Tag Archives: Square-Foot Gardening

Garden 2013–Let There Be Light!

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Dear Reader:

Here we are at the end of June, and my garden boxes are just beginning to fill in. I started late this year, missing my Memorial Day Weekend planting deadline. I picked up baby plants hither, thither, and yon–Tibbetts Family Farm for herbs and a thistle, Newfield Farmers’ & Artisans’ Market for tomatoes and a few more herbs, Snell Family Farm for veggies and flowers. Tibbetts again for truckloads of compost and compost/loam mix.

We also had 26 pine trees cut off the property–a mutually beneficial arrangement where the guys cut the trees in exchange for the lumber. Can I just say…HOORAY! What a difference this is making around my yard. Sunlight hits the garden boxes at least three more hours per day. Another area that was completely shaded from 11 a.m. until dark now gets more light than any other spot on the property, and my brain is turning and tumbling with ideas of creating a branching permaculture style garden there. First, though, there is the keyhole bed to finish, the hugelkultur garden to complete and plant, and–oh, yeah–making edging beds around the new forest perimeters so the blackberry brambles do not get a toehold.

While I have managed to plant the square-foot garden boxes, this will be the summer of garden bed preparation and transplanting of perennials, where possible. So glad I purchased a CSA share–the produce comes to me to me in large brown paper bags, all ready to eat. I’ve consumed more greens over the past month than I did all last year, I swear!

Anyway, here are the garden boxes this year, for a record.

Box One

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row 1: radishes; row 2: oregano, thyme, rosemary, thyme, oregano; row 3: garlic chives; row 4: borage, milk thistle, borage; row 5: dill inter-planted with spinach seeds.

Box Two

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row 1: tomatoes; row 2: sage, lettuces, shiso, green pepper; row 3: lettuces, chocolate mint (perennial), lemon balm (perennial)

Box Three

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row 1: petunias; row 2: sweet woodruff, basil, savory: row 3: bronze fennel, fennel, bronze fennel (radishes interplanted)

Box Four

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center: four pink salvia; corners: pickling cukes; spaces: salad greens mix

Box Five

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row 1: radishes; rows 2 & 3: kale, broccoli raabe, hot pepper; row 4: hot pepper, parsley, celery

Box 6

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row 1: calendula; row 2: fennel, celery, celery, fennel; row 3: basil, celery, celery, basil; row 4: zucchini

Box 7

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row 1: petunia, basil, petunia, pickling cuke; row 2: red pepper, fennel, curly parsley, red pepper; row 3: lettuce seeds, pickling cuke, summer squash, summer squash; row 4: spinach seeds

Box 8

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row 1: petunia, parsley, parsley, petunia; row 2: onions all across from seed; row 3: snapdragon, bachelor button, zinnia, dill from seeds; row 4: romaine lettuce and green lettuce from seed

Box 9

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First two rows: peas; Second two rows: bush beans

New Keyhole garden

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This will be the apple guild eventually. Apple tree will go in the back surrounded by borage, dandelion, comfrey, beans, and daffodils. The “arms” will be planted with various stuff. I stuck some alyssum, camomile, and butterfly weed in there, but more compost and loam is going to be added.

Hugelkultur garden

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This is a big hole where a stump used to be. The stump I tried to “rot” with lime and a plastic covering a couple years ago. When the tree guys came, they hauled it off (and took the beginnings of my hugelkultur garden with it!) I restacked the sticks and greeny stuff, started dumping on compost and old leaves, and will continue to work on it over the summer, eventually covering with a few inches of compost/loam. I wanted to plant potatoes and squash in there. Perhaps if I get my butt in gear…if not, there is next year. Maybe better to get some manure and throw it on and let it age over the winter anyway?

Various flower and perennial beds are looking fine. I have an elderberry to plant and one to transplant from its current location.

So, that is my 2013 garden so far. I am loving my plot of land now that the light is coming in. Now, I better sign off and get out there to work!

My Gardening Arsenal

Garden Arsenal

Dear Reader:

There have been so many cool local goings-on I hardly know where to start: do I finally blog about my incredible Goodwill fashion finds? Or the awesome certified organic farm stand up the road? Or my trip to the Portland Museum of Art plus dinner at locally-owned restaurant, Nosh? Or the wedding shower I went to recently for my cousin’s fiance (Hi, Holly:) where the presents were either local, organic, natural, homesteady (think canning jars and cookbooks, perennials and pot-holders) or… red wine?

With so many topics, I chose the most local of all: my front yard garden.

Straw bale in May

Remember this?

Now it looks like this!

Straw Bale in July

There is a real difference between the tomato plants on the house-end of the bales and the road-end. I think the house-end plants get just a smidge more sunlight…enough to make a huge difference, not just in tomatoes but also in the pumpkin plants on the very ends as well as the corn and beans on the ground below. (I couldn’t resist a Three-Sisters planting or four!) While the Early Girls are already ripening and the two German Striped heirlooms are setting on fruit, the large brandywine in the center back bale has an issue. There have been plenty of blossoms, but then, sadly, the blossoms break off at the stem-bend just where the plant should be pumping some energy to create a band of strong material to hold a big, plump, juicy fruit.

Thinking maybe I’d either over-nitrogened the thing and underfed it some other vital nutrient, I got down to Plummer’s Hardware to pick up some organic fertilizer specifically for tomatoes and veggies. This one has nitrogen, posphate, potash, calcium and sulfer made from feathers, poultry manure, cocoa meal, bone meal, alfalfa meal, greensand, humates, sulfate of potash, and gypsum. Ask for Espoma Organic Tomato-tone at your local garden center. I noticed a big difference right away in all the ‘matoes…they all grew even taller and lusher within the week. Now I’m waiting to see if old brandywine there actually sets on some more fruits other than the two bottom ones that popped out just after getting home from Snell’s greenhouses.

Healthy Bee Balm

Now, some of you long-time readers will remember my past gardening woes including powdery mildew and Japanese Beetles. (See Of Pests and Powdery Mildew from August 2010) I am sad to report that the beetles are back, along with new friends–aphids and ants. My poor crabapple tree is an infested mess!

It’s my own fault. People gave me advice about sprinkling some kind of powder underneath to kill the beetle larvae. Instead, I planted garlic around the tree, hoping it would somehow repel the pesky pests. No such luck, though I do hope to have some green garlic soup very soon. In the meantime, I continue with my usual methods of pest control: a jar of bleach water for the beetles and a quick pinch and pull to get rid of the aphids and the ants milking them. Yes, ants “raise” aphids and milk their secretions. Gross, except, well, think about us with cows and goats. By the time I get to the aphid farms, the little stem or branch of the tree is pretty sick and generally comes right off in my fingers. Then those ants get angry and bite me! I’m serious. They are NOT happy to lose their farm at all. I say, go west, young ant!

And then there is the powdery mildew. Now, you all know my thoughts on trying to be a food producer here on my wooded, exurban, one-acre lot. It’s pretty much an exercise in futility, really. I keep trying new things, but in the end I may be defeated. I thought I’d come to terms with the pine and beech tree shade and the sunny but tragically unusable leach field. The new garden boxes were to be my saving grace, my compromise with reality. I could practice vegetable gardening in the miniature, experiment with many types of plants, and treat said veggies like highly-irregular ornamentals…that I could nibble. They do look fabulous. See how the pink & black box has grown.

On May 30th

This was Memorial Day weekend.

July 18 garden box

Now, the cucumbers are running like crazy, and by that I mean they are flowing out of the box and onto the ground like leafy snakes. Tiny cuke-spikes grow behind the pretty yellow blossoms, fatten, and lengthen until they just aren’t pickling size anymore at which point I pluck them, peel them, and serve them on salad for dinner.

Beautiful Cuke

I’ve picked six of these babies so far…and there are more to come as long as nothing happens to them. The zucchini are blossoming. The summer squash are already beginning to fruit. All looks well until…

I notice the big patch of bee balm in my front perennial bed, just beside the cuke and squash boxes, is covered in powdery mildew! Now, we’ve had so much heat and humidity that I shouldn’t have been surprised. A little more research, and I learned that overcrowded conditions also contribute to the mold problem. That bed was looking a little crowded this year. Looking back at previous photos, I see that some of the old plants in the bed had powdery mildew in previous years, so the spores were probably there in the ground just waiting to bloom.

No matter. What mattered was that if I did nothing, that mold would spread to the just-about-to-produce squash and cukes and kill all my hopes and dreams for fresh garden salads and zucchini cooked over the grill and summer squash casserole. I got out my gardening blades and chopped that darn bee balm right off and buried it in a pile of leaves in the woods far from the boxes. Now my perennial bed looks like a second-grade boy with a summer buzz-cut and I’ve pretty much decided to plant shrubs in that spot this fall (rhododendron? azalea? winterberry?).

Squash Blossoms

In the meantime, my cucurbits are in grave danger. I noticed one small summer squash had already turned brownish on the blossom end and had gone soft and limp. It was dying, if not already dead. And this was before one sign of mildew on the leaves! I did moreresearch and learned that while you can’t reverse an infestation of mold, you can prevent it with anti-fungal sprays. There are commercial products, but I was intrigued by the remedy recommended on a number of organic gardening sites: baking soda, vegetable oil, and water.

Now, the baking soda is supposed to change the pH of the leaves, making them inhospitable to the powdery mildew. The oil helps the solution cling to the leaves. I made mine with 1 tablespoon soda, 1 tablespoon Maine sunflower oil, and 1 quart of water. I mixed it in a pitcher, poured it into a plastic spray bottle, and sprayed all the leaves on top and underneath after fertilizing and watering this morning. A healthy plant is much less susceptible to any sort of pest or problem.

Why do I have powdery mildew problems, anyway? Simple. Mold likes moisture and heat. We’ve had high humidity and high temperatures. In addition, my lot is surrounded by tall trees acting very effectively as windbreaks. Nice in the winter (except when said trees fall over), but in the summer that means the tops of the trees across the road may be tossing in the wind, but in my garden the pretty little set of chimes Hubby gave me doesn’t even let out a single cling…or clang, for that matter. In other words, we get no air circulation thanks once again to the trees.

I pulled the peas up today to give the zucchini and summer squash in that box a little more breathing room. Hopefully that will help. But to be honest, I may not do veggies again. Or else, forget the cucurbits. I can buy plenty at the local farm stands and farmer’s markets.

On a happy note, an application of tomato food to the greens boxes has made a huge difference. Take a look!

Romaine and Greenleaf and Chard

Small cukes, green beans, spinach, lettuce

Out of the micro micro-greens that refused to grow, I decided to pluck up everything but the spinach which looked somehow…different, as if it had potential. My instincts appear to be correct as it is now growing nicely behind the shade of the green beans. Perhaps the greens boxes get more sun than they need? Maybe I should grow a sheltering row of flowers or something in the front squares next year? The last-ditch planting of kale seeds in all the squares where nothing grew has produced some sprouts, so perhaps a fall crop of greens will be forthcoming after all.

What I’ve learned? Fertilizer helps. I love the idea of using only home-produced or at least locally-produced compost, but I’m beginning to suspect that in order to get all the nutrients needed for a really good crop in a box, a balanced fertilizer is a necessity. In a double-dug bed, some of those nutrients would be present in the soil, and perhaps a yearly application of good, home-grown compost from the remains of plants grown in those beds would suffice. Or maybe growing a cover crop of some nitrogen-dense plant would work. But in these self-contained garden boxes? I think a little extra additive is a necessity.

Which brings me back around to my other point. Do I continue to play with vegetables? Or do I simply work with ornamentals and use my money to support the local farmers? Imagine what they could have done with the $200 plus I spent on straw bales, boxes, compost, additives, seedlings, seeds, etc. Probably fed a couple of families, while I get few handfuls of peas, some pickling-size cucumbers, thirty or forty tomatoes (please, oh please!), some basil, some squashes…

It all depends on what happens with those squashes, people! If they don’t work out, I will cast around for another direction for my one-acre “homestead.” I still have this idea about growing shiitake mushrooms

Stay tuned for more … Outside the Box.

A Time to Sow

Pink & Black Ornamental Garden Box

Dear Reader:

There I was yesterday, crouched down next to the garden boxes, dropping miniscule seeds into warm compost, patting a covering of compost over the “babies,” and dreaming of how the boxes will look when the seedlings emerge and begin to grow.

Moth & Chive in the “sunny” perennial bed

Giant bumblebees buzzed around and into the self-propagated purple and pink columbine. Moths and monarch butterflies visited the puffy heads of chives. Birds called. My fingernails turned black, and I didn’t care. I just kept dreaming of the months to come when I could sit and watch the plants grow.

Heirloom tomatoes in straw bale

The day before, after a $100 trip through the greenhouses at Snell’s Family Farm, I had all the starter plants on my list, plus more.

First, the tomatoes. I went with three Early Girl tomatoes, one brandywine called “Mortgage Lifter,” and two green-striped German heirloom tomatoes to go in the straw bales.

Digging out spaces in the bales was tough work. My father was visiting and helped with this chore while Mom watered and carted the extra straw to the compost pile for recycling. The bales were moist and beginning to break down inside nicely, creating some heat that I hope will make for happy tomato plants. After digging into the bales, I put in a couple handfuls of compost, stuck the plant in, and filled in with more compost. Following directions from my straw-bale gardening booklet, I then pressed on a layer of potting soil along the tops of each bale and planted spinach to grow in the shade beneath the toms.

Straw Bale with Front Garden Boxes

On the ends, a circle of pumpkin seeds will hopefully produce a few orange globes come fall. To go along with the “fall harvest” theme of my bales, I took a chance and planted a few corns seeds and some beans on the ground beside the bales. This is now a Three Sisters garden: corn, beans, squash. I’m not expecting much in the way of corn, but the stalks will look festive with the bales and the pumpkins if it all works out.

Inside the Garden Box

As for the boxes, I squished as many varieties into them as I could, intermixing veggies and flowers for visual appeal and maybe to also attract beneficial insects like bees. Already the hummingbird zipped down for a look-see yesterday.

Here is a list of what I planted this weekend:

Herb Box–basil, camomile, calendula, dill, rosemary, fennel, sage, pole beans.
Pink & Black Box–red cabbage, chocolate mint, geranium, Japanese shiso, cucumber, sweet potato vine, petunias.

Salvia & Red Cabbage

Diamond Design Box–salvia, red cabbages, cucumber (and I think something else but I can’t quite remember so it will be a mystery until something comes up between the cabbages.)

Sungold cherry tomato in a pot.

Root crop Box–small onions, carrots, parsnips, radishes, eggplant, geranium.

Peas & Pepper Box–peas, chili peppers, zucchini, summer squash.

Four Greens Boxes–Green leaf, arugula, romaine, greens mix, spinach, a leftover red cabbage, a cherry tomato, a zucchini, a few small onion is a square, and green beans and leftover cukes.

Phew! I spent the better part of two days planting and then sat outside to drink a glass of tea and enjoy the view. I took a shower and went to bed.

After midnight, around 1 a.m., the light show started…a tremendous thunderstorm that ripped through the sky for four hours, dropping torrential rains and some hail. All I could think was, “What about my itty-bitty seeds? What about my tomato plants?”

Luckily, the plants seem fine this morning. Now I have to chose: dig up the soil and replant the seeds or wait for ten or twelve days to see what, if anything, emerges from the compost. I think I’ll wait.

The weather forecast is calling for more t-storms, and I have to go to work at the library today—unlike this luna moth who has been literally hanging around all over my house for a week.

Luna Moth

What is she doing, I wonder? Resting? Waiting to take the next stage in her journey? Maybe that is the lesson for today. It’s all about timing. Rest when you need to. Look forward to the next stage in your journey. Soar when the time is right.

If there ever was a time to sow the seeds of change, it is now. What kind of future do you envision for yourself, your community, the world? What can you plant now for a better tomorrow…in your garden or Outside the Box?

Growing In The Shade

Red sky in the morning . . .

“Red sky at night, sailors delight. Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.”

Dear Reader:

The above quote is an old adage I learned as a child. Basically, it means that if there’s a red sunset you can expect clear, sunny skies the next day, but if you have a red sunrise, watch out for a gloomy day ahead. (click HERE for a scientific explanation.)

I say, with all the news we’ve had lately about oil prices, revolutions in the Middle East, mega earthquakes, nuclear power plant problems, our national debt ceiling about to be reached come May, and a stalemate over our Washington budget, we are seeing a red sky in the morning here on planet Earth. Will we heed the warning signs?

Is there anyone out there who hasn’t heard about Peak Oil yet? If you haven’t, I encourage you to find out about it as quickly as possible. The Post Carbon Institute has published a Peak Oil Primer (click HERE to read it)that will give you an overview of the issue. Basically, Peak Oil is the point in time when we have used up half of the original oil reserves in the world. If graphed on a bell curve, the extraction and production of oil would form a “peak” at this point, and from that point on extraction and production will become more difficult and less efficient over time. Another term for this is “energy resource depletion.” Or, as I like to call it, “running out of gas.”

You can also watch a few documentaries:
COLLAPSE with Michael Rupert (click HERE)
THE END OF SUBURBIA (click HERE)
ENERGY CROSSROADS (click HERE to view the trailer)

These are just a few. I encourage you to explore and share what you find.

In essence, what these films (and the myriad books that are available–more on those in another post) tell us is that everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, in our current way of life depends on oil. Our food is grown with oil-based fertilizers applied by oil-run tractors that are manufactured using oil. Irrigation pumps to water the fields run on oil. All plastics are made with oil. Obviously, our transportation is mostly oil-fueled. We heat our homes and hot water with oil. Our clothing (and just about everything else in the stores) is shipped to us via a fleet of trucks that run on gasoline. Suburbia depends on the automobile to get its residents to and from work, school, stores, and hospitals. We have fewer and fewer walkable, liveable communities.

I am aware that this all sounds alarmist. It is. I am alarmed. The more I learn, the more I read the news, the more I think, the more alarmed I become. All my little projects here Outside the Box have been attempted because I believe the only way to make a difference in this alarming scenario is to go local. Even then, deep down, all this square-foot gardening/buying local milk/knitting socks feels more like child's play than a real answer to the disaster-waiting-to-happen. Unless everyone else begins to localize, too.

A couple years ago I tried to bring Peak Oil and its implications to the attention of my homeowner's association–asking that we begin to think about some changes to our bylaws that would allow us to become more sustainable and less dependent on oil and outside resources. Opening up the canopy to let in much-needed sunlight was my biggest plea. I said we needed to be able to learn to grow our own food in our own backyards, and and that takes eight hours of sunlight, minimum. I also said we could become more energy independent if we used solar technology to heat our homes and hot water, possibly even selling excess energy back to "the grid" and easing some of our home economies and off-setting increases in our association dues.

As you can imagine, nobody took this seriously. Maybe it was because I also mentioned raising goats.

I understand that some people moved here to "get back to nature." Our development was created as a vacation community, after all. I understand that people "up to camp" like the old, Maine pine trees swaying above the cottage while the sunlight sparkles on the lake. It is beautiful. I like it, too. I wish our way of life could continue on just the way it is now, driving outside the community to go to work and coming home to our nice houses and power boats and microwave ovens and the wind sighing through the pines while we sip our pre-dinner Merlot on the deck while the steak sizzles on the gas grill. It's a wonderful life.

I just don't happen to believe it's gonna last. Hopefully I'm wrong.

While we wait and see what the future holds, I'll keep on playing around with my projects. I can't do much about what other people chose or chose not to learn. To give up entirely would mean giving in to fear.

In the spirit of doing something even if it is a drop in the bucket, I am plunging ahead this year with more garden boxes. I am going to focus on vegetables and herbs that can be grown in the shade and hope to trade for some tomatoes and peppers and squashes from someone with a sunny garden spot. I’m also going to experiment with those Topsy Turvy planters . . . growing tomatoes upside down on iron hooks stuck into my septic field–the sunniest spot in my yard. I’m also contemplating growing a few tomatoes in large pots . . . on top of my septic tank, the area of my yard that remained mostly snow-free all winter despite record snowfalls due to the heat underneath the dirt.

If you have a shady area of your yard, if your entire yard is shady, and if you want to give gardening a try, HERE is a list of plants that will grow in 3-6 hours of sunlight. Compost heavily. Water regularly. Read the article about Peak Oil and share it with others. Good luck, and let us know how it turns out.

Red Hot Mama

Crabapple Hot-Pepper Jelly

Dear Reader:

As mentioned in last week’s post, one of the successes in my garden this year was growing chili peppers. These hot little items are small–two inches long–and turned from light green, to dark brown streaked, to fiery red on small, bushy plants at the front of my garden boxes. They are pretty, and while I enjoy plants for sheer beauty, I find it exciting when I can actually use plants for both decoration and food. I chopped a few into a tomato salsa and was rewarded with quite a kick of heat, but what else could I do with them?

A trip up to the local orchard provided an answer. While walking through the gift shop/payment shed, I noticed a sign listing the price of crabapples at $1.50/lb. This was a lower price than that of the Cortland and MacIntoshes, and I immediately thought of crabapple jelly. A second later, I thought of crabapple-hot pepper jelly. And when I mentioned this thought to the nice young man who runs the orchard, he told me about a cookbook they just happened to be selling which included recipes for both kinds of preserves. Score!

The crabapples were larger than the teeny-tiny ones I usually have on my flowering crab, a little larger than the big marbles we used to play with as kids . . . or the giant gumballs you could get for 10 cents from the machines in the supermarket lobby. Some had soft or brown rotting places, but I was able to quickly pick about six pounds of nice apples. The day was hot and sultry, and the fragrance beneath that tree was intoxicating. I could only hope my jelly would turn out to be as delicious as that scent!

I waited until after Labor Day weekend to attempt my first batch of jelly. I’ve made strawberry and blueberry jams in the past, but never jelly. The instructions in Theresa Millang’s THE JOY OF APPLES cookbook were clear and easy to follow. Basically, you put the apples into some water and cook them until they are soft and mushy. Then you pass them through a cheesecloth either in a strainer or hanging up like a bag over a bowl. You take the juice and mix it with sugar, add the chopped up chili peppers and some green peppers if you like a little extra color, boil it until it has reached jelling consistency (it runs off the spoon in two drips that meld together as they come off the spoon . . . or until you decide it MUST be done. This part was the hardest to calculate), and then put into your prepared jars which you process for five minutes or so in a boiling water “bath.”

Fagor Home Canning Kit

The jelly-making process is messy. You have towels and boiling water and boiling fruit juice and jars to keep hot and sterilized and lids to keep hot and sterilized and drips of jelly going all over the place. It is best to clear a few hours as well as your countertops before you start. Read through all the instructions and make a plan of action. For example, the big canning pot I have takes a long, long time to boil water on top of my flat-top stove as the pot is three times the diameter of the largest burner. The water should be boiling by the time you fill the jelly jars. It also helps to have a jar lifter to get the boiled jars out of the scalding water. You can buy canning sets from local hardware stores. Or you can order online from a site like PickYourOwn.org.

I was able to fill eight half-pint jelly jars and two smaller jars with my six pounds of crab-apples. The color of the jelly is an exquisite dark pink dotted with bits of red and green pepper. I put the smaller jars into the fridge rather than process them, and these jelled perfectly. The jars I processed with lids sealed well, but the jelly looks a little, well, un-jelled in there. Until I open one, it will be impossible to know if the preserve set correctly. I may pop them into the refrigerator a couple hours before I plan to serve.

I taste-tested the refrigerated jelly within a couple of hours. It proved to be a delicious sweet-hot combination, fiery at the back of the tongue. As for serving suggestions, hot-pepper jelly is fabulous as a snack dumped over a square of cream cheese and served with crackers. According to the cookbook, it also goes well with chicken and pork, but I’m not sure how you’d present it. Just plop some on each plate beside the meat? Or put the jar on the table so guests can dip in a spoonful and smear it on the meat? I may simply try glazing some pork chops or chicken breasts before baking on some cold winter evening when we could use a little heat in our food.

Jars All In A Row

Now that I’ve had some success with crab-apples, I’m rethinking my plan to plant dwarf apple trees on my property and may plant crab-apples instead. Their pretty blossoms in the spring and amazing fragrance in the fall, as well as the beautiful pink color of the jelly, have won me over. Now not only am I Flabbercrabby, I’m Flabbercrab-appley!

As we head into autumn, don’t forget to visit your local farm stand, farmer’s market, or orchard for the bounty of the season. If you’ve never tried preserving food, why not take a stab at it this year? And one more note of caution: when working with chili peppers, do not rub your eyes until you’ve thoroughly washed your hands. If not, you’ll be a red-EYED Mama instead of a red-hot one.

Of Pests and Powdery Mildew

Apple leaves all Eaten

Dear Reader:

When I talked about summer vacation, you probably didn’t think I meant a vacation from writing all summer. Well, neither did I! However, that is exactly what happened. When we weren’t at the beach, my daughter and I were hitting the clubhouse pool. When we weren’t at the pool, we were shopping for school clothes, or watching the latest “Twilight” movie, or hanging out with friends, or preparing for camping, or recuperating from camping, or indulging in a marathon session of Buffy the Vampire slayer episodes via instant Netflix plays. The whole family went boating. Our truck “climbed Mt. Washington.” There was a family reunion, 4th of July up north with my parents, and a leisurely canoe trip down the Saco River with friends, followed by an impromptu lobster feed. We had sleepovers. We had company. We had BBQ’s up the wazoo.

Did I mention Buffy?

I’m going to save my diatribe about Twilight’s Bella the Girl Who Can’t Do Anything for Herself Possibly not even Tie her Own Shoes versus Buffy the Vampire Slayer who totally kicks butt for later. While we had to suffer through some rather overt teenage sexual antics on Buffy, the Skinny Blond Chic With the Wooden Stake Fetish, I’d still take that over Bella, the Girl Who Jumps Off Cliffs In Order to Hallucinate About Her Equally Miserable and Whiny Vampire Boyfriend Who Dumped her For Her Own Good and Sent Her Into A Spiral of Self-destructive Behavior Because She Couldn’t Possibly Live Without Her Man. (What are we, back in the days of the trashy 1970’s bodice-ripper novels, people? Eye-roll.)

Gardening this summer, I could so relate to Buffy. She had pests. I had pests. She slaughtered. I slaughtered. So, maybe Buffy’s pests were a little different from mine. She had vampires and the occasional freaky demon from Hades to deal with. Nothing a little stake through the heart can’t fix. I, however, had that evil spawn Powdery Mildew with which to contend. Buffy had evil hordes descending on her? I had (paranoid glance and a whisper) Popillia Japonica aka Japanese Beetles. You see what the little demons did to my crab apple leaves in the photo above? Every day I’d go out and they’d be well, you know, making like the teenagers at the Bronze if you know what I mean. Replicating.

(For those of you who do not get these Buffy references, here is a link to get you started on Wikipedia.)

They dwell among us!

According to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, the Japanese beetle is a scarab beetle. They are shiny red and green, and actually quite pretty if you didn’t know what you were looking at, which is a member of a plant-chomping, invasive horde. Basically they eat, mate, and lay eggs in the turf which hatch into white grubs. They go deeper into the ground during the cold months, emerge in the spring to eat more turf, and then pupate into beetles to start all over again.

I thought about buying one of those yellow Japanese Beetle catchers, but I’d read somewhere that doing so might only manage to attract more pests. Instead I got a glass jar, poured in some bleach and water, and tried to knock as many bugs off the leaves and into the jar of doom as I could. This would help for a few days, and then they’d be back and I’d have to do it all over again. Eventually, the poor leaves were so brown and lacy I just didn’t bother anymore. Next summer, I’ll get on top of it early and mercilessly. I’ll be the star of my own show, Shelley The Beetle Burner. Ack, who am I kidding. In my own head, I’m ALWAYS the star of my own show (and so are you in yours, be honest.)

Ewwww--Mildewwww

Not only did I have insectae to deal with this summer, I was also invaded by Erysiphe cichoracearum, powdery mildew. The Extension was helpful for information once again with a dry little summary entitled, “Powdery Mildew of Cucurbits.” Cucurbits are, if you can’t guess by the spelling, the family from which cucumbers sprout. Cucumbers, melons, squashes, pumpkins. Powdery mildew also affects ornamentals like the flower leaves in the picture.

I oh-so-innocently planted eight or so of my precious garden-box squares with cucurbits this summer. I had zucchini and yellow squash and buttercup squash and cukes, both pickling and eating. Everything was going fine and dandy through July. The sun was shining (but hot and humid), and the leaves of my plants were getting full and green. Bees crawled in and out of the large, yellow and orange blossoms, pollinating. Tiny yellow summer squash began to form . . .

Right about the end of July I began to notice some suspicious grayish spots on the larger leaves. Soon the mold spread. I tried cutting off the affected parts, but it was no use. The few fruits that managed to form grew only about four inches long before beginning to soften and dry up on the end. I picked a few of these small squashes and threw them into stir-fries before pulling up most of the squash plants and recycling them into the compost bin. A couple of summer squash plants at the front of the flower bed continue to produce one small fruit at a time, so I’ve allowed them to live out their life cycle in peace.

Round Cucumber in Planter

Though the eating cucumbers haven’t produced anything edible yet, the pickling cukes gave me enough for eating and salads, if not for actual pickling.

I’ve decided once again that the problem here is the canopy of trees surrounding my yard. Even though we had plenty of sun, the trees prevent air from circulating. When the humidity is high, as it was this summer, the fungus eats up the moisture and multiplies all over my poor plants. As a science experiment, this is all very interesting. From a food production standpoint, it stinks.

My garden wasn’t a complete flop, however, despite my pests and powders. The greens–lettuces, kale, arugula, mache–all were amazing. Little, bright red chili peppers thrived in the summer heat. I will need to put up some of that blueberry-chili pepper jam I made last year and then experiment with the more typical apple-based pepper jelly. I could also see about stringing them up to dry for winter-time use. We ate succulent green beans from the garden for a week or two, picking a handful or so a day. The tomatoes, bless them, offered up 68 fruits–about 63 more than last year! We ate them in salads, mostly.

A wonderful farm stand opened in the town next door, and I’m beginning to see that I’d do best to grow what thrives here–greens and beans and a few chili peppers–and buy the rest from someone with wide open spaces and ten to twelve hours of sun per day. I will become a salad and cooking-greens specialist. There are wonderful varieties out there, and I intend to try all of them in the summers ahead. Oh, and one more experiment this year.

Since we are getting on toward autumn, now would be the time to think about finally planting some garlic. I’ve heard it grows well, even in partial sun, and I enjoy the flavor in many different dishes.

Plus, you know, it discourages the vampires . . . Buffy would approve.

How did your garden do this summer? What are you eating now, in this the most bounteous of seasons? Drop me a line . . . Outside the Box.

Sweet Summertime

Lobstah

Dear Reader:

I had such plans for an organized summer routine–early rising, cup of coffee, exercise, shower, (re)learn some French, write, beach, craft or put up food, supper, water plants, read edifying book, go to bed. Of course there were going to be special days experiencing all that Maine has to offer in the summer–boating, canoeing, hiking, biking, camping, taking in a show at the Ogunquit Theater, enjoying a lobster dinner at the oilcloth-covered picnic table of a quaint, coastal eatery. Strawberry picking, raspberry picking, blueberry picking. A day at the Portland Museum of Art. Another day or two at 19th Century Willowbrook Village museum just up the road a-piece. A trip to the botanical garden over in Boothbay Harbor.

I have no doubt that I’ll manage to squeeze in most, if not all, of these outings, but my daily routine won’t kick in until August. It never does. And for a few brief, glorious weeks I will enjoy Maine, the Way Life Should Be . . . or, Maine, The Way Tourists Imagine Life Is In the Pinetree State. And why not? Why shouldn’t we Mainers (Mainiacs?) take advantage of what our home state has to offer, even if that means popping over to the beach after work one evening to watch the pinky-orange sunset from a nearly-deserted stretch of sand? Or plan a trip to Acadia National Park with the kids? Or go on a whale-watch excursion from Kennebunkport? Why leave all the good stuff to the outa-statas?

Maine Fare

Although I haven’t managed to get into my sweet summertime routine yet, I did find a pre-cooked lobster at the local market last week, and bought it in hopes of making a couple of lobster rolls for my husband’s and my lunch. After freeing the delicious meat from the shells, I found there wasn’t quite as much to work with as I’d hoped. I needed more filling. I diced a cucumber and an onion, mixed it all up with mayonnaise, a little salt, and a little pepper, and stuffed the sub rolls with the mixture. Add a big spoonful of homemade coleslaw and a couple slices of juicy cantaloupe and there you go, a delicious Maine-style summer lunch. (Yes, I would have preferred a simple, classic lobster roll with just meat, a little mayo, the salt and pepper on a buttery, pan-fried hot-dog roll, but this was quite good, too, in a pinch.)

Sockotta Socks!

I’m also happy to report that I’ve managed to complete a knitting project. These socks (I’m going to call them my Maine Summer Sunset Socks because they are the exact color of the sunsets down on Drake Island in Wells where my husband likes to go striper fishing from the breakwater while my daughter and I hang on the beach or hop along the flat rocks hoping to spot a seal) were very easy to knit. The self-striping yarn makes its own pretty pattern depending on what size sock you decide to make. I made these up in the large size so that I could get stripes. If I’d gone with the better-for-me medium, it would have ended up with more length-wise stripes. The instructions were clear, precise, and easy-to-follow. If you are interested in trying this pattern for yourself, it comes from the Plymouth Yarn Company and was designed by JoAnne Turcotte. The yarn is called SOCKOTTA and the pattern is S225, Mother/Child Socks in five sizes–you could knit up some footwear for the whole family just from this one, simple pattern.

I’ve found sock patterns to be complicated in the past, so this may become my “go-to” pattern. The proprietor of local yarn shops are willing and able to help customers find same-weight yarns if, say, I wanted to do a simple white sock rather than a striped, color sock.

The garden boxes are finally filling in with lovely green veggies. According to the Square-Foot Gardening book, I should have been able to re-fertilize the soil with a trowel-full of compost. I decided to put in a bit more than that, using one bag of compost per box. Even then, my plants seemed a little sickly and puny. Last year, I assumed the rain was the problem and amended with some organic blood-meal. This year, we’ve had beaucoup de soleil and some good, high temperatures, so I came to the conclusion that the amending recommendations in the book were not sufficient for my boxes–either I didn’t have the right kind of compost, the original “mix” of compost, peat, and vermiculite was off somehow, or our climate just begs for more soil nutrients.

I picked up a small bag of organic fertilizer at the hardware store for about seven dollars, worked in a half a cup or so into each box (staying a bit away from the plants so as not to burn them), and watered. A week or so later, the plants had perked up considerably.

Since then, I’ve decided that my measly six hours of sunlight may also be a major factor in the lack-of-lushness problem. The greens are thriving, while the tomatoes still seem too spindly. (Greens require much less sunlight, so this is a good clue that my garden site will never produce the plethora of tomatoes I crave). The peas, which took up eight of my precious boxes, yielded only enough for one decent meal. NOT a good use of space. The cukes and zucchini and summer squashes are looking promising. I have one green pepper growing, but something has begun to eat it along with my biggest basil. I dug around in the soil and found some red beetles . . . more on that in a later post.

In the Cottage Garden

This week, Dear Reader, take some time to enjoy the sweetness that summer has to offer. Drink a tall glass of iced-tea on the porch. Pick some raspberries and eat them right out of the box. Take a walk down a country road or a sandy beach or through a city park. Spit some watermelon seeds at your kids. Go to a small-town outdoor concert where the band plays in the gazebo and the townsfolk sit around on blankets and lawn-chairs on a sultry summer evening (bring bug-spray). Start a journal. Buy a sketchpad and some pencils and capture the view from a mountaintop summit. Fill yourself with summer . . . Outside the Box.

Where the Wild Things Are

Wild Thing?

Dear Reader:

Seven years ago, my house did not exist and the lot on which it now sits was covered in forest–mostly a bunch of tall, scraggly pines with an understory of small hardwood trees and saplings, ferns, and ground-cover plants. A developer cleared a small portion of the lot and built the house. Weeks later, we moved in and began the process of creating order from the wilderness, albeit on a really small scale.

Wild Bee

We have a one-acre lot. Over the course of seven years, I’ve created several perennial garden beds. Last year we installed four raised garden boxes for growing vegetables. We’ve cleared out a few dead or dying pine trees. I’ve lopped off encroaching alders and blackberry brambles. We’ve piled up fallen branches and created huge brush piles. Last summer we chipped two brush piles and now have a nice supply of mulch for the garden beds.

The front lawn covers the septic field. A strip of lawn in back of the house is maybe twenty feet wide. Outside the lawn is forest. In between lawn and forest, we have something interesting ecologically and aesthetically. We have edge. And edge is where the wild things are.

An ecological edge is where two environments intersect, creating an area that is more diverse than either of those environments. (Hemenway, Toby. GAIA’S GARDEN: A GUIDE TO HOMESCALE PERMACULTURE, pg. 7) In my case, the edge is the area between forest and lawn. Lawn is basically an artificially created prairie, and when rigorously maintained is also a monoculture. My lawn is not quite a monoculture–it is now mostly clover and dandelions and other opportunistic weeds that thrive in soils that are not rich enough to support wide swaths of perfect, lush, green grass. In other words, Mother Nature is trying to heal the wound that is my lawn.

Hemenway writes,“When humans make a clearing, nature leaps in, working furiously to rebuild an intact humus and fungal layer, harvest energy, and reconstruct all the cycles and connections that have been severed. A thicket of fast-growing pioneer plants, packing a lot of biomass into a small space, is a very effective way to do this.”

Basically, a forest environment is self-regulating and self-stabilizing. Nutrients are taken, used, and released by one species to be taken, used, and released by another species. Sunlight is filtered through the upper story trees which capture the energy. Smaller understory plants grow in the humus created by falling leaves and branches of the upper story. Beetles, fungi, etc. break down the fallen leaves to create the humus. Of course, I’m oversimplifying the process, but the point is, things in a forest environment are fairly stable even as changes take place incrementally. Eventually, the pine trees give way to hardwoods, for instance. But when we come in with chainsaws and bulldozers, things change too fast. Suddenly, sunlight reaches newly bared ground, and the edge explodes in a biological frenzy. Weeds, shrubs, vines and other quick-growing plants take advantage of the sudden bounty of sunlight. Nature goes wild!

I noticed this effect most dramatically in two places on my lot. Some of the old pine trees in back of the house were dying off. It seems pretty obvious to me that this land was once cleared pasture. Farmers don’t build rock walls through forest, after all. These pines must have been the first seedlings to spring up, crowding each other and crowding out the brambles and weeds. Now they are towering columns bristling with broken-off lower branches and creating a thick canopy of upper branches that manage to get some sunlight way up there. Their life-cycle nearing completion, they begin dying and falling, allowing the hardwood saplings to gather the resulting sunlight and to grow. Left alone, eventually this would be a hardwood forest of maples and oaks and beeches.

In the meantime, we don’t want old pine trees to fall on our heads, so we cull the dead and dying which creates, you guessed it, edge. The ground is now covered in blackberry brambles and other colonizers. Left alone, the edge out there would soon be impassible. This spring, I cut down blackberry stems as wide as my thumb and as tall as the top of my head. Already new suckers have shot up from the undisturbed roots.

This is life on the edge, baby. If I don’t figure out how to take advantage of this vibrant area, planting it with fruit trees and shrubs and berry bushes and ground covers, Mother Nature will continue to plant for me. A few blackberries might be a good thing. Yards of blackberry thicket? Not so much.

Yellow Flower Carpet

Last summer I inadvertently created another edge–this one behind my garden boxes. Cutting down the one big pine out front, clearing a spot for the boxes, putting a nice layer of mulch all around the veggie area, I left a nice strip of previously-shaded ground between the garden and the oak and maple saplings that guard the the older pine stands. To my delight, a miniature wildflower field grew up there this spring (a welcome change from those ubiquitous blackberries). Over there is a carpet of yellow flowers and over here a bunch of pretty, light-green grass.

Clover and Chives

I threw some chives into a bare spot last summer, and this summer waving purple heads of clover nod with the waving purple heads of those chives. Monarch butterflies flit and feed on both clover and chives, creating a pretty backdrop to my garden boxes. Wild blueberries have spread and flowered in the corner near the compost bin. Deeper in the shadows of the pines, delicate pink ladyslippers hang on sturdy, green stalks.

ladyslippers

Buttercups are blooming on my lawn. The manual push-mower didn’t chop them as efficiently as the old gas-powered mower, and I kinda like seeing them nodding out there in the breeze.

Wild strawberries have taken over the rock wall that was shaded by that old pine in previous years. Were the seeds lying dormant there all these years? I’m waiting for the rosa rugosas to bloom among the tumbled rocks of the old fieldstone wall.

This red flower (a wild columbine, maybe?) popped up near the strawberries. Ground-covers surprised me with tiny pink or white blossoms. I’m ashamed that I don’t even know what these wildflowers are called. Perhaps a guidebook is in order. And a sketchpad.

I confess: I’m loving the edge. The trick will be preserving the best of the edge while using it to create a sustainable, functional, aesthetically-pleasing landscape around my home. In the meantime, the arugula in the garden box has provided me with an overabundance of salad greens and is now flowering and going to seed. Next year, I’ll plant the first row one week and the second row a week or so later so I can have a continuous supply instead of one big crop. The peas and kale are up and growing. I’ve planted tomatoes and brussels sprouts and peppers. A rogue red leaf lettuce and a rogue kale plant popped up in a garden box, and I’m just letting them do their thing.

Even the the “square” garden boxes have a wild side, I guess.

Rock On!

I (heart) rocks!

Dear Reader:

Last week, just before the black-flies made their Spring 2010 debut, I managed to treat my perennial beds to an application of compost/manure from bags I purchased at my local, trusty Plummer’s Hardware store here in town (where I always find whatever I’m looking for–from mop buckets to paint chips to bird seed to fishing line. I swear, everyone needs a Plummer’s Hardware in his/her life. If you persist in going to those big, boxy hardware stores you are missing out!)

This year, Plummer’s has a wide variety of manure, humus, and compost from which to chose as they recently added Coast of Maine products to their selection. Square-foot gardening recommends using a smorgasbord of composts in order to assure adequate nutrients, so I was pleased to see this addition to the stash in front of the store. I hauled ten bags of these amendments home in the back of my husband’s big, red truck and announced to him that, yes, okay, sometimes the behemoth earns its keep. Most days, I curse its very existence as I find it extremely difficult to park in the tiny spaces of school and office-building parking lots, not to mention the small lot beside the Clipper Merchant Tea House where I love to go for a nice pot of Earl Grey and the soup of the day.

Anyway, I digress. Along with the organic compost, I also turned a bunch of old, spent beech leaves into the seven-year-old beds. Some beech leaves hang on tenaciously all winter and only drop to the ground when the new buds emerge in the spring. I don’t know why this is, but it means that I have to rake not only in the fall, but also in the spring when the stiff breeze picks up these lingering bits of cellulose and swirls them onto the lawn and into the emerging greenery in my gardens. Usually I rake them out, dig in the compost, and then sprinkle wood chips on top for a mulch. I was talking about this to a fellow gardener who informed me that if I simply turned the leaves into the soil, the worms would transform them into rich castings, helping to build up the nutrients in the garden over the summer while I lounged around sipping iced tea this July.

Well, I added that bit about the iced-tea, but you get the point. The worms do the bulk of the work later if I do a little front-loaded work now. Good deal!

While thus engaged in spreading and digging, I realized that my formerly-brilliant idea to edge perennial beds with rocks was not so brilliant after all. After seven years or so, the rocks were mostly covered with soil and grass and left a narrow strip of bare dirt between the garden edge and the cement walkway that had been poured a few years after I’d established the flower beds. Looking down, I figured that if I dug the rocks out of the garden, I could gain a nice five or six inch wide strip of soil in which to plant things like chamomile, oregano, catmint, parsley, and maybe even some lavender. (Click on the green lettering to get more info).

The herbs will make a nice, fragrant edge against the cement. The cement will warm the soil, creating a micro-climate perfect for the heat-loving herbs–and maybe a few tomatoes as well. I may even plant some tomatoes in big pots and install them on the walkway. Try something new every year. That’s my motto . . . one of them, anyway.

One of the most fun aspects of gardening is the opportunity for experimentation and change. When you use your imagination and creativity to solve problems and engage your brain in a “use-what-you-have” type of game, the possibilities are endless. As I dug up the edging rocks and threw them into the wheelbarrow, I pondered what to do with them. In the olden days, farmers dug boulders and rocks from the soil and used then to create beautiful and practical walls. Some are still standing two hundred years later. In my neck of the woods, tumbled rock walls run all through the mixed pine and hardwood woods, testament that this land was once cleared and used for pasture.

Mini-wall between the beeches

We have one of these tumbled-down walls edging our property near the road. In some places, the rocks have disappeared altogether. In others, soil and humus have filled in the spaces between the old boulders, and a few hardy rosa rugosas manage to bloom there every June for a week or so.

In the picture above, you can see where I’ve filled in the space between two of the larger boulders with some of my smaller, garden-variety rocks, creating a sculpture of sorts. Eventually, I will haul in some soil and compost and put a shade garden in front of it. Maybe someday I’ll tackle that entire wall, scrape away the soil, and replace the tumbled rocks, but for now I simply enjoy it the way Europeans enjoy their ancient ruins–as a connection and reminder of a past faded into history.

Rocks as mulch

In this sandy, shady spot, I’ve used small rocks as a mulch. This area near my shade garden was mostly gravel from the driveway anyway, so I decided to fill it in with the rocks rather than try to rake the gravel away from perennials every year. Any rocks I found near the bleeding hearts, the hostas, the iris, the astilbe in this shady garden spot went to this section, creating a type of “rock pond” rather than the “rock stream” you sometimes see in home and garden magazines. A little hens-n-chicks succulent plant manages to survive in there, but it hasn’t grown or spread. I may need to clear a little space around it and give it a shot of compost-water this summer.

retaining wall

As you can see from this picture, I’ve used rocks to create a retaining wall in order to extend the edge of my front garden bed out past the end of my cape-style house. This allowed me to build up the soil and plant a lilac shrub at the corner, adding a kind of old, farmhouse touch to a newly-built structure. I under-planted the lilac with chives, rock geranium, and a few other perennials, and it is now one of my favorite sections of the garden. I do have to pull up the encroaching grass every year as well as manually pick out the ubiquitous dead beech leaves, but a fresh layer of rocks dug from the edging this year will help prevent the grass from poking through next spring.

These are just a few of the possible uses for rockscaping in the garden. A fabulous book I have in my gardening library called GARDENING MADE EASY by Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall is an excellent resource for all things “garden.” In this book, Fearnley-Whittenstall included an entire chapter devoted to growing alpines, and I hope to use some of her ideas this summer in these stony areas in my garden.

So, already I’m committed to an herb border and an alpine rock garden as well as continuing with my square-foot gardening boxes. What new projects do you have planned for this summer? Stop by and share your enthusiasm and ideas . . . Outside the Box.

Parsnippity

Over-wintered Parsnips

Dear Reader:

All winter the parsnips slept, cushioned by dirt and snow inside their “square-foot gardening” box. Late in the fall, I had dug the last of the carrots, pulled up the tomatoes and hung them in the cellar for a bit of extended summer (yes, they ripened on the vine down there, the little cherry tomato darlings), threw the spent bean and squash plants into the compost bin, and mourned a bit the passing of the growing season. I had, however, one last gardening experiment to enjoy–overwintering parsnips. I had read somewhere that the long, white root vegetable actually improves in flavor if left out through the winter. I had planted four squares with sixteen parsnips seeds each back in May. All fall I resisted digging them, deciding to test the old-timer gardening wisdom for myself. How long could I, if necessary, extend the harvest?

Early spring is known as the lean season. In our more locavore past, we ate seasonally. In late spring, you would find dandelions and harvest your first arugula greens. The chickens started laying again after resting through the darkest months, so you could also pair your peppery, nutritious greens with fresh eggs. These early spring delicacies were soon followed by rhubarb, asparagus, strawberries, peas, early lettuce, maybe some cucumbers. By mid-summer you would have yourself a fine meal of beans, zucchini, and cukes and tomatoes. Autumn was the season for the root and storage veggies that would get you through winter: squash, pumpkin, potato, carrots, onions, beets. When the weather turned cold, you slaughtered your pig, hung your venison, and stuffed your turkey for Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts. By March, though, the potatoes would be growing soft and wrinkled, maybe even sprouting eyes. The apples you stored were pretty well gone–the backbone of many a fine pie or a nice dish of sauce on a chilly winter evening. You were down to a few carrots, maybe some last jars of tomato sauce, canned beans, shell beans, jams and pickles. The chickens had stopped laying, some switch in their brains flipped off when the days grew too short. By late March you were maybe a little bit hungry and more than likely craving something, anything, fresh from the garden.

And then you remembered the parsnips!

Of course, I don’t live in the past. If I want lettuce salad in January, all I have to do is mosey on down to the local market and pick some up in the produce section. However, there is something magical and satisfying about growing and harvesting my own food, and I have a decent imagination. If I were living and eating locally out of necessity–not experimentally or fadishly–those parsnips might just mean the difference between getting through the winter or not. By mid-March I was anxious to see how the parsnips fared through what turned out to be a fairly mild winter.

We had some unseasonably warm weather here in Maine this spring. On March 19, the sun had completely defrosted the garden boxes. With trowel in hand, I ventured out to the brownish garden area (post-snow, pre-grass) and began digging. Pulling up that first creamy white, crooked, dirt-crusted parsnip delighted me. It was firm, looked edible, was not in the least bit rotted. I dug my eager trowel and fingers into the dirt and found parsnip after parsnip, some bigger than others, and quickly filled my plastic bowl. Washing them out in the sink, I wondered if they really would taste sweeter for having lived through the frosts of a Maine winter. Apparently, the starches in the root vegetable are turned to sugar when exposed to cold temperatures (University of Illinois Extension web page). Then the big question: How would I cook them?

Garden Box Looking Pretty Bare

A friend of mine recently brought the makings of a roasted veggie dish to my house for one of our impromptu pot-luck dinners. She threw the vegetables onto a flat pan, drizzled them with oil, sprinkled on some salt and other spices, and baked. Ambrosia! I decided that I could not find a better dish for my lovely, lovely parsnips, so I began cutting up some butternut squash and carrots (the last of those from my garden)and some asparagus to add some complimentary flavors and colors. I liberally doused the veggies with olive oil, salt, pepper, curry powder, coriander, and a bit of tumeric (supposed to be a good anti-inflammatory spice, by the way) and threw the whole bunch in a 400 degree oven for forty minutes, stirring and turning about halfway through the cooking process.

Veggies Ready for Roasting

The result was fabulous. The squash and root veggies were tender and sweet. The parsnips, I swear, tasted like honey which melded very well with the spicy curry flavor. The asparagus was a little overdone, so when I served this dish at Easter dinner, I used sweet potatoes in the roasted vegetable dish and simply steamed the asparagus instead.

I wonder how turnips would taste prepared this way?

Looking back over my garden journal, I see that I began planting on May 30 and harvested these last parsnips on March 19. Not bad for a beginner! This year, as soon as the parsnips were dug, I mixed some organic blood meal into two of the garden boxes and planted arugula, claytonia, and mache. The claytonia and arugula have poked those first miniscule leaves through the soil already. I didn’t have much luck with the greens last year–the rainy June didn’t help–so I’m interested to see if I can do better this season. Since I have a fairly shady plot of land around my house, greens may be the one crop I could grow enough of to share with others. I want to get some kale in earlier this year as I waited too long in 2009. I’d also like to experiment with growing shiitake mushrooms.

What are you trying new in your garden this year? Have you planted anything yet? Have you ordered your seeds? Drop me a line and let me know . . . Outside the Box.