Worms in Bin Recycle My Kitchen Waste

Worms are our friends. They convert lots of organic material as part of Nature’s food webs. We can take advantage of this fact by farming with worms, where the desired product is compost, a source of available nutrients for plants.

Recycling food waste and house plant clippings into compost is very desirable. We can save on the expense to haul the waste away and get a beneficial product in return for a few moments of our attention. It takes only a few minutes to separate food wastes or plant clippings into a separate container for feeding your worms.

Feeding your worms can be as easy as opening the cupboard under your kitchen sink, raising the lid on the worm bin and throwing in the scraps – no meat, cheese, or oils, please. Ours is in the garage, so we place kitchen scraps in an old bean pot that sits on the counter by the sink. It took me forever and many a flea market to find one with a lid, but persistence pays off!

There are more modern-looking solutions to the bean pot. Just make sure you get a compost bucket with a lid!

It’s easy to get started recycling your kitchen waste into compost gold.

Six steps to recycling kitchen waste:

  1. Get worms. Use Red Wiggler worms.
  2. Set up bin. Large plastic container with lid and tray or spigot to remove excess liquid and air holes for the worms.
  3. Get crock. Pail with a lid or compost container for holding kitchen waste.
  4. Tear up newspaper. Any paper will do fine for bedding. Newspaper, envelopes, junk mail, old bills, any paper, colored or not.
  5. Add worms to moist bedding and empty food waste crock into bin.
  6. Keep moist. Use a spray bottle to keep moist or soak paper in water before adding to bin.

Compost has been shown to be a rich source of nutrients for plants. The nutrients in worm castings, as their poop is called, are highly available, which means that the nutrients in compost are more easily absorbed or used by the plants as compared to the nutrients in chemical fertilizers.

Strawberry Look-a-like – But Only in the Leaves

In Spring I was curious about a plant that looked like a strawberry plant, so I dug up a couple of these weeds and put them in a flower bed. That way I could keep an eye on them and see what they developed into.

Right away I decided they weren’t strawberries because the stem was thick and upright, hairy, too. It also started to branch out.

Strawberry plants have only basal leaves and are vining in their growth habit, not upright and branching. Each strawberry plant sends out runners that reach about a foot away from the mother plant and put down roots to develop another strawberry plant. We have some ever-bearing strawberries, called Ozark Beauty, that are ripening another set of berries right now.

The flowers of my weed are five-parted and yellow, but sort of inconspicuous because the petals tend to curl in a bit. It turns out that my weed is called Rough Cinquefoil, Potentilla norvegica.

Identifying the plant was easy using these characteristics: 5 regular parts, yellow flower, hairy, thick stem, and alternate, palmately divided leaves in threes. Also, the plant gets to be 1-3 ft tall and spreads to 4-6 ft across – much larger than any strawberry plant.

Leaves of rough cinquefoil.

Strawberry-like leaves of rough cinquefoil in threes. Note the hairy stems. Photo taken 16 June 2008.

Rough cinquefoil grows much taller than any strawberry.

Strawberry plants on the left are low to the ground, while the much larger rough cinquefoil plants grow two or three feet tall with some stems laying onto the ground.

Robust leaves of strawberry on the left and thin leaves of rough cinquefoil on the right.

Strawberry leaflets on the left are much broader than the narrow rough cinquefoil leaflets on the right.
Small, bright yellow flowers of rough cinquefoil.

Only a few small bright yellow flowers of rough cinquefoil are open at a time and they last for about a day.

There is apparently no medicinal or edible interest in the rough cinquefoil, so it’s history in the wildeherb garden.

Ozark Beauty, an everlasting strawberry.

Now that I’ve decided to pull out the rough cinquefoil, those Ozark Beauties will have a little more room to send out their runners. Next year we should have a larger harvest of strawberries.

Elderberry Jelly Recipe for Most Delicious Toast

Making jelly is easy when you follow the directions supplied on the box of fruit pectin. Different brands of fruit pectin may be favored by some people for certain jellies or jams, but I don’t have enough experience with using different brands to recommend one over the other. The brands of fruit pectin that we find in our grocery stores are Sure-Jell and Certo. Each little box contains enough fruit pectin to make 5 to 10 cups of jelly or jam, depending on the kind of fruit that you have available and on whether you’ll be using the fruit itself to make jam or just the juice to make jelly.

We figured that elderberries were most like the drupelets of a blackberry drupe, so we followed the recipe for blackberry cooked jelly from the Sure-Jell Premium Fruit Pectin directions.

For the elderberry jelly we cut enough elderberry clusters to half-fill a five gallon bucket. The bucket made to easy to carry scissors into the field and to carry out the elderberries without losing any of the ripe berries that fell off the clusters.

We plucked the berries from the clusters with a twisting motion and collected the berries into a large bowl. From having done this once before I knew that we needed 8 cups of berries for the cooked jelly recipe. We probably didn’t have to remove all the berries from the clusters for making jelly, but at that point of the process we were undecided whether we’d make jam or jelly. Since elderberries have a sizable seed, we decided to make jelly.

For crushing the berries we used a potato masher and crushed about one cup at a time. The berry mash was transferred into cheesecloth that was draped over another large bowl. The cheesecloth was gathered up and hung from a cupboard door to let the elderberry juice drip into the bowl.

Dripping elderberry juice.

Elderberry juice dripping into a large bowl. Use metal bowls instead of plastic – the plastic ones get sticky from the elderberry juice. Photos taken 15 August 2008.

Set aside most of a day to finish making jelly. It takes a bit of time to collect the juice and inevitably you’ll have to get your hands purple when you squeeze out the last of the juice from the berry mash. It’s ok, it washes off fine with soap and water.

We measured out 3 3/4 cups of elderberry juice into a large Dutch oven, or 6 quart pot, on the stove and added the contents of the fruit pectin packet. Heat was turned on medium-high and the mixture was stirred with a large spoon until the fruit juice-pectin mixture boiled.

Once the boiling was rolling, 4 1/2 cups of sugar was added all at once. With constant stirring the sweetened mixture was brought up to a rolling boil again and left to boil for one full minute.

Jars that had been run through a light cycle in the dishwasher were set up on the counter. Lids were placed in a skillet and boiling water poured over them – they were left to set in the hot water until needed.

Hot elderberry jelly.

Hot elderberry jelly just taken off the heat and sterilized lids in skillet.

Once the jelly mixture was boiled for a minute, heat was turned off and the hot jelly was ladled into the presterilized jars – one at a time. A jar was filled to within 1/8 inch of the top, the rim and screw threads were wiped clean, the lid taken out of the hot water, excess water was shaken from it, then the lid was placed on the jar. The screw band was screwed onto the jar and the jar was tipped over onto its top. Note: tipping jars is not a recommended method of sealing jars, and instead, one should use a canner to give a proper heat seal.

Once all jars were filled, the jars were placed upright in an area where they would not be disturbed until the next day. As the evening went on we heard the lids pop as they became sealed.

The next day we checked that each lid was sealed by pushing firmly on the top of each lid. Any of them that clicked were promptly placed in the refrigerator to be eaten first. The jars that were sealed were labeled and stored in the pantry. Our recipe made 3 pint jars and 4 half-pint jars.

Next August, here’s the supplies that you’ll need to make cooked elderberry jelly:

8 cups elderberries taken off their clusters
potato masher to crush berries
4 1/2 cups sugar
1 box fruit pectin
string or clamps to tie up the cheesecloth
large bowls
liquid and dry cup measures
large pot to cook in
large spoon for constant stirring
sterilized jars with lids and bands
skillet for lids
boiling water to sterilize lids
paper towels for wiping the jar rims
ladle for adding hot jelly to jars
jar labels

The major brands of fruit pectin do have reduced sugar or sugarless versions, so if you’re diabetic there is still a way for you to enjoy elderberry jelly or jam.

Give it a try and have some fun! The small half-pint jars make great gifts!

Virginia Bugleweed and Wild Mint Share the Lane

Correction: American Bugleweed was incorrectly identified as Virginia Bugleweed in the original post. Changes have been made to the text below.

This wet year has brought out a few plants in abundance that are not normally seen in such numbers. So far, I’ve mentioned that the Elderberry harvest has been great, the blackberries were huge and in abundance, and the Joe-Pye Weed actually flowered this year. I think there are more of the wood asters and white snakeroot getting ready to flower this year than in the past couple of years, too. Jewelweed is flowering in great abundance now all along the lane, but especially in the lower, wetter areas.

Another new plant I’ve discovered along the lane is a non-aromatic mint. Sounds contradictory, doesn’t it? Most members of the Mint Family, Labiatae, have small glands that produce aromatic compounds that we’re familiar with, like peppermint and spearmint, but this plant is an exception. Crushing a leaf produces no smell that I can detect.

Having a squared stem, opposite leaves and tiny tubular flowers in the leaf axils are all characteristics that place American Bugleweed, Lycopus americanus, in the mint family.

American Bugleweed.

American Bugleweed along the west side of the lane has toothed leaves that taper at each end and clusters of small, white axillary flowers. Photo taken 18 August 2008.

Toothed leaf of American Bugleweed.

The toothed leaf of American Bugleweed is strongly tapered at both ends.

The small white axillary flowers are tubular and without a hand lens seemingly without definition. Inspecting the flowers a little closer, you can see that the top “lip” of the bugle-shaped blossom has 2 lobes while the lower lip has 3 lobes. Nearly every set of leaves occurs with clusters of flowers.

Wild mint shares a number of characteristics with its family member, American Bugleweed. Wild Mint, Mentha arvensis, sports the squared stem, opposite toothed leaves and small tubular flowers in the leaf axils. Blossoms of wild mint are typically a lilac color, but sometimes they’re white.

Wild mint, Mentha arvensis.

Wild mint grows along the east side of the upper lane, near the blackberry plants. Lower leaf sets have pairs of small leaves in the leaf axils, not flowers as the American Bugleweed does.

Other characteristics that separate Wild Mint from American Bugleweed are the stem texture and leaf shape. The bugleweed stem and leaves are smooth, while the stem of wild mint has a rougher feel due to numerous fine hairs. Wild mint leans to more of a trailing habit where its stem may curl slightly, whereas American Bugleweed grows upright and its stems are straight.

Wild mint flower clusters, and the flowers themselves, are larger than those of the bugleweed.

Wild mint flower clusters.

Wild mint flowers cluster in leaf axils. Spiny or hairy projections of the sepals are very evident after the flowers have fallen away. Photo taken 8 August 2008.

The leaves of wild mint are oval or egg-shaped and not strongly tapered at both ends like those of the bugleweed. The leaf teeth are much more prominent on bugleweed.

Wild mint, with its strong minty scent, is enjoyed as tea because of its aromatic qualities. Bugleweed doesn’t have the minty aroma, but the entire plant has been used medicinally as a mild sedative and to treat coughs, thyroid disease, heart disease and diabetes. Studies suggest further research is warranted for treating hyperthyroidism.

Since both the wild mint and bugleweed are perennials we’ll harvest some leaves and dry them for winter tea.

Wet Year Brings Bountiful Elderberries to Pennsylvania

Weather is interesting to many people because it’s always changing. Daily and seasonal cycles bring changes to the weather. Outdoor activities often depend on the weather being suitable, and if it’s extremely hot or cold you’ll find many of us indoors.

If I remember correctly, 2008 is a La Nina year. For the Northeastern United States a La Nina year means the summertime weather is cooler and wetter than usual. I would say that has been true this year.

We have had a few spells of hot weather in the 90s, but those extremes were tempered with nighttime rains. I’m not sure that we’ve had an abundance of rain in 2008, but we have been blessed with rainfall quite often during these summer months.

The garden tomatoes and peppers are just now coming off and the garlic fizzled out. Just not hot enough for those guys to produce a bumper crop. The corn is fantastic in all of Pennsylvania this year. The rains have produced plants well over my head, perhaps 12 feet tall with 3-4 ears on each stalk.

Cooking some water-soaked corn right in the husk over an open fire can’t be beat! Just delicious!

Elderberries hid well for a while until I realized that they like growing in semi-wet areas. The elderberries on our land grow along the lane where they receive runoff from the spring and in the wetland area that is just to the north of the pond, which is really a catchment basin. The rainwater that drains from the dirt road travels in culverts into this wetland area before trickling into the pond. Here, I found four elderberry plants loaded with berries.

The farmer’s land just to our south has a few really nice elderberry bushes next to a small stream. Some of those went into my first Elderberry Jelly. What a nice berry flavor!

Elderberries weigh down the branches.

Near a small stream deep purple elderberries weigh heavy on the branches.

A 5-gallon bucket of elderberry clusters was a lot to work with and it took a few hours to twist off the berries. All those berries filled a 4 quart Dutch oven and half-filled a 2-gallon metal pail.

Elderberries in abundance.

Sixteen pints of elderberries plucked from their clusters.

Wide-mouth pint jars were filled with elderberries, a pinch of purified sea salt was added on top and the jar was filled with water before putting on the lid. Each jar was preserved in a pressure cooker by heating the canner up to pressure, turning off the heat and letting the jars stay at pressure for 25 minutes.

Elderberries in jar ready to be preserved.

Salted, elderberry and water-filled jar ready for preserving.

That five gallons of elderberry clusters made 16 pints of berries, 14 of which are preseved in jars for making pies or other treats in the future, and the remaining two were used to make Elderberry Custard Pies – one pint of berries to a pie. Just delicious!

Take your favorite custard pie recipe, pour the custard over a pint of berries in a blind-baked pieshell, and you’re in for a treat.

Elderberry Custard Pie!

The last piece of Elderberry Custard Pie!

The first pie was nearly gone before I got out the camera, and the second pie went to the farmer whose elderberries were harvested the day before. After tasting the pie he exclaimed that he didn’t know elderberries could taste so good! He said he won’t be taking down that Elderberry bush afterall!

Chicory Blossoms Decorate Country Roads with Sky Blue Wild Flowers

This morning I found the cereal cupboard bare except for a sample-sized box of Fiber One cereal, made by General Mills. Left behind by one of the summer guests of the mountain, I figured that the children chose all the really sweet ones first.

Fiber One cereal box.

Fiber One sample cereal box.

I wouldn’t have purchased the small boxes because they have too much packaging to throw away. Different from the scored boxes we had as kids that doubled as bowls, this one had no scoring, and instead, the cereal was safe inside a heat-sealed plastic bag. Eating milk and cereal right from the box was fun – probably a memory from my childhood that today’s little ones won’t experience.

As I munched on the surprisingly sweet cereal right out of the bag, I just had to read the ingredients to see which sweetener was inside…sugar (second ingredient), fructose and dextrose. There’s little surprise there. Maybe it’s a great source of fiber with 9g per 1 cup serving, but the carbs, at 41 g, might be a little high for a diabetic.

Here’s the ingredient list for those of you trying to find a healthy alternative to Sugar Smacks:

whole grain wheat
corn bran
chicory root extract
rice bran and/or canola oil
trisodium phosphate
soy lecithin
natural and artificial flavor
bht added to preserve freshness
enriched with a host of vitamins and minerals

There’s some whole grain goodness inside, but probably too much sugar to earn a gold star.

Surprised by the fourth ingredient, chicory root extract, I’m wondering if that is the ingredient responsible for the “caramel delight” flavor. What gives the natural and artificial caramel flavor? Perhaps the chicory root provides the light brown color. Before reading it on this cereal label I’ve only heard of roasted chicory root being used as a coffee substitute. It has to impart some taste to the cereal, doesn’t it? I wonder what other foods contain chicory root extract.

Chicory, Cichorium intybus, is in bloom all along the country roads in Pennsylvania. The sky blue blossoms are really pretty especially when a lot of chicory grows together.

Chicory decorates country roads.

Chicory flowers along the road.

Chicory flowers along the Pennsylvanian country roads.

Up close you can see that the petals are fringed at the ends. The chicory flowers are sessile and appear to be attached right at the stem. Leaves are few and variable along the stem and basal leaves are similar to dandelion. Long, arching blue stamens stand out nicely.

Close up view of chicory flower.

Fringed petals of chicory give its flowers a unique look.

Queen Anne's Lace and Chicory.

Queen’s Anne Lace seems to be chicory’s main cohort. I see them together everywhere along the country roads and in empty fields.

The long tap root of chicory can be roasted for use as a beverage like coffee and, as I’ve read more about it, chicory leaves can be used in salads. Commercial growers in Michigan and a few other states in the Midwest now provide most of the chicory consumed in the U.S. It is an alien plant that European settlers imported into their new country.

Chicory root contains a sugar-like compound that is most likely used for soluble fiber content in my morning cereal.

JoePye Weed Doesn’t Like it Dry or Too Shady

As I was saying…this has been a wetter year than the previous couple of years, and so, we’re eating great bunches of wild berries and getting to see a couple plants flowering that blossom in the wet conditions. All the rain sure makes for nice gardening – no extra watering needed!

Last year I had been watching this plant grow up through the summer. Taking pictures all along I was really curious what it would develop into, but there was to be no flowering. What drew my curiosity to it was the whorled leaves. I was unfamiliar with this plant and eagerly awaited its bloom time.

It turned out that the season was too dry for me to see anything. The small flower buds simply dried up and the plant stopped growing.

Non-flowering native plant.
No flower plant.

The small flower head dried up after these photos were taken on 12 July 2007. You can see the whorl of large leaves quite clearly where they attach to the main stem.

This year, being a wet one, is different. The terminal cluster of flowers is still developing. As I recall, it seems like a smaller version of a plant that I have been seeing by the roadsides along country roads of Central PA.

Pink flowers by the road.
Pink flowers roadside.

Tall pink flowers along a Pennsylvania country road.

Coming home from town this morning I pulled over near a patch of these very tall pinkish flowers. Right away I could see the large lance-shaped leaves in whorls. Indeed, the leaves can be seen from the road, as can the cluster of pink-to-white flowers. These plants towered over my head as they stood 8-10 feet tall, but a few were reaching only about 4 feet high.

JoePye Weed.

The flower parts are indistinguishable, which helps to identify this plant as being a Eupatorium species.

JoePye weed flowers.

A close-up photo shows a couple of white stamens, but that’s about all you can see.

To further identify this plant, you’ll need to look closely at the main stem. Are there purple spots or is the stem green with a white, waxy appearance? Is it a hollow stem? The different Joe-Pye weeds are distinguished like so:

  1. Sweet Joe-Pye Weed, Eupatorium purpureum, – green stem, purple at leaf joints vanilla odor of crushed leaves.
  2. Spotted Joe-Pye Weed, Eupatorium maculatum, – purple or purple-spotted stems, flat flower cluster.
  3. Hollow Joe-Pye Weed, Eupatorium fistulosum, – stem may have a tinge of purple, hollow stem, domed flower cluster.

Our plants are the Hollow Joe-Pye Weed, sometimes called Trumpetweed, due to the dome-shaped flower cluster, hollow stem, and no odor of vanilla. Areas that get lots of sun have the Joe-Pye weeds in full bloom and they’re very tall, too. Our smaller plants are in part shade all day long.

Interestingly enough, I found the same cohorts growing by the JoePye weed about 7 miles away, in full sun. I easily spotted Boneset, White Snakeroot, Spotted Touch-Me-Not and Blackberries – the same troupe that’s growing along our lane.

Delicious blackberries.

Don’t these blackberries look delicious? They’re quite large from all the rain and now they’re in my belly!

Boneset, Snakeroot, Touch-Me-Not and Blackberries

Who’s your neighbor, Boneset?

A fault, I find, of many field guides is that the neighboring plants of the one you’re reading about are not usually mentioned. OK, maybe it’s not a fault, but it sure would make a nice addition to list some of the ‘cohorts’ or associates that may be found with a particular plant.

I suppose the lists of associated plants would become too long to be useful. The plants growing alongside Boneset here may not be in the locations where you see it. Still, I can see that if you recognize the habitat where your plant is growing, you can learn about other inhabitants of that ecosystem. Then it would be easier to recognize individuals in that community of plants in the future.

Take our perennial Boneset, for example. At three to four feet tall the clusters of white blooms really stand out. Even more recognizable are the opposite pairs of perfoliate leaves that appear to be joined at the base. Once you see those leaves as the plant is growing, there’s no mistaking it. Boneset grows up in July and flowers in August to September.


Three perennial boneset plants starting to flower.

Boneset no flower.
No flower in dry year for boneset.

Flowers starting to open on the Boneset.
(Photos taken 2 August 2008.)

Growing along the lane our Boneset is growing in a wet area, often near running water as rain water and runoff is funneled off of the dirt road in that location. We’ve had a relatively wet year as the spring at the lower section of the lane has not totally dried up as it often does by this time of the year. Not such an excess of rain, but often we’ve had night-time downpours.

Growing around Boneset, Eupatorium perfoliatum, we have White Snakeroot, Jewelweed or Spotted Touch-Me-Not, and Blackberries. White Snakeroot, Eupatorium rugosum, and Jewelweed, Impatiens capensis, are described in the Peterson Field Guide on Eastern-Central Medicinal Plants as growing near running water.

The last two years were much drier and I don’t recall seeing Boneset flowering at all. Snakeroot did, but not with as much gusto as I’m seeing this year.

The blackberries are more aggressive and will grow in drier locations in the woods as long as they can get the sunshine they need. Plants that might be called generalists, those that can live in many places, like the berries, are not good cohort indicators. Although you have to take caution here as this wetter year has produced an abundance of huge, sweet berries in the locations near the Boneset. We’ve enjoyed the blackberries thoroughly!

WildeBerry Ice Cream, anyone?