My new post about nature in a bubble and re-creating wilderness is up at the Sustainable Collective – check it out.
My spring bulbs have burst into bloom – grape hyacinths, daffodils and snow drops are all showing off their colours. And the unseasonably warm weather has coaxed the plum tree behind the back fence to bloom (which isn’t necessarily a good thing as I haven’t seen a single bee). As pretty as the flowers are this time of year I really appreciate the brassicas for both being pretty (in a more subdued way) and their tastiness. So here are some cabbage-family pictures.
For me, wilderness is defined by the forest I grew up beside, as it was nature I could directly interact with – which I did a lot. I knew where the yellow violets grew, where the best huckleberries could be found and where the best climbing trees were. The decaying stumps from logged out old-growth forest acted as constant reminders, for all the good qualities of this piece of wilderness, it could not be considered pristine.
In Rambunctious Garden, Emma Marris questions our notion of a pristine wilderness suggesting that no such place exists and perhaps never did. As she puts it: “Every ecosystem, from the deepest heart of the largest national park to the weeds growing behind the local big-box store, has been touched by humans. We have stirred the global pot, moved species around, turned up the thermometer, domesticated a handful of plants and animals and driven extinct many more.”
The books is about ecology in an accessible way, neither over simplified or too complex, covering some potentially radical ideas on how to conserve nature including alternate definitions of what should be included as nature. It’s a book inline with my own interests with concepts new to me like rewilding (a topic that I’m now hearing about everywhere), assisted migration and novel ecosystems.
She calls us to “…temper our romantic notion of untrammelled wilderness and find room next to it for the more nuanced notion of a global, half-wild rambunctious garden, tended by us.” Her definition of wilderness includes the not-pristine forest of my youth, allowing it to fit amongst the places worth conserving. Although, I no longer have a forest on my doorstep, I’m certainly aiming for a rambunctious home garden where plenty of wildness can still thrive. Overall, I liked the book and it has certainly gotten me thinking.
As a tangent, my eighth grade science fair project was directly inspired by the dark and damp regions of this forest. Under the shade of the big trees, I collected different species of mosses and tested their absorbency. Perhaps an early step towards the road to becoming a scientist that I’m on now.
‘Tis the season to let loose the puce – and the rest of the shades on the pink-lilac continuum. An over abundance of these shades creates a cacophony of ugliness only equaled by the ‘toys for girls’ aisle of the local big-box-toy-store. Puce hides amongst the pink hearts and flowery sentiments created to sell cards and fancy underpants, but unlike bubble gum pink, puce has a bloody story behind it like magenta, tyrian purple and cochineal red (and surly we can all manage more than just one romantic day a year).
‘Puce’ brings thoughts of something putrid or rotten to my mind, the word sounds unpleasant to me. Like being up to ones elbows working in ground beef, perhaps to make a meatloaf, only to discover the meat is well past it’s expiry date. Or a colour to inflict on bridesmaids – which it often is (I didn’t do this to my bridesmaid).
Puce is a shade somewhere between a dark-purplish-brown and a dark-red and can even be a lighter red-purple. As described by Jude Stewart in her book Roy G. Biv, puce is “purplish brown reminiscent of raw chicken meat, prunes sweating in hot water, or the blood-filled French flea for which it is named.” Some say, it’s the colour of a blood-sated flea (however, no matter how much blood they eat, fleas stay the same colour). Perhaps, this colour comes from the bloody smear a squished flea makes, or is the colour of a flea’s blood-stained droppings.
Fashionable colours wax and wane over time – puce hit its high note at the court of the French queen Marie Antionette (1755-1793), perhaps because a flea’s hunger for blood was a metaphor dripping with sexual innuendo. This was also just after synthetic dyes were discovered by accident by a teenage chemist was attempting to make a synthetic quinine, the cure for malaria. Colours previously only available through complex and time-consuming manipulation of pigments requiring a dyer with the skills of an alchemist suddenly were available in large quantities. If you had the means, the shade of puce could grace your clothing, bedding, carpets, furniture, drapes and even the fabric covering your walls …. okay, maybe that’s puce overload.
Shades along the pink-lilac continuum generally don’t make the list as anyones favourite colour – certainly not mine. I don’t hate these colours but only want to see it in small doses, like on a few poppies in a field, as too much pink is unsettling bringing to mind fairy princess castles combined with drunk-tanks and Pepto-bismol (okay there is a small minority of pink lovers out there, and if the colours from pink continuum works for you, embrace it).
Alternately, puce can be an intense green – a colour I would quite like.
One of my goals last summer was to have plenty of options available for salad making this time of year. In general, to have anything in the garden ready to eat this time of year requires advanced planning – there isn’t enough light or warmth plus any seeds planted right now will probably rot, especially in my garden, since even the raised beds are goopy wet right now (my paths are so mucky they threaten to hold my boots with each step). Right now I have plenty of the expected greens like kale, collards, spinach and corn salad, but I also planted some weirder things to try. Now it is time to taste test.
The photo above is of a primrose a friend gave to me last summer and it is just starting to flower. The lemon yellow flowers are cheerful this time of year, but the real reason I wanted to try growing primroses is because I heard the flowers are edible. I was watching Tutor Monastery Farm, a reenactment of late medieval English farming and Ruth Goodman, one of the hosts, raved at how good primrose flowers tasted, so I decided to try them. Try them I did, and I have to say they aren’t fabulous. Their flavour is rather plain, not offensive, but not something that would stand out. I think the flowers would be quite pretty in a salad, but not add tastiness.
Above are the leaves of salad burnet – a perennial I started last spring with a long history of culinary use. It’s a pretty plant which has produced a mound of small leaves that stayed green all winter. The leaves are supposed to taste like cucumber, and they do a little bit. A leaf on its own is rather strong, however mixed with other greens salad burnet makes a nice salad component. The real bonus is, this plant is a perennial, so I don’t have to remember to plant it each year which works well with my laziness plan.
Last April, I did a taste test on the purple deadnettles that spring up all over my yard. They were flowering at the time and I determined they were flavourless with a weird texture. Since, I have a lot of these plants popping up in my garden right now (they are an effective pioneer plant) and, like the primroses and salad burnet, they have a long history of being eaten by people, I decided they deserved a second taste test – this time of the new growth. Nope, the new growth isn’t any better, I’ll save this plant for after the zombie apocalypse.
I have a couple of wintergreen plants outside my office window to add green this time of year. When the plants get big enough I’ll try making tea from the leaves. This year, one of the plants grew a handful of red berries, since they are also edible I gave them a try. I found the berries weird because they didn’t taste anything like any other berry I’ve tried. They tasted like, surprise, surprise, … wintergreen – that almost minty flavour found in chewing gum (this plant is the origins of that flavour). I actually enjoyed eating a few of the berries, but I don’t think I’d want a whole bowl full.
Last November, we finally began construction of a deer-proof fortification so I could try planting a food forest. It’s only about a quarter of the front lawn, but the space feels huge (If this plan works, I’ll be doing the same thing to the rest of my front lawn in the next few years). I planted the trees and bushes I had which ended up looking like a few forlorn twigs sticking out of the lawn.
Step 1 had to be getting rid of the lawn. For the back garden beds we dug over the sod. Although, it effectively kills the grass, digging over sod is back-breaking work, and I’m inherently lazy. Another tact was needed for the front, so I decided to try sheet mulching with scrounged material. For months we collected newspapers, sawdust from my dad’s shop, oak leaves from a neighbour’s yard (with her permission) and garden waste. We hit a jackpot at our daycare when we noticed a stack of bagged leaves. Our daycare owner didn’t have a way to remove them and was happy for me to take them off her hands. For a week, every time we dropped off our daughter we would pick up two dripping wet bags of leaves.
Inside the deer-proof fortification, I started with a thick layer of newspaper, which I had to soak to prevent it blowing away. On top, I dumped all our found organic material, plus the contents of our compost and some sheep dung a friend carted over for me. Then my husband layered on dirt – we had an excess of dirt from the previous owners odd choice of ornamental garden beds. on top of the dirt, I put down a thick layer of straw. I thought one bale would do it, but I was wrong and we had to pick up another bale this morning. Although rain is in the forecast, I soaked the straw again to keep if from blowing away.
Will this work to kill the grass? I have no idea. It is entirely possible this may be an exercise in what not to do – it’s an experiment, if this doesn’t work I’ll try another way.
I am enjoying pondering what I’ll grow inside the fortification. Asparagus, alexanders, sprouting broccoli, amaranth, peas and beans are all on the plan along with a diverse mix of self-seeding flowers. There is plenty of room for more berry bushes and perhaps a second apple tree.
* I would show a picture of what the deer-proof fortification looks like now, but technology has failed me and I can’t upload the picture.
Things are starting to happen in the garden – especially since it has been unseasonably warm. Currently, the broad beans are growing faster than the slugs are eating them, who knows, I might get to eat some broad beans. The garlic is up and the chives seem to have grown a few millimeters every time I look at them – in about a month they’ll be ready to start harvesting.
There are tones of greens yet to eat – perhaps I planted too much. Kale, wintercress, chicory, mache, spinach and mizuna are ready to harvest. For a third year in a row, something has eaten my radicchio before I could so I might not bother growing them again.
In the cold frame chard and parsley are re-growing (the frost in December almost did them in). Unfortunately, all my cilantro in the cold frame has been eaten by slugs, however inside I already have the next batch well on its way.
I wrote this short essay for a course I took and thought I’d share it.
I grew up eating from a home garden leaving me with fond memories of standing beside the pea vines savouring their sweet taste. Tomatoes were never refrigerated and always juicy. Carrots grew beneath frilly leaves and corn grew on majestic, tree-frog infested, eight-foot-high stalks. In time, my parents assigned me my own garden plot where I planted beans and zinnias. Since then I’ve always wanted to grow my own food. A few years ago we bought our first house, and in the backyard of our urban lot, I have six large raised beds and a small coop for five hens.
I’ve morphed into an urbanite growing as much of my own food as I can. What I can’t grow I source as close to home as possible, though I still drink coffee and stock my cupboard with spices from the tropics. I’ve started quantifying the economic worth of my harvest – empirical data that feeds my scientific side. I now weigh my produce and calculate its worth based on grocery store prices. However, only a couple of months in, my experiment is already compromised. A new user of the garden has arrived on the scene.
“Mooooore,” my toddler demanded, pointing at the bed of strawberries one summer day. She had already shoved three whole berries into her mouth resulting in a red dribble down her chin. I caution her to take her time, but moments after she puts one into her mouth, she asks for another. After searching through the strawberry leaves, I couldn’t find any more ripe ones. I try to explain that more will be ripe in a few days – a concept she can’t yet comprehend. Spying a white berry with a blush of red, she tries to crawl into the bed, until I distract her with a pea pod.
No peas, strawberries, raspberries or cherry tomatoes have made it to my kitchen scale; instead they go directly into my toddler’s mouth as she wanders the garden, and she has voluntarily tried kale, nasturtiums and cilantro. Sometimes what goes into her mouth is rejected and left on the garden path, making me cringe because none of this food is making it on to my scale. Even though I can’t quantify what she is learning, I’m sure it has more value than any weight in produce. In time, I’ll assign my daughter a plot of her own.
While digging up photos for my golden buprestid beetle post from yesterday, I found a couple other great examples of iridescence from the yard. The metallic fly above and dragonfly below. Eons ago when I started this blog I wrote about how iridescent colours are formed – here is part 1 and part 2 of my explanation.
Nature’s best visual trick is iridescence, which can transform an ordinary beetle into something extraordinary. The dried up beetle carcass above is one of the prettiest examples of iridescence I’ve ever seen up close. The beetle is a golden buprestid (Buprestis aurulenta) which lives in my biome. As larvae they spend two to four years mining through recently dead conifer trees, whether that tree is rotting on a forest floor or part of your new coffee table, earning themselves the title of ‘pest’.
Once they morph beyond the furniture-eating stage, their exoskeleton matures to an iridescent green with brass coloured fringes around the wings. Strung together, these beetles would make a necklace suitable for a fancy ball, and I’m not the first to consider an iridescent beetle fit for a resplendent occasion. Ellen Terry, perhaps the most famous actress in the Victorian era, wore a green dress decorated with iridescent beetle wings to play Lady MacBeth in 1888. The dress must have looked stunning under the stage lights.
Beetles don’t hold a monopoly on iridescence; in fact, a diverse group of animals have independently evolved with their own version of colours with variable intensity and hue depending on the angle they are viewed (1). Examples abound in my own yard from dragonflies, butterflies to hummingbirds and more.
Why be iridescent?
An obvious use of iridescence is to communicate. A flash of bright colour might scare a predator away or say “I’m poisonous, so don’t eat me”. Or an animal could produce a flashy show to attract a mate (these guys put on the best show, but unfortunately don’t live in my yard). An untested hypothesis is that iridescence may help a school of fish or a flock of birds organize themselves (1) – another form of communication. For example, the iridescent patch on a mallard duck‘s wing may be a cue to help them fly in the same direction.
Counterintuitively, iridescent colours can also be used to hide (1), which explains why little fish like herring and sardines are so shiny – when looked at from below, their shininess blends with the shininess of the ocean surface. Or an animal can use iridescence to pretend to be something else – what looks like a drop of dew on a leaf might actually be a green leaf beetle (golden buprestids are probably to big to do this).
Interestingly, some instances of iridescence evolved before the organisms bearing iridescent structures developed the ability to see (1). One theory as to why iridescence evolved is that the structures that can create iridescence also create strength – so perhaps the iridescence of the golden buprestid is a side-effect of building a strong exoskeleton. We know these exoskeletons last, as fossilized beetles as old as 49 million years have been found that are still iridescent (2).
Now, I’ll need to find about a thousand more golden buprestids to make a ballgown of my own.