Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year Resolutions for 2011


It’s really hard to stick to one’s New Year’s resolutions, don’t you think? I’ve learned not to reveal my own in my columns as it’s painful to see them in print long after they’ve been abandoned. When I was at the impressionable age of 17, my minister preached a sermon on positive resolutions for the New Year – taking up a good habit instead of quitting a bad one. It’s a constructive idea, but one not many people follow. Almost everyone I know takes the negative route, trying to give up something – cigarettes, booze, chocolate.

If you’re a chocoholic who’s contemplating eliminating candy bars and Hershey kisses from your life in 2011, you can still safely read this column as I’m going to be talking about cacao’s horticultural life, not its final products.

No, you cannot grow a chocolate tree in your back yard. It requires a tropical climate, and must be raised within 20 degrees of the equator. Since it would be nice to be enjoying the balmy breezes of Brazil instead of the blustery blizzards of the Berkshires, let’s pretend we’re in South America right now tending our cacao orchard.

The cacao tree is medium-sized, similar in shape to a cherry tree, with cinnamon-colored bark and bright green leaves that are lance-shaped and smooth. Its wood is white and very fragile. The tiny pin, white or yellow blossoms are odorless and do not appear until the tree is 4 or 5 years old.

Our orchard here in Brazil is very tidy compared to those on the Ivory Coast where most cacao is grown. We plant in rows and keep the ground beneath free of brush and weeds. Aren’t the fruits weird? They look like orange footballs, sometimes striped with red, and grow right from the trunks of the trees as well as on the branches.

These gourd-like fruits take six months to ripen, but since blossoms appear year-round, they can be harvested continually. Cutting the pods from the trunks with a machete is relatively easy, but the ones growing high up in the trees must be cut with a cacao hook, as climbing among the delicate branches causes too much breakage.

The pods are soft compared to a coconut. An experienced worker can open about 25 in a minute. Inside there are as many as 40 ivory-colored seeds the size of olives, growing in uniformed rows. When a pond is first opened it looks just like a skull full of the bad teeth of a chocoholic, but once out in the air the beans acquire a purple tinge.

In three or four days the beans begin to ferment and begin to look and even smell a little like chocolate. Then they’re dried, bagged and shipped to the chocolate factory where Willy Wonka turns them into scrumptious delights – but not without a lot of work. First the beans must be washed and roasted, then hulled (the shells are ground up for cattle food,) and the “nibs,” as the inside kernels are called, are ground between heavy steel disks, resulting in a semi-liquid paste known as chocolate liquor.

There were no chocolate candies back in the 1700’s when Carl Linnaeus, the father of Taxonomy, chose to name the chocolate tree Theobromaw which means “food of the gods.” If you’re a chocoholic, why don’t you take up a good habit as your New Year’s resolution instead of giving up chocolate? What a shame to be deprived of something known as the food of the gods.                           

                              Happy New Year!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Christmas Gifts for Gardeners

A few garden gifts - a snickersnee, a kneeler, a Quick-connect and a clipper

 Those of you who are regular readers of Weeds and Wisdom are undoubtedly aware of how politically incorrect I am, so don't feel insulted if I talk about Christmas as if none of you were Buddhists or Jews or Muslims or Atheists. It's that time of year when I like to write a column about what to get your gardening friends for Christmas.

I’m a gardener who loves to weed, but I suspect most of your gardening friends find weeding a pain in the… back, so a container of Preen would make an ideal gift. Preen's little yellow pellets prevent weed seeds from germinating. The first time I bought Preen, I got a very small container, not trusting the advertisement. It worked beautifully. I filled all the cracks between my flagstones and they remained weed-free for the whole summer. What a treat! Preen really works, not on weeds that are already there, but on the weed seeds that want to pop up in undesirable places. That's a comforting thought when you know that a single dandelion can let 15,000 seeds fly through the air or that when lambs quarters grow into pigweeds they produces over 72,000 seeds. The second time I bought Preen I bought a VERY LARGE container. You can find this product in the gardening section of hardware stores or buy it online at

I can’t live without my favorite ratchet tools, the small clipper, the medium clipper and the Maxi lopper. They’re all made by Florian Pruning tools. (1-800-2753618 Florian holds the patent on the Ratchet Cut action, which is far superior to the ratchet tools made by other companies that may cost half as much, but don't even do half the job.

Hank gave me my giant snickersnee (his name for a lopper) about 30 years ago. It enables even old women like me to cut through really large branches. In case you're unfamiliar with the ratchet mechanism, let me explain how it works. Cut into a branch that's too big, move the lopper's green handle (there's one red, one green) back and the ratchet falls into another notch, allowing you to take a second bite, then if necessary, a third, and you find yourself cutting through a branch as big as your arm. Well, not quite, but you get the idea.

I used that lopper so much that it finally stopped ratcheting, so I sent it back to Florian this past August and then forgot about it until I needed to cut down this year’s Christmas tree, a small cedar growing in the lower sheep pasture. Having not heard from the company, I sent an email and got a nice email back saying yes, they had the lopper but didn’t know how to reach me. Sad to say, they also informed me that it was irreparable, but could be replaced for $94.50. I guess that’s a bargain since it retails for $130 and mine had held up for 30 years!

OOPS! I just realized that my Florian catalog was ancient so I went on the Internet to check Florian’s prices. The Maxi lopper (not included in the photo above) now costs $188.95. Well, you’re probably not as penny-pinching as I am, and that lopper is a bargain at any price. The mini lopper only costs $88.95 and the small pruner just $32.50 Either one would make a great gift. I plan to get my big lopper repaired in the spring, so I cut down my little cedar with a saw.

Another item I can't live without which has a very reasonable price is a kneeler, a waterproof foam pad. I am fortunate that although I have a bad back I have excellent knees. They're a must (good knees) for weeding, harvesting vegetables, opening bottom drawers, even making beds. All the garden catalogs have kneelers. I think even hardware stores carry them.

If you're looking for stocking stuffers, there's nothing quite as handy as the Quick Connect. These brass hose connections don't cost a lot, so get at least two so you can "mix and match" so to speak. Screw one end of a Quick Connect into your hose and the other end into a faucet or the sprinkler or another hose and you'll never have to screw around again as the Quick Connect needs just a little pull or push to attach or disattach.

A good garden book is always a treat for the holidays. My favorites are so old I thought they might be out of print so I went to Amazon and was delighted to find GARDEN SECRETS by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent and Diane E. Bilderback. This is by far the best book on raising vegetables so if your garden friends have vegetable gardens they will love this down-to-earth guide on planting, growing and harvesting them. It is chuck full of unusual facts and great suggestions. .

Amazon didn’t have my other favorite book, GREEN THOUGHTS by Eleanor Perenyi, an absolutely delightful writer, but they did have a newer version of GREEN THOUGHTS written not only by Ms. Perenyi, but also by Michael Pollen and Allen Lacy. These two authors are both fine writers but I don’t think they could possibly improve on Ms. Perenyi’s engaging style and humor.

Obviously I have to mention WEEDS AND WISDOM and MOTHER NATURE’S WIT AND WISDOM by yours truly which can be ordered on my Web Log (my preferred name for a blog) and selling for $15.00 each including shipping.

Have a Merry Christmas everyone!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Plant Evolution


            What incredible improvements have been made by plant breeders since the first brave caveman – possibly the adjective hungry would be better – nibbled on the bitter branching root of a wild carrot, or had the imagination to try eating a young thistle, the ancestor of our artichoke.
            Today’s vegetables have been derived from every single organ in the plant world.  Not just from roots and fruits, but from rhizomes, stalks, leaves, buds and blossoms.  Now you and I might have been bright enough to try eating leaves like lettuce and spinach, or fruits such as beans or squash, but would we have thought to chomp down on a stem, the part of a plant we eat in celery, leeks or asparagus?
We all know that the underground tuber of a potato plant is edible, but I bet quite a few folks died from thinking the potato’s  poisonous clusters of green fruits would make a tasty treat.   It must have been quite a while before they thought to try the knobby tubers hidden beneath the soil.  We can thank some innovative primitive for opening up a cantaloupe, peeling an onion to cook, or taste the immature flower of a broccoli plant.
The ancestors of today’s vegetables contained toxic substances needed to protect them from insects and foraging animals.  It wasn’t until plants were raised in cultivation that these toxins were no longer needed for survival and man could begin to eliminate them.
Actually it was undoubtedly man’s better half who bothered to plant the first seeds in her back yard.  She may have done it by mistake, dumping seeds along with the dinner leftovers, but when they sprouted, she had the smarts to nurture them.   She weeded and watered them, maybe even fertilized them.  All these efforts improved their quality, but even more important, it allowed her to save the seeds from the very best plants so they could be sown the next year.
The great debate over whether heredity or environment is more influential in forming a human being’s character may never be solved, and the same can be said about plant life.  I always thought environment was more important until the gene-splicers started manipulating flowers and vegetables faster than you can eat a fuzzless peach or peel a tearless onion.  Still, environment plays a large part in the changes occurring in nature.
Darwin’s theory – the survival of the fittest – couldn’t work without the effects of the environment as well as heredity.  The moth that avoids being spotted by a bird because her wings are camouflaged to look like the bark of a tree lives to pass along that gene to the next generation in the eggs she lays.  The flower that adapts itself to pollination by a different species of bee when its regular pollinator has died out, passes that trait on in its seeds.
One of the best examples of the changes created in the plant kingdom by both heredity and environment is found in Brassica oleracea.  It may seem hard to believe, but this single species has evolved into nine variations – broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, collards, cauliflower, kohlrabi and three different cabbages – savoy, red and green.  The cabbage family is not a family, not even a genus, but a species that has produced nine subspecies.
When you stop to think about the infinite variety of delicious vegetables available nowadays, say a little thank you, not just to the horticulturalists, but to Mr. and Mrs. Neanderthal.