Monday, November 28, 2011

Urban Hedgerows

Hedgerows are overgrown strips of land separating two fields or other open areas. Hedgerows typically serve as home to a wide variety of plants, birds, animals and insects. With rampant development eating up farmland at an alarming rate, hedgerows become fewer in number with each passing year.

But another kind of “hedgerow” is popping up, and these, too, serve as sanctuaries for a variety of plants and other critters. I refer to the ditches, vacant strips and similar undeveloped slivers of suburban real estate found between stores and businesses. Every town and city has them, too, and they are visible reminders of what once grew and flourished in a once rural but now urban landscape.

This morning, while waiting for the auto dealer to put a set of snow treads on my Ford Focus, I took a stroll along the retail strip located between Route 1 and downtown Belfast, Maine. Here, parking lots and chain drugstores have replaced woods and fields. I can remember one place, now paved over and home to Duncan Donuts, Sears, Subway and several other chain stores, was once a family farm. I remember the school bus stopping there to let a boy (whose name I forget) off each day. Who ever thought that such a dramatic change would ever take place?

Anyway, these chain stores and other retail businesses, while close together, often have 10-foot-wide patches of unpaved real estate between them.

Many, if not all of these “suburban hedgerows” hold a wide variety of useful wild plants. In fact, urban foragers need not make the trek out to rural locations in order to find useful plants. All they need do is check out the in-town hedgerows.

Today, November 28 was unusually warm. Most of the snow from the pre-Thanksgiving snowstorm had melted, revealing green grass as well as a variety of edible plants. For instance, I saw common sorrel, curled dock, dandelions and common plantain. Most of these plants were in good enough shape to be used for food.

I wondered, though, what would happen if I decided to do some foraging here and someone confronted me. What would I tell them? I came up with several nifty answers, including, “Oh, I’m the Taraxacum (dandelion) inspector,” “Be careful there…this stuff is Glechoma hederacea (ground ivy),” and “It’s okay…I’m going to certify that your Thypha latifolia (cattails) is healthy.”

Upon discovering these urban oases I now realize that no matter how much we dig, cut, build and pave, we cannot stop nature. The plants will go on, no matter what. And that knowledge pleases me no end.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Stink Bugs Overwinter In Maine Garden Debris

I recently got a message on my answering machine asking whether or not I thought that stink bugs could become a perennial problem here in Maine.

My answer, sadly, is “yes.” These insects spread north from Mexico many decades ago and have reached most if not all of the various states.

In the south, these bugs breed year-round. But in the north, as in Maine, they overwinter in leaf litter and other vegetation.

Two types of bugs come to mind. One, the Harlequin Bug, a large, slow-moving orange-and-black bug, is said to be in Maine. I can’t recall seeing one of these, however. But, Tarnished Plant Bugs, brown, drab-looking bugs, are common here.

These bugs, in their nymphal form, damage crops by injecting a certain toxin into the plant at the same time they suck out its sap. This causes deformed leaves, stems and of course, produce.

To keep these garden pests at bay, make sure to remove all dead vegetation from your garden. Also, frequently check under boards and similar items, since this is where adult bugs hide.

Sadly, I had not yet removed all the debris from my garden before the big snow fell. And yes, I had a few stink bugs around last year. These will now have some safe places to hide. My only recourse is to get at the garden as soon as snow melts in spring.

The only good thing I can say about stink bugs and their ilk is that they will probably never become as numerous as Japanese beetles, another non-native, insect pest.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Harbor Pollock

Foraging has slowed considerably now and many of our favorite plants have already begun forming the new growth that will eventually be next year’s plant. Fishing, too, has slowed down. But not entirely.

Much of my free time as of late is spent fishing for harbor pollock. These look exactly like the bigger pollock found in offshore locations, except they are far smaller. Still, what they lack in size they make up for in other ways.

First, harbor pollock are exceptionally abundant. Near-limitless schools of pollock enter inshore areas in fall and swarm around docks, floats and piers. Willing biters, harbor pollock readily take a variety of baits (I use clam necks) and artificial lures.

Pollock, despite their diminutive (rarely do these exceed 12 inches in length) size, fight well and put up a fine scrap on ultralight spinning tackle.

Finally, pollock taste great. Old-timers used to “corn” them, meaning to coat in salt overnight. The fillets are soaked in fresh water before frying or using in chowders. Some people fry harbor pollock whole, the same as when cooking a small trout. I prefer my skinless pollock fillets rolled in McCormick Seafood Mix and baked in a toaster oven. This is a greaseless way to a healthful and super-tasty seafood dinner.

Few others take advantage of this outstanding fall fishery. I suppose that by November, most people’s minds are on other things besides fishing. But for me, the chance to collect any kind of wild food is enough to get me out of the office and out on the water.

I thoroughly enjoy harbor pollock. And if you like fresh fish, you would probably like them too. Just go to the nearest harbor and fish near a pier of from a float. Try to hit an incoming tide when it is about halfway in.

Note that Maine has a recreational daily bag limit of 6 pollock under 18 inches in Maine territorial waters. Given the huge numbers of pollock and lack of people fishing for them, this is a rather silly law. But six pollock are better than no pollock and so I head out once again, cooler in one hand, fishing rod in the other.

The inshore pollock fishery lasts until well into winter. Do give it a try.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Wildness Within Walking Distance

It’s not often that anyone’s poetry strikes a chord in me. But Wildness Within Walking Distance, Robert M. Chute, Just Write Books, 2011, has done just that.

Chute echoes one of my most deeply held convictions when he says, “…unoccupied and undeveloped open land—perhaps our most under-appreciated and endangered natural treasures.”

I’ve always maintained that my woodlot, my so-called, “back 40” is closer to true wilderness than many of our state parks and other organized wilderness areas. On my woodlot, the walker need not stay on marked trails. And there are no regulations to prohibit me or anyone from picking berries or anything else growing there.

My woodlot was never developed, but on the other hand it has been cut over more times than a math student could calculate. But what grows there is what naturally occurs. In other words, commercial interests never totally stripped the place and planted, instead of the mixed hardwood/softwood that grew there of its own accord, a monoculture of balsam fir or red pine. No, my woodlot, like so many other small plots of land, has always grown whatever wants to grow there.

As a lifelong hunter, fisherman and forager, my travels quite naturally take me through reverting farmland, places where old cellar holes tell a haunting story, if only anyone cares to listen. Long-forgotten stands of daylilies and even, to my great pleasure, plots of asparagus, indicate that here, someone lived, families loved, struggled and probably died.

Bits of broken china, kicked out of the earth by burrowing woodchuck, show that the family had placed great stock in such things and treasured a few plates and perhaps some silverware as if it were the jewel from a pontentate’s diadem.

Development, the slow, but steady encroachment of houses, pavement, dogs, cats and people who know not of nor could care less about the history of the place they despoil, pour in like a great molasses flood.

And so people such as Robert M. Chute find that they need to keep the old memories alive. Read his chapter, “The Chilman Place” and you will see just what I mean.

For anyone with a heart and soul that longs for simple but essential and indescribably valuable country knowledge, I highly recommend this book.