Archives for category: agriculture

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We’re ebbing towards the end of the rose chafer season. Part of me wants to claim at least a partial victory. Not that we didn’t suffer losses; we did. But we appear to be making progress in our annual war with them. Unlike last year, no trees were completely defoliated. That’s an improvement. And, we discovered that intense garlic spray can go a long way in protecting the trees. Next year, we’ll spray earlier, to give the orchard advance protection. It doesn’t eliminate them, but it appears to limit their numbers.

But it’s difficult to truly ‘know’ if we are making progress. We are only one small orchard. The main part of the orchard has only a dozen trees–none of them the same variety. Our tree mix is a complicated blend of what we like, what will grow here, what is needed for pollinating each variety, and timing, what will provide harvesting throughout the season. There is no way to do any kind of an A/B comparison, no control group, no double blind. Beyond that are the imponderable intangibles–weather and whatever other factors dictate the rose chafers’ numbers from year to year. We can only do what we can. And then there’s the open question of climate change–will it make insect issues better or worse? I even wonder if my manual efforts (daily bug squishing) could make a difference from year to year in the population. After all, through the season I am killing thousands of rose chafers. Does that play forward into the next year’s numbers? There’s no way to know.

One longs for the rigors of true science: single factor differences and the ability to identify true cause and effect. Sigh. It’s that Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” I have my own version, “TDMV.” Too Damn Many Variables. It’s the answer to so many of life’s current vexing issues. We just have to do the best we can, and recognize that we have no control.

On nice mornings, I like to take my coffee into the garden and check on progress. That can mean: checking vegetable growth; looking to see what seeds are up; pulling a few knapweeds that have poked up; and squishing any caterpillars or rose chafers that come to my attention. Generally, my quest is to nip any trouble in the bud, but mostly, it’s nice to enjoy some early morning sun in the garden.

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A lovely morning stroll.

 

This morning was an exception. Someone had invaded. Someone who digs. Now, our garden has just been put in. Most of the beds are still seeds, just poking their noses out of the soil. So our intruder was not interested in our plants–it’s interested in grubs or worms in the soil.

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Wait! What’s this?

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Or this?

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Yikes! Or this!

 

Yesterday we did our annual orchard treatment with fish emulsion. Even though we flushed the surface afterwards with clear water–a fish scented garden was probably a strong attraction. That critter tried to dig under every orchard tree. Each tree has a mulch of tree bark, under which there’s some strong landscape cloth. So the intruder didn’t get very far, and certainly never found the fish for which it was searching.

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What we’d like, to be sure, would be a clear set of prints. I suppose every detective dreams of that absolute perfect clue for identification. No such luck. It made a mess of things but even with a bunch of digging in fresh soil, not one good print. We did find the place where it dug under the fence. We can fortify that, but, really, if this becomes a regular event, it would be a lot of work to bury over 300 feet of reinforcing wire. I’m hoping that the interest in the garden is a ‘one-off’ event, inspired by the search for fish.

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Ah-ha! Where it dug through.

 

We have noticed digging around the property of late. Rick has been burying rodent remains in shallow graves…the products of the cats’ hunting exploits. We’d noted that some of them had been dug up again. We blamed the cats. Grave robbers! Then, two nights ago, someone dug up our poor dead cat…buried last December. That raised the bar significantly–both because the cat had been buried deeper, and because it was just too gross to think of the cats digging up cats. We re-interred what we could find and put heavy stones on the grave. Now that the fenced garden has been breached, we have to take action.

We’re thinking it’s probably a skunk. We’re not thrilled about it–or how to handle it. They’re nocturnal. We’re not. And I don’t know if we could even see it to shoot it. We could trap it…but who wants a skunk in a trap? And then what would we do with it?

So my morning’s peace is suddenly punctuated with questions marks. I’m hoping this is a passing phase, so we can go back to the regular pests…the ground squirrels, birds and bugs that attack the garden. At this point, I think I need more coffee.

 

Post Script: It’s not a skunk. The footprints, though obscured are too small. And there are areas of excavation that only a smaller animal could have done. Maybe a weasel? It’s a partial relief, with a skunk, I’d need to be worried about the bees. Now, if it’s a weasel, I’ll need to worry about the chickens. Sheesh.

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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.

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.

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Sorry for the poor photo–they didn’t like the big door open in the cold, and were not cooperative about posing.

At first blush, you might think it smacks of racism. But that’s ridiculous; they are, after all, chickens. But looking for the deeper meaning, there could be something equally sinister in play.

We keep chickens for the eggs. They are not pets. (Admittedly, though, we do get fond of them and their antics.) Originally, we had four chickens. You may recall that our neighbor’s dog ate one, leaving three. You’d think three would be enough.

Not all chickens lay an egg, every day. And, it turns out, in the absence of a rooster, some hens will ‘self-designate’ as the leader, and, with this elevated status, will not lay. We have such a self-important hen. (Though we try not to name our chickens, we call this one, Alpha.) One would think the solution would be to dispense with the narcissist chicken; but we’ve learned that another chicken is likely to just take her place. Better the devil you know….

So, this summer we obtained three more chickens. We have chicken selection parameters, they must be winter-hardy, dual use, and generally healthy. Our existing chickens are Chanteclers, a French-Canadian variety known for success in cold climates. Ours are Buff colored–easy to locate in the landscape–winter or summer. At the time we decided to expand our flock, I couldn’t find any Chanteclers, so we settled on Barnevelders, another heritage variety. The Barnevelders are beautiful, black and cinnamon colored, with a hint of iridescent green on their necks and heads. (I’m normally not impressed with ‘good-looking,’ but I have to admit, they’ve grown on me.)

You cannot introduce chickens easily. They have established pecking orders, and will fight with new chickens, and kill chicks. There’s a whole process to the merging of unfamiliar chickens. These Barnevelders were babies, so we set them up in their own coop, in an adjacent, fenced chicken pen.

Disaster struck. Some chicken ailment hit the babes. One day, one looked wobbly, then the next, two, dying within a day, leaving only one lonely chick! Chickens cannot thrive as solitary creatures. We were left with a dilemma–what to do with a very lonely solo chick, who had to be in quarantine for a week? She survived, and I drove back to my chicken-lady mentor/breeder, to fetch a replacement buddy. It all worked. The new chicken was a tad older and bigger, just what the lonely solo needed. They bonded immediately. And so we continued–hoping that we could combine the two flocks before the weather got really cold. (More chickens equals more body heat.)

We did all the right things. We started treating them, generously along the fence. Then, when they were accustomed to that, we opened the gate between the coops, for supervised visitation. They seemed to get along–without too much squabbling. When a particularly cold night was predicted, we waited for later in the day, and locked the Chanteclers out of their coop. To our relief, when evening fell, all the chickens retired for the night into the into the remaining, larger of the two coops. It seemed to go well. Or so we thought.

Then next morning we checked. The littlest chicken (the original survivor of the scourge)  was dead! Drowned in the water dish! Bastards! We felt terrible. Of course there’s the possibility that, drowsy, she fell in and drowned during the night. (Yeah, right.) Her buddy Barnevelder was nudging her–to get her back up. It broke our hearts.

What a conundrum! Obviously, the surviving Barnevelder was not safe with the other three. Neither would she be able to survive cold winter nights on her own. We needed to find the right chicken combination. It took a couple of tries, when finally we put Einstein (the Chantecler runt) together into the same coop as Big (the surviving Barnevelder). It’s a working match, black and buff.

It’s not about color. It’s about pecking order, and social standing within the flock. We are up against deeply ingrained genetic rules of socializing and tribalism. When it works, you’re looking at combinations that shelter and nurture each other. When it doesn’t, it’s ugly, fowl play and even murder.

We won’t try to mix the two groups until spring. Perhaps, with the added freedom of free-ranging, they’ll make it work. In a larger context, I read the news, shake my head, and wonder if we can.

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Usually, we don’t put the jackets on the bee hives until December. But we don’t usually have temperatures in the teens and a foot of snow until late December. (Okay–I’m exagerating with the foot of snow–we aren’t there yet–but we will be by tomorrow if the forecast is correct.)

There’s a sweet spot with winter bees, between 37 and 43 degrees Fahrenheit, at which it’s cool enough for them to be ‘semi-dormant,’ but warm enough not to make excessive demands on their stores of winter honey. Usually, at this time of year the hives stay ‘in the zone,’ without insulation.

Then as the winter catches its stride and cools, we suit up for the duration.

Usually.

According to the prognosticators, this is just a cold snap. They say December will be mild. But right now, the bees could use some extra help. So, today was a lovely day to do a little winterizing, in a light snowfall.

(If things seem a little out of order, yesterday I was gardening–in the snow–puting in bulbs for spring. It felt like, if I didn’t do it then, I wouldn’t get another chance until April. Those new gardens are now under seven inches–so maybe I was right.)

So much for usual in the weather department.

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There, snug for winter. (We have just the two hives populated this year.)

 

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It’s pretty, though.

 

I’ve Taken Up Smoking

I’d always avoided it before. Smoking seemed, well, filthy, and unfair. Instead, I’ve just girded myself for those high stress, even invasive, situations. Sometimes I used aroma therapy, a light mist of mint–it seemed calming. But not enough. So now I’m smoking.

We have two very large hives. We will probably split them before winter. Recent studies show that small to medium size hives fare better in over-wintering. These two hives have been enormously productive. Because we were busy building the barn, we just added additional supers when the bees filled things up. Now, the hives are so large, it’s become difficult to work the bees. Any hive can get pissy if you’re in it too long. With such large hives, it takes time just to get to the bottom on a simple inspection. So I’ve reverted to smoking.

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Smoke doesn’t calm the bees. It alarms and distracts them. Faced with smoke–the prospect of fire– the bees prepare for an emergency exit by gorging themselves on honey. Then, when the emergency turns out to be illusory, these gluttonous bees are too stuffed to move, or get back to work. Smoking bees costs you at least a full day of productivity. Think about how most Americans feel after Thanksgiving dinner. That’s what smoke does to bees.

One thing I learned recently is that the beekeeper can smoke him or herself. The bees avoid the smoke smell, so you can turn the smoker on your gloves or veil and make yourself an unattractive target–if a smoky one. It works.

We tested the bees for mites today–and found ourselves on the threshold for treatment.  Though we intend to split them, and add queens to the newly formed hives (as it’s too late in the season for them to make their own and still get ready for winter), we don’t want to do mite treatment on the new queens. So, we’ll use Mite-Away strips this week, and split them next week. We are fortunate that a local beekeeper is breeding queens and has Michigan-hardy, mated, queens available now.

So that’s the plan. I’ll be glad when it’s done. The resulting smaller hives won’t need so much smoking and both we, and the bees, will be happier for that.

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Stone Soup Barn

We wanted a barn. Our county does not require a permit to build a barn…so long as it is used solely for agricultural purposes. (So tight is the grip of the cherry farmers on the local economy.) Of course, when I went in to the Building Permit office to confirm and clarify, I let the cat out of the bag. She asked if I would be storing personal property in the barn. Was it a trick question? After all, aren’t all the things we own ‘personal property?’ I described our intended use–to house the tractor, and implements, all the bee equipment, gardening tools, orchard equipment–you know, a barn. We are tired of looking at all this stuff laying about the yard, under tarps. She said that that would be okay, so long as we didn’t put, say, a personal vehicle, like a car, in there.

Of course we’re going to put the car in there! Don’t they know we get 150 to 180 inches of snow a year?

And the “barn” started its evolution. Because, suddenly, we weren’t building a barn. We were now building a “DURG.” (Detached Unfinished Residential Garage.) And, not only was a permit required, but the structure was going to be subjected to all the standard building code requirements of any structure. We were a little perturbed by the name change. It doesn’t have the same ring to it as ‘a barn.’  A rose is a rose is a rose… A DURG by any other name…

We designed it. We first estimated the square footage needed for all the farm crap we needed to store, and, of course, the car, and some space for a woodshop, and made that the first floor. Since our property has very little flat land, we knew we’d be burying part of that lower floor into the hill, and that the upper part of the structure would be “first floor”, out the back. Since we had to dig it anyway, we decided to put in a root cellar off the back of the woodshop, buried into the hill. The rest was just a matter of building a strong structure over the needed downstairs, barn area. We opted for a “truss” structure for the gambrel roof. The truss specifications exceeded code requirements because we never EVER wanted to have to shovel snow off the roof–we’re too old for that crap. Windows we’re put in to provide as much natural light as practicable.

Once you start building, projects have a way of taking on a life of their own. Of course, this happened with our barn. We tried to buy as much of the needed materials from craigslist, as we could. Not only did we save money that way, we got unique and/or re-cycled materials that gave the project its own flavor. We did this with the house–much to our delight. That’s the stone-soup part of it. Things turn up, at the right time, to solve problems and meet needs we didn’t even contemplate in the beginning. Michigan is a timber state. In the backwoods, there are any number of guys with rickety sawmill operations, out cutting and milling wood. Buying from these locals fuels the local economy and frees us from handing hard earned cash over to the big box stores. We used as much local materials as we could scrounge. We also had recycled material left over from the house project, in particular cedar-shake shingles that had been overstock on someone’s custom home. So for the barn (DURG) we had to pull all these things together. To our great luck, it just kept getting better. There were problems and delays. What was supposed to be finished before winter… wasn’t. Our build crew had a number of health issues. And, things got way more expensive than we’d planned. But, we kept plugging along. In all, it took a full year (and it is, by DURG definition, unfinished on the inside.)

At some point, Rick and I, separately, reached the conclusion that the cedar shingled, gable-end needed something, other than the windows, to break up the expanse. Without mentioning it, he started looking into a faux “hayloft door,” to solve the problem. Quietly, I looked into the idea of putting up a “Barn Quilt” square.

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The Barn Quilt

The Barn Quilt Project has spread widely in agricultural areas. The original Barn Quilt was put up as a tribute to the creative efforts of a particular farm wife–but the idea of combining rural craft arts with the blank canvas of barn walls caught on. It’s a subtle, elegant way to acknowledge some of the beauties of rural and agricultural living.

One day, Rick approached me, gingerly, with some preliminary drawings of his faux loft door. He was well aware of my history of disdain for all things faux. I saw in a flash what he was trying to do–and confessed my own research into the possibility of a barn quilt. I’d been afraid to bring it up, because I was just a little self-conscious of the idea of ‘decorating’ a barn. I googled “barn quilt” and showed him some of the images. He became an instant recruit.

Most barn quilts are painted on a board that is then attached to the barn wall, but we wanted ours to be more in keeping with the other rustic materials we’d already used for the project. In particular, we scored a great deal on some 2 X 12, t&g siding, with just the slightest whisper of a log look, for a rustic feel that complemented the house. So our barn quilt is stained triangles of white cedar, “stitched” together, like a quilt. We love it.

We have a few things left to do on the barn’s exterior ― install the garage doors, a few small trim pieces, and some final staining. But we’ve finally reached the point where we can think of things to do in it, instead of to it. It’s a relief. After five years of building the house and DURG, we are a bit worn. It’s time to put our energies into the orchard, the garden, and the chickens. Finally though, we have completed the underpinnings to our life plan. It’s a relief. In some ways, things turned out better than we imagined. And in others–we’re just beginning the imagining process for what comes next. (Woodshed… greenhouse…)

rose chafer

It’s the same every year. Except this year. The first week of June brings verdant growth in the garden. And, it brings rose chafers. Rose chafers can be the bane of a gardener’s dreams. My crazy neighbor blamed me and my long vacant property for her rose chafer woes. I thought she was nuts.*

In my first years here, I didn’t know what they were. I had to do research to identify and find defenses to these voracious pests. It’s best to know your enemy. Rose chafers, true to their name, love rose plants–their leaves and their tender, delicious petals. I resolved early to avoid planting roses. (The deer love them, too.) Roses were definitely not worth the headache. Unfortunately for us, rose chafers thrive in sandy grassy meadows and their tastes are not limited to roses. The female digs into the sand to lay her eggs, which hatch into larvae and develop, eating roots. They emerge in June, as adults–ready to chow down on your precious leaves, mate, and start the whole cycle over again.

In my case, the garden plants are not too badly targeted–it’s in the orchard where I see the damage. Initially, I convinced myself that ‘handpicking,’ the organic gardener’s first line of defense, would be adequate. I mean, how bad could it be? They’re just bugs, and their entire life cycle happens in a scant three to four weeks. Left unchecked, rose chafers (who are leaf-suckers) can skeletonize a tree’s leaves. Not good. But moderate predation is not a bad thing…over time, a tree will make its leaves more bitter, to fend off the attackers.

Handpicking could be a full time job. These little buggers have wings–and even if you could kill every one in the orchard, new ones will fly right in to replace them. Not that I didn’t try. I’d go out, several times a day and squish every rose chafer I could reach (another limitation on hand picking.) This could easily average 30 to 50 bugs per tree, with the plum trees being most heavily afflicted. They love those plums. Last year, my sister visited. She was horrified that I was squashing the bugs in my bare hands! Gross! But then she returned home and found them eating the flowers in her garden and promptly stepped up to her full potential as a cold-blooded rose chafer killer.

There are some built-in killing efficiencies, tied to the bugs’ short lifespan and behaviors. In their adult form, rose chafers have only two objectives: breeding and eating. More often than not, they do both, simultaneously. That way, I can kill them in ‘the act,’ which adds the satisfaction that you’re eliminating the next generation at the same time. I’m not sure if it speaks to their biological imperative, or to the males’ ineptitude as lovers, but the females don’t even stop munching when mounted. I can almost hear them, “Whatever…just don’t interrupt my meal.” Since it’s the munching that causes the damage, I wish their romantic efforts were more of a distraction.

There are alternatives–everyone is enamored of pheromone traps. They are non-toxic and draw their victims in with floral and sex attractive fragrances. They certainly are effective on yellow jackets and hornets. But, the downside of pheromone traps in an orchard setting is that they may actually bring the pests in droves. (I suppose it’d be good if you could put the traps in the neighbor’s yard, far from your own precious plants.) I read that sometimes the traps would be so effective, that you’d have difficulty disposing of the buckets of insects attracted. Yuck. I’d read that, in some cases, netting could be necessary. I checked the priced on agricultural netting fabric and balked. Those tree nets could run $60.00 per tree! So I reverted to the organic gardener’s second line of defense, soap spray.

You simply mix a couple of teaspoons of liquid dish detergent and water into a standard hand pump sprayer. To be effective, you need to get the bug pretty drenched. I’ve become an expert marksman with the sprayer. I can blast the little bastards right out of the air, as they try to land on my trees. This method has some of the same disadvantages as handpicking–you have to stay on top of it, several times a day. But it’s much faster, so, in an average situation, you can keep ahead of the chafer damage.

This is not an average year. In desperation, I started checking online to see if others were experiencing similar plights. Rose chafers are also pests to grape farmers. Here in Leelanau County, we have a growing wine industry. The MSU (Michigan’s Ag University)    site indicated that one or two rose chafers per branch was a tolerable level. But this year, Leelanau grape growers have reported up to 200 insects per branch! Not surprisingly, many are reaching for toxic pesticides. Not me.  My poor plum trees are not that infested, but I’m not keeping up with the damage. I’ve already given up on getting an actual crop–at this point my objective is to save the plum trees. (The rose chafers have only a passing interest in the apple trees–and no interest whatsoever in the pears.) There I am, up to four times a day, blasting away with my soap spray.

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It won’t go on forever. Just until the end of the season (three or four weeks), or until the nets arrive…whichever comes first.

 

*Well, she is nuts. But there’s some minimal truth to what she says. Were we to cultivate the entire field, it would disturb the sand–and the eggs and larvae. So, by leaving it natural as habitat, we are contributing to the rose chafer’s success.

 

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The Pips

It’s not that I hate dogs. I don’t. I’m not a dog person, largely because I am allergic to them. I’m probably allergic because I was mauled by a cocker spaniel as a tiny child, which naturally gave me a healthy respect for bad dogs, and no respect for bad-dog-owners.

Because that’s the real problem, isn’t it? Bad dog owners. People who think their dogs are just fine, and don’t understand that it’s up to them to keep their dogs in check.

For several years we’ve had issues with a neighbor about her dogs. They aren’t malevolent, but she has never trained them. She believes that her dogs should be allowed to run and bark all night. She says she’s doing the neighborhood a favor to let her dogs “run deer.” She bemoans the loss of the good old days, when one let one’s dogs run loose without recriminations.

The neighborhood does not agree. Despite efforts to deal with her personally (to no avail) almost every neighbor in a half mile radius has had her cited. Her dogs bark incessantly. Her dogs chase cars and bicyclists. They’ve been known to menace pedestrians. Her dogs spook the deer at one neighbor’s hunting camp. She once complained to me that, if she kept the dogs on her yard all the time, there was too much clean-up to do. (Read, I prefer if my dogs crap in your yard.) So you see, it’s not really the fault of the dogs.

A couple of years ago I had a problem because one of her dogs took an interest in digging up my freshly planted orchard trees. After all, the soil was freshly worked and made for easy digging. I informed her that if I caught the dog digging on my property (which is literally pockmarked with its regular digging efforts), I would call the Sheriff. I did, and did. I also told her that, since she was enamored of “the old days of dogs running free,” she should well remember that in those old days, a loose dog doing agricultural damage was usually shot on the spot.

My neighbor didn’t appreciate my straight forward approach. And that was all before Blondie.

You may recall that last year we got chickens. We named them, based on recognizable features they had as chicks. Only one, Blondie, retained her chick coloration into adulthood, so we had Blondie and “the chickens.” I know, it sounds like a 90s punk band.

Blondie was an excitable and flighty chicken. She would try to take to the air with the slightest provocation–a person approaching with treats, a crow overhead. But she lived, safely we thought, behind a six foot fence. Not that chickens cannot fly, they can, and do. But chickens are like bumblebees–curiously designed when it comes to sustained flight. All of Blondie’s impulsive bolts for freedom ended when she hit the fence.

Late one afternoon, I decided to check the coop for eggs. Winter egg production is sporadic anyway, and if you’re not timely, the eggs will freeze. Approaching the chicken yard, I was dismayed by the sight of countless dog prints in the snow, endlessly circling the fence. Apparently those dogs had been harassing the chickens the night before. I collected the one egg, and then looked around to see how the chickens had fared. There were only three chickens. It was like the Pips, without Gladys.

I checked all around the fence–no Blondie, only feathers. I knew. It was getting dark, so my sleuthing would have to wait until morning.

Saturday morning, bright and early, I revisited the scene of the crime. Obviously the intensity of the dogs’ engagement had set Blondie airborne. For the first, and last time, Blondie was free. Direct into the mouth of the waiting dog. I checked the tracks (against my handy-dandy little animal track identification chart. Clearly dogs, not coyotes. I followed the feather-trail, which was clearly limited to one set of dog tracks, as it made a beeline for my neighbor’s property. The trail ended at the road, separating the two parcels. On her side, I found no feathers. There were many human footprints in the snow, though–and my neighbor is not usually one to wander around outdoors in the winter. I surmised that she’d cleaned up the feathers. My evidence was, at best, circumstantial.

After the weekend, I called Animal Control. They know us–after all we’ve been dealing with them over the dogs for years. I recounted my story and my observations. As I’d suspected, they could not issue a citation based on anything other than an eyewitness account. (Really? Don’t they know the research on how flawed eyewitnesses can be?) I warned that if I saw either dog near my chickens, I would just shoot it, as is my right.

Our friendly Animal Control Officer implored me not to take justice into my own hands. “Use the system,” he said. “It’s better for the neighborhood.” I’m not sure about that. My neighbors might arrange a hero’s parade if I dispatched those dogs. Still, I want to work with them. So, since then, we’ve been watching. If we see the dogs on our property, we call it in.

And such was the case this week. The snow is melting, giving the critters of the world easier access. Rick looked out one morning and saw the dogs on the property. He called Animal Control. When the officer arrived, he took the complaint. He also acknowledged that the day Blondie last flew the coop, there’d been a welfare check on my neighbor. In that report, the Deputy had noted that there was a dead chicken in her yard, which he pointed out to her. I was right. She’d cleaned up the evidence. After taking our report, the Officer headed across the way to talk to the neighbor. I yelled after him, “Tell her the chicken’s name was Blondie.”

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I used to prune in the absolute dead of winter. The trees were fully dormant and the pruning wounds would dry and heal over before spring’s sap run. But I read an article about “killing frosts” in the spring. Not that they killed the trees, but that the frost either killed the blossoms, or the trees would bloom when it was still too cold for the bees to pollinate.

This is a very real issue with our new climate uncertainties. Not that all of the elements of seasons aren’t present, but that they might not occur ‘in concert.’ Over the millennia, plants and animals everywhere have developed an elegant and intricate dance, specific to region. The robins arrive just as the snow departs. The swallows of Capistrano arrive just in time for the hatching of their insect dinners. But what happens, if the storks arrive and dinner is not on the table? I saw an internet post celebrating the arrival of our first robins here, but when I look out the window, there’s still at least a foot of snow on the ground. Where will those early arrivers get their worms?

Every species has its own internal clock. Some are triggered by temperature. Some are triggered by the angle of the sun. None, so far as I know, are set in motion by the Weather Channel’s debates over the American or European Model of prognostication. Here, in Leelanau, we are only beginning to learn the fancy steps to our dance–just as the local farmers and gardeners are scratching their heads about changes.

According to the pruning article, one way to protect against killing frosts is to prune a little later–when still dormant, but closer to when the sap begins to run. When the tree is pruned, it takes some time for it to adjust and re-assign the hormonal signals in the branch’s ‘lead buds.’ Timed right, this will give you a slight delay in budding, thus reducing the risk of crop losses due to frost. It may also put your fruit at more risk from insects…but you have to weigh the risk of no crop or one that requires defending.

I have ordered new pruning shears. Many years ago, I owned a fine set of Felco pruners, but that was a lifetime ago. In the meantime I’ve made do with a cheapie set, from the local hardware. They were hard on my hands, and hard on the trees. Though our trees are still small, our orchards are expanding. It’s time.

It coincided with the loss of the crappy pruners. I’ve looked everywhere, to no avail. So I’ve ordered a replacement pair of Felco’s and as soon as they arrive, I’ll get busy with the pruning. Yesterday felt like spring, but today it’s snowing again. I’m sure that I’m still within a reasonable dormant pruning window.

I have always loved pruning. It makes me a part of that intricately timed dance. Orchard trees are bred for care and do better when pruned and managed. This chore is a reminder that even when the plant world is asleep under its blanket of snow, its clock is ticking. Spring is coming. There’s work to be done.

 

1Last week we had to buy honey. Next week, we will run out of potatoes. Last summer’s onion harvest was non-existent. And, in the late fall, I didn’t realize that our new raised beds would freeze earlier than if things had been traditionally planted, in the ground. Fully half of the carrots and beets were solidly frozen in place. We are too new at this to know whether they can be salvaged when the bed thaws. Were we really homesteading, any one of these errors could have spelled a hungry winter.

The honey shortfall isn’t as grim as it sounds. Unlike most, we are spring harvesters. We leave the honey in the hive for the overwintering bees. Spring is the best time to determine what was “extra.” The only downside of our harvest timing, is that we have to watch that we get there, before the spring-cranky bears do. To cover our shortage we bought honey from our local co-op, produced by a guy we know. There’s cheaper honey out there–but you have to wonder. Honey is one of the most adulterated, and frequently counterfeited, agricultural products. Often, what you get in the stores is mixed with high fructose corn syrup. I’d rather buy from a guy I know and trust.

We’ll get better over time. We’ll improve our sorry soils and we’ll learn the ins and outs of our season. Our fruit trees will mature and provide a larger yield. We plan to make a solar dehydrator, but with a grand total of 41 apples–most of which we scarfed up as soon as they were ripe–that may be premature. Between dehydrating, freezing, root-cellaring and canning, in a couple of years, we’ll make it through the winter without so many trips to town. In the meantime, the bulk of our food is still store bought.

Store bought. The impact of that expression has shifted throughout my life. When we were kids and my mother was stretching each dollar, she baked all our bread and goodies. We picked berries and canned all of our jam, apple sauce and winter fruit. Wouldn’t you know that, in the face of fresh baked and homemade, there was a part of us that longed for Oreos and Wonderbread…like the other kids had. We wanted store bought.

My older sisters made all of their clothing–beautifully and impeccably tailored. (I didn’t share that particular talent.) Their primary objective was to make something so perfect that others would not know that it was hand-made. Their skills turned baby-sitting money into fashion. We all learned to knit, and crochet. These were basic, life-skills.

My mother was a gifted and prize-winning potter. She made all of our dishes. I remember wishing that those plates would stack neatly in the cupboard, like at other people’s homes.

And, again to be frugal, my father learned woodworking and built all of our furniture. It was simple and elegant. Or, we bought “rescue antiques” and refinished them back to their former glory. Our home looked nothing like the store bought stuff in our friends’ homes. I’m sure we didn’t fully appreciate it then, that we enjoyed an aesthetic unavailable in the “normal” world. Our family hung with odd people, artists and weavers, potters and do-it-yourselfers. Even when surrounded by all that talent, to us kids back then, there was still an appeal to the quick and easy consumerism we saw around us.

And I’ve spent my entire adult life working my way back to the basic, and frugal elegance our family enjoyed when I was a kid. I’m still rescuing antiques and materials. Rick and I built this house to our own tastes and use. I don’t know if others would see, or appreciate, the things in which we take satisfaction. You see, I have abandoned the quest for store bought.

 

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Snow Forts for Chickens

I’m new to chickens. I did live on a chicken farm for seven years–but I was not responsible for the chickens. And, in Two Rock, they don’t really have winter. Here we have winter, and it’s a tad early this year. If not early, I’d suggest that it is earnest. We have a solid 6 inches–and that’s after the first two or three melted immediately upon landfall. It’s not when snow first falls that makes for winter; it’s when it sticks.

Anyway, three of the four chickens are reluctant in snow. The fourth has been roosting all over the chicken pen. We’re not sure if she’s a fan of winter, or if the other chickens are giving her the cold shoulder. The chicken coop stands up on legs. Before the snow fell, the chickens liked to hang out under the coop–out of the sun or rain. Without that breezeway, the chicken territory gets pretty small if the chickens won’t do snow.

So far, we haven’t heated the coop. We’re contemplating a low wattage bulb for heat and light (so as to encourage egg laying.) But when we open the coop doors for feeding, it’s not really cold in there. Or so it seems.

Today was the first day that the chickens’ water was frozen solid. I’ve ordered a thermostatically controlled water dish–and now I’m even more anxiously awaiting its arrival. In the meantime, I’ll have to be more dilligent about making sure they have fresh water.

I’m not sure if this is a normal Northern chicken strategy, but today I built them a snow fort. The snow is the perfect consistency for snowmen, or fort building. So I built walls along the edge of the coop–essentially banking it in to create a snow wall. This will keep the area under the coop clear–and warmer. It’ll also help keep the coop itself warmer.

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Thus far, it’s a complete success. I put the chicken scraps under there and two chickens followed those treats into the fort. They haven’t left yet. The other two chickens, upstairs, are making a racket, redistributing their fresh bedding. Chicken Nirvana. I don’t think this will keep the water from freezing, but it seems to be making for happy chickens. Has anyone else out there built snow forts for chickens?

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First, you have the place. You’ve looked at it, in all four seasons. You note the light, the winds, and the soil. You prepare it, deeply digging in nutrients and organic matter. Then you have to pick the candidate–what tree will grow there? An apple? To be ripe in what time frame? To be pollinated by what other apple? What kind of apple–eating, canning, cooking? An apple to withstand the season you know, an apple to withstand what the season may be in the future. An apple to be strong against pests and diseases. And you read the description of the taste of that apple. There is nothing so empty, so dry,  as a written description of the taste of something.

You do the process, over and over, for each tree in the orchard. It can take weeks of research. Not only do the selections have to meet your needs and your tastes, they have to work together in the orchard. You want to stretch your various harvests to match your available time. It wouldn’t do for everything to come ripe all at once. They have to be pollinating partners. They have to work as a team.

Then you plant. And feed. And water. And wait. Every year you tend and prune, until your trees become like pets. You love them for what they are, and in the meantime, you’ve almost forgotten the objective of raising fruit. You respond to their emergencies. You address their problems. You worry over them through the long winters. You admire their growth and ever-increasing sturdiness.

Then, one summer, there are apples. The first of the dooryard orchard trees to come to fruit. You watch all season, waiting for them to be ripe. Waiting to sample the results of all this effort, fearing that after all this, the fruit could be… somehow wanting.

Ah! It’s the birds who alert you that the fruit is ready! And if you don’t move fast–the birds will get them all! Still, it’s a good sign. The birds love the apples! You pick one and take a bite. Your first bite.

And it’s incredible. It bursts with flavor. It is a celebration of summer–this early season eating apple. Pristine! Who knew you could be so great?

It’s still a small tree, with not so many apples. Yet, every day you enjoy another, and another. Soon they’ll be all eaten. But we have the memory of this first success to carry us forward with confidence. This wonderful little apple tree will now become part of our every August. This is the earliest Thanksgiving I’ve ever celebrated.

 

 

Just Us Chickens

A.V. Walters

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I’m not one much given to ‘cute.’ Never have been. We got chickens because we prefer the taste of fresh eggs, and we like to be able to ensure the quality of the food we eat. Our chicks eat organic.

I resisted the idea of naming them. However, they have earned descriptives–if only because we need to be able to identify them in conversation. When they first arrived, there were two very small chicks and two larger chicks. Then, one of the small chicks (whom we identified as “Yellow-head”) had a burst of development. She is now the largest. The other smaller chick is still well behind all of the others, both in size and feather development. Despite being the runt, she’s no dummy, and has strategies for compensating for her size. I’ve been calling her Einstein. The middle two have been neck and neck in their growth–and sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart. One walks taller–and so I refer to her as ‘Upright,’ while the remaining mid-sized chick moves about with a sort of nervous, crouched, posture. Perhaps it’s wrong, but I call her ‘McNugget.”

My sister has chickens. They have them for the eggs–and because the spent chicken litter is a great way to speed your compost and build high quality soils. But her chickens are pets. They have proper names. She fully speaks chicken.

Chicks are a lot of work. They are filthy little creatures. I should have remembered from when we raised emu chicks, but I am at a loss to understand how an animal that will spend hours preening its feathers will also shit in its food bowl. Perhaps it’d be easier if the “cute” factor resonated for me. Oh well. After just two weeks, they’re looking moth-eaten, and teenage scruffy. They not fuzz-balls anymore, but neither do they have their full plumage. Only a mother hen (type) would find them attractive at this point. They are, however, psychologically interesting.

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Even at this stage, they clearly demonstrate the concept of “pecking order.” Yellow-head is the dominant and lets them all know that she’s in charge. After the first week we gave them a perch. It belongs to her, the queen of the roost. She won’t let anyone else on it. The others get it. They stay on the floor–except for the occasional hop up to try it out–when Yellow-head is asleep.

At first, the three larger birds would crowd Einstein out of food bowl access. Now she just pushes in between them. And if the rest are asleep, Einstein takes advantage and fills up when there’s no competition. I don’t know if this is intelligence, or just survival. Einstein does not challenge the pecking order. Nor does she spend much of her time socializing–grooming or cuddling together for naps. The two middle sycophants are forever nestling together, grooming each other or Yellow-head. That must be chicken bonding. So far I don’t see any outright pecking of the little one–though I’m watching for it. Chickens can be vicious. Maybe she can continue evasive maneuvers and avoid that particular bit of chicken ugly.

Yesterday we moved them from the basement to their coop. They’d outgrown their cardboard box. Seeing them in larger digs is a relief–they look much better. Relief from overcrowding seems to have minimized aggressive behaviors.

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Watching their interactions reminds me of our current social order. As a species, we need to move beyond bullying and ass-kissing. We need to foster resilience, independence and courage. As much as I’m impressed with little Einstein, it isn’t enough to keep your head down and mind your own affairs. We need to stand up for our convictions. Maybe we can find strength together. Otherwise, we’re just a bunch of chickens.

I Win!
A.V. Walters–
There’s been a running, albeit subliminal competition around here, regarding weeds. Rick and I each have a target-weed, a weed that, in our minds, is the worst weed. It won’t be a surprise to anyone following this blog that my nomination for the most evil weed is spotted knapweed. Rick, on the other hand, has long held out for a weed we’ve encountered before, one we’ve always called “choke weed.”
I am among the first to admit that choke weed is a worthy opponent. It is wildly invasive and opportunistic. But, you see, I’d done my research on the knapweed, aka knotweed, aka star thistle. Spotted knapweed is evil in so many ways: it out-competes the natives by poisoning the soil around it, for up to three years (both to seed germination and to neighboring plants): its water storing, tuberous roots steal all the available water; it propagates both via runners and seeds (and its seeds are viable in the ground for up to seven years); and, if you pull it, any part of the root left in the soil can re-develop into a new, healthy plant. It is so toxic, to other plants, you cannot safely compost its remains–or the resulting compost will carry the toxins back into the garden. As far as I can tell, nothing eats it. In my books, knapweed has a corner on evil plant hegemony.
Rick’s pick seems to run hand-in-hand with the knapweed. They manage to co-exist in some kind of evil pact — choke weed isn’t bothered too much by knapweed’s evil ways. I’d be talking conspiracy here, if I didn’t know that that would paint me as some kind of a weed nut. But, since we didn’t actually know the choke weed’s real name, and modus operandi, we had no way to actually judge which of the contenders was the worst.
Not that we don’t respect each other’s opinions in the garden, but we did have a bit of a schism in terms of weeding priorities. Schism is an ugly word, with an ugly history. And yet, there it was. While playing lip-service to the noxious qualities of each other’s weed of the day, really, we mostly spent our weeding energies on our own respective weeds.
Finally, I broke down and did the research. Rick’s choke weed is commonly known as red sorel. It’s an invasive in it’s own right — again, spreading aggressively both by runner and seed. Like knapweed, it is deceptively attractive in its own way. And, left in the ground, any part of its runner-like rhizome will generate new red sorel plants. And it will out-compete and choke out native plants or garden plants. But it doesn’t hold a candle to knapweed’s toxic legacy. 
I win.
Lucky me, eh?
I suppose the good news is that this information has re-animated both of us in our eradication quests. Both of these invasive weeds are worthy of our directed intentions. At least on this, we can both agree. We will prevail. (Well, at least in our dreams.)

Spring, Not for the Faint of Heart–

A.V. Walters–

We celebrated today. The trees are in. It’s a little late, but then, spring was late. My hands are rough and raw and I ache, but all 100 trees are happily in their new homes. Once the trees arrive, we drop nearly everything to get them in the ground. The hurry is twofold; to minimize the stress on the baby trees, and to get them in the ground before the bugs arrive. I’d post a picture, but 100 baby trees spread over many acres doesn’t present well.

We put 50 bass trees into the forest, this season. The ash are almost all dead now–victims of the Emerald Ash Borer–though many remain standing. The beech trees are dying, too–beech bark disease. Beech Bark Disease is the result of an introduced insect, beech scale, combined with one of two native fungal infections. It takes both the insect, and the fungus to kill the trees. In the past few years the disease has been making its way west, and it’s estimated that Michigan will lose over 90 per cent of its beech trees. Rick and I have forest panic. We are desperate to plant our way ahead of the devastation. Though the insect involved in beech bark disease was introduced into Nova Scotia almost a hundred years ago, its impact here is recent. And fast. We feel we have no choice but to keep planting. The bass trees are a favorite of the bees, so it was an easy choice.

This year, spring came so late that the sellers (catalog and the Soil Conservation District) all had to delay their tree deliveries. You cannot plant in the snow. We had two major snow storms in April, leaving us knee deep in the white stuff at mid-month. It was the first time I saw people angry about the snow. Our local police blotter told of a woman  who reported a man on her block who was yelling and cursing. When the police arrived, the guy was surprised, and embarrassed. He’d been shoveling, yet again, and he was just venting. A lot of people felt that way.

I had a trip planned–to go downstate with my mum. Rick and I planted as many trees as we could–about seventy of them, before I had to leave. Rick heeled in the rest until my return, and now those are planted, too. Though Spring is late, the bugs are on time–and the past two days of planting were challenging. Black flies don’t care that the trees must be planted…they just want a bite of you, swarms of them all want a bite of you.

Now that the trees are in, we can concentrate on getting the bees ready. We are moving our bee yard up the hill, into the pines. That way they’ll be far from incidental human contact and out of sight. It’ll be cooler in the summer. There’s always a light breeze up there, and they’ll be partially shaded. Hot bees are not happy bees. Rick has already put the new fence up, and tomorrow I’ll sort through all the bee stuff and ready the hives. By the weekend the bees will be installed in their new digs.

In the meantime, we are starting to get the garden ready. That’ll be another few weeks of work. It will be interrupted, though, because I found a great craigslist deal–on blackberries. We want to put in a long hedge of blackberries to shield us from the cornfield on our south side. Blackberries grow fast (sometimes too fast) and they’ll give us a good wind break. So, next Monday we’ll pick up 200 blackberry plants and get those in, before returning to the garden project. The bees will love them.

It’s Spring. What can I say? It’s not for the faint of heart.

It’s almost as though those guests, after a lovely visit, had their car break down in the driveway on their way out. Back in, they lumber–hauling in their baggage. And then the wait–after everything worth saying was already said in the visit-in-chief.

Winter has returned. Just when I was about to start cleaning up the garden. Just when I was about to start digging, and prepping, the holes for the hundred or so trees I’ve ordered. Spring has a short window when the big eyes of winter have been ordering from the nurseries. We went off for a visit “up north” for Easter and when we came back, winter followed us home. Now, with a fresh coat of eight inches of white on the landscape and a polar vortex at the door, I’m having to re-think my Spring schedule.

It’s not that I don’t like winter. I revel in it. It’s beautiful. I don’t mind the cold and I don’t even mind shoveling snow. But, everything has its time, and it’s time for Winter to move along.

Once again, it’s that unstable-climate-change-thing to blame. Erratic warm temperatures in the arctic have destabilized the jet stream again, sending frigid air down to invade our Spring. It’s supposed to hit Washington D.C. hard.

Good.

Maybe a dose of sub-zero in April is just the ticket to wake up all those politicos. How’s that for your cherry festival, eh?

It won’t disrupt our cherries, or most anything else. Our orchards hadn’t yet made strides into Spring. The ground is still frozen–and will be, now, for another couple of weeks. (Though, I’m sure the cherry farmers will find cause to whine.) It’s time to count our blessings. We’ll just throw another log on the fire and revise our plans. I just hope things thaw by mid-April, when my five score trees are scheduled to arrive.

Star Thistle.

A.V. Walters–

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“Star Thistle”

See the lovely fields of purple flowers, rippling in the wind. Taste the delicate flavors, the floral back-notes in the honey from these “local” fields.

The real name for this heralded bloom is spotted knapweed, and it’s no local. Conservationists call it an invasive species, originally from Eastern Europe. Once it gets its roots into your soils, it never lets go. Nobody talks about eradication; they only talk about “management.” There was spotted knapweed on our property before I bought it, decades ago, so I shouldn’t complain. Only recently, though, have I learned about its evil and pernicious ways.

In a riff on Irish luck, Rick and I used to joke that it weren’t for spotted knapweed, we’d have no weeds at all. Little did we know we had that backwards. Sure, we have poor glacial soils, but the more potent force of our limited landscape is spotted knapweed. You see, not only is it a vigorous invasive, but it has the admirably devious survival mechanism of poisoning the soils around it so little else will grow. It is an expert in plant hegemony.

So that would explain our spindly vegetable garden! We have acres of knapweed.

Knapweed has a multifold program of engagement. First, it is a vigorous competitor. It sports a thick absorbent taproot that quickly captures and stores any available water (leaving its neighbors thirsty.) It is a rampant reproducer, colonizing both via ample seed production and from runners from its rhizome root system. If you try to remove it, and leave any part of the rhizome in the soil, it will sprout and flourish, like the cursed broom in Fantasia. Knapweed avoids predation by being the most bitter plant in the field. (Even goats avoid it; though I understand that sheep will eat it.) Back in California we used goats to clear poison oak from the hillsides, but even the goats are too picky to mess with the spotted knapweed. If that weren’t enough, knapweed generates its own phytotoxins, literally poisoning the soil around it. The mechanism of its catechin toxins aren’t well understood, but they prevent germination of competing seeds and poison the root zone. When a knapweed root comes in contact with the root tips of another plant, it sends a cascade of chemical messages to its victim, triggering apoptosis, or programmed cell death, from the roots, on up.

Presumably, back in Eastern Europe, spotted knapweed needed these strategies to survive. Plants from there have immunities that can withstand its chemical onslaught. Here, though, our native plants and crops have few defenses. It’s a problem from coast to coast—but especially so in the dry rangelands of the west.

But the bees love it. It’s one of the few flowering plants that continues to bloom and provide nectar in the dog-days of August. I have beekeeper friends who react with open hostility when folks discuss ways to eradicate knapweed. The honey produced from knapweed blooms is so delicious that “Star Thistle” is treated as a premium appellation product, like Locust Honey, or Tupelo.

I’m a beekeeper, but I’m also a gardener. Would a rose, by any other name, smell as sweet? A pest is a pest is a pest is a… (my apologies to Gertrude Stein.)

Star Thistle, my ass.

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A.V. Walters

They’re hounding me to renew the registration of my hives. In theory, it’s a good idea. If beekeepers register their bees–how many hives and their location–farmers will know to alert them when they plan to spray. That way, I can close up the hives when they are most at risk. They’re emailing me to tell me that if I don’t renew, my listing will be dropped. So, why do I resist?

First, registration hasn’t done anything for me. Doesn’t that sound selfish? In fact, I reached out to my neighboring farmer on my own–we formed an understanding, and now he gives me 24 hour notice of any chemical spraying or application. My idiot neighbors to the west apparently are uninformed about the registry–and they spray, willy-nilly, without notice. Their property looks like the lunar landscape–nothing grows there, not even the things that they plant. The crop registry didn’t help me with my notification success, nor with the failure.

I suppose my resistance is rooted in principle. I don’t want to participate, or be complicit, with the powers that are killing the bees. Late last year the registry unveiled a “new look,” complete with corporate sponsorship. The primary sponsor? Bayer. Wow.

For those who don’t know, Bayer is the primary player in the neonicitinoids game. Neonicitinoids (or “neonics”) are a class of insecticides that science shows are a primary killer of our honeybees. Of course, the industry denies it, in the time-honored tradition of corporate denial (think DDT, Big Tobacco, Big Oil and Climate Change, or, soon at a theater near you, Fukushima!) The usual game plan is to float a disinformation campaign and to deny as long as possible, only to quietly acquiesce to the underlying science AFTER using influence to secure liability protection.) I don’t want my participation in such a program to provide “cover” to corporate malfeasance.

Bayer sponsoring a Bee Registry is like General Mills giving out free wildflower seeds to help the bees. (Oops, that’s a real thing, too!) Is it cynical greenwashing or brilliant PR? I can’t tell, and I don’t want anything to do with it. Am I tilting at windmillls? Should I cowtow and collaborate? I cannot tell anymore.

 

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Honey, Cooking, and The Science Behind The Sweet

A.V. Walters

Honey is a foodstuff of almost mythical proportions. It is one of a handful of foods that, left in its original form, never spoils. Honey has been known to last literally thousands of years—and still be edible and sweet. Honey will crystalize—a condition that may put off the uninformed consumer—but crystalized honey is still good. If it offends, you can simply warm it gently and it will resume its liquid amber loveliness.

Honey has three characteristics that, acting together, serve as its natural preservative. Despite being a liquid, honey has a very low water content of only 14 to 18 %. Bees will not “cap” honey in the comb until it has reached this low moisture threshold. Most bacteria cannot survive in such a low-moisture environment. Honey is also highly acidic, with a pH between 3.0 and 4.5. That acidity will kill off the few remaining things that might want to grow there. And, as we all know, honey is sweet. That natural sweetness also discourages bacterial growth. Archeologists have found sealed honey in ancient Egyptian tombs that was still preserved and unspoiled. Add to these three basic characteristics are the enzymes in honey that come from the bees’ stomachs. These enzymes combine with nectar sugars to produce gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide—natural components of honey. Blended together all these characteristics make a super-food that keeps, nearly indefinitely.

Herbalists and healers of ancient times understood these qualities in honey. It was widely used to treat wounds, for skin ointments and to prevent infections. To retain its natural preservative qualities though, stored honey must be sealed. Because honey is hygroscopic (naturally low in water) it will absorb liquid from the air and eventually spoil if left uncovered. Though honey is naturally pure, it can contain trace amounts of bacteria, and while this is not a problem for healthy children and adults, raw honey is not recommended for infants or people with compromised immune systems.

What about cooked honey? Cooking honey poses two questions: Does cooking undermine honey’s otherwise beneficial qualities? And, is it actually toxic? Purists and practitioners of natural or ayurvedic medicine will tell you that cooked honey is poisonous, and should never be eaten. There’s a smidgeon of science that supports that position, technically, but most feel that’s a little extreme. At the end of the day, this is something you’ll have to decide for yourself. Honey is essentially a natural, supersaturated sugar solution. Added into that are enzymes, courtesy of our friends, the bees. Many of the purported health benefits of honey are connected to those enzymes. But, when you heat honey, the enzymes begin to break down, beginning at about 118 degrees, Fahrenheit. Over-heating may result in losing most of the beneficial properties, making honey just another sweetener. (A good reason to gently heat your crystalized honey. You can warm it in a bath of warm tap water or in a double-boiler, at very low heat, to protect its enzymes.) In cooking, you can preserve honey’s integrity by adjusting how and when you heat it. Whenever possible, wait and add the honey until later in the cooking process (this is especially true when sweetening sauces or glazes.) Or, you can also “dilute” any heated honey mixture with a larger quantity of unheated ingredients. Check your recipes to see if there might be ways to limit exposure to high temperatures. Needless to say, honey is always at its best when used in recipes that are never heated, like salad dressings, toppings, dips or icings.

But, is it toxic? When honey is heated, its fructose, in combination with its natural acidity, degrades and begins to form hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF), which is mildly toxic. The hotter it gets, the more HMF forms. The solution is dilution. Diluting the honey with other ingredients, (prior to heating) lowers the acid level of the honey, helping to prevent HMF formation. Even then, the actual HMF toxicity levels that result from normal cooking are very low. Our evolved human gut is fully capable of digesting cooked honey products, with no observable adverse affects. If you are a purist—don’t heat your honey. Otherwise, take reasonable efforts to preserve the maximum beneficial effects by keeping honey temperatures as low as practical. You can cook and bake with confidence, knowing that you are not putting yourself at risk.

There is one group that should never consume heated honey. That is your BEES! Bee guts and intestinal systems are relatively simple and cannot safely digest HMFs. Ingesting even a small amount of honey that has been heated can result in bees developing gut ulcerations. Many beekeepers use heat to separate wax from honey—and feed the resulting honey back to the bees. Don’t do it! Only give bees cold-processed, unadulterated, honey. Even adding water to honey, for bee feeding, must be done carefully because once water is added, the honey mixture is subject to bacterial spoilage, and fermentation. (Think mead!) If you use watered-down honey for bee feeding, make sure that it remains fresh. Remove any unconsumed honey blends within a day or so, replace with a fresh mixture, and periodically clean containers.

The very characteristics that give honey its extended shelf life can require some adjustments when cooking or baking with it. The most obvious is that honey is a liquid, so when substituted for sugar, you must adjust the balance of dry and wet ingredients to retain the desired texture. Every cup of honey used as sweetener contains about three extra tablespoons of liquid. So, you must reduce the other liquids in your recipe, increase the dry ingredients, or a combination of both. (The approach you take will depend on the recipe.)

It is often assumed that you can do a “cup for cup” substitution of honey for a recipe’s sweetener. Not so. In addition to increased moisture content, honey is sweeter than sugar when measured cup for cup. Depending upon the bees food source, and the seasonal time of production, honey can be anywhere from 1.25 to 1.5 times as sweet as sugar. You’ll have to substitute accordingly, and remember to taste as you go. Honey has a lower glycemic index rating than sugar (55 compared to sugar’s 61) so it’s a healthier option, with a slower impact on blood sugar. It’s easier to standardize baking with lighter honeys—the darker honeys come laden with their own native flavors. They can add depth and character to your baked goods, but darker honeys are a shifting exercise in taste exploration. Since the sugars in honey brown faster than regular sugar, you might have to lower your baking temperature by 25 degrees and cook your baked goods a little longer. Even if all your adjustments are correct, remember that baked goods made with honey are moister than sugar baking. If you’re looking for a drier finish—carefully bake longer, at a lower temperature.

Finally, honey’s natural acidity can play havoc with the leavening in baked goods. Most leavening agents (baking soda/baking powder) are “base” ingredients. The higher acidity in honey can act to neutralize your leavening agent—leaving an unadjusted recipe as heavy as a brick! You will need more leavening to achieve a proper rise, usually an additional 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoonful per cup of honey sweetening. There is no need to adjust if you’re using yeast. Yeast usually does well in the more acidic environment of honey. Add the honey to the bread dough mix, itself, to avoid interference with yeast performance. Do not “proof” your yeast in a honey mixture.

Honey as a food product has been with us for thousands of years. Whether you revere it for its mystical healing properties, or enjoy it as a healthy sweetener, it’s helpful to know how it behaves in cooking and baking. Following these tips, along with a little experimentation, will yield light and tasty results.

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Food Fight

A.V. Walters

It has come to the attention of Big Ag that the fastest growing sector of agriculture is organics. 2016 saw well over four million acres under organic cultivation. The total organic slice of the American food pie was over 35 billion dollars. You cannot boast that kind of success without attracting attention.

Big Ag wants in, in a big way. Organic produce and products are, after all, significantly more expensive than “conventional,” chemically infused crops. It’s a “value added” product, without the trouble of adding value. In fact, these are high-end consumers who’ll pay more, but want less. Less chemicals, less guilt, and less health impacts from fertilizers and pesticides. Of course, there are a lot of pesky regulations related to organic certification. But American Business knows it way around regulations.

Recently the industry group coordinating with government regulators, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), held its annual meeting. Not surprisingly, over the past decade the elected leadership of the group has been shifting towards large-scale, corporate producers, squeezing family farmers out of the mix. Organic products are regulated by the USDA, the agency in charge of enforcing our National Organic Program (NOP.) In decades past, nobody much cared about the definitional details of organic agriculture. The industry was the backwater of hippy back-to-the-earth folks. Conventional agriculture only cared that the program made production and certification expensive and burdensome—so it wouldn’t compete with their monoculture view of farming. In it’s early years, organic farmers debated earnestly just what “organic” meant.

It’s not merely the absence of pesticides that defines the heart of “organic.” It’s about creating a food and commodities system that is sustainable, humane and healthy for both consumers and for the planet. During the 1980s, those same hippy farmers debated long and hard about what practices could be included under the organic umbrella, and what methods did not measure up to “sustainable.” The old organic mantra, “Feed the soil, not the plant,” spoke to a holistic approach to farming, and to the planet, in stark contrast to modern, industrial and extractive farming methods. Organic farming promoted crop rotation, natural soil enhancement, composting, non-chemical pest management, antibiotic and cage free animal husbandry and regenerating the environment through gentle agricultural practices. By any definition, organic farming should build soil and animal health—leaving us with a more diverse and stronger ecosystem. It is a moral and philosophical rejection of the chemically saturated monoculture and confined livestock systems that dominate American food production.

Things went well, until organic became synonymous with money. The results of this year’s meeting illustrate where we’re headed. In the early days, when easing the burden for “transitional” farmers was important, some non-organic or synthetic practices were permitted, provisionally—to be “sunsetted” out of organic production within 5 years unless, by a margin of two thirds majority, the NOSB voted to reauthorize them. This year the Board voted that any 5 year exemption is automatically “rolled over,” unless the NOSB votes it down—creating a slippery slope of standards erosion.

One of the big debates this year was whether hydroponic growing systems could be classified as organic. Really? How could a “farming” system that grows produce entirely without soil (often completely indoors), fed exclusively on a mix of liquid fertilizers and nutrients, wholly outside of any natural system be considered organic? What happened to “feed the soil?” What happened to organic farming acting in concert with nature to make the planet healthier? The Board couldn’t agree on the hydroponic issue, and has kicked it over to the next meeting, when there will be an even larger majority of corporate board members on the Board. Can you see where this leads?

Just as troublesome is the failure of the USDA to enforce the standards of the National Organic Program. Large scale producers regularly break the rules, with no penalty from the government agency charged with protecting consumers. Small scale organic farmers are thus doubly burdened—with the high cost of certification, and then forced to compete in the marketplace by corporate farms that advertise organic, but don’t play by the rules. The little guys end up subsidizing the cheats. In the long run, failure to police the standards will only undermine the organic message—the cheats will kill the golden goose. Consumers, small scale organic farmers and the planet will pay the price.

I don’t have a solution. I recommend that you support your local organic farmer through farmers’ markets, cooperatives or CSAs, that you start your own garden, keep bees or even chickens. I think we need to get involved, not just in the politics of food production but in some hands-on action, to protect our health and the health of our soils, our water and our planet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wascally Wabbits!

A.V. Walters–

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Cages and Wraps

Late April and early May were a whirlwind of activity. We ordered over 200 trees, anticipating the participation of 40 volunteers in this spring’s tree planting extravaganza. The trees arrived. The volunteers did not. There were good reasons for standing us up, but that still left us on our own with a lot of bare root trees.

With bare root plants, you have, at best, two weeks to get them into the ground. You can “heel them in” to buy additional time. Heeling in is essentially storing them in dirt—either by digging a trench, or mounding. Still it’s planting and uprooting them again—more work for us and more trauma to the tender roots. So, we rolled up our sleeves, and planted.

No sooner were the trees in, than we began to lose them to deer and rabbits. So began the next great surge—the making and installation of the tree cages. In all, over a very short period, we made and installed almost one hundred and fifty cages. By the time we finished, and feeling invincible, I was almost beginning to think that rabbits could be cute. Then, we (mostly Rick) re-fenced the garden/orchard area with rabbit-proof fencing. You’d think that there would be an opportunity then, to breathe and rest. Ha! Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water…

Below the house, we’ve planted a hedge of berry and blooming plants. Well, eventually it will be a hedge; currently it is a widely spaced and hopeful collection of spindly plants. Its purpose is to provide a visual break and to host a wide variety of blooming plants that will be good for the bees. As a side note, there are a number of berry plants that will provide treats for us, too. There are blueberries, high-bush cranberries, service berries and elderberries, mixed in with lilacs, redbuds, red osier, and lavender. In a few years it will be really beautiful. Because the berry plants are particularly tasty (and because I have an emotional and aesthetic stake in this hedge), they were among the first to be caged. Finally, after weeks of work, we could relax.

Well, I actually went into town for groceries, and bought some new work shoes. Rick was working on plumbing, so I walked up to the house to show him my fancy new footwear. On the way up the path, I saw it. A baby bunny. Cute, eh?

Not so much. The baby rabbits are very small. They fit nicely between the wires of our new tree cages. Once in, they are protected from predators, and can munch, at their leisure on our berry plants. From my vantage on the path I could clearly see a baby bunny giving my brand new blueberry bush a serious pruning. I rushed it, waving my arms, screaming. It ran. And stopped, thirty feet from the new hedge… waiting. Quickly, I surveyed the damage. One blueberry, neatly pruned to half its original size. One baby bunny, stalking. And, across the field, half a dozen baby bunnies, frolicking.

Rick came to the door of the house, alerted by my cursing. I held out the severed blueberry branches and he understood immediately. We pulled out a roll of chicken wire and began cutting cage-wraps, glancing nervously over our shoulders to the hedge. I should have stood guard, because in the twenty minutes it took to cut the wire wraps, three more blueberry plants were pruned to within an inch of their lives! Thank God for new shoes!

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Blueberry, it’s branches trimmed!

Now, all of the berry and bloom hedge plants have double cages. I’m also going to string deterrent wires across the tops, to discourage any deer, who might reach down into the shorter cages for a nibble. It’s the Fort Knox of landscaping. Maybe now we can relax a bit. Except that it’s time to put in the garden.

Bunnies? Maybe they’ll be cute again, someday.

 

It’s Working—

A.V. Walters—

I asked my landlady for the contact information for the farmer who leases the fields surrounding us. She reacted badly to the request—assuming, for some bizarre reason, that I would say something to him that would jeopardize her long-standing arrangement. She refused to give me his number, but told me where I could find him, half way across the county.

I had no such ulterior motives. I keep bees. He sprays pesticides. Though I have registered my bees with Fieldwatch, many farmers are not aware of it. I merely wanted him to give me a heads up when he plans to spray.

Before I could get contact information, the farmer showed up to prep the soil for corn. My landlady shot out to talk to him, like a bat out of hell, before I could get there. She was waving her arms and pointing at our property, jabbering. I walked out calmly to introduce myself. As soon as I was within earshot, the landlady lowered her voice, finally shutting up as I approached.

“Hi, I’m Alta. My husband and I have the parcel across the street.”

“Hi, I’m Dennis.” He reached out of the tractor cab and shook my hand. I handed him a slip of paper with my contact information.

“Are you putting in seed today?”

“No, just prep. The corn’ll go in tomorrow.”

“Good. If we know beforehand, we can close up the bees and avoid any pesticide issues. I’d appreciate if whenever you spray, or seed, you could give us a call, the night before.”

“Sure, I work with Julius the same way. You know Julius?”

I’ve never met Julius, but all the beekeepers in the area at least know of him. He’s a beekeeping institution and has mentored most everyone who keep bees in this county. “Don’t know him, but I’ve heard a lot about him. Good things.”

“Yeah. He’s a great guy.” He scratched his head. “I get the spray, but why do you need to know when I put in seed?”

“Most seeds, especially corn, are pre-treated with insecticides. Just the dust from those seeds can kill bees.”

“Yeah? I never knew. I’ll have to talk to Julius about that one. You new to bees?”

“It’s our second year—but we lost all our hives over the winter. We just installed our new bees this week.”

He nodded. “Julius lost a bunch, too. What do you think happened?” During this exchange, my landlady just stood slackjawed. I guess it wasn’t what she expected.

I shrugged. “It was a tough year. Bee losses generally for 2015 were forty-four per cent. I know one of our hives had varoa mites. But we also lost our strongest hive. You know, the warm winter is almost tougher on the bees than a cold one. And of course, we’re all struggling with pesticide issues. It’s tough to keep bees home.” I paused, “It’s a critical issue—bees are responsible for a lot of our food production.”

“Well, don’t you worry. Just like me an’ Julius, we can work together.” He smiled. “I like to eat, too.”

So, of course, I left a pint of honey on the seat of his truck. This is how it’s supposed to work.

 

What’s Eating You?

A.V. Walters–

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Spindly cages over even more invisible tree whips!

Just as you can identify a critter by its tracks, you can tell who is eating your trees and foliage by what is left behind. This is critical information to the hopeful planter of baby trees. If you don’t know who is doing the munching, how will you know how to stop them?

Last year, we lost some of the seedlings early—like within a week of planting. At the same time, a deer jumped our garden/orchard fence and ravaged the baby fruit trees. Though they survived, I was devastated. I could clearly follow the deer tracks to each and every tree victim—and then on out and over the fence. Bastards! We solved that problem by making the fence higher—but I missed a learning opportunity in garden sleuthing. And, I blamed the deer for other losses outside the garden.

I was wrong.

You see, when a deer grazes on your seedlings, they bite and run. They leave a ragged edge. Other critters have other distinctive habits. The modus operandi of the dreaded cottontail is to use those sharp rodent teeth, leaving a clean, angled cut—almost as though pruned with a shear. Bunnies are an under-recognized threat.

Porcupines also dine on seedlings and branches. I’ve been impressed with what I thought was deer damage on the wild bramble canes, only to learn that raspberry and blackberry canes are among the porcupines’ favorite spring and summer foods. And in the winter, they’ll also gnaw on tree bark at the base of a tree, eating the nutrient rich cambium layer, girdling and often killing the tree. Indeed, starved for salts, they’ll gnaw on plywood siding, or the tires on your car! (Salt from road clearing gets imbedded in the rubber tires.) Just this week we saw gnaw marks on our rubber garden hose! (And on our neighbor’s garden shed.)

Yesterday, I saw a huge porcupine, swaying in the wind in the top of a maple tree. They love the leaf buds—before they unfurl and get too tannin. It was a very windy day and, looking up I saw that porcupine hanging on for dear life—just to eat those tender new bits. Never before had I contemplated the risk of being thunked by a falling porcupine. Ouch.

But my chief opponent of the moment is those bunnies. When we plant trees in the forest, I don’t worry about the rabbits. It’s too hilly and woodsy. The bunnies are out front, by the house, in the grassy open areas. That’s where we’re putting the hazelnut and mixed berry hedges. No sooner did we start the planting than the rabid rabbits were right after them.

This is no surprise. Tomorrow we will be changing the fence around the vegetable garden (before we plant) because last summer the bunnies made short work of our garden. With the tree seedlings, we had to quickly change gears and immediately put up welded-wire tree cages around each seedling. The cages are made from cut fencing material, formed into circles by bending over the wire tabs from the cuts. With a more than a hundred seedlings at risk, that’s a lot of work!

The natural world notices. We finished the planting (and most of the cages) yesterday. We came out this morning to a parade of deer prints—a veritable square dance of deer, checking out the new additions to the neighborhood. Thank God those seedlings were safely in their cages.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

161 Trees…

A.V. Walters–

And counting.

Dear readers, I will return. But there are still bare-root trees to plant, and until they’re all in the ground, these aching bones will not be blogging. The oaks and tulip poplars are in, the hazelnuts (almost, just five to go) The service berry, black elderberry, and redbuds are almost in (I’m saving just a handful for the end, when I’ll put in a mixed berry hedge. Most of the trees were selected to make the bees happy. Right now, getting them all planted, will make me happy. Another day, maybe two. Then I have to make cages for them to keep them safe from the bunnies and deer. And then we pray for rain.

 

Musings on Planting Trees–

A.V. Walters–

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And that doesn’t even include the trees we bought from Benzie County!

Professional “re-foresters” can plant hundreds, even thousand of trees each day. Depending upon the terrain, they use dagger-like tools, either hand or foot powered, and can put in acres of trees in short order.

I am not one of them. I am too fussy. Each tree gets an actual hole, not just a slash with the roots jammed in. Each tree gets a shovel-full or two of compost, which must be blended into the natural soils, so water doesn’t “perch,” causing root rot. I layer in the roots, so they’ll have a stable start. This year, I’m loading up a little on the compost. They’re predicting a hot, dry summer and the compost helps to hold moisture in the root zone. I cheat a little, and soak the roots in Terra Sorb (or work a pinch of it into the hole), also to give them the moisture advantage. If no rain is predicted, they get a starter sip of water, (though spring soils are pretty moist.) Sometimes, we give trees a cage, to protect it from deer or rabbits during its infancy. There’s only so much you can do.

Professional tree-planters work on a scale that allows for a relatively high failure rate. From my perspective, there seems to be little point to doing all that work if the trees don’t survive. Sure, there are losses from natural forces, deer, bugs, and the like. This past year we lost two baby trees when other trees fell on them. There’s nothing you can do to protect from natural hazards. The best you can do is to give them the best start possible. Do I sound like a parent? I’m pleased to report that we have a good survival rate for last season’s seedlings.

In the forest, you need to look for a good spot–a hole in the canopy for light, not too close to existing trees, not near an obvious deer path, not in the “fall-line ” of any existing afflicted trees, and hopefully sheltered from strong winds. Of course, you’re carrying a bunch of seedlings in one bucket (with some water) and another bucket of compost and a spade. I spend a good bit of time, wandering in the woods, finding those good spots. I couldn’t be happier, even with the load–what a lovely way to spend time.

We don’t celebrate Earth Day. We spend a couple of weeks each year, planting. So far this season, I’ve put in 98 trees (including 3 orchard trees.) I’m over the half-way mark. I hurt like hell, but things are moving right along.

 

Ah, Spring

A.V. Walters

In our minds, our little house—our work in progress—is picturesque. All winter, we could hardly wait for spring to get back to work on it, in earnest. I’ve been asked to send photos of our progress. Then, earlier this month, the snow finally melted. It was like waking up after a bad drunk.

Construction is a messy thing. Just before the snow, we finished up the septic system, and sealed the log exterior. Somehow, in my minds eye, things under that snow were peachy. Spring has been an awakening.

Installing your own septic system is like buying new underwear. You’re happy to have it, maybe even proud of it. But it isn’t something you show off. It is, in fact, an ugly scar on the scenery. It was time to do some reconstructive landscaping. With any luck, after an enormous amount of work, you won’t be able to tell that we dug there at all.

We added this to our annual spring planting schedule. We take a fervent approach to diversity, adding dozens, if not hundreds of new trees and plants, every year, to fill in what climate change takes. I don’t mean that lightly. The forest is suffering. We are losing our ash trees to the Emerald Ash Borer, and the beech trees to Beech Bark Disease. Last summer’s “freak” wind-storm took out over 35 trees. Changes in the environment are accelerating. We have to hustle just to keep pace. We select our plants emphasizing climate tolerance, and, hopefully, outguessing the next blight. At least diversity should serve us there.

So, every year we purchase baby trees of many varieties to diversify the forest. This year, in trees, we will plant white oaks, hemlock, tulip poplars, witch hazel, dogwood, and redbud. We’re also planting shrubs and bushes for soil conservation and wildlife habitat (a hazelnut windrow and a mixed berry hedge.) To the forest trees, we add 100 hazelnuts, red osier, elderberry, serviceberry, blueberry and high bush cranberry. And then, to fix the scar over the new septic we have clover, native knapweed and various wildflower mixes. Needless to say, we are not putting in a lawn.

So far, the 27 white oaks are in, and we’ve prepped and seeded the front with a mix of clover and over 3,500 square feet of wildflower mix for the bees. I’m trying to keep them closer to home with a delicious variety of safe blooms that haven’t seen pesticides. (I can’t account for what the neighbors, or local farmers, plant.) Rick says the bees will go wherever they want, but I’m like the frantic parent, putting in a swimming pool so the teenagers will stay home. (Rick says that just means you have to feed their ill-mannered friends, too.) That’s not lost on me because I know we may lose many of the new wildflowers to the deer and the bunnies. Bambi and Thumper are no longer cute to me.

By this time next month, we’ll have used all of the 45 tons of composted manure that we purchased last year. Rick can hardly believe it. He thought I was crazy.

I’m exhausted and we still have 158 plants and trees to go. Until the front area heals, there’s no point in pictures, it’s just sorry looking. The next few weeks will be all about planting. The first waves, fruit trees and oaks, are in. Next week the big shipment will arrive. And after that, we should be frost free enough to put in the garden. Ah, Spring.

 

 

The Reward of the NewBees–

A.V. Walters.

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Perhaps, a tiny basement apartment isn’t really the best place to process honey. After all, it is a sticky business.

Last week, we “harvested” the honey—which was simply removing the frames from those hives we decided could afford to share their honey with us. That’s honey “in the comb and on the frame,” though—nowhere near ready to pour into jars for the pantry.

Some people just eat comb honey—wax and all. It is certainly the most “natural” way to do it—but I have limited patience for that much wax in my teeth. And, it’s messy. There are several options for how to separate the wax from the comb. You can cut it from the hive frame, crush it and filter it—an insanely messy business. Or, you can spin it.

We picked spinning. We bought a cheapie, two-frame spinner, online. It came with no directions. (I guess we’re supposed to know what we’re doing.) We looked at the tools recommended, in the many catalogues and bee sites, and decided to improvise. Our process is based on common sense, not experience. We’re winging it here, so don’t think this is the right way, or the only way, to do it.

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We start with the frames. There are ten frames in each layer of a standard Langstroth hive. Many backyard beekeepers use an eight frame configuration, for lighter, more maneuverable supers (hive boxes.) It’s not a bad idea, but since we went with a mix of used and pre-fab hives, we stuck with the standard, larger ten-frame design. We removed a full hive layer (super or bee box) of honey—so ten full frames. Once you lift a full ten frames of honey, you begin to appreciate why the smaller eight frame configuration has become popular. (We’ll just have to grow muscles.)

If you harvest early in the season, you need to first separate the bees from the frames you want to remove. This is done either with a “bee escape” (it allows the bees to leave, but not come back in) placed in the hive a day before harvest, or by using a blower to remove the bees from of the frames. But, when it starts to get cold, the bees crowd lower in the hive for warmth and we took advantage of this with a late season harvest. We only had a few of workaholic bees on the honey frames, which we brushed off with a feather. (That’s not a metaphor, we used an actual feather.)

We placed the honey-laden frames in a sealed bin (so the bees couldn’t go after them) and brought it inside for processing. The honey is much easier to spin if it’s warm. We don’t keep it very warm in our home, so we had to turn up the heat to a sweltering 72 degrees. We used a sharpened putty knife to skim the top coating of wax from one side of each frame, the “capped” comb—and then placed it in the spinner. Voilà, liquid gold! Then we flipped each frame, skimmed the cap off that side, and repeated the process. We put the “skim,” (a mixture of beeswax, with some honey) into a crockpot. On moderate heat, the wax softens, and floats to the top, leaving honey below. After it cools, we pulled the hardened wax off, and poured off the remaining honey. That way, we don’t waste any honey.

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A two-frame spinner can only handle one side of two frames, at a time. Spun, the honey flies against the inside of the spinner and collects in the bottom as you process. It’s slow and tedious, but it smells incredible. Honey and beeswax—sweet and clean. This very tangible reward is enough to keep you going.

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After it was all spun, it sat over-night. (Though it wasn’t our intention, letting it sit allowed almost all the bits of wax to float to the top, making the next step easier.) We then cold-filtered the honey and put it in jars. (We used paint filters from the hardware store.) Most of our canning jars are in storage, so we’d been saving store-bought honey and peanut butter jars for months. As we filtered, we began to panic. This was much more than we’d expected—and we were nearly out of jars (oh, and lids!) Soon we were using old honey-bear squeeze bottles…and anything else we could find. We ended up with over 35 pounds of honey. (At roughly 2.85 pounds per quart, it left us scrambling.) That’s enough for us for maybe a year—and some gift jars. Not bad, from one hive, in a ‘bad’ year. (According to local beekeepers, this was a low-yield year.)

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Now, we need to do is figure out how to process the wax. We’re thinking, candles. And amazingly, the place is not too sticky.

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Wrapping up the Season

A.V. Walters

 

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Post bucket

We’ve had nearly an extra month of fall. Tomorrow, though, temperatures are expected to tumble down to seasonal norms. We’ve been rushing around to take advantage of the extended season and to get a jump on spring, next year.

We garden in buckets. It’s habit, from California, where it solved some of our irrigation issues. It also kept the gophers out of the vegetables. We’ve kept it up here in Michigan for some of the same reasons–water, critters, and because our soils need a lot of work. The buckets let us amend most intensely where the plants will live. Before the next season, we pull the buckets and empty the amended soil and leftover roots back into the soil. It could wait until spring, but we had the warm weather, so I did it this week. It will make it easier to spread amendment over the whole garden area in the spring, but we’ll probably stick with the buckets for a few seasons yet. It is more work–but promises better harvests until we can get the garden’s soil into better shape.

It was also time to attend to the fruit trees. They needed an end-of-season weeding, and it was time to wrap their trunks before winter. There are two main reasons for wrapping the trunks of fruit trees. It prevents sun scalding. Winter sun can warm the trunk–expanding the bark and the moist tissues below–on the sunny side. The temperature differential can split the bark, endangering the tree. By wrapping the trunk with light colored material, you reflect the sun’s heat away. The other reason to wrap is to dissuade mice and other critters who’d be inclined to nibble at the baby trees’ thin bark. Mice can easily girdle, and kill a young tree. I knew I’d arrived to the task just in time, when I saw that one of the apple tree’s lower trunk showed the early signs of nibbling! Now all of the fruit trees are wrapped and ready.

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A tidy wrap to protect the baby tree.

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Lined up in winter finery.

Along the way, I noted some successes. Before we planted the trees, located in the fenced garden area, we dug amendment in deep–very deep. In prepping their planting holes, we went down four to five feet deep and at least that far across. We wanted to give them a good start, and since our soils are poor, it was our best chance to add nutrients to the soil for the trees’ formative years. It has already paid off. Because we were attacked early by deer, the garden orchard trees had both the fence and individual tree cages for protection. In spite of having been seriously nibbled by deer, the apple, plum and pear trees have all more than doubled in size. They’ve outgrown the cages! They look more like 3rd or 4th year trees than 1st season trees. We may even see apples and pears next year.

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The cherry trees–grown outside the garden fence–didn’t get as much care. First, they’re all cherry trees. This is cherry tree country. One of the pioneer plants in our sandy soils is the American Black Cherry. I didn’t think that the cherries would require as much soil amendment. I only dug the amendment in to a depth of 18 to 24 inches. I also thought that cherry trees would be safe from the deer. They’re bitter! No such luck. We must have voracious deer. They munched on the cherries, too. Immediately after, we gave them cages, too. But while the others have recovered and really grown, the cherries have recovered, but stayed smaller. For future plantings, we’ll keep the deep-amendment program.

It makes me wonder if we should dig and replant the cherry trees. It’s a lot of stress on a little stick of a tree. I’m sure we’ll debate it all winter. More likely, I’ll be researching organic methods of fertilizing–not as good as a nice deep start, but we shall see. Any thoughts on that?

Beyond Sustainable

A.V. Walters

Food Stamps 2

For decades, sustainable has been the goal. Organic gardeners and farmers could proudly point at their successful efforts for the fact that they’d brought in crops that were not at the expense of the environment.

Agriculture, as it’s practiced in this country, is a significant factor in environmental degradation. Soil erosion, soil desiccation, loss of beneficial bacteria, poison build-up in the soils (and groundwater), bee losses—these are all “normal” conditions brought about by standard American agricultural methods. By contrast, organic practices, crop rotation, organic soil amendment (cover crops, compost and natural manure applications), these actually build soil health and soil volumes. As an organic gardener’s soils improved, she could be proud of the fact that she was building a better tomorrow in her corner of the planet.

Now we know that that is not enough.

The living world is a connected system. Excessive carbon in the atmosphere is changing the climate all over the planet and, organic or not, we’re along for the ride. It’s not enough to mind your own little corner with the objective of saving it. We need to save the planet. We can start by doing exactly what we’ve always done. Recent research shows that sustainable garden/farm practices actually trap carbon into the soils. Better soil, better air, better climate! So the organic gardener’s efforts actually help to offset some of the bad practices everywhere else!

Think of the changes we could make if we expanded organic and sustainable gardening practices everywhere! I imagine a world in which your local “garden center” does not have an “aisle of death,” with its shelves lined with poisons. To get there, people need to stop buying those products. To convince them to let go of their poison remedies, the organic tribe needs to spread the word. We need to reach out, with solutions, instead of judgments. We need to have classes and write articles on alternatives to the garden fed with chemical fertilizers and “guarded” with pesticides. It can be done. (And yes, I know we’re all busy, but really, our lives and our future depends on this and we can make time.)

Imagine how much more progress we could make if our agricultural system changed to include some of those same techniques. Successful ancient farmers built our civilization using sustainable methods. Our current version of extractive farming has only been used for half a century. We can revive those sustainable traditions and decrease our reliance on chemical inputs. Recent studies on extended crop rotation have shown we can increase soil health and minimize chemical usage.

“Substantial improvements in the environmental sustainability of agriculture are achievable now, without sacrificing food production or farmer livelihoods.” – See more at: http://www.leopold.iastate.edu/news/10-11-2012/benefits-of-longer-rotations#sthash.0Zeiwsun.dpuf and at www.cefs.ncsu.edu/…/croprotationsfinaljan09.doc Even beyond that, the evidence is coming in that shows that an international conversion to sustainable agricultural practices on a larger scale could literally save the planet.

This isn’t rocket science. Sustainable practices are cheaper, healthier and sounder than the system that puts food on the tables for most of America—and changes in farming methods could prevent topsoil losses, sequester carbon (reducing climate change) use water more efficiently and deliver better quality foods for Americans.

proclimweb.scnat.ch/portal/ressources/2302.pdf

Our mindsets have to change to make this possible. Our language has to change to embrace a brighter future, without building resistance to what we need to do to get there. Sustainable isn’t enough. But regenerative is. Regenerative Agriculture isn’t exactly new. It’s what all good farmers did before the chemical revolution. So another revolution will be necessary to make the change. It won’t be easy. There is huge resistance in big money—and big money has a lot to lose here. The agri-chemical industry will not go gently into that good night. (Monsanto, the “poster-child” culprit in agricultural degradation, already owns the Google words for “sustainable agriculture.” In a cruel joke of technology, Monsanto gets the first search hit for those words.)

If you want regenerative farming and gardening to survive and thrive, you’ll have to put your money to work. Don’t buy gardening chemicals. Support your local farmer, especially your local organic farmer. Read labels—and be picky about what you buy. Don’t buy GMO foods. Reduce your consumption of processed foods. If you haven’t already, start a garden. Plant trees. Because we are all part of the problem, we can all be a part of the solution.

In a quote often (and perhaps mistakenly) attributed to Winston Churchill, “You can depend upon the Americans to do the right thing. But only after they have exhausted every other possibility.”

(And thanks to the United States Postal Service for the beautiful Forever stamps.)

 

Baby Steps

A.V. Walters

Looking deceptively innocent.

Looking deceptively innocent.

The fence is complete. After tonight, the last night on which we expect a frost alert, we can put our garden starts outdoors into their permanent homes. We’ve been hauling them out every day (all seventy or so of them) and then hauling them all back in at night. They’ll join the orchard whips, to be protected from the deer by the new fence. If we had any doubts about whether the fence was needed, in the interim, a few deer stepped in to convince us we’re on the right path. We hope the trees will recover.

The bees arrived today. The same fence protects them from the bears. Today we simply placed their bee transport boxes next to their hives. They were too agitated from the trip to pull the frames and place them into the hive bodies—we’ll do it tomorrow. When we pulled the plug from the boxes, the bees from one of the hives poured out in an angry mob. I was afraid they’d swarm (and I’d fail on my first day of beekeeping!) Within an hour they’d settled down and already some of the bees had found the pin cherry trees, blooming right behind the hives. The autumn olives are in bloom, too; their near-tropical fragrance is the perfect bee balm. The bees wasted no time and got right to work. Tomorrow we’ll do the transfer to their permanent homes.

Home, sweet home.

Home, sweet home.

The roof framing crew showed up, too! Soon we’ll have a roof and we can settle in to the summer’s rhythm of finishing the house, minding the garden and the bees. We’re all on the same trajectory here. Things are looking up.

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.

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.

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.

Start Here

A.V. Walters

Orchard Dreams

Orchard Dreams

Though the ground is still frozen, we’re planning our “dooryard” orchard. It’s not a big orchard—enough mostly for our own eating and canning use. Fruit trees require some work and planning—and are often done wrong. Most nurseries have the same one-size-fits-all approach as big-box stores. They sell the fruit tree that’s “in” this year. To do it right, first you have to do your homework. Keep in mind that planting a fruit tree is a long-term investment—it will be three years before you see a serious harvest, and a fruit tree can live twenty-five to even hundreds of years

What kind of fruit do you want, and why do you want it? It’s probably not good to save this decision for the time when, cart full of other stuff, you’re standing in the gardening department at the big-box store, squinting at the little, fruit description labels tethered to spindly saplings in tubs. What kind of fruit do you like? What do you eat now? Don’t fixate (yet) on any specific cultivar (tree variety.) Just figure generally what you’d like. Then you can work on specifics and, more importantly, the realities. If you don’t eat fruit now, what makes you think that, three years from now, if this poor tree survives, you’ll want to eat its fruit then?

Let’s throw some other factors into the mix. How much land do you have for fruit trees? (As a general rule-of-thumb, you’ll need to have an area around each tree that is as big as the tree will be tall. And no, you cannot overlap the root space for trees.) Do you have good light? What kind of soil do you have? Are you on a slope—and if so, top or bottom of the slope? (For air movement.) Are you planting in a space where you can water (or are you depending on rain?) Can the tree survive in this area?

This is the big one. Where do you live? Start here.

http://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/#

Find your state and click on it. (My deepest apologies to my non-American readers, but your location will have similar information available.) Yes, the garden department at the big-box store will sell you a banana tree, but should you buy one? Figure out what climate zone you’re in and start from there. (Californians may prefer to use the more detailed microclimate Sunset Magazine zones.) Your temperature range is the single biggest factor in tree choice success. Armed with that, you could go online to find a fruit cultivar that will live in your location.

But wait, there’s more. Go online, armed with your zone and your fruit type, and you’ll find dozens of candidates. Maybe you want an apple that was your favorite as a kid? Maybe an all-around workhorse apple? How will you be using it? There are fruit that are bred for “eating” or market purposes, there are baking and culinary fruit and there are canning fruit. You might be considering drying it. Well, the same apple you use for lunches might not be the one for pie, and not the one for sauce. Especially, if you’re dealing with limited space, you’ll need to make some compromises and choices.

Now that you have a specific fruit type selected (say eating and baking apple,) look at your options and select for size, soil suitability (light or heavy, well draining or clay—though you can amend the soil some at the outset) pH, and disease resistance. Many of the newer hybrids are bred specifically for hardiness and that’s not a bad choice for a beginning gardener. Heirloom varieties are wonderful (and often “open pollinated,” but we’ll get to that) but if grandma’s Spartan is blight susceptible, you’re taking on a long-term project to grow it. I don’t advise against such a selection, only that you do so with your eyes open. Otherwise, several years down the road, you may find yourself opting to remove the tree you chose—losing money and time, in the process. Pick the tree for your conditions. (Note to my sister: If you’re a gypsy, don’t bother planting fruit trees. By the time they’re ready to bear, you’ll be long gone.)

In your selection, make sure you check whether your choice is self-pollinating, or whether you’ll require a companion variety in order to get fruit. Nurseries aren’t very good about warning you about this. (Even my own Mum planted a lovely, exotic French Gage plum, which has never given fruit because it’s not self-fertile and it doesn’t have a compatible pollinating partner.) The catalogs and online listings all look so lush and delicious—who’d think there are so many things to decide? When in doubt, Google your variety, with the words “pollinating partner.” Another fun feature, in today’s nurseries, is that they sell grafted dwarf varieties that solve the pollination issue for you. I used to think this was a gimmick—but it works well for the backyard gardener, and it has the added novelty of producing multiple types of fruit on a single tree.

Taking the time to pick the right tree(s) is more than half the battle, in growing happy fruit. We have a lot of space, and we’ve decided to grow four kinds of fruit trees: apples, pears, cherries and plums (and, probably a hazelnut hedge/windbreak, down the road.) We want them for eating, baking, canning and dehydrating, which we’ve taken into consideration in the types selected. Although there are some heirlooms in our picks, we also have some new, more disease-resistant cultivars in the mix, and we have researched the compatibility of our choices for their pollination partners. We’ve picked a total of fifteen trees—which is a lot for most, but we’ll have local, market outlets for any excess. We’ve even chosen varieties that spread our anticipated harvests throughout the season, so we aren’t overwhelmed at any given time with too much fruit. Now, we just have to wait for them to arrive (after all, the ground is still frozen solid.) Then there’s planting, watering, pruning and worrying, and then waiting again—several years—until we have fruit.

Of course, there’s the easy way. Just go to the farmer’s market (if you’re lucky enough to have one) for fresh and delicious fare, from your area.

Timing the Jump.

Timing the Jump–

A.V. Walters

great lakes

When I was little, there was no better escapade than when my brother would deign to include me on one of his adventures. Not that I was dull, but usually his idea of fun included trouble, maybe even… danger. The only time I was ever picked up by the cops, was with him. Not that he was a bad kid, he just had the ability to put normal, kid adventures together with opportunity, in his own unique way. He was the one who taught me how to “safely” jump off the roof—to scare my mother. She’d be parked on the couch, or doing dishes, and we’d launch off the roof from just above where she was—with a blood-curdling scream. It usually had the desired affect.

One winter, Lake St. Clair froze over smooth. That is, the chill that froze its surface came when there was no wind, and it looked as though the whole lake was one big skating rink. My brother and I went out skating time after time, even on bitter cold days, to take advantage of that open, clear span of ice. On windy days, we’d sneak out towels, or even bed sheets, and skate like demons, upwind. We’d turn around, after what seemed like miles from our start, just before Pike Creek dumped into the lake and the ice thinned out. Then, we’d unfurl our makeshift sails, gripping tight to the corners, and ride the wind at breakneck speeds on skinny blades and wobbly ankles, all the way back to the public beach where we’d left our boots. Exhilarated, we’d roll up the sheets, tuck them under our coats and do it all again.

After the second run, we noted a small crack in the ice. You couldn’t miss it, though it wasn’t big—only an inch or so wide. From time to time it spurted water as the lake’s smooth cover heaved in the wind. We got down on our knees to explore it, measuring the ice depth with our fingers; it was easily five or six inches thick. More than safe for skaters. But, each time we returned to that spot, we saw the crack had gotten wider. Our skating rink had become a huge slab of lake ice pushed by the increasing winds. My brother shrugged, seeing no need for this to get in the way of our fun.

And fun it was, we skated till our toes were frozen and our cheeks were wind-burned and ruddy. On the returns, our wind filled sheets carried us, flying, bobble-kneed over the ice, as fast as ice-boats, or so my brother claimed. Our eyes streamed from the speed of it, a pace we’d never experienced under our own power. Our fingers would go numb, wrapped tightly around the corners of the sheets. Only the low slanting light of the short winter day convinced us it was time to wrap it up. But when we reached the crack, it wasn’t little anymore. It was now a yawning three-and-a-half-foot gap, with the frigid dark waters of Lake St. Clair lapping up over its edges. My jaw dropped as I turned and realized that our side of the ice was headed out, across the lake.

“What do we do now?” I asked. After all, he was older; he would know. Though the ice was thick and solid enough, we both knew there’d be hell to pay if we had to be rescued from our floating island by the Coast Guard.

My brother didn’t hesitate for a minute. “We jump.” I stared at the gap. It was nearly as wide as I was tall. “Really, it’s not so bad, we’ll make a run at it, at high speed. We’ll have the wind at our backs.”

I wasn’t so convinced. He unwrapped his scarf from around his neck and wrapped it around his hand, “I’ll go first. You watch me. If I fall in, you pull me up with your scarf. If you fall in, I’ll pull you out with my scarf. Watch me.”

I nodded… without conviction.

He skated back some forty or fifty feet and, curled like a speed-skater, let fly. When he reached the edge he launched himself, horizontal, like a swimmer’s dive, landing on his belly, skidding and sliding on the safe side of the gap.

He rolled over smiling, triumphant. “Piece of cake. Come on, it’s easy.”

I wasn’t so sure. I took several practice runs. I tried some small, test jumps. All the while, the gap was steadily growing.

“Hurry up, it’s getting bigger!” He was standing safely on his side. And, he was right—every minute I waited, the jump would only get harder. I wanted to cry. I skated back to get a good run up to it and skated my fastest, pumping my legs nearly to the very edge before I finally jumped.

But, I wasn’t horizontal enough. I was afraid to dive head first, so I flailed, legs peddling through the air. After what felt like forever, I hit the opposite edge, a little short. Landing on my knees, my lower legs slapped into the water, while the top of me hit the wet ice with a thump. True to his word, he grabbed me and dragged me away from the dark abyss. Without another word we hustled to the beach to change out of our skates and into boots for the walk home. Tying the last of his laces, he looked over, “We probably shouldn’t mention this when we get home.” Right, like he needed to say it.

Rick and I moved to Michigan about eighteen months ago. It was a big jump, fueled by a number of issues. For a start, I already had property here and, I’m originally from here. We’d tried several times to buy in Sonoma, but our offers seemed to always be just behind the curve of the real estate recovery. Some properties we rejected because of water issues. The wells were either marginal, or contaminated. Mostly, though, we left California, because my mother was here. We pulled up stakes with a sigh of relief and we’ve continued on that momentum. My mum is thrilled.

Back in California, there’s news that the state is on its last legs in water supply. A year’s worth left in the reservoirs they say, and the annual snow-pack needed to replenish them, at only 15% of normal. And still, they have yet to enact any serious or mandatory conservation measures. It’s as though Californians still expect the next miraculous rainfall to save them. There have always been droughts in California; they’ve always pulled through before, somehow.

When we first arrived and people would ask why, I’d jokingly say, “Michigan has water.” Some of our friends think we left only for that reason—as though in the months and years before we actually did it, we had some secret knowledge about the worsening drought. Believe me, I’m no oracle. (Though, I didn’t need to be one to see that coming.) But I’m glad to be here. I grew up with Great Lakes and seasons, and it’s good to be home. I’m happy to have found a sense of place that fits me. Easy for me to say, but Rick seems to have settled in nicely, too.

It’s what I wish for everyone—that they find that sense of place and comfort. I worry that, if nothing is done about our climate upheavals, many will be uprooted from the kind of comfort that knowing one’s way in geography brings. Maybe we’ll all suffer, when the place we know changes around us, bringing new challenges. What will Californians do, without water? What will become of the Sonoma county farms and vineyards? California, the state that fed the world–what will come of its desert agriculture? And, what about the emus we left behind?

In my heart, I hope that everyone who loves where they are will stay right where they are. Stay and fight. We need enough of a commitment to place to make people adjust their ways to save it, and hopefully, in the process, save the planet. Some friends have asked me if I think things are really that bad. I’m afraid that the science says yes, and our species refuses to accept that answer. They’ve asked me to tell them when to bail; when to max-out on their California real estate and escape with top dollar in their pockets. As if I knew. And, as if that very attitude isn’t what dooms us to start with—the concept of disposable landscapes. Stay. Fight. Change. Make it better.

This situation isn’t like my brother, leaning over to help me with my frozen laces, and grinning, “See, it’s okay. It’s all about timing the jump.”

What’s the Buzz?

A.V. Walters–

IMG_2078

I read all the science on it, and I find it frustrating that there is no consensus about just what is up with the bees. I’ve been a bee fancier for decades. My grandfather was a beekeeper and my interest was piqued as a little kid. However, my urban life didn’t favor beekeeping. When I finally moved to the country, in Two Rock, I was more than ready to keep bees. Then, I learned that my landlord was wildly allergic to bee stings. I liked the landlord—so, no bees.

Even going back two decades, the bees were in trouble. The culprits then were tracheal mites and varroa mites. These mites are still a problem for the bees but, in an otherwise healthy hive, a manageable problem. Now we have what’s called Colony Collapse Disorder, with bee losses ranging from 25 to 50%, per year. They just fly away and abandon the hive, en masse. Science has yet to find the reason that the bees lose their sense of direction and wander off to die. In fact, it’s likely there are several reasons. We really are at a point where bees are at risk—and with them a substantial percentage of our food supply. One-third of what we eat requires bee involvement.

When North Americans think of our bees, they are generally European honeybees. They have been domesticated for thousands of years—and we brought them with us to America. They are not “natural” to our North American biome, but they are a vital component of our agriculture. There are plenty of native pollinators, but they’re not a big part of the way America produces food. And, that’s a very big part of the problem.

It seems to be lost on Big Ag that bees are insects, just like many of the other agricultural “pests.” Our industrial agricultural model—based on monoculture, is hostile to most insects and weeds. The dominant approach is to saturate the crops, and the fields, with poisons. There is an enormous “collateral damage” quotient in the dominant approach. Our foods are coated in pesticide residues, our soil and groundwater are being contaminated, our agricultural workers suffer from chronic exposure syndromes and we poison the bees, our pollinators. Some newer pesticides, neonicitinoids, appear to be particularly damaging to bee populations. Unfortunately, while the bees are dying, the “debate” continues whether the neonicitinoids are legitimate suspects. The makers of these toxins, Bayer and Syngenta, claim that proper use will not result in bee losses—taking a page from the tobacco companies’ old playbook on what does or doesn’t cause lung cancer. Denial can hold truth at bay for decades. After all, there are a great many factors at work.

Included in the mix are issues of proper beekeeping. The emphasis for professional beekeepers tends to fall into one of two camps—the pollinators and the honey producers—though the pollinators produce honey, and the honey folks’ bees are obviously out there pollinating, too. Both camps are guilty of not taking great care of their bees. Here, the big issues seem to be food and travel.

Like most of us, bees are healthiest if they have a diverse diet and a low stress lifestyle. Left to their own devices, bees will collect the nectar and pollen from of a variety of plants and will produce more than enough honey to feed the hive through the winter. The pollination industry interferes with the natural order by trucking the bees from place to place to pollinate specific crops. There is no diet diversity, the bees are exposed to high levels of insecticides on the crops they pollinate, and living on the road is hard on the bees’ navigation skills.

The honey industry is no better. In the quest for high honey production, the beekeepers strip the hives of honey and then winter-feed the bees with high fructose corn syrup or sugar—the bee version of junk food. (Not that the pollinators don’t use sugar diets, they do, too!) In both cases, bees are weakened, and then at risk for the various bee hazards, including the tracheal and varroa mites and pesticide exposure. There’s so much finger-pointing going on in the bee tragedy that the bees will be all gone before any coherent science can catch up. Indeed, I heard one beekeeper justify his poor practices on the grounds that everyone else does it, and the bees will soon be dead, anyway! (I wonder if he has the same attitude when it comes to raising his kids.)

Every single day I am solicited online for donations to “save the bees.” Most of these are seeking funds to fight the use of neonicitinoids which really are a big problem, but only a part of the problem. The challenges of beekeeping are a microcosm of the challenges we have in agriculture, anyway. It’s a problem of scale—diversity equals strength—monoculture equals weakness. The solution isn’t to pour on chemicals; the solution is to grow our crops and our bees in ways mindful of, and taking full advantage of, the rhythms and ways of nature. Organics. It can be done.

So this week, Rick and I have started to make our contribution to save the bees. A month ago, I took a beekeeping class. And we’ve invested in hives and beekeeping gear. Ours will be pampered bees. They will live in one place. They will have a natural and diverse diet—and in the winter, they’ll eat their honey, like bees should. We’ll enjoy smaller yields in the spring—after the bees have had the chance to overwinter. Small scale, “bees first”, management is the solution. We’ll do our bit to save the bees, while the bees earn their keep by pollinating our gardens and giving up a bit of honey. Win-win. And now, if we could just get these hives assembled….

 

Let's see, Tab A....goes into....

Let’s see, Tab A….goes into….

 

 

 

 

Feed The Soil, Not the Plant!

A.V. Walters–

It’s the organic gardener’s mantra. If the soil is healthy, the plants will be healthy. If the soil isn’t healthy, there’s little you can do for the plants, that isn’t ultimately bad for the soil. Chemical fertilizers are the equivalent of an IV drip. Maybe it will do in a pinch, but it’s no solution to the nutrition issue. Do things that are good for the soil, and you will be rewarded with a healthy garden. It’s almost that simple.

I’ve been soil building for over thirty years. Trouble is, I keep moving on and leaving my efforts behind. This year we will have a garden. Last year we didn’t have our well in, so it wouldn’t have been responsible to put in a garden. Instead, I took soil samples and sent them in to the extension office for testing.

The results were grim. Our soils are largely glacial deposits. Sand, and lots of it. We’re deficient in most of nutrients for which they test. Most importantly, there’s not a lot of organic material to hold what’s there. With straight sand, it’ll take a good bit of soil building before we have something to hold the nutrients and to hold moisture.

That said, it’s not a disaster. Our delays have helped. We’ve changed the location for the garden–our first pick didn’t have as much sunlight as we thought. Being here has let us learn more about the location, the winds and how the sunlight falls. This land hasn’t been farmed (conventionally or otherwise) in at least thirty years, so the good news is that there are no bad things in the soil. We just need to build it up. The fastest way to get that process started is to add compost, or composted manure. And we’re lucky. It’s easier to amend sand than it is to lighten heavy clay.

I watched last winter as the Amish farmers spread manure on their fields in February and March–really in the middle of winter. At first I was surprised, but thinking more, it made sense. The fields are frozen, so their teams (they farm with draft horses) don’t get mired in the muck from early spring rains. The composted manure doesn’t care when it is spread, it’ll freeze now, but then “activate” when things thaw, and the early rains will carry the nutrients into the soil. It’s an efficient use of winter down time. I knew then that I’d need to watch for a supply of composted manure, come February.

And, this past weekend, there it was. A craigslist ad for 100 tons of composted cow manure. I forwarded it to Rick. He laughed. Meanwhile, I went to the internet to get the weight to volume conversions and I did the calculations.

I assured him, “No sweetie, we don’t need 100 tons.”

“What do you think we need? Says in the ad that there’s a ten ton minimum.”

“We need fifty tons.”

He could hardly believe me. But if we’re going to jump start this garden, and if we’re serious about it, that’s what we need. There’s the garden, and then more for our small orchard. We’ll need to amend deeply in the orchard. (Thank God for the Kubota and the backhoe! Maybe, if it’s a light enough mix, we could use the snowblower to spread it!) (I wonder what Rick will say about that.)

You can see where I get the idea.

You can see where I get the idea.

Rick is a nice boy from Southern California. I don’t think there’s any way in the world that he ever thought that he’d be the kind of guy to purchase fifty tons of composted manure. He’s shaking his head. I’ve negotiated with the dairy owner for a good price. So, now we just need to find a trucker to haul it. This isn’t a case where owning a pick up will help. This is easier said than done. I haven’t yet been able to find a hauler. The primary crop in these parts is cherries. Cherry farmers use flatbed trucks (with stacked bins.) A flatbed won’t work for manure. I’ve asked around, so far with little luck. Once I disclose what I want hauled, I’ve detected a near-immediate, and serious lack of interest.

It may take a while or so to get this all arranged. That’s good, because in the interim, I’d like to haul all of the trees we cleared last summer over to the new garden site to do a burn. Nothing helps a new garden like bio-char. Winter isn’t just about seed catalogs and dreaming. Sometimes there are garden chores that are best saved for the dead of winter.

 

The Tyranny of Round Numbers

A.V. Walters

This is my 200th blog. Next week, I’m coming up on my third anniversary of blogging. I’ve been stuck on this momentous event. Somehow, it felt like I was supposed to be profound, or something. Oh well, what you see is what you get.

I was a conscripted blogger. “They” said that indie writers and publishers needed to blog. Apparently, we need an online presence in order to sell books. Ha!

I bellied up to the bar, and started blogging. What does a fiction writer blog about? Everything, and nothing. I followed my nose, tried to stay away from politics (a stretch for me) and focused on chronicling the rich parts of the everyday. I cannot honestly say that the blog has ever sold a book. And then, after about eighteen months, they said, “Oh, never mind the blogging, it doesn’t work for fiction.”

But, by then, it was too late. Like most writers, I live in my head. I am probably most comfortable in writing. In this funny, online world, I have made friends. Political friends (even when I pledged not to go there,) artist friends, gardeners, organic farmers, people who keep bees, people who can vegetables, celiacs, funny people, other writers, editors, ne’er-do-wells and goody-two-shoes. In short, I have found community.

They are everywhere. My “regulars” are as far flung as Australia, Singapore, France, United Kingdom, Brazil, Canada, Germany, India, New Zealand, and all corners of these United States. In the blogosphere, I travel all over, too. Over the course of three years, I’ve been visited by over seventy countries. I am continually amazed that we can connect across the ether. These connections give me hope. Even as governments fail us, and corporations sell us, we can all be ambassadors of civility, humor and peace.

Not that I’d be considered a “successful” blogger. My numbers remain relatively low. I refuse to play SEO games. I refuse to do internet marketing or advertising. (Aren’t these scams?) I refuse to amend how I title my blogs, just to capture more “hits.” Indeed, learning that the blog wasn’t going to sell books, anyway, was liberating. I am free to be stubborn! I can do whatever I want in this forum; it is my world! (And welcome, by the way.) Despite what my trusty editor, Rick, says, I am even free to use semi-colons.

Our most popular topics are about season and gardening (oh, yeah, and emus.) The single most enduring blog is still Naming Emus. Stories about living on the chicken farm in Two Rock are popular, too. The shock of relocation is wearing off; we’re comfortable in Northern Michigan and revel in seasons (and snow removal.) It’s been an adventure. And you’ve been there, all the way.

We’re hovering on many exciting new ventures for the next year. We’ll finish the cabin and move in (gypsies, no more)—we’ll get the garden started (already I’m up to my ears in seed catalogs), I’ll finally try my hand at beekeeping (after wanting and waiting for five decades!) and, if there’s time and energy, we’ll get chickens. I’ll keep blogging, and sharing, though I may slow down just a bit this spring. I’m trying to get my head back into writing—I have an unfinished novel haunting me.

So, thank you all for following, sharing, commenting and enriching my life. Raise a glass—Happy 200!
(Next time, pictures, I promise.)

 

ooops, here’s the link to the most visited blog, https://two-rock-chronicles.com/2013/03/10/naming-emus/

One Year Counting Blessings

A.V. Walters

It’s an anniversary of sorts. A year ago today, two exhausted ragtag souls arrived in Michigan, California cats in tow, truck, trailer and pick up. It was a hairy trip, with no clear home in sight. Here we are, a year later–under construction but with a light at the end of the tunnel. We’ve learned a lot, mostly that this still appears to be the most sane plan for what we want to do when we grow up. We’ve survived the fiercest Michigan winter in decades (with another on the way, they say.) We are not dissuaded. It’s been raining–and the forecast for at least the next week predicts the kinds of rainstorms that hold construction work at bay.

We sigh, we shrug. At least we have a solid plan. Our little cabin is wrapped in its raincoat. The well drillers came last week–113 feet to ample, clear, clean water. We’re digging–site drainage, water lines, and then we’ll get to the septic. You can almost always dig in the rain.

I was talking to a California friend today. He asked after our progress and listened for a minute or two while I bemoaned weather delays. Then he made me stop. “Remember, you’re talking to California, here. What we wouldn’t give for just a fraction of your rain. It’s 95 degrees out here today–in October. We look up and wonder when…. if, our rains will come.”

Water was one of the reasons we came. We also came because my mum wasn’t well. I’m happy to report that she is much improved. It’s good to see her with energy and plans again. She’s getting ready for winter, too.

I’m ready for it. We’ll keep on keeping on. We’re feeling lucky on this anniversary.With one eye on the sky, I’m looking at craigslist for a used 3 point snowblower for the tractor.

 

Autumn Olive…

A.V. Walters —

With olive-like leaves

With olive-like leaves

Also known as Russian Olive, the Autumn Olive is considered a pest species. In the want ads of our local newspaper, guys advertise that they’ll pull it up by its roots, for a fee. Apparently it arrived as a domestic landscaping plant—but escaped into the larger wilds. I don’t know why nobody likes it.

In the spring is has tiny, extremely fragrant, delicate yellow, trumpet–like blooms. Though you have to inspect to see how lovely they are, just walking by smells terrific—like you’d walked into a tropical bouquet. The plant itself is just a shrub, with foliage looking a lot like olive leaves—and so, the name. I suppose some object to the thorns. I haven’t had too much trouble with thorns—even pruning. You just need to be mindful of them to avoid being scratched.

The real surprise is the fruit. It’s ripe in the fall. The plant book describes it as tart, but edible, mostly for migrating birds. I guess I’ll have to leave some for them—I love it. It is a sweet/tart combo that I love. Rick just turns up his nose, thinks I’m crazy. Next year I’ll try making jelly out of it. I think that tartness would be lovely captured in a clear jar of scarlet. I haven’t seen any recipes. Could it be I’m the only one that likes them? (Other than the cedar waxwings.)

But I like the fruit

But I like the fruit

Killing Fields

A.V. Walters

The view out our window.

The view out our window.

We knew. We’d even talked about it. Our landlady rents the acreage around her house to a local dairy farmer. He grows corn to feed his cows. We stand at the edge of the lawn, where our clothesline is, and we look. There are no weeds in this cornfield. The farmer does not practice no-till planting. On a windy day, the sandy soil catches, and the air fills with an ominous dustbowl specter. Worse, he plants corn, year in, year out, without any crop rotation, depleting the soil of nitrogen and other nutrients. Why should he care? It’s not his land. Some people actually like the tidy lines of weed-free corn in formation. I find it sinister.

You see, I know that nature abhors a vacuum. Weed-free is unnatural. It means that her fields are sprayed with Round-Up. I live within spitting distance (literally) of GMO corn. Worse yet, the lower part of our property is downwind of it. It’s a little funny; for years I’ve been protesting and writing about the dangers of GMO and its impact on the environment, and now, I have a front row seat.

Yesterday morning was as still as death—unusual in our normally wind-whipped world. For that, I’m thankful. I’d gone out to the compost and heard, and then saw, a tractor headed up the road in our direction. I had a bad feeling. I sprinted back inside, gathering up a loose cat along the way, and closed the windows. Sure enough, it was the farmer coming to spray the field. I stayed in most of the day, canceled my plans to do laundry, and kept the cats inside—feeling a little trapped. But, my little garden is out there, on the side facing the field. If that Round-up went airborne, it’ll be dead within days

I know that this is the norm in agricultural communities. As a kid, I remember they’d spray the fields right by us, even as we walked to school. Even now, nobody thinks twice about it—it’s a way of life. Yet, there are studies galore showing the neurological impact of pesticides and herbicides on those living within a mile of sprayed crops. A new one came out this week showing the correlation (not causation) between the increased incidence of autism in the children of women so exposed. I have a friend who has Parkinson’s—the legacy of her childhood exposure to pesticides in California’s Central Valley. It’s not just her saying it—the medical studies bear her out. In my world-view, chemicals have become the problem in farming, not the solution.

My landlady thinks that my property—vacant for twenty-five years, overgrown and wild—is an eyesore. She was glad I’d finally appeared, thinking I would whip things into shape. She thinks that any insect or weed on her property must have come from the undisciplined wilds, of mine. We were at a function together when she informed me that she’d told her farmer how much I’d love to have him grow corn on my bottomland.

I recoiled in horror. “You said what?

“You know, get rid of all that scrubby pine and weeds—he pays well. We have good soil here.”

We are worlds apart. There are times when one should hold one’s tongue. Unfortunately, when it comes to neighborly relations, I forget about those times.

“Think again. I wouldn’t let that man set foot on my property.”

She looked like I’d slapped her. “He’s a good farmer—and what’s wrong with corn?”

So, I let her know what’s wrong with corn, at length—especially with the way it’s grown on her property. I’m afraid (but not totally regretful) that I even said that she stands by while he’s killing her soil. She looked injured. Well, she only knows what she knows. She grew up on a farm and better living through chemistry is deeply ingrained in her limited, world-view.

What will we say to the next generations? Maybe (just maybe) those of my landlady’s generation have an excuse. They just did what everyone else did, what the Agriculture People told them. My generation started out knowing better. We started out with Silent Spring and a glimpse of the damage done by “modern life.” Where did we go with it? From fertilizers, to organophosphates, to GMO/ Glyphosate, to neonicitinoids. How will we explain a world of dead soils and contaminated groundwater? How will we justify the loss of the bees? And this is just farming I’m talking about.

For much of my adult life, I grieved that I was unable to have children. I’m at peace with it, now—maybe it’s even a little bit of a relief. I have always tried to do my part—to garden within the rhythms of nature, to avoid products that do damage to the environment and to limit my participation in our throw-away culture. I look around now and realize that taking personal responsibility isn’t enough. We all need to do more, to tip the scales back in balance. So, there is a sense of relief that I’ll never have to look into my children’s faces to tell them we knew, but we didn’t do enough to stop it.

 

 

Right Plan…

A.V. Walters —

A walk in the woods

A walk in the woods

It’s said that, when the Europeans arrived in Michigan, a squirrel could cross the state, Great Lake to Great Lake, without its feet ever touching the ground. That didn’t last. Michigan’s vast forests became the fuel for building the region’s great cities. By the turn of the twentieth century, the pillaging was near complete. Only a few stands of virgin timber remained (and remain still.) Here in Leelaunau County there were numerous mills—timber being Michigan’s first wave of development. Empire, the little village where we spent the winter, was historically a booming timber mill town, with the largest, best equipped and most productive hardwood mill in the region. Its claim to fame is that they invented tongue and groove boards. (Our previous home, Petaluma, was responsible for the invention of the chicken incubator. It’s always something.)

In 1917, the Empire Lumber Company mill burned to the ground—and not for the first time, either. But, it was the last time. With the timber all but gone, there was no point in rebuilding. The devastation from Michigan’s unrelenting, statewide clear-cutting inspired Teddy Roosevelt to create the National Park System. It was the era of the Robber Barons. They gave little thought to man’s impact on the environment. After all, with all its rainfall, it’s a climate that renews. But you can never rebuild the majesty of a virgin forest. Michigan remains a timber state—eager to clear-cut the very minute the trees are marketable. We’ve seen the results, a striking scar on the landscape, and a hazard of erosion on these sandy soils.

As if to illustrate the point, our property is actually zoned “Timber Cutover,” shorthand for “already cut and too steep to farm.” Though there are some fair sized trees, now, the land shows distinct signs of clear-cuts through its history. It’s crisscrossed with ancient barb wire fences—grazing being the normal succession to clear-cut. The land was last “selectively” logged in 2004—to thin the trees, as recommended by the local extension people. I saw first hand how the taste of timber-money can change one’s view of the land. When I bought the property, I saw it as a sanctuary, a refuge in the forest, but my then-husband’s view of it changed after the quick profits from the cut. It became a timber holding and he, by extension, a timber baron, eagerly awaiting the next opportunity to cut. It’s silly to aggrandize so small a kingdom. I knew then that he had no intention of ever living on the land.

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The property is still recovering from the ’04 cut, and we’re suffering the ravages of the ash trees to the Emerald Borer. But, Rick shares my dedication to the land. We walk its steep hills, taking note of the trees and identifying the undergrowth. Blackberries sprout up in the sunny spots where fallen trees have left openings in the canopy above. There are wild strawberries, grapes, and, we hear, morel mushrooms in the early spring. We explore and plan, learning the land’s glaciated folds like the lines on our hands. We’re cutting a little now—mostly scrub pine out front on the more gentle slopes—to make way for a driveway and the foundation of our home. We debate the merits of each tree. Does it provide screening for privacy, sun, or snow? Is it healthy? Does it have aesthetic value? Does it block the view? Is there another alternative to chopping it down? We are pioneers to a new future, which goes to show that life can be full of wonderful surprises. We laugh at the short tag line I use to describe the circuitous circumstances that brought us here at this late point in our lives—right plan, wrong man.

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Okay, Work With Me Here…

A.V. Walters–

 

The unfortunate placement of this volunteer spruce begs the question.

The unfortunate placement of this volunteer spruce begs the question.

It kicked on at 10:20 in the morning, and it got me thinking. It’s a beautiful day. Clear and clean, post-storm. It’s not hot out, though it likely will be later today. Upstairs, the landlady’s central air conditioner has kicked on, already.

I’m sorry to burden you with my rant, but more people need to think, to plan a little, in their trajectory on this planet. This is only partly about landscaping but it starts there.

I identify a particular brainless “yard pattern” with Michigan, though I expect it’s all over. You see it driving down any street or road, though it’s particularly noticeable in the country. Michigan is a fertile state. If it’s not planted or maintained, its natural tendency is to revert back to forest. So it’s a bit of a shock that folks will buy a place in the country, cut down all the trees, and put in a lawn. They plunk their house in the middle of it—kings of their environment. Landscaping? Well, it’s a border mentality. They plant along the lot-line. Daffodils, trees, whatever, regardless of aesthetics, they celebrate ownership with a string of ill-advised plantings whose only assignment is to state, “This is mine!”

A century ago, farmers were not so self-absorbed. Clearing land took a lot of energy, which they reserved for their fields. They oriented their homes to take advantage of the sun’s rays in the winter. They had adequate roof overhangs to protect them from the rain or heat of the summer, and—they strategically planted deciduous trees to shade them from the heat and still let the sun’s warming rays help them in the dead of winter. I lived in such a home in Two Rock, a turn of the (last) century farmhouse that never got too hot, because trees were planted to provide shade. In the winter, the sun’s low rays streamed in through the living room window to provide welcome warmth and light. In really hot summer weather, we’d close the curtains and windows to the sun and the daytime heat. When the evening cooled, we’d open everything up again to the refreshing breeze. No air-conditioning, just good, old common sense. In the seven years I lived there, and despite some really blistering heat waves, that house never went above 81˚F. Where did that wisdom go?

This house we’re in now has been here for some thirty or forty years, yet nobody has ever planted a shade tree to provide summer cooling. (Instead, there’s a line of spruces on the lot line, whose long winter shadows screen the sun’s warmth when it could be useful.) The house is surrounded by lawn, which, to look good, requires regular watering—with the electrical expense of pumping that water. There are plenty of windows, but no one ever pulls a curtain against the summer heat. Instead, before the dew is even off the grass, the air-conditioner fires up its relentless drone. In an era of global warming triggered by energy use, somehow the air-conditioning solution seems to miss the point. I can almost hear the planet sigh, “Work with me here!”

You can always retrofit with well-placed trees. Drapes closed in the daytime, especially in a home that’s empty while you’re off at work—that’s not too much to ask, is it? We have a regular steady breeze—so you can open the windows in the evening, smell the fresh country air and cool your home. We can work with nature, instead of against it.

Rick and I have selected our building site based on existing tree placement. We’ll have the summer shade even before we have the home. Those trees will lose their leaves and we’ll get some winter warming and light on the south side during sunny winter days. Window placement is designed to maximize light and sun, when it’s needed and to avoid unnecessary heat loss. In that way, it’s an old-fashioned placement. Sure, there’ll be a view—but not at the expense of energy. We can all do a little more, to use a little less.

That’s my rant. (Live with it – we all can!)

 

Good Enough Gardening

A.V. Walters–

Now, a good gardener would have done things differently. A good gardener would have had the soil tested and would have amended accordingly. This year, I’m going to have to be a good-enough gardener. The plants went into their buckets in a flurry of enthusiasm, an unexpected last chance to see things growing, and enjoy them on my dinner plate through the season. What can I say; it’s a done deal.

I’ve heard that the soil here is alkaline. (And the water is hard.) I suppose you could say that this little bucket-garden is a test plot. We’ll just have to see how things go. I fully expect to test the soil on our property, next year, and amend accordingly. So far, we’ve been pretty lucky. We planted in a good spot, which I picked for the southern exposure. What I didn’t figure on was wind. Wow. Like Two Rock, this place has wind, and then some, to spare. (The wheels are turning and I’m thinking… a good spot for wind power.) My little southern exposure turned out to be perfect, because the house also offers the garden some shelter from the wind.

I’m not joking about the wind. It’s a beautiful day, so I hung out the laundry. It hangs horizontal. By the time I finished pinning up the first load, the first things up were already dry. Whipping in the breeze, even the towels dry soft and everything comes up lint free. There has to be another way to harness that energy for good.

Today was watering day for our little garden, too. In Two Rock I was able to satisfy watering by topping off the buckets, twice, once a week. In Two Rock, there was no rain during the growing season. But, there was more clay to the soil, and that helped to hold the moisture

Here, it is largely sand. Even with Michigan’s regular rainfall, I think I may have to water a little more frequently—especially with these winds. The plants, in the ground for about a week now, look healthy and have started to take off. Everything has sprouted a round of new leaves, and the peppers and tomatoes have started to flower. I was surprised at how little they suffered from transplant shock. I’m looking forward to the results of our experimental garden.

With today’s gardening finished, I decided to take advantage of the wind and do “extra” laundry. You know, the stuff you don’t usually do—the throw rugs and some blankets, even my winter coat and the winter’s down clothing. They’ll easily be dry by evening. I’m letting the wind do the rest of my day’s chores, and I’ll get the credit.

Garden Surprise

Michigan Meets the Bucket Garden

Another Bucket Garden

Another Bucket Garden

A.V. Walters–

I had resigned myself to not having a garden this year. There’s just too much going on. We have building to do—and that has to take the lead. In Empire, we had a late spring, and nowhere to start seeds. Now that we’ve moved, well, it’s a little late. Michigan has a shorter season—and, unlike Two Rock, it’s not forgiving on the harvest end. Besides, in a rural setting like this, a garden needs infrastructure. I don’t have time for infrastructure.

A garden, especially a vegetable garden, is an artificial environment. Its inhabitants have needs. In Michigan, they have some basic needs that exceed my Californian framework. Here, we have garden predators. And not just the usual gopher hazards (though we have those, which, like in Two Rock, we can solve with buckets.) Here, we have deer. Worse yet, the place is crawling with bunnies. That means we need a really tall fence (six feet or better) and it has to extend underground. Bunnies are not deterred unless you prevent them from burrowing under the fence. With their Bambi faces and cute eyes, these critters’ benign outward appearance hides a darker garden reality

Moreover, we don’t yet have water on the property. I’m no fool. I read French Dirt. Never plant a garden until you have a sure water supply. Our well is not yet in. No well, no water. No water, no garden. It’s as simple as that

Still, Monday I ran into town and stopped at my favorite grocer, Oryana (a local co-op). I was doomed, even before I stepped inside. There, at the entrance, were racks and racks of organic vegie starts. At good prices, too! Some of them even knew my name! I have no discipline—I quickly snagged a bunch and headed home. On the way I rationalized my decision. I could plant them just outside the window of our little, basement apartment. After all, my planting buckets are sitting idle. The landlady’s dogs, though pests in many other ways, allegedly keep the yard clear of deer and bunnies. (We’ll see.) Surely the landlady would enjoy fresh produce through the summer, too.

It won’t be a big garden—only twenty buckets. Eight tomatoes, five peppers (can’t find decent hot peppers in Michigan), an eggplant assortment, cucumbers, zucchini, crookneck, and a cantaloupe. We’ll skip the leafy things—I just picked through what was left at Oryana’s. It’s just a tad late in the season, but I’m happy to have something to grow.

I was sheepish on my arrival home. After all, we’d had the garden discussion. Rick knew something was up immediately. He laughed when I admitted to my impulse purchase. But, of course, he helped me dig-in the buckets.

Marshmallows or Popcorn

A.V. Walters–

marshpop

Surprisingly, it turns out that Rick is making the California to Michigan transition better than I am. I still have a foot in each world. I’m still on political and activist email lists for California and Sonoma County. I still check the weather for Two Rock.

I have an off-beat sense of humor. Sometimes it gets me into trouble. Sometimes it reveals an underlying sense of order that is just a little out-of-step with the “regular” world.

This was never more clear than, a decade or so ago, when I received a telephone call from my sister, whose home had just burned to the ground. (“Defective dryer wiring.”) She was near hysterical.

“It’s gone, everything…(sobbing)…”

“Everybody get out okay?”

“Yeah, we weren’t home—Bill was at the neighbors, when they saw the smoke…”

“Pets out, too?”

“Yeah.”

“What’s left… like, how high are the walls?

She broke down again, “Nothing. Nothing’s more than waist high. Just smoldering embers. (Sobbing) What am I going to do?”

Here, perhaps I should have paused to think. But I didn’t.

“I dunno. Got any marshmallows?”

Needless to say, it wasn’t well received.

From this, I’ve developed my theory of Marshmallows or Popcorn. It seems to me that any disaster has radiating circles of impact. If it’s your disaster, it’s Marshmallows. You are close enough to feel the heat; you’re the one feeling the loss. Someone else’s is Popcorn—you’re role is, essentially, an observer. It seems we humans make a spectator sport of disasters. Rick calls it the Rubbernecking Rule—you know, how you just can’t help but slow down and look at an accident. You read an obituary—and check the age. You hear that someone has cancer and the first thing you ask is, “Did he smoke?” It’s a way to handle loss that isn’t yours. Intellectualize. Engage from a safe distance. The psyche wants to understand and, at the same time, dissociate from the loss. That’s Popcorn. The news cycle essentially feeds on our addiction to Popcorn.

I read that there are very strong indications of an intense El Nino cycle, brewing in the Pacific. Ocean temperatures are significantly elevated. In any normal cycle, this could lead to drought conditions in California. Right now, though, California has already seen a number of abnormally dry years. Rick and I were discussing it, the double whammy of ocean warming and El Nino, and whether that fell into an underlying climate-change warming pattern.

Generally they report California’s water status in terms of snow-pack and reservoir levels. We know, though, that that doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s a short-sighted measurement that doesn’t reflect the impact on the environment, or what happens in rural areas, where folks and farmers rely on well-water. For them, annual rainfall is critical to recharge the aquifers. I thought about our lives in Two Rock and our life and friends back on the farm.

“What will we do with yet another year of drought?”

Rick looked over at me, “What do you mean, we?” He grinned. “I live in Michigan.”

So, we do the math: Time + Distance = Popcorn.