Thursday, March 13, 2014

Kitchen Garden Recipes: Fennel

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is not something I'd had much experience with either in my garden or my kitchen until a few years ago.  Although I have always been a fan of licorice, it was hard for me to conceive of a way to use an herb that has a mild anise flavor reminiscent of licorice candy in savory cooking.  And since I'm allergic to seafood, one of the more common pairings with this herb, it just never made my top twenty herb list.  On the rare occasions when I needed fennel seed for a recipe, I used seed that I purchased in small amounts at a local specialty foods market.

Several years ago we added the Copper Leaf variety of  it to our herb garden - more for it's beautiful foliage than for any plans to actually use it in cooking - but it never performed well, and when it failed to sprout one spring after having struggled for several years, we didn't replant.  

Fennel bulbs - in the supermarket the roots are removed.
I'd seen fennel bulbs in the supermarket and had watched Chef Ann Burrell prepare it on television. But I still struggled with the idea of a licorice-flavored vegetable as a side dish.  I had little interest in working with fennel as a vegetable until we received several large bulbs in our organic vegetable farm share.  After researching ways to prepare it, I combined several suggestions from other chefs into my own personal version of caramelized fennel.  Overnight I became a fennel devotee, as did everyone in the family after I served this wonderful vegetable as a side dish.

Learning to properly cut fennel was Job One.  The instructions I found ran the gamut from using the entire bulb and lower portions of the stalk to cutting out the core of the bulb and using only the "best" part of the plant.  I read several articles that suggested the stalks and core could be tough and opted to go with a more drastic approach to the bulb.

Fennel from the farm came with the root still attached.  We had had a cold and rainy summer so when it was harvested, the bulbs were smaller than what I'd seen at the local market.  

The first time I prepared it, I used only the bulbs in the farm share. I was experimenting and didn't know how much cooked vegetable they would yield, nor how receptive my usually vegetable-avoidant husband and son would be to this new addition to our menu. 

I was not prepared for how warmly received this "new" (to us) vegetable was.  When I prepared it again, I added store-bought bulbs to those we received with our farm share.

Cutting the fennel requires a very sharp knife.  I personally favor a boning knife that I sharpen with each use.  It allows me to easily carve out the core at the base of the bulb, trim stalks, and slice the bulb.

The first thing I generally do is cut off the stalks and roots.  I reserve some of the best branches of the fine, feathery foliage to add to the bulb during cooking.  

The core can comprise a large portion of a small bulb so choose the widest ones available
Next, I trim the sides where the stalks were cut close to the bulb.  I've tried it both ways and find the stalks to be tough and not as flavorful and sweet as the bulb.  If I've left a stub of the stalk, I trim it away.

Once I've trimmed the sides, I remove any significantly damaged or discolored outer layers.  Older bulbs may show some rust along the edges of the layers.  You can this in the bulbs in the above photograph.  This can be sliced away;  it usually only requires removing a very shallow sliver of the edge of that layer. Then I rinse the bulb in cold water just to remove any dirt that might still be present and to clean it before slicing and cooking.

Once the bulb is trimmed, clean, and ready to be sliced, I cut the bulbs in half through the middle from front to back (the long way) to expose the core.

Bulbs trimmed and cored and ready to be sliced.
The core is removed by cutting a V-shaped wedge along it's length to remove the innermost part of it.  It's not necessary to remove the entire core.  I leave enough to hold the bulb intact and make it easier to slice the bulb into thin strips for cooking.

Although many cooking sources say that it can be left intact and sliced and cooked with the rest of the bulb, I find it tough and fibrous and so I always trim it out.

The bulb halves are now ready to live.  I turn each half flat side down on the cutting board and thinly slice them from the bottom of the bulb to the top.  The cut slices almost resemble celery in texture.

I cook fennel in a 50/50 mixture of olive oil and butter.   I use just enough to cover the bottom of the frying pan and lightly coat the slices.  Even when I am making a large batch, usually no more than a quarter cup of each is needed for a medium-large pan of fennel (roughly 6 cups of sliced fennel bulbs).  If I find I need more, I add more butter, a tablespoon at a time.

Adding fresh fennel leaves and dried fennel seed increases the flavor
Heat the pan, oil and butter and when the butter is completely melted, add the fennel and saute on medium heat.  You want the vegetable to slowly brown and carmelize, not quickly brown and turn to mush.

Rinse some of the lacy green fronds and roll them in a paper towel to dry them.  With kitchen shears snip the fronds into pieces 1/4 to 1/2 inch in length and add to the pan.  This enhances the flavor of the fennel.  I also add a tablespoon or two of dried fennel seed to add another layer of flavor to the dish as well.  Agenerous pinch of sea salt rounds out the flavor profile. 

With a large spatula or silicon spoon, turn the fennel until the oil and butter are evenly distributed, then add a small amount of sugar (not artificial sweetener) to help the fennel caramelize.   I add one or two tablespoons for 3-4 cups of raw fennel and two or three tablespoons for a large batch - more than 5-6 cups of raw fennel.  Even though the fennel is sweet in and of itself, the sugar helps the fennel to caramelize.

Ready to serve, the cooked fennel is a light golden brown and fork tender.
Continue to turn the fennel in the pan occasionally and let it slowly cook to a light golden brown.  When it's ready to serve, it should be tender but not crunchy.  A large pan (4-5 cups) takes about 20 minutes to cook through on medium or medium-low heat.

Although my family and I love the sweetness of caramelized fennel, I found several recipes that mentioned adding a small amount of  lemon juice to cut the sweetness and brighten the flavor.

It's important when selecting fennel bulbs to choose the widest ones (laterally, from side to side) that you can find, since the core makes up a considerable amount of the bulb.   I look for the freshest bulbs with the least amount of rust.   And for those time when you wish you had an extra fennel bulb and need to stretch the recipe, add sweet white onions.  Vidalia onions work exceptionally well but I have also used generic white onions with a tasty result.  In fact, my family said they could not tell the difference.  Peel and quarter one or two large onions and slice in the same manner as the fennel.  Add to the raw fennel and cook as above.  The onions will acquire the anise flavor during cooking.

I've used this as a side dish with chicken, pork and lamb.  Although my favorite herb references indicate that it's often paired with seafood, my seafood allergy has prevented me from experimenting with fish dishes flavored with fennel. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Invasion of the Garden Snatchers: The Perennial Problem of Invasive Plants

Kudzu on trees in Piedmont Park, Atlanta, GA, from Wikipedia
The introduction of non-native plants in any ecosystem can be a mixed blessing.  While many of the old garden and hybrid roses are an example of a blessing, the same cannot be said for kudzu (Pueraria lobata), for example, whose growth rate is best described as meteoric.

Originally introduced into this country  by the Soil Erosion Service and Civilian Conservation Corp in 1876 to help control soil erosion problems in Pennsylvania, its rapid growth and luscious foliage made it a favorite to cover shade porches and pergolas in the southern states.  It soon became a favorite cover crop because of its rapid growth rate but when left to its own devices and allowed to grow unchecked, it became a veritable menace, destroying everything in its path.

Kudzu has overtaken more than 7.5 million acres in the southern states where it has smothered all low growing plants in its path and covered, broke branches from, and even uprooted trees.  Growing up to a foot a day, it doesn't take long to cover an abandoned barn and overtake and damage electrical and phone lines.

Tall reeds mid left of the photograph, 2009, Ipswich River
Kudzu has been identified as far north as New York City but fortunately, it can't survive New England winters.  Still, we have our own predatory weeds that more than make up for it.

Here in Massachusetts and along the coast extending into southern New Hampshire, a major and pressing problem is the common reed phragmites (Phragmites australis) which has been rapidly and relentlessly overtaking both salt marshes and freshwater tidal basins alike.  Its rapid proliferation has caused serious problems along the entire Atlantic coast but it is of particular concern to us as it now poses a major threat to the survival of the 18,000 acre Great Marsh here in Essex County, a critical part of our local ecosystem and marine culture.

There is a subspecies of phragmites that is native to North America, however the subspecies (P. australis subs. Americanus) is a much less vigorous and more easily controlled plant than Phragmites australis subs. Australis, the non-native variety that is now considered a serious environmental threat.
Phragmites have changed the landscape along the river's edge.
Phragmites reeds grow in dense swaths that can spread as much as 16 linear feet in a year.  Mature plants of the non-native variety can reach 15-20 feet in height and are easily identified because except for trees, they are the tallest things you'll find.  The subspecies Americanus is much shorter, growing to a maximum height of 6-12 feet. 

Phragmites spread and multiply both by seeds (less so) and thick rhizomes (most commonly and aggressively) that are thick, notoriously difficult to kill, and can extend up to 20 inches in depth where they send out innumerable runners.  Chopping back the top of the plant does not affect the rhizome which will continue to extend runners and then send up new, denser, more vigorous growth the next growing season.  Most importantly, phragmites  choke out the other native species which are a critical part of the food chain for local fish and fowl and there is concern about the survival of wildlife and the Marsh if the proliferation continues unchecked.

Normal plant growth is gradually being overtaken by phragmites along the rivers.
Phragmites have been used as a grazing crop (albeit nutritionally incomplete) for livestock, but grazing (and mowing) only increases the vigor of the plants, so cutting down the massive stands only makes the problem worse.  And livestock don't graze in the Great Marsh.  Extensive burning over the course of multiple seasons appears to be the best chance of achieving control of a plant that tolerates sand, mud, and clay, is highly salt-tolerant, and can also thrive in a wide range of pH.

I first noticed phragmites in 2009 while canoeing on the Ipswich River.  (They were certainly here long before that, but had escaped my awareness until then.)  I noticed the changing landscape along the river's edge -- the wildflowers and indigenous plants and shrubs were being replaced by a tall grass that formed a dense wall that obstructed the beautiful landscape.

Over the course of two years, large swaths of this noxious weed replaced the natural river habitat in many areas and have completely obliterated the view of the coastal marshes (and everything that used to grow there) along local route US-1.

Even more frustrating is that it found it's way into our own garden this past summer.  I went out to weed one of the perennial beds and to my horror,several tall fronds had sprouted in the midst of our Montauk daisies and coneflowers.  Digging them out was a major chore and we could not have done it without our spearhead spade shovel.  

We abut a meadow that is marshy in the spring and I have seen phragmites growing there, although they are usually mowed down during the twice yearly mowing for hay.  Digging them out was a tremendous chore and we ended up digging up and sacrificing several daisies and coneflowers in the process.

Loosestrife sprouted in a rose bed.
Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) is another lovely but aggressively invasive plant that has been an increasing and problematic presence over the past several decades.  It was introduced into the east coast of the US in the early 1800's and since then, it has spread along waterways and roadways to virtually everywhere in the continental United States save Florida.

A common sight along highway medians, roadsides, waterways, ponds, swamps, and meadows, it's pretty lavender color brightens the roadside.  But like phragmites, it overtakes wetlands and marshes and has become a major threat to the ecosystem.  Also like phragmites, the root system is exceedingly vigorous and once the plants are established, it can be difficult to dig out even with a spade shovel.

Loosestrife spreads primarily by seed which it produdes in voluminous amounts.  Easily carried on the wind or by birds, volunteers have been finding their way into our yard from the adjacent meadow for several years.
Loosestrife popped up unexpectedly in a shade garden

If you find it blooming in your garden, cut the plant back before it blooms and then dig as much of the root system as you can find.  If you miss a substantial part of the root, it will re-grow the following season, so keep an eye out early in the growing season and if you see it sprouting, dig early and dig wide.

Loosestrife has popped up in our shaded cottage bed and among our blueberry shrubs.  It also has appeared in our sunny rose beds and along the edge of our property where it abuts the meadow.  Since there are large clumps of it in the meadow that will continue to shed seed, all we can do is be vigilant and dig it up as soon as we notice it.

In the case of loosestrife, mowing does help, and when we see it sprouting near the property line, we try to keep it mowed to prevent it from blooming and setting seed.
Brilliant fall foliage

The ubiquitous burning bush, Euonymus alatus, can be found dotting the landscape throughout New England.

For decades, its brilliant red autumn foliage and hardy growth habit made it a favorite of landscapers who were designing low maintenance plantings for shopping malls, office buildings, and other places where pollution and drought tolerant shrubs would thrive.   The stunning scarlet fall foliage became a favorite of home gardeners as well.

 Unfortunately, the burning bush has become a bane of green space and woods alike and many states, Massachusetts included, now restrict its importation, propagation, and sale. 

The tendency toward being invasive is primarily a problem where the shrubs have been allowed to naturalize along highways or in pastures and woodlands where they out-compete and eventually replace native plants.   When they are planted in urban areas as ornamentals, there doesn't seem to be as much of an issue with them growing out of control, although birds have been credited with spreading the seeds contained in the fall berries.

Three of our four burning bush shrubs showing vivd green foliage in spring.
There were four mature burning bushes already planted in front of our suburban home when Steve originally purchased the property and in the twelve years that we've resided here, we've not had a single seedling develop from any of them.

Many of the problems with the burning bush developed when homes were abandoned and previously tended gardens were left to their own devices.  Burning bush berries spread the seed into the woods, likely with the help of birds, and when they sprouted, the rapidly growing plants thrived and began to out-compete the native shrubs for space.

I've long been very concerned about well-intended but sometimes misguided planting of non-native plants in areas where they will be left to their own devices and not cultivated or kept in line.  They're kind of like teenagers... you need to set firm limits and if you don't, you end up with a teen (or a burning bush) that is totally out of control. Not a good thing.

We've been asked many times why we, as responsible home owners and stewards of the land, don't simply dig them up.  My feelings about doing so are complicated.  The reality is that any robust plant, native or not, can become invasive if not properly monitored and controlled.  We saw this first hand when a tall and vigorous cultivar of Mondara (bee balm) overtook one of our cottage beds.  It took six years for us to completely eradicate it from our property and reclaim the bed.

While I doubt that I would ever plant another burning bush (or any more bee balm) even in a locale that allowed them (I've never been particularly fond of burning bushes, their status as invasive aside), I see no value to disrupting the existing garden beds and destroying healthy plants that have to date not caused a problem in their present location, especially since they have historically provided nesting places for birds.

Moreover, at least half of the homes and two shopping malls within three quarters of a mile of our home are prominently planted with them.  Destroying these four shrubs might make a statement, but to what outcome? 

A large burning bush growing in the cottage garden (2009)
Were the Commonwealth to mandate that all shrubs currently growing in our locale be destroyed, we would comply, but that is not the current recommendation.  It seems to us that a more appropriate tact for us to take is to continue what we have been doing for the past several years and that is to exercise a firm hand over those plants that were planted as ornamentals when it was legal and permissible to do so. 

What we have found very effective and at the same time uniquely attractive is to drastically prune the shrubs in spring, just as the rather inconspicuous blooms are opening.  This prevents all but a rare few berries from developing and virtually eliminates the primary way that the burning bush self propagates.  

Exposing the inner, larger branches gives the shrub a completely new look and most people who see the shrubs after pruning don't recognize them.  

The same shrub (2012) after we began drastic pruning.  Opening up the lower 2/3 of the shrub lightens the visual weight of it in the garden and in so doing, we remove all of the blossoms that eventually would develop into berries and seed.
We leave a generous canopy but shape the top.  This shrub was formally thickly branched and as wide as the canopy all hte way down to its base.


List of Invasive Plants - Massachusetts

Newburyport Daily News Article - Phragmites

Wikipedia Entry: Phragmites

USDA Profile:  PhragmitesFact Sheet (pdf document)

National Gardening Association's Weed Library

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Share Your Time and Talent with a Commnity or Public Rose Garden

If you are looking for a fun, productive, and different way to spend part of your vacation, consider volunteering at a botanical garden.  Most publicly funded gardens are short of funds and staff and many will welcome the assistance of experienced gardeners who have time to lend a hand.

For the past two years, Steve and I have volunteered for three days at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's Cranford Rose Garden assisting Sara Owens to prepare the garden for "Rose Night".  It's a joy and a labor of love to be able to work among the roses. Best of all, as members of the BBG, we get to attend the members only event and listen to the other patrons enthusiastic comments about the garden. 

During our volunteer stint this past summer, I had an amazing experience.  I was sitting on my garden stool hunched over a shrub rose that needed some serious deadheading when I heard beautiful, melodic chanting behind me.  I turned around to find seven people standing in a semi-circle around me, bowing and chanting.  The one man who spoke English explained that they were tourists from mainland China who were visiting the garden that day and they were singing a song of praise for everyone who was working in the garden to make it so beautiful.  They so warmed my heart!

Sarah Owens, Curator, Cranford Rose Garden
How to volunteer:

First, get to know the garden.  We visited the Cranford several times and I attended a class that the rose curator, Sara Owens was teaching, before we offered to volunteer our time there.

Become a member.  Community and public gardens rely on donations and membership fees to cover their operating costs.

Early in the year, well before the rose gardens will be waking up (we live in New England and our roses are still under more than a foot of snow!), send a letter of introduction to the rose curator (or other garden manager if your interest lies outside the rose garden), explain your experience and credentials (are you a rosarian or master gardener; how many roses do you grow in your own garden), and your willingness to volunteer.  When we first began communicating with Sara, we sent photographs of our rose garden; some things speak for themselves.  At that time, we had more than 230 roses with every rose group represented.

Ask what you might possibly do to help and when in the gardening season help is needed.   Be prepared to be flexible.  Your volunteer time will be most appreciated if you can be there at a time that meets their most pressing needs.  We knew months in advance that she needed help preparing the garden for Rose Night so we committed to the days that she said she needed help.  We arranged for vacation time and made reservations at a hotel near the garden.  Do not expect your travel and lodging to be reimbursed. If they could afford it, they would hire more staff.  Consider it a gift from the heart for the privilege of being allowed to assist. 

Deadheading along the edge of one of the main central beds.
Bring your favorite pruners and prepare to thoroughly enjoy yourself.  We bring sharp snips for detail work as well as good quality by-pass pruners and a weeding tool.  Dress in layers and wear a hat.  Don't forget sunscreen and bottled water. 

Follow all of the rose curator's instructions to the letter.  Regardless of how much training and experience you may have, every rose "expert" has their own way of doing things and while you are in their garden, you need to adapt what you do to their way.  The rose curator is the expert and the boss.  He or she has priorities and a plan for what has to be accomplished in a given time frame and they generally have their own preferred way of doing certain things. 

My husband likes to prune and deadhead.  I like to weed and rake out the beds.  He hates the clean-up.  To me, a bed isn't "finished" until the debris has been cleaned out, the last weed pulled (with a weeder, so you get the root),  and the mulch raked.  Even if it isn't the job you really wanted to be doing, whatever you are assigned to do is the most important thing that needs to be done at that moment.  We've trimmed grassy borders and wayward perennials, weeded, raked, pruned, and learned different and better ways of doing things.  And honestly, we've enjoyed every minute of it.

Gauntlets are standard gardening attire.
Every time we volunteer, we stroll with her along our assigned bed and show her where and how we would make a cut.  Most of the time it's exactly what she would do.  But if she is preparing the garden for a major public event, she may want you to leave blooms you would ordinarily cut in your own yard  so that the beds are full of color. 

Most of the time, we don't touch the old garden roses, not even to deadhead them, since she wants them to develop hips for color and visual interest later in the summer.  In that regard, you really need to know your roses.

This year she asked me to gently prune and shape one of the old garden gals that was growing on one of the many pillars in the garden.  I was honored that she trusted me with this delicate task.

The rose curator may also have procedures for doing things that are different from what you're used to doing at home.  At the Cranford, for examples, the staff does not walk into the beds to tend to the roses in the middle of the large beds.  Long boards are laid down on the beds to stand on so the mulch doesn't get packed down.  It did take some getting used to, especially for me, since my balance is so poor, but it's a practice we took home to our own garden.

Sanitize your tools!  Before we packed our garden tools for the trip to New York, we sanitized everything.  You don't want to bring a garden pest from home.  Likewise, when we were working in the botanic garden, we sanitized our pruners frequently and before moving from bed to bed.  And when we got home, I repeated the cleaning.

We each have garden totes that open into low seats with places for tools and gloves along the sides and underneath the seat where there is a handy place to store extra gloves, bottles of water, and sunscreen.  They have handy straps for toting them around. We only brought what we knew we would absolutely need for the job and everything was washed with soap and water and sanitized with bleach.  Even our gardening aprons, shoes and gloves were cleaned before and after the trip.

Learn as you go.  If you see something different or unusual, ask a question.  Our time in the rose garden was both rewarding and educational for us and for many of the garden visitors as well. 

The photograph at right shows a split in a cane, something we had seen in our own garden last spring and which I was coming across quite frequently in the Cranford.  I had no idea what caused it and had been concerned about it.   I showed it to Sarah and she reassured me that it was simply the effect of all the rain that we had been having.  I was relieved to know that I didn't have something attacking my own roses. It had indeed been an unusually we spring.  And it certainly had not affected the rose's ability to bloom.

Many visitors stopped to ask us questions, often such simple things as how to prune a particular kind of rose, or what would be a good rose for their garden near the beach or in the shade.  It took only a few seconds to demonstrate the typical angled cut and explain how spring pruning is done.  And we made sure to explain the difference in how to plant roses in the Northeast compared to how they are planted in warmer climates.  Others wanted to know where in the garden they could find a particular rose.  This is where our knowledge of the garden and how it's laid out came in handy.   Most of the time, we were asked questions we could easily answer but when we couldn't, we could point them in Sarah's direction. 

One thing I did learn -- the love of roses is contagious and many people who insisted they couldn't grow roses as beautiful as the ones in the rose garden were pleasantly surprised when we reassured them that if they chose the correct shrub for their yard, indeed they could. 

The pink rose behind me on the right is Abraham Darby.
Our volunteer work culminated with Rose Night, an annual evening with music, dancing, and picnicking allowed on the esplanade next to the rose garden.  It's one of the rare times during the year that garden visitors are allowed to have food in the garden itself.  Guests are encouraged to bring a picnic dinner and wear fancy hats. 

Sarah asked us to dress in period attire as we have done in the past.  This year, we dressed in the era in which the garden was actually opened.  Steve wore his seersucker suit and boater and I wore what was commonly known as "summer whites" with lace gloves, lace trimmed saddle shoes, a picture hat, and fan.

The Cranford Rose Garden opened in 1928.  Funded with a generous gift from Walter V. Cranford the year before, the garden was designed by landscape architect Harold Caparn and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's horticulturist Montague Free. 

Many of the original rose shrubs are still growing in the garden today. The garden is home to over 5,000 rose bushes and over 1,500 unique varieties.

The blooms in the rose garden peaked the day before Rose Night.  Could anything have been more perfect!
The rose arches and reflecting pool.
Throughout the garden, perennials such as this catmint are paired with roses.  I love the effect of the catmint so much, I've incorporated into many of our own rose beds.
Stunning roses in every color filled every corner of the garden.  The garden was the most beautiful we had ever seen it.
Sarah was stunning in her colorful outfit but after a full day of working to get the garden ready, she couldn't just relax and enjoy the evening.  She spent most of the evening in the main garden, accepting visitor compliments and answering visitor's questions, and then served as a judge for the "best hat" contest..  This was also an opportunity for us to help.  The garden was full of visitors with questions and Steve and I were able to answer queries about the identify of some of the perennials planted among the roses as well as direct them to a particular rose they asked for.
With Sarah and her mother, who volunteered with us in the beds as well. It was a pleasure to work with them both.
Live music added so much to the event.  People were dancing all through the esplanade.
Every year, the esplanade is lined with tables dressed with (what else) rose pink table cloths that are shared by some of the visitors while others picnic on blankets on the vast lawn.  The garden staff sell "rosetinis"... specially made martinis with rose petals floating in them.  Hats are encourage, but each year we see an increasing number of attendees dressed in period attire as well. Such fun!
The weather was perfect and the esplanade was sitting room only.
We were so happy to see another couple dressed in the attire of the 1920's and enjoying rosetinis.
The number of young children and young adults in attendance was phenomenal. 
This was the third "Rose Night" I've attended.  You can read about the other events and see more photographs of this magnificent garden at the links below.

This was a wonderful course taught in the rose garden by Sarah Owens in 2011

Rose Night 2011