The Peaceable Kingdom: Picking Fruit, Vegetables and Herbs

article image
FOTOLIA/ANDYSTJOHN
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!

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?