Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Snow Shovel Foraging

I like to tell people that even in winter, we can gather useful wild plants by digging under the snow. It goes without saying that this requires knowing where to look in the first place.

But have I ever gone out and done any “snow shovel foraging?” Well, truth be told…no.

So that’s my next challenge. I can think of several useful wild plants available now and believe that I know their exact locations. Both are evergreen and should not have changed texture, color or taste since early winter, when they were first covered by snow.

Both these plants have edible green leaves. They are wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens and ground ivy, Glechoma hederacea. The ground ivy grows alongside the north-facing wall of my greenhouse, so procuring a useable amount should pose no problem.

Wintergreen, though, may take a bit of prospecting. But I’m convinced that memory will serve well enough to locate a good patch of the leathery leaves without too much effort.

Back inside, given that my quest comes to fruition, I plan on making a ground ivy tea. This will come in particularly helpful now, in midwinter. A lack of fresh vegetables probably has my vitamin C levels at a low ebb. I don’t take synthetic vitamins, either, preferring the naturally occurring type found in fresh, green leaves. And since I don’t buy commercially raised vegetable from the store, a boost of vitamins and minerals from fresh-picked ground ivy ought to do me a world of good.

I freeze and can my homegrown and foraged foods and these suffice to keep me healthy. But still, the desire for anything fresh becomes difficult to ignore in late January.

Wintergreen will provide me with a wild, taste treat, a splurge of sorts. While wintergreen leaves surely must provide some vitamins or minerals, their main value lies in their natural wintergreen taste. Chewing the raw leaves quickly releases a delightful flavor, one that synthetically contrived products cannot duplicate.

I can think of another wild food product that could be had now, but the effort and discomfort involved makes it too dearly won. Common cattail, Typha latifolia, roots and sprouts are available only to those willing to go to a swamp or shallow pond and cut holes in the ice.

But pulling up the old dead stalks, with their living components clinging like grim death to the mud bottom, doesn’t appeal to me. At least not at this time. Come ice-out, I’ll view the process with a less-jaundiced eye.

It’s snowing now and nearly dark. Not the time to go snow shovel foraging. But in a day or two, I plan on going on my ground ivy/wintergreen leaf hunt. And, of course, I’ll write about the experience in an upcoming blog.

Monday, January 24, 2011

A Real Nail-Puller Night

Some years ago, an old farmer from up the road stopped in for a short visit. It was during a cold snap much like the present one. He remarked that the previous night was a real, “nail puller.”

I understood what he meant, since various groans and prolonged creaks had disturbed my sleep.

When temperatures plunge far below zero and remain there for a prolonged period of time, certain things happen to the materials used to build our homes. This particularly applies to older buildings and also, homeowner-built houses that used locally-sawn lumber as sheathing.

My place falls into the latter category. I used galvanized nails to fasten down two layers of one-inch, rough-sawn boards.

As I understand it, certain materials contract faster and to a greater degree than others. So it would appear that the boards contract more than the nails used to hold them. This has the effect of making it look as is someone had gone about with a cat’s paw and pulled the nails halfway out.

And, of course, it’s noisy and a bit unsettling to listen to.

Now what really happens is that after warm weather returns and the wood regains its normal thickness, the nails remain in whatever position they were in when the wood contracted.

This necessitates going around, come spring, hammer in hand, searching for protruding nail heads and driving them back in.

So the next time someone remarks on how the previous night was a nail puller, you might respond by saying, “Yep. Just as soon as spring comes, we’ll have to go around and drive them back in, won’t we?”

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Gardeners Need To Learn Their "Weeds"

I’ve always enjoyed listening to call-in garden talk shows on the radio. It intrigues me, though, when someone calls in and describes a certain weed and stumps the host. I often know the answer, though, as long as the caller offers sufficient detail.

Of course that doesn’t mean that I’m any smarter than anyone else. It just shows that “weeds” are important to me. After all, many of these weeds are useful in one or more ways. Some have food value, others have physical beauty and some combine both.

As I see it, this idea of gardeners devoting more time to learning about our wild plants has considerable merit.

For one thing, other than simply adding to their overall pool of general knowledge, gardeners can, by studying wild plants, learn how to use them to their advantage.

Sure, some wildlings are overly aggressive and need taming. But even these can peacefully co-exist with our cultivated flowers and vegetables. We only need to learn how to balance the two. Let me offer a for-instance.

Lamb’s quarters, Chenopodium album, can drive gardeners to distraction. Once lamb’s quarters seed is introduced to a garden plot (usually by adding barnyard manure or not-quite-cooked compost), the cycle begins and there is little we can do to interrupt it. So we need to take a fresh look at this ubiquitous, leafy green plant.

In spring, lamb’s quarter seedlings are often the first green things we see growing in our garden beds. These are fast growing, too, and often it only takes eight or 10 days of good, warm weather for the young lamb’s quarters to grow to a useable size. And this is when most people go on the offensive. With hoe in hand, they ruthlessly attack every lamb’s quarter plant they see, chopping with a fury guaranteed to raise blisters. But we have a better way.

Since lamb’s quarters are very shallow-rooted, pulling up the entire plant takes but little effort. And if, as we pull up the tender plants we take time to snip the roots off with thumb and forefinger, the end result is a ready-to-cook plant. Or in this case, pint, quart or even bushel of plants.

Right now, in late January, I’m reveling in the lamb’s quarters that I picked from my raised bed gardens last spring. These I parboiled and froze and now they provide a delicious side dish to many a wintertime meal.

Also, by hand-pulling individual plants, we wind up with a far lower re-emergence rate. Hoeing often does not entirely sever the roots and although the plant is covered with soil, it soon pops up and resumes growing. Pulling a plant in its entirety means an end to that plant.

In fact, I often make it a point to leave a few lamb’s quarter plants undisturbed. Here’s why.

First, the tips of even the sturdiest branches hold perfectly tender and fine leaves and these can be gathered and eaten all summer. And if that weren’t enough, the mature plant (these can grow to three feet or more) acts as a trap for leaf miners, those pesky insects that get inside green leaves and eat their way around, leaving unsightly “snail trail” marks. It seems to me that this biological control beats heck out of poison.

So far from being a nuisance, lamb’s quarters have become an important component to my garden’s annual biomass. They are as valuable a crop as anything else and perhaps more valuable than some.

Other wild plants – weeds – have similar virtues.

I find that concerning garden weeds, most of those that appear in my garden beds are edible. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to name one that wasn’t.

So by managing their weeds, gardeners can enjoy the best of both worlds. And that’s why I say that it pays for gardeners to learn more about the weeds growing all around them.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Snowed In

Oh, gorry – a snowy day in mid-January gets everyone antsy. That’s why we call each other on the phone, even if we don’t have much to say.

Today, I had to warm up supper twice, on account of snowed-in buddies calling to pass the time of day…or night, as was the case.

But I figure that a conversation with a dear friend far outweighs the relative value of a tepid plate of food. So we talked. And in some cases, we talked and talked and talked.

One of our conversations revolved around the different qualities of various types of firewood.

“I pack my woodshed so that early on, I’m burning junk wood. Then in the middle, I stuff the best maple and beech. Toward the end, which comes toward spring, I place the medium stuff.” That’s what I told one caller.

He, on the other hand, has a problem. With only one cord remaining and two good months of winter left, he feels insecure.

“What about Groundhog Day,” I queried. “Might not that one cord be just enough?” My thought was that by early February, things might moderate, at least enough to stretch his one cord of wood to where he won’t need to burn wood again until next fall.

“Well, I don’t know,” he said.

“I believe I must order another cord of ash. That way I can burn it, even though it will be green, by mixing my good, dry wood with it.”

He is probably right, too. I don’t think a cord will last him until spring. Only time will tell, though.

And so it went and so it goes. I sometimes wonder what it would be like to live someplace where we didn’t need to plan our food and fuel ahead. And I wonder what it would be like not to get snowed in once in awhile and not to be able to have long, wandering conversations with good friends.

Such is the rural life. And although it may sound as if I’m complaining, that just isn’t so. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Home-Grown Food Pays Off In Dividends

As winter wears on, the value of home-produced food becomes increasingly evident.

My fondness for leafy greens compels me to put up a number of wild plants, all of which satisfy this craving. Dandelions, goosetongue and lamb’s quarters complement fiddleheads, Japanese knotweed and a host of garden vegetables in my freezer and on my shelves.

Sometimes, though, the craving for fresh veggies draws me out of the house and to the nearest grocery store. And it’s then that I truly realize the worth of my foraged and homegrown produce.

The last visit gave me a bad case of sticker shock. Food prices had risen by perhaps one-third since last I prowled the produce isle. This made me wonder to myself, “What do people do who must depend upon the store for all their food?”

This wasn’t a self-righteous quip either. I truly cannot imagine paying what people are compelled to pay for their food in today’s world.

Besides that, it appears that our sluggish economy has had the effect of driving grocers to keep outdated produce on their shelves longer than in the past. The end result of this is that food costs more and is not as fresh.

After examining many containers of wilted peas, half-dried mushrooms, tough-looking lettuce and wizened zucchinis, I finally settled on a small head of cabbage. That’s a sad commentary on the current situation.

I also recall how last year I found myself wondering if all the work involved in picking, cleaning, freezing and canning wild stuff and garden vegetables was worth it. It was, and is, without the slightest doubt.

So if like me, you have qualms about paying exorbitant sums for outdated produce from faraway points of origin, make a promise to yourself that next year, you will go foraging. And it wouldn’t hurt to consider growing a garden, either.

It doesn’t take a huge garden to provide a decent quantity of food. It makes more sense to start small and increase garden size as needed. To start, though, it’s surprising how much one 3’ X 10’ raised bed can produce.

And for those who for whatever reason cannot build a raised or in-ground garden bed, a certain commercial product can serve very well. This is called “The Earthbox” and it works wonderfully. I’ll highlight The Earthbox in a future blog.

The benefits from foraging and gardening are inestimable.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Burns Birthday Marks Height of Winter

For me, the arrival of the poet Robert Burns birthday on the 25th of this month coincides with a desire to eat some boiled nettles and nibble on homemade oatcakes. Unfortunately for me, I did not put up any nettles last year, so I’ll have to settle for something tamer…perhaps lamb’s quarters or seaside plantain.

Oatcakes, though, are easy. I once adhered to strict measurements when making these most basic of Scottish snacks. But no more. Now, I just pour a big slug of rolled oats into my food processor and put it on high for a few seconds. The resulting product is like a grainy kind of flour.

Next, I add a handful of flour, a pinch of salt and perhaps two tablespoons of cooking oil. This I mix with some water and then fashion into a ball, which is then flattened with a rolling pin.

After that, I cut the flattened oat dough into little rectangles and place these in my toaster oven for perhaps 10 minutes. With the heat on high, I watch until the oatcakes begin to show just the tiniest bit of browning. That signals that they are done.

I never grow tired of eating oatcakes and can easily make a glutton of myself.

Another Scottish treat that I never seem to have enough of is smoked salmon. A week ago, a friend gave me a huge, smoked filet. Today, seven days later, it is gone.

In marking the seasons, I consider Burn’s birthday the peak of winter, the pinnacle of the season. The coldest weather of the year usually hits around the bard’s birthday.

Despite the cold and snow, it seems refreshing and even invigorating to try some Scottish fare and perhaps tip a glass to one of the most beloved poets of all time. To the immortal memory.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Power of Plants

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

Here’s something that has fascinated me for years. Call it the power of plants. Specifically, it amazes me that when low-growing, pointed-leafed plants begin shooting up in early spring, the leaves often penetrate whatever has fallen on top of them over the winter.

This often includes dried leaves of deciduous trees and even, in some cases, bits of tree bark.

Now here’s the thing. If you took a dried leaf and tried to poke a hole in it with, say, a crocus leaf, the crocus leaf would bend before it penetrated the dry leaf. Something doesn’t make sense here.

Someone with a keen knowledge of physics could probably explain this. I can only guess. And here’s my guess.

As the crocus leaf begins to grow, it does so in slow but steady increments. This motion is not enough to pick the dead leaf up and move it, as anyone might logically expect would happen in this case. But no, the crocus leaf (or leaves) keeps up its slight but steady progress. This focuses the most pressure on a tiny point, the tip of the growing leaf.

In time, the weight of the dried maple leaf, bit of birch bark or whatever it is, allows the pointed end of the crocus leaf to eventually force its way through.

In other words, if the crocus (or whatever) leaf grew quickly, it would simply push the dried maple leaf aside. But instead, it grows slowly and that slow motion allows the pointed end of the crocus leaf to make a teeny hole. This eventually becomes a larger hole as the crocus leaf grows and reaches its full diameter.

And by gosh, I just think that this is wicked neat.

There may reside in this an analogy for us. Keep at it, whatever it might be. Eventually, you will persevere.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Windblown Seed

Ever wonder how some new weed managed to get where it is? Wild plants have a way of springing up in the most unexpected places. The answer, of course, depends upon whether the plant spreads by wind-blown seed, seed that drops on the ground in fall and germinates in spring, or by means of runners and rhizomes.

In the case of wind-blown seed, certain plants develop seeds that have little fuzzy hairs, called “parachutes” that carry the tiny seed along on the breeze. And winter is prime time for such seeds to spread far and wide.

Some of my favorite plants expand their range by virtue of wind-blown seeds. Among these are New England aster, boneset, common milkweed and common cattail. Of these, cattails have the longest season for seed travel. By now, seeds of these other plants have long ago dispersed. But cattail seedheads persist from one season to the next.

Winter, though, is the time when cattails use their floating seeds to best advantage. In warm weather, leaves on deciduous trees and shrubs catch the airborne seeds and prevent them from spreading. But in winter, bare limbs have no effect on windblown seeds and one tiny cattail seed can finally settle to the ground many miles from where it was released.

Which explains why someone can dig a pond miles from any other source of water and in only a few years, cattails “magically” appear.

In the same way, airborne seed lands on recently cultivated ground and the following spring and summer, all manner of new plants suddenly begin growing.

While chances of finding a seed on the snow are slim at best, its for sure that for every square foot of snow, at least a few new seeds will land during the winter, waiting for spring to germinate and thus establish a new colony.

So remember that while winter seems like a dead, lifeless time of the year, that certainly is not the case. Wild plants continue their ceaseless quest to perpetuate their kind, even as the blizzards howl and temperatures plummet. Ain’t it grand?

Friday, January 7, 2011

January Thoughts

This morning, January 7, 2011, the temperature was 0 degrees Fahrenheit at my Waldo home. With a steady breeze blowing, I found things downright uncomfortable. Which brings to mind some old English sayings about the first month of the year.

“A wet January, a wet spring.”

“If the grass do grow in Janiveer,
It grows the worse for it all the year.”

And finally,

“The blackest month of all the year
Is the month of Janiveer.”

I just love those old proverbs. And just because they lie in the realm of folklore, doesn’t mean they aren’t rooted in at least a modicum of truth. More about that when Groundhog Day rolls around.

So given the cold, brisk conditions, I was a little surprised to see an immature bald eagle this morning. It sat atop a big sugar maple at City Point in Belfast. That area has, as of late, become a regular eagle hangout.

I stopped and took a few photos and then another vehicle passed and the eagle flew away.

What impresses me most about eagles is their size. Massive. I wonder if people would accord eagles the same degree of esteem if they were, say, the size of a robin?

Eagles aren’t especially handsome, but they are impressive and a bit scary when viewed close up. Immature eagles lack the trademark white (bald) head, which gives them a raggedy, unkempt appearance.

I did wish the bird luck, though. With the river frozen and all, it must find it difficult to find food. Which brings to mind the fact that besides catching fish, eagles are fond of carrion and will eagerly devour old deer carcasses and so on…not exactly a noble profession.

A few other things come to mind today and I want to mention them here. Last night, I watched a television show that outlined possible nightmare scenarios for our country. One of the worst was a shortage of water.

The presenter showed a map of states that will soon, within the next few years, experience a water shortage. Maine was one of them.

This got my attention, pronto. Maine? A water shortage? Without going into detail, that is the least of our worries. In fact, it just isn’t going to happen, at least not any time soon. We have oodles of water, more water than most other places. Besides our legions of lakes and ponds, we have plenty of subterranean water. That, of course, includes so-called, “ground water,” those underground veins that people locate by dowsing and turn into water wells.

My own well, one of the most productive around, is one I located myself and had dug out with an excavator. I have also found numbers of wells for others.

Maine has no shortage of potable water.

Next and last, I want to bring to reader’s attention the radio advertisements for people to have a star named for themselves or a loved one. In this time of scarcity, unemployment and so on, it seems truly wicked to delude people in this manner.

Please remember the next time one of these ads comes on, that all known stars are already named. This is in accordance with the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the body that governs international astronomy.

Star names are either actual names, mostly Arabic, and those without names are catalogued according to a system dating back to 1603. Newly-discovered stars are given a catalogue number by the IAU. End of story.

Anyone paying one of these companies to name a star for someone is throwing their money away. The only place these names are recorded is in the company’s records…and that’s a maybe.

So save your bucks. If you want to do something nice for someone, give of your time and talents. Or just give them money. At least you will know that it has gone to some good use.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Kep on The Sunny Side

“Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side,” goes the old Carter Family song. That advice has literal as well as figurative value.

The sunny, or south side of hills, slopes and embankments loses snow cover quickly, even in mid-winter. For me, a visit to such a place provides a foretaste of things to come, an insider’s view of the nascent spring.

My home, little more than three miles from Penobscot Bay, sits in a frigid valley. Here, cold air creeps down the channel provided by nature, making the local climate at least five degrees colder, and often far more, than that found down by the sea.

Snow on the north side of the valley lingers far into spring. When flowers bloom and others plant their gardens, I monitor the snow patches and note when the last vestige disappears.

The sunny side of my little valley fares considerably better. In fact, dandelions along the south-facing wall of my cottage frequently appear many weeks ahead of the season’s main crop.

Sometimes, when darkness, cold and deep snow get me down, I hop in my car and drive down to the coast, there to view bare ground. This seldom fails to produce a sense of well-being. Such therapy also supplies the patience needed to accept the things I cannot change, namely the long, cold winter.

So when the weight of the world bears heavily upon mind and body, why not visit the sunny side? It’s a sure tonic for the winter blues.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Running Clubmoss

Marie LeClair recently sent me a plant sample to identify. Marie uses various wild plants to good effect by drying and pressing them and gluing them to her homemade greeting cards. This seems pretty innovative to me and makes me wonder, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Anyway, Marie’s sample is a sprig of running clubmoss, sometimes known as ground pine. The scientific name, for those interested, is Lycopodium clavatum.

This stuff grows in long strings on the forest floor where sunlight only dances in dribs and drabs. It does not occur out in the open. Running clubmoss makes a nice decorative plant and clever folks such as Marie put it to all kinds of interesting and attractive uses. But in the not-too-distant past, this primitive plant served us in several other ways.

First, the spore-producing cones, those little tapered yellow things that appear at the end of long, scaly stems, become laden with a yellow powder in summer. This powder, the accumulated millions of spores, is sterile and was used medicinally as an absorbent on various wounds and even surgical incisions. It could serve that same purpose today, if push came to shove.

But the powder’s other use fascinates me, mainly since I am still a boy at heart. The stuff is wicked flammable and I like to hold a match next to one of the powder-laden cones and flick it with my finger. “POOOF,” it goes, in a wonderful, brilliant flash. Sure, it’s a dangerous practice, but such as this brings out the kid in us all. But do as I say and not as I do. Please refrain from putting clubmoss spores to the test.

Because of its explosive properties, the fine, yellow “dust” from running clubmoss was used as flash powder in the early days of photography. So the next time you see a movie that portrays someone like, for instance, Matthew Brady taking a photo, remember that the stuff that makes the big flash grows all over the woods here in Maine.

So thank you, Marie, for sending me your plant sample and bringing this delightful plant to mind.