Archives for category: chores

They’re Here!

A.V. Walters–

I don’t celebrate Earth Day. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice idea. But it annoys me no end when folks known for driving down the driveway to the mailbox “celebrate” Earth Day by buying “green” products they don’t need.

Perhaps it’s a meaningful reminder to people inclined to forget that the planet sits on the edge of the abyss.

Instead, we do our damnest, everyday, to live lightly on the planet. We’re not perfect. Our Spring tribute to the Earth usually involves planting trees. Many, many trees.

This year we backed off. It wasn’t that last year’s 203 tree extravaganza nearly killed us. That was last year. Annual memory lapse is normal. This year, though, we switched to pricey nursery trees. That puts a damper on how many we can plant.

When you pay the big bucks for pedigreed trees, you want to be sure you give them the very best opportunity to survive. We dig deep holes. No matter that the little bare-root sprig is less than a foot tall, our paltry soils must be amended deeply. We sprung for high end organic compost this year—horse manure may be fine for conservation trees, but only the best for these babies. That adds another $6.00 per tree. And, of course we’ll have to cage them, to protect them from the deer, the bunnies, and any other herbivore threats; add rabbit proof welded wire fencing, and a full day to manufacture their cages. We’ll have to extend water down to this newly planted area. There’s plenty of rain this time of year, but by August, I don’t want to have to carry water in buckets.

Needless to say, once the trees arrive, we drop all other activities. Some holes have to be dug by hand. Most though can be done with the backhoe. (You see, we are very serious about these trees.) I figure it’ll take about a week. Then, sore and weary, we’ll return to our regular overloaded lives knowing that we’ve done what we can to make the planet more green.

See you in about a week.

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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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A Matter of Scale—

A.V. Walters—

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Beautiful? Yes. But look closely at the bumps on the twigs.

Rick and I have returned to our Sundays “day off,” in which we spend Sunday afternoons cutting wood up in the woods. We are still clearing trails and cleaning up after the wild Storm of 2015. I’m sure that the trees down, from just that storm, will heat our Michigan winters for several years to come. This doesn’t even touch the backlog of deadfall accumulating from the dying ash and beech trees. We’ll have work, and heat, for the rest of our lives.

Last Sunday I noticed that the forest was sticky. All over, the understory plants are glazed with a tinge of sap—not unheard of in spring, but a little unusual, given how dry it has been. After a light snow year, April and May had precious little rain for us. The forest is crispy-dry. We didn’t get any of our usual spring morel mushrooms. Here, and up in the U.P., there have been fire warnings. (In May!) We watched the Canadian wildfire in Fort McMurray in horror.

This is not really unusual—when California has an El Nino season, Michigan’s weather is mild and dry. Finally, this week the dry spell broke and we’ve seen lovely storms to accompany the greening of our forests.

So what’s up with sticky? Yesterday, a friend, brow furrowed with concern, pointed out the scale on the maple tree next to our house. Yuck. His trees have it, too. Scale is an insect infestation. Maples always have some measure of scale, but the outer branches of our tree were lined with the limpet-like outer shells of these tiny sap-sucking vultures. It appears that we are having a major infestation of scale. The scale is responsible for the sugar-coated forest.

We live in Michigan. Bugs, in all shapes and forms, are a way of life here. Still, bugs of any kind, in great numbers, are unnerving. After our friend left, I stood in the soft rain, running my hands down every branch I could reach, squishing all those thousands of little scale bugs. Rick just shook his head.

“What are you going to do, molest every tree in the forest?”

Well, no. But the two maples next to my house—those I can help. It’s worrisome. Is this, yet another forest calamity in our future? Naturally this called for a research trip to the internet.

The likely problem is the dry spring. Maple trees under stress produce a thinner, more sugary sap. It’s a stress reaction, to ensure the energy needed leafing out in spring. The scale bugs, in turn, thrive on the sweeter mixture, ironically putting the trees under more stress. So, as long as the dry cycle is not repeated too much over the years, the scale is a cyclical problem that will solve itself.

There are measures I can take. I could have “power washed” the trees, before the leaves came out. I could use poisons (not likely!), sprays or root saturation with systemics. I could use a dormant spray in the very early spring—a perfectly acceptable organic measure—like we’ll be using on the orchard trees when they’re bigger. But, Rick is right. I cannot treat the entire forest. I need to relax here, and wait patiently for the ladybugs. Scale is a favorite of ladybugs and birds.

In the meantime, the rains will wash the forest clean of “sticky.” And, at the same time, they will feed the trees, making them stronger and better equipped to deal with the pests. I’ll step back and let the problem solve itself. Sometimes there is a danger of looking too closely.

 

 

The Scent of Bees

A.V. Walters

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I’ve wanted to keep bees since my age was in the single digits. My grandfather kept bees. And turkeys. And rabbits. We never knew how many hives he had, because he was forever loading them up into the back of his old Suburban, and carting them around to “someone who needed them.” I didn’t understand why someone might need bees.

He was a quiet man of many talents. He was not a big feature in our lives, because there had been a divorce. For their own reasons, neither my grandmother, nor my grandfather’s second wife, were eager to see a relationship between Grandpa and his grandchildren. The visits were few and far between. But he was interesting and different. He made things with his hands. He was, literally, always trying to build a better mousetrap. He didn’t talk much, but when he did, what he said was solid. Or funny. Sometimes, darkly funny. He thought it was funny to pick up hitchhikers when his Suburban was full of bees.

So, bees have always been in the back of my mind. But, there were always too many reasons why I couldn’t keep bees. In my urban years, my partner was adamantly against it. In Two Rock, my landlord was allergic to stings. (You don’t waste a good landlord, like that.) So the move to Michigan was my chance to finally become a beekeeper. I say “become,” because it takes some time to really be a beekeeper. There’s a lot to learn, especially now, when the bees are in so much trouble.

I’ve joined a beekeeping group. Many of us are “newbees” but in the group there’s a generous wealth of talent and experience—and the rest we make up for with enthusiasm. Our founder is a dynamic young man, willing to share his decade or so of experience.

When spring rolled around, our group put together an order of bees from a supplier down in Holland. It’s a three and a half hour drive to Holland, but our fearless leader, Matt, said he’d do the pick up. There was only one wrinkle, Matt’s wife was expecting their second child—if the baby came early, Matt needed a back-up driver. I volunteered. How hard could it be? Others in the group looked dubious. They teased me, advising me to drive with the air-conditioner on full—to chill-out the bees.

Of course, by volunteering, I somehow guaranteed an early delivery date (for the baby, not the bees.) The day before the scheduled pick-up I emailed Matt—to ask how his wife was doing. “Funny you should ask,” he responded. They were just checking in to the hospital. I was now on-the-hook.

I told my mother, who was horrified at the idea of sharing a ride with hundreds of thousands of bees.

I told my sister, who told me not to pick up any hitchhikers.

I told Rick, who devised a system of bed-sheets and boards—to put over the bees to keep them away from me in the car.

I’m not put off by a long drive. The morning of the trip, though, we lost our spring weather. On the way down, I experienced every kind of weather, driving rain, sleet, buffeting winds and hail. Finally, in Holland, I missed my turn. I didn’t worry; I could just double back—or so I thought. Holland was having its Spring Tulip Festival. Many streets were closed and the town was a maze of festival detours. It’s a pretty little town, and many of its streets are lined with tulips. Lots of tulips. The tourists were there, en masse, dressed for a spring festival despite near freezing temperatures and occasional snow squalls. And, predictably, traffic sucked.

Finally, I arrived at my destination. The bee pick-up was held in the bee-master’s garage. The car area was filled with bee “packages” and the adjacent shop area displayed many bee accessories—wooden-ware, bee tools and such. Bees are sold as three-pound packages, in shoe-box sized wood and screened boxes, each containing approximately 10,000 bees and a queen. They also come as “nucs”—mini-hives with five frames containing all the components of a working hive, bees; a laying queen, brood, drones, honey and “bee-bread” (the mixture of honey and pollen fed to the larvae.) I was there to pick up about forty packages.

The garage was not only filled with boxes of bees, it was awash with loose bees, and beekeepers. Beekeepers are an odd lot. The beekeepers assembled for the pick-up and bee related shopping were oblivious to the loose bees, drifting in and around the garage. Regular folk would flee.

The bee vendors loaded the car for me, concerned that I wouldn’t leave adequate space between the packages. “Bees need air, you know.” The bee-master was concerned that the car wasn’t big enough for the Club’s order. I was concerned that he’d want to put bees in the passenger seat, right next to me.

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Bees, in every nook and cranny.

Finally, after many adjustments, and one sting (not me), the loading was complete. Loose bees hovered in and around my open vehicle. The bee-master saw me unfolding Rick’s driver-protection-sheet, and shot out of the garage.

“Whoa, what’s that for?”

“To cover the bees while I’m driving.”

“No way. There’s too many bees—too much heat. You cannot cover them at all.”

“But it’s freezing out…”

“Good thing, too,” he replied. “I’d keep the AC on full, just in case.”

(FYI—when the temperature drops, the bees settle down and hunker together, to stay warm)

And so it was. I swallowed hard for a long drive with loose bees. I layered up my clothes and drove home with about 400,000 bees in the car, through the snow and sleet, and with the air-conditioning on full. The bees didn’t give me any trouble at all. I wondered what my grandfather would think of that! The bees had to spend the night, in the car. I worried, since it really was cold, but I needn’t have been concerned. In the morning the car was warm, and the windows were steamed up, all generated by the bees.

There was something else, too. Most beekeepers are familiar with the smells of their hives. On a warm day in the bee yard, the hives are redolent with the aroma of honey and the fragrance of beeswax. It’s a clean, sweet smell that I equate with beekeeping. But, that’s not really the smell of bees. In a small car with, 400,000 bees, you get to smell the bees. It took me awhile to figure it out—notes of the musky smell of barn and fresh cut hay, with a hint of tobacco leaf. That’s the smell of bees. I wonder if my grandfather, tooling about in his Suburban full of hives, ever caught the scent of bees.

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And, finally home in their hives.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Friction Fit

A.V. Walters

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I’m sorry that I haven’t been posting. I have been busy with everyone’s favorite task in home building. I’m insulating.

For good reason, Michigan takes insulation seriously. Back in California I remember building inspectors glancing at insulation, with a nod and a wink. Not so here. Normally, we have winters that warrant a rigorous inspection. Without insulation, we’d spend a fortune (and a lot of natural resources) to keep the place habitable in the winter.

Because there’s little you can do to insulate log walls, the remaining areas get extra scrutiny. In part because the default—fiberglass–is such a miserable job, we considered all of our options. Rigid, closed-cell board, which is not itchy at all, was time consuming and expensive. We secured bids on foam spray installation. They were outrageous—especially because of the manual labor to install the cold-roof baffles, before the spray. Ultimately we opted for the tried and true, the fiberglass, do-it-yourself option.

We have to meet R 49 in the roof and ceilings. When you include the cold-roof baffles, there’s not enough depth between the rafters to get R49’s worth of insulation. So, we found a company that made sturdy R5 baffles AND we firred-out the rafters with 2X2s for extra depth. Then we used high-density fiberglass batts. Of course, they don’t make such things in the depths we needed, so we opted for three layers of R-15 batts to get to the R-value we needed. It has been an amazing amount of work, most of it overhead, unpleasant and itchy (on a ladder, in protective layers and mask.) With three layers, it means dozens of times up and down the ladder to fill each bay. The first two layers are “friction fit,” that is, they are held up by their sheer orneriness. The last, faced, layer is stapled.

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It’s nearly finished. Some of it has to wait—to accommodate wiring and plumbing first. I don’t mind the break, though it might be hard to go back to it. Our little house will certainly be cozy when this is all done. I’m curious to see how it will fare in summer—whether the cold-roof baffles and ridge vent will really keep the roof (and thus the upstairs) cool. In that department, we are blessed that the house falls in the shade of the hill in the afternoons and that should help us keep comfortable, too. It’s important, because we’ve opted not to air-condition.

I’m happy to be nearly finished. It turns out that the only part of this task that is not friction fit, is me.