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Emerging Knapweed, as far as the eye can see.

 

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

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

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

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

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

But our gardens failed to prosper.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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“Did you hear that?” I called from the kitchen.

“What?”

“The chickens are squawking. It’s not the rooster, it’s the chickens.”

“Hmmm. Haven’t heard that in a while…do ya think?”

We don’t use lights on our chickens in the winter. We could, and then they’d lay during the dark months. Of course, unless we invested in equipment and did a lot of experiments…those eggs would freeze, and be of no use. And, it cannot be good to have that output of extra energy for egg laying, when it takes so much to just keep warm all winter. So we don’t. We think of winter as chicken sabbatical.

After a bit, the squawking resumed.

“You hear that?”

“I’m going.” He pulled on his boots and jacket.

Sure enough, his investigation was rewarded with two fresh eggs, the first of the season.

He came in and proudly displayed the bounty.

I nodded. “Makes perfect sense.”

“Yeah, with the longer days…”

“Well, and the extra light from Day Light Savings.”

He had to squint, eyeing me, to see if I was kidding.

 

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It’s been a long time since we had kittens. One forgets. They’re into everything. I thought I kept a moderately tidy home, but they show up wearing dust bunnies, from God only knows where. I guess the bright spot is that they’re dusting areas that I’ve clearly missed.

They follow me around making trouble with whatever it is I am trying to accomplish. Today was laundry. First, they kept running off with the socks. Then, finally they settled in for a nap. I guess I can do without the laundry basket for a while.

Thankfully, there are two. For the most part they keep each other busy, which is good because I don’t have that kind of energy to entertain a kitten.

We’ve set firm rules. For the most part, they’ve been pretty good. We decided at the outset, no kittens on the bed–and that’s been the hardest thing to enforce. They want to be where we are. I should take it as a compliment, but at 2:00 am, I’m not easily flattered.

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As a teen, at my parents’ home, my least favorite task was to have to get wood from the woodpile, at night. In the snow. In the dark. We’ve set it up here so that this is never the case.

Sure, the woodpile is out back, at stone’s throw from the house. But by the basement door we put in a wood ‘crib,’ enough to hold two or three week’s worth of fuel, depending on the temperature. And, just inside the basement door is a woodbox, that we fill everyday, so that the wood for the day is dry, and warm.

A couple of times each month I refill the woodcrib. I use a sled–the kind they make for ice-fishing, unless there’s no snow, in which case, I use a wheel barrow. It takes eleven or twelve full wheelbarrow loads to fill the crib–but only five or six sled loads. I prefer the sled.

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You cannot turn your back on that sled though. If the ground is uneven, it’ll do what sleds do. Just before the holidays, the sled got away from me and whacked me square in the knee–knocking me over. I hobbled for a couple of weeks after that. That was my stupid-tax–it was my fault. I need to be more careful about observing how the sled is positioned on any slope–especially if I’m going to get out in front of it.

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Just enough of a slope to cause trouble!

Unlike my sister, further north, we don’t burn 24/7. We start a fire when the temperature falls below 62, usually mid-day, and keep it going until we go to bed. Any more than that and the house would be too hot. In my parents’ house, the fire burned non-stop from October to April. I’m not sure if our difference in burn time is because of latitude, or the fact that we stuffed every nook and cranny of this house with insulation.

All the wood we burn comes from deadfall here on the property. It’s free, unless you count the hours we spend cutting, hauling and splitting. It’s heavy work, but it’s outdoors  in the woods and lovely. It’s one of our favorite tasks.

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And ready for next time–sled or wheel barrow.

I was the one who insisted that we heat with wood. Not only had I grown up with it, but I learned a lesson in a rental once, that made me insist on having some measure of control when it came to heat. We lost power at the farm where I rented–and it was out for nearly a week. The furnace, though propane fueled, required electric power to operate. It was a very long, cold, week. After that, even though it was a rental, I installed a small wood stove. I never again wanted to be at the mercy of a public utility.

We have back-up heat, propane stoves and some electric baseboard units–enough to keep the house from freezing if we go out of town in the winter. But for day to day use, we burn wood.

We’re having a winter storm today. Not much of a storm really, there was some wind last night and by tomorrow morning we expect to add a foot of fresh snow. It’s beautiful. We won’t shovel until tomorrow–no point in doing it twice. In the meantime, it’s toasty inside by the fire.

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It’s not like we weren’t expecting it. We have, after all, been smug about it, boasting, “This  year we’re ready.” The bees are winterized, the chicken coops prepped, the wood, chopped, split and stacked. We even cleared the composter and spread the completed compost onto the harvested garden beds. But we still had things to do. Relying on previous years, I thought I still had time to put in new garden beds–and plant bulbs for spring. Rick has just a little bit of wiring left in the barn.

And we’re not surprised to have some snow at the close of October. It’s almost a tradition. The joke is that folks in Michigan get their Hallowe’en costumes three sizes large–so they’ll fit over their winter coats. What we didn’t expect was that it’d stay this cold, this long.

Last year I was transplanting, dormant, into December. This year, I’d have to search in the snow to find the garden beds. It often snows in autumn–and then it melts. This year, it didn’t just snow. It pelted! It stripped the colored leaves from the trees, nearly overnight. That snow? We thought, just like Bolsonaro*, that it would never stick. We were wrong.

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Autumn has been a long run. Mostly it’s been beautiful, if a little on the wet side. We consider ourselves lucky. For the first time, we’ve actually finished the necessary outdoor chores, before being challenged by winter. Not that there isn’t more to do…there always is. But the wood for our winter’s heat is cut and split and stacked. Rick is just finishing up the wiring for the barn.  The bees are set–and the chickens. Today we even emptied one of the composters, giving us an empty to take us through winter.

Every day, we think it may be the last day. Winter is on the horizon (and clearly in the forecast for later this week.) So we’re working to be productive. The weather has been a pleasure, cool, and graced with the last bits of color. It’s been so nice, we’re tempted to keep going–to prep and plant some of the new garden beds, even once it goes cold on us. It’s hard to let go. And yet, every day ticking by has been wonderful and productive.

Maybe this is really the way to live. Plan for every day to be the last day. Pack your time, full to the last minute. Feast your senses on whatever the season has to offer. Spend your evenings tired, and satisfied with the events of the day. We may be on to something.

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