Weeds Are Flowers, Too!

“Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.” ―A.A. Milne

I love this quote, and it’s so true. Another equally true saying is “Weeds are plants whose virtues we haven’t yet learned.” Many decades ago, The Gnome and I discovered that the hundreds of wild purple violets popping up in our back yard could be turned into jelly, as delicately eye-popping as it was tasty.

Dandelion is the bane of many a gardener and lawn-lover, but it is actually an herb worthy of respect—a cheery little plant with more uses than you can count on all your fingers, whether culinary, medicinal, or otherwise. You can use virtually all parts of the plant, though you’ll want to avoid the sticky stems.

Dandelions are packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. With the leaves, you can make everything from salad greens to classic Irish colconnon to quiche.

Did you know dandelions aren’t native to the U. S., but were imported by European immigrants for their culinary and medicinal uses?

Last year, we made the most exquisitely subtle syrup from the flowers. I’d have been hard pressed to tell it apart from honey. Dandelion tea and wine are other favorites. Dry the root for a coffee substitute. Fresh roots can be used instead of or alongside other root crops. Make a hand lotion or moisturizer from the flowers. Pollinators love dandelions.  And who can forget the sheer joy of blowing on a dandelion puff?

Lamb’s quarters fill the fields with buttery yellow blossoms in springtime. Just before they get to that stage, the stems can be harvested and eaten as a broccoli substitute. And the young leaves make an excellent addition to a green salad.

Chickweed, invasive as it can be, is another nutritious green. Add spinach-y chickweed stems, flowers, and leaves to salads or cook them up like other greens.

Star chickweed is only one of  twenty-five varieties of Stellaria, a member of the carnation family. All are edible and all except the mouse-eared variety can be eaten raw. 

By looking at so-called weeds through a different lens, we can find beauty, peace of mind, and functionality. Not to mention a veritable grocery store in our own back yards.

* If you’re thinking of joining the foraging movement, find yourself a good field guide that will also alert you to similar-looking but unfriendly plants. You’ll also want to (1) ask permission before foraging on private property; and (2) avoid areas that have been exposed to chemical pesticides or herbicides as well as roadsides. They retain automotive emissions you wouldn’t want to ingest.

 

 

 

Spring! Is it Here to Stay?

A couple of weeks ago, we packed up the car for an errand of love. On that day, spring had been teasing us off and on for a couple of weeks. The daffodils were on the wane, but not much else had bloomed up here at our elevation–and another spring snow was in the forecast. What a surprise when we returned home almost a week later to find that our meadow had sprouted a field full of green grass and sunshiny dandelions!

Not just sprouted, but in need of a haircut. Most of our deciduous trees are still bare, but other signs of spring are everywhere. The asparagus bed was bare when we left—on our return we had stalks a foot tall! Our young crabapple is on the verge of bursting into a froth of pink blooms.

But for me, the real promise of spring is the serviceberry, and those snowy white blossoms were the first thing I noticed as we reached our driveway. We may still have a cold snap or two, but the serviceberry is my assurance that spring has kept its promise.

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It’s a sure sign of spring when these dainty flowers come into bloom.

See how bare things are all around this serviceberry?

Most of the two dozen or so species of serviceberry are native to the U. S., and they grow in practically every state. Depending on where you live, you may know them by another name. Maybe shadbush, juneberry, shadblow, or their Native American name, saskatoon. In the east, it’s just plain serviceberry, or sarvisberry in our southern mountain dialect.

There are lots of stories about how the serviceberry came by its name. The one I’m particularly fond of says that back in the day, the tree came into flower just as the roads in the Appalachian mountains became passable enough that a circuit-riding preacher could finally travel this way again to hold service—or sarvis. Time for marryin’ and buryin’ to resume. That explanation may be a bit fanciful, but I find the notion charming.

There’s more to the serviceberry than its early blooms and the tales associated with it. A member of the rose family, it’s a good landscaping choice with its pretty spring flowers and its striking fall foliage.

And though I’ve been known to boil and eat milkweed pods like okra, make jelly out of native hawthorns, and fry up locust and elderberry blossom fritters, you could have knocked me over with a feather when I (only recently) discovered that the serviceberry actually bears fruit. (Duh! Just look at the name, Carole!)

In my defense, our trees are tall, and it would be hard for the naked human eye to spot those small berries. But, hey, I’m a homesteader and a follower of foragers like Euell Gibbons (Stalking the Wild Asparagus, etc.) and Ellen Zachos. How did I miss that?!

About a month from now, the careful observer will notice small red berries. By mid-summer, they’ll be a deep purplish-blue. Like blueberries. They taste a lot like blueberries, too. And like blueberries, they can be eaten raw or used for jelly- and pie-making or any of the other myriad ways blueberries are used.

Most of the serviceberries around here are natives, as much as sixty feet tall. With their upward-stretching limbs, it’s hard to get at those berries. Maybe it’s just as well, since the birds love them, too, and we love the birds.

The good news is you can purchase shrub varieties to make berry collecting ever so much easier. The Gnome and I have added them to the ever-growing list for our nascent fruit orchard.

If you see a serviceberry in bloom, make a note of it. Then check back in July or so for some tasty—and free—eating. You won’t be sorry.

Need a Winter Project?

I’m tickled pink, purple, and every hue of the rainbow to announce that the current Winter issue of Heirloom Gardener includes an article by none other than moi! It’s all about making a personalized garden journal—an excellent day-brightening project for the short, dark winter months. 

Now, you could go out and search for Heirloom Gardener at your local newsstand, but you can also read the article online using this link. You’ll find my article front and center under the “Current Issue” section. If you’re into gardening, whether veggies, flowers, or fruits and nuts, you may want to check it out.

 

Bear Sighting

Have I told you about our late night bear visits? That’s right. We’ve had a bear in our front yard, on our wooded hillside, even on our deck. We named her Shadow. I tried to capture the tale in a rhyming story for the grandkids.

Okay, not the greatest shot, but hey, I was staring at a bear!

SHADOW

It was late, late one night—
I woke up to a crash!
A Kapow! And a Bang!
I jumped up in a dash!

I wandered outside
and what did I see?
A great big black bear
staring at me!

That bear was so black,
that bear was so big
with her cinnamon nose,
I just flipped my wig!

But why was she there
in my yard late at night?
She was eating my birdseed—
every single last bite!

What could she think
of seeing me now
peeking out in the dark
and watching her chow?

I thought she might run,
but I found that instead
she sat on her haunches
slowly turning her head

To give me a stare.
So I stared right back
till I suddenly thought
I ought to backtrack

Or she’ll give me a whack
with her giant bear paws,
or carry me off
in her great big bear jaws.

I tiptoed inside
and called Grampa Ron.
“Come here to the window!”
But the big bear was gone.

And so was the birdseed,
and the bird feeder, too!
We found it next day
at the edge of the wood.

Can you picture that bear,
feeder swinging from mouth
like a big picnic basket,
traveling south?

The next night and the next
she did not come back,
but the following night
what a thwack, whack, and crack!

A tree limb she broke.
Another bird feeder gone!
And where do you think
we picked up this one?

Right! Right you are—
at the edge of the woods
just where she left
the first of her goods!

She was so clever,
that great big old bear;
She gobbled her food
with nary a care.

She hasn’t returned.
I do not know why.
Maybe she’s patiently
waiting for pie!

The Tyranny of the Garden

Last week I extolled the virtues of gardening, and here I am saying the garden is a tyrant. I know. I’m a bundle of contradictions.

It always happens about this time of year—when the garden’s productivity turns into excess and demands more time than I have to give it. And I’m not talking about weeding and watering. For the most part, the Gnome takes care of those chores. I’m talking about harvesting the results of all the labor that has gone before. I’m talking about the next steps. This is the time of year I begin to reevaluate my relationship with the garden.

When the Gnome and I purchased our first home, we couldn’t wait to plant a garden. A few years after we moved to the diagonal, we tried gardening again. But we were too busy with child-rearing, house building, and jobs to keep up with it. When we retired, we took up gardening yet again—it was a natural extension of the simple lifestyle we were after. He liked working out of doors, doing something where he could see results, connecting to the earth.

I had my own reasons. Gardening is a huge part of my heritage; it ties me to my ancestors. Besides, I wanted to prove to myself that I could. If we were to find ourselves in the midst of a worldwide food catastrophe, I wanted to know I could still make food happen.

I like the smaller footprint we make by growing and eating our own food. Getting food from thousands of miles away costs the environment and decreases food’s quality and flavor. It doesn’t get much more local than taking a few steps from door to garden.

I like knowing exactly what’s going into my body. When I grow my own, I do. And there’s something almost magical about realizing the food I prepare and eat is mine! I made this happen. There’s nothing quite like looking at a plate of lima beans, broccoli, squash with onions, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, and cornbread cooked with meal ground from our own corn and realizing that everything on the plate is fresh from the garden.

Gardening is primal. It’s healing. It’s hope. But it also takes over my life for about half the year. In the dead of winter, that’s a good thing. I need a break from winter’s tedium. But I have more in my life than gardening. At least I want to.

At this time of year, the garden is a demanding taskmaster. Food that isn’t harvested at the right moment gets tough and seedy. Failure to pick inhibits further growth. (Sometimes I could do with a little growth inhibiting, but it feels almost criminal to let it go.) Or it rots. Heartbreaking.

If it were only the hour or so of picking beans and squash, digging potatoes and garlic, pulling up beets and carrots, it wouldn’t be so bad. But that’s only the beginning. There’s the rinsing and scrubbing, there’s rearranging the fridge to find a few more square inches of space for the day’s gleanings, there’s the meal planning—what needs to be eaten right away and what can wait a day or two or three (when there will be yet another kitchen full of fresh produce filling kitchen counters), there’s the search for recipes to learn how to prepare that weird new veggie I just had to plant and for other recipes to keep yet another meal of green beans or summer squash from becoming boring.

There’s the pickling and root cellaring and dehydrating and freezing and canning so we’ll have food from the garden all year long. Cleaning the kitchen and emptying it of everything nonessential, because processing food takes a LOT of space. Getting out equipment and supplies and cleaning them. Filling huge pots with water and waiting for it to boil. Sweating in a kitchen that was hot even before I turned on the stove. Setting timers, watching pots and gauges, adding ice to already icy water to chill freshly blanched foods. Labeling freezer containers, filling them, and finding space in a freezer already bursting at the seams. Cleaning up. Putting away. There will be no time left today for those other things I hoped—or needed—to get done.

There’s figuring out how to distribute the excess. Harvesting on a day my donation spot will be open and able to take my offering, on a day I can afford to leave the garden and kitchen to make a delivery.

There’s postponing vacations and family visits until after gardening season ends and before it starts up again.

And there’s the refrigerator-full of vegetables crying out to be eaten. Squash and beans and tomatoes last night, eggplant and peppers and carrots tonight, beets and chard and zucchini and cucumbers tomorrow night. Yes, it’s all good, an embarrassment of riches for vegetarians like us.

But every once in a while a person just wants some chips and a ‘Not Dog.’

Soul Food

Since the Gnome and I took up gardening in a serious way, food has sort of taken over my life. It all starts in January when I sit down with the tall stack of seed catalogs that have been filling my box for the last month or so.

The pictures alone make me drool. The exotic new vegetables, the colorful ones, and especially bean seeds capture my imagination. In truth, beans aren’t my favorite dish, but I’m batty over the seeds. So, beans take up a fair amount of the garden landscape.

After the seeds arrive in February or March, I begin diagramming the garden. How much space to allot to this or that veggie, how to rotate the crops, which plants will be good companions are all questions that come into play during the planning process.

Spring means cleaning up the previous year’s garden, weeding, and watching long-term forecasts to determine when I dare to plant the earliest crops. By late spring, I do an almost daily dance with the weather, trying to outguess its long-range plans. Can I push the planting up a week this year or should I err on the side of caution and wait for that ‘last average frost date’?

At whatever date I settle on, planting begins in earnest, along with mulching and more weeding. Seeds need moisture to germinate, so I find myself in the garden with a hose on dry days. Within days, maybe up to a couple of weeks in some cases, tiny green sprouts begin popping up out of the ground. It’s a magical time and my joy is palpable.

When I’m gardening, I’m following in some mighty big footsteps. Feeding the family from the land was the work of all my grandparents and theirs before them. For them, it was honest work that meant survival. Every moment I’m in the garden feeds me ancestrally.

But harvest time is what truly feeds me, both literally and figuratively. I can’t help but smile when I look at a dinner plate filled with only the bounty of our garden: green salad, asparagus, Swiss chard, squash, rutabaga, corn, kale, eggplant. Whatever the dishes of the day, I’m satiated before I take the first bite.

Harvest time also means preserving, another soul-fulfilling activity. The hours and days I invest in food preservation mean we’ll have tasty, healthy eating from our garden all the way through winter and right on up until the next harvest season rolls around.

Typical grocery list during gardening season

Harvesting food and preserving it make me sing. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Here’s to What We Don’t Know

Another quick assignment in my Wednesday writing group—you’ll find the prompt in the last nine words of this post. (Unh-uh! No skipping to the end!)

Living in a tent on ten acres of land in a strange place with no water, no electricity, no phone access, no knowledge of local weather conditions—like that severe thunderstorms could and would pop up daily with no warning, no jobs, and no money but with two elementary-aged children, two neurotic cats, and a notion we could live this way for as long as it took to design our own house, get planning approval, and build the entire thing with nothing more than our own four hands and a few hand tools . . . well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Our Garden in June

Our Garden in June

For the most part, I write about gardening and modern homesteading over at Mother Earth News these days. I hope you’ll check it out. But sometimes my enthusiasm is just too big for one blog.

This is an exciting time of year for avid gardeners. Tiny leaves erupt from the ground and unfurl where seeds were buried yesterday. Early crops such as salad greens and lettuces are in full production mode, strawberries are juicy red, and summer crops like squash are beginning to produce. At this time of year, it’s not so busy that a gardener-food preservationist feels overwhelmed, yet each day brings evidence of progress and growth. It’s a time full of hope, exuberance, and plenty.

I adore this time in the gardening calendar. Mornings and evenings are cool enough to enjoy garden work without breaking a sweat, whether weeding or gathering part of the evening’s meal. Hardly ever do I leave the garden without taking a few minutes (which often stretch into bigger chunks of time) to sit on our garden bench and survey the success of our efforts.

A couple of weeks ago, our grandchildren were here for “camp” ( a story for another time). The nine-year-old asked if she could go down to the garden—a question sure to garner a hearty “Yes.” A cousin spotted her from the deck and wondered who she was talking to. Sure enough, her mouth was busy as she wandered from plant to plant, her hands reaching out to release the aromas of various herbs.

When she returned to the house, I asked her if she’d been talking to the plants. “Huh? How do you talk to plants?” she asked in astonishment. So, I had to ’fess up. Yes, I regularly talk to our plants, as an older grandchild who’s accompanied me on many a trip to the garden can attest. I didn’t even realize I was doing it until she turned to me and said, “I like how you talk to them. It’s like they’re human.”

Indeed! I encourage them, I apologize when the weather is uncooperative and urge them to hang in there, I thank them. They bring me great pleasure and I can’t help but give that pleasure some expression.

Here’s what’s going on the garden these days.  (To see captions, click on each photo group, then place cursor over individual photo. You’ll have to click a second time to see captions in their entirety.)

 

 

 

 

Thanks for stopping by and stay tuned. More to come as the garden matures.

Best Laid Plans

(This year marks the 250th anniversary of Daniel Boone’s first trip to Kentucky from North Carolina. The trip was filled with adversity. It reminded me of our own journey—especially since our path was similar to Boone’s except in reverse.)

Two hundred and twelve years after Daniel Boone left western North Carolina for his first foray into Kentucky, our family of two adults and two young children made its way from Kentucky to a new life in western North Carolina. Our adventures weren’t nearly such a hardship as the Boone band’s, but plenty hard, nonetheless.

Our plan was simple: camp out on our newly purchased land while we hand built—all by ourselves—our forever home. Reality was a little more complicated. For one thing, we had no jobs. For another, we had almost no money. Our budget was shoestring for sure.

For the younger campers, the best part of our earliest days of adventure revolved around the campfire.

 

The excitement of tent-camping in the wild far outweighed the inconvenience of having neither water nor electricity. We cooked over a campfire. A rhododendron thicket was the perfect spot for a pit toilet. We drove to a roadside spring to collect water. We hiked to a creek in the woods when we were desperate for an all-over, if frigid, bath. The return hike uphill sweated off our clean.

Daily thunderstorms sent us to the relative safety of our steamy car. Soppy sleeping bags regularly sent us to a laundromat in town. The effort of camping precluded any progress on building. We had to make alternative plans.

Instead of building our house, we built a very temporary shelter. It was all of 8′x12′, barely large enough to hold two cots and a double sleeping bag. The plywood floor kept us off the ground. We wrapped the lumber framework with inexpensive clear plastic for make-do walls and roof. Instead of a door, we had an opening covered with a tarp.

Our “kitchen” is outside on left end of shed. The doorway is also on the left end. Look carefully and you can see a suitcase and canned goods lined up along our front “wall.”

During the day our shed, as we called our new quarters, was a stifling greenhouse. Mountain nights were a different matter. We wrapped ourselves in sweaters under our blankets. Then the rains came, and the winds, in the form of an inland hurricane. Our  “walls” were decimated. The black plastic “roof” caved in. We were forced to invest in slightly sturdier materials.

It was a mess!

Finally, we could complete our building plans, which meant we could have a temporary power pole installed. Electricity made it ever so much easier to build, though the only power tools we had were a drill and a couple of circular saws. Nonetheless, progress was slow with two novices working on our first significant building project, learning as we went.

As the nights turned colder, we used a space heater to keep relatively warm, but with no door, much of the heat escaped. December’s bitter cold found us huddled over the heater more often than pounding nails.

Finally, it became too much. At 1:00 pm on December 20th, when the temperature dipped to five degrees and was heading lower and our water containers and canned goods were frozen solid, we faced the inevitable and moved into a one-bedroom apartment in town until warmer weather descended.

The state of things when the weather got the better of us.

In spite of the cold, we managed to get some work done on the house throughout the winter. Four months later when we returned to our mountain place, we moved into our home, a structure that barely qualified as a shell. Loose plywood covered the floor joists. Blackboard sheathing was the extent of our walls—no siding, no insulation, no drywall. Our plan called for lots of south-facing windows, but we had no windows. Once again, we used plastic to protect us from critters and the elements. A construction site heater warmed us during our morning bathing and dressing routines. We still had no running water and what little electricity we had access to still came from the temporary pole. Of course, we didn’t have a phone.

Except for the plastic we installed over the window openings, this is how the house looked when we moved in.

It would be another year before we got those modern conveniences and many more until our house was what most folks would consider properly finished. But we persevered.

Other than a coat of paint on the window trim (see where we’d started, upper right) and vent openings below windows, this was as finished as our house got until thirty or so years later when it got a total facelift–standard windows, horizontal siding, awnings, and more.

Almost forty years later, our daughter says our years of living in the wild brought our family closer together and notes that her somewhat unusual childhood always makes for a good conversation starter. Our son, wanting his own children to experience the kind of life he had as a kid, has begun a homebuilding venture of his own. The Gnome and I are still here, still working on our dream home. We are here to stay.It was an undertaking of our own choosing, born of youthful enthusiasm and sheer ignorance. Had we known what we were getting into, we might still be in Kentucky today. But we’d have missed out on the adventure of a lifetime.

(To read more about our homebuilding adventure, check out the nine-part series beginning here. Unrelated posts are interspersed, but you can scroll past those if you choose.)

My Other Blog

If you’re a dedicated reader of Living on the Diagonal, you know I also began blogging for Mother Earth News a few months ago. Just thought I’d take today to remind you I have a site over there if you’d like to check it out. I Blog for Mother Earth News-1In fact, Mother Earth News is running a contest for its bloggers right now—to see how much traffic we’re getting for articles posted between December 1 and January 31. If you’d like to help me make a better showing, all you need to do is pop over there and click on each of the articles written since December 1st. (Even if it’s not your thing. Do it as a favor.) Simple as that. Thanks in advance.

(Sharing is helpful, too. Just click on your favorite social media icon(s) to the left of each article. Easy peasy.)

My most recent article tells about our early experiences gathering sap to make our own maple syrup. I’ll share more maple sugaring details next week. The week after, you can find my favorite chili recipe. It features sweet potatoes (or winter squash), and it’s delish!

Mother Earth News is where you’ll find other recipes, including my popular vegetarian quiche, my award-winning cornbread, my mom’s delicious pineapple-zucchini bread, and the world’s best kale salad (in my opinion, anyway).

I’ve written about how to make gardening easier with posts on making and using bean arches, growing in raised beds, and letting perennials and volunteers do your gardening work for you.

I’ve also posted a couple of articles telling about the Mother Earth News Fair, a unique sustainable living event that takes place in multiple venues across the country every year.

All that and more to come.  You can find all my Mother Earth News blog posts here.  Hope you’ll stop by for a visit.