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Emerging Knapweed, as far as the eye can see.

 

Trigger Alert: This blog post contains references to maniac-level gardening, obsessive-compulsive tendencies and other forms of mental illness.

In the early 1980s, the City of Los Angeles was confronted with a difficult problem. Renowned for its levels of air pollution, how would it deal with the upcoming Olympics? After all, you couldn’t expect world quality athletes to do their best breathing the yellow-brown gas that the city’s denizens accepted as air. Every unsolvable problem has a similar solution curve; you do what you can.

If you have followed this blog for any time, you are probably aware of my ongoing battle with the evil, invasive, Spotted Knapweed. I cannot complain, the knapweed was here when I purchased the property–I just didn’t know what it was. When Rick and I arrived to develop it, we joked that, if it weren’t for knapweed, we’d have no weeds at all.

We had it backwards. We had no weeds, because of the knapweed. Sigh. It is an earnest and dedicated competitor. As a refresher, remember that knapweed competes on a number of fronts: it poisons the soil around it (the toxins remain for up to three years after removal); it absorbs most of the available water in its fleshy roots (starving neighboring plants); it spreads, both by seed (viable for seven years) and by underground spreading roots; and it colonizes disturbed soils. If you pull it up–and any part of the root remains–it will return, which means that tilling is a disaster. Knapweed eradication is a myth.

And still, one must garden. We have a dual challenge, poor sandy dune soils and knapweed. So long as the knapweed remains, the soils will never improve. We were lucky, even in our knapweed ignorance, we knew the soils were poor. So when we planted the orchard we dug big holes. Very big holes, perhaps 5 feet across and nearly as deep. Our neighbors raised their eyebrows and inquired. We removed most of the native sand and amended heavily. Unbeknownst to us, this solved our knapweed problem. Our new trees thrived–even as friends of ours, with supposedly better soils, lost entire orchard plantings to the knapweed’s toxins.

But our gardens failed to prosper.

At one of our bee meetings, the guest speaker from the local Soil Conservation District, came to discuss bee-friendly landscapes. That’s how I learned about knapweed and its ugly dual nature. Sure, it’s bee-friendly, but that’s as far as any friendship extends. I did my own research and the prognosis was grim. Understand, we have acres and acres of knapweed. And we won’t use poisons. After all, we are beekeepers. I asked a friend of mine, with experience in park management, for advice. She asked if it was too late to consider selling.

And so we steeled our resolve. We narrowed our focus to the garden area–a mere 50 X 100 foot oasis of fruit trees and raised beds. Surely we could manage that. Let the knapweed, and the bees, roam the acreage–but save the garden.

I’ve been pulling knapweed for three years now. We’re making headway, but it’s a worthy opponent. Pulling weeds was my ‘free-time’ activity. I’d do some in the spring, but mostly the early season was for getting the garden in. And summer and fall were full of knapweed endeavors. After nearly every rain, I/we pulled it by the wheelbarrow loads. It’s exhausting.

A pattern emerged. Our main focus was around the garden beds and the fruit trees. The areas along the fenceline, and other open ‘yet to be developed’ areas tended to get the least attention. Naturally the weed dug in there, for the battle. Late season efforts only slowed the knapweed’s hegemony. By then, rootlets had spread–guaranteeing reinforcements for the next season. A thankless, and never-ending task.

What we needed was an early season surge. And, what else can you do in a pandemic lockdown? So this was it. We (mostly me, but Rick’s a maniac, too) have been up to our eyebrows in deep weeding. Every. Single. Knapweed. In some areas, the knapweed was so thick that our efforts left the soil barren. (Remember, knapweed loves disturbed soils. Sigh.) We re-seeded with soil-building plants, even knowing that the knapweed’s toxins might defeat the effort. So far this spring, we have over a hundred hours in, between us, in the back-breaking effort of pulling this damned weed.

We’ll take a break now, and turn our efforts to growing some vegetables. After that, we’ll be back to knapweed-maintenance duty.

In Los Angeles, the City wrestled with how to resolve their pollution problem. They limited driving, especially near competition venues. They located most of the events on the west side, nearest the ocean breezes. Ultimately, language was their biggest success. They changed the standards. Voila! Objectives met!

We, too, have re-framed the battle. It’s unlikely we’ll eradicate knapweed. We don’t even use that word anymore. And we’ve narrowed the playing field to the garden/orchard area, ignoring the acres and acres of adjacent infestation. (Hell, the bees like it, right?) We don’t even consider abandoning ‘eradication’ as a retreat. Facing similar obstacles, many pollution agencies have adjusted changed their mission–it’s about ‘management’ not ‘control.’

We know that we will always be fighting knapweed in the garden. Even if we are fully successful, weeds are not great respecters of fences. The objective now is to keep enough area clear so that we can go about the business of keeping the orchard and growing enough vegetables for our own consumption. We’re not farmers, we’re gardeners. And that’s enough.

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Sigh. Knapweed (only) removed, and nothing left but disturbed soil.

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These jokers who refuse to wear masks or practice social distancing piss me off. I run into them mostly at the hardware store–the locals seem to be wearing masks, but these guys think etiquette and prevention efforts don’t apply to them.

Understand, I’m a pretty nondescript senior, mousy hair–eyeglasses. I’d never be suspected. And the scenario is so common, I’ve experienced the opportunity several times already. So here’s the plan:

I’m in the hardware, probably looking at hose sprayers. The damn things break all the time, and there must be a dozen different styles, each as cheap and junky as the next. It’s also an item that many folks need early in the season. One of these maskless jokers ambles up the aisle, and stands, just a hair too close, looking at hose and irrigation supplies. From behind my mask, I nod, politely. He nods back–maybe even smiles. I select, and inspect several items, quietly clearing my throat. I inspect and reject several sprayers, carefully hanging them back on their designated hooks. He’s rummaging through the irrigation parts.

I cough, just a quiet little cough at first. He doesn’t even look up. Then I really start coughing, sucking for air between, my arm reaching out for balance. Without any real intention, except to stabilize myself, I grab his sleeve. Now the coughs are wracked and serious. Gasping for air, I reach up and pull away my mask, sinking to my knees as I do so. By now, I’m pretty sure he’s wrenched himself free, and fled. If not, I reach out and clasp his hand and gasp, “Help me.” The payoff for me is the look on his face as he realizes I may have just delivered a high-speed, viral load.

There. I’m sure that’ll do it. The same thing could be done at the grocery store, or the local 7-11. Anywhere folks think the rules don’t apply to them. Consider it performance art.

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It rained all night last night. That’s the least it could do, after yesterday. I’m beat, I may not do anything today.

The trees are in. Every year we plant trees, to diversify the forest and make up for the losses caused by tree epidemics. We’ve lost the ash trees to the emerald ash borers. Many of their dead hulks are standing snags–just waiting to fall. Now we’re losing the beech trees. The infected trees often break mid-trunk, in any significant wind; they call it ‘beech-snap.’ I don’t walk much in the forest if the wind is up, too much risk you’ll be hit by some falling widow-maker.

We’re always looking for tree varieties that can rebuild the forest, and that are suitable to our soils and location. We started planting up to 200 trees per year–but got smart, quick. We’ve settled on about 100 annually. (We did 105 this year–five of which were orchard or ornamental trees.) We’re not kids anymore and 100 is just enough, without being too much. Once the trees arrive–bare root–the push is on to get them into the ground. That’s their best shot–quick planting. They will not be watered. They’ll get no protection from deer or other critters. The best we can do is to be selective about their location. This year we’re planting Basswood–also known as Linden. The bees love them.

A good location gets some sun, it’s not too steep, it is not located in the ‘fall zone’ of any existing infected tree, and it’s not on an identifiable ‘deer path’ in the woods. Sometimes you’ll find a perfect spot, protected from any browsing deer by fallen trees (and so, in a canopy opening.) Often, an opening in the canopy attracts brambles–a thorny tripping hazard for the tree planter. But, the presence of brambles indicates a good location, because it means there’s sunshine, good soil and moisture. If planting in a bramble area, it’s best to pull up the thorny canes and their roots around the selected site, so the new tree doesn’t have to compete for sunshine. I give them about a four-foot circle (and I tell them to grow quick, to get up above the competition.) I cover the planting area with leaf litter, to obscure the disturbed earth, because otherwise the curious deer will follow your trail, and eat your new trees. The deer are sensitive to changes in their environment. As I leave an area, I check, to be sure there’s no obvious sign that I’ve been there, planting–nothing to trigger investigation by curious deer. If I’ve done a good job, there’s nothing to see–which limits job satisfaction. (These trees are only eighteen inches tall–and they blend in so completely that you have to plot out your areas, because you cannot see them, and run the risk of stepping on them, or double planting.)

Our forest is steeply sloped–a series of ravines on the ancient dunes. I carry a bucket of water with baby trees in it, and a short-handled spade. I wear heavy leather gloves and a canvas overshirt, to protect from brambles. It’s heavy work, but not hard. The difficult part is navigating the slope. The most time consuming part is picking good planting spots. If I’m conscientious about it, I can plant 50 forest trees in a day. I know that the professionals who work for timber companies plant thousands in a day, but they are working with a clear cut site, without the hazards or finesse that drive us.

Yesterday, my second and hopefully final day of serious planting, the forecast promised rain, late in the day. A perfect planting day, so the new babies get watered right after they hit the dirt. I got the first batch of 25 in before the wind picked up. Determined to finish, I pushed on. The sound of the blow was punctuated by the creaking rub and heave of standing dead trees swaying against their neighbors. I nervously surveyed the canopy above, and just kept planting. Then it started. The rain. Much earlier than forecast.

At this point I’m a third of a mile from home as the crow flies–and on rough terrain. No matter what, I’m going to be drenched. So I just kept going. When the last tree found its home, I trudged back to mine, tired, wet, but satisfied. When I arrived, my sweetie had started the fire, and I stepped into the shower to warm up. Then he served me hot beverages as I curled up in front of the fire. The rain stopped.

It started again, later in the evening, and continued all night. All the trees, planted in the previous two days got a solid watering. And I’m done, until next year.

 

 

 

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We’re tidying up. After years of construction, it was finally time to clear away the debris that had accumulated around the house, while we were busy. Rick didn’t want rural living to mean “eyesore,” as is too often the case.

There’s an area under the porch that was particularly bad–every known form of construction crap, tossed and ignored. Rick sorted and stacked the good stuff, put some of it in the burn pile and bagged the rest for a trip to the dump. But then, what to do with that area?

Originally, we’d planned to plant ground cover. But that would require watering up against the basement wall–not the best recipe for a dry basement. We wrestled with how best to preserve it as a tidy area, and not have it become a weedy mess, or an outdoor sandbox for the cats, or a scratchyard for the chickens.

We finally decided to cover it with landscape cloth and mulch it. But what mulch material? We’re not inclined to head to the big box store for landscaping materials, if we can avoid it. We have leftover gravel from the septic. We have bark left from firewood, we use it all the time as mulch in the orchard. And we have pine needles. Acres and acres of pine needles.

So, pine needles it was. My job was to head up into the pines with a rake and a wheelbarrow. The floor of the pine forest is weed free and lovely. Four or five decades of needle drop makes for a thick layer of soft mulch. It didn’t take too long to rake up enough to cover the area under the porch, maybe five or six wheelbarrows full. During which, I couldn’t help but think that there I was, raking the forest. How responsible is that, eh? And we don’t even have a problem with wildfires.

Anyway, it all turned out pretty well, using available resources.

 

 

When we were little, our village, St. Clair Beach, was a community that was always growing. The fields behind, and around our house, one by one, were excavated and then became new homes for new families. On weekends, we loved the empty construction sites. First there were enormous piles of dirt, literally fodder to all kids of childhood schemes and dreams. We rode our bikes up and over, we dug, we threw clods of clay in neighborhood turf wars, we investigated the new construction–figuring out the floor plans and wondering what new neighbors and lives would fill in these stick walls. My brother, my usual partner in crime, would collect lumber cut-offs and loose nails, and these materials would be transformed into tree forts, or go-carts.

Once, when I was about 8 and my brother was 9, we headed off to explore a new home up by the lake. It was a two story home, so well worth the trip to check it out–the new houses near us hadn’t been nearly so complicated.

So there we were, upstairs, examining the framing for the stairwell, my brother’s pockets loaded down with nails, when we heard somebody coming into the framed and sheathed shell of the house. My brother put his finger to his lips–but I didn’t need to be warned to shush. Maybe they’d come and go, without knowing we were there. No such luck.

Our visitor was none other than our local constable. We knew him from the bicycle safety events at our school. My eyes widened! We’d been caught by the cops! He used his sternest voice to interrogate us about what we were doing in the new house. He lectured us about the dangers of new construction and the rules about trespassing. He made my brother unload his pockets of his pillaged treasure and then marched us out to the police car. There, with the two of us, a matched set of tow-headed blonds, seated side by side in the back seat, he asked me my name. Near tears, I blurted, “Alta Walters.” He nodded and turned to my brother, “And you, young man, what is your name?” My brother didn’t miss a beat– “Dave Cadieux.”*

My jaw dropped in shock. I don’t know how the officer kept a straight face. He proceeded to drive us to our crescent, and drop us off, warning that if we were caught again, he’d have to speak to our parents.

*Dave was my brother’s friend and our next door neighbor.

But just as cuddly.

In addition to its ‘how-to’ features, this blog documents the evolution of a Northern Michigan fence. Who knew?

Once we’d settled, but before we moved in, we identified the area where we wanted the garden and dooryard orchard. Initially, we’d envisioned it further up the hill, only to realize that the upper area of the property is shaded by the hill, all afternoon. So we selected a sunny patch further down. Then we put in a pretty standard fence–your basic t-post, four foot fence. (Initially it was electrified for the bees, but later we moved them up the hill.) Then we planted our trees.

Then the deer came, jumped the fence and ate the tops off of all our baby trees. Sigh.   We pruned as best we could to salvage them and put a wobbly extension on the fence (as well as a run of rabbit proof fencing along the bottom.) We were surprised that there wasn’t some off-the-shelf fence-extension kit available at the big box stores. Our wobbly extension (sticks and twine held in place with zip ties) lasted a couple years, before we had to redo it. The fruit trees survived, and then thrived.

Then, this year, the fence extension started to fall again. The damn deer noted it immediately, hopped it (tearing it down even more) and did a little of their own winter pruning on the trees again. The good news was that, this time, the trees are much bigger, and the damage far less threatening to the survival of the orchard.

So, this time, Rick wanted a sturdier fence extension, and one that was clearly visible to the deer, so they wouldn’t get hung up in it, tearing it down with them. It turned out pretty well. This is the result.

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For those who might need to fortify their own fences, he used PVC pipe parts (a reducer that capped the t-post, then a short length of extension and a cap. Most of the pipe we had leftover from plumbing the house. We used some of the former electric fence tape, because we already had it, and it’s visible. You could also use clothes line (and drill it instead of cutting slots for the tape.) We’re now back up to the height which has previously been successful in dissuading the deer–only this is much sturdier, and hopefully will last longer. If the UV starts to erode the pipe, we’ll paint it, but for now the bright white suits our purposes.

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With the house and barn built (at least usable, if not completely finished), this is the year we want to focus on the garden. With the new fence in place, our efforts will not be in vain.

I suppose it would have been easier, had we known back at the beginning that we needed to protect the garden from leaping deer as well as hopping bunnies, but if we knew then, what we know now, we might have been daunted from even starting.