Posted on Leave a comment

Where Wild Onions and Hope Blossom Together by Jo Busha

photo of wild onions called ramps
Homemade Ramp and Potato Soup

Little spring beauties (Claytonia virginica) were just starting to bloom as I went up the trail into our woods to pick a supper’s worth of ramps. These wild onions, Allium tricoccum, which are native to Eastern US, are the first wild food of the year to find a place on my table. Ramps are called by many names, including wild onion and wild garlic. They are pungent and contain qualities of both.

Where the trail turns to the right and levels out, the ramps come into view, at first small clumps of six or eight plants, then in colonies of hundreds. I chose a comfy seat on a moss-covered log in the soft April sunlight. I pulled out the asparagus knife (also called a dandelion digger) and dug up robust looking plants.

Ramps grow in a variety of settings, though they tend to proliferate in damp spots. I have read advice about picking them that states they are shallow-rooted. That may be the case when they grow in sandy stream banks, but here in a woodland in rocky New England, I have to dig deep to extricate the whole bulb from the tangle of maple roots and buried rocks. It is rare that I get the bulbs out intact. Soon, though, I have harvested enough for the ramp and potato soup I am planning for supper (recipe below). I will come back in a few days to pick more for mushroom lo mein.

The name “ramp” is said to derive from an Old English word “ramson,” a common name of the European bear garlic (Allium ursinum). As often is the case, English settlers applied the common name of a familiar plant from home to a similar plant they found in the new world. Ramps were also known to and used by the native people of Vermont. That connection is still visible in the name of the state’s third-largest river, the Winooski. “Winooski” is an Abenaki word meaning “place of the wild onions.”

Using ramps to cook a simple soup that might have also been made by the farm family that lived on this land several generations ago is very life-affirming for me. It is the taste of early spring when new growth is just beginning and hope blossoms.

Here’s the recipe I use for the ramp and potato soup:

Ramp Soup

Ingredients

  • 6 medium potatoes
  • 1 cup cooked ham, diced (optional)
  • 3 cups vegetable or chicken broth
  • 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 2 cups milk
  • 3 Tablespoons flour
  • 1 to 2 cups fresh ramps

Directions

  1. Peel and dice the potatoes. Dice the bulbs and stems of the ramps and slice about 3 inches of the leaves into ribbons.
  2. Cook potatoes with the diced ham (if using), salt and pepper until they are just tender in 3 cups of broth.
  3. Add the ramps and simmer another 5 to 10 minutes.
  4. Whisk the flour into the milk and add to the soup. Bring just to the boiling point, stirring constantly until the soup begins to thicken.
  5. Serve hot with a small pat of butter in each bowl.

Jo Busha is the author of Time and the Garden, a collection of essays written over a ten-year period about gardening, life in Vermont, and observations of the natural world. It is arranged by season, but not all the essays have a specific seasonal connection. It will appeal to gardeners, readers seeking a strong sense of place, and people interested in rural living, even if they aren’t able to live it. This place, where Busha has lived for 45 years, has played a huge role in her life. While not a how-to book, gardeners may find the essays instructive. Booklovers are likely to feel this a cozy read, warmth for a snowy day.

a book cover with a photo of a lush, Vermont garden
Jo Busha’s Book of Essays about life, gardening and the natural world
Posted on Leave a comment

The Joyful Mystery of Seeds and Spring by Jo Busha, Author

close up photo of plant seeds started in a flat

Though this year Spring is not a joyful season, I would like to share something of my annual journey as a spring seed-planter, hoping that stories of the joy of gardening are healing for all of us. Be safe and well out there.

I like to think that the first day of spring is actually the day I plant the first seeds in flats in the cellar – usually in the first week of March. That brings spring a lot closer than waiting for astronomical Spring. And much, much closer than the spring day when I can finally go outside and work in my Vermont garden. In warm areas, seeds might be planted in the ground about now. In snow country, seeds are planted indoors to be protected and nurtured.

brand new seedling started indoors
A brand new seedling just breaking through the soil

Every year I am amazed again at the wondrous thing a seed is. Kept in the right dry and cold conditions, they can survive hundreds of years. There are reports of ancient seeds that have germinated once given the necessary conditions, including 10,000-year-old wildflower seeds found in Siberia and a 2,000-year-old date palm seed in Israel.

For a seed to germinate, water must penetrate the seed coat. As the seed absorbs water, it softens and swells, eventually causing the seed coat to burst. Germination begins when the root grows out through the opening. As the root grows, branching through the soil, the stem develops and pushes its way toward the light. At the soil surface, the hooked stem pulls the cotyledons (embryonic leaves that – like the yolk of an egg – provide the new plant with nourishment) out of the soil along with the stem tip, though in some plants, the cotyledons remain under the soil.

Once real leaves develop, allowing the plant to make its own food through photosynthesis, the cotyledons wither away. There are time-lapse videos showing a seed putting out a root and stem over the period of a week or so. It is awe-inspiring to watch the small, inert-appearing seed produce a seedling plant. The exact mechanism the seed uses to accomplish this growth is not entirely understood, even by scientists who study plants. So spring, for me, is a season of joyful mystery.

Seeds come in many sizes and configurations, from dust-like petunias to large avocado pits. Marigold seeds look like little brushes and calendula seeds are c-shaped and rough. Some need help to get water to penetrate the coat. Nature accomplishes this in various ways but that usually takes time. Gardeners have learned techniques to speed up the conditions for germination (a process called stratification). There are, for example, seeds that need a period of cold. I have a small tray of harebells (Campanula rotundifolia) in my refrigerator right now which will be pulled out in a couple of weeks, and then set on a heating pad to promote germination.

Lupine photo in vermont garden
Lupine plants started from seed

Other kinds of seeds have coats so hard gardeners are advised to crack the seed. Often the recommended technique is to use a nail clipper. I have never been able to make this work – either I clip my own finger, or the seed shoots out when pinched and disappears in the debris on the cellar floor. A couple of years ago I started seeds of three kinds of lupine for a new flower bed. Daunted by all that cracking, I finally decided to lightly crush the seeds with a wooden mortar and pestle. Worked great! I think they all germinated and the following year I had a large display of red, yellow, and white lupines.

Do you have a seed-adventure story? I hope you will share it with me in a comment below.

Jo Busha is the author of Time and the Garden.

a book cover with a photo of a lush, Vermont garden
Jo Busha’s Book of Essays about life, gardening and the natural world

Posted on Leave a comment

The Early Call of Spring by Jo Busha, Author

photo of woman standing with gardening tool over rock pile

It was 64° according to the thermometer on the front porch, but the flower beds were still under several inches of icy snow. I was antsy: It was too nice to stay indoors, and I had already taken an hour-long walk on the muddy road, up into the partially bared woodland trail.

Fortunately, I have an outdoor activity area for just such a situation.

There is a pile of rocks next to our garage. The bottom-most boulders are probably the remains from digging out the cellar when the house was built in 1860. A middle layer of oblong, 6-inch thick slabs were deposited when we had to re-do the sills and field stone cellar walls. On top of that are slabs of cement that had been the garage floor before we moved the garage from one side of the house to the other.

The rock pile has become home to a variety of wild plants whose roots snake through the gaps in the rocks and delve deep into the soil below. A good-sized red maple tree grew up through the pile for many years, but eventually succumbed to harsh conditions. Around it grew ostrich fern and greater celandine, burdock and sow thistle, buttercup and raspberries and through it all, twine Virginia creeper and wild clematis. The snow melts early on this spot, which has a much nicer southern exposure than most of the flower beds. Seems a waste, but that is the lie of the land.

So, on that warm day I knew just what to do to scratch my gardening itch. I collected cutting, raking and digging tools and headed for the rock pile. The dead maple was cut down a few years ago, and I have been puttering away at the rest of the vegetation for a couple of years. Every early spring there are days just like this – too nice to stay indoors, too early to work in the garden. I hope eventually I can tame this wild spot sufficiently to make it an attractive natural area instead of an eyesore.

a book cover with a photo of a lush, Vermont garden

Jo Busha is the author of a book of essays called Time and the Garden, which reflect on one woman’s experience and evolution as a gardener and devotee of rural, small town life. Like during the “back to the land” movement of the 1970s, we are in a period of renewed interest in gardening and agrarian lifestyles. This book will appeal to gardeners, readers looking for a strong sense of place, and those who dream of such a life even if they aren’t able to live it. It is not a how-to book, but gardeners may find the essays instructive. It is, perhaps, a cozy book, a good read on a snowy day.