Round Robin: A Farmer’s Potpourri

CAPE BRETON ISLAND, Nova Scotia–If you’ve ever stopped to examine a timothy stalk in bloom, you know that its tip is made up of many hundreds of compressed flowers densely packed on a long spike. As the flower head emerges from its leafy sheath, it becomes fringed with a multitude of plum-rose stamens, which for a brief time give timothy the appearance of lavender. This is the stage when I pick bunches to dry for winter bouquets, even for potpourri.­­

I have no time for picking flowers right now because I am helping Jigs (my partner-in-all-things and husband of more than 40 years) to bring in the hay, an activity that takes precedence not only over flowers, but herbs as well. I still must cut large crops of lovage and chives for a popular herb-salt mix that I make, the star attraction of my herb business, Jo Ann’s Kitchen & Garden. “Kitchen & Garden” is a good description of where I spend most of my time, but it should be amended to “Kitchen & Garden & Hayfield” during the entire months of June and July.

We, our antiquated machinery, and our team of horses, Pookie and Brownie, are hard at it, bringing in wagon­loads of hay that will be next winter’s food for our horses and Jersey cows. The field is only seven acres, but our methods are old-fashioned, and our progress is much slower than a hay baler’s would be. The advantages are that we go at our own pace, we don’t have to handle heavy hay bales (we aren’t getting any younger), and it’s quiet except for the creaking of the wagon. The air is sweet with the scent of red clover.

My job is to pack the hay on the wagon with a hay fork as Jigs, standing on the ground, tosses up forkfuls. It’s not as easy as it sounds, for each one must be spread out and smoothed down to make a square, one-ton load. Once the wagon is in the barn, a large fork on a horse-drawn pulley lifts the hay off. As soon as a load is secured on the fork, Jigs yells, “Take it away, Rosedale!” and I lead Pookie, the slower of the draft horses, forward into the pasture until Jigs yells, “Stop!” and the hay inside is dropped in the bay.

Between the heat of the day and ducking the horse’s feet kicking at horseflies, this is hot work. After every load, I snatch up my jar of homemade herbal skin freshener and dab away at my forehead, neck, and wrists. What a sight I must be: the genteel “herb lady” in work-stained jeans, a sun-bleached shirt, and an old straw hat. Every summer, I steep generous handfuls of southernwood, mint, and costmary in cider vinegar for about two weeks. Then I strain out the herbs and dilute it with the same amount of water. The freshener feels like an ice pack on a fevered forehead.

The colorful assortment of plants we’re harvesting includes those we have sown, such as timothy, red clover, and bird’s-foot trefoil, and others, such as purple vetch, that grow uninvited. Except for timothy, these plants have all been used for food or medicine in addition to being grown as fodder. Each plant is individually interesting in its color and form, but they are beautiful when mingled together. Trefoil, with its low, bushy growth and bright yellow flower clusters, makes an attractive ground cover; we’ve found it on woodland paths where birds have sown its seed. The vetch, which is tender now but later will be a mass of wiry stems, blooms in drifts of loose purple plumes (which dry to navy); virtually every part of the plant, including the seeds, is edible. The spicy fragrance of red clover flowers, globes of nectar-rich tubular florets (the tea is a folk remedy for colds and coughs), wafts everywhere, not only in the hayfield but beyond, in the pastures and near the house, thanks to the birds, which have spread its seeds.

As the hayfield is turned into stubble and the mows in the barn fill to overflowing, we are enveloped in a clean, sweet aroma. Like sweet woodruff, sweet grass, and sweet white clover (which we’ll soon be cutting along the roadside for my Kitchen & Garden potpourri), timothy releases the vanilla-scented compound coumarin as it dries. The barn houses a fragrant and beautiful kind of potpourri, one that we’ve produced and that our livestock will enjoy next winter.

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