Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Leaves: To Rake or Not to Rake


Following the high winds last week the garden is not only beaten but absolutely bone dry. Sunday we set sprinklers and almost instantly the winter grasses resumed their vibrant green and perked up. The tree branches were wind stripped of their last leaves and are now bare so suddenly the birds may be seen and heard with amazing clarity.

Nature devised leafless trees to give additional sunlight for warmth during the cold winter months. The leaves are now collected in crisp piles on the garden floor where they will begin to work by slowly decomposing over time. Lately there seems to be much discussion among various gardening experts on the subject of these fallen gems.

For many years raking leaves was an autumn duty to tidy the lawn for winter and they were dutifully transported to a compost pile. Compost was first described as useful for the garden in 1587 so its properties have a time tested tradition. Compost is simply decomposed organic matter which improves the soil and gives it a lighter consistency.

In the 1930’s to 1940’s a united America was encouraged to grow vegetables for the war effort and most urban homes had a compost bin. My father had one and was fairly constant with his enthusiastic interest in it. It was located in the farthest corner of the yard and consisted of three wooden sides approximately four feet high and it was deep enough to move about in. Leaves are the basis of compost with grass clippings, old newspapers, coffee grounds, and other organic matter added, all of which were in 12-18 inch layers. Bone meal and ammonium nitrate were sprinkled between the layers to aid in decomposition and give it a boost. The mixture was tossed about while sprinkling with water occasionally to dampen it and encourage it to ‘cook’… it was quite a chore. By spring the process was complete producing dark matter that had a deep and rich aroma. It was a safe and natural fertilizer for the vegetable garden.  

It sounds like an incredible effort to produce what may be found naturally on the forest floor which is covered by undisturbed leaves. These leaves break down over time creating the dark rich soil that nourishes the fledging saplings as they grow to become forest giants like their parents… it is an ever-repeating cycle.

If one takes inspiration from the natural cycle this process may be utilized in the garden and raking will definitely deny the landscape these valuable nutrients. Natural nutrients are far better than bagged fertilizers and again there is the time, expense, and effort involved in application of such products. Perhaps mow over the leaves to mince them up a bit, however allow them to remain to do their work over the winter.  To answer the question:  Not to rake!

Monday, November 6, 2017

Pumpkins Saved the Pilgrims

Map by John Smith circa 1605... note pumpkins

Pumpkins are believed to have originated in North America where they have thrived for thousands of years. They are reputed to be one of the earliest known food crops in the Americas with ancient containers of stored seeds discovered in Mexico dating back as far as 5,300 to 7,000 BC.

Early Native Americans roasted pumpkin strips over campfires and used them as a food source long before the arrival of European explorers. Pumpkins helped The Native Americans make it through long cold winters as they stored well and were not prone to insect infestations. They used the sweet flesh in numerous ways: roasted, baked, parched, boiled and dried.

They ate pumpkin seeds and also used them as a medicine as it was believed they guarded one against cold. Some Mexican tribes believe pumpkin seeds give exceptional endurance to the people… plus they are an easy to transport energy snack to take along on travels. The hollowed dried pumpkin shells were often used as bowls and to store food when the top was put in place.  

Archeologists have determined that variations of squash and pumpkins were cultivated along river and creek banks along with sunflowers and beans. This took place long before the emergence of maize (corn). After maize was introduced, ancient farmers learned to grow squash with maize and beans using the "Three Sisters" tradition. The three are all that is required to keep one healthy.   

Columbus took seeds back to Spain where they were grown as food for hogs and considered unfit for human consumption. The word pumpkin originated from the Greek word Pep├Án which means large melon. The word gradually was morphed by the French, the English and then the Americans into the word "pumpkin."

As the Pilgrims were enduring their first freezing winters in New England, they were welcomed by kind Native Americans who saved their lives through bountiful gifts of local food. They provided roasted pumpkin for them and the Pilgrims soon discovered they were easy to grow.  

For the Puritans, pumpkin not only provided breakfast and lunch, but beer as well. For the beer they fermented a combination of persimmons, hops, maple sugar and pumpkin… beer is high in nutrients and for this reason it is still served to recovering patients at hospitals in Germany.

As one Pilgrim wrote in 1633:

For pottage and puddings and custards and pies
Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies,
We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon,
If it were not for pumpkins we should be undoon."