Companion Planting Chart
When I first learned about companion planting I thought it was a bit of simple folk wisdom. Plant your peas and carrots together, but keep them away from dill. Plant marigolds near the tomatoes, and soybeans with anything. This information, which is available in lists in books and on the Internet, has been my guide every spring when I rotate the vegetables around in my garden. Of course, in my small rotating vegetable garden I am also practicing the most basic element of companion planting which is polycropping, not having so many of one type of plant close together, making it easy for pests to find them, or for disease to spread.
However, over the years I have come to understand that companion plants help each other in a number of ways, starting with providing nitrogen or other chemicals to the soil that one way or another benefit another plant. For example, the carrot growing underground exudes nutrients into the soil, as do other roots, but the carrot’s exudations particularly benefit the growth of peas. This was something I generally understood to be the basis of companion planting.
I knew the ancient three sisters planting of corn, beans and squash was another example of companion planting, but I didn’t take in that the three sister system expresses three kinds of companionate activity. We all know that the beans help supply nitrogen to the corn and squash. In addition, the corn is providing support for the beans in a companionable way, and the squash is keeping down weed growth while helping conserve water.
Clearly there are a variety of ways that plants help each other. Some companions help by making it difficult for pests to locate the target, like your cabbage. Pests locate their target by chemical/fragrance cues, or visually. Polycropping makes it difficult to locate a target visually. Planting flowers like marigolds and nasturtiums, and herbs or aromatic plants like those in the onion family repel pests by filling the air with odors unpleasant to the pest. This aspect of companion planting makes a good case for keeping a number of herbs like borage, basil, and hyssop in the vegetable garden, in addition to in a pretty herb garden close to the house where they are handy to the kitchen.
Trap or catch cropping is another aspect of companion planting. Flea beetles can be a problem for tomatoes and eggplant, as well as for the cabbage family. As much as flea beetles like these crops they like mustard even more. Once you get the flea beetles munching away on the mustard which is planted a distance away from the targets, the trick is to then destroy the mustard and the beetles together. The books haven’t explained to me exactly how to do this without sending the flea beetles fleeing, but I am continuing my researches.
You can also plant flowers in the vegetable garden that will attract beneficial insects like ladybugs, lacewings and beneficial wasps. Some of the best annuals are bachelor buttons, sweet alyssum, lobelia, scabiosa, and dahlias.
Yet another way of using companion plants is by using accumulator plants like comfrey, coltsfoot, yarrow (achillea), and even dandelions as part of your fertilization scheme. Accumulator plants are those whose roots collect various nutrients in the soil and carry those nutrients into the plant’s foliage. Achillea or yarrow is a common, easy care flower in the perennial garden. It also accumulates notable amounts of nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and potassium (K) in its foliage. Yarrow is a little living sack of NPK fertilizer, with the three major nutrients required for plant growth. It is not as strong as 5-10-5 fertilizer, but still. Make sure you put these plants in your compost pile at the end of the season, or dry them, crush the foliage and then mix that material into the soil.
Dandelions also have that NPK accumulation as well as amounts of trace elements like calcium, magnesium, iron, copper and silicon. Comfrey accumulates nitrogen and potassium, magnesium, iron, calcium and boron. Although fertile soil contains minute amounts of trace elements they are all vital to healthy plant development.
While I have been concentrating on those plants that benefit each other, one way or another, the companion planting system also notes that certain plants have enemies. Onions are good companions for beets, strawberries, tomatoes, members of the cabbage family and lettuce, but should be kept away from peas and beans.
According to Louise Riotte, author of the classic Carrots Love Tomatoes, fennel should not be planted near almost anything. On the other hand, if it is planted near cilantro, the fennel will not set seed.
There are many mysteries in the garden. Some of those mysteries are becoming understood as research continues. Experiments are difficult in the field because there are so many variables including what effect the wind is having on the garden on any given day.
I do rotate my crops and I do pay attention to plant companions and enemies, but I also know that one of the surest ways to have healthy strong plants is to have healthy soil rich in organic matter. Feeding the soil with compost and organic fertilizers like greensand, and rock phosphate if it is needed is the most dependable way of insuring a healthy garden.###
Between the Rows March 22, 2014
The April 2014 issue of Fine Gardening magazine has an article by Peter Kukielski, former curator of the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden at the New York Botanical Garden titled Easy Picture Perfect Roses. Peter knows all about ‘Easy’ roses because during his tenure at that garden he ripped out 200 or so of the roses in the garden that needed pesticides and fungicides to survive and then replaced them with 693 roses that did not need that kind of care and pampering.
I met Peter in early November 2009 when he gave me a tour of the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden. Even at that time of the year many roses were in bloom and a number of volunteers were busy making evaluations of each rose to decide whether it was worthy of remaining in the garden. There is a great article in the NYTimes here that describes that process. I wrote about my visit with Peter Kukielski here and here. He is not only a brilliant rosarian, he is the most charming and good humored of men.
Since we met Peter, along with Pat Shanley and Gene Waering edited a fascinating book The Sustainable Rose Garden which covers many aspects of rose growing by 40 contributors, including Peter himself, and Stephen Scanniello of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden and president of the Heritage Rose Society. He is now working on his own book Roses Without Chemicals. I can’t wait for it to become available.
‘Applejack’ a Griffith Buck hybrid
My Rose Walk began with hardy roses which include the Griffith Buck hybrids. It also includes rugosas, albas, another roses that can tolerate the winds and winter of our Heath hill. Many of them also turn out to be disease and pest resistant. ’The Fairy,’ a polyantha, is on the Earth Kind rose list, which is something Peter taught me about. I have added other Earth Kind roses like ‘Belinda’s Dream’ and Double Knock Outs. In his Fine Gardening article Peter lists other easy care roses like the luscious ‘Cinderella Fairy Tale’ and the rich golden ‘Tequila.’ Do you think I will be able to resist adding a new rose to the garden this year? I don’t think so either.
‘The Fairy’ Earth Kind rose closeup
I will be talking about The Sustainable Rose at the little e at the Franklin County Fairgrounds on April 26 and 27. I’ll only be there one day – not sure which yet. Lots of rose photos. I hope to see you there. I’ll be channeling Peter Kukielski, my hero.
Tiarella June 1, 2013
Tiarella is the latest plant added to my arsenal as I try to lessen, if not eliminate our lawn, otherwise known as the Flowery Mead where thrive violets, dandelions, hawkweeds and many other wildflowers. These tiarellas are planted east of the Peony Hedge, and west of what will be the Hydrangea Hedge. Tiarella, also known as foam flower, for obvious reasons, is a native flower and groundcover. It likes the shade and requires no care. In the photo you can see that it is planted in a strip where I removed the sod, dug in a little compost and planted three tiarellas. They will spread in every direction which means I will have to remove more grass this year. If they grow into the peonies I will divide them and move the divisions to another newly grass-less spot.
This area gets shade all morning, and gets some shade from the peonies in the afternoon. The foliage is as pretty as the foamy flowers. I love getting rid of lawn, especially when it means adding early spring bloom.
Heucherella and johnny jump-ups
Last year I planted Heucherella ‘Dayglow Pink’ in the North Lawn Bed. Heucherellas are a cross between heucheras or coral bells, and tiarellas. The advantage is the various colors of heuchera foliage, and more prominent flowers. Heucherellas also bloom later, in June and July, and can take a lot more sun than the tiarellas. I’m wondering whether I should add some heucherellas to the tiarella area. What do you think?
Five Plant Gardens by Nancy Ondra
Nancy Ondra has been gardening for over 20 years and she has ten books to show for it and Five Plant Gardens: 52 ways to Grow a Perennial Garden with Just Five Plants (Storey Publishing $18.95) is her latest. This book has something for everyone, but it takes garden design to a new level of ease and understanding for the novice gardener.
Even an inexperienced flower gardener understands pretty quickly that you put tall plants in back of the short plants. Then what? Ondra actually has more than 52 ways to design a garden because she suggests alternates for each of the five plants in a garden, and suggests that you can build out from the five plant garden. By treating a five plant arrangement as a building block you can plan long borders along a path, around a deck or patio, or half moon plantings by a doorway or around a lamppost. It will not take long for even a new gardener to find places to install one of Ondra’s gardens.
Before she gets into general gardening advice Ondra explains why she chose Five Plants. “It’s enough variety to give you a good mix of flowers and foliage, heights and shapes, and seasons of interest, but not so much that the collection looks like a jumbled mess. It’s also a manageable number of new plants to learn about at one time, as well as a limited amount of money to spend.” How understand and practical she is.
I have been gardening in Heath for over 30 years, and I still found good advice in this book. Even those of us who have been playing in the garden for many years trot off to a nursery or plant sale and are quickly seduced by plants we never thought of before. When we get home we often just stick them wherever we might have a bare spot and have to think all over again about height, shape, texture and bloom time. For most of us, practicing interesting and attractive garden design is an ongoing process.
Ondra’s book is first divided into two parts, sunny gardens and then shady gardens. Within each section are 25 five plant combinations, but with some alternate plants in case you want to provide a little more variety when you are extending the original plan. For example, theWelcomeSpringGardenappeals to me because I am so hungry for flowers after our long winters. The five suggestions are Jacob’s ladder with its tall lacy foliage and clusters of blue flowers, deep blue Caesar’s Brother Siberian iris, ‘Corbett’ a yellow wild columbine and a striped bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum var. striatum) and ajuga ‘Burgundy Glow.’ I was pleased that Ondra gave a warning about the vigor of ajuga. Ajuga is wonderful because it so quickly covers a lot of ground but it is so vigorous that it is difficult to contain. I don’t mind the ajuga that has invaded a section of my lawn because I am no devotee of fine turf, but it is good to be warned.
I think it is good to have early spring flowers right near the house where they will be a comfort and be admired while going out and coming home as the days warm. Alternates are the wonderful blue anchusa, or ‘Telham Beauty’ campanula, almost any other Siberian iris or a foxglove, and any columbine would also be pretty, as would dianthus.
Ondra is only addressing perennials in this book, but after working on ourBridgeofFlowersI have learned that it takes annuals to keep a small garden like this in bloom for the whole season. Ondra’s spring choices bloom early, but you might like to think about adding a few annuals once the season warms up. She notes how many of each perennial to put in her five plant scheme, but perennials are not always large when you buy them. You can add pansies or violas to boost that early spring bloom, and as the season progresses you can add other annuals taking your color cue from Ondra’s plan.
Ondra is known for her passion for foliage, and this is especially evident in her plans for the shade or partial shade garden. She describes a lovely array of ferns, hostas, grasses and ground covers like European ginger with its shiny leathery leaves. She also notes which flowers will attract humming birds or wild pollinators.
Nancy Ondra is an encouraging writer. Her 2009 book, the Perennial Care Manual, is still an important resource for me whenever I need to check if a plant I have impulsively bought should be planted in sun or shade, whether it will tolerate a damp spot, or a very dry spot. I know how often I have told a friend that the secret to a successful garden is putting the right plant in the right spot. I know this is true, but I sometimes forget the specifics for a given plant and I’m glad to have this book with it full advice for the care of over a hundred popular plants.
I think spring will arrive in a rush, as usual, and this book will be a big help to the new and experienced gardener.
Between the Rows March 15, 2014
Chinese tea for two
I never imagined that tea changed the world. In my world, tea was served endlessly in the English novels I love, but tea did not become a regular part of my life until I met Elsa Bakalar in 1980. With Elsa I could imagine myself living in one of those English village novels where tea was served up with gossip, or to survive shock with milk and sugar. Now I have a collection of tea pots – and a collection of teas – black,China, green, white and Indian. Tea has changed my world, but how could it be that tea changed the whole world?
While weeding out my bookshelves, to make room for new books, I found a nearly forgotten volume, Seeds of Change: Five Plants That Changed the World by Henry Hobhouse. Hobhouse explains how quinine, a cure for malaria, opened Asia and Africa to colonial expansion, and allowed the population ofIndiato increase sevenfold. With sugar came slavery. Cotton also fueled the growth of slavery, but also, our Civil War, and what the poet William Blake called the ‘dark satanic mills’ of the textile industry inEngland. Those mills brought no prosperity to the workers. The potato brought an explosion of population toIreland, then a famine and great immigration to theUnited States.
And then there is tea. It could be said that tea, or at least the tea tax, was the beginning of our revolutionary war. The Boston Tea Party was held in December of 1773. In fact the Declaration of Independence specifically mentions King George’s “tyrannical acts” which include the tax on tea.
But tea was changing the world long before the 18th century. The Chinese were drinking an infusion of Camellia sinensis leaves as early as 2737 BCE. According to legend, the mythical hero Shen Nong, brought agriculture to the Chinese people so they would not starve. He also brought them knowledge of medicinal plants including tea. When one thinks about how tea drinking traveled around the world it is good to remember that water supplies throughout the ages were not always dependably clean. Boiled water is necessary for tea making, so it is a dependably healthy drink.
The English were great drinkers of tea beginning in the late seventeenth century. However, the Chinese were not terribly interested in selling their tea, and certainly not for the paper money the East India Company offered. They wanted copper, silver and gold.
As the demand grew for tea, the East India Company found an answer in another plant (not one of Hobson’s five), the poppy which grew inIndia. Opium had been banned inChina, but through a circuitous sales route and smugglers, the East India Company earned the hard currency that the Chinese demanded. This ultimately resulted in the two Opium Wars in 1839-42 and 1856-60. The Chinese lost.
Tea production has spread over the years. The British brought tea cultivation toIndia. The wild tea growing there was not C. sinensis, but C. Assamica. Today if you buy tea from a big importer like the Upton Tea Company you will see teas organized by China teas and Assam teas. I am reminded of all the times the grande dame in my English novels asks her guest “China or Indian?” as she sits with her tea pots, ready to pour.
They Upton Tea Company offers 480 types of tea, black, green, white, oolong and Pu-erh. The differences are in the way it is processed. Black teas are harvested and oxidized to change the color, flavor and chemical composition of the tea leaves. Oolong teas are partially oxidized, and green teas are not oxidized at all. A cup of Chinese green tea is probably the same cup of tea the mythical Shen Nong might have brewed up for himself. Pu-erh teas fromYunnan province inChina are doubly oxidized and have a strong flavor. It is sometimes sold in brick shaped blocks instead of as loose leaves.
Tea requires a wet and warm climate, a deep rich soil with lots of humus, and a pH between 5–5.5 which explains why it is grown in Myanmar, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Iran, Turkey, the Philippines and parts of Africa, and Latin America as well as India and China. Another element that is needed is cheap labor to harvest the ‘tiny little tea laves’ by hand.
We visited our daughter Betsy in Kenya where she was serving in the Peace Corps in 1989 and made a tourist trip to Mrs. Mitchell’s tea farm. The 80 year old Mrs. Mitchell (she was celebrating her birthday when we visited) was definitely a grande dame. As a young man her father had been one of the first to start a tea plantation in Kenya. She had a spiel to give and did not welcome questions, but she said the interest in mechanizing the tea harvest was a very bad idea because it would put the tea pickers out of work, and un-employment in Kenya was already very high.
During our time in China we became aware of the gourmet aspects of the various teas, but we were more familiar with the Nescafe jars that workers carried with them all day. They put in their tea leaves in the morning and then kept refilling the jar as they drank it and as the opportunity for more boiling water presented itself.
Tea has a long and colorful history. When I have my afternoon cuppa I join with the witty British cleric Sydney Smith (1771-1845) in saying “I am so glad I was not born before tea!
Between the Rows March 8, 2014
March 20, 2014 9 am
It snowed and rained last night. As the first day of spring dawned the plow came through, but mostly they were sanding the road because things were a bit icy outside. The temperature was already 34 degrees – and climbing. More showers.
The Cottage Ornee is Spring sun
The rain stopped! Only the roofs are dripping, dripping. The sun came out and raised the temperature to 45 degrees. The snow will melt some today. I am not discouraged because I know it could always be worse. This is what the first day of spring looked like last year.
March 19, 2013
A foot of snow fell during the night – and it wasn’t the last snow fall of the year. Last year The Bridge of Flowers opened on schedule on April 1, but then closed again because of another snowfall. But I’m sure that won’t happen this year. Will it?
Guan Yin Mian Tree Peony
Guan Yin Mian is my favorite tree peony, a native Chinese plant. Guan Yin is the bodhisattva of compassion, or in terms more familiar, the goddess of mercy. During our years in China I became familiar with Guan Yin who is much given to appearing in visions, giving women the babies they and long for, and who laughs that we can struggle so – as she helps us. She is often shown wearing a gown with a rice plant design. Because out of her compassion, she transformed the weedy rice plant into a food plant that would feed millions.
Tree peonies are not really trees. They have a shrubby woody structure, so unlike herbaceous peonies they do not die down to the ground in the fall. Like herbaceous peonies they are long lived plants, and a mature plant can carry nearly a hundred gorgeous blossoms. In spite of their fragile appearance they are very hardy. A Heath winter is as nothing to them. They bloom here at the end of May and into June, but their bloom period is short. Also that is the time of year when there can be heavy spring rains beating down of the large blossoms which are fragile.
Nameless white tree peony
A tree peony should be planted where it will get at least 6 hours of sun. They will tolerate, and welcome some shade. The soil should have a pH between 6.5-7.5 and be well drained. I cannot say I have ever tested my acid New England soil for any of my peonies, but I routinely spread a few ashes, or a bit of lime. If you are going to plant two or more tree peonies together allow four feet between. You want to allow room for years of growth and heavy bloom. Also, make sure you plant them deeply enough, with the roots two or three inches below the soil surface. Again, this is very different from herbaceous peonies which should have the root just below the soil surface. After the first year, unless there is a serious drought, watering is not needed. Remove spent blossoms. In the spring I prune off any branches that have suffered winter damage, and spread compost around the peonies. You can use a low nitrogen fertilizer. Too much nitrogen will result in weak growth.
Tree peonies, all peonies, require very little maintenance and suffer very little from disease or pests. They are beautiful and graceful and I love them. The snow is not yet melted here, but the air is softer and the sun brighter. I am looking forward to Guan Yin and her tree peony sisters, the most spectacular of my early bloomers.
Guan Yin Mian Tree Peony
Chinese cabbage in Beijing
Cabbage. Such an ordinary vegetable. We don’t give it much thought. We shred it into a salad, dress it into coleslaw, or boil it up with corned beef, but there are many types of cabbage in the world, and many ways of serving it up. Think of corned beef and cabbage!
I began thinking about cabbage this week when, while sorting through some old photographs, my husband and I found a few shots of the ai guo bai cai harvest in Beijing in the fall of 1989. I had been working at Women of China Magazine since April, but every day still brought new understandings of daily life. That was a time before ‘capitalism with Chinese characteristics’ took hold. At that time the government controlled the farms, the stores, workplaces and housing. In 1989 there was a huge cabbage crop. What is grown must be eaten – or at least sold. Therefore the government decreed that every household must buy 40 kilograms (more than 80 pounds) of bai cai, Chinese cabbage to us.
Trucks brought the cabbage into the city from outlying farms. Then blue-suited white capped workers, often women, unloaded the cabbage on street corners, and in front of the state stores. Every night the TV news talked about the sale of ai guo bai cai, literally ‘love country’ cabbage, or patriotic cabbage.
Chinese cabbage Courtesy National Garden Bureau
Chinese cabbage, as most of us know, is not like the hard green heads that keep well, and are so familiar in sauerkraut and coleslaw. Chinese cabbage has looser, more elongated heads. It is not a cabbage that Chinese workers enjoyed stacking up in the hallways of their cold Beijing apartments. Nor did they enjoy eating their way through all that cabbage. I should note at this point that Beijing is a desert city. It is very dry. Also, Chinese apartments at the time were very cold in the winter. Even though these cabbages are not the storage cabbages that we are familiar with, they kept fairly well. The outer leaves would dry out and protect the inner leaves. They would be removed when it was time to prepare the fresh inner leaves for cooking.
On the rare occasions when I worked a full day in the office with my colleagues I got to see the lunches that were provided by the work unit canteen. Workers brought their own metal bowls which they carried downstairs to be filled with a big helping of rice topped with some vegetable. That fall the rice was topped watery cabbage. This sort of meal was not considered suitable for a foreigner, so I was sent down the street to eat at the newly opened McDonalds.
Barrel headed Chinese cabbage and other asian greens like pak choi and tatsoi have become more popular and more common in the U.S. since we were in Beijing so long ago. Catalogs like Johnny’s Selected Seeds and the Kitazawa Seed Company offer a range of Chinese cabbage and other asian greens.
Cabbage courtesy National Garden Bureau
All cabbages, Chinese and American, are cool weather crops. You can plant early in the spring for summer eating, and a mid-summer crop for fall storage. They are all heavy feeders and need a fertile, humusy soil with a pH of pH 6.5 to 7. Regular even waterings are essential for good cabbage development. Cabbages are susceptible to club root and bacterial soft root disease, soil borne diseases. This means you should rotate your cabbage beds with non-brassicas, in a five or six year rotation. Also look for disease resistant seeds. Bilko, a 12 inch tall, dark green Chinese cabbage from Johnny’s is resistant to both club root and fusarium yellows.
You are more likely to find cabbage starts of the more familiar greed and red cabbages at garden centers in the spring, but seeds are available for many asian greens that can be ready to harvest in as little as three weeks.
The Kitizawa catalog lists 21 varieties of pak choi. Some have the typical dark green leaves with crisp white stems., other have reddish, or yellow-green leaves. They have a slight mustardy flavor and are used in many Chinese dishes from soup to noodle dishes to stir-fries. The Chinese also pickle the coarser leaves. Pickling is an important and traditional method of food preservation in China.
We are very aware of the changes in China since we were there, but at the time it was unheard of for vegetables to be eaten raw. We assume this was a cultural habit because the Chinese traditionally used ‘night soil’ or cleanings from outhouses and such as fertilizer on farms. Even in 1989 we occasionally saw a man on a bicycle hauling his ‘honey pots’ filled with night soil from the city out to the nearby farms.
Locally, we can buy asian greens like mizuna, tatsoi, and komatsuna which are often used in salad mixes, but can also be grown for another couple of weeks for cooking. Pak choi seeds are including in the Botanical Interests Seeds Savory Mix of microgreens that I have growing in our guest room. More on that another day.
Cabbage is a nutritious vegetable that provides a big helping of vitamins, minerals and fiber. I cannot speak to the value of the cabbage boiled up the way I saw it served from the Women of China canteen, but I can say that growing cabbage, Chinese or American, and gently cooking it will give us all a big nutritional boost.
Between the Rows February 15, 2014
Rory in 2009 cooking lesson over the years
As a liberated woman I have made sure that my grandsons have had a few cooking lessons over the years. Rory was 13 when this photo was taken, but it is not his first lesson. Perfect scrambled eggs was probably an early lesson, but by 2009 he had moved along to the perfect omlette.
Rory with Saumon en papillote 2010
Saumon en papillote, a Julia Child recipe, amazingly simple, but a dish with dash, has become Rory’s specialite.
Rory’s pickles for the Heath Fair 2010
I cannot begin to tell you how many blue ribbons this family has won at the Heath Fair in August.
Rory and more pickles for the 2011 Heath Fair
We made a lot more things for the Fair than pickles. Cookies are also always on the list.
Rory with cookies 2012
I told you he made cookies!
Rory making real caramel corn 2013
Making real caramel is quite an operation, but he is up to it. When we are cooking for the Heath Fair, the rule is that I can instruct and advise, but I cannot touch anything. That rule has carried over into all our lessons.
Tynan making cookies 2008
Rory’s younger brother followed in his brother’s footsteps.
Tynan kneading his bread 2009
I bake a lot of bread. It is fun to do. I tell all the children that they have to think about all the people who will enjoy their cooking while they work. That love gets cooked right into the dish.
Tynan with his raspberry jam. 2010
If you have a raspberry patch, you must make raspberry jam, and Tynan did.
Tynan at the Art Garden in 2011
I know Tynan did some baking every year, but there does not seem to be a photographic record. However, creativity comes in all forms – many of them are found at the Art Garden in Shelburne Falls.
Drew and Anthony 2009
Because Anthony and his younger brother Drew live in Texas we got them both at the same time in the summer. Less cooking, more field work like picking raspberries.
Anthony and Drew at the Hawley kiln 2011
Of course, we take all the boys touring locally at historic sites like the Hawley kiln, and art sites like MassMoCa. There is lots to do at the End of the Road and all around western Massachusetts. I think these boys have gotten fewer cooking lessons, but they are Boy Scouts. They need to cook around the campfire.
Bella and French toast in 2013
The boys are getting ‘old.’ They’ve got jobs and less time for cooking lessons and frolicking. Fortunately, we have Bella, a great-granddaughter, who has moved close enough to start her cooking lessons.
Sheila Litchfield in the Dell
The Heath Agricultural Society gave us all a chance to go exploring the cellars and caves of our neighbors this past Saturday. Root cellars, cider cellars and a cheese cave. Who could resist this opportunity? Over 50 people signed up for this tour, many of them from towns beyond Heath. Even Springfield! I took one group around beginning with Sheila Litchfield who first explained the basics of cheesemaking. Chemistry. Bacteria. Sheila is a nurse so she knows all about bacteria. When Sheila isn’t milking her three goats to make cheese, serving as Rowe’s town nurse, and serving as a member of Heath’s selectboard, she spends ‘her spare’ time canning the produce from the large Litchfield garden. Oh, and she also gives cheesemaking workshops!
Sheila built her cheese cave in the cellar. Here, with carefully monitored temperature and humidity, she stores cheese that needs aging. She explained that she can only have one kind of cheese in this small cave, because the different cheese bacterias will infect each other, to the benefit of neither.
Litchfield Root storage
Our group got a bonus! Sheila showed us how she stores root vegetables, in crocks, on the bulkhead stairs. Not too much left at this time of year.
Andrew at Benson Place Blueberry Farm
Then it was off to the Benson Place Blueberry Farm, where noted artist Robert Strong Woodward often painted, and where I often took young grandsons to pick their own low bush blueberries. Andrew and his family have been farming here for three years. When the basement was given a cement floor in the 1960′s a corner space was left unpaved, in expectation of a root cellar. Andrew finally finished the root cellar which now has two cement foundation walls, and two walls built of rigid silvery insulation panels, extra fiberglass insulation and heavy weight black plastic. His root cellar has a window which makes it possible, with the help of flexible ductwork, to bring extra air circulation. At this point Andrew says they buy bulk vegetables from farms like Atlas Farm to store. They also use the root cellar for other foods like yogurt and meat when the refrigerator is too full.
Draxler root cellar
Andy and Sue Draxler could not put their root cellar in the cellar because their furnace made that space too warm. They poured a cement floor in their large garage/workshop, but left one corner unpaved to provide the necessary moisture for their root cellar. While Andrew’s root cellar is a little room with a window, the Draxlers built what is essentially a large closet. It is divided in two, with the intention of providing dry cold storage on one side, and moist cold storage on the other. That has not worked out as they expected, and both sides are quite moist. Sue Draxler explained are working on a fix for that. They do have their potatoes on one side and apples on the other. These two should never be stored together because the apples produce ethylene gas as they ripen, and this will cause the potatoes to sprout more quickly. Like, Andrew, the Draxlers have very little left in their root cellar at this time of the year. Sheila, Andrew and Sue all acknowledged that they had some produce loss because of the extremely cold temperatures for an extended period this year, made it impossible to keep root cellar temperatures above 32 degrees. Generally speaking root cellars should be keep between 40 and 55 degrees.
Bob Bourke and his cider press
After root cellars, we went off to explore cider cellars. Hard cider, that is. Bob Bourke took everyone down to his cellar to show his equipment and fermenting carboys of cider. Then we all went up to the porch to see his cider press. Bob bought his house and property about five or six years ago and was happy that it came with a cider orchard. He has 45 trees of various apple cultivars like Golden Russets, Baldwins, Northern Spy, Gravensteins, Jonathans and others. Good, complex ciders depend on a flavorful mix of apples. Making cider also depends on controlling the yeasts, which means cleanliness and isolation in air-locked barrels and carboys. Bob explained that it is not really difficult to make cider, but cleanliness is vital. It is also very timeconsuming when it is time to sterilize the bottles, fill and cap them. He gave out samples to our thirsty crew.
Doug Mason in his cider cellar
Doug Mason gets most of his apples from Bob. They do a lot of work – and tasting – together. He has some additional equipment that we hadn’t seen at Bob’s. To cut down on the time required for washing and sterilizing bottles, he has bought several stainless steel kegs, like those that beer comes in. Much easier to clean a keg than bottles for an equal amount of beer. He also has a bottling and capping gadget that, with a two man crew, makes this operation fairly quick. He also gave out samples. Warming! And very nice. This cider cellar is about 50 degrees. Chilly. Doug ferments his cider in the barrel for about a year or so, then bottles it, and keeps it for another year. Bob’s cellar is warmer, and it takes the cider longer to mature in Doug’s colder cellar. So much to learn.
Back at the Community Hall we could warm up. Hours spent talking about food and drink prepared us for a fabulous lunch, chilis, soups, breads, pies and cider! All prepared for tour participants by members of the Heath Agricultural Society. That is Justin Lively, Society President, in the center rear of the photo. Lots of enthusiastic conversations! The big question? What other kinds of tours can we have in Heath? What kinds of tours might other towns create?