Home & Garden: Midwinter Gardening Notes
Wednesday, February 01, 2017 2:45 PM
Whether you know it as Imbolc, Candlemas, or Groundhog Day, this mid-point between the winter solstice and spring equinox has been celebrated since ancient times — even before that pagan ritual known as the Super Bowl. Weather divination at this point has been a fixation throughout the ages: An Old English proverb went:
Here in the U.S., we’re less lyrical and more practical, believing, “If the sun shines on Groundhog Day/Half the fuel and half the hay.” Regardless of the weather on February 2, it will still be a long time before trees bud out and grasses grow, making this a tough time for our wild feathered friends. A flock of turkeys has been a near-constant presence for the past several weeks, roosting in the softwoods, then skating and sliding their way across the pond to glean what the smaller birds have dropped from the front-yard feeder. We take pity on them and scatter handfuls of both cracked and whole corn for them, which they peck up eagerly, but on warmer days, they take their time getting here, leisurely strolling through the burdock weeds that are the bane of our existence but provide the turkeys with a tasty appetizer before their corn main course. When wildlife experts suggest planting shrubs and flowers that will attract birds to your yard, they often mention sunflowers and viburnums, cone-bearing evergreens and hollies, but I’ve never seen them recommend planting burdock; yet sometimes the turkeys forage so energetically they sport huge tumors of burdock burrs.
- “If Candlemas be fair and bright,
- Winter has another flight.
- If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
- Winter will not come again.”
For the rest of the birds, we put out black-oil sunflower seeds. These seeds have a high meat-to-shell ratio, are high in fat, and their small size and thin shells make them easy for small birds to handle and crack. You really don’t need to buy a mix of sunflower, milo, millet, oats, etc., since most birds eat the prized sunflower seeds and the rest is often either left behind or scattered on the ground.
If you’re out filling the feeders after a fresh snowfall, stamp down the snow below the feeder so that ground-feeding birds such as Dark-Eyed Juncos, doves and sparrows can easily peck up the seed that drops. On warmer days, putting out a pan of water near the feeder is a good idea. Warmer days are also a good time to take down the feeder and clean it. Just use some hot, soapy water, rinse well and dry before returning the feeder to the hanger. And remember, once the birds become accustomed to finding food at your place, they begin to rely on it, so if you leave home for a beach break or ski trip, try to have a neighbor or friend keep the feeders full.
This midwinter period was traditionally a time for pre-spring cleaning, so I was inspired to venture down into the root cellar to perform a task I always put off: sorting the onions that hang in mesh bags. I’d noticed lots of scary green sprouts poking through some bags and, sure enough, most of the Walla Walla onions were suitable only for the compost pile. This is to be expected with short-storage sweet onions, but happily, some of the others not particularly noted for keeping fared better, including the gigantic Ailsa Craigs and Copras. Still rock hard were New Dawns and, of course, that old reliable, Stuttgarter. We spent a lot of money on onion plants and sets last year and friends have told us they find the best way to have a good variety of onion plants for little cost is to start seeds inside in February, as they take a good four months to mature. It’s not that hard to do and if you’re the type to save yogurt containers, you already have a planter on hand. Just cut some holes in the bottom of the containers and fill with about four inches of a good seed-starting mix, sprinkle seeds over the top, then water gently but thoroughly with lukewarm water. Place your containers on a sunny windowsill and keep watered. You should end up with a container of skinny, grass-like plants that are supported by the tall sides of the yogurt container. When the greens are four to five inches tall, clip the tops to keep the plants a manageable size. The clippings can go into soups or salads, just like young chives.
Speaking of chives, onion dip and chips is one of the most traditional Super Bowl foods, but why not cut down on the grease and salt and roast up some real live organic potatoes to serve with your own chemical-free dip? Don’t worry about missing kick-off; you can roast the potatoes just before guests arrive and set everything out so everyone can help themselves.
To make the dip, which can be done the day before the game, preheat a large skillet over medium high heat. Add oil, onions, garlic and 1⁄2 teaspoon salt and saute for five minutes. Lower heat and continue cooking for another 15 to 20 minutes or to desired degree of caramelization, stirring occasionally. Set aside to cool slightly. Stir together sour cream, mayonnaise, chives, remaining salt and a pinch of black pepper. Stir in onion mixture. Refrigerate until ready to use. For potatoes, place two baking sheets in the oven and preheat to 400 degrees.
Homemade Sour Cream and Onion Dip
- 1 Tbsp. olive oil
- 2 cups chopped onion
- 3 cloves minced garlic
- 1 tsp. salt, divided
- 1 cup sour cream
- 1⁄2 cup mayonnaise
- 2 heaping tablespoons chopped chives
- freshly ground black pepper
- 11⁄2 pounds organic baby potatoes, quartered
- 2 Tbsp. olive oil
Toss potatoes, olive oil and salt in a bowl, stirring to coat potatoes completely. When oven is ready, divide potatoes on baking sheets, making sure they’re not crowded. Cook for 20 minutes, flip potatoes with a spatula, rotate pans and cook for another 10 to 20 minutes or until done. Serve warm with dip.