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The Theoretical Farmers AlmanackFrosts are coming more frequently now in the Shenandoah Valley. Leaves are dry and curling, basil plants have turned black and corn stalks loom parched and paper-like in the nearly desolate garden. But there are still a few green plants that brave the low 30 degree morning temperatures. Two cabbage plants have come to life, the oregano is still green and the mint has recovered from its summer drought and is once more taking over the garden.

Today I harvested a bagful of peppermint, spearmint and chocolate mint for my famous winter mint potpourri. There is simply nothing like the refreshing scent of mint on a frosty winter afternoon! And now that summer canning, freezing and preserving is done for another season, it’s nice to pick handfuls of mint leaves to dry for potpourri.

Last of the Summer Mint

My Recipe:

1 cup of cellulose fiber fixative (or orris root) to hold the scent
10 – 15 drops of peppermint oil
3 – 4 cups of dried mint leaves
1 cup of broken cinnamon sticks

1. Spread fresh mint on newspapers or paper towels to dry. (Make sure it is crispy dry before using it.)

2. About a week before mixing the potpourri, put peppermint oil on the cellulose fiber and place the mixture in a glass jar with a lid. Shake occasionally to distribute the scent.

3. When the mint leaves have dried and the oil has soaked into the fiber fixative, combine the mint, cinnamon sticks and cellulose fiber fixative. Mix well. If the scent is not strong enough, add a few more drops of peppermint oil.

4. Place in an open container or in a simmer pot.

5. Enjoy!


The Theoretical Farmers AlmanackA little splash of green always brightens dull winter days, especially if that green is edible! With a few seeds, a cup or two of dirt and a sunny window, you will be able to enjoy the fresh taste of summer herbs all winter long.

Most gardeners recommend planting herb seeds in a potting mix rather than potting soil. The mix is lighter and drains better than regular soil or even a fertilized potting soil. And drainage is important. Herbs do not like “wet feet!”

While herbs enjoy an occasional dose of fertilizer, remember that you want to encourage leaf growth, not flower growth. After all, it’s those leaves that yield the rich, fresh taste that enhances cooking flavor.

You can start some herbs from seed if you’re patient. Basil, although slow to start, will grow well in a kitchen window if it receives lots of sun. I have never had much luck with growing parsley from seed. I’m told that it is possible, but apparently my thumb doesn’t possess the correct shade of green!

One of the best ways to grow herbs indoors is to take cuttings from established plants. Oregano, sage and rosemary can be successfully started from cuttings. Again, it’s best to put the cuttings in a potting mix rather than in potting soil. Thyme can be dug from the garden and transplanted into a pot for indoor use. Chives are also a good indoor herb but they take a little extra prep work. At the end of the growing season, dig a clump of chives and put them in a container. Leave the container in the basement or garage for a few days before bringing it inside. After the chives are transported into the house, make sure they have a place in your sunniest window.

Although winter doesn’t offer a lot of gardening options, planting herbs indoors is a satisfying way to capture a bit of summer to last through the chilly days from December to March. With a little planning and some bright winter sunshine, you can enjoy fresh herbs all winter long!

kitchen window herbs | Fotolia/santiago silver

Photo: Fotolia/santiago silver


The Theoretical Farmers AlmanackThis year, my new gardening venture is a fruit flavored one: raspberries! When I picked the ragged little roots up from my friend’s house last Monday, I couldn’t help but wonder how these small branch-like twigs could possibly grow into healthy, fruit-bearing bushes. You’d think that by this time I would have learned to trust the age-old process of resurrection: the certain cycle of death, rebirth, growth, maturity and death.

My daughter and I were able to get the roots into the ground just hours before the advent of a steady, two-day rainfall. When the ground had dried, and I was able to trek through the backyard without losing a shoe, I inspected the newly planted stems. To my great astonishment (owing, as previously mentioned, to a substantial lack of trust in the growing process), most of the bare sticks had proudly sprouted a few bright green leaves!


Today I mulched the plants with rich, woody soil from the woodpile. I’m hoping the chips will help keep the moisture in, since I dug the raspberry patch quite a ways from the outside water spigot! (I’m an English teacher, not an engineer!)

Research tells me that I should fertilize the plants soon to encourage maximum growth – and believe me, this theoretical farmer wants maximum growth! I was also happy to find out that the bees do a marvelous job of pollinating the plants. I will definitely make sure nobody dares to spray any kind of insecticide on my fledgling bushes.

I am considering turning into a complete fruit fanatic and starting strawberry and blueberry beds as well. Since I successfully dodged the “teaching summer school” bullet, I will have an entire nine weeks to focus on gardening. Who knows, maybe I’ll even turn into a real farmer some day!


The Theoretical Farmers AlmanackThere’s nothing like the forecast of a winter storm to motivate me to dig in the dirt. I’ve been putting off planting the peas for about three weeks now. But yesterday, when the weather forecaster boldly stated that our valley had a 100% chance of snow for Sunday, I knew the time had come to clear out a space for the peas.

I was amazed at the variety of life I found under the dried weeds and leaves. The primrose plants were almost full size, and daffodil sprouts were popping up everywhere. I also disturbed a spider and a few dozen earthworms with my incessant digging.

Finally, after about two hours and an odd assortment of sore muscles, the ground was soft enough to plant the peas. There is a wide range of opinions about pre-soaking hard seeds. Since I’m only a theoretical farmer, I decided to take the advice of a seasoned soil tiller and immerse the dried up little seeds in a bowl of warm water. By the time I had cleared the bed, the peas were plump and moist.

Perhaps it’s a common flaw of humanity not to read instructions before attempting projects. Although I am not a professional gardener, I was pretty sure that I could handle poking a bowlful of peas into the ground without help. A rather arrogant assumption, I was to discover. After the peas had been planted and lightly covered with an inch of soil, I happened to glance at the seed packet. The directions said: “Plant seeds 3 to 4 inches apart; space rows 2 feet apart. I glanced sadly at my little raised bed of peas. The seeds were probably spaced about 3 inches apart, but alas, my rows were also 3 to 4 inches apart!

Oh well, guess I will have a massive thinning once the plants start to sprout. Perhaps I’ll take a bit more time to read directions before I attempt to plant the rest of my garden. But I don’t suppose I’ll be planting for a while. The ground is still cold and the weatherman says another 6 to 8 inches of snow is headed our way this evening. In the meantime, snuggle closely little peapods and try to stay warm!

snow peas 

Photo: Fotolia/Norman Chan


It all started from one sad little pumpkin that had spent its better days in Room 8 at the Daycare. After being handled, poked, painted and scarred by a room full of four -year olds, my daughter, the teacher, brought the drooping fruit back to our garden compost for its final resting place. And there it sat through the lingering, cold winter.

Long about mid June, we noticed a row of nicely spaced sprouts filling a row in our garden. We were pretty sure they weren’t weeds, so we left them in their spots to await further development. All through the summer, I posted pictures of the plants’ growth. At one time, there was a rather long-standing debate between those who thought the fledgling sprouts were squash and those who were convinced they were pumpkins. 

Pumpkin Patch

Eventually small, green globes began to form and the squash camp became silent (although some staunch squash-ites insisted the plant was a rare form of squash). Finally, as the green balls began to become shaded with orange, we all knew that the discarded daycare pumpkin had given birth to many healthy plants.

At this point, we have fifteen small to medium sized pumpkins. I have been searching for creative ways to use these unexpected gifts. Given the frantic pace of the life of a teacher in September, I think my best bet is to steam, puree and freeze them for use on those long anticipated mid-winter snow days!


9:00 on Christmas Eve morning. The temperature keeps fluctuating between 30 and 31 degrees, and the sky is overcast with solid grey clouds. I am sitting by the woodstove, surrounded by two contented cats and a mournful looking Golden Retriever. These cold morning outdoor excursions never last quite long enough for energetic pup. He doesn’t seem to understand that his heavy, golden coat can hold a lot more heat than my human skin.

We took a quick stroll out to the garden. The back forty is in full winter dress now, brown and spikey with only a few brave herbs showing any signs of green. Winter is the favorite season of theoretical farmers. We feel absolutely no pressure from the outside world to stop talking and get on with planting. Nobody except the hardcore, year-round gardener is out on bleak mid-winter mornings tilling the soil and planting seeds. The rest of the world joins our contemplative state and is somewhat content to muse over seed catalogues, planting charts and garden journals. For once, we theorists are among the inactive majority. 

The flurry of shopping, baking and wrapping is over for the season. Soon, a different buzz of activity will take over: delivering presents, greeting family and exchanging overflowing plates of sweets with the neighbors. Our little town savors its peaceful state while suffering alongside our northern neighbors as they mourn the irrational loss of a classroom full of children. And yet, we received our own alarms on the last day before break. Our own schoolhouse was watchfully guarded by a collection of uniformed officers. We all seem to hover on the edge of uncertainty while fervently praying for peace on earth. 

The house is quiet with only an occasional mournful sigh circling the air. The pup is not content to simply enjoy the fireside warmth. Perhaps someone with more energy than I will wake up soon and let the poor doggie run outside awhile.  In the meantime, I will avoid his doleful countenance and move a little closer to the heat.


According to the gardening books, it’s time to put the garden to sleep for the winter. Not that my little patch was completely awake during the growing season, but it did produce a few vegetables and a good many herbs. 

I like getting the garden ready for winter. Expectations are low; in fact, all that matters is that I pull the weeds and pile them on a compost heap. Preparing the soil to rest is like stripping old paint from an antique dresser. You simply can’t hurt anything; it already looks as bad as it ever will.

The sage and mint are continuing to persevere amidst the relatively cold nights and chilly days of mid to late autumn. They will shine even more when I remove the dead, gangly stalks of brown plant material: they’re a true tribute to the robustness of domesticated weeds.

Finding time to clear out the garden seems to be my biggest challenge. The sun dips behind the horizon shortly after 5 pm these days. By the time I close down the computer and push in the last chair in my classroom, the large lunar fireball is already dipping dangerously low in the sky. We do have a few holidays coming up in the next couple of days. Thanksgiving is near, and the Powers that Be have seen fit to give us three entire free days this year…more than we have ever had before. Perhaps I will spend the frantic hours of “black Friday” puttering away in the back forty. Stacking weeds seems so much more restful than pushing through throngs of agitated bodies at the local mall. Such clamor and clutter messes with the minds of theoretical farmers---way too much reality for our philosophical brains to process.

Between now and Friday, perhaps I will do a bit more research on proper winter gardening for our neck of the woods. I still haven’t given up on horseradish and carrots, although I suspect I should have planted them much earlier… Whatever the case, I am looking forward to several uninterrupted hours in my garden. I’ve missed our time together. 

Late Autumn Mint

Late Autumn Mint 

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