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.

Hot hot hot

When I lived in Philadelphia I never thought of Maine as a place that would be too warm – and compared to Philly on a July afternoon that might be true. Absent that perspective though, the island is baking this afternoon. The thermometer on the south side of the house reads 101.7. It’s exaggerating, of course, but I won’t argue because that’s how it feels to me too, out working in the garden.

The weather will cool down tonight and perhaps there will be fog as the ocean air moves in. Meanwhile, it’s perfect weather to put the solar wax melter out in the perennial bed and cook the old black beeswax down to liquid gold for winter candles.

A color tour of the garden

We have rain in the forecast for the next three weeks, East Coast people. The corn is only 4″ tall but the lettuce – I could sell lettuce in gross tonnage. I took these photos last night and each one seemed to make a statement about the colors coming out in all this moisture and darkness.

Permanent violet deep – one of my least favorite colors in a tube of paint, but it looks good on the Purple Royalty smokebush growing by the driveway. Winter 2010-11 was the first year this shrub wasn’t mangled down to 3′ by being run over by the plow truck. Evidently the fix was to put a giant slap of granite in front of it.

Soon the orange honeysuckle will be in bloom and ruin the monochrome effect, but for now violet Dame’s Rocket, chives, and the bluer of the two pink tree peonies fill the dooryard to the northeast.

The little flame azalea is nearly engulfed in sweetgrass. Truly wonderful neighbors gave me this for babysitting their wonderful child, and I think of them every time I see it.

And green – very in with gardens in the area this summer. Even the weedy grass along the roadside is verdant right now, but we’ll see what July will bring.


Angelica, known in my grandmother’s garden as “Holy Ghost”, is a tall biennial plant with large lobed leaves, greenish white flowers, and fluted stems.

The stems are traditionally candied and used like citron in breads and holiday cakes. Angelica is a very generous plant, seeding itself all around my garden. I’ve always wanted to take advantage of this abundance and candy some myself. Last fall I took the time to research recipes and found that the stems are harvested in the spring, when they are still bright green and tender.

Last week I picked a plastic grocery bag of stems, or about 2 lbs. I trimmed off the leaves and cut the stems in random lengths as none of the recipes I read seemed to specify size. They didn’t specify much of anything, actually, and differed wildly on how long to cook the raw plant material, how to dry it, and what it should look like when finished. I’ve simplified the process because no way am I boiling anything in sugar syrup for four days, and my adaption seems to have worked just fine.

Make a 2:1 sugar syrup by mixing 2 parts sugar to 1 part water, bring to a boil and stir until dissolved. Dump the stems into the syrup and simmer for 20 minutes. Allow the mixture to cool and set for 24 hours. I let it go from one night to the next.

Remove stems from syrup and allow to drain on a rack. I used a cookie rack with a pan underneath. I dried the stems in a very slow oven (250 degrees) for a few hours. It rained for almost the entire month of April here, and the drying part might work for you without an oven if the weather cooperates.

When the stems were solid and cooled, but still tacky, I put them in a ziplock bag of granulated sugar and left them overnight to soak up as much as possible. Then I stuffed them into canning jars, where they look pretty cool – all bright green and shiny. I have two jars in a canning cupboard and one in the freezer, to see which one preserves the color and texture best.  I’m going to try out a recipe next week, and I’ll let you know how it goes.


Garden post

There's been a bumper crop of everything after 6 straight days of rain.

"La Ratte" potatoes win the race for showing green shoots above a foot of soil and another foot of mulch. I'll add more hay this weekend.

Those serrated leaves in the middle of this photo are horseradish sprouts. They're a long way from the horseradish bed.

Future strawberries! A good crop of dandelions, valerian and allium as well.

The lettuces love this weather. Mulching the tatsoi with seaweed seems to cut down on the flea beetles.


Sauce Pontchartrain

“Pontchartrain” is a wonderful seafood sauce, to be eaten either on its own in a big wide bowl with plenty of Tabasco or over something else, as long as there is plenty of Tabasco. I’ve had Pontchartrain over broiled catfish, on sourdough toast, over rice, grits, and on one memorable occasion, instead of Hollandaise on poached eggs. I decided to make a batch and post the recipe, but as often happens when I’m eating something delicious, I didn’t take a picture. Instead, here’s a photo of Pontchartrain herself.

The pictures on the left are from the last big flood, in 2005. The Mississippi should crest tonight just below that record high in Memphis. The upper photos in “real color” detail sediment and drift and that thin tan line that looks like a scratch on the photo is the Causeway, the worlds longest bridge at 38 miles and change.

To be honest, this dish isn’t the most picturesque recipe to come out of NOLA. That honor would go to blackened snapper, maybe, or quince paste with beignets.  Pontchartrain sauce is a poor man’s dish, with lots of finely chopped mushrooms and green peppers to fill out the seafood and an overall “lumpy” white appearance. Now that I think about it many of the dishes I loved and learned to make in Louisiana have that look: smothered hare (pale green and lumpy, in its herb sauce), duck’s blood gumbo (you can picture that without help, right?), cheese biscuits (lumpy yellow). All equally delicious, without being particularly photogenic.

Sauce Pontchartrain

3/4 cup green onion or leeks, 1 cup mushrooms, and 1 cup green pepper, chopped fine (I actually whir them briefly, separately, in the food processor. Be careful not to puree.) 2 cloves of garlic, smashed
5 tablespoons butter, in 1 tablespoon pieces and 4 tablespoons flour
1/2 to 1 cup vegetable stock or broth, depending on how much seafood you’re adding, and 1 cup Chardonnay
salt, black pepper, cayenne, and tarragon to taste

2 cups (or more) seafood. It’s easier to throw the dish together if all the fish and shellfish are pre-cooked, but it’s also possible to add raw shrimp and other delicates while the sauce simmers.

Cook the onions, green pepper, mushrooms and garlic in the butter, adding in that order, until the vegetables are soft and “reduced”. Add 3 Tbs flour and stir until the roux thickens, about 2 minutes tops. Add the Chardonnay and stock, blend over a very low heat.  Taste before adding the spices because you may not need to add salt.

Shortly before serving add the seafood to the mix. I generally use cooked leftovers and anything goes: lobster, shrimp, crabmeat, or flaked whitefish, or any combination. Serve as is with beer and crusty bread, or ladle over hot white rice, thick slices of toast, eggs, fish filets, or crumbled milk crackers. Hand around bottles of Hiracha and convince your guests that all the vegetables you need for healthy living are in the sauce.

And all best wishes to those living along the Mother River tonight.


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.


Incontrovertible Proof of Gardening

There goes my month-long experiment with one-word titles.

Yesterday was a beautiful day. I’m not going to bother comparing it to today, because I’m at work and my narrow view of the railroad tracks isn’t that informative. Yesterday, though, yesterday rocked.

I worked on the seed beds first. The far corner cinderblock plot had produced wonderful tomatoes last year, so this year I planted beets, lettuce, and my new favorite green, Maruba Santos.  I have been reading Gaia’s Garden, 2nd Edition: A Guide to Homescale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway on Kindle and learning quite a bit that is directly applicable to this garden. I’m employing the very basic ideas of the book, such as planting three varieties of “depth” together so that nutrients are rotated through the soil structure. Lettuce (surface), a substantial “cabbagey” green (mid-level), and beets (deep), are a standard combination. Some ideas are new to me: Mr. Hemenway mentions cardoon as a good plant for root depth as well as using its huge leaves as mulch. My season is far too short for cardoon to mature, but using it to improve soil vitality would be a good opportunity to have this interesting plant in my garden (without having to eat it).

I put out the leeks in the next bed to the left (Brussels sprouts and cabbage in 2010) and  interplanted it with more lettuce: Pablo, Majestic Red, and Tom Thumb bibb, which is a house favorite. The next bed to the left was squash last year. I’ve planted it with haricot vert and Provider bush beans (mid-level), white alyssum (surface), and daikon radish (deep). I’m probably getting ahead of schedule by planting beans; we’ll see if the row cover mitigates the temperature enough for them to progress. It was 28 F at 5:30 a.m. but predicted to be warmer overnight as we go through the week.

Up closer to the house is a large, old bed that has been peas two years running. This year it will be 3 varieties of carrots in lengths from 5″ – 8″ and heliopsis.

Tomorrow is forecast to be solid rain with 20 knot winds. Maybe sometime next week I can spray dormant oil on the fruit trees and burn last year’s brush, but there’s no telling with the Maine spring.





Last year I planted a little Garfield Plantation sour cherry tree a little too close to the road. It probably would have been just fine in any other winter but there was too much snow in 2011, plowed up and over our driveway, down the hill and over the little tree.

I’ve been researching possible repairs since the snow melted enough to expose the break. Finally I came across a reference book  at a local library (crumbling tissue paper pages smeared with dirty fingerprints, the spine folded almost in half) with instructions for splinting a young tree. As long as there is still a strip of green cambium (the inner, living layer of bark that transmits nutrients and water up the trunk), this should work.

First, splint the trunk with a thin, flexible piece of wood or metal. I happened to have a scrap piece of ebony down cellar that would do. Thanks John and Ruth! Place the splint on the opposite side of the trunk from the intact layer and tie it in place at the top and bottom. Form a layer of clean melted beeswax around the break. (I melted about an oz of beeswax in a piece of foi, over a double boiler. It hardened into a paste on the way out to the tree – perfect.) Dip a strip of muslin in the wax and wrap the trunk, avoiding buds.

I finished this three days ago, and bud swell has continued on the upper branches. High hopes!


We’re under a winter storm warning tonight, with 6 to 12″ of snow predicted here and upwards to 20″ in The County. It will be heavy, wet, late-spring snow and there are reminders on the news to keep an eye on flat roofs and swiftly rising streams. I know spring is here, though, because today someone stopped to decorate The Owl.

Owl Baby!

The Kitteredge Brook Rd. Social Capital Owl has a long history; ten years ago I cut down a few small spruce out by the road and left one slender, straight trunk thinking I’d put a bird house there someday. (Spruce is a fast-growing tree here, and if you don’t get them young well, I have a few 70 footers in the garden already from that kind of wishful thinking.)  While I was pondering whether a bird house would be a good idea or not (cats? traffic?) someone came along and nailed a plastic owl to the top.

Not long after that, the owl sported a pair of child’s sunglasses and a very faded lime green bikini. As summer passed into fall a tiny straw hat appeared, a Common Ground Fair t-shirt (with an encore every year after the fair in September), a Halloween costume (my favorite was the pirate outfit complete with tiny parrot), and a Santa hat and wreath. When our son graduated high school the owl sported a tiny mortar board and tassel. Sometimes I go out and retrieve a decoration that is out of season or falling apart, but all the donations are anonymous – even furtive.

My personal feeling is that the good old days were anything but, and that social capital as a concept in modern society reflects nothing but wishful thinking by the formerly powerful and well-connected. I will admit, however, that it has worked wonders on a plastic owl.