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A Gardener Looks at Thanksgiving Dinner

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A Gardener Looks at Thanksgiving Dinner

I thought it would be great fun and educational for us to take a look at a typical Thanksgiving meal and learn how it got from field to fork.

Let's start with the turkey. Wild turkeys and free range domestic turkeys eat acorns, corn, grains, wild grapes, berries, grasses, and insects. Confined turkeys eat high protein foods especially made for them in addition to corn and the occasional summer squash and tomato. 

Acorns are the “fruits” of oak trees. Oak trees are pollinated by wind. How about corn? Corn is actually a type of grass, so it is pollinated by wind, as well. (You may have seen honeybees on corn; that's because honeybees frequently will gather corn pollen to take back to the hive because it’s high in protein; they are not pollinating the corn.) Grains are really grasses, too, got it! Wind pollinated! 

Wine with your dinner? Wild grapes are pollinated by native bees. However, domesticated grapes used for the wine served with your Thanksgiving dinner are insects needed! You may have seen honeybees on grapes. These are damaged grapes, and honeybees take advantage of this by sucking up the juice. Many vineyards have at least one hive. Why? Some vineyards grow other crops in addition to the grapes—frequently grasses, which deplete soil of nitrogen. Leguminous plants such as beans, peas, and soybeans fix nitrogen back into the soil. Who pollinates legumes? Bees!

Perhaps your Thanksgiving meal includes sweet potatoes. No, I do not mean “yams.” Most of us have never eaten yams. Dear reader, please do not send me an email saying that your supermarket sells yams—that's just what they call sweet potatoes! Yams are more closely related to lilies and grasses. Sweet potatoes are in the morning glory family—you know this if you look at the leaves of decorative sweet potato vines in your planters or gardens. It is quite rare for them to flower. Mine never have; I would be thrilled! (If your decorative sweet potato vines ever flower, be sure to send me a picture!) The sweet potatoes you eat are usually “jewel” although there are many other types of edible sweet potatoes.

Dressing anyone? Onions form bulbs the first year of their life. That's when we dig them up and use them. If left in the ground, they form flowers and seeds the second year. (Thus they are biennials.) You would only let them form seed if you plan to raise onion sets from seed. The onions use the bulbs from the first year for the energy to form the flowers and seeds. You can still eat the bulbs, but the taste just isn't there. (I know this because I forgot to dig up some onions one year.) 

Sage in your dressing? This is a beautiful perennial herb in the mint family. There are several types of sage all known for the volatile oils in the leaves. Simply cut the plants back in the autumn and hang up the cuttings to dry. Crumble the dried leaves. The fragrance is luscious and so is the taste of sage in the dressing.

Mashed potatoes, anyone? Have you ever grown potatoes? You must try it at least once. I grow them in bags. You can use any container that is deep enough. It’s fun to purchase different types of “seedling potatoes” so you can experience the taste of different types. You will soon notice what potato sweetness means! As soon as the plants reach about six inches, you add soil to about half that height and repeat this process throughout the season. In autumn, the plants begin to flower and then die. Dig up the potatoes or reach into the bag or other container to harvest. 

Pumpkin pie, please. Pumpkins are really a type of winter squash. You can buy your own prepared pumpkin but, at least once in your life, I hope you grow your own pumpkins. You can grow from seed (easiest to start plants indoors) or buy plants. Just be sure to give those plants plenty of sunshine, water, fertilizer, and room to grow. Pumpkins are pollinated by bees so no insecticides please. When to harvest? The rind of the pumpkin will become hard and the pumpkin will have a pumpkin color. (I prefer orange but many folks like other colors such as white.) Cut the pumpkin vine several inches away from the top of the pumpkin.

I almost forgot the cranberries! I doubt that you grow them. I never have. But I love them, cooked or dried. Cranberries, which are blueberry relatives, grow naturally in acidic bogs. Cultivated cranberries are grown today in areas with a shallow water table, meaning that water is close to the surface. These conditions are now created by people who scrape off the topsoil and build dikes around the field. Sand is added to the surface to a depth of about six inches. The beds are flooded in the autumn, which makes harvesting the cranberries much easier.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving dear readers. I need to get to work—family always comes to our house. 

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