LATE-SUMMER LETHARGY AND AN ELDERBERRY SHRUB

There’s always something to contend with as a gardener (and as any kind of living creature, I suppose) – bugs, weather, disease, timing, pathogens – but the one that’s been plaguing me lately is my own lethargy.

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I googled lethargy to make sure that was the particular word I wanted and here is a list of its synonyms: sluggishness, inertia, inactivity, inaction, slowness, torpor, torpidity, lifelessness, listlessness, languor, laziness, idleness, indolence, shiftlessness, sloth, apathy, passivity, weariness, tiredness, lassitude, fatigue, inanition, hebetude. That about sums it up. All I’ve want to do is be inside, in the A/C with my dog, lost in a book. Or at the lake. Which is why my blog is weeks behind.

(By the way, I’m completely obsessed with the book I’m currently reading, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. It’s about a post-apocalyptic traveling performance group who roam the area around the Great Lakes twenty years after a flu pandemic has killed 99% of the population. They perform Shakespeare. It’s incredible. I can’t wait to finish it and I never want it to end. It was very deservedly nominated for the National Book Award. I’m in love with it.) More about the flu a little later…

Back to my inanition. It seems silly to blame it on the heat. It gets hot in Arkansas in August. And humid. And deafening. That incessant ratchety acceleration of cicadas makes it seem that much hotter. Pulsing. Electric. Alive. I know this. I accept it. I have been known to relish it. But this summer, it has indeed induced hebetude.

Meanwhile, the tomatoes, peppers, and okra are in their prime and ripening faster than we can keep up with them. Some like it hot.

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There’s a mantra I adopt about this time every year, it goes like this. Next year….

Next year I will stake my sauce tomatoes. Next year I will plant fewer shishito pepper. Next year I may skip zucchini entirely.

In the spirit of staying inside and making use of the bounty that is August, I’ve been in the kitchen.

I pickled radish seed pods.

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If you neglect to harvest your radishes, by choice or dereliction of duties, they will flower and then eventually those flowers become seed pods. They are a delicious treat, like a mild radish in a different form.

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I made salsa verde.

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In an attempt to use up an overlooked zucchini that consequently grew to the size of my forearm, I made zucchini bread.

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Although when all was said and done, it made use of less than half of it.

I spent the better part of two days making and painstakingly documenting homemade ketchup, which was, very disappointingly, an epic fail. I suppose I’ll find a use for it, but you won’t be getting it for Christmas.

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I made chile verde.

I made heirloom tomato sauce. Twice. 

I made a simple and delicious carrot soup (http://www.101cookbooks.com/archives/a-simple-carrot-soup-recipe.html). Do you know this site? Heidi Swanson’s blog 101 Cookbooks is a beautiful, elegant, site with unique, healthy recipes. There is something very soothing about it. All that clean white marble, those sumptuous photos of that virtuous food, very inspiring.

And then I fried okra.

Oh, and… I made an elderberry shrub! Remember elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) from the Hedgerow post? (https://thecultivator.net/?s=hedgerow) Well it bloomed. This is May 21st.

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And by August 8th, we had berries.

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Some of which I managed to get to before the birds did.

The berries are beautiful, glossy purple-black with vibrant magenta stems. As a plant it is a gangly, unruly thing. The eminent horticulturalist Michael Dirr says it is “only suitable for rough areas of the garden.” But it suffuses those rough areas with a rich history of mystery and medicine.IMG_8990

In most of Europe the elder was so closely connected with magic that permission had to be asked for its use of the dryad, Hylde-Moer (or Elder-tree mother) who resided in it. If treated well, the goddess was benevolent, thus elders were often planted around houses for protection. It was also believed that they repelled lightning strikes – one more reason to plant one near your house. The rise of Christianity suppressed nature worship and the elder became the tree of witches, and as the site of Judas’ hanging, an emblem of sorrow. It’s mentioned in several of Shakespeare’s plays. It was also believed to mark the entrance to the Underworld. If you fell asleep under one you might end up there and never return. Good thing I’ve been taking my naps inside.

Medicinally, elders were considered ‘the medicine chest of the country people’. In 1633, a Dr. Blochwich published a comprehensive book titled The Anatomie of Elder that spends 230 pages listing its virtues and uses. And as recently as 1995, it was used to treat a flu epidemic in Peru.

Our North American elder is Sambucus canadensis, while the Europeans have Sambucus nigra. They are very similar in terms of physical properties and how they are used, although ours is more heat tolerant and shrub like, whereas S. nigra can grow into a small tree. They have been used extensively – bark, leaves, flowers, berries, and even a fungus that grows on the tree – since the Romans for ailments from toothaches to the plague. Another North American sambucus, red elder (S. racemosa) is extremely toxic. Incidentally, the bark, stems, leaves, unripe berries, and even the tiny stems on the berries of all sambucus contain cyanide producing glycocides, which can be poisonous, so stick with the flowers themselves and the ripe purple berries, and to be on the safe side, heat both of those as well.

The flowers make an relaxing, restorative tea whose properties change if they are used fresh or dried, hot or cold. Fresh flowers have a mildly laxative effect and can help with constipation, while a tea made with dried flowers is used to drive out fever. This quality, along with its anti-inflammatory traits, a slew of antioxidants, and more Vitamin C than oranges make it a highly effective treatment during cold and flu season, it’s also used for asthma and hay fever.

Or try the flowers lightly battered and fried for a delicate spring fritter.

An infusion of the leaves can be used for a variety of skin ailments including sunburn, and to ward off mosquitoes.

The berries can be used to make jams, jellies, cordials, syrups, or, in my case, a shrub.

A shrub, or drinking vinegar, was the first carbonated soft drink. It originated in 17th century England and was brought to America by the early colonists as a way to preserve the essence of fresh produce. Shrubs fell out of favor when we got home refrigeration, but are having a renaissance in the craft cocktail movement of our moment. Today’s mixologists use them as a novel way to add complexity, acidity, and even nutrition to cocktails, but they’re also great simply mixed with carbonated water as a new old-fashioned soda.

Shrubs at their most basic are fruit, sugar, and vinegar, but the process for combining them can differ. In one method, the fruit is macerated with sugar for several days, then the resulting syrup is strained and mixed with vinegar. Alternately, the fruit can be crushed and mixed with vinegar, this can be strained, and the resulting fruit-infused vinegar can be mixed with sugar. It can be heated or not. You can get creative by experimenting with different vinegars and sweeteners, as well as adding aromatics. Culinate has some great ideas (http://www.culinate.com/articles/features/shrub_love) that I can’t wait to try.

For my first elderberry shrub, I placed one cup of clean berries in a pint jar and mashed them up with a fork.

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Then I added a cup of apple cider vinegar, shook it up and put it in the refrigerator overnight, shaking it a few times for good measure.

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The next day I strained it

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and put the strained liquid in a saucepan with a cup of cane sugar. This would be the time to add aromatics. For my next elderberry shrub I’ll add ginger and some cloves at this point.

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Once the sugar was melted, I let it cool, poured it into a jar, and voila, a cocktail enhancement that can ward off the flu! Elderberry gin and tonics for everyone!

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I’ve also done some work out there trying to get a fall garden planted. The planting is not the hard part, it’s keeping it alive – see above – bugs, weather, timing, pathogens, torpidity…

So far I’ve got arugula, broccoli raab, spinach, collard greens, kale, calypso beans, fennel, and cucumbers coming along. 

I hope you’re all staying cool and collected and if you’re not getting anything done, I hope you’re not beating yourselves up about it.

Thanks for stopping by!

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THE HEDGEROW

So lately I’ve been fantasizing about a hedgerow.

I’d like to create one along the boundary with my neighbor. I’d love for it to create privacy, as well as an attractive backdrop for pictures of my garden. But I also want it to create habitat, attract birds, bats, and other pollinators, and I want it to produce food for them as well as for me. (I recently got a bat house and I can’t wait to put it up and start waiting for bats! More on that later…) I want my hedgerow to look good all year with flowers in the spring and summer, great leaf color in the fall, and berries in the winter. I’d love for there to be raspberries involved and I’d like it to include mostly native species that I can learn from and use in other gardens.

In terms of local boundaries, it seems like most of the property edges in my town, not to mention any forested areas, are thick with bush honeysuckle, which is blooming everywhere right now. Can we just call this Public Enemy Number One?  It is the worst. Okay, there are several other thugs out there, including privet, and euonymous, but since this particular punk ass is in bloom right now, it’s a good time to realize how much of it there is to deal with.

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You know this guy. Now that it’s on your radar you will realize that it is everywhere. Seriously everywhere. It is so everywhere that it’s hard to envision what it could/would/should look like without it.

Bush honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii is the most common one around here, but there are several other non-native bush honeysuckles including; L. morrowii, L. tatarica, and L. x bella) is a bully. It is incredibly adaptable and grows rapidly, reaching up to 20 feet. It leafs out earlier and loses its leaves later than anything else out there creating dense shade that smothers out native species from trees to wildflowers, essentially eradicating diversity and natural habitats. The plant is spread rapidly by birds that eat the berries for its carbohydrate-rich food. But sadly, it’s like fast food. Its nutrition is not comparable to the nutritional value of native plant species and migrating bird species need all the sustenance they can get for those incredible journeys. Native songbirds that nest in bush honeysuckle are more vulnerable to predation than those that choose higher ground. It’s also possible that bush honeysuckle releases a chemical that suppresses the growth of other plants around it, a biological phenomenon called allelopathy. Plus, because of its branching structure and the longer time that it is covered in foliage, bush honeysuckle makes great cover for deer. And deer carry ticks. And ticks carry diseases that effect humans. Bush honeysuckle really is the worst. 

For the record, there are native honeysuckles. They can usually be distinguished from the non-natives by their solid stems while those of the non-natives are hollow. Obviously it’s important to know you have the correct culprit, but unfortunately around here you’re most likely to be dealing with the thug.

Bush honeysuckle is so prolific that removing it changes the nature of a place. People appreciate the privacy that it provides and I respect that. It is my hope that my exploration of the hedgerow will allow me to study replacements for those edges. And these days with the fragmentation of our forests, we have a lot of edge. 

So, we agree that it has to go. So how do we go about getting rid of it? One of the only things I appreciate about bush honeysuckle is that its seedlings are easy to rip out of the ground. Now is a great time to do this because they are small and the ground is moist. Once they get bigger they are much more challenging. If you hack them down, which you must, they will only sprout again and you will have to hack them down again, which you must, continuing to rub off their tender new growth, until they run out of steam. Once you cut them, you could immediately paint them with glyphosate, if that falls within your environmental moral compass. An online search turned up a new one for me. Cover the stumps with 2-3″ of soil and pack it down or even cover the stumps in black plastic. It takes a while, but eventually the stump will die and can be removed. Or you could go to the Fayetteville Public Library and check out a Pullerbear, (http://www.pullerbear.com) and rip those beasts up roots and all. But then what?

Well you could start a hedgerow.

The first plant I added to my hedgerow was elderberry (Sambucus canadensis). In fact, I planted it before I even thought of creating a hedgerow. I wanted one even though Michael Dirr, one of our most preeminent modern horticulturalists, calls it “large and scruffy.” As well as, “only suitable for rough areas of the garden.” I planted mine against my neighbors’ dilapidated shed, which seems like a rough enough area of the garden.

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I like my neighbors and their shed doesn’t bother me. I know they’ll remove it eventually and that for now it is useful for them. In the meantime I’ll enjoy my scruffy sambucus as he grows. I look forward to its 6-10″ creamy white, flat-topped flowers. It hasn’t bloomed yet, but I’ll be watching for them come June. If they do, in August it will have clusters of purple-black berries. Maybe I’ll harvest those for elderberry jam or make my own St. Germain liqueur (ha!), but most likely I’ll leave them to the birds as numerous songbirds including bluebirds, flickers, finches, jays, mockingbirds, nuthatches, cedar waxwings, and woodpeckers enjoy them. A veritable bird party!

So here’s the site of my future hedgerow.

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We can consider this the “before” photo. There’s the sambucus against the shed. He is flanked by (what else?), large stands of honeysuckle, as well as privet on my neighbors fence. I like the way the open space leads into the dark underbrush and I want to enhance that effect with my planting. An invitation to mystery.

Other plants I’m considering for a place in the line-up include:

Viburnums, especially Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum), which shares characteristics with the elderberry, having similar flowers and berries, and also being beloved by birds. But also Blackhaw (V. prunifolium), Rusty Blackhaw (V. rufidulum – how fun is that to say?), American Cranberrybush Viburnum (V. trilobum), and Mapleleaf Viburnum (V. acerifolium) which likes the shade, so maybe I’ll place it deeper into the underbrush.

Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), has lovely fragrant flowers in July and August. I grew one in a container in Hoboken and loved it.

Hollies. Common Winterberry (Ilex verticilata), Possum-haw (Ilex decidua), Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria). Berries! Man, I love berries! Especially in the winter. They seriously give me a rush. When I worked in Manhattan, I used to walk to work down 10th Street because there was the most beautiful hawthorn tree. In the winter, when you needed it most, it would be completely laden with berries. I would stand under it, throw my head back, and take in that scarlet constellation like a drug. Perfection. All have great red berries that ripen in September and persist through winter. They are all appreciated by overwintering birds and small mammals.

Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis) and Downy Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea). I really like multi-stemmed trees and it would be nice to have native replacements for the ubiquitous crape myrtle. Granted they are very different otherwise. These have white flowers in early spring and fruit in June. The fruit start red and turn blue, they are tasty, but at least 20 species of birds are particularly fond of them, so I’ll probably let them have them.

Fothergilla, Witchhazel, Fringetree, Dogwoods, Hawthorns (classic hedgerow plants), Fragrant Sumac, Spicebush, Buckeye, so many more to explore! This is definitely a work in progress, so I’ll continue to share my exploration of the hedgerow.

Incidentally, the history of the hedgerow in Europe is a fascinating one. As I get my head around it, I’ll try to share some of that with you as well. Whenever I decide I want to write about something, I start to do some research and inevitably I discover worlds I never knew existed. (Who knew potatoes created empires?!) It’s been one of the gifts of having this blog. These are explorations you could spend your life on and I usually only have a week or so, so there is frustration as well in wanting to share something of which you’ve only scratched the surface.

In the meantime, things are looking good in the vegetable

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Onions are going strong.

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Peas are making their way up the fence.

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And it’s time to put a layer of straw on the potatoes,

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harvest some radishes,

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and plant some pole beans! Plus tomato and pepper seedlings are doing well and need to be planted out soon.

Plus I’ve been eating broccoli raab and arugula, two of my very favorites!

I hope you’re all well, have a great weekend!

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