Category Archives: Design

DRY WOOD, & AUTUMNAL AIR

 Passionflower to the Rescue

   When I began, many years ago, to heat my home with wood, I struggled to get the driest possible wood, finally building a 60-foot long woodshed beneath which a double row of logs basked in the direct hit of sunlight from the south. I more recently learned that firewood can be too dry, which is when moisture drops below 15 to 20 percent. Bone dry wood can’t get enough oxygen for a clean, efficient burn, so smoke, within which is locked the potential for rendering additional heat, is produced; pump enough oxygen into the mix, though, and you get an inferno that can damage a woodstove.    So — and here’s the plant-related part — rather than tear down or put siding on my super-drying woodshed, I put some heat loving vines to climb and provide some shade on the south face. Sections of hog-fencing temporarily hung …

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UNPERMACULTURE

Accusations,  (Mostly) not True

I’ve understandably been accused of being a “permie,” that is, of practicing permaculture.    (In the words of permaculture founder, Bill Mollison, “Permaculture is about designing sustainable human settlements. It is a philosophy and an approach to land use which weaves together microclimate, annual and perennial plants, animals, soils, water management, and human needs into intricately connected, productive communities.” In the words of www.dictionary.com, permaculture is “a system of cultivation intended to maintain permanent agriculture or horticulture by relying on renewable resources and a self-sustaining ecosystem.”)    Walk around my farmden and, yes, you’ll come upon Nanking cherry bushes where forsythia bushes once lined the driveway, an American persimmon tree where a lilac bush once stood, and other edible plants used also for landscaping. In the vegetable garden, I preserve soil integrity by never tilling it, and, in the south field, blackcurrant bushes make use of the space beneath …

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THE UGLY, THE TASTY, & THE BEAUTIFUL

Close Your Eyes, If Necessary

   “A crabby looking, brownish green truncated little spheroid of unsympathetic appearance.” That’s how a British writer of almost 75 years ago described one of my favorite fruits, medlar (Mespilus germanica). True, the fruit is no beauty to some eyes. To me, the fruit has an authentic, old-fashioned, unvarnished look to it, like that of a small, russeted apple whose calyx end (opposite the stem) is flared open.

Medlars, ready for harvest

    Medlar is truly an old-fashioned fruit, whose popularity peaked in the Middle Ages. Chaucer mentioned it, indecorously referring to it as “open arse.” Even Shakespeare got his digs in, more discretely call it “open et cetera.”    This past season was a good season for fruits, including medlar. Yesterday, I harvested the crop from the leafless tree. But no, I couldn’t yet sink my teeth into one. Besides its odd appearance, medlar has one …

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SWEET ANNIE AND SWEET GRAPES

Annie Helps the World

    Sweet Annie (Artemisia annua): such an unassuming name. Likewise for the plant itself, with its ferny, but not distinctive, foliage, and flowers not worth a second look. You’d hardly peg this plant as a player in global health and global warming.    But look within the leaves and you find artemisin, a biologically active compound that has contributed to Sweet Annie’s figuring into Chinese herbal medicine for the past 2,000 years. Artemisin was isolated from the plant in the 1970s by Chinese scientist Tu Youyou, for which she  shared a Nobel Prize. Sweet Annie’s uses in Chinese medicine — qinghao in Chinese — run from treating asthma to skin diseases to stomach pain to rheumatism to  . . . but not all such claims have been experimentally verified (and Sweet Annie could have bad side effects).    The most widespread and thoroughly documented use of Sweet Annie …

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I Find Common Ground, and More, in Maine

 My Favorite Country Faire

   Two dogs, one cat, six ducks, and one chicken are trusted to the care of friends; sourdough starter is re-fed and chilled; plants are on their own. It’s hard to leave the farmden. But this trip — to Maine — is well worth it.    Walking through the entrance gate to the Common Ground Fair in Unity, Maine, my senses are overloaded with color and fragrance. Along either side of the entrance path are boxes piled high with bright orange carrots, spilling over with the blue green leaves of kale, or packed full with yellow or red beets. Also flowers, herbs, and cheeses. Pervasive is the resiny fragrance of sweet Annie (Artemesia annua), which for some reason seems to be perennially the signature herb of the fair. Buckets are filled with stems for sale; knapsacks sprout bunches of purchased sweet Annie from their zippered pockets; and girls …

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SUCCESSES, EDIBLE AND OTHERWISE

 Stand Up Straight!

   I am particularly proud of my Brussels sprouts this year — and I haven’t even tasted them yet. How odd that I should be proud of this vegetable that I spurned in the past, often quoting a friend who referred to them as “little green balls of death.” Then I put my own twist on that description, saying that perhaps the friend meant that Brussels sprouts were only palatable a “little boiled to death.”    I’ve come around, and decided, a couple of years ago, that Brussels sprouts were worth growing, despite their high demands on space and time. For good production in northern climates, the seeds need to be sown indoors in early March, and then harvest doesn’t start until October or sometime after the first frost. And for all that waiting, each plant — a mere single stalk with whorls of leaves from top to bottom …

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I WAS WRONG

 Hog Peanuts, Groundnuts, Whatever

   I was wrong. A few weeks ago I wrongly dissed groundnut (Apios americana) for invading my flower garden. Yes, I planted it; that was 30 years ago, and it’s resisted my attempts at eradication for the past 28 years.    The worse culprit, this year at least, is related to groundnut. Like groundnut, it’s a legume, it’s native, it’s edible, and it’s a vining plant with compound leaves. But each leaf of hog peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata), has 3 egg-shaped leaflets, as compared with groundnut’s 5 lance-shaped leaflets.

Hog peanut leaves

    Hog peanuts produce flowers both above ground and below ground. Below ground is where the goodies are. Pods that form there enclose peanut-sized seeds that allegedly are tasty raw or cooked. I’ll see if I can dig some up in a few weeks. Like groundnuts, hog peanuts provided food for Native Americans; the plants were among …

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MAYPOP & ASPARAGUS, BEAUTIFUL & EDIBLE

 Awesome, Made More So

   You would think — or I, at least, would think — that a purple and white passionflower would be more passion-inducing than one that was merely white. Not so. The white one displays a passionate juxtaposition between a pure, lily-whiteness and a wildness from the the squiggly, threadlxike rays of its corona backdropping female stigmas’ that arch over the yellow pollen-dusted anthers.    A white passionflower is a rarity. Mine sprung up by chance from a batch of seeds I planted last year. Mostly the plants bear purple and white flowers.    Most passionflowers are tropical, but this white-flowered passionflower, like its mother and siblings can survive outdoors even with our winter lows of well below zero degrees Fahrenheit. Commonly known as maypop, Passiflora incarnata is native to eastern U.S. as far north as Pennsylvania. Tropical passionflowers, are woody perennial vines; maypop is an herbaceous perennial vine, …

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