Hiking Sweet Fern Savanna with Marianne Hahn



Sand Phlox, Phlox bifida, a low growing wildflower found in sandy soils

In Eastern Kankakee County, Illinois, otherwise known as the Kankakee Sands, nature still abounds.  One can’t hardly find a road in Pembroke Township that towering Black Oaks (Quercus velutina), the backbone of Pembroke’s high quality Black Oak Savannas, don’t dominate the scenery.  Unlike many communities that have sprung up in the shade of oaks, the residents of Pembroke Township have learned to live with nature, not dominate it by underplanting the oaks with lawns/pasture grass and Spruce trees.  No, in Pembroke, one can still imagine what the area might have looked like prior to settlement by early farmers and ranchers. 

Two reasons that such a rich plant community still exists are the sandy soils – not great for farming, and the area’s extensive poverty.  The sandy soils left behind by glacial lakes and blown into dunes by wind action, support a unique community of plant and animal life.  This sandy soil made for poor crop yields and was overlooked by 19th century, white European farmers and so the land was sold to African American farmers and ranchers beginning in the 1850’s; and with many newly freed slaves emigrating from the American South and seeking a refuge from racists and the ability to own property, Pembroke Township became an attractive destination soon after the end of the Civil War in the 1860’s.  An excellent article about the area, including its settlement history, was published in the Illinois Steward, entitled: “Pembroke Township: The Lost Corner of the Kankakee Sands.”

I made my first visit down to the town of Hopkins Park, in Pembroke Township with Marianne Hahn in 1999.  At the time, Marianne, a retired microbiologist, had just purchased some land there, with the intention of managing it in a natural state in perpetuity.   Over the past fifteen years, Marianne has acquired additional land contiguous with her original purchase as it has become available, and Marianne’s property, now known at “Sweet Fern Savanna,” after the fragrant low shrub, Comptonia peregrina, found growing there, is now an Illinois Land and Water Reserve, which protects the land from all future development.  The other day, I took a drive down to Hopkins Park, with my friend Marianne to enjoy a pleasant spring hike.


Sand Phlox, only six inches tall, was in full bloom at the end of April


Marianne, keying out native plant number 436 on the property, Poverty Oats


The green in this photo is all Lowbush Blueberry,Vaccinium angustifolium, found in the flatwoods, and just coming into bloom.


Both the fruit, about one quarter inch around, and the flowers (shown) are small. The fruit is very tasty when it ripens in July.


Just before everything starts to turn green, the landform can best be admired


This White Oak has seen many fires over the years, that may be why it has multiple stems – due to regrowth after a burn in its younger days


Even some large trees eventually succumb to fire, but fire, either started by lighting or by humans, helps to keep the the oak savanna open and healthy, without fire, this would become a thicket


A few cultural legacies remain on the land, including this 1949/50 Dodge Wayfarer – a post-war beauty in its day


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Potato Planting Time


After being stored in a windowless room in my basement all winter, the potatoes were brought out in to the sunlight to be planted.   I grow seven kinds of potatoes: Kennebec, Yukon Gold, Red Norland, Russian Fingerling, Adirondack Red, Adirondack Blue, and Viking Purple. 

·        Kennebec, Late season, good winter keeper, large to very large tubers, tan skin, white flesh, developed in Maine in the 1940’s, released to the public in 1948. Good boiled, mashed, or baked.

 ·        Yukon Gold, Early to Mid-season, good winter keeper, medium tubers, tan skin, bright yellow flesh, developed in the 1960’s in Ontario, Canada, release to public in 1980.  Good for boiling or baking, as well as frying.

·       Red Norland, Early season, poor winter keeper, medium tubers, red skin, cream colored flesh, developed in North Dakota in the 1950’s, good boiling potato and often harvested mid-summer as a “new potato.”

·       Russian Fingerling (aka. Russian Banana), Mid to Late-season, fair winter keeper, elongated small tubers, tan skin, yellow flesh, developed in the Baltics, good boiling potato, roasted, or pan fried.

·       Adirondack Red, Early to Mid-season, poor winter keeper, small/medium tubers, red skin, pink flesh, high in anti-oxidants, Developed at Cornell University in New York State, released to the public in 2004, good roasted, mashed, pan fried.

·       Adirondack Blue, Mid-season, poor winter keeper, small/medium tubers, purple skin, deep purple flesh, high in antioxidants, Developed at Cornell University in New York State, released to the public in 2003, good mashed. roasted, or boiled.

·      Viking Purple, Mid to Late-season, good winter keeper, large tubers, purple/rose skin with pure white flesh, good baked, mashed, or fried.


Traditionally, many folks used Good Friday to mark the day for potato planting, and since Easter always falls on the Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox, that day is also a “planting by the stars” tradition.  In any event, potatoes are very cold hardy, and as long as the soil can be worked, and temperatures are on the rise, potatoes can be planted. 

Last year, I tried the straw method, a la Ruth Stout.  Ruth Stout was an East Coast gardener who wrote a few books about her “no-work” gardening methods.  Ruth would lay her seed potatoes on the ground, then throw straw on top of them – no digging, no work.  When I tried that method, all I managed to harvest was a bunch of slug eaten tubers, most not fit to eat.  I was also encouraged to try the straw method when I read about it in my old Farmer’s Encyclopedia from the late 1800’s – the excerpt is shown below:



This year I’ve gone back to a more traditional method.  Many books talk about digging a trench and pushing the soil to one side, then as the potatoes grow, push the soil back around the plants, and hilling the soil up around the plants – which the old farmer’s encyclopedia advised against – who to believe?  The trench method may work fine, if you have the room – these same books want the gardener to space the seed potatoes 18 inches apart, in rows 36 inches apart, my garden is not that big.  I simply dug down about six inches, put down a potato tuber, then slightly covered the potato.  When it starts growing, I’ll push the rest of the soil back over the tuber.   Other than mulching with some straw to shield any potatoes forming near the soil surface from the sun, and turning green (green=solanine=toxin=inedible potato.)


The tubers are spaced about a foot apart

I laid out my potatoes with approximately a one foot spacing, once I determined that my layout would work, I dug my hole and placed in a seed potato (seed potato = an untreated and disease-free tuber, used to grow a potato plant – super market spuds are treated to retard growth, an may not grow, if planted.)


One tuber is placed in the bottom of each hole then lightly covered with soil


The potato bed after planting

Vegetable Seed Update

A week ago vegetable seeds were planted, both inside and out, you can read about that here.  Of the carrots, lettuce, and beet seeds that were planted outside, so far, only the lettuce is making an appearance.  Meanwhile, inside, the tomato, pepper, ground cherry, parsley, and broccoli seeds are all up in just a weeks time. Bottom heat certainly helps.


The tomato and broccoli seedlings were thinned to a spacing of about an inch and a half, or so.  Scissors were used to clip off the unwanted seedlings rather than pulling, since pulling out the unwanted plants may disturb the roots of the other plants.


Thinning by clipping


The bottom row of tomatoes has just been thinned, the upper two rows are next


The appearance after thinning. The plastic wrap still covered the unsprouted parsley – the cover was removed today, as they have now come up.

  Over the next few weeks as daytime temps get into the 60’s and 70’s the flats of vegetable seedlings will start to spend some of their time outside – at first in a wind and sun protected area and for less than an hour, then each day the time will be extended and more exposure to the sun will be possible as the plants “harden off.”

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Amaryilis Update: Blooms at Last!


Back in January I brought the potted Amaryllis out of the basement, and began the process of bringing the bulbs out of their dormancy and into bloom.  You can read about that (here).  By the middle of March, eight weeks later, they were starting to push up a few buds, just at the same time the daffodils were pushing up their leaves in the garden, you can see that update (here).  Now, a month later, and three months into the process, the bulbs are finally in bloom – both the Amaryllis, the white ones anyhow, and the Daffodils.  The red Amaryllis do not look like they want to push up any flower buds this year.  Maybe it’s time to repot them (next fall) with a fresh soil/compost/perlite mix.  I don’t want to repot them this spring, because that would damage the easily broken leaves, and set them back even more – since they need to gather the energy from the sun all summer, to produce next year’s flowers.  I will also set the pots in a sunnier outside location this year, than I had them in last year, in hopes that more sun exposure will help these Central and South American natives produces more flowers next spring.  While in bloom, however, it is recommended that the plants be kept out of the direct sun so as to prolong the bloom time.


One out of the three pots decided to bloom this year

The large white blooms look similar the the Easter Lilies (Lilium longiflorum)found for sale in supermarkets at this time of year, however, the Amaryllis do not give off any fragrance as the Easter Lilies do.  Though, in my case, my Calamondin Orange (Citrus mitis), a dwarf orange with golf ball sized fruit is currently in flower, as seen in the photo below, and is filling the room with a subtle sweet fragrance at this time.  Last winter the tree was covered in fruit, this year, just a few.  The tree will go outside after the danger of frost is past.  I purchased the tree in 1983 for a few dollars at a local flea market.  The only care it receives is consistent watering, applications of acidic liquid fertilizer (Miracid soluable fertilizer) once a month, and the old soil is replaced with new soil every three years, while at the same time pruning some of the roots to keep it from becoming root bound.


Just in time for Easter, the lovely blooms of Amaryllis


Meanwhile outside, the buds of the Daffodils opened at the same time as the Amaryllis this year

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