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Cheryl Gross, Advanced Master Gardener, Vice President MGANM, President Plant It Wild
BEGIN seed starting indoors the first week! In northern Michigan, delicate vegetable plants should be ready for the garden by Memorial Day. Get a jump on the season with seed starting NOW.
Some vegetables are best started by seed and like the cool spring temperatures. Direct sow peas, carrots, lettuce, spinach, and such outdoors before warm-weather sensitive plants.
Later in the month, purchase your bedding vegetable plants that are easily added to the garden as started plants. Tomatoes, eggplants, and the like do best when the season is extended and they are planted with a head start.
Bethany Thies, Master Gardener
I love my chickens! I mean, I knew I would love the daily fresh eggs which, in my opinion, taste 1,000 times better than store-bought eggs. But after keeping chickens for the past three years, I have come to discover so many other reasons to appreciate and love these funny little creatures…especially if one is a gardener.
- Chickens are composting machines! First, they eat almost all of our fruit and vegetable scraps, as well as stale bread, leftover grains and pastas, and some meats (no cannibalism please). Although they don’t live on these scraps, they do come running every evening when we bring out the day’s leftovers. Chickens also love to dig and scratch, which is great for breaking down leaves and plant materials. In fact, we don’t even bag our leaves in the fall. Our spring and fall cleanups go directly into the chicken yard for the girls to tear up. Every couple of days we rake it all back into a pile and the chickens rip through it, again and again, until all that’s left is rich dirt.
- Chicken poop. Need I say more? All kidding aside, we all know that chicken manure is a terrific fertilizer. It is extremely high in nitrogen but also contains a good amount of potassium and phosphorus. But, because of its high nitrogen levels, it is considered a “hot” manure that will burn plants if spread directly onto beds. It needs to be aged or composted first. Depending on the composting method, most chicken manure needs to age between two and four months. This not only brings the nitrogen down to safe levels but also allows for the natural death of any bacteria found in the manure. For an in-depth description on how to compost chicken manure, see the University of Idaho Extension’s publication, “Composting and Using Backyard Poultry Waste in the Home Garden” (https://www.cals.uidaho.edu/edcomm/pdf/CIS/CIS1194.pdf). For a quick primer on the subject, try the Dummies website (as in Gardening with Free-Range Chickens For Dummies) at http://www.dummies.com/home-garden/hobby-farming/raising-chickens/chicken-manure-management-recycling-and-composting/.
- Chickens eat bugs. All the digging and scratching that chickens do is for one purpose, to find insects, worms and other bugs to eat. While they won’t rid a yard of all pests, they are especially good at taking care of insects that overwinter in the soil as larvae or eggs, as well as any slugs or snails.
- Chickens are fun to watch in the garden. Like plants, chickens come in many wonderful colors and patterns. I currently have two different varieties, Ameraucanas and Australorps. The Ameraucanas have variegated feathers of shades of brown and gold, cream and rust. The Australorps are the complete opposite, all black with a shiny iridescence of purple and green. They are truly beautiful. Add that to their constant activity and variety of vocalizations (my chickens are always talking, from chirps to honks, beeps to purrs) and you have a creature that provides constant entertainment in a garden.
Bonus: The eggs are divine! And I’m not talking about just the taste. There is nothing like going out to your garden chicken coop on a cool spring morning and finding these wonderful little presents in the nesting box. Mocha, olive and aqua eggs, hefty and still warm in your hand…it’s like Easter every day!
Clay Bowers, Wild Foods Instructor
After a long dark winter northern Michiganders don’t usually have to be convinced to get outdoors. Many of us are eager to get outside to work in our gardens, and clean them up after they have been buried under the snow for so long. I too desire to get outside, but my desire to get outside is usually fueled by other desires; the free and abundant wild food that surrounds us.
In the spring in northern Michigan many people are aware of wild leeks (Allium Tricoccum) and morels (Morchella spp.), but there are many more delicious spring greens and roots available this time of year. The choices are limited only by how much time we want to put into foraging. Following are some of the options:
Wild Watercress (Nasturtium officionale) is abundant in our area, to say the least. We have the great fortune to be surrounded by water; creeks, streams, rivers, and lakes. These places are typically suitable habitat for watercress. The best places to look for this nutritional powerhouse are in the slower moving creeks and streams that feed larger bodies of water. Often times the plant is so dense that I have gathered no less than 2 pounds in five minutes. Watercress is actually a non-native species so one should feel no concern about taking too much.
A word of caution is in order, however. I strongly urge you to cook your watercress, because many waterborne bacteria that we do not want to ingest can be on your collected greens. A simple steaming or a quick boil is all you need to rid the plants of anything harmful. With all of this in mind, finding and collecting watercress for spring soups and stir fries should be an easy challenge. It is a highly nutritious plant and one that I consider to be a spring staple of my diet.
Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is a nuisance plant to say the least, and to some represents pure evil in plant form. However you view this plant, one thing is certain; it is edible, and dare I say, delicious! With such an absurd amount of garlic mustard in the area, and the great desire to rid the woods of this pesky plant, you could store away an ample supply and share wild nutrition with all of your interested friends. Garlic mustard was brought to the U.S. from Europe as an edible garden plant, and yet its edibility is never mentioned as a means of control. As a proponent of using our mouths to control the invaders, I say go to the woods this spring and turn your attention toward this wonderful and strong flavored spring green. Over the years I have used it in pesto, stir-fries, soups, salads, and last year I even fermented a batch like sauerkraut. The possibilities are endless, much like the supply. If you are in need of a spot to harvest I suggest just asking around, someone will know a place that has been overrun.
The previous sources of food are from the “non-native, invasive” clan. The next wild edible that I love to talk about in spring is the ever spreading and native Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus). This sunflower relative is a spreader, but this one does not usually spread by seed, it spreads by its edible tubers. In the spring you can find a patch and dig up the tubers before they have had a chance to sprout into new plants. An added benefit of loosening the soil and “thinning the herd” as it were, allows the next season’s tubers to be larger. Jerusalem artichoke, or Sunchoke, as some like to call it, is a plant that is capable of creating an enormous amount of edible food per year. It is not uncommon to dig 10-15 pounds of tubers in a half an hour’s time. Sunchokes like to grow in a very particular niche in the wild. Their preferred habitat is right above the water table near the water. Not too far away, but not too close either. They seem to adore soil that is very damp, but not soggy.
It is my experience that harvesting Sunchokes actually increases their spread, and not the other way around. I have witnessed patches double in size over years of harvest, leading me to believe that they benefit from humans digging up some of their edible tubers. Locating a patch of Sunchokes is easier done in the summer and fall when they have living stems and flowers for identification, but once you have found a patch, you can bet that you will have years of free food ahead.
A spring wild edibles list would not be complete without mentioning the amazing leaves of the Basswood tree (Tilia americana). Basswood leaves taste amazing. Some people even refer to the Basswood tree jokingly as the salad tree. In the spring you can eat the leaves from the time they emerge until the time when the leaves are no longer translucent. Basswood produces some of the most superb greens available in the spring. Such mild and delicious delicacies are normally only mentioned in the lore of fairy tales. The Basswood tree is present throughout our area, it is a native plant, and it offers us rather large window of collection time in the spring. With some wild plants, there requires a bit of “getting used to the flavor”, not so with Basswood. This spring green is an instant hit with all that venture to try it. Look for the emergence of its heart shaped leaves this spring and I promise you won’t regret it.
The foraging activities mentioned above should always be done with permission from the landowner and care taken to not harm the environment. Finding locations to pick your wild edibles is an easy task, but it is a task that should be done with the proper precautions and mindset to care for the place from which you are harvesting. Even places that are harboring great quantities of invasive species should be carefully walked, so as to not stamp down the soil. I highly suggest getting a few books on the identification of wild edibles and taking a class if you are indeed interested in learning more.
I recommend two books by Sam Thayer, ”The Foragers Harvest” and “Natures Garden”. I also offer classes multiple times a year for any and all interested in learning how to identify wild plants. You can find out more information at www.nomiforager.com
Incorporating wild foods into your diet is a great way to connect more deeply with nature! Enjoy!
Nancy Denison, Advanced Master Gardener
Clay Bowers of NoMi Foraging was our guest speaker on April 4th at BRNC. The large gathering was very interested in Clay’s experiences and vast knowledge of local wild edibles. His first encounter with plants was meeting up with a stinging nettle. Apparently it was love at first bite(?) as it is still a favorite plant and he named his son Nettle!
Knowledge of wild edible plants; their identifying characteristics, nutritional value and growing habits are obviously the first steps in becoming a forager. Lambs Quarters, Wild Amaranth, Wild Rice, and Wild Parsnips are just some of the plants readily available in our area. Clay suggests using berries from the Autumn Olive, greens from Garlic Mustard and shoots form Japanese Knotweed as a way to diminish the invasiveness of these pesky plants. Participants had many questions about Wild Rice- where to find it, how to harvest, etc.
Clay offers monthly classes, foraging hikes and lots of information from his website; nomiforager.com or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for sharing your enthusiasm and knowledge with us Clay!