Jams and Jellies

How to make jam/jelly:

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Plum pulp ready to make jam with no added pectin

Jelly is just jam without pulp. It is easier to have jam come out right because the fruit can cover for you if it didn’t jell properly, but it’s really pretty easy. You make the juice by straining the cooked fruit through muslin- or an old t-shirt stretched over an upside down chair. Put a chair upside down on the table, stretch thin, clean white fabric over it- we used to have all these old fashioned diapers- I swear they were clean- and attach the corners firmly to the legs with strip of rag, rubber bands, what have you. Make sure it is very firmly tied or you will have boiling hot fruit splashed everywhere. Set a large bowl under the cloth on the bottom of the chair seat. Cook the fruit with water just peeking through the layer below the top layer When it is properly soft dump it carefully into your cloth strainer and let it drip overnight. Don’t squeeze the bag unless you aren’t worried about the clarity of the jelly.


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Making plum jam

Some fruit has pectin; some does not. Pectin is what makes jams and jellies become firm. There is a lot of pectin in apples, the greener the better. It is possible to make your own liquid pectin from green apples, especially what we call the drops- the smaller apples that fall early and don’t really ripen. However I find I am not good at producing a consistent product so I don’t always do it. Yes, it is the right thing to do- we should not be dependent on a bought product if we can make it ourselves. But if my jelly turns out really tough or really runny, it is sort of a waste of my fruit and labor. I need to improve, but in the meantime, if you don’t mix apple juice with a non-pectin fruit like elderberry or suncherries or even hot peppers, there is Surejel and Ball Pectin, Dutch Jel (sold in bulk at Amish type bulk food stores), or many other brands. Follow the recipe, although I often try to reduce the sugar just a little and generally it is fine. If not, either use the runny jam on pancakes or follow the instructions on the pectin instructions for “if your jelly fails…..”

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Have your jars all ready: wash them with very hot water, set them to dry on a clean folder dish towel or thick cloth. Boil the lids for 15 minutes. There are magnetic lid lifters to get them out of the boiling water, or you can use tongs. Have more ready than you think you will need.

Measure your fruit or juice into a very large pot. It has to boil up a lot and you don’t want to boil over. Have your sugar measured out and ready. Bring your fruit or juice to a boil, with or without the pectin, boil for a minute, then add the sugar and bring to a boil. My female ancestors always skimmed the “scum” off, which was delicious foam to little me, but I don’t see why. Some people put a teaspoon of butter in to stop it scumming. I don’t think it matters to the end result. Maybe if you are making a very clear, pretty jelly you need to worry about skimming scum. The important part is to watch for sheeting. If you boil it too long first it will cool tough and stringy, with less fruity taste, and then it will be tough and brown, and pull like candy. Still yummy, but we’re making something to spread on bread here. Get a large wooden spoon. Spoon up a little of the liquid after it has boiled hard 1 minute. Let it cool about 10 seconds, then, turn the spoon over so that the jelly runs off the edge of the spoon. I prefer to let it roll over the back of the spoon. It seems to show the sheeting better. Watch the drips. What you see before it sheets is two  drips running off the spoon separately.  Stir and try again. Now the drips might start to run into each other but still become one normal shaped drip. Try again. Don’t leave it. Finally the two drips will run together but stay wide, like a flat blob, and fall off in a sheet. This is the perfect time to jar. If it never happens, perhaps your fruit was too ripe, you changed the recipe too much, or you went to the bathroom and it overboiled. In this case you can either reprocess your jam according to the “if your jam fails” directions on the package insert, you can just let it be runny and label it pancake syrup, and actually, some pectin added jellies will firm up over time. But it’s not that hard. Usually it is fine. Check out the raspberry jam recipe. That one needs only sugar.

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raspberry jam

I haven’t really experimented with methoxy and other low sugar options. I don’t use that much sugar normally and I am an old stick in the mud about new ideas that involve long words. It took me a long time to give in to pectin. My maiden name is Dabney; an old Virginia name. Did you ever hear this one? How many Virginians does it take to change a lightbulb? Oh, I’d say four or five. One to change it; the others to sit around and talk about how much better the old one was.

When you pour your boiling hot jam or jelly into the clean jars, having them on an old towel prevents damage to the tabletop.  Use a funnel to prevent drips. Make sure your funnel is clean by upending it in the boiling water you have the lids in. Check the edges of the jars for drips as that can prevent a good seal.

Two ways to seal:

Put the lids on finger tight. I invert the jars for 7 seconds and then set them up right-ways again. You will hear a soft hiss as air superheated by the hot jam exhausts  out of the jar. Then tighten it a bit more- as it is hotter you can do that. If I do this I find I don’t usually have to process in a hot water bath and I don’t get mold.

Or you can put on the lids finger tight and submerge them in a pot of hot water, boil for 15 minutes, then pull out and allow to cool. You can get jar lifters cheaply in the dollar store or many hardware stores. This will allow you to safely remove the jar to a clean towel where it can cool. It will be nice and clean to label and put in the pantry.

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This is the “no knead” bread made famous by Mark Bittman.

Yum. Now, you need to make some proper bread to put that on, seriously. Remember I told you

You Don’t Have to Wait for Basil Anymore

What if you could have a bowl of steaming fresh pasta with freshly made pesto right now? In winter freshly made pesto is a summer dream. I love pesto. I consider it vitamin P. I grow a forest of Genovese basil every year and make pesto with Parmesan cheese, home grown garlic, extra virgin olive oil, and pine nuts, walnuts or pumpkin seeds. Serve it on homemade spelt pasta, Yum.

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yes, that’s Thai basil on the right

This is a pleasure which begins in late May when the basil plants are big enough to pluck leaves, and ends in November when the frost hits, only to be prolonged by endless pots of frozen pesto, which just isn’t the same.

Now. A few weeks ago I was invited to dinner by my cousin’s Neapolitan wife. (From Naples, not chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla. Just kidding.) Chiara had actually found this recipe in Yoga Journal, but the meal was absolutely Italian. Fresh bread, red wine, a salad, and pasta……………with Kale pesto! Yes.

Bright green, creamy, smooth and parmesany, it’s a little more like a vegetable sauce than a condiment. You can load it on; it’s lighter than regular pesto, and it doesn’t turn black. And what is pesto, after all? Actually, it’s a raw chopped sauce, usually oily and garlicky, applied to a hot food. Pistou is like that as well. The kale pesto is different from basil pesto in that the kale is quickly blanched. If you don’t want to destroy enzymes maybe just wilt it with steam before plunging it in cold water. I demanded the recipe, but to be honest I just did it by feel and taste. Blanched kale (I used 3 kinds), Parmesan, walnuts, garlic, and olive oil whizzed in a food processor, tossed with hot pasta. I also threw in a small bunch of arugula tops which had bolted. We eat them blanched as well. It was great! Here is the recipe and the Yoga Journal link.

Kale Pesto

4 cups stemmed, chopped black kale (about 1 bunch), blanched and plunged into ice water.
1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for serving
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup pine nuts
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 pound fettuccine

Kale is still in season- our greenhouse is full of it, and some are bolting, but in gardens where it didn’t freeze it’s still growing. By the time harlequin beetles are wrecking mine the basil will be up and running. Hey, maybe we should try chard!

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Harlequin beetles on Kale! the worst!

Twofer:Edible Landscaping

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amazing color and symmetry of a red cabbage

I got a call the other day from a writer who wanted to know about local experiences with edible landscaping. It was a really fun conversation which got my brain up and running, so this post grew out of our interview for a “Green Shore” article that will appear in the April issue of Attraction Magazine.

Of course, all plants are beautiful- a red cabbage like a blue rose, frilly safety green frisee endives, tiny jewel-like currant tomatoes,delicate pink new potatoes, fat purple-smoked lavender eggplants. Praise the Creator! One can very easily make the transition from pretty veggies to an edible landscape.

Space and Proximity

Why an edible landscape? It’s a natural- why grow the few plants that don’t feed or heal you? Also, if space is an issue, you can skip the  plants which merely supply beauty, and go for the twofer.

Another clever thing is that deer are less likely to munch in your garden if you are raising food right by the house. Our dog generally keeps deer away, but I just wish those deer would try it. I have a crossbow right by the window….

Look at the intersection between the plants we grow for food and medicine and the plants we grow for ornament. OK, trees, foundation plants, perennial specimens, annual accents, groundcover, climbers, perennials, container plants. The lightbulb goes on!


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Methley plums

I have apples, plums, cherries, figs, and pomegranates. The pomegranate has gaudy orange flowers that look like a giant crepe myrtle coming out of a latex 4 pointed star. Next to it the Black Mission fig, under it the Broadleaf thyme as a groundcover, on the wall behind it a grape vine. Whoever thought of a flowering cherry?  Scrooge? And my plums and apples are work, but they feed me delights all through the winter, and the bees agree with us about the flowers.

Foundation Plants

Instead of azaleas, how about blueberries? Same conditions, yummy fruit, easy care. Blueberries are elegant bushes, with great fruit, interesting gray bark, nice red foliage in fall, and they are a manageable size. Shadberry is nativeto our area, and I have seen them 7-9′ tall, graceful, with berries like elongated red blueberries. I like the flavor but it isn’t as lively as blueberry. North of here, red currants, the most jewel-like fruits, on a bush that sits in a partially corner and doesn’t ramble like raspberries and blackberries. I have some, but they are marginal in zone 7. I don’t have any experience with cranberries or lingonberries, but they are short.


Here I am talking about perennial climbers. Kiwis are vigrous climbers, which require one male for every 3-4 females. They are attractive and rambunctious, and the artic kind has variegated leaves, but only in the male, I understand. I don’t have that kind, and mine have yet to produce- I discovered my male had died, however, so we will see. The leaves are large, heart shaped, and leathery. Of course, everybody’s favorite climber is the grape. I begged my husband to let me plant grapes instead of Wisteria. Oh, no, everybody said, there will be bees. Can you imagine my reaction? What I am looking for is a golden muscat grape from Italy, but I have never found it. It produces a giant cluster of greenish amber grapes which have a seductive honey fragrance. Each grape is contemplated and savored. So I have muscadine grapes, good for juice, but very tough.

Annual climbers are delightful- Scarlet Runner, which doesn’t do well for me in zone 7, does great in zone 6. Imagine a lima bean with pink and black seeds and bright red flowers. There are a lot of wonderful old fashioned climber beans I have used to make tents using bamboo tripods. Fun for kids, and a great place to hide onion bags full of human hair to scare off deer. Hyacinth Beans are lovely- wild purple flowers and metallic purple pods, which you can eat if you pick them small. They grow 5-6 feet tall. I have seen them on mailboxes a lot. Speaking of beans, last year I grew bi-color snow peas which got 4-5 feet tall. They were again from Baker Creek, Carouby de Mausanne. Delicious, not the most productive or tender- they are an ancient variety- but wonderful flavor. I would grow them instead of the poisonous Sweet Pea!


This is where I have a lot of information for you. Let’s start with herbs. Bronze fennel- tall, smoky plumes about 4-5′, delicious. I use the abundant seeds to flavor breads and make liqueurs. All fennels are pretty. Fennel pollen- delicately perfumed yellow powder that falls from the umbels before the seeds swell- is a foodie spice. Monarch caterpillars love them. All the apiaceae are statuesque- John Navios’ Purple Dragon carrots in bloom are prettier than any Queen Anne’s Lace (it’s all daucus carota anyway) or Achillea. Lovage, a savory celery-like plant that transforms New England Clam Chowder into ambrosia, is 8 feet tall when it flowers with a giant green umbel, sort of like dill on drugs.

Herbs near the kitchen door is a no brainer. Rosemary usually perennial in Maryland, although I think this winter may have done for mine, and aromatic Meditterranean herbs like thyme and lavender need a raised sandy bed in our climate, but it’s worth the trouble.
I have an English broadleaf thyme which stays flat to the ground and is more damp tolerant than common thyme. I have that under an elegant little Black Mission fig.

There are all kinds of pretty sages- the regular farinaceous sage comes in green, purple, and variegated. It grows into a specimen  in zone 7. Pineapple sage is a whole diffferent deal- it’s tall and has red flowers. I have not used it in the kitchen.

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This is the most vicious black peppermint; mentha piperata var. nigra

The mint family is huge. Peppermint, spearmint, and lemon balm are lovely and can be invasive, but the tea, the delicate blossoms, the sturdy, pretty foliage, and the fragrance make them tempting additions. I am constantly ripping out black peppermint, the source, I am told, of industrial peppermint oil. I stomped it into a ditch and now whenever we mow the edges of the ditch it smells great. Monarda, or Bergamot, or Bee Balm, is very showy, with a pineapple-like shaped flower. I love the scarlet version. This is the source of Earl Grey Tea’s distinctive flavor. It is calming to the stomach, as are all mints- both warming and cooling. Lemon Balm makes wonderful headache tea, and the crushed leaves are an excellent cold sore or fever blister remedy.

There are many pretty basils- solid purple leaved as well, but the new one I saw this year has lovely purple blossoms. My buddy says she is rooting some for me. I saw some in a catalog but did not note the name. It did not seem to have good pesto flavor- more perfumey.
The Indian basils are called Tulsis, and make wonderful tea for headaches, colds, and low energy, and the ethiopian besobila (holy basil) has a pretty low braching habit (12 “), reseeds modestly, has pretty lavender flowers, and a complex, fruity fragrance like a combination of pineapple and oregano, maybe?


How about strawberries as a groundcover? I have them in my rose garden- the knockouts are very fungus resistant but I have not noticed any fungus from damp feet. I use everbearers, which don’t bear too heavily, but keep a trickle of berries going all through the growing season. Panda, which I haven’t tried, has pink flowers. I gather a bowl of strawberries while weeding. My Junebearers are in a flower bed which is not as near the house, but it is convenient to the patio. Yum….

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Miners Lettuce is a visually intersting early spring sallad green.

Salad greens make lovely groundcover. Bulls Blood Beets have shiny deep burgundy leaves, are pretty compact, have smaller bubs so it’s mainly for the foliage, and they are tasty and gorgeous in salads. You have to snip them as they pull up easily. Violets are not just an invasive weed- you can eat them. My absolute favorite salad seed mix is Baker Creek’s Rocky Top Mix-

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Nice heirloom mix from Baker Creek

there are just so many different lettuces in there, from Merveille des Quartre Saison, a big ruffled bronzed butterhead, to Amish Deer Toungue, a smooth, thick bright green pointed leaf, to Baseball, a Boston lettuce the size of a baseball, and a bit tighter. There is such eye-catching variety in texture and color. I sow them in fall for maximum bounce in the spring.

A green that is wonderful for cooking and salad, and which is very easy to grow in our area, is Swiss Chard. The plain green ones are handsome enough, but the Bright Lights or Fivecolor Silverbeet is eye-popping. The large, rhubarb like leaves have fleshy stems and midribs, which idiots discard- my aunt put them in egg and cheese casseroles, with a sprinkle of mace. These midribs come in green, white, yellow, pink, orange and red. My favorite is Flamingo- a bright green smooth leaf and fluorescent pink stem. They usually grow as biennials; the first year they have a rosette of leaves, and the second year they put up a flowering stem, however before it bolts the leaves attain a phenomenal size. They overwinter well in Maryland, but I grow them in the greenhouse and we live on them.

One more groudcover is also nice for containers- sweet potatoes!!! The ornamental yams you see in containers in front of businesses? A guy who services those told me that at the end of the season he tips them out and finds tubers! For real! I usually prefer to grow Beauregard, which has a slightly glossy heart shaped leaf, but Porto Rico has a fancier shaped leaf, sort of 5 fingered. I was also told that in Africa yam leaves and stems are chopped up as a green.

Edible Flowers

Edible flowers give you great color and fragrance as well as nutrition- violets, for example- the leaves are very high in Vitamin C and they are a pretty heart shape. I pick a few bright green young leaves on my way to pick other salad greens. Violet flowers are sweet to taste and look lovely sprinkled on a salad. So do wild black locust blossoms, pea flowers, rose petals, pansies, violas, and nasturtiums. Pansies and violas are very cold tolerant so I usually have a few in the winter greenhouse, which I remember garnishing a salad with for Christmas dinner.

Pretty Vegetables

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artichoke plant

OK, my favorite in the world is artichokes. They create a giant architectural speciman which can last five years,  and will never fail to catch the eye of visitors. They can grow to 8 feet, and have dramatic silver foliage. Some varieties have purple buds. I have grown Green Globe (5-6 buds) and something which may have been Imperial Star (lost count at 40). In our climate overwintering is doable but tricky. Imperial Star can produce artichokes as an annual, but the second year is so fabulous. If you let them bloom they are bright purple giant thistles. Those become very large dried thistles. I think the chokes look like husky fur.

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Dry artichoke head

Then they escape and float away like dandelion fluff on steroids. And I haven’t even mentioned eating them yet. This year I am trying emerald, an annual type, and violetta, an Italian purple. They are sprouting in the guest room as we speak.

Okra is like a pretty annual shrub. Itis in the mallow family, like hibiscus, rose of sharon, hollyhocks (Hollyhock flower tea is tangy and pretty) so the gorgeous cream yellow blooms with deep burgundy hearts are no surprise. There are several red okras.The regular burgundy okra you see in catalogs is about 3 feet tall, stocky and bushy, with fat burgundy pods that cook up green. They have a nice growth habit and pretty burgundy leaves, but for me the yield was not as good as the regular Clemson Spineless or Louisiana Green Velvet. I tried Jing from Baker Creek last year, and it has a nice yield, and has Chinese red stems and pods with green leaves that have red stems. The pods are slim and sort of laquered looking, and cook up more khaki colored than Clemson, but when you pickle them, they turn the pickling brine pink, which is very pretty in the jar. They are not as short and stocky as Burgundy.

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red okra pickles






Jerusalem Artichoke (not an artichoke but a tuberous sunflower with an artichoke flavor) is a good one for the back of the garden- it provides a steady supply of tasty tubers- hard to eradicate actually, which are rich in sugar regulating inulin, a delicious boiled like potatoes or sliced into flavored vinegar raw. Very crunchy and tasty but boy do they give me gas! The stalks get 10-12 feet tall, make sunflowers4 inches across, and must have good support or they will fall over in an untidy heap.

Another totally wacko accent plant which needs support is Amaranth. If you know celosia, imagine that 8 feet tall. That on a breezy day is hard to beat, but you do need to stake them as at least in our soil they go over. My favorites are Golden Giant and Chinese Red, which I got from Horizon Herbs.  You can dry and beat the heads to get about a pound of seed from each head of Golden Giant but it is a bit difficult to do on a large scale. I beat them on a sheet and tried sifting them through an old rusty screen. Yep. Rust particles. Live and learn. The flavor of this very mineral rich gluten free grain is similar to fresh corn. It is possible for the grain to pass undigested through the gut because it is so small that it doesn’t get chewed, so I ended up grinding it and adding it to bread. Birds are also wild about it, so it can be free bird food. The extravagant red plumes of Chinese red have a sort of chenille mosaic of different reds and the odd blue. Fantastic. If that is more than you want to deal with, Hopi Red is really pretty and about 4-5 feet tall. It is a dye plant and a bit less over the top.

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Prickly Pear cactus

Another questionable beauty is prickly pear cactus, a sculptural and dangerous thing to have on a garden path….but my friend from Guatemala prunes them when the paddles are small and tender to make nopalitos in eggs and nopalito salad. The fruit makes a wonderful purple-fuschia drink which has health properties for diabetes- I have a whole book on the benefits of eating prickly pear cactus. They are totally winter hardy here and have huge yellow flowers in late spring.

A few amusing nightshades

Purple peruvian potatoes have purple flowers.  I have grown variegated tomatoes, available from Tomato Growers Supply- the foliage is really green and white, on a compact tomato plant with somewhat ho hum squarish 1 1/2″ red tomatoes. Pretty productive. Wild Currant is a tiny feral tomato that coveres itself with strings of delicate 1/4 inch orangey red tomatolettes. It volunteers in my gravel and I have used it in hanging baskets. You can eat them but it’s a lot of work. They are just so cute!

Purple peruvian is one gorgeous nearly black pepper plant. The plant gets 3-4 feet with extra water, but usually stays around 2 feet. The marble like fruit is produced in clusters surrounded by a rosette of dark leaves, and ripens from crispy light green to purple to bright red. It is pretty hot but oddly refreshing. They are among the last to go in fall.

Here’s the capper. Baltimore Fish Peppers are a 2 -3 foot tall hot pepper with variegated leaves. The peppers start out green and white striped, go to orange and red, and finally lipstick red. They are Maryland history- used to flavor sauce for fish. All I could find was a sort of grand hotel recipe for a cream sauce warmed and pinkened by the powdered pepper. I keep wanting to send seeds to the White House. Also from Tomato Growers Supply.

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Baltimore Fish Pepper, a historical variegated pepper!



Love in a Cold Climate

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sprouting tomato seeds

Shivering Seeds

Recently a fellow gardener mentioned to me the trials of sprouting seeds in a house where temperatures dip into the 50’s. Dip? Ha! In our house, we heat with wood, and the stove is at one end of the house, where the chimney was built. My fingers are barely able to feel the keyboard as I write. Modern houses tend to be built with the assumption that you can warm yourself by turning up the thermostat. I could, but I refuse, both out of parsimony and stubbornness.  If I had the house to build over, and I had a say, I would build a big old European style tiled wood stove, with an oven. Anyway, we are blessed to have the wood stove we have, and deadwood on the farm, and chainsaws, and fuel to run them, and arms to split wood.

Insulated Micro-Environments

My favorite insulated micro-environment is our bed. Not practical for the seeds. So. Where, in a cold and/or energy efficient house do you find a place which will give your seeds any kind of bottom heat that is consistent? Pepper seeds like it 80-90 Fahrenheit, tomatoes and eggplants slightly less. I used to set mine on top of the water heater, but since we turned it down and insulated it, that’s a no go. Setting it near the wood stove is dangerous- the pots have been known to pucker with the heat. My latest insulated micro-environment is an old yoghurt maker. It is one of those long ones with holes for the glass cups and a top. If mine were the proper heat, putting seed pots in the holes would be too hot. As it is very old and debilitated, the heat is very gentle and it would be fine if I had my seeds in old yoghurt containers. I think it is about 85, which is especially fine for peppers. Since my seeds are in bigger square pots that don’t fit in there, I fit 4 of them in a plastic salad container (people save them for me), wrap it in an inside out (cleaner) used plastic grocery bag, and balance it on top of the yoghurt maker. I can fit two boxes on it, on a shelf where nobody bothers it, wedged between pipes, because it would be a disaster for them to tumble off, and then cover that with towels to keep in the heat. This way I can give good heat to 8 varieties at a time. This might be fine for some, but I grow a freakishly large number of varieties.

Rot and Death

For the rest of my pots, it has been touch and go. I would hastily move them to the dryer, which gets warm on top, when weather was too nasty to use the clothesline or I was drying black clothes. I would put them in a black plastic bag in a sunny window. I would stack shelves all around the yoghurt maker in hopes of gleaning some heat. What happens to me is of course that I get mold, slow germination, and with older seeds, rot and death! I have a few tricks that help. I sprinkle cinnamon on any white fuzz that comes up- it is a fungicide, I open up any that seem soggy to let them dry out a tiny bit, I check overdue seeds  by squishing one between my fingers- then at least if it’s rotten I know to reseed, and I rotate boxes of sprouting seeds between the warmest spots. Once they have sprouted at all, I put them in a window so they can get the chlorophyll working. They need about 10 degrees bottom heat warmer for sprouting than they need to grow, and a 10-20 F temperature drop at night is fine. (By the way, all these hyperlinks are to other articles I have written on the highlighted subjects.)

Thank God for Goodwill

The absolute best germination mat I ever used was the kind of heating mat taxi drivers use to sit on. I had it on the lowest setting and it worked like a charm, except that it used to give me a shock now and then. My husband found it in the Goodwill for ten bucks. It died after a bit and we haven’t found another one.

So, why don’t we spring for one of those nifty new germination mats they sell in fancy gardening catalogs? They cost seventy bucks, which would not kill us, but I think it is something about the naffyness of them. It’s sort of like the reason I gather my own basket weaving supplies instead of buying them at a craft shop. People didn’t use to have them. People used to grow out their tobacco seedlings in flats hundreds of years ago. How did they do it? I think we need to invent something better and tidier than what I do, but I haven’t figured out what yet.

Getting Ready for Spring

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Plum tree in the snow

As I write it is wet and snowy out, but I can see the swelling of the buds on the plum trees. There is a lot to do, if you want to be ready for the warm weather. I am a little late in writing this for my area, but for those of you north of me, still timely.

Fruit trees

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Spray dormant oil spray, which will smother emerging insects with a physical barrier rather than a poison. You will need a sprayer, and there are many kinds. If you have just a small garden you can get a small sprayer which holds a gallon or so, but I find a backpack sprayer frees your hands. You can get one for about $40-60, and 4 gallons is about all I can carry anyway. It has a hand pump on the side which you can work away at while scrambling around the trees. (Definitely prune before spraying.) The spray is sold concentrated, so designate a measuring tablespoon and hang it far from the kitchen. When using a sprayer be sure not to get any grass or dirt in it as this clogs the tip and then you have to stop and clear it. I use my sprayer a lot, primarily for applying a kaolin clay emulsion called Surround which I rave about- totally inert- you can eat it- but that can clog the sprayer occasionally.

With the oil spray- at our hardware store they sell Vollk- just mix in the oil, shake it a bit, pump your sprayer up to pressure, and wet each tree all over. If yo get a breeze- but try for a still day-, stand to windward. A fine spray gives better coverage to the smaller twigs. Do it now, as soon as you have pruned, and again after the buds open but before the blooms open. Then it will be time to stop freaking out about fungicides such as sulfur, copper, bacillus subtilis, and neem. In Maryland that is an issue. Here is the last article I wrote about sprays.

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Never mind the garden now- if you planted a fall and winter garden that will soon be giving you delicious greens and salads. You won’t be able to do more than scratch the dirt by hand for a while yet, but you can have seedlings ready to go when it warms up. I seeded onions, leeks, tomatoes and peppers indoors- see articles- in late January. February is still fine but we are going to Ecuador and I want them to be potted out and in the greenhouse before we go.

January 2014 192 300x225 Getting Ready for SpringSince I have an unheated greenhouse we eat greens all winter, but unless you get your lettuce to the eating stage by October, it will just sit there. However once the days lengthen my Egyptian onions, which are kind of perennial, and my broccoli start to take off, followed by the arugula and Chinese cabbages, which are planning to bolt shortly. Now the little lettuces which sat by all winter looking miserable are starting to grow, and I need to seed more. If I have too many I will tuck into the garden, since I noticed not too much of the lettuce I threw at the garden actually came up last fall. I will also seed some red cabbage

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amazing color and symmetry of a red cabbage

since the ones I seeded in the falll are actually heading up in the greenhouse. Brassicas can take a certain amount of frost- it actually sweetens them. Things like that should go in the garden once they are about 6 inches tall and the soil is workable. Here that would normally be late March early April, when it is cool and wet but not bitter, so they actually do some growing and establish their rooots. Be careful seeding too early; in very cool wet weather your seed may rot.

Using mulches to ready the garden for spring planting

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Note carpet mulch

I am gone a lot so I have gotten very inventive at avoiding weeding. I lay strips of old carpet between rows, which kills and composts any plants beneath them. Come spring, I simply pull up the strips and lay them on top of whatever I need killed, using the bare strip beneath to plant in. All winter it has been frost heaving so it has somewhat uncompacted itself after being walked on all summer. Now I take a weeding hoe, (favorite tools article) which is a nice little four pronged cultivating rake, scratch up the soil enough to plant seeds, and I’m done. If you rototill wet soil, it turns it to concrete, crushing all soil structure. Likewise with bone dry soil. Hoeing wet soil is difficult and has a similar effect. My solution works pretty well. The carpet strips I have used seem pretty stable as they have not come apart after eight years. Newspaper decays well, and they do use soy inks nowadays so that isn’t a problem, but you must use 3 layers for it to be effective, and it is time consuming and likes to blow away if not very securely weighted down with dirt or pinned down with landscaping pins, which then are lost all over the garden. I mostly tuck it between tomato and pepper plants, between pieces of carpet. Cardboard takes a long time to decay and may have plastic tape on it, so it isn’t a good solution for this purpose. It is however a great way to smother weeds if you are going to build a raised bed on top of it.


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nopales and verbena bonariensis

Honestly, you really need to seed many wonderful fowers outdoors in the fall or early spring, when seeds would naturally fall. Definitely read the package for each seed you plant.Some actually need to get cold. Many seeds are very tiny and must be pressed into the surface only.  I like to fill those plastic salad boxes with soil, seed them, and put the lid back on, writing date and contents with a permanent marker. Later you can punch holes in the bottom and use the lid as a saucer. Check whether they need light to sprout, and what temperature they like. Tiny plants like impatiens and nicotania need constant moisture to sprout and then misting. Really easy ones are zinnias, morning glories, sunflowers, snapdragons, hollyhocks, nasturtiums, sweet peas- all those great cottage garden flowers. Cardinal vines and moonflower vines are easy but you should give them a little scarification (scratch up the seed coat with an emory board, or rub them on concrete with the flat of your finger) and soak overnight in hot water first. If you get them going 6-8 weeks before they go in the garden, you’ll have flowers sooner.


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This is the most vicious black peppermint; mentha piperata var. nigra

Many herbs are easiest grown from a rooted cutting, but if you want to start a lot, as in for a big bed of thyme, start you seeds now. I use my salad box flats for thyme, lavender, ashwaghanda, and basil. Thyme and basil don’t mild a chill; in fact basil sprouts better when it isn’t too cold, but lavender is not fond of cold, soggy soil, and ashwaghanda likes heat. I usually start fennel, parsley and dill directly in the garden, since I have it in the greenhouse all winter anyway.

Other stuff

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artichoke plant

I really love artichokes, and with care and good drainage we can grow them in Maryland. Although I have been told that artichoke seed should be put in a bag of potting soil in the fridge for 6 weeks, and they do germinate very well that way, I have also seen them germinate without all that fuss. They have a tap root, so if I could I’d direct seed, but I can’t, because they need a long season. I start them in pots and plant them in my best, sheltered spot with the best drainage and all the honor I can convey. They are gorgeous- architecturally so, like a giant white thistle with brilliant purple chokes, if you let them blossom. One we had up against the house made about 40 buds, which we enjoyed enormously. It came back the next year, but died after that. A lady I know grew one for three years. This year I have one under a peach basket with a carpet over it.  It has been a hard winter so I am holding my breath.

As for all the other warm weather stuff, like cucumbers, melons, okras, etc., wait on that. You are going to get a more natural root structure if you direct seed, so do that if you can.

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Flowering quince in the snow


What’s Time to a Hog?

blog and fall 2012 003 300x225 Whats Time to a Hog?Once in a while I write about something that is not a tangible how-to. This is simply something that has been on my mind. However it is also how you spend your time and how you deal with your fellow creatures that decides the nature of your life, so I think I may have an excuse to tell this story.

The other day my husband and I were in Easton doing errands. We stopped at the gas station where they sell the ethanol-free gas we use to mix our chain saw fuel; it is better for the saw. My husband was wearing a sweatshirt his brother had outgrown which had the name of his Indiana home town on it: Logansport, with a cartoon of the high school mascot, Felix the Cat, embroidered on it. A tentative male voice called out “that’s not Logansport, Indiana, is it?”

I was in the car; I heard the cheerful chattering and my husband’s famous machine-gun laugh but not enough to understand what was happening, so this is second hand. It turned out the man was from my husband’s home town, that his father’s funeral had been at the church where my husband’s father had been the pastor, that his brother had taken my sister-in-law to the homecoming dance, and that he now had a second home nearby.  They were delighted, as middleaged men from the sad sweet rust belt are when they can share boyhood memories of a lost America. The conversation would most certainly have led to the exchanging of phone numbers and an invitation to dinner or something, if a lady in a big shiny white SUV had not pulled up and told them that they must not be from here or they would not be standing there visiting while other people were waiting. Embarassed, they apologized, said goodbye and drove away quickly.

The more I studied it the more it irked me.  This is a touristy area and many folks are what we call “come heres.” This lady could not have been a “from here.” I am from here, -as much as I am from anywhere, having moved around much of my life, but always returning to the Shore. I remember when we would stop behind a car that had stopped on a one lane road because people were visiting by the mailbox, leaning out the car window. We never said a word. Honking would have been unthinkably rude. In small Southern towns (The Eastern Shore is Southern, for better or sometimes for worse) everybody knows everybody, and a slight will be remembered. Bad manners would be impractical. Nowadays those of us who have known each other fifty years cling to each other, but friendliness and tolerance is a habit that feels natural to us. I have been out in the world and I prefer this.

My grandmother, a Texan, had a number of great expressions which I pull out and use tenderly, much as I use her old red woolen gloves in winter. One of them is “as solemn as a jackass in a hailstorm.” This refers to someone who is telling you the right thing to do while filled with a solemn sense of his or her own righteousness, and in the total absence of self examination or humor. It is a good image. Another is the title of this anecdote : “What’s time to a hog?”

I am not saying that the lady was at all porcine. My grandmother said it to mean that she didn’t mind waiting- after all, what made her time, her hurry, her agenda, more important than whatever someone else was doing that was making her wait. She knew, of course, that in comparing herself to a hog, to whom time was merely a dull interval before slaughter, she was giving the person who was making her wait a gentle dig, -but just a little, humorous, self-deprecating dig.

We are all waiting; waiting for the weather to improve, for school to get out, for evening to come, for a child to grow out of a tough phase, for love, for death, for the return of Christ. In our pride and self-absorption we think our work, our hurry, our frustrated wait, is more important than another’s. This is the same pride that medieval scholars called the father of sins- we want what we want and that matters more than the love of God and our neighbor. Humility is the key. Bless that nice lady.

So if anybody knows Paul Killian, tell him to email me his number and we will ask him to dinner at the farm. Claudia, happily married and living in Colorado, was asking after Clyde.

Roasting a Haunch of Venison over Charcoal

venison 4 300x225 Roasting a Haunch of Venison over Charcoal There is nothing in this world better for a carnivore to eat than this; a crisp, brown, smoky haunch of venison, juicy, tender, and deep rosy pink, yet cooked, down to the bone, fragrant with rosemary and garlic. The texture of the meat is finer than beef or goat, leaner than lamb, juicier than antelope. The taste is iron-rich but delicate; our Whitetails seem much less gamey to me than mule deer I have eaten from Texas.

Right Eating

This meat feels good to eat. You know that this animal lived free, died suddenly, and is the ultimate in free range and grass-fed. Yes, I worry a little about the fact that she probably ate tender tips of GMO soy, but it’s the best we can do right now. Since we butcher our venison ourselves, we know this meat is clean and we usually know exactly where the deer was killed. Our deer population is too high, but not to the point that we have to worry about disease, so we can feel pretty good about eating this meat. This article is divided in to two parts: the recipe and the cooking method, both of which are important to creating this pinnacle of carnivorous eating.

The Recipe:

1 haunch of venison, see post. Takes three days to thaw in a large pan (Blood will come through the wrappings) in the refrigerator, faster in a 5 gllon bucket of cold water if you are in a rush.

1 head of garlic

1-2 tbs sea salt to taste

1/2 cup rosemary needles

6-8 dry bay leaves, crumbled

3-4 tsp other dried Meditterranean herbs, such as oregano, basil, and thyme, as seems delicious to you.

1/2 c. olive oil ground

1-2 tsp coarsely ground black pepper.

Break up the garlicand peel the cloves. You want a good handful. I said a head but it depends on the size of the head. It could be more or less. You can crush them with the flat of a big knife and the skins will come right off. Throw all ingredients (less the haunch) into a blender or food chopper and whirl. You should have a thick, coarse, rosemary/garlic dominated paste. Rinse the meat and set in a pan. Pat dry if you are that sort of person, and rub the paste all over the haunch. Rub it well into the cut end as well. Depending on whether you planned ahead or whether this is a last minute rush, you can either wrap it up and refrigerate it overnight, or refigerate it in the pan until the fire is ready. In winter I just set it on top of the piano on the back porch….. Either way it will be great.

Cooking Method: The Indirect Method

I remember the first time I tried roasting venison this way, on a round Weber kettle grill in my backyard when we were living in the city. My daughter Crystal, then five, was upset to be eating Bambi, and refused at first, but as her father was later and later for supper she grew hungrier and hungrier, and finally agreed to try a little taste. Her little face became very serious as she thought about it, decided it was probably a wicked deer who kicked its mother, and quickly gobbled two big slices. This is the trick, learned from the owner’s manual all those years ago: You can’t just put the meat on the grill when it is going to be on there 2 hours, because the fat will drip in the fire and burn, and the meat will be deeply charred on one side. The indirect method solves this problem. First, take off the grill and prepare to start the coals as you nomally would.

Starting the Coals

I prefer not to use lighter fluid as it is toxic and nasty. There is a weber coal starter  Roasting a Haunch of Venison over Charcoal which costs about 15 dollars and starts about the right amount of charcoal with a few pieces of newspaper. It is a sort of metal chimney with a basket in it. That is very easy. Another easy way is to put dried grass, twigs, sticks, and charcoal in a paper bag, ball it up, and light it. Keep an eye on it as you may need to move things around to get it to catch evenly. Yes, bags of briquets are not sustainable or virtuous, but charcoal burning has always been a bad thing in that sense. If you burn brush frequently you can try smothering your fires and saving your own. Otherwise, sigh and continue.

The Pan/Coals Setup

You will need a pan that you don’t care about which is big enough to fit your haunch. It is ok if the shank bone sticks out as the meat will shrink away from it anyway. I have even reused old aluminum disposable pans. Once the coals are caught, put on a heavy glove and get a tool to move the coals into a ring in which your pan will sit. I use a garden trowel to clear a space and then tongs for individual coals. Your pan should be sitting surrounded by coals. At this point, since my present grill is awkwardly shaped for this, I heap more charcoal on top of the caught ones. You want to be able to let it go for about two hours. If it runs out, you will either have to finish it in the oven or move the whole hot greasy setup to the side, probably burning yourself and get soot everywhere, in order to add coals.

Finally, the Meat!

Now, put the grill back in place, put the haunch on top, and close the lid, adjusting the side/bottom and top vents almost halfway open. The meat will be quickly sealed all over by the smoky heat, which will be nearly at its highest at first, and then will gradually go down, so don’t check on it too much as you will be letting out heat and adding to the time. The meat will continue to cook in towards the bone even after the outside has stopped getting darker, which is an added reason for the traditional half-hour wait for juices to reabsorb once it is off the grill. I have tossed a haunch of goat on the grill, gone swimming in the river for two hours, and come back to find it perfect. But I was lucky. Two hours for a haunch is a ballpark figure. I have had a yearly buck’s haunch done in an hour and a half, and an enormous doe’s haunch take two and a half hours. It is pretty forgiving, but I start poking the meat at an hour and 45 minutes. The shank meat will be soft and overdone, and the fattest part will be springy.  The color will be nice and brown, with burnt rosemary and garlic encrusted all over it. I am too Luddite to use a normal thing like a meat thermometer. Generally I just call it done and take it in on a carving board to sit for a half an hour, but put the lid back on the coals just in case I am wrong.


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My sister did this one very slowly for that awesome even pink- mine are generally darker with some grey on the edge.

When the meat has sat a half an hour, take a large and very sharp carving knife and slice in perpendicular to the bone. Here is a post about how to sharpen a knife. It should be brown on the outside, grey as you go in, and then pink until the bone. That is the benefit of a fast start and a slow end to your heat. You want it to be pink but not raw, although there are many who disagree. Some people want it as raw and bloody as possible, while others fear parasites. I believe our deer are healthy but I like a deep rose pink, juicy but cooked.

Thoughts on Grills

My kind and thoughtful husband has provided me with a grill that looks a bit like a locomotive and has both gas and charcoal grills on it. It is a princely gift. However the charcoal area is only a little bit larger than the pan I use to do my indirect haunch roasting, so I carefully perch coals around the pan. It is a bit tight and a bit precarious. Honestly, for this particular kind of cooking, which, I might add, is also good for smoke-raosting whole chickens, turkeys, etc., a cheap kettle-style grill is easier. But I would never mention this to my husband.

Harvesting Garlic: That was Easy!

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Garlic sits all winter growing slowly. Very trouble free

In September and October my nieces and nephews helped me plant the garlic cloves from the previous year’s harvest into the rows pictured, and in June/July, without having to buy one head of garlic all year, we are ready to harvest the crop. If I sound smug, I shouldn’t be.  Many’s the onion maggot we have dodged only by the grace of God. I can’t say enough how important it is to make sure you leave three years between allium plantings in the same spot. That’s about all you have to do. I hardly even weed them. So here we are.

You should check them when the tops start to go yellow. This is generally in late June, but watch it because it varies, and you don’t want to leave them too late. The bulbs will get loose and not store as well, and it will be harder to clean them up, which matters especially if you plan to sell or barter them.

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from left to right, good harvest, late harvest, really late harvest, hardnecks.

Feel down to the bulb and see if it is large and well formed. Pull one up and use it uncured. It is delicious, and you will be able to judge if the bulb is still growing. Softnecks will have a flabby feeling in the neck.

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Softneck garlic, nice and tight and easy to braid.

Here’s where you need your spading fork I mentioned in the article on tools. If you just yank on the garlic stem it’s liable to break, and you need the stem for hanging or braiding. Stick the tines about two inches back from the stem, step on the back of the fork and push down about three inches, rocking if you have to. Grab the stem with one hand and push back on the fork handle with the other. The bulb should come up easily if there is no rot. (If it comes apart when you dig it out of the ground you will probably smell the slightly sweet smell of rotting garlic. That’s another story.) Tap and shake the bulb gently to get rid of extra soil, lay it in the row and do the next one. A child can be very helpful in this wonderful and satisfying job. By the time you are done with the digging, the soil on the roots will likely shake off pretty well. I have heard people say to leave them in the garden to dry for a few days (and I’ve done it) but to me that is asking for trouble. You could get sunscald on them which will lead to rot. I spread mine to dry and cure for a few weeks in the shed. To be honest, until this year I always spread them on top of the car cover of my father’s 1955 Morgan, but he gave it to my sister, so now I have to set up a real rack. We made some tables out of two by fours and covered the tops with ratwire instead of wood. Ratwire is welded galvanized wire screen of the kind people put on the bottoms of their screen doors, squares about a half inch, to prevent animals from busting through mosquito screens. It is great for greenhouse benches.

Watch drying garlic carefully. In Maryland two weeks is the time it takes me to cure my garlic. If you leave it too long the tops can get too brittle to braid well (on the softnecks). When you are ready to make it into bunches or braids, clean off the extra leaves next to your compost pile. The outer ones will shatter and come off easily.  Then pile as much as you are working with in a basket and carry it somewhere comfortable to work. Leave what you aren’t going to do today on the rack. I once piled my whole crop in a pile and I am convinced it spread onion maggots. I could be wrong.

The Scourge; Onion Maggots:

If you do smell that sweetish funky rotting garlic smell, you have onion maggots. I had some mold on a few bulbs this spring but it didn’t smell the same at all. Identify as best you can which heads are infected by the softened cloves and the smell, and peel those cloves.  Actually this is pretty easy to do because the rot moistens the skins so they pop off very easily. Don’t get grossed out; you worked hard for this good garlic and you need to keep those little worms from taking it from you. Trim damaged cloves and use as soon as possible. Preserve undamaged peeled cloves in glass jars of olive oil in the refrigerator. Use them for cooking. The flavor changes over time in oil in a way that is fine cooked but is different from regular raw garlic. People do dehydrate and powder garlic, and that keeps forever and is useful for cooking, but I haven’t gotten into that.

Two Groups of Garlic

There are softneck and hardneck garlics. Softnecks have a soft neck like an onion, and hardnecks have a hard stem in the center of a radiating bunch of cloves.

The softnecks are fun to braid. As soon as your garlic leaves have dried but there is a little moisture left by the bulb so it won’t just break, it’s ready to braid. First rub off the dirtiest layers of outer skin on the garlic, and also the stem. You want it to look like Martha Stewart did it, -and it will! Get about 4 feet of jute twine and tie three big heads of garlic together with one end of it. Start braiding them, keeping the twine in the braid for strength, and add a head to each turn. I will put photos in when I do it. It’s like French braiding.  When you have done about two feet of heads, it will be getting heavy. To finish the braid, stop adding garlic, and braid the dried tops with the twine in it out to the end. Tie it off with the twine, bend it over into a loop handle, tie it off again, and make a twine loop as well. Now you have several options for hanging it. Go over the braid with scissors and neaten it up- trim the dried roots off. loose bits of skin, etc.

I have tried braiding hardnecks but it is awkward. Last year was the first year I grew them. They grew really well. I actually bought cheap garlic on sale at Wallyworld and planted a lot. Each tiny clove makes a nice big head of garlic. I cleaned off the outer, dirty skins, leaving plenty of tight, satiny white skin protecting the garlic, bound about 8 into a neat bunch with twine with a loop, and trimmed the stems to an identical length. I hung them and gave them to people. They looked nice, but not as nice as the braided softnecks.

garlic braid old 225x300 Harvesting Garlic: That was Easy!Storage: Mine are hanging all over the kitchen, but honestly, you should look for a cooler place to store them if you expect them to last until next summer. The dry heat of a house will dry them out over a year. Oddly enough the ones I hung on the back porch seemed unaffected by damp or freezing, and kept well. The ones on display sprouted and dried by spring. The elephant garlic kept better because of its size but was a tad spongy by the end. Possibly they would do well in a root cellar.

Garlic is a really good food which stores well and isn’t a lot of trouble to grow. Try it!

How to split wood by hand

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a heavier splitter

Splitting firewood is not just a matter of upper body strength. It is a matter of observation, accuracy, and patience as well as the ability to swing a splitting ax. My elderly father is the best wood splitter I know. He can hit the exact same spot every time, and thus can split with a fairly light ax, and he understands the wood.

If you don’t split wood, you have to just use the pieces of wood that will fit in your stove without splitting, and a huge log by itself is very hard to keep going. Women are sometimes intimidated by the idea, and men who haven’t learned from their fathers in boyhood may not know where to start, so they drop several thousand dollars on a gas or electric splitter. Not only is that expensive, noisy, and liable to break down, but in the event of a power failure or some disaster, it may not function. And really, splitting wood is fun. It’s a meditative and satisfying chore, and you can quit when you’re tired.

You need an axe, a maul, and some wedges.

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a good axe for women

I like the splitting axe I bought at Lowes. It is not super heavy, but it has a good shape for forcing open a log, and it has a sharp edge, unlike some blunter splitting axes that really work best for men with powerful upper bodies. The only thing that can be annoying is that the shape sometimes makes it pop up out of a log that isn’t quite split.

A maul is a giant metal hammer, although the link shows mainly heavy splitting axes. I use it a lot, because most logs I can’t split in one glorious smash. I can split cedar in one vicious whack, but otherwise I’m pounding on a wedge or the back of my splitting axe to open the logs. Even if your arms are not enormous and powerful, if you keep driving a wedge into a sound piece of wood, eventually it will split, no matter how big.

Wedges when I was growing up were long triangular wedges of metal, pounded flat on one end like a giant nail. After you made a crack in the log with your axe, you could pound in a wedge and it would split. Sometimes you needed more than one wedge, an sometimes you could pound the wedge into the natural checking (the cracks that appear as the log dries out). But today the new wedges are amazing. I have something called a wood grenade, which as one sharp point and four v shaped edges. You can set the point in your log, longest axis in line with how you want the log to split, tap it in , and all you have to do is whack it with your maul until it splits. Seriously, this wedge makes life a lot easier. I actually found one at the Goodwill for 5 bucks after I mislaid my other one.

When you are cutting up the dead tree into rounds that you will be splitting, look at the length of your woodstove or the breadth of your fireplace, but also look at the structure of the wood. If the piece of wood you are cutting has a straight clean look and no branches sticking out of it, likely the interior structure will be easy to split. If not, cut the piece a little shorter. It is going to be harder to split and shortness makes it easier. For example, cedar is very easy to split. With a determined whack I can cleave a cedar log in twain. But where a cedar tree has had side branches, it’s a tangled nightmare, just flexible enough to trap your wege. I just split of as much as I can and hope I can fit the rest in the stove.  Otherwise I’ll just throw it on the brushpile. I’d rather have it be so short it fits in the stove sideways.

When you have decided which log you are going to split, set it upright/lengthways on a stump or another log. If it is on the ground and you hit it, the ground will absorb some of the blow and the log won’t split as fast. If the ground is soft it’s even worse. Look at the radial cracks in the log and decide how you are going to split it. What pieces do you want to come apart? You can put your wood grenade right in the center, unless there is a soft spot, in which case go off center. Turn the wood grenade so the long axis aligns where you want a crack to open. Tap it in while holding it until you feel it is set, and then stand back a little and start pounding it in.

I try to split logs with my axe, especially with cedar and dry cherry, but often the axe is embedded in the log, and I have to pound on the back of it with my maul to split the log. Also, if the wedge is trapped or I want to guide a crack, I will use my splitting axe blade as a wedge.

As you get used to swinging a heavy metal object that could hurt your legs or ankles if you miss and whack yourself, you will develop confidence and accuracy in your swing. Over time your arms will get stronger too. Soon you will see the crack snake across the top of the log, and hear the slow progressive cracking and popping as the log splits. You will start enjoying it, and learning how to split the halves into quarters as well.

The thing is to go for it. Making sure you aren’t going to hit anything you shouldn’t, like your foot, plant your feet, raise your axe, eye the spot you want to hit, and just bring that axe down hard.  Fling caution to the winds for that instant. Hit the log as hard as you can. If you miss the spot, try it again. But just hitting something as hard as you can, with no hesitation, with all your power, can be very liberating. Try it with a short piece of cedar. You will feel great when the two pieces fly to either side.

Now, if you get tired, here’s another manual option; a manual hydraulic splitter- my DH bought me one for Christmas- better than a vaccuum cleaner or an exercise bicycle! Here’s the link to the post.



Logging School!

Looking around an alumni site on the internet I recently ran across a classmate, John McNerney, who logs in Monkton,Vermont. He had written an article about a wood cutting and chainsaw use course and thought it might be useful to my readers. I agree, in that it lists skills we all need to have with our equipment and in the woods, and also in that it lets you know that there are great classes like this out there. Reading a website is a great start, but it is nowhere near as helpful as a hands on class. Read on:

My experience with the “Game Of Logging” courses:

John McNerney


Prior to buying a wooded parcel in 2001 here in Monkton, VT, I had never operated a chain saw. Since I wanted to cut my own firewood, do some wildlife habitat management (applying some of what I had learned in my Vermont Coverts Cooperator class), and open up some hiking trails, I figured it was time I learned. I bought a chainsaw, read the manual that came with it, got my more experienced neighbor to give me some pointers, and went at it. It was not long before I realized that I knew just enough to seriously injure or kill myself or someone else, not to mention the damage I could do to the forest in the process of trying to get a tree to drop where I wanted it.


Since I planned on being around to see my kids grow up, and have the use of all my limbs while doing so, I decided it was time to get some serious training in how to work more safely in the woods with a chainsaw. A “Game Of Logging, Level I” course was being offered in my area, sponsored by Vermont Family Forests, and taught by Northeast Woodland Training. I took a gamble and signed up. The class was quite an eye opener. Participants ranged from novices like myself to veterans who had been logging for 20+ years.


The Level I course taught basic chainsaw safety techniques, how to handle a saw and fell a tree with precision. The technique taught is quite a bit different than what you may have been doing for years, or what the manual that came with your chainsaw describes. It allows much greater control of when, where, and how a tree falls. A bonus that I had not expected was picking up some great tips on how to work efficiently — which has allowed me to get more done while avoiding fatigue (which can also lead to accidents). By the end of the day, participants could drop a tree within couple of feet of a target stake driven into the ground 30+ feet away. Some of the participants managed to shatter the target stake by hitting it dead on. We did this even when dropping the tree in a direction other than the one it “wanted” to go. A handy talent to have when you are trying to protect that nice old apple tree which would otherwise have taken a beating, or when you need to “thread the needle” by dropping one tree between two others that you want to keep.


I had intended to take only one of the courses, figuring that would be enough for my limited needs. I was so impressed with the content and with the instructor, that I went on to take all four levels, and was one of the first to take the “Storm Damage Clean-up” when Northeast Woodland Training added that to their course offerings.


Level two went in to basic chainsaw maintenance: Bar replacement & filing, proper chain tension, replacing sprockets, as well as some information and practice on chain sharpening. In the afternoon, we learned techniques for dealing with springpoles, and did more felling practice.


In Level 3 we spent the morning learning about dealing with leaning trees, including front, back and side lean. In the afternoon we learned techniques for limbing and bucking

with greater safety and efficiency, as well as practicing felling more difficult trees (including freeing some hung up trees).


Level 4 is often customized to meet the interests and abilities of those in the class. In my class we concentrated on ways to safely get hung up trees down on the ground using a variety of techniques. We included some good discussion on selecting the direction of felling: getting the tree down safely and with minimal damage, as well as considering how dropping this tree fit into the overall felling plan for the area in which we were working.


In all of the courses I’ve taken, all of the participants, from novice to expert, felt that the course was well worth it. Along the way, I’ve heard comments from participants such as “NO ONE should go into the woods with a chainsaw without taking this course” , and “After working with a chainsaw for 20 years, GOL has changed the way I work in the woods”. I’ve also been very impressed with the knowledge and attitude of the instructors. They run a safe, informative workshop, and make the most of the learning opportunities presented. The atmosphere is fun and supportive with participants often cheering each other on. It’s a great experience for both novice and experienced chainsaw operators. The course material is well laid out and helps you understand the “WHY” of a given technique, rather than just memorizing a set of steps. This understanding has helped me to adapt the techniques to the varying situations I encounter in the woods. It has also helped me to better understand my limitations: I am better able to size up a situation and decide whether I have the skill, experience, and equipment necessary to handle a tougher situation.


The “Game of Logging” courses are offered quite regularly in my area. You’d think the market would get saturated after a while and they’d have trouble finding participants. Instead, the opposite has happened. The GOL courses and the instructors from Northeast Woodland Training have gotten quite a reputation. “Word of mouth” advertising and people seeing their neighbors and friends using the techniques learned has generated waiting lists to get in to many of the courses.