Well, it is official, spring is finally here. And that means it is time to start gardening again. If you are an avid gardener, use winter to prep your beds, plan the garden and order your seeds. I procrastinate too much for that, so I’m just now putting together my plans for this year. Although by the calendar spring really comes in March, unless you have a greenhouse in Maryland, many of your herbs and vegetables have to wait until later to plant (darn you pesky late freezes!). And in planning the garden this year, I am focusing on things I can use to enhance my meads.
I haven’t talked about it much, but you can’t make great meads without high quality ingredients. And what better way to ensure the quality of your ingredients than to grow them yourself? This includes keeping your own bees instead of purchasing honey, but at this point that is out of the question for me. If you don’t already have a good honey source, go check out the honey locator to find an apiary near you!
Gardening is one of my most satisfying summer hobbies, and not just for growing mead ingredients. It helps cut down on produce expenses, and ensures the quality of the food I eat. If you haven’t tried a homegrown heirloom tomato, for instance, you are truly missing out. Vine ripe tomatoes at your local grocery store don’t come close. The same is true for other vegetables, fresh cut herbs, and fruits that you can grow. Grocery stores and large scale farmers have chosen fruits and vegetables based on their appearance and ability to stay “fresh” over long periods of time on the shelf. They haven’t chosen them for taste. You have two choices to overcome this: grow your own, or find a trustworthy farmer and buy from them (at the local farmer’s market, perhaps). This year in our garden I am making a point of planting ingredients I can use for mead making. Here’s some of the ideas I have for what to harvest and plant.
Collecting flower petals
In the early spring, rather than pulling all those dandelion “weeds” at first sight, I am letting them flower and collecting the petals to make dandelion wine. If you do this, make sure your lawn doesn’t have pesticides applied. I don’t want to get blamed for someone reading this and getting sick!
I’d like to say I will also collect our rose petals to make a rhodomel, but I don’t think my wife will let me. She purchased a purple rose bush this year, and I’d love to see what colors I could get out of it. Maybe in a few years, when the plant is mature enough, I can steal a few blooms when she isn’t looking.
Perhaps the easiest plants to grow in a home garden, herbs provide fantastic flavors to enhance your meads. Many of the standard mead herbs may not be easily grown at home depending on your climate (cloves, vanilla, allspice, cinnamon, etc), but there are many that apply to wide ranges of climate zones. This year, I am looking at planting some chamomile, lemon balm, and mint varieties. We already have a few lavender plants I can harvest from as well. You can also look into growing hops, exotic basil varieties, or coriander (the seeds come from cilantro for those TexMex fans out there), but alas our gardening space is limited.
In our So, What is Mead? post I talked about the common mead types, and melomels jump to the top of the list in popularity. I am extremely interested in growing fruits native to Maryland, and the United States as a whole. Cider and grape wines are predominately made from Old World fruits, and I would like to test the range of available flavors native to our climate. Nothing says eating local like eating something that would have grown in your backyard centuries ago.
Last fall, as one of our wedding presents, we received a slew of native fruits from a friend. Purchased from Earth Sangha, these plants were grown from wild seeds collected in the Mid Atlantic region around Washington, DC, and included persimmon, lowbush blueberry, huckleberry, and both red and black chokeberry. I don’t expect to harvest these for many years to come (persimmons can take 10+ years to flower when grown from seed), but am extremely excited about the possibilities.
The previous owner of our house also planted thornless blackberry, highbush blueberry, and hardy kiwi. We only had a few blackberries mature last year, but the blueberries may produce fruit this season. The hardy kiwi is still a few years away from really producing, as they aren’t properly trellised. (Note, hardy kiwi is not native to North America. However, given the plant is already in our backyard, I can’t see a reason to tear it out.) We have also planted rhubarb, which although not native, it does taste delicious in pies and mead!
Lastly, we have some wild raspberries, a mature mulberry tree, some pawpaws, and a few black cherry trees growing adjacent to our property that we can harvest. Needless to say, there will be a lot of fruit gathering this season, and hopefully more than we can eat. I only get the leftovers for making mead.
Aside from the fruits and spices, the one vegetable we will be growing for mead making are spicy peppers, likely just jalapenos. Don’t be shy on the spice, many commercial meaderies include habaneros and Thai chilies. Capsicumels may not be everyone’s favorite, but are worth a try if you enjoy spicy foods. You may need to make a recipe that finishes sweet to balance with the spice, and look to add the peppers in secondary to avoid the pepper oils interrupting the yeast.
Are you growing any other ingredients to use in your meads? Let us know in the comments section, as I am sure I’ve missed a few easily grown options.