THROUGH the WOODS: Mountain laurel

The mountain laurel. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

A GREAT HERALD OF SUMMER is the flowering of our mountain laurel. Sometime from mid-June to the fourth of July we make trips to Copake Falls, go past Bash Bish Falls and then up into the Taconic Mountains to look for laurel. The laurel blossoms probably won’t be opening fully for another week. The route is mostly a dirt road to cooler air of Mount Washington Road south to Mount Riga, past the dam and the old iron smelting furnace and down into Salisbury Connecticut. Even without the laurel this is a wonderful ride if you don’t mind some rough road with a little grass in the middle on the Connecticut section. Heavy rains can cause washouts so it is prudent to wait for good weather. There was enough laurel in bloom a few years ago to keep us happy and make us stop to ooh and ah and take dozens of photos. Thank heaven for digital photography because it is hard to stop photographing them, and I do it almost every year. This is the way to enjoy them at home because they are a protected a species and there is a heavy fine for picking them or disturbing them.

Our mountain laurel is called Kalmia latifolia, is located in eastern North America, and is related to the blueberry family. The leaves and plant parts are poisonous and honey made from the flowers can cause gastric distress. It is not related to the bay laurels like those that give us bay leaves for cooking, and grow around the Mediterranean and in California. The bay laurels are also the type that were used to make wreaths to crown the heroes of Greece and Rome, and were the ones often pictured around Julius Caesar’s head. You see them at the Olympic Games to denote victory, and have given us the phrase “to rest on your laurels.” Even though they seem the grander type of laurels, I will take our beautiful mountain laurel any day. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Blue flag

IT WAS UNCERTAIN WHO was watching out for whom. As we went out the door on this beautiful June day, my maternal grandmother, “Gram,” told my grandfather, “Gramp,” to make sure to be careful so I didn’t get hurt. This was after she had privately told me to make sure I took good care of Gramp. In any case it pretty much worked and we went off for another afternoon’s adventure. I was about 10-12 years old and Gramp was in his 70s. That day we went through his empty dairy barn (the cows were out in the pasture) and we walked about .2 mile through a marshy field to the big new pond to fish.

We often did this, and we dug some worms and had a great time catching some fat rainbow trout. He loved trout and he had stocked this big spring fed pond with this in mind. His cocker spaniel and my favorite cat had followed us too. The dog always went with us, but the cat only arrived if there was a chance to eat fish. His cue was the fishing poles. Sometimes we got a small sunfish and that went to the cat. Some days I fished by myself in another tiny pond and brought home a pail of “sunnies” to feed the many barn cats.

When we finished we headed home with several fish for Gram to cook for supper. This day Gramp said he wanted to show me something, so we took a wetter route back to the house. Gramp was always a walker with lots of stamina and headed to the stretch of hummocks of grass that rose above the areas the cows had trampled to a muddy mess. We stepped or jumped to the drier hummocks to cross this area. If you made a misstep you could go ankle to knee deep into the muck. I had lots of practice doing this, but was unsure how Gramp would fare, but we made it. He was incredibly agile and well balanced for his age. Looking back he had many more years of practice at this than I did, especially since he had grown up on this farm. Read more…

State Parks accept new camp reservations Monday, June 8

ALBANY—New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (State Parks) will begin accepting new camping reservations June 8 for check-in beginning June 22. Campers are reminded to practice social distancing, bring and wear a face covering, respect the rules, and do their part to keep the campgrounds, parks and beaches open and safe for everyone. Camping capacity is limited and visitors must make an advance reservation before arriving at a campground.

New York State Park campsites, cabins and cottages are currently open only to those with existing
reservations. New reservations for all available sites – including tents, trailers, RVs, cabins, yurts and cottages–will be accepted at 9 a.m. June 8, for camping stays beginning on June 22. Reservations are expected to fill quickly. Reservations can be made in advance by calling toll free 1-800-456-CAMP or http://newyorkstateparks.reserveamerica.com. Online reservations are encouraged.

State Park Police and operations staff are patrolling campgrounds to ensure compliance with social distancing and crowd control measures. Anyone who does not adhere to this guidance will be requested to leave the facility, and will not receive a refund. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Painted turtles

Painted turtle. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

NEAR OUR FARMHOUSE was a small rocky pasture with a shallow pond where the horses could drink. Our father said that he and his father used a team of horses and a drag scraper to deepen a small marshy area to create this pond to water livestock. It took days to finish it plus a lot of handwork too. It was a great place for us kids to play, explore and get into the mud, and especially to catch turtles.

That old pond taught us so many things about nature and about ourselves. Our mother always had an excellent reference library for us to use, and if we couldn’t get information about a creature there, we went to the Chatham Library. The books said our turtles were shy, fast swimmers and pretty slow on land, and told how to identify them.

As far as we could tell there were only painted turtles in the pond, and are one of the most common turtles in New York State. Wading into the mud was an experience and often resulted in bloody legs covered with leeches. For some reason this didn’t seem to disturb us, probably because we were used to seeing blood from skinned knees, and numerous other minor mishaps from outdoor farm activities. Leeches produce an anesthetic with their anticoagulant so they didn’t hurt, and we just pulled the squirming, blood swollen things off and shook them off fingers before their suckers attached there. They were only about an inch or two long, not like the monster leeches that Katherine Hepburn encountered in the “African Queen” movie. One of those would have stopped our hearts. Read more…

GREEN THOUGHTS: Thanks for your support

LIKE MANY GARDENERS, I find growing tomatoes an essential rite of summer. I was asked (forced, really) from an early age into helping my dad with his plants. Summer trips to see my grandparents meant admiring grandpa’s towering tomatoes—somehow his plants always topped eight feet, despite being in a small city backyard. And then there’s the legend of an ancestral great-great-grandmother who was the first to grow tomatoes in Norway, on a small island called Stangholmen, where her father was a lighthouse keeper.

This tomato plant has luxury accommodations. Photo contributed

With this much tomato sauce in my veins, you’d think I’d be an expert, but I’m still tinkering with my techniques, searching for that holy grail full of tomato juice.

A lesson I learned early is that laziness doesn’t pay. One year, dad decided to rototill the garden, plant the tomatoes and let nature take its course. Between the tomatoes, which were allowed to clamber and crawl everywhere, and 10-year old me, in charge of weeding and maintenance, this vegetable cart was hurling toward disaster. While we picked a few off the tops of the plants, the voles and mice fattened on the fruits of my lackluster labor underneath, and the weeds grew taller than my little blonde head, producing a trauma of rank growth, rot and rodents which haunts me to this day. I probably should seek counseling.

Most seasons dad pounded an eight-foot wooden stake next to each plant and periodically tied up the growth with ripped up bedsheets. It gave the garden a “Grapes of Wrath” sort of look, but was inexpensive and effective in growing great tomatoes. Then we moved to tomato “cages,” cone-shaped contraptions of wire with thin legs which are installed on each plant like an upside-down dunce cap. These work, although a large variety plant may topple its coop by late summer, so I recommend adding a supporting stake. Cages boost yields too; a Texas A & M University study found caged ‘Celebrity’ tomatoes produced 49% more fruit than those left to sprawl, one reason you’ll never hear tomatoes singing Roy Rogers’ tune, “Don’t Fence Me In.”

Once you decide to give your tomatoes a lift, the options for doing so are boundless. Square tomato cages are now available, which fold down for easy storage. Concrete reinforcing wire, five feet tall and heavy duty, can be fashioned into indestructible cages that are durable enough to pass down to tomato-growing grandchildren. Or, forgo cages for the “Florida Weave.” This system entails driving a stake between plants and at the end of each row, and weaving heavy twine in rows parallel to the ground eight inches apart among and up the stakes and plants. While it sounds like a TV solution for hairless Southerners, it might work well for your New York ‘Big Boys.’

My tomato garden is a complete high-tech system this year—raised beds, tomato cages with stakes, black plastic mulch, drip hose irrigation. Here’s to great fruit and a healed psyche.

To contact David Chinery, horticultural educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rensselaer County, email