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Winter aconite is one of the earliest signs of spring, but it’s rarely noticed. It emerges about the same time as those delicate and highly regarded snowdrops, while a thin blanket of snow still covers the ground. Winter aconite is a hardy plant, thriving and spreading with no gardener to care for it, and when the blossoms are gone the leaves grow ever larger, making a thick green bed. This flowering plant is a member of the same family as the common buttercup, and like the buttercup it’s just there, not much noticed, disregarded and rarely found in flower beds.
For the flower gardener, crocuses are the first sign of spring. Gardeners are by nature optimists, planting seeds and nurturing seedlings in the happy expectation of a thriving, colorful flower bed. And those hopes are often fulfilled — sometimes fully, more often a bit less. But to have crocuses emerge at the end of winter you have to plant bulbs in the fall, and that takes real optimism, for by fall the garden is a hopeless mess and every despairing day is colder and darker than the day before. And you don’t get those masses of delicate blossoms unless you plant masses of bulbs and just the right depth, not so shallow they’ll be torn up by squirrels and not so deep they’ll never grow to sunny daylight.
And for the vegetable gardener, the first sign of spring is a green shoot of garlic. Like the optimistic flower lover, the vegetable gardener was busy the previous fall, planting rows of garlic cloves, covering them with a blanket of leaves and anchoring the leaves against the winter wind with twigs or light branches. The garlic grows a bit in the fall, takes a winter vacation, then starts up vigorously as the days lengthen and grow slightly warmer. Garlic has a flower but that comes later, meanwhile it puts its energy into growing tall — and, of course, there’s that subterranean garlic bulb that’s growing a bit bigger every day. If you like garlic, you ought to plant some, it takes little or no talent and the reward is great.
Most people know what a turnip is. But not so many are sure they know a rutabega when they see one. Assuming you know what a turnip is and you also know what a cabbage is, we can tell you that a rutabega came about as a cross between the turnip and the cabbage. Yes, we know that’s unlikely, but it seems to be so.
Turnips and rutabegas are members of the plant genus Brassica. In fact, among people who care about such things there’s a theory known as the Triangle of U which diagrams the relationship between members of the Brassica — a theory which has been proven true by DNA studies. But that takes us very far afield. All we wanted to do was to introduce this light, whimsical poem by Marilyn Robertson. It’s called “Roots” and it goes like this…
Is this a turnip? I ask the man arranging vegetables
in the markeet. No, he says, that’s a rutabega.
Here’s a turnip — and he holds up a roundish
white and purple root. The colors are nice,
but the name is not half so musical as rutabega.
It makes me think of jumprope rhymes,
cheerleaders at football games:
Rutabega, Rutabega, sis boom bah.
Or the melodies of old songs: Rutabega moon,
keep shining…Rutabega, here I come,
right back where I started from.
I put a few in my shopping cart.
At the check-out counter,
I ask the young man bagging groceries,
Pardon me, boy, is that the Rutabega choo-choo?
He has no idea what I’m talking about.
Now, while the world of the Middle East is falling apart, while innocents are being undone by nerve gas or set afire by something very much like Napalm, yes, now we’re taking time out for a poem by Marilyn Robertson. Sometimes it seems that not thinking at all is best. Here’s her poem “Beautiful Nature” with its epigraph by Thomas Jefferson.
The object of walking is to relax the mind.
You should therefore not permit yourself
even to think while you walk.
It is Saturday morning.
A man, a boy, and a dog are out walking
in the woods. They stop to rest beside the trail.
The boy, dressed in camouflage, is chattering on
about AK47s and all the bad guys he killed
in a video game he played before breakfast.
But here we are in beautiful nature, says his father.
Can we talk about something else?
No, says the boy.
Two sighs drift into the ravine.
The boy is thinking, Sheesh! Parents!
The father is thinking, We are doomed.
The dog, waiting patiently for the walk to resume,
is following the advice of Thomas Jefferson
and thinking of nothing at at all.
content to watch a woodpecker pounding his beak
into a bay laurel, trying to find the nut
he left there last fall.
Americans are using more garlic than ever in the history of the Republic, so we’re going to talk about garlic. There are many types of garlic, but essentially they come from two big garlic families – hardneck and softneck. Maybe you’ve seen garlic braided together in a long bunch and hung over the counter in a specialty food shop or an Italian restaurant. Those are probably softneck garlics. We at Critical Pages are located where the winters are honestly cold, suitable to our grumpy temperaments and the growing of hardneck garlic.
Garlic is easy and rewarding to grow, so long as you remember to plant it in the fall. Around here, we do that around October 15th. Plant the garlic cloves about two inches deep and 6 to 8 inches apart, putting the root end down and the pointy end up. Cover them with autumn leaves or some other kind of mulch, lay a few light twigs over the leaves to keep them from blowing away, and that’s that. Some weeks later, before the hard frost, you can peek under the leaves — very carefully and only once! — and you’ll find a small green shoot has emerged. Now forget about them.
In spring the garlic will sent up a strong green shoot, up through those decaying brown leaves or mulch, and that shoot will rise through the early summer, unfurling into long leaves and eventually sending up a long scape that curls as it grows. If you want, you can cut this when it’s about 6 inches or so, when it’s tender and before it begins to curl, and it’s edible – when tender, cut it into salads, and when less tender, sautee it and toss it on pasta.
The Big Question for garlic growers is when to harvest. Around here, in mid-July the lower leaves begin to turn yellow and dry. There’s lore about precisely how many lower leaves you should see turning yellow or brown before you harvest, but at Critical Pages we’re messy gardeners and know we’re not going to be perfect, so when it’s clear the lower leaves are dying, we harvest.
Don’t harvest the garlic up by grabbing the stalk and pulling it up! And don’t cut off the leaves. Gently loosen the soil around the garlic and dig it up carefully, because at this point the bulb is delicate and easily bruised. Shake off the dirt gently, don’t wash it off; you can clean the bulb later.
Now there’s even more lore about how to cure garlic bulbs. If you go online you’ll find authorities differ but, for us, curing means laying the garlic plants — remember, you haven’t cut anything off yet — in a place where they won’t get rained on, where it’s neither hot nor cold, and arranged so that air can circulate freely around each garlic bulb. We laid ours out on a soil screen, a crosshatch wire net — you know, something that lets air pass freely, something reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections. Anything will work!
A couple of weeks will do it. You can gently remove the dirt, but washing the bulbs is asking for trouble. Store them in the cellar or some other cool shade-filled place. You’ve grown your own garlic and it’s yours to enjoy.
Readers of Critical Pages may recall that we believe in messy gardens — messy vegetable gardens, messy flower gardens. The gardens at Versailles give us a splitting headache, and as we pointed out in our previous post on this subject, the people who delighted in the gardens of Versailles got their heads split from their necks. French aristocrats liked the idea of Nature tamed, contained and obedient to the Gardener. The gardens at Versailles reflected the aristocracy’s ideal on how to rule not only unruly Nature, but also the unruly lower classes. But we at Critical Pages are believers in fair democracy, so we let our garden grow any which way it pleases. If one flower gets watered, all flowers get watered. No one percent hogging 80 percent of the nutrients in this garden. And the flowers appear to be happy.
The ferns in the photograph above belong to the group called fiddleheads. The fern emerges from the soil tightly coiled, and as it grows the top unrolls and resembles the head of a fiddle or violin. Fiddlehead ferns contain omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, and are high in iron and fiber; people in some parts of Europe and Asia eat them. The indigenous people of North America ate fiddlehead firns, but the population of that continent doesn’t much dine on them today. Nobody at Critical Pages has tried to eat a fiddlehead fern and we hasten to add that some varieties are said to be carcinogenic. But we like the way ferns look and we think their design is terrific. In fact, when we took the photo we were reminded of this remark by Thoreau — “God made ferns to show what he could do with leaves.”
By now you’re plenty tired of winter and politics and economics, but it’s too early to go out to the garden to annihilate all that’s made, to a green thought in a green shade. But it is the right time to tap a sugar maple tree. Tapping a sugar maple, collecting the sap and simmering it down to rich, amber colored maple syrup — that’s just right for now. It means that winter is going, spring is coming.
First, find a sugar maple. Not just any old maple, but a maple with bark such as in the image we have here. That’s how you know it’s a sugar maple. Now, for equipment you you’ll need a 7/16” drill or auger to drill into the tree . Drill in about 2” or 3”. You need a 7/16” hole because of what comes next. Next comes a spile – a small tube or pipe-like object that fits nicely into the 7/16” hole. And 7/16” has been the standard since before anyone around her can recall. Next take a hammer and tap — gently! —the spile into the hole. And, of course, you’ll need a bucket to catch the maple sap dripping from the spile. We use buckets with little removable roofs over them to keep out rain or snow, but you could use old plastic gallon jug, so long as you can hang it from the hook under the spile.
Nature does the rest. Tapping the sugar maple doesn’t do it any harm. You shouldn’t tap a tree that’s less than 10 inches in diameter (31.4159 inches in circumference.) If the tree is, say, 18 inches in diameter (56.5 inches in circumference) you can put another tap on the other side of the tree.
Here’s the shocker. The ratio of sap to syrup is 40 to 1. That is to say, you need to collect 40 quarts of sap to boil down to 1 quart of syrup. We didn’t want to tell you any earlier for fear it would dishearten you. The photo on the right shows sap being boiled down to syrup. It’s a process that requires attention. When it begins, it’s as clear as water, but as you boil it down it slowly takes on a darker color. Then you pour in more sap, which lightens it a bit, then boil it down and so on. As you repeat that process it reduces to syrup. You’ve got to be careful toward the end. The syrup will be produced when you allow the temperature to rise about 7 degrees above the boiling point of water at your location. If you scorch it, there’s really no way to rescue it from the burnt taste it acquires. (more…)
Here’s something to brighten your gray wintry day — a Cara Cara orange. The Cara Cara has an unknown parentage. It’s a kind of bastard orange. It’s believed to have sprung from a mating of the Brazilian Bahia navel and the Washington navel. The orange was found in 1976, growing shamefully on a tree that regularly bore Washington navel oranges at the Hacienda de Cara Cara in Valencia, Venezuela. It could be a mutation. But that kind of immaculate conception excuse doesn’t convince us. We’re not naive. We think this is what happens when young and foolish oranges fool around. (By the way, this is a true story. You can look it up on Wikipedia. Go ahead. We’ll wait here.)
As for the taste of the Cara Cara, it’s been described as having a bit of cherry flavor, but some tasters add that it also has a bit of rose petal and blackberry. We at Critical Pages haven’t eaten any rose petal, but we’ve dined on Cara Cara oranges. In fact, you might say we’ve binged on them. To our jaded palates they taste mostly like oranges. As our high-school teacher liked to say, “De gustibus, non disputandem est.” That’s Latin for “Don’t tell me what it tastes like, I’ll taste it for myself.” You can get into trouble that way, too.
That time of the year has come round again, when yellow leaves, or none or few, do hang upon the boughs which shake against the cold. And in a lot of the country just now we’ve had a lot of rain. And when it wasn’t raining, the sky was heavy with clouds as gray as slate. This is weather in which to listen to Leonard Cohen sing one of his near suicidal songs. Or maybe just stay in bed. Well, the leaves are pretty this time of year. That’s something.