But why persecute a bunch of harmless gardeners, you might ask?

Hmmm. Perhaps the post office is in secret negotiations with Monsanto, and is hoping for a second life in the private sector after the government shuts it down. Perhaps gated communities across the nation have enlisted the post office’s assistance in their attempts to ban all plants from yards except lawn grass. Perhaps the entertainment industry has decided that gardening is dangerous, since it keeps people outdoors and away from their TV sets, and it’s bribed the post office to destroy catalogues on the grounds that any activity besides shopping and watching TV or playing computer games is clearly unAmerican. Perhaps grocers and florists have lobbied the post office to do its part to keep people from growing their own.

Then again, perhaps the post office has been taken over by outraged residents of the former planet Pluto, who have mistakenly blamed gardeners rather than astronomers for their home planet’s humiliating demotion. The possibilities are endless. Our friend Ben invites you to choose your favorite or add your own to the list.

This whole business is especially offensive given that our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin, was the Founding Father of the U.S. postal system. Though no agronomic whiz like his fellow Founders Washington and Jefferson, old Ben was also extremely interested in plants and gardening, introducing several species, including rhubarb, to the Colonies. A rare and wonderful small native tree, Franklinia alatamaha, was named to honor his contributions to botany and gardening by his friends, the famous early American botanists John and William Bartram. Harrumph! Et tu, post office?!

Incidentally, in case it turns out that everybody else is getting their gardening catalogues in perfect condition, our friend Ben can still fall back on that oldest form of paranoia: Why me?!!! But frankly, I think it’s the Plutonians…


Ben Picks Ten: Veggies I’d Like to Grow January 30, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading.
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Every winter, when the seed and nursery catalogues start to arrive, our friend Ben’s eyes get way bigger than my stomach. Here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home Silence Dogood and I share in the precise middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, there just isn’t all that much room left for planting. We have three vegetable beds, one of which is given over to perennial veggies like asparagus, rhubarb, and horseradish, plus the greenhouse bed. The rest of the property is heavily planted with various fruits and ornamentals. With the best will in the world, there’s only so much I can plant. But mercy, everything looks so appealing!

What to do? Our friend Ben relies on Silence to apply the commonsense brakes to the actual seed and plant orders. But I allow myself to make up an additional list of things I’d like to plant, choosing whatever strikes my fancy. This is great, since limiting factors like climate, space, budget, and amount of sunlight no longer matter. Anything goes! Here are ten favorites from this year’s fantasy vegetable order, plus, of course, some bonuses:

1. ‘Roblin’ hard red spring wheat. Silence and our friend Ben fantasize about growing our own wheat patch and making artisanal bread from our fresh-harvested organic wheat, so I enjoyed reading about this variety in the Wood Prairie Farm catalogue (www.woodprairie.com).

2. ‘Lion’s Mane’ mushrooms. Another dream that we hope to make a someday reality is growing our own mushrooms. The Abundant Life Seeds catalogue (www.abundantlifeseeds.com) offers a wonderful assortment of mushrooms as kits or plugs. Our friend Ben was much struck by the ‘Lion’s Mane’ (Hericium erinaceus) after reading the description: “Some say that the flavor is similar to lobster. A great variety to fry up with some garlic or shallots.” Yum!!!

3. ‘Hopi Blue’ corn. Our friend Ben and Silence would love to grow enough corn to grind our own cornmeal, since homemade cornbread, cornpone, corncakes, and corn muffins are much-loved around here. This one’s never gonna happen—we simply don’t have the space. But reading about the revered, even legendary, ‘Hopi Blue’ flour corn in the Seeds of Change catalogue (www.seedsofchange.com) made our friend Ben long to get some: “Widely adaptable and drought-tolerant, this venerable and beloved flour corn has been raised by the Hopi people for over 800 years. Makes a deliciously sweet cornmeal.” Sigh.

4. ‘Jester Hybrid’ millet. Our friend Ben loves the idea of growing a garden for the birds, but in reality, setting aside space for ornamental millet is not high on my list of gardening priorities. Nonetheless, the glorious photo and description of ‘Jester’ millet in the venerable Burpee catalogue (www.burpee.com) really caught my eye: “A ‘chameleon’ in sun or shade, Jester’s foliage color magically changes as the plant grows; young leaves are bright chartreuse with an overlay of burgundy. As the season progresses, the dramatic, harlequin-like coloring slowly gives way to burgundy until, by summer’s end, it turns a bronze wine color. Adding to its interest, 12″ corn-like tassels burst from the tops of the plants in summer, lasting well into fall.” Sounds like a great plant to add drama to a container!

5. ‘Golden Giant’ amaranth. Maybe you’re getting the idea that grain plants are high on our friend Ben’s fantasy list. The massive, gorgeous golden heads of this grain amaranth, discovered in the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalogue (www.rareseeds.com), made our friend Ben positively drool. I would simply love to grow a mixed plot of many-colored amaranths, corn, broom corn, sunflowers, and millet. What a glorious sight, and what an amazing treat for the birds!

6. ‘Lambkin Hybrid’ melon. It’s hard for our friend Ben to justify taking the enormous amount of space required to grow melon vines in our limited raised beds, even for our beloved heirloom ‘Moon and Stars’ watermelon, so for now, ‘Lambkin’ must remain on the fantasy list. But seeing the gorgeous green-mottled, bright yellow melons with their “sweet and aromatic” white flesh in the Park Seed catalogue (www.parkseed.com) almost made me lose my resolve. This one may be even more beautiful than ‘Moon and Stars’!

7. ‘Rainbow’ hybrid carrot. Our friend Ben and Silence love carrots, shredded or sliced into salads, cut for dips, as a simple side dish or enlivening a curry or stew—let us count the ways. But carrots require deep, loose, stone-free soil and even moisture to grow well, neither of which is likely to be found in our Hawk’s Haven gardens, so they remain on the fantasy list. Our friend Ben loves colorful carrots like ‘Purple Dragon’ and ‘Yellowstone’, but was amazed to read the description of ‘Rainbow’ in the Nichols Garden Nursery catalogue (www.nicholsgardennursery.com): “Unique, this single variety produces yellow, light orange, dark orange, coral, and white 7″ to 8″ roots. Each of these extra sweet colors has a slightly different flavor, all good.  Makes a beautiful shredded carrot salad or relish tray. This is an actual variety not a blend of different colors.” Bring it on!

8. Jerusalem artichokes. Also called “sunchokes,” the nutty-flavored tubers of this sunflower relative are good peeled and sliced raw in salads or added to Chinese-style stir-fries, but in our friend Ben’s opinion, are simply irresistible when pickled Pennsylvania Dutch style. Our friend Ben loves perennial veggies that only need to be planted once, require no further care, and yield abundant harvests year after year thereafter. In the case of Jerusalem artichokes, you get abundant yellow mini-sunflowers as a bonus. I was admiring them yet again in the Jung Seeds & Plants catalogue (www.jungseed.com) when Silence stopped me dead in my tracks. That’s because Jerusalem artichokes spread vigorously, which is a nicely euphemistic way of saying they’re kudzu-like weeds that you’ll never get rid of once you plant them, much like another of my favorite plants, burdock. So for now, they remain on the fantasy list. But who knows, one of these growing seasons I may sneak a tuber or two into our Cultivated Wild Meadow in front of the Pullet Palace…      

9. Colorful eggplants. Our friend Ben has had no luck at all growing eggplant, though I’ve tried for many years. I believe it has to do with the dreaded watering issue (faithful readers may recall that we have to haul water out to our gardens in gallon plastic milk jugs, meaning that our enthusiasm for watering is minimal at best). Whatever the case, eggplants simply don’t like us. But that doesn’t mean we don’t like them: baba ghannouj, eggplant Parmesan, eggplant in garlic sauce, and eggplant rollatini are some of our all-time favorite foods. So our friend Ben was immediately captivated by two seed collections from Renee’s Garden (www.reneesgarden.com), “Asian Trio” and “Italian Trio.” The Asian Trio features long, slender dark purple ‘Little Fingers’, magenta ‘Farmer’s Long’, and lavender-white ‘Asian Bride’. The Italian Trio features fat, teardrop-shaped purple-black ‘Nadia’, magenta ‘Beatrice’, and the aptly named rose-and-white ‘Rosa Bianca’.

10. Colorful cauliflower. Aaarrgghhh, here’s another one. Our friend ben and Silence simply adore broccoli, but we love broccoflower, the lime-green, cauliflower-like broccoli relative, even more. And we’re captivated by the bright orange and purple cauliflowers as well. But we simply can’t justify using our limited raised-bed space to grow veggies that require as much pampering as cauliflower (read: even soil moisture throughout the growing season and cool growing conditions), not to mention justifying the space for the amount of harvest. So our friend Ben has added the Rainbow Cauliflower Mixture from John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds catalogue (www.kitchengardenseeds.com) to my fantasy list. Here’s why: “We know that not everyone has a garden large enough to grow scads of each colorful variety, so we created this special mixture of purple, orange-yellow, lime-green and white cauliflower seeds.” Just reading that is enough to make me want to rush to the farmers’ market and buy a head of each!

And the bonuses:

11. ‘Deco Mix’ ornamental cucumber. Our friend Ben and Silence buy adorable ornamental gourds for our fall Harvest Home display every year, and we’ve seen some fascinating ornamental eggplants like ‘Plum Granny’. (In these cases, “ornamental” means inedible and decorative, not decorative and edible like so many vegetables.) But I’d never come across “ornamental” cukes before this year. Unlike edible cukes, the ornamental kinds are as long-lasting as gourds. And our friend Ben can guarantee that you’ll astound not just your family and friends but pretty much everybody if you grow them! I happened upon the ‘Deco Mix’ in the Territorial Seed Company catalogue (www.territorialseed.com), but I know I found a mix of decorative cukes in another catalogue, too. So keep your eyes open!

12. Sweet potatoes. This is another of Silence’s and our friend Ben’s all-time favorite veggies, whether we’re eating them baked to perfection with butter and salt, in sweet potato souffle, or chunked and roasted with other root veggies. (We confess to a positive addiction to sweet potato fries, as well, though even Silence wouldn’t try to cook them at home.) Given our climate and growing season, we’re not likely to try anything more ambitious than the fabled sweet potato vine in the jar of water. But we were excited to see that the Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalogue (www.johnnyseeds.com) carried ‘Beauregard’, an orange-fleshed sweet potato that apparently matures fast and is a winner in both North and South. Maybe someday, we’ll get brave enough to try white-, red-, and yellow-fleshed sweet potatoes, but for now, we’ll stick to the deep orange kinds and bake them ’til the flesh shreds away from the skin and caramelizes. Just add butter and salt! 

Needless to say, our friend Ben compiles lists of fruits, flowers, shrubs, trees, vines, grasses, and more every year, too. I’ll cover some of this year’s fantasy selections in future posts. For now, please share some of your fantasy veggies (or favorite veggie catalogues we’ve missed) with us!

Two must-have seed catalogues. December 29, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, chickens, gardening, homesteading, recipes.
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The 2009 seed and nursery catalogues are turning up in the mailbox here at Hawk’s Haven. Hooray! Our friend Ben will take on nursery catalogues in another post, but here, I’d like to recommend two favorite seed catalogues that should definitely be showing up in your mailbox: Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and Wood Prairie Farm.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds is one of the great success stories of our day. It all started with a dream (and a couple of cooperative parents). In 1998, 17-year-old Jeremiath (Jere) Gettle sent out 550 copies of a hand-printed seed catalogue that featured organically grown, open-pollinated heirloom seeds. He filled his seed orders from his bedroom.

Fast-forward to 2009: Jere (that’s “Jair,” not “Jerry”) prints 150,000 copies of a full-color, 124-page catalogue. It contains more than 1,200 heirloom varieties from 66 countries. And they’re all still organic and open-pollinated, which means that, if you want, you can save seed from them yourself and they’ll come true, unlike today’s hybrids. Jere takes a strong stand against genetically modified seeds and other atrocities like war throughout his catalogue. He even quotes our hero and blog mentor, old Ben Franklin!

Our friend Ben admires Jere. I love Baker Creek’s selection of heirloom vegetables, seed-grown fruits, herbs, and flowers. And dear to our friend Ben’s heart are the 20 kinds of heritage-breed chickens wandering the Baker Creek grounds (you can buy chicks in spring and summer).

I’m only giving you part of the Baker Creek picture here: Jere, who is trying to preserve the best of pioneer culture, has actually recreated a pioneer village called Bakersville on the Baker Creek property, and holds open houses and festivals there with old-time music, seed and plant sales, pioneer crafts, garden speakers, good food, and much more. And he publishes a quarterly magazine devoted to heirlooms, The Heirloom Gardener. But I’ll let you read about all that on the Baker Creek website, www.rareseeds.com, when you go there to check things out and order your catalogue!

(Note to Jere and Emilee: Silence Dogood, who’s reading over my shoulder, says that the one thing missing is a collection of recipes featuring heirloom veggies! She would of course like to see recipes in the catalogue itself, but if there’s no room, the website would be a good place to tuck them in.)

Lack of recipes isn’t an issue in the next catalogue I’d like to recommend: Wood Prairie Farm’s Maine Potato Catalog. Wood Prairie’s Jim and Megan Gerritsen not only feature recipes and cooking tips throughout their catalogue, they’ll send you their potato recipe booklet with every potato order. Like Baker Creek, Wood Prairie is adamantly organic, and Jim and Megan also seek out the widest variety of truly great potatoes and other products, along with their own line of organic veggie and herb seeds. Their seed selection is geared towards short-season growers, so all Northerners and Canadians, take notice! You’ll especially appreciate Wood Prairie’s seed potatoes and veggie and herb seed selections. But the potatoes are selected for every climate, including the South and Southwest, so everybody, read on. There’s much more for you to know!

Wood Prairie’s focus extends beyond organics, cold-climate gardening, and even potatoes. Their catalogue is small but mighty, filled with fantastic old-timey color illustrations (you’ll get a free selection of these as postcards when you order their potatoes). They offer delightful products and innovations in so many areas, our friend Ben hardly knows where to start. I guess the best place is with those potatoes.

Not all that many catalogues carry seed potatoes to begin with. (Gardeners don’t typically raise potatoes from actual seeds, but from small potatoes called seed potatoes. When you’re ready to plant, you cut each seed potato into chunks, with each chunk containing one or more “eyes,” or nubby sprouts, let the pieces dry out or cure for a couple of days, then plant them. You can plant very small seed potatoes whole.) You’re lucky to find a nice assortment and a little information about each variety (more properly cultivar, for “cultivated variety”).

In the Wood Prairie catalogue, you’ll find an amazing selection of the very best potatoes for early, midseason, and late growing. Each will be accompanied by a wonderful illustration and information on maturity, size of plant, color of skin and flesh, tuber shape, size of tubers (potatoes are technically tubers), tuber set, yield, flower color, disease tolerance, in-row spacing, ease of growing, and more. There are charts of potatoes by texture and how to use each variety for best flavor and texture; tips on organic potato growing; and delightful potato gardening collections, including the Organic Potato Blossom Special (did you know potato flowers could be colorful and fragrant?), Red, White and All-Blue Seed Potato Collection, and our friend Ben’s favorite, the Experimenter’s Special (four varieties, your choice).

Rather cook than garden? Wood Prairie offers a vast selection of organic potatoes for cooking, as well as a Maine Potato Sampler of the Month. You can order organic garlic, shallots, onions, beets, carrots, and/or parsnips, a selection of organic whole-grain bread mixes, whole grains (including wheat, oats, spelt, rye, and even flour or “dent” corn), cheeses, sprouting seeds, and even cover crops.

Check out Wood Prairie’s catalogue or website, www.woodprairie.com, for even more. Plus, first-time customers get $5 off their first order!

Our friend Ben thinks that every vegetable gardener should have copies of these catalogues in their hands this winter. They’re better than any movie for inspiring wonderful dreams, in this case of great gardens to come. Do you have vegetable catalogues and companies you feel especially passionate about? If so, please share them with us!