I am finally accepting the fact that winter is coming and I had better enjoy fall (despite all of this horrible rain) while it lasts. One of the gifts gardening has given me is the ability to look at the landscape and plant life around me with new eyes. I started to look with a new perspective as a way to better understand my plants and their needs. I have found that closely observing a plant growing in the wild has lead to really “getting” something that was formerly unclear or missing in my care of a specific plant. And watching the way the plants grow and spread in different conditions has inspired me to rethink the way I design and plan a garden. But over time I also found that a little bit of knowledge can turn a landscape that was formerly dull, overlooked, and taken for granted into something fascinating and full of wonder. Those tiny observations seem to create a domino effect to learn more. I should add that photography has only added to that because as my way of seeing has changed, so has my approach to documenting what I see changed.
It may seem cheesy — y’all aren’t going to laugh at me right(?) — but I have fallen in love with the grassland, beach, and marsh areas on The Toronto Islands and have taken to documenting the changes that occur there with the seasons. It’s fascinating to see how the plants differ growing in such sandy soil. I like the stark, vertical direction of the landscape. Plants seem to grow up rather than overtly puffy or outward. I am slowly learning the identities of some of the previously unknown plants. I took the majority of these pictures on a beautiful Fall day a couple of weekends ago. If you know the name of a plant or disagree with my identification please post.
Panic Grass (Panicum virgatum) aka Switch Grass
I believe this is the same plant, taken last year.
Bullrush (Typha latifolia) aka Common Cattail
It seems like they’ve been revitalizing this beach area. Further up the hill there are several native wildflower species that I don’t recall previously.
Mullein (Verbascum thapsus). One of my favourite local herb plants used for throat conditions and coughs. It is also a beautiful and very structural plant that looks great in the winter. A few have grown as volunteers in my street garden and I have let them go since they also do very well in drought conditions.
Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) They grow all over one particular section of the beach, putting out their fluffy seeds at this time of year and then remaining as clusters of sculptural shells. I had pickled, immature milkweed pods a few years ago and they were very tasty.
Goldenrod (Solidago) These also grow on the beach among the milkweed. They are very short and tiny in comparison to the goldenrod that pops up wild in my street garden.
Famous for candy-sweet cobalt blue blooms that resemble tidy clusters of pint-sized grapes, muscari is a versatile, carefree spring bloom. Pack a punch and plant bulbs in eye-catching “rivers” or clustered together in problem areas under trees and in rock gardens. This hardy bulb will even survive in the toxic soil beneath black walnut trees!
Muscari stay in bloom for weeks and multiply effortlessly. Grow white muscari (Muscari botryoides ‘Album’) to use in a spring wedding bouquet or slip a handful of wispy M. comosum ‘Plumosum’ into a vintage medicine bottle. Or better yet, grow my personal favourite M. latifolium whose elongated, bi-colored flower spikes have a dark blue base that ascends to a light blue/lavender top.
With fall bulb planting season in full swing, I couldn’t help posting this little blurb I wrote for the April 2006 issue of Budget Living Magazine that never was. I just love the pretty little delicate blooms of muscari. I have a tendency towards the tiny little bulb plants that naturalize on their own. There is a garden I pass regularly on my travels that is really just a little teeny patch underneath a magnolia tree that comes to life in the spring with an assortment of small flowering bulbs, arranged very carefully for maximum impact as the garden cycles from one flower and is replaced by another. I literally find myself stalking that little garden every spring and was relieved to finally meet one of the owners last year and lay to rest any fears about my weekly presence crouched down with an assortment of cameras in front of their house. They have video surveillance in front!
Guest post by Amy Urquhart
Today I got around to grinding up my dried herbs. Why? Because I found a great deal on a coffee bean grinder at Loblaws…$9.99! It worked really well.
Each weekend lately I’ve been harvesting from the garden whatever edibles I can. I managed to bring in almost all of the sage I had growing, along with all of the thyme and a bunch of mint, too. I hung them up in little bundles on an old wine rack in our laundry room. Today I found they were all nice and crunchy, so I brought them upstairs to the dining room, rolled up my sleeves, and got to work separating all those mint and sage leaves from their stems. The sage leaves came off very easily with a satisfying little snap as they popped off the stem. The mint was a bit more problematic, though. I basically just had to crunch whatever I could into a bowl. The stems were much more unwieldy. This is an herb that would do better if you cut the leaves off the stems before drying.
Herbs ready to be ground.
At some point I hope to get ahold of an old window screen, so I can spread leaves out on it for drying. For now, the hanging bundle method will have to suffice.
The new grinder did a bang-up job of whizzing catnip, mint and sage. I kept the catnip and mint around the consistency of tea (since I intend to use the mint as tea) but ground the sage as finely as I could. It smelled wonderful, and I inhaled a little catnip, but found it extremely satisfying to pour the contents of the grinder into a Ziploc bag, marking the contents as I went. I feel like I’ve moved on to “Advanced Gardening” now that I’m harvesting everything!
Of course, Farley had to help, too.
He just has to get in the middle of everything!
Well it took a couple of weeks, but I think I have finally accepted Fall. Once the windows were closed, the houseplants brought indoors, and the knitting projects pulled out there was no turning back. Monday is Thanksgiving here in Canada. We are a non-traditional household who generally ignore most holidays, but we like Thanksgiving as a way to celebrate the harvest (the garden was good to us this year) and an excuse to stuff ourselves with food.
Inspiring Thanksgiving Ideas:
- Maple Leaf Roses – Link via the forums. A distinctly Fall way to make a centrepiece.
- Pumpkin Pie – We’ve got the pumpkin so it’s all systems go. I know I pump this one a lot but I’m proud of it and we enjoy it whenever pumpkins are available.
- Apple / Pear Pie – Another pie I have developed. I still have to write the actual directions down but the trick to it is that I first make apple sauce (sometimes adding pears too) and then spoon it on top of the apple and pear slices in the pie before putting the top on. It makes a moister pie that allows for less sweetner. We use maple syrup.
- Yam Butter
- Roasted Pear and Fennel Salad
- Baked Lemon Basil Chicken – I am just about to harvest my remaining lemon basil.
- Dandelion Hortopita – This is on our list for Monday’s meal. I’ll be going over to the garden this weekend to harvest a bunch.
- Drying Gourds. We made these mini pumpkin lights for the table a number of years ago. Davin made them by cutting ridges into the sides with lino carving tools and using a drill to make little dots.
- Gourds, Just Sitting There – I like these wee gourds on Wee Wonderfuls. Just sitting there. So pretty. I currently have a pumpkin and two acorn squash (one green and one variegated) sitting on my special hutch in the kitchen waiting to be cooked but in the meantime they are just sitting there. Looking pretty.
- Here are more Fall-like things sitting and looking pretty. Together. Except the peppers which are still growing. The flat pumpkin is a Long Island Cheese Squash. I think they’re gorgeous and could sit and stare at one for hours, but they also happen to make a great pie.
- This is a Hubbard Squash that I carved out and planted up with lemongrass and pansies. Everything is edible!
My new plot at the community garden has been a revelation. I have enjoyed my time there and am thoroughly bummed that it will all be done in a month — I don’t want this gardening season to end! The plot is in the sun and has not only opened up new in-ground growing opportunities, but provided a few surprises of its own. Our cool, wet fall (boo) has been the perfect breeding ground for dandelions and they have been coming up both in that plot and the communal herb plot. It’s saddens me that the dandelion is so maligned as a pest. I associate its yellow flowers and puffy seed heads with spring and childhood wishes. I love its toothy leaves that are useful as a healing edible green great for flushing out your kidneys.
Some contempt for the plant is obviously connected to the way it can take over a lawn, which is laughable to me because it is the conditions created by a lawn that allows it to thrive there in the first place. However, I think that a lot of our North American predjudice against the dandelion is culturally embedded, tied up in eliticism, class, and race. I am currently reading the “Autobiography of Malcolm X” and there is a passage near the beginning of the book in which he describes the poverty his family endured after his father was murdered. At one point the family was “reduced” to dinners of boiled dandelion greens and rumours were soon spread that they were eating “fried grass.” This shocked me given that this was rural America in the early 30s. Eating and using dandelion parts is also commonly associated negatively with immigrants. Growing up in Southern Ontario, Canada I can recall many sunny spring days watching old-world Italian women collecting the bright yellow flowers for wine. The women would pick mostly in public parks where dandelions were prolific, while their middle class neighbours would scoff at the primitiveness of it. I discovered an edible weeds book at the library in highschool and became fast obsessed with all of the wild foods growing unawares in public parks, backyards, and cracks in the sidewalks. One particular book (I wish I knew the name) placed each plant into historical context outlining how some plants had been in use abundantly before they became marginalized or passe. It’s shocking to me how much good food is overlooked simply because our ancestors collectively decided it was beneath us.
And so I’ve been collecting the young, tender dandelion greens from my community plot. While the books often state that commercially available varieties tend to be less bitter, I have found that they harvest those when they’re too large and mature. My greens are bitter, but no more so than the arugula. We’ve been able to eat a handful raw and mixed with other greens. I have read that dandelion leaves taste better in the fall than in spring and that may also account for the difference. I am planning to try out this Hortopita recipe using spelt filo. It’s the perfect time since onions and leeks are also in season. Dandelion leaves and roots can also be collected and made into a calcium-rich herbal vinegar. The book, “Herbal, The Essential Guide to Herbs for Living” suggests blanching the leaves right on the plant by inverting a plant pot over the plant and overing the drainage holes with stones. “After a few weeks the leaves turn pale green and lose their bitterness.”