cultivating wild eatable plants

A post by Hank Shaw on cultivating wild native plants—ramps and such. I’ve been intending to do this with fiddleheads—young ferns that people in Vermont eat like people eat ramps in West Virginia. I’ve never found them in West Virginia.

Also, I’m keen on Jerusalem Artichokes, probably the most famous vegetable Hank mentions. More of those in my future.

I’ve noticed, in picking dandelions for wine, that the biggest and healthiest I could find (three to four times bigger than the ones in my yard—handy for such an endless task) grew as weeds in my weedy garden. I didn’t try the greens, though. I wonder how tender they’d be, whether they might not have a longer season than scrubby ones. With pork, they are among my favorite things.

out of season


This is an untimely post. I’d forgotten I’d taken this picture—just found it on my wife’s hard drive, by accident. But it was fairly pretty so I decided I’d put it up. The melons are from a volunteer vine that grew up in a blasted piece of last year’s garden without any help from me. There was a drought and the leaves were tiny and tough, and then it had tiny fruit to match, and then frost came and the leaves died and I figured I’d open the damn things up and here they are. As you can tell from the seeds, they weren’t fully ripe. Not much to speak of, but they were eatable enough.

This reminds me of a meal I had about the time this picture was taken, where was served asparagus. I was surprised to see how surprised I was to be served asparagus in late fall. It was bitter.

I heard something on the radio the other day to remind me of Elliot Coleman’s latest four-season gardening book, with his talk of candy carrots, and spinach. The man on the radio was talking about how the cold, or the lack of heat, rather, is necessary to growing first rate vegetables like these—how we should, therefor, grow them, and eat them, in preference to imported, necessarily inferior examples. This makes good sense to me, and I am dying now to have a greenhouse, as well as an orchard, if only I had a place to put them.

I’ve also been thinking some about container culture of food plants. Currently, I keep rosemary that way, because it’s a non-hardy perennial, and necessary, and that is a good start. On the same theme, I plan to supplement that with bay. Container grown bay is a thing that might make a pleasant tiny supplement to a farmers’ market income, I notice. I considered coffee and black pepper, but these things are relatively cheap and used in large quantities and wouldn’t seem to justify the labor. Vanilla? Lemons? I’ve also been thinking about companion planting in containers, by way of a green mulch. I made a number of houseplant mulch experiments this last year and none with impressive results, but the train of thought did eventually lead to the possibility of doubling up—marjoram beneath my rose, or something. I suspect I’ll be keeping my readership posted.

casual seedsaving

An acquaintance of mine is selling two excellent, similar varieties of musk melon at the farmers’ market. I am aware that she is also this year growing seed for a regional seed company. I figure, perhaps she is raising melon seed? and I save some. Turns out, no—these melons, the only she grew, may have crossed. Next year, were I to plant them, likely as not they would not come back true.

However, true or no, it is highly likely they will come back excellent. And, I will have the pleasure of opening each one with a sense of anticipation: maybe a new melon! Never before tasted! What will it taste like!

And, of course, it’s free.

Seed saving doesn’t have to be about preserving rare varieties. Not attempting to preserve rare varieties, we can be sloppy: risk strange crosses and inbreeding, experiment with serendipitous crosses of inbred plants, toy with things we need not fully understand.

Not that I’ll stop buying seed. I’ll just buy less of it.

This reminds me, this time of year it’s time to start thinking about stocking up on garlic, potatoes, onions and winter squash. Pop corn. Meal corn. The new harvest of dry beans. Don’t want to have to go to the grocery store any more than necessary this winter. Any of those potatoes, corn kernels, beans, left over, you can put them in the ground next year. Garlic, you can put in the ground soon this year.

Also, recently, I’ve been saving the seed from hollyhocks and black-eyed susans. Why not?

tomato seeds

Most tomatoes do not cross-pollinate. This means, most tomato seed will reproduce itself perfectly, year after year. This means, if you have a tomato, and you cut it open and taste it and like it, you can set aside some of its seeds to plant next year, without cash outlay.

To be absolutely sure it will reproduce true, you should try to remember its name. Look it up: is it a “potato leaf” type or not? If not, you’re good.

The other caveat is that you shouldn’t save seed from “doubles” and “triples.” These are tomatoes which appear to be multiple tomatoes conjoined like siamese twins. These, also, may have bred out.

So now you have a mess of slimy tomato seeds. You can just dry them. Or, you can put them in a jar and let them ferment, so the goo comes loose, and you can rinse it off.

There is much ado lately about seed saving. There is a fair bit of hassle involved in a lot of seed saving. Really, there are some seeds that home gardeners have no business trying to perpetuate. Tomatoes are not one of them.

beautiful solutions to an almost obsolete orchard problem

natural brace

“The ideal treatment is to prevent the crotch from splitting. This can be done by not having a crotch, or by bracing it before it shows signs of weakness. [A] bolt may be used for this purpose. [or] A living brace may be grown over the crotch, as shown in Figs. 109 and 110 [omitted, similar to 109]. Two small limbs, preferably not larger than the little finger, arising from opposite branches, are twisted tightly together, the free ends being allowed to project as they may beyond the opposite branch.

In a year or so the bark of the two will begin to knit together, at which time the free tips—and many shoots which have arisen from lateral buds—are headed-back or removed. As the branches continue to unite, the leafy parts are curtailed, and in a few years a perfectly solid and continuous living brace will be formed from limb to limb. […]

Fig. 110 was made in a different way. The brace is a single branch arising at the right. When as large as one’s finger, it was thrust through a slit made through the branch at the left, allowing it to project two or three feet beyond the wound. It soon grew fast, and the free part was then removed; the result is a perfect union and a strong living brace.”

—L. H. Bailey, “The Pruning Book: A Monograph of the Pruning and Training of Plants as Applied to American Conditions.” (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1914.)

things I haven’t posted about this spring

The fact that hop shoots, one of the very first edible greens of spring, which grow like evil weeds and demand to be thinned, and which, in late summer, you can flavor beer with, are not nearly widely enough cultivated.

The fact that those potted forget-me-nots I never got around to putting in the ground last year, which died, went to seed first, and are now growing beautifully, all over the place—not exactly the dawn of a new gardening paradigm, but certainly another proof of concept.

That arugula flowers are gorgeous. A couple overwintered in the herb garden, so we’re letting them go to seed. Also, a cabbage, living in what’s now a carrot patch.

Maple syrup, and how, if you have a wood stove, and even only one maple tree with a circumference over ten inches, you really, really, have no good reason not to be sugaring.

About the various wild greens we’ve been eating, and the various ways we’ve been eating them. And how keen I am on wild greens. Like, intellectually. For the sake of cuisine.

My budding thoughts on honest, genuine cuisine, as a local phenomenon—what gave rise to it, what gives rise to it, whether it is rising and what that might mean.

Further thoughts on cooking fats. How olive oil has become an imported luxury in my house. How I have no understanding of the subtleties of cooking with butter. How, in fact, primitive the cooking is in my house.

About the possible addition of a new category, the easiest thing in the world, detailing “recipes” for things which really ought not to need them, and are like fast food in my primitive house.

A number of primitive thoughts, I have had.

many homely barometrical signs

“The use of a barometer is of doubtful utility to the farmer, but there are many homely barometrical signs that should not be neglected. The changes of the wind; the course of the clouds; the smoke beating to the ground; the circle around the moon; the flight of birds, both wild and domestic; the hurrying home of bees when a sudden shower approaches; the actions of domestic animals, swine in particular; the acute pains felt by rheumatic persons at the approach of storms; the absence or excess of moisture in the atmosphere, as indicated by the rapid evaporation of boiling water when the air is dry, or ready condensation upon the cold-water pitcher when it is moist; the peculiar sighing of the wind; the turning up of the leaves of the forest before a storm, and many more indications of change, should all be studied, better understood, and used to the farmer’s benefit.”

—Solon Robinson, Facts for Farmers. (New York: A. J. Johnson, 1870.)

at least a couple of things are coming up roses


This is the year I am completely sold on my mother’s practice of growing roses in pots. How extravagant! In February!

seedsavers is down!

Seed Savers Exchange, the best seed-selling non-profit you could donate money to (don’t worry, it’s included in the seed-cost), recently hugely famous, with orders going through the roof since this whole local-food mania picked up (bless it), their website is down: SERVER TOO BUSY, all it says, white background. Good for them! Maybe order soon if you want in.

fresh popcorn, hot damn.

Just popped my first ever batch of fresh, local this-year’s popcorn. It behaved very strangely.

It started popping almost as soon as it hit the pan, and popped itself out so fast there wasn’t any danger at all of scorching. The flavor was clean and fresh, though not particularly significantly moreso than the regular, and the texture was slightly more moist.

At first the texture was a little inferior to regular corn, as it sort of pan-caked down into hard flakes between your teeth, but after a few minutes that was less noticeable.

Probably this is all a function of water content and will get more like what we’re used to as it cures. I wonder how old the average shelf-bag of popping corn is.

Anyway, good stuff.

grape harvest 2009!

morgan orchard vines

There is an orchard near my house that put in four or five rows of wine grapes. Been there for a few years now. Hybrid wine grapes: don’t make awful wine like native grapes, don’t die like European grapes, left to their own devices, do around here. Foch and Chambourcin. And these grapes have been left to their own devices; orchard has better things to do, I guess, than baby finicky wine-grapes, when I am probably the only person in the county who asked after them. The following are some pictures of what grapes, even tough hybrids, left to their own devices, in a damp year, look like come harvest time, around here:

dead grapes scat 1 scat 2

We got around to showing up to pick, fairly arbitrarily, on October 6th. The Foch had already passed, and perhaps had fared a little better, but as it was it took the two of us an hour to pick 11.5 pounds of grapes. Below is a picture of one of the better, bigger bunches (very small, indeed):

live grapes

We took it home and crushed it, and measured its sugar content: 18.5 Brix, a potential alcohol level of 10.3%. Considering the conditions, I was afraid it might have come in closer to 6%, so I was pleased. I kept the juice macerating on the skins for two or three hours, to extract a little color, to make a rosé. A nice, light, perhaps slightly sparkling rosé, to be drunk next summer. Two bottles worth. Oh well.

creamy watermelon!

creamy watermelon

Fruit review. This one is called Cream of Saskatchewan. Fairly small, short-season watermelon. I grew it this year. From Seed Savers. Wet year, bad fruit growing year, and very bad for peppers. My melon was brittle; split into pieces when I started it with a knife. Very thin rind, like the package said—hardly there at all. The flavor, fascinating. Actually a little cream-like. (The flesh is more cream-colored, by the way, it looks white in most pictures I’ve seen, even in  my picture, it looks white.) It reminds me of eating maple snow, fresh snow with cream and maple syrup poured on it, something I grew up eating. It has a viscosity, too, that is unlike a watermelon, a thickness. It is more like a honeydew melon than most watermelon. It is a great novelty, and maybe this was a bad year for it. I will grow some other great novelty, next year.

mannish carrot of the week


to keep chickens from being a nuisance

“‘Farmers, in general, who keep hens, are more troubled with them than with any other one thing upon their farms, considering the amount of work which they do. They are always scratching in the garden, digging up corn, or committing other depredations which keep the farmer and his girls running to keep them out of mischief.’

Of course they are, because they must scratch for a living. If you don’t want hens in mischief, feed them; and at times when it is really necessary, shut them in a poultry-yard and feed them, and adopt this simple rule for feeding fowls, known to most housewives in the country who have charge of the poultry, but it may be useful to amateurs, and as it is very short, we print it. Here it is: Don’t feed too much. That is all; though we may add that food should never be given to fowls unless they are hungry enough to “run crazy” after it; and just as soon as they stop running crazy, you stop throwing feed, and never—no, never—leave feed lying by your fowls “for them to eat at leisure.” This same rule does pretty well for all other domestic animals—children included.”

Solon Robinson, Facts for Farmers (New York: Johnson and Ward, 1865), 142.

garden, catnip

I harvested nearly an armload of catnip this morning to keep it from choking out the tomatoes it was choking out. Then I hung it up all over the house to dry. This place stinks. The cat is strangely unaffected.