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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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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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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.

 

Happy Thanksgiving All! I hope you all made it out, and home, unscathed. Since we head so far north for holidays (up to Copper Harbor, MI), we watch the weather. The first leg of the winter storms was due Wednesday, so we traveled Tuesday. Clear roads, great weather. In fact, the storm started to hit just as we pulled into my mum’s driveway. And then it really hit! With the winds as Maestro, Lake Superior put out an amazing symphony –somewhere between a roar and the sound of a freight train. It’s like that in November. Until it freezes along the shoreline, the wild winds toss the beach stones along the shore, making quite the racket. (That’s why those stones are so smooth and round.) I don’t think I slept all night.

So, it was no surprise the following morning when the power went out. Being from the far north, this is not unusual. It was a little odd that it stayed out for 30 hours, putting a bit of a crimp in Thanksgiving roasting and baking schedules. Some folks have generators. Many, if not most, heat with wood, or have a wood stove as a back up. You can cook a whole Thanksgiving dinner on a propane barbeque, if you have to. I have. But this time, my sister and her husband had a little generator–just enough for some lights and to meet the needs of her propane range. On most modern gas cooktops, you can cook on top–by lighting a burner with a match. But the fancy electronic ignition for the oven needs power. We have the same thing at home. It made me wonder, when we built our kitchen, whether to buy a vintage gas stove, one with a pilot light. Sometimes old technology is better than high-tech.

There’s a kitchen in the community center–and a generator–but someone already had their turkey in it. And there’s one in their one room school–I don’t know how they handle first dibs. In any event, We were fine. The power came back on the next day in the early afternoon, so most folks were able to still cook for the holiday.

In Copper Harbor, no power means no light, no internet, no telephone and only minimal sewage. It’s the sewage that worries me. This means a houseful of holiday people, and no flushing. Most have lanterns or oil lamps (like we do, at home.) It’s an inconvenience–a holiday to be remembered.

We timed our departure to miss the next round of storms; that’s the threading the needle part. Again, yesterday, we made the drive home without difficulty. Last night the storm rolled in and now, we cannot see to the end of the driveway.

It captured Rick’s attention. We’ve been lolly-gagging on the barn wiring. But one component of that project is a hardwired transfer switch, so when the power goes, we can power the house, from the generator in the barn, without tripping over a dozen extension cords running willy-nilly.

We don’t use a lot of power. It’s tough to do without refrigeration, though. The ritual from my childhood always included loading the contents of the refrigerator into coolers–which were carried outside in winter–or packed in ice and put in the shade in the summer. And we need power for our well water (though not for the septic.) In the past we’ve bought bottled water for consumption, and carried stream water up to the house for flushing. The new wiring should make storm outages more comfortable, even though we always managed in the past.

Storms are getting increasingly fierce, and more frequent, so I guess it’s time. We’ll follow the motto of the Girl Guides/Scouts, “Be prepared.”

They were right! Looks like January…(tastes like November?) That’s yesterday’s path, all filled in. Need to do it again if we’re going to tend the chickens.

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So, do you think we should put the car in the barn yet?IMG_2543

It’s at least a foot since yesterday.

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Good thing that’s a truss roof.

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And another 5 inches predicted through tomorrow. And we cleared the area in front of the barn and the car, yesterday. (We’re just glad that there’s no sign of a drift pattern–having built the barn, it would be a shame if it created a drift zone–and you never know until you build.) This wouldn’t be news in January, but in November…roll up your sleeves and shovel.