Saturday, November 1, 2014

Tom Digs Dandelions Ahead of Season's First Nor'easter

It’s November 1, opening day of firearms season on deer and I’m sitting inside by the woodstove. But a stiff north wind blows, carrying a cold rain, and my tolerance for such adverse conditions declines with each passing year.

Besides that, I have plenty food even without a deer. With the summer bounty of homegrown and foraged foods, my pantry bulges at the seams. Even so, it was hard to resist the young dandelions growing in my garden beds and so I went out this morning and dug a mess.

We’ve had several hard frosts here in Waldo and dandelions lose their bitterness after undergoing several good freezes. So if readers have an interest in some late-season foraging, now is the time to go out and do it. Snow is predicted for this weekend and even after it melts, which it must, more snow will certainly follow in the not-too-distant future.

In addition to dandelions, I still have kale, good-king-Henry and even eggplant growing in my unheated greenhouse. The eggplant can’t last much longer, but as long as it continues to grow, I’ll continue to water and nurture it.

Sitting here writing and watching the smoke from my chimney sweeping down toward the ground as a result of the low-pressure system moving in, I think back to years past and how the season’s first Nor'easter always seems a bittersweet event. Bitter, because it signals an unofficial start to winter. Sweet, because it feels so cozy and comfortable to sit in a warm house and watch the fir trees sweep around, buffeted by the wind.


There’s nothing we can do about bad weather, so we may as well sit back and enjoy it to whatever extent we can. It’s all part of nature, after all. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Foraging Season Draws To An End

After two heavy frosts, most of the plants that we foragers seek have withered and died. The season, sadly, draws to an end. But a few plants continue to offer their bounty, particularly those plants near or right on the coast.

One plant, an old familiar one that grows nearly everywhere is the dandelion, Taraxacum officinalis. But aren’t dandelions too bitter now for eating? Well, they became bitter immediately upon flowering and remained so until right now. But after a heavy frost, dandelions lose their bitterness. And in Waldo where I live, dandelions have since become palatable once again.

So if you yearn for some wild foods before they go by for the year, and you live in a region that has had a frost or two, try digging some dandelions. It’s a fall bonus that all dandelion lovers ought to take advantage of.

Another tenacious wild plant, curled dock, Rumex crispus, has the determination of a Timex watch; it keeps ticking when the others begin quitting. Specifically, curled dock pretty much dies back in mid-to late summer, but then in the cool of fall, starts putting out new growth. This it does until constant freezing temperatures put an end to new vegetative growth.

Tree nuts are a perennial fall favorite, but nut-bearing trees are widely scattered and therefore, not a dependable food source, at least here in Maine. If you have access to shagbark hickory, American chestnut or butternut trees, be thankful for your good fortune. Beechnuts, a common mast crop in Maine and liked by animals as well as people, are notoriously coquettish and for the last several years, I have not found any beechnuts to harvest.


A number of wild plants remain, plants that, like curled dock, experience a second shot of growth. What you find and where you find it depends upon serendipity and a bit of luck. But since we have so little time left before a hard freeze and even snow puts a finality to our foraging days afield, I suggest you get out now and have a season’s-end fling. It’s a long winter and the shorter you can make it the better. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Farewell To Summer




My summer of teaching foraging throughout the State of Maine draws to a close. This brings at once a sense of melancholy as well as an invitation to a quieter, easier time to come. As per my personal foraging, mushrooms make up the bulk of it, as well as such seasonal delicacies as Jerusalem artichokes and late-lingering garden “weeds” such as lamb’s quarters.

Garden produce takes up a big part of my time now. Canning, drying herbs and to a much lesser extent, freezing, have become regular activities. But all this has its own rewards past the enjoyment of knowing that I’m providing for my future. I know I’m taking part in an age-old practice, something that inexorably ties me to my ancestors.

Here’s an observation for you to consider. Writing this in late August, I’m thinking that society rushes the season. Advertisements for fall clothes, firewood and all sorts of fall and winter-related items bombard the airwaves. But it’s still summer and will be until September 23. So why is everyone in such a rush to bid farewell to the warm season?

Well, much to my chagrin, something happens just around the last few days of August. Changes in nature become noticeable. Colors, scents, sensations, no longer have that “summer” feel. Skies lose their summertime milkiness, water in lakes, ponds and streams takes on a marked clarity and the air, while still warm and congenial, acquires a different feel.

But this should come as no surprise. As I frequently point out, we in Maine have a short growing season. Plants change their physical appearance from week-to-week and even the stars and deep-space objects in the heavens reflect the ever-revolving wheel of time. In other words, every week brings change…sometimes subtle, or as in right now, quite pronounced.

So relish those fresh, green things. Soon, they’ll be gone and we’ll have to wait for next year to enjoy them again.

The year, botanically-speaking, draws to a close. And with it, we have a chance to ponder and reflect upon those things that we can’t buy with money, but are worth more than diamonds and gold.

Enjoy the late summer and embrace autumn. We’re all on a merry-go-round ride on the great wheel of changing seasons. Enjoy that ride.


Saturday, August 16, 2014

Last Workshops Coming Up - A Bit About Invasive Plants

Summer goes by so fast and now it’s more than half over. But some summer events remain and one
Garlic Mustard
of them is the free wild plant workshops I put on at Spruce Point Inn in Boothbay Harbor.

My last two workshops take place on Tuesday, August 19 and Tuesday, August 26. All a visitor need do is register at the front desk. Workshops run from 1:30 to 3:00 in the afternoon.

As an interesting note, this marks the third consecutive season I have taught at the inn and only this year, did I find garlic mustard growing there. How it arrived at the edge of the sea on a steep overlook remains a mystery. But it’s there and has already dropped seed.

The State of Maine lists garlic mustard as an invasive plant and suggests ways to combat it. The state list of locales having garlic mustard is now incomplete, since I have found it in a number of non-listed places and it’s for sure that it has spread farther than anyone might imagine.

The good news is that garlic mustard is a culinary plant of some value. It has a heady, garlic flavor, making it useful in all kinds of dishes. I can envision using the leaves in various ferments. Brined green beans, with garlic mustard, should make a nice combination.

We have more and more invasive species each year showing up around Maine. Many of them have culinary uses, so it only makes sense to use them.

Some time I plan on doing a special presentation on invasive plants. I may work on it this winter. But my presentation will differ from other invasive plant presentations because I will also include native invasives. To most people, a plant must be an alien in order to be considered invasive. Not so. For instance, groundnuts are a highly-invasive plant that once established are impossible to get rid of.

Groundnuts are edible tubers that send up long, weak-stemmed vines. These look much like pea vines and have twinned, opposite leaves. The vines depend upon other plants for support and in twining around the support plant, often end up strangling the plant to death. I have see groundnut vines kill Japanese knotweed.

Groundnuts, along with other wild edibles, are carving out a niche for themselves and as such, were offered last year by the Waldo County Soil & Water Conservation District in their annual plant sale.

But no one has mentioned anything about the plant’s invasive habits. That’s because groundnuts are a native plant. Cattails are another invasive native plant, but that’s another story for another time.

So much for invasives.

Back to plant workshops, perhaps I’ll see some of you at my workshops in Boothbay at Spruce Point Inn. It’ll be fall before you know it and then our wild plants will have been killed by frost, not to return until next growing season.

Happy foraging.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Goosetongue

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

Goosetongue


I’m just now finishing up the last of the goosetongue, Plantago juncoides, that I picked almost two weeks ago. I got so much of it that I home-canned 13 jars, gave a copious amount to a neighbor and had enough left for daily eating for several weeks. Goosetongue keeps well in the refrigerator for a long time. To use, just rinse in cold water to freshen the leaves.

Hitting goosetongue just right is key to easy cleaning. By that I mean harvesting the leaves just before the seedstalks appear. After that, separating the leaves from seedstalks becomes quite tedious.

But today, on July 4th, I see that other plants are coming along nicely. Weeding my garden now always means lots of meals of great, fresh green vegetables. Lamb’s quarters, amaranth and quickweed, or Galinsoga, are all of a size to be useful now. And they all taste more or less like spinach.

I must add that I have a new “wild” plant that I started from seed last winter. Hundreds of years ago, the English cultivated a wild member of the goosefoot tribe called Good King Henry. The botanical name, Chenopodium bonus-henricus, says it all. It’s a Chenopodium, just like lamb’s quarters. And it tastes something like it. This has been an important experiment for me, since GKH is a perennial. And as such, it can be relied upon to provide food year after year.

But having never tasted the plant, it was a gamble devoting garden space to it. Now I see that it was a good bet indeed. Next year I plan on adding another row of GKH.

The season progresses quickly and it’s hard to grasp that we are in midsummer now. And with that, my time at Spruce Point Inn in Boothbay Harbor begins anew. I’m there teaching wild plants every Tuesday from 1:30 p.m. to 3:00 p.m.

Although these sessions are aimed at clients of the inn, the public is invited, at no charge. So if you would like to partake of a casual, and hopefully informative discussion and plant walk, feel free to show up at the inn by 1:30 every Tuesday from now until the end of August.


For now, enjoy your summer and don’t forget the insect repellent. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Cold, Wet Spring No Problem For Foragers

For most of this spring, I have had to continually remind myself that the sun is still there; we just can’t see it.

To make matters worse, I’m drawn to flipping through my personal copy of Tom Seymour’s Forager’s Notebook. Entries there indicate that in 2012, I had planted all of my garden beds by now. This year, the soil in my raised beds is wet and cold and not even ready for tilling. That would only compact it and make it harder to deal with later.

Also on this date in 2012, dame’s rocket was in full bloom, hummingbirds had returned nearly one week prior and jewelweed was ripe for picking. Today, only one of these annual events has occurred. A hummingbird came buzzing around the greenhouse looking for its sugar feeder.

And on Saturday, May 26, 2012, the first June bugs (May beetles) had come buzzing and crashing into my porch light.

Will everything come out alright in the end? Well, sure. Wild plants will do just fine. They’re programmed to endure tough and changeable conditions. It’s the cultivated stuff that has me worried. Everything depends upon the first frost date. If, for instance, tomatoes haven’t ripened by that time, they will need to be picked and taken inside to ripen. And house-ripened tomatoes are never as good as the vine-ripened variety.

So everything depends upon getting our crops in the ground and growing so that they can germinate and mature before the first frost. There’s still time, but it’s growing shorter and shorter.

This is a good lesson for those who would compare a totally agrarian society to that of hunter-gatherers. The agrarian types raise all their own food and eschew wild things. But weather, climate, disease and a host of other factors often disrupt the system, plunging this entire class into chaos. That ultimately leads to famine and possibly death from starvation, which in turn dictates population migration.

On the other hand, the hunter-gatherers just put on an extra jacket and hunker down by the campfire. The wild plants, fish and animals they seek remain unchanged. “Ho-hum. It’s cold. Better throw another log on the fire.”

Of course we here in America are no longer hunter-gatherers. But we are an agrarian society, or at least our food comes by that means.

However, remainders of the hunter-gatherer society still exist in the form of modern-day foragers. These individuals glean what is best from every source. This gives foragers a leg up on those who totally depend upon supermarkets for their sustenance.

In 2009, the weather was so wet and cold that all my crops failed. I managed to get a few pallid stalks of Swiss chard from inside my greenhouse. But everything else died from standing in water and lack of sunlight. However, I harvested enough wild food so that I could home-can and freeze enough to last me through the winter. This was in addition to eating fresh, albeit wild, vegetables all summer, too.


So if this year turns out to be another one like 2009, it’s not the end of the world…at least not for foragers. It won’t be fun, but it won’t be a disaster either.

Friday, April 25, 2014

You Can Go Home Again


Brook trout and dandelion greens, quintessential components of late April in Maine, are finally available. I dug the first mess of dandelions last week and at the same time, caught several brook trout.

My meal that night was completely foraged and home-grown. The one non-foraged item was some of my home-grown and home-canned corn, a real treat that I save for special occasions. In partaking of this, I knew that the winter had officially passed and spring was here in truth and deed.

I have a little anecdote to share today. This warmed my heart and I hope it touches readers in the same way.

This morning saw me upstream on a local brook, by a little waterfall, happily catching and releasing 8- to 10-inch brook trout. I kept two for dinner. On my way back, nearly to where my car was parked, I saw two youngsters fishing. These boys were probably 10 years old, give or take a year. They had caught nothing and neither would they, since the place they were fishing held no trout. I knew that because I had tried it earlier.

I greeted them in passing and one of the boys politely asked, “Mister, do you know where we can catch some trout?” This was the kind of question I wait for people to ask, especially youngsters.

Pulling the bigger of my two trout from my creel, I held it up and said, “I sure do.” The boy’s eyes grew as big as saucers. They were that excited over the prospect of catching a few brook trout.

I told them exactly where to go and how to go about it. With all the ambition, hopes and dreams that 10-year old boys have for trout fishing, the two began running to the appointed location. There, I’m certain, they made lasting memories, catching handsomely-appointed brook trout.

But there’s more to this than just my satisfaction of directing two youngsters to a productive trout hole. The boy who asked me if I could tell him where to catch some fish somehow reminded me of myself when I was about his age. Many years ago, when I was 10 or 12, I had a trout fishing buddy and we two would walk for miles in search of trout. Distance and time meant nothing to us. We only cared for the sound, smell and ambiance of the stream, and the trout that it held.

There was the essence of magic for us in the quest for trout. Along the way, of course, we learned many things, not just regarding trout. We saw nature because we encountered it firsthand. It’s amazing what a person can see by walking, rather than driving. Our trout fishing times were part of our early education.

The boys today had no way of knowing how they had helped something in me to come full circle. But they fulfilled an important task. They allowed me to see myself…myself and my buddy Dan, as we were so very long ago.


Who says you can’t go home again? 

Here's a note to Don from Enfield. I answered your comment. Just go to the April 15 blog post to see it. Sorry I missed it earlier. Tom.