We have officially transitioned from early spring to late spring, though the change has been a bumpy one. There have been sweltering hot days offset by chill and damp ones. Not quite a normal spring. One of the more noticeable signs for me is that the big old dogwood behind the shed out back has lost all of its cream-colored petals and has fully leafed out. Every morning in the blue pre-dawn light I would marvel at its cascading flowers glowing brightly. The lush grass and budding trees and bushes would remain crepuscular and mysterious, but the dogwood would be alive and kicking, no pre-dawn twilight could keep it down. Now it’s back to its behind-the-scenes modesty, just simply being a tree behind the shed, its moment of fame evaporated into the ether.
Another sure sign of late spring’s arrival is the end of morel season. But boy what a season! I think everyone found a morel this year. I have read that it was a once-in-a-ten-year explosion. I haven’t been seriously looking for that long, so I wouldn’t know. I have been aware of the morel mystery for a long time though, even wrote a short story about them over ten years ago. Back then I thought I’d never find one, but now I know how hard you have to look. This year I found them all over. Friends gave me some! People who don’t even look found them in the weirdest places. Popping out of gravel and sidewalks! Under a line of spruces between two driveways! These are all anomalous places compared to the general rule of dying elms, ashes and abandoned apple orchards. But morels are nothing if not anomalous, in my opinion.
This year, I found them under every one of these types of trees. It was an exciting time, and I feel now as if I had been swept up in a weird wave. Every spare moment was given to exploring possible sites. All my free thinking time was spent wondering where I would go next. Frankly, this obsession is exhausting, and I’m rather glad it’s done! Now when I walk I’m back to my thoughts, instead of wondering where the morels are. Is it like a crush? Although I found several different spots, I picked only a few from each patch. I have a rule that if there are only a few I don’t take any. And when there are a good ten or so, I’ll take about half. It’s not that they are endangered, it’s just the general etiquette. I dehydrated some, and the rest I ate sautéed in a good amount of butter, cooking them thoroughly, served on a good piece of sourdough toast. Did you know that you have to cook morels thoroughly? All wild mushrooms really. And some folks can have a bad reaction to them even after having them with no prior upset before. Always be careful when eating wild mushrooms.
Now my obsession is turned towards the garden, as the still-green strawberries fatten up and tomatoes are finally planted in the garden. I direct sow most of my garden, but I always buy tomatoes plants. I just don’t have the patience to start them myself. The past few years I have been buying them at the Northern Dutchess Botanical Garden–organic seedlings, great selection and only $1.49 a pop. There are so many great local sales to visit, but it can get crowded and expensive. I bought two Opalkas, which was last year’s winner, a paste variety that is equally delicious canned or sliced for the table. Other tomatoes: Sun Golds, Early Girls, Paul Robeson, Black Krim, Pineapple Beefsteak, and Principe de Borghese, among a few other randoms. The planting of the tomatoes is so filled with hope and desire, adequately taking over the obsession of the morels.
Random Notes: Now that the summer is here, I will have less time to be prolific here so I’ve decided to do one post a week, alternating Field Notes with my Kitchen Journal posts. I hope you’ll stick around! Stay tuned on Instagram for almost daily posts…
I am a person filled with obsessions. Are you this kind of person? I’m not always swayed by things, but when they grab me I go along for the ride, hook, line and sinker. A few weeks ago I saw a post on a Facebook group I’m in regarding free shiitake mushroom plugs. I am always alert to the word “free” so of course before I thought about it, I said, “Yes, please!” And thus, my foray into cultivating mushrooms was started. I do love foraging for mushrooms, but wouldn’t it be nice if I could encourage them to grow right in my backyard?
I was talking to a friend the other day who shares this mentality: if I can grow it and I like to eat it, then why not try and grow it in my yard? Some friends enjoy growing only flowers, and I love them for it. Their devotion to visual beauty is laudable. My devotion is primarily culinary, although I do appreciate the beauty in all living things, even poison ivy, so why not have your yard do double duty? Perennial food crops are one of my favorite things: the rhubarb, strawberries and asparagus give me incredible joy. Also, the trees and the herbs that persist regardless of snow, or lack thereof, drought, rust, and disease. They are so incredibly strong. And so delicious!
When I received the mushroom plugs (small wooden plugs filled with a thread of shiitake mycelium) I realized that I might have said yes too quickly. First, I needed to find a recently downed oak log. Have you ever gone around asking your friends and neighbors for a recently downed oak log about 3 or 4 feet long, and 3 to 6 inches in diameter? People kind of look at you funny, even if they are like minded souls. It ends up, no one had a spare log lying around, so my dear and patient husband, who doesn’t share my obsessions, helped me by cutting down a limb off a young red oak that is squeezed on the edge of our road. The limb would probably be cut by the town or utility company soon enough, as it hung over the road, so I felt it was a responsible sacrifice. I duly thanked the tree.
After waiting a few days, while the plugs sat in the fridge, we drilled several million small holes into this limb using a specific drill bit. Then we hammered the plugs into the holes and sealed them with bees wax. What happens now? asked my husband. Oh, we wait for about six months and hope that conditions are right for the mycelium to fruit. He looked at me a little funny. I tried to tell him how it was worth it, that the shiitake mushrooms I buy from the store are $10 a pound! He nodded, knowing my ways.
So, now the log sits in a shady but damp spot, and we’ll see in September or October what happens! If you are interested in the details of growing shiitakes, here are some links to articles I was using as a guideline:
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!
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.
Last week, I ventured out into the garden. It was still there.
I raked out my favorite bed: the perennials. It’s a sunny patch that is home to the asparagus, strawberries and rhubarb. I left it in horrible disarray in the fall. The strawberry bed was unfairly filled with weeds. I always leave the full grown asparagus for wildlife refuge, waiting until early spring to cut down the stalks, so it was a tangle of fern and stalk. And the rhubarb was left to die back to their roots. I am usually really finished at the end of the growing season, and this year was no different. I made no effort to tidy things up. It showed as I raked the beds the other day.
Amazingly, after raking up the detritus, I found green living things underneath! The strawberries are such hardy little things–I don’t even know what variety they are, as a neighbor passed me a boxful of them long ago, happy to get their little runners off her hands. They are not the sweetest strawberries, but dang if they’re not the hardiest. This year I decided to buy some Honeoye strawberries to start a new bed. Who can deny the strawberry? I am always happy to spend a few minutes in the garden and come out with a bowl full of strawberries. Let’s hope that happens this year!