}

May 15, 2019

MY SPRING VISIT TO SNUG HARBOR FARM IN MAINE

A couple of weekends ago I was thrilled to have been invited to Snug Harbor Farm on the coast of Maine for a book signing. A gem of a specialty nursery. and worth a visit if you can make it - just an hour and a half north of Boston.

We have some wonderful nurseries and sources for plants and accessories here in the Northeast but one, in particular, is quite extraordinary. Snug Harbor Farm located in Kennebunk Maine is one of the more special places worth a visit in you ever find yourself in New England.  I've known owner Tony (Anthony) Elliott for years, and while I've written about Snug Harbor Farm from the first year that it opened I have never actually ever visited there. Why? I don't know other than I'm a pretty busy guy and now that my parents are gone I never seem to make time to go to Kennebunkport (where we spent every summer as kids).

Tony invited me up to speak about my book and to participate in a seed sowing workshop.

I was surprised then when I visited this weekend of where Snug Harbor Farm was. - right on route 9 about a mile from the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge -  a place where I would ride my bike often to go watch birds (geeky bird-watcher-Matt at age 12). I have to say that Snug Harbor brought back plenty of memories of Maine for me from the smell of the tidal plane and marsh grass to the sounds of gulls and terns. But what makes Snug Harbor special is what Tony and his talented team of horticulturists, stylists and workers have created - a menagerie, a botanic garden, a nursery - I'm not sure what to call it or how to describe it other than it's magical, and it recalls early visits I had made to the now infamous. Alan Haskell nursery in New Bedford, MA if any of you readers have ever had experienced that 'pleasure'.


Salvias, cut branches of crab apples and other shrubs forced into bloom along with cut flowers made the barn where I spoike and talked about my new book so beautiful.
Snug Harbor appeals to a wide audience, from flower lovers to succulent fans,there is hand made pottery and an entire indoor section with home goods that are well curated and stylish, but what they excel in are topiaries. Their signature look are tall, slender, pointed topiary and they are so well trained and tight that even I almost left with a few. I doubt that I could do any better - even though I have lots of experience in topiary craft.

Rosemary globes outside one of the greenhouses ready for sale. Each one perfectly and painstakingly trained.



Some greenhouses had long displays of potted plants that would run the entire length of the greenhouse. If you haven't noticed already, Tony styles every square inch making this plant very Instagram worthy.

Succulents and other sturdy plants for container planting are also a specialty. Tony offers selections that are rarely found at big box stores or garden centers, and most are displayed in long greenhouses.
This place is like your favorite lifestyle magazine or book come-to-life. Every corner reveals something else just as a good, inspirational book does. Hand crafted pottery, rare poultry, ccute animals, amazing hedgery,  outdoor sculptures, original installations - hidden  ideas are absolutely everywhere.

Tony designs pottery and it's everywhere around the farm. There are barns with old English pottery too.

Handmade pottery in one of Tony's barns.

As if the plants and pottery weren't enough, how about rare pigeons?  This loft alone was photogenic, but these Frillback pigeons are a rare breed - check out their curly-feathers. 

Our colder than average spring means that seedlings should be started later. Something you won't find at big garden centers who are all trying to push tender annuals far too early. Here, small seedlings will be perfectly timed for planting out at the proper size - which is small and based on weather trends, not marketing numbers. I love that. No growth regulators to stunt or force early flowering, and everything properly pinched and hardened off.
The craft of topiary isn't as easy to master as one may think, but as these myrtus show us, weekly. clipping and cold temperatures help create a tight, and proper specimen.

Few greenhouses offer such a selection or displays of succulents like this. I like how Tony's team displays plants on the upper shelves but then offers smaller plants below for sales.

Wow!

At Snug Harbor, the succulent collection is like the shoe department at Barney's or Nordstroms.




A trip here entertains, inspires and fulfills any need for regeneration of ideas. If you are a creative type like me, it's just. what one needs on a long, cold spring where it seems everything is behind. Now I want privet hedges, more cold frames, larger pottery, succulent collections on stairs and a psychedelic peacock.

At every turn, there is brilliantly sited artwork for sale.



Even these concrete spheres in front of the old chicken coop are fabulous and thoughtfully set out.

Inside the farmhouse store, more product in every room from fragrance to home goods. 


Back to topiary. these are some of those trademarked shapes that Tony and his team at Snug Harbor do so well.

Hello! A lavender hedge.

Curry Plant sphere topiary - imagine the wedding that might get these?

Lemon cyperus hedgery - for the special client who wants to have an extra special terrace.

It was so nice to see other topiary that were more like something a real plantsperson might create too. LIke these Flowering Maples, which would take me a full year to get to flowering size for my containers.



Topiary filled at least three greenhouses. How perfect is this? If you could choose only one...which one would it be?


May 5, 2019

The Art and Craft of Mapling with the folks from MapleMama


MAPLE SYRUP IS ABOUT AS OLD FASHIONED AS ONE CAN GET IN NEW ENGLAND BUT LIKE MANY ARTISIONAL PRODUCTS, INNOVATION IS CHANGING EVERYTHING. HERE IS A STORY ABOUT HOW ONE FAMILY NEAR ME IS USING MAPLE SYRUP TO CREATE A COMPLETELY NEW CRAFTED PRODUCT.


It's hard to avoid maple sugaring in much of rural New England, a season that sometimes begins as early as mid-February or as late as the end of March, as it was this year. Sugaring season is when the daytime temperatures rise above freezing during the day but drop below freezing at night, and it ends once the sugar maples bloom.


MAPLE SUGARING SEASON STARTS WHEN THE DAYTIME TEMPERATURES RISE ABOVE FREEZING BUT THE NIGHT TEMPS DIP BELOW 32° F. JOE LAUR, OWNER OF THIS PROPERTY CHECKS HIS SAP BUCKETS DAILY WAITING FOR THE SEASON TO BEGIN. THIS YEAR IT STARTED IN MID-MARCH.



The scent of maple steam wafting out of sugar shacks is everywhere, and it's just one of the joys of living in the Northeastern US. Sugaring is being rediscovered by an entirely new generation of course, just as other craft movements are so it's really not unusual to see sugar bushes (groves of sugar maples) with the blue plastic pipes running for hundreds of yards near most any farm. But thanks to my friend Cheryl who used to work with me at Hasbro, I was given a chance to see a real old fashioned maple sugar shack in action a few weeks ago - and now I think I am kind of addicted (as if I don't need another reason to move to the Berkshires or Vermont!).


I REALLY APPRECIATED THESE METAL. SUGARING PAILS AS MOST NEW ENGLAND SUGAR BUSHES USE BLUE PLASTIC FLEX TUBES WHICH ARE MORE PRACTICAL, BUT SOMETHING GETS LOST IN THE EXPERIENCE GAME. WHEN SUGARING ON YOUR OWN FARM, THIS ENHANCES THE PROCESS.

NEW SUGARING TAPS ARE PLASTIC LIKE THIS ONE, AND ON COLD NIGHTS, THE SAP ACTUALLY FREEZES. (WHICH INCREASES THE SUGAR CONTENT WITH THE LIQUID THAT IS LEFT IN THE PAIL - YOU CAN ACTUALLY TASTE THE SWEETNESS!


My friend Cheryl convinced me (with just a phone call as it really doesn't take too much convincing) to go with her to a sugaring facility in western Massachusetts - and what I discovered was that conventional and traditional methods can be used today, especially if one is only making  a few dozen gallons for home use (or for friends).



JOE LAUR OWNER OF THE MAPLE MAMA BRAND AND THIS GREAT AUTHENTIC SUGAR SHACK.


The owner of this small sugar shack is Joe Laur, and while I was not expecting what I discovered (the old-fashioned tap and bucket method he uses around his property), I was told by Cheryl that he (like us) was once in the corporate world, but now lives on a nice private farm-like property on a river and through the woods in the Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts. Yes. I wanted to see this, for it will add to my dream of owning my own place and making maple syrup one day.



A SUGAR SHACK NEEDS LOTS OF DRY, AGED FIREWOOD. LOTS.


What I discovered was that while Joe makes syrup for friends and neighbors, what he does is own another company that produces not syrup at all, but a maple soda (oops, I mean a craft maple beverage- gotta love a completely new product!). Joe and his wife invented it themselves quite simply one day while trying to make a lower-sugar drink for their kids. Sparkling water flavored with maple syrup and whatever other fruit they had in the kitchen.  What they invented was actually a healthy soda because as you probably know, maple has a ton of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.


JOE COLLECTS THE SAP DAILY ONCE THE SEASON BEGINS, AND THIS YEAR IT WAS LATE. SUGARING SEASON IN THE NORTHEAST USUALLY BEGINS IN FEBRUARY AND ENDS WHEN THE SUGAR MAPLE TREES BEGIN TO BLOOM, WHICH THIS YEAR WAS JUST A FEW WEEKS AGO.

In case you are interested - MaplemMama is relatively new, I know that he is offering it at some food festivals this coming year so look for it, and a few of our local Whole Foods carry it he says.  Oh, there are flavors too.  I didn't try the raspberry as for some reason I don't like the taste of raspberry but I think I could live on the Vanilla Bean and Lemon Ginger flavored flavors!  I even looked for it at the Whole Foods in Cambridge this week (but couldn't find it), but it's now on Amazon too.



JOE STARTED MAPLE MAMA WITH A SIMPLE PREMISE - TO MAKE A HEALTHIER DRINK FOR HIS KIDS. IT HAS NOW GROWN INTO A BIGGER BUSINESS, BUT AT HOME HE STILL TAPS HIS OWN TREES AND BOILS HIS OWN SAP FOR FRIENDS, FAMILY, AND NEIGHBORS RIGHT HERE IN MASSACHUSETTS.


I'm not exactly sure why they named it 'MapleMama', but out in the forest, Joe showed me something that might be why. ( A 250-YEAR-OLD SUGAR MAPLE!). Joe asked us if we wanted to see the whole sugaring process up close from beginning to end. Of course!


WE WERE ABLE TO PRESSURE MY FRIEND CHERYL TO TAKE A SWIG STRAIGHT FROM THE SAP BUCKET. OF COURSE, IT HAD ICE IN IT TOO, WHICH WHEN IT RELEASED FROM THE BOTTOM, SPLASHED HER. SHE HADTO AGREE THAT IT DID TASTE VERY GOOD.



Now...if you knew Cheryl - this might just be the best part of our day in the woods.  First, the entire idea of Cheryl in the woods is something worth photographing. First off, she didn't even have boots let alone sneakers or socks. What she was wearing was something like patent leather Chanel flats.  Oh, Cheryl.

Holding her elbow though we helped her be a good sport and trudged through the snow, letting her step in the tractor ruts. Yup. Cheryl. Tractor ruts. I think she found it totally worth the effort though for a few hundred feet out behind the barns we came across the classic New England calendar motif of giant ancient sugar maples with gorgeous old galvanized buckets on them, each one full of maple sap. These weren't just for decoration, clearly, Joe was all about the total experience of sugaring. I get it. I would be too.


HOW PERFECT IS THIS - SUGAR MAPLE WOOD HEATING THE EVAPORATOR THAT REDUCES MAPLE SAP!


Maple sap is like water before it is evaporated over a few days in the sugar shack, but as Joe demonstrated - when it freezes, it condenses the unfrozen part which then tastes a bit sweeter and even a touch mapley. He handed me a bucket to taste (yes, right out of the frozen bucket) and then he handed it to Cheryl. Always a good sport, she sipped a few swigs but then the ice that was frozen to the bottom fell and maple sap splashed all over her Dior coat (or whatever coat it was). We all laughed, and I just wished that I had caught that image on my camera.



THE SAP THAT JOE LAUR COLLECTS IS BROUGHT DOWN NEARLY THE OLD FASHIONED WAY (BUT NOT WITH HORSE AND SLEIGH, BUT WITH A TRACTOR). IT IS THEN FED INTO A TANK THAT CAREFULLY ALLOWS IT TO FEED INTO THE EVAPORATOR.


Joe then took me deeper into to woods to see some other buckets and a few very old sugar maples - Acer saccharum - which he felt were over 200 years old. Given their girth (7-8 feet), they were indeed the 'Maple Mama's' of this farm. We carried some sap back to Joe's sugar shack to add to the evaporator that he has already had fired up.



FRESH MAPLE SAP LOOKS LIKE WATER, BUT IT DOES TASTE SLIGHTLY SWEET EVEN STRAIGHT FROM THE TREE. EVEN SWEETER IF IT FREEZES A BIT WHICH CONCENTRATES THE SUGARS.


Sap needs to boil down for a few days, moving from one chamber to another before being bottled. A slow process, but this is a leisurely lifestyle. We who still work can only dream of having the luxury of just sitting in a chair, sipping some maple tea (syrup poured into hot water) and watch the fire, stoking it from time to time from the wood pile. Ahhh. 



IT TAKES A FEW DAYS FOR THE SAP TO REDUCE BUT WHO CARES BECAUSE THIS SLOW PROCESS IS WHAT MAKING MAPLE SYRUP IS ALL ABOUT. FEEDING THE FIRE, THE SMELL OF WOOD SMOKE, THE SCENT OF MAPLE STEAM. IT DOESNT GET MORE NEW ENGLAND THAN THIS.


JOE LEFT A JOB IN THE CORPORATE WORLD. (LIKE ME AND MY FRIEND CHERYL) TO DO WHAT HE LOVES MOST. ON THIS SMALL FARM IN THE BERKSHIRES OF MASSACHUSETTS WHERE HE HAS A LARGE VEGETABLE GARDEN, FRUIT TREES, A SWIMMING HOLE, SOLAR ENERGY, AND A SMALL BEVERAGE BUSINESS. PRETTY PERFECT LIFE, I'LL SAY.


I wanted though to give a shout out to Joe's Maple Mama Craft Beverage (it's non-alcoholic so don't let the word craft throw you!).  I hope it takes off, not only because it's good but because I liked the whole family story behind it. There are other flavors like Cold Brew Coffee and more to come I hear, so look for it - maybe in a Whole Foods or in an organic section of your market.



LASTLY, JOE SHOWED ME SOME OF HIS OLD MAPLE TAP COLLECTION. HE HAS DOZENS AND DOZENS OF THESE, MANY MADE IN THE 1800'S WITH DATES ON THEM. AS A COLLECTOR OF. 'THINGS' MYSELF,  THIS WAS ALL I NEEDED - TO DISCOVER SOMETHING ELSE TO COLLECT!