May Day and Nature’s Redemption

May DayBaskets on the DoorstepOn this May 1st in northern Idaho, spring has just arrived.  The deciduous shrubs and trees are barely flushed with leaf buds, and the sun is putting in its first appearances, even though the wind is chilled by snow on the surrounding mountains.  To those of us who have endured six months of unrelenting gray, the vision outside our windows is water to the thirsty soul.  It seems indeed worthy of the May Day celebration of spring’s return.

Originally, a celebration of Flora, the Goddess of Spring, plants played an integral part of the Mayday holiday.  In the Middle Ages, the Europeans continued the ancient festivities by incorporating the use of tree branches and flowers which were brought from the newly awakened forest to decorate the village green.  Appropriately, Sweet Woodruff, Galium odoratum, was gathered in the deep woodlands, where it bloomed in May and June, and steeped in wine to make May wine for ye merry old Englanders.  Little baskets were filled with wildflowers to leave in the doorways of neighbors or loved ones.

This association of May Day with the goddess Flora, was not lost on those famous reformers, the Puritans, who eschewed its celebration, along with other holidays laced with pre-Christian vegetation, such as the Christmas tree.

Many of our Christian brothers and sisters are still suspicious of those holidays and activities that smack of pagan rites, and this suspicion extends to the practice of herbalism as well, due to the fact that pre-Christian Europe abounded with herbal healers and herbal ritual.   In fact, many modern Christian scholars, theologians and philosophers are convinced that herbalism, itself, is nothing more than a hangover from ancient nature worship and a part of the New Age neopagan culture that worships the creation and not the Creator.

In fact, this debate goes back to the days of the early Catholic Church.  This quote taken from the Monastic Medicine web site  seems to explain the Catholic conclusion of the matter:

Upon the Blessed Virgin’s assent to be the Mother of the Divine Word Incarnate, and through Christ’s expiating sacrifice on the Cross, herbs and flowers, along with the rest of the world and nature, were freed of their associations with the false pagan deities imposed upon them by previous generations. Thus liberated, herbs and flowers, in their created purity, beauty and varied forms from the hand of God, were then given true Christian association

If you are curious, the above web site also gives brief histories of famous Christian herbalists from the past.

As a Protestant believer, I would couch the matter in slightly different terms, but I would agree with the results.  My conclusion would be something like this:  If nature were cursed due to the fall of the first Adam, then the victory of Christ, the last Adam, over death would redeem nature, as well as humankind.  And indeed, I would have to agree with what I think the Catholics were thinking–that is–that the viewpoints of human beings, in part, impose a polluted view of the natural world, and when humans are redeemed, their view of the natural world is likewise redeemed.  But, I do believe that, in some way, nature, itself was cursed, is suffering, and will enjoy a future redemption along with humankind due to the work of Christ.

This means, that whatsoever is of faith is not sin.  If we believe that the Lord, in His goodness, has created the herb of the field for the healing of the body, then we may benefit by the same herbs that the Druids discovered in their northern latitudes, though we should give glory to the Lord of Creation, and not to the trees worshiped by the Druids.

Many sources speak of the “christianization” of the May Day holiday, as if it were simply a matter of exchanging one cap for another on the proverbial goddess, but in actuality, it was a matter of who was to receive worship for the delights of the natural world.

If we go back to the May Day celebration, we shall see that there was a certain wisdom at work in the traditional choice of beverage.  May wine was steeped with the plant Sweet Woodruff, Galium odoratum, a plant that Gerard credits as a liver tonic.  It was believed to clear the liver of biliary obstructions.  It was also considered a stomachic, along with other properties.  Wine was a common menstruum, or solvent, for herbal plants in those days.  Medicated wines were used more often, then, to make herbal tinctures, whereas in modern times, we use a high-proof grain alcohol, which has a better shelf life.  Because the herb bloomed in May and June, at winter’s end, it was a logical choice for human bodies that were sluggish from a long winter of eating heavy foods when fresh fruits and vegetables were limited in supply.

So, though we are Christians, we may benefit from the same plants used by humans the world over, as well as enjoy a natural world that the Lord saw was “very good.”  And if that entails a little dancing around the maypole and little baskets of flowers on the doorstep, I’m all in favor.


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Till the Soil and Start Planting

The time has come to discuss planting directly in the garden.  Now bear in mind that my planting dates are later than those in many other parts of the country.  That is because I live in a short season growing area at northern latitude and fairly high elevation (2700 ft.).  I live in zone 4b, often considered a garden challenge.  In fact, one garden web site has an amusing article in which the author writes that those living in colder zones have “zone envy,” an emotional state in which gardeners in colder zones, envy their neighbors in the next warmer zone with a disturbing intensity.  The article is called “Zone Envy: a 5-step Recovery Program for Northerners”  by Ken Kohut

Now, before we can start planting, we have to get the garden tilled, unless of course you use raised beds or boxes that have a minimum need for tillage.  If you are like me, with just a piece of field to work with, you need to be looking for a dry spell to till.  If you till your garden when the soil is too wet, you will end up by destroying your soil–that is you will end up by packing it, so that its capacity to provide water, air and nutrients to your plants is impaired.  This capacity is known as “tilth.”  You can also destroy garden tilth by tilling when it is too dry.  The former is more the problem where I live.  Right now, it is pouring down rain, and I can see the weeds having a heyday out there in my garden. 

So, in order to decide when to till, we apply the Goldilocks principle–not too dry, not too wet, but Just Right.  Pick up a handful of your soil and squeeze it.  If it forms a muddy lump, perhaps with drops of moisture, it is too wet.  If it won’t stick together at all, and simply falls out of your hand, it is too dry.  When your soil is just right, it will be just moist enough to stick together, when squeezed, but will be easily crumbled with your fingers.  This is the rule for turning soil by hand as well as using a rototiller.   One should not even walk on wet soil needlessly, as it can pack your soil into “hardpan,” which is similar to adobe.

After you are done tilling, you are ready to plant.  In the Pacific Northwest, there is a traditional order in which you plant your common vegetables.  That order is onion, peas, lettuce, carrots, beets, chard and spinach.  These are not all planted at the same time.  Onions are planted first, then a week later, peas, a week later, lettuce, then the following week, you can start pouring it on with carrots, beets, spinach, chard and whatever other salad greens you wish.  Of course these are just estimates of the time periods.  With experience, you will learn to recognize the times to plant.  They vary from region to region.  In Western Oregon, you can plant onions in February.  Here, we usually plant them in April.  Due to growing zones, there is quite a difference.  This is where knowing the seasons in your own region is important.

I am going to start my brussel sprouts, broccoli, raab, cabbage, lettuce and greens in flats indoors, so I will have early veggies for summer eating.  Later on, I will direct seed in the garden for succesive crops, and in July, I will seed for fall crops for freezing, storage and late season eating.

If you are going to plant potatoes, I suggest ordering the seed potatoes.  I got mine from Johnny’s Selected Seeds .  I like their Dark Red Norland and a white variety called Superior.  I have had good luck with them in my zone, as they are short season, store well and are scab resistant.  If you have a small garden area and you want to try growing spuds in the potato box I spoke of in an earlier blog, I have found an article and a blog giving specific dimensions and method for doing so The following blog gives you photos to follow with instructions  I just noticed that the latter writer notes that short season varieties are not well-adapted to this method of cultivation.  As mine are short season varieties, one might like to try some of the varieties he lists, such as Yukon Gold. 

I think this will keep you busy for a week, so have a good time planning and planting your garden.  Have a blessed Easter weekend.  Until next time, bye.

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Transplanting Seedlings

Do You Need to Transplant Your Seedlings?

How do you know if you need to give your plantlets a little more room?  The first clue is if they start to slow down in their growth.  I probably should have transplanted mine last week, because they had started slowing down.  I didn’t realize that their little roots had already outgrown their first pots.  But today, as I transplanted the tomatoes, I found that their root systems were already trying to grow through the egg carton-like cells of their first home. 

 So, let’s see how we go about doing this necessary task.

Avoid Diseases: Use Clean Pots to Transplant

I went to the garden shed and got a bunch of pots from last year.  I had some 3 x 3 pots and some of what are known in the trade as four packs–that is, little light plastic planters with four cells.  These are like what your plants often come in when you buy them from the garden stores.   If you buy new pots, you can just transplant your seedlings into them, but if you are reusing last year’s pots, you will need to wash and disinfect them before transplanting your new seedlings into them.

Why do we need to disinfect our pots?  There might be fungi or disease-causing organisms in the soil clinging to the pots from last year.  We don’t want last year’s problems causing us trouble with this year’s garden.

So, I rinsed the excess soil off of my pots, and then I washed them in sudsy water with some chlorine bleach added.  You really only need about 2 tablespoons of bleach added to a gallon of warm water to have an effective and inexpensive disinfectant.  Of course, I always am a bit over zealous with the bleach, but, according to my old microbiology book, 2 tablespoons per gallon is sufficient.  Rinsing the excess soil off before washing helps with the efficiency of the disinfectant.  After washing, I rinsed the pots.

Don’t Transplant into Huge Pots

Notice that my pots weren’t huge.  I am going to need to transplant again in 2-3 weeks, probably, so why don’t I just put the seedlings into the final 5-6 inch pots, they will finally end up in?  The reason is that some seedlings like to be transplanted a number of times.  Believe it or not, transplanting several times actually speeds the growth of healthy root systems. 

Plus, in case your tomatoes get a little leggy, due to less than optimum light conditions, replanting the tomatoes deeply into new pots allows roots to form from the sides of the stems.  In the case of other seedlings, one can plant a little deeper, (though not as dramatically so as with tomatoes) and also re-anchor the plants in new soil from time to time.

 Water Your Seedlings Before and After Transplanting

A secret to successful transplanting is to water your seedlings before and after you transplant.  This lessens the shock to the plants’ root systems.  The ideal is to water your seedlings with tepid water about an hour before you will transplant .  This gives the roots time to soak in plenty of water before you will disrupt them.   When you disrupt the plants root systems during the transplanting process, you impair their ability to take up water and nutrients from the soil for a few days. 

 Also, you will expose your seedling’s rootlets to the air for a short while.  They do not like this at all.  When you place them into new pots and new soil, you water well again immediately,  so that you will eliminate any air pockets in the soil that might be around the roots, and you make water easily available to the fragile root systems until they recover.

Another advantage to watering before transplanting is that wet soil does not fall away from the root systems, as does dry soil,  but instead forms an adhesive ball around the roots that protects them from air and disruption when you lift the plantlets to move them from one pot to another.  This said, I don’t always water a full hour before transplanting.  Sometimes I water just before doing so.  An hour is just what the experts say, but there is a little leeway here, as with many things

Work Quickly, but Gently 

 Once you have everything set up, you will need to work quickly but gently.  You work quickly to minimize the amount of time the root systems will be exposed to the air.  A gentle touch is crucial because you are working with delicate seedlings.  They are more resilient than they appear, but there is not a whole lot of room for rough and tumble treatment either.

I can wear gloves for some garden tasks, but never for transplanting.  It requires a deft and light, but firm touch.  Often I place a little bit of potting soil in the bottom of the pot, lift or separate the seedling to be transplanted, and place it firmly into the little mound of soil in the bottom of the new pot.  I then fill in around the sides of the seedling, using my fingers to nudge the seedling to the position it should have, usually in the center of the pot, with the first leaves above the pot’s top. I firm the soil without packing it, and then, of course, water thoroughly.

Mark Your Seedlings for Quick Identification

It is always important to mark your garden plants for identification, especially when you plant more than one variety of say, for instance, tomatoes.  You can buy markers ranging in price from economical plastic markers at 8 cents each to boutique-style markers at 15-20 dollars each.  This year, I simply went to the dollar store and got a package of popscicle sticks from the teacher’s or crafts section for one dollar.  I used a permanent marker to write the varieties on the sticks and stuck them into the pots.  I didn’t have to mark all of the pots because I kept all of one variety on the same tray.

Care After Transplanting:

 Do not expose your plants to Direct Sunlight or Too Much Warmth

Because plants always experience a certain level of transplant shock, they are not capable of photosynthesis or water regulation for a few days after transplanting.  That’s why, it is always good to wait for a cloudy or overcast day when transplanting out into your garden.  You may place them in a shady place to recuperate.  Also do not let the plants dry out.  I have mine under the grow lights right now, but the heat lamps are turned off for a couple of days.  Grow lights are not as intense a light as direct sunlight, so they are not as hard on the newly transplanted seedlings.

In addition, avoid fertilizing for a few days, as your transplants don’t have the capacity to process the nutrients while they are in shock either.

You Will See Dramatic Results in Growth

  It has been three days since I wrote this blog and transplanted my tomatoes.  The results are amazing.  I can almost see the tomatoes and peppers growing.  I can sense that they are happily stretching their root-toes out in their new pots, and laughing in munchkin voices.   In a couple of days, they will be ready for another application of fertilizer.  If you use good potting soil, you too will see a burst of growth after transplanting your tomato and pepper seedlings. 

I hope this blog is of help to you who are starting their first gardens.  Remember, if you have any questions, be sure to click on the Leave a Comments link at the bottom of this article.  A dialogue box will open up.  I will be happy to answer to the best of my ability.   Until next time have a good week.

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Ode to the Oldtimers

Sometimes it is good to rediscover old knowledge that has been forgotten.  There is no better way of doing this than striking up a friendship with an older person.  My own friendships and acquaintances with older people, whether through reading, or spending time together, has taught me much of what I know.  In this post, I want to highlight some peculiar treasures, both people and the bits of knowledge they have passed on.   

I first learned to garden from a book written in the 1940’s by a Pacific Northwest horticulturist named Solly.  The book was called Solly’s Victory Garden. This wasn’t like the trendy victory gardens featured on the Public Broadcasting  show by the same name.  These were the victory gardens that, during World War II,  the U.S. government encouraged when food was rationed to citizens at home so that soldiers on the battlefields could have the resources needed to fight a war. Every patriotic citizen was encouraged to plant a garden to supplement rations.

Solly shared practical and innovative horticultural knowledge that is still being recycled by the experts.  He knew the Puget Sound region intimately, and shared what to grow there, how to grow it, and how to extend the growing season.  His advice is adaptable to other regions, but is especially useful for gardeners in maritime climates.  I live in a combination maritime/continental climate, and I still use many of Solly’s suggestions.  I have long ago mislaid my own copy of this slender, but invaluable, volume, yet, even as I write this blog, I am reminded of tidbits of knowledge that I shall apply in this year’s garden for the first time.

One of Solly’s tips was how to save room in your garden by building a potato box.  You make a box using four boards (4 in. x 6in. or whatever you have).  You then plant a potato in each corner.  As the potatoes grow, you add more boards to increase the heighth of the box, and you fill up the box with good soil up to the potato foliage.  The potatoes will then grow up to the next level.  When they do, you add another four boards to the box, and fill it again with soil.  The potatoes will then grow up to the new level of the box.  You keep doing this adding of boards and good soil until you get about 5-6 feet tall.  When the potatoes are done flowering, and start to wilt down, you are ready to harvest the potatoes. You take down the boards and the soil will fall free, and you will have a box of potatoes.  This is one idea I am thinking of trying for the first time this year.  I notice that some trendy garden catalogues sell plastic potato boxes that work this way for a whopping 340 dollars!  I think it’s best to try it the old-fashioned way.

Solly  guided me through my first gardens, but I have learned tips from other old-timers, as well.  In the absence of running water, a 76 year old gold miner taught me how to create an irrigation system for grapes out of tin cans punched with holes.  When you plant the grapes, you bury the cans so that the rim of a particular can is at ground level, and the bottom of the can is at the plant’s root level.  Before burying, you punch a few holes around two inches of the lower side of the can, and punch a few holes in the bottom itself.  You punch only enough holes to allow a steady drip to the grape’s root system.  You want the can to be able to hold water for several days, and to allow the sun to warm the water.  Many plants prefer tepid water to cold.  Coffee cans or other large cans are best.  You may need to experiment in other settings (such as with squash or cucumbers hills) until you find the optimum number of holes to punch in the cans.  In fact, I use these cans to great advantage in the centers of my squash and cucumber hills every year.

The wives of trappers and gold miners have additionally contributed to my know-how.  These resourceful women have given me many recipes for wild or homegrown foods.  My cookbook is adorned with recipes for blackberry-honey wine, crabapple butter, elderflower fritters, wild grape leaves preserved in salt, apple farm candy, dandelion wine, green tomato mincemeat, zucchini pickles, sourdough starter, rose petal beads, mashed potato doughnuts, raisin pie, apple kuchen, and lefse, a velvety smooth flat bread.  These are some of the earthy offerings I have accepted from some remarkable women over the years. 

In my cookbook, I mark my friends’ names on their recipe cards.  This winter, I spent time recopying these recipes onto new cards, and remembering the people who gave them to me, and the times when we shared these foods. Many of these events took place twenty to thirty years ago, when the world was a very different place.

One woman, whose family operated a small sawmill on their land in the backwoods of Montana, taught me how to make hamburger soup, a hearty fare much prized by Montanans.  The most valuable gift she gave me, however, was her unabashedly big smile missing two front teeth.  I was reminded that joy comes from the heart, and not from cosmetically correct features.   On occasion, I would sit in her kitchen and listen to her joke as she worked.   There, I had the privilege of seeing her heart shine through her eyes. 

These are just some of the wonderful tips that older people have shared with me over the years.  Many of them have passed on, but they have imparted to me some of their intangible qualities and values, along with their knowledge.  It is with joy that I look back and remember a few of them with this blog.

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