Autumn’s new beginnings

Usually we think of spring as the season of new beginnings. But the harvest season, the changing of the colour of leaves, fall fairs, the start of a new school year – and in many cases, the start of a new business season, also represent new beginnings.

In your garden, there’s probably a rich harvest. Now, most of us think primarily of crops at this time of the year. Yes, there are the alarming looking zucchinis resembling baseball bats underneath their vines. And yes, at this time of the year we might wonder why we grew so many tomatoes… yet again.

But there is another harvest of sorts waiting, for those of us who are keen on making Christmas crafts such as wreaths. Some of you will already have started gathering seedpods or drying flowers and leaves from your garden and backroads in the Pontiac. But for those of you who want to start such a harvest, it’s not too late to look around and start collecting items for your Christmas handiwork.

Poppy seedpods are a favourite among craft people. Other flowers that make attractive “pom-pom” displays include peegee hydrangea and garlic chives.

Don’t stop in the flower garden. Head to the vegetable plot and look there, too. Scarlet hot peppers can be easily dried, then used as a splash of natural red on the wreath or centrepiece. Even sliced rounds of tomatoes, when dried, not only make a delicious candy-like treat come wintertime, but also could be used for a natural red colour.

With crafts and decorative projects in mind, make a mental note about browsing next year’s seed catalogues for plants you can grow that can yield intriguing forms, textures and shapes.

Of course, gathering doesn’t stop at your garden gate. There’s a whole world of possibilities along the backroads of the Pontiac. And don’t be put off by names of plants.

Consider the “lowly stinkweed”! Also known as Pennycress or French weed, (in Latin it is Thlaspi arvense) this non-native species is a noxious weed. By the way, this means that if you find it in the waysides, and if you gather it to use in your Christmas wreath, you will want to be diligent about how you destroy seeds. Don’t simply pop them into your compost. The best way to destroy them is to burn them. Thankfully, for many of us who live here in the country, burning isn’t impossible.

Perhaps it’s timely to make a small caution. Because we live in an agrarian community, it is particularly important to be wary of items we choose to order, plant and then gather for craftwork. There’s no sense in introducing seeds of noxious weeds into our gardens, which will spread into the fields, only to fret about how to get rid of successful invaders later on.

For example, many specialty garden catalogues offer seeds of plants such as blue rocket (otherwise known as viper’s bugloss, blue-thistle, or blue devil), or burdock. These noxious weeds are a bane to farmers, and we won’t be thanked for nurturing them in our gardens. Even if you do want to explore a plant’s medicinal or craft possibilities, you may wish to give your seed order a second look, just to make sure you are not creating problems of a different sort.

But, back to the stinkweed, described in the 1906 Farm Weeds of Canada as “the most persistent and aggressive enemy of the western wheat farmer. Plants in bloom when winter sets in freeze up; but, as soon as they thaw out in the spring, they continue to grow and mature their seed without the slightest injury. The seeds of these early plants are ripe early in July. Plants which grow from seeds in the spring are not ripe until some weeks later.”

Craft people who know stinkweed look for clusters of flat disk-shaped seeds on an erect stem. At this time of the year they are changing colour, from their initial bright emerald green, through dark green, to a mature golden colour. The gold hue combined with the shape of the seeds make this otherwise noxious weed a pretty addition to your dried flower display or wreath.

If you’re curious to know why this plant is so-named, here’s what authors James Fletcher and George H. Clark tell us in Farm Weeds of Canada, “S-t-i-n-k is a small word with a big meaning, easily understood by anyone who has ever handled Stinkweed, or tasted milk or butter from a cow which has eaten it. Stinkweed is so called on account of its abominable smell.”

Now, keeping in mind that the topic of this column is new beginnings, let’s all be sure that if we find and gather this plant’s attractive seed clusters that we do not help propagate it!

“New beginnings” also include fall fairs, which showcase winners in different classes of produce… whether they are prize-winning quilts and honey -- or champion livestock, horses or crops. Such friendly competitions encourage us to consider what new varieties to choose for next year’s ventures.

Attendance also represents new growth, and attendance at this year’s Shawville fair was outstanding. Exhibit halls were packed, bleachers crowded with spectators watching events such as the ever-popular horse pulls, while cow barns and horse stables saw a steady stream of curious onlookers, too.

It is one thing to sit in the stands and observe a show. It’s another thing entirely to enter the stable area and chat with the specialists who are tending the animals they are showing. It permits exchange of knowledge between experts – our local growers and breeders – and the general public. New knowledge fosters increasing respect and understanding both within (and without) our immediate community. This is absolutely critical so that the farmers who grow our food can promote their way of life to a public increasingly removed from the rural environment.

The Shawville Fair’s growing popularity as a tourist destination is exciting at other levels, too. Our community needs continual refreshment. There are many new homes being built between Gatineau (formerly Aylmer) and Luskville along Highway 148. Whatever we might think about loss of farmland, the positive aspect of this growth is that our community is expanding. New residents bring new ideas as well as refreshing our municipal tax base. As well, they bring needs: needs for services, for instance, which can translate into additional work for local residents.

The interest in our local fair will not escape its Board, or the teams of volunteers who make it run efficiently. Will the number of attendees and exhibitors continue to expand? Hopefully yes… But with such well-deserved success comes the constant challenge of what new events to bring in, what old favourites to keep, what events to refresh – and which to consider dropping.

Yes, autumn brings its own time of renewal and regrowth, whether in the fields or in our community events. Newcomers explore our Pontiac with interested eyes. Some wonder whether to purchase property here, and make it their home and place of business.

New growth. New ideas. New opportunities for business.

These are all good things for our Pontiac community, don’t you think?


Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer who lives north of Quyon, Quebec.