Garden Notes : Kindest cut
Essence of winter, the snow is shiveringly elegant under the waxing moon. Carrots from the little planter in the greenhouse taste extra good. Turkey vultures soar across the wintry skies. February is one of the best months.
Polly Hill Arboretum and Susan Murphy of the Murphy blueberry farm collaborated in a successful blueberry culture and pruning workshop on January 31. Repeating it is an option in early March if enough people are interested. Please call PHA for more information.
The rationale of pruning, sometimes known as "being cruel to be kind," encourages vigorous new growth and bloom when done regularly. In the highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), really a hardwood in multi-stemmed, shrub form, the dense "old wood" curtails production of fruit and needs to be renewed through regular pruning for best fruit production. This should be done when temperatures are below 45 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Ms. Murphy.
Photo by Susan Safford
At the Murphy blueberry plantation, Ms. Murphy talked about care of bushes and showed the class how to evaluate a shrub to determine where to start the process of renewal. The mature bush has between three and six stems, or trunks. Some are tipped with strong, new burgundy-colored growth and loaded with plump, flower-containing buds. Others are mostly grey and twiggy, but lacking the fat flower buds that eventually become blueberries.
To save a lot of snipping here and clipping there, Ms. Murphy recommends a seemingly draconian approach. Take one out of three, two out of five, or maybe even three out of six stems, right down at the shrub's base. The ones to remove, usually by sawing, are those hardened, mostly grey and showing little red. Once these have been removed, step back and appraise the shrub's overall balance. Then start trimming back grey twiggy growth down to where strong red growth emerges from the stem.
If this sounds daunting, call the arboretum, 508-693-9426, and sign up for the hands-on workshop.
On many people's minds is the economic downturn. Just how similar to the Great Depression of the 30s will it prove to be? In that vein, an entire genre of Depression-era retro-thrift is returning from the past. My contribution, from the recipe box, is how to purify the bacon fat and other drippings that many of us routinely save in a tin can next to the range. To prevent rancidity and preserve the quality of these drippings, store in the refrigerator, instead of on the counter.
Refrigerate the bacon drippings until a cup or more has accumulated. Scoop the drippings into a saucepan, cover with cold water, and sprinkle three tablespoons of flour on top. Boil for a few minutes, then cool to room temperature. Strain into a see-through jar. Do not disturb the soft lumps that are the flour. Some liquid will form in the bottom; it is easier to separate the lard from the liquid if this is visible.
Snowy white, the lard will have no bacon flavor. Use in a proportion of one-third cup to one cup of flour, plus two tablespoons water, and one half teaspoon of salt, for a very flaky piecrust.
The chicken fat from carefully raised chickens is a culinary treasure. Beware of poultry raised on rubbish or antibiotic-treated feed. Chicken fat accumulated in the bottom of a roaster pan can be clarified as above: however a slight chicken flavor remains. Use it in crusts for quiche or meat pies. Fat skimmed from refrigerated homemade chicken stock can be used as is, to replace butter for poultry dishes: i.e., cream sauces and so on. While on the subject of quality poultry, Flat Point Farm of West Tisbury is taking orders and payment for its poultry CSA. Go to flatpointpoultry.blogspot.com
Mites often trouble chickens, even unconfined ones, in winter. Lacking dry, loose soil when the ground is wet or frozen, chickens are unable to take the dust baths that help control vermin on their plumage. The resulting stress decreases egg production. To help hens in their grooming efforts, build a dusting box for the henhouse. With scrap plywood make a box two feet square by sixteen inches deep. Ours has a lip, or coaming, about two inches wide. Fill a couple of inches deep with peat moss, fine sawdust, or fine dry soil, over which sprinkle a small amount of diatomaceous earth. In a perfect world you would thoroughly clean and sanitize your henhouse at the same time; we live somewhere else.
Eelgrass in gardens
A reader recently asked a question about using dried eelgrass as mulch in vegetable gardens. The question was actually three-part: is it a good practice; should the eelgrass be rinsed; and should it be considered "green" or "brown" in the composting sense. Eelgrass (Zostera marina) grows in the shallows of coastal bays and ponds around Martha's Vineyard. Through time and turbulence, large amounts form part of the wrack that washes up along beaches. Winter is a good time to collect it. The narrow papery ribbons of dry eelgrass bundle into grey-black-brown masses and fork up easily.
I used to collect eelgrass to mulch the vegetable garden with. I no longer do, because I think the damp, cool environment it provides is too perfect for the propagation of earwigs. In fact, I do not apply a mulch to my garden during the growing season, but instead cultivate and use "dust mulch."
I would certainly encourage anyone who can get it to use eelgrass. If I were using it, I might first compost it, where rainfall would take care of any salt, and I would consider it "brown." But I would most likely spread it in the garden over the winter, and try to get it into the soil to break down.