Friday, July 31, 2009

Sweet Corn and Tender Cukes

The humidity arrived this week. The clouds are stacking up every afternoon. Sometimes the rains come in the night and the heat breaks for a few hours. The sky cleared during the night, and cool air swept in through the open windows. We started off with a clear morning, then the clouds and rain came early, before noon. Aria, our 12-year old shepherd, must have heard some distant thunder as she wanted comfort then escaped to the second floor. Summer is here, the signs are finally emerging.

Yesterday at the Exeter Farmer's Market we bought our first sweet corn of the year. The ears and kernels were small and sweet. Sweet corn is not always sweet, so the first nibble on the cob is always filled with much anticipation. This was the first week that the market seemed to be flush with vegetables and more in balance with the other goods--maple syrup, cut flowers, potted perennials and herbs, brooms, organic tea, frozen meats and eggs, prepared foods, goat's milk, and more.

We filled our homemade tote bags with marble-sized freshly dug red potatoes from Meadow's Mirth, long, thick carrots, big beets, a softball-sized red cabbage and four ears of corn, a dozen fresh eggs, three green bell peppers, and six old fashioned cider donuts. Our own garden is offering daily pickings of green beans, sugar snap peas, tender cucumbers, Swiss chard, kale, summer squash, basil, and lettuce. This on top of the fresh veggies that I bring home on Sunday from New Roots Farm after helping them with whatever needs doing--weeding, seeding, transplanting, harvesting, washing, and trimming. It was good to see them selling plump red tomatoes at the market since they've been hit with late blight and worried about losing their crop.

Bella and I went for a long walk in the rain. This is the first rain this summer that I've really enjoyed. It's a warm rain, steady but gentle. We walked through College Woods, the smell of wet hemlock and white pine needles reminded of summers spent camping on Moosehead Lake in Maine. We arrived home just before the heavy rain started. Flash flood warnings for tonight.

This short summer has finally arrived. I can taste the sweet corn and tender cukes and hear the distant thunder.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Ghost Flower

The ghostly corpse rises up out of the thick duff layer, followed by another, and then another, and so on.
Known as the ghost flower, corpse plant, or more commonly as Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora), this waxy white plant that looks like a pipe or a corpse, is a parasite. It associates with certain fungus, tapping into the mycelia (root-like threads) of the fungus to capture nutrients. The fungus in turn gets its food from a nearby tree. The fungus and the tree work cooperatively. The fungus helps the tree absorb water and minerals, while the tree provides nutrients to the fungus. Given its parasitic ways, the Indian pipe offers nothing in return to the fungus or the tree.

Indian pipes like rich soil with a thick layer of decaying plant matter. Often they emerge near fallen logs. Surprisingly they are in the heath family, related to cranberries, blueberries, and the like. I'd rather eat a blueberry than snack on the ghost plant. It is not a sweet taste that they have in common, but the mycorrizal relationship with other plants that members of the heath family have in common.

Here, the white columns of Indian pipes stand like sentinels under a dark canopy of white pine.

Eventually the plant turns black and the corpse plant melts back into the duff.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Living 04

My friend, Tony Federer, just sent me an unpublished book that he wrote, which he has called "Ecoshift." The book is full of facts and references on the impacts of human population growth, development, and consumption on the planet. Interspersed are personal stories about how he has shifted his own life to reduce his impact on the earth.

It is one of those books, along with many stories seen regularly in newspapers and magazines, about declines in species, habitats, environmental health. Just this week stories included overfishing bluefin tuna with some restaurants refusing to drop it from their menu; natural gas exploration in the Catskills the source of New York City's water supply, population growth in developing countries, the list goes on.

The disconnect on these issues between politicians and others in power and the individuals and small groups that are pursuing a shift in how we live is vast. So vast, that it seems more than ever that change will only come from below. Even to discuss changes in our beliefs, behaviors, and ethics is ridiculed and dismissed by many. Paul Hawkins calls it "the movement without a name." Tony calls it "the movement that is transforming the relation of humanity to earth."

The public policy professor Robert Reich notes that the current economy will not recover or perhaps should not recover, because we need a new economy. Although he does not know what that new economy will be. It is hard to imagine a shift away from the current global economy. So, is "greening" of corporations enough to get us to a new economy, one that respects and is in balance with the ecological functions of the planet? This is hard to imagine too.

Sometimes you don't know if you are part of a movement. I hope those of us who care are part of a large movement, and maybe it is better to have a movement without a name. Words and names get corrupted by those in power.

So what to do. Like all animals we need food, water, shelter, and space. Where we get these things and how much we use of each is what one might call our "ecological footprint." The "ecoshift" that my friend speaks to in his book is about finding the right footprint. Everyone's will look different, but perhaps is within some range of reasonableness. I once was on a work-related field trip to a wood supplier who collected and sold all types of wood from throughout the world. He spoke proudly about extracting wood "sustainably" from Belize. Perhaps that was so, but we learned from him that the wood -- thousands of square feet -- was being used for a floor in a new, obviously huge, home in Colorado. This was beyond the range of reasonableness and common sense. I felt like I was the only one who saw the disconnect.

I am looking toward the new economy, one that each of us needs to help create. I'll see you there.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


The freezer is filling up with 30 pounds so far of freshly picked organic blueberries, thanks to help from my in-laws.

We picked these berries in two one-hour stints. Amma would go back again and again; we'll see how the weather goes, although more rain is in the forecast.

Just a short 5 minutes from our house sits Inkwell Farm with about an acre of self-serve pick-your-own blueberries.

Although a bit delayed this year due to the weather, the crop is now lush and sweet. At least berries are producing, since many other crops (such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants) are really struggling.

Although we are in New England, this summer reminds me of Mark Twain's (or someone's) quip, "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." This is one weird summer.

The Inkwell owners supply gallon milk jugs with the top cut off so you can carry the empty carton to the bushes and back to the small gazebo to weigh and pay, slipping your cash or check into the slot in the wooden box. The mosquitoes are thick around the feet as you stir up the grass while moving about the bushes. The free-range chickens and guinea hens come around to stab the berries that drop to the ground. I'd prefer they stab the mosquitoes.

Inkwell Farm is for sale, at a fairly steep price. A price that is unaffordable for new, young farmers. This is an unfortunate reality, when young folks can't start a farm and provide local food for others. I only hope that whoever buys this property keeps the organic blueberry bushes going so we can go back and back and back.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Japanese Beetles

As the cool, wet summer marches on, the Japanese beetles have emerged in our yard. I check the gardens morning and evening for these unwelcome guests. They are sluggish and clumsy at these times and can be easily picked off and dropped into a container of soapy water.

The Japanese beetle (Popillia japonica), as its name suggests, hails from Japan. It was accidentally introduced into New Jersey in 1916. As with many other non-natives, the lack of natural enemies here and the perfect habitats--lawns, golf courses, parks--has caused the beetle to spread throughout the eastern U.S. It is considered the worst garden pest.

The beetle is easily identified as an adult with its oval-shaped body about 1/2-inch in size, metallic green head and thorax, and coppery elytra or hardened wing covers. The elytra protect the hind wings, which are used for flight. They usually feed in groups. Late June through July is their peak feeding time. During this period females occasionally drop to the ground to lay a few eggs in moist soil; they eventually lay as many as 40 eggs.

These eggs hatch into white grubs, which in turn live in the soil for 10 months, feeding on the roots of grasses, crops, and other plants during the growing season. They stay buried and inactive during winter. When the spring temperature reaches 50F the grubs start munching on roots again. If you dig into your lawn or garden you are likely to find at least a few inch-long, creamy white grubs curled into a crescent-shape. They then pupate and emerge as adults in June.

Signs of heavy grub feeding appear as patches of dead grass. As they feed they starve grass of water and the lawn dies from drought-stress. The adults feed on leaves, chewing the plant tissue between the leaf veins, leaving behind a lace-like appearance to the leaf.

Japanese beetles feed on 300 or so different plants, although they have some favorites such as roses, grapes, basswoods, sassafras, Norway maple (itself an invasive plant), hollyhocks, fruit trees. In our yard they are attracted to the beaked hazelnut, comfrey, sugar snap peas, and hollyhocks. I stopped planting hollyhocks because they were so attractive to Japanese beetles.

Mid-summer rains are good for Japanese beetles. Well, this should be a fine year for them, because we have rain. They of course like expansive lawns and golf courses, especially ones that are watered during drought periods.

For most of us, picking off the adults when they are slow (morning and evening) is the best control. The Japanese beetle traps that look like a green bag with a yellow cap hanging in some yards are not effective. They attract hundreds of beetles to the yard and not all are captured so it makes the problem worse. A diverse plant community in your yard helps reduce beetle damage. The grubs are eaten by skunks, moles, and birds, which will appreciate the food source and also like a diverse yard. Reducing the amount of lawn and avoiding excessive watering will also help.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Two Lilies

A more beautiful wildflower you won't find than the wood lily (Lilium philadelphicum).

You find this brilliant reddish-orange flower in dry thickets and open woods. I stumbled on this gem under a power-line, growing amidst sweet fern and goldenrod.

It is one of the few plants in full bloom this mid-July so you can't miss it among a sea of green vegetation. The wood lily is easily identified by its bright color, open, upright bell-shaped flower with dark spots on the inside. All other lilies have nodding flowers or are not spotted. It likes acidic or sandy soil and sunny woodland openings, prairie, pine barrens, or power-lines.

Today I spotted another lily in bloom at the edge of a wet meadow, the Canada lily (Lilium canadense). A nodding lily with an open, bell-shaped flower.

With our own flower and vegetable gardens struggling with too much moisture, it is nice to walk the wild lands and see nature carry on with flowering and pollinating and going to seed.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Tomatoes Teetering

I've been busy this week and just catching up with the news that "late blight" (Phytophthora infestans) has arrived with a fury in the Northeast. This fungus usually does not strike in this area until August. The wet weather has created perfect conditions. This coupled with the finding that the big box stores such as Wal-Mart, The Home Depot, Kmart, and Lowe's, were unknowingly selling infected plants all from one grower in Alabama.

I learned from my New Roots Farm friends today at the Exeter Farmer's Market that they are infected. At least 100 sun gold tomato plants were pulled. They have their fingers crossed that other tomato plants are not infected. The fungus is highly contagious among tomato and potato plants. Other plants are not affected. The fear is that the entire tomato crop in the region could be lost. No tomatoes! Okay, we are not supposed to panic yet. If the sun stays out and the rain stays away, then many of the plants may avoid the blight. But once the blight infects a plant it must be removed.

The fungus is easily spread by wind over long distances, so that is likely how the fungus has spread from backyard seedlings to large growers such as New Roots Farm, that grow their own seedlings. Anyone with tomato plants should be checking them daily for infection. I found the Cornell University website with photos to be helpful. The fungus spreads rapidly so perhaps we'll know soon how the region's crops are faring. Infected plants should be sealed in a plastic bag and thrown in the garbage. Do not compost.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Bracken and Blueberries

Bella and I set out on our midday walkabout down one of our favorite trails not far from home. We drove down the short dirt road, past the Nichol's fields. They were haying today given the recent string of dry, sunny days. We parked at the iron gate as we always do. As we walked the trail along the edge of a large wooded wetland (the subject of many previous blog posts), two red-shouldered hawks were calling loudly kee-yer kee-yer kee-yer, as they flushed from the edge of the trail.

At the bridge we stopped to watch the water rush by. Pairs of ebony jewelwings danced above the water. These damselflies dazzle with their black wings and iridescent bodies. We continued on to the meadow ablaze with wildflowers. The trail narrows again as it winds through a stand of shrubs and young growth of blueberries, bracken, gray birch, white pine, aspen, and juniper. The high and low bush wild blueberries were sweet and plentiful.

Lowbush blueberry, Vaccinium angustifolium

Highbush blueberry, Vaccinium corymbosum

This is where the ruffed grouse are staying safe and finding good food. We flushed a family of them. One flew into the gray birch. You might just pick it out in the top center of the picture below.
The seasons still seem a little confused. The long cold, wet spring and early summer has moderated into fall-like summer days. The bracken fern is turning yellow, red maples are showing their reds and yellows.

Bracken (fern), Pteridium aquilinium

Seems premature to be thinking fall colors, but these are perfect days so I won't complain too much. Listening to the rufous-sided towhee singing "drink-your-tea" from the underbrush, I can't help but think ahead to some afternoon Indian tea with snacks. Until then I'll enjoy a few more fresh wild blueberries as we pass by, leaving plenty for the grouse and other animals.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Meadow Wildflowers

We are getting just a hint of the lazy days of summer to come (I am optimistic that this long spring will pass into summer soon). Today I walked through a meadow full of wildflowers with fritillaries, monarchs, and other less colorful butterflies flitting about. Meadow wildflowers, butterflies, and summer go together.

Fritillary on common milkweed

Spiked lobelia, Lobelia spicata

They remind me of summer vacation during junior high. We had the best 7th and 8th grade science teachers. During the summer they taught a 2-week nature course. Every day for 2 weeks a bunch of us met at the school, climbed onto the bus with lunches in tow, and set off on some outdoor adventure -- studying rocks and geology, visiting a fish hatchery, learning bird songs, running through meadows after butterflies and wildflowers. It's the latter activity that I was remembering today.
Black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia serotina

Those were the days when we collected everything and brought it back home to be killed (sorry), pinned, and labeled for our butterfly collection. This particular meadow was in the Quabbin Reservoir in central Massachusetts, a meadow that is likely off limits to people these days. Those were carefree days under a hot summer sun. We did not worry about ticks, or mosquito bites, or sunburn. Our community supported and subsidized this summer session. It only lasted a few years as I recall, the budget was cut after some adults thought it expendable and unnecessary.

My older brother was growing cucumbers that summer, selling them to the local pickle factory. I loved to ride over in the truck, wait in line to have the truck weighed and unloaded, and breathe in the pickle smell coming from the huge vats of cucumbers. I helped picked the cucumbers, but I more remember the big, fat, slightly yellow cucumbers that I took for lunch every day during the 2-week summer session. I'm sure there were strange looks (we were in junior high after all) as I sat on the bus eating my cucumber.

Daisy fleabane, Erigeron annuus

I've loved meadows and wildflowers (and cucumbers too!) ever since. The bursts of color from black-eyed susans, fleabanes and dogbanes, yarrow and goldenrods, milkweeds and clovers, makes me feel happy. I still feel like chasing after the butterflies, but hold back and instead enjoy them as they fly freely from flower to flower.

Rough-fruited cinquefoil, Potentilla recta

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


Yesterday a parasitic plant, today a carnivorous plant, or more precisely an insectivorous one. I came across the round-leaved sundew while on a walk with a botanist and a dragonfly enthusiast. George, the botanist, spotted this diminutive sundew along with bog clubmoss growing in a small seep at the base of a disturbed hillside.

Round-leaved sundew (Drosera rotundifolia)

The sundew thrives in sunny, boggy areas. The basal rosette of roundish leaves lie flat to the ground. The top side of the leaves are covered with reddish hairs tipped with glands that secrete a sticky substance (resembling a dewdrop) that traps insects. When it catches an insect, the leaf blade folds inward around the prey. The fine inner hairs secrete enzymes that digest the insect. The nutrients that are released by this digestion are absorbed by the glands in the hair tips. After the meal is digested, the leaf unfurls, ready to trap another insect.

We came upon these sundew in late morning under a clear blue sky, so the photos were a little washed out. You can just make out a slender stem rising from the center of the basal rosette of leaves. This is the flower stalk which bears flowers on one side of the stalk. The sundew is very intolerant of shade. Even grasses, sedges, and ferns can shade it out. This exposed rocky slope is in full sun and has standing water at the base because of all the rains this summer. Sundew are capable of colonizing such disturbed sites, although over time as vegetation grows up, the sundew may disappear from this ephemeral habitat.

We soaked up the sun while peering down at the lovely sundews. It helps to wander along trails and woodland edges with a botanist and a dragonfly wizard. Their eyes are searching for and seeing different things; we had many unexpected finds on Monday.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Parasitic Plant

A few weeks ago I was on a short hike in western Massachusetts, hiking up to Rattlesnake Knob in the Holyoke Range. This range is across the road from our homestead, so we regularly explored these areas growing up. We were climbing the short steep section up to the Knob, and noticed a funny looking plant at the base of a large oak, just to the side of the trail.

I don't recall ever seeing this plant before, but maybe I had years ago. My friend Scott identified it today after I sent him the picture. It is American cancer-root (Conopholis americana). This is a parasitic plant, and like Indian pipe, it has no chlorophyll and does not photosynthesize. Thus the parasitic nature, gathering its nutrients from the nearby trees. The suckers of the parasitic roots cause large rounded knobs to form on the roots of the host tree, mostly oaks in the red oak group. There were many oaks on this dry, but rich, wooded hillside.

The cancer-root, also known as squawroot and bear corn, looks like a pine cone or corn cob. Much of the year it is out of sight below ground. In May and June it sends forth its flower spikes, the only plant part that is visible above ground. The plant has no leaves, only tiny scales.

The "bear corn" name may relate to the resemblance to a corn cob, or that bears feed on them, or that they help (according to one report) bears with constipation after a long winter's nap (who knew).

This cancer-root must have just popped up out of the rich duff layer not long before we happened by. It was just by chance that we stumbled along at the right time. Soon it will resume its subterranean life until next spring.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Spotted Owlet

I lost track of time today, this glorious day, under a clear blue sky and bright sun. An atypical day these past weeks. I was mesmerized by the clear air, brisk summer breeze, and solar warmth. So mesmerized that I spent 4 hours weeding 5 rows of carrots at New Roots Farm, before I realized the time. I wondered why my knees were starting to hurt. I am even celebrating a little sunburn on my legs.

My thoughts are actually on India, with my in-laws arriving on Wednesday from Bangalore for an extended visit. Our menus will be shifting to homemade south Indian vegetarian meals. We can already taste the first serving of dosai, expertly made by Srini's mother. Once we tried to count the number of dosa or dosai that she has made in her lifetime, thousands and thousands. Dosa are crepe-like, fried thin, made from a mix of fermented rice and split urad bean (a black lentil). Stuffed with potatoes, onions, and spices it becomes a masala dosai. With a little coconut chutney on the side, it is breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

While we are getting more rain than is needed, India is suffering from delayed and diminished monsoons. These rains are critical for food and hydropower production. Less rain leads to crop failures and power outages. One wonderful thing that we can offer our Indian relatives when they arrive is clean air. They will breathe deeply upon arrival, cleansing their body of the polluted air that permeates Indian cities.

On to the title of today's post - spotted owlets. My sister-in-law Shanti sent several photos of a spotted owlet (Athene brama) that got stuck inside their veranda in Pondicherry, India.

Since it was daytime, and these owls are largely nocturnal, they caught the bird and kept it in a box under their bed until they could release it at night. This is a common owl, widespread throughout India. It is small and stocky, grayish brown with white spots, and large yellow eyes.

They are common around human habitation, feeding on insects and other small animals. You can see them emerge from daytime roosts as darkness descends, flying out to perch on utility poles or the roof of a building.

Pondy is hot and humid right now, not something that I usually wish for. But we could use a taste of both right about now, to spur on the tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants that need a shot of sun.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Insect Free?

I nearly went off the road in disbelief and exasperation as I drove by this sign at our local hardware store. It reads, "Time for Step 3, to be insect free"

Shall we count the ways that this sign is deceptive, naive, even dangerous? If we were "insect free" we would all be dead. I assume that "Step 3" is an application of pesticides. According to this sign, homeowners are to apply a chemical to kill all insects in their yard including all the beneficial and essential insects. If this is the outcome the application is clearly unhealthy for their kids and pets, me and you, the planet.

Here's what Scotts Lawn Care website says about Step 3---

"What It Controls
Controls ants, armyworms, bermudagrass mites, billbugs, chiggers, chinch bugs, clover mites, crickets, cutworms, earwigs, fleas, flea beetles (in dichondra), leafhoppers, mole crickets, sod webworms (lawn moth larvae), vegetable weevil (in dichondra)"

What's wrong with crickets! and most of the other things on this list. All for a green lawn?

We have a healthy, greenish lawn, with a mix of grasses and broad leaf plants, bees, spiders, mites, crickets, and more. Yes, some grubs, which the robins, turkeys, moles, and skunks eat. We also have a yard full of vegetables, perennials, herbs, fruit trees, and shrubs. I would not spread a pesticide on the lawn that could contaminate our food.

Our culture needs to get a grip on this idea of a green lawn free of anything but grass. It is not healthy and is a waste of money. A bit of a rant today, but people need to stop listening to marketing campaigns.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Molasses Cookies

I usually make molasses cookies for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and generally during the cold months. Well, that now includes July! This felt like a molasses cookie day, with an average temperature of 57F and even more rain (if that is possible) than we've had in previous days.

Given the weather forecast, these cookies may not last the weekend.

This is one of my favorite cookie recipes and it is not a family secret since it comes from the Betty Crocker Cookbook. If you too are living through an extended cold, rainy period and want to enjoy some molasses cookies, here is the recipe.

Molasses Cookies

Preheat oven to 375F


1 cup packed brown sugar
3/4 cup shortening or butter
1/4 cup molasses
1 egg
2 1/4 cups flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp salt


Mix brown sugar, soft butter, molasses, and egg until creamy
Mix flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, salt
Add flour mixture to sugar mixture; mix well
Cover and refrigerate at least 1 hour
Shape into walnut-sized balls, flatten slightly
Place on very lightly greased cookie sheet
Bake about 8 minutes
Let cool, or not, and enjoy

I also bought two quarts of fresh strawberries from a local farm stand. So, a little bit of summer and a little bit of winter for dessert. This feels right since we are neither here nor there, weather-wise. And who does not like two desserts!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Red Cheer

It is gloomy. There is nothing else to say about the weather. It rained all of June, and now that it is July 1st it is raining this month too. Every morning I check online at the Weather Underground. I look with hope for this...........
and all I see day after day is this.................
The gardens are floundering or drowning. Our back deck is the best place to garden this year. The geraniums and mini petunias are providing beautiful red cheer.

The potted geraniums from last summer were brought into the house for the winter, where the leaves faded to a pale green. Outside again since late spring, they've regained their two-tone darker leaves and sprouted many scarlet red buds and flowers.

Even the hummingbird has forsaken the perennial bed for the sweet little red petunias just outside the back door to the deck. The door was ajar yesterday when I heard a loud bumblebee, only to turn and see the hummingbird hovering and darting between the red flowers.

We may get a glimpse of the sun Friday afternoon or Saturday, just to remind us that it is still up there somewhere.

Winterberry Bird Scat

A week ago--on a coldish January day--a small flock of robins ate all the berries from one winterberry shrub in our yard. They flew off as q...