Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Respect Your Elders


It's true that elder (Sambucus nigra; Sambucus canadensis) grows wild in moist places through much of the United States. But to call this plant "common" is just unfair.  

Few plants have generated as much respect as elder over the ages. In fact, once I learned about this plant, I was hooked and just had to have one in my garden.  Consider these cool facts:

Elder is Healthy: Hippocrates considered his elder tree a "medicine chest" in 400 B.C.E.  From cold remedies to stomach tonics, the white flowers and blue-black berries on this shrub and small tree have been used in everything from teas and syrups to skin creams.  

America Botanical Council provides a summary of elder nutritional information and scientific studiesNote: Always cook berries before eating them. Never eat red berries from S. racemosa.

"Water of elder flowers 
for a pure complexion and against insect biting. 
Take the flowers off the stalks 
and pack them down hard in your pan, 
and then pour on enough boiling water to cover them: 
cover your pan with a cloth and so let it stand a day and a night, 
and then strain it."
Mrs. Harrington's Book, 18th Century

 Elderberry Syrup
 Bring to boil 1/2 cup dried (or 1 cup fresh) berries 
with 3 cups water.
Reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes covered.
Smash berries to release flavor and then strain.
Add 1 cup of honey and stir well.
Will keep for a couple months in refrigerator.
Take a tablespoon 3 times a day for colds and fevers.

Elder is Magical:  Throughout history, an elder tree was considered good luck. Leaves and flowers were gathered at Midsummer to decorate the home and keep away evil spirits. But it was bad luck to use elder wood for any purpose. Children raised in elder wood cradles, for instance, were believed to grow sick and die. And, for goodness sake, never burn even the smallest amount of elder wood in your fire. That was a sure way to attract the devil or witches.  

Here's a fairytale written by Hans Christian Anderson called "The Little Elder-Tree Mother." (1845) 

Elder is Loved by Animals:  If that wasn't enough, this member of the honeysuckle family attracts butterflies, bees and other pollinators. They simply love the sweet white flowers. You'll find birds of all types like to eat the berries too.  

Learn more about growing elders from the eXtension news

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A Poppy Palooza!

Perhaps it was all those cool, rainy days we had this spring. Maybe it was the love we gave the soil before we started to plant. Whatever it was, we've had a fantastic burst of poppies in the garden this year.

It all started when I threw some seeds of Shirley Single Blend poppies (Papaver rhoeas) into a small, unused area of our property.

The space had sandy soil, which we had amended with plenty of compost and well-aged cow manure. As the seedlings grew, I periodically added fish fertilizer with high phosphoric acid and potash to stimulate the blooms.  This annual is estimated to grow 2 to 4 feet, and we've easily seen these poppies reach those heights so far.

Little seedlings have slipped under the fence, and are nestled among my more formal perennials in a charming but pretty mess.
The range of cheerful colors - pink, white, rose and red - are wonderful for any cottage garden. 
Besides, the way this charming poppy reseeds, I'm afraid we'll never get rid of these flowers now.  
But these poppies are so pretty. Somehow, I don't think we'll mind very much that we are stuck with these lovely flowers for many years to come.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Happy Summer Solstice

Since pre-Christian times, the Summer Solstice has been celebrated with seasonal rituals of major importance. Here are six things you might not know about the Summer Solstice:
  • The Summer Solstice occurs June 21, 2009 at 1:46 A.M. EDT. This is the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. A scientific explanation of the solstice.
  • In earlier times, the Summer Solstice was called Midsummer – not the start of summer as it is now.
  • The eve of Summer Solstice was considered among the year’s scariest days -- a time when fairies and evil spirits ran amuck. “Midsummer Eve is counted or called the Witches’ Night: and still in many places … they make Fires on the Hills.” John Aubrey, Remains of Gentilism, 1688
  • A time of great revelry, it was customary to build giant bonfires on the solstice. People danced around the fires, and led their livestock, sons and daughters over the flames to keep them safe. Wheels of fires were often rolled down hills to represent the sun. Even King Henry VII and Henry VIII of England had solstice fires in the great halls tended by pages and grooms.
“…there were usually made bonfires in the streets,
every man bestowing wood or labour towards them:
the wealthier sort … would set out tables …
furnished with sweet bread and good drink.”
John Stow, 16th century
  • The timing of the solstice (late-June) was key. As Ronald Hutton writes in The Stations of the Sun, the solstice “preceded the season at which crops would be most vulnerable to weather or blight, and livestock to their diseases. It also ushered in the months in which insects multiplied most widely and in which, therefore, humans were most likely to contract bubonic plague, typhus, and malaria. The fires . . . were therefore deployed against serious dangers, and anxieties.”
  • Certain flowers and herbs were said to have protective powers. St. John’s wort, mugwort, elder, plantain, ivy and yarrow were some plants made into garlands and hung on the door to keep the home safe.
“The virtue of St. John’s Wort is thus. If it be put in a man’s house, there shall come no wicked sprite therein.” Banckes Herbal 1525

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Story Behind the White House Garden

The seeds of the newly built White House kitchen garden were sown long before the Obama family arrived in the nation's capital last January.

In fact, the idea started the year before at a much smaller white house in Maine on a cold February day. Not the best time for outdoor gardening, but definitely a good time for making gardening plans.

To learn the history behind the White House food garden campaign - otherwise known as Eat the View - I turned to the man who helped make it all possible - Roger Doiron, founder of Kitchen Gardeners International.

Seasonal Wisdom (SW): How did you come up with the White House food garden idea?

Roger Doiron (RD):
First of all, I didn't actually come up with the idea: President John Adams did in 1800 as the White House's first First Resident. I knew the First Lawn had been an edible landscape in the past, both for animals and people, and that it wasn't such a far-fetched idea.

I also knew the idea of a White House food garden had been championed by two of the good food movement's rock stars, Michael Pollan and Alice Waters.

In thinking about my own call for a White House garden, I decided the idea didn't need another rock star as much as it needed a "roadie." In other words, someone who would work to make sure the amps and mics were on and cranked up to 10. That way the other voices - those of the people - could be heard.

SW: What did you want the White House food garden campaign to convey?

The message was simple - the White House is America's house and America's house should have a kitchen garden. That idea made sense before and, given the changing times, makes sense again.

Eat the View was about recognizing and celebrating our gardening past, but more importantly about building
a bridge to a sustainable and responsible future.

We were of course trying to influence the First Family, but we also wanted to offer an empowering and upbeat message to campaign supporters. We wanted them to realize that - regardless of what their elected officials do or don't do - they could "be the change" by growing some of their own food.

SW:When you heard the announcement about the White House garden, what was your first thought?

I was stunned because I was settling in for a longer campaign. I had spoken with a couple of the First Lady's senior staff members and knew the idea was being considered. Still I was surprised it moved as quickly as it did. After a few moments of joy and amazement, I went into a more strategic frame of mind in an effort to ride the media wave and get the word out as much as possible about growing your own food.

SW: What would you like to see accomplished with Food Independence Day?

RD: Food Independence Day is a similar effort. In this case, we're asking the governors - or nation's First Families - to lead and eat by example by sourcing their July 4th meals locally.

Given our organ
ization's limited financial resources and the tight timeframe, we're relying on people on the ground to find the best way of delivering this message to their first families. Learn how you can get involved.

Hopefully, we're get a few governors to play along with us. It's a great opportunity for these governors to show their commitment to farmers and food producers in their states. So, I can't imagine why they wouldn't want to savor their independence.

But even if these elected officials choose not to participate, I think our campaign will be a success if we can show strong support and participation on the part of the American people.

If we can show that local and seasonal foods have moved into the American mainstream, the politicians won't be far behind!

SW: Well, it would certainly be great if local and seasonal foods were once again considered mainstream in the United States. Thanks for helping to make this goal a reality.

Learn more about this topic:

White House Garden Layout
Food Independence Day
Eat The View Campaign
Victory Gardens in U.S. History
Victory Gardens of Tomorrow
Red White and Grew

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Raising Chickens at Home

"Love and eggs are best when they are fresh."
Russian Proverb

The idea of raising chickens has always appealed to me. What could be more idyllic than gathering fresh eggs hatched by happy chickens wandering around your garden?

So, when I learned many homeowners were raising poultry these days, I turned to Melissa McCanna of Kingston, Washington to find out why. Her family has raised chickens for three years. It all started when the oldest son Aaron (now 14 years old) brought home two chicks he'd hatched for a science project.

"He thought they were hens, but they turned out to be roosters," recalls Melissa. "So, we got a handful of hens to keep the roosters from fighting. Then, a framer working on the house, brought over six more hens to balance out the rooster-to-hen ratio."

One thing led to another. Now 17 chickens -- with names like Pepper, Granola, Hot Tamale and King Kong -- are wandering around the McCanna gardens. Nutmeg (above) is an Old English Game Bantam. Quite an elegant lady, don't you think?

The fresh eggs are a big plus for raising chickens. And the eggs are both a health issue and a philosophical one for the family, which also includes husband James, 12-year-old Sean and 10-year-old Maria.

"Knowing our eggs came from happy, healthy chickens is important to us," explains Melissa. "It's great to have fresh eggs that we know don't have hormones or chemicals added to them."

The variety of eggs is wonderful too. Nutmeg and the other bantams lay small tan eggs. The Rhode Island Reds hatch brown eggs of various shades and sizes. But these three Ameraucana Pullets chicks (Ginger, Eggy and Greg) will some day produce blue eggs.

"We're also thinking about getting a few Cuckoo Marans," adds Melissa. "They hatch dark chocolate brown eggs. But regardless of the colors, all the eggs taste great."

After three years of living with chickens, the McCanna household considers them part of the family now. If you're thinking of raising poultry yourself, here are tips from Melissa:
  • "Get a good chicken coop to keep your chickens safe," she advises. "Eglu coops are neat, but rather expensive. It's easy to build your own." Here are tips for building a chicken house from Grit Magazine editor Hank Will.
  • "Check city and county codes to make certain you're allowed to raise chickens," says Melissa. "Some cities permit hens but not roosters. Also make certain your neighbors won't mind living next to roosters, which can be quite loud at times."
  • "If you can, invest in at least one rooster to guard hens against predators," she suggests. "Our chocolate lab Java also helps keep the chickens out of the forest."
Want to learn more about raising backyard poultry? Don't miss these resources:
  • CommunityChickens.com: A joint service from Grit Magazine and Mother Earth News, this helpful site is packed with everything you need to know about raising chickens.
  • UrbanChickens.org: More advice on backyard poultry, with a special focus on urban chickens.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Spring in the City of Trees

Legend has it that Boise, Idaho got its name in the 1800s when a French-speaking guide yelled, “Les bois! Les bois!” (Translation: the trees, the trees.)  After weeks of walking through dry and rough terrain, the group was obviously delighted to see the wooded Boise River Valley – and get a little shade.  The name has stuck all these years later.

Boise -- nicknamed "The City of Trees" -- is the third largest U.S. city in the Northwest. Situated where the high desert meets the western edge of the Rocky Mountains, Boise is a mecca for outdoor activities like hiking, skiing, biking and camping.

With a relatively mild winter and long growing season, the area also offers ideal growing conditions for many trees not to mention other plants. In fact, Boise has frost-free periods of 120 to 150+ days annually, according to Idaho Cooperative Extension.

And yes, Idaho grows a lot more than just potatoes. Peaches, apricots, apples and cherries are just some of the crops grown in this area.

Spring is a season when Boise really sparkles. Aside from all the blooming trees, there are the lovely lilacs. Any Idahoan will tell you that lilacs really love this climate.  (And we, of course, love them back...) The above lilac in my neighbor's yard is one example of how well this flowering shrub thrives in this area.
Tulips, daffodils and other spring bulbs also perform well in this four-season city. Here's a clever way my neighbor displayed her flowering bulbs in the front yard.
At this time of year, wildflowers and grasses cover the rolling foothills that surround the city.
Arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) is just one of the wildflowers you'll find on the foothills at this time of year. This perennial thrives in elevations from 4,500 to 7,000 feet.  Best of all, arrowleaf balsamroot is drought tolerant and has good winter hardiness. Although it prefers full sun, this plant will tolerate semi-shade. 
Not sure of the name of these delicate blue wildflowers, unfortunately. But look how pretty they are against the hillsides.
Katie Johnson (left) and Maggie O'Connor (right) show just how fun it is to run through wild lupines on a spring day in Idaho.
If you're lucky, you just might come across a field of purple and yellow lupines on a Boise foothill trail.  Surrounded by these wonderful wildflowers, be sure to take a deep breath and smell all the sweet scents. Then, take a moment to figure out how you can come back to visit Boise in spring again.