The Peaceable Kingdom: Picking Fruit, Vegetables and Herbs

Homesteader Nancy Bubel describes picking end of season fruits, vegetables and herbs, making wine, their summer camping trip and the inevitable shift back to school.
By Nancy Bubel
September/October 1971
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The elderberry harvest has been good this month. We've planted cultivated elders here — Adams and Johns — and the one by the goat shed, where the manure tea sluices down in a heavy rain, is a jungle in itself . . . a big, heavy-bearing berry thicket. Spring a year ago, it was just a stick on a knobby root. Wow!

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September . . . and, as we homestead into a third year, we're picking vegetables like mad. Corn . . . tomatoes . . . cabbage . . . broccoli . . . carrots . . . chard . . . beans . . . beets . . . soybeans . . . celery . . .     potatoes . . . cucumbers . . . squash. Somehow we get it all canned/frozen/eaten/given/sold. When the garden reaches its calmer, browner, seedy days later in the fall we'll spread manure and dolomite. Then, in the winter, we'll toss wood ashes, sawdust and manure right on the snow. The earthworms will sleep, deep down. Beginnings? Endings? We see it more as continuity, the whole vitality of the land.

The summer has been good. We've had plenty of everything—eggs, milk, vegetables . . . and too much of some. Next year we hope to do better in the fruit department, though. Our Lodi transparent apple tree bore three apples this year. Three. We brought the harvest in on a small plate. Now, what do you do with three cooking apples? They hung around for a few days till I decided (stewed 'em with a meal.) We had bought two bushels of organically grown transparents to make applesauce, but wanted to experience our OWN apples separately!

We camped for a week in West Virginia. Not long enough (or perhaps short enough!) to become instant experts on Appalachia and mountain folkways . . . just long enough to become fascinated by the little towns . . . the spirit of the mountain people . . . the wells with their buckets at the ready . . . the marvelous foraging . . . the remedies and herbs and cookery of people who for years have been making it on their own. We must go back!

Mary Grace has so many wild herbs, remedies, sachets and herby teas that I've cleared off a shelf just for the collection. All the fat and charming little jars that have been too interesting to discard but too small for jelly, have now found their purpose: mullein salve, borage blossom syrup, rose oil, sassafras tea. Looks like we're ready for anything the cold days might bring.

Things have been humming in Mike's combination darkroom-winery. Crocks of brew stand in a row — mead, rhubarb, blueberry, wineberry and tomato wine. Now's the time to start wines; fermentation is liveliest when weather's warm. Winter's for tasting and aging. Some we sip; some we let age. Next summer we'll break into our first batch of elderberry wine, aged for two years.

A friend gave us a copy of Henley's Twentieth Century Book of Formulas, Processes and Trade Secrets. An Everything book. Want to know how to make vinegar, whitewash, fly paper, soap bubble liquid, glass marking pencils, how to detect food adulterants, waterproof things, silver mirrors? It's all here. And more. Good bathroom reading.

Ten year old Greg found a recipe for ginger beer in Henley's and made a tentative half gallon. It was gone soon after he uncorked it. Encouraged, he made another batch. By now he's a ginger beer specialist and branching out into other home-made soft drinks . . . a version made with limes, and one with wineberries as a base. He substitutes honey for the sugar in the recipe and finds that — as with root beer — you can cut way back on the sweetening and still have a refreshing drink.

The elderberry harvest has been good this month. We've planted cultivated elders here — Adams and Johns — and the one by the goat shed, where the manure tea sluices down in a heavy rain, is a jungle in itself . . . a big, heavy-bearing berry thicket. Spring a year ago, it was just a stick on a knobby root. Wow!

Funny thing, though. We still go out to pick wild elderberries. We find them in damp roadside ditches, hidden gullies, wet meadow edges and along railroad tracks. We need them . . . and, it seems, we need the searching out, the feeling of discovery, the acknowledgement of our dependence on wildness. We always check the plants that grow around and near the elders where we want to forage. If there are any indications that the land has been sprayed for weeds, we don't pick there. (Dead plants, shriveled up from the root, have likely been sprayed and are a no-no. If stubble is left, however, they've been cut. Green light.)

No matter how we try to confine it, processing elderberries is a very purple job. So we do it all at once, wallow in purple, just let it BE purple while we're working, then mop it all up. The results are worth it: elderberry syrup, jam, pie, wine. This year we're trying some dried, as suggested by Euell Gibbons in Stalking the Wild Asparagus. 

The children have savored their tenth and twelfth summers, and now the school bus comes again. The tight rows . . . the books to be "got through" . . . the half hour bus ride . . . all still part of the system. But there are other aspects, too, and some that give us hope: A principal who knows, talks to and touches the kids . . . a good library, and they use it . . . new reading classes in which the children have choice, responsibility, and a hearing for their ideas . . . classmates and bus pals who live largely outside the plastic world of color-coordinated garbage cans, so that what they are seems to loom larger than what they have. School . . . what is it? How do you find out who you are?

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