Written by Chandra L. Mattingly
Tuesday, February 18, 2014 12:02 PM
Winter's back is broken!
OK, you think it's because temperatures finally are soaring above freezing and we've gotten rain this week instead of snow. Heck, today, Thursday, Feb. 20, the high is supposed to be 60 degrees or so.
No, winter is over in my heart because I have planted the first seeds of this year's garden-to-be.
As usual, some of those were tomatoes and peppers; others were members of the onion family. Rosemary fits in there, too, as it grows rather slowly from seed. Next up will be parsley and some of the other herbs, wildflowers (some of these, such as the ramps, may take two years to sprout!) and perennial flowers.
I love this time of year! The birds are singing and perhaps the crocus, snowdrops and winter aconite will pop up blooming in a week's time or so. (Most years all of these early buds are blooming by this date!)
But sorting through these packets of mail-ordered seeds, with bright flowers and green things pictured on the outside, tiny potential plants in hard coatings on the inside, makes my day even when it is snowy and cold outdoors.
The tomato seeds, round, light brown and flat, have been planted in six-cell containers in the rich, loamy soil mix sprung from composted leaves and horse manure in my back yard. Soaked in warm water, the trays are nestled atop containers of hot water in a cooler, which now has become a warmer.
The sweet bell pepper seeds, similar to but a little larger than the tomato seeds and stained yellow or red, depending on which color fruit their variety ripens, also are in small trays in the cooler. For the next week or two, I will be switching cooled water jugs for freshly-filled hot ones morning and evening.
Some of the tomatoes will sprout within five days using this method; the peppers will take about a week. As the tomatoes come out, to be set immediately as close under fluorescent lights as possible, a tray of eggplant seeds will go in.
I love finding the first sprouts, half circles poked above the soil, roots grounded on one end, those first leaves – cotyledon – on the other end, being pulled up from the ground by the unfurling stem. Once the little plants are under the lights, I've been known to stop and gaze at them repeatedly throughout the day. New life is awesome.
Meanwhile, I returned to my potting bench, actually an old wooden table in the basement that came with the house, overhung with fluorescent lights. The shallots, leeks and onion seeds come next, all of them sharp-edged, hard and black. Over the years, I've learned if I take time planting the seeds to space them about an inch apart, not only will the little plants grow better than when overcrowded, but they also will be easier to transplant.
These seeds get covered with a layer of vermiculite, but don't need as much warmth to germinate as the seeds in the cooler. Nor do the rosemary seeds, but they must have light to sprout. So I press the small, light-brown, oblong seeds into the vermiculite, poke toothpicks upright throughout the tray and cover it with plastic wrap. The tray goes under the lights immediately where, kept damp, the rosemary will begin sprouting in perhaps two or three weeks, even its cotyledon seeds fuzzy gray and scented.
Unfortunately, rosemary is not hardy in our garden zone, though I've had a plant at the south corner of our house not only survive through two winters but bloom in January and February those years as well. This year it was getting flower buds at the end of December, but the arctic blast has frozen them as well as the leaves. Only time will tell whether the plant itself survived and will send out new shoots come spring.
By then I will have started trays and trays of flowers, herbs and wildflowers. The plants overwintering in pots and in the ground in my backyard will begin to show new growth as well and I will learn which plants survived and which surrendered to this wintry winter.
As well, the seeds planted and set outside last fall will begin to germinate and I should have butterfly weed, button bush and linden trees to pot up. Surely the time needed will be more than I have, and yet – well, I wouldn't have it any other way. This year's garden will be the best ever, weeded and mulched and tended with love.
That's how it always is before the ground is tilled.
Written by Chandra L. Mattingly
Tuesday, January 21, 2014 3:18 PM
Around Dusseldorf, Germany, pussy willows and forsythia bushes are starting to bloom – so says my daughter, anyway.
Not here! Just a month into winter, this year's coldest in decades continues its icy grip. But – and this is important to beekeepers – not, so far, without breaks of 40-plus to 50-degree days. These warm spells allow honeybees to fly out of the hive and ensure hive sanitation: the bees get a chance to defecate outside (they won't in the hive unless ill) and carry out those co-workers who have died.
Some folks refer to it as “yellow rain” when the bee poop shows up on car windshields and laundry hung out to dry. But it's great news to know the honeybees are out there, considering all the threats they and other pollinators face these days.
Above-freezing days also allow the bees to move around inside the beehive, shifting from comb emptied of honey stores to other comb still containing honey. Clumped together, they stay warm enough to survive by vibrating their wing muscles to produce heat – but they need fuel (honey) to do so.
In my four-hive apiary in Rising Sun, the warm days also have engendered some beekeeper anxiety in yours truly. After the cold and snow the second week of December (which wasn't even winter yet!) temperatures popped up to the 50s Dec. 19 and I observed bees flying from all four hives.
Temperatures went up and down the next week or so – up to 50 Dec. 22 and 28, down to 13 overnight Dec. 23. I didn't notice any hive activity, but wasn't watching closely either, what with holidays and work.
But Jan. 1, the temperature reached the upper 40s and I observed bees from my strongest hive flying in and out like gangbusters! You'd have thought it was a summer day during a strong honey flow from the activity at the hive entrance.
Unfortunately, not one of the other hives showed any activity. Just a little concerned – each hive responds differently and some get more sun than others – I cleaned all the dead bees from the entrance area and landing board on the hive stands. If more dead bees appeared in those areas, I could be pretty sure the hives were active and carrying out their dead.
My concern mounted Jan. 10, when again, I saw only the one hive flying (large numbers again!) on a day reaching 50 degrees. There were a few dead bees outside the other hives, but no activity. I had to leave for the day, but before doing so, took a twig and cleaned off the dead bees, as well as pulled numerous dead bees from inside the entrance of one hive. It sure looked like I'd lost that one!
Saturday, Jan. 11, jumped to 50 degrees again, after heavy rain and thunderstorms in the night. Come mid-afternoon, I found honeybees flying from all three of the other hives – but not the strongest one, which apparently was done for the day. So no worries, for now – all hives remain heavy when slightly tipped, indicating they still have plenty of stores.
As do all beekeepers, I just hope the hives have enough bees and supplies to make it till spring. Should we get a good warm day, as we probably will by February, I'll be out there taking a look inside!
Meanwhile, I've been perusing seed catalogs, including native-plant nurseries, and have ordered a number of seeds specifically for bee fodder for my plant sale this May 8, 9 and 10, even viper's bugloss, which is stickery. But it supplies nectar even after rain!
Seeds for button bush, a super nectar plant which grows in and beside waterways, is outside freezing and thawing, as are butterfly weed seeds, one of the milkweeds. These plants not only provide lots of nectar for bees and butterflies (ask Ohio County's Kevin Fancher!) but also are host plants for monarch caterpillars. Though the official count won't be released till March, the monarch population appears to be at an all-time low, so please, do what you can to help.
I may have linden tree seedlings again as well. They, too, are excellent nectar producers and the scent of the tree in bloom is almost intoxicating.
Another great scent is lemon grass, and I've wintered over some plants this year. I'm also going to try making my own lemon grass essential oil which a lot of beekeepers use to lure honeybee swarms into swarm traps in April and May.
Swarms occur when a hive gets overcrowded and starts raising a new queen. Before she hatches, most of the workers and the old queen leave the hive to start a new home elsewhere. More information about swarms and beekeepers who will remove them is available on the Southeast Indiana Beekeepers Association website: http://www.indianahoney.org.
Spring will come, swarms and all. It always does.
Written by Chandra L. Mattingly
Monday, December 23, 2013 4:18 PM
This is the time of year I go around with my head stuck up in the air.
No, I'm not getting more conceited (I hope.) I'm looking for trees with little round balls on the branches – or better yet, soft ripe balls on the ground. Not sugar gums, nor sycamores nor walnuts. What I seek is the 'fruit of the gods,' as the first half of the scientific name Diospyros virginiana can be translated– i.e., persimmons. (And THAT name comes from the Algonquin term for this most-delicious fruit.)
A native tree, persimmons melt in your mouth when ripe. Unripe, however, they will pucker your lips and gums. Telling the difference is not always easy, for unlike the common saying, persimmons are not always ripe after frost. Nor does one specific color signify ripeness, for the color varies from tree to tree.
Of the persimmons I collect locally, one tree in Rising Sun has such dark purple fruit it appears almost black. Similar fruit falls from the trees near the group camp in Versailles State Park. But other persimmon trees near the park's Cedar Grove Shelter (beyond the swimming pool) are quite orange when ripe.
My trees at home in Rising Sun also are orange, with one tree producing quite pretty wedged or slightly-ribbed fruit. Another, on Railroad Avenue near Conwell Street in Aurora, has large, more oval fruit that varies from purple to purple-orange. In size, fruit from all these trees is roughly an inch in diameter, but there's another on private property in Aurora with much smaller orange fruits, as were the fruits on another tree I'd had at home but lost to wind a few years ago.
So how do you tell if the fruit is ripe? Generally, by softness. When ripe, persimmons will fall from the tree, and the calyx can easily be separated from the fruit. On some varieties, the skin – or the whole persimmon – will split and/or wrinkle. Unfortunately, unripe fruit also sometimes falls from the tree, knocked down by wind or critters. If the fruit is firm and the skin sleek, it's not ripe, no matter what the color.
But unripe persimmons will ripen over time, so it's worth collecting them and laying them out in a garage or porch and checking them from time to time. One way to test a persimmon's puckishness is to insert just the tip of your tongue into the fruit. But a word of warning here: even if the persimmon flesh seems ripe, sometimes the coatings over the seeds remain astringent. And there was one tree in Aurora, now gone, which produced persimmons which remained astringent no matter what.
Ripe persimmons may start falling, singly, as early as September. The biggest harvest usually comes in November – we were inundated Sunday, Nov. 17, after the storm blew through, but there are still lots on the trees. Some years, fruit clings to the branches through most of the winter. Those late fruits you might try picking, but otherwise fruit picked from the tree usually won't be ripe.
Once you've eaten your fill of ripe persimmons, you can pulp the remainder to use in recipes. A food mill often is recommended, but we've found using a scraper to press the pulp through a clean piece of hardware cloth works well – especially if you're pulping large quantities with making wine in mind. Frozen, the pulp keeps for a year or more, or you can try drying it for persimmon leather. My one foray into canning persimmon pulp resulted in a puckery mass, so I've not repeated that. (The bears at the Red Wolf Sanctuary outside Rising Sun found it quite tasty, however.)
I start persimmon trees from seeds each year; because they quickly establish long tap roots, they're best planted as seedlings. Anyone interested in getting persimmon trees may call me at 812-438-3182 and leave a name and phone number to be put on the list for potted trees available next summer. (If you want local (or raw) honey for these recipes, use the same number.)
Persimmon facts & folklore
Native Americans not only ate persimmons but used them medicinally. Persimmons contain vitamins A and C, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, iron, copper and manganese, as well as glucose and protein.
While they also contain the enzymes papain and bromelaine, used in natural digestive enzyme products, they may not be the best choice for folks with digestive issues. Eating too many persimmons, especially unripe ones, can result in bezoars, a mass of undigested plant and animal matter that usually forms in the stomach. This can happen to both folks and animals, hence the goat's bezoar featured in one of the Harry Potter books.
Because their tannin content makes them astringent, unripe persimmons were used by Native Americans to treat burns. The astringency counteracted the wound's tendency to ooze. And a concoction from the inner bark was used to treat coughs and sore throats.
But perhaps the oddest use of the persimmon comes from early settlers, who split the seeds to predict winter conditions. If the embryo within the seed had a spoon-like appearance, winter would be dominated by frequent, heavy snowfalls; and if it looked like a knife, there would be cutting winds.
Persimmon trees belong to the ebony family, as does the Asiatic persimmon whose much-larger fruit often is sold in grocery stores but hasn't near the complex flavor of our sweet natives. American persimmon trees reach heights of 15 to 100 feet, and have smooth, glossy elliptical leaves with pointed tips. Male and female flowers are produced on separate trees, so both are needed to produce fruit.
Great-Great Grandma's Spoonbread Persimmon Pudding
(from the late Nyla Roeder, Rising Sun)
2 cups persimmon pulp
6 cups milk
3 cups sugar
4 cups flour
3 large eggs, well-beaten
egg-size lump butter
1 teaspoon baking soda in 1 Tablespoon warm water
Add eggs to pulp and softened butter. Beat. Mix flour and sugar, add to pulp alternating with milk. Add water, baking soda and mix well. Pour into 13 x 9 inch floured but not greased baking dish. Bake at 275 degrees for 2 ½ to 3 hours, stirring every half hour.
Chan's favorite recipe
1 cup persimmon pulp
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons melted butter
1 cup sifted all-purpose or whole wheat flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
¾ cup sugar or 2/3 cup honey or 5 ½ tablespoons Truvia (or other stevia product)
Mix persimmon pulp with eggs, milk, butter, and honey if using that as your sweetener. Sift together flour, soda, salt, spices and dry sweetener if using sugar or stevia (stevia is a plant-based, non-calorie sweetener.) Pour wet mix into sifted ingredients and mix to a soft batter. Add more milk if necessary. Pour mix into buttered 8 x 8 x 2 inch pan and bake at 350 degrees for 35 to 45 minutes, until toothpick inserted comes out clean. Serve with whipped cream topping or sauce (see recipe.)
Persimmon Pudding Sauce
From the late Carolyn McManaman, Greendale
½ cup sugar or 1/3 cup honey
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 cup boiling water
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1 ½ tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons butter
Cook first five ingredients till thickened, then add last two and mix well. Pour over warm pudding.
Annette Cutter's recipe from the Fairview United Methodist Church cookbook
1 cup sugar (or substitute ¾ cup honey)
½ cup shortening
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon cloves
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup persimmon pulp
½ cup raisins
½ cup chopped nuts
Cream shortening and sugar. Add egg and mix well. Sift dry ingredients and add raisins and nuts. Blend thoroughly, drop spoonfuls on greased cookie sheet, 1 ½ to 2 inches apart. Bake at 350 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes. Makes about 6 dozen.
for two 9-inch pie pans
Crust: Mix 1 stick butter &
½ package graham crackers
Press into pie pans
Filling: 1 ½ pkgs. Cream cheese
2 cups persimmon pulp
1 cup Cool Whip
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon ginger
1 envelope gelatin
1 cup water
Mix softened cream cheese with pulp, sugar and flavorings. Meanwhile heat water and dissolve gelatin. Cool, then stir into first mixture. When nearly cool, pour into pie pans, top with Cool Whip.
Brown County Persimmon Fudge
1 cup persimmon pulp
6 cups sugar
2 ½ cups milk
½ cup light corn syrup
4 tablespoons butter
1 cup chopped walnuts
Combine pulp, sugar, milk and syrup in large sauce pan. Cook slowly, 1 ½ to 2 hours until mix reaches soft boil (230 degrees on candy thermometer.) Cool to lukewarm, stirring often. Add butter and beat well. When mixture begins to thicken, stir in walnuts and spread in buttered 8 ½ by 13 inch pan.
*Honey can be substituted for sugar in nearly all recipes. Dried stevia, on the other hand, will change the consistency of most baked goods. If you want to cut the sugar by using stevia, substitute it for only a third to a half of the sugar in the recipe. As for honey, use a little less than you would sugar. Baked products remain moister with honey than with sugar.
There are many more persimmon recipes from ice cream to pies online and in various books, some of which are available at local orchards such as Salatin's near Moores Hill and Beiersdorfer's near Yorkville. Experiment and enjoy!
Written by Chandra L. Mattingly
Monday, December 23, 2013 3:34 PM
Every kid knows the joy of the Easter egg hunt, of finding hidden treasure.
Some lucky few also have had the joy of collecting fresh eggs at a friend's or relative's farm, as I did as a youngster. Sure, you risked getting pecked if a hen was still on the nest you were trying to rob, but there was something magical about finding those eggs, not only in the chicken house but hidden here and there about the farm.
And the colors were so different from anything you could buy in a store: deep brown, pink and light brown, as well as white. Nor could you compare the orange yolks of those eggs of truly free-range chickens to the pale yellow of store-bought eggs. Of course, 50 years ago, stores didn't much offer brown or so-called free-range or specially-supplemented chickens' eggs.
With those memories, it's no wonder my yard sported a small flock of hens long before backyard chickens became popular, and soon after my marriage – and still does. Each of the “girls” has a name, with some being quite tame, others a bit more wary. One pair even rode the handlebars of my daughter's bicycle!
Hens will lay, by the way, without the benefit of a rooster. Of course, the eggs are not fertile, but if you have close neighbors, it's considerate NOT to have a rooster and its crows without at least checking with your closest neighbors.
As an adult (well, at least in age) I still get a thrill when I find an egg in the chicken pen. The fun part is figuring out which hen laid it, and, with the young hens, determining which color egg they lay. But it's also fun to take a grub to the door and offer it on outstretched palm. As with treats such as cheese and fruit, one hen will grab it and run from the others, trying to gobble it down before another snatches it away.
Aside from fresh eggs, the best part of the chicken flock is how they recycle the weeds from the garden into chicken manure for the compost pile. A bucket of green weeds disappears in no time, and helps keep those egg yolks nicely dark.
Most of the current flock lay green eggs, but these older hens quit laying in October this year as the days shortened. They'll start up again in January or February when the days get longer, after their winter rest. Meanwhile, two of this spring's chicks started laying in late November, so I'm getting an occasional light brown egg from Hildegard or Clarabell, who appear to be golden Wyandottes.
They were given to me by a friend, along with two chicks that turned out to be a lovely green-iridescent black Australorp named Igor and a white bantum with a few black spots named Sugar. Igor should lay light-brown eggs; I'm guessing Sugar's will be white and small, considering her size.
In pioneer days, old chickens whose egg-laying ability diminished would be eaten. These days, however, some folks try raising backyard chickens expecting easy, nutritious eggs, and quickly learn there are drawbacks. Free-range chickens will scratch up garden vegetables and flowers and leave fertilizer in inconvenient places. Even in town, they may become prey for hawks, coyotes, foxes, dogs and raccoons, and their feed can attract mice and rats.
Chickens need daily care, not only feed but fresh water, including during freezing weather. And, like any animals, they are subject to pests and disease. A veterinarian visit for a sick chicken can substantially increase the cost of any eggs produced. And while older chickens may continue laying, especially with good nutrition, the number of eggs they lay will diminish.
So perhaps it's not surprising some folks have abandoned their former pets at animal shelters, both in big cities and in rural areas. Most are older hens who have slowed or stopped laying eggs after age 2 or so, especially if they've been induced into year-round laying with supplemental light.
My girls don't have to worry. They don't get extra lighting in the winter and, whether they lay or not, Gertrude, Pandora, Guadalupe and the others are set for life. Meanwhile, I get to enjoy the equivalent of an Easter egg hunt for about 10 months of each year.
Last Updated on Tuesday, December 24, 2013 9:33 AM