SILVER LININGS OF COVID

Making lemonade from lemons

Our first masks – kerchief, coffee filter, and rubber bands!

While the COVID crisis caused worry and extra caution for the past year, not all of it was bad. Our sadness at the suffering of others from the virus and its associated effects gave us the worst times. Because of my husband’s sometimes weakened immune response to illness, we became proactive regarding our safety. But we didn’t suffer because of it. Far from it.

If anything, the time of isolation strengthened our marriage. We enjoyed time together and time alone in our separate parts of our home. Online connections kept us in touch with loved ones, and we figured out a way to visit with my daughter safely three times over the past year. It worked for us, and we never felt deprived. Living in Florida during the winter did make things easier because we could still enjoy our activities outside without worry.

When we realized we’d be spending less money on outside activities and spending more time in our home, inspiration hit. Many projects had been put on hold because of health and time issues over the past five years. With good health, abundant time, and more money, we decided it was time to start home improvements we’d put off for years and finish projects put on hold because of life struggles.

It kept us engaged, gave folks’ work, and raised our living comfort beyond what it cost to complete the projects. Our silver linings.

First, we added a screened room over an unroofed deck outside our living room. I’d wanted this since I bought the house in 2007. Its completion exceeded expectations because it gives us another living space and a view of the lake/pond across the street, which had previously been blocked by a fence.

Deck Before
Finished Screened Porch

Next, we concentrated on the backyard which had been a work in progress for the past six years. We had to replace fencing and repair existing fencing, but it went in fits and starts. This year we finally had the time to do the labor to finish it.

Backyard Before
Backyard After

I tackled projects that had seemed too time consuming on the inside as well. Painting an old brick fireplace that was, frankly, poorly executed originally, scared me. With COVID time on my hands and fears put in perspective, I said, “screw it,” and went to work. It ended up as a four-hour job with spectacular results.

Fireplace Before
Fireplace After

We remodeled the kitchen when we moved back from Pittsburgh in 2016 after the house serving as a rental property for five years. New cabinets, countertops, and appliances updated the 1980-era kitchen. When it was completed, the result seemed lackluster. I’m not a decorator, mind you. I go instinctively and aesthetically with fresh ideas on the back burner. Until this past year when I opened my eyes. I saw a photo of a kitchen with a backsplash. I was blinded by the light. My friend, Amazon, provided the solution. And suddenly, my kitchen remodel was finally complete.

Finally, a kitchen with a splash!

The last project, a butterfly garden to replace a small garden circled by a crumbling brick wall didn’t seem possible in a year where we’d done just about everything. But then with a burst of energy, Robert did it. Using recycled material from our backyard, he built a butterfly garden now filled with milkweed, passion flowers, cone flowers, zinnias, and salvia inviting the caterpillars to begin the work needed to fill our yard with those winged flutter-bys.

Before
After

We slowed down. We reconnected. We healed. And we improved ourselves and our surroundings. The lemons laid at our feet became lemonade for our comfort and solace. And the butterfly garden brought us closer to our neighbors who often stopped to chat about gardening. My husband was even offered a few jobs to build the same for them. He turned them down with a smile.

I hope you have found your silver linings as well. Please share them here. I’d love to know how the past year treated you. Or more precise, how did you adapt to the year gone?

MARCH 2020 – ONE LAST ESCAPE

Essay and photos by P.C. Zick

Withlacoochee River near Nobleton, Florida

The winter of 2019/2020 may have been foreshadowing of what happened in the early spring of 2020. From the death of my brother to my husband’s myriad of physical ailments to surgery for my daughter, I’d had it by February and looked forward to a fresh start for a new year.

Once my husband recovered, we decided to get away, so we rented a cabin on the Withlacoochee River in central Florida for four nights. Rumblings about COVID gave us concern about attending a Detroit Tiger spring training game in Lakeland on March 10 with my in-laws. When the first Florida cases were detected March 1, we became concerned. Within a week, the first death in Florida had been confirmed, and we made the decision not to go to the game, but we’d thought staying in a cabin on a river would be safe enough.

And I’m forever grateful we made the decision to go. The trip marked the last of many things we’d be able to do for the next year.

The Airbnb we rented was a disjointed little place on a gorgeous piece of property. The large screened porch had a river front view. But we were in rural Florida, and life as we know it living in a liberal college town disappeared. I had to retrieve the keys from a neighbor whose display of a Confederate flag gave me a shudder when I had to go underneath it to knock on his door where I was greeted by a “harmless” barking pit bull.

Cypress trees and knees

We mostly stayed clear of the neighbor for the duration of our stay. We kayaked the Withlacoochee near Nobleton and paddled south, which is upriver for this Florida river—like the St. Johns on the east coast, it flows south to north. We paddled for an hour then allowed the current to float us back to the boat ramp. Such a beautiful and undisturbed part of Florida soothed us with its wildlife, old cypress trees and lush overhanging oaks.

Our Airbnb advertised a dock for launching kayaks, but either the owner hadn’t inspected the area in some time, or he had no idea about what is needed for a successful launch. Muddy quicksand-style mucky banks are not it. There was a floating dock we were told we could use by the Confederate flag-flying guy. His definition of “dock” differs from ours. Splintered boards and shaky engineering made getting into the kayaks tough. I scraped my back on the edge of the dock but thankfully didn’t break skin.

We managed to float off on the tributary that led to the river. Still tired from the upriver paddle earlier, we only took a quick tour of the river in front of our rental, but it was well worth it because we discovered an ibis sanctuary with lots of duck weed and an abundance of bald cypress trees.

Ibis sanctuary

When we emerged to the main river, Robert noticed a long canoe on the banks. A tent had been pitched nearby.

“Look at the size of that canoe,” Robert yelled out to me as I headed back to our little tributary’s entrance.

A man emerged from the tent, looking as if he’d just woken up.

“Sorry to wake you, man,” Robert offered.

“Do you have a gun?” the man answered.

“No, no, we don’t have anything like that.” Robert quickly paddled away leaving the man to his ramblings and leaving us puzzled and slightly unnerved.

Alligators woken from slumber seemed a safer bet, which we managed to encounter on our next trip.

The next day we took the kayaks to Hog Island—a park a short drive from the cabin. We paddled upriver for one hour and forty-five minutes. At one point we came around a bend and there was a large alligator on the banks. Robert urged me closer with the camera, but I had only moved a few inches when the darn thing jumped off the bank into the water in front of my kayak. Fortunately, the big guy didn’t go underneath me, or I might have been lunch.

I managed one shot before this alligator shot into the river.

We paddled to Iron Bridge, an old railroad bridge over the river. We floated back the same route, which took us about a half an hour less as the current carried us effortlessly through the shaded river.

Robert’s red rum

The Withlacoochee trip was much needed and long anticipated. I think we were reluctant to have it end, so we booked a boat tour/fishing charter on the Homosassa River on the way home. Captain John Dixon, a one-man operation, took us out for a private tour of the river and provided fishing gear. We each caught a red drum, but Robert’s was much larger by far.

Prior to the excursion, we had our last indoor restaurant meal at the Sugarmill Restaurant in Homosassa—a full-blown breakfast, which we enjoyed but sat away from others. At some point during our time away, they had finally started calling the COVID crisis a pandemic, and we were beginning to examine our behaviors, although masks were something to be used only by medical personnel.

As we finished up our business with Captain John, I shook his hand, and I remember almost recoiling when I realized what I had done. They were just starting to caution about social distancing and elbow bumping. A whole new world had begun while we vacationed.

More than a year later, we are both fully vaccinated, but we’re still wearing masks and have not eaten inside a restaurant since our diner breakfast fourteen months ago. I’m not complaining. It’s been a good year in so many ways. Next week I’ll explore some of the positive things that have happened since the Withlacoochee trip.

limpkin
wood storks
river cooter

Our Urban Oasis

Piney Z Lake, Tallahassee, Florida

We live on the southeast side of Tallahassee, but when we drive a mile from our home to a city park, it’s hard to believe we’re so close to an urban area with a population of 200,000. We call it Piney Z after the name of one of the lakes and the neighborhood bordering it, but its official title is Lafayette Lake Heritage Trail—trails for feet, bikes, and paddles.

At one time, the entire area was a swamp-like lake, but in the mid-twentieth century it became the custom in Florida to manipulate water, and Lake Lafayette was divided into three different bodies of water. The northern region is mostly swampland joining two city parks. The middle lake, Piney Z, is the one most used by residents such as my husband and me. The lower region is overgrown with invasive plants, but a canoe trail is visible.

Spanish moss drips from the live oak trees on Bill’s Trail

We hike the trail which is part dirt—some parts filled with roots but overhung with live oak trees dripping in Spanish moss. The middle section of the three-mile loop, contains a bridge over railroad tracks and a boardwalk overlooking the entire lake, which is dotted with cypress trees. The final stretch is a wide dirt trail with water on one side and a tree-filled hill on the other. Fingers of land—seven around the entire lake—go out onto Piney Z, a perfect isolated place for fishermen or wood storks and great blue herons. The hike takes about an hour, and it’s a peaceful calming exercise so close to home.

We also kayak the lake. It’s about a mile from the primitive boat launch to the land bridge separating Piney Z from the lower portion where kayakers or canoers can portage and take the canoe trail for another six miles. We mostly stay on Piney Z paddling the perimeter or just going to a stand of cypress and hang out and watch the birds. We try not to disturb the osprey nest above if the birds are in residence.

Despite man’s manipulation, this little oasis of green in Florida’s capital city sustains our spirit while filling our senses.

Cypress trees on Piney Z Lake

EARTH DAY 2021

Saluting Rachel Carson and A SILENT SPRING

Essay and photos by Patricia Zick @PCZick

“All mankind is in her debt.”

Sen Abraham Rubicoff in 1964 after the death of Rachel Carson

You might ask who is Rachel Carson? I had heard of her prior to moving to Pittsburgh in 2010, but I wasn’t completely aware of her impact on the environment. There are triplet bridges over the Allegheny River in downtown Pittsburgh. The first leads to PNC Park where the Pirates play, so it makes sense that it is called the Roberto Clemente Bridge. The second, the Andy Warhol Bridge, honors the artist who grew up in Pittsburgh. But the third, the Rachel Carson Bridge, puzzled me.

That’s when I did my research. And I learned the author of Silent Spring started in motion the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.

Spingdale, PA, homestead of Rachel Carson
Childhood homestead of Rachel Carson – Springdale, PA

Born in 1907, she grew up on the banks of the Allegheny River in the community of Springdale, just upriver from the city that was coughing its way to becoming the Steel Capital of the World during the years of her childhood. Ms. Carson played in the hills surrounding the river as it wound its way to meet the Monongahela and Ohio rivers. When she found a fossil on the banks of the Allegheny, she became obsessed with the sea and the history of nature.

Ms. Carson was a writer – a poetess of prose – from an early age. But in college at Pittsburgh Women’s College (now Chatham University) the study of biology beckoned. She went on to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service where her talents as a writer emerged in the writing of boring fact sheets about species. She eventually left the USFWS to write books about the sea when she began hearing about illnesses caused by the wholesale spraying of pesticides. Thus began her four year journey in researching and writing of Silent Spring published in 1962.

The shocking and controversial book set in motion a string of actions that eventually led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and passage of l the Clean Air Act  and the Endangered Species Act.  Unfortunately, she didn’t live long enough to witness the explosive impact of her research and words.

In Silent Spring, Carson exposed the practice of wholesale spraying of lethal toxic substances on all living things to kill one pest.

While the book became a bestseller almost immediately, it created a firestorm of vicious attacks on Carson by the pesticide industry and the media. She remarked that her critics represented a small, yet very rich, segment of the population.

An editorial in Newsweek soon after its publication compared Carson to Sen. Joseph McCarthy because the book stirred up the “demons of paranoia.”

She didn’t want to write Silent Spring, but she stated in an interview, “the subject chooses the writer, not the other way around.”

The Earth Day Network  credits the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring,  in 1962 as a “watershed moment for the modern environmental movement.”

The bald eagle were once endangered by pesticides, but thanks to Rachel Carson, they are now of low conservation concern. St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge

That first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, came in part as a public response to the gargantuan oil spill in Santa Barbara in 1969. Ironically, on the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day in 2010, news of another oil spill began trickling into the media.

Ms. Carson’s book from almost sixty years ago brought change – that can’t be disputed. The Environmental Protection Agency and passage of legislation such as the Clean Air Act  and the Endangered Species Act  stand as testament to the revolution and scrutiny she brought on industry in the United States. But it didn’t protect us completely from big corporations’ quest for profit over safety. And we still have so far to go.

Yet, her words still are relevant and pertinent today, and we must not forget them. We’ve come so far since she made the connections between what we do to the environment and the toll we pay for its destruction. We can’t let her down now as we prepare to celebrate another Earth Day, the fifty-first.

The PBS documentary A Sense of Wonder uses Ms. Carson’s words in her final year to sum up her legacy.

Blue jay – Rocky Mountain National Park

“Mankind has gone very far into an artificial world of his own creation. He has sought to insulate himself in his cities of steel and concrete, away from the realities of earth, water, the growing seed. And intoxicated with a sense of his own power, he seems to be going farther and farther into experiments toward the destruction of himself and his world. . .I do believe, that the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and the realities of this universe about us, the less taste we shall have for its destruction.”

Rachel Carson

MAKE YARD A FOUR-LETTER WORD

Residential Yards Can Hurt or Help the Environment

Fragile describes Florida’s environment and habitat. It would be that way even without the influx of twenty million plus people inhabiting it year-round then add in the tourists who flock here each year for days, weeks, or even months at a time. And of those millions of people, far too many strive for the perfect yard at a great cost to the environment.

The whole peninsula sits near sea level except for spots in the Panhandle and Central Florida that rise several hundred feet above the ocean. And the land that hovers above the Floridan Aquifer resembles Swiss cheese with holes and fissures that sometimes give way to sinkholes. The stormwater runoff and retention ponds filled with toxic residues of human life filter through the holes into the water supply for millions of people.

Water—the lifeblood of human and wildlife perpetuation—faces serious peril in the Sunshine State. If you live in Oklahoma you may say, “So what?” But we’re all connected, us very united of states. When one of us is hurt, polluted, compromised the whole of us will eventually feel the impact.

Plenty of studies show that the biggest culprit to polluting our water comes from agriculture and residential homes. One of them we can do something about today—the treatment of our lawns.

Wes Skiles, cave explorer and filmmaker, spent much of his career showing how what we do on the surface impacts what lies below. And what lies below makes its way into our bodies via water.

“I want ‘yard’ and ‘lawn’ to become the next four-letter words,” he often told me when I would interview him for articles about Florida’s springs.

Jim Stevenson, a life-long advocate and protector of Florida’s springs, still fights the battle. In a recent ZOOM presentation, he encouraged us all to do our landscaping part with the philosophy of “less is good, none is better.”

Our side yard and garden

It’s something my husband and I have practiced for years. Our relaxed attitude toward our lawn actually has more benefits that the big one of saving our water. We save money and time, too.

It seems our society loves to manipulate the natural world when Mother Nature is much wiser than us. But letting her do her thing leads the way to the path of least resistance.

Our lawn looks as good if not better than our neighbors who strive for perfection. We try to tell them through example. It may be why we have people stopping at our house when we’re in the yard just to tell us how great everything looks. We attempt to educate during those moments.

Here’s some of the simple things we do to maintain our yard.

Our recently mowed front yard
  1. No pesticides—We let lawn do its own thing while being good stewards of the land.
  2. Use what you have – We rake our leaves in the fall and put them around our shrubs and trees. Then we buy pine straw ($4 a bundle) and put over the leaves to hold them in place. In the spring, we get wood chips from the recycle center and put that over the pine as mulch. Also, mulching helps reduce the need for watering and weeding.
  3. No sprinklers – We don’t water our yard. Some of the biggest users of water come from residential neighborhoods. If you plant native grasses and plants, they adapt to the weather conditions and don’t need to be watered.
  4. Reasonable grass length – We set the blades on our mower a little higher than some of our neighbors who have the blade so low it scrapes the dirt beneath the grass and looks lousy after a trim. If you leave some “hair” on the ground, it helps retain moisture and keeps it from scorching.

Our lawn may not be perfectly manicured, but then neither are we. However, we know that we have saved time and money while contributing to a healthy ecosystem.

Backyard with the sun partially shining down on our natural lawn

ON DUCKS AND GEESE

NATURE IN DISARRAY

Essay and photos by @PCZick

During this time of staying home, we’ve found different ways to entertain ourselves. Some may question our affinity to one of our new pastimes, but it keeps us out of trouble and perhaps sane. Although again some may question that.

Twin Lakes

Our house sits across a private road from a pond known as Twin Lakes. There is a question where the twin resides, and the lake designation seems optimistic. Our road, subdivision, and pond are all named Twin Lakes, so the whole thing is one big misnomer. No wonder the wildlife here may be disturbed.

The saga began when two Muscovy ducks took up residence on the “lake” several years ago. This species of duck are a pestilence in certain parts of the city, but we only had the pair. Until someone got tired of waiting for the ducks to cross the road one day and ran over one of them. We were told by the wildlife officials the male of the couple had bit the pavement. So, the one lone female with large red warts on its face remained. We named her the Ugly Duckling, but she seemed so pitiful in her aloneness that we decided we mustn’t mention the Ugly word in her presence—this decision may be the reason my daughter questions our attachment.

Instead, we took to calling her UD. The only time UD perked up came in January the past two years of her widowhood when the Canada geese arrived for the winter. One pair comes every year and UD began making it a threesome, even going so far as sitting on the nest when the female goose laid her eggs. For two years, we enjoyed the ducklings born in the early spring although it was difficult for vehicles to come in and out of Twin Lakes when two adult geese, one UD, and six ducklings decided to own the road.

UD

Then in April, the Canada geese and their offspring would depart, leaving UD alone and depressed. We did our best to give her a cheery, “Good morning, UD,” on our morning walks and eventually, she became used to us and even followed us on our walks. We became her people.

In January this year, the geese returned, and the threesome once again resumed their odd little trio of waterfowl. One day in March, I heard a ruckus on the water and could see from our front yard large wings flapping. I walked toward the disturbance on the single pond Twin Lakes and saw something quite disturbing. I called for my husband, and when he saw, he said, “Is UD trying to kill it?”

“No,” I replied. “UD is mating with the female.” All the while, the male goose sat in the water watching, not more than ten feet away, while UD’s beak held the neck of the goose.

Several things shocked us. First, UD is a male. And “he” disrupted the habit of the Canada geese that are usually monogamous and pick mates for life. And I later learned geese don’t run in packs, especially during mating season. UD and Twin Lakes had turned nature upside down in our little isolated world.

Soon enough, the nest was laid, eggs deposited, and the female began incubating the potential offspring. We couldn’t go near the nest without the male goose or UD coming after us, so we left them in peace. During the day, the male goose floated guard on the water. And at night, UD took over the duties. Then about two weeks later, they abandoned the nest. The geese ignored the nest, even allowing me to take pictures of the six eggs that had been revealed—not broken but abandoned. Sometimes, UD would stand over the nest sadly looking down at the eggs.

The geese haven’t left yet, and this morning, I heard another ruckus between the three of them, but I didn’t see a repeat performance of the ménage trois of Twin Lakes.

When they do leave, as I assume they will, UD will come back to us for comfort. But we will never think of him in the same way ever again.

And we may have to rename him as the Stud of Twin Lakes, STL for short.

In researching the life history of geese and ducks, I discovered that Canada geese rarely take another mate. But Muscovy ducks have no such standards. While it is possible for them to mate (as I can witness), it is unlikely that it would take. But if it did, the chances are the offspring would be sterile.

MY KAYAKING ROOTS

Paddles moving in the water, shore birds waiting in the shallows, cypress trees dripping in Spanish moss—these are a few of the things I love about kayaking.

Photos and essay by P.C. Zick (@PCZick)

I began my water journeys in a canoe, but I never felt at home, either as the navigator in the back or the first mate in the front. However, I knew nothing else and loved the quiet and peace of the rivers of north Florida, mostly the Santa Fe near High Springs. One day, friends who lived on the river invited us to use their double kayak. When I first sat down and felt the steadiness of the boat, I knew I’d never use a canoe again. And I haven’t.

When I moved to Tallahassee in 2007, I began pursuing kayaking opportunities. I met a friend who had two kayaks but no kayaking partner. I found the outfitters in Woodville who gave me lessons and trips to explore the area, mostly on the Wacissa River where I encountered the dark and narrow Slave Canal. When I met Robert in 2009, I introduced him to kayaking. He’d always been a canoer, so it was fun to see his reaction—similar to mine years before—as he put in on the Wakulla River near Tallahassee. Once I’d moved to Pennsylvania, we bought my/our first kayaks, but strapping them to the top of his Rav-4 was time-consuming. Once we bought a pickup truck, that problem disappeared as we could just throw them in the back and be on our way.

Since then, we’ve put in some kayak miles on rivers, reservoirs, and lakes in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania. And always, I am soothed by the water and its surrounding environment. And now we own six kayaks—three in Tallahassee and three in North Carolina. They are all used and simple rafts but that’s all we need. We don’t need speed or maneuverability since we go on slow-moving waters, mostly, with only one intent—to enjoy the beauty and tranquility of nature.

I began canoeing back in Michigan when a college friend asked me to go on a trip with her family. She and I had no idea what we were doing and ended up ramming the canoe into the banks and capsizing after we’d been looking up the high banks where four cute boys stood looking down at us and shouting. So much for looking like “hot” chicks in a canoe. We were “wet” morons up the river without a paddle. Another trip with my own family ended up even worse when my dad and nephew capsized, and my father’s hearing aids went into the water after we had warned him not to wear them while canoeing. It was a quiet ride home with my mother and father that night. Maybe now it’s becoming clearer why I so readily accepted the kayak as my mode of river transportation.

The Santa Fe River became my most travelled river after I moved to north Florida from Michigan in 1980. I’ve also traversed Santa Fe Lake near Melrose where the river begins then flows westerly until it flows into the Suwannee River only miles from the Gulf of Mexico. So much about north Florida can be learned from the slow-moving spring-filled river. From history to diverse ecosystems to its world-class springs, this river could be its own school.

After it leaves the confines of the lake, the Santa Fe flows into a swamp to the small town of Worthington Springs. At one time, a sulfur spring at this point in the river hosted a Gilded Age resort for wealthy northerners to visit to restore and cure all their ailments. Today, the sulfur no longer bubbles forth and only fragments of the manmade pool remain.

Once it leaves Worthington Springs to continue its westward flow, the river becomes more navigable but there are few boat ramps until it reaches High Springs. But before then, when it reaches O’Leno State Park, it dips its flow underground for three miles only to emerge at River Rise State Preserve near High Springs. This natural bridge played a large role in the area’s history as it served as a part of one of Florida’s oldest road systems, Old Bellamy, which was the main north/south road in north Florida. The indigenous people of the area depended on that bridge.

From the preserve, the Santa Fe is host to dozens of significant freshwater springs, including those of the spring-fed Ichetucknee River which empties into the Santa Fe only a few miles before both rivers feed their flow to the mighty Suwannee.

The river traverses a variety of habitat from pine flatwoods to sand hills to hardwood hammocks to swamps teeming with wildlife. Turtles, alligators, and river otters are common sights along with a variety of song and wading birds. Bears, bobcats, and foxes roam the shores, but I’ve never seen any on the river.

All three rivers, the Suwannee, the Santa Fe, and the Ichetucknee, sealed my love for kayaking. They also gave me an appreciation of the unique nature of Florida’s environment teaching me about the Floridan Aquifer from where the springs originate. It taught me the history of the Timucuans, a highly evolved tribe of Native Americans in north Florida and who disappeared within two hundred years of the Europeans’ arrival.

And the fragile landscape inspired me to be a steward of nature.

Directions: From I-75 southbound, take Exit 414 – Highway 441 south to High Springs, Florida. Before the city limits, 441 crosses the Santa Fe, and there is an outfitter on the right. From I-75 northbound, take Exit 399 – Highway 441 north to High Springs. One mile past intersection of 441 and SR 236, 441 crosses the Santa Fe. Outfitter on the left. From High Springs, take highways 27 or 47 north to find other boat ramps and springs on the Santa Fe. Highway 47 leads to the two entrances to Ichetucknee State Park as well.

THERAPY – BRAIDING GARLIC

Garlic Braids 2020

I spent my Sunday handling the garlic crop, which loves our mountain garden. My husband plants bulbs in the ground in the fall then we leave the mountains for the winter. By the time we return in late spring, the crop is ready for harvesting. Several years ago, I discovered how to braid the bulbs with stalks as an edible decoration. Also, I believe hanging them this way allows for them to remain usable for months. Dry circulating air keeps the cloves from drying out.

We use them throughout the gardening season and beyond. Usually I start running low on garlic toward the end of winter.

Here’s how to do it if you should grow your own or find them at a good price at a farmer’s market.

Harvest garlic with leaves intact. Lay them in a cool and dry place—we used our porch and placed them on newspaper. After approximately two weeks, the green on the leaves begins to brown. Robert chose the bulbs with the biggest bulbs for planting in the fall. The rest I prepared for braiding.

Clean the bulbs. Remove any lingering dirt before you braid it. In some cases, you may be able to remove the dirt and other residue by brushing it away with your fingers. I used both my fingers and a slightly damp cloth. On some of the bulbs, I removed several layers of outer dry skin to get rid of dirt. Do not remove all the outer layers.

Trim the garlic. There are usually long, scraggly roots attached to the bottom bulbs, so cut those to approximately ¼-inch. Also trim away any of the leaves that are scraggly looking.

Soak the garlic stems. You want the bulbs’ leaves to be pliable so they’re easier to braid. There are two ways to do this, but most importantly, do not get the bulbs wet during this process. You only want the leaves damp enough to be flexible. You can wrap the leaves in wet towels and leave for 20-30 minutes or longer. I tried this the first year, and it didn’t seem to get them pliable enough. The second year, I used a different method, which I liked much better. Fill a bowl or sink with lukewarm water and soak the garlic so just the leaves are submerged. Soak for 15-30 minutes until they are flexible.

Select three largest bulbs and crisscross them. It is suggested that for the best braids, you use twelve bulbs. I’ve used less than that to good effect. As you’re sorting the ones that you’ll use, set aside the three largest bulbs to serve as the start of the braid. Lay them on a flat surface with one bulb in the center, one to its left, and one to its right. The center bulb’s leaves should be pointed at you, while the other two leaves are crisscrossed over one another to form an X over the center bulb. It helps to secure the place where the bulbs overlap with a piece of twine. Make sure that the piece of twine you use is long enough to knot over the bulbs with enough excess that you can secure additional bulbs that you place in the braid.

Start adding bulbs. Place a fourth bulb over the existing bundle, so it matches up with the center bulb. Use the excess twine to secure the fourth bulb to the stack to make it easier when you start to braid. Next, take two more bulbs and align them with the two diagonal bulbs in a crisscross fashion.

Begin braiding. With all of the bulbs’ leaves lined up, it’s time to start the braid. Make sure that you’re grabbing the two sets of leaves for each section as you begin braiding. Take the two leaves from the right side and cross them under the middle leaves, so they become the centerpieces. Next, take the two leaves on the left and cross them under the middle leaves. Repeat using twine to secure as needed. I only used twine on the fourth bulb and then at the end.

Add more bulbs. Once you’ve started the braid, you can add three bulbs. You should line the leaves up with the existing ends of the braids as you did with the second set, so one aligns with the left section, one aligns with the center, and one aligns with the right. Start braiding again for one or two passes and repeat the process until you’ve added all of your bulbs. I’ve used as few as six bulbs so I could give braids as gifts.

Finish braiding and secure the entire garlic braid. After you’ve added all of the garlic, you should continue braiding the leaves until you get to the end. Use another piece of twine to tie off the end and secure the entire braid. I then used the twine to help me hang the bulbs.

Note: The first year I braided garlic, my husband only had green twine. I used it, but it was very conspicuous in the braids. The next year I made sure I had brown which blends in better with the leaves.

The “recipe” for braiding garlic, along with many other gardening tips and recipes, can be found in my book, From Seed to Garden Growing, Harvesting, Cooking, and Preserving Food.

PROTECTING THE GARDEN AND STILL BE ORGANIC

Pests can ruin your vegetable crop, but they can be controlled if caught early enough. Here is an excerpt from From Seed to Table on dealing with them while still remaining as organic as possible.

The definitions on organic gardening differ. At its most basic level, it means gardening with native plants, using natural fertilizers and pesticides, with the addition of composted materials. I’m not going to label our gardening efforts as organic, even though we might qualify under some of the more loosely interpreted definitions. We plant vegetables that are well suited to the environment where we live. We prepare the soil using organic materials, such as compost and mushroom manure/compost, supplemented with sand to help loosen the clay loam, such as what we had in western Pennsylvania. However, we do use Miracle Gro® on our seedling plants to help them grow faster and stronger, but we do not apply Miracle Gro® on the garden. For pesticides, we use natural concentrates including rotenone—if available—pyrethrins, spinosyn A and D, found in Captain Jack’s Deadbug Neem® oil concentrate, and bacillus thuringienis (BT) for general purpose caterpillar control. These natural, organic products are diluted with warm water according to instructions that come with the concentrates. We spray the cole family of plants and beans every two weeks or as needed, based on damage from cabbageworms or bean beetles. We don’t pick those vegetables until at least a week after spraying. All of these natural pesticides break down quickly after a couple of days in sunlight. Rains will wash them off, so it should be reapplied after a substantial rainstorm.

Here’s a chart to help determine what types of pesticide work well for individual vegetables.

VEGETABLES

PEST

CONTROL

Beans – bush and pole (green, yellow, purple), lima and butter beans Bean beetles, caterpillars, aphids, white fly, stink bugs, leaf miners Pyrithins, Neem oil, Captain Jack’s Deadbug (spinosyn A & D)

 

Tomatoes – all kinds and colors Hornworm, aphids, white fly, stink bugs, fungi (early and late blights, powdery mildew), leaf miners

 

Pyrithins, Neem oil, spinosyn A & D, except for fungi use copper octanoate concentrate (copper soap), or mancozeb (manganese and flowable zinc concentrate

 

Peppers – sweet and hot Stink bugs – white yellow blemishes on pepper Pyrithins, Neem oil, spinosyn A & D

 

Cole family – cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, kale, collards, turnips, rutabagas, kohlrabi

 

Cabbage worm or moth Pyrithins, Neem oil, spinosyn A & D, or BT
Cucumbers – all sizes Cucumber beetles, aphids, white fly, fungi on leaves

 

Same as tomatoes
Squash – summer/winter Squash bugs Same as peppers
Spinach Leaf miners Same as peppers

#FREE Downloads – May 12-14, 2020

THE ART OF COMPOSTING

CompostHere’s something you can start at home without much effort. You might have all the ingredients right at your fingertips.

We start with either a plastic or metal garbage can for the outdoors bin. But for the kitchen I’ve used many different containers with a air-tight lid, until recently. When visiting a friend, I spotted a stainless steel container on the counter top that blended right in with the kitchen appliances. I was happily surprised when she told me it was her compost container complete with a lid with air holes and a carbon filter  to capture smells.

stainless steel compost
Stainless Steel Compost Bin

 

Here’s an excerpt from Seed to Table on composting.

Composting

I’ve been composting kitchen waste ever since I had a small rooftop garden in my efficiency apartment in Ann Arbor in 1979. Since then I’ve composted on a twenty-acre homestead, in an urban backyard, and behind the shed. It’s a simple process and begins with finding a container with a sealable lid to keep in the kitchen for the food scraps.

It’s not a complicated process, although many folks hesitate to begin because they believe it’s difficult. If you simply follow a few basic instructions, you’ll be rolling in the black gold of the gardening world as quickly as the tomato plants begin sprouting green fruit.

Not all of your waste from the kitchen makes good compostable material. Avoid the use of meat scraps, fish byproducts, cheese, bones, fats, oils, or grease because they attract wild animals, take a very long time to break down, and can spread harmful bacteria into the soil and infect plants.

Eggshells, coffee grounds, and vegetable matter make the best material to start the process of minting your very own black gold. We buy brown, unbleached, coffee filters, so we throw the grounds and the filter in the compost bin as well.

Once the container is filled with your kitchen scraps, empty it into the compost bin outside and cover with either brown or green organic material. Making the rich topsoil requires a balancing act between green materials and brown materials placed on top of the kitchen scraps. The green things are those still close to the live stage, such as grass clippings, food scraps, and some manures. Don’t use the manure from pets or pigs, as it will promote the growth of harmful bacteria. Chicken manure is the best kind if you can find it. The browns have been dead for a while and consist of dry leaves, woody materials, and even shredded paper. We use some of the ashes from our fireplace, too. Layering these elements, with the browns taking up the most space, leads to the decomposition of the materials. Air and water are essential in assisting in this process, but usually there is enough liquid in the compost container and in the air without watering the pile. If you notice the material in the bin looks dry, go ahead and water it.

There are composters you can purchase from shredders to rotating drums to three-stage bins. You can spend from $20 to several hundreds of dollars to make a compost bin. If you live in the extreme north, you may need to invest in the more sophisticated type of equipment to ensure the success of your compost. However, I’ve composted in Michigan, Florida, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina and managed to do it successfully without expending tons of money.

We use the simplest and cheapest compost bin possible. We bought a plastic garbage can for under $10 and cut off the bottom and drilled holes all over the lid and sides to allow airflow. You can spend a little more on a galvanized garbage can, but it will be more difficult to remove the bottom. Dig a hole about three-inches deep in the soil the diameter of the can and placed the bottom into the ground, filling around the outer sides to make it secure.

Cover the bottom on the inside with the dirt removed to make the hole. Don’t pack the dirt but keep it loose and airy. You’re now ready to throw kitchen scraps on top. We cover the scraps with leaves from the yard and put the lid back on the garbage can. Every time we put new material from the kitchen into the bin, we stir or stab at the layers with a shovel. It is very important to cover those scraps with the brown material, or you will attract insects, and maybe even wild animals because the scraps will begin to smell as they decompose. The dead material hides the process of decomposing.

In the spring, I fill flowerpots with the healthy rich soil from the bottom of the compost bin to assist grateful petunias, pansies, impatiens, and marigolds. We’ll gaze upon the blossoming colors on the patio and take satisfaction in making fertile soil that originated in our kitchen and garden. Our vegetables, herbs, and flowerbed plants will all receive a healthy dose of the soil as well, and then we start the process all over again.

Earthworms are the essential ingredient for turning the scraps into rich dark soil. If I see a worm in the yard, I’ll pick it up and carry it to the bin, but mostly the earthworms find it all by themselves. If you don’t see any in your pile, buy a small container of earthworms from the local bait shop and let them loose. They eat the organic matter, and quite graciously poop behind nice dirt.

I love the symmetry of composting. It’s a way to be a part of the cycle of nature without disturbing or destroying it.

Seed1
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