Archive for the ‘Foraging’ Category

Aaand again with the decade between my posts. There are no words. I simply get distracted by everything else around me, and it doesn’t help that I typically sink into a mild winter funk of tired sluggishness. The early darkness does it, or something. This happens even when the winter is mild as ours has been so far. We’ve only had one ‘snow storm’ of a few inches so far, and the snow only lasted two days before melting. It’s a far cry from some of the winters of my childhood.

A trespassing thief stole my trail camera already, making my Thanksgiving-time quite grumpy-like. Regular season deer hunting has come and gone. I shot a nice doe on opening day that would’ve given me fodder for a few posts if I had thought about it at the time. I used some of her for jerky, made hot Italian sausage, and doubled the family recipe for korv as well. This is on top of the number of roasts I saved (and the butchery that came before all that).  Oh well. Maybe next time. For now,  the upcoming holiday season gave me a different idea for a quick, easy, and money-saving thing to share with you all.

Here at SVF, we grew our own Christmas trees for many years out of a patch of conifers my dad planted some decades ago. I love the smell of their boughs. The fresh, bold scent seems to lift my spirits, and their green color defies the weather even when everything else is grey. However, things have changed and grown up since I was younger, and now the trees are all too big for that purpose (maybe we could use just one branch? :P). Due to changes in our family, though, we rarely ever have a Christmas tree anymore anyway.

Even so, I don’t have to miss out on the experience. It’s easy to make a homemade wreath out of conifer boughs and it doesn’t require cutting down or even really injuring a tree. They take up very little space and can be put in ‘extra’ areas like the backs of doors or corners of walls – perfect for someone with little floor space. It also saves the expense of buying, for those who enjoy wreaths.

All you need:

  • – Cutting tools (I use a hunting knife and any pair of scissors. Pruning snips are great too)
  • – String/twine (I like a natural fiber brown twine as it blends in better and is completely biodegradable after, but you can use anything you have laying around)
  • – Pine, spruce, or fir tree with branches low enough to be reached safely

You may want to wear gloves if you don’t like your hands getting any sap on them. However, I find that it isn’t that big of an issue, and fresh sap doesn’t seem to be as gooey as old sap anyway. I’ve never had a problem.

You do not NEED a ‘form’ for making a wreath under any circumstances. It’s a mistake to think you do. However, if you’re really struggling with it, you can do something as simple as bend an old wire clothes hanger into a circle, and that will generally suffice as a guide.


The best type of tree to use is up to you. You can use any conifer, but I chose my balsam firs. You may want to decide based on what you have access to. Make sure to ask the landowner if you want to go on private property! You can also often find discarded trimmings at tree farms or nurseries/stores that sell large quantities of ‘live’ Christmas trees. Just ask someone working there. The worst you get is a no.

Firs have needles that are flat/two-sided and generally single on the branches. They also tend to have ‘softer’ needles that don’t stab your feet as much when they fall off and end up on your floor. Pines generally have needles in bunches of 2-5 that tend to be longer and more ‘feathery’. They are soft, but tend to be more sparse looking and harder to make a pretty wreath out of. Spruces have 4-sided/’square’ needles (in cross-section), and though they tend to be good-looking, they are very pointy when dry and underfoot. These facts add to the reason I chose my firs.

Select some branches and trim them from the tree. You’ll want to use the ends of branches if the tree is large, as they bend more easily and have more needles. It helps if you can select ones that are naturally a bit curved, but it isn’t a necessity. Once you have some branches, arrange them to form a framework, and tie them together. If you need to, pick them up and gently but firmly bend them, working them with your hands. They will take on more of a shape you need with some coaxing. You can also partially break them if necessary, damaging the inner pith but leaving the bark intact so it stays together.

After I have my beginning ‘circle’, I trim off my twine ends, and remove any really too-long or dangly offshoots and put them into another pile. It’s good to leave some on the base branches, though – use the twine to tie them down a bit so they’re not all straggly and so they conform to your base circular shape. Keep tidying up your twine ends as you go, clipping them close so they don’t stick out.

I’m left with thinner trimmings like this. It’s never enough, though, so I go back to the tree and select some more small offshoots of the branches. You’ll need a nice little pile. I prefer to make my wreath right next to the tree, so I can take more as I go if I need to, but if you want to make it inside or at another location, clip extra so you don’t run out. It’s better to have too much than not enough.

Lay them along the shape of your rough wreath and eyeball them. See how they look, and arrange them so they’re pleasing to the eye. You can do this however you prefer. If you like them all pointing in one direction, do it. Prefer them to go opposite ways and meet at the top or bottom? Do it. Prefer a jumbly arrangement? Whatever you like is fine! Tie them down with the twine. You can make effort to hide the twine if you want, burying it under the needles, but as you add branches, you’ll find that it becomes hidden on its own. Some don’t even need to be tied down, either. Just ‘thread’ them in between the other limbs and branches, and they’ll stay down on their own.

After some tucking, I got this, but it wasn’t quite full enough for me, so I trimmed a few more limb ends…

After I got this, I thought it wasn’t too bad! It was giving off a lovely scent, too.

I set it on my stoop and walked over to my Norway spruces, which drop long, thin cones. I easily found a few good, clean samples, and tucked them into the wreath as a decoration. I used no glue or anything, just careful placement. You can do this with any kind of cones, leaves, grasses, or any other decoration you’d like to add. For stubborn things like really big pine cones, bury the bottoms in the pine foliage and use twine to tie them on. If it still won’t stay in place for some reason, you CAN hot glue it in there, but I’ve never found it necessary.

And there you have it… a decent looking wreath, and it didn’t cost me anything, because all I used was stuff I already had or that was growing around me. Just loop it over a hanger you might already have, or just tie a circle of twine on top and hang it from any old nail in the wall like I do. 🙂

This was a quick one, too. If you spend even more time with it, you can orient the branches just perfectly to how you like it, and get one that looks even more fabulous to you.

Happy holidays!

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I apologize for the lack of posts on my part. The end of summer always brings a whole host of things that demand my time, some more important than others, but all squabbling for and yanking at my attentions until I give in. For example, one of my roosters has become a little crotchety, so as I collect my daily bounty of eggs, I’m always eyeballed and occasionally bodyslammed by him, and I end up debating his fate. He’s on ‘probation’ as of now – while he’s a beautiful bird, I don’t want him to go after a customer or something.

This past weekend was the peak of the harvest moon. It’s said that this bright full moon was once used by farmers to continue work into the night during the intense harvest period. My own is almost complete here, having mostly ended a few weeks ago. Haying season has been finished for some time, with plenty of bales put away to supply bedding for the chickens for the winter. I dug all my potatoes, beets, and turnips, and they’re now in damp straw-filled bushel baskets in the old stone basement. Only hardy things like brussels sprouts and carrots remain outside, and I’ll deal with them soon (except for the kale, which will be left there – and will probably survive – all winter).

It was a good season, though. After admirable performances on their part, I let the tomatoes go, their vines thin-foliaged and dying, fruit quality suffering from months of early blight and the associated exposure/sunscald. Probably more than a bushel went ‘to waste’, with some of these being fed to my chickens as feed, but it wouldn’t have been worth the trouble to take care of them and cut around their damage when I already have on the order of 6 or more full cases of homemade tomato products to use this winter. You choose your battles.

Just three 40-foot rows of bush beans produced over 300 pounds of beans before I let them go to seed as well, blowing my past years out of the water. I have no more freezer space for them, and lost what remained of my desire to spend the hours required to pick them to sell. I put a 14″ wide head of broccoli in the freezer – the biggest I’ve ever seen, beating my old record by 3″. I also picked the largest watermelon I’ve ever grown here, a 20-pound-plus Jubilee, and have enjoyed (or sold) several other melons in the 15-pound range. Our climate isn’t usually as suited for production of these, but the hot summer this year seems to have helped them, even as it hindered crops like the lettuce (there was still plenty, but it was the sorriest, sparsest looking row of it that I’ve ever grown).

The harvest and transition to fall also brings a number of festivals and other celebrations that conveniently fill the gap between fair season and ‘winter hibernation’. Some are craft shows, others are historical celebrations or giant farmer’s markets, or some may even be a mash-up of all of these. One such amalgamation is one I go to every year – the Busti Apple Festival. Born from the Pioneer Festival that used to be held here, it always happens on the last Sunday of September, rain or shine. This year it happened on Sept. 30th, and though the forecast called for rain, we managed to escape without a drop.

An early 1900s shot of the Mill.

The Apple Fest is held near the old Busti Gristmill. This historic mill, built in the late 1830s, was in neglected disrepair for many years. However, funding from the Apple Fest is used by the Busti Historical Society to restore it while still maintaining period accuracy. Windows and floors all needed replacement – it was basically a start with the bones and building back. They have also purchased some of the buildings around it. This year there were some breakthroughs, with some old equipment being demonstrated, and the once-empty mill channel over the creek being filled with hewn beams and hardware in preparation for a possible return to action in the future.

There are many tents of crafters with things to sell, and there’s always a good selection of fresh produce and other farm products. There are also demonstrations of log hewing, candle-making, spinning, a one-room schoolhouse, antique tractors, traditional music, and more. While I think most people go to this festival for the fair food and other ‘stuff to buy’, and I do like buying certain things myself (ex. maple and honey products, stone-ground flour, cheese), I go primarily to see what’s going on with the ‘old stuff’, and I do enjoy seeing some others who do take an interest in it.

A row of crafters’ tents lines the road, shut down for the day for the festival (Post-Journal photo, article linked).

A particular new thing of note to me this year was a blacksmith that was working on pieces on-site. His operation is called Evergreen Forge, based in Scandia, Pennsylvania – within a half-hour’s drive from my home. He had a number of pieces for sale, most decorative in nature, but a single knife stood out to me from all the offerings on display. It was a fixed-blade damascus hunter. Better yet, it was handmade, and one of a kind by nature. The price tag was intimidating, but it was beautiful, and I kept coming back to it, finally giving in and paying the asked-for sum, which I knew it was worth.

Maybe this knife will one day test a whitetail’s hide, or maybe it will serve me in any number of capacities from a garden vegetable-lopper or a forest mushroom-slicer. Maybe it will not. It’s a hard decision to make after you’ve bought (for a fraction of the price) and used many generic, mass-produced blades for your entire life. I almost always have a knife on hand, though – they’re like an extension of myself, an extra digit I don’t possess on my own – and it’s a new thing to own one this gorgeous that is still so strongly made and could serve well longer than my lifetime if cared for. Given all of what I’ve just said above, it seems almost like a waste and perhaps a denial of its own purpose to simply allow it to sit on display forever.

I could always give it a run with some squirrels. Though some would find the idea of eating them odd or even disgusting, they’re my favorite game animal. They’re abundant this year, probably helped along by the past mild winter. The feast of thickly dropping hickory and beech nuts almost makes up for the fact that spring frosts ruined all the wild apples and other fruit.

Hickory nuts (and some extra heads from my sunflower landrace) spread out to dry.

Cool rains have come, and nippy nights are bringing on the fall colors, along with a host of curious mushrooms and fungi that I delight in foraging for. No great finds so far, just a few blewits and a tiny Lion’s Mane, but there’s time yet. With one season over, and a new one started, it’s time for fall foraging and hunting. Hopefully my downtime will increase as the days shorten, allowing for the inevitable posts that will follow these subjects…

Is this butt a sign of things to come???

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Every gardener or farmer knows that weeds can be a scourge. In large numbers, they can choke out flowers, vegetables, or other crops. Even in smaller numbers, they can grow where they are undesirable or unsightly. Dealing with weeds is often a season-long battle, fought with hands, gloves, hoes, or cultivators. Some even choose to use chemical means to eradicate them, but weeds can become more resistant to even this, not even considering the other issues/concerns this brings with it.

While ripping out offending weeds is totally understandable, and I do it all the time, many people do not know of the value of some of these plants.  While it is true that some weeds are too fiddly to mess with (such as the delicious – but tiny – nuts of Nutsedge), inedibly tough or bitter, or even poisonous (such as the Nightshades), others are edible, even tasty (some have good medicinal value, too, though this is often not for beginners). I have selected and will elaborate on a few of the most common, easily identified ones I find in my plantings.

A very exceptional purslane growing among my onions. Normally they are not this large or thick – I guess it likes its spot!

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)

  • – Low growing, creeping-type plant. Thick, smooth, computer-cable like stems, usually with a strong reddish color or tinge. Succulent, thick leaves shaped like little paddles or spatulas. Small yellow flowers give way to tiny green seed pods
  • – Contains more Omega-3 than any other leafy vegetable. Mucilaginous quality lends it well to soups/stews, or very good just as a salad herb or snack. Can have a tangy or salty flavor. Stems are good for pickling
  • – Does not grow tall or very competitive; tolerates poor soil and drought. Good companion plant – crops such as corn will even let their roots ‘follow’ paths broken in the soil by purslane, and its deep roots and ground-covering nature bring up and stabilize moisture that might otherwise be unavailable
  • – Used historically; still widely used in Europe, the middle east, and others

Young lambsquarters – great as a fresh salad at this stage

Lambsquarters/Goosefoot (Chenopodium album)

  • – Cultivated in some countries as a food crop, but usually considered a weed in the US
  • – Tall growing, to several feet or even a few meters high, with stiff stems. Alternate, spade-blade shaped, well toothed leaves; leaves at the top and bottom are more diamond shaped and less toothed. Leaves repel water, and top ones are often mealy, with a white powdery look
  • – Is competitive – can cause crop losses if not pulled out
  • – Edible raw or cooked, but probably best cooked if eaten regularly (it contains some oxalic acid and saponins – probably not enough to do any harm anyway – but these are reduced by cooking). Good spinach substitute, and nutritious. Seeds can also be eaten, or the flowerheads used as a broccoli substitute

Galinsoga with the corn

Galinsoga/Gallant Soldier (Galinsoga ciliata)

  • – Grows to about 2 feet in height
  • – Opposite leaves triangular with rounded back, coarsely toothed along edges, quite hairy on stems and leaves alike. Flowers like a tiny, underdeveloped daisy, with a yellow center surrounded by 5 very small, white, 3-toothed petals
  • – Flowers, leaves, or stems edible raw or cooked, added to soups, or used as a salad
  • – Not as tall and tough as Lambsquarter, but very tenacious – can grow in huge numbers, choking out other plants, and if you break its stems off instead of uprooting it, it will grow two new stems at the place it broke

Yellow wood sorrel

Yellow Wood Sorrel (Oxalis stricta)

  • – Often confused with or called a ‘clover’
  • – Starts out erect, but as it grows it lays down and branches. Leaves with 3 leaflet segments, each shaped like a heart. Small yellow, 5-petaled flowers
  • – All parts are edible, with a very tangy/lemony flavor. Good accent in salads, or can be crushed and made into a lemonade-like drink. The tanginess is from its oxalate content – it is perfectly safe in small quantities, but should not be eaten in huge quantities constantly because this can bind up the body’s calcium

Mallow cheeses

Mallow Cheeses/Dwarf Mallow (Malva neglecta)

  • – Grows from a central point/in a rosette, branching from the base. Prostrate/stems lay along the ground.  Alternate leaves on long stems are circular or kidney-shaped and irregularly shallow-toothed or crinkly-lobed. Short hairs are present on the surfaces. Flowers 5-petaled and usually pink or pinkish-white, with noticeable darker pink or purple stripes upon close inspection
  • – Flowers replaced by disc-shaped seed pods that appear like a button or a cheese wheel in shape – this is where it gets its name. These are very crunchy and  tasty, although small. Leaves and shoots edible raw or cooked as salad or pot greens. They also have mucilaginous properties and are good for thickening soups or stews
  • – Taproot makes it hard to uproot, and it can grow quite large and sprawlingly competitive in the right environment

The domestic carrot’s mommy

Queen Anne’s Lace/Wild Carrot (Daucus carota)

  • – Tall growing, to a meter in height. Large clusters of tiny white flowers on tops of stems, often with a single maroon flower in the center. Foliage is lacy, like the familiar leaves of domestic carrots
  • – Root is edible like a carrot, or flower heads can be fried and eaten. Seeds can be used to flavor soup. The root can also be dried, roasted, and ground into a coffee substitute
  • – To avoid confusion with poison hemlock, look for the strong carrot smell and the very hairy stems – they should also lack purple spots
  • – Some people are photosensitive after handling the foliage, so treat with care if you are uncertain

Very immature Velvet-leaf, this youngster will grow many times this size if I let it

Velvet-leaf (Abutilon theophrasti)

  • – Grows several feet tall on stout, stiff stems, with large, heart-shaped, long-stemmed leaves covered with velvety, fine hairs. These are very soft to the touch. Yellow or orange flowers give way to segmented seedpod clusters with an overall ‘crown-like’ appearance, each segment having a pointed ‘horn’ on top. Entire plant has an odd, distinct odor about it
  • – Extremely competitive, stealing nutrients and water from other crops. A damaging and invasive species
  • – Seeds are edible and tasty (in my opinion). Although a bit small, they are easy to get to, and eating them stops the plant from reseeding. Leaves are reportedly eaten stir-fried or in omelettes in China. The plant also provides strong, jute-like fiber, which is what it was originally grown for.

and last, but never least…

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

  • – The familar dandelion almost everyone knows needs no photo – it grows in rosettes of deeply toothed, dark green leaves, with prominent yellow composite flowers on long, often reddish-tinged stems
  • – Entire plant is edible. Leaves are better when young, and get bitter as they age. Root is edible raw or cooked, or can be dried and roasted as a coffee substitute. Flowers are edible, fried into fritters or plucked of petals and mixed into anything (I like to put them inside a veggie burger of sorts). They can also be used to make wine, or pickled and used like capers. The milky sap is a folk remedy for warts
  • – A number of other medicinal uses as well!

Looking up the wild plants you find around you can be an addictive pursuit. So many of the plants we treat as weeds or ignore actually have beneficial qualities. Whether you decide to eat them or not, maybe this posting will give you a little curiosity about the leafy neighbors of your prized plants. After all, they’re just plants too – they just don’t often benefit from the help of a human hand, so they come up with other strategies to succeed, strategies that can invoke our ire at times.

Happy growing/harvesting season 2012!

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Starting your garden from seed may sound like a great, thrifty way to save some cash. However, there are several herbs that will give a variety of disastrous results when grown from seed. I strongly recommend propagating the following by cuttings or plant division.


When looking to grow Tarragon, never buy seeds. It is very important to be aware of what you’re buying because incorrect labeling does occur. Many times, when you see seed or plants for sale, they will either be Russian Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus L.) or Mexican Tarragon (Tageteslucida). Look for French Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa). Taste a leaf before purchase to ensure the plant is labeled correctly—look for a numbing effect on the tongue when purchasing French Tarragon.

The Differences

French Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa)

  • Superior flavor
  • Preferred in culinary
  • Numbing effect on tongue
  • Rarely flowers, seeds are typically sterile
  • Can be finicky to grow

Russian Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus L.)

  • Belongs to same family as French Tarragon
  • Lacks flavor, may be bitter
  • Readily flowers and sets seed
  • Hardier and more tolerant than French Tarragon

Mexican Tarragon (Tageteslucida)

  • Actually a variety of Marigold
  • Closest in flavor to French Tarragon, so may be used as a substitute


I recommend everybody interested in growing rosemary to buy an already established plant or start with a cutting from an established plant. The seed germination rate is incredibly low—I had only one germinate last year. If you’re lucky enough to get the seeds to germinate, the seedlings can be fussy and difficult to keep alive. The seedlings seem to prefer a moist, well-draining soil and will quickly die if the soil remains dry too long. Rosemary is also slow growing and will take at least a year to establish.


Mint plants should be incredibly easy to find and are even easier to propagate from cuttings or division. Due to hybridization, mint should not be started from seeds. This causes the mint to have a rank odor and taste. If possible, I strongly recommend finding a good wild or heirloom variety to start with. I have purchased mint varieties from stores that turn rank after a couple years of growth. Since mint tends to readily take over where it’s grown, I encourage everybody interested in growing mint to check with friends and family for a clipping or plant division.


If absolutely insistent upon starting from seed, Lavender would be the safest from this list. The biggest problem with Lavender seed is that it can take up to three months to sprout. From there, it may take one year for the plant to become established and bloom. There are also many varieties of Lavender to choose from, just make sure to choose an edible variety.

These plants may sound discouraging to grow, but with a little attention a garden can be saved from imposters. Starting plants from seeds may sound like a cost-efficient method to acquiring a garden, but it may have the hidden cost of replacing poor quality varieties with the proper plant. If looking to save money, cutting and plant division are the keys to success with these four plants.

Looking to start from seeds? Try reading “Seed Sowing: Timely, Thrifty, Universal Methods”

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Spring is upon us, and my area has been especially subject to all the temperamental whims of its weather. One day may be in the 70s, with peepers calling in the night, and another is in the 40s and brings hard freezes as darkness falls. Because we have had a warm winter, and some very unseasonal March temperatures into the 80s, some trees have budded early and are being damaged by the weather’s mood swings. I tried covering some of my fully blooming bushes, but strong winds ripped the covers off in the night. There’s little I can do for my big fruit trees, so I leave them alone and hope for the best.

Some plants that are not as subject to these tantrums are the spring ephemerals. Spring-beauties and trout lilies cover the floor of my chunk of woodland, with bloodroot and white and red trilliums making less common appearances. Virginia cowslip is found in a rare group, uncurling sprays of blue flowers. Skunk cabbage leaves are beginning to unfurl in the more muddy spots. May apples poke from beneath the leaf litter, barely spreading their umbrella-like form.

Young mayapple plants, surrounded by the speckled leaves of emerging trout lilies.

To me, though, the ‘award’ for most obvious spring appearance belongs to the wild leek or ramp. Also known as spring onions, ramsons, wild garlic, or wood leeks, these plants can cover enormous chunks of ground in huge colonies of hundreds or thousands of individuals. They are found in much of the eastern half of the US and up into Canada, but are especially prevalent in the northeast. They provide patches of brilliant green in a time when the trees are still drab, a time when many of the ephemerals listed above are not showing their full glory (or are too small to be noticed by a casual passerby). Their bright color is a glimpse of what is soon to come – a harbinger of a forest awakening.

These are all ramps. This is just an 'average' colony.

They start like little knives, slicing through the beaten-down fallen leaves, sometimes literally piercing holes in them as they grow upward (later, you can find mature leeks still wearing these leaves like a skirt). Soon, their leaves unfurl their broad, waxy surfaces. Tapering down, the lower stem often has a reddish or burgundy tinge, but not always. The plants are anchored strongly by long, dangly roots. Manage to pull one out, and you’ll see that the bulb is covered by a membranous, slightly slimy ‘skin’. This can be slipped off in one piece, leaving a completely clean, bright white root for you to munch raw if you are so inclined.

These pungent buggers are extremely popular fare in some areas, especially the Appalachians, where they are even ingrained in folklore. Ramp festivals are even held to celebrate this humble little onion. The entire plant can be eaten, leaves included. Now, even chefs at upscale restaurants are also recognizing them as a delicacy. The main species discussed here (Allium tricoccum) is legal to sell in many areas (although some less common species with much narrower leaves are protected and should not be touched) and some sellers fetch a pretty penny for them. This presents a problem for the leek, though. As is the issue with many things with growing popularity, overharvesting has the potential to take a serious toll. The abundance of an organism doesn’t matter when it’s exploited more than it can withstand. Sellers who grab their shovels and dig up clumps – or worse, whole colonies – of ramps limit the capacity of the plant to re-establish itself, helping to eradicate it in places where it may have covered acres in years before.

My preferred digging method - simple pronged root diggers. These are usually meant for dandelions, but work well (and you may be able to see that I got the larger one for 75 cents at a yard sale)!

There’s nothing wrong with using the wild bounty, but it is best to use it responsibly so it can be there for the future, whether for us or for our children’s children. Ramps are still widespread for the most part. If you plan to harvest them, utilize populations on your own land, or get permission of the landowner before taking them. Public lands or parks may have regulations that prohibit digging or removing plants, so check them before proceeding in those areas. Dig only some individuals, and never remove entire clusters/colonies. If you use a digger like I do, it’s easy to take a plant here or there without doing much damage or disturbance to others nearby. You can still get a big bag full even if you only take a few from each group. Try to leave enough so they can replenish. This ensures that it can continue to reproduce and be harvested for years to come.

The wild ramp seems to prefer moist banks and hillsides in dappled-shade areas of woodland or along streams. They can be distinguished pretty easily by appearance, but for further proof, check that they smell strongly of garlic or onion when a piece of the leaf is broken – this ensures you do not confuse it with anything else. Early season ramps like the one seen above are the most tender and least ‘spicy’. As the season goes on, they get larger, but also get a stronger bite to them. Either way, they are versatile and, in my opinion, superior to both garlic and onions. Ramps are actually present all year round, but become harder to find when the leaves die back, visible only by the brown flowering stalks. Once these get flattened down by the elements or buried by leaves, you would have to rely on your memory of where they were to find them at all.

Ramps can be dried, pickled, or blanched and frozen (though freezing can make them lose some texture). They can also be stored in the refrigerator, unwashed, for a week or two. They can be used in place of onion or garlic in almost any recipe that calls for them as a component. I have put them in with steamed rice as a flavoring and thrown them into a stir fry. It can be put on pizza, fried with potatoes, or mixed in cream sauces. Our favorite is to toss them in with a creamy potato-leek soup recipe. Here is a comparable recipe for that, and here are a few other things you can do. A simple Google search will give you even more ideas, enough to keep you leeking it up for months to come if you turn out to be one of the people who loves them.

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Going for spring walks, especially across countryside, can bring you many experiences and discoveries. You may find a patch of flowers you’ve never seen before, or pick out notes in the varied melody of passing birds. You can see how surroundings have changed with the seasons, weathering processes and repeated frosts having affected the earth in their small, deliberate ways. The road bed may have given a little, causing the potholes that irritate motorists. Roofs need patching, battered by bitter winds. An uprooted tree may have created a dam, altering the flow of a stream. Much like the humans who repair and rebuild, though, the fish will return, driven to spawn as waters warm. This cycle of life hints at another, remnants of which can often be found along the same creek banks, or perhaps buried under chaffy leaves on the forest floor.

Instead of just a shed antler poking up from the ground, a skull or set of bones tells you that a creature breathes no more. This is a little macabre for some, but others might be drawn to it, fascinated. Whether the critter actually died in that very spot is often hard to tell. Carcasses are sometimes carried in the water and washed up on banks, dragged by scavengers, or occasionally even discarded along roads or in ditches by unethical “sportsmen”. Was it killed by a car? Natural causes? Again, often difficult to determine.

You may shy away, and that’s alright. Such an interest is not for everyone. But for those who are curious, intrigued by the form of the bones and the stories they might hold, you can pick them up. With a little time, you can create an interesting display/educational piece, crafting item, or product to sell (just check laws to make sure this is legal in your area, like I did, and don’t try to sell endangered/protected species).

If a bone has been sitting a while, it’s often somewhat cleaned off for you – this takes the least work. Others may be … messy, to say the least. If it’s extremely unpleasant, I’ll leave it a while and come back for it. If a bone is very fresh, such as from an animal you hunted/trapped yourself, it can also be dealt with in the same ways, but you’ll have to prepare it first. Use a knife you’re comfortable with to remove as much outside flesh as you can, and if dealing with a fresh skull, then any device such as a wire or straightened coat hanger to break up and extract the brain. Skulls found outside often do not need that last bit.

I do hunt, but because of the above, I favor the easier cleaning of found bones. Either way, there are several methods.

Use of dermestid beetle larvae:

  • – Bone sutures do not come apart, teeth don’t fall out
  • – Bone must be prepared by fleshing and drying first
  • – A good cleaning job, removes all material and odor well
  • – Does not damage or shrink bone
  • – Takes a while
  • – Somewhat more expensive; you either have to keep your own beetles, or pay someone else

Boiling/Simmer method:

  • – Involves placing bone in simmering water
  • – Inexpensive and adequate for many
  • – Can boil fat into the bone, discoloring it
  • – Bone must be well fleshed, but doesn’t have to be dried
  • – Has to be watched closely
  • – Can damage or shrink bone
  • – Sutures come apart, teeth fall out
  • – Can cause odors during boiling process

Cold Water Maceration:

  • – Consists of soaking the bone in ambient-temperature water
  • – Takes longer than above methods
  • – Smellier method
  • – Bone must be somewhat fleshed, but doesn’t have to be dried
  • – Cheap and easy, requires little supervision
  • – Will not damage or shrink bones
  • – If leaves or other debris get into soaking water, bone can be discolored by them (but this isn’t necessarily bad – I actually like the one of mine that this happened to! See the last image in this post)
  • – Sutures come apart, teeth to fall out

Leaving it where it lies:

  • – Leave bone where it is for an extended period. ‘Nature’ will clean it for you
  • – Often leads to damaged or discolored bones, or bones disappearing entirely
  • – Takes the longest
  • – Unreliable, but super cheap and you don’t have to do anything!

The method I am supporting here is cold water maceration. I don’t have beetles, or a desire to boil any bones on my stove or in my good canning pots, but I do have plenty of water, extra empty buckets, and many places I can put them. I find that a side corner of my deck is adequate. The odor isn’t as offensive as a nearby skunk might be, but you definitely won’t want it inside. It doesn’t seem to matter if the bucket is covered. Nothing has ever bothered mine.

You can take something like this...

All you have to do is select your bone and bucket and fill the bucket with enough water to cover the bone. The process works best in warm weather, but at cool temperatures it just takes longer (I wouldn’t recommend trying to do it in winter, though, because the water may freeze and the process almost stop). You’ll need to keep the water level up, and to remove debris if it gets inside. It’s also best to periodically dump off most of the water and put fresh in, but this seems to be very forgiving. After a while of waiting, you should be able to see that bacteria have done their work. Change the water. If the bone looks fairly clean, rinse a few times and scrub lightly at any clinging particles.

... and make it look something like this ...

You can set them to dry and leave them just like that if you want, but there will be a slight odor and possibly a little discoloration. I ‘bleach’ (whiten) after cleaning. Hydrogen peroxide solution works well. This can be the standard kind found at the drugstore, or stronger stuff from beauty suppliers, diluted before use. Leave the bone in until it reaches the color you want or until it stops foaming, but don’t ignore it in there – it could eventually damage the bone. This process also deodorizes.

... and finally, like this!

If I get a bone looking pretty good using maceration alone, I may skip peroxide entirely and simply dunk in a diluted solution of bleach and water. This takes care of odor and does some whitening, but a skull should not be left in bleach solution for hours. It damages bone and can cause flaking.

After this is complete, rinse the bone well with plain water and set to dry. Once it’s dry, teeth or pieces that have fallen off can be glued with almost any clear-drying glue. You can then leave it as is, or you can clear-coat it. Clear-coating is not necessary, but if the bone is damaged by accidentally leaving it in the bleaching solution too long, it can help seal and protect the flaking surface. My chosen method for this purpose is just a mixture of plain white glue and water, which is also extremely inexpensive.

The bone is then ready for its desired purpose.

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