Posts Tagged ‘Everyday life’

If you look closely at the can of Bruce’s yams over there to the left you’ll see that underneath where it says “Yams,” it says “Cut sweet potatoes in syrup.” Why? Because the United States Department of Agriculture says that foods have to be labeled in a way that explains what they are-not what we wish they were.

The chance of eating yams in North America on Thanksgiving is about as slim as everyone wearing black clothes and stovepipe hats with big silver buckles. Unless Aunt Betty shops at a market that ships yams in from Africa or the Caribbean, you’ve really been eating candied sweet potatoes all these years, pilgrim.  

Botanically speaking, yams and sweet potatoes couldn’t be more different; they are a different genus and a different species. Yams are monocots (one seed leaf) while sweet potatoes are dicots (two seed leaves) and in the world of botany, that is a big deal.  In fact, the only things that these two plants have in common are that they both flower and produce tubers. Yams, natives of Africa and from the yam (Dioscoreaceae) family, are more closely related to grasses and lilies than anything else. Sweet potatoes belong to the same family as morning glories (Convolvulacea) and have sweeter flesh than yams.

To make things even more confusing, the starchy and rather dry flesh of a true yam actually resembles that of a potato more than the flesh of a sweet potato does. Or at least, some sweet potatoes-there are both firm and soft fleshed sweet potato varieties. Firm varieties were known first and later, when the soft flesh varieties were developed, nobody could think of a name that would adequately separate the two. Since African slaves had been calling them yams (after their native “nyami” tubers) since around 1676 anyhow, the softer flesh varieties were called yams until the USDA stepped in to set things (botanically) straight. 

At the end of the day though, what people will remember about Thanksgiving are the good food and good conversation to be had-not the tired old sweet potato vs. yam controversy. But, if the conversation falters like it sometimes does, you can always revive it by telling everyone that virtually nothing on this year’s table appeared at the first Thanksgiving; probably not the turkey, and definitely not the mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, or pumpkin pie. And not the sweet potatoes either; though grown in the south as early as 1648, sweet potatoes weren’t seen in New England until at least 1764-one hundred and forty three years after that first harvest feast.

Happy Thanksgiving! Please do your best to help those who are less fortunate this holiday season

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The cooler temperatures and more frequent rains of September mean mushrooms will be popping up all over. Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies (reproductive organs) of a fungus. Typically (though not always) they have stems, caps, and gills on the underside of the cap. Mushrooms are not plants and do not produce seeds. In the case of the gilled mushrooms, they produce spores on their gills. When the mushroom is ready to release its spores they fall from the gills to the soil surface where they appear as a powdery substance.

Mushroom spores can be white, brown, black, brownish purple, pink, yellow, off white and rarely red, but the color of the spores isn’t always the same color as the gills, and that’s where the fun of making spore prints comes in.

When the stem is broken from a mushroom and the cap is placed gill side down on a piece of paper, the spores fall onto the paper and make a spore print, which helps in identification. You never know what color the spores will be but most are white. I often start with black paper, but any dark color will do. Once the mushroom cap is on the paper I cover it with a small bowl to keep it moist. If it seems overly dry I sprinkle two or three drops of water on top of the cap to moisten it. This is important because a dry cap might not release its spores.  I leave it covered overnight and in the morning remove the bowl and carefully lift the mushroom cap straight up so as not to smudge the spore print. If everything has gone well, I see something like in the photo below. If a spore print isn’t visible the spores might be the same color as the paper or the cap might have dried out before I picked it. Or it could have already released all of its spores. In any case, I try again!


 Spore prints smudge easily before they’ve dried completely, so I let them dry covered for a day and then spray them with artist’s fixative (or hair spray). Fixative is used to keep charcoal and pastel drawings from smudging and can be found at any art supply store.  Then if I’m happy with the results I frame it, which transforms it into a very unusual art object.



 Note: Small children should always be closely supervised when working with any mushrooms gathered in the wild. Some, like the yellow Amanita muscaria in the photo at the top of the page, are extremely poisonous. It’s also a good idea to wash your hands after handling them and their spores.





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I was always partial to Macintosh apples until one day years ago I was given a half bushel of Northern Spy apples. Since then, Northern Spy has become the benchmark that all apples I eat are measured against. Once you have tasted the best of any food all challengers seem to pale in comparison. For my money the Northern Spy simply can’t be beat.

Northern Spy is considered an heirloom variety-the first seedling was discovered near Rochester, NY in 1800. It is still well known in upstate New York but, though grown in other states, is becoming increasingly difficult to find. There are several reasons for its increasing rarity; it can take a Northern Spy apple tree as long as 10 years to bear fruit and it is less disease resistant than other varieties. This means that small orchard owners are less likely to grow it. It also has a thin skin and bruises easily, which makes shipping difficult. This means that large growers are less likely to grow it. This is why it isn’t found in most grocery stores even though it is considered by many experts to be the best apple ever produced in the United States.

Northern Spies can still be found in this area if one is willing to do a little searching, and it is worth searching for.  It is crisp, crunchy and juicy, and sweet but somehow tart at the same time. It is higher in vitamin C than many apples, keeps well into the following spring in cold storage, and is one of the most sought after apples by professional pie bakers. “Spies for Pies!” is their mantra. Its superior quality is the reason it is also known as the Northern Pie Apple. Finally, as if all of that weren’t enough, Northern Spy is an outstanding cider apple and contains more antioxidants than any other apple except Red Delicious.

Locally, Northern Spies can be found at Alyson’s Apple Orchard in Walpole, NH and at Maple Lane Farm on Gunn Road here in Keene. But, there is no need to rush because it is a later variety and doesn’t usually ripen until mid to late October.  I have to warn you- once you have tasted one there will be no turning back. A few years ago a neighbor told me she “liked a good, tart apple.” Once she tasted a Northern Spy she couldn’t wait for them to ripen each fall.  

 Photo by Willis Orchard Company © 2011

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I spent Sunday afternoon going from place to place to see if the fall sales had started and if nurseries were stocking spring flowering bulbs too early. Soil temperatures are still too warm to plant bulbs. If stored they need to be kept in a cool, dry place because sitting out on warm shelves until it is cool enough to plant them means they will have suffered.  At the Big Box Store I found bins full of bulbs sitting in 80 degree heat and high humidity. Squeeze those bulbs before you buy them-they should be firm, with no soft spots and no green top growth.

I didn’t find any bulbs at Agway but found that the canning supplies were in, so if you’re into canning now is the time to pick up new jars and lids.

I also found that they were having a sale on perennials; buy one at full price and get the second for half price, except new arrivals.  Sedums like Autumn Joy were selling by the cart load, and that’s no exaggeration. If you’re looking for sedums, you might want to get them soon.

Instead of sedums, I bought two Hostas. (Those who know me will think I’m crazy-I have over 200 now.) One of them is “Sum and Substance,” which I don’t have.  With its plain chartreuse leaves this isn’t the showiest of Hostas, but it is one of the biggest.  Plants can get up to 6 feet across with huge leaves measuring 9 or 10 inches wide and 2 feet long. The leaves are also deeply veined and that, along with their size, will make them ideal candidates for casting in concrete.

The other Hosta I bought is one I already have, called “Fragrant Bouquet.” Though the leaves aren’t anywhere near the size of those on Sum and Substance, the plant itself gets quite large; the one I have is at least 3 feet across. I like this one because it blooms later than any other Hosta in my yard and the large white flowers are very fragrant. The cream edged, apple green leaves are interesting as well.

My main reason for buying these particular Hostas though, is their sun tolerance; both will stand full sun. Though my new shrub border doesn’t get full sun it does get an hour or two of very hot, late afternoon sun. Any Hosta with blue gray leaves is out of the question here because hot sun melts the waxy coating on the leaves and they look terrible by the end of August. 

Plant prices are falling and now is the best time of year to plant, so it’s time to go shopping.

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Why cast leaves in concrete? Well, why not? It’s fun, easy, and relatively inexpensive to do and when you are done you have a piece of garden art, a stepping stone for a path, or a small bird bath. You can use any large leaves like hosta, cabbage, rhubarb, burdock, or what have you. Some plants with huge leaves make dramatic castings and can be used as planters. They can even be painted to appear life like.

A friend told me about this a few months ago, so I thought I’d give it a try. The biggest expense is the bag of concrete, but that is less than $11.00 and you can make several castings with one bag. I use Quickcrete vinyl concrete patch because it dries fast and leaves a smooth finish. Some people also add coloring agents and fortifiers, but each extra item you add adds to the cost. The castings seem strong enough without concrete fortifier.


In addition to the concrete mix I used plastic wrap, something to mix in, something to stir with, rubber gloves, a dust mask, water, and a large pile of moist sand. Sand can also be bought in bags if necessary.


Here I’m using a hosta leaf. Since the ribs and veins are more prominent on leaf undersides, I put the leaf face up on the sand. To cast a leaf you need to think in reverse; if you want a bowl shape lay the leaf over a mound of sand. For an arched leaf casting, make a depression in the sand, and for a flat casting, level the sand.


Once I had the sand molded the way I wanted it, I removed the leaf and put plastic wrap over the sand. This keeps the sand out of the concrete and lets you finish the edges of the leaf.  The leaf should be face down on the plastic wrap before adding the concrete.


I mixed the concrete to a toothpaste or brownie mix consistency by adding water slowly so it didn’t become too soupy. Soupy mix will run off of the leaf. When I had the concrete mix at the correct consistency, I put some in the center of the leaf.


What is shown in this picture will be the underside of the finished casting. With my hand, I patted down and worked the concrete mix from the center of the leaf out toward the edges as shown. This is where the rubber gloves come in handy. The finished casting should be about 3/8 to 1/2 of an inch thick in the center and slightly thinner at the leaf edges. If it is a little thicker it will just take a little longer to dry. According to what I’ve read, the concrete on very large leaves should be up to about 1 inch thick.

If I wanted a casting you could hang, at this stage I would lay a loop of sturdy wire (like coat hanger wire) into the wet concrete and then cover it with more concrete. If leaves are bigger than 14 inches across it’s a good idea to reinforce them with wallboard tape or chicken wire at this stage so they don’t crack later on. Just lay the wall board tape or wire on top of the wet concrete and cover with more of the mix, smoothing as you go.


I gently pull the plastic wrap toward the leaf edges so the concrete mix doesn’t flow out beyond them. Peeking under the leaf as you pull the plastic wrap toward the center shows where the leaf edges are. This makes a nice clean edge. After I’m satisfied, I leave the casting just as it is shown for two days. If it’s supposed to rain, I cover it.


Once the concrete is dry, smooth surfaced leaves like hosta will peel away from the dry concrete easily. This picture shows the casting after about half of the leaf was peeled away. Hairy leaves like rhubarb or burdock may need to be scrubbed off with a wire brush after decomposing for a day or two. Some leaves might also stain the concrete slightly.


This is my first attempt at painting a concrete leaf that was cast earlier. It’s supposed to resemble a leaf from a green and white hosta variety known as “minuteman,” but for some reason this photo seems to have a bluish tint to it. Oh well-at least it shows what it is possible to do with leaf castings, and that’s the whole point. Next time I’ll use stiffer brushes and flat paint. This was done with foam brushes, which made getting sharp edges difficult. The satin paint also seems a little too shiny for my tastes.

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture has put this plant near the top of its Federal Noxious Weed list. Officials in Washington are asking residents to be on the lookout for it so they can eradicate it. In New York a hotline has been set up so residents can easily report sightings, and crews in several states are seeking it out and destroying it. To date it has been reported in Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington and Vermont.

The plant is the giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum), originally from central Asia. Since its discovery it has spread all over the world, because as a specimen plant it is a knockout.  White flowers nearly 3 feet in diameter bloom on top of stalks that can reach 15 feet tall. The tropical looking compound leaves grow 3-5 feet across and up to 9 feet long on purple spotted stalks. People naturally want to touch it because it is so unusual, and that is what makes this plant is so dangerous.

The plant’s clear, watery sap works with moisture and sunlight in a reaction called phytophotodermatitis. People coming into contact with the sap develop large, painful blisters that resemble severe sunburn. Some have had to be hospitalized for intravenous antibiotics and cortisone injections and have taken a month or more to heal. Once the blisters heal, scars resembling cigarette burns remain. Children who have used the hollow stems as pea shooters have developed painful blisters around their mouths, and others who have used them as telescopes have been permanently blinded by the burning sap.

Doug Cygan, Invasive Species Coordinator with the NH State Department of Agriculture says, “It’s by far the worst plant pest when it comes to human health.” In New Hampshire, state officials have begun surveying and mapping sites where giant hogweed grows. So far it has been found in Grafton, Sullivan and Rockingham Counties, with unconfirmed reports of four injuries from the sap.

Officials warn those who think they’ve found a giant hogweed plant to stay away from it, keep pets and livestock from grazing on it, and make sure children and pets don’t play around it. There are reports of people getting burned by playing with cats and dogs who’ve gotten the sap on their fur.

NH residents who suspect they have found giant hogweed should call the Cooperative Extension’s Family, Home & Garden Education Center’s Info Line at 1-877-398-4769, Monday-Friday, 9 AM -2 PM, prepared to describe the plant and its location. All parts of the plant contain toxic sap, and it is recommended that people do not touch the plant while trying to identify it. Instead, wait for confirmation from a state inspector. For more information and photos, click here.

Resources include the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension Service, the State of New York Department of Environmental Conservation, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

NOTE: I’m getting asked repeatedly where folks should report their giant hogweed sightings. It’s important that you contact the extension service or department of agriculture in your state.  To find that information simply go to Google or any other search engine and type “Reporting giant hogweed in XXXXXXXX” where XXXXXXXX is the name of your state. Once you do this you’ll find a wealth of information, including photos and how to identify this plant. More often than not I’m told, what people are seeing is cow parsnip or another look alike. Please do your homework and try your best to make an accurate identification before contacting the authorities in your state.

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Through some quirk of fate (or maybe karma) a glacier scraped half of eastern Canada down to bedrock, chewed it all up, and dumped it here. Fifteen thousand or so years later I came along and bought a piece of the great dumping ground of glacial-fluvial sediments, so I have gravel; tons of it.

It wasn’t a week after I bought the place that I discovered the front lawn was growing on a skim coat of loam over gravel. (I’ve seen thicker skim coats on wallboard.) The back yard wasn’t pretending to be anything but a gravel lot with a few struggling weeds, but I knew that before I bought it. Gardeners are often willing participants in such folly.

There was only one thing to do; bring in loam, and lots of it. The first ten yards was used to skim coat the gravel back yard and quickly grow something resembling grass that the kids could wiggle their toes in. The second ten yards was used for front perennial beds, a hosta bed, raised beds in the back yard, and shrubs. I also needed manure, so that meant more trucks. At one point there were so many trucks coming and going that one might have thought I had opened a greasy spoon.

Over the years more and more has been planted, and if you didn’t look too closely at the back “lawn,” you would never know that virtually everything here is growing over and is surrounded by gravel. To pull this off I have to dig out a wheelbarrow full of the stony stuff for every six inch pot I plant, and then replace it with a mix of compost, loam, peat moss and manure.  When I plant a tree or shrub, I’m looking at removing several wheelbarrow loads of gravel. (What I do with all this gravel is another story.)

One day, the last trucks will come with the last few loads of loam so I can install a real lawn in the back yard, but for now they just keep rolling over the weeds. The reason I’m writing this is to let novice gardeners know that with time, patience, and at times Herculean effort, even a gravel lot can become a garden. If you have poor soil don’t despair-just order some loam and start digging.

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One of the best ways to find inspiration for your own garden is to see what other folks have done in theirs.  This year the perfect way to do so is by joining the Cheshire Housing Trust on their annual garden tour. Funds raised by the garden tour help Cheshire Housing Trust provide affordable housing to low and middle income families in the region.

This year the tour is this Saturday, June 25, and begins at 10:00 am. The Hampshire House on 86 Winter Street in Keene, on the corner of Winter and School Streets, will be the site of a plant sale, bake sale, and a garden market featuring perennials and crafts. The market opens at 9:00 am, and tickets can be purchased there on the day of the tour.

If you would like to save on tickets, they can be found at Agway in Keene, Peterborough and Walpole; the Cheshire Housing Trust Office; Horse and Buggy Feeds; In the Company of Flowers; Earth Treasures; the UNH Cooperative Extension Service; Maple Hill Nursery in Swanzey; People’s United Bank in Keene and Chesterfield; and the Toadstool Bookshop in Keene. Tickets are $12.00 in advance or $15.00 the day of the tour.  A tour map is included with the tickets, and participants drive to each location in their own vehicle. The tour is very informal, and there is no tour leader.

Those attending the tour should pay close attention not only to plants, but pathways, fencing, paved areas, arbors, water features, stonework, decking, patios, statuary, lawn edging, and other hardscape items in the gardens. You may see these materials and other items used in ways that you’ve never thought of, so a camera and / or notebook will come in handy. There will be a housing trust greeter at each location and the home owners will be available to answer questions, so don’t be afraid to ask.

The Cheshire Housing Trust depends on this tour to raise much needed funds, so please consider attending. The tour happens rain or shine, so keep an eye the weather forecast. For more information, call 603-357-7603. To see photos of last year’s tour, click here.

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If the dad in your life is a gardener, one of the best gardening tools I know of to give him for father’s day is a mattock. This tool has a (usually) forged steel head and a wooden or polymer handle. It is similar to the pickaxe with one side of the head a wide flat blade used for weeding, removing turf, chopping roots, digging, and prying. Where the sharp pick would be on a pickaxe, instead the mattock has a three tine cultivator. I have two; one with a 12 inch long handle I use for weeding and cultivating, and another with a 24 inch long handle for tough jobs like grubbing out roots and stones. Mattocks are relatively inexpensive; a good long handled one might cost $30.00 at most. This is the most useful hand gardening tool I own and I wouldn’t be without it.

If the little ones want to spend their own money on dad, a five gallon pail is a perfect gift. These cost under $5.00 and are extremely useful in the garden. I have 2 of them and use them constantly for tossing weeds in, carrying small tools, carrying water and small amounts of soil or compost, and a hundred other uses. You can even turn it upside down and use it as a seat when pulling weeds. If it’s a white one, the children can personalize it by decorating it with colored markers.

Another tool that I’m never without is the hand pruner. I carry one in my back pocket so it is always at hand when I need to nip off dead flowers or prune roses, shrubs, or small trees. Hand pruners come in two types; the anvil type, where a sharpened blade meets a flat surface called an anvil, and the bypass type, where the two blades have a scissor action. I prefer the bypass pruner, because when the anvil type dulls it can crush, rather than cut. I’ve seen hand pruners for sale from $12.00 to over a hundred, but good ones can be found for under $50.00.

As a gardening dad myself, I can say that I’d be very happy to receive any one of these tools as a father’s day gift if I didn’t already own them.

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For over a week I’ve had an infected cyst under my right arm, and since I’m right handed this is inconvenient as well as painful. I can ease the pain somewhat by holding my arm out away from my body and putting my hand on my hip for support, but this means that I am virtually one handed. Still, I had gardening to do over the weekend and was determined to do it. 

My neighbors probably thought I was impersonating Joan Crawford as they watched me sashay through the yard with one hand on my hip and the other fluttering feebly at my side. I wonder if they also caught my previous act; once I had a huge pimple that forced me to do a chafed, John Wayne style walk. Come to think of it, John Wayne walked around with his hand on his hip all the time, so maybe they thought I was impersonating him.   

Anyhow, I have a shrub border that I’ve been expanding off and on for years and I decided that I would finally finish it this summer. My first goal was getting a Black Lace Elderberry planted, but as I stomped my foot down on my long handled spade to drive it into the soil the handle flew out of my hand and whacked me in the face. I saw stars, but I also forgot about the pain under my arm for awhile.

It was obvious that I couldn’t dig right footed and left handed so I grabbed my mattock to grub out some hemlock roots instead. My left arm isn’t as strong as my right, so I knelt down to shorten my swing. I swung the mattock up over my head and brought it down, but instead of hearing the satisfying THOCK of steel on roots I heard (and felt) a dull thud; the mattock had skipped across the roots like a smooth stone on water and hit me square on the knee cap. I danced a little jig and swore a few oaths before deciding that I would probably end up in an emergency room if I did any more gardening that day.

As I lurched toward the house all hunched over, with my left hand clutching my knee and my right still planted firmly on my hip, I must have looked more like Marty Feldman as Igor in Young Frankenstein than Joan Crawford or John Wayne. The neighbors are probably betting that my next impersonation will be Curly from the Three Stooges, so maybe next time I can get myself all tangled up in 50 feet of garden hose and make that dream a reality.

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