View from the window December 8, 2016
The view from the window shows that we had our first snowfall, just over an inch, but it didn’t last long. Temperatures mostly ranged in the 30s and 40s. I guess I am done putting the garden to bed. Our first complete year in the new garden draws to a close leaving us with a sense of satisfaction – and a list of things to do next spring.
View from the window in Heath, MA, where the Commonweeder was born in 2007
It was on a snowy December 6 in 2007, the feast of St. Nicholas, that I inaugurated my Commonweeder blog. On this anniversary I’m taking a look at the last nine years, on the blog, in the garden, and in my life. That first post gave a hint that I was not only a gardener but a reader. I mentioned Eleanor Perenyi’s wonderful book Green Thoughts, and a chapter that talked about the house and garden that was owned by Henry James and E.F. Benson at different times. James and Benson were both writers whose works were very different. And so were their gardens. It is the differences in all our gardens that I have especially come to appreciate and love.
December 15, 2008 Heath Ice Storm
My First Blogaversary was quiet and uneventful but on the December 12, there was a terrific and very beautiful ice storm that left the town encased in ice for more than three days – brilliant sun but near zero temperatures. I wrote about that excitement here. There were meals prepared at the Community Hall because so many didn’t have power or heat. The National Guard came to help clear the roads and they slept on the floor in the Community Hall.
Henry and our freshly cut Christmas tree in 2009
This 2009 photo became an iconic view of Christmas at our house, Henry tramping through the snow with a tree cut from our snowbreak. I was following with the camera and the tree cutting tools. We are now in a new in-town house and this is my favorite photo of the Heath house. Three years of blogging have passed with thoughts about gardens, gardeners, garden books, Bloom Day, and all t he directions down the garden path that all gardeners travel, history, myth,and art.
Layanee Merchant and her mother
In 2010 Layanee Merchant of Ledge and Gardens fame, and her mother visited my garden, Elsa Bakalar’s garden (although it no longer had her hand at the helm) the Bridge of Flowers and The Glacial Potholes. They said the trip to the Bridge of Flowers alone was worth the trip. Their visit was a highlight of my year. Blogging brought me so many new friends and widened my world.
The Daylily Bank looking good
It’s 2011 and I think this is the fourth year of the Daylily Bank and it is finally looking pretty good. I don’t know why it took us decades to find this solution to the steep bank right in front of the house. No mowing and beautiful color.
Winterfare, a winter farmer’s market
In 2012 I attended my first Winterfare, a winter Farmers Market. We are fortunate to live where there are so many small farms bringing us wonderful fresh vegetables, fruit, eggs and even meat. It has been exciting to see this renaissance of farming. Gone is the tobacco and here is the goodness of fresh, organic foods from potatoes to the honey wine called mead and an array of ciders, sweet and hard.
Great granddaughters, Bella and Lola
In 2013 our great-granddaughters, Bella and Lola came to live in Massachusetts, not far from us. We put them right to work cleaning out the shed and then helping prepare for the Annual Rose Viewing. A garden grows and so do families.
Purinton Pink rose at the Annual Rose Viewing 2014
The Rose Walk grew and grew including the Queen of Denmark and Madame Hardy, but I also had a collection of Farm Girls, roses from local farms that had often been tended for many decades. There was Rachel’s Rose and more recently this sturdy, dainty and sweet Purinton Rose, given to me by those at Woodslawn Farm in Colrain. If you want you take a Virtual Tour of the Rose Walk. In 2014 we held the penultimate Rose Viewing. We were thinking about leaving Heath for life in the town of Greenfield.
A load of Heath plants for the Greenfield garden
In early spring of 2015 we bought a house in Greenfield and started our new garden with plants from the Heath gardens. The Greenfield house had no gardens at all and we were eager get to get started right away. A gardener’s blank canvas cannot be left blank for long. We began with the South Border which was drier than the backyard which we knew was wet from the moment we saw the house.
February 2016 flood
In 2016 this February flood showed us just how wet our garden could get. You can also see the fence we put up, a mate to the fence in our neighbors garden. I was dubious about the fence, but it gave the garden definition.
Button bush can grow in the water
In 2016, having sold the Heath house, and begun settling in at the Greenfield house we learned that our new garden was not only wet, it could become a pond. But we were undaunted and chose our plants, shrubs, trees, and perennials that tolerated, or even loved, water.
Now that I have arrived at my 9th year of blogging I am thinking of all the benefits the Commonweeder has brought me, visits to many gardens across the country, new friendships, and the most delightful ways to learn about plants. Now I am moving into a new stage in my life and on my blog. Here a few photos of my summer 2016 new garden.
My daughter Betsy and her man Mike, throwing 8 yards of soil on the Hugel. Henry, too.
September 30, 2016 and the beds have been enlarged again. No more work this year.
Kordes Lion’s Fairy Tale rose
Only a few roses can be planted in the new garden, but the Greenfield climate allows for more tender roses like this Lions Fairy Tale disease resistant rose which began blooming in late May and continued through October. Now we are on to a new season in the garden.
Late Bloomer by Jan Coppola Bills
Several years ago a friend asked me to give her advice about her garden which she said was out of control and too much work. When I visited I could see an immediate problem; her paths were too narrow. Wider paths would make it possible to walk through the garden side by side with a friend, and even provide better working space when it was time to weed or divide the collection of lovely perennials that comprised her garden.
She could see the wisdom in my suggestion; however when I asked if she had considered shrubs, she threw up her hands in horror and cried, “I’m too young for shrubs!”
Shrubs have been my response to the desire for a low maintenance garden, one that would be different from my gardens in Heath, but would still give me beauty and pleasure.
When Jan Coppola Bills sat down to write her book Late Bloomer: How to Garden with Comfort, Ease and Simplicity in the Second Half of Life (St. Lynn’s Press $18.95) she knew there were more and more gardeners who were in my position – loving gardening but without quite the stamina they had.
Happily for me and other readers of this book with its useful and beautiful illustrations Bills has more that one answer to creating a low maintenance garden.
Late Bloomer is divided into short illustrated chapters that begin with Simplicity and Sustainability and goes on to Garden Styling. Orderly Chaos, and Veggies, Fruit and Herbs and more. All the information and suggestions are useful to gardeners at any stage of their gardening career, but particularly valuable when a gardener sees the need to reduce the heavy labor required in their garden.
Bills has a chapter devoted to different ways to handle weeds. She includes a section on what I call lasagna gardening which calls for lots of cardboard. One version of this begins with digging up the sod, flipping the sods, grass to grass, then laying on the cardboard and topping it with soil for planting and mulch. She also lays lots of cardboard right on the lawn where a new bed is needed and then covers the cardboard with a few inches of mulch. Then she says wait! Wait for the cardboard to decompose for a few months before you begin planting.
South Border lasagna bed June 2015
When we moved to Greenfield and discovered how heavy and wet our clay soil was I could not wait. I needed to plant right away. I began my own version of cardboard gardening. I worked in one section of a proposed bed at a time. I collected all the cardboard I could (thank you, Manny’s) and ordered yards and yards of compost and mulch from Martin’s Compost Farm. First we skinned off as much grass as possible with a weed wacker and watered that section. I then planted the shrubs I had bought, hydrangeas, lilacs, roses and viburnams. I dug big planting holes, and used a good measure of compost when planting. I gave all the newly planted shrubs a good watering and then laid out one or two layers of cardboard around the shrubs, filling that section of the bed. The cardboard also got a good watering before it was covered with several inches of soil and mulch and which were watered again.
I feel all that watering is essential because it helps the decomposition process get started, as well as providing moisture for the newly planted shrubs. Once the beds were created I planted perennials and groundcovers between the shrubs in the soil and mulch.
South Border lasagna bed June 2016 – new shrubs thriving
Those first plantings were put in in June 2015 and I am happy to say that the shrubs and perennials have done splendidly even though we did have such a dry summer and fall. I give a large measure of credit to the rich compost-soil mixture and compost- mulch mixture I got from Martin’s Farm.
With all her advice, Bills does not forget the issues that are important to all gardeners, the desire to support our pollinators and butterflies who have been threatened by the use of many insecticides and herbicides and the benefits of using of using native plants in the garden. Native plants, trees, shrubs and flowers, provide the specific food that pollinators need to survive and propagate.
As we have created our new Greenfield garden we had two main goals, to choose plants that were tolerant of wet soil (right plant in the right spot) and that were native cultivars supporting some of the 300 plus species of native bees, butterflies and many other pollinators. One of the useful lists Bills provides is a list of plants that will support pollinators one way or another. Dill does not provide nectar or pollen for butterflies, but it does supply food for the swallowtail butterfly caterpillar. Once I realized the importance of supporting all stages of the butterflies I was happy to plant extra dill and parsley to share.
Bills’ final encouraging words are to resist the desire for perfection. “I believe when you take unrealistic expectations out of gardening, new possibilities emerge.”
At my house my husband and I are apt to finish the project of the day with a sigh and the statement that what we have accomplished is “perfect enough.” We often remind each other that the weavers of beautiful Persian rugs always put a deliberate error in the design. According to Islam only Allah can make something perfect, and to make something perfect is an offense to Allah.
There is not much chance my garden will be perfect, but I will care for it, love it, and share it. That’s enough perfection for me.
Between the Rows November 26, 2016
New England Grows! welcomes OESCO’s scarecrow
New England Grows! is a big landscaping tradeshow in Boston and I got to see old friends like Kate and Russ French of OESCO where a 20 foot scarecrow blew fiercely over the exhibit of great OESCO tools.
Pride’s Corner Farms succulent display
I spoke to Linette Harlow at Pride’s Corner Farms about the plants they grow for various plants you will find at garden centers in the spring, I loved this display of succulents growing in a slightly rotting log. I count this as another form of hugelkultur.
Native wetland plants at Aquascapes Unlimited.
John Courtney at Aquascapes Unlimited told me that sedges made excellent controllable plantings for wetlands, or often wet gardens.
I talked to many other people and you’ll be hearing about all I’ve learned very soon. Every year New England Grows! gives me an opportunity to see what will be showing up in garden centers this spring, and new developments in conservation.
First Grader Ben knows that worm bedding needs to be kept moist
Verrmiculture is worm farming. Worms are the gardener’s friend. They eat kitchen waste and turn it into valuable fertilizer called vermicompost. You too can be a vermiculturist, one who practices vermiculture and makes vermicompost, and you cannot begin too soon.
When I visited Kate Bailey’s first grade last week to read to them, they were all excited and told me they had a thousand new pets in the classroom and could I guess what they were. I could not. Gleefully they showed me their worm bin and told me all kinds of worm facts.
The children knew that the worms that live and work in bins are not the same kind of worms that you find in the garden. They have red wigglers, Eisenia fetida, in their bin. A single worm is both female and male, but it still needs to mate with another worm. The children talked about the ‘vest’ that the worm has around its middle. Adults know the proper name is the clitellum. In a sense you could say two worms still have to hug to exchange sperm and fertilize the eggs. Then the ‘vest’ with the fertilized eggs ultimately slips off the worm in a cocoon. The baby worms will hatch in approximately three weeks. Usually only two or three baby worms will come out of each cocoon. You can see we had a very technical and scientific conversation.
With the help of a three year grant from the Mass Department of Environmental Protection Amy Donovan of the Franklin County Solid Waste Management District is in the process of bringing worm bins and coupons to buy the worms to the schools in our district. “Having worms in class is a chance to get up close and personal to compost. They’ll see it is not yucky or smelly – just fascinating,” she said when we talked on the phone.
Donovan has been working with worms and school children for some years. “Worm bins are a perfect small scale compost system for schools because students can see the compost system working. They can observe materials every day or two and see the changes. It also works for the curriculum in three ways. The worms provide a science experiment, classroom pets, and practical indoor composting,” she said.
There are good support resources for the vermicomposting program in the schools including The Green Team (www.thegreenteam.org), an environmental club sponsored by the Mass DEP.
I had my own worm bin when we lived in Heath. It was simply an opaque bin I bought at Home Depot. It was set up for visiting grandsons when they were about 8 or 9 years old. We gained a lot of basic information about worms together.
Each worm bin needs dampened shredded newspaper, never plain white computer paper, to make bedding for the worms. Worms breathe through their skin and that is why they need a damp environment. They do not need soil.
Food scraps, fruit and vegetables, bread, oatmeal, and egg shells as well other foods, including moldy bits from the back shelf of the refrigerator, are suitable for the bin. Actually, smashed up egg shells are very good for worms because they supply calcium that they need for reproduction. Food does not need to be ground up, but smaller pieces will break down more quickly. Meat and bones and dairy products should not go into the bin because they will rot and smell bad.
We did not just dump our scraps in one spot, but put enough for one week (as we tried to judge) in one spot, and then put scraps in another spot the following week. We also fluffed up the shredded bedding from time to time so it didn’t pack down. Over the course of the year I would also add more damp bedding. When the boys left I kept up the routines myself.
Once a year I cleaned out the bin and harvested the castings otherwise known as worm manure or vermicompost for my garden. I dumped out my bin onto a tarp outside on a sunny day. Worms do not like the light so they dive down to the bottom of the pile. While I am waiting for the worms to leave the top layer I wash the bin and fill it with more damp bedding, and I always added a couple of handfuls of the vermicompost, so the worms would know they were still at home.
Norm Hirschfeld and Marsha Stone, veteran worm farmers
Norm Hirschfeld and Marsha Stone have been composting for over 20 years. They did have a couple of smelly and buggy adventures when they first began, but they now keep their sweet smelling Can O Worms vermicomposter in their basement. Can O Worms is just one of the worm bins that you can buy. The bins come with full information about the bins and handling worms. They also are designed to collect compost tea as well as regular compost.
Compost tea is the liquid exudation created by the water in the kitchen waste, as well as being produced by the worms themselves and other microorganisms in the waste. Worm bins are usually equipped with a reservoir to collect this rich fertilizer, and a spigot. Compost tea can be used in the garden or for mixing with water and used on houseplants.
Exudate from Norm’s worm bin
The bible of vermicomposting is Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof. It gives directions for making your own worm bin, and answers every question you might have about worms, how the worm population will increase, what kinds of problems might arise and how to fix them, and the composting process.
It might be time to set up a new worm bin in my new house.
Between the Rows November 19, 2016
Winter Farmers Market
Roast turkey is the iconic symbol of Thanksgiving, but in reality it is the vegetables that fill the groaning board. Sweet potatoes, with or without marshmallows, mashed potatoes, creamed onions, and roasted or mashed winter squash, are essential. I’ve been known to make the elaborate maquechoux, a mélange that includes corn, bacon, scallions, red bell peppers, tomato and thyme and basil. My daughter Betsy is now responsible for a mélange of white and sweet potatoes, beets, squash and onions which are all roasted together.
When faced with all this delicious bounty I can’t help wondering how it made its way to my 21st century feast.
We all know that corn is native to the western hemisphere. It travelled in many directions. Christopher Columbus found it in Cuba in 1492 and brought it to France and Italy and all of southeastern Europe as well as to northern Africa. Meantime, it also travelled west to islands in the Pacific and on to China. Certainly the Pilgrims of 1620 were happy that the Wampanoags included corn in their diet. It was the caches of stored corn that they had put by and that the Pilgrims found that helped some of them get through that first winter.
The corn that we have today is quite different from the corn grown in the 1600s, but it has always been evolving because the Natives were attentive to their seed, and their seed choosing and gathering. The Hopi tribe developed a blue corn that that has more protein than regular corn. I’m not sure how blue corn made its way to Deerfield, but by 1836 it was growing in William Stoddard Williams very large garden.
Potatoes originated in South America thousands of years ago. In 1532 it was the Spanish conquistadors in Peru who began to use potatoes, especially as rations on ships returning to Spain. Once in Spain the potato did spread throughout Europe but it was only considered fodder for animals. However people did eat potatoes when desperate.
Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was a pharmacist who in 1754 was jailed during the Seven Years War with Prussia. He was only given potatoes to eat but he remained healthy, which made him realize what a valuable food crop potatoes were. His efforts to get poor people to eat them were not effective until he planned an inducement. He had King Louis XVI give him a piece of land outside Paris and planted a potato field. He had that field guarded day and night, making people believe the crop was very valuable. Then when the potatoes were ready for harvest he gave the guards the night off. Many of the potatoes were stolen and their reputation began to change.
The benefits of potatoes were apparent to educated people and rulers of European countries supported their cultivation.
Potatoes have been known to stave off starvation when grain crops failed. The advantage to potatoes is that they grow underground and are not susceptible to the winds and storms that knock down fields of grain making them useless. Nowadays potatoes are considered one of the most nutritious foods you can eat, as long as you don’t deep fry them, or load them up with butter or sour cream.
Spanish conquistadors also discovered sweet potatoes in South America. They took them back to Spain where they rapidly spread across Europe. White potatoes of the nightshade family may have been considered only fit for pigs, but the sweet potatoes of the morning glory family were considered a treat and delight. No one had to be urged to eat sweet potatoes which are even richer in nutrients than white potatoes.
Winter squash is another vegetable that originated in the South and Central America. It is versatile and can be roasted, used in soups, or mashed into breads. It is another extremely nutritious vegetable, a good source of vitamin A, C, and E. It travelled up into North America and was an important food for Massachusetts Natives. That was fortunate for the Pilgrims who then learned about them from the Wampanoags who included them in their healthy diet.
A necessity of the Thanksgiving feast is the onion, creamed, or cut up to add savor to soup or turkey stuffing. There are no fossilized onions to help the record but it is thought that onions had been cultivated in the Middle East for 5000 years or more. It is safe to say that over 1000 years ago onions were a staple of European diets. The Pilgrims brought onion seeds with them on the Mayflower, but when they started dealing with the Natives they saw that they had been using wild onions in their meals.
In a Smithsonian article Kathleen Wall, a foodways culinarian at Plimoth Plantation, says that it is unlikely that turkey was on the menu at the first Thanksgiving. The written record mostly describes the meat that went on the table, including goose and duck, possibly swan and passenger pigeon. The small birds could have been stuffed with onions and herbs. The Wampanoags brought five deer, possibly fish, lobster and clams as well. The feast lasted for three days.
Most of us will not go hunting for our Thanksgiving feast. And the feast will not last for three days. But we can all be grateful for the rich land that we live on here in western Massachusetts and the developments in vegetables and fruits that make even our every day meals a veritable feast.
Between the Rows November 12, 2016
Danielle Smith at her Wild Rose Flower Farm booth at the Farmers Market
While shopping at the Greenfield Farmers Market last year I met Danielle Smith at her Wild Rose Flower Farm booth. I found the name of her farm, Wild Rose, irresistible, of course, and she was always surrounded by a bounty of lovely spring bulbs, and later an array of dahlias, zinnias, sunflowers, delphiniums and all manner of other annuals. At the Winter Market I bought a wonderful wreath to hang on our new front door.
All this summer we tried to set a date to talk about her gardens, but we never pulled it off until the fresh flowers were pretty well frosted and she was concentrating on her dried flowers which are equally a delight. We finally got to meet in her studio where she puts together bouquets and arrangements for weddings and other events, as well as for farmer’s markets and other outlets like food coops.
Wild Rose Flower Farm studio
Looking at the bright sunny room with dried flowers hanging from racks and the floor covered with containers of dried flower bouquets waiting for the final Farmers Market of the year, it was hard to imagine that she had ever turned her face away from the color and excitement of the floral world, but she said she came late to flowers.
After graduating with an environmental degree from the New College of Florida in Sarasota, Smith began her career on organic vegetable farms. “I really thought it was not okay to love flowers. I disdained all frivolity,” she said. Even after a stint working on a flower farm Smith had to fight what she came to call her internalized misogyny and kept “my attraction to all things bright and soft and frilly to myself like a shameful secret.” It took years to acquiesce to her delight in flowers.
That acknowledgement led her to the founding of Wild Rose Flower Farm. She rents land in Florence, not far from the Art and IndustryBuilding where she has her studio. Although she was ready to give up her total devotion to organic vegetables and embrace “the magical and miraculous, sensual and seasonal, riotously colorful and abundant world of flowers,” she was not willing to give up her principles about growing plants organically and healthily.
Like any farmer Smith works in her field, weeding and pruning, and then harvesting on early summer mornings. She then brings her harvest to her studio where she has a cooler. On a really hot morning she may have to make more than one trip so that the blossoms don’t have time to wilt. Once the flowers have cooled and drunk their fill she can put them together into arrangements.
Danielle Smith of Wild Rose Flower Farm
Smith is an organic flower gardener because she is thinking about the larger need to grow all plants, not only edibles, without poisons. She is thinking about protecting bees and other pollinators, about protecting the water systems, and about protecting workers from the effects of dangerous chemicals on flower farms operating on a much larger scale than acre of land she rents near her studio.
I first became aware of the threats Smith works against when I read Amy Stewart’s book Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful in the Flower Business. Many flowers on florists’s shelves come from half way around the world where they may have affected pollinator colonies and water sources. They have also used immense amounts of energy to fly to our shores and around the world.
My Peace Corps daughter Betsy Reilley served in Kenya (1987-89) and was stationed near LakeNaivasha, a large freshwater lake that now provides water to 127 flower farms around its shores. These farms produce 35% of all flowers shipped to the EU, plus they ship flowers to Russia, Japan and the U.S. Our Valentine roses probably come from Kenya. Just think of all the watering those roses and other plants require. These farms take an enormous toll on the environment.
All of which is to say it is as important to buy local flowers as it is to buy local vegetables and meat. Local organic flower farms like Wild Rose are protecting our local environment and the world environment as well. Wild Rose Flower Farm is a part of the nationwide Slow Flowers movement.
Slow Flowers is the name of a new movement that promotes flowers grown in the United States and sold locally. The flowers will reflect the seasons, although through the magic of greenhouses there can be blossoms even in December. December also means evergreens and colorful natural ornaments like winterberries, red and gold.
Right now Smith is preparing garlic and flower braids, small terrariums she planted with succulents that she has been raising since the spring, more dried flower bouquets, and starting to think about the wreaths she will make like the one I bought last year.
Wild Rose Flower Farm studio
She is also preparing to show off and sell her work at the 20th Art and Industry Open Studios Holiday Sale in Florence on November 12 and 13. Smith and 49 other artists and fine crafters will be showing and selling their work, paintings, sculpture and all manner of crafts. There will be music too. From the hours of 10 am to 5 pm you can tour and shop and enjoy the creative buzz. For more information logon to the website http://artsindustryopenstudios.blogspot.com/
Between the Rows November 6, 2016
The development of Wildside Cottage and Gardens surprised Sue Bridge. She spent an active life learning and working. She earned a Masters degree in Russian and Middle Eastern studies, learned about different worlds while hitchhiking to Morocco, worked for the Christian Science Monitor, and learned how to gather information and pass it on through print and electronic media. She also supported environmental causes because of her belief that future generations would face great challenges.
Ten years ago she bought eight acres on the hills of Conway where she built a small, off-the-grid house she named Wildside and set herself to building a sustainable homestead. Soon word spread about what she was doing, and it did not take long before local people began asking to come and see. She had long been a communicator in one way or another and realized she had now an opportunity to share what she was learning about the land, about food, about energy and a new way of living.
Sue Bridge in front of her root cellar
I first visited Bridge three years ago. I asked her if she had ever imagined that she would be giving tours of Wildside to adults and to children. She shook her head and smiled. “I did not intend, but I do not resist,” she said.
On that first visit three years ago she invited me into her solar powered home. I opened the French doors from the living room and walked out onto the stone terrace to admire the view of planted terraces falling away down the hillside, the little greenhouse with its sod roof, and several fruit trees all embraced by the surrounding hills. She does not care for all this by herself.
Four terraces cascade down the hill in front of Wildside Cottage
Jono Neiger of Regnerative Design was early on the scene, but he has been joined by others, from summer interns to teachers.
The word ‘gardens’ does not begin to describe the way vegetables, fruits and nuts are grown on Bridge’s eight acres. A map she has created of the space divides it into areas by use. Bridge gave me my own tour beginning with the area around the house with its solar panels, root cellar and terraced beds.
We walked down the hill to the greenhouse with its sod roof. Three years ago it was filled with a winter’s worth of sweet potatoes as well as small plantings of ginger and turmeric. Now a fig tree is bearing fruit.
A large vegetable garden lies next to the greenhouse, and I was able to walk around the fence in the new deer deterrent path. The path was mowed and shrubs with fodder for deer were planted while tall saplings visually reinforced the wire fence. Marauding deer can eat their fill of berries or fruit intended for them, but will be disoriented by the organization of space and barriers and will not try to get over the fence. Deer do not jump over fences unless they understand where they will be landing.
Me in the Wildside rice field
Bridge walked me past the rice bed. It cannot be called a rice paddy where rice is planted in a submerged bed; she use a dry bed technique. Three years ago that bed was quite small, but it has grown to encompass 450 square feet.
On our way back up the hill to the house we passed through the ForestGarden which includes blueberry bushes and a variety of fruit trees from apples to paw paws. Bridge has also planted what she calls Fertility Beds. These beds of comfrey, bush clover and switch grass are cut down twice a year and used as mulch or compost.
Comfrey is known as a dynamic accumulator whose deep roots gather nutrients like nitrogen and potassium from the soil, and then returns them to the soil as it decomposes. Bush clover is a legume which can also fix nitrogen. These are sustainable ways that soil is improved without chemical fertilizers.
It was on this hill that I first met mountain mint that attracts many kinds of bees, beneficial wasps, butterflies and moths who are all busy pollinators. I have added it to my own garden and love watching all those busy bees.
We walked and compared notes and experiences in the garden, some of which were more humorous than instructive, but I have always said that there are mysteries – and a lot of fun to be found in the garden.
Bridge told me about the teacher from WellesleyCollege who came to teach school children about bees and other pollinators. In order to examine the pollinators more closely, the children caught them in plastic tubes (formerly holding tennis balls) and laid the tubes in an ice filled cooler. Within 10 minutes the pollinators had fallen asleep and could be closely examined with out fear of stinging. This is a technique that is sure to enchant grandchildren and others of your acquaintance! This is training for citizen science at a very young age.
We can all learn about how to use our land, whether acres or backyards, more sustainably from Bridge’s example at the Wildside Cottage and Gardens. She has a website,www. wildsidecottageandgardens.org and will be holding workshops. However, some of us older folks have an opportunity to get a virtual tour of Wildside. Sue Bridge will be speaking on Planting for Uncertain Times at the Greenfield Community College Senior Symposium at the Downtown Campus on Wednesday, November 9 from 2-4 pm with many photographs to illustrate the projects at Wildside Cottage and Gardens. You can call 413-775-1605 for more information.
Between the Rows October 29, 2016
2015 leaves spending the year composting
Autumn leaves are falling. It is time to turn those leaves into ‘black gold’ known as cold compost, and improving our soil.
It was not very long into my Heath gardening career that I met Larry Lightner of Northfield. By the time I met him he was retired from the Mt.Hermon school where he had worked with students to create and maintain some of the school gardens. He still had his own productive gardens and had produce to share. He also had skills to teach and share. Lightner was a promoter of ‘cold compost.’ Most of us know that when we make a compost pile it should be comprised of green and brown materials that will eventually heat up and decompose.
Hot compost is the standard way we all learn about compost. Lightner made good use of the wealth of autumn leaves to make cold compost. He made wire fencing frames of many heights and depths and sizes. Many of his cold compost frames were circular and about two or three feet or so high. Into those frames he packed his leaves. It is amazing how quickly fall leaves break down, and how many leaves can be added over time to such a frame.
Lightner said his cold compost piles could be made high enough to act as a big raised bed making gardening easier for those who had trouble getting down on their knees. My first cold compost piles in Heath were set up inside the stone barn foundation after the barn itself burned down in 1990. After the fire the debris had to be bulldozed and carried away. The soil such as it was, was not what anyone would call good garden soil. Nothing would grow in it.
The answer was to fill the space by creating a series of wire fencing frames about two feet high and filling them with leaves, packing them down until the frame was filled. I made many trips to Greenfield collecting the bagged leaves that many people left by the side of the street. In the spring I made small indentations in the packed leaves, filled that space with a quart or so of soil and then planted vegetable starts. The important thing to remember about these planting beds is that they did need consistent watering. Rotting leaves do not hold water the same way that good soil does.
By using cold compost planting beds for four years, I actually built up soil that would grow plants, and the frames were put aside.
Last fall we had no need of begging for bags of autumn leaves. Our Greenfield garden was full of leaves. We still had some wire fencing and built a five foot high ring about four feet in diameter. All fall we dumped our raked leaves into that frame, packing them down harder and harder as the pile got deeper.
Releasing the cold compost
Last weekend we asked our good neighbors, Andrew and Ritchey to help us lift the frame and release the cold compost for us to spread on our garden. Then we would be able to start filling the frame again with this year’s crop.
Ritchey’s parents, Mike and Susan Ritchey, were visiting and on hand to photograph our efforts. We brushed aside the outside leaves, and everyone was amazed to see the beautiful black gold compost that filled the frame. What a lesson about the riches of a new fall harvest.
The cold compost looked finished, but alas, the center of the pile was only partially decomposed
However, after Henry and I were left alone to spread the cold compost we realized that the pile had not decomposed fully all the way through. It turns out that even cold compost does need air and more water than our pile got, to decompose thoroughly. We had done a really good job of packing those leaves down hard. No air and very little water made it to the very center of the pile.
We spread the compost and rotting leaves anyway, wetting everything down. I also sprinkled a little soil and mulch over the less composted leaves. The soil will be richer for it in the spring.
Leaves can also be ground up with a mechanical leaf shredder, or you can run your lawn mower over leaf piles. The shredded leaves can be spread over the gardens as mulch and will almost have disappeared by springtime. However leaves are handled, they return organic material and nutrients to the soil. Don’t miss this chance to enrich your soil.
I also want to let you know that the University of Massachusetts Extension Service Garden Calendar is now available. The 2017 UMass Garden Calendar features info about successful gardening during a dry season, as well as special tips for container gardening and extensive lists of suggested drought tolerant annuals and perennials for New England gardens. You can logon to www.umassgardencalendar.org to see calendar images and useful information all year long. The photographs are a selection of plants chosen by the UMass Extension Landscape, Nursery & Urban Forestry staff for pest resistance, adaptability to specific growing environments, and seasonal effectiveness.
The calendar is $12. If you order before November 1 shipping is free. After November 1 there is a shipping charge of $3.50 for the first calendar and $2 for each additional calendar up to 9. There are bulk buying rates as well. If ordered by November 1 delivery before Christmas is guaranteed. For faster delivery order online at https://ecommerce.umass.edu/extsales/. You can also go online to get order forms to fill out and mail with a check.
Marjie Moser’s Print and Dye Workshop hangs out over the Deerfield River in Shelburne Falls. She prints and dyes fabrics like this silk Korean pogoji. Koreans beautifully wrap their gifts, including food gifts, and they traditionally wrap them in silk like this pogoji. The traditional silk wrap resembles our patchwork but all the silks are carefully chosen, creatively arranged and then beautifully and meticulously sewn with finely finished seams. One can hardly see which is the ‘good’ side and which is not.
My friend Marjie Moser who made this beautiful silk adornment uses it as a window hanging where it resembles a glowing stained glass window. The walls are covered with silk scarves that she has artfully dyes. Some of the scarves are dyed and use actual flowers from the Bridge of Flowers to create the patterning.
There are many other printed items in the shop from heavy cotton dish towels with charming designs like a view of The Bridge of Flowers, tote bags, and cards.
Marjie Moser’s handprinted card
Marjie is an artist. She has an eye for color and design and a fine hand for execution. Check out the website her husband created for the Print and Dye Workshop - or stop in and see for yourself.