The other day I reluctantly went to mow the last patch of my lawn. There are some things that the warm weather brings that remind me summer is not all popsicles and beach bags. Mowing the lawn is one of them. We leave a lot to grow, and are not obsessed with the lawn, letting whatever wants to grow to do so, but you have to mow at some point unless you want a tick field surrounding your house. These are some of the other things that I do not miss in the winter: ticks (pulled a few so far), poison ivy (already got it on my eyelid and behind my ear), and stinging insects (stepped on a yellow jacket with bare feet on Monday and was out of commission for the day). I’m hoping I’m done with these noxious things for now.
So, here I go out into the back yard to mow the shadiest patch of lawn, that seems to collect little twigs and sticks making it a tough place to mow. After a few swathes through the lawn, I’m about to turn around and mow down the slope when I stopped myself and shut down the engine. There before me was a morel, just pushed out of the ground. Golden brown and honey-combed, I bent down on my knees to inspect it, all the while shouting Wow!! Look at that!! (No, I don’t play poker, and thankfully no one was around to see me freak out except the neighbor’s cat.)
I’ve looked for years for morels and never have. To find one, and a day later, another one nearby, in my own backyard was a real thrill. I didn’t pick either of them, instead created little shrines so I will remember where they are. I feel like looking for morels is like close reading. You can’t scan, you really have to look deeply. It is an art. However, sometimes you do get lucky!
When the rhubarb starts to roll in, I know that summer is not far off. It’s only another week until the strawberries start to ripen–they’ve already formed but are still green right now–and then June hits and boom, it’s summer. But I’m getting ahead of myself! Honestly, I’m in no rush for summer. I love late spring. T-shirt weather begins, all the shades of green wink at you, and standing outside on the porch at night is a magical feeling.
Rhubarb starts it all. Even though I grow my own, it’s just not enough. Yesterday I picked up twenty pounds of beautiful organic rhubarb to make some jam to sell, and of course, so I can indulge in all the things I want to make for myself!
Usually, I make rhubarb syrup with all the chopped off ends. Because you are putting it through a sieve, it’s a good use for these end bits. But this year, I’m putting half of it in a jar with some apple cider vinegar. Rhubarb vinegar. Perchance to be a rhubarb shrub? Only time will tell. Any rhubarb dreams by you?
A few years back I got the sincere pleasure of meeting Georgia Pellegrini. I recall reading her first book, and I thought for sure this woman is going places. I’m not the only one who sees that. Indeed, only a few years later she’s written three books, and I see her all over the place, for example, as I flip though a hunting magazine at the garage while I wait for my car to get an oil change. I was very excited to get her newest book, Modern Pioneering. Her first two books, Food Heroes and Girl Hunter leaned towards literary and serious, whereas this book is lots of fun. It feels like the book that she’s been wanting to make. It’s colorful, delicious and easy-going. And it’s chock full of recipes, ideas, and know-how.
One of the things I like about this book is the small details. The little bonus bits, like advice from a friend, that are nestled in the sides of the pages. I like the feel of the book–does that sound crazy?–it’s light but solid, and the pages bend like a guidebook. There are lots of easy recipes, like the herb frittata I adapted to include my recent score of ramps, or the amazing sounding (and easy) fig and honey vinegar, but then there are more challenging things like salmon jerky and bacon. All of these recipes take into consideration that you might not have all the gadgets that professional kitchens have and that you just may live in a tiny apartment. On a shoestring budget.
Though the book is mostly about food, and the bulk of it is recipes, there is also a lot of space devoted to preserving, gardening, foraging and projects for the home. Heck, there’s even directions to make a DIY survival tool kit housed in an Altoids tin. How to read a compass and change a tire, too. These are some of my favorite things. Sometimes if you have the really basic information, then you are truly free to improvise and learn for yourself. Whether it’s knowing which way is north, or how to preserve fruit, Georgia Pellegrini wants to help you find your way.
(Disclosure: I received this book from Random House to review. All of the opinions here are my own.)
Next year will be the tenth year living at our house. Since then a lot has changed on our three aces. One of the things I was most excited to do on moving in was to plant fruit: trees, bushes and canes. Being the somewhat rash person I am, I jumped in and became overwhelmed. It didn’t help that I had a baby in the middle of it all, so now, years later, I’m surveying it all and wondering how to fix the mess. I never thought how much work would be involved with taking care of three acres! And I never realized how much work growing fruit could be.
To be fair, some things have worked out beautifully, like the strawberries I received for free from a neighbor that have consistently produced each year. And some things have not been so, umm, fruitful. This post started out as a quick tour and ended up being a comprehensive listing. My apologies if it’s a tad dull! I also might add, I feel quite embarrassed by the long list of plants I have killed. It makes me feel like a horrible gardener. But, there’s a lot to learn with plants, especially fruit plants, so I’m guessing I’m not the only who has had left a trail of foundering plants in their wake. The biggest lesson I’ve learned from this is making sure the plants are in a good location. If they aren’t doing well, move them!
Without further ado, here’s a list of all the fruit I have planted. (And if you feel so inclined, tell me what you have planted! What has been most successful? What has failed?)
Apple: I have two apple trees: a Liberty that seems to be doing well (I have harvested exactly one apple), and one Esopus Spitzenberg (I live in the town it was developed in so long ago, Esopus) that was sent to me last year and never developed one leaf. There are also two crabapple trees, but I think they are ornamental.
Blueberry: I have three blueberry bushes, two are new and one is a poor old guy that I planted in a stupid place years ago. Now they are all together in a sunny, well-drained spot. Now all I have to do is test the soil and check the acidity. I’m sure I’ll have to amend the soil for these acid-loving creatures as my property is very alkaline.
Cranberry: I have one cranberry plant, poor thing, that my mom sent me. It’s next to the lingonberries. I don’t know what to do with it! Also, I planted several American Cranberry/Viburnum that I bought at a library sale. They all have seemed to die. These are gorgeous plants that I really would like to grow successfully for their stunningly red clusters of fruit. I’m not sure why mine didn’t survive, as they are a native species. Sometimes it’s the stock you get; these were such young plants given out for free. I might be better off spending more and getting stronger plants.
Currants: Every year I move quite a few plants around. It might seem crazy to a non-gardener, but a plant is going to be happy you ripped it from the ground it if it’s not in a good place. I just moved my three Red Lake currant bushes into a sunnier spot. I’ve found that even if something will tolerate shade, that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be happier somewhere warmer. I used to be so keen on filling up the shady spots, that I was putting things in unsuitable spots. The red currants already look much happier. They are good producers. I can’t wait to see what they’ll do in a sunnier spot!
Elderberry: After some trial and error, I found out that elderberries really like living down by our pond. They are making lots of baby plants, and I am encouraging them by cutting back the red osier dogwood that likes to bully its way in. “Elderberries like their feet in the water and their heads in the sun,” so they have the perfect home now. Now, if it’s a good harvest year, I can be sure to have enough berries to make elderberry syrup for our winter, and keep the flu at bay.
Gooseberry: I just bought two Hinnomaki Red gooseberry plants. They are said to have very good flavor. I am going to treat them very well!
Grapes: I planted red table grapes, Reliance, a few years ago. I have them on a rocky slope that probably gets too much shade. I think I’ll be moving them soon. I’ve never seen one grape. There’s a lot of pruning involved with grapes, which I’ve never done. The problem with the grapes? They are in a far corner of my oddly shaped property, which means I never pass them. It’s good to have your plants close to you, so you see them all the time. This is a big lesson my mother also tried to teach me: plants like to be together! They don’t really like being alone and uncared for. Makes sense, right?
Jostaberry: Also on the sunny slope are four new jostaberry plants, which are a cross of currants and gooseberries. They are said to be very hardy and disease resistant. I am really excited for these to produce. I’ve never tasted one! They were planted last year, and so far seem to be very happy. They are full and leafy, and there are more than a few blossoms.
Lingonberry: These are recent additions. I believe I planted them in a good place. I wasn’t sure where they would be best suited, so I put them close to the house in a sunny spot to see what they would do. I still might move them. Last year they bore a ton of fruit, but they came flowering so we’ll see what happens this year.
Figs: At one point I had about eight small fig trees! But slowly they have been dying off. I have two left, from one large plant I received for free that had a bad bug infestation. I always think the winter kills the little trees, but then they come back, though slowly. These are container plants. Having a fig tree in this cold area is not impossible, many people do it. But, there’s a lot of extra care that needs to happen that I’m afraid I have not provided. Bad gardener!
Filberts: Not fruits, of course, but still. I bought these from the Arbor Day Foundation many moons ago. Of course I put them in a poor spot, and they need to be moved.
Mulberry: A white mulberry tree that I left because they are fun to climb. I don’t think I could kill this tree if I tried. Wish it was a black mulberry because those are so much sweeter and juicy.
Plums: My two Green Gages are dying of black knot rust. They are my oldest trees, and it’s so sad. Do I pull them? Or try to save them? Fruit trees are so much work. I hope you thank your orchardists every time you enjoy delicious local tree fruit, because those people work hard for that bounty. Especially if it’s organic fruit. It is not easy. In fact, the more I learn about fruit trees the less I want them. I think I have two other plums (or apricots?) growing by the grapes, but I am not sure. What was I thinking?
Quinces: I have two quince trees that seem to be the happiest of the trees. I have gotten blossoms and have seen little quinces, but they’ve never grown to full size. Fingers crossed for this year.
Raspberries/Blackberries: I have planted many canes, mostly raspberries, and I think I only have a few left.
Rhubarb: Also on the sunny slope, the rhubarb that I got for free through an online posting years ago are doing great. Three of the four rhubarb plants were being shaded by a tree, and the difference was obvious. I broke up one crown, and divided it up into six new plants which are now in a better spot on the sunny slope. I’m going for a huge rhubarb patch! And also considering cutting down the tree that’s casting shade on the sunny slope. I never expected it to be so big!
Serviceberry: Also called shadblow, juneberry, saskatoon. When people describe how these taste I wonder why I don’t have rows of them. I forgot I even planted this, a purchase long ago from the extension office. Now it’s in bloom, and perhaps I’ll get a berry or two!
Strawberry: The strawberries are really happy on their south-facing slope. They are all in bloom right now! The strawberries are from a neighbor, and I don’t know what kind they are. They seem to be early-bearers, but aren’t terribly sweet. This year I put in five new plants of Honeoye. We’ll see how they do. The strawberries have consistently been the big producers of all the fruit plants I tend. It always surprises me to see how much they produce: 8 to 10 quarts each season for a small 3′ x 6′ patch.
It’s ramp season! I almost don’t want to talk about ramps because of the frenzy they induce. There’s something about them–of course, it’s the taste of them–but the fact that they are elusive just makes them that much more desirable. Ah, the lure of forbidden (or just hard to find) food. I try to make due with other wild onion-y greens, but truthfully they don’t hold a candle. I’ve been hiking around in the woods up here for a long time and have never found them.
Until the other day. I was actually thinking about ramps as I was walking in the woods. For ten minutes I was thinking hard about ramps. I was thinking: I hate you ramps! I don’t even want you. And then poof! There they were. I must admit, it felt pretty special. I only took a small handful, and out of the handful I only picked two bulbs. The bulbs I planted in my yard. The leaves that I sliced off at the neck of the bulb were turned into ramp compound butter. I used my “special” butter, cultured and made with local cream. We had it on homemade sourdough bread. It was pretty amazing.
Then a few days later I got up the nerve to contact a neighbor of mine. For years I’ve noticed a lovely patch of green in their shady yard. I have always suspected they were ramps. I was right! And they were kind enough to dig up a clump for me to plant in my yard. It was a forty-year old patch planted by the family. I left a few jars of quince jam on their doorstep in return. All this time right under my nose! When I asked them how they enjoyed their ramps, they said chopped up on bread with a drizzle of olive oil. Very simple and probably very good.
By far, the best thing I did with my small bounty of ramp leaves was to put a single leaf in a small jar of vinegar. In my ramp research, I found that drying ramps dilutes their flavor, and that freezing isn’t a good preserving technique either (unless it’s in a compound butter). I know this is the second post in a row of me just putting something in vinegar, but the ramp vinegar proved to be stellar, and it’s results were immediate. I did one with white wine vinegar and one with apple cider vinegar. They are both delicious–garlicky and leeky– and should last the summer. You only need one leaf for eight ounces of vinegar, so whether you buy them or find them, it’s a good economical use for your precious allium!
All the little green things are coming out now, and it’s so exciting to greet them all, even the weeds. Of course, weeds are nothing but plants that you don’t want, and a lot of them have worth even though they take over your strawberry patch. I missed my chance to eat all the bittercress when they were green and tender; they are already stalky and flowering, and I can’t keep up with pulling them out. Eating your invasive plants is a good way to take care of them! Do you have a lot of bittercress? You might want to check out this recipe for bittercress salad from The Three Foragers, based in Connecticut. But you can also google bittercress recipes and you’ll find quite a lot!
I love learning about new weeds that are edible. Just the other day I was clearing out the stone wall that runs along the edge of our driveway and pulled a weed that is so pretty and deep green it seemed a shame to waste it. Well, that intuition was correct, because later on that day I was on Instagram and saw that @raganella had posted a picture of that exact weed, and I found out its name was cleavers. Upon looking it up I learned it had tonifying properties and is used to cleanse the lymphatic system. Now I’m not pulling it anymore!
These bitter and spicy spring greens have long been used by people to cleanse the digestive system after the winter. This morning I went out to pick garlic mustard (an invasive that’s best when young), dandelion greens, onion grass, and cleavers. I decided to to make a spring tonic vinegar. Lately I’ve been inspired by Pascal Bauder’s Facebook page, an endlessly enthusiastic forager who, among other things, makes some gorgeous vinegary elixirs. I just cleaned my greens and covered them in white vinegar and we’ll see what it tastes like in a few weeks.
Some older posts of mine from What Julia Ate on foraging:
I love emptying jars in my fridge. I think any obsessive canner does! It means that there will soon be open real estate on the shelf. Of course, it will be taken up that quickly, but at least it makes me feel like I cleared something out. It feels like I’m accomplishing something, even though I’m really…not. You know that feeling? The other day was a high point in jar shuttling—two jars were nearly done at the same time, and they were companion items. (It’s the small things, right?) Apricot jam and Dijon mustard. I moved them front and center, planning to make a dressing out of them. Why do apricots and mustard go so well together? I don’t know, but they do.
What ratio do you use for a salad dressing? The standard one is three parts oil to one part vinegar or acid. I love Julia Child’s theory on dressings, her quote in Julia’s Kichen Wisdom is to use “proportions of a very dry martini, since you can always add more vinegar or lemon, but you can’t take it out.” I like a dressing that is mostly good olive oil with a tiny bit of acid and salt, just like Julia. Sometimes I just drizzle olive oil and add a squirt of lemon and a sprinkle of salt.
There was about a scant teaspoon of both the apricot jam and Dijon mustard left. I added one teaspoon of white wine vinegar to the jam and (after closing the jar) shook vigorously to get all the good bits off the sides of the jar. To the Dijon jar I added 1/3 of a cup of oil, and shook that until it was partially emulsified. Then I added the oil-mustard mixture to the apricot-vinegar mixture (only because I liked that jar better) and shook them all together. They came together quickly and made a thick, tangy dressing. Great on a salad, or for dipping, it was so thick!
I think a lot of us do this. Do you? Here’s some links to other folks doing the jam jar dressing: