It’s fall, and it’s really starting to feel like it. The first signal was when the days became noticeably shorter. Now, temperatures are dropping, and leaves are changing color. Geese are flying high in long Vs, heading south.
After a hectic and scattered summer that kept me away from gardening more than I wanted or expected, I have a lot to do yet this year. Before the snow flies. In two or three months.
Here’s my current list of fall garden projects, which is certainly incomplete:
Removal of invasive barberry using herbicide (need to research too)
Site visits of a few friend’s gardens (consultations)
Learn to chainsaw/Help take down trees
Innoculate mushroom logs
Plan and plant cottage foundation area
Transplant silver maple seedlings to woods
Protect seedlings from deer browse (need to research too)
It was only a matter of time before I tried chaga. After all, my friends had offered it to me several times and raved about how good it is. It was a gentle, adult form of peer pressure where the primary benefit was not being cool or getting a thrill like it was during the teenage years; nowadays it’s about participating in the latest health trend, like chia seeds or Cross-fit. Among my friends, chaga is where kombucha was three years ago.
Chaga, if you haven’t been introduced to it yet, is a fungus (Inonotus obliquus) that parasitizes birch trees in northern forests. The fungus enters the tree stem through a would or old branch stuff and sends fungal threads into the tree in order to access the tree sap. Meanwhile, the fungus produces a crusty, browish-black growth (the chaga) on the outside of the tree stem. In forestry school, I first learned of this fungus as “bear shit on a birch tree” because of its ugly appearance.
But over the last few years, its been reintroduced to me as a dark, tea-like drink made from this funky mushroom. Chaga is a folk medicine used by native peoples across the northern hemisphere to treat a wide varietyof ailments, including stomach disorders and cancer, although the scientific evidence is still incomplete due in part to a lack of animal and human studies. There’s a good amount of evidence that suggests it might be beneficial and nothing that says that it is harmful.
So, after years of offers, I recently tried it. At a friend’s house, a concoction of chaga and cinnamon was kept warm on the wood stove. The flavor was mild, similar to a black tea or a weak coffee, but with no bitterness. It was not bad, and seemed like something that would be good mixed with strong blend of chai spices.
We decided that it would be fun to do a little winter foraging and find some in the woods. We discussed three potential locations near our house, all northern hardwood forests with some yellow birch. I advocated for a place a few miles from our house, where the ground slopes down to a creek and ultimately the river a mile or so away. I haven’t spent much time in this area, so it was a good excuse to go there. I had a hunch that it might have more yellow birch than the other areas we were considering, and it turns out that I was right. There were tons of yellow birch trees in the snowy forest.
We went out on our cross country skis, although snowshoes probably would have been more efficient in the deep, powdery snow. The forest had a lot of yellow birch, as well as hemlock, but we didn’t see any chaga for a long time. We’d meander from birch tree to birch tree, occasionally using our ski poles to knock clumps of snow off the bole and see if anything was underneath. But nothing was underneath and the snow would just fall into our faces or down our collars.
Eventually, we found chaga on a few trees. We used a hatchet to remove it from the tree (which doesn’t hurt the fungus or the tree if done correctly) and put it in a backpack to bring home. Lately, we’ve been having chaga tea in the evenings. Hopefully the claims are true and there are health benefits, but it’s a nice little evening ritual regardless.
I’ve had aspirations to forage for a long time. I have a copy of Edible Wild Plants that I bought sometime while I was in high school. It’s one of the oldest reference books that is on my shelf, and yet I haven’t used it that much. While I know that many of the plants that I frequently see are edible—like cattail and wintergreen and nettles—I generally haven’t gone through the effort to find, collect, prepare, and eat these plants. Beyond berries and other wild fruits, my foraging efforts to date have been pretty limited to a handful of trips to gather wild leeks and search (generally unsuccessfully) for morel mushrooms.
I want to forage more this year, but there isn’t much available in the middle of winter with two feet of snow on the ground. It will be about two more months before the maple sap starts to run, signaling the beginning of the new year from the perspective of a plant or hibernating creature.
In the meantime, I am taking time during the long winter to locate foraging opportunities for later in the year. The snow makes it easy to get around in the woods (with snowshoes) in places that are too wet or brushy to easily get to during other times of the year. Plus, the lack of leaves on deciduous plants makes it easier to see longer distances in the woods, some plants to stand out. Ostrich fern is one of these notable plants because it leaves its fertile fronds out in the winter. These poke through the snow and point to where to look for fiddleheads this spring. I noticed abundant ferns during the summer, and now I’m looking for more locations where they are particularly dense. Yellow birch and burdock are other plants that are in my sights these days, so hopefully there will be more foraging in the future.
It’s well into fall now, with a thick carpet of crunchy brown leaves covering most things in the woods. We took a walk the other day, and I spent extra time looking at the small things that were hiding in plain sight near my feet. They will all be covered in snow soon.
It’s time to bring this year’s garden season to an end. There’s really nothing left to do inside the garden besides pick a few carrots, so I need focus the remaining weeks before snowfall on raking leaves, tending grapes, and whatever else I can manage to do to get ahead for next year. But, before I do that, it’s the perfect time to make a highlight reel for the past season.
My 2015 garden was a good one, perhaps my best ever. The weather was great for gardening: a longer and warmer season than average with regular rain throughout the season. Continue reading “2015 Gardens in Review”→
Tonight was a totally gorgeous night, so I took the time to take a slow walk around our property and see what trees are out there as part of my quest to record all the plants on our property. I feel pretty sheepish that I’ve never done this before in the six years that we’ve lived here. I’ve definitely been across most of the property, but I’ve never just done a lap at one time. It’s pretty nice, and with only 2.75 acres, it doesn’t take very long. Continue reading “All the Trees in our Woods”→
When I woke up this morning, I sat up in bed to look at the sun coming through big, beautiful leaves on the tress in our woods with the kind of perfect low, yellow light that makes everything look super pretty. And the first thing that come into my mind was Cat Steven singing “Morning has Broken,” which seemed both a little funny and oddly appropriate for a Sunday morning.
I’m extremely busy with my garden; it’s such a joy to me, and on fine days like those we’ve had recently I am in raptures at the wonders of nature. (Claude Monet)
As I predicted last December, I planted tomatoes yesterday. Actually, I spent pretty much all day yesterday getting my vegetable garden ready for the summer. True gardening generally doesn’t start until Memorial Day weekend for me becase Upper Michigan is cold and covered in snow 5months of the year, but you might start your garden at a different time based on your local climate Continue reading “Why you Need a Garden”→