How to make a bonfire without nasty lighter fluid

how to build a bonfireWho doesn’t love a bonfire? Sitting on stumps around a blazing, crackling fire with friends, enjoying a beer or a mug of hot, spiced wine, and then as it burns down to coals, roasting meats, oysters, ears of corn, potatoes, marshmallows? Good times!

Of course, I’m such a pyro I don’t even need the festivities. I just want to get my brushpiles cleaned up. But I hate the smell of lighter fluid. It is a chemical pollutant and I have eaten more than my share of charred meat infused with its noxious odor. No more. If you can’t start your fires with a bow drill, or flint and steel, at least use a match, tinder, and kindling.

So I’m assuming you have wood to dispose of. If this is about a party bonfire, it seems wasteful to go buy nicely cut and split firewood.  You should be working on creating a pile of wood that will not otherwise be useful- brush, dead branches, old furniture, garden trimmings, etc. If you are doing this over time it is too much trouble to worry about the construction of the pile, except that if it gets too big it will be too hot to get close to. My cousin builds his with a bulldozer and whole trees.  His fires are spectacular yearly events. We could never have them if we had nearby neighbors. Which brings me to a point I hate to mention.

Make sure there aren’t local laws that you will be violating. Make sure you don’t have nervous neighbors who will call the law on you. Make sure you are above all things careful that your fire is under control and not able to reach something you don’t want burned up, such as a house or truck.  And don’t imagine nothing will happen. Story: as a young bride I moved into a ground floor apartment in Jersey City (I know, I know). I went out to clean up the yard and started to burn my leaf pile, as I had done all my life. Within 15 minutes a firetruck pulled up, giant New Jersey firemen hopped into my back yard, scornfully hosed down my little leaf pile, and left with hardly a backward glance. Embarrassing. ‘Nother story: Once I was burning brush out in the field and it got into the hedgerow. It happened because I was getting overly enthusiastic about cleaning up leaves on the edge of the hedgerow. It caught in the dead catbriars and flew up into a tree with a huge rush of flame. Fortunately the tree was green and the vines quickly burnt out, but that taught me.  Fire is nothing to fool with. I keep a hose or at least a bucket of water nearby, and a leaf rake. The leaf rake is for beating out flames that try to go where they shouldn’t. It works very well and I have never had any more problems.

Burn when the ground is wet. Be careful about wind. A little breeze is ok if your pile is well isolated from flammable materials, but if the wind catches your fire and tosses sparks onto a roof you’ll really wish you had waited for a better day.

Know your prevailing wind. That means, where does it blow from most of the time? Bear that in mind for safety, smoke, and starting the fire. Mine blows from the west, so I start my fire on the west side of the pile.

Arrange materials. Gather small twigs, large twigs, stick, and short limbs you can move around easily. Lay them within reach.

Dry goldenrod heads make great tinder and their stalks catch nicely as well

Dry goldenrod heads make great tinder and their stalks catch nicely as well

Gather some tinder- dead goldenrod heads are really easy to start, and some dead grass and leaves. Set two small logs in a v shape, open towards you and the prevailing wind. Pile the  tinder on the bottom, in the V, then leaves and grass. Break up the smallest twigs and lay them criss cross over the leaves, just behind them. This is so as soon as the leaves catch fire the flames will blow back and rise up into the twigs. So behind those stack larger twigs criss cross, larger and so on, like a lopsided teepee, or that famous building in Sydney. Sheltering the flame from the wind with your body, light a match and put it in under the tinder, out of reach of wind. If there is no wind you may need to blow gently to encourage the fire.  As the materials catch make sure the fire is feeding through the successively larger sticks you have put on. Rearrange and feed the fire as it grows. The bigger it is, the thicker wood it can eat, like a baby. Pull a few pieces from your pile on top of it as it grows. Eventually you will need to get back as it licks over the V and catches your main pile.

Or you can just save your junk mail in a paper sack and set that on fire to windward of your brushpile. That works pretty well.

As the pile burns you will need to toss in outer pieces. Use a rake, heavy leather gloves, and boots. A ball cap and safety glasses are also not a bad idea if you are concerned about cinders in your eyes and hair.

making a bonfire

Kick ends into the center and rake to contain and renew fire.

When your pile is burned down, you can use the coals for cooking, toasting marshmallows, or starting a new fire in the morning, but don’t just forget about it. Rake the outside to the center and be sure there is no way the fire can get out of control while you are not watching. The best way is to drench it with water, and if you are in an area where the ground is flammable because it contains a lot of humus, as in a forested area, it’s mandatory. Fire can travel underground. My grandmother put out a cigarette on the ground in Canada once, and in the morning she found a tiny spiral of smoke rising from the ground 6 feet away. If she hadn’t noticed that and drenched it, the whole island could have gone up in flames, including the houses.

Fire is a wonderful and primally satisfying thing. I love to spend a winter day cleaning up debris and feeding it into the flames. But I never let myself forget what would happen if it got out of control. Be careful.

Women and Chainsaws!

snowy woods It is winter, and the winds are howling outside, but our big living room is toasty warm despite big windows and french doors. The small woodstove kicks out good heat, and the kettle hisses comfortably on top of it, alongside of a pot of fragrant bean soup that is gently simmering. Outside the door is a stack of wood I cut, split where necessary, and stacked, from dead trees in the hedgerows on this farm.

I think keeping the house warm is a character forming skill for children. Fire-making is a simple competence that is central to human survival, male or female.  As the oldest of four girls I learned many skills from my father that he might not have taught me if there had been sons. As the daughter of a German woman I learned early to like work. So as a little girl I gathered kindling, and as I grew bigger, I helped carry and stack the firewood my father cut, along with my little sisters. Especially in the house we lived in in Virginia when he was teaching at Sweet Briar College, this was not just for the benefit of our characters. During the bogus oil embargo in the Seventies, a professor’s salary couldn’t heat a big, drafty house with oil. That house was freezing, and those mountain winters were snowy. It was cold, our feet and hands were numb, and the hills were steep and slippery, but we did what had to be done as a family to keep the fires going. I have to say I don’t think I was sufficiently understanding or fair when my son was 11 and we were hauling wood on the mild, flat Eastern Shore of Maryland. I was divorced and it’s hard for a mother to raise a son alone. Somehow he learned to be strong and protective, and he learned to split wood along the way.

chainsaw woman and chevy s10It took some big changes in my life to turn me into a chainsaw woman. My father kept us well away from his Stihl. It was a woodsman thing; no woman could possibly run it without cutting off an appendage. But when I moved back to the farm in ’99, I had no man to cut wood, and there was a cute little Poulan chainsaw at the Lowes for less $99. I had a breakthrough. What a man has that I don’t have is utterly useless when it comes to cutting wood. I had watched this all my life. English professors do this. I could do this. You can do this. Just be careful in everything that you do. Maintain the saw, keep the chain tight so it doesn’t fling itself off the bar and cut you, watch how the wood you are cutting is going to be affected by gravity as you cut so you don’t pinch the bar or drop a tree on somebody. Know what you are doing before you do it, and never hurry.

2 chainsawsBuying your first Chainsaw:

OK, let’s get started.  You need a saw. Cheap saws are a good start. Not electric- that’s too cheap. Imagine running around the woods followed by extension cords. Gas. You can get a new Poulanat the hardware store for less than a hundred dollars. Go and heft them. Not everybody has the upper body strength and endurance to cut with a 22 inch Stihl, and if you make a mistake you’ll hurt yourself badly. Start with a 14 inch Poulan. I have two 14 inchers and one 16 inch, because they can generally last a year with someone who doesn’t know how to take small engines apart and fix them. And actually, one of them still runs, if put to it. You probably don’t have too many trees that are too big for 14 inches anyway. You might get a used saw cheaper, but if it is your first saw, make sure it is in really good condition and starts on the first pull. Get the instruction manual off the internet and read it through if you don’t get one that comes in a box. Check out all the youtubes. OK, you think you are too good for a Poulan? If money is not that tight, a Husqvarnais the next step up. Stihl is when you are ready to cut with the big dogs. They are pricey but last forever if well-maintained. My husband got me a very old used #41 Farm Boss, 22 inches, for $300 last year, and I take it in once a year for a tune up, which costs me $80 (for 2 saws.) I only use ethanol free gas in it, mixed with a good quality 2 cycle oil, I clean and sharpen it obsessively, and only certain people are allowed to touch it. It is all metal and says “made in West Germany” on it. It is very heavy and if the chain is sharp it goes through a downed  locust tree like a hot knife through butter. It would do the same to my foot, if I slipped, so I keep well away from the blade. My back hurts a lot when we have a big blow and I have to cut a lot. Try to alternate between the big and little saw; work until one tank is empty, then switch to the other saw and do a different task. So think about this. Start with a small, light saw.

protective gear

My niece showing us how it’s done

While you are at it, get protective gear; safety glasses and ear protectors. And steel toe boots. A friend of mine got a huge chunk of wood right in the eyeball while bush hogging and had to go to a specialist at John Hopkins to save his eyeball. When I have forgotten to wear safety glasses the flying sawdust reminded me in a hurry. For your ears there are those little foam rubber plugs, considerately neon colored so when they fall out of your ears you can find them in the leaves. My father used spitwads. They aren’t much good. You can hear just fine with them in. Honestly, you can get excellent quality cheap ear protectors  that are made for shooting. I paid about $10 for some Winchester ear protectors at- I admit it- I went- sorry- Wallyworld. The Husqvarna ones ($17) are tougher though. People are always borrowing mine. If you don’t wear them, your ears will feel funny and you won’t hear very well. Seriously. Damage can become permanent, plus ear protectors are nice and warm.  As to boots, I live in barn boots- Wellingtons or whatever. It’s just me. They get sweaty, but they are light and I can slip them off and on while shaking sawdust out of them, and wade through mud and muck without a worry. You might prefer some lace up work boots with steel toes.

screnchScrench/Chainsaw tool

This is a t-shaped tool that has a screwdriver on one end and two hex drivers on the other. You can’t live without it. It loosens and tightens your chain, the nuts that hold your bar on, and even opens the gas and bar chain oil tanks. You will always be losing it, so spray paint it neon pink or something. Saves cussing.


The new ethanol mix gas tears up small engines, especially if you leave it in the saw for more than a few days. You really should leave the saw either totally empty and dry or full while you aren’t running it. If you aren’t using it for a month or so, fill it with gas mixed with Stabil. Leaving it totally empty for too long can cause the seals to dry and crack. I go to a gas station that has ethanol free gas and fill up my 2 gallon can 95% full. If I’m using a 1 gallon, same thing. Chainsaws used mixed gas. You buy the good quality 2 cycle oil,measure it very precisely, and mix it into the gas by shaking. It’s easy though. The oil I mix it with is either pre-measured or squeezes into a measuring container that is designed for 1 gallon. I want to make sure I err just a tad on the side of less than a gallon, and I can tell how much I bought by looking at the pump. A few pennies of gas is not worth having to overhaul your saw.

add bar chain oil to oil chamber

pouring bar chain oil into the oil chamber. Don’t get them mixed up….

When you fill your gas tank with the mixed gas, fill the oil reservoir on the other side of the saw as well. They run out at about the same rate, and if you don’t have oil constantly lubricating the bar the chain will overheat and lose the temper of the metal, among other awful things which have never happened to me because I am religious about bar chain oil. Then it won’t hold an edge. Clean off the sawdust so you don’t get dirt in either reservoir. When you are cutting if you are afraid the chain isn’t lubricating hold the chain above some bark and rev the saw. You should see a fine mist of oil darkening the surface. If not, cut off the saw and check the oil.

Tightening the Chain

Your chain should be seated in the groove on the bar with the cutting edges forward. There should be a picture of a chain link with the correct orientation on the blade or the saw somewhere. how to put the chain on  a chainsaw correctlyYou may laugh, but I have put the chain on backwards more than once. It doesn’t cut- just makes a sad little groove on the log. Like I said, be careful and watch what you are doing and not only will you avoid removing your legs but you will also avoid the humiliation of revealing yourself as a dork. Of course with the chain on backwards you’d probably just go through the pants and some meat. Researching this post I actually saw that they sell chainsaw safety pants. What’ll these Yankees think up next? (Actually those clever safety conscious Germans, but it’s just something my grandfather used to say.)

check tightness of chain1Correct  Tightness

You should be able to slide the chain back and forth on the bar easily with a gloved hand, but it should pull away and snap back when you pull it up off the bar. If you are cutting and it is making a rattling or even jingling sound, cut it off and check that the chain is not hanging loosely on the bar. It can flip off and hurt you. If you are lucky, it can flip off and make all kinds of little bumps and dents on the chain that will prevent it from sliding smoothly in the groove. Then you have to file or grind the links smooth again, which takes a long time, and it will never cut as well again. So be aware of how much the chain can loosen ass it heats up, as it wears, and if you didn’t tighten the nuts really well. Check your saw frequently. If you have been cutting for 15 minutes, you probably can cut off the saw and spend a few minutes pulling brush into a pile, putting logs in a cart or the back of a truck or something, while your saw cools enough for you to check it. This is also good for your body. If you do the same thing for too long without varying, you will get sore and not be able to do as much. Do stretch. If you are loosening and tightening the bolts, check to see if there is a lot of debris under the panel and clean that out. Sometimes I get the bit in my teeth and overheat the little saw.

opening side panel of chainsaw with scrench

opening side panel of chainsaw with scrench. Dont lose bolts!

To tighten the chain, using the hex head on your scrench, loosen the two nuts holding on the side panel until it is loose enough to wiggle a tiny bit. Locate the tightener screw next to the bar that tightens the chain. Now, using the screwdriver tip of the scrench (see how useful it is?) turn the screw clockwise until the chain is tight enough to snap when you pull it off the bar, but loose enough to slide back and forth on the bar. If you have to take the chain off to clean the saw,  take the side panel right off, carefully putting the 2 nuts in the upside down panel and in a safe place. It is amazing how losing those can waste your time. Tip the bar to give yourself enough slack to remove the chain. Don’t sling the chain around as it will turn into a Chinese puzzle. Just lay it carefully on a relatively clean surface in a circle.

bar off closeupClean dirt, sawdust, and oil off the saw. Some saws can get so dirty the bar chain oil won’t flow, which is bad for the blade. I clean mine before or after each use, and if I am doing something else to it I clean it to make it easier to work.

putting it back together3Putting the chain back on is a little trickier but just do it and you’ll get the hang. First, locate the chain tightening screw on the detached panel and turn it counter clockwise, noticing how the little nub that fits into the hole on the bar moves back. You’ll need to do that so the hole on the bar fits over it. Clean the bar, remembering the groove, and lay it back on the bolts. It doesn’t matter which way.  Turn the chain tightening screw until it sits over the hole when you put the panel on the bolts. You can fuss with this later but I just think it’s easier to do it when you are putting the bar in place. Looking carefully at the forward direction of the teeth on top, put the chain over the tip of the bar and around the sprocket, and pull it into place along the groove so that the whole thing aligns. Put the side panel in place and semi-tighten the screws.  Make sure the chain tightener is in the hole in the bar and tighten the chain. You might have to slide the chain back and forth a little as sometimes the chain is on the top or bottom of the sprocket and it has to ride over so it slides straight in the groove on the bar. When it is tight enough to snap and slides smoothly, tighten the bolts as tight as you can with the scrench. If you don’t the saw’s vibration will loosen them and the chain will become slack, which is inefficient and dangerous.

open chainsaw3Bar Maintenance

Clean the groove out whenever you have the chain off. Put a rag over the screwdriver end of your chainsaw tool and run it down the groove. There is a grease gun you can buy to put lubricant into the tiny holes in the bar. I got some and lost it. I never heard of anybody doing that anyway. If the groove gets too worn the chain will wobble and not cut as well. Sand in soil will accelerate this- another reason to keep your chain out of the dirt. You can buy a replacement chainsaw bar but they cost $25- $50.

Starting the Saw

pulling the start ropeIf you have mixed gas and oil in the chambers, your protective gear is on and you are ready to go, here’s how to start it. choke outPut the choke on. Because I don’t have the upper body strength to hold it with one hand and pull it with the other, I put my boot in the handle, hold it down with my left hand, and pull with my right. Generally one good fast pull will start a happy saw. Then give it some gas and the choke will come off automatically. But saws aren’t always happy. According to which saw you have- those directions are good to read- pull 5 slow pulls, half-choke it, and one good pull. If it almost starts, take the choke off. The next pull should do it.


If you aren’t giving it a really fast pull and you end up flooding the carburetor, you will smell a lot of gas. Let it sit for 10 minutes or so and try again. Some saws have a little plastic bladder pump that you push to prime the motor. Those work well but eventually the plastic cracks. You can fix them but by then you might be ready for a new saw anyway. If it just won’t start it could be that you used old gas. (Gas that sits for even a week in a half-full gas can isn’t fit to use, especially in warm weather, unless it has stabilizer in it. It’s the new ethanol mix that makes it so bad. You really should buy gas in small quantities and use it, or try to get ethanol free.) I throw old gas in my ancient Chevy pickup. It doesn’t care. Chainsaws need fresh gas. If you have been trying to start it using bad gas you may be in trouble- the cylinder may be scored; all kinds of horrible stuff. I have gotten away with just emptying it out, letting it sit a little, refilling it with fresh mixed gas, and starting it. It smoked for a moment but then all was well. I have never had the problem be the spark plug. I do sometimes open the Husqvarna and cleaned the airfilter, but it isn’t that dirty. Honestly, the annual trip to A & L Small Engine Repair in Church Hill is all I need (If you are local to me and want his number I’ll give it to you. Excellent, efficient, and honest. Shoot me a comment.) After you get used to your saw you won’t have any problems. I do like to keep my saws in the greenhouse in winter so they won’t be too cold, but it isn’t really an issue in this climate.

One last caveat for fellow dorks. Are you sure you flipped the ON switch? I won’t say a word….

Watch your arm. Sometimes when you pull the pull start string it pulls roughly and you get your arm jerked. It hurts for a day or two. I don’t really know what the reason for that is, but if you pull it slowly out a few times it will pull smoothly again.

sharpening a chainsaw with a dremel attachment

the lines on the metal attachment on my dremel tool show me how to angle my grindstone.

Sharpening the Chain

When the chain is dull, you will know it. You won’t be cutting as fast, and eventually you will see scorch marks on the wood. You don’t want to wait that long, as you may ruin the temper of your chain and then it won’t keep an edge. When you look at the chain, you will see tiny chips and wear marks on the forward edge of the teeth, like a layer is wearing off. The trick to good chain saw wear is even sharpening, and sharpening at the correct angle (30 degrees). You can get a set of little round chainsaw files that go to your saw. The Poulans, Husqvarnas, and Stihls each take a different diameter file. Make sure you find out the diameter you need. My father just set the file at the correct angle and did 10 one-way  strokes on each tooth. You can get a device to hold your file the right way as you stroke. My life improved when my DH gave me a cordless dremel chainsaw with bits to sharpen my saws and an attachable guide to show you where 30 degrees is.  Just look and be sure you are right up on the edge, and count aloud to make sure you sharpen each tooth the same amount as the Dremel takes off metal quickly. There is also a little curved rise behind each tooth that you should grind down a tiny bit each ten regular sharpenings. If you don’t, as your teeth get shorter you will take off smaller and smaller shavings of wood. sharpening saw4There is a chainsaw gauge you can buy very cheaply that you rest on the chain while you file which makes it easy. It is hard metal though. But by this time you will be hooked and won’t mind a bit. A sharp chain is a joyful thing. Once your teeth are nothing but little squares or you have burnt or dinged up the chain you may go buy a new one. They range for 7 to 24 dollars depending on how you buy them, and after all, you are cutting wood to economize.

Now it is time to talk about wood. Click on this link to read about which woods make the best firewood for what.

Time to plant seeds: Choosing Tomatoes

Let the trumpets sound! It is the beginning of the cycle that will end in November (for us)- the sprouting of the nightshades. Yes, some of my favorite vegetables are cousins to the elegant Deadly Nightshade: Atropa Belladonna (Atropos is the third Fate; the crone that snips the thread of life, and Belladonna means pretty lady), one of many bad girls in the Solanaceae family. Tobacco, tomatoes, granadilla, chilies, ashwaghanda, potatoes, petunias- life as we know it would stop without them.

Peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants don’t cross-pollinate too easily because they have such short little flowers that self-pollinate right away. At least that’s what it looks like to me, since I have been saving seeds from these plants for years and they seem to come true (replicate their parent).  I file my seeds according to groups, and right now I’m about to take out the tomato file. Therein lie all the little packets of tomato seeds I fill during the summer. Time to choose.

I love trying different types of tomatoes, and I am cheap and believe in sustainability so I sprout my own. It’s easy. I’ll write about that next. But here is a link to an Amazon search that looked fun: tomato seeds. Basically, in choosing  I want early tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, beefsteak tomatoes, paste tomatoes, -and exotic tomatoes that are just too cool not to grow. And of course I will try at least one new one.  I personally choose indeterminate tomatoes, which means they just go on producing dribs and drabs of fruit until frost kills them, because that suits how I live, but you might want to consider determinate tomatoes, which produce all at once, if you do big batch canning and don’t have time to do smaller batches more frequently. I grow about 65 plants, and sell my extras at the farmer’s market if they are presentable. I have a ton of room. If I could only plant 5 plants I would choose differently.

For early tomatoes: well, Early Girl, the non-hybrid, is a classic. That would be one of my five because she starts early and keeps on producing all season. But lets try a new one. The Early Clear Pink in the link looked nice and only 58 days. Check out Baker Creek Seeds– my favorite bedtime reading! And cherry tomatoes are early. sweet million tomatoI love Sweet Million, pictured here, for its graceful strings of super sweet fruit. That would be one of my five as well.  You can train it up and up. Visitors to my garden need something to snack on, there’s a bowl on the kitchen table, and I split them in the salad. It’s very rangy so give it space. If you really want feral tomatoes, try wild currant tomatoes. They are pearl-sized cute little wild things from Mexico and they volunteer. I have grown them in hanging baskets. Chocolate cherries were a bit if a yawn. Jelly Beans are so fun to dry for snacks. Isis Candy was pretty- a cool little star on each fruit. Sweet 100 is a good producer, but the flavor isn’t as intense as Sweet Million. This picture is from Country Gardens Farm. Everybody has to have one Yellow Pear. My grandmother used to make jam out of them. That is a distinctive looking plant- small, tough foliage.

Beefsteak tomatoes: The big Brandywines are a Pennsylvania Dutch heirloom everybody loves. They are my superstars- later in the season but worth the wait. Yellow Platfoot Strain BW is a monstrous dark green giant. I think that’s a hot contender for one of my five. They say that good-tasting tomatoes have a lower fruit:leaf area ratio, but with these guys, not so much. Lurking under the large, deep green, potato-like leaves (Most Brandywines have the distinctive “potato leaf”) hang the huge, glowing yellow tomatoes. You have to try this. One fully ripe Yellow Brandywine (Southern Exposure picture) can make a salad, and it is deep, sweet. apricot yellow, with a complex, meaty physical structure that you can slice into cubes if you want to.  That with a chiffonade of fresh basil, a pinch of salt, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, is all I crave. Maybe a sliver of red onion, for color.yellow brandywine

But let me compose myself and continue. The Pink Brandywine is not the fine red color you were thinking of, but it is truly a delicious tomato. There is a Red Brandywine as well, and a very prolific variation without potato leaves. Delicious is the Guinness world record tomato- seven pounds, I understand. I grew it a few times. It is a nice flavored tomato, with good acid, and somewhat pleated in shape. But one you shouldn’t miss is Black Krim, another best pick for me. Krim as in Crimean- it is a Russian tomato. Last year I planted them in a ton of manure right by the water hose, and they outdid themselves. I always thought of them as a medium to large black tomato with a fabulous, complex flavor. Last year they were as big as the Brandywines, and they are more disease resistant. By black, of course, I mean a reddish brown that is darker on top. It has crimson streaks inside it which are very pretty on a sandwich or in a salad. My favorite is to pan sear fat slices with sliced elephant garlic, olive oil, and a garnish of basil. High heat and quick, and then slide it onto the plate, or onto some toast. Slurp.

I also tried something I thought was called Martina last year. It was a big pale yellow with a pink sunburst surprise when you cut it. The sizes varied a lot. I’ll grow it again from the seeds I saved next to one from the packet somebody sent me.

Now, paste, the tomato of pizzas. What you see for sale in the store is a Roma or Roma type, and likely a hybrid. Roma is what you call a determinate tomato, because it fruits prodigiously all at the same time. This makes sense for processing, because you get a ton of fruit, process it, and you’re done. Then you can rip out the plant and go on with your life. I suppose I could put some in between the Brandywines and the cherry tomatoes, and make space for the rambling giants when the determinates are done. Gardening is about experimentation. But no, I don’t do Romas. We can do better. For canning I like Opalka, a huge, dry, oblong red paste tomato, indeterminate, with a pointy tip and a tiny, dry seed cavity. That is one good producer. It starts out looking wimpy, because it has wispy looking foliage, but it keeps on trucking until hard freeze. The foliage gets really thick and you have to dig for the fruit, but it is dry and slow to rot. Definitely feed it well or you will get blossom end rot, which looks like they sat end-down on hot iron. I put Epsom Salts in when I transplanted them and that seemed to work well, one tablespoon worked in when I transplant. There was a little Italian paste I grew last year as well which is supposed to be great for sun-dried tomatoes. But I really didn’t do much with it.

Beauty KingNow for the coolicious category. Tomatoes come in every category of color. Great White is a white beefsteak. It ripens to ivory and tastes very sub acid and sweet. I can’t grow them; Maryland’s critters eat them before I can pick a ripe one. I once saw a picture of spinach fettucine with white tomato sauce. Great idea, but it looked kind of nasty. Green Zebra is a must. It is a nice healthy medium green on green striped tomato which ripens to green stripes on yellow when very ripe. It has a nice citrussy twang and I got a lot of flack last year for making green zebra sorbet. And you can’t beat it in a salad. Brown Boar is a brown, green and red variation, and Beauty King is a yellow and green on red striped tomato that is just so flashy you have to try it. This is a pic that doesn’t really show the green. Lemon Boy is a medium sized, dependable yellow tomato with sweet white flesh that I haven’t grown in a few years. It is pretty but not as zippy as I like. Persimmon is a yummy medium orange similar to Amana Orange, which I grow for my mother, who can’t take the more acid tomatoes. Amana is really a pretty tomato, medium to large and deep orange. Costoluto Genovese is a really neat-looking tomato, distinctively pleated or ruffled and flat. You can get a few horizontal slices out of it which look really nice on a plate or a bruschetta. Black Prince is a tender Russian plum, on a short, bushy but thin stemmed plant, bearing heavily with smoky bronze tomatoes. My father said they looked and tasted rotten, but I thought they had an interesting and delicious flavor, kind of earthy. Tomato Growers Supply,  an excellent supplier with a huge online catalog, sells a variegated tomato. The foliage is actually green and white. It is a small plant and small, square fruits which aren’t very interesting. It’s very decorative though, for edible landscaping.

PeronBut when you get right down to it, you want tomatoes that will produce and taste good. Here’s the final word in tomatoes: Peron. If that was all I could grow, I’d pick this tomato. Dave’s Garden called it the “sprayless” tomato, although his forum gave it mixed reviews. But I’m saying what I have experienced for the past 4 years I’ve grown this and saved seed. It’s a medium sized, smooth, round, red Argentinian tomato that tolerates hot dry gardens, cold greenhouses, and Maryland’s pest and fungus-friendly climate. The bit about the cold greenhouse may be apocryphal, but I think the tomato that lived in my unheated greenhouse through 2 mild winters was a Peron. Seed cavity is average, flavor is definite tomato. As far as I’m concerned, Peron is the Toyota Corolla of tomatoes. Maybe even a Camry. Give it a test drive.

Using willow

Do you like baskets? People have been making baskets for millenia, and some are incredibly intricate. Baskets are useful, light, and pretty strong when you consider that they are made out of twigs, grass, leaves, roots, or bark. I sometimes make baskets; it’s really time-consuming but addictive. The hypnotic repeating patterns are sort of trance-forming. I will do a post on that sometime. And while you can buy basket weaving supplies all day long, I think it is more sustainable to make your own. So this post will be about using wild-crafted materials to repair a common wicker laundry basket. Repairing things is, after all, cheaper and better for the planet.

White willow (Salix alba) is what people usually use for medicine, and those long weeping branches are fun to weave with, but Black willow (Salix nigra) is a close cousin, and it’s very common here on the Eastern Shore. It grows in wet places, has a fairly short life, soft wood, and when it is dying you can often find Oyster mushrooms on willow (check mushroom post) I cut two of mine back periodically so that I have usable straight young shoots. This one has spread out and leaned over in the wet ground, so I sometimes have to trim branches so our friend can mow under it.

Salix is latin for willow, and you may notice that it is the root for salicylic acid, as in aspirin and various pimple medicines. Boiled willow bark makes a nice reddish tea that smells a bit like roses. I sometimes make it when I have cramps.  Usually I make it when I am boiling willow in my big stock pot to soften it or to loosen bark to use in repairing baskets. It is like leather.willow projects (14)

Cut the straightest pieces you can find, and no thicker than your thumb or it will be hard to bend them into circles to fit in the pot. Strip off smaller twigs on the shoots you will be using before you come in the house. You can do this by just making a loose fist around it and stripping them off. They are connected very weakly. Bend the shoots by bending small sections of the branch firmly and slowly between your fingers and thumbs. You will see how you can get the pieces in the pot without breaking.  Cover with water and boil for about a half an hour. Pull out the thick end of a piece and see if the bark peels easily. If it doesn’t, boil it longer. If it does, try to get the park off whole, or in wider, neater strips. willow projects (12)If you split it in one place and then support the bark with your hand while pulling back, it will come off in relatively fat strips. It will catch at the little knotholes, so pick it loose and continue. The strips of bark are strong, flexible, and easy to wrap around basket repairs to give a tidy but natural appearance similar to leather. You should use them while they are damp or dry them and rewet them later. If you keep them in a plastic bag they will mildew. Here I have repaired a broken laundry basket handle by reinforcing it with a piece of willow lashed on with bark. While I was doing this I also boiled willow to make wreaths for Christmas gifts. and tea for me. I will do a post on that later.willow projects (19)


Pruning in winter -or whenever

This Liberty apple is young and has a nice open growth habit.

This Liberty apple is young and has a nice open growth habit.

When do you prune? The best time to prune trees, shrubs, and rosebushes is when they are dormant, in winter. That being said, you prune when you can. It is better to prune at the wrong time than not prune at all. You prune for a lot of reasons. Pruning keeps plants from getting bigger than we want them to, and it alters their growing habit . You can trim a plant back so it gets more growing points, like the mythical Hydra, which makes it bushier and fuller. You can remove weaker branches to make the plant direct its energy into stronger, more desirable branches. You can prune to open up the structure of the plant to ventilation so that fungal diseases are less likely to thrive. pruning toolsI don’t think they mind being pruned; generally they respond with health and vigor, but pruning roses is like pruning playful cats. Wear clothes that can get ripped, wear heavy leather gloves, start with long loppers,and mind your face. knockout rosesTo whit, I prune my red Knockout roses down hard, to about 1/3 of their summer size, because they are a bit large for the bed I have them in, and because I want lots of new shoots for big bunches of roses.  And while Knockout is a very disease resistant and trouble free rose, selectively opening up the structure of the bush by removing twiggy growth, inward growing growth, and canes with too many closely spaced twigs on them can’t hurt. I prune my climbing Westerfield rose to shape it, control it- ha!- and try to keep the canes from falling over when they are heavy with big, fragrant orange roses. (Correction for my earlier remark about cats- pruning ramblers like Climbing Westerfield is like playing with a nervous tiger. Unless you are very careful you will get hurt.) It is attached to a trellis I made 2 years ago out of black willow prunings, which holds it up against the house. The trellis is rotted and falling apart, so I will be cutting the Westerfield back a little harder this year so I can remove the old trellis and put in a new one. Of course this means I also need to prune the willows, which I whack to the ground every 2-3 years so I will have usable willow branches for basket work. After I have taken away the bulk of the pruning I will clean things up with a smaller pair of clippers. Now I can clip, rake, weed and mulch. I get free mulch from the utility guys who trim the trees along the roadsides. They are delighted to have a free place to drop off their wood chips as long as it is close by, so I stop and tell them where I live when I see them trimming within a few miles of my house. It is important to remember that those heavy trucks can’t drive off of paved roads without getting stuck unless the ground is hard and dry though. Also, bear in mind that wood chips from trees can carry tree pathogens, but I figure that the chips come from nearby  so whatever they may carry would get here anyway. They eventually rot down into a lovely humus which is good for amending the soil in shady beds where you are growing acid-loving plants. before pruning (10)I also need to prune fruit trees. This is very important for disease control and fruit bearing. I really care about fruit. The plums are so delicious, but they are a real pain in Maryland. Fruit trees here suffer from all kinds of problems, since our mild and humid climate is hospitable to insects and fungal diseases. If you have a healthy old tree, treasure it and propagate from it. Young trees need to be shaped. As bends the twig so grows the tree, right? I have two 5 year old trees I will enjoy pruning, because they are happy and healthy, and I have pruned them every year so they have a nice shape. I need to control height, so I can reach the fruit without a ladder, and I need to take out branches that interfere with airflow through the center of the tree. I will cut out all inward growing and crossing branches, and I will also look at how the shape is evolving, and decide if any major branches should come out, based on what they will look like eventually. Branches that look well spaced now will be crowded in a few years, and if we cut it out now the bark will heal quickly and no rot will start inside the tree. Look at the photos and see if you can imagine where the cuts should go before you look at the after pictures. Make clean cuts so they heal well. Don’t leave ragged bark hanging off the wood. Use good tools. Up to a third inch thick clippers work fine; after that loppers work up to an inch, and after that use a small saw like a pruning saw, or a sawsall, if you can control the cuts so they come out clean. I use a sawsall if I have a lot to do, but only on larger branches, since little branches just catch on the teeth and shake wildly. We don’t use tar on pruning cuts any more. The idea is that it traps moisture under the tar, so you can create a skin of tar with bugs or something underneath it. I trimmed and tarred the torn bark on a Coxes Orange Pippin I hit with a weed whacker, and it healed beautifully, so I am not convinced either way. For mature fruit trees you alternate years, taking out major wood one year and trimming back size the next. I have two Japanese plums; a Methley and a Santa Rosa. They are Satsuma types, which means they are red like cherries. They are so delicious- the juice, the jam, the plums in honey syrup in winter, the syrup over ice, maybe with a little wine- I am fighting for the plums. But the Santa Rosa has been dropping all its fruit for the past seven or eight years, so I only let it live for to pollinate the Methley. The Methley has a very nice spreading growth habit, and bears its smallish red fruit heavily along its twigs. Borer damageUnfortunately trunk borers have hit it, as evidenced by balls of clear sap drying on the trunk, and brown slime at the base with little bits of chewed up wood crumbs called frass in it. I have injected straight Neem, an organic tree extract, into the holes in the bark. I have run wires into the holes to try to kill the borers. I cleared the sod away from the trunk to about a foot and a half, dumped a bag of play sand around it, made a plastic tent/skirt around the bottom two feet of trunk and put mothballs in it. But they are back again this year. The tree does seem to be handling it so far. So this year I will thin out small twigs on the Methley to increase ventilation, since we have had Brown Rot the last 2 years (try Serenade, an organic fungicide based on Bacillus Subtilis) and so I can get my Surround in there (a kaolin clay emulsion which is a wonderful organic crop protectant).  The Santa Rosa I am going to cut back very hard, since it is really time I put in a new tree, but I still need my pollinator. before pruning (12)One of the trees I am pruning this week is a very healthy 5 year old sweet cherry. It has a slightly drooping growth habit, and the cherries have been small and miserable, which tells me that it needs a pollinator. I have honestly forgotten what kind it is, which is a bad mistake on my part. Bing, which it may be, needs a pollinator. I planted a Stella nearby, but it got run over by a lawn mower, so it is not as far along as it should be. Last year it seemed to bloom just a little too far behind the other one to be effective. It sure had nice cherries though, for its age. I probably won’t start shaping it this year because the bark hasn’t completely closed over the wounds, and it hasn’t branched out yet. I want it to have plenty of leaf area to gain strength. The Montmorency cherry, which is a sour pie cherry, should start producing this year. I love sour cherries! I also need to whack back the kiwi vines, just for the sake of control. I will cut off the weaker vines and the ones that are trying to get at the roses. I supposedly have three females and one male, but they all look pretty much alike. I thought the males had variegated foliage. If they don’t do something this year maybe I’ll buy another male. You would think they would have blossoms by now. I bought them almost 4 years ago and they are rampant. (NB_Yup, the male is no longer with us) I have a pomegranate! pomegranate (2)It grew quickly from a seed and seems quite happy. The blossoms are wildly orange and look like plastic. We had 2 fruits last year. It has a very twiggy, shrubby, prickly growth habit. It is about five feet tall, but I understand they get pretty big. So far I have thinned out twiggy growth around the base, to make it easier to weed. The leaves are small and don’t seem to keep the tree wet, otherwise I would worry, since it comes from a dry climate. My mother’s fig tree is full of honeysuckle and twiggy growth. I think we should cut it flat to the ground and start fresh. (NB I cut it off about 4 feet tall and removed oldest trunks and wimpy stems) This doesn’t hurt it; usually we have a hard freeze every 10 years and it freezes to the ground. We saw off all the dead trunks and it comes right back, only we miss the first crop of fruits (they fruit twice in a long season). Generally you want to remove weaker stems on a fig, and prevent it from getting too tall to pick from. A good fig tree is a real blessing. Basically, we prune for beauty and for usefulness, because health, beauty, and productivity are all one, but in the end, as the Little Prince said,  “C’est utile puisque c’est beau.” It’s useful because it’s beautiful.