I’ve had a frustrating morning with my computer (upgraded my operating system then discovered I couldn’t run software I need for my research, so I reverted back to my old operating system). Since it’s a beautiful morning, I took a break to take some pictures of what is currently blooming in my garden.
Whenever I’m cramming more and more items into an already full fridge or suitcase, I think of Tetris. The video game Tetris was released in 1984 and is still around in various forms. I’ve even played a board game version and have an ice cube tray of Tetris pieces.
Tetris game play begins with an empty well. Pieces of different configurations, but always comprised of four blocks, fall one by one. The aim is to re-orientate falling pieces to fit them into blocks already on the well’s bottom to create complete horizontal block lines. Completed lines disappear and as the game progresses the pieces fall faster and faster. Eventually, the blocks pile up and reach the top, ending the game.
Early on Tetris was a favorite video game of mine, sucking me in for hours. A couple of decades later, I’m still willing to play a short bout of Tetris from time to time. I must have the right kind of spatial reasoning for the game, getting into a groove as the pieces fall faster and faster, I actually find it relaxing to play. A single game can last me for a long time.
Every spring, I play garden Tetris, but not literal garden Tetris as seen in this video. The goal is to optimize my vegetable harvest – so it is just like Tetris in both space and time. I’m attempting to fit all the plants I want to grow into raised beds taking crop rotation and succession planting into consideration. Sometimes a piece doesn’t fit – for example, I didn’t grow parsnips last year because I ran out of space (parsnips have been assigned plenty of space this year because I missed them).
I’ve tried more rigorous space management techniques such as square foot gardening (sounded great in theory but turned out too labour intensive for me) and free-form, plant-everything-together methods I found in a permaculture book (ended up with open patches and no control over how much of each thing I got).
Now I manage my garden space with a rough diagram giving each type of crop a chunk of space, then I plant the entire chunk in rows. This way, I know where each type of plant is and within each block know where to expect seedlings poking through the soil (makes early weeding easier). To keep track of my blocks, I segregate them with old yarn like done at Roots and Radishes – this year my garden yarn is blue.
As a tangent: the name Tetris is derived from the Greek prefix -tetra meaning four as all game pieced are composed of four blocks, and tennis, the game’s creator Alexey Pajitnov’s favorite sport.
Clearly a pioneer plant, the fuzzy, square-stemmed weed in the picture seems to spring up as soon as I turn my back on any clear patch of dirt. I pull fistfuls of these plants out every time I weed. Since I’m curious about what is in my yard, I sent my husband to work to ask a co-worker botanist. The weed is a purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum) an extremely common mid-latitude plant in the mint family, along with oregano, lavender, chia and up to 7200 others. They are called deadnettles because they don’t sting like nettles, in fact they aren’t even related to nettles. In 1649, the English herbalist/astrologer Culpeper wrote this about deadnettles: “they grow almost everywhere, unless it be in the middle of the street.” – certainly true in my yard.
This annual herb seeds germinate in the fall when the soil reached the right temperature and is among the first to flower in the spring providing early nectar to bees. They have a pretty flower of a zygomorphic pattern (I had to look up zygomorphic, it just means mirror symmetry, like a sweet pea, as opposed to radial symmetry, like a daisy, the other option for flowers). Although they are tiny, the mauve flowers have purple spots and stripes that are striking.
where did they come from?
Apparently, the Roman brought not only roads to Northern Europe but also the weeds to grow through the cracks!
Like so many other plants, they didn’t originate from my neighbourhood. The first mention of purple deadnettles on North American shores was from 1859 (Darlington). Presumably, seeds hitched a ride with other plants that were imported at the time as I can’t think of a reason to import them on purpose. From their origins in the mountainous regions of Southern Europe, purple deadnettles have spread into most temperate regions of the globe.
Since they are in my yard, can I eat them?
Like every other herb I look into, purple deadnettles are listed as a cure for all sorts of things. A recipe to cure chills listed deadnettles infused into a tea and sweetened with honey. I’ve seen it listed as a useful salad addition and abundant in iron, vitamins and fibre. Unfortunately purple deadnettles isn’t listed in its own section in my ‘Edible Wild Plants‘ book, but it is referred to in the henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) section as a related edible species. The book says there are no poisonous look-alikes, so I decided to try it (these ones came from my yard, so I know nothing has been sprayed on them).
Years ago I took a wilderness survival course where I had to survive in the woods for a week on what I could find or catch. The purple deadnettles reminded me of the fireweed I ate a lot of that week – listed as good for me, but flavorless with a weird texture (there is a good reason why purple deadnettles and fireweed aren’t available in grocery stores). To get around the fuzzy texture, some people include a few leaves in the smoothies, but I think I’ll continue with what I’ve been doing with the plants – put them in the compost pile. I’ll file away the edibility of these weeds just in case of an apocalypse.
Culpeper, N. 1649. Culpeper’s Complete Herbal. Reprint, 1975. London: W. Foulsham. 430 p.
Darlington, W. 1959. American Weeds and Useful Plants. New York: A. O. Moore. 460 p.
Defelice, M.S., 2005. Henbit and the Deadnettles, Lamium spp. : Archangels or Deamons? Weed Technology, 19 (3), 768-774
As a kid, our garden was a haven for snakes as our garden provided good slug hunting and plenty of cover. I’m sure generations of snakes thrived inside the garden fence. Early on a summer day slithering serpents could be seen diving for cover between the vegetables. Even though the snakes darted to safety as quick as they could, I always caught one if I felt so inclined – which was often. I never harmed any of the snakes I caught, I just liked to examine their markings before setting them free. There are black and brown ones, some with yellow, orange, red, or blue stripes (It turns out there are three species found here: Wandering, Common and Northwestern Garter Snakes).
I’m fortunate that the snakes on my island in the Pacific aren’t dangerous – at most my hands would get covered in a stinky pee-like liquid as the captive snake tried a malodorous defense. I did get bit once (I deserved it) but, hardly a mark was left on my skin. Although garter snakes have a mild venom, it is only toxic to the small animals the snake eats. Garter snakes are not a scary snake and the only other snake in the area is the highly endangered slug-eating sharp-tailed snake that reaches a max length of 20 cm. So when someone in the area tells me they have spotted a venomous snake I wonder where it came from, a stow-away in someone’s luggage perhaps?
One late spring afternoon, my husband called to tell me of a venomous snake sighting in an optometrist office near Rithets Bog. Apparently, the optometrist had widely traveled tropical lands and was convinced he knew a venomous snake when he saw one. Somehow, my husband got called to identify and take care of the animal. Intrigued*, I agreed to accompany my husband to the optometrist office on our way to dinner with friends.
When my husband introduced himself to the staff at the optometrist’s office, a small clear plastic box encased in packing tape was produced. Inside was a tiny snake. Even without my expert husband telling me, I knew at first glance it was a baby garter snake. It was less than a few days old, so young it still had its belly button. The tiny snake was darting around its clear prison, looking for a way out. We assume the snake was born near the bog, somehow safely got across a road and parking lot before taking refuge in the optometrist office.
We took the snake and set it free.
*and concerned as my husband regularly tells tales of being bitten by various animals – including some venomous ones.
My article on marrying a museum curator for the Royal British Columbia Museum’s on-line magazine has now been posted. Check it out here.
The longer days have resulted in a glut of eggs around here – hens I had thought were well into henopause have started laying again, and a chick I got last year that left me wondering if it was a rooster has proven she is a hen (I’d happily keep a rooster, except that in my urban area that wouldn’t be fair to my neighbours). With extra eggs in the fridge, I’ve been thinking a lot about eggs.
Ever dropped an egg? It turns out an egg can be repaired – good news for Humpty Dumpty! Even better news for a Kakapo egg as these ground dwelling parrots are critically endangered. Here‘s a story about an accidentally crushed Kakapo egg that was repaired, then hatched.
Or, considering Easter is approaching, how about natural egg dying? These natural, homemade dyes look great – especially the blues and reds. Beet juice creates a great red/purple/pink range of colours. Perhaps not really appropriate for dyeing eggs, crushed cochineal insects also produce a great and non-toxic red dye that is found in all sorts of processed food. As a slight tangent – up until roughly the 1950s, cochineal was the dye used for British army uniforms. This dye gets listed under a number of different names such as ‘natural red 4′ or ‘red #40.’
In general red colouring in food causes me some concern, a while back I took a look at the surprisingly long list of red dyes in a brand of iron pills that my doctor recommended I take. I have no biological need for cadmium, yet it could be found in those iron pills (among other unnecessary things). Apparently, cerium can be used as a non-toxic alternative to cadmium. However, I’ve since found iron pills with no colouring at all.
As a final note: check out these finches playing the guitar.
I’m trying to get a handle on who lives in my garden. The mammals are easy: three primates as permanent residents, and transient squirrels, rats, raccoons and domestic cats. What interests me are the birds, insects, arachnids and other invertebrates (I’ve never observed any reptiles or amphibians – but some would be welcome such as garter snakes and tree frogs).
The arrival of spring means I must ready my garden beds for planting. To that end, I’ve been spending a lot of time on my hands and knees weeding. Being that close to the ground makes it easy to spot the slugs, worms, millipedes and grubs hiding in the soil. Slugs get fed to the hens. Worms and millipedes get a free pass as their presence is beneficial.
It’s the grubs I wonder about. Will they grow into a beneficial insect or one that will munch on my veggies? The picture shows a grub I’ve been finding a lot of lately. They are big, some the diameter of my pinky, and plentiful. I collected the three in the photo a few days ago and sent them to be identified. I don’t want to make the mistake of decimating the young of a carnivore that would hunt down the bugs eating my plants. Consider the fire-engine red, included-in-every-child’s-garden-book ladybug – it’s larvae looks like the inspiration for the mind-control-insect Kahn put into Chekov’s ear in the original ‘Wrath of Kahn‘.
My hope was the grubs were European Ground Beetles (Carabus nemoralis) – an beneficial and pretty beetle I often see in the garden. But they weren’t. The grubs are caterpillars of the Large Yellow Underwing (Noctua pronuba), a moth with yellow wings as its name implies. This moth eats plants, so the caterpillars went to the hens.
As a tangent: both the European Ground Beetle and the Large Yellow Underwing are European invaders to the area. The beetle likely hitched a ride in the ballast of early ships from Europe, while the moth was released, by accident, in Nova Scotia in 1979.
Thanks to my husband for taking both these great pictures.
It all started with a beer – not just any beer, but the first one I had after my pregnancy-induced beer drought. My daughter had arrived safe and sound into the world so my husband and I celebrated with a licorice stout. At the time, I thought it was an odd sounding combination, so risking a potentially weird taste, I took a sip. The stout turned out to be tasty goodness, if you like a dark beer like I do. Since then I’ve enjoyed a few pints of the brew and it has turned into my husband’s favourite.
We’ve talked of brewing our own licorice beer, so in the spirit of planning ahead I was delighted when I noticed a listing of licorice seeds tucked between lespedeza (I have no idea what that is) and lily-of-the-valley in a seed catalogue. Their licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) was described as, “The source of most commercial licorice used in the making of candy, liquor and as a sweetener for herb tea. Extracts flavour tobacco, beer, soft drinks and pharmaceutical products.” It sounded like the right plant, so I ordered a packet of seeds.
Licorice is a legume – I’m always fascinated by the number of plants that turn out to be legumes beyond peas and beans. For example: clover, fenugreek, and lupines are all legumes. Native to Europe and Asia, licorice has a long history as a culinary flavouring. It’s latin name ‘Glycyrrhiza’ originates from a Greek word meaning ‘sweet root’. And it was not only the Greeks using licorice; ancient Egyptians, Hindus, Chinese and no doubt others used it in teas, alcoholic mixes, medicine and candy. According to two different herb tea books, licorice is also a natural sweetener and capable of curing all sorts of things, from asthma to indigestion.
I have a recipe for my licorice stout. Recently, in a happy on-line book ordering accident, I received a book of beer recipes instead of the gardening book I had ordered. Their advice for using licorice root is to boil it up with the wort. As well as a flavour for alcoholic beer, licorice is one of the roots used to make root beer. Perhaps I’ll add a few batches of root beer to my licorice plan as recipes from scratch are easy to find on line (like this one and this one). My brewmaster friend has said she is up for guiding me through making both the alcoholic and no-alcoholic licorice beers.
Late February, the seeds were planted in my makeshift aquarium-plant-starter and have sprouted. It turns out, licorice grows into a small bush that likes well drained soil. I have the perfect place in one of my raised beds once the garlic is harvested.
Unfortunately, my licorice harvest is a long way away. Assuming, the two-leaved sprouts grow into proper plants, they’ll have to make it through the winter as I’m on the northern edge of what they can tolerate. I expect I’ll need to cover them late fall. With luck, in about three years, I’ll be able to harvest and dry the roots. In the mean time, I might order some licorice root to practice making the brews so I will have perfected my brewing techniques before using my home-grown licorice.