Beer Garden Blues

A.V. Walters

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We started our little garden plants in tiny peat pots, some weeks ago. We’d carefully researched our frost-free date, and back-calculated the time for germination. I’m picky about such things because one of my pet peeves is vegetable starts that are root-bound at planting time. The date came, and went, and the weather forecast still warns of possible frost, so we cannot plant. But, our little sprouts are ready to roll. To harden them off, we’ve been carrying them outside on nice days and back in again every night. It’s like babysitting.

Though I’ve never been an advocate of multiple transplanting (too lazy), this year I’m won over, if only to avoid the dreaded tangle of strangled roots in the bottom of the peat pots. Yes, I know that peat pots can supposedly be just dropped into the hole, but I’ve never done that, because even though the roots can grow through them, I’ve still experienced them causing a strangling ganglia of roots. And yes, I know there’s a whole school of thought that advocates multiple transplants for tomatoes—almost as gardening gospel. I don’t buy it. Like I said, I’m picky.

We’re going away for a short trip. Added to my root-bound anxieties is the knowledge that the tiny peat pots would dry out before our return. They desperately need larger pots that can hold enough moisture to cover our four-day absence. Transplanting is not an option; it’s a necessity. Since I wasn’t planning on it, I don’t have pots, one or two sizes up, in which to put these little sprigs. I had planned on going from peat pots, direct to the buckets dug into the garden. We’re not talking about a handful of vegie starts here; there are a lot of them.

After exhausting all of our yogurt and salsa containers, each washed and punctured with drainage holes, I started scrounging through the recycling bin for additional pots. I scavenged some milk cartons, a cocoa tin, and the plastic trays in which my co-op sells mushrooms. Still, we were short. What was I going to do with all those tomato starts?

I ran out to our local hardware store. They understood. Though they didn’t have a solution. (Their vegetable starts are in the same frost-free-limbo.) We all thought that the cold weather was done. Optimists, I tell ya! They suggested a trip across the county to a nursery/hothouse operation. Alternatively, they shrugged, there’s always 18-ounce, plastic beer cups. Sigh.

I’m not a disposable-cup-kind-of-gal. But, in the quest for environmentally sound solutions, one must weigh the impact of the nearby expedient, versus the drive-around-the-whole-damn-county looking for appropriately sized pots solution. The local grocery had a small stack of beer cups for $3.19. So, I went for it.

The plants will not spend long in their beer cups. I’ll save them for plantings in the future (along with all the punctured yogurt and salsa containers.) Next week, I’m sure they’ll all be ready for the final jump into the garden. I’m watching the weather site like a hawk. Next year, I’m gearing up for floating row covers. It’s either that, or it’s back to the beer cups.

Good Fences Make…

A.V. Walters

electric-fence

It’s nearly time to put in the garden, and that means that we need to make fence decisions. Our biggest garden problem is deer. The deer are also a threat to the orchard saplings. We’ve combined the garden location with the orchard to consolidate fencing needs. We’ll also have the bees in the corner of the garden, which complicates things a bit. Locally there is a split on the type of fencing or garden protection needed from the deer. (Oh yeah, and from the bunnies, too.) No matter what you do, it’s expensive.

Some install tall traditional fencing—at least seven feet tall. Others go the electric route and install a multi-strand electric fence. One neighbor has completely foregone fencing. They protect their garden with a motion detector connected to a sprinkler system. We walk by regularly and we laugh when our meanderings, on the road, trigger the sprinkler response. Hey, I guess it works! (If not for the bees, I’d be tempted to go this route.)

The uber-tall solution looks fortress-like and it’s permanent. I’d like a little more flexibility to move the fence, in the future, when the garden expands.

So, I stepped into the vast world of electric fencing. Too many decisions! What’s the power source? Is it close enough to the house for AC power? (Not really, we’d have to underground several hundred feet of wiring for that.) That leaves us with the choice of solar, or DC. Solar sounds so….progressive and green. I was predisposed to that direction. Unfortunately, my research into reliability and power needs revealed that the system that would meet my needs (and have the warranty life I’d want) would be prohibitively expensive. That leaves us with 12 volt, DC batteries.

The pebble in the shoe of all these plans has been the bees. You see, bees attract bears. (The hives down the road were raided by a bear, last summer—it isn’t a hypothetical problem.) An electric fence system strong enough to get a bear’s attention has to be pretty beefy. Fence controllers are rated in several ways, by distance, by ‘joules’, and by the type of hazard (animal) contemplated. Though a “5 mile” fence would be fine for deer, to get the kick you need for bear, a 25 mile fence is needed (even though the fence dimensions themselves don’t change—it’s not the length of the fence that counts, it’s the total length of the wire strands you use.) A bear fence calls for a minimum of four strands. Some contend that seven is required. Not that appearance is the arbiter, but a seven-strand fence looks like a maximum security prison—minus the razor wire. (One beekeeper actually suggested a double fence—with a 30 inch no man’s land between them!) I think we’ll go with four strands. The fence must deliver a minimum of a one joule charge to dissuade a bear. That same power will make our fence pretty unfriendly to incidental human contact. It’s not a ‘leaning on the fence talking to neighbors’ kind of a fence. We worry about the cats.

All of this has been Greek to me. I’ve been researching the fencing on the internet. It’s quite an education. For every fencing option, there are at least three alternate opinions. Unfortunately, our tailored needs will make it near to impossible to pick anything up second-hand. I have about a week to make up my mind. By then, our seedlings will be busting out of their pots, begging for a permanent home in the garden. And right after that, about the first week in June, the bees will arrive. We’ll need to be ready by then.

New (to Us) Trailer

A.V. Walters

trailer

There are probably a hundred things that we could have done today—some maybe more important than what we actually tackled. But, there is a special lure to a new toy, though. You just gotta try it out.

We’ve had cut wood sitting in the forest for some weeks now. Not that it matters; the firewood could sit there until fall. The problem was that, though we’ve cut the trails, we did not have a trailer to haul the wood out. I’ve been perusing craigslist for weeks. Trailers are not cheap! Who knew?

It needed to be small, to handle our steep terrain and tight turns. It did not need to be road-worthy. By that I mean that we didn’t need lights or brakes. We will never use this trailer off the property. And, we’re not likely to gather firewood in the dark.

I mentioned sometime back that I’m a bit of a scrounge. Indeed, I may be the Queen of Scrounge. Finally, last week we found the perfect trailer. It’s really junky! For some reason, that makes me love it all the more. The old metal frame is rusty, but it’s sound. The wood is a mess, but that can be replaced. This is probably an old military trailer. I guess we’ll refurbish it—though I kind of like it just as it is. Rick is just as enthused, in a more subdued kind of way.

Today was our first free day where we didn’t have to be doing something else. Rick was itching to try out the trailer. So, we decided to bring in some of the cut wood. Our funny little trailer worked like a champ. We brought in five trailer loads (plus what we could fit in the tractor’s loader.) Naturally, it turned out to be the hottest day so far this year—well into the eighties. It’s not ideal weather for the heavy lifting in this task. Still, off we went. We’re as happy as clams, though a little tired.

Now that so much wood has been brought down to the home site, I guess we’ll have to split and stack it. There’s more up there, but we’ve run out of room at the splitting station. Everything in it’s time…and then, we can go play in the hills again.

Permaculture–

A.V. Walters

It’s clear that the neighbors all think I’ve lost it. Our immediate neighbors are retired organic farmers. When I said that the solution to poor soils in the orchard area was to amend the soil before planting, they just shook their heads. But, I meant it. It’s one of the cool things about having heavy equipment—you can do things that make sense, but normally wouldn’t be worth the effort.

When I said that we’d amend to a depth of 5 to 6 feet, I was exaggerating, but not by much. We dug out 4 to 5 feet. That’s the beauty of a backhoe. Still, it wasn’t easy. The digging goes well enough, but then you have to separate out the good topsoil, from the glacial sand below. Then you have to add in the compost—just a little over a cubic yard per hole—and mix it together with the good topsoil. You can’t just layer it, or you could get “perching,” where the compacted layers resist water flow. So the mixing and the filling of the holes has to be done by hand.

Even Rick thought I was nutty. He mentioned that it felt like he’d been conscripted into the army, and was sentenced to dig holes and fill them in again. That was what we were doing—though not quite as simple as that (and not punitive.)

If ever there was ever a good reason to go to great lengths, putting in trees would be it. It’s why they call it permaculture. They’re permanent. If you don’t take extra measures now—you won’t get the chance later. These trees deserve the best start they can get. If planted in well draining soil that’s also rich in organic material, these trees will be well ahead of the game. We live in an area that considers itself the “Cherry Capital.” All too often, though, the cherry farmers drop the whips (baby trees) into the sandy ground and then fertilize and spray them for the rest of their lives. It’s like being hooked up to an IV feeding tube! So much for conventional agriculture.

We won’t be doing that. You can grow healthy fruit without all the junk. It helps if you think ahead. This weekend was a backbreaking exercise in thinking ahead. Just as we were finishing up last evening, yet another neighbor walked over to query us on just what we were doing. I was hip-deep in the last hole. Granted, we didn’t actually plant yesterday. We were too tired. So, it really did look as though we were just digging holes and filling them. We were. In a funny way, we are burying treasure. She didn’t look convinced when I explained our system. When I told her that we’d water them with willow bark tea for good root development, her eyes widened.

This is a small town. I’m sure that within the week the whole town will know how crazy we are. Most folks just dig an 18 inch hole for a tree. That’s what the instructions say.  We’ll hear all about it when we go into the hardware store. That’s were you can catch all the good farm gossip.

Today the trees went in. We now have 4 cherry trees, 2 pear trees, and 3 apples. We still have one more orchard tree to plant this year, a plum. It hasn’t yet arrived, snug in its mail order carton. We’ll put in another four next year (they were out of stock this year!) and then the orchard is complete. All were selected for winter hardiness, disease resistance, flavor, type (cooking or eating), and timing. After all, you wouldn’t want them all ripe at once!

Between forest trees and orchard, in the past two weeks, we’ve planted 95 trees. It’s a relief to go back to building.

We can’t put in the garden for another ten days. When our frost-free date comes, we’re ready to plant our seedlings. If they think we’re crazy with the orchard, wait ‘til the neighbors see the buckets.

New Spring Traditions

A.V. Walters–

Today was the big Spring Sale at our local Conservation District. We went, list in hand, and were able to secure almost everything on the list, 75 trees. Today, and maybe tomorrow, too, we’ll be busy planting. The trees are bare-root. That means that they ship, dormant, and naked. The best thing one can do for them is to get them into the ground as soon as possible. (Well, at least as soon as practicable, since I think we’ll eat breakfast first.) It was a nippy 23 degrees last night, so we’ll let the sun warm things up a bit first.

Some of these trees will be planted back in the forest. Once in, they will be pretty much on their own. I don’t know how we could water them on any regular basis, without carrying water with us in jugs (which we’ll be doing today.) The forest needs some filling in, and diversity, so we’ll be planting oaks (red and white), hemlock (for the north facing slopes), butternut and shagbark hickory.

Out front, in the low areas, we have red osier dogwood and flowering dogwood. We’ll be putting in two windbreak hedges of hazelnuts—that alone takes up a full third of the trees to be planted. We picked trees that provide diversity, flowers for the bees, wildlife habitat and some with nuts, for us. Of course, it’ll be years before any of these bear; at this point they are really just short sticks. It’s like planting pear trees—which are notoriously slow to reach production. (They say you plant pears for your heirs.) Mostly we’re planting for the land. I’ll be curious to see how they do.

It’s just a few days late for Earth Day. We’re thinking that this can become an annual tradition.

At Odds, Comedic… Timing

A.V. Walters

Not so much compost, after all.

Not so much compost, after all.

I drove into town the other day and was amazed that, almost overnight, lawns have turned green. There are swollen buds and tiny baby leaves on the lilacs and flowering quince. The tips of the maples are giving it away, too. In early spring, before they actually leaf out, their buds have a rosy glow to them. Across the valley, the areas with maples are blushing. The cherry orchards are blushing, too. Not blooming, but with a sort of out-of-focus burgundy haze. So, the landscape says spring.

The weather report? That’s another thing, entirely. Day-time temps in the low forties, and snow! I kid you not. They’re calling for snow, up to 2 inches cumulatively, over the next two days. It won’t stick; the ground has already warmed up. The Road Commission has lifted the frost restrictions from secondary roads. But we’ve seen snowflakes this morning already. It makes us wonder if we have our timing right.

Last week we had 45 yards of compost delivered. It sounds like a lot, but it isn’t. It looks like we have a really bad case of gophers. We’ll be digging it in deep to prep for the orchard trees (which should arrive next week.) The rest will be for the garden. We are on the threshold of gardening, but for that snow thing.

Spindly

Spindly

But growing by the day.

But growing by the day.

We’re still perched in a tiny apartment, across from our new digs. There are space and light issues here, mostly because we’re now sharing space with building materials and with hundreds of seedlings in peat pots. We used our seed favorites from Two Rock and have been pleased with a more than generous germination rate. (Oh, no! I’ll have to cull!) The only things that haven’t come poking up through the soil yet are the peppers (and, some questionable crook-neck squash seeds.) Peppers are notoriously picky about seedling temperatures–they like it warmer than we keep the house! I hope they’ll pop up soon. Everything else is up and growing. I certainly hope we didn’t start them too early. Like comedy, in gardening, timing is everything. Hopefully the joke’s not on us.

seedlings1

seedlings2

It’s snowing out there, right now. There’s a little anxiety, and a lot of hope, in the mix.

A Storm’s A-Brewin’

A.V. Walters

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There’s a storm on its way, so I woke at first light, for chores. I wanted to wash and line-dry three loads before the rains came. I don’t think it’s going to be a problem. There’s a fierce wind—the one that will bring the storm, and the laundry is hanging horizontal. I don’t think they even make a clothes dryer that works as fast as this. A wind this strong actually shakes out the lint, and leaves even line-dried clothes as soft as a machine-tumbled load. As soon as my basket was empty, even while I was still wrestling to pin the last item, off it went, rolling in the wind. Last year’s standing corn plants, in the field next to our clothesline, make quite a racket, rustling in a wind like that.

There it goes in the wind!

There it goes in the wind!

I’m glad for the weather, though. A good wind can blow out the cobwebs, literally and figuratively. Admittedly, I’ve been in a funk. We’ve been hiking in the woods quite a bit of late, and doing some unexpected detective work. You see, we’ve been finding cut logs and stumps. Someone has been cutting wood on our property. This breaks all the rules.

In the world of making wood, there is no need to cut live trees for firewood. With weather and wind and blights, there’s always plenty of dead wood (or “deadfall”) to forage. Gathering deadfall cleans up the forest—and gives you a head start on seasoning the wood, for burning. Cutting live trees is reserved for timber cutting, either as a harvest, or to thin the forest. We did a “thinning” harvest 11 years ago. Now, with the emerald ash borer damage, we have no further need to thin the forest.

This property has been without stewards for a couple decades. Vacant land is often considered ‘fair game’ in rural areas—at least for gathering. Last Spring we politely disinvited some locals from morel mushroom hunting on our hills. There’s a longer story there, but basically, they were put out that we’d returned to the land—a gathering zone that they’d considered theirs, for decades. I do understand; I have my own secret berry patches in the woods where I grew up. I don’t own them, but I am proprietary about not revealing my sources. Had these ‘locals’ not been outright abusive in years past, I might have invited them to keep up their tradition.

Vacant land is also a source of deadfall gathering. I know that, in our absence, at least three neighbors had fuelled their winter heat from our slopes. It was fine. They kept trails clear and didn’t (for the most part) abuse the privilege. But, we’re here now. A few faces fell when, otherwise friendly neighbors, realized what our return meant. You see, they follow the code. One might gather from vacant land, but you don’t harvest from your neighbor’s land. Even without fences, there are boundaries.

We’d been finding cut logs for several weeks. They were pretty consistent, six to eight feet long, saw cut, top and bottom, five to six inches in diameter. An easy size to carry, and one that can be burned later, needing only to be cut to stove size, but not split. They littered our walking paths. In total, I’ve tallied (and collected) well over thirty such logs. And I’m sure I’ll find more. It seems that ‘they’ cut each year, and then the following year, when hunting season came, they’d collect the seasoned logs for burning. This annoys me, no end. We assume that these logs were left by the same “locals,” who were collecting the mushrooms last spring. They used to own the parcel behind us and had a deer-camp cabin there. It seems likely that they used our firewood to heat the cabin in deer season. As they’ve since sold the property, we figured that the wood-cutting would end, too. There’s no sense in being angry at a theft that’s past, and incomplete at that.

Lest you think that I’m just a wood miser, I’m angry mostly because of the way that this was done. With a forest rife with available deadfall, these jokers saw fit to cut living, young trees—for their convenience. Whether they wanted them for firewood, or for posts, doesn’t matter. And, they’ve cut slow growing hardwoods—maples and eastern hophornbeam. The hophornbeam is a tall, elegant tree of the understory of the forest. They have thin, shaggy-barked trunks; a hophornbeam’s trunk is rarely thicker than 9 inches. They like the shade of north-facing slopes. The thieves are stealing wood and damaging the forest. It’s like killing a generation of children. How can that gap be filled? Rick and I are already buying and planting trees from the Conservation District—an effort to fill in and diversify the forest following the Ash Borers’ losses. We expect to plant 50 to 80 trees per year and that’s just the beginning. There are right ways and wrong ways to manage a woodlot. What they have done is wrong in so many ways… in every way.

A weeping stump.

A weeping stump.

Yesterday we were out for a walk and I saw yet another stump. This one was weeping, literally. It means that it’s a recent cut. We dug about in the leaf litter, and, sure enough, found fresh chips and sawdust. The tree was cut last fall, we guess—just before the leaves fell. Now, with the spring sap running, the tree’s roots are trying to feed the treetop that has been taken. So, our problem is ongoing. I am sick about it. It was an eastern hophornbeam (also known as ironwood because it’s so hard.) They are very slow growing—they don’t even flower or make seeds for the first twenty-five years. Though I’m happy to harvest their deadfall, (because they’ll burn all night) I would never cut a living hophornbeam.

And right next to it, a deadfall tree of the exact same type.

And right next to it, a deadfall tree of the exact same type.

Rick and I don’t know what to do. We don’t want to post “No Trespassing” signs on the property. We have a number of neighbors who hike, snowshoe and ski its trails. We have no issue with respectful use. We like sharing its beauty. But, if I catch someone in the act of cutting, I will see to it that they are fully prosecuted. Michigan is a logging state, and they take timber theft seriously. When I say this, Rick raises his brow at me, wondering at my vehemence. We both hope that this is not one of our neighbors, but the chances are high that it is.

This evening, we’re waiting for the storm. It may clear my head. The whole week is expected to be unsettled—cool weather with the possibility of snow. Right now, the only rustlin’ I want to hear about, is the wind in the trees.

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