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It’s not exactly nettle time yet.  Spring felt so early (two weeks ago. Now we’re back in deep freeze, yuck!) this year, I feel like I should be out harvesting already, but the nettles I have seen are up only a few inches and that seems a little too labour intensive to make it worth my time and bring back some bags full of prickly goodness. You could certainly harvest when they first emerge, they’re really at their best when small and young, but I want to collect quite a bit so I wait until they’re more like 6 inches high with a few more leaves.

Almost everyone knows how stinging nettle feels from accidental contact.  It’s not evil, it’s just protecting it’s incredibly nutritious self.  It’s high in protein, has a flavour similar to spinach, (and yes, that’s a bit like saying any new white meat ‘tastes like chicken’ 😉  it is rich in vitamins A, K and C, iron, potassium, manganese, and calcium.  If it were not covered in this effective defense system, herbivores would mow it to the ground for the food value, and it would not survive!

Stinging Nettle Urtica dioica. Wikipedia commons

Why does it sting? Stinging nettles are covered with countless tiny hollow hairs called trichomes. When something brushes against these hairs, their very fragile silica tips break off, and the remainder of the hair can then act like a needle. It pierces the skin, and releases a cocktail of various chemicals from the base of the hair, and it’s these that cause the sting. Not all compounds have been identified, but it definitely contains histamine, acetylcholine, and serotonin. Serotonin does not only make you happy. When injected by the stinging nettle it functions as an irritant, leading to pain. Acetylcholine is another neurotransmitter that also hurts when it comes in the form of nettles, and histamine we know well from allergic reactions, although it too has multiple functions in the body. Oxalic and tataric acid may also be responsible for the persistence of pain, although the study that showed this to be true was actually on Urtica thunbergiana, not U. dioica. Moroidin, leukotriene C4 and leukotriene B4 may also be found in nettle stings. How badly it stings is going to vary from place to place and season to season, full sun to shade.  Nettles quite likely have the ability to modulate what kind and how much of these substances they contain depending on the risk of being eaten.

Plantago major. Photo by Rasbak

What helps the sting?  If you get stung, first try not to scratch or rub it.  I know, ow, but you’ll only make it worse. Wash off the area, preferably with soap, to remove the hairs and chemicals responsible for the sting. You can use a piece of duct tape to pull out any remaining hairs. You can try chewing up a plantain leaf, Plantago major (which is usually pretty close by) and putting it on the sting.  This generally helps me right away.  Same goes for crushed jewelweed. (Impatiens noli tangere) I’ve seen dock recommended in a ton of places, but in my personal experience it doesn’t work very well. Maybe I have the wrong Rumex? Baking soda made into a paste helps soothe the area. Calamine does help, antihistamine cream, and aloe gel may all help with the persistent sting and redness.  Keep it cool, possibly with an ice pack.  Heat will make the reaction worse. No hot showers while it’s still hurting.

Getting Some Nettle. In general, ground that doesn’t run out of water seasonally, good, slightly acid soil, and the border between woods and fields is ideal nettle hunting country. Nettles love a dark, fertile loam and can be great indicators of areas where the soil is rich, maybe with old deposits of manure, deep leaf litter in fall, or old garden plots. Nettles like growing above ditches and streams, too. Just maybe avoid the ditch by the roadside.  Ick.

Harvesting Roots. Even if it’s a touch early to harvest the top parts of the plant now, it IS a great time to harvest the roots. I like harvesting roots while plants are at least semi dormant, and at least with a tiny frill of new leaves on top, you can tell where they are. Dig outside the foliage area and under the plant at least a foot to get the roots without damaging them. Also, don’t be an ass.  Ideally, a forager should be able to collect without damaging the patch or even making it obvious that you’ve been there.  Don’t take more than a quarter of any patch, space out your digs, fill in your holes and replace the duff. A casual hiker-by should not be able to tell what you’ve done.

Once you have your roots, thoroughly clean them in fresh water.  I do this in the sink with a drain sieve in because you’re going to have to scrub a fair bit to get every last bit of dirt off. Chop the roots into small pieces to use. The smaller the size, the easier it is to get everything out of them if you’re going to make tea or tincture. If you’re planning on freezing the root to preserve it you can leave it as whole as possible to keep it from losing vit. C and oxidizing. (drying is good too, the mineral content won’t degrade but freezing preserves the root in as fresh a state as possible with vitamins intact.)

Harvesting Aerial Parts. There’s a number of hacks to avoid getting stung.  #1 would be wearing gloves, of course, but if you’re like me you don’t remember to bring gloves when the mood strikes to jump out of the car and start bagging some handy herb. Very young nettles sometimes don’t sting- so now, when they’re 2-3 inches tall and just emerging, is the least annoying time to harvest.  However, the intensity of sting seems to vary WIDELY depending on where you are in the country or even in the same woods, so don’t depend on that.  If you’re near a stream, there may be clay around.  You can coat your hands in clay before picking, and it does help a lot. You can use big leaves to protect your hands but that’s very fussy and not great for a lot of picking. Knowing how to handle the nettle helps, if you’re careful.  Nettle hairs on the stem usually have a direction to them, so take a peek first. You can pick with bare hands if the only pressure is in the same direction as the hairs, pressing the hairs against the stem.  It’s tricky, but possible. My preferred method is a snip and flick one. I use scissors or pruners (whatever’s in my pocket) to snip off stems, pick the nettle up with the scissors, and flick it into the bag. Easy!

Photo by me -Leila Bee

Preserving the harvest.  You can dry nettles to preserve them for later, and I do- dry stuff packs down and stores so nicely! Dried, powdered nettle is great for adding to smoothies or stew. If you want the fullest range of benefits preserved, I would freeze it. Chop to get rid of stems, and blanch quickly (60-90 seconds) in hot water, put into a cold water bath to stop further cooking, then drain or squeeze out the excess water to freeze.  Chopping them up first means you get more in a bag. You can also make nettle pesto, and freeze it in ice cube trays which can be eaten as is or thrown into other recipes for a nutritional boost. Freeze drying is the ultimate method of preservation, but that either requires a fair bit of time or special equipment.

Mondo Medicinal Value

Nettle is a BIG subject with a long, long history of use, widespread distribution,  and has actually been studied extensively with hundreds of clinical trials to back up it’s numerous nutritional and medicinal benefits.  I’m going to try my best to put as many as I can here, so bear with me. It might get long. I’ll try not to be too dry.

I’ve heard nettles called both a man’s herb, and a women’s tonic.  It’s both and neither.  Nettle has clear benefits for hormone related conditions no matter which tackle you are packing, and plenty of nutrition for anybody.

Prostate Health. Nettle root can be used to treat benign prostatic hyperplasia, also known as an enlarged prostate, nettle root may provide relief from symptoms of this condition, particularly when taken in tandem with other medicinal herbs, such as saw palmetto. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, nettle root can help reduce the urge to urinate constantly, as well as reduce the amount of urine and dripping post-urination. But nettle root does not, unlike other medications, reduce the size of the prostate; it only provides some relief from the symptoms.  It also seems that when stinging nettle (along with other supplements) is combined with antibiotics to treat chronic bacterial prostatitis that the elimination of symptoms and long-term outcome is better than taking just an antibiotic alone. Nettle also has beneficial effects on androgenic alopecia (male pattern baldness).  So if your hair’s thinning, you may want to think about trying nettle root.

Side note- if you use pine pollen as a testosterone booster, combining it with nettle will compound the effects.

Menstruation, PCOS.  Taking nettle leaf as a vegetable or tea can reduce a heavy period to a more normal one and help prevent anemia with a large dose of iron that’s easily assimilated. Sufferers of PCOS (Poly Cystic Ovary Syndrome) may be able to use nettle root to assuage symptoms. There are several natural substances that bind to and stimulate sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG), which then binds some of the testosterone in our blood stream, which in turn reduces the hyperandrogenism of PCOS. The root of the nettles plant contains many lignans and these compounds have an affinity to SHBG in humans. Nettles root can also affect aromatase inhibition which could inhibit the conversion of the weaker testosterone to dihydrotestosterone.

I can’t find a definite yay or nay on whether it’s good for pregnancy or not.  Some sources say yes, some no, because it does have an effect on hormones but is highly nutritious and has many benefits for someone with a higher demand on vitamins and minerals. (Personally I’d say it’s a good thing, but I’d ask your doctor, I’m no expert on pregnancy.) After the kid’s out though, definitely eat those nettles, as they aid in milk production in lactating mothers. They also help with a bunch of postpartum problems like bleeding, general nutrition and UTI’s.

Hemostatic. Due to the large amount of vit. K in nettles, which is required for regular clotting, it’s great for treating bleeding (It’s not a first aid measure though). Midwives often use it for spotting during pregnancy, it can regulate periods that are too heavy, counteracting persistent bleeding during menopause, and other types of excessive bleeding.  That being said- if you don’t know why you’re bleeding see your doctor, don’t just drink tea and hope for the best!

Allergies. Interesting that something containing histamine will help arrest or reduce allergic reactions, but it certainly does! A 2009 study also showed that nettle inhibited proinflammatory pathways related to allergic rhinitis by antagonizing histamine 1 receptor, inhibiting prostaglandin (PG) formation and inhibiting degranulation. This is great news for people who experience seasonal allergies, or who have histamine sensitivity. Works best for seasonal allergies if you start taking nettles before the known triggers start so the body is already less reactive to histamines by the time the pollen starts to fly. It will still help after, but proactive use gets better results.

UTI’s, Kidney Stones. Nettle is sometimes used to treat urinary tract infections (including chronic ones), cystitis, kidney stones and other kidney troubles.  It is diuretic, so yes, you will pee a bit extra if you’re taking nettle.  One note of caution if you’re using it to treat bladder or kidney problems, you have to do the harvest before it goes into flower. Calcium oxalate crystals form on the leaves after flowering and these will have the opposite effect, irritating the bladder and kidneys.  So spring collection only, for that!

Arthritis. Nettle can be used to treat pain in the muscles and joints. For the last 2000 years at least, people simply stung themselves with a handful of the aerial parts, which would certainly result in irritation and pain, but afterward reduces swelling and pain from the arthritis.  Now it could be that this is due to nerve distraction effect like capcaisin, but more likely the sting injects a histaminic substance and the body mounts an antihistaminic reaction, some of which goes to the sting, some to the other inflammation. We’re still not sure exactly how it works.  Nettle is most commonly used to treat osteoarthritis. A 2013 issue of “Phytomedicine” found that stinging nettle, including the root, when extracted into an oil-based solution, helped reduce inflammation. So even topically in salve, nettle could be of use! Great potential was indicated, but further study is still required. As usual, right?

Gout. Nettle lowers the concentration of uric acid in the blood, so is also helpful for gout.  It may help in the case of many types of joint pain by promoting the elimination of uric acid from joints with a gentle, alkalizing diuretic activity. Again, you want to harvest the pre flowering top parts to avoid calcium oxalate crystals.

Cautions. In addition to possible side effects, stinging nettle, as a supplement and as a foodstuff, may cause adverse side effects with certain medicines. If you are taking blood thinners or high blood pressure medication, be aware that stinging nettle can affect your blood’s clotting ability, as well as potentially lower your blood pressure, reducing and enhancing the effects of these medications respectively. Nettle may also increase the effects of diabetes drugs, diuretics and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications. Stinging nettle may make it harder for your body to rid itself of lithium as a result of its diuretic effect.

Young nettles with purple tints- photo Leila Bee

‘Let Food be thy Medicine’…. Eat them because they taste GOOD. Aside from all the carrying on about how great they are for you, nettles are simply a tasty spring green.  Sometimes I’ll just eat a steamed bowl of nettles with butter on it and nothing else. Nomnomnom. They’re a bit spinachy, but nettles have their own flavour and you’ll just have to try them and see. This is one time that taking your medicine will taste just fine. There’s a ton of recipes out there, but you can basically use them in anything you’d use a hearty green leafy thing in. Here’s a bunch of recipes to start with.

But Wait, There’s MORE!

Cordage and Fibres for Weaving. So far it’s been all about the spring harvest.  When it comes to using them for the fibre, you actually want to wait until late summer or early fall, when the stems are at their tallest and stretchiest, because if you want to use them for weaving or cordage you want the longest strands you can get. Small tip- shade grown nettles are taller, sun grown have stronger fibres. rather than put the whole process in this post, I’m going to give you a link to a step by step instruction with pictures here.

Dye. Nettles make a good dye, and although the colour is fairly muted it’s also surprisingly lightfast for a vegetable dye. You’re not going to get an emerald green, although a little copper in the dye bath will turn up the green a bit. Here’s a good tutorial on nettle dye.

Animal Fodder. Although they won’t generally touch it in the field, farm animals who like vegetative matter quite enjoy nettles once dried, blanched, or baled into hay.  It’s as good for them as it is for us, so if you’re at all concerned that your animals aren’t getting enough nutrition, try adding dried nettles to their feed. The abundant carotenoids give egg yolks a punch of colour, so try adding some nettle to the chicken feed in the cold months when there’s not a lot of fresh green around. Enhancing milk production works for goats, sheep and cows as it does for us, so nettles for your livestock is a great addition during baby season.

Compost. Nettles are an excellent compost accelerator, especially if you’re a little heavy on the carbon in your heap. If your heap is a little sluggish, try turning the layers over with a few armfuls of nettle. Stems are fine, although chopping everything a bit helps speed up decomposition.  No roots, unless you want a nettle forest!

Biodynamic prep #504 is made with nettle. Steiner said that using the compost prep nettle is “like an infusion of intelligence for the soil” (Agriculture, 100) For this prep, collect nettles before flowering, dry them, and bury them stuffed into clay pots or wooden boxes laid mouth to mouth in the soil, in fall. They’re supposed to stay there for a full year.   (note- I like a lot of things about biodynamic farming, and I’ve seen things work when I can’t really quantify WHY, but I’m very attached to being able to prove results and reason out how they work, so I’m a little reticent to start talking about enhancing the ‘intelligence of the soil’.)

Fermented Nettle for Liquid Feed: This is more like a Korean Natural Farming technique, but Victorians used it in steam heated glasshouses too.  It works.  It stinks, but it WORKS. Make some fermented nettle liquid fertilizer by filling a large jar or bucket with the leaves and stems, bruising the foliage first. Weight down the nettles with a rock or whatever you have laying around and then cover with water. Only fill three-quarters of the bucket with water to allow room for the foam that will be created during the brewing process. Use non-chlorinated water, possibly from a rain barrel, and set the bucket somewhere you won’t smell it. Leave the mix for one to three weeks to ferment, stirring every couple of days until it stops bubbling. Finally, strain out the nettles and dilute the concoction at one part fertilizer to 10 parts water for watering plants or 1:20 for direct foliar application. Use leftovers in compost, or keep the bucket going now that you have a fermentation ‘mother’ by adding new bruised plant material and water.

Butterflies! Nettles are essential food for a few types of butterflies, as the sting keeps grazing animals off the plants and the caterpillars safe until they pupate. If you like Peacock, Red Admiral, Painted Lady, Small Tortoiseshell or Comma butterflies, don’t take down that patch on your property.

That’s…not even everything, I’m sure.  Whew.

After all this delving I’ll be sure to be on top of my nettle harvest this year.  With all these benefits, I really don’t want to run out again. (Shakes last bag with a handful of sad dried leaves in it.)

Happy Harvesting!

 

 

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Disaster

Sometimes the best laid plans don’t play out.  Sometimes they crash in a flaming, sticky, horror inducing heap that’s got you wondering what the hell you can salvage from this.  And maybe you can’t.  Maybe you have to walk away with the smoldering remains of your shirt on your back and scrape up some kind of sustenance with your bare hands out of the dirt.

Luckily, that’s just what we ‘preppers’ or ‘survivalists’ are prepared to do.  We can get plants to eat. We can treat some medical issues with no doctor around. We can salvage, invent, manage.  (At least we think we can.  You don’t really get put to the test as a general rule.) The only part of this that doesn’t get discussed very often is dealing with the emotional fallout when everything goes wrong.

I’m not fooling myself about this eventuality.  It’s frightening. I can’t get my head around the totality of it, and it doesn’t even compare to the times when I’ve felt immense loss due to some smallish disaster in my own life.  The collapse will not only be about survival, but also mourning, depression, terror, and brutality. And yes, we’re putting up with that now, but it’s nothing compared to what could be.

Unless you’ve been a refugee, you probably don’t know what it’s like to lose EVERYTHING. You may feel like it though.  Maybe you’ve lost a partner, a child, a job, that makes you feel like you have lost it all, everything that supported you and provided meaning to your life.  That can be more devastating than the thought of having to back-to-the-land-it because society has collapsed or some disaster cuts off your precious smart phone or there’s no government infrastructure.  The really, really frightening thought is losing people, not things.  We know that, but until it comes to the crunch, we don’t think about it a lot.  Because it’s scary as hell.

It’s one thing to say you can do first aid, even quite informed first aid (let’s assume you’ve been a paramedic or something), and another to do surgery, care for a person with a progressive disease like cancer or alzheimers, or care for an injury like a severed limb or spinal injury.  How about dentures?  Quite likely you’ll lose fillings eventually, and then teeth.  Dealing with your wild diet is going to suck (literally) with no teeth. What about when you simply don’t know what’s wrong and someone slips towards death while you watch helplessly?

Welcome to pre technology. Doesn’t sound very Eden-like right now, does it?

I think I was supposed to have a point here.  This is kind of bleak.

The other side of the coin, in case of total disaster, is that we may very well have less fear and stress in our lives even while we do have to fight for every calorie.  This world of instant communication means we take on every worry we hear about, including when it has NOTHING to do with us. You’re in a constant state of fear, worry, painful empathy, danger danger danger that may very well be a half a world away.  It’s not actually your danger. At least while I’m trying to care for someone who fell down a cliff, it’s MY danger.  Those blissful moments when you’re belly’s full and you’re warm and cuddling your child or partner in your shelter, you may actually get some kind of peace.

We talk a good game about gratitude, but the kind of really intense gratitude that you feel when you’ve got a full meal after starving for a few days, or a hot bath after being dirty for weeks, or enfolded in another’s arms after enduring enforced solitude.  You have to get deprived of the good things to REALLY feel grateful for them when they’re there.  Much like the feeling of being vibrantly alive after almost dying.  It wears off though, unless you’re usually in that state of deprivation. We don’t go to those lengths if we don’t have to, because people like comfort more than they like being grateful for it.

I feel like much as I might imagine it, and have some experience of going without other people around, or showers, or eating decently, I’ve really got no idea. Really having no resources is as scary as much as it’s a freeing thought. I’m always going to be interested in being as independant as possible, knowing how to butcher, grow, build and wildcraft for my needs.  But really, it’s just in case, it’s in a way a luxury, (if you sell such goods) and I’d rather do it in a world where if I’m truly desperate I have some other options. I think it’s important and personally satisfying to be prepared for anything, but I’d prefer that it takes place in a world that has emergency services. Maybe if we all take on a little more personal responsibility for basic needs it’ll make it easier to keep those essentials.  I hope so.

Oh, Onions.

Ode To The Onion 
by Pablo Neruda
Onion,
luminous flask,
your beauty formed
petal by petal,
crystal scales expanded you
and in the secrecy of the dark earth
your belly grew round with dew.
Under the earth
the miracle
happened
and when your clumsy
green stem appeared,
and your leaves were born
like swords
in the garden,
the earth heaped up her power
showing your naked transparency,
and as the remote sea
in lifting the breasts of Aphrodite
duplicating the magnolia,
so did the earth
make you,
onion
clear as a planet
and destined
to shine,
constant constellation,
round rose of water,
upon
the table
of the poor.You make us cry without hurting us.
I have praised everything that exists,
but to me, onion, you are
more beautiful than a bird
of dazzling feathers,
heavenly globe, platinum goblet,
unmoving dance
of the snowy anemoneand the fragrance of the earth lives
in your crystalline nature.
26685368_10156147633441133_6517514420392179924_o

Red Soldier Beetles making sweet, sweet love on an onion flower.

What would our meals be without onions? Like a kiss without a hug, I say! Sure, it lacks the structural necessity of eggs, or the  essential savour of salt, it’s not like you couldn’t live without the onion, I suppose.  But who wants to??  Cook up a pan of onions, and it already smells like FOOD in the kitchen, you pull drifters off the sidewalk and husbands from the yard, sell boy scout hot dogs by the pound, all because of the delicious smell of onions.  Now, I won’t go into the cookery of them (other than to say you can’t caramelize an onion in ten minutes no matter what anyone tells you so don’t try…) because that’s not my wheelhouse.  Nope, I’m going to talk about
growing them.
So, why can’t you grow big, fat onions like the grocery store sells?  WHY?? Onions are actually tough bastards.  Anyone can grow an onion and they’ll probably be okay no matter how terrible a gardener you are. But big, fat, juicy, resplendent onions luscious as the globes of a lingerie model’s bottom?  That’s trickier.
Firstly, onions grow in layers, which I’m sure you figured out already, but may not have realized that each leaf corresponds to one of those crystalline shells. If you have 12 leaves you get 12 rings.  Fat juicy healthy leaves make-well, you get the picture. Those leaves will transfer their carbohydrates into the bulb, making that sucker plump up- this is the ‘bulbing’ stage. After that starts no more leaves will be produced. So before you get to the big fat onion satisfaction part, you have to grow the top bits as big and green and leafy as possible.
So how d’you do that?  First, we must begin with where you live and what kind of onion you’re going to grow. We’re talking about Allium cepa here, the bulbing or common onion.  I’ll save the other members of the family for another post.
There’s short day, intermediate, and long day onions.  Which one will do the best for you depends mainly on your latitude, and a little bit on how early you get started. The goal is to pick a variety that gives you as long as possible to grow as many large leaves prior to bulbing. The variety, however, must not require so many hours of day length that your area will not reach the bulbing threshold needed to trigger the start of the bulbing process. In the Northern Hemisphere, the farther you are from the equator, the longer the days will be during the summer and, therefore, the longer period that you have to create foliage. In general, long day types are better keepers than short day types.
So essentially, if you live above 35th parallel of latitude you want long day onions, below it you want short day onions.  If you’re right on it, within a few degrees, there’s intermediates. Or you can try an intermediate pretty much anywhere as they start bulbing when the day length reaches 12 to 14 hours. Almost all areas of the country reach that range of day length.
SO which ones are those, Miz Helpful, right? I won’t be cruel and tell you that your nursery knows best and will automatically carry the ones best suited.  They might, but many companies are terrible at being specific about their onions.  For instance we get bags of sets listed as ‘red’ ‘white’ and ‘yellow’. Gee, thanks a lot. There’s too many damn onions to give you a really full and complete list but here goes with some of the most popular:
Short Day Onions:
Georgia Sweet (aka Yellow Granex, Maui, Noonday)
Texas Legend, Texas Early White, Texas Grano ( if it says “Texas“, it’s probably a short day, ok?)
Red Creole
Vidalia
Southern Belle
Red Burgundy
1015 Supersweet
Contessa
Pinot Rouge
Mata Hari
Rio Bravo
Milky Way
Intermediate Onions:
Candy
Super Star
Red Candy Apple
Cimmaron
Australian Brown
White Portugal
Southport Yellow Globe
Southport Red Globe
Early Yellow Globe
Italian Red
Flat Madiera
Rich Sweet White/Yellow Exhibition
Rossa Di Milano
Red Ruby
Red Amposta
Balajo
White Wing
Zoey
Long Day Onions:
Red Torpedo (borderline intermediate)
Ailsa Craig
Kelsae (if you’re trying to grow huge prizewinners, this is your onion.)
Spanish
Walla Walla
Copra
Highlander
Red River
Red Zeppelin
Red Bull
Cipollini
Big Daddy
Cometa
Calibra
Cabernet
So, aside from planting the correct type of onion, what else?  Fertilizing.
Nitrogen.
I know they’re growing under the ground, which means we tend to go heavy on the phosphorus as if it were a potato or beet, but onions actually like a very healthy dose of nitrogen, more like leaf crops.  See, we’re growing leaves to grow the bulb, right?  You want a very fertile soil overall to grow big onions, they are heavy feeders.  However, excess N applications can result in late maturity, large necks that are difficult to cure, soft bulbs, and poor storage quality. A higher percentage of fertilizer N is absorbed by the plant if the fertilizer is applied when the onion root system is well developed. Split applications of nitrogen are used more effectively by the plant than a single pre-plant broadcast application. Fertilizer N applied before planting should be banded well away (6″) from the seed on the furrow side of rows in two-row onion beds. Side dressed nitrogen applications or nitrogen applied in irrigation water can be an effective means of providing supplemental nitrogen to the crop during the season. If rainfall is very heavy, or temperatures are cool, you may want to increase it a little as both of these things will decrease available nitrogen.  Back off the nitrogen applications in mid July.  Too much delays maturity and affects storage quality. My favourite organic high nitrogen fertilizer is blood meal.  You can side dress with it and/or water it in, and it keeps the rabbits and deer away from new greens nicely.
Phosphorus is essential for early growth and best applied before planting, banded 2″ below and to the side of seeds.  That way the rather stubby roots can get to it easily. Bat and bird guano is about the best source possible, rock phosphate is pretty good, bone meal is too slow unless it’s powdered. Fish emulsion or meal is just about perfect if it’s around 4.2.2. or 5.2.2.
Potassium isn’t a huge need in most soils, but it is needed, and as long as your soil isn’t alkaline, a sprinkling of wood ash in the soil before planting is great for onions.  (From a nice clean fire obviously, not one you threw plastic wrappers or garbage into because eeeew.) You could also use greensand, granite dust, banana peels (composted), & kelp.
Magnesium.  Epsom salts is not a magic cure for everything- but in this case, it can be really helpful as onions need a decent amount of it, and in the PNW where I live, soils are often magnesium poor. Acid sandy soils often need a little extra.
Sulphur.  Since sulphur is what gives onions their characteristic smell and taste (And tear-inducing qualities) it stands to reason that they need a good dose of available sulphur. Careful with it though, as sulphates acidify soil and onions like it on the sweet side. If you use flowers of sulphur on your soil do it well in advance of planting as soil bacteria can take up to a year to convert it into a form that plants can use.  Plus you’ll get a big bounce in pH as it works that can be hard to keep track of. Kitchen veg scrap compost generally has plenty.
Irrigation: Onions usually have smallish root systems, (although very loose soil can help them grow much bigger,) so attention to irrigation is absolutely necessary for big juicy onions. There’s lots of veg you can force into growing huge deep roots to compensate for less frequent watering, but onions are not one of them. Also, maintaining an even soil moisture is important in reducing incidence of double-centred bulbs. Moisture at the very top of the soil is quite important, so a good mulch (I like straw) is helpful if not essential.  Onions also do not do well with competition from weeds, so- mulch.  You can quit watering when the green tops fall over, which means the onions are imminently ready to come out.
Seeds or Sets?
Most people do buy onion sets, (Those mesh bags with teeny little onions in them) because it’s easy and they’re widely available. Technically, sets are second year plants and they can flower instead of growing a nice bulb if not treated well, or if you get a solid drop in temperature after they start to grow. But hey, if you’re late to the game and feel like the spring is definitely sprung, go for it. I like to know what I’m growing and they are quite often inadequately labelled. I prefer, if I remember to do it early enough, to grow from seed. It is also ridiculously cheap. Your nursery will probably carry young onions ‘in the green’ in pots in spring, looking quite a lot like tufts of grass and those are just fine too. Separate them!  Each little onion needs some space to become a nice big bulb. 4-5 inches apart is good.
Starting Seed
Do it early. February or March is about right for spring sowing.  You can also do it Octoberish if you have very mild weather and plan on planting in fall, or a great growing area indoors to overwinter them in. It’s a good idea to use fresh sterilized starter mix to be on the safe side.  I have also completely disobeyed this rule and been fine. Worm castings enhance germination and I like using them in my starter mix to start seeds.  This is anything but sterile.  It also complicates things, in that any seeds in the castings already will germinate and grow like crazy, so you might have to weed it a bit and that can be irritating (and confusing if you have grass seed germinate).  So- duly warned, make your choice.
Bottom heat is extremely helpful to get even, fast germination of seeds (not just with onions, with pretty much everything.) Onion germination is fastest as 68-77°F (20-25°C), with slight temperature drops at night. You can cheat if you don’t have seed warming mats by putting trays on top of the refrigerator.  Put tops on the trays or put them in a bag so the moisture stays even- in just over a week you should have sprouts. After they sprout though, you need some light.  A couple of fluorescents are totally adequate for this. Seedlings are ready to transplant to larger containers (or possibly outside, with protection like reemay or row covers if you have an early spring) when they have three leaves each. If it is too cold out- definitely wait! Consistent exposure to temperatures below 50°F (10°C) for more than 10 days can cause onions to bolt (produce flowers) rather than producing big bulbs.
Planting out
Not too deep!  The neck of the bulb should be just under the surface. Space 4-5 inches apart for large onions, you can crowd if you just want green onions. Make sure you’ve banded your fertilizer or soil amendment into the soil before planting. Mulch to suppress weeds, or sow some fast growing greens like lettuces, something you plan on pulling/cutting young so it doesn’t shade out the onions too much.
How MANY?
Important question- if you’re going to try to grow all your onions for a year, how many would you grow? Average consumption is somewhere around twenty lbs. per person, per year.  Assuming you do a good job you can expect 10-15 lbs per 10 ft. row. Always expect lower than average yields to be on the safe side.  You have no idea what’s coming your way. So if you really want to be hedging your bets with extra onions to give away or french onion soup all winter, twenty feet per person!

cottonwoods fallen budsCottonwoods seem to get a whole lot of bad press and not enough praise.  As soon as the fluff starts to fly in late spring/ early summer people seem to want to gripe about it. Oh sure, some do enjoy the warm season snow, delicate as goosedown, swirling, lofting and icing the sidewalks. It’s a little magical when the flurries are a-fly. I promise  it is not making you sneeze, it’s just what you see in front of you while other tree and grass pollens play merry hell with your sinuses. Cottonwood pollen is released long before the flurf flies- that’s actually the mature seed with a silken sail attached.

There’s also the abundant branch shedding, of course.  It’s not a tree for the obsessively tidy. It’s branching is abundant, even shaggy, and the wood snaps easily in high winds, leading to littered landscapes.  (But if you have a chipper, or are a wizard with the shears, lots of lovely ramial wood chips for soil improvement.)  It rots quickly and also makes great mushroom logs if you have larger diameter fallen branches to dispose of.

I notice when I look up cottonwood trees, everyone writes as if the local tree is ‘THE’ cottonwood.  In fact, it’s a large number of populus that people call “Cottonwood”. In the West coast of North America, my ‘hood, it’s Populus trichocarpa. Most widely distributed is Populus tremuloides (mainly Canada, but found as far south as central Mexico.) Populus deltoides mainly from the central and East USA, but a bit into the Southern Canadian prairies. Populus grandidentata in the East in a swoosh from the Great Lakes to the coast. There’s a whack of them. If you care to make a precise ID of your particular poplar (yes, I also mean cottonwood)- check the ranges. Google ‘Populus’ with your state or province and you should be able to figure out which one you’re looking at. It also hybridizes easily where ranges intersect- just to throw a curveball into your I.D.  It’s not limited to the Americas either- Europe and Asia have plenty of poplars, too.

All varieties can be used in much the same way, though, and while one variety might be medicinally superior, I don’t know which. I’d need a lab and USDA level access to fresh samples. The spring bud resin of any can be used to make a soothing anti-infammatory salve.  Also called Balm of Gilead, use of cottonwood bud salve is very old and very widespread- you can find it in Culpeper’s Compleat Herbal, Russian formulas using bear grease, the Salish peoples of the Pacific Northwest-essentially, everybody who has had access figured out this tree’s resin was a storehouse of medicinal power. Collecting windblown buds in early spring seems the epitome of ethical wildcrafting!cottonwood buds

Poplars grow fast. I guess you might need to, when your substrate is quite likely to shift without the stabilizing influence of your roots. They prefer moist soils, rivers and lakes in most varieties, but definitely abundant surface moisture when the seeds sprout, since they are viable only for a short time.  Water probably distributes as much seed and live material as the air filled with ‘snow’. My nearby Fraser River has large islands in the middle of it essentially made of cottonwoods alone, catching the suspended silt and sand. They shift position stealthily on dark nights…. well, maybe not that fast, but they do creep around. Cottonwood roots easily from dropped branches in spring, and sprouts vigorously from deer and beaver-girdled young trees, it’s a very vigorously alive tree.  Propagation is ridiculously simple.  A tilted log may become a mother of thousands.

The classic river or lakeside profile of the local cottonwood is crowded, shaggy, swoopy- classic cottonwood profilethe branches seem to sag under their own weight, and then optimistically rise up at the tips, almost making an ‘s’ with longer branches. When older, trunks grey and fissure, growing corky. When young they grow in gregarious groups, but are very shade intolerant trees, so tend to grow in groups of similar age.  Young seedlings soon expire in the heavy shade of abundant parent trees.

Cottonwoods can live a few hundred years- as much as 400, but usually don’t.  Typically cottonwoods succumb to rot, or undermining by water, or some other accident at 70-100. Living on riverbanks can be precarious.  They often break records for girth within their span, however.  The largest trees in both Manitoba and Saskatchewan are cottonwoods.

Early settlers would keep an eye out for cottonwood when travelling, as it’s presence indicated water.  They made frequent and widespread use of the fast growing tree for windbreaks, fenceposts, firewood and basketry. Wherever cottonwood is found, the people living among them have a history of use.  The Salish called it ‘The Tree of Life’, the Mojave people used it for practically everything one might use a tree for, the Hopi carved the roots into Kachina dolls. It’s a symbol of benevolent spirits and abundant life wherever it grows. The cambium is edible, and even tasty when the down is flying.cottonwoods branchy br

Other Uses

The wood of the tree itself isn’t as soft as the breakable branches might imply, and makes a very serviceable lumber. It’s fairly soft for making furniture with but oiling it helps prevent scratching and denting, and using it for things like trim or moldings is just fine. Since it grows so fast, that makes it quite a good choice for agroforestry projects. The trees can be coppiced for animal fodder. The wood holds inks unusually well, and makes excellent boxes and baskets, cut thin. Approved by the FDA for food containers and very workable, cottonwood also makes good bowls and cups. It’s light and ideal for models and children’s toys. As firewood it makes 16.8 million BTU’s per cord- not great, actually-but abundant! Cottonwood that has fallen as a result of rot smells a little funky though, so you might want to save that for outdoor fires.

Often thought of as a ‘waste’ tree, cottonwoods are in fact a storehouse of medicine, fast wood, wildlife support and great permaculture potential. See if you can find some at a river near you!

Fun Fact: Pando is a clonal colony of Populus tremuloides in Utah so big that it’s the heaviest (and at an estimated 80,000 years, one of the oldest) known organism.

The Oaks of Song and Story

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Photo by Aleksander Kaasik

Few trees have the immense history, the personality, and garner the reverence that Oaks do. Oaks are legendary. Although they are not the world’s longest lived trees, they may stand for many centuries, even a millennia, and reach great height and girth.  Some have  become well known as individuals, standing impassive through the rise and fall of man’s short ages and empires, shading one generation after another.

Notable Oaks

The Ivenack Oak  in Mecklenburg, Germany is 1200 years old, and called the King of German Oak Trees. France’s sacred Chapel Oak (Chêne chapelle) has two chapels that were

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Chene chapelle photo by Ji-Elle

built into the hollow trunk in 1669 and a staircase encircling the base of the tree. Hit by a lightning strike when it was about 500, the center burned out but the oak continued to grow, the local Abbot Du Detroit and the village priest, Father Du Cerceau, determined that the lighting striking and hollowing the tree was an event that had happened with holy purpose. So they built a place of pilgrimage devoted to the Virgin Mary in the hollow.  In later years, the chapel above was added, as was the staircase. The Rumskulla Oak of Sweden is acknowledged as the widest Oak in Europe at 14.4 metres, and the most famous tree in Poland is the Bartek Oak, which sheltered King Casimir III (1310–1370) and his court, as well as King Jan III Sobieski, who rested under the oak on his way back from the Battle of Vienna (1683)

There are multiple notable Oaks in Britain, the Sherwood Forest Major Oak, famous for it’s connection to Robin Hood, the Bowthorpe Oak with a hollowed centre capable of holding a dinner party of 20 people (for which it was used in the past), and several Oaks believed to be older than the country of England itself, within the boundaries of Severnake Forest,  the only privately owned ancient forest in England.

The Oak is sacred to many people, although perhaps most famously in western culture to the Celts. When one mentions the sacred Oaks, the prevalent imagery is of a grove of ancient Oaks venerated and whispered to by druids, yet there are Oaks as esteemed and sacred on the opposite side of the globe we easily forget.  In the Oley Valley, Pennsylvania there is a great Chinkapin Oak looked upon as the shrine tree of the Lenape people who were the original inhabitants of the region:

According to legend, a beautiful woman, the wife of a powerful chief, became very ill. All the tribe’s medicine men were called in; they administered many medicines, to no effect. Slowly, the chief’s wife became weaker and sicker. Finally, desperate for a cure, the young chief traveled to the Sacred Oak and there prayed to the Great Spirit for his wife to be saved. When he returned to camp, his wife was well again. Several years went by and the tribe was threatened by a hostile tribe. Once again, the chief traveled to the Sacred Oak and prayed to the Great Spirit, who gave him guidance. The warring tribes smoked the peace pipe together under it’s canopy.  Horticulturist Rachel Theis, who owns the land the Oak sits on, estimates the age of the tree as 500+ and most notably the Oak is of a species not found in the region, an aberration that may have been a trade item, making it all the more special.

Practical Uses

Acorns have long been an important carbohydrate source for people who still forage for food, and we are coming back to that as we try to find alternate sources of carbs that don’t require massive monocultures or ridiculous inputs to grow them.  Oaks are a prime example of hundred year + planning when designing a permaculture landscape, in fact a hundred year old oak is just a baby. You will have to wait a bit if you’re planting young oaks-they generally take about 20 years to produce acorns. Oak will eventually give you and all the nut-eating animals around you a large amount of available calories if you care to put a little time into the shelling, leaching and grinding. Excellent instructions on how to eat acorns, and which varieties are best for what, can be found here at Hunter Gardener Angler Cook. You may need a whole lot of space to process enough for large amounts of flour. The foragers I know who do this use an entire, tarped room to collect and sort the acorns.

acorns

Acorns photo by Norman Walsh

Wood is, of course, an excellent reason to grow oak. Many of the massively wide and incredibly twisted forms of ancient oaks were created by pollarding, the practice of cutting off the top part of a tree to produce a regrowth of a dense and bushy crown, generally for firewood or livestock feed. One year’s growth makes ‘tree hay’- small branches of fairly even size in abundance, while waiting five years or so produces many branches of even size that can be used in woodworking or light construction.  Strong, durable, easy to work and rot-resistant, oak is an extremely useful wood to have handy, and makes excellent firewood (White oak will produce 26.4 million BTU’s per cord.) Big boards require big trees, but firewood for rocket stoves and wood for durable furniture and tools are easy to come by with a few oaks available to sustainably harvest.

Medicine is another reason to utilize oak.  Oak possesses the following healing properties: astringent, fever reducing, tonic, antiseptic, anti-viral, anti-tumor, and anti-inflammatory actions. In addition, oak has been used to get rid of worms and other parasites. Number one use on my list, which is also kind of a cautionary tale, is stopping diarrhea. A simple tea made of the leaves or a bark decoction will also certainly constipate you if you’re not running to the john, so fair warning. Go easy on the internal use until you have some idea of how much it’s going to bung you up. This is another reason why most acorns require quite a bit of leaching before they are ready to be eaten.

A fast poultice of oak leaves can be used to bring down swelling and reduce irritation due a wide variety of problems like insect bites, poison ivy, or (ahem) hemorrhoids. 

The abundant tannins lend themselves to a whole host of other uses around a homestead.  Tanning hides with oak is old as the hills, although certainly not the only tree you can use.  Braintan.com has done a great job explaining how to go about the process.  Oak chips and leaves can be used to clarify and flavour beer or wine. Oak galls can be used to make a good dark ink. Oak leaves take forever to break down, (usually two-three years) so shredded leaves added to a compost pile are more a’brown’ material than ‘green’, but help to make a very stable mulch. Yes, they are acid, but it’s a weak organic acid and composting down oak leaves isn’t going to seriously affect your soil pH, unless you pile up a literal ton of fresh leaves in one spot.

Oak makes good mushroom logs (highly recommended for shiitake), and also is a host tree for delicious boletes, chanterelles and (nomnomnom) truffles.

Acorns make excellent pig and goat food, right around the time you might want to fatten them up.  An oak tree sited to hang over their pen, or being allowed to forage under oaks in acorn season adds nutrition and easy carbs to their diet without any work from you.

Oak makes microclimates. An old oak tree can be BIG- really, really big.  A hundred foot spread is an entirely reasonable expectation. Keep that in mind when siting a new tree or creating guilds.  One large tree can pump out a huge amount of water into the air via transpiration, change the nature of the ground under it with shading and yearly mulch, keep plants from the harshest of winter damage, even while leafless, and provide windbreaks and shelter in a field.

I’d like to make some notes about guilding with oaks here, but in reality your first considerations should be root competition and shade when guilding, because oaks are pretty convivial. Toby Hemenway did some research on the Oregon White Oak community and came up with these natives growing with White Oak: California Hazelnut, Pacific Madrone, Mazzard Cherry, Black Hawthorn, Saskatoon Serviceberry, Creambush Oceanspray, Round-Leaved Snowberry, Thimbleberry, Trailing Blackberry, Sweetbriar Rose, Broad-Petaled Strawberry, Poison Oak, Yerba Buena, Sweet Ciceley, American Vetch. From that, I’d say you’re safe with hazelnuts, any kind of Prunus, Amelanchier, strawberries, any Rubus, Ribes or Rosa, and leguminous ground covers. Ramps should work well in the dappled shade underneath. Garry Oak Ecosystems data may be useful in creating effective guilds as well- I know I’d sure love to see more mass Camas plantings!

Hope this helps you in valuing your Oaks, if you have some, or inspires you to try something new with them. Happy gardening!

It’s snowing again.

It’s been a rough winter here.  Yes, I know the rest of Canada is laughing at the West coast while we despair over a few measly snowfalls and a few weeks (on and off) under zero, but it’s driving us here in Lotus land crazy. We don’t know what to do with all this white stuff and it’s well past time to put in peas.

Hand in hand with the horror of repeated slushy meltdowns and extended freezes, goes dead plants.  In addition to the certainly dead and dishearteningly soft, there’s the ones we’re not really sure about yet, until new green shoots convince us that all hope is not lost. One after another pass inspected through my hands while I clean up the nursery, nicking the bark, looking for the glimmer of green that spells life. Bushes are frostburnt, newly planted perennials squashed into submission, tree limbs forlornly dangle after ice storms have had their way. It’s more than a little depressing.  I was wondering what to write about this month, while I would normally be lyrically inspired by the first of the spring bulbs and the imminence of cherry blossoms, right now I’m most inspired by the stuff I know isn’t dead.

The Haskaps.

How do I love thee, Haskap? Let me count the ways.  Firstly, cold hardiness. At the top of my list, presently, for obvious reasons.  Although we often have serious zone envy when it comes to more southerly regions, in the case of the Haskap the south envies us. The warmest USDA zone it can tolerate currently is zone 8, and that’s really pushing it. Most of the cultivars would prefer it much colder. To be really honest, they are not the best berry bush choice in my own zone 7, more of an interesting addition to the garden to provide season extension, as (reason to love it #2) it fruits earlier than almost anything else in the garden, sometimes even before strawberries. And you can grow it in zone 1! 1!! Haskap has been successfully grown in Moose Factory, which is an actual Canadian city name, I kid you not.  I also love it because it puts up with a huge variety of soils and plant combinations are virtually endless.

haskap-berry

‘Boreal Blizzard’ a new release from the University of Saskatchewan breeding program

The multiplicity of names is not helpful to the newbie. Haskap, Honeyberry, Blue Honeysuckle, Fly Honeysuckle (or swampfly honeysuckle, which makes me feel more than a little sorry for the people who named it.  I can imagine what boreal harvesting is like in a bog in the nice weather. Bug city.) It’s Lonicera caerulea, with a whole host of variety names depending on the origin of the plant and which botanist you’re speaking to. I defer to Haskap, for a few reasons.  The University of Saskatchewan breeding program, an invaluable source of information and stock, calls them that. The name Haskap is derived from the Ainu (the original inhabitants of Hokkaido) name for the berry. Honeyberry seems like a marketing trick, and calling it a honeysuckle just confuses people.

Named varieties are mostly  Russian and Japanese plants, or crosses of the two, but since it’s a circumboreal plant, there’s potential sources spread all around the northern world.

Cultivation

It prefers a cold, boreal climate (or at the warmest coastal temperate) and tends to grow wild in swampy areas.  I’m not saying that they should grow in low and saturated soil, but on a berm in said soil-yes. More on that from Dr. Bors of University of Saskatchewan here. Boreal chinampas, anyone? Keeping that in mind, some of the mildew issues that they can have I suspect are triggered by low soil moisture and planting should be sited carefully to keep water needs in mind. Shallow rooted plants can be fussy like that.  Haskaps are resentful of tillage as the roots naturally spread out quite wide and not deep, which should be just fine in a mixed garden, forest garden, or permaculture setting since we prefer no till methods anyway. pH is not much of a concern, which is promising for maximising your options- Haskaps tolerate from pH 5 to 8! In the wild, they will grow next to blueberries or cranberries and don’t seem to compete negatively with any specific plant family, so could potentially be worked into a number of plant guild combinations. They are tame things, and don’t self seed or sucker, and attractively blue-green and roundish when fully grown. LaHave farms in Nova Scotia has a great page with many more details on cultivation here .

Taste

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The shape of different cultivars is hugely diverse

I want to be fair about this.  The taste of Haskap  berries is highly variable and often quite tart.  The brix is high in some cultivars, but always sweet-tart, and in the case of some, (usually the ones with more Russian parentage in them) a little bitter. Your response is going to depend a whole lot on your own sense of taste. They are truly complex tasting though, process beautifully, make amazing wine and juice.  As distinct as a black currants’ flavour is from red or white, the Haskap is not really like a blueberry or a raspberry, although the marketing would have you think so. It’s unique. If you only eat a few raw from one bush, you’re not really giving it a fair chance.  Haskaps should also be purple fleshed when ripe, not green inside.  They colour up nice and blue before they’re actually ripe so that can result in disappointment, too. It’s in the processing that they really shine, as the deep colour means it’s both pumped full of antioxidants and an effective food dye, and they seem skinless when cooked. It basically just dissolves, making fillings and jams smoother. Drying also enhances the flavour, and that’s the way the Japanese like to consume them. I had some in a yogurt that was practically transcendental.

Curious Tendencies

They have confusing pollination requirements. Haskaps do best when combined with other Haskaps that have different parentage but bloom at the same time. This is further complicated by growing the same plants in different climate zones where plant flowering may or may not overlap. There isn’t at present a comprehensive pollination chart of everything out there because commercial development is ongoing, widespread in multiple languages, and new varieties get released every year.  (Breeding with Haskap is actually fairly fast, because they can be started with fresh seed shortly after harvest and get to fruiting size quickly.) To further confound the issue, you have rebrandings and renamings. I saw Borealis being called ‘Mrs. Honeyberry’, and Aroura ‘Mr. Honeyberry’ by a local grower, confusing the issue unnecessarily.  Auroura and Borealis wasn’t obvious enough? Haskaps do not have separate sexes, they have perfect flowers.  They just apparently prefer an exotic stranger to a sibling. You’re really best to get multiple varieties if you have space to do so, if you don’t, then at least two intended as a pair. Planting strategies: U of Sk pollination strategy Chart for some of the most popular varieties: Pollination Chart Dr. Maxine Thompson’s varieties, with approximate bloom times here  I am working on consolidating information on Haskaps from the different breeding programs- they tend to have pollination charts on their own field material but not the intersection of plants from the other programs. You’re still best off hedging your bets trying several varieties at once! Then just get more of the ones you like and you’ll already have good cross pollination.

They can get mildewy.  As I mentioned, I suspect that they are sensitive to drought, and this may trigger mildew growth.  They also like going into dormancy early if stressed so may look like absolute hell in summer.  I know I’d like to recommend them as an edible ornamental but only if it’s not the feature. They are a pretty glaucous colour and bushy if grown in fertile soil, so you could– but if I were installing a foolproof, has to look perfect edible landscape, I probably wouldn’t.

Getting Some

Currently they are still on the trendy new plants lists and not widely understood. The pollination confusion doesn’t help, the fact that they go for exorbitant prices in northerly climates where they’re most needed (2 Gal pot goes for $25 in Edmonton, sheesh!) also doesn’t help, and people who buy fruit bushes for fresh eating in the garden were sold a raw bill of goods with slick marketing, incomplete information, and varieties that didn’t perform well in warmer climates. Early adopters may have bought ones where the flavour was distinctly meh.  Not encouraging.

But take heart! Breeders have been hard at work and if you are one of those in zone 5 or colder you can basically take your pick of varieties and likely do just fine. Due to the risk of an early bloom with no pollinators active, or refreeze after spring growth, people in zone 6 and up are probably best going with Dr. Maxine Thompson’s breeds which are tested in zone 8a and better suited to warmer zones with less risk of early emergence. Most retail garden centres by now have some Haskaps, although they may know nothing about them and you should do your own research if you want to ensure compatible pollination. Serious about getting a decent amount? You can order from LoveHoneyberry in the USA. For Canada there’s a list of propagators here

I want to thank Dr. Bob Bors, Dr. Maxine Thompson and Lidia Delafield for their dedication and hard work in improving Haskap varieties and extending the climate range possible to grow it in.

Gardeners are, as is well known, eternal optimists.

Next year will always be better.  Winter is filled with luscious dreams of larger, earlier warm season vegetables, because THIS year you’ll remember to start them in February. The seeds that arrived in the mail beckon with splashes of rainbow coloured tomatoes, untried squash and obscure greens promising heavy yields of THE BEST EVER…well, the best ever whatever it is.  The garden plan has been re-drawn in a new configuration with coloured pencils, intercropping planned meticulously, and flagged with notes from last year. You’re sure you have that deer problem nailed.

Of course, you generally do a little better every year in fact as well as fantasy, barring droughts, floods, locust plagues and marauding great danes- because you’ve learned a little something.  You noticed the cucumbers like this spot rather than that one, or that you’ll remember to pick the snap peas if you plant them within reach of the walkway, rather than a row back where they don’t scream at you “Pick me!” every time you put away the hose. Your soil should get a little better every year, if you’re doing it right. You should have a bigger, better seed bank because you’re saving seed, and hopefully swapping your extras.

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January is both the best and worst month in gardening, in the Northern Hemisphere.  It’s likely everything is utterly at rest, frozen or just biding it’s time.  The cold hardy vegetables are pickable, perhaps, but growing?  No. There’s little you can do, or even should do- this is the time to think about the garden and what it could be.  Like a new baby, all full of promise and without mistakes-yet.  (At least you get the chance to start fresh every year with a garden!)

So what to do when there’s nothing to do? Get that map done.  If you haven’t started a garden map, do it. Permaculture mapping is a great aid to more efficient gardening.  If you’ve never heard of it, here’s a link. https://www.milkwood.net/2015/11/09/permaculture-design-process-2-making-a-base-map/

Now, when days are long and dark, you can get a clear idea of what the nadir of the season is like in terms of pooling water from rain or snowmelt, scant light from a horizon skimming winter sun, freezing water barrels, feed storage and heat for livestock if you have them.  Observation and note taking are key to making everything less work for yourself in the long run.  Get out there and take pictures of your garden once an hour from sunup to sundown and you can plan much better for next winter’s crop and any evergreen plantings.  (Yes, even in winter evergreens like rhododendrons and fir trees photosynthesize. Winter sun is important too.)

Check out the bloggers and resources.  Your local university agricultural extension is probably chock full of science based information that pertinent to your climate, but there’s probably others that are close to your conditions in temperature and precipitation, but not actually close in distance.  Finding out who is dealing with the same conditions you are can open up new worlds in horticulture- for instance, I live in Vancouver (actually Abbotsford but it’s 45 mins away) Canada, which means that the Washington and Oregon Universities in the USA have information relevant to me- but also parts of Nova Scotia, North Carolina, Serbia, the UK, Denmark, Yantai, China and Vladivostok, Russia. There’s plenty more, but you get the idea. When looking up solutions to your garden woes, information has to be relevant to your conditions.  Advice on your recommended plants or soil amendments will vary  depending on what soil and climate you have to deal with, so try to match conditions when you’re looking up how to deal with your own issues.

Where to get that special heirloom fruit tree? Who else is super into Andean root crops?  You’re going to spend time staring into the screen during winter anyway, so maybe pass on the celebrity botched nose jobs and look up links that are going to help you in the coming year.  There’s probably nurseries right under your nose on a left turn you’ve never taken.  No list of anything is ever complete- just because you’ve seen the ‘Complete Garden Center List’ in a news article or your favourite blogger does NOT mean it’s actually everything out there. Do your own looking.

Start Fresh.  It’s a new year, a new season, you get to start over if you want to.

I know I am.

~Leila

burning-pampas-grass

Burning Pampas Grass. After it’s been below freezing for a while, it’s nice and dry, and it’s sure a hell of a lot easier than cutting by hand. Be careful though, flying bits can go everywhere so make sure it’s not windy and you’re not setting your shed on fire by accident.

 

 

Write about a radish. Too many people write about the moon. The night is black … A radish rises in the waiting sky. – Karla Kuskin

Not often a prized poster vegetable, the radish seems to have languished in the footnotes of garden manuals, some only note that they are gratifyingly easy and very little else.  Easy they may be to grow, but there is an almost infinite variety of radish in addition to the one most familiar to the North American, a small bulbous cerise root that makes a cheerful, if likely ignored appearance on tupperware veggie plates alongside the cauliflower and carrots.

There’s such an enormous array of radishes available for the growing that it’s worth exploring some of the other types so you can enjoy them in almost every month of the year.  Raphanus Sativus has many cultivars and comes in round, oblong, carrot shaped, white, pink, yellow, bicolored & purple roots.  There are radishes sweet and tender, long and crisp, like gigantic smooth pale carrots, indecent in their smooth phallic forms.  There are radishes that demonically sear the palate in an unexpected contrast to their round innocence. Some varieties are grown exclusively for their greens. Radish seeds can also be used to produce oil.

Most of the smaller ones will mature in 3-4 weeks, which makes them an excellent catch crop for small spaces and intensively grown kitchen gardens.  Many are compact enough to be grown in containers, and fast enough to delight young children who are new to gardening. Although typically only the root is consumed, the leaves and seeds are also edible- one of my favourite treats is from late fall, uncollected radish plants may yield  fat pods full of radish sprouts.  Milder radishes make excellent additions to vegetable dishes, stir fries, salads & slaws.

The descriptive Greek name of the genus Raphanus means “quickly appearing” and refers to the rapid germination of these plants. Raphanistrum from the same Greek root is an old name once used for this genus. The common name “radish” is derived from Latin (Radix = root). Their true origin is vague, often said to be Asian, it is a wild plant growing all across Europe and Asia, and so very unclear where the plants that led to it’s domestication and taming of the fiery root originated. The greatest diversity of radish varieties are found in the eastern Mediterranean and near the Caspian Sea, which suggests but does not confirm that area as the place of origin. However, what is known is that many different varieties of radishes spread all over Europe and Asia, with different countries preferring specific varieties. Black radishes of R. niger were favorites in Spain, and another popular European variety to use in kitchen gardens was called R. radicula. In Asia, different varieties were cultivated; among them the R. longipinnatus, also known as Daikon, in China, and the R. raphanistroides variety in Japan.

The history of radishes is hard to unravel with any precision, they have certainly been  cultivated for food since well before Roman times when documentation becomes radically more plentiful. Roman records reveal descriptions of radishes in many colours and sizes, some as heavy as (reportedly) 100 pounds each. (As an aside, I suspect this refers to horseradish once again.  A large horseradish could be truly enormous, and both were often referred to simply as “radish”, but I could be wrong, the Sakurajima daikon is a hot-flavored variety which is typically grown to around 10 kg (22 lb), but which can grow to 30 kg (66 lb).) Radishes were cultivated in Egypt prior to the construction of the pyramids, and Herodotus of Helicarnassus related in his “Histories”, written from the 450s to the 420s BC:  “There is an inscription in Egyptian characters on the pyramid which records the quantity of radishes, onions, and garlic consumed by the labourers who constructed it; and I perfectly well remember that the interpreter who read the writing to me said that the money expended in this way was 1600 talents of silver.” Whether the radishes were valued primarily as a food item or for medicinal characteristics is not clear.  Onions and garlic were certainly prized as food and medicine, so it’s probable they were considered to be both. (Beer, bread, onions garlic and radishes~ seriously, those Egyptians must have had some killer dragon breath!) The Isrealites acquired a taste for radish after leaving Egypt, and brought the root with them. The Talmud mentions the use of radish seeds to produce oil, and considered eating radishes to have health benefits. In my quest I turned up an ancient Greek punishment for adultery utilizing radishes. Yes, I know, not quite what you were expecting, sodomy with a  root vegetable… it was a common device in plays of the time, but whether or not it was actually done is debatable, considering you had to catch the couple in the act. Radishes were so valued in Greece that golden radishes were offered to the god Apollo. At least that’s the oft-repeated rumour.  On looking into the tale, it appears that horseradish is actually the plant said by the Oracle at Delphi to be ‘worth it’s weight in gold’  which makes a bit more sense to me, radishes being such a fast crop to grow. The quote as I have found it is: ““the radish is worth its weight in lead, the beet its weight in silver, the horseradish its weight in gold” Lead was a valued metal in that time, this quote should not be taken to imply the radish had no worth.  In the historical records, Galen of Pergamon wrote that radishes were eaten in the region around 129-199 A.D. Also, the Greek physician Dioscorides documented drawings of radishes. However, these radishes were large, long varieties, from which the Long Black Spanish radish is descended.

The Chinese grew them as early as 700 B.C., probably earlier but it’s always hard to trace the path of vegetables historically. (again they may have come out of Asia.  Or possibly Turkey. Or the Ukraine.  Nobody actually knows yet.) Once they were introduced to Japan, they became even more popular.  Even today, the radish is the most popular root crop in Japan.  Asian cooking would not be the same without radishes, pickled, sauteed, in soups, stews, raw, dried…generally it is the larger, longer maturing radishes like the Daikon used in Asian cookery but not entirely. Certainly the array of Daikon types in Asian countries is wide.

Adding to the complications of the history of the radish is its many different names. In Europe, many of the names sound similar, from ramoraccio in Italian to armoracia in Greek, both used to describe radishes. By contrast, the names for radish in Semitic languages range from fugal in Hebrew to fuil, fidgle or figl in Arabic. In India the name for their radish variety is moola, and then the Chinese and Japanese also have entirely differing names for the radish. Sometimes, if the names for a certain plant are similar, the way a plant has traveled can be traced, but the many for radishes prevent a definite conclusion on the origination or even early propagation of the radish. Western Europe, though documentation is understandable scant has likely had the radish in cultivation since the Romans scattered themselves across it. A vegetable so widely known would have also been widely distributed.  I’ve seen several sources claim that radishes entered the Western diet around 1500, but that just defies logic entirely.  The issue is documentation, written recipes prior to ‘Forme of Cury’ commissioned by King Richard II in 1390 are sparse indeed. Radishes do not leave pips or shells in garbage pits or garderobes either, so it’s much harder to tell their presence in history as opposed to say, stone fruits.

Radish Varieties

Radishes come in many varieties but two growing types. The standard or salad type radish can be sown from early spring until fall. This variety dislikes heat so some growers do not grow them in the summer, or find a cooler place for them to thrive. In September, you can start them up again, and keep getting crops till the soil freezes. Try sowing a new batch every 2 to 3 weeks till the warm summer months.

The second type is known as a winter radish, or Daikon radish. This one takes longer to grow, about 60 days on average. Start these in midsummer, sowing every 2 or 3 weeks, so that your last harvest coincides with the fall frosts. Make sure you harvest before your soil freezes them in though, for unlike other tubular plants they will not overwinter.

Radishes grow well in almost any soil that is prepared well, is fertilized before planting and has adequate moisture maintained. Slow development makes radishes hot in taste and woody in texture. Rich, moist soils make for fast growing, tender plump radishes.

Radishes mature rapidly under favorable conditions and should be checked often for approaching maturity. Harvest should begin as soon as roots reach edible size and should be completed quickly, before heat, pithiness or seedstalks can begin to develop. Pull radishes when they are of usable size and relatively young. Radishes remain in edible condition for only a short time before they become pithy (spongy) and hot. Proper thinning focuses the harvest and avoids disappointing stragglers that have taken too long to grow.

Winter varieties mature more slowly and should be harvested at considerably larger size. Once they reach maturity, they maintain high quality for a fairly long time in the garden, especially in cool fall weather. Size continues to increase under favorable fall conditions. Daikon or Chinese radish, can achieve particularly large size and still maintain excellent quality. Winter radishes can be stored for a few months, given cool moist conditions. Black radishes have a particularly long storage liFe, in fact are best eaten after winter storage when the fiery flavour becomes milder and smoother.

Even if you totally forget about your radishes and let them bolt, don’t despair, the flowers add a pretty, spicy touch to a salad and the seed pods can be eaten fresh, pickled, or sprouted.

Getting Some

Radishes are an ideal trading seed, maintaining viability for long periods even under adverse conditions. Getting a few new varieties to try should not be a difficult task!  Even if you’re not involved in seed swapping, interesting Asian radishes have reached the wider market and it should be fairly easy to find a packet of daikon or black or watermelon radish in your local nursery or feed store. Happy growing!

This year the weather seems to be putting those of us in the Pacific Northwest in our place.  Normally, it’s we who are envied and hated in February or March, lording it over the rest of the latitude and parading about in shorts and sandals.  Well, not so this year. It’s been that chill-to-the-bone 2 degrees over to 2 degrees under sort of wet torture and I tell you, I can’t wait until it’s over with. Some plants have made it through surprisingly well despite the cold, since it hasn’t been TOO cold- like Onions.  I try to do something that is in evidence in the garden or at least soon will be, and one of the few things that seems to be growing in spite of the slush and hail is the onions.  Chives are well up, obviously making good time on the rare days it goes above 6 degrees, the red and Spanish Onions are making firm advances, and The Walking Onions never went away.

If you’ve never heard of Walking Onion, you may have heard another name for it instead.  It may masquerade as Egyptian Onion, Tree Onion, Winter Onion, or Topset Onion, depending on who you ask. Even the latin binomials can get you into trouble- you might find it as allium cepa var. proliferum, var. viviparum, var. bulbiferum…whatever you prefer to call it, genomic evidence has conclusively shown that they are a hybrid of the common onion (A. cepa) and the Welsh onion(A. fistulosum). Personally, that’s all I really need to know- there’s no mistaking it when you see it!

The history of this onion is a bit muddled with heresay and myth, as any plant with a long and convoluted journey will be.  Word has it that the name ‘Egyptian Onion’ actually originated with the gypsies that were said to have transported across Europe with them, not necessarily with the country of Egypt.  Egyptians definitely had the common onion, A.cepa, but the cross of A. fistulosum comes out of Asia.  Just to really mess you up, the Welsh Onion (A. fistulosa) isn’t Welsh at all. “Welsh” preserves the original meaning of the Old English word “welisc”, or Old German “welsche”, meaning “foreign”. To confuse the issue even further, a specimen of this unique onion variety came to the attention of Frenchman Jacques Dalechamp, in his country in 1587. I have to assume this means it was noted in his magnum opus,  Historia generalis plantarum which listed 2731 plants from his personal experience, near Lyon in France. This variety was ‘officially’ introduced into Great Britain in 1820 from Canada. Which is odd considering the French obviously knew about it more than 200 years before that.  Historians have been puzzled to see the tree onion, along with the Welsh onion, growing wild in North America. I’ve even seen claims that it originated here-probably due to garden escapees, since neither parent plant is native to North America.  Here’s my own pet theory: this hybrid onion was likely in common use by the time the Romans came to Britain, since one parent is from the Middle East, and one from Asia- it seems very likely to me that, since the common Roman did eat plenty of onions and Rome itself being a nexus of trade for Europe, the cross may have occurred during that period. Onions being an easily packed and stored staple, it would have been transported everywhere the Roman army marched, which covers a lot of ground. From Spain, Chris Columbus transported onions to Haiti in 1492-93. Subsequent settlements brought them over again -according to diaries of colonists, bulb onions were planted as soon as the Pilgrim fathers could clear the land in 1648. They don’t mention which onions, of course, but the hybrid vigor and easy transport of bulblets from the Walking Onion make it a likely candidate. Spreading from there it could have been rediscovered inCanada and brought toBritain once again. The Walking Onion has almost literally walked it’s way around the world.

The name ‘Walking Onion” comes from its habit of bending over with the weight of the bulblets at the top which then root and form new plants.  It can be so funky looking, sometimes with onions growing yet smaller onions, and those growing yet smaller ones out of that, all curling crazily every which way- you might want it as a curiosity even if you hate onions. Walking Onions are a strongly flavoured onion variety, but the bulbs, greens, and bulblets can all be eaten, and the bulblets are particularly nice to use for pickling or like shallots. This onion is very cold hardy and in milder climates can be picked most of the year (Although in late summer it generally dies down until the weather gets cooler, only a few weeks break.) In areas with more severe winters it could be grown under row covers to prolong the harvest, otherwise it’s one of the first things to make an appearance in the spring garden. These Onions can survive freezing cold winters with temperatures plummeting well below-24°F! They are hardy to zone 3.

Growing Some

Onions-any onions-can be heavy feeders in the garden, although they will survive in harsh conditions with less than ideal soil, you certainly won’t get as much from them that way.  Rich garden soil with plenty of organic matter worked into it and good drainage with plenty of sun exposure is, as usual, the key to getting lots of large, quality vegetables or bulbs.  Onions are perfect for tucking into the garden when you harvest something else, it’s easy to keep some extra sets (bulblets) in the shed to fill in gaps.  (I’ve stored these onions as sets for 2+ years, much longer than you’re supposed to, and they grew just fine when planted, finally.)  Onions-all onions-are great companions for a wide range of plants.  Roses may love garlic, but they love onions too, planting some in your rose garden may increase the perfume, (alliums concentrate sulphur and sulphur improves rose fragrance,) ward off aphid infestations and repel the dreaded black spot.  Actually, if you really want to combat fungal diseases like powdery mildew and black spot, you’re best off chopping up an onion and soaking it in water overnight, adding a drop of mild soap, then spraying the leaves with it directly.  The mild sulphur in the mix is fungicidal and antibacterial and in my experience, works very well.  Its very confusing odour plays insects for fools, and may help protect other crops from routine infestations. Onions partner well with fruit trees, tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage, broccoli and other brassicas, and carrots.  They don’t grow well with legumes or parsley.

Getting Some

Now here’s the tricky part.  I’ve never seen Walking Onion in a regular garden center.  Usually even the fancy types are not labelled well, even in a fancy full color package where you’d expect it.  (Like the ‘red’ garlic I was looking at-seriously?  There’s maybe a hundred types of red garlic-thanks a lot~!) It can be ordered off the web, although you will get bulblets and never seeds, since it rarely sets seed at all.  This is an ideal plant to find at a plant trade or swap session, looking in yards and asking nicely for a handful of sets, or asking around your gardening friends.  So get out there and talk to someone who loves their onions.

Sensationally Simple Sedums


I often have people ask me in the nursery for easy groundcovers that fill in fast, dense and don’t need attention.  There are a lot of things to choose from in that category, but unfortunately most of them have a malevolent side- they don’t just peacefully occupy the ground, they are hell-bent on acquisition!  Advancing, strangling, unrelenting invasive groundcovers are not usually what a person has in mind when they ask for something ’easy’. Especially when you can’t get it out again!

Sedums are often my answer to groundcover in hot, dry or otherwise difficult sites in full or part sun.  Juicy, delightful little plants that grow in horrible soils and come in a wide range of shapes and colours, Sedums can be stuffed in rock wall cracks, hung in a basket or planted in those shallow, impossible windowboxes that won’t support as much as a geranium through one hot day. Sedums are most often the plant of choice in green roofing, too- they thrive when fully exposed to the elements and given sharp drainage.  Sedums can live happily where other plants fear to tread.

Sedums come in a dazzling array of colours, forms, shapes, growth habits and cold tolerance.  The one thing I would watch for when purchasing sedums is the zone hardiness, make certain they will make it through the winter.  Not all sedums love full sun either, there are a few that prefer part shade to quite shady, like sedum makinoi ‘ogon’ that sells itself with it’s cheery little lush gold leaves and then often disappoints if treated like other sedums and left fully exposed. Morning sun or partly shady conditions are best for this adorable gem.

Sedum acre growing in granite in Sweden

Sedum acre (aka ‘Wallpepper’ or a host of other names) will grow absolutely everywhere, and only the fact that it’s quite easy to remove redeem it from being a horrifically invasive plant. I like it as a green, matte base for slightly larger shrubs and perennials, it looks like moss from a distance and ‘takes’ fast and easily to cover the soil when I plant something new.  It turns into a raft of bright gold when in bloom in midsummer. I find it to be reliably evergreen in zone 7 and it colours up with a wine tint during winter.

Sedum spathulifolium has a special place in my heart- I love the look of it, a bold silver, and its original parent also a native plant.  I’ve found it growing locally, but it’s never quite as silvery as the nursery cultivars. (Sedum ‘Cape Blanco’ is most commonly found.) I find it to be a bit slower growing than many, so give it some space or plant with less aggressive plants so it can show off.

sedum 'Angelina'

Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’ is a top performer in the garden.  It looks very good in hanging baskets and containers

too, especially the ones you forget about in the corners (you know which ones!) Golden yellow, fast growing and holding it’s shape and colour through winter, this one is a crowd pleaser and fills in fast and dense almost anywhere.  Sun exposure can change the colour, Angelina will grow in shade, but will be lime green instead of gold and not grow in as thickly.  In full sun it will develop hints of orange in the yellow.

sedum 'dragon's blood'

And finally, my favourite red is Sedum spurium ‘Dragons’ Blood’. It has a good ruby colour in full sun and the pleasant bonus of almost red but actually really deep pink blooms that don’t clash with the foliage! It is not as lush during winter but still present and contributes some colour, in summer it’s that dash of deep wine-red that can be hard to achieve with hardy plants and is very striking with plain greens. For almost-black foliage try to find some ‘Voodoo’, it’s even darker than ‘dragon’s blood’ and looks great with silvery or gold foliage.

Sedums are a large and diverse group of plants. Honestly, there are so many varieties and cultivars of sedum that I would need to write an entire book on the subject to begin to do it justice.  Just take a look in your local nursery and see what they’re carrying this month- it is possible to plant an entire rainbow of sedums and there’s certain to be something you like the colour and shape of.

Getting  Some

Luckily, sedums are an easily reproduced plant.  Small cuttings or big hunks are quite likely to take root if you simply toss them on the soil, but with a small amount of extra care you can have hundreds of baby sedums in very little time.  One large pot can become the stock for an entire swathe of garden if you divide it up, and a small handful from a friend’s garden giveaways is a great way to start growing these agreeable ground covers.  Simply tuck ends of sedum cuttings into well draining soil and give a little extra water in the beginning if the weather is dry and sunny to get them to root in quickly.

Then ignore and enjoy!

Leilabee