Greenery, For Humans And Ducks

Spring has come early, as usual, in my greenhouse. Growth is shifting into high gear as brighter sunlight fuels more photosynthesis and warms the greenhouse more and for a longer time each day. Giant mustard plants, which provided greens all winter, are no longer tasty now that they have shifted their energy to stalks topped with yellow flowers. No matter. I’m digging the plants out and sowing lettuce seeds.

Paths in the greenhouse are carpeted in green — mostly from weeds, mostly chickweed, which is also soaking up the sun’s goodness. No matter. I’m also digging these plants out before they go to seed and threaten takeover of the greenhouse.Greenhouse weeds & claytonia

To take over the greenhouse, the chickweed would have to do battle with claytonia, which already has self-sown to  bogart much of the greenhouse floor. Fortunately, the claytonia is good fresh in salads.

Chickweed is also good — to some people — for eating. But not for me. My ducks, however, love the stuff. So it’s a win-win situation. I weed the greenhouse paths, gather together a pile of chickweed, then throw it to the ducks as I walk past them on my way back to the house. They rush over to reach it soon after it hits the ground, gobbling it up at a frantic (for a human) pace. Good thing they don’t have to chew.Ducks eating weeds

The ducks also enjoy the flowering mustard plants which, along with the chickweed, transmute into delicious duck eggs.

Bottled Summer Goodness

A couple of weeks ago I finished off the last of the elderberry fruit syrup I made this past fall. No fruit could be easier to grow than elderberry. In just a couple of years, the bushes have grown to enormous size, their clusters of creamy white flowers bowing to the ground at the ends of stems late each spring. Later in summer, those flower clusters morph into blue-black fruits, which, admittedly, aren’t very flavorful plain (and shouldn’t be eaten raw).Elderberry blossoms

The only care I’m planning for my plants is to prune them every year or so. Pruning will entail cutting some of the older stems to the ground to make way for younger, more fruitful stems, as well as shortening any branches that arch down so much that their fruit would rest on the ground.

In summer, I stripped the ripe fruits from their clusters into a half-bushel basket, and, postponing what to do with them, froze them. Come fall, I cooked them in a little water, added some maple syrup, crushed them with a potato masher, and then jarred them up.Elderberry harvest

Why all this trouble for a fruit that’s not very flavorful? Because the berries are so healthful! Studies have shown them, or their extracts, to be “supportive agents against the common cold and influenza.” Other benefits have also been ascribed to use of elderberry, but common cold and influenza are enough for me.

Now that I’m out of elderberry syrup, I already feel a slight cold coming on.

Timing Is Important

Back to the greenhouse . . .  and sowing seeds of the cabbage family (Brassicaceae), also called crucifers. Which gets me thinking back to last fall when a friend was bemoaning the lack of fat sprouts and the puny growth of his brussels sprouts plants. I asked when he sowed the seeds. “Back in early August,” I think he said. At any rate, back in summer.

It’s no wonder he wasn’t going to be harvesting brussels sprouts. The plants need a long season to mature, from 90 to 120 days, depending on the variety. For best yields, this means sowing seeds now, growing them as transplants for about 6 weeks, and then planting them out for harvest that will begin in late summer. At the very least, the seeds could be planted directly in the ground in a few weeks.Crucifer seedlings

I’m sowing other crucifers now, not because they need such an inordinately long growing season, but so that they can be harvested in late spring and early summer. First harvests will be of miniature bok choys, and then cabbages and, if I grew them (I don’t), broccoli and cauliflower. Kale is the most versatile member of the family — and the one I grow in greatest quantity — amenable to sowing anytime from now until later in summer for harvest in late spring, through summer, and on into fall and winter.

Mustard, turnips, and arugula are also crucifers, the whole family most easily identified by their four-petaled blossoms in the shape of a cross, the root of the word crucifer.


 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 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 the four sacred plants of the Osage.
    So what can be bad about a plant that tolerates some shade, adds nitrogen to the soil, and yields an allegedly tasty seed below ground? The problem is that it’s run wild over the flower bed, the fine stems and leaves attempting to smother, sometimes successfully, every plant in its path. Even non-native, invasive Japanese stilt grass and garlic mustard can’t hold their own against hog peanuts.

Permaculture Reality

    Low maintenance, protection and enrichment of soil, and edible parts recommend hog peanut and groundnut to permies (permaculturalists). As with so much in permaculture, these plants perform better in theory than in practice.

Hog peanut & groundnut strangling crocosmia

Hog peanut & groundnut strangling crocosmia

   In humid climates, plant growth — and not just groundnut and hog peanut — can run rampant. Growth needs to be controlled and balanced, a job made more difficult in a permaculture “guild” of groups of plants working together. I’m all for interplanting different species to make best use of light, water, and soil resources, and form communities that resist pests — to a point.
    I’ve had the opportunity, over the years, to visit the permaculture garden planted by students at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Now in its 5th year, the garden pays tribute to the compost, mulch, and sweat students put into soil preparation. The plants have grown very well. Too well, perhaps. One could say that the plants have commingled nicely; from another perspective, one could say that they are overunning each other. A blackcurrant bush or bushes has swelled into a mass of unapproachable stems 10 feet deep and wide. Chives and oregano have each taken over their areas. (How much chives or oregano can you eat? I’d rather eat tomatoes.)
    Not that I’m immune to such errors. A few years ago I created a very permaculturesque planting that included elderberries, seaberries, and rugose roses almost elbow to elbow. It all looks very nice but these three shrubs all spread by suckers. I keep everything in check with elbow grease and a scythe . . .  for now, but Mother Nature is relentless. Am I?
    The most productive and accessible parts of the UMass garden are the beds of kale, beets, and other vegetables — straight rows in cultivated soil. How un-permaculturalesque.
    Oh, I forgot to mention the groundnuts at UMass. Stems of those plants are twining around and overpowering others in their guild in an ever-widening circle. Even if the groundnuts could peacefully coexist with their neighbors, grubbing up the golf ball size tubers will require an inordinate amount of time and soil discombobulation.
    My memory fails me. Perhaps it was hog peanut rather than groundnut vines threatening their neighbors. Perhaps it was both plants. Hog peanut has been suggested for erosion control, and as a groundcover, a livestock forage, and a food for humans. My suggestion: Hog food. Turn some hogs loose in a patch, and they’ll fatten as they clear the ground of this pernicious weed. Does anybody have a small hog for rent?

Elderberry Wine — No, Syrup

    Elderberry looked to be one of the most successful plants in the UMass permaculture garden. It grows fast and it grows high. My two plants, now in their third year, yielded more than four gallons of berries. And harvest, last week, was quick and easy; aggressively tickling the umbels had the berries quickly filling a basket.Elderberry harvest
    Elderberries can also be recommended for their flowers and the berries’ deep, blue color. Flowers open in June to dinnerplate size umbels of small, white blossoms. They’re good for tea, fritters, or to flavor wine.
    The berries impart their good color, but little flavor, to wine, pie, and juice. (They should not be eaten uncooked or unripe.) There’s a bit of scientific evidence than an extract or syrup of the berries  can help fight flu, perhaps other ailments also. I’m good at growing fruit, not cooking it, so I gave my crop to Dina Falconi who concocted a syrup using the recipe from her book Foraging & Feasting. I look forward to tasting the benefits of my horticultural and her culinary skills.
Elderberry flowers