Archive for April, 2012

Cut Down on the Weeding with Mulch

No one likes to spend time weeding.  I first learned about mulch from Ruth Stout’s book, “How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back.”  The so-called Mistress of Mulch converted me nearly 40 years ago and I have followed her example ever since.  Mulch is an important way to cut down on the weeds, preserve moisture and eventually add natural material to the soil.  A thick layer of mulch will shade the soil, preventing weed seeds from germinating.

Yesterday my husband weeded the row of rhubarb we have outside the garden fence.  (Deer don’t like rhubarb, in fact the leafy part contains poisonous oxalic acid, so it’s safe not to fence it.)  Rhubarb likes a lot of food and a lot of water, so before mulching each plant, I dig in a couple of shovelfuls of composted cow manure and water it thoroughly.  Next I thread a soaker hose along the row so that I can continue to water under the mulch in dry weather.  Finally I spread the mulch.  I like to use salt hay.  It grows areas with brackish water, so the few weed seeds it has don’t germinate well in the environment of my garden.  The problem is that it’s hard to find.  The marshes and salt meadows have been filled in for development and it has to be harvested in the winter when the earth can support the weight of the machines.  We rake it up in the fall and store it under a tarp for the winter as it can be reused for several seasons.

Rhubarb plant all mulched with soaker hose in place

Rhubarb plant all mulched with soaker hose in place

I spread the mulch thickly around the rhubarb as the plants are established.  When I plant a seed bed such as chard, carrots, parsnips and lettuce, I spread it over the top very thinly so the seedlings can work their way through to the sunlight.  Even a thin layer like this can keep the weeds down until the plants grow larger.  When I set out plants I have raised under lights, I first spread the mulch fairly thickly and then dig through it to plant my seedlings.

A thin cover protects a seedbed

A thin cover protects a seedbed

A broccoli seedling snugged in with mulch

A broccoli seedling snugged in with mulch

I have used other commercially available mulches with varying success.  Landscaper’s hay is loaded with weed seeds and is best used where they use it, on lawns.  There are hay and straw mulches that have been heated to destroy the viability of the weed seeds but even those have some seeds.  Leaves are great for the fall where they can break down over winter and then be tilled into the soil in the spring, but not so good for a growing garden as they mat down and can smother plants.  Newspaper at least ten sheets thick is great for paths or places where you won’t be planting.  You can cover them with wood chips so they don’t blow around.  I don’t like black plastic as it kills everything, including all the underground creatures we need, like worms.  In very wet seasons mulch can encourage slugs but that is the only shortcoming I have found and the benefits far outweigh that fault.

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Waiting for the Full Moon to Plant

Egyptian papyrus of the Horoscope superimposed on the full moon

Egyptian papyrus of the Horoscope superimposed on the full moon

It may sound like an “Old Farmer’s Tale” but there are solid science based reasons to plant around the time of the full moon.  The moon’s gravitational pull on the earth, strongest during the time of a full moon, will bring water in the soil closer to the surface.  This improves seed germination and makes more moisture available for newly transplanted seedlings.  If you have seeds to plant, check the germination dates, as you may want to put them in a few days earlier than the full moon.  Seeds that take a long time to germinate will benefit from the extra moisture most when they germinate and the tiny rootlet emerges.

It is also important to know the date of your average last frost.  The USDA released new zone hardiness maps  this past January after re-evaluating statistical information on average dates for first and last frost throughout the country.  These new maps indicate that our garden has been moved from Zone 6a to the warmer zone 7a.   Whether or not this confirms global warming, to me it means I can put my tender tomatoes, eggplants and peppers in just a little earlier than I usually do.  Checking for your hardiness zone is easier than ever now as the new maps are computer ready with a place to just type in your zip code to pull up your hardiness zone and the dates of earliest and latest average frost.  Be sure to enlarge the map for your area to check the computer as I have found it to be wrong occasionally.  Remember that this is an average and that you should also check the long-range forecast before risking your precious seedlings.

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Salmon & Asparagus with Tortellini

The finished dish

The finished dish

This easy recipe makes a dynamite one pot meal that showcases your fresh asparagus.  I adapted it from a flyer for the brand of tortellini they carry in our local stores.  The salmon can be cooked separately (grilled would be nice), but I like to do it in one pot as it’s less bother and quicker.  It’s a colorful dish as well, with the red and yellow peppers, and requires pesto (see earlier post- Freezing Pesto for Winter Use).

Tortellini with Salmon and Asparagus

(Serves 2)

  • 2 Salmon fillets (four ounces/person)
  • 12 oz. pkg. fresh cheese tortellini
  • 1 sweet red or yellow bell pepper, chopped (or both)
  • ½ C. pesto
  • 1 lb. Asparagus
  • ¼ C. white wine
  • ½ yellow onion, chopped
  • Grated Parmesan cheese for the dish and the table

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.  Add the tortellini and the chopped onion.  When the pot returns to the boil, add the salmon.  Boil for three minutes and add the asparagus and red pepper.  Meanwhile, mix the pesto with the wine and set aside. When the salmon flakes and the tortellini is al dente (this should happen simultaneously) drain into the contents of the pot into a colander.  Put the mixture into a large bowl and add the pesto/wine mixture and about a cup of Parmesan.  Mix gently until well combined and serve with additional cheese.

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Native American Spearpoint

Two years ago, my husband was turning over a portion of the vegetable garden when he discovered a quartz rock, about 2″ long, which appeared to

Pre-contact Squibnocket Spearpoint

Pre-contact Squibnocket-stemmed Spearpoint

have been shaped by humans.  We thought it might be an arrowhead from the Pequot Swamp Wars which took place near us on July 13th & 14th, 1637.  In this battle the English, helped by friendly Indian tribes (the Mohicans among them) massacred the warriors of the Pequot tribe.  Thinking this artifact might have some historic interest, we sent pictures of it off to the State Archaeologist for identification.  He informed us that it is much older than the Pequot Wars, possibly 6,000 years old.  It’s called a small-stemmed or Squibnocket-stemmed quartz projectile point, most likely a spearpoint.  They turn up from time to time so there is no historic interest, except for us.

Last week, while walking the trail checking the nets for birds to band, I found another apparent artifact and sent pictures off to the State Archaeologist.  This time he said, ” I think I will have to break your heart on this one!  While the shape is right the type of lithic materials for a point is wrong.  So, I think it may be a natural stone.”

Sometimes it's just a rock...

Sometimes it’s just a rock…

Sometimes they’re just rocks….   😦

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Great Horned Owlet Leaves the Nest

Some evening you may hear the call of the classic “Hoot Owl,”  sounding as if he’s saying “Whooo’s awake, me too.”  This is the call of the Great Horned Owl, the largest of our North American owls at 22 inches in length with a wingspan of 44 inches.

A friend called a couple of days ago to tell us that the Great Horned Owl owlet we watched earlier in the winter had left the nest.  We

Great Horned Owl mother brooding her chick

Great Horned Owl mother brooding her chick

dropped everything to rush down and see this fluffy baby with eyes of a killer.  There was only one owlet this year although the Mother typically lays up to four eggs.   Last year she had three chicks.  Great Horned Owls appropriate old nests and don’t build their own.  This owlet’s egg was probably laid in early to mid February.  The Mother then incubates the eggs which hatch in 28 to 30 days.  When we viewed the nest on March 17th (cautiously and from a distance), the mother appeared to be brooding (fluffed out, protecting the chicks) as she was sitting up on the nest.  The Mother broods the chicks for about three weeks and after about seven weeks, they are ready to leave the nest.  They can’t fly when they leave the nest but they remain perched while the parents continue to bring them food.  It takes about ten more weeks before they can fly and they remain with their parents until mid summer, learning to hunt.  They eat mammals such as rabbits and rats and also other birds, even other smaller owls.

Great Horned Owlet

Great Horned Owlet

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Cedar Waxwings Discover American Highbush Cranberry

American Highbush Cranberry as the leaves turn in the fall

American Highbush Cranberry as the leaves turn in the fall

We planted four American Highbush Cranberry bushes (Viburnum trilobum Wentworth) about six years ago in hopes of attracting birds to these lovely native plants.  Their spring flowers resemble white lace cap hydrangeas and they have large red fruit with foliage that turns from green to a deep burgundy in color in the fall.

This is how the flowers look in the spring

This is how the flowers look in the spring

We have gradually been replacing our landscaping with native, bird friendly, deer resistant, low maintenance, attractive plants (yes, there are some!) and I had considered these plants to be good candidates.  The Highbush Cranberries had particularly heavy crops last year and I hoped to finally see the birds using these berries for winter sustenance.  The foliage and berries were particularly attractive last fall, but seemingly not to birds as the berries remained untouched.  I blamed the mild winter and plentiful food at first, but as the season wore on and the berries shriveled, I began to wonder if these bushes really were bird friendly.  A friend told me that some cultivars have such big berries the birds can’t eat them.  Yesterday as I was walking to my garden with a tray of onion seedlings I heard the high buzzy songs of a flock of Cedar Waxwings toward the area where the bushes line the road.  Turning, I saw at least 40 birds in a frenzy, darting in and out of the branches of the Cranberry bushes.  I ran to the window nearest them with my binoculars and confirmed that they were Cedar Waxwings.  They cleaned the bushes of all berries within 20 minutes.

One of at least forty Cedar Waxwings enjoying our Cranberries

One of at least forty Cedar Waxwings enjoying our Cranberries

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Asparagus Frittata

A few of these are thick enough to harvest and I'll leave the rest to develop into their ferny foliage.

A few of these are thick enough to harvest and I’ll leave the rest to develop into their ferny foliage.

Asparagus season is in full swing now and we returned from a quick trip to Maine to find enough for a frittata and for a vegetable accompaniment to our evening meal.  I pick any spear thicker than a pencil and snap it off the stalk in the garden at its natural breaking point so I don’t have to trim it in the house (unless I want to make asparagus soup, in which case I would cut it at the ground).

Frittata is a good item for the lunch repertoire, easy, quick yet elegant enough for guests.   I made mine using asparagus, onions, mushrooms and parmesan as a base (goat cheese is good with this too) but almost any combination of vegetables will work:  spinach, onions and goat cheese; red peppers, onions, summer squash and cheddar; tomatoes, basil and parmesan (or mozzarella for a “Margherita” frittata), or check leftovers in the refrigerator for a pleasing combination.  Add bacon, sausage, ham or other meats for a more filling meal.  This is a dish that welcomes experimentation.  It is made first on the stove top and finished under the broiler so choose a pan that can handle this treatment.

Basic Frittata Instructions

  • Eggs, 2 per person and one for the pan (or 5 for two people)
  • Salt
  • Splash of water
  • Vegetable combination

Film the pan with oil then saute the vegetables, caramelizing onions first, if using them.  Meanwhile whisk the eggs in a bowl until well combined, salt to taste (less if using bacon) then turn on the cold water and quickly run the bowl under the faucet, less than a second.  I say “one” and pull it out.  (It’s about 2 tbsp. of water)  whisk again and add half the cheese.  When the vegetables are ready, arrange them in the pan so they are evenly spaced and turn down the burner.  Gently pour the egg mixture over the vegetables taking care to cover the whole pan.  Spread the remaining cheese over the top, pressing it in if it sticks up too much. Cook on low for three or four minutes until you see it firming up slightly around the edge, then put it under the broiler until it puffs and browns slightly.  The amount of time is variable, depending on how well done you like your eggs.  Watch it carefully while under the broiler.  Serve immediately, in wedges.  I always serve it with my home-made ketchup as I like ketchup with eggs.

Lightly browned and ready to serve.

Lightly browned and ready to serve.

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Banding a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius)

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius)

We banded only one bird today but he was a beauty!  Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers  are migrating through here now and I often see one on our old crabapple tree which is riddled with their neat network of drill holes.  This bird is an adult in full breeding plumage and is over three years old.  We can tell this by examining the secondary feathers, which retain no juvenile plumage at all.  Hummingbirds often follow the sapsuckers north, feeding from the sap dripping from the holes they leave.  This practice gives the male hummers  an advantage because they can reach the breeding grounds before the flowers bloom and claim the best territories.

Back view

Back view

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Using Eggshells to Provide Extra Calcium for Nesting Birds

Nesting season is fully upon us and the birds, especially females, need extra calcium.  Studies also show that birds who rob nests for eggs, like Bluejays, are seeking the extra calcium contained in the shell along with the protein inside the eggs.  I have been putting out crushed chicken egg shells in the spring and find ready customers.  Today we had the first of our asparagus in a frittata for lunch and I had some shell for the birds.  I microwave them first to kill any possible salmonella bacteria.  (I had 5 shells and put them in for one minute.)  I then crush them into various sized fragments and put them outside on the ground by the bird feeder.  I think providing the birds with calcium in this way reduces the nest predation for eggs by other birds.

Eggshells give birds needed calcium for egglaying.

Eggshells give birds needed calcium for egglaying.

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Wild Mushroom Risotto, Plus What to do with the Leftovers

WARNING!  Don’t pick your own mushrooms without expert advice!!

Chanterelles foraged from Orr's Island, Maine

Chanterelles foraged from Orr’s Island, Maine

[Click on any thumbnail to enlarge]

You can use store-bought mushrooms for this dish but we have become avid mushroom hunters and this dish really sets off the flavors of the wild ones well.  If you choose your mushrooms from the store, choose the more flavorful exotic ones such as shitake, crimini and oyster, which are usually fairly reasonable in price.  I like a mixture.  Today I have Giant Puffball (found on a steep bank beside a road in Westport, Connecticut), some Chanterelles (found on Orrs Island , Maine), some Hen of the Woods (found in a condominium complex in Southport, Connecticut) and some dried Porcini our children

A large haul of Giant Puffball mushrooms

A large haul of Giant Puffball mushrooms

brought home to us from Tuscany.  When we find mushrooms, we fry them until they are nearly done, half in olive oil, half in butter (some recipes require one, some the other), freeze them on cookie sheets and store them in large plastic bags in the freezer.   This recipe is adapted from one I saw on “Cooking with Master Chefs,” the episode featuring Lidia Bastianich.  It requires nearly constant attention for 20 to 25 minutes so be sure to make your salad first and have everything else you need for the meal ready at hand so you won’t have to leave the stove for any extended length of time.

 

Two "nests" of Hen of the Woods

Two “nests” of Hen of the Woods

Wild Mushroom Risotto

  • A mixture of mushrooms, at least 12 oz. (I use more)
  • 2 C. Arborio rice
  • 1 C. dry white wine
  • 5 C. +/- chicken stock, heated
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 large clove garlic, minced
  • 3 Tbsp. +/- olive oil
  • 1 C. grated Parmesan cheese
  • salt & pepper
Wild mushroom risotto with chicken picata and sauteed green beans

Wild mushroom risotto with chicken piccata and sautéed green beans

If you have dried Porcini, rehydrate them in hot chicken broth for about 20 minutes (I use about 1/4 C. of Porcini in 1/2 C. broth).  Saute the rest of the mushrooms in olive oil until they are nicely browned.  Meanwhile saute the onion in olive oil until translucent and slightly browned then add garlic and saute about 30 seconds more.  Add the rice and stir until the rice turns golden and the sound it makes hitting the sides of the pan changes.  This change is hard to describe but it is different.  Add the white wine and stir until it is nearly absorbed (don’t let the rice stick).  At this point you begin adding the hot chicken stock, adding enough to cover the rice mixture each time and stirring until it has been absorbed, then repeating.  After about 10 minutes, add the liquid drained from the porcini, taking care not to put in any of the grit that sometimes is at the bottom.  Chop the porcini fine and

Frozen risotto patties, ready to wrap and store.

Frozen risotto patties, ready to wrap and store.

add them, add the sautéed mushrooms and deglaze the pan with hot chicken broth, adding that to the rice as well.  Begin testing the rice at about 15 minutes by taking a grain between your teeth and crunching it.  When the rice is al dente, taste for salt.  If you have used commercial stock, you may not need any more.  Adjust the liquid as the consistency should be creamy, not runny.  Stir in freshly ground black pepper and cheese.  Serve immediately, with additional grated cheese.

Risotto Patties:  I always make the full recipe, even though there are only two of us now, because we

Risotto patty, sauteed.

Risotto patty, sauteed.

love the leftovers.  Let the risotto cool, stir in an egg or two, depending on how much you have leftover, and some additional cheese.  Form into patties, freeze on a cookie sheet and wrap individually when frozen.  Store in the freezer.  When ready to use, place the frozen patties in an olive oil glazed pan and fry on low heat, turning after about 10 minutes to brown the other side.  The patties develop a deep brown crust on the outside and remain soft inside.

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