Photo and story by Donna Iverson
The snow is falling. The temperature has dropped to 25 degrees. Most everything in the garden has frozen.
It's only November, and already I am feeling the loss of growing green things. I even miss the weeds.
Walking through the community garden this time of year seems like a forlorn exercise, until I spot the mint.
It is green and still growing though partially buried in snow and even spreading both above and below ground, taking over an entire bed. I smile and rub some of the leaves between my fingers. It is one of my favorite herbs, partly because there is no stopping it. So be careful where you plant it.
If you don't want it strangling out your other plants, buy an earthenware pot and plant the mint seedling inside. You can buy small mint plants at grocery stores these days, in the middle of winter. Then dig a hole in your garden, and drop the pot with the mint into it. Cover with soil leaving about two inches of the pot above ground. This prevents above-ground runners from spreading and becoming invasive.
Come summer, your mint will grow to be about a foot high and bloom during the summer months, spreading its minty fragrance far and wide.
As for me, I decided to bring the outdoors inside so snipped some mint cuttings and brought them home. There are two methods of growing mint from cuttings and I prefer the first. Which is to stick the cuttings into s small pot with moist soil. In a few weeks it will root and you can place your mint plant in a sunny window. The other method is to place the cuttings in a jar of water, and roots will form in a few weeks. The plant can then be transferred to a pot with soil, being careful not to damage the leaves while potting. Or, you can just buy a mint plant at your grocery store and skip the wait.
The most popular mints are spearmint and peppermint but there are a lot of cousins out there including apple mint, chocolate mint, pineapple mint, water mint, horsemint, forest mint, and one of my favorites, wild mint. You can identify mints in the wild by their square stems and fragrance. It's natural habitats is along stream beds, which provide the moisture it needs to thrive.
In addition to its culinary uses, mint is useful in the yard where it will deter mosquitoes, ants, fleas, flies and moths. It is even said to deter deer, although my sister-in-law swears nothing deters deer. If you are into companion planting, grow mint near tomatoes and cabbage where it attracts beneficial insects and deters harmful ones.
In addition to adding it to a winter windowsill garden, I like to use it as an air freshener, by putting some sprigs in a vase in the bathroom.
Mint also has medicinal qualities, and is said to smooth an upset stomach. But be careful if you have acid reflux, as it is contraindicated. It can also cause a rash in some people, such as contact dermatitis.
Photo and story by Donna Iverson
Every fall, I develop apple nostalgia.
All this goes back to my childhood and the family farm in Whitehall, Michigan. In a rundown orchard, my grandfather grew two Apple varieties, Jonathan and Northern Spy. Always a big fan of children's detective novels, like Nancy Drew, I figured Northern Spy was my signature apple. And I liked a sour apple, so I picked them before they ripened. ..even though I was warned it would cause stomach aches ..which it never did.
I lost touch with Northern Spy during my adult life, when I lived in Vermont. There, I bought my most of my apples at the supermarket, usually choosing Granny Smith, which like Northern Spy is an heirloom variety.
When I retired and moved back to Michigan, I started buying my produce at local farmers markets, and rediscovered Northern Spy.
"Spies for pies," said the woman customer standing next to me at Knudson's Farm stand out of Ravenna. I wasn't planning on making a pie, I just wanted to taste that favorite apple from my childhood.
Back then, I would wander through the "back 40", searching for wild edibles. I considered the orchard to be a source of wild edibles, because as far as I could see my grandfather did absolutely nothing in the way of orchard care . No pruning, no pesticides, no checking for infestations, no harvesting, .....he seemed to give it no attention whatsoever.
But the apples grew in spite of him.. As did the large garden down by the chicken coop, which had as many weeds as vegetable plants.
Fresh from the farmers' market, I brought my apple home and took a bite ..yup, that was the taste I remember, although a little sweeter because it was ripe. Almost immediately, that bite raised questions?
Was Northern Spy a Michigan native apple, I wondered? An online search revealed that Northern Spy originated in upstate New York circa 1800 and is grown today mostly in New York, Michigan and Ontario. It is definitely a northern cold loving apple whose tree produces fruit in October and November. At one time, it was the third most popular apple in the country.
This heirloom apple remains extremely popular along with MacIntosh in this part of Michigan, according to farmer Dave England who grows them in his orchard in Mears. While American taste is trending toward sweeter apple varieties, Northern Spy is holding its own, England said. It's prized for its flavor, not its looks. What it lacks in appearance, it makes up in taste, with a balance of sweet and acidic undertones.
Although the Northern Spy is sometimes misshaped and bruised due to thin skin, it remains the first choice of many people, according to England. Give me a bruised heirloom apple over a modern hybrid any day, said the customer behind me, waiting to purchase this locally grown, open-pollinated variety.
An heirloom apple is one that was grown in the early parts of human history and genetically distinct from commercial varieties, which are bred for bright color, sweetness and ship-ability. Other heritage apples that are grown in Michigan include Macoun, Cortland, Empire, and Baldwin.
Apples are in fact the state's largest fruit crop, and Michigan is the third largest producer of apples in the country, behind Washington and New York. The average US orchard size is about 50 acres. An apple tree can live around 100 years and in colonial times, almost every farm had at least one apple tree.
The Northern Spy is winter hardy and stores well, for the entire winter, in fact. It is especially high in Vitamin C, and is popular for making pies and cider. So if you should run across Northern Spy at the market, give it a taste test and see if this antique apple wins you over.
Photo and story by Donna Iverson
I don't know why I find tree burls so fascinating. Partly, it's because I admire the trees ability to heal itself. And not only that, to make something beautiful out of the injury.
The wood inside the burl is swirled, beautiful and rare. Many of these burls are decades old and grow each year that the tree is alive.
While you may not immediately see the beauty in a tree burl, pretty much any woodturner does. They covet tree burls, transforming them into one of a kind bowls that can sell for hundreds of dollars. And they have been doing it since colonial times.
My first introduction to these exquisite one-of-a-kind burl bowls was at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont which displays these two-hundred-year old wooden treasures alongside handmade quilts, blacksmith art, and pewter cups. Burl is also used to make furniture, guitars and even watches.
Burls are most commonly found on maples, walnut trees, oak and cherry. But burls can grow on any kind of tree that has been subjected to some kind of stress, such as injury, virus, fungus, insect infestation or mold growth. Once a burl forms, it takes 30 to 40 years to get to a size where it can be transformed into a man-made work of art.
The grain of the burl can be compared to a ball of yarn. It’s as though the tree’s cells went haywire and decided to tie themselves into a knot, according to Kevin Smith, a plant physiologist with the U.S. Forest Service.
Because burls wood is so valuable, a pouchier industry has developed with chain-saw welding thieves harvesting burls in our national forests. The redwood forests out west are especially attractive to burl thieves, as these burls can be several feet in diameter. It has gotten to the point that rangers have positioned cameras to catch these thieves.
While wood artisans and poachers are known to take a chainsaw and cut the burl off the trees, ecologists recommend against it. The burls contribute to the forests ecosystem of growth and regeneration. And if the tree is in your yard, cutting the burl off will kill the tree. So best wait until the tree dies or has to be removed to get your hands on one.
So next time you are out and about and spot one of these surprise treasures still attached to the tree, stop to admire its beauty growing out of deformity. Burls stand as testament to an old time craft that modern technology can not replicate or mass produce.