PO Box 2458, Tijeras NM 87059

Mountain Gardens--finding success with plants for the high desert and East Mountains of New Mexico

Tuesday, October 28, 2014


Quince is yellow till cooked

My grandmother had a quince bush back in Kentucky, and that was my introduction to this versatile fruit-- her preserves (though the fruit was hard as hell and made a painful thunk when you caught one upside the head). This was western Kentucky, and the winters were fairly mild. I don't remember the bush freezing down, and it had fruit every year. The tree in my daughter's garden is a lovely old thing, and fruits every year too. We got at least a bushel this year despite the bugs, and tried making quince butter and bandoline in addition to the usual jelly and membrillo.

 I borrowed an old book, Quince Culture, from Dwight's NAFEX library, and learned so much! The book was written by W.W.Meech and published in 1888, so I expected it to be more quaint than useful, but all the info has been applicable, and his recipes worked well. It explained why my grandmother had a bush, and my daughter has a tree--there was a lot of interest in the fruit back then; it was rare and costly--there were a number of cultivars "that vary in shape, size, quality, and dates of ripening." Some fruit reached a pound an a half in weight. Very common in the middle east, it may have been Eve's apple, and was called the Cydonian apple by the ancient Greeks. The ancients considered it to have medicinal properties, too, and a quick google reveals it as an ingredient in today's beauty preparations. Scientists are researching it for medical uses--for treating atherosclerosis among others.

Some could be eaten like a "soft, ripe pear." Our's are pretty hard. They have the woody granules that pears have, but so dense around the core that cutting through it requires a good knife. Cooking is a must. Our's are mild and tart.

The fruit has a peach like fuzz that needs to be rubbed off. Another fascinating property is the mucus secreted by the seeds; when you're cleaning out the seed your fingers get tackier and tackier--when you rinse them suddenly they're covered with gel (see the previous post for a pic). I wanted to germinate the seed so I washed them--and washed them, then left them to soak overnight in a bowl of water. That first batch took a lot of rinsing before they went into the frig--then I read the book and discovered a recipe for something called bandoline, a hair preparation used by Gibson girls at the turn of the 19th century. Gotta try something like that. 

If you save the seed to germinate, don't let it dry out (see previous post on seed starting). I put mine in a plastic bag in a handful of moist seed starting mix and put it in the frig. In a few months I'll bring it to 70 F and see what happens.

Squeezo'ing the cooked quince
Luckily we had another bag of fruit. I soaked about half a cup of seed in three cups of water overnight. (Meech said a ratio of 1:50--I guesstimated). It's like a liquidy jello, not disgusting (like mucus). I strained it and poured it into a sprayer. I used it after washing my hair, combing it through wet, crunching the curls as usual, and left it to dry naturally. My hair was soft, not sticky at all (a problem with lots of commercial preps for curly hair), and held the curl without frizzing. And I've used it for a couple of weeks now with no disasters. I froze the extra gel in ice cube trays because I didn't want to add the alcohol Meech recommended to keep it from going off. I probably won't have to buy my usual stuff for months. Pretty cool!

Another interesting thing about the seed is how it's packaged. Like apple seed, it circles the center of the core, encapsulated in five compartments that hold a lot, so one quince might yield 50 seed. The neat thing was even though bugs or rot penetrated the core, there were usually at least two compartments with unspoiled seed. We only lost a couple of quinces entire. With most of them we could we cut around the bad spots. Quince will keep well in a cool dry place, but pick unblemished ones to store. Look for frass around the blossom end even on fruits that appear perfect. 

We made the jelly first, chopping the peeled fruit in the vitamix, then hanging it in a jelly bag (old pillowcase) overnight. We canned the juice in the usual way. The only trick to remember is do NOT add the sugar until the juice is ready for the pectin (jams and butter, too), and cook in a stainless or copper kettle to develop that jewel like red color. 
After trying a variety of labor intensive ways of prepping the fruit (mostly in an effort to keep the seed whole), we cut away chunks of meat till the seed core was separated out. Then the whole mess went onto the stove with some added water to cook down, peel and all. The peel is high in pectin. When the fruit was cooked soft, I ran it through the Squeezo, a grinder like machine that cranks peel and seed out one side, and juice and pulp out the other, btw the easiest way to do tomatoes. I added cinnamon, nutmeg, and a little allspice--well a lot really--to taste for the batch of quince butter. I didn't add quite as much sugar as I would have for apple butter because I quite liked that spicy tartness. Didn't spice the jam, and sweetened more--for the kiddos.

Membrillo, or dulce de membrillo, aka quince paste, took the most prep time. The fruit is prepared adding lemon juice, and vanilla. Some recipes use shreds of lemon peel or other spices. The fruit is cooked with sugar until it reaches a deep red color, and then it gets poured into a parchment lined sheet pan, then goes into a low oven, 125-200 F depending on your oven. My 1951 Roper requires a close eye. The point is to dry the gel till it stands; most people pour it to a depth of about an inch. Our's was shallower, and dried faster. When the membrillo is cool, it can be cut into squares and wrapped in parchment. It will make a nice Christmas present with some of the jam, and a bottle of prickly pear jelly! 

Membrillo is traditionally served with manchego, but I like it with cream cheese--on celery, toast, and any other way you'd like to try it.

We also made a quince ratifia, but that's another post...

Quince Culture by Meech is a free download at  

Bandoline and the Gibson Girl at 
Wrapping membrillo

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Seed Starting--The Tough Ones

I  made a short presentation on seed starting at the last New Mexico Fruit Explorers meeting. I have since found my notes (!) and am going to take this opportunity to round things out.
Cleaning quince seed

Anyone can start veggie seeds with little difficulty. We've been selecting them to be reliable and easy for thousands of years, but today there's a lot of new interest in growing fruit and native perennials from seed--and these seeds can be tricky. 

Quince "slime" is good for skin--who knew?
Cleaning American persimmons
Seven days later

ALL plant seeds have some kind of inhibition mechanism that prevents germination, most have two, and some have more. Temperature, light, day length, moisture and any combination of these are triggers for germination. People, even professionals, gather seed and dry it carefully without realizing that half of all plants have seed that dies when it dries. This seed must be stored moist; some cannot be stored at all and must be germinated immediately.

To break inhibition seed must variously be washed, soaked, abraded, treated with vinegar or gibberellic acid--or none of the above. Some seed must be burned to germinate, some need to be eaten and "passed." Some seed requires oscillating temps over a period of years--think spring, summer, winter, over and over. Some can be chilled (vernalized) in the frig, some have to go through it au naturel. 

Any seed encased in pulp must be cleaned and washed. The pulp contains chemicals that prevent germination. Consider that in the wild fruits get eaten, or lie in leaf mold, experiencing rain, cold, etc. Some just need a quick rinse. The persimmon (pictured) took hours to separate from the pulp, and then was washed every day for a week, before going into a plastic bag of moist soil mix. Then it went into the frig at 40 F for about three months, and will be brought out to germinate at 70 F. I'll need to check it periodically because many seeds will start to germinate in the frig. I started a native viburnum two years ago, and it's just starting to germinate after several sessions in the frig. A native bane berry gathered in the wild and immediately stored moist in the frig germinated half a dozen seedlings in a matter of weeks, then nothing. After a return to the frig, then back out in 70 F, more seedlings emerged after two years.  So unless sources advise otherwise, always trial fresh seed immediately, even some like columbine or delphinium that usually require vernalization.

Another tricky thing some plants do--the radicle, the place where the root first emerges, germinates, then goes dormant until temps warm. You won't see top growth for six months or more. So be patient.  If I've given up, I'll dump seed into a cold frame, and have often been surprised.

Osage orange
Some plants set huge quantities of seed, most of which is non-viable. There is no embryo inside the seed coat, or it may not have matured. I gathered hundreds of the native Big Tooth maple, and perhaps six germinated. Native sumac may have only 50% viability. Some seeds are difficult to identify; I bought seed at a garden club sale, and there was no seed in the packet despite the entire flower head having been included. Seed is like snowflakes--no two are alike, from featureless specks the size of dust, to little hand grenades like the four o'clock, to enormous oblongs like the mango. There are millions of photos of seed online; make sure you get the right part of the plant.

One of the names most referred to at seed starting sources is Norman Deno, a professor who tested thousands of plant seeds for their optimum germination. In his book, he gives concise directions on starting many difficult plants. From his book, I learned that the American persimmon may continue to exude even after being washed for seven days. I learned that it germinates at 40-70 (50 % germinates in one to four weeks following a period of 40F with a period of 70 F. But outdoor treatment was fatal. 

Its good to know what cultivar you have--I'm still dithering over some buckthorn seed (he lists three), but which do i have? His book lists findings for all the seed he tested, and is available as a free download (see resources below).

Seed Germination Theory and Practice, Norman Deno--free download available at naldc.nal.usda.gov/download/41278/PDF--my first go to.

Prairie Moon Nursery--prairie moon.com  --Their catalog has a wonderful code for germination for all their native seeds, and great cultural planting instructions that aren't readily available elsewhere.

jlhudsonseeds.net --good starting and cultural info.

Seed Savers Exchange--seedsavers.org

theseedsite.co.uk  --UK site with a little bit of everything from photos to a junior seed site.

http://www.hardyplants.com/A.htm --from A to Z, a line or two of the most important bits.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Rose Hip Syrup

Aly, and Wilbur and I spent an afternoon hiking over on Sandia. We gathered a little seed from the wafer ash and hawthorns, not much because the bears evidently beat us to the fruit. But to our delight, there were still a lot of hips on the wild woods roses. A few minutes yielded about four cups worth--enough to make up another wildcrafting recipe, without feeling guilty about depriving the bears and other critters up there trying to fatten for winter.

Making the syrup followed the same initial process as the oil; wash, stem, etc.  Then the hips went into the vitamix till they were as well ground as possible without becoming a purée. The mix was cooked over medium heat in a heavy bottomed pot with lots of sugar. The syrup didn't have much flavor, so I added a couple of teaspoons of cinnamon, a good call because it went from bland to delicious. In retrospect we may be taking a little bit more than a teaspoon a day! Gilly tried it in her coffee, and liked it very much, thank you. The syrup is recommended as a topping for oatmeal, a sweetener for tea--use your imagination.

Rose hips are high in vitamin C, everyone knows that! Did you know they are a significant source of minerals potassium, magnesium, calcium, iron, phosphorus, and phytonutrients like quercitin, lycopene, galactolipids (?!), carotenoids, betasitosterol (!!!). Also high in vitamins A, K, E, niacin, folate, panthothenic acid, choline, and betaine. Then there's GOPO, isolated by researchers in Europe and being used to treat the pain of arthritis and other inflammatory conditions.  Hard not to get excited about an herbal application with so many uses, and virtually no side effects. It's been used for centuries to treat children's colds. And one researcher noted that even when the vitamin C breaks down, the other phytonutrients remain active.

There are a lot of recipes online, and all the ones in English are UK, which meant translating the measurements, further adapted because I had less than a kilo of hips. Loosely adapted (from jeremytaylor.eu), here's the recipe.

4 cups hips
6 cups sugar
2 cups water

Get everything ready and work quickly because vitamin C begins to break down quickly. Crush the hips in a blender with two cups water (other readers noted the hips can be rough on lesser blenders). Add the hips to about 7 1/2 cups boiling water. Bring back to boil, and immediately remove from heat. Let stand for 15 minutes. Strain through cheesecloth. Return strained hips to more boiling water (Recipe got a little vague here--guessed and used about three cups). The blogger suggested the hips could be boiled and strained three times, but I did it twice. Consolidate and measure syrup. Bring to boil again with sugar. Immediately remove from heat, and put up in sterile jars.

Other commenters used less sugar. One shared an old recipe that also used rose water. Most folks are using species roses. Rosa woodsii that I used for my syrup, is a native American. Rosa gallica, the apothecary rose, is European. Rosa canina, the European dog rose, is specifically being used for GOPO formulations.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Rose Hip Oil

I can't believe how long it's been since the last post--mea mea culpa. I will do better.

For those of you who bought one of our apothecary roses before we closed, here's something to do with those big rose hips. (I found the idea at wildcraftvita.com). 

This is the first good year of bloom for my rose so there was only about a cup of hips to pick (which I wasn't too sad about because this is a thorny rose!)  I stemmed both ends, and washed the fruit. I cut each in half (wouldn't have if there'd been more).
The original recipe used jojoba, olive, and wheat germ oils, but I tried it with my own favorites--coconut and castor oil. In the past, I discovered that wheat germ oil dried my skin, and olive oil's downside is that it goes rancid. Both coconut and castor are unbelievably stable. They can be kept outside the fridge without going rancid--both are anti microbial, no little bugs or viruses are going to grow in them (huge amount about their beneficial properties online if you're curious). Coconut oil is solid at temps below 76 degrees, but melts readily, in warm water or your hands. Castor oil can be drying, so I used less, but it's a transporter, and can carry nutrients deeper into the skin, so I wanted to use some.

 I used about 5 oz of the coconut oil, 1 oz of castor oil, and about one cup of rose hips. The mix needs to go into a heavy double boiler, and simmers for six to eight hours. The recipe said that pink drops of oil would appear floating in the mix when the seed gave up its oil--I didn't see this, but there was a wonderful fruity fragrance, like jam cooking, which persists in the finished product.

After eight hours, I cooled the mix, then strained it in cheesecloth. The yield fit into one of my (clean) brown glass vitamin bottles which will protect it from light. I'm going to find one with a wide mouth because I decided to go ahead and keep it in the fridge reasoning that hips are high in vitamin c which doesn't necessarily keep well. The coconut oil hardened up in the fridge despite the castor oil which actually makes it less messy (once I remelt it, and put it in that wide mouth jar). I slather it on my face and neck morning and night. Guessing it won't get rid of wrinkles, but my skin is happy--and the results equal what I saw using those unbelievably expensive commercial products--so my purse is happy too.

One reason I wanted to try this recipe was because I've been making a mix of coconut, castor, fresh aloe (which is a whole different animal from the processed), and powdered vitamin c--but even in tiny quantities, it goes off before I use it. Doesn't get rancid, but the aloe sours, so now I'm just rubbing a slice of aloe on my skin every day, again huge benefits. And the dissolved vitamin c still had a slightly gritty feel when I rubbed the oil in.

I saved some seed which is curing in the icebox with all the other seed that requires chilling. I like the apothecary rose so much, I want more. I'll also take some cuttings, but haven't had as much luck with those. Now, if I can just get the
photos to upload, They'll be on the Mountain Gardens Facebook page if not...

Thursday, January 2, 2014


The seed catalogs are pouring in, and like many of you, we're struggling with difficult choices. Hundreds of tomatos, tens of cukes, heirlooms, non-GMOs, new hybrids, veggies, flowers, perennials!!!

Stop, take a breath, think systematically (not my strong suit). First, I'm making notes, this year, for every catalog, item (including a few notes about the selection like length to maturity--always important up here), page number, price/quantity, etc. This lets me compare between catalogs, and eventually I'll consolidate my orders. Why pay $6.00 or $7.00 dollars for a package of 300 seeds from (---) when I only need 25? On the other hand, I really want to try Summer Girl tomato (49-52 days!), so I may end up spending $6.95 for 25 seeds. Ouch... But Northern Exposure is out of stock at Burpee!

Stop, take a breath, think...And so it goes.

I have my favorite suppliers, but this year, with the nursery closed I can spread my wings a little. No more Early Girl! I want to try Indigo Rose, a purple tomato high in anthocyanin (it's in the news). I'm intrigued by Peppermint Swiss Chard and Red Candy Apple onions--and Fairy Tale zucchini and Asparabroc broccolini. But first I need to go through my seed stash. If I already have twenty some packs of lettuce seed, is it really sensible to order more? Hmmm...

OMG, I just fired off an order! The internet is the very devil...but I have to get those Northern Exposure tomatoes, after all, and the prices were so reasonable for some other very desirable seed I've been wanting to try like the Romanesco broccoli--and systems were made to be broken, dammit. But I'll get back on track with the potato seed, melons, fennel, carrots, cukes, etc. I'm nothing if not methodical.

Before I fire off the next order, anyone who would like something particular started, just email it. Even though the nursery is closed, I have little confidence in my ability to start sane quantities of veggies. I'll start seeds beginning in February (peppers are soooo slow), but don't wait too long to contact us, because I'll have to order seed I don't already have (within reason, please). Or if you have seed, but don't have much luck germinating it...

Those who are trying to germinate seed, remember that most veggies are fairly easy, but some require cool, some heat, some light, some dark. Follow directions. There are easy annual flowers like cosmos and marigold, and difficult ones. Do some research. Perennials, especially flowering natives, can be really difficult. Again, do your research. Don't waste time and money spring planting seed that requires winter exposure or two years alternate chilling.

If you really get into it, one of my favorite resources is Seed Germination and Theory, by Norman Deno available for free download at http://www.scribd.com/doc/44360991/SEED-GERMINATION-THEORY-AND-PRACTICE-by-Professor-Norman-C-Deno

Friday, September 13, 2013

Still Blooming in my Garden

sunset hyssop (foreground) with sedum (center),
and Russian sage in back
With all the rain we've had this week, I wanted to post a few shots of my garden.
silver lace vine



The hugelkultur is capturing huge amounts of rainwater. So is the host of weeds. But (ignoring the weeds) the willows, evergreens, native perennials like amorpha, and non-natives like laburnum are doing great. Hoping to put in two more hugelkulturs over the winter and plant in spring with fruit and nut trees.


Sunday, August 25, 2013

Garden Club Visits Santa Fe Botanical Garden

The recently opened Santa Fe Botanical Garden at Museum Hill was a treat for the members of Mountain Garden Club on our August field trip. The drive along the Turquoise Trail has stunning views. The location of the garden is beautiful with the Jemez Mountains as backdrop. Lunch in the Museum Hill Café was delicious. But for gardeners the main event is always the plantings--and we were surprised to learn that though the infrastructure started to go in last fall, the plants have only been in the ground since May!
Creeping thymes and yucca near the entrance signal the xeric nature of this garden. Natives like fernbush, sage, and Mormon tea are used widely and with good effect. But there is an orchard and a rose garden too. Water catchment is an important part of the infrastructure with stone swales directing rainwater into a series of basins to the immediate benefit of the thirstier plants.

A historic part of the garden is a gabion dam built by the CCC during the 1930's as part of water catchment in the Arroyo de Los Pinos. It needed very little work to restore it to full function. The Kearney Gap Bridge over the arroyo  was originally built in 1913 on NM 283 south of Las Vegas, NM along the Santa Fe Trail, and will eventually "bridge" the way to the Naturalistic Gardens.

There are several inviting courtyards where one can just sit and enjoy--beautiful with native rock, a small fountain, fruit trees, and plantings of penstemons, chamisa, yarrows, and agastaches. Along the trails and other gardens plants include aspen, cottonwood, and other native trees, native grasses like Indian rice grass, and shrubs like apache plume. For a more comprehensive list of plants, and maps of the gardens visit santafebotanicalgarden.org.
Docent guided tours are available, as are many other educational opportunities.

The garden was designed by W.Gary Smith, a nationally renowned landscape architect.