Good Fences Don’t Always Make Good Neighbors

Lushness of July

Moby Dick the woodchuck is back. No, he is not an albino woodchuck. He just keeps resurfacing. At the moment, he looms larger than life in my tiny garden. I analyze the damage in the morning, raise my fist, and mutter epithets toward the sky—though he’s a groundhog. There’s no question I’d like shoot to him, but I can’t. We live in town.

He has eaten all of my brassica plants: the entire row of broccoli, grown from seed under the grow lights in my living room, tenderly handled, repotted and hardened off outside; and all of the Brussels sprouts (ditto). He has eaten the tops off a row of the best carrots I have ever grown.  He has chewed the vines of the cucumbers, and stolen peas. Now he is turning to more gourmet pleasures: the radicchio grown from seeds I got from a friend in Italy.

It started five years ago.  Eleven o’clock one July morning, Divine, a student from Tanzania whom we were hosting for the summer, sat on the back porch steps eating a sandwich while I was making jam in the kitchen. “Mum,” he said, bursting suddenly into the kitchen, “Mum, there’s a little brown man in the garden!”

A little brown man? Was I was on the verge of learning a new piece of Tanzanian lore? “Come quickly! He’s eating the broccoli.”

I ran onto the deck, and sure enough, standing tall between two raised beds, there was a sleek, light brown woodchuck with a large piece of broccoli between his two front paws. “No!” I yelled – as if he were a dog – “Down! Go away!!” I clapped my hands and glared. He flashed a knowing look, and shimmied off through a break between the fence and the house. Then I glared at our dog sleeping on the deck. Not known for her intelligence, apparently her eyes, ears and nose didn’t work either.

Some folks use these solar powered beepers that emit random high frequency blips to keep animals at bay

And so war broke out.  Every morning at eleven o’clock, the rascal appeared. He entered the garden through multiple points.  We blocked them. He came in anyway. We borrowed a Havahart trap and received many pieces of advice. “Bait it with chrysanthemum leaves.” “They love tuna fish—put in a tin of tuna.” “Try sardines.” “They love peanut butter.” “Try broccoli, or carrots.”  We tried each and every suggestion.  All we caught was a huge possum that my sons dubbed Yoda.

We started plugging the holes in the fence. He still entered. We got a good slingshot. We missed. Divine offered to teach us how to use a spear.  We discovered Moby had built a home beneath my studio. With its radiant floor, he was set for winter: a quiet snug burrow, with a warm ceiling. After we destroyed that hole, he moved under the garbage hutch on the north side of the house. Every time we blocked it off, he came back and dug in. We notified our neighbors that we were putting rat poison down the hole, so they should keep their cats inside for a few days. But all we got were dead voles.

When he finally moved out that year, it wasn’t because we’d gotten the better of him: the vegetables were all gone. The next two years, we did not plant broccoli.  Moby Dick did not return. So this spring, I decided he was truly gone, and planted one dozen carefully grown brassica plants.

Jane's electric fence is knee high, so a person can just step over it. A wood chuck, however, leads with his nose, and bumps into the strands.

Not so. My neighbor Jane, who has been waging war with multiple woodchucks in the College meadow that slopes down to Otter Creek across the street, has just put in an electric fence around her vegetable beds, in addition to multiple fences around the edges of the property and solar powered beepers in random corners of the garden. The day she plugged in the new fence to the solar powered transformer, guess who appeared at my place?

While Barbara (www.openviewgardens) celebrates the flow of wildlife at her place, relishing the rabbits, the deer, the wild turkeys, the squirrels, and the raccoons, I do not. I don’t have enough vegetables to spare. When I complained to my friend Peter who lives in Salisbury, he just laughed. “You should have seen what happened the day a moose came and lay down in my potato patch.”

Solar Power powers Jane's electric fence

A moose?  Now there’s a Moby Dick!

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Planting Soup

The bed is going into lawn that used to be shaded by a crab apple tree.

To the chagrin of our college age sons who don’t enjoy change on the home front, we took out an overgrown crab apple tree this spring and added another bed to the vegetable garden. This means there is less lawn (a good thing), less room to kick a soccer ball (a good thing  or bad thing, depending on your point of view), no place to hang the hammock (apparently a very bad thing)  and much more sun-kissed ground in which to plant additional vegetables (a very good thing).

Freshly rototilled, composted soil has been added and the bed will be turned one more time before planting.

The new bed is an in-ground bed (as opposed to the six raised beds built over a former driveway). I filled it mostly with ingredients for soup: potatoes, carrots, leeks, parsnips, tomatoes, and onions (my other soup ingredients are already in the raised beds: garlic, more onions, spinach, beets, celery, butternut squash, peas, sorrel, parsley, oregano, marjoram, thyme, sage, parsley and bay).

We started working on the new bed by watching. Once the crab apple came down, and the trees around the edges of the property started leafing out, we watched the progress of sun and shade across the lawn over the course of a week. There is no point in going to the trouble of putting in a new bed if it isn’t going to get enough light. After all, what do plants need to grow? A patch of healthy soil (there’s a topic for another column), good light, and water.

My garden helper with our neighbor's rototiller.

In a small yard like mine, where the cast shadows from the house, the studio, the neighbor’s trees, and the hedges for privacy have their say, the movement of light and shade bears watching (my art students will be familiar with this obsession).

It is all about light.

When planning a garden, it makes sense to think about what it is you enjoy eating and therefore what it is that you literally wish to get from your garden. Is it fresh salads/greens to pick the minute before sitting down to eat? Or fresh warm tomatoes? A cutting garden for flowers? Edible flowers? An herb garden?  If you are lucky, there’s enough room to plant it all.

Lately we’ve been eating young lettuces in salads that also have the thinnings from the rows of beets and arugula and chive flowers. The sorrel has started to bolt, and I have hacked it down to put into potato dishes and soup. It will come back. The parsley that wintered over is also bolting and I have planted more.  The spinach has been eaten. We harvested the bok choi and I planted a row of basil in its stead as the basil seedlings I put in the ground are not happy with all the rain. The peas are ready to be eaten. The tomato plants are suddenly reaching for the  sky. And the potatoes are taking off — a little on the late side after all the rain. But they have not rotted! There’s soup stirring beneath the soil.

The new soup bed, right before mulching.

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Lovely Lettuces

Romaine Lettuce

Believe it or not, my mother wanted me to carry a large head of lettuce for my bridal bouquet. “It would be beautiful,” she said, “I have always pictured it!” A head of lettuce is indeed a beautiful thing – in terms of color, texture, even form. But I managed to over-rule her on that detail.

I think her obsession with lettuce as a bouquet came from her father, my Grampsie, who used to say that all he needed to be utterly happy was to lie down in a bed of lettuce with a bottle of vinaigrette dressing. What would he have done with my bouquet had my mother prevailed?

We are in prime lettuce season right now, what with all the rain we’ve had and the cool nights. I have been making elaborate salads on the warm days and lettuce soups when it is cool.

Lettuce thrives in cool, damp weather.

Lettuces and spinach, which tolerate some shade and don’t like lengthy strong blasts of sun, grow in abundance in my back yard garden, with its bits of shade from neighboring buildings and trees, and its patches of sun.

I like to think there are five kinds of lettuce:  Head Lettuce (dense heads, crisp leaves), Cos or Romaine Lettuce (elongated upright leaves), Stem Lettuce (grown for both stems and leaves), Leaf Lettuces (like Oak Leaf and Salad Bowl), and Butterhead Lettuces (Bibb Lettuce and Buttercrunch). Head Lettuce, Romaine Lettuce and Stem Lettuce require longer growing seasons and need more space. Leaf lettuces and Butterhead lettuces are smaller, quicker to mature, and don’t require much space.  I grow mostly loose-leaf lettuces.

Freckles Lettuce is a popular form of Loose leaf Lettuce

Lately my dinner salads have contained the following greens: arugula, radicchio, chicory, parsley, snippets of mint, fennel fronds, Black Seeded Simpson Lettuce, Red Salad Bowl Lettuce, Freckles Lettuce, Rouge D’hiver Lettuce, Bull’s Red Beet greens, and baby spinach leaves. Occasionally we add fresh tarragon, or fresh basil, even a little fresh oregano.  We also add edible flowers: nasturtiums, purple chive blossoms, johnny jump ups, and lavender flowers. We toss in thinly sliced breakfast radishes, and shaved young fennel bulbs as well.  When the peas come in during the next few days, we’ll add them for their sweetness. The mustard greens I planted are not thriving, but I am hoping to add them into mix soon for a little added spice.

Rouge D'Hiver Lettuce, a loose leaf lettuce

Mix is the operative word here. There is nothing more delicious than diverse mixtures of young fresh greens. You could call my mixtures of greens mesclun, the French word for mixture. In fact, I buy commercial mixes of mesclun in the winter when I crave baby greens, but I have to admit most commercial mixtures of young lettuces are not particularly interesting as they contain only a few similar tasting varieties (and let’s face it, delicate greens don’t travel all that well). The beauty of the young greens in my garden is the variety of individual flavors and textures, ranging from sweet to nutty to bitter, and soft to crunchy to frizzy.

Last year’s arugula went to seed, and there are fresh clumps of arugula volunteers all over garden, between the cracks in the blue stone paths, on the edges of the raised beds, and in between the orderly rows of beets, peas, and tomatoes. To walk the path when the sun is coming up is to smell the spicy nutty freshness of arugula perfuming the morning air. These volunteer arugula plants are much stronger in scent and flavor than the arugula I planted from seed in the raised beds. It is as if by seeding themselves, they have stepped back into a more primitive pungent form.

Tonight's Supper

We cut our lettuce leaves right before we sit down to eat. I use a little pair of scissors to snip the leaves off at the base, leaving the ball of roots in the soil so the leaves won’t get dirty in the picking (I remove the root balls later for the compost heap). I plunge the leaves into a sink-full of cold water and gently agitate them as young leaves bruise easily. If there has been a lot of rain, I will rinse the leaves several times. The soaking makes them crisper, on top of ridding them of dirt, sand, and bugs.  I dry them either in a salad spinner, or by carefully patting them dry with a dishtowel.

I add vinaigrette dressing at the last possible minute so the leaves won’t wilt, and thanks to my mother, who taught me that there is only one way to toss a salad, I toss the vinaigrette into the greens gently with my hands, till every leaf is just coated with the oil.

What could be simpler? And what could possibly be more delicious?

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Memorial Day

Peas, tomatoes and garlic

When I was a child, we planted the entire vegetable garden at once, over Memorial Day weekend.  Finally it was warm enough to start thinking about planting, and it was a long weekend.

Warm enough, you ask? Indeed.  I am talking about forty-five years ago when there could be snow in Connecticut in May. Frequently there were killing frosts. So Memorial Day weekend was not only family time, for being together and honoring those who had made sacrifices for our country, but it marked the true beginning of the summer growing season.

I grew up smack in the middle of New York City, but once it was warm enough, we travelled weekends to the northwest corner of Connecticut, where my family rented an unheated barn that had a simple kitchen built into one wall, three bedrooms and a bathroom fitted into the old hayloft, a stone fireplace that threw no heat but looked warm, and a low ceilinged backroom with a small woodstove in it.  My first studio was in that back room by the stove.

The barn opened up to the roof, one huge dark wood room with hand hewn beams, that sheltered, among other things, bats that swooped in the evenings, a large milk snake in the fireplace which came out when the hearth warmed, plenty of mice, and a variety of large and small insects and arachnids. In fall, as soon as it got cold enough that the pipes might freeze, the lease came to an end and all padded furniture was squirreled away into wire mesh cages, so no animal could choose to winter over.

At the highest altitude in the state, the barn was located in Norfolk, the “icebox” of Connecticut, the town that received the most snow, and certainly the place with the record for the coldest temperatures.  My future husband, as it turns out, was born and raised there (but that’s another story).

The vegetable garden was a short walk, usually barefoot, down a dirt road turned mostly grass, all parts of an old estate. My mother, an elementary school teacher, was determined that we would know how to garden and understand where our food came from.

The Iris have attracted hummingbirds and bumble bees

By Memorial Day, Norfolk was also the land of mountain laurel blooming into millions of inverted white petticoats, swaths of lilacs, and orange and yellow thickets of azaleas humming with bees. Later in summer, there were wild blueberries and raspberries (and an occasional bear), birds singing up a racket in the woods and meadow, fields of milk cows, vegetables that came up out of the ground, and milk that was yellow, not blue. “Country milk” was not only a different color, it came in bottles with cream on top. And it tasted different.

The vegetable garden was where we learned about patience, life cycles, and weeding (which is also about patience, life cycles, and then more weeding). There was the attempt to furrow straight rows, the planting of seeds, the setting in of tiny plants, the building of trellises, and the waiting. And then the weeding. That was when my brother and I might feign a back or head-ache, evince a desperate need to lie on the grassy paths between the beds to look up at the clouds, or discover a cluster of garter snakes knowing my mother would be terrified and wouldn’t mind if we ran off with them.

Rain soaked raised beds

Oddly enough, I love weeding now. With all the rain we have had the past few weeks in Middlebury that is almost all I have been doing. My garden is “behind”, but the weeds are happy. The rain has rendered the soil heavy, especially the in-ground beds. The raised beds drain nicely, but even so the planting of the garden this year has had a different rhythm: snatched moments when the conditions are right, fifteen-minute increments here and there, lunch breaks, after dark. I worry the potatoes will rot, the overall damp will bring in blight, the tomatoes (of which I have planted many varieties) might never take off, the squash plants might never pollinate. I worry things will not grow. Will there be enough time for fruits to reach maturity? I worry.

It is a prize-winning year, though, for tearing out the invasive weeds on the perimeter of my in-town lot. The ground is so saturated they not only pull out easily, but as my friend Jane observes the clumps of dirt in the roots shake off easily. Dandelion roots come straight out for once, and I have an opportunity to plant some ground covers to help crowd out the invasive species.

Ladies mantle and rain drops

Meanwhile south of here, but in a colder spot, Norfolk, my friend Vint is just putting in his tomatoes today. Back in April, he gave me some tomato seeds he’d collected and I did what he does: plant the seeds inside on April 15, as soon as the taxes are in. Then he sets them out in a tiny green house instead of under lights (“where they tend to get too leggy”). He puts them in the ground on Memorial Day.

Same here.

Chives, fennel and baby lettuces can be harvested for salad

Middlebury’s parade is at 9:00 this morning. I am going to meet up with my aunt, who asked me to bring her a chair to sit in. I will honor our families and our soldiers. The sun is shining, so I will finish planting the garden, including the tiny tomato plants from Vint’s seeds, and then I will go pull more weeds.

Folks, it is officially summer!

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Mother’s Day

Here’s the note from a neighbor I found under my door on Mother’s Day morning.

“Happy Mother’s Day!…Don’t worry about your rhubarb…it will return and, in the meanwhile, we have enough in our garden for you to pick anytime you want it.  If we are not home you may just wander down and get what you need. I am actually eating it while gardening now.”

Rhubarb in its second year

I think  I will wander down. My rhubarb is recovering from the tree we took down that squashed it in the process, but there’s not enough to pick (must be a Rhubarbic Recovery and Rest year). My sorrel, distant cousin to rhubarb, is ready for sampling though. This will be a week of sorrel tarts, or perhaps some fresh fish with cooked sorrel as a sauce. Every year, more sorrel plants appear. I will pot some of them up and give them away, maybe at the Rhubarb Festival at my church.

Meanwhile, I have bought my first chicks, three New Hampshire Reds, and one turkey poult. They do not live behind my house (my garden helper, John, said no).Instead they have taken up residence at the “poultry palace” over at my friend Margy’s house.  We share the cost of feed and when she travels, John and I bike over there to water and feed the gang, and gather fresh eggs. Mine are the only New Hampshire Reds, so I may be naming them.

Turkey Poult, otherwise known as "Thanksgiving Dinner"

I like it that folks can share what’s in their garden, their garden spaces, their experiences, their wisdom.  Even their chicken houses. We joke, in our family, that “it takes a village” to raise our children.  When gardening, the addition of “village” is more than heartening; it opens possibilities.

So what’s happening in my garden right now?

The weekend bloomed sunny — finally — and fresh, so I actually had a chance to get into the garden and plant seeds along with some of the starts that have been outside hardening off. The soil temperature is still cold, and the ground is wet, but my raised beds, which drain well, were workable and soil had warmed enough. The area of the yard where we plan to dig a new bed is too wet to rototill. I was relieved, though, to hear from my friend Judy, one of the first organic market gardeners in the state, that one can plant potatoes into July. So instead of focussing on the bed I wished to till, and plant the things I could not yet plant, I planted radicchio, more onions, artichokes, and celery in the raised beds, along with with parsley, tarragon, sage, and lemon verbena in the herb border. I weeded the perennial beds, divided and transplanted some of the more vigorous plants. I mulched. I potted up more of my seedlings and  I messed with the compost.

Planting Radicchio next to the studio

It was a very satisfying Mother’s Day in the garden.

It is funny how the first truly sunny days bring a sense of urgency with them. But there is plenty of time to plant. Plenty of time to sow.

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Ethical Ramp-age?

Tiny sorrel leaves taste great in salad.

It is a dilemma.  There’s not much to eat in my garden yet, except sorrel, which is just about ready to pick. We managed to crush the rhubarb when taking out a tree, so that is moot (we hope it is going to live to see another season). There’s a crowd of parsley that managed to winter over, but it will probably bolt and set seed early, so I have several pots of new parsley ready to go into the ground.  Last summer’s Bronze Fennel is also coming back (which seems strange), but it, too, will probably bolt early and set seed which I’ll collect. And I don’t have the luxury of an asparagus bed.

So, if I want to eat locally grown fresh food, that is to say, when it is in season, how do I handle the question of…. ramps?

They’re here. This is their season: fleeting, flavorable and indigenous. Two weeks ago, when John and I were biking on Cape Cod, where spring was slightly ahead of Middlebury, the local pub in Chatham served asparagus on a bed of lightly steamed ramps. This was my first taste of something very green that was tender, aromatic, pungent without being overwhelming, garlicky and oniony (if there is such a word) all at once. The flavors were not strong; they simply tasted fresh.

Wild ramps need to be harvested sustainably

Bright green and fresh tastes awfully good right now.

But it is complicated. Ramps, otherwise known as Ramson, broad=leaf, or wild leeks, (Allium tricoccum), are wild onions native to North America. They grow from Georgia to Canada in moist places in deciduous woods. The base of the plant has a white bulb a little larger than a scallion, and the bright green leaves, unlike the leeks I grow in my garden, are broader and softer, something like those of lily of the valley (which, by the way, are poisonous). Sometimes sporting a burgundy-tinged stem, both the bulb and the leaves of a ramp are edible, especially in early spring. And they are delicious.

Over the past two decades of a growing local food movement, ramps have become prized in upscale restaurants as the first fresh native food of the spring. In the mountains of Appalachia, where ramps have been harvested for hundreds of years, there are festivals and celebrations for the return of spring’s first edible green. The result?  In some locations the local ramp population is being decimated. The price for ramps in cities has gone as high as $12.00 a pound, which has attracted crowds of new foragers who scrape the woods clean. They have been protected in Quebec since 1995; it is no longer legal to dig them. In Maine and Rhode Island, ramps are “a species of special concern.”

So do I eat this first green? Simultaneously I wonder: is there an opportunity here for someone to cultivate ramps?

I call a friend who knows where to find them. I simply want to see them in the wild. “I am going to blindfold you on the way there, unless you can keep a secret,” she says. I feel like we are heading off on a rare truffle hunt.

“We won’t pick them,” I say. “It will be an ethical ramp-age.”

“In Vermont you can pick only what you yourself will eat,” she mentions. “That’s the law.”

Trout Lilies carpet the woodland floors in this season

We spend several hours on a beautiful hike. The forest floor—moist and open beneath budding deciduous trees, and carpeted in some places with banks of trout lilies—boasts not a single ramp. On some level, I am relieved and disappointed at the same time.

So imagine my surprise when I walk into the co-op and find a bucket of freshly harvested ramps sitting in water, at $9.99 a pound, in the front of the vegetable section. The sign reads “Local, Bristol.” I pause, and then I buy half a pound, enough for dinner for two. I fervently hope these have been harvested sustainably.

There’s a world of wild plants out there that can be harvested — hopefully in a responsible and sustainable way — that I know nothing about except that what is in our gardens originally came from outside the garden, and I would like to know more. Colt’s Foot wine, anyone? Nettle beer? Curly dock Soup?

More to learn. More to consider (my friend Barbara feels differently).

Colt's Foot grows profusely along roadsides, one of spring's first flowers. The opposite of Wild Leeks, its leaves follow later.

Sustainable Harvesting of Wild  Leeks

1) Before harvesting ramps, check with your local extension service for best practices, and to see if harvesting is restricted in your area. Follow the rules. 2) Harvest no more than 10% of the patch (some folks say no more than 7%). 3) If you pluck the entire plant, slide your fingers down along the bulb, and pull gently, trying not to disturb the forest floor. 4) Another option is to remove some of the leaves from smaller plants, leaving the plant to grow. 5) The plants send up a flower stalk in July, after the leaves have died off. Do not disturb them.

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More Thoughts on Compost

In a new location, three compost bins sit: one for kitchen scraps, one for garden scraps, and one for leaves and leaf mold.

I have been messing around with compost.

Sounds disgusting — but actually, while I discovered no rich crumbly soil at the bottom of the heaps, I did find rotted material that was quite dry. I think it needs to compost further. So I reorganized our compost.

I have always been a lazy composter. Which is to say,  while I believed in the theory of composting — that circular miracle where food and plant scraps go back into circulation, with the addition of soil, and maybe some limestone, altered by tiny microbes and worms — it seems like it has never really happened in my yard.

Every year, we pile as much organic detritus as we can fit into the southwest corner of our lot, behind some scraggly yews. When there’s no more room — which happens quite quickly on account of how much stuff there is to compost (grass clippings, leaves from the maples, garden thinnings, weeds and kitchen waste from four people) — we start hauling “waste” to our friend Bill’s bonfire pile. Last year, we started another pile in the northeast corner, with leaves going into a bin ( we keep them separate, hoping for leaf mold), kitchen scraps going into a covered bin, bigger pieces going into a third. But there has been no perceptible composting action.

The pile behind the yews sits, and sits, and compresses, and sits. Put it this way, whatever is happening is happening so slowly, I assume we’ve done something wrong.

As I did my research this past weekend, I discovered that I have never really understood what needs to happen. I had heard it might have something to do with temperature. My friend Eileen’s barn caught on fire because of heat from a compost pile. But how did it get that hot and do I want a compost pile that starts fires?  Where would the heat come from?

The materials — plant wastes — that go into compost  contain beneficial substances. This is obvious: they were once plants, they successfully grew, incorporating whatever nutrients they needed. Elliot Coleman, in his wonderful book Four Season Harvest, suggests “don’t pass up any weeds, shrub trimmings, cow pies, or odd leaves you can find. If you mix together a broad range of plants with different mineral makeups, the resulting compost will cover the nutrient spectrum.”

His book is temporarily becoming my garden bible. He then suggests dividing the compost into two categories “based on their age and composition. The two categories are called green and brown.” The green ingredients come right out of your kitchen, plus all the fresh green trimmings that come out of your garden and off your lawn. These materials are fresh, and they are moist. The brown ingredients are older and drier and they decompose much more slowly.  One example of “brown” is my pile in the corner of the yard. So is the straw lying on the top of my raised beds.

According to Coleman, you need both. So I have torn apart all the various compost piles in the corners of my yard this weekend, and started over. I have set up three bins in a more accessible place, and have started to rebuild them according to his recommendations, layering green and brown materials and soil.  Start with a brown layer ( 3 inches), then a green layer (1 – 6 inches), then a thin layer of soil (1/4 to 1 inch). Repeat.The moisture content has to be just right. And there has to be oxygen.

It turns out that composting is about fire. Coleman writes “the decomposition process is akin to a smoldering fire. If you take care in building the heap, it will “light” every time. The slow combustion of the compost heap is an exothermic reaction — that is, it gives off heat. The microorganisms create the heat by breaking down the organic material…The temperature inside an active heap can reach 140 degrees….the brown ingredients provide the fuel. Straw, for instance, os a carbonaceous material with a high ration of carbon to nitrogen. The green ingredients provide the fire… ”

If a compost heap is too wet, it will give off a bad smell. If the heap fails to heat up, it is probably too dry. I am thinking that my compost heaps failed to fire up — too dry — OR I had the wrong mix of green and brown materials.

My friend Alan (nicknamed The Happy Farmer) was really into composting. He had three compost heaps, each one a circle ten feet in diameter, contained in a chicken wire cage.  He had maps of each circle, so he could remember what substances he had put in where – and when!

That’s not happening in my yard. No compost maps for me. For now, I am reading madly about composting because I want my heaps to ignite: I want the microbes to be happy, and I want to close the circle between my garden, it’s waste products, enriching the soil where my plants grow.

I am beginning to wonder if I need not only a soil thermometer, but a compost thermometer, too.

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A version of this article appeared last year in the Addison County  Independent.

There is still snow under the piles of leaves in the corners of the yard, but the sorrel is up. And not just peeping through the mulch of ground up leaves; it is really up. Like my garlic, which has grown six inches in a week, the sorrel is starting to take off.

The sorrel is up

I am looking forward to next week,  when sorrel’s lemony leaves will be ready to harvest.

Last year, when spring came earlier, after several weeks of tangy sorrel soup and tarts, and luscious rhubarb pies and rhubarb wine (!!), I wondered if the slightly sour tang of these two early-season ready-to-eat plants could possibly be related? To my astonishment, I discovered in Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, The Science and Lore of the Kitchen “Sorrel is the startlingly sour leaf of several European relatives of rhubarb…”

Though the sour of sorrel is, for some, an acquired taste, it goes well with fish as a natural lemony green sauce.  It is also tempered by the sweetness of potato, cream and egg in a soup (eaten warm or cold, which, given the vicissitudes of spring temperatures in Vermont, is appropriate). The sour of rhubarb is tempered with sugar (or your favorite sweetener), or the addition of strawberries and sometimes a sweet flakey pastry, but it too, can accompany meat as a tangy sauce.

There is something about the sour fresh taste of these “cousins” that, in my mind, mimics the freshness of the air of early spring mornings. Or maybe it is just that I particularly relish the first food that comes out of the ground after our winter hibernation.

Where the emergence of rhubarb marks the coming of the garden season for some, my patch is only in its second year. But sorrel has been my harbinger of spring for as long as I can remember. My mother’s sorrel soup graced the table every early May. In late March, when the internal debate about whether I can get away with planting peas begins, and the leaves on the trees are just beginning to think about unfurling, sorrel, with its red tinged leaves, pokes through the wet leaf mulch in my herb garden. A perennial, it is unfailingly punctual, and comes back each year more vigorously than the year before. There are years when I must divide it (giving some away to friends) so it won’t crowd out the sage next door.  My patch of sorrel came as a division from a friend, Martha, fifteen years ago, when we started the garden.

The garlic has grown six inches in a week

The first leaves are a delicious tangy addition to a salad. The larger leaves – and they come quickly — can be wilted into a sauce with a bit of olive oil, or butter, in a pan; or added to soup; or layered into a potato gratin. The older leaves become tough and sour, and it’s important then to strip away the tough stems when cooking. Don’t let the flower stalks take off, pinch them back. Sorrel must be picked constantly: since it grows so vigorously, I find I have to literally hack it back, trying to keep it under control, which means that all summer long I make small batches of sauce, which I freeze in zip-lock bags, or layer into freezer containers.

Also vigorous, and best grown from divisions from a friend’s patch, rhubarb can be left alone once planted – so site your patch with a mind to leaving it there. It needs rich soil, and sun. During the first couple of years do not harvest any. Let it grow. (When “picking” rhubarb, tug the stalks out; do not cut them off. The base of the stalk is the most tender). Like the sorrel, nip off the flower stalks during the “eating season.” Like many folks, I have always thought of rhubarb as a fruit – perhaps because frequently it comes with strawberries, perhaps it is the addition of sugar – but in fact the part we eat is the stalk of a huge leaf. Only the stalks are eaten, as the leaves contain Oxalic acid, which is poisonous.  It is the Oxalic acid, present in a much-diluted concentration, that gives the slightly sour tang to both rhubarb stalks and sorrel leaves.

Rhubarb Run Amuck!

My father sits behind a Rhubarb plant in mid summer in Connecticut. Note the flower stalks have not been pruned, but clearly this plant has energy to spare. To the left is a patch of Sorrel, also unpruned. Photo credit: my wonderful cousin, Nini Gridley


2 Tablespoons unsalted butter (or olive oil); 1 pound fresh Sorrel leaves, washed, dried, thick stems removed (yes, this is a lot of sorrel, but, like spinach or mustard greens, it shrinks when cooked); 1 good sized yellow onion, chopped roughly; 3/4 pound Yukon Gold potatoes, diced; 4 Cups of chicken (or vegetable broth); 1 cup of cream; Optional: 2 eggs yolks.

Heat 2 Tablespoons of butter or oil in a heavy bottomed saucepan. Add Onion and stir till translucent and limp. Add Sorrel, and stir so that butter coats it evenly. It will wilt rapidly, turning a drab olive green.  Add potatoes and toss. Add broth and bring to a gentle simmer till potatoes are just cooked.  If you like a rich soup, mix one or two egg yolks thoroughly into a cup of light cream and add to the soup. Otherwise, omit the yolk (s). In fact, you can omit the cream. Salt and pepper to taste.  The soup can be eaten warm at this point, or it can be refrigerated and eaten chilled (fabulous on a hot day).


1 Pound of Rhubarb, washed, trimmed and cut into 1 inch pieces; 3/4 Cup of sugar (or less if you like it sour); 1/2 Pound of strawberries, washed, hulled, and cut up (if large); Vanilla Ice Cream, or Crème Fraiche

Place the Rhubarb, sugar, and 1 – 2 Tables of water in a medium saucepan. Stir. Simmer gently over low heat, shaking (not stirring) the pan to prevent sticking, until the rhubarb is tender (not long: 5 – 7 minutes).  Remove from heat and add in the strawberries, which will soften and juice from the heat.

Serve this mixture at either room temperature, or chilled, with a scoop of ice cream, or a generous dollop of crème fraiche.

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Time to plant?

Beginning of April

So the talk at church yesterday in all that beautiful sun was “Can I plant something?” “Is it time for peas? Lettuce? Spinach?”  A year ago at this time it took all my will power not to plant the peas in the beginning of April. After a week when temperatures had risen into the sixties and a succession of blue sky days and bright sun, it was almost impossible to hold back.  The sap had stopped dripping into the buckets. The Farmer’s Almanac read “Chipmunks are waking up and coming out of their burrows.” For a moment, listening to the cry of returning geese overhead, the cacophony of robins, the love calls of cardinals, and even the discovery of the remains of an egg ( surely from one of last year’s broods), I was tempted to think “Tomorrow I plant!”

But not this year. When we lifted the mulch yesterday while repairing the raised beds and building a tunnel over one of the beds, the soil was still completely frozen.  And today, instead of planting in the tunnel, it is snowing outside, dark and damp.

I gaze at the bits of green under my grow lights with love.  I have been thinning the seedlings and transplanting some of the larger ones. They are not going anywhere yet.

It is a precious moment when winter starts to dwindle in fits and starts, and spring begins to gain confidence as the days get longer, first slowly, then faster, and it is finally time to get our hands back in the soil, smooth out the lumps, cast off the winter coverings, and put peas in the ground.  It is like the first stirrings of excitement when I begin a new painting:  the markings of the design, the early splashes of paint, the careful building of layers, all herald something new.  With plants, so much is beyond our control, and yet, at this time of year, it is all about planning and potential.

The raised beds between the house and studio where I paint every day are moist, the heavy cold water of melted snow drained away. Covered with the leaves and flecks of detritus from winter blows and bits of straw mulch from last year, the tips of garlic plants are peeping out of the soil. Sorrel, with its red-tipped green tinge is emerging, iris leaves tentatively poke through the leaf mulch, and some of the thymes that line the path have new tiny green leaves.

At church I asked my friend Abi who has a soil thermometer if she has taken a reading yet.  It is more fun to ask her repeatedly over a season for the temperature of her soil than it is to buy my own thermometer. This way we chat about what we are planting, how it is going, what is different this year from last, and share part of the excitement of another growing season.

“Soil Thermometer? I haven’t even thought about it yet — though Bill did go and look for the cold frame yesterday. I can’t believe it, but I think we have lost the cold frame.” How do you lose a cold frame?

Cold Frames. That could be the key for this need I have right now to dig. The one time I built a cold frame, I moved too fast and situated it below a south-facing roof. When the inevitable early April snow came, it slid off the roof and smashed the glass.  We have found another south facing spot under a gable, and I could build a new cold frame in the next few days. Then again, there’s lots of room in the tunnel.

New tunnel over raised bed

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First Harvest?

April 2: Finally a saturday with some warmth!

Change of season: the pvc pipes for the tunnels that will fit over the raised beds fit in the ski rack

Yesterday’s nor’easter did not materialize, so we’re proceeding with mending the raised beds, and the hoopla of putting in our first tunnel. I may also sow a few early seeds: spinach is on my mind.

The garlic is just up. And the sorrel over in the herb garden is showing it’s first growth of pale green leaves tinged with ruby.

Imagine my delight when I discover that the rows of leeks that were solidly frozen into the ground at Thanksgiving have wintered over. I had planned to serve them at Thanksgiving with a “Not only are these local, but I harvested them myself a few hours ago!” It was not to be. The ground was cement; and there was snow on top. One of the beauties of snow however: it was so deep and consistent this year, the leeks are still edible.

Leeks after winter's snow

Partly this is because I grow leeks in trenches. Over the summer, between rains, weeding and my own brushing of earth towards the leeks, soil washes from the sides of the trenches onto the leeks. The part of the leek that is covered with soil stays white and tender, shaded from the sun.  Last fall, after the ground froze, we had early snow cover that protected the leeks inside the trenches.

In fact leeks are sweeter after a frost has nipped them. That’s why I usually leave them in the ground until Thanksgiving. Sometimes even later.

Leek Harvest

Leeks are a member of the onion family, but unlike many varieties of onion, they do not form bulbs. Folks either grow them in trenches, or they build up hills around them to maximize the amount of white. When leeks are cooked (all of a leek is edible, though the green parts have less flavor), they are slippery in texture. We eat them in soups, in tarts, sometimes layered on a flatbread, and occasionally braised in lemon and chicken broth to go along side a winter roast.

While John fixed the corners of the raised beds this morning, and prepared to place a tunnel over the bed nearest the house, I harvested the leeks, cleaned and sliced them, and sauted them slowly in olive oil. We’re going to have a tart tonight with winter-sweetened leeks,  fresh chicken eggs from my friend Bay’s chickens, and a little light cream from a nearby dairy.

Mending corners of raised beds

Is this the final harvest of 2010, or the first harvest of 2011?

My friend Ilaria who writes about her childhood in Italy and the relationship she and her family had/have with food, tells me that “what is going on right outside of the doorstep is always related to what’s on the table….and this is one more reason why I love Vermont, because here, too, the seasons come straight to the table.” She thinks my leeks are the final harvest of 2010.

But I am thinking that they are the first harvest of 2011 because today, for the first time, I feel spring. I am going to put away my cross country skis. In fact, I’ll take the ski rack off the car. And then I am going to get my hands dirty.

Leek tart with lemon thyme

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