October gardening

The late October to-do list includes:

Rake neighbor’s driveway: for the dual purpose of making her steep slope less slippery and harvesting wheelbarrows full of mulch for the blueberries, hydrangea, and current bushes. Every year I’m amazed what a soft, abundant cushion falls from the white pines that still look fully clothed in green needles.

Move the chrysanthemums from the yard to the hoop house and then eventually down cellar under the grow lights. Mums are one of my favorite plants to draw – their structure is so loud and on display – but they are the last flowers to bloom in my garden. That means nursing them through waning day length and falling temperatures, but it’s worth it for the source material. I indulge myself every year and buy two or three varieties from King’s Mums in Oregon, in search of my very own Mondrian.

Plant red garlic in the beds by the house where tomatoes grew this summer. A virus blew up the coast with Hurricane Irene and shut the tomato production down in August, so I should give these beds a rest from anything in the nightshade family for three years. I loosened the soil a bit with a hoe and planted a pound of cloves about 6″ on center all over the beds, while admiring the creepy-crawlies (baby pill bugs – very cute) and weeding out the tiny tomato seedlings (not this year, sorry). This spring I’ll interplant the garlic shoots with lettuce, spinach and beet greens, and then harvest the bulbs in late fall, 2012.

Prepare fruit trees for winter: rake up the leaves and compost them somewhere away from the trees to keep the pest population down, check the trunks for borers (apple borer is very common here) and rodent damage, put down a layer of seaweed mulch, then a layer of hay, and wrap the lower portion of each tree in wire screening to keep out the mice and shrews. Eventually I’ll also stamp the snow down in a big circle at the drip line to discourage tunneling. A friend of mine stopped by as I was kneeling on the cold wet ground and messing with string and mesh, and asked me why I bother, since none of my trees ever showed any damage? Ayuh.

Clear out the peas: One of my favorite garden tools is hemp twine. I used to spend time and energy ripping the vines out of nylon netting; now I cut the string from the poles and compost the whole heap together. Brilliant!

Return to the house cold and damp all over. Build a fire, make dinner, work on a painting, and go to sleep under two quilts; repeat until April.


Monhegan wild gardens

Yesterday we made an impulse trip to Monhegan Island. The forecast for Sunday called for calm and bright so we packed water, apples and granola bars, windbreakers and extra camera batteries, a watercolor pad each and made reservations for the ferry.

The Monhegan Boat Line has made three trips a day from the island to Port Clyde and back again (weather permitting) since 1914. It’s a small, sturdy boat with a stalwart captain who will slow down to allow the birdwatchers to get a good look at the bald eagles roosting along the shore and a rotating crew of very hardy high school girls wearing MBL sweatshirts and the ubiquitous Maine shag haircut. You couldn’t be in better hands. Especially Sunday, when the slightly rolling seas flashed with sunlight and the temperatures stayed in the balmy 60’s.

The trip takes about an hour. We were delayed for a few minutes docking to allow a man to ferry a cow in a rowboat across the inlet from Manana, the tiny island next to Monhegan. As we left they were ferrying goats who seemed much more unhappy about leaving their summer pasture, or maybe about being in a rowboat – it was hard to tell.

We hiked from 11:30 – 3 with a break for lunch. Monhegan is renowned for its rocky headlands and breathtaking cliffs; Black Head, White Head, and Green Point, but my lasting impression on a hot September mid-day trek was the vast amount of plant and animal life. Asters, several varieties of goldenrod, feverfew, and late roses were all in full bloom. The bayberry bushes and ash and apple trees were heavy with fruit and wasps, there were kinglets and cedar waxwings gorging on seeds and berries and making a ruckus.  We saw three varieties of butterflies  and in every warm hollow filled with flowers there were dozens of Italian honey bees. I didn’t see any hives in passing through the village, but perhaps there’s someone out there? It seems improbable that a colony would survive a Monhegan winter in the wild, but who knows – it will be worth investigating when we make the trip this spring.

Peach nectar night

This will be a very short post, because there are a lot of peaches waiting on the kitchen counter that aren’t going to can themselves.

Last year I experimented with a few different ways to preserve the bounty from the Red Haven and Red Baron peach trees in the front yard. Of the 15 bushels (yikes) that we didn’t give away or eat fresh I froze some in white grape juice, made plain and brandied canned whole, canned pie filling, jam, and conserve. Summer 2010 also produced a tremendous harvest of Beta grapes and I eventually gave up on making grape jelly and canned them as juice instead. We really enjoyed the juice, and making concentrate was an efficient way to store vast quantities of produce. It also made killer popsicles.

Tonight I decided to make peach nectar and it was so successful that I think I may just turn everything into juice concentrate for the foreseeable future. Home made V8! Pear nectar! Harry Potter pumpkin juice – well, maybe not.

I pitted and then cooked the fruit lightly in a cup of lemonade and 1 C of sugar, just enough to soften it and bring out the juices. Then I put it, skins and all, through the food mill. The mill strainer that I chose made a fairly clear juice, although you can see that the amount of waste is fairly small. Next batch I’ll use a slightly larger hole and see if that produces a thicker “nectar”.

This was a successful experiment. Very tasty, and the entire process took less than two hours and only a cup of sugar. Now – Bellinis all around!

Peach pie

Ripe summer peaches need a strong pie crust. Even with the advantage of tapioca and an egg white finish, peaches right off the tree are too juicy to be contained in a thin, dry pastry that might be perfectly suitable for winter apples. Someday I’ll have an outdoor wood-fired oven  and then during the long, slow cool-down of a bread fire I’m going to dry some peaches and make pie with the soft, withered fruit. I bet that will be outstanding.

For the crust: put 4 C white flour, 2 tsp salt, 2 tsp sugar, and 1/2 tsp baking powder in a food processor and pulse a few times. Add 1 C cold unsalted butter (two sticks) cut into 1/2″ pieces, pulse just until there aren’t any large chunks. Mix 1/2 C very cold water with 2 tsp of good quality cider vinegar and add to the processor bowl by tablespoonfuls as you pulse. You want the pastry to just begin clumping together, but not be totally wet.

Dump the contents of the bowl out onto a large piece of wax paper. The dough will be crumbly and not entirely cohesive. Push it together using the ends of the sheet of wax paper. Cut the lump of crust in half with a bowl scraper or a large knife, pile one half on top of the other and squish them gently together. As you do this a few times the crumbs at the edge will gradually be incorporated and the crust will have lovely layers, like danish pastry. Cut the lump almost in  half once more (you want one piece slightly larger to be the bottom crust, the top will use less), wrap each piece in some waxed paper, put both pieces into a plastic bag and refrigerate for half an hour, or overnight.The vinegar and baking powder make a very soft, resilient crust that rolls out beautifully and doesn’t crack or develop holes where the fruit pokes up.

Now go pick some peaches.

I confess that while my pantry is stuffed with wonderful cookbooks full of pie recipes, including handwritten ones from family members, the only recipe I use for fruit pie is the one on the back of the Minute tapioca box. It works every time, adds nothing objectionable to the basic fruit and pastry, and is incredibly easy – what more could one ask? I’m also fond of the idiosyncrasies. The box lists instructions for apple (sliced), blueberry, cherry, peach (sliced), and strawberry rhubarb. Did someone, somewhere, put whole apples or peaches in a pie?

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Separate an egg and pour the white into a small dish or a coffee mug.

Following the instructions for peach pie, add 1/4 C tapioca, 3/4 C sugar and 1 Tbs lemon juice to 4 C of (sliced) peaches. Mix gently and let stand for 15 minutes while you roll out the crust. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a dishtowel because fruit flies will arrive out of nowhere to have some of this stuff.

Retrieve the dough from the fridge. If it’s very hard, give it a minute to soften slightly. Roll it out fit it to the pie plate, being careful not to stretch the dough. Cut the excess off the edge with a pair of kitchen shears, and make a pie tail with the “leavings” that you wish you could mail to the Boy who is at university. Sadly, it doesn’t travel well.

If your peaches are really juicy, pour about 1/4 C of liquid off before you dump the fruit into the bottom crust. Dot with a Tbs of butter cut into small pieces. Brush egg white on the edges of the bottom crust and gently lay the top crust over it. Again, try not to tug or pull on the dough. Trim the edges close to the pie plate again with shears. Press all around the pie with a sharp-tined fork to seal. Cut a few holes in the top crust and brush all over with egg white. Sprinkle a tsp of sugar over the top for a slightly crunchier crust.

Bake the pie at 400 F for about 50 minutes or until the crust is golden brown and fruit juice is bubbling in the vents. If the pie tail is small you may have to take it out at 45 minutes.

Eat pie.

Peaches vs Irene

The Red Haven peach tree is in full production mode, weighted down to the ground with nicely colored, but still ripening fruit. We’re having a huge rain right now and the winds are expected to continue through the night but I can’t really think of any way to protect the branches. Weighted by line and cinder blocks? Tied in bundles to each other? I’ve decided to let nature take its course and see what there is to pick up off the ground tomorrow morning. Best case scenario seems to be that we’ll lose fruit, but not too many branches.  Stayed tuned.

The garden in August

Cephalanthus O. has expanded into a multi-trunked thicket down by the lower driveway in the culvert ditch that leads to the swamp. Over the years the seeds (which are really “nutlets”) have dropped into the run-off in the spring, traveled through the culvert and seeded themselves along the stream into the swamp in a meandering trail of white, puffy blossoms buzzing with bees. The Buttonbush, or Button-willow, is a member of the coffee family and native to the NE US.

Bouncing Bet, or Soapwort, is in full bloom and covered with bees in the afternoon. They don’t seem to like it as much in the morning, perhaps it needs to warm up to produce a nectar flow? The plant contains up to 20% saponin (careful- toxic!) in the roots while in bloom, and even the leaves and stems will make a nice lather.

The peaches are coming along in the front yard. I expect the first ones to ripen in 3 weeks or so. Anise hyssop (for tea) and calendula o. (for salve) surround the tomato beds in the background.

Meadow-sweet has spread through the wild garden as cattails have increased the ratio of soil to water over the years. Next year I’m going to try harvesting the cattail shoots. The bees are all over the meadow-sweet which, like goldenrod, blooms in the heat of high summer.

July garden tour

A few days ago, I posted a photo of the garden in the morning when was still dewy and a little misty around the edges. It was a pretty shot, but quite a few people asked if they could “zoom in” and see the individual beds in more detail. Other people asked if they could get a list of what plants are growing in what area. I’ve just begun the work that will eventually build out “guilds” and “poly-cultures” of plant communities, but it’s not a bad idea to have a list of where I started for my records. This is by no means a complete inventory, but here we go:

This bed is in the “upper” garden, hard by the house. In “Gaia’s Garden“, Toby Hemenway talks about siting often-used vegetables close to the house. He suggests going out to snip a few herbs for an omelet and a side-dish of greens in the early morning in your bedroom slippers and robe. If you come in wet around the edges, the herbs are too far from the house. I can definitely snip greens from this bed without getting damp in the morning. Made of three layers of cinderblock, this bed is fairly deep. Even on the south side of the house it stores enough moisture for mustard, lettuces, radishes, and a few sorrel plants. Around the edges, in the cells of the blocks, grow anise hyssop, Thai basil, forget-me-nots (they’re everywhere), and alpine poppies. All the beds in the upper garden are ringed with strawberry plants, so that they benefit from the moisture and shade.

More in the upper garden: three beds of tomatoes surrounded by calendula and interplanted with bulls blood beets and white globe turnips. One of the tomato choices I made this season was Fedco’s Heirloom Tomato Mix.  I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out of that over the course of the season and possibly picking out some new favorites for next year.

Down in the lower garden this bed contains Provider green beans, haricot verts, and started out with a lot of radishes that provided quick shade for the sensitive bean sprouts. I’ve since picked the radishes and the Carpet of Snow alyssum has grown up enough to provide a living mulch. I sow the alyssum at the same time as the radishes in the very early spring. Purple bread poppies grow wherever they like and provide full seedheads for bread and pastry and resowing in the fall.

This is one of the squash beds, set on the hillside for ease of walking around fragile trailing vines. The deer don’t bother the stouter vines, so these pumpkins and Hubbard squash can clamber up the hill and outside the electric fence. They are interplanted with nasturtiums (just for color – I don’t think these hybrids protect against bugs or nematodes) and green beans. These green beans are planted about two weeks after the beans in the bed mentioned above so that the harvest is staggered.

Corn! Two rows of Silver Queen white sweet corn, potentially growing to 9 feet and producing 3 or 4 ears per stalk in a good year. These are not interplanted with anything. I’d love to try the Three-Sisters method of corn stalks in mounds surrounded by pole beans and squash, but I have yet to convince my partner-gardener of that. This year he allowed mulch, so maybe there’s hope. That said, it’s wonderful corn.

Potato boxes with varieties Ratte, German Butterball, Green Mountain, and All Blue. The potatoes are planted in about a foot of dirt at the bottom of the box and boards and hay are added as the plants grow taller. I had a very poor yield in the 2010 boxes due, I think, to droughty weather and too much hay/too little soil to start. The vines are much healthier as we get into the really hot part of summer this year, so I have hopes for a good harvest. This is certainly a space-effective way to grow potatoes. In the late fall I dump the boxes over and use the soil, mulch and old plants to make a new bed.

Lilies and apple trees seem to go together well. The lilies provide a nice living mulch to cool the roots,  retain moisture, and shade out weeds. These are very old Tiger lilies from my grandmother’s garden in Connecticut growing under “Westfield Seek-no-Further”, which is covered in little green apples this year.

I have another whole group of close-ups for a post this weekend. We’ve had some rain so if I can stop picking green beans for a minute  I’ll make another post this weekend!


Day off

I have today off from work which means quick – prune the fruit trees! No company, no huge dinner to make (our hot water heater quit after >10 years so dinners lately have been sandwiches on paper plates), and it’s not quite raining yet, so off we go.

I’ve heard complaints about how complicated it is to prune a fruit tree. It’s not complicated. It’s a lot of work, especially if the tree has been badly pruned at the start or neglected, but it’s not complicated. Our forebears managed fine and many of mine weren’t particularly bright, so there you go.

Here are the rules.

  • Wait for a nice day. I’ll tell you right off that I break this one all the time. My day job takes most of the sunny dry days with only a light breeze because that’s the way things happen. Today the weather is foggy, damp, and humid with thunderstorms predicted for the afternoon. If you have a bad fungus infestation or a lot of larvae, pruning under those conditions might spread the bad stuff around. If that’s the only day you have to work, I’d argue that a good pruning might get rid of the problem, or at least limit the damage.
  • Prune out branches that cross each other. Choose the best candidate to leave (healthiest growth, best direction, most fruit) and cut the conflicting branch. You want sunlight and air movement to the very center of the tree. The old Maine standard is to “prune until you can throw a cat through the branches”, presumably without injuring the cat.
  • Try for horizontal growth, for stability and best fruiting. Different trees have different growth habits, so we try to influence rather than dictate this one.
  • For most trees, and assuming a healthy amount of growth in an average year, try to prune lightly one year and heavily the next. You should be able to tell from the condition of the tree if it needs more than a light grooming in an off year.
  • Keep your Felcos in your pocket. Maybe that damp day when the sap is running high in March is a bad day to make cuts, but if you see a small problem it’s a good idea to nip it in the bud. There’s a reason that’s a cliche.
  • If you make a mistake, it will grow back. Better to make a bad decision or two during the learning process than have a garden full of trees with snarled branches and no fruit.

Here’s a photo of the Seckel pear that I’m pruning heavily today. I can never seem to get a good shot of a tree’s structure, but I’ll let the pile of prunings (destined for hugelkultur) speak for itself.

As a bonus, if you use only passive controls on your fruit trees, such as Tanglefoot and Surround, you can safely grow crops right up to the canopy. That’s some happy lettuce in the foreground.

Pruning for problems

Over the last three years I’ve really let the Stanley plum tree get out of hand. It is normally a well-behaved, productive tree that doesn’t require a lot of urgent care. I have other trees that are real divas by comparison. Unfortunately it has been in close contact with the cherry tree which has a chronic case of black rot. I thought cutting down the big spruce at the front of the lot would help both trees overcome the disease, and perhaps it has, but they are still showing symptoms. We had a wet, cool spring and the plum tree put on a lot of new growth that began to show stress and damage as soon as the weather turned hot and dry.

As you can see, there are areas of the tree that have grown thick and dark and there is a great deal of vertical growth in the middle top section. Vertical branches are a problem on a fruit tree: the ripening fruit hangs against the branch and is easily damaged or loosened.

My priorities were to remove anything that had been affected by rot, open up the interior of the tree to sunlight, and save as many of this season’s plums while still making the tree MUCH smaller. I hate picking fruit from ladders. This is the result.

Below are the same photos side by side. Three days and a rainstorm later the tree is putting out new leaves and the remaining fruit is still developing. We’ll see what the rest of the season brings. .



Good, bad, beautiful

I’m trying to take Wednesdays off from my day job over the course of the growing season this year. Yesterday was damp but not raining, warm but not too hot to do the heavy work of hauling soil by wheelbarrow to the potato boxes.  At the close of day I got a cup of tea and recorded the results for 2011 to date:

Potato boxes are in the “good” column so far. Summer 2010 was hot and dry with a drought for the whole month of August.  Per instructions, I had filled the boxes with soil as the vines grew and when the soil dried out and heated up it actually cooked the vines. Instead of heavy yields the boxes produced about a dozen potatoes – one of my worst disappointments in all the years I’ve gardened. In 2011 I’ve planted the seed potatoes in plenty of soil and will use hay to fill the boxes as they grow. Perhaps the mulching effect will hold more moisture (but not too much) and be gentler on the vines. We’re having a nice steady rain today to water them in.

Bergenia is in the “beautiful” column. It has no pests to speak of (the deer nibble the blossoms sometimes but it’s not one of their favorites), it grows in odd shady nooks and spreads slowly, flowering before anything but the bulbs. Twenty years ago this grouping at the NW corner of the house was one plant from my parent’s garden. Growing in gravel and mulched only with its own leaves, it is a welcome patch of green all year round and spectacular in early spring, when the pink hyacinth-like blooms rise above the foliage.

Bad. The lower garden is host to several variaties of borer and here I may have lost the battle for the “Westfield Seek-no-Further”. The apple borers are gone, driven out by white latex paint with “Surround CP” mixed in and epoxy injected into the holes, but the damage is fairly extensive. My plan is to remove the trunk on the right and prune the other parts of the tree rigorously to distribute the weight. Perhaps the remaining parts will survive.

Back in the “good” column, this row has been seeded for three years running with a “Beneficials Mix” from Fedco Seeds.  Every year my local climate kills off a few varieties, but some come back and help hold the soil for a new packet of seed. On a hot summer day I’ve counted 30 species of insect life hanging out in this little hedgerow. I can’t sum it up any better than Fedco’s catalog:

6333BM Beneficials Mix “When you increase the diversity of an ecosystem you enhance its ability to maintain itself and to resist perturbation.” Frank Morton inspired 75 seed growers with his talk on Whole Farm Cropping Systems at a Restoring Our Seed seminar. One way to increase the diversity of your ecosystem is to sow this mix of annuals, biennials and perennials that will attract and maintain a diverse population of beneficial insects to help manage pests in the garden. Instead of resorting to toxic sprays, attract hover flies, ladybugs, lacewings, parasitic wasps, tachnids, spiders, minute pirate bugs, damsel flies and big-eyed bugs and let them devour the “bad” bugs! Something in the mix will be blooming from spring through fall. Comprised of alyssum, bachelor’s button, borage, gem marigold, dill, fennel, Phacelia tanacetifolia or fiddleneck, caraway, parsley, golden marguerite, ajuga, basket of gold alyssum, and Rocky Mountain penstemon.  Sow as a hedgerow in a well-prepared weed-free seedbed close to the garden in spring in full sun. Easily our best-selling perennial selection.

I expect that the Maine spring combo of 65 degrees and mist will have worked its magic, and everything will be 10% larger when I get home. I’m looking forward to wandering around out there tonight and admiring the garden working on its own.