Restoring Mayberry

Preserving Butter Medieval Style

Brian KallerMy daughter burying butter in the bog

Like most people these days, we have a refrigerator to keep food fresh, and it runs on electricity — and here in Ireland, we get that from burning peat, or “turf.” A short walk from our house in the Bog of Allen, the land has been strip-mined to remove, press and dry the turf, in order to burn it in furnaces to boil water to run turbines to spin magnets to generate electricity to run refrigerators to keep food fresh.

Or you could do what Irish people used to do for thousands of years, and just bury food in the bog without all the steps in between. And when I say “food,” I really mean butter. It sounds bizarre, but there were good reasons for it, and we’re experimenting with preserving food the same way ourselves.

Irish bogs are often misty and mysterious places, where local people would secretly speak their own forbidden language, teach children their faith, poach meat — and occasionally hide things. When farmers later drained areas of bog-land, they revealed the reddish ground under the water — thousands of years of compacted sphagnum peat moss, pressed into a solid mass. The farmers then scooped out the turf with special shovels, dried them at home, and burned them in the fireplace — and today, machines do the same thing on a vaster scale.

Occasionally they find more than turf. Archaeologists have found ancient necklaces, coins, tools, swords, 1,200-year-old prayer-books, the remains of Viking settlements, and apparent human sacrifices. Not much decomposes in the acidic, oxygen-free bog-water, so tough organic material simply cures in it like leather. Shops around us sell “bog-oak,” wood from ancient trees that fell in the bog long ago, cured and darkened but still solid, and some writers believe that the Irish used to bury wood there intentionally to make musical instruments with the right tone.

And sometimes turf-diggers unearth packages of butter — small as fists or big as barrels, wrapped in bark, wood or baskets. One recent discovery, a barrel of butter weighing more than 35 kilos, dated from 3,000 years ago — and many such discoveries have been eaten, and were reported to be delicious.

More than 430 such finds have been recorded, and that does not count all the buried gastronomic treasure still waiting out there. Since we can suppose that people buried their butter to unearth and eat it later, and usually did so, these hundreds of finds must represent the small proportion of times that their owners died or the locations forgotten. This must have been a rather commonplace activity.

All the same, why butter, you ask? Probably because decomposers are slow to take apart fats anyway, and meat or vegetables would be more readily consumed. A surprising number of foods around the world are preserved by being buried in the ground, but they are usually dried foods in arid climates (cheese in Italy), or sub-Arctic countries where the ground is freezing (salmon in Sweden), or where the food is meant to ferment in some way (eggs in China).

Also, butter makes a valuable and high-calorie food for poor agrarian people; with it you can fry food or preserve things like potted meats. It was also taxed in medieval times, so burying it could have been a kind of tax evasion.

As with the other organic matter, butter did not go rancid in the waterlogged soil, and could be perfectly preserved after thousands of years. Archaeologist Daniel C. Fisher buried various meats in a frozen pond and a peat bog for comparison, and found that after a year, the meat buried in the bog had no more bacteria than the frozen meat — and remember, some of that fast-food meat might be more than a year in the freezer.

Finally, some authors have pointed out that preserving it this way would give the butter an earthy taste that some might have liked; recently unearthed butter, taste-tested by Irish schoolchildren, was reported to taste like well-aged cheese.

My daughter and I decided to do the same thing, making some butter at home and burying some in the bog-lands behind our house. In the old days this might have been done with a butter churn, but we were only doing small amounts, so we poured milk into a jar until it was half full and shook it — music is good for this part. At some point the sound of the sloshing changes, and you have a solid clump of butter in the middle of the liquid. In olden days many people would pat the butter dry of any milk-liquids, but we heated the solids off, not-quite clarifying it. Then we solidified it, wrapped it in cloth, and set off from our house.

From our house it’s a short walk to the Bog of Allen, where we dug a hole half a metre deep. We tied a rope around the cloth wrapping, and tied the other end of the rope to a nearby tree, and counted the steps in each direction to the neighbouring field. In six months or so we’ll come back, and see how edible the results are. Such experiments combine home-schooling, home-cooking, and empirical science all in one, and help us re-discover the methods our forebears used to survive for generations.

Caroline Earwood, ‘Bog Butter: A Two Thousand Year History’, The Journal of Irish Archaeology, 8 (1997), 25-42.

James O’Laverty, ‘The True Reason Why the Irish Buried Their Butter in Bog Banks’, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquities of Ireland, 2 (1892), 356-337.

'Wrapped and Stuffed: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2012'.

Fumbling Toward Independence

Brian KallerFoggy road

Some blogs focus on single-word subjects like knitting or superheroes. This one wanders a bit; one week I might write about our neighbors here in rural Ireland, the next about our garden, then about old black-and-white movies or reading with my daughter. All of it, though, deals with our attempts to discover an older and better way of living, and learn the values and skills that were normal before everything became cheap, fast and easily discarded.

Thus, I study the past to see what worked better. Our elderly neighbors grew up without electricity, cars or mass media, and I see how different their village culture was from our own frantic and lonely society. I read diaries and letters from a century of two ago, and see a complexity of thought and language that gives college students trouble today. The writers — in colonial America, Victorian Britain or 20th-century Ireland — might have been farmers, but they often grew up reading the same classics as their forebears — Hesiod and Sophocles, Livy and Marcus Aurelius, Aquinas and Dante. Now I’m reading these works one by one, and teaching what bits I can to my daughter. For that matter, I’m learning how to genuinely read again, and not just scan text on a screen.

We try to learn the ways people used to provide for their own basic needs rather than relying entirely on companies and governments, so we built a chicken coop, got bees, grow a garden, and learned to forage wild plants and mushrooms. We have make our own pickles, sauerkraut, beer, bread, wine and jam, and have taken courses in tree grafting, oven building, black-smithing, wood carving, and so on. We fail a lot, but we have fun learning.

Sometimes, though, I hear from someone who doesn’t just want to gain ideas for their own cooking or home-schooling, but wants to escape to a new life. They tell me about their meaningless office job, their tedious commute, the destruction of the landscape and the horrors of the news feed. They have read my blog, seen the pictures, and they want to find a place just like this. I sympathize and write back, but that usually means disillusioning them.

See, everyone starts with some common misapprehensions. Firstly, many people seem to crave a sudden and absolute abandonment of the daily grind, the way others fantasize about the Zombie Apocalypse or the Rapture. Their descriptions seem to resemble what we usually see in advertisements, where someone runs joyfully out of their cubicle throwing papers, their old life falls away like petals, and they stage-dive into The Environment. In reality, almost no one simply moves to the country and starts over, or if they do, succeeds for very long.

People generally need homes, food, sterilized water, heat and other necessities, and will sooner or later need medical assistance. Most of us these days are used to driving a car, having electricity, broadband, and mobile phone reception, and many other amenities we never think about, because we have never been without them. Every new convenience has a price, not just for the machine itself, but for maintenance, power, and the infrastructure to make it work for you.

As I write this, our heat pump is out again, and we’re stoking the fireplace in a cold house – things usually pick the depth of winter to break down, and so far this winter we've had the electricity, plumbing, boiler and septic tank break down. It sounds self-evident, but the more of the modern world you take with you, the less you will be getting away from the modern world, and the more you get away from everything, the more you have to do without.

Me, I work one of those office jobs in Dublin, and my wife works another. Our daily commute on the bus is worse than most — three hours a day — but that’s where I write for newspapers and magazines, something that doesn’t pay a living wage anymore. I have four hours a day when I’m not at my job, on the bus or asleep, and that’s my time to do all the chores, give lessons to my daughter, take care of a garden and animals, and practice all those crafts I named a few paragraphs ago. We live more independently each year, but it takes time and work, and it’s a life lived inside the cracks of a boring normal one.

It also involved some chance, something we rarely take into account when judging the choices of others. It so happened that my wife’s family had land here, so we moved, accepting the cost of living far from friends and family, along with the benefits of owning land and having neighbors to learn from. Other people ask me how they can do the same as we did, but their life comes with a different set of fortunes and hazards that we didn't face.

Secondly, many want to wash their hands of the world’s idiots and go it alone — the “self” in self-sufficient. We like growing and making more of our own belongings, but we would like to be less isolated, if anything — modern people live lonely enough lives as it is. Look at a city and you see millions of people alone in their cars, absorbed in screens and cocooned in a bubble of smart-phones and earbuds, unaccustomed to making mental or physical space for anyone else. In such isolated states we grow ever-more self-absorbed, and fantasize about being even freer from the oppressive proximity of our fellow man.

I say we are “learning to be more self-sufficient” or some such phrase, in the same way that one can learn to be healthier or kinder, but total self-sufficiency is barely possible and not necessarily desirable. Hermits were historically rare and willing to tolerate hardship, and while we read inspiring accounts of their lives, we don’t hear from all the ones who weren’t inspired or didn’t survive.

Humans are social animals, and tend to need company — and many tasks require a group of people cooperating anyway. Even Thoreau, who wrote so beautifully about living in the woods, lived near town and had a mother to do cooking and laundry. The mythology of the self-sufficient man came about in our own era by people who lived with the surplus of fossil fuels.

In our case, we built a house for our extended family, three generations under a roof, and that means more compromises — I’d love to raise a daughter without a television, for example, but it’s not just my house, so we just limit her time and monitor what she sees. I’d love to home-school her here, instead of just after-school lessons, but she needs kids her own age and I have to pay bills. People who try for this kind of life must not be too infatuated with the purity of their vision — the more ambitious it is, the less it can be done alone. Conversely, the more people you have with you — assuming you’re not a dictator — the more everyone has to compromise.

Thirdly, I find, people’s yearning to get away from it all rarely comes with a map or plan to get there, for “there” is often not a place but an imagined state. In this world, though, everywhere is somewhere, and in this day of internet and airports no place is very far from anywhere else.

The rural Ireland many Americans picture was disappearing even when I first visited 16 years ago, and the country has changed far more in the time we’ve lived here. It lives on in the elderly people around us, but they are disappearing one by one. I take photos of the thatched homes and horse carriages because they are beautiful and represent the focus of the blog, but I don’t show photos of other things that are also near us: McDonalds and malls, pornography and tabloids. Our local area includes people who are said to deal drugs, drivers who cut you off and teens who spray graffiti on 300-year-old bridges. Wherever you go, people will be human, and some will be unpleasant.

Even out here, my daughter absorbs celebrity gossip and pop fads by adolescent osmosis, and we have to negotiate like any middle-aged father and tween daughter: You can listen to Adele, but not Nicki Minaj (how do you even know who that is?) and you have to sing old songs with me later. You can watch a television program, but read part of a book after that, and then we’ll play cards. She doesn’t need to grow up innocent of the internet and pop culture, but she can know how to live without them.

I hear from people who embrace a new and harder life mainly as a big rude gesture to their old one. Some seem to imagine themselves sitting on a mountain of tin cans and guns waiting for The Big One, and will one day stand on the rubble above the pleading hands of the sheeple who wouldn’t listen. Other, more empathetic souls seem to mourn our species’ path of destruction, and want to do penance for the sins of others. Either way, they seek a new life not for its own sake, but out of an imagined revenge on the people around them, and I don’t see such impulses cultivating a healthy community. Moreover, if that kind of enforced austerity really worked, dieters would lose weight, and they don’t.

A more independent life need not be a distant redoubt to purchase but an ideal to fumble toward — in small steps, with help, in ways that are fulfilling and not overly complicated. Take food, for example: when my 11-year-old makes herself egg drop soup, grabbing eggs from the coop and herbs from the garden, she is saving money that might have gone to buy pre-packaged meals, and saving the energy that would have gone to grow, ship and process them. She learns to do things herself, bonds with other kids who cook, and can use this as a stepping stone to learn other things. To make egg drop soup yourself, you don’t need to move to another country, or start a farm, or stock up on saffron and balsamic vinegar, and your creations don’t need to look like those of those television chefs who trained for decades and don’t display all their mistakes. It just doesn't have to be that complicated.

Other skills are the same way, whether they involve growing a hedgerow, weaving baskets, nailing a shed together, making jam, fermenting kim chee, home-schooling, singing, or keeping animals in the shed. To actually live a somewhat self-sufficient life you need a lifetime of skills, and learning them takes a lifetime. Luckily, you have one, or at least part of one left.

Such activities can be fun, allow your family to eat when someone loses their job, gives you barter material in case of future emergencies, offers an opportunity to talk to neighbors, cost little to learn, and have almost no disadvantages. What they won’t do is change everything … because nothing will.

You see, almost no one ever genuinely starts a new life; they might try, but they are bringing themselves along for the ride, and they remain who they are. The life you want will not be a location to which you can drive, but a state you can work to attain. You will not be able to change anything but yourself and your surroundings, and then only in tiny increments, and from day to day nothing seems to change ... until one day, you look behind you at the path you've taken, and you see how strange the rest of the world appears in the distance.

What Not to Do Your First Week as a Beekeeper

Brian KallerFirst of all, everything you do will be wrong, at least according to someone, and that’s OK.

Take, for example, when you choose what kind of hive to get – by “hive,” I just mean the wooden box and the pieces inside, as you have to set that up before you put the bees in. All of those modern square hives come in two models, one smaller and one larger, and since every piece is made for a hive of one size or the other, beekeepers stick religiously with one model and swear by it. I picked the smaller version, thinking it would be easier to lift when laden with wax and honey – but when I told a local beekeeper, he talked to me about my decision in the delicate but grieving tones usually reserved for a terminal illness.

Then you need to decide where to put this wrong hive, and your spot will also be, according to someone, wrong. Most books, for example, recommend placing your hive where it will be warm and dry, protected from wind and rain. Those books were not written for people in Ireland. Who live in a bog in Ireland.

Thus, we make do – I chose a place in a corner of our woodland, facing the bog-land and its fields of wildflowers, but wove trimmed stalks of elder between tree stumps to form a wattle-fence around part of it, sheltering it from our fierce winds.

bees | Fotolia/krmk

Photo: Fotolia/krmk

Next you need to fill the hive with wooden frames, those rectangular slices of honeycomb that beekeepers remove to get the honey. Most hives come with slides of wax to help get the bees started, and you have to delicately slip the wax into each wooden frame and secure them in place. When you have done this for all 10 slides, you set the hive down gently, listen to the sound of several wax slides come crashing down, and do it right the second time.

You will also need a smoker – basically a cross between a watering can and an accordion – to slow the bees down before you open up their home. Despite being the smallest animal we’ve domesticated, bees are the only ones we have to sedate before approaching.

The bees will need sugar-water to get them started, before they figure out where all the flowers are in relation to their new home. This is easy to make on the kitchen stove – a kilogram of sugar per litre of water – and most hives, like ours, have a feeder attached. You don’t need to feed them continually – that would rather take away from the point of getting honey – but it does help them through the early days and again through the winter months.

Brian's daughter in the bee suitYou also need a bee suit, a one-piece outfit that will seem to consist mostly of zippers. Do try to seal all the zippers completely, or the neighbourhood children will see a strange, white-clad figure flailing and dancing the hokey-pokey out of the forest.

Now comes the intimidating bit: You need to buy bees and put them into their new home. You will probably do this by buying a swarm nucleus, or “nuc,” a mini-hive filled with a queen and skeleton crew of her staff to get a hive started. Whereas a full hive will have 10 to 20 frames of honeycomb, a nuc will have four or five, which you remove and place in your hive. The rest of your hive will be filled with empty frames – empty but for those wax slides you put in – ready for the bees to use as they expand their population.

Remember those two basic models of hive I mentioned earlier? Since the honeycombed frames of the nuc have to be removed and placed in your hive, the nuc’s frames must be cut the same size as your hive’s. This is why beekeepers stick with only one model – I had to find someone else with the same kind of hives, who was also ready to sell nucs.

Eventually I found an old beekeeper in the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland, and drove out to his farm. He cheerfully plopped into my arms a wooden box, secured all around with duct tape and with a wire mesh at the top, and right under the mesh, a swarm of bees writhing like a single organism.

“How long will they be safe in there?” I asked, looking up at the threatening sky.

“Oh, they’ll be OK for a few days,” he said, “Just make sure they don’t get cold and are kept out of the wind and rain.”

The freezing sideways rain began on my way home over the mountains, the box in the back seat buzzing ever more irritably with each bounce. If you must drive over mountain passes in near-zero visibility, I learned, it’s better not to hear an angry swarm of bees behind your head the whole time, box or no box.

When I got home it was completely dark and still lashing rain, and I learned that most bee suits are not waterproof. Nonetheless, I set up the nuc next to the hive, their entrances parallel. Bees have amazing sense of direction, but they don’t use landmarks like we or most mammals do; they use the position of the sun and moon to create a kind of GPS. With it they can track and find the positions of hundreds of thousands of flowers each day and communicate them to the other bees – an amazing skill far beyond our abilities – but everything hinges on having the right starting point. Move the hive 20 metres to the left, and they are like cars following Google directions from a slightly wrong street – everything will turn out very badly.

Through the next few nights of lashing rain I sprayed sugar-water through their mesh to keep them fed and made sure that no rainwater was draining into their box, then giving the thumbs-up signal to my waiting family inside, to let them know that everything was OK. If you do this yourself, do remember that you are an unrecognisable figure in a bee-suit peering in the window at night, and it might take a few moments of screaming before they realise it’s you.

Finally, the sun came out and I was ready to put on the suit again, smoke the bees and put their honeycombs in the proper hive. That was Plan A. After smoking the nuc well and removing the duct tape, I realised that the box was actually held together with screws that would require some tools and tugging to remove – Plan B.

Through all this the box was wobbled around a lot more, causing the bees to get quite agitated when the smoke wore off. Plan C was to smoke them again, until the burning material in the smoker suddenly ran out; Plan D, to stuff more in and re-light it, failed when the lighter jammed.

Plan E, finally, worked – for my daughter to run in, get matches, run to a nearby stone, leave the matches and run the other direction while I, trailing a cloud of bees, retrieved the matches, ran back, lit the smoker, and finally calmed the bees down while I moved them. Last I checked, they were settling in fine, and my 10-year-old and I have taken turns putting on the suit and checking on them.

Perhaps the most important thing to learn, though, goes beyond beekeeping. Many of us are trying to learn a lot of new skills, often with little proper training and limited supplies. Everything you do will be wrong, at least compared to the ideal scenarios of how-to books and videos. Don't worry about it: you'll learn as you go, and most of the time, you'll come out OK in the end.

beekeeper | Fotolia/Steve Oehlenschlager

Photo: Fotolia/Steve Oehlenschlager

The Edible Calendar

Brian KallerGardening takes the natural bounty of roots and tubers, leaves and stems, fruits and nuts, and stretches and pulls them to meet our desires - to appear sooner, later, bigger and more. We start them early indoors as seedlings, prepare their beds, cover them in cloches, weed out their neighbours, pick their pests and prune their misguided growth. We pamper our kohlrabi and celeriac like breeders groom their horses – and they need it, for generations of breeding have made them more sumptuous and fragile than the sea kale and bitter celery-weeds from whence they came. We force our garden plants to our human needs, and we pay the price.

When we forage, however, we accede to Nature’s own tight schedule; those mushrooms that appeared today will likely be slimy tomorrow, and those edible leaves will likely be inedible next week. We picture Stone Age people living by a leisurely rhythm of the seasons, but in fact they needed superb time-management skills.

If summer and autumn supply most of the garden’s bounty, though, spring offers the best foraging, when The Girl and I rummage through the bog-country and return with bushels of foodstuffs, ready to be dried, pickled, frozen and made into wine for the coming year.

The beginning of April here sees the first hawthorn shoots, and for two weeks they remain tender enough to be eaten in salad, sautéed in vegetables, or chopped and thrown into soups. When the hawthorns are in leaf the blackthorns are in flower, and we use this brief window to mark their position among the other trees of the bog-lands; once the blackthorns are done flowering, the trees are unobtrusive and hard to spot among the other trees, and you must know where they are to get their prized autumn sloe fruits.

Shortly after the hawthorn shoots appear, though, the first nettles grow large enough to pick, and the last six weeks have been prime nettle season for us. I’ve written before how nutritious nettles are, and how they can be eaten as a vegetable in their own right, like spinach, or made into tea, beer, soup, kim chi, or put into any number of dishes. I’ve been freezing bags of them to eat this winter, and drying them into tubs of tea to consume through the rest of the year. They are also useful for fibre – I saw an entire wedding dress made of nettle fibre once – but not until later in the year.

Bluebells and other flowers in Irish woodlands. 

Shortly after we harvest the first nettles, the first cowslips appear, illuminating the woods like fireflies. These yellow flowers, hanging like tiny golden bells from short stalks, take advantage of the brief window when the weather is warm enough for pollinators but dappled sunlight still covers the forest floor. They are already fading now, as the trees regrow their canopy and the woods darken again.

We’ve filled great bags with cowslips, freezing them until we had enough for wine. Then, last weekend, I boiled several litres of water – enough for a carboy and several wine bottles down the road – and mixed in sugar and the juice and zest of two lemons, and finally mixed in the cowslips. I let them boil for five minutes, turned off the heat and mixed in a champagne yeast.

Also fleeting are daisies that peek out of the grass; sweet woodruff that can be dried and used to flavour wine; chamomile and bramble shoots for evening tea; and wood sorrel massing like disciples around the feet of the great trees. The dandelions spread across the fields in the last month of April, their yellow flowers ready to be made into wine or fritters and their leaves providing us with more salad greens.

By May the blackthorn flowers are long gone and the hawthorn leaves are getting tough, which means the hawthorns are ready for their turn to bloom. For this reason the hawthorn is also called the May plant; the lyric “here we go gathering nuts in May,” refers to the tree, not the month, as nothing grows nuts in May.

The best part of May, though, is the nightly linden salads. New linden leaves taste much like lettuce, and every night when I ride my bicycle home from the bus stop, I can stop outside my door and pick a salad from our tree.

Now that May is behind us, all the elders are preparing to bloom, their inchoate flowers still green and clenched. In a couple of weeks, though, they will stretch into hand-sized flowers, ready for elderflower champagne and pancakes. The first gooseberries are hiding amid the thorns of their bush, and we can gather them by summer.

By late summer the hedgerows around us will grow thick with the first currants and bramble-berries. The meadowsweet stalks will unfurl their tufts along the canal, which we will collect in August for next year’s wine. By autumn we will search the bog-lands for mushrooms and the hazel and beech trees for nuts, collect elderberries, rose-hips and haws for winter syrup, crab-apples for jelly.

By day I take the bus to work in the city; a dismal landscape of cement and glass where humans have conspired to shut out seasons and growing things, keep only their own timetable, and attend only to their own desires. When our human obligations are done, though, we cleave to Nature’s timetable, ticking off each new chore and reward as they appear. We care for her smaller living things and make their brief lives healthy and useful, and hope she will do the same for us.

An Orchard From a Single Tree

Brian KallerAt some point in your childhood, I hope, you ate an apple and hit upon the idea of planting the seeds. Most such experiments stop at the paper-cup stage, but if your tree survived long enough to bear fruit, you probably noticed something strange: the seeds from that Golden Delicious apple do not necessarily grow into a Golden Delicious apple tree.

Seeds, you see, come from pollinated flowers. Flowers exist to get animals to combine a plant’s DNA with that of another plant, just as fruit exist to persuade animals to eat them and drop the seeds and fertiliser somewhere else. An apple’s fruit, obviously, is determined by what kind of apple tree it is, but the seeds inside are shaped by whatever pollen came to the flower.

My grafted apple trees.

My own grafted apple saplings.

If the bee that pollinated that Golden Delicious tree, way back when, had been to a crab-apple tree just before, then that Golden Delicious apple contains seeds that are part crab-apple. And since there are so many wild and domesticated apples around us, and bees need to make their appointed rounds, it’s quite difficult to grow purebred apples – and many other fruits – from seeds.

Even if you succeed in growing the fruit you want, it doesn’t necessarily come on the tree you want. You want a certain size of tree, suited for your climate and resistant to disease. With fruits you want a certain size, variety and flavour, and the two don’t often come in the same package.

Each plant variety has strengths and limitations that other varieties do not, just as a golden retriever dog has advantages and limitations that their wild wolf cousins do not. Of course, you can’t simply cut off a dog’s head and plant it onto the body of a wolf, getting a healthy but friendly Franken-dog. With trees, though, you can do exactly that.

It’s called grafting, and it dates back to ancient times, and today is practiced on a vast commercial scale; when you eat fruit, it was almost certainly from a grafted tree.

If you want to graft a tree the wrong way, do what I did the first time: let the knife slip the wrong way, cut your thumb almost in half, and spend a night in the emergency room. Grafting knives are quite sharp, so be careful.

To graft a tree the right way, however, you take a root and stem of one kind of tree for your “stock,” the base of your Franken-tree. You could use a hardy wild variety of crab-apple, or more commonly these days, one of many varieties bred just to be root-stock for grafts. The stock determines what the size and shape of the tree will be – if you use the bottom of a dwarf tree sapling as your stock, you will end up with a dwarf-sized tree.

Then you take a 1-year-old cutting, from the previous year’s growth, for your “scion” – again, a Golden Delicious scion if you want Golden Delicious fruit. The best scions are straight, long, upright shoots, usually taken from young and vigorous trees; in old trees this type of growth is hard to find and usually near the top.

The tree that grows from a successful grafting will have the best of both worlds; for example, as the size and shape of your root-stock variety, but yielding the fruit from your scion variety.

Apples are the fruit most commonly grafted, but you can graft pears, plums, cherries or many other fruit. Amazingly, you can even interchange certain species – stone fruit like plums, cherries and peaches are interchangeable, and you could, in theory, attach them all to one “fruit cocktail” tree. The good people at Seed Savers, County Clare, Ireland, even grow pears from their hawthorn tree.

Nor do the possibilities stop at trees; I am told you can even graft the top of a tomato plant onto the bottom of a potato plant – they are both in the nightshade family – and get both vegetables from the same organism.

Nor are you limited to one scion; in theory, you can attach as many scions as your root-stock tree has branches. You can even attach multiple kinds of apple; one man in Britain has grown a single tree, planted 25 years ago, and attached 250 separate scions onto it, making it the only tree in the world to yield that many kinds of fruit.

It’s best to graft in winter or spring, when the trees are as dormant as possible – the people at Seed Savers say they cut scions in December, store them in sand in cool dry place, and graft them in February or March. To try grafting you need the following things:

  • A scion, or a small branch from tree whose fruit you desire;

  • A root-stock, or sapling of the same fruit, but hardier and wilder – say, crab-apples if you’re grafting apples;

  • A very sharp knife (again, be careful);

  • Bandages or grafting tape;

  • A candle and matches (optional).

To graft a branch, you have to cut the scion off the desirable-fruit tree, and cut a branch of similar diameter off the hardy stock tree. If you’re trying this for the first time, the best thing might be to use a sapling, 6 months to 1 year old, as the stock, and the scion can be grafted onto its stem and become its top half.

Make a very slanted, diagonal cut at the top end of the stock, so that a long strip of bark is exposed. Then, rotate the sapling to the other side and cut it in the other direction, making an upside-down V shape. Finally, take the scion and make a similar cut the other way, so that the two dove-tail together. There are many other cuts that could be used, but this is one of the simplest.

The idea here is to expose as much of the cambium – the green layer under the bark – as possible, and to lay the stock’s and scion’s cambium touching each other. That’s the living part of the tree, where healing takes place, and that’s the part that will grow back together. The experts I talked to also recommend cutting off the tip of the scion after grafting, anything more than three buds up, so the tree will concentrate its growth into the most viable section.

Fit the two as tightly and perfectly as you can, and then make sure they stay together. Some people take sticks of wood and lay them against the dove-tailed branches to keep them in place. In any case, wrap the entire thing together in bandages or grafting tape. What you’ve done, effectively, is make a splint for the tree to grow back just as broken bones would.

Finally, light the candle – you were wondering what that was for, didn’t you? – and drip wax onto the wrapped bandages until the entire thing is sealed away from bacteria and fungus. This is an optional step, though – some grafters preferring to simply wrap the stems together or use sealing paste like Lac Balsam, which does not need to be heated. If you do use wax, use it sparingly, lest the heat damage the tissues.

If you want to try grafting yourself, it’s best to take a course or talk to an expert first, or at least look at a lot more detailed information in books and the Internet; gardening centres around you might have courses available. Once you get it right, though, you can start experimenting with turning a single tree into an orchard.

This article was written with generous advice from the grafting experts at Irish Seed Savers, County Clare, Ireland, which specialise in conserving heirloom varieties. Look them up here.

Exciting New Science Uses Plants to Clean Up Poisoned Soil

Brian KallerIn the last couple of centuries, humans have done a strange thing: We’ve dug the biggest pits, the deepest holes, and the longest tunnels the world has ever seen, all to find the most insidious and subtle poisons known to our mammalian bodies, remove them from deep inside rocks where they had lain sequestered for eons, and concentrate them in the places where most of us live. We’re starting to think this maybe wasn’t a good idea.

Take lead, which last-century humans put into containers, car parts, pipes, paints and many other products – and even in petroleum, spreading lead-tainted exhaust across the world. Lead causes brain damage and erratic behavior if absorbed into the human body, and its rise and fall correlates with the U.S. crime rate in the 20th century – the more lead was around children, the more crime appeared a generation later. It’s been banned from paints and auto fuel, of course, but it lingers on old buildings and in soil.

Or take mercury: Burning coal releases it into air and water, and thence into animals like fish – a 2009 study by the U.S. Geological Survey tested 300 streams across the United States and found that every fish tested contained mercury, a quarter at unsafe levels.

You could go on with a list of such heavy metals – cadmium, zinc, copper – right down the periodic table. Most of all, we have pulled out coal and oil and used it not just to fuel up the car and turn on the lights, but to generate hundreds of thousands of petrochemicals with unpronounceable names as long as sentences and often-unpleasant effects.

I say “we,” of course, but this isn’t a guilt trip; most of this was before your time, and you didn’t vote for it anyway. You and I use small amounts of heavy metals and fossil fuels in our own lives – driving, flying, heating, buying plastic products, just looking at this on a computer – but it’s very difficult to avoid doing so and still living in the modern world.

The consequence of so many people doing so many of these things, though, is that any urban area – and many rural ones – will have splotches on the map with large quantities of toxic materials in the ground. If you live where a gasoline station used to be, or a factory, a garbage dump, or any number of other things, you might have things in your soil you don’t want in your stroganof.

If you think you just won’t live in places, or just move away from them, congratulations: You’re thinking the same thing as everyone else. That presents a problem, as everyone who can live somewhere else will do so, and everyone who can’t live somewhere else will live on contaminated sites. Realistically, this means the poor, the elderly and other vulnerable people have to live with everyone else’s toxic waste – which is often the case already.

Other methods, like removing tonnes of contaminated soil, involve years of work and vast sums of money we don’t have anymore. If you could remove all the affected soil, moreover, where would you put it, aside from somewhere else that would then be contaminated?

What we need is a device that can suck toxins out of the soil and either turn them into something harmless, or concentrate them in something removable. No one has much money lying around to invent such a device, though, much less to manufacture millions of them and send them to sites around the world for free. Thus, these hypothetical devices would be even better if they already appeared around the world, or were lightweight and easily transportable.

It would be best, in fact, if these machines cost nothing to create, and once created could make more of themselves, at an exponential rate. While we’re at it, it would also be nice if the devices also prevented soil erosion, fed bees and other pollinators, and provided shade, beauty, a home for wildlife, and possibly firewood.

Thankfully, we have these machines now. Certain plants, it turns out, have a particular gift for sucking up specific chemicals, either as a quirk of their biology or as a way to make themselves poisonous and avoid being eaten. When these plants are sown on contaminated ground, they absorb the contaminants into their tissues, gradually reducing the amount in the soil until it is safe for humans.

Called phyto-remediation, this process has become one of the newest and most promising fields of biology. Similar methods use mushrooms in what is called myco-remediation, or use bacteria and have unfortunate names like bio-sparging, bio-slurping and bio-venting, but we’ll restrict ourselves here to plants.

The basic method is straightforward: Find out what toxins lurk in your patch of ground, and come up with a regimen of plants appropriate for the climate that hyper-accumulate those particular toxins.

“Toxins,” of course, covers a lot of ground, and the vagueness of the word allows it to be used in all kinds of unproductive ways – for example, every fake New Age cure that claims to rid your body of unspecified “toxins.” So to get more specific, let’s separate toxins into two of the most common categories: metals and petrochemicals.

Petrochemicals generally have familiar atoms like carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, the same things that make up chocolate sundaes, flower gardens, testosterone, newspaper, and most of the world around us. Those same elements in different combinations, however, make common but un-tasty compounds like gasoline, or lethal poisons like Agent Orange – it’s all in how many atoms are put together in what arrangement.

If a plant can absorb, let’s say, the cancer-causing benzo-pyrene – C20H12, found in coal tar – with some oxygen (O) and then separate it into C12H22O11 and H2O, the petroleum-based poison would become sugar water. I’m not saying this is the actual chemical process, by the way – just an example of how chemical combinations can make something deadly or delicious.

When the toxins are metals, of course, they cannot be broken down into other elements any more than lead could be changed to gold. Some plants can absorb the metal and metabolise it into some kind of molecule, however, making it less easy to be absorbed by the human body and thus safer to be around. Sometimes the metals can even help us; some biologists have even proposed using certain edible plants to accumulate zinc from contaminated soils and feeding the plants to people with a zinc deficiency.

After the plants are harvested with the metals concentrated in their tissues, they can be burned, and the metal stays in the ash – a small amount of space and weight to dispose of, compared to the tonnes of contaminated earth. The ash might even be able to be mined for the metals, for complete recycling.

One example comes from Brazil, where abandoned gold mines are leaking mercury and other heavy metals into the soil and water. Mercury is one of the most toxic of heavy metals, and once in the soil it is soaked up by grass, which is eaten by cows, which are eaten by … you get the idea. Farmers are now growing maize and canola plants in the area, though, which soak up heavy metals quite nicely – gold as well as mercury. One scientist overseeing the project estimated farmers could get a kilogram of gold per hectare from doing this, which would help pay for the clean-up.

Mustard greens were used to remove 45 percent of the excess lead from a yard in Boston to ensure the safety of children who play there. Pumpkin vines were used to clean up an old Magic Marker factory site in Trenton, New Jersey, while Alpine pennycress helped clean up abandoned mines in Britain. Hydroponically grown sunflowers were used to absorb radioactive metals near the Chernobyl nuclear site in the Ukraine as well as a uranium plant in Ohio.


Blue Sheep fescue helps clean up lead, as do water ferns and members of the cabbage family. Smooth water hyssop takes up copper and mercury, while water hyacinths suck up mercury, lead, cadmium, zinc, cesium, strontium-90, uranium and various pesticides. Sunflowers slurp a wide range of compounds – not just the uranium and strontium-90 from radioactive sites, but also cesium, methyl bromide and many more. Bladder campion accumulates zinc and copper, while Indian mustard greens concentrate selenium, sulphur, lead, chromium, cadmium, nickel, zinc, and copper.

Perhaps the most magnificent hyperaccumulator, though, is the simple willow tree, Salix viminalis; it slurps up copper, zinc, cadmium, selenium, silver, chromium, uranium, petrochemicals and many others. Also, once its biomass has concentrated the heavy metals, it can be harvested and used for many practical things.

Of course, phytoremediation operates under certain limitations; the plants have to be able to grow in that climate, and should not be an invasive species that will take over the landscape, as kudzu did in the American South. The plants can only remove toxins as deep as their roots, so the technique might not solve groundwater contamination.

Most importantly, plants move at a different speed than we do, and even after the plants are harvested they are not likely to have eliminated the toxin. Reducing a toxin to safe levels takes time, and phytoremediation doesn’t remove a problem overnight.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of this new field, though, is its scale, that the work to clean up toxic-waste sites could be done with no massive government project or corporate funding, with no bulldozers or construction equipment, without advanced and delicate technology beyond that to measure the toxin levels. The principles could be taught to every schoolchild or practiced by every land-owner, so that if anyone detects a certain toxin on their property, they will know what to plant to gradually remove it. The seeds and plants could be sold by any gardening or farm-supply store, so that some of our society’s most grandiose mistakes can be fixed by ordinary people, using natural means, using home-made experiments, hard work and patience, to restore our land to what it once was.

Thanks to Dr. David Leung of the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, for his assistance in checking this article.   


Survey of U.S. streams: “Mercury Found in Every Fish Tested, Scientists Say,” New York Times, August 19, 2009.

Effects of lead on crime: “America's Real Criminal Element: Lead,” Mother Jones magazine, January 2013

Effects of lead on crime: “How Lead Exposure Relates to Temporal Changes in IQ, Violent Crime, and Unwed Pregnancy,” Rick Nevin, Environmental Research, Volume 83, Issue 1, May 2000, Pages 1-22.

Effects of lead on crime: “Hazards of heavy metal contamination,” British Medical Bulletin, Volume 68, Issue 1, p. 167-182

Phytoremedation: Recent Advances Toward Improved Phytoremediation of Heavy Metal Pollution, Bentham Books, 2013.

Gold Mines and Mercury: Phytoremediation of Mercury-Contaminated Mine Wastes, Fabio Netto Moreno, Massey University 2004.

Playground in Boston: “New Jersey company cultivates pollution-eating plants Mustard greens, alfalfa help to clean up ravages of industry,” Baltimore Sun, March 30, 1997.

Playground in Boston: Blaylock, M.J., S. Dushenkov, D. Page, G. Montes, D. Vasudev, and Y. Kapulnik. "Phytoremediation of a Pb-contaminated brownfield site in New Jersey." (1996), pp. 497-498. In Emerging Technologies in Hazardous Waste Management VIII, 1996 Extended Abstracts for the Special Symposium, Birmingham, Alabama, Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Division, American Chemical Society, September 9-11, 1996.

"Blue Sheep Fescue: Phytoremediation: A Green Technology to Remove Environmental Pollutants," p. 71-86, American Journal of Climate Change 2013.

“Metal armour protects plants from disease,” Planet Earth Online, 10 September 2010.

“Improving Plants for Zinc Acquisition,” Prachy Dixit and Susan Eapen, Bioremediation Technology: Recent Advances, M. H. Fulekar, Springer, 2010.

Bio-remediation and Bio-fortification: Two Sides of One Coin, by X. Yin and L. Yuan, Springer 2012.

Turning Bad Wine Into Good Vinegar

Brian KallerIt all started with the parsnips. You can start them in summer here and leave them be, and they keep growing slowly through the dark Irish winters. By spring – the hungry season for most farming people – they are big as a man’s leg, a fact that must have saved many lives in generations past. Thing was, when I wrestled them out of the black mud that winter, we had to do something with them, and neither of us were overly hungry or fond of parsnips. So I made wine.

If you buy your booze from a store, “wine” refers only to grapes, but you can make wine or beer from almost any edible plant and some inedible ones. I make wine each year from whatever is in season – nettles, oxlip, meadowsweet, hawthorn, elderflower, elderberries, strawberries, raspberries, rhubarb, crab-apples, beetroots or dandelions – and mean to someday try recipes I've found for oak leaf, squash, parsley and cicely. I cannot give enough praise to wine made from meadowsweet, a summer weed with pale, astringent flowers, or oxlip, a delicate yellow flower that appears here in spring.

A few generations ago ,making wine provided not just recreation but survival, as many people had only lake or river water to drink and there were no cures for the many diseases people could catch. The fermenting yeast in wine or beer, however, drove out most other microscopic life, making water relatively safe. It also provided calories and vitamins; Medieval Britons are estimated to have drunk four litres of beer a day; I am told that the teetotal movement of the 19th century, which encouraged people to drink tea instead, actually caused malnutrition in rural Britain.

My parsnip-and-ginger wine, however, was a disaster – I find flower wines easy, vegetable wines difficult. When I uncorked it two years later, it had formed a disagreeable blend of flavours, and two more years did nothing to improve it. So I made vinegar.

Vinegar is what happens when bacteria ferments wine to produce acetic acid. I have had wines turn to alcohol naturally, when I didn’t want it – the hawthorn wine was particularly susceptible for some reason – but I had never made vinegar intentionally. Turns out that, like everything else, it takes time.

There are three ways to do it yourself. First, you could buy mother of vinegar, a slimy glob of the bacteria that makes acetic acid, and mix it with your wine. Second, you could buy unfiltered, unpasteurised vinegar that still contains the bacteria – effectively, it has a bit of the Mother still in it – and mix that in. Third, you could take the long way around and leave your wine out like sourdough, hoping that the right bacterium floats by on a wisp of breeze, lands on your project and goes nuts.

I took the middle route myself, buying a few bottles of unpasteurised vinegar from a specialty store in Dublin and mixing it with the wine – about 80 percent wine, 20 percent starter. I left the mix in a clean plastic bucket in our shed – the bacteria like the cool and dark. The bucket was covered but not airtight – bacteria need to breathe just like you do. In about four months, and the failed parsnip wine had started its new life, and we poured it through a coffee filter and bottled it.

My homemade parsnip and ginger vinegar 

People taking the third option have said they covered their wine with cheesecloth, fastened with a rubber band – they were trying to draw bacteria from the air, but keep out bugs and other such pests. My hawthorn wine was in a carboy, accomplishing the same thing.

This was one successful experiment; I'm not saying this will work every time, or that the result will taste good, or that it will always take four months. We let ours sit that long to be on the safe side, as we couldn't measure the change from looking. With our dark red hawthorn wine, a white film formed at the top of the liquid, making the bacteria quite obvious. The parsnip wine did not – perhaps because it was pale and the film was less visible – but after four months we were satisfied with the taste.

Your vinegar will have many uses beyond salad dressings, of course. You can use it to pickle vegetables, make salad dressings, wipe down the furniture, polish brass, disinfect cutting boards, clean out the coffeemaker, scrub pots or take off sticker glue. You can spray on car windows to keep them frost-free, rub it on rugs to remove stains or use it with bicarbonate of soda to unclog drains. In short, you have some useful stuff on your hands, all from your vegetable patch.