Apple Trees In Bloom: A Window To The Past

Around the end of May in Maine, it’s apple blossom time. When you are driving through the countryside, you can now see bushels of pink, white and fushia blooms.  You can make out where there were farms long ago, abandoned orchards or even where volunteer apple trees have seeded years before.  When you see a few apple trees together, sometimes if you look close you can make out where a barn or a farmhouse was.

A friend of mine once had the opportunity to walk from one end of town to the other, picking wild, untended apples along the roadway and tasting them all.  What an experience!  The varied flavors, some tart, some sweet, some in between.

Darker blossoms on a crab apple tree.
Darker blossoms on a crab apple tree.

Okay, wake me up!  I’m about to have an Anne of Green Gables moment here.  Put my hair in a huge bun and put on a petticoat!  There’s just something about apple blossoms.  Maybe it’s because I grew up with a small orchard on our property.  I can remember around a dozen trees of all different varieties.  Many possibly planted in the 1800’s.  Yellow Transparents, crab apples for the most gorgeous jelly you can imagine, an old storage type and a few red apples we were never quite sure of.  Pies started being made with the early varieties in late August and kept being made until the apples were gone.

Our very old apple orchard.
Our very old apple orchard.

Each kind had a slightly different color to the bloom.  I can remember bringing in some of the flowering branches for graduation parties and a few other special occasions. Always filling the house with heavenly scents that would make some of us sneeze!

Beautiful rosey pink buds.
Beautiful rosey pink buds.

Back when potatoes where grown in the fields by the orchard, we had virtually pest free apples.  It only took us a few years after the farmers stopped spraying the fields to figure out why the apples used to grow so well.  But now every few years we would have a good apple year.

Some older apple trees have a wonderful shape!
Some older apple trees have a wonderful shape!

Apparently I’m not the only one around that swoons over old apple trees.  I have found recipes for How to Make Abandoned Orchard Apple Pie.  This was an essay that was from an adult writing contest found at http://www.northcountryradio.org.   What a romantic tale of making a pie from found apples!  I would love to do this sometime if I knew a spot to find all of these apples.

Some older Apple trees near my house.
Some older Apple trees near my house.

Many people buy a piece of land and have no idea what varieties of apples are there.  Every year, MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association) holds The Great Maine Apple Day.  Usually held in the fall, they hold workshops and talks about all things apple.  Samples of rare and heirloom types are there to taste.  There is cider making, artwork, vendors and a team of apple identifiers.  Do you have a tree of unknown parentage?  They may be able to tell you what it is and it’s history.  For more information, visit http://www.mofga.org.

Hang in there little bee!
Hang in there little bee!

Renovating older apple trees can be quite an undertaking but it can be well worth it.  I have read a lot about this on the University of Maine Cooperative Extension web site.  There’s some great information in bulletin #2409 called Renovating Old Apple Trees.

One of our precious little pollinators!
One of our precious little pollinators!
Blushing blooms!

This time of year the earth is bursting with life.  Lawns are growing too fast and the dandelions are blowing their seeds everywhere.  Plant life is growing like a teenager with a growth spurt.  For now, I must savor the apple blossoms.  I probably won’t have time to dance at dusk through an orchard in bloom, but I can dream!  Their glory is so fleeting.  But there will be other flowers to come.  Take a look around your area.  You may find some abandoned trees that you can get apples from in the fall.  I’ve enjoyed sharing the look into the past today.  Thanks for going back in time with me! Feel free to subscribe in the sidebar!

Hilary|Everlongardener

For more of my Ramblings & Reflections see my post A Throwback To Times Gone By.

Getting Started With Worm Composting

I have been fascinated by the idea of using worms to speed up my composting efforts for years.  I must be crazy to do this, I couldn’t even keep that last batch of Sea Monkey’s alive!  Of course, the thought of keeping worms may not be everyone’s cup of manure tea, but you might change your mind when you learn about the advantages of Vermiculture (a.k.a. composting with worms).  How long does your compost pile take to break down?  Two to three years?  With a worm bin you can potentially start seeing results in a few months!

Red wiggles worms!
Red wiggles worms!

How A Worm Bin Works 

We all know that worms take care of so much of our waste outside.  I’ve always said that worms were at the top of the food chain although that may not be exactly scientifically accurate!  But let’s just contemplate harnessing that power in a smaller, controlled environment.  With the right balance of ingredients and moisture, you can make a contained compost making machine.

What Kind Of Worms

With worm castings being some of the best stuff for your garden, generating your own for garden amendments can be invaluable.  The preferred worm for the job here is the red wiggler or Eisenia fetida.  The earthworms generally found in your garden are not suitable for use in a bin.  They require much deeper soil to survive.  Sometimes home gardeners may find a cluster of red wigglers in their gardens but I had never seen any on my property.  I got some worms from a local high school.  I discussed this briefly in my post A Unique Seed Saving Project .  There are many online sources for live red wigglers.  A reputable seller will guarantee live delivery.  Bait shops may even have some for sale.

What Can I Add To My Bin?

Red Wigglers are ravenous eaters!  Save your kitchen veggie scraps, egg shells, stale bread items and pasta.  Animal manure, leaves, newspaper and toilet paper rolls can be added.  Avoid putting in any meat or fatty food items.

Stale bread items and pasta.
Stale bread items and pasta.
Veggie scraps, fruit peels and eggs shells for the worm bin.
Veggie scraps, fruit peels and eggs shells for the worm bin.

Building The Worm Bin

Once you start looking for information on Vermiculture,  you will soon find that there are tons of ideas out there.  I just got my wigglers a few weeks ago so my bin is very basic.  Just a container with holes in the top.  But I will be changing it soon.  I’m letting the worms settle in a bit.

Gather items for worm bin assembly.
Gather items for worm bin assembly.

First, obtain two 8-10 gallon tubs.  Assemble your bedding ingredients.  You will need moist shredded newspaper, cardboard, fresh vegetable scraps, stale bread, dry leaves and some garden soil to start.  Using a drill, put holes in the bottom of the tote and along the top edge.

Shredded newspapers.
Shredded newspapers.

Start to layer in the items and add your worms.

Layers of kitchen scraps.
Layers of kitchen scraps.

Then cover the worms with more leaves and newspaper.  The bedding should be damp but not wringing wet.

Adding the red wiggles to your bin.
Adding the red wiggles to your bin.

Cover the bedding in a layer of newspaper, put a layer of cardboard over it and place cover on bin.  In the second bin, place two bricks or other similar objects in the bottom.  Place the worm bin inside second bin.  You now have built a simple worm composting bin.

Cardboard on top of bedding.
Cardboard on top of bedding.

Harvesting Black Gold

Getting the worm castings out of the bin is the next step.  The worms will do their work for a few months.  The worm poop can usually be found on the bottom of the bin.  Put down a sheet of plastic and take out the composted material.  Worms go away from light so a flashlight may help.  Gently sift through to separate worms from the castings.  Carefully place worms back in the bin and replenish the bedding.

A few healthy red wiggles composting worms.
A few healthy red wiggles composting worms.

With the right conditions, you could potentially expect to double your worm population every 3-4 months.  I found a great site called http://www.wormcompostinghq.com where I found all I ever wanted to know about Vermicomposting.  This guy even has a free e-book called 30 Worm Composting Questions Answered.  This book delves into the fascinating world of worm reproduction and even worm bin troubleshooting!  I’m starting to sound like a real garden nerd here!  Well, I’ll just have to see how it goes.

The worm castings can be applied directly to the garden.  Any drips from the bin can be used as form of worm bin tea, a fabulous fertilizer for plants.

There are so many other things to share about composting with worms.  I thought that for this post I would just discuss the basics.  Feel free to subscribe in sidebar to keep up with all of my gardening adventures!  Thanks for coming along!

Hilary~Everlongardener

 

A Unique Seed Saving Project

When Monticello, a plantation formerly owned by Thomas Jefferson, runs out of a particular seed, who do they call?  Medomak Valley High School heirloom seed project.  When Baker Creek Seeds needs a rare corn grown out for them, who do they call? Medomak Valley High School heirloom seed project.  Who is this group?  This is a local high school horticultural program.  I put in a bit of time with them when I was working on getting my Master Gardener status.  What I saw there really impressed me.

The yearly printed catalog of the Medomak Valley High School Heirloom Seed Project.
The yearly printed catalog of the Medomak Valley High School Heirloom Seed Project.

Who Are They?

This group of garden loving teens is headed up by teacher Mr. Neil Lash.  Talking about seed-saving and all the little stories behind them sends chills up his spine.  He is a real seed enthusiast.  The students have a very hands on experience. They learn gardening skills that they can use for the rest of their lives.

Mr. Lash teaching class.
Mr. Lash teaching class.

When I visited the class recently, Mr. Lash took some Einkorn Provence wheat out of the cold storage room.  The students listened attentively as he gave a riveting commentary on how this wheat was what would have been eaten in King Harods day and how it is so ancient that a person with Celiac disease could potentially eat it.  This wheat is only a few thousand years old.  It is also called rice wheat because of its small size.  The wheat is planted out every few years to keep it going. This is just an example of the diversity in the collection.

Some of the raised beds the class uses for growing.
Some of the raised beds the class uses for growing.

They strive to obtain local, open-pollinated seeds.  The history of seeds is important just like other kinds of history. Many seeds and plants in the collection are from local people and farms.   Memories, names and locations are recorded so as not to be lost.

Students tend these plants for the annual plant sale.
Students tend these plants for the annual plant sale.

What Do They Accomplish?

Aside from maintaining an extensive seed collection, the class has many other endeavors.  In one greenhouse, multiple worm compost bins are added to regularly.  I even obtained a few red wiggles to start my own bin.

Endangered chicken breeds raised by the students.
Endangered chicken breeds raised by the students.

One of the new projects this year is raising some rare chicken breeds.  The class chose ‘Buckeye’, ‘Golden Campine’ and ‘Chanteclers’.  The first breed is on the THREATENED list and the other two breeds are on the CRITICAL ENDANGERED list. Some of the extra males will be for sale and a variety ‘Freedom Ranger’ is being raised for meat. These will be available in June.

The classroom is soon getting a walk-in freezer for their seeds.  This will be a huge improvement, eliminating the need to grow out all of their inventory so much.

Greenhouse number 2.
Greenhouse number 2.

In the fall, students grow some of the finest salad greens for cafeteria use.  I asked how they were allowed to grow for student consumption and I was informed that because of the high standards in place for growing, the school does use their top quality salad greens.  No iceberg lettuce here!

Historic geraniums for sale.
Historic geraniums for sale.

The students maintain walking trails right near the school that are open to the public.  Great care has also been taken in restoring the American Chestnut tree with many planted on school grounds.  To find more information about the American Chestnut, you can go to http://www.acf.org.

Catalog and Plant Sale

The seed project puts out a yearly printed catalog with detailed descriptions of all seeds.  Many varieties were brought to Maine by early settlers.  Anyone interested in heirloom varieties should check it out!  The class also has a website, http://www.mvhsheirloomseedproject.com  where you can find more information.  The group was even recently featured in the Bangor Daily News.

One of the greenhouses full of lush plants for sale.
One of the greenhouses full of lush plants for sale.

The seeds savers annual plant sale is going on right now.  It is open to the public everyday after school from 2-3:30.  As you can see by the photo, the greenhouses are packed with healthy plants at reasonable prices!  Anyone can get involved in the project.   The seed savers are always looking for gardeners to grow varieties for them.  Contact them and give it a try.

I hope you find the concept of saving heirloom seeds as exciting as I do.  I wish there had been a class like this when I was in school.   I also hope that your garden plans are coming along.  Thanks for joining me this week.

Hilary|Everlongardener

Enjoying and Preserving Dandelion Greens

Some people are into dandelion greens, some are not.  I’m thinking that probably if you don’t care for them you haven’t had them fixed properly.  If you can imagine foraging for food in the old days, dandelions would be among the first things to harvest.  After a long winter of eating what you were able to put up, you would need those vitamins in your system.  I know my rabbit goes nuts over them.  Every time I go near her hutch she gets so excited, waiting for her pile of greens!

The other day I visited my friend Cindy for a little education on the common dandelion.  We took to the backyard with a sturdy knife and a bucket.  Foraging is easy because dandelions are usually so prevalent.  But, there is some work involved.

A lawn full of dandelions!

A Bit About Dandelions 

The common dandelion or Taraxacum officinale, is not the friend of someone who wants a lawn that looks like a golf course.  Many millions of dollars are spent yearly to kill the humble dandelion, the bane of some people’s existence.  It’s a shame because they are among the first foods for bees.  They are a perennial green best eaten in spring.  With their high vitamin content, K, A, C, it’s a huge list,  we probably all should be eating them!

Harvest, Care and Preperation

Only dig from areas free of pesticides and other harmful substances.  Choose plants before flowers emerge if you can.  With a firm handled knife, get around the back of the green, drive the knife into the ground firmly and cut in a sweeping, circular motion.  This maneuver cuts the root and you can then pull the green.  The rest of the root is left behind to grow again.  Use your knife to clean as you go.  Scrape any dirt away that you can.

Plunge knife into the ground behind dandelion.
Plunge knife into the ground behind dandelion.
Clean as you go.
Clean as you go.

When you have harvested the desired amount, the cleaning process begins.  Soak in water, changing the water 4-5 times until clean.

Soaking the greens.
Soaking the greens.

The cooking method is quite simple.  Place greens in a pot of water and bring to a boil.  Pour off water and put fresh water in the pot.  I added some partially cooked, chopped bacon, minced garlic, salt, pepper and chopped onions.  After simmering for roughly a half hour, drain water and serve. Some like them with vinegar.  I have to say they were fantastic!  The fat in the pot takes the bitterness out.  You can use salt pork, bacon or my mother told me to use olive oil.

A lovely dish of dandelion greens with bacon, onions and garlic.
A lovely dish of dandelion greens with bacon, onions and garlic.

Preserving

Wondering how to get your dandelion fix in the dead of winter?  Well, my visit with my friend was also a lesson in preservation.  A method passed down from her mother.  A crock would be ideal.  In this case, the ceramic liner from a slow cooker was used.   Using cleaned greens, layer them in the crock with kosher salt.  Place a plate over them for a weight.  They will shrink down a lot.  Repeat the process to fill container.  Keep in the refrigerator.

Salting the greens.
Salting the greens.

When you are ready to eat your greens, give them a good soaking to remove the salt and cook as desired.  It’s a pretty amazing process.

Cooking Ideas

There are so many uses for dandelions once you start looking.  They can be added to green smoothies, make spring tonics, mixed in when making kale chips or put into salads.  Roots can be roasted and made into a substitute for coffee.  The blossoms can be made into wine if you are ambitious!

My grandmothers cookbook, The Wise Encyclopedia of Cookery from 1949 had many suggestions.  “If the leaves are to be used in salad, they should be well drained and crisped in the refrigerator.  A tart French dressing is all that is required.”  I’m not sure how bitter they would be but I’ll have to try it.

Thank you for coming along with me this week.  I hope you try your hand at harvesting dandelion greens!  You might be surprised how much you like them. Feel free to subscribe to the Everlongardener blog in the sidebar  for weekly gardening inspiration!

Hilary|Everlongardener