Big Flat City Park

 Copyright© Jim Long 2012
The Ozarks Mountaineer magazine

Some years ago I was traveling back and forth from Missouri down into Arkansas to the Ozark Folk Center. I gave programs there a number of times, helped with the garden and always felt a close connection to the Mountain View area.
Plaque commemorates efforts in the 1960s to upgrade the park.
Each time I drove south, I tried to take a different route to Mountain View and the Folk Center but over time my favorite route to drive was on Highway 14. There was very little traffic, the scenery wonderful and there were lots of real towns much like the ones where I grew up.

A dozen or more picnic areas dot the park.

I came to especially admire the town of Big Flat in Baxter County. Arkansas Highway 14 makes a sharp, 90 degree turn right in the middle of downtown (the town only has 105 people, according to the 2010 census) so downtown isn’t big. What made it remarkable, besides the old-style store fronts from the late 1880s, was a little roadside pavilion tucked between two stores. Nearly every time I drove past, regardless of time of day, there would be several men sitting at the tables, playing cards and visiting.
Well made, stone picnic tables abound.
Just outside of Big Flat to the north is one of the more remarkable city parks I have ever seen in a rural area. Big Flat City Park is used for weddings, family reunions, picnics, family gatherings as well as providing a welcome and beautiful rest stop for travelers. I have taken many a nap in my pickup truck, parked under the shade trees and I’ve eaten lots of picnic meals there, as well.
Small, rustic shelter for serving small groups.
Round table in smaller shelter.
 There are two large, group-sized barbecue pits on the grounds, (along with several smaller family-sized barbecue pits), a rustic outdoor kitchen/serving area and a large covered shelter for gatherings. There are smaller shelters, as well, for smaller groups’ picnics and numerous picnic tables and benches throughout the grounds.
A large shelter for big family gatherings, weddings and other events.
In looking at the park one would assume it was a WPA project from the 1930s but a plaque designates it as an Arkansas Farmers Union Green Thumb project, dedicated in 1969. A small shelter that contains the plaque, designates it the Uncle Willie Huffines Park Green Thumb Project, while an older sign out front still reads Big Flat City Park. It’s hard to tell, but my guess from the age of the stonework and the amount of stone buildings and shelters, is it was originally a WPA project with a serious renewal and update in the 1960s. Either way, it’s a unique park.
Round picnic area provides lots of seating and shade.
The picnic tables and benches are made from slabs of stone that were mined nearby. I’ve never counted the number of picnic tables, but there are a dozen or more. Little architectural features, created by the local workers, add charm to the park. The walls, posts, barbecues and everything are built of stone, but laid with thoughtfulness and attention to detail. For example, the stepping stone into one of the shelters is sandstone, with ripples for traction, obviously found in a stream where water had rippled over it for eons.
Ancient stalactites mark park entry.
The two entry posts on either side of the gateway into the park are made from large stalactites from some nearby cave. There’s a hand pump that used to bring up water from a dug well, but the park has been updated to have a drinking fountain and water from city water.

If you’re looking for a scenic drive and a delightful place for a picnic, in winter or summer, I highly recommend Big Flat City Park. It’s one of the amazing little secret places you’ll discover along less-traveled roads, and demonstrates well why Arkansas is still knows as the natural state.


Make Your Own Herb Seasonings

A dark, airy attic is the perfect place for drying herbs of any kind.
Copyright©Jim Long, 2012

Last night while I was making a pot of spaghetti sauce, I reached into the spice cabinet for my jar of Italian Seasoning. It was nearly empty, which reminded me I had not dried many herbs to replenish it. Fortunately there were plenty of fresh herbs in the garden to season the sauce, and those taste better anyway. But I will get busy this week putting together the ingredients for another jar of Italian Seasoning.
Lemon balm ready for drying.

Italian Seasoning, from my book, Great Herb Mixes You Can Make, needs (all dried): 2 parts marjoram, 4 parts basil, 2 parts oregano and 1 part crushed rosemary. Depending on the volume you want to make, parts can mean tablespoons, cups or pounds.
Springs of herbs ready for drying.

My method for drying herbs is to harvest stems with leaves, about 6 inches long, and tie 6 to 10 stems in a bundle, holding them together with a rubber band. I hang those in my drying room which is dark, airy and well-ventilated (an attic works well for this). I sometimes use my food dehydrator, which works really well, but this of year it’s filled with hot peppers drying.
You can put about twice this amount in the paper bag.

The other method that works well is to put 15 - 20 stems, a big handful, of the herb you want to dry into a brown paper bag. Fold the top closed, held with a clothespin or large paper clip, and toss it into the trunk of your car (or back seat if you don’t have a trunk). The paper slowly wicks away the moisture in the herbs, the paper keeps out sunlight, and the trunk of your car is often hot for much of every day. Give the bag a shake every 2 or 3 days to keep the herbs from compacting, and in about a week to 10 days, your bag of herbs will be crispy-dried and ready to use.
Herbs ready for drying in the car.

What not to do: Don’t hang herbs for drying in the kitchen. The light from household lighting breaks down the colors of the leaves, and when that happens, the essential oils that give the herb its unique flavor, will be lost. Additionally, drying this way leaves the herbs open to absorbing all your cooking and household smells - you end up with rosemary that smells more like bacon or pot roast, or even the family dog! Also, drying in the microwave isn't a good idea, either. Microwaves, by their design, vaporize moisture out of whatever is put in them. When the moisture is vaporized, so are the essential oils that give the herbs their flavor. You’ll have a great smelling microwave, and dried herbs that taste slightly better than hay.
Recipes and formulas for over 100 seasonings and projects.

Once the herbs are dried, crush the leaves from the stems, then measure the amounts to make the Italian Seasoning. Store your mixture in an airtight container in a dark place, like the kitchen cabinet or pantry. More seasoning mixes can be found in my book, Great Herb Mixes, which is available from my website (LongCreekHerbs.com) or from a store near you. Happy seasoning!


Biscuits and Real Sausage Gravy

Real biscuits, hot out of the oven.

No one knows exactly where, or who, concocted the first biscuits and gravy. We know where the first mechanical bread slicer was invented, by by Otto Rohwedder in Chillicothe, MO in 1928. The very first cone-shaped ice cream cone was created at the St. Louis Worlds Fair by Ernest Hamwi in 1904. Even the very first popsicle, invented by eleven year old Frank Epperson can be dated to 1905. But plain old “B & G,” as true lovers of the dish call it, can’t be pinned down to a specific beginning.

Some accounts track the dish to the early Colonists who needed a cheap food and something that was definitely not a British food. Others claim the dish comes from the sawmills in the South - thus the name, “sawmill gravy,” where cheap, fast and filling food was a necessity. A little meat, a lot of water and a bit of flour could make a whole skillet full over a campfire. No one knows the dish’s origins, but what is certain is that what was once poor people’s food, is now downright respectable. (Personally I doubt the “Colonial connection” simply because you can’t find the classic biscuits and gravy on the East Coast no matter how hard you try while other foods introduced by the Colonists remain in the region).

Pigs were brought to Jamestown, Virginia in 1608, but had actually arrived on the continent a full century earlier with the first Spanish explorers. As the Spaniards looked for gold, some of those early hogs went feral in Florida and Georgia and became the early razorback hogs of the South. Because wild hogs were plentiful, and a pest, and domestic hogs became a staple on Southern farms, sausage became a base for a variety of foods, but most especially, sausage gravy. You couldn’t find a meal better than sausage gravy on biscuits to feed a large family and it became a staple of poor food all across the South and into the Midwest.

Biscuits and gravy can vary greatly by region. Head down to into Mississippi and you’ll encounter tomato gravy. It likely shows the influence of the early French in the region before the Louisiana Purchase. It requires approximately 4 tablespoons of bacon drippings, 4 tablespoons of flour, 2 large chopped-up tomatoes and about 2 cups of cold water. Once made, some cooks add crumbled bacon before spreading it over hot buttermilk biscuits. I’ve found it in restaurants as I travel. Like most restaurant gravies today, it has been cheapened and made from canned tomato soup with a little seasoning and is downright disgusting unless you grew up with it.

If you head down south into Arkansas, into Mississippi and northern Louisiana, you’ll encounter a completely different gravy served on biscuits - chocolate gravy. This is a truly Southern dish served as both a breakfast meal or sometimes served as a dessert in the evening. Chocolate gravy is made with 3/4 cup sugar, 3 tablespoons of flour, 1 level teaspoon of cocoa and a cup and a half of water. Once that’s boiled together and thickened, a touch of vanilla is added. It’s typically served over lavishly-buttered buttermilk biscuits.

The traditional red-eye gravy was born in the 1840s on a battlefield. A drunken, hung-over cook for General Andrew Jackson, poured hot coffee into ham juices and brownings from frying the ham and served it up on biscuits without having added flour to thicken it. Soon cooks all across the South were cooking up "The General's red-eye gravy."

Over in Southern Indiana, on down into Kentucky and Tennessee, you’ll find a completely different version of gravy on biscuits. It’s known as egg gravy, which is made by scrambling eggs in a skillet with bacon grease, adding flour and milk and then cooking to thicken. Meat and other ingredients are also sometimes added. If your gravy always has lumps, scrambled eggs is a good way to cover up the lumps!

The “real” gravy most of us in the Ozarks know and love is just plain sausage gravy. It’s simple, cheap and easy to make, yet this satisfying concoction has become almost impossible to find in restaurants. What you’ll find instead, is factory-made gravy out of a can. Wholesale restaurant suppliers deliver cases of gallon-sized cans of fake sausage gravy and all the “chef” has to do is to open the can, pour it into a pot and heat it. I can’t prove it, but I firmly believe that canned gravy is made from the worn-out grease from french fry deep fryers. If you read the list of ingredients on the can, you won’t find sausage listed anywhere, although some cans list, “artificial flavorings.” 

The even newer product that has replaced canned “sausage” gravy, is instant gravy. It comes in a pouch, you pour in some hot water and shake it up and you’ve got something called gravy. Hardees, Popeye and Shoneys, all use instant gravies. What was once a cheap, easy and filling staple, is now, even cheaper and easier but barely resembles the real thing. There must be an awful lot of people who wouldn’t agree with me, since the public keeps eating the artificial gravies in restaurants and evidently don’t complain.

You have to be careful in restaurants when you get away from the Ozarks. If you order biscuits and gravy in Kansas or beyond, or up north in Minnesota and Michigan, or Ohio eastward (if you can even find the dish served in those areas) you’re likely to be served brown gravy, made from canned, artificially-flavored beef stock. Beware when ordering chicken-fried steak, as well, you’ll likely be given fake brown gravy on top of that, too. That’s always a disappointment, so be sure to ask the wait person what kind of gravy you’ll be served. If they give you a blank stare and say what other kinds of gravy are there, order something else on the menu.
Real, old-fashioned sausage gravy.

There are regional variations of the classic sausage gravy, with some folks adding onions, others adding a dash of cayenne pepper, others swearing fresh-cracked black pepper, or crushed red pepper is the only way to fix the gravy, but over all, the recipe for the real thing remains the same as it has for centuries.

1 pound sausage (mild or hot)
3 tablespoons flour
Salt and lots of black pepper
2 to 3 cups milk

Crumble the raw sausage in a hot cast iron frying pan. Fry the sausage until there is no pink left. Add flour 1 tablespoon at a time, stirring quickly until a paste forms. Then add milk, 1 cup at a time. Stir briskly and cook the mixture until it thickens. Then pour it over fresh-baked buttermilk biscuits, split in half, buttered or not.

Drop biscuits or rolled, your choice!
 And the biscuits? You can buy those canned, frozen, instant or bakery-made but the old-fashioned biscuit is as follows:

2 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons lard or other shortening
1 cup buttermilk, chilled

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
In a mixing bowl, combine dry ingredients. With your fingertips, rub butter and shortening into dry ingredients until mixture looks like crumbs. Pour in the chilled buttermilk and stir to mix. Turn dough onto floured surface, dust with flour and fold dough over on itself 4 or 5 times. Roll out with a rolling pin or quart fruit jar until the dough is about an inch thick. Cut out biscuits with 2-inch cutter and place biscuits on a baking sheet so the biscuits are just touching. Bake until golden and fluffy, about 15-20 minutes.

Make the gravy while the biscuits are baking. This isn’t health food, but it certainly is a satisfying breakfast! Add some eggs and bacon and a few cups of coffee and you are tasting a real Ozarks tradition.

A breakfast that has a long and proud tradition.


Fall Gardens - It's Not Too Late to Plant

Another crop of zinnias can still be planted in August for late blooming.

Recent rains have dusted off the gardening spirit and renewed hope for a better harvest. It’s not too late to plant a variety of fall crops and still expect some fresh produce from your back yard.

Just a few weeks ago the seed that had been planted, withered in the soil before even getting above the ground. Now that we’re having some cooler days and there’s moisture in the soil, seed will germinate and grow rapidly.
Late summer garden.

This week I’ve been planting peas, both snap peas and regular shelling peas. If we have a late fall, even a light frost, the peas should produce a crop. One year I planted even later than this and mulched the plants with straw where they wintered over and started blooming in early March. And if the crop fails? I’ll till the plants under to help build up the soil.

Lettuce, radishes, spinach and kale can all be planted in August. Kale will easily winter over and the leaves are especially sweet and tasty in the cold months. Winter spinach, also, is at its best in the chilly season. Last year a fall planting of lettuce thrived throughout the winter and was still producing leaves in April. Many lettuces will withstand more cold than you might guess.

I’m planning on planting beets, as well, as they’re another crop that will withstand some cold. Young beets, cooked with the green tops, are worth the effort of a few minutes of planting time. Snap green beans and carrots can still be planted now, too. While many gardeners like to plant turnips in July, I never get the seed in the ground until mid to late August and always have a good crop. Last year I planted the regular purple-top turnips, along with some mild white ones and some bright red ones I found at Baker Creek Seed (rareseed.com). They all overwintered quite easily and I was still eating turnips in the spring.
These lettuces lived right through last winter and were still producing in April!

If you can find cabbage or cauliflower plants, those might produce provided we have a long, mild fall. If they aren’t ready by the first hard freeze, cover them during the night and help them along with some clear plastic. You’ll have to uncover them in the daytime, but those crops will withstand a lot of cold weather.

An added bonus for fall gardening is the lack of insect pests. Many bugs time their life cycles to the time when summer plants are at their best. Late season plantings avoids both the pests and the headaches of earlier in the year.

Visit my other blogs for more about my gardening adventures.


Elements of a Successful Farmers Market

A thriving, robust farmers market is an asset to any community.

Farmers markets date back to the beginnings of our nation. Often the market was informal, simply a gathering of farmers who drove their team and wagon to the town square and sold their excess produce. The historic Soulard Farmers Market in St. Louis is the oldest continually operating farmers market west of the Mississippi River, dating to 1779. East of the Mississippi, there were even older established markets in the East.

After World War 2, at the beginning of the Baby Boom, grocery stores sprang up in newly built communities and farmers markets slowly faded away. But in recent years there's been a remarkable resurgence of the farmers market model and many communities have embraced and encouraged these markets in their area. It's evident, though, as I travel around the country visiting markets, that not all farmers markets share the same benefits. I've visited farmers markets in many countries, as well, and all share most of the same elements of our best ones in the U.S. I decided to make a list of what elements appear to go into making the most successful farmers markets. My survey isn't precise, it's simply my own observations based on visiting a lot of markets in many states.

Water for vendors and visitors.

First and foremost, the most important element I found in a successful market, is how enthusiastically the city itself encourages the market. I visited several small town markets and the ones that struggled the most and had the fewest vendors, all voiced one opinion: the city where the market was located was barely tolerated by the city government. In some instances, the city had made finding space difficult, insisting the market take the worst spots in town and changing every year where vendors were allowed. Some small towns required expensive permits. However, cities that offered encouragement and welcomed the vendors, had the most thriving markets.

Here's my list of what it takes for a successful farmers market in a community:

1- Encouragement from the city in the way of space for the market. That includes simple things like giving vendors a predictable space, year after year, where shoppers can find them and that is cordoned off so that traffic doesn't present danger to shoppers. Having restrooms open and available for vendors and shoppers is important. Vendors having access to water, both drinking water and for watering their plants during the hours they are selling, is equally important. It was startling to see how many towns with struggling markets, closed their restrooms on weekends, and wouldn't allow access to water. Making vendor fees and applications simple and easy, is also important. When a city tries to price the vendors out of business in the hope the market will go away, is detrimental to all, including the city.

Market location and signs are important.

2- Help from the city with advertising the market, with city businesses taking advantage of the increased traffic flow to the market. Something as simple as letting the market organizers use the city photocopy machine for flyers, can be a big help. Groups such as Rotary, Lions, Elks and others, giving some encouragement can be vital, as well. When civic organizations were involved and told their members about the good things the market was doing for the community, it was always helpful.

Some civic groups get involved in the markets with selling their cookbooks, encouraging new members to join, such as art guilds and neighbor-to-neighbor groups like Welcome Wagon, and find that farmers markets are an excellent way to bring in new volunteers.

Wide assortments of produce entices customers, like these purple and yellow cauliflower heads.

3- Local businesses supporting the market, even in small ways. I participated in a market last year set up on a town square. There were about a dozen vendors with fresh produce 2 days a week. Within the square were 6 restaurants and not a one of the owners or chefs ever bought a single item. People who shopped there were seen by businesses as "blocking traffic" and an irritation to the store owners rather than seeing the increased traffic flow as an asset. (In one town I visited, businesses put up signs on their entry doors, "Restrooms open only for our customers" to prevent market shoppers from going inside).
A diverse population of races, age groups and education levels is a positive thing.
4- A diverse, multi-generational population. Retirement communities and tourist towns seems to struggle the most with having successful farmers markets. Farmers markets bring in younger, well-educated shoppers who see the importance of local, often organic food and want to support area growers. 

Resting places for shoppers to rest and visit are important.
Here are a few additional elements I found at recent markets that are also helpful. Drinking fountains in the area, operational and turned on. Seating areas for shoppers - this can be as simple as benches, walls, anything where shoppers can rest and visit. Space and encouragement for entertainers. The market in Fayetteville, AR (Tuesdays and Saturdays) gives space on all 4 sides of the square for budding entertainers to have an hour to play, sing, juggle, etc. Access to restrooms is important, too. Encouragement for shoppers to bring their dogs, with signs reminding people to clean up after their dogs gave opportunity for shoppers to spend some time with their pets in a social setting.

Encouragement for young musicians to try out their craft.

At one market I found the County Extension Office with a booth and table, with garden insect displays and someone on hand to answer questions about garden bug pests. I found the Humane Society with a booth, and dogs on leashes, looking for adoptive homes for their animals. Politicians, too, had booths to answer questions about their platforms and meet prospective voters.

Shoppers of all ages.
Humane Society introducing pets to prospective new owners.

Allowing beverage and food vendors is important, as well. The best markets I've seen, all had a coffee/beverage booth so shoppers could linger and visit over a cool drink. Food sampling at the bakery booth was allowed and the fruit vendors had little covered sampler displays where you could taste apples, peaches, etc. before deciding to buy the item.

Encouraging kids is just good business for any town. After all, they grow up to be your customers!
This enterprising young man had his own booth, selling his marshmallow guns.
Another important element was activities for kids. The best markets that I visited, in California, Michigan, Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri, all had something that made it fun for kids to come. Games, demonstrations, crafters who showed kids how to make something, all made for a total family environment that made it fun for everyone.

Vendors make it fun for people to shop with them.
Farmers markets are here to stay. Some towns and cities struggle to have a market. Memphis, TN, for example, has a small market given its population, while Fayetteville and Bentonville, AR both have large and thriving markets. Branson, MO, with 7 million tourists a year, struggles to have more than 3 or 4 vendors and each year the market is in a new location so it's almost impossible to find (even for us locals). Springfield, MO has 3 thriving markets and is about to build a permanent location for a market. Small towns across the Ozarks attempt to have markets but the ones that succeed, all have the backing of the city, the community and local businesses. It's exciting to see these markets as they grow and become permanent parts of their communities.
Mark Cain of Dripping Springs Farm near Huntsville, AR sells cut flowers.

Visit my website to see the books I've written on herbs and gardening. It's salsa-making time, you might enjoy my Sensational Salsas book this summer!


The Osage River as it looked in 1967, before the river was dammed.

From The Ozarks Mountaineer magazine
The Ozarks Herbalist column, Summer 2012

Rivers once played a prominent role in the life of  towns and communities. A river was the reason many towns were established, access to the river meant access to the goods of commerce by way of boats. A river, too, provided a substantial amount of food to the residents who lived nearby.

Taberville, built just above the banks of the Osage River, was intentionally located where it was because of the river. The Osage Indians were there first with a settlement. The French claimed the area in the 1700s and built Forth Manoa atop the bluffs above the river, just a short distance from the still occupied Indian village. The French were traders with the Indians and shipped beaver pelts and other goods downriver and their very existence and commerce depended upon the river.

During the Civil War there were numerous skirmishes between Union soldiers and Confederate sympathizers throughout the area along the Osage. While Unions soldiers were camped nearby, one of the Union doctors, Dr. Tabor, took notice of the area around the old fort and thought it would make an excellent location for a town. Residents had been forced to evacuate the region when General Order No. 11 was issued by Union General Thomas Ewing, which had cleared out residents of both farms and towns in four counties along the Kansas border of western Missouri.  After the War was over, Dr. Tabor returned to the area along the Osage River and bought up large tracts of the abandoned land.

Dr. Tabor established the town of Taborville (later changed to Taberville through a spelling error on maps). He laid out the town on a grid with streets and alleyways. His new town map covered over what had been the location of Fort Manoa a century before, although as recently as the 1960s, evidence of the outline of the fort remained.
Taberville Hotel, about 1920s.

All three settlements, spanning several centuries, depended upon the river. The Osage Indians lived on the high ground above the river as a defensive position, the better to see approaching enemies. That location, too, meant fewer mosquitoes than nearer the river afforded. The French, also, built on the upland well above the river, again for protection from marauders and to escape the summer insects. Both communities depended upon the river for food, as well.
Baptisms were often saved until there was flood waters near the church.

In each of the three settlements, the river was a character of the community, the beating heart of daily life. The river had personality - raging and destroying in flood time, placid calming and romantic when quiet. The river, when angered and flooding, could rip up centuries-old trees and roll them over and over in the current of the river, moving the giants miles downstream and depositing them in a new location as debris. When placid, the mighty Osage provided fish, frogs, turtles and birds for the dinner table, along with transportation to other areas up or down river.
Me, age 15, Don Wecker, my father and Joe Poling, with the fish we caught.

I grew up on the Osage River and like countless generations of boys and men before me, both loved and feared the river. Every summer from my early teenage years until I left as an adult, I spent myriad hours setting, running, baiting and removing fish from trot lines. I dug fishing worms on the sticky, gummy river banks, I camped, floated, boated and swam in the muddy waters. Fish was as common on our dinner table as pork or beef and I was an almost daily companion of the river.
My great uncle, Paul Garrison, with a channel catfish he caught on a trotline.

Every family in Taberville had a connection to the river in some way or other. Some fished for a living, selling their catch to neighbors and outsiders. Others fished themselves, or knew someone who caught more fish than they could eat and were willing to share. When the river was in flood stage, which meant at least once every couple of summers, the river waters cut off all outside transportation and the town became an island, a prisoner of the river.
These fellas were just back from running their trotlines on the Osage.

Fish was as common as food from the grocery store. Young or old, some part of the weekly groceries included fish. Various families had their preferences to which kind of fish they ate. Some preferred carp or buffalo, the big ones - 15 pounds or more being the best, smaller ones were canned like salmon. Other folks preferred catfish, either flathead, channel or blue catfish. I remember one neighbor who wanted only gar or eels and I took any I caught to them as our household would eat neither of those.

The connection people had to the river was as close as the connection to the church or school. It was an everyday part of community life. From town one could hear any motorized boats that came up the river. If the river was coming up or going down in flood time, someone monitored the changes on an hourly basis and reported to anyone within earshot of the Post Office or grocery store, like it was an ailing patient. The Osage was the blood veins of the community, intertwined, pulsing with life.

Rivers are less important in communities today. The mighty Osage has been tamed and corralled by the Truman Dam near Warsaw, MO, into being the upper reaches of Truman Lake. Life no longer revolves around fish and fishing as part of daily survival. Rivers now are seen as recreational, something to do for fun but no part of daily life depends on the whims of the river. I’m glad I grew up where and when I did, it’s a past I am proud to have experienced.

More of my stories and writing can be found at jimlongscolumns.blogspot.com.


Colorado Potato Beetles

Adult potato beetle.

Ozarks Gardening
Copyright 2012, Jim Long

The Colorado potato beetle is a major pest throughout most of North America. It was first recognized as a pest in 1859 in potato fields in Colorado. The beetle had previously only grazed on buffalo bur, a distant potato relative. But when pioneers who moved West, began planting large fields of potatoes, the beetle adapted to the increased food supply. In the wild, the beetle had to travel up to a quarter mile to find buffalo bur plants, but with the new fields of one crop, the potato, it had only to hop from plant to plant. By the mid-1870s, the potato beetle had expanded its range (at the rate of 85 miles a year),  all the way to the East Coast.

The arrival of the potato beetle caused farmers and gardeners to search for ways to control the bug. An infestation of potato beetles could wipe out hundreds of acres of potatoes in ten days. There were all sorts of inventions, mixtures and unsuccessful attempts at finding a solution. It was only by accident that a gardener who was painting his house, and probably in frustration at the beetles, threw the remains of his house paint on beetle-infested plants. The bugs died! The ingredients in the paint included something called, “Paris green,” an inorganic compound that was commonly used in wall paper, artists’ paints and house paint. Soon chemical companies were providing Paris green to farmers, to be mix with water or dust directly on to the plants. Within three or four years the beetles developed immunity to the poison and lead arsenic was added. Both compounds are highly toxic to other insects including ones that are beneficial in the garden, as well as dangerous to birds, wildlife and most specifically, to the humans who dusted or sprayed the plants (and to those who ate the potatoes later).
Potato beetle larvae, eating leaves.

The cycle continues to this day, with chemical companies readjusting their formulas about every three years as the beetles continue to evolve resistance. One method that large-production potato growers use, is to use an assortment of different pesticides, week by week as the season goes along, trying to stay ahead of the beetles’ adaptations and resistance to the other formulas. Today we know how dangerous lead arsenic and French green compounds were, but many of the newer formulas may prove to be as dangerous.
Larvae cluster together and devour leaves, sections at a time.

Home gardeners can easily prevent potato beetles from being a problem. My method of early planting of potatoes in late January to early February, always misses the emergence of the beetle. By the time I’m digging my potatoes, the beetle is just hatching out and searching for potato plants. But gardeners who planted later, combined with the abnormally early season, will likely experience potato beetles. In small numbers they don’t pose a problem and it’s easy to pick the beetles off by hand and drop them into a bucket of soapy water. Spraying isn’t necessary. To prevent them becoming a pest, be sure to plant potatoes early in the year next season.

Happy gardening!


Free Back Yard Food

In the community where I grew up, most people foraged for food. My family, and all of our neighbors looked for spring food in our backyards, in the woods and along fencerows. Everyone knew morel mushrooms and wild asparagus. Wild greens were looked forward to and a point of discussion when neighbors met on the street corner. “I picked a mess of lambs’ quarters, dock, chickweed and violet leaves” was a common conversation starter in our town in spring.

Besides those plants there are lots of others, equally tasty. Violet leaves and flowers are edible (leaves in the greens pot, flowers for jelly). Tulip flowers make good “cups” for chicken salad on a plate. Red bud blossoms get tossed into spring salads. (The red bud is a cousin of the pea and if you like English peas, then you already know the flavor of red bud flowers). The red bud pods taste a bit like garden pea pods - just pick them when the pods are under an inch long, to be tender.

Red bud flowers work well in salads.

I still have kale in the garden that over-wintered. It’s now in flower and those are perfectly edible, along with the blooming stalks. Cornflowers, soon to be in bloom, can be added to salads. Dandelion greens are a favorite of many in the Ozarks (boil twice to remove the bitter, then add some butter or bacon crumbles) and the dandelion flowers make an outstanding wine.
Pansies go well in salads for some color.

Johnny Jump-ups and pansies are both colorful additions to a spring salad. The menfolk will grumble about flowers in their salad, but the women in the family will think they’re decorative. And flowers actually have flavor, as well! Sweet Williams flowers, for example, make an outstanding sorbet or jelly.
Lilacs make very tasty sorbet, ice cream and syrups.

Lilacs, too, are quite tasty. You can use the flowers, without the green parts, to make ice cream or sorbet. Lilac jelly and lilac pancake syrup are bit hits on the dinner table, as well. Plum blossoms, as well, are used the same way.
Roses in my rose cake. Recipes are in my book, How to Eat a Rose.

Roses of all kinds, as long as they haven’t been sprayed with chemicals (and not roses from a florist, which aren’t edible) are all tasty. Rose ice cream is a favorite flavor in India and you can easily make it yourself. Roses combine well with regular tea for a boost in flavor. Rose sorbet, rose jam, rose jelly and syrups are all easy to make. The more fragrant the rose, the better the flavor. Rose hips (the fruit of the rose) are also used for tea and jelly. (Lots of recipes are in my How to Eat a Rose book; also you'll find recipes on my Herb of the Year blog, too).
Roses in mint patch.

Be sure you know any of those flowers before you try eating them; consult a good book or on-line to be sure if you’re in doubt. Don’t eat flowers that aren’t listed as edible; for example, narcissus and daffodils are not edible.  But there are a lot of flowers that are edible and fun to eat.
Happy spring!