Archives for posts with tag: agriculture

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.

 

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.)

 

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.

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.

What’s the Buzz?

A.V. Walters–

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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.

 

Slash and Burn

A.V. Walters

We learned about it in grade school. It’s a “primitive” agricultural practice of cutting down the forest, burning the “slash,” any unused timber products, and then planting crops in the resulting ash-fertilized clearing. Typically, in areas with poor soils (mostly areas outside the soils-rich Pleistocene glaciation) agricultural use would be for a limited duration, until the soil was nitrogen depleted. Then the farmers move on and the cycle begins again. It was, we were taught, a short-sighted and damaging form of farming. Looking in the mirror, I think that that was Western agriculture’s pot calling the kettle black.

In most of North America, we are blessed with deep and rich topsoils, compliments of the ice age and biodiversity. Our European forebears were more lucky than skilled when it came to farming. Indeed, many of them practiced exactly the slash and burn techniques that my grade-school teacher bemoaned. How else, in a world of hand tools and oxen, was a pioneer family to clear an old growth forest for farming? Over time, excessive cultivation of dry or marginal soils, and the failure to rotate crops, brought us to an ugly truth—the dustbowl. Even without dustbowl conditions, 1970’s estimates showed that using American, post-war agricultural practices were causing the loss of up to six inches of topsoil, per year!

Some early colonialists brought with them time tested farming methods that fed and protected the soils, as you can still see in Amish and Mennonite farms throughout the Midwest. They considered themselves the stewards of the land. Studies have shown that the natural methods used by these farmers retain the topsoil and keep it loaded with organic material and beneficial bacteria. From these traditions, today’s organic farmers learned the mantra, “Feed the soil, not the plant.” Organic farming methods have been proven to fight soil erosion, build the soil’s ability to retain moisture (even in dry conditions) and foster a micro-biome that supports healthy crops.

We’ve sent a soil sample, from our property, in for analysis. We know we have some soil building to do, but it’s been lying fallow at least thirty years for a running start. We start with the premise that we’ll build the soil as we go. We’ll start first thing, next season. Ours is not a conventional approach

The GMO corn planted on our current, landlord’s property, is suffering. Its leaves are curling in; its growth stunted. I’m hardly heartbroken about it. We do not have a drought here. These sandy soils are “well draining,” which could be a pun if you wanted to irrigate. We haven’t had rain for just over a week—which shouldn’t make too big a difference in healthy soil. That corn doesn’t have healthy soil. Years of successive corn crops, over-tilling and outright chemical abuse have stripped the cornfield to its geologic base—sand dune. This soil cannot hold moisture. There is some stubble tilled in, but in the absence of “the living soil”—the bacterial component, the stubble cannot breakdown and feed the soil. (Though it may hold a little moisture.)

So, who is practicing slash and burn, now?

 

 

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.

IMG_1863

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.

IMG_1864

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.

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.

 

 

Meanwhile, Back in California…

A.V. Walters —

This, we miss.

This, we miss.

In California, they’ve had the warmest winter on record and the third driest. My California friends have raved about the weather (even while admitting that the drought is a problem. But hey, if you’re going to have a weather calamity, you might as well enjoy it!) Knowing I’m a gardener, they’ve sent photos of Spring, to tempt me from here, under my blanket of snow. Late rains finally brought the green back into the hills of Two Rock, and that’s good for—emus!

Green Hills for Grazing

Green Hills for Grazing

Emu Views

Emu Views

Yes, Emus! Back on the farm, Elmer’s daughter is raising four emu chicks. She wants them to be guards for her organic duck operation. The emus we reared last year are a little skittish around the ducks—and there were some duck injuries when raucous ducks agitated their delicate emu sensibilities. Ducks were stepped on. The solution is emus who have been raised with ducks. So that’s what Deb is doing.

Emus at the Feeder

Emus at the Feeder

Up Close

Up Close

A Quiet Moment in the Pen

A Quiet Moment in the Pen

So, our teen emus, Kelvin and Gatsby, will be stuck with sheep duty. That’s not such a bad gig, more turf, more freedom, better view. Nice work, if you can get it.

Emu Teens. You have to wonder, is botching the job the way out of chores?

Emu Teens. You have to wonder, is botching the job the way out of chores?

After some early garage and barn living, (Deb is not so crazy, as we were, to keep emus indoors) the new babies are settling in nicely.

Can we come out, yet?

Can we come out, yet?

Now, they stay with the ducks. Not that they socialize, but they are comfortable sharing space. Right now the emu babes are about the same size as the ducks. In the future, the emus will shoot up, no doubt surprising the ducks! They’ll serve as their guardians from predators. The teen emus were doing okay at the guardian job; during their tenure the duck losses stopped. Coyotes, foxes, and even hawks were discouraged by the emu presence. However, it wasn’t working because the emus themselves were injuring the ducks. Clumsy emus.

Ducks above, emus below.

Ducks above, emus below.

It’s nice to hear how things are back on the farm. We’re biding our time, waiting for the snow to melt. Then things will get very busy around here.

Emu Huddle--For these last pics, I asked Deb where the fourth emu was. Apparently, Number Four was occupied pecking at her red shoes!

Emu Huddle–For these last pics, I asked Deb where the fourth emu was. Apparently, Number Four was occupied pecking at her red shoes!

Emus in Absensia

A.V. Walters

Elmer called the other night—they have emu chicks. Mr. and Mrs. Emu are at it again and, with all the food we gave them over summer, and the mild winter, they now have a sizable clutch of eggs. Or had. Out of the original twelve, two chicks have already hatched and died. Stretched so thin, Mr. Emu has difficulty watching the new little ones—he’s still nest-bound.

So Elmer and his daughter kidnapped the one little guy they found still alive and plan to remove the rest as they hatch. Between cold nights and predators, little emu chicks have a rough go of it in Northern California. Hence, the call. Rick and I are the only ones on the farm who have successfully hand-raised the little guys, and they need help.

They’ve decided that more emus would be just the ticket to guard over their new venture in organic duck eggs. (You should see all the ducks, it’s pretty impressive.) Emu guards are not a bad idea. We learned, the hard way, that the emus in our front yard were, in fact, protecting the chickens.  And so, the questions begin. What do we feed them? (Finely chopped kale and apples, to start.) Can we give them chicken feed? (No, chickens are seed eaters. Emus are grazers and need green fodder.) How warm do they need to be? (94 degrees F for the first two weeks, tapering off 5 degrees a week, after that.) What about water? (Not for about a week, until they’ve mastered balance and eating.) Those, and more, are all questions that we had to find the answers to, a year ago—either through trial and error, or what we could find on the net. As it turned out, we did okay. We had no losses from the five we raised. I guess that makes us emu experts. (And, given some of the so-called “expert” advice we found on the net, we are!)

We haven’t been homesick since our relocation. We miss some of the people, but we are caught up in the possibilities of our new lives. This, though, gave us pause. We definitely miss the emus—and raising them was an adventure we really enjoyed. So, we stand ready to be emu emissaries. We’ll provide all the information we can. And, of course, we’ll worry.

 

 

This Is How It Goes–

A.V. Walters–

Up north, in the U.P. where my mother lives, folks are getting Lyme disease. These are hearty, out-doorsy people, who spend a lot of time in the woods. Lyme disease isn’t new—it’s been around for decades, just not up there. It’ll take a little time for people to wise up to the new reality—the ticks have moved north. Soon, folks will take precautions, recognize symptoms, and will have made the adjustment so that a bite doesn’t necessarily mean a long-term, debilitating illness. You adjust.

In Michigan, (and southwest Ontario) the forests have been devastated. A shipment from China apparently, and inadvertently, imported the Emerald Ash Borer. It’s a pretty, little bug. Here, we have plenty of ash trees, and no predators. Estimates are that, so far, 20 million trees have been infected and died. There is no cure—they offer some heavy-duty, toxic treatments that can hold it at bay, (if your favorite yard tree is at risk) but nothing can be done to protect the forests. Before it runs its course, we will lose about 80 million trees. Now that the seasonal leaves are gone, you can look into the woods, as you drive by, and see all the fallen trees. It’s heartbreaking. Ash naturally grows in a diverse forest—so there are still plenty of other trees standing but, like the elm before, this area can kiss its ash good-bye.

We have forested property. We walk its hills, shaking our heads. The ash are dying and falling. The tree has a distinctive bark, so even in the winter it’s easy to identify. As we walk, we see not only the downed victims of the blight, but every one of those standing trees, with that lovely deeply-grooved bark, is doomed. They say to expect 100% losses. There are timber restrictions on the movement of ash wood-products. Areas are quarantined to try and prevent the spread. Our quarantine area is Lower Michigan. It’s spread to some counties in the U.P. now, too. So far as I can figure, the only winners in this game, and it’ll be short term, are the woodpeckers, who eat the larvae.

Bat White-Nose Syndrome is spreading across North America. It’s caused by a fungus. In some bat populations, the mortality is 95%. Because it affects a wild species, and the primary transmission route is bat-to bat, there’s not much that can be done. It originated in Europe. Nobody knows how it arrived here, but human transmission is likely. The fungus can be transported by the movement of people and equipment, in the forest. That’s the likely way that it got here. Unlike the European bats, ours have no immunity to the disease. It thrives in cold temperatures, infecting bats during hibernation. Unfortunately, the close contact of bats cuddling in hibernation, speeds its transmission. People shrug. Too bad about the bats, eh? Well, it’s more serious than that. The bats eat the bugs. What are we going to do with the resulting bumper crop of bugs?

Dutch Elm, West Nile, Lyme disease, Emerald Borers, White-Nose. I could go on. (Don’t even get me started about the bees, who are primarily the victims of neonicitinoid pesticides.) These are pests that are spread beyond their borders by the impact of people. In some cases, it is simple relocation, like our Ash Borer. In others, because our climate is changing and so extending the range of existing critters.

Maybe, like Lyme in Northern Michigan, we can adjust to new threats. What about the bats, or the bees, or the ash trees? How will we adjust to a world without bats? What will we do with the resulting bonanza of bugs? More poisons like neonicitinoids? How can we know the rippling impact of these changes? It threatens to change the face of nature. Most Americans don’t live in nature and they won’t notice. They get their food—sprayed, plastic-wrapped and GMO’d. They fail to comprehend that diversity is a necessary component of a healthy environment and take no notice of the rapid level of extinctions all around us. Most Americans don’t know we have a bat crisis, or that the Ash trees are dying.

For my part, next spring I’ll put up bat houses and maybe purple martin condos. I’ll shun chemical interventions and try to live lightly on the planet. I’ll read and try to stay informed. Because this is how it goes.

At Home, With The Royals

A.V. Walters

Of our five emu chicks, two were adopted by a fancy, Napa Valley vineyard/winery. Those two little emus had been our favorites, the ones we named C3 and Sleepy. Their royal gig was to serve as guardian and companion animals in the vineyard’s menagerie. This place was not just a grape-growing operation, it was a full-blown winery castle. Castello di Amerosa is a noted tourist attraction between St. Helena and Calistoga.  They were adopted out as little bitty guys, in full baby-emu plumage. We wistfully watched them go off to a royal life at the castle, pleased that they’d fared so well.

Do you remember me?

Do you remember me?

We always intended to visit. After all, how often does one get to see a full-sized medieval castle? (Really, check it out; it is really quite impressive— www.castellodiamorosa.com) As the time drew short for our own departure to the east, we finally decided to make the trip to see how our little, feathered, former wards were doing. We emailed our contact, Carlos, and asked if we could visit. He was thrilled, sent us photos and directions. But, the photos puzzled us—the Royal Emus were blonds! (What do they say? You can never be too thin or too blond?) Really, what could explain how different these emus were from their plebian siblings?

Castello Di Amerosa

Castello Di Amerosa

As we drove up the winding drive, the castle (and it really is a castle) peaked above the hill. We parked in the lot, and walked over to take a look at the grape vine encircled castle, complete with a moat and drawbridge. Carlos soon found us and brought us over to the area of the grounds with the emus. Along the way, he introduced his other charges—geese, guinea hens, goats, sheep, peacocks, and a wide variety of chickens. Finally, there they were, the emus. Blond.

Blonds?

Blonds?

It wasn’t just the photos, these emus were decidedly lighter in color than their parents or siblings, back on the farm. We scratched our heads. While the emus didn’t recognize us, they clearly related to us as folks who know and handle emus. (Besides, we brought apple treats!) They let us rub the fronts of their necks and feel their feathers. And, therein was the secret…the feathers were brittle, bleached out and broken. Something was clearly wrong.

Where did they get those white knickers?

Where did they get those white knickers?

The kings and royals of yesteryear often suffered different ailments from the mundane health-hazards of the surrounding, peasant populations. Like modern folk everywhere, the Royals of the past suffered from diseases of excess—gout, heart disease, obesity. We decided to ask what it was these emus had been eating.

Sure enough, it turned out that they’d been feeding the emus the same special-mix they had for the peacocks. But, peacocks are seed-eaters and Emus are grazers. Their enclosure was too small to provide a normal, grass-eating diet. (And, like teenagers everywhere, they’ll gladly take the fast-food, rather than seek out the best nutritional options.) Emus need a feed mix that has a high proportion of roughage and greens. These royal emus had a diet that was too rich in calories and not high enough in essential vitamins and minerals.

We pointed it out to Carlos, the damaged, brittle feathers and explained. Nodding, he agreed and assured us he’d get the proper emu feed the very next day. And, not a moment too soon—those emus will need to rebuild their feathers to stay warm this coming winter.

A little snack of delicious grape leaves.

A little snack of delicious grape leaves.

Our visit was a complete success. We did look at the castle, a bit, but most of our time was spent with The Royal Emus.

Emus wandering off to their royal duties.

Emus wandering off to their royal duties.

So, Ya Takin’ Bob?

A.V. Walters

A Snaggle-toothed Bob

A Snaggle-toothed Bob

Among farmers, especially livestock farmers, I sometimes sense a certain… offhandedness—not quite callous, but a level of indifference, to the needs of animals that go beyond maintenance. I suppose one gets a thicker skin when you have to handle them all the time, in all kinds of circumstances—and they’re bound for the table, in any event. On our way out of Two Rock, I encountered this repeatedly in comments made about our move.

Granted, we were moving all the way across the country. And, that alone is an overwhelming enough undertaking. Still, repeatedly we fielded the question, “Ya takin’ Bob?”

Bob is what’s known as a barn cat, having been twice abandoned on our farm. Initially he was Don’s cat, but Don and his wife bought a house and moved into town. While residing here, they had acquired a little farm menagerie—two dogs and two cats. When they left, they picked one dog to take, and abandoned the rest. The other tenants absorbed Don’s leftovers. We shook our heads; even Elmer thought it wasn’t quite right. But, the critters all managed to find homes, of sorts, amongst the neighbors.

I’d have taken Bob in a heartbeat. After all, he had become Kilo’s best friend. My cat, Kilo (also a rescue cat), has a habit of finding feline playmates and inviting them in. I met Bob this way when I first moved to the farm—suddenly, I had two tabbies in my front yard, playing and hunting gophers, together. The two look alarmingly alike and, more than once, I’d opened the door for Kilo, only to find it was Bob I’d let in. Bob is a charming and social cat. He is sweet but dumb and, hey, good-natured and dumb isn’t so bad on a cat.

I was disappointed when another tenant beat me to the Bob adoption program. So, Bob moved to Stan’s, at the opposite end of the farm, and we saw less of him. For a while, we hosted Bella, Bob’s sister. She didn’t like Kilo, (or any other cat, for that matter) and took her leave to live with yet another tenant, so she could be an only-kitty. It was a matter of musical cats for a while. Then, Stan moved to another farm, taking Bob with him. I thought we’d seen the last of Bob.

Months later, Don alerted me to the fact that Bob was back on the farm! Don had seen Stan pull up in his truck and dump Bob at his old, former home. Elmer fleshed the story out more—he told me that Stan had called to see if he could return as a tenant. (When Stan’s new landlord learned he had a cat, he’d been given the option—leave or get rid of the cat.)  At the time, our farm had no housing available, so I guess the obvious solution was to abandon poor old Bob. (Personally, I think Stan’s landlord put the choice to the wrong critter.) The funny (not haha funny) part of this story was how incensed Don was about Stan’s treatment of Bob. Huh? If that ain’t the pot calling the kettle black.

Bob was traumatized by his sudden dislocation and disappeared for a few months. Then, one spring morning, a very skinny Bob was on the doorstep with Kilo. Bob had found a home. He’s been with us ever since. I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised, or offended, when hearing that we were leaving, each of our neighbors asked that question, “So, ya takin’ Bob?”

Of course we’re taking Bob! One doesn’t just abandon a family member. And, maybe there’s the difference between farmer and non-farmer. We have pets. Farmers have animals.  And yes, I wish I could have taken the emus.

Bob, from a safe distance.

Bob, from a safe distance.

Maybe Too Much of a Good Thing

A.V. Walters

We all want our food to be safe. We all think that one of the roles of government is to ensure a safe food supply. And they are trying. (Take that any way you like.) There’s regulation pending that would make it hard for organic and small farmers to sell produce. You see, growing food isn’t a spotless operation. It’s done in dirt. Major producers can afford the equipment (and use the chemicals) that give you that pristine, scrubbed, (and not nearly as fresh) produce. Small farmers and roadside stands can’t. It’s as simple as that. Note that most of the outbreaks of food borne disease aren’t coming from small sustainable producers–they’re coming from Big Ag. We need to amend the proposed regulations to provide exemptions for sustainable producers. What looks like a good thing actually favors Big Ag over traditional farming. For more information or to make a comment supporting change to the proposed rules, click on the link. http://salsa3.salsalabs.com/o/50865/p/dia/action3/common/public/?action_KEY=12303

Reunited

A.V. Walters

We ran those two emu generations side by side, in adjacent fields for at least a month, wondering if and when it would be safe to put them together. The emu elders continued to be a bit pissy to the babes, reaching over the fence to nip and thwack them at every opportunity. But, earnest Gatsby wouldn’t give up; he was bound and determined to win those big emus over. When we came into the field to feed the adults, he’d run up to the fence line to greet them, only to be met with a hiss and a peck on the top of his head. We had to wonder, was there any recognition of kinship, at all? Not that I expected much of the Mrs., (After all, female emus have a cut and run approach to parenthood.) But the males are the nurturers, and will even adopt unrelated emu young. And, these were their own babies.

Maybe we waited too long to do the introductions. After all, Gatsby and Kelvin were now emu teens, complete with ‘tude’. (I know a great many parents who’d like to pretend that their teenagers aren’t related!) It wasn’t even essential that there be an emu reunion. Elmer has enough land and enough sheep (on both sides of the main road) to employ separate teams of guardian emus. My concern was that they meet, and be at least civil, so that if Elmer needed to put them together it could be done without fisticuffs.

By late July, the over the fence hostilities had lessened to the point where it was worth a shot. The adults were no longer starving—receiving daily rations with the babes since their move. They’d put a few pounds back on, and were much more relaxed. Still, mom and dad demonstrated clear interest in the lower pasture. You see, the baby emus were in an old orchard and the adults obviously coveted the easy availability of free, seasonal apple treats. Our emus had relaxed and learned, too. At least Gatsby had learned to visit at the fence line, just out of reach. Kelvin appeared to have lost interest in the big emus next door. We decided it was time.

One sunny day, we marched across the farm for the regular emu feeding. After everyone had finished their kibble and the apple treats had been generously distributed, Rick unceremoniously swung open the gate between them. It took a few minutes before they realized what was up.

Gatsby got it first. Emus! His head perked up with the recognition of this momentous change. Then, at full emu speed he headed directly for the grown-up emus.

Fearing violence, Rick and I stepped towards the fray, without any idea of what we’d do if there were an actual emu fight—wave our arms and shout, “Heel emus, heel?” I’ve been in the middle of an emu altercation—limping away with a broken toe, for my trouble, as a result. I had no interest in doing it again. At the last instant, Gatsby veered off and ran circles—what appeared to be joyous circles—around the adults. Emus! Gatsby was in his glory. Since the moment he first caught sight of the adults, he had wanted herd-status. And, here they were, at last!

For their part, the adults, while keeping an eye on that crazy Gatsby, had bigger plans. They headed straight for the apple trees that were now available to them. Kelvin hung back safely, and wisely, on the perimeter. Every now and then, Gatsby would cut a corner too tight and intrude on the personal space of the adults. He was rewarded with hisses and pecks—but, to our relief, no kicking. An emu’s kick is its best defense and offense. And, if an emu starts kicking, things are serious.

Dining in Peace

Dining in Peace

We stuck around for forty minutes, or so. Gatsby was still careening about the pasture. He was the happiest emu I’d ever seen. He’d run in big circles and then come back in to do smaller circles around the huddle of emus, who were quietly munching apples, under the trees. He didn’t even mind when one of the adults would mete out a hiss or nip, asserting who was, after all, in charge of this operation. Gatsby didn’t protest—he clearly wasn’t interested in dominance. He wanted unity.

Finally, after a protracted run, Gatsby quieted down and joined the adults. If he got too close, Mr. and Mrs. were quick to give him a whacking, so he’d temporarily join his sister, who was grazing in wide circles on the edge of the action. Kelvin appeared a little put out. She stayed close, but at a safe range from the group. They didn’t pay her any mind. Her best buddy, Gatsby, had completely thrown her over for the adults. She looked just a little lonely, but that was her choice.

Taking turns as lookout.

Taking turns as lookout.

 

Rick looked at me, “I think our work here is done.” And so it was. It was another step in the direction of emu autonomy. There’s the tug of parenthood, combined with the relief of demonstrated independence.  We stopped and picked some blackberries on our way back down the road.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Orphan Garden

Good Enough

A.V. Walters

The garden this year is an orphan garden. Though we planted it, and we care for it, it’s not really ours. We didn’t do our usual big production garden. We cheated and used older seeds (some of which never did germinate.) We transplanted volunteers and moved things around—so much so that now I’m not sure what’s what. Then, late in the game, one of the farm tenants dropped off two orphan tomatoes—of course, root bound, and those went in, too.

Still, watering and weeding it has been a pleasure. It’s that quiet, steady, work that inspires why I garden in the first place.

There’s a chicken in the garden this year—it happens sometimes that a chicken escapes the barn and sets up housekeeping in some corner. Usually nobody goes looking for them and they forage and do pretty well. This one likes snails. If I see that shiny, post-slime evidence of a snail on one of the plants, I root around in the bucket and find the culprit. I’ve been giving the snails to the chicken, and now she follows me around the garden. Somewhere over there, there are eggs, but I’m not looking.

The tomatoes (even the stragglers) are doing well and have baby green tomatoes hiding in a lacework of yellow flowers. The peppers are in bloom and the various squashes are all growing gangbusters. I just wish I knew what they were. I know there are pumpkins, zucchini, acorn, delicatta (my favorite), butternut and maybe crookneck squashes. I’m uncertain about the rest. The cucumbers (3 lemon and one regular) are filling out and reaching up for the sun. I think there’s a French melon plant in there, but only time will tell.

Unfortunately our hot spells have made the spinach bolt. We’re eating it up quick, before it gets too bitter.  We’ve also had some of the basil, and some early sprigs of cilantro. The radishes are almost ready, though they’ve been beset by bugs, we’ll still eat them. Even if this is all it is, it is good enough.

We didn’t plant this garden with the intention of a harvest. We may never satisfy our curiosity about just what’s in those buckets. We know we’ll be moving, but we don’t know when (or exactly where, for that matter.) We’re packing and checking our plans, Plan A, Plan B and Plan C (even Plan C.5!) We’re selling things that don’t need to go with us. And we’re waiting. The waiting is the worst. We have business to finish here, and we’re not in charge of how quickly that will roll along.

In the meantime, there are emus and chickens to feed and gardens to tend…

 

White Poppies

RR Edwards

 

Regular California Poppies

Regular California Poppies

Regular California Poppies

Regular California Poppies

The obsession started the day I noticed an unusual patch of white-petaled flowers. They were among an irregular sea of bright orange California poppies—the only surviving descendants of a package of mixed, native wild-flowers that I’d sown a few years earlier.  There they were, White California poppies!

 

White Poppies

White Poppies

I’ve always loved our state flower, whose beacon of orange can be seen everywhere this time of year. In some respects, it grows like a weed—appears randomly, in small isolated patches, or covering whole fields. It spreads at will, thrives in most types of soil and, once the spring rains germinate its seeds, will continue to bloom through the dry months of early summer. But all this outward heartiness belies the sensitive side of this flower. You can look, but you cannot touch! Once established, it doesn’t like being jostled and will wilt and die at the drop-of-a-hat. As the state flower, they’re protected—you’re not allowed to pick them. But anyone who’s ignored, or been unaware of this law, is soon holding a drooping blob of orange and green, and that usually dissuades any future attempts at gathering. Though I’ve always believed this plant to be an annual (dying out completely, after dropping its seeds in the summer), I was surprised that a number of our potted poppy plants survived last winter, and went on to flower this spring. Who Knew?

 

A More Delicate Poppy

A More Delicate Poppy

I had never seen, or heard of a white California poppy. The only response my casual inquiries drew was, “Really?” Eventually, someone told me that it was a rare, but not unheard of genetic mutation that, over time, reverted back to brilliant orange in successive generations. That’s why you don’t see ever-spreading patches of white poppies. I can’t attest to the accuracy of this premise, but it made sense to me. I guess I could have gone on-line and researched the topic, but it made little difference to what had become my mission — to create a permanent strain of white California poppies.

I assumed that if I wanted to reinforce the mutation, I needed to find it in another, “unrelated” patch of white poppies. And so, during the travels of my daily life, I scanned my surroundings in search of other genetic outcasts. I finally found what I was looking for in an area I’d passed countless times—an embankment along a nearby freeway on-ramp. Now, I had to watch and wait for the white poppy petals to fall away, and the seed pods to ripen and dry. This was the same routine I was going through, in front of my home—anxiously waiting for the seed pods to dry, and collecting them before they burst and scattered their tiny seeds.

 

The Average Seed Pod

The Average Seed Pod

The average seed pod is about 3” long, about 1/8” in diameter, (though that can vary a lot) and tapers to a point at both ends. Its trick in spreading its seed is not unique, but it is unusual. When the seeds ripen, (they’re the size of large grains of sand) and the pods dry, the pod splits in half as if it were spring-loaded, and flings the seeds as far as several feet. The difficulty in gathering seeds is waiting long enough to be sure the seeds are mature, but picking the pods before they “explode.”

 

Nearly Mature

Nearly Mature on Scraggly Plants

When this adventure started, several years ago, I was able to collect several hundred seeds from my yard, but only a few dozen from the on-ramp location. (The difference, in part, was simply access.) A problem with the seed I collected was that I couldn’t ensure that all of them came from white-petaled plants. By the time I came up with my grand plan, the seed pods were already developing and had long since lost their petals, so there wasn’t a clear division of plants by color. Unavoidably, some of the seeds I gathered came from orange poppies.

Sprung and Unsprung

Sprung and Unsprung

That was a few years ago and it wasn’t until last year, after moving to Two Rock, that I had a chance to put my plan to work. I placed seeds in 6” pots, separating them into groups of “home” and “on-ramp” poppies. (I wanted to be sure that I could pollinate one group with the other.) When the plants started to bloom, I found that about half of them were white and the others were orange. I pinched off as many of the “undesirable” blooms as I could, and used a Q-tip to transfer pollen from one group of white flowers to the other. By this point I was second-guessing myself about my “scientific protocol” but it was, what it was.

On top of that we had to leave for about 10 days to attend a family memorial back east. I arranged for the neighbor’s son, (who we’d hired to feed the cats in our absence) to pick off the orange blossoms when they appeared. I explained to him the reason for the task, but perhaps it was all a little too esoteric for a 14 year-old boy to appreciate, because upon our return, I was greeted by a speckled patch of orange and white poppies. At this point, the experiment was out of control—the orange and white flowers had engaged in unbridled relations, and there was no telling what the color of their offspring would be. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that! That’s why they call them wildflowers.) I decided to make the best of it, and continued to remove the undesirables. When the pods were ready, I harvested those seeds where I felt confidant of white-petaled-parentage, and allowed the rest to go on about their natural business, spreading their seeds. But I vowed to do better next year.

As I mentioned before, I was surprised that a number of last year’s plants made it through the winter, and they became part of what turned out to be a sizable patch of new poppies that came up this spring. Rather than plant any of the seeds I had gathered from previous seasons, I decided to work with what nature had delivered. What I hadn’t expected, and was pleased to see, was that most of the new flowers were white. And so I began, again, pinching off the orange blossoms and, when possible, removing the entire plant that was producing them.

Bounty

Bounty

Well, the last of the poppies are now drying up. (Due to our unusual weather, it was an early poppy season.) And I’m happy to report that I’ve collected an impressive quantity of seeds—and there’s more to come. Just how many seeds is hard to say. By weight, it’s a little over an ounce and a half. That may not sound like much, but there are thousands of them. But when I started this whole thing a number of years ago, I had no idea how changed my life would be.

So many tiny seeds!

So many tiny seeds!

The love of a wonderful woman and an opportunity to create something special together, are calling me and my white poppies to lands in the east. I’m not sure how I’ll do with snow in the winter and humid summers, and I’m less sure how my fine petaled friends will do. But, I’m optimistic (and that’s saying a lot, for me) and I think these two California transplants will do fine, just fine.

 

Two Chickens, Two Eggs

A.V. Walters

In the best of circumstances, a healthy chicken will produce an egg a day. From time to time, or if under stress, a chicken will occasionally miss a day or two. When winter darkness comes, egg-laying goes. (It’s why commercial egg operations use artificial lighting.) Chickens will usually try to lay in a protected area. The chickens in our front yard have each picked a hollowed out spot under the redwood tree. We collect the eggs everyday. In fact, it’s one of the tasks that Rick especially likes.

What you don’t see, is extra eggs.

Yesterday, Rick found an egg just out in the grass, a yard or two in from the fence–no hollowed out nest–just an egg, sitting there. He picked it up and carefully set it aside. It wasn’t an especially good looking egg; it was a little dirty and mottled looking. Later, he quizzed me about the egg numbers over the past few days.

You see, we’ve been collecting two eggs a day. Rick figures we’ve been set up for another round of Farm Humor. That egg is a rotten-egg-bomb. Our front yard chickens couldn’t have laid it. The numbers don’t work.

We have a suspect. One Bad Egg. We don’t yet have a plan. We could just carefully dispose of this suspicious egg…or we could keep the joke going……

 

Remember, The Gift of Guylaine Claire and the award-winning The Emma Caites Way, are free ebook downloads through July 4, on Amazon.

Coop d’État

A.V. Walters

“Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss”

These chickens are aggressive. They made it absolutely clear who’s in charge in our front yard. Because the emus are so much bigger, we forget that they are still little kids. If ever there was a lesson that you’re as big as you think you are, this is it. Right from the get-go, the chicken-bully (as we call the more aggressive of the two) started harassing the emus. When they’d bend over to eat, she’d rush over and peck the emus right on the top of their heads! The message was clear—the chickens are in charge!

The emus have learned to steer-clear, and give the chickens a wide berth. At times, they can eat together, (if I make sure there’s ample chicken food.) But, in their meanderings, the two species have a different agenda, and don’t choose to keep company. They’ve made their peace, but it’s not friendly.

Bob, the cat, was hiding under the lower, redwood branches. He’d crept in, to check-out the chickens. The emus spied him and took off in hot pursuit. They split up and triangulated their attack. The poor cat nearly didn’t make it over the fence, in time. And that was Bob, a cat they know and like! (Well, like may be a bit strong, but they know he’s not a threat.) Were the emus defending the chickens? Or, having been demoted in their own yard, merely defending their dignity against an unsuspecting target? And, just what was Bob doing in the redwoods, anyway?

Bob, from a safe distance.

Bob, from a safe distance.

Rick had it in his head that he could solve the underlying animosities by swapping out the bully-chicken for a more self-possessed, well-mannered chicken. (We live on a chicken farm, so we have access to spare chickens.) My sister shook her head. Even from 2,500 miles away I could hear her tight-lipped nonresponse. (The woman has her own chicken issues, I tell ya.) Finally, not one to hold her tongue, she cryptically said, “Won’t do any good; it’s about pecking order.”

I hate to admit it, but I’m enough of a political Pollyanna that I actually like the idea that deposing one bully could solve the problem of tyranny. Apparently Rick does, too. We’re not naïve. We read the papers. Has there ever been any coup that didn’t just install the next bully? I was in no hurry to do the chicken swap but yesterday Rick put chicken replacement on our to-do list.

We stuffed the chicken-bully in a box, and walked over to the chicken barn. We let her out and she immediately blended into the crowd. As for the replacement, how do you pick? What do you look for? Essentially, it comes down to who you can catch.

Not as easy to catch as it looks

Not as easy to catch as it looks

We returned with the replacement chicken and put her in the nighttime cage, to let the two chickens get to know each other through the safety of the bars. The squawking started almost immediately. The emus perked up—trouble in Chicken World could only be good news for them.

It’s official. The new chicken is the “low hen on the totem pole” resident of our front yard. The formerly docile chicken has stepped up to bully role. She doesn’t much like the new chicken and she’s loud about it. We’ve gone from nasty to noisy. She woke me up this morning, at sunrise.

The emus seem to like it. With the Chickens occupied with their own disputes, the emus are left, more or less, in peace. And actually, it looks like the emus are enjoying spectator status. I feel like I should serve popcorn. Funny how I can hear my sister’s “I told you so,” loud and clear, from across the miles.

Post-script:

Not so easy, this chicken swap. The new chicken was just too…well… chicken. She sat cowering in the corner of the porch all day.

Chicken chicken.

Chicken chicken.

Rick decided that it wouldn’t do. Another chicken swap was needed. We captured her and returned her to the barn. Rick rounded up a bunch of chickens, and then, using portable fence panels, thinned until he had just the chicken! The Goldilocks of chickens, not too bold, not too chicken. This one is just right. We brought her back to the yard and she settled in immediately, friendly, without being deferential. I think this chicken combo will work. Who knew it would be so involved? Now we need to see how the emus react.

Relaxing by the pool.

Relaxing by the pool.

Don’t forget, The Emma Caites Way and The Gift of Guylaine Claire are available as free Kindle downloads on Amazon–July 1 thru July 4.

Not By The Hair of My Chinny-Chin-Chin

A.V. Walters

Today the goats got out. I don’t know how. I was on the back porch, talking on the phone to my mother, and looked up to see two goats staring at me. “Rick!” We rounded them up and brought them back to one of the old sheep barns where they’ve been staying, ever since one of Elmer’s tenants abandoned them. They herded pretty well over, but balked at going back in through the gate. One of them appears friendly, the other a little stand-offish. We were taking note of their demeanor, because these are the goats that have been recommended to us for our front-yard-emu-training efforts. These goats are full grown, but little.

There have been some strange goings on, of late, with gates and locks—and this goat fiasco fit right in. The gate was wide open. The gate peg had been laid neatly on top of the fence post, indicating that the goat escape was no accident. We need to get to the bottom of this, since there’ve been mysterious issues with our gate, and we don’t want the emus out on the road.

Getting the goats into their pen was a bit of a feat; once we got to the gate, they took one look and weren’t so interested in cooperating anymore. We had to trick them, with carrots as bait. (It turned out not the best goat treat. Who knew?) Once inside the pen I came to the conclusion that maybe these goats had been abandoned for a reason. Indeed, that was when “friendly” suddenly wasn’t. The more it became clear to them that they were being returned to the pen, the more aggressive she got.

Friendly Might Just Be Aggressive

Friendly Might Just Be Aggressive

She originally liked being patted on the face, but when confronted with a return to captivity, she started pawing and then butting. She’s only knee high, but a butting goat is no joke. You don’t dare turn your back on it. (Rick had noted the same behavior when he’d passed by their pen, about a week earlier.) Taking no chances, I decided to climb the fence to make my escape. Her shyer companion isn’t as friendly, but isn’t a butting problem either—she follows her more aggressive friend, but keeps her distance.

Shy Is Looking Good

Shy Is Looking Good

Finally we got them re-situated. It was a lesson learned. (No, not “Don’t look a gift goat in the mouth.”) We now know that we don’t want these goats in our yard. It’s enough that we have to watch out for emus and chickens (but not having to go down to the hen house for eggs, is a plus.) I really don’t want to have to defend myself from aggressive goats. The great goat escape was a minor annoyance but it’s one that will save us grief in the future. So, the verdict is in, No goats.

Who’s Chicken, Now?

A.V. Walters

Emus aren’t, by nature, guardian animals. They’re actually pretty skittish and, if you want them to guard a herd, they need a proper introduction. Emus are very social animals, but they need to learn who is part of their flock, so they’ll know who isn’t. Gatsby and Kelvin have been running-off anything that comes into the yard, such that we can’t always tell if they’re being nasty, or just overly-friendly. Sometimes, it’s hard to know the difference.

I once had a cat that seemed gregarious and friendly but, at that time, I didn’t have many visitors in my life. Then, when people would come over, the cat would disappear. It turned out that he was petrified of anyone but us. It’s taken years to get him to be comfortable around visitors and strangers. (Rick may argue this point because this cat will still scoot away from him, when he walks into the room.)

And so it is with the emus, they are very comfortable around us, and most of our friends. So, we thought that they were generally, friendly emus. And, well they are, but only within their comfort zone. When strangers come by, they can be a little nervous, and potentially dangerous. That’s the good news… and the bad news, about emus. If they know you, you’re family. If they don’t know you—you are a potential enemy.  As we’ve said before—they’re not real bright. It’s kind of a binary system, they’re either on, or off. If an emu is afraid, then you need to be a little afraid. You need to pay close attention if they start to hiss or huff. Because, not far behind that, is an instinctive, and potentially devastating, kick.

It’s not just with people. The emus are comfortable with our cats; they grew up with them. But they clearly make the distinction between ours and the feral cats from the dairy, next door. Those cats get run off (I suspect with some glee.) It occurred to me recently (when a visitor earned himself a solid hiss) that our emus needed finishing school, so to speak.  So, we decided to start small.

Since there is the possibility that the emus may be guarding chickens, it was a small enough place to start. First, we put an empty cage in the yard, for a few days—that garnered some interest—and soon enough, it became part of the landscape. Then, two days ago, we dropped a couple of chickens into the cage. The emus were wary, to say the least. They scooted around, wide-eyed at the new arrivals’ cackling. (They do seem to be particularly noisy chickens.) We gave it an overnight, and the following day, we opened the cage.

Here come the chickens

Here come the chickens

Now, these emus are teenagers. They’re not yet full sized, but they’re a lot bigger than a chicken. But when it comes to new experiences, they’re still just babies. The emus headed to the far side of the yard. Then, after watching from afar, they slowly inched closer to size-up the new invaders. The chickens are full-gown and about as bright as… well, chickens. They, in contrast, are totally nonplussed by the emus. The emus alternate between being cool about chickens, and being spooked. They walk around like it’s no big deal, but if a chicken corners them, Kelvin, in particular, reacts like her life is at risk. Even though she’s the bigger of the two, she is also the most jumpy. (Boy, does she take after her mother, or what?) For his part, after an initial nervous phase, Gatsby invited a chicken to “dance” (doing the characteristic, emu drop and roll.) The chicken was non-responsive—clearly ignorant of the emu rituals of engagement. I can only hope that the emus aren’t put-off. They’ve managed to share food dishes and yard without serious incident. So far, we’re calling it a success, in a measured sort of way.

Who's stalking whom?

Who’s stalking whom?

Clearly, it’s a good thing we recognized the need for this. These emus have some manners to learn before they head out into the world to take on their security work. We don’t want to raise thugs, after all. We’ll start here, quietly with chickens and, in a week or so, we’ll trade up to goats. Goats, you ask?  Well, Elmer has a couple of goats that were left behind by tenants (this is typical, Elmer) and they’d be perfect for hardening off a couple of flappable, emu trainees. In a few weeks, maybe they’ll be ready for sheep.

Breaking Bread

Breaking Bread

Rick nods to Elmer, noting that we have two cats, two emus, now, two chickens and soon, two goats. He says that if we start building a boat, anytime soon, people should pay attention to the sky.

chick-n-emu 4

 

Voters and Chickens:

Rights (or the lack of) and Repercussions

A.V. Walters

The Chickens have the floor…

Our emus may have to adjust to a different future that I’d imagined for them. It all goes back to a wacky election in 2008.

You see, in that year, animal rights activists put a referendum on the California ballot that would forever change the way chickens are kept on farms in our state. The measure was poorly defined, and the drafters were a million miles from anything in the world of chickens or eggs or economic realities. Still, the objective was to decrease the level of “cruelty” in livestock agriculture. Who could be against that? With some measure of bitterness, I note that that same election cycle produced another measure that stripped marriage rights from gay and lesbian couples in our state. Here we are, over four years later and to date we haven’t sorted out either one of these issues. Chickens given rights, people losing rights! Only in America!!

On the same-sex marriage issue, we are leaping into the future. In part because of the unfairness in the Proposition 8 law, the public dialogue has changed radically. One by one, states are stepping up (as well as the international community) to ratify human rights, ending discrimination in our antiquated, marriage laws. Sadly, in California the situation remains unsettled because actual law moves more slowly than public opinion (and that may be a good thing, sometimes.) This deplorable referendum has worked its way up through the appellate courts and into the highest court in the land. I can’t say the chicken situation is working out so well, either.

Everyone would love to know that the chickens (or eggs) they eat come from some warm and fuzzy, loving farm-home. Modern farming, especially livestock, isn’t warm and fuzzy. Large scale farming is even less so. Since the Chicken Rights referendum wasn’t specific about how chickens should be kept, litigation immediately ensued. (How ironic, a “what came first” thing—the rules or the legislation.) So, farmers waited for instructions. While we’re moving towards an ascertainable standard, the deadline for compliance looms, and many of the older farmers are just closing up shop. What is clear is that the chickens need more “personal space” and elevated wire cages may soon be a thing of the past.

Elmer’s been watching the issue since that election. He’s attended the poultry conferences and seen the new, demonstration equipment. He’s lived on a chicken farm for his entire life and has watched poultry and egg production methods come and go. “Cage free is the future,” he says, “And that’s what we had when I was a kid!” He shakes his head.

“When the cages came in, it was supposed to be the wave of the future. The elevated, wire cages solved a lot of the problems—the waste dropped through the cage for easy removal, the feed was delivered to the troughs along the cage and the eggs rolled forward on the wire chute for easy gathering. Since the chickens weren’t standing in their feces, a lot of the diseases we dealt with, in the past, just disappeared. It was clean and modern.”

The downside to the economy of scale was, well, the scale of it. The press for more production led to overcrowding, and some kinds of wire cages were harmful to the chickens’ feet. Now the consensus is that chickens should be back on the floor, they should be cage-free and should have material (greens, straw or shavings) for “scratch.”

The new law won’t solve the issues of scale and size, and disease becomes a bigger concern. Given the new (and still unclear) restrictions, and the high costs of labor, the commercial solutions offered are high tech and expensive. Nobody wants to see egg costs go to $6.00 a dozen—which we sometimes see here from organic “boutique” farms. The operations challenges remain the same, waste removal and disposal, food delivery and egg collection. The industry is pimping gorgeous equipment—rolling (conveyor) floor beds, automatic feed dispensers and egg collection, all the bells and whistles. And the cost for an operation the size of Elmer’s? Try a cool, half-million dollars. It’s so high, that the only way to make it work is to seriously expand production. So this law, while well-meaning, will drive small producers out of business, and create even bigger factory farms. Good news for chickens?

Elmer is experimenting. He could retire if he wanted but instead, he’s going back to “chickens on the floor.” He’s cutting and bailing his own hay and straw for scratch and bedding materials. He’s resurrected old brooder boxes from over sixty years ago (farmers never throw anything out.) He’s modifying his manure collection system, using bedding materials for absorption, and thus minimizing the frequency of full removal (as relocating the chickens for cleanup is stressful to the chickens.) In short, he’s going back to the kind of farming they practiced when he was a boy. He’s mindful that he’ll need to keep an eye out for any increase in disease and, even at this experimental stage, he’s seeing a increase in predation

Chickens in elevated cages are relatively safe from predators. Elmer’s barns are designed for cage operations, with open sides for ventilation. On the open floors, especially where the chickens are given some access to open-air yard areas, he’s seeing a return of raccoon losses and fox and coyote problems. Even with his small scale experimental operation, he’s losing a chicken a day. This too, is like the old days.

He asked me today if I thought emus could guard against raccoons. In an instant, I saw the writing on the wall (or the broad side of a barn door.) It burst my bubble— the image of our emus patrolling the open range with sheep. I don’t know how emus would react to raccoons—but they’d be good guards against foxes and coyotes. A quick online search reveals no firm information on the emu/raccoon dynamic. It makes me a little sad to think of Gatsby and Kelvin guarding a chicken barn. But, on a farm, we do the work that comes our way. So, we shall see.

A.V. Walters

Each year we have this same battle. The swallows arrive and want to build their mud-daubed nests under our eaves. I like them; they’re streamlined and beautiful, swooping in elegant arcs over the farm. I don’t fully understand the dynamic, but in their search for nesting sites, they’re attracted most to the protected areas just over our doorways. They’re almost as messy as emus (on a smaller scale) and, as beautiful as they are, I’m not inclined to duck and take cover whenever I enter or leave our home. One minute they’re endearing wildlife, and the next, they’re a strafing, dive-bombing hazard. They can nest anywhere on the farm except over my back door.

Elmer has a soft-hearted farm rule. Tenants are free to dissuade birds from building nests. (And so I’m out there like a maniac waving my arms, shouting, beating on the window and carrying on.) But if a bird pair builds a nest and lays eggs–they get to stay for the duration. We are not allowed to interrupt bird families.

Some years ago, Elmer was asked by some South American scientists if they could run DNA tests on the farm’s summer swallows. The scientists wanted to know if these Two Rock swallows were of the same family as their own Brazilian swallows.  Thrilled to be on the cutting edge of science, and to watch-first hand as the scientists captured, tagged and took blood samples, Elmer was the chief proponent of the Swallow Investigation. Sure enough, the DNA revealed that our summer swallows are the same ones that go all the way to Brazil.

It’s the same with most migratory birds. We think of them as our songbirds, swallows, warblers, hummingbirds or ducks, but really we share them with their winter neighbors. Even our Monarch butterflies are traveling visitors. The alarming part of that is that we cannot protect them. Habitat must be protected across half the globe to make the world safe for our migratory friends. That knowledge came as a shock to Elmer. The world got smaller with that knowledge. Elmer does his part with the nesting rule.

It’s that simple. One chicken farmer can make a difference with a rule, making it possible for the swallows to live and breed on the northern leg of their annual trek. We can decide to save a species by changing our behavior. Last year, Elmer put an owl house in the peak of one of the barns. Swallows, owls, a little information can go a long way to inform our decisions and how we move through the environment.

That doesn’t mean I’m going to let them build a nest over my door, but they are otherwise welcome visitors. They have as much claim to make a home as I do. And if they get ahead of me, build a nest and lay eggs, I’ll just swallow hard, and endure the inconvenience like I do for the emus. When it comes down to it, we’re all immigrants here and we can just make room.

(Oh, except for those noisy mourning doves–I don’t know what to do about them.)

Another Emu Day

A.V. Walters

The new garden is almost complete. Rick is working the last of the bugs out of the drip irrigation system. Three quarters of the plants are in, either as starts or as seeds. It’s a typical summer Two Rock day. It’s sunny and cool and the afternoon winds have whipped up. Over the weekend, in addition to the garden, Rick and I finished stripping the last of the diseased peach curl leaves from the peach tree. We’re in good standing with our spring/summer farm chores and it’s not yet Memorial Day.

With all our attentions elsewhere, the emus have been on their own. Their job at this point is to eat and grow into full size emus. If I sleep in, their chirping reminds me in the morning that it’s time for emu kibble. I wonder how long they’ll keep the chirping. I’ll miss it when they stop. They continue to lose their baby feathers and their striped markings. Rick and I can tell them apart, but nobody else can.

Elmer would like to tag them somehow, maybe with anklets—to tell their gender in the future. I’m not sure what kind of identification system would work, and still let them grow. I look at their dad’s feet and there’s a lot of growing to be done yet. I think they have a few weeks, if not a month more with us, before they’ll head out to learn the sheep trade. In the meantime they’ve become quite territorial about the front yard—keeping the feral critters at bay. They chase the dairy trucks, from the safe side of the fence. I wonder if the drivers notice…and wonder.

They’ll make good guardians, unless the predators come bearing apple treats.

Beware of Emus!

Emus and The Great Outdoors

A.V. Walters

I have a friend who, when her last kid headed off to college, remodeled the newly vacant bedroom, making a sewing and project room for herself. After twenty-two years of putting every one else first, the house, and her life, underwent extensive renovation. It was a shock to the kid when Thanksgiving rolled around, and the room had been, as the French put it, “repurposed.”

Last weekend we came home from a grueling day of volunteering on a day that had started out nippy, but quickly warmed to blistering. The night was clear and warm, and the emus had spent the long day outside. I went into their little bathroom retreat to do the daily clean up before letting them in for the night. Needless to say, it was, as usual, filthy. We looked out at our frolicking prehistoric birds and decided it was time. I fed them outdoors, an odd ritual because they’re grazers. Outside they are surrounded by food, but it made me feel better to give them their kibble. They haven’t been inside, since.

Her neck has lost almost all markings

Her neck has lost almost all markings

Emus and The Great Outdoors

He still has his baby speckles

I spent a full day cleaning out their room. Rick vacuumed and mopped areas where they’d been and I washed out everything from the back entry clear through to the front door. Emus, no more! The final act was to take the sign down from the bathroom door. It was liberating to return the house to mammal-only occupation. I’m glad we did it, and we’d do it again, just not inside!

The emus seem very happy in the front yard. It’s a big area, and a perfect emu training ground for the open pastures with the sheep. Outside, they look smaller but every now and then I note the changes. (The effect is exaggerated because we haven’t weed-whacked since the birds have been out front.) Their heads can easily reach my waist (and curiously, pluck my neatly tucked-in shirt from my jeans.) Initially they cowered in fear at any new thing. Now, when the loud and lumbering dairy truck goes by, they chase it along the fence, as though their patrol activities had actually run it off. Yesterday a feral cat jumped over the fence and, with apparent glee, the emus gave chase. Nothing in that cat’s experience had prepared it for the charging birds. A possible dinner had now turned into two, possible diners! From the birds’ perspective, they’ve been hanging with cats for their whole lives, but none had ever been game enough to give them a real run for their money. Our cats are smarter than that. (Well, and a little intimidated.)

He goes into the emu roll!

He goes into the emu roll!

The emus still like to hang out with us humans. I sit and drink my morning coffee on the front steps. I give them kibble morning and evening, though they could really survive only on the greens out front. They hover, looking for treats, a stroke on the neck, or gently pecking at any speck or spot on our clothes. It’s emu grooming—I guess it means we’re family. They like to tug softly on the ends of my hair. They are particularly fond of pecking at the contrasting wrist-bands on one of Rick’s shirts. The other day one caught a glitter and, in a flash, snatched one of my earrings! Thank god it didn’t taste very good and she spat it right back out. I’d hate to consider the alternative retrieval methods.

Scruffy!

Scruffy!

These days, the emus are looking teenage-scruffy. They’re losing their baby feathers (and with them, the markings by which we’ve identified them.) Underneath we can glimpse the sleek dark feathers to come. As chicks they looked like Scandinavian rugs but now, they look a little moth-eaten. We can still tell them apart, though. The presumed female has gotten much larger. More than that, they have distinct personalities. The female is more assertive, while the presumed male is reserved and gentle. He eats constantly, a nibble here, a nibble there, and barely touches my hand when I give him treats. But, she wolfs down her food! (Just like her mother!) So much so, that sometimes she needs to go and get a drink of water to wash the bolus of kibble down that long neck. Our gender assumptions are based, in large part, on the personality traits of the emu gender reversal. We shall see, well down the road, if we are right.

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity-Jig

R.R. Edwards

I had just turned onto our road, after a trip into town, and about half way down the half-mile stretch to the house, I spotted a couple of odd creatures standing in the road. As I got nearer, it became obvious that they were, in fact, some kind of bird. At first I thought they might be a couple of escaped chickens and, as I got closer I saw that, in fact, these were escaped birds. But, to my amazement, these weren’t chickens making a break for it—they were our adopted emu chicks, on the loose and halfway to the highway! The last time I’d seen them, they were in the yard, running around the enclosure we’d set up for them.

For a few seconds I just sat there, a bit stunned and unsure what my next move should be. They stood there, staring back, just as unsure about their next move. When I inched the car forward, the chicks answered the question for me—they started heading back down the road in order to put distance between themselves and the mysterious, iron beast that had blocked their path.  So, following their lead, I began my very own, emu round-up, behind the wheel of my trusty steed.

The emus were surprisingly “cooperative”—they kept scooting along at a relatively brisk pace and, only once, did one of them threaten to take off, across an adjacent pasture by squeezing through the fence. Fortunately, he kept moving in the right direction and, when the fence ahead of him ran out, popped back out, onto the road. When we arrived where the road split, (straight, the road took you to the neighboring dairy, and to the right was our place) I managed to steer them in the right direction. Now that we’d arrived at the house, the next trick was going to be getting them either back into their pen, or into the house.

At this point I had to hope that “Mother Nature” (in a twisted sort of way) would take over, and that the chicks’ bond to me was strong enough to overcome their confused and somewhat panicked state. I got out of the car and slowly approached our feathered charges, afraid that all my work would be for naught, and that they would bolt. But, as soon as I called to them, their little heads spun around and they came running up to me, cheeping away. They were clearly thrilled to have been found by a “parent” and would have happily followed me, anywhere. Since it was lightly raining, and they looked a little soaked from their adventure, I led them inside where they could huddle under the heat lamp to dry out.

After telling AV, “Guess what who I saw standing in the road,” I realized how lucky we were, in so many ways. Once they got out of their pen, they could have headed in any direction. We’re surrounded by miles of open pasture, and once out there, they would have been next to impossible to find. The fact that they’re “fence runners” kept them on the road, between fences, but they had covered a quarter-mile, in a relatively short amount of time, and had I been back much later, they might have made it to the main road and hitched a ride to just about anywhere. Or, when confronted by me on the road, they could have “flipped me the bird,” and taken off in any direction. (And, these little guys, at the tender age of 1-month, can out run me!) All kidding aside, we lucked out that our little birds are home safe. I would have assumed that, once out of their pen, they would have stayed around the house, looking for us or a way back inside. But like most youngsters the thrill of adventure dulled their sense of self-preservation, and down the road they happily trotted. Clearly, the trials and tribulations of parenting (and youth) are universal.

 

 

Easter Emus

A.V. Walters

It’d be quite a joke, wouldn’t it, to give someone an emu chick for Easter? Precious and cute and the size of a teacup, they’d have no idea what was coming. It’s Easter and our two remaining chicks are a month old. They’re the size of small geese. Cleaning up after them is quite a chore.

The good news is that they are gaining body mass at an amazing rate and soon they’ll be fully outdoor birds. Already they spend the bulk of their daytime hours outside in a kennel enclosure. They’d much prefer if we spent the day out there with them, but, after an initial panic, they settle in and spend their days munching on grass and doing the emu dance. At this point they’re too big to be prey for hawks, so I can relax, go inside and get some work done. We know that in the wilds, they’d be out and about already, but we are protective guardians and want them to be fox-proof before we put them out in the pasture.

Since they get so upset if we pick them up, this week we’ve reverted to herding them. Their first trip down the nine steps to the back yard was quite an adventure (it looked like emu snowboarding) but now they take the steps like pros—nothing to get excited about, just out for a stroll. We still run them in the kitchen at night (and give them apple treats.) Mostly I continue this because it’s so fun to see Rick do the “excite the emus” run. He’s raised kids, so he knows the universal language of baby talk. It is universal—even emus respond. I can’t tell who’s more adorable, the emus, or Rick with the emus.

For a few weeks we lined the interior of their little tiled room with newspapers. Not only was that a messy affair, but we don’t take a paper. We are fully digital in the news department. At first Elmer provided some, but country folk are stingy with their newsprint. Everybody uses newspaper to start their woodstove fires. When I found myself snitching the free papers from the stands in town—well, something had to be done. I’d started rating them by their absorbance—not the measure of print-worthiness to which most writers aspire.

Rick solved the problem. He bought a roll of heavy craft paper and cut numerous templates of the floor—emu carpet. Now I pick up—and then every couple of days just roll a layer off and dispose of it. Like I said in an earlier post, Kids, don’t try this at home.

And that emu dance! It’s quite a sight now that these guys are thigh high. (It’s even more impressive with the adults, because, as you might have guessed, this dance is the early training for emu courtship.) I know that we have happy emus when they do the emu kicking roll, dance steps and then hurtle around the enclosure at breakneck speeds. (I’m really understanding that expression, now.) I’m hoping for rain today because the emus love water, and I’ve heard that they dance in the rain.

 

Pictures later

 

 

Country Fresh

A.V. Walters

Even while I lived in the city, I hung onto my rural roots. I gardened and produced most of my summer fare from a postage stamp-sized back yard. I canned jams from the plum tree, and I hung my laundry out in the sun, to dry. So, it should come as no surprise that, when I moved to the farm, not only would I want to continue these patterns, but there’d be some room for expansion. But when I explained my plans to Elmer, he seemed a bit alarmed. Not at the gardening, that made perfect sense. And, like a lot of country folk, he fully supports canning. The problem arose when I asked Elmer to put up a clothesline, of all things!

He squirmed at the notion, “Why the heck would you want to do something like that?” I was ready with my environmentally friendly, power-of-the-sun, low-carbon-footprint, Pollyanna diatribe.

“Well, we have a lot of wind, you know. It whips up the dust, and all. So, you’d want to be sure to bring it in before the afternoon winds start up.” He didn’t sound convincing, and it seemed like a strange response—a little wind would be exactly the ticket. In what better environment could there be to dry laundry? (I’d failed to note the almost-complete absence of clotheslines, in the area.)

Elmer never did help out with getting that line up, and given his reaction, I didn’t press it. After a while, I bought the materials and installed it myself. And, he was right about the wind and the dust. If you left the laundry out, late in the day, you’d have to wash it, again. But our mornings were still, and my line was set up to take advantage of the morning sun.

One morning I pulled a fresh towel from the line and headed into town for a swim. (There’s nothing like a vigorous work-out in chlorinated water to clear your head.) As I walked back into the changing room, I caught the unmistakable stench of cow manure. I laughed to myself and thought, somewhere there’s a farmer in here, for sure.

I’ll have to admit, here, that when you’re exposed to something a lot, you become, well, desensitized and… I live next door to a dairy. So, when I grabbed my towel, I almost choked. That farmer was me! And that certainly explained why they don’t hang their laundry out. Oh my! And that was the end of my energy saving foray with country laundry.

Someday, I’ll live somewhere with a different background aroma—and I’ll go back to the clothesline. (Rick said he thinks he knows the perfect location.)

A Little Bit of Wild…

A.V. Walters

Emus are not domesticated creatures. They are ancient creatures, virtually unchanged for many millions of years. We cannot own them, though we may “keep” them. They are not really pets. Nowhere is this more clear than when one tries to transport them. Try to put them in a box, and they panic. They thrash. They can even fight to the point of injuring themselves. There is no such thing as a portable emu. They do not respond to the instruction, “Hey, just chill!”

Even carrying them from their indoor, night-time home, to the backyard is telling (and trying.) This should be routine by now, but every single time, they kick and fight and squawk. Our first emu pioneers, The Royals, made their trip in a big box. On arrival one had managed to kick himself into a royal limp. It’s minor, and will heal, but it speaks to the difference between a domesticated animal and a wild one. We can keep company with the wild but we cannot bend them to our will. Last night, when outbound emu number three was loaded into a kennel for his trip to its new home, he fought like a ninja (but without the grace.) It’s a little heartbreaking to see, and makes for a traumatic farewell, even when they’re off to the best of new homes.

In this case, the emu we knew as DotDash, will be a guardian/companion animal to a new flock of sheep. We were duly impressed with the new keeper, a diligent 16-year-old girl who is building a flock of prize sheep. She’d done her research and found that an emu guardian was a sustainable and viable way to protect her investment, both emotional and financial. She’s familiar with chickens and other livestock and I queried her about her commitment to an animal that will live about thirty years. She had considered it, and sees agriculture as a lifetime commitment for her. So, an emu fits the bill. I asked, “What if you go away to college, what of the emu then?” She was ready for it. Emus are low maintenance. Her parents (who have fifty acres nearby) are already committed to the sheep, so an emu actually helps that dynamic. And she won’t go far away.

I worry that we don’t have many young people interested in farm living. Almost all the farmers and ranchers I know are at an age when most people are talking about retirement. It’s not an easy life but one that comes with many rewards. In the absence of an investment by our youth, where will we get our food? From corporate farms? What kinds of stewards will they be of our precious farmland? What do they add to a farm community? So, how could I not honor this young lady’s venture into agriculture? She embodies everything I think we need in a new generation committed to the land, even if it puts her out-of-step with her social cohorts.

We spoke at length, and I think she understands the compact that we have with emus. She respects that her new emu charge is wild, and that in that wildness is a trait—protection from canine predators—that walks in step with her needs with sheep. So off he went, kicking and peeping to a new life. I think both of them—the emu and the girl, will do very well; there’s a little bit of wild in each of them.

The Bad News and the Good News

A.V. Walters

We were already pretty much resigned to it. Yesterday was the deadline. It was several days past the last possible date on which we could expect the emu eggs to hatch. With as many doubts as we had about Mr. Emu’s ability to incubate the eggs during the coldest days of the year, I can’t say that modern technology did any better. (And, it’s been cold, into the twenties at night, several times.) At the moment, the score is: emus—0, electricians—1. Sadly, it was not the much anticipated storm-driven power loss that did us in; as best we can tell, it was the inadvertence of renovation. So yesterday we walked down to the incubator and flipped off the switch.

When the storm clears we’ll remove the eggs and take them outside, to open and bury them. We feel compelled to do an ‘egg-topsy’ to determine whether they were ever viable, and if so, at what stage of development they failed. I’ve done this before, and believe me, you want to do it outside. If you’ve ever experience a rotten egg—think of that times six (for the size of the emu egg) and with an explosive force rivaling anything outside of a military application. One time, an egg exploded when I was burying it. I was enveloped in a cloud of shimmering, golden light—a halo about 12 feet across. It was beautiful—until I took a breath. OH-MY-GOD! The stink—I thought I would die. There I was, encased in a cloud of rotten egg, my clothing saturated in the stunning mist of it. It was breathtaking, literally, in every way. There was no escape. Quickly, I finished the burial and headed directly into the shower—clothing and all. So this time, we’ll be very careful.

I’m sad it didn’t work out. Before we went to do the deed, Rick chopped up a bunch of apples. We thought it would be nice to visit the emus, after pulling that plug—sort of an affirmation of the reason we made the effort, in the first place. We hadn’t been up to visit them in four days, which isn’t unusual. So, we crossed the highway and headed up the hill. That part of the farm is almost a mile from our side, and we chatted about whether we should intervene in the emus’ future efforts, at all. (It’s not like we get a lot of support with it, and we’re not sure anyone even wants more emus on the farm.) Still, those emus keep trying, so it’s hard to not want them to succeed.

Well, it’s lambing time. (I know, it seems odd to bring those baby lambs into the world at the coldest time of the year, but they are dressed for it—100% wool!) I have to admit, it’s fun to watch them cavorting about, in the sun. (I mean, They actually frolic!) Sheep are lumbering, dirty and dumb, but watching little lambs, though, is like watching children. They bounce and run. They form little bands of trouble, and then, at the slightest provocation, run lickety-split, back to their moms.

Anyway, when we got to the high fields, only Mrs. Emu was in sight. We exchanged nervous, knowing looks. Well, when we had removed the eggs, we’d predicted it. Emus will continue to breed until the days start to lengthen. A search of the field revealed what we already figured—Mr. Emu was bedded down with five new eggs. By week’s end, we’re sure there’ll be more. (Those darned emus—you turn your back for a minute…)  This time, we won’t take the eggs. If Mr. E can keep them alive over the next 55 days or so, they’ll hatch into a warmer, Sonoma County Spring, with a good chance of surviving. (It’ll just be a question of outsmarting the predators.) We decided their start date is December 15th, so we’re counting down. There’s some good in this, beyond winter timing—the earlier batch of eggs was conceived during the worst period for emu nutrition (the late fall is yucky, dry grass and a few treats from us), this later clutch comes after two months of green grass and plentiful water. So perhaps these new emu babes have a better start, out the gate. A door doesn’t close, but a window opens…

 

Playing Possum on the Bell Curve

A.V. Walters

It’s about nine miles into town and, at certain times of the year, it’s carnage. This is that time of the year. The hills are verdant. Our seasonal rains have started and the wild critters have come out, in force, to take advantage of the return of resources. That means they’re moving about and, unfortunately, they don’t understand the rules of the road. The only rule that should concern them (besides, RUN!!!) is that they cannot win in a faceoff with a motorized vehicle.

About a month ago, I noticed (what my partner calls) the annual, ‘Running of the skunks.’ All of a sudden, for just a couple of weeks, the skunks decide that they need to cross the road, now (and often fail.) Yes, of course, they’re trying to get to the other side, but why the sudden, yearly mass-migration, just to get there?

The steel-verses-fur imbalance is especially true of the possums. There were four of them on the shoulder today and they weren’t playing possum. Possums have an unusual survival strategy. When confronted with extreme stress—a life or death choice—they lose consciousness. That age old technique was a winner when their primary opponent was a predator. Some time ago, (say, a millennia) there was a survival advantage to fainting in the face of danger. (It worked for Victorian era women, too. Go figure!) Those oddball possums who developed this strategy, lived to see another day, and bred like rabbits.) It worked because many predators will only eat live prey, so the ‘play-dead’ strategy fooled them. Embedded deep in the predator instincts is the caution not to eat carrion—to protect them from illness borne by rotted or poisoned meat. (Oddly enough, that’s the strategy my partner used, growing up, while foraging through the family refrigerator.) But the possums don’t just ‘play’ dead, they actually go into a neurological overload, and completely shut down. They are literally, out cold.

When the threat at hand is a three-thousand pound, multi-wheeled projectile, hurtling directly at you, this passing out thing doesn’t quite cut it. Possums have failed to make the evolutionary connection to address this kind of threat. (On the other hand, they are such prodigious breeders, their niche in the ecosystem is safe— unfortunately, the predators don’t fare as well.)

In most species, a variety of coping mechanisms falls pretty evenly on a bell curve—some are aggressive, some passive (and in our species, some are passive-aggressive, but that’s another blog.) Someone once explained it to me this way: in an earthquake, some people will seize the moment and run outside the building at the first sign of a tremor. Others will hunker down in that “triangle-zone of safety” next to the kitchen counter or behind the sofa (or the I-beam tee-pee they had welded, ‘just in case.’) Nature can’t choose who will survive so she takes a Darwinian approach, and provides a range of personality types to address life’s risks. Maybe the guy who gets out, by running into the street, will be the lucky one (or maybe he’ll be crushed (inexplicably) by an I-beam tee-pee or cut to ribbons by the tons of falling glass from the skyscrapers above.) Perhaps the building won’t fall and the guy curled up behind a well-built sofa will brush himself off and go about his business. (Or, maybe he’ll die, trapped in his Ikea-built ‘cocoon of safety,’ before the rescue dogs can find him.) Since survival of the species appears to be nature’s objective, (okay, sometimes it‘s just a crap-shoot) she relies on variety to ensure that at least part of the team will make it to see another day.

Possums are failing that strategic variety test, and driving down the road, past the possums, makes me wonder how we’re doing in the strategic variety department. I wonder how the Walmart mentality of endless consumption ranks next to the possum’s self-induced anesthesia. Are we failing to diversify our options? From overreliance on fossil fuels, to the loss of species diversity, and the loss of knowledge of “the old ways,” (gardening, canning, cooking, building, animal husbandry and such) in the general populace, I worry that our culture is failing in its obligations to future generations (not to mention ourselves.) Politicians rail about preserving “the American way of life” without noting that it’s a recent phenomenon—and potentially unsustainable. What’s truly needed in our culture is a renewed diversification of talents , interests and, well, thinking.

I attended a party, last night, where the adults stood around chatting, wine glasses in hand, and the teenagers were in the next room, glued to the video games on the TV screen. I wondered, what kind of real, survival skills do video games develop. (Here’s a test you can do at home: Shut off the power, and see which kid gets up and looks for the fuse box, and which one just sits there in the dark.) In my narrow view electronic entertainment is a sorry waste of opposable thumbs. (Not that opposable thumbs would have done the skunks much good.) Still, the party was a holiday celebration for folks who’d volunteered all year to help fix up the homes of the poor and elderly. Those in attendance were builders, architects, tradespeople and genuinely nice people who volunteer their time for others. Wait a minute, there’s a survival strategy, altruism. On balance, I guess that helps a lot. That’s one area where we are ahead of the possums.

Paris rain

Between Seasons

A.V. Walters

The first serious storm of our winter rolled through last night. We were forewarned— forecasts of power losses and flooding in low lying areas made us tidy up and hunker down. It’s not cold though, and so, it doesn’t feel like real winter. The storm blew in from the southwest, with temperatures in the mid-50s (F). I went out to the garden for (yet another) last tomato harvest. I keep saying that, but the tomatoes aren’t listening, and keep ripening. I suppose only freezing will end the bounty. The garden looks bleak but tomatoes, scallions, peppers, beets and the occasional winter squash still make the garden walk worthwhile. No more canning though. These tomatoes go directly into daily meals, or into the dehydrator.

The idea of a power outage had us worried. It’s the downside of usurping nature in the incubation of emu eggs. Once undertaking the task, what do you do if the power goes out? It’s not like Mr. Emu will jump back into babysitting once we’ve disturbed his paternal, confinement trance. Now, we’re watching him, and the Mrs., to see if they go back into breeding mode. In the meantime, there are nine eggs in that incubator. What could we do to keep them viable if we go dark and the incubator goes cold? So, despite the fact that it wasn’t all that cold out last night, we fired up the wood stove to chase off the gloom and to test the temperature range to see if we could step in should the utilities fail. It turns out that the space under the stove, where Kilo usually sleeps, is exactly in the hatching range between 95 and 99 degrees, Fahrenheit. (What are the odds?!) As long as we don’t sleep through it, we’re covered for an emu power emergency. Of course, this morning the house was a toasty 68—about six degrees higher than our standard, indoor, winter norm. I should be happy to be within the range that most folks set as their low-normal, but I’m accustomed to my winter chill.

The winds have died, but it’s still raining.  A few small branches are down, the last of the fall leaves have been stripped from the trees and the valley below us is a new lake. That’s standard for winter, the pastures that frame our view, fill and drain to the rhythms set by the storms. The hills are a lush, eye-popping green. Now that the peach tree is leafless, we have our full-range view back. It’s not winter yet, but it’s coming. December will likely bring more high winds, rain and cold.

It’s also lambing season. I always thought it odd that the farmers’ timing ran opposite to what you’d expect. The calves and lambs here are born into our coldest weather, to take advantage of the free and healthy feed offered by our green hills. By spring, they’re ready for market (or nearly) and the farmers keep and feed only their breeding stock during the long dry summers. Good thing those lambs come in wearing sweaters! The baby emus (should we be so lucky they hatch) are a different story. We’ll need to keep them warm for about a month. We’re devising an emu-baby corral, out of straw bales, to be warmed by a heat lamp. Then, if the power goes out, we’ll really have a conundrum because they’re sure as heck not going to fit under the wood stove. What do you do with a passel of shivering emu-babes? Bring them in? A house full of them? Bedlam, I tell you. All we can do is cross our fingers and hope the power holds. We’re between seasons, autumn and winter, California and the emus’ native home of Australia.

Egg-Napping—The Quest for Emu Survival

A.V. Walters

Emus have lived on this farm much longer than I have. I didn’t even know they were here until after I’d been here for about eighteen months. Then, I walked into an unusual scenario—After visiting my family for the holidays, my return was delayed by a Midwestern snowstorm. Because Elmer was watching my house, I gave him a call to let him know about the delay. He told me to drop by his place when I got home—the farm had Christmas surprises! Well, it certainly did—Elmer had a new puppy, he’d learned he was expecting another new grandbaby and, in a corner of his kitchen, was the strangest little bird—a baby emu.

The little guy was clearly sick. I asked Elmer where he’d got this little critter. He responded that he was a chick from the emus. Apparently, years earlier a friend had gone into (and quickly out of) the emu business, and he’d given Elmer some of the leftover emus. It turns out that ranchers here use them as guard animals for their sheep. It’s not so much that the emus like sheep, but that they really hate coyotes. So these emus have been living quietly across the road where most of the sheep are kept.

The emus on the farm have never bred successfully. Emus come from Australia, where the winter climate is more forgiving than in Two Rock. Their breeding cycle is triggered when the days start to shorten, and while that’s fine for Australia, here, our emus end up with vulnerable little (figure of speech) eggs and chicks at our coldest time of year. The chick in Elmer’s kitchen was the only survivor of the clutch–the rest all froze. So here was Elmer, in early January, with a living, but very sick little bird. I asked him what he was going to do with it.

“Hand raise it, I guess.”

“Yeah, what do you feed it?”

“Dunno, I’ve been giving it milk.”

Elmer, it’s a bird! Whatever made you think to give it milk?”

“Well, it’s a baby.”

And this from a chicken farmer! With that, I sat down in front of his computer and Googled “Baby emu feed.”

“Elmer, it says here to feed them kale and finely diced apples. And they need to be kept warm, really warm for a couple of weeks.” I was still busy peering at the screen when he handed me the box, emu baby and all.

“Here, you take him. You’re better at the computer research stuff.” (I should have seen the obvious connection, myself–computer research and raising baby emus.)

And so, I’ve been the Emu Lady ever since.

I set up at home with the first emu baby. He was pretty sick, and only lived a couple of days. But by then, I’d become the patron saint of baby emus. I did the research and we decided on a strategy of “emu assistance.” That is, trying to help the emus to raise their own.

One of our strategies was to delay breeding until later in the season, so that the babes would come at a warmer time. Unfortunately this required separating the randy couple. With sheep to move from pasture to pasture, farmhands (with good intentions) can’t seem to remember about the emus. The fence and gate protocols were a bit much–the process was like trying to chaperone teenagers. Let’s face it–emus may be dumb, but they’re faster than we are. Well, so much for that tactic.

It’s been three years now, with no luck. We’ve gone from no live young at all, to achieving success in viable chicks, only to have them succumb to coyotes, foxes, freezing cold, and just plain stupidity. (Like the emu baby who hatched and promptly hung himself on the fence of his enclosure that we put up to keep it safe! Who knew you had to baby-proof an emu pen?) So this season we had a new strategy. We were going to combine delayed breeding with a time-honored tradition—incubation. A friend of Elmer’s gave him emu incubating equipment. He’s all concerned that it’ll use too much power, but the tide is against him and we’ve fired up and tested the incubators.

So, earlier this month we decided to check on those wily birds, figuring it was about time to get them on opposite sides of the fence. Too late. When we walked up to the pasture we saw only one emu. Mrs. Emu. That’s a sure sign that Mr. Emu is off sitting on a clutch of eggs! (With emus, the male is the caretaker parent. The female is basically a nervy, promiscuous hussy.) Sure enough, we walked up the hill to the pond to find Mr. Emu happily sitting on his new clutch of nine eggs. (The photo was taken just before we grabbed the goods.) They were early this year. By weeks. Well, that’s when we knew it was time to fire up the incubator.

Today was the big day. After a series of delays—real teenagers, neck injuries, late tomato harvests and elections—we were finally ready. It was anticlimactic, really. Mr. Emu was his usual genial self. I plied him with apple treats and, while he was snacking, I reached under him and removed the eggs, one by one. Rick wrapped them in a Mylar space-blanket and towel, and we stole off with his family! When we left, he was oblivious to what had happened, and was still gobbling down the apples. (Did I mention that emus weren’t real bright?)

So, the eggs are now safely stashed in the incubator—calibrated and set. (In the other photo, you can see some of them sitting in the rack.) We numbered and weighed them. (Weight is one method of observing chick progress—during the process they lose weight as they lose water mass.) They weighed in at 20 to 23 ounces, each. Emu eggs are big. We’ll have to do some guessing about the “due date” as those sneaky emus got ahead of us. The normal egg gestation is 53 days, but who knows when they got started. Taking their eggs will likely result in a second effort by the emus and, a second clutch of eggs. We’ll try to keep our eyes open, this time. If it’s late enough, we’ll let them try it on their own. Otherwise, they’ll be more eggs bound for the incubator. Sometime around Christmas we’ll know if we succeeded with any of the emu babies, on this first batch.

But then what will we do?

A.V. Walters

I know I said I was finished canning for the season. And then, there was the threat of frost, so we decided to do one last harvest before the more delicate items perished. We brought in peppers, the last eggplant, basil (but unfortunately, not enough of it), a bunch of late-maturing winter squash (spaghetti, moschata, butternut and one lone delicata that was hiding in the foliage) and then we took a hard look at the tomatoes. Sure enough, many had split and rotted after the rains. But looking closer, there were still a lot of really lovely tomatoes in there, so we harvested.

And harvested, and harvested. We made an ample last harvest delivery to everyone on the farm and still there were over three five-gallon buckets of tomatoes. Eighty-eight pounds of tomatoes—in November, no less. So we pulled out the canning equipment, from its brief rest in storage and set up for one last (no, really) run. Twenty-three quarts later, we are finished. We did extra thick sauce infused with basil (for pizza or spaghetti); we did tomato pieces, most sorted by color—red, orange or yellow, which will be lovely for stews or soups; and we did some fancies—mixed colors in patterns—which are almost too pretty to eat and will probably be gift items. (So if you’re family and you’re reading this, close your eyes on this part.) Then we washed up and put all the gear away again.

It was a welcome reprieve from regular life, which has had some twists of late. Anyone who is the parent of a teenager can relate—a runaway with issues and attitude. As much as you ache for their safety and mental state, you also wish you could can them, too, safely into tidy jars, tucked into the pantry until they’re ready for real life. Once we’d done all that we could do, a little tomato therapy of peeling and dicing and canning was just the ticket. And by the end of the weekend, she was home, safe, and probably already gearing up for her next snit. You wonder, was I ever that young and clueless?

By last evening, the kitchen was clean, the jars in neat rows, cooling, and we relaxed in front of the fire. Winter is coming and the early mornings are decked out in frost. Stupidly, I left a lot of the basil in the garden and the cold burned it to a blackened, limp mess. A day earlier and I could have dried it for winter. Oh well. In the daytime it’s too warm for a fire, but by night the chill is in the air and it’s time for some heat. This morning, I noticed that more tomatoes are ripe. No way. I’m not canning them. I’ve already put the canning stuff away twice. But, I may take some and dehydrate them. I heard from an old Italian friend that the secret of great cooking with canned tomatoes was to dry some too, and then snip bits of the dried tomatoes into the pot twenty minutes before the meal is ready. Supposedly the dried ones bring back the aroma of summer.

Last night, friends called. Their neighbor has an excess of apples—did we want any? Plenty for applesauce or the emus. Applesauce is always a lovely treat in the winter. Oh, on second thought don’t go too far with all that canning equipment; we still have some empty jars. And, more emu news, next time.

A.V. Walters

The rains have come. Those first showers over a week ago, have worked their magic. At first it was just a blush–a wisp of color if you caught it at the right angle. Now there’s no question, our hills are turning green. It’s a funny dynamic that our gardening season is the opposite of our green season. Still, after months of dead brown hills it’s a relief to the eye to see this transformation. There are still goodies from the garden, they’ll go on until the hard frosts hit. This is the seasonal pause, the green relief in still fine weather, before the storms and cold come. It’s a pleasure to work outside in the cool, sometimes grey days.

I’ll be posting a little less frequently this month. I am, after all, fully committed to NaNoWriMo. It could be that Editor Rick picks up the slack. He’s undertaking those end-of-season projects, readying for winter, seed-saving (he’s so organized), tool management, and soon, pulling buckets. All that stuff that I let lag until the storms force my hand. My head is miles and decades away, weaving the fabric of a 1931 speakeasy in Detroit. Outside, the creeping green is putting me in the mood with the intense colors of my childhood. While California is lovely, it is difficult to go without green for five or six months of the year. I’m not saying I miss snow (though sometimes, I do) but I do welcome the return of green.

It’s less than a week to the election–don’t forget to vote. If you’re here in California, and if you value good food and informed choice, remember to vote for Proposition 37. Let’s get those GMO foods labeled.

I’ll pull my head out of fiction at least once a week, to give you the what’s up in Two Rock.

A.V. Walters

Last week I said it was a race with the first hard frost, to get the tomatoes in. I was wrong. When you live somewhere where rain doesn’t happen for seven or eight months of the year, it’s easy to forget. If your tomatoes are ripe (or almost) there’s another thing that can be devastating–RAIN.

A growing tomato has the ability to expand its skin. But ripe tomato, having reached its full size, shifts its internal workings to focus on seed maturation, not growth. We take advantage of this by cutting back on watering in the late weeks of the garden–it protects the tomatoes and enhances their sweetness. A ripe tomato, if it gets a heavy dose of water, can suck up the long awaited drink, split its skin, and rot on the vine. So, Sunday’s forecast of rain got my attention–not just a little rain, either, they forecast days of the wet stuff.  So we got busy, stripping the plants of all the ripe or near ripe fruit.

We had to harvest in five-gallon buckets and when those were full, used the largest bowls and pots we had. One hundred forty pounds of tomatoes later, I made another delivery of fresh tomatoes to everybody on the farm, and then we confronted a kitchen that was already being held hostage by our previous efforts.  We canned whole romas (some in yellow tomato sauce), diced tomatoes and sauce, lots of sauce. A year’s worth of tomatoes. Tomatoes in every imaginable color, shape and size–reds, pinks, goldens, bright yellows, oranges, brunos, stripes (both green zebras and chocolate stripes), those multicolored “pineapple” tomatoes, you name it, a veritable rainbow of tomatoes. To make sauce that has enough heft you have to reduce the volume of liquid by more than half. Every large pot we own was simmering away on the stove. There were tomato seeds and spatters, everywhere. I had to stop regularly to clean my eyeglasses. Two days later, we’d canned this year’s quota — 63 quarts of various, tomato products. Another day to clean everything and we are finished. Whew.

We’re picky about this, we taste and blend–making sure that there’s a uniformity of color and flavor. Why else would we go to all this work? After all, store-bought canned tomatoes are cheap, you can buy them by the case at Costco–even organics. Needless to say, it’s not an economic choice we’re making here. We’re opting for taste and an alliance with a rural lifestyle from a bygone era of self-sufficiency. It’s one of the signs that summer is over and that we’re ready for winter. The wood pile is under cover, and the kindling barrel full. Tomatoes and jam are labeled and lining the pantry. So, we’re ready.

There is still a lot of fruit on the vines (our growing season starts late and finishes late) so the garden will continue to produce ripe, fresh tomatoes until frost hits. We’ll continue to use them fresh for salads or tossed in pasta–and deliver them to our friends and neighbors, until then. If they get ahead of us, we’ll take them to the food bank. But, I don’t think we’ll can any more. It starts to get silly at some point, and over sixty quarts is that point, for us.

Who Knew?

A.V. Walters

My last blog addressed the issue of produce theft. Who knew it was a trend? I discovered that community gardens all over the country have been vexed with this garden pilfery. And I thought gophers were bad! Friends sent me the following links.

http://kstp.com/news/stories/s2712848.shtml

http://www.chicagonow.com/chicago-garden/2010/08/please-do-not-steal-the-vegetables/#image/1

http://www.tcdailyplanet.net/news/2012/07/27/tomato-thieves-plague-st-paul-minneapolis-community-gardens

Since then, they’ve hit the corn and more tomatoes. Not that I’m left without; I’m still canning and at this rate it’s a question of what will happen first–the last of the tomatoes ripening or the first hard frost. Still, it’s a shock that garden theft is so common. It never occurred to me that the old organic maxim “And a third for the pests,” meant people.

We’re having one of those hot and muggy residual summer weeks. I’m not complaining, it will help to ripen tomatoes (who, so far have kindly not come ripe all at once.) I can only can so much at a whack–earlier this week my stove was simmering at capacity–a pot of sauce on every burner. Fifty pounds of them cooks down to about nine quarts of sauce and whole canned tomatoes. So the rest of October looks like tomatoes–and then NaNoWriMo in November. (What’s that? Oh, next blog I’ll explain and encourage.)

AV. Walters

And no rain, in even a normal year, for at least a month. We’re not getting our usual heat wave this month–and with the fields like tinder, that’s a good thing. We are all wary of the risk of wild fire. In most years I take the advice of ’30 feet of defensible space’ seriously–I clear everything away from the house diligently. This year there’s no need. Not even the weeds grew in this dry season. There was a fire yesterday–somewhere between here and town in the other end of the valley. It was a grass fire–it’s a different smell and taste than a more serious structure or forest fire. Smoke lite. Apparently they got it out, because the air cleared and the lingering haze made for a lovely sunset.

I’ve been following fire and emergency news these days because I’ve become more involved as a volunteer with our local fire department. Not fighting fires–I think I’m a little long in the tooth (and clumsy to boot) for that. But I can chip in with administrative stuff, or selling T shirts for fundraising. It’s a small community, everybody does what they can. It’s so dry that our new firefighters have to train on the hoses without water. Don’t laugh. Nobody has excess at the wellhead these days, so they learn to man the hoses dry–with the seasoned volunteers pulling and pushing at the back end of the hose to simulate the force of real water. Consider it a dry run, in the most real sense of the term. They revel at the chance to share training programs with nearby departments that have city water.

Our wells are low and that intensifies the mineral salts–leaving a cloudy blush on the glasses, if you use the dishwasher. When canning, I have to put vinegar in the water with the bottles, or they’ll come up clouded and gritty feeling. Some of this is normal at this time of the year. The rest has us seriously conserving and sniffing now and then for smoke when outdoors. It’s a good thing that the rainy season runs during the same time as the winter heating season. By the time I put a fire in the stove, it’s cold and wet out.

I buy bottled water for coffee–not because of contamination (our well is high up on the hill) but because I’m a coffee nut, and I like the flavor of a less–gritty–source of water. In the low part of the valley the wells are contaminated. It’s a fact of rural living–nitrates in the water. Those folks must drink bottled water, especially kids. It’s a reminder that , even here in rural county, we need to be aware of our footprint on the planet. Nitrates are a common form of contamination in areas with heavy livestock concentrations, especially where, like here, people rely mostly on shallow wells. This is a dairy area, with chickens and beef cattle thrown in for good measure.

Many years ago the county put in a dump, (now called a transfer station and refuse disposal area) about a mile from here. The runoff from the site runs into our local creek. There’s a debate in the valley, not too seriously entertained, that the county dump is the source of the contamination. Folks who’ve been spreading manure on these hills for generations wince–and don’t point too many fingers, except occasionally, for sport.

 

 

Furry Ground-Blight

A.V. Walters

We do the garden walk everyday. It’s a way to check how things are doing, see what’s ripe and do a little weeding along the way. Admittedly, after last year’s debacle, I’m constantly checking the tomatoes for any sign of (I’m afraid to even say it) blight. By August, you expect a little bit of yellowing or leaf curl, but a true blight is a sight to behold. It can wipe out whole patches in a matter of days. The best you can do is to quickly dig out the affected plants and dispose of them—far away. Do not compost a blighted plant, especially towards the end of the summer season. It can infect your compost pile, which, if it doesn’t get hot enough thereafter, will spread the disease with every innocent looking shovel full of black gold. (By this time of year I don’t have enough high nitrogen materials to keep the compost cooking—especially this year when it’s so dry that even the weeds are gray.) Bottom line: Don’t ever risk composting blighted plants. ‘Taint worth it!

So, it was with some angst that yesterday’s walk revealed a tomato plant in full wilt. A Black Crim, too, one of my favorites. Blight? Too early to tell and it didn’t really have the signs. Was its drip emitter plugged? No. And then, the big question, any sign of gopher? We’ve never had a gopher problem with tomatoes. Last year, a friend of ours said gophers were going after his tomatoes, big time, and we could only wonder if different gophers might have different food preferences. Gophers—picky eaters?) In fact, some of the tomatoes are planted in bottomless buckets—ones that were cut in the early days of bucket farming, before I was aware of the dangers of that Furry Ground-Blight.

Our tomato plants are not small. Most of them are taller than me. They’re held up by our super sturdy, tomato cages but, by this time of the year, they’ve extended well beyond the perimeter of the cage. Rick has had to stake some of them because the weight of the plants has even the super-sturdy cages listing. And, it’s tough to find the cage in that jungle, let alone the bucket. There’ve been no major gopher signs in the immediate environs. So, yesterday afternoon, we did a triage watering to see if it had any effect. Sure enough, by evening the patient had perked up considerably. That’s a good sign.

First thing this morning I went back out to check. I’d left my morning schedule open, just in case I needed to quarantine that wilted tomato. Sadly, it had wilted again. I pushed my way through the foliage to get a look at the bucket and the drip emitter. And, AHA! There it was. The evidence. The loose pile of loamy soil was directly in the bucket. Damn gopher!!!

It is a relief that it’s not a viral problem. But, I don’t remember if this particular tomato plant is in a bottomless bucket. That’s a big issue. Following this morning’s revelation, we resolved to retire all of the bottomless buckets, next season. But, if this was a drilled-out bucket, we’ll need to worry about gophers that have learned to go in from the top!

Next season, we could have a serious problem. Don’s little, field-farming venture (the squash and pumpkin plot) has failed. Undone by gophers, is the official reason. And it is true that his “crop” has been hit hard by gophers. We include his pumpkin patch on our garden walks, and the ground is perforated with gopher holes. Every week we could count more and more of his plants, succumbing. There’s more to it, though. Don wasn’t really ready, or geared up, to harvest and market the produce. That may be okay for the pumpkins—we still have time before the Halloween, pumpkin season, and I’m sure he’ll harvest what pumpkins he has left. Pumpkins will endure enormous levels of neglect, but the other things, zucchinis, crooknecks and cucumbers, require attention and harvesting. Don never stepped up to the plate on this. There are zucchini’s over there the size of Buicks! And the crooknecks look like ancient gourds. He’s given up, and the field is now, Gopherland. He’s got a major case of the Furry Ground-Blight.

From our perspective, this is a debacle. He’s essentially breeding gophers over there and, next season, there will be more of them fur balls and they’ll be my problem. (Thank God for buckets.) So we’ll need to determine whether our poor Black Crim was the victim of a subterranean attack, or whether we need to worry about gophers mounting the ramparts of our defenses. I watered the patient again this morning. With extra water, it may be able to limp to the finish line. It’s a shame, that plant must have a bushel of tomatoes on it—beautiful green ones. During my inspection this morning I got the first two and hopefully, not the last, ripe tomatoes from that plant. We shall see. And, as usual, in Two Rock, we have a late season for tomatoes.

Rick is fuming. (Well, as fuming as Rick gets.) He’s determined to get this varmint, though he’s had limited luck with his trapping efforts in the past. Last I saw, he was muttering under his breath, “Rodenator.”

As I mentioned in a previous blog, the Rodenator is an expensive, propane fed device that explodes, frying underground varmints in their burrows. (“Hold my beer… watch this!”)

Lessons from the Garden

A.V. Walters

It’s harvest time. One of the strangest things I find about gardening is how many gardeners plant and tend, but never harvest. For me, harvesting is the whole point, so those non-harvesters leave me scratching my head. If you don’t want to harvest, why not go with flowers? I’ve seen it often enough that it no longer surprises me. I think they fall into three categories: Those who plant for the visual payback (see my earlier post, “Gardeners/Florists”); those who like the idea of fresh from the garden food, but who, when push comes to shove, don’t like to cook; and finally those who overplant, and can’t possibly keep up with it when the garden starts to mature. (I think we’ve all been there from time to time—at the moment I’m having a little trouble keeping up with the crookneck.) Occasionally, you’ll get hit with a heat wave and things will bolt—and it’s a mad dash to eat up before it all goes bitter.

I’ve said before that one of my favorite things is to walk in the garden in the late afternoon to let what’s ripe determine my menu. More than once, since I’ve been here, the garden has been my salvation—funds were tight and having this amazing bounty took the pressure off the budget. And, if you can, the bounty continues through the winter months. New polls, released yesterday, revealed that far more Americans, than one would expect in this land of plenty, have gone hungry in this past year. I worry that that may continue, given the drought-parched fields in the Midwest this season. Food prices will have to respond and that will put the pinch on family budgets. I wish more people found the kind of solace and pleasure in gardening that I do. There is no down side, it’s food at its freshest and healthiest, it’s relaxing and enjoyable and it brings us closer to our most basic connections to the planet. What’s not to like?

Yesterday, I was poking around and I noted what should be obvious, but now that we’re in full season, is proven out by the garden. We have just over a dozen pepper plants. There are seven green/red bell peppers (depending on how long you wait) and the rest are a variety of sweets and hots. Some of them came to the garden late, refugees from too long in too small pots. Now, at mid-season, despite many weeks of equal treatment, you can still tell which was which, with some very real impact on output. Those that were put in young, and early, have filled out with many branches and leaves (which shade the peppers and prevent sunburn.) They are bearing peppers now, but they are also putting out new blossoms, promising a long pepper-bearing season. The ones who came in spindly and late, never developed a full canopy. They, too, are bearing but some of those peppers have their shoulders burned from the sun. They need extra water, since their more sparse foliage doesn’t shield them from the sun, and the soil in their buckets bakes. And, those plants didn’t branch out as much, leaving less foliage and fewer end buds for new blossoms. So our leggy, late arrivals will end up producing less than half the peppers as their somewhat pampered brethren.

There’s a potent argument for taking care early for a good crop. That requires knowing your climate, and timing your starts. (Especially peppers and eggplants which are soooooooo finicky about germination temperatures.) If you start too early, the garden isn’t ready when your starts are, and you risk leggy, root-bound transplants or plants that can be shock-dwarfed by a chilly transplant home. Taken beyond the garden, the message is that any new endeavor fares best if its needs are met early on. It’s a pretty common sense concept, but one too often lost in the throes of gardening, and rushing around harried in life generally. Still, as a gardener I’m sometimes surprised by the unexpected. Last year, some sorry cabbages, spindly and finally rescued late in the season, ended up delicious, their flavor piqued by the frost that nipped at their necessarily late harvest. This is tough territory for me, and many gardeners, who have trouble giving up on any little plant. But this year’s peppers have convinced me to be more orderly in my starting and planting practices. I’m still left with the problem of having to turn away orphans from well-meaning friends and neighbors though, and I’m not sure I’m up to it.

There’s another lesson in the garden. It’s a comeuppance for me. I did my second round of starts for peppers and eggplants a little late. My first set took forever, which I later learned was because they are particular about temperatures. The second set was a mad dash to try to fill in the buckets. In my rush, I wasn’t so organized about labeling. They sprouted early and I got them into their bucket homes as soon as the sprouts were strong enough. Now that it’s midseason, I see that some of the plants in the eggplant buckets are peppers and vice versa. Not a real problem, but a bit of an embarrassment. Those little label-sticks are important.

I’ve been gardening in a serious way for over thirty years now and still, every year, the garden teaches me something new.

Patience in Small Batches

A.V. Walters

This is the time of year when, as a kid, we picked berries and fruit and my mother made jam and preserves. Mornings were for picking and, after lunch, it was time to do the canning—the already hot, summer kitchen sweating with the aroma of fresh fruit, sugar and paraffin. (Yes, paraffin. We did it the old way.) We’re a large family and a successful summer could be counted in the Mason jars lining the pantry—enough to tide us over until the days lengthened and we’d be at it again.

With so many pickers (there were seven of us and that probably equaled five actual pickers) we brought in gallons of fresh fruit. You could count the season’s progression as the jars filled—strawberry, plum, blackberry, raspberry, thimbleberry, blueberry, peach, pear, and finishing up with apple. . My version of summer includes the bubbling of veritable cauldrons of jam and the jiggling rattle of jars and lids boiling on top of the stove. There were enough of us that we needed to do jam in quart jars.

My dad was in charge of paraffin. As the steaming jars were filled, each got a thin coat of paraffin, followed, after it cooled and turned translucent, with a thicker coat that filled in the deep well that formed in the cooling wax cap. He melted the paraffin in bent tin can, simmering in a pot of water. When he wasn’t looking, we’d quickly dip in our fingers in the hot wax, making perfect, inverted copies which my mother would find later. Canned goods, other than jam, actually still got glass lids with rubber gaskets and bails—the way my great-grandmother did it. When we modernized using the fresh, new, gummed caps and screw top lids, my father’s paraffin job was displaced. He resisted some, until he found out that the post-canning plunk, as the jar cooled,was the sign of yet another perfect seal.

My grandmother dragged us on the annual tour of her old, Finn lady-friends—them all exclaiming at us; a swarm of towheads, lined up in stair-step, chronological order. All of the old Finn ladies baked and canned—it being a measure of one’s housekeeping prowess. When one of them died, the others would assemble to grieve and compare notes. No funeral gathering was complete until they’d made an accounting of preserves in the decedent’s larder. (The old men, when they passed, were judged by the size of their woodpiles—winter’s warmth, split and stacked, ready for the widow.) So summer canning runs deep in my bloodline.

My adult life demanded smaller yields—there was no way that my smaller family could consume at that level. Still, there were gifts to consider and enough to get the two of us through winter, with enough to remember the flavor of summer, but nothing compared to the cornucopia of jars from my childhood. My parents continued to make big batches of jam, especially thimbleberry, which they shipped across the continent (and even across the ocean) to those of us far away from our childhood berry patches.

Eighteen months ago my dad passed away. True to tradition, he left an impressive wood pile, but the loss left a huge hole in our lives and my mom cut way back on her canning. Picking and putting foods by is, in large part, a social experience. Last year she hardly made any jam at all. This year, her berry season came early. It’s been happening a little earlier every year. Climate change isn’t fiction. It’s here—with Northern berries in mid-July, and ticks! (There weren’t ticks back home when I was a kid because the winters were too cold and too long. Now, they have to worry about Lyme disease.) Nobody believed that those early berries were really “the season.” Just some fluke—a smattering of early. My mother went out for just a few minutes, every day, and made small batches of jam, a couple of half pints at a time. Each day she’d report on her progress—she had set herself a summer quota. It worried me, a bit. It was not our normal, marathon method. I was afraid she’d lost heart in it. I thought she might be getting too old. Then, at the end of July, the berries dried up. (Usually that’s peak season!) The annual vacationers came, looking to recharge their own larders, but the berries were already gone! My mother sat smug—she’d reached, and then surpassed, her quota—all in small batches. I had to set aside my concerns. There’s more than one way to fill the pantry.

Thinking of her, I’ve been making small batches of peach jam as they come ripe on the tree (great peaches by the way—this is the tree from which we stripped all the leaves back in May.) But, they’re coming faster now, so I anticipate a large batch of peaches, any day now. Today I made 11 pints of plum jam. Our friend’s tree was laden, and so it all came at once. I still have blackberries to go and of course there’ll be tomatoes to can if they ever decide to ripen. (Still paying the price for our late start.)

I feel as though my dad is there with every jar, hovering— just in case we need paraffin.

 

Water Wars

A.V. Walters

Have you ever noticed how folks are at their very best in times of scarcity? I don’t mean hard times generally, but true (or perceived) commodity scarcity, just warms their little hearts. It’s good to watch it on a small scale because it gives you a better understanding of it on a global level—“Worry globally, obsess locally.” So, I’ll tell this tale, but you must remember that I, too, have a dog in this fight. I can rationalize that my bucket garden is already a water-saver, and that the produce I’m growing is for the benefit of everyone on the farm—it’s all true, but I’m sure that everyone who’s got a pony in this show, has good reasons, too.

So, I’ve said, several times, that it’s been a dry year and that we’ve all been concerned about the wells running dry. It hasn’t happened yet, and we’re all trying to avoid that, but it’s in the air. We’ve all seen the news—the record temperatures and drought back east, the fires in Colorado.

I remember when I lived in the city during one of California’s recurring droughts. We were on water restrictions and it became almost a point of pride to drive a dirty car. Everyone was eager to show that they were conserving water. The lawns on our block were dead and our yards all looked like hell. When things start to get really tight though, it degenerates quickly to backbiting and finger-pointing. I had a little flower garden in my front yard then, mostly santolina, rosemary and lavender (all drought resistant), which I watered exclusively from the cold water that ran in the shower before the hot water arrived. I collected it in a bucket and used it judiciously in the garden.  One woman, whose peonies didn’t survive the watering restrictions, rebuked me for having my lovely, little garden. It didn’t matter that it was already a Xeriscape, or that it was watered with gray water, what mattered was that my garden had survived and hers had not. So, I come to this with some history. It’s why I started bucket gardening in the first place.

The landlord has been cautioning us to conserve. One neighbor has a nice garden—not a thirsty one, but she keeps it up. Elmer has complained to me several times (and to her) that she waters too much. She doesn’t really—she chose good plants and now they’re well established and deep rooted. Those comments have left her feeling defensive, so much so that if there’s any interruption in the water—she makes the point, to me, that “It wasn’t me!” By comparison, my yard looks parched. I water a couple of hydrangeas at my front gate, but I let the “lawn” die every summer and only the truly determined yard plants survive the neglect. I stated from the start that my landscaping water goes to the vegetable garden. Since last year there was produce that went to waste, this year we cut back the size the garden. The garden’s total, water consumption runs about 200 gallons per week. So far, I’ve avoided Elmer’s evil eye. In the house, we’ve always tried to conserve water—such as, fewer showers, fewer flushes. We live in California and that has, for some of us, become a permanent, lifestyle adjustment.

Don, with his field of pumpkins and squashes, keeps telling me I water too much. He says he’s keeping an eye on me. Right, like my little bucket garden compares, in any way, with a field full of water-loving squash! His is watered with drip-irrigation but, even then, just one of his waterings drops the level in the big tank by 8 to 12 inches. (He told me so, I didn’t check.) He asked me not to water on weekends, because that’s when most of the tenants are home—using water. I agreed, but said that I’d still have to water new seedlings or transplants. He wagged his finger at me. Last weekend I transplanted the last of the corn—and of course I watered it. Monday morning he commented, revealing that he knew I’d watered. (I’m not sure if he’s got spies or was bluffing!) I felt I had to defend myself—“Only the transplants!” Really, scout’s honor.

Added to the drought-anxiety is that they’ve been working on the water system (again.) Ever since this spring’s debacle with the pop-up tank, Elmer has been working to “upgrade” and add extra storage to the system. This past week, they took one of the older, concrete tanks (it’s more like a cistern) out of service to repair and upgrade it. As tenants, we never know what’s up with the water. (There have been more interruptions to water service this year than in the previous five that I’ve been here.) We are nervous every time the pressure drops—is this it? Did we run the system dry?

Invariably, the problem is with the switching system. It’s supposed to be an automatic changeover—when one tank gets low it should seamlessly switch to another tank. More often, something fails and, because my house is highest on the property, I’m the first to turn on the tap and… nothing! Then, I get to call and report that there’s no water, which only gets everybody started again—finger-pointing and defensive. We’ve offered, but nobody will teach us, (or permit us) to step in and pinch-hit when the system goes down, so we’re always having to call Elmer, or Don, at a family picnic or dinner out. Of course, they grumble and ask, “Well, you been watering today… was So-and-So…?” It makes us all feel a little guilty. (Which is probably the point of it.) The fact is, we’re in better shape than in earlier years because of the added storage. Don tells me that there’s an extra 10,000 gallons, but damned if he can figure out how to get it fed into my system. Only Don and Elmer understand the system and, more often than they’d like to admit, not even them. The system goes back to Elmer’s dad, parts of it at least seventy years old.

It grates on tenants that Elmer harps about conservation and then pressure-washes everything in sight. Spotless trucks and tractors shine, parked next to the shop, while tenants’ gardens wither. Well, that is the landlord’s prerogative, but I don’t think it’s wise social policy. So, the sniping goes in all directions. (Unlike the water!)

I watered Friday night—everything—all three gardens, because I’d committed not to water on the weekend. The pressure was low (don’t ask), so it took longer than usual—hours actually. Rick finally came out looking for me, wondering where I’d got to.  (He doesn’t much like the water-sniping and chafes a little with the scheduling requests and unannounced shut-downs, for repairs. We don’t use that much water!) Saturday morning the pressure was still low but there’s little we could do—Elmer was called away to a family funeral and Don’s on vacation.

Rick and I did “the garden walk” just to see how things were doing. (The garden looks great, except something’s messing with the beet greens—looks like a virus, probably carried by those little light green beetles with the dark spots.) We walked over to check on Don’s squash field. We do that from time to time—mostly because he’s got quite a gopher problem there, and we’re watching to see what, if anything, in his anti-gopher arsenal, might be working. Sometimes we just go and pull weeds there. Lo and behold, Don’s zucchinis have taken off. He has baseball bat sized squash. Don, who last year scolded me for letting the zucchinis get too big, has a field full of them. Apparently eight inches is the commercial standard (insert your own joke, here)—or so he chided me last summer. All of these squash will have to become animal feed. Partly, this is because Don’s on vacation, but it’s also because he planted a crop for which he didn’t secure a market. (I can see Rick’s blood pressure rising.) We’ve been conserving water so that Don could plant a crop that he’s now letting go to waste. (Insert your own profanities, here.)

Well, that night, the taps ran dry. Of course, nobody who knew the system (you know, the members of the secret, Only We Know the Water System Club) could be summoned—I called Don on the cell phone, cutting into his vacation, and he walked me through a manual switching to a reserve tank. As you know, I’m not supposed to know how this is done, and Don commented that he’d catch hell for letting out water secrets. (He may have to kill me.) What’s goofy is that there’s all this secrecy and water paranoia. There’s no shortage. We have an extra 10,000 gallons more than in previous years—we’re just working out the bugs on delivery. Still, there’s a perceived shortage and it’s bringing out the worst in everyone. Tenants bridle because they think Elmer is cowing them into a ridiculous level of water conservation (one man invited Elmer to live with his wife when she hadn’t showered in days.) We’ve come to the conclusion that the bee in Elmer’s bonnet is probably not the amount water being used, but the amount of electricity he’s paying, to pump it.

What’s really worrisome is how badly people behave when there’s a shortage—even when it’s not a real shortage. What happens if the wells really do run dry? Not just here, but everywhere. We really need to look at water issues in this country—nothing is more important, to keeping our world safe and sane, as a sound water policy. (So, why on earth are they permitting “fracking” without safeguards for critical, aquifer protection? We can survive without oil for a lot longer than we can live on poisoned water.)

Anyway, not everyone behaves badly. Sunday morning, Rick got up and installed drip irrigation in the long garden. Smart use of resources is half the battle.

The Question of Corn

A.V. Walters

It’s a tough call, especially if space and/or water are limited. Yet, what summer is complete without that incredible, mid-season jolt of fresh sweet corn?

At this point, I have to disclose that I grew up in The Valley of the Jolly (Ho, Ho, Ho) Green Giant. No, I’m not kidding. I lived just a little over a mile from the Green Giant canning plant where they processed Niblets corn. It was a rich agricultural area—Green Giant grew corn, Heinz grew tomatoes there, and it was generally considered the market-garden, banana belt of Southwestern Ontario. We weren’t farmers, but we knew farmers. When I was really little, the fields behind our house were strawberry fields. Time passed and the area eventually filled in with houses. Still, farming was an ever-present part of the economy. In high school I de-tasseled corn for Funk’s Hybrid during the summer.

While I never much liked canned, store-bought vegetables, Niblets corn was one of the better options. But fresh, their corn was incredible. If you found yourself driving behind a Green Giant corn truck (piled high with fresh cobs), you’d follow it and, occasionally, a bump or sharp turn would jostle free some sweet bounty. Sometimes we’d ride our bikes out into the county to nab a few ears from the fields. Some of the farmers were known to shoot rock-salt at anyone they saw pilfering. But finally, the cannery got smart and opened a fresh corn stand during the season. Cars would line up for it. We’d ride our bikes two miles along the highway to get it, and then hightail it home with a dozen corn ears strapped to our backs. It was well worth the effort.

I tell you this because, in the corn department, I have street cred. Growing corn is the toughest calling for the home gardener, and most don’t do it right. For years my city, square-foot garden didn’t include corn. I couldn’t justify the space. Each cornstalk requires about one square foot of garden space. Also, corn must be rotated in the garden, or else serious amendment is in order to replace the nitrogen that it strips out of the soils. And, it’s thirsty. Good corn requires a lot of water. So, if you have a good, local source, growing your own doesn’t make much sense. Local is important, because the secret of great corn is freshness.

This is so much so that there’s an American mystique about garden corn. Almost all home gardeners feel compelled to throw in a row or two of sweet corn. It’s often an exercise in disappointment.  I’ve learned some about how corn grows that makes me laugh at the memory of all those suburban gardens backed with a lonely, green line of cornstalks.

Corn pollinates by wind and gravity. The tassels, up high on the plant, release the pollen needed to make up those corn kernels. The pollen falls and hits the corn silk, which transports it, one silk at a time, to each kernel. It requires a lot of pollen to populate a full ear of corn. That’s why it’s pointless to plant a single row of corn. You just can’t get adequate pollination, and so you end up with spotty, incomplete corn ears. The Native Americans knew this; they planted their corn grouped together in mounds, combined with beans and squash. But somewhere along the way the agricultural concept of corn in rows took hold and that practice was imported into the backyard garden. In a field of corn, there’s no problem, there’s plenty—rows and rows—of cornstalks to create a deep enough bench for pollination. But in the urban or suburban garden, it can be a problem. If you want to plant in rows, you need at least four of them to consolidate enough pollen.

Here, we grow our corn in circles, hemmed in by a low border of corrugated roofing material. The edging holds in the water—or at least keeps it in the vicinity of the corn. The circles are about 6 feet across and hold about 18 stalks of corn. Unlike our buckets, there’s no bottom. Corn has deep roots, so there’s no easy way to protect them from gophers. (Though last year, they left it alone.) We just plant more than we need and hope it works out. Using circles, we use less water and get more complete pollination. When I first arrived here I was hesitant about planting corn, but Elmer looked so disappointed I changed my mind. We’ve had some great corn successes, except for last year.

Last year we used an heirloom corn variety. It was the tallest corn I ever planted, towering corn! The whole farm watched and waited. And then—the corn was tasteless. Really tasteless. (Which might also explain why we didn’t have any gopher losses.) I tried eating it twice, and then gave up. The sheep wouldn’t even eat it. What a waste! The most disappointing part was that we didn’t find out until after we’d put in all the work of raising it (120 stalks of it) only to be disheartened. I confronted the woman at the seed bank—this was really terrible corn, and they needed to know!

That one disaster has really damaged my gardening reputation. So this year, I’m trying two, tried and true, heirloom varieties—on separate sides of the farm. One is Golden Bantam, a perennial favorite, and the other is Country Gentleman a sweet, silver shoe-peg corn. We’ve put in 145 stalks in two shifts—early and late. I always try to stagger my corn to extend the corn-eating season. (Sometimes this doesn’t work, because if the two shifts are too close in age, they’ll “equalize” and come ripe all at once.) This weekend we transplanted the last round of starts. I was assured that these corns will be as tasty as some of the super-sweet hybrids.

I have another motivation for a good crop, this year. This year, the devil is releasing (from hell) the new, GMO, sweet-corn varieties. In the absence of labeling, there will be no way for the consumer to know whether the corn they buy will have been modified. So, suddenly home-grown takes on new significance. Also, with the heat and drought across the country—there may not be much sweet corn around this year. So, I’m counting on our water-saving, corn rings.

We’re also going to do an experiment to see whether it makes any difference whether or not you cut off the suckers. I’ve done the internet research that says it makes no difference, but our farm foreman, Don, swears that the suckers sap the plant’s strength. It’s a small sample, but we’re going to test it in a side-by-side study. (I’ll let you know about that one.) I may be overdoing it this year, but I have to try to rehabilitate my corn standing.

Training Tomatoes

A.V. Walters

Okay, so I lied. While the watchwords of this particular phase of the garden are weed, water and wait, that’s not all that goes on. There are regular, if not daily inspections for pests and varmints. (We call it gopher patrol.) There is the usual round of reseeding for those rotating plants that we do all summer, like lettuce and beans, along with occasional reseeding where the cutworms get to the sprouts. And, there is the constant need to train the tomatoes.

Tomatoes are vines. Sure there are determinate varieties, more likely to stand upright, but the underlying, genetic predisposition of a tomato plant is much like that of a teenager—an inclination towards messy, outward sprawl. The cages provide structure, but like rules, you’ve got to be nipping at their heels (roots?) to make the program work. Given the option, your tomatoes will ignore your well-meaning cages, take the path of least resistance, and sunbathe willy-nilly all over the garden.

There are reasons why upright is better. (We didn’t get to be Homo-erectus for nothing!) I’m not just an uptight adult raised by an army-brat parent with a fixation on order.  While I understand that it wouldn’t necessarily work for a farmer (many of you already know the ugly truth about the commercially produced variety), tomatoes that are caged are less subject to moisture and ground-carried diseases, they provide more shading for the developing fruits, you don’t step on them as you try to water and harvest, and they’re easier to tend. I’m not old, but I am old enough and smart enough to avoid needless stooping.

So, everyday I try to tour the tomatoes to train them into upright, garden citizens. It’s just nudging, if you do it right. (Stand up straight! Have you done your homework?) You have to be regular about it, or they’ll get away from you. Up is not their natural inclination (especially those cherry tomatoes that always stick out at odd angles.) This week I missed two days and came back to tomatoes bent on escape. When that happens, you need to wrestle them back into place, sometimes resulting in the heartbreak of snapped branches.

Despite late planting, many of our tomatoes (especially the vinier ones) are reaching the tops of their cages. The others aren’t far behind. It’s impressive to see over thirty, four-foot tomato plants standing in formation. When I tuck those wayward branches back into position, I can see bunches of green globes hiding in the foliage, protected there from sunburn. Sometimes, if it gets too dense within the cage-column, I do a little pruning for better air circulation and harvesting access. I’m mindful of the danger of spreading disease with all this handling. If any tomato looks less than healthy, I tend to it last, or wash my hands and tools thoroughly before touching another tomato plant. So far, with the exception of one plant, the tomatoes this year are all remarkably vigorous. Without the cages, we’d be in tomato anarchy by now.

That one problem plant doesn’t have any particular symptom of disease. It’s just failed to thrive. It’s scrawny, without explanation. I’m at the point when I’m probably going to pull it out, sterilize everything in sight and replant with a new tomato plant. (I still have some orphans who’d be thrilled with the opportunity to be in first-string placement.) I hate to give up on it but the memory of last year’s blight is still fresh in my mind—then, in one foggy week the blight that came with the romas spread to more than half of the other tomatoes, turning them black and leafless, almost overnight. This year I’m being more cautious. (I’ve even planted the romas in an entirely separate garden, just in case.) Romas in exile—nice digs, but segregated confinement, nonetheless. (“It’s for their own good!”) It’s probably over-reacting but it’s working out. Those risky Romas are in the backyard where I can keep an eye on them.

All the tomatoes have fruit now, along with an outer crown of yellow blossoms. We’re looking at a steady harvest that will start by mid-August and, hopefully, run well through October. I may even have to stake those tomato cages. Even though I bought the beefiest ones on the market, this year’s tomatoes are coming in pretty big and heavy.

Spiders and Flies and Cows, Oh My!

A.V. Walters

Warning: This blog contains graphic descriptions that may be offensive to sensitive readers.

It is that time of year when gardeners, plants-in and waiting, are beset by bugs. I live next door to a dairy. Dairies attract flies. (Let’s not go there. It’s enough to say, it’s about the cows.) Flies attract spiders. I live in what must be the spider capital of the universe. If I don’t “sweep” or power-wash my house a couple of times a year, it looks like the wicked witch of the west lives here. The entire shadow area under the edge of the clapboards is completely filled in by spider webs. The eaves are, well, scary. My car is home to countless arachnids as well, and gets so covered in fly specks that people comment when I go into town. While I’m not fond of spiders, living here has helped me put them in perspective. At least they help keep the bugs (flies!) in check. Our plethora of insects also feeds an enormous number and variety of birds. Hey, I’m looking on the bright side here.

At about this time every year we get The Invasion of the Leaf Hoppers. They’re after green, anything green. Wave your hand over my radishes and you’ll see a cloud of them. As the green dries out of the surrounding landscape, gardens are left to absorb the bugs from everywhere else. This past week the valley farmers cut and bailed the last of the hay from the bottomlands. The hills are golden and dry. All those bugs are on the move—looking for their next meal.

It would be easy to panic and reach for a chemical solution. I think it would also be a mistake. Organic growers have options for a real emergency, but the basic framework calls for patience. Over time, the mantra, feed the soil not the plant, should lead to soil and plants healthy enough to endure the annual onslaught. This is a natural, seasonal event and agriculture over the centuries has survived pests. I guess I can, too.

Left to their own devices, plants are not defenseless against insects. When insects nibble (or chomp), plants respond chemically by making their leaves a little more bitter. It’s not so much that we’d notice (though I have tasted some overly stressed and, resultingly bitter, greens in my time) but enough to dissuade the bugs. It takes a little time. I know that when the leaf hoppers first arrive, it looks like an emergency. Hold off! Don’t reach for sprays or toxic powders. Let the plants do their magic. (The same can be said of white flies—though with them I’m inclined to reach for the Safer Soap earlier on.) You can help. Make sure they have enough water, especially if it’s hot. One year I fed my garden manure tea, but I can’t say if it was any more effective than water—but I felt better. Probably with that little extra bit of care the vegies will be just fine.

Of course, from time to time there are infestations that threaten the survival of the garden, or maybe just one of your crops. The watchword there is Know Your Bugs. We do have natural methods for most pests. For larger marauders, there’s hand-picking. This is not for the squeamish for faint of heart. It is very effective, particularly for slugs, snails, caterpillars (especially those amazing tomato hornworms, which you can feed to your chickens) and squash bugs (which I always thought was an imperative command.) These larger pests can do damage quite quickly—a tomato hornworm can defoliate a plant in days. I just squish them in my fingers, which makes the kids on the farm recoil in horror. You can also throw them in soapy water, or gently relocate them to a different environment (yeah, right.) Check the undersides of leaves for eggs, which you can squish, or wash off (or spray) with soapy water. With squash bugs, if you stay on it early in the season, you may solve your problem early on. In any event, make sure you exterminate them at the end of the season (they’ll congregate on the last remaining squash and pumpkins, or their leaves) or you’ll see them again next year. In a bucket-garden, handpicking pests is easy. When you fill the bucket reservoir, they all head up the plant for high ground. And there you are, waiting…

For little winged critters, there’s soapy water spray, both for them, their larvae and their eggs (in particular watch for those voracious cabbage moths and their larvae—sure they look like pretty white butterflies but they can do real damage.) For crawling critters—especially at the seedling stage, there’s diatomaceous earth. And if things are really bad, you can treat with Bt (bacillus thurengensis)—the organic gardener’s ace in the hole. Probably you won’t need most of these tactics.

The internet is an incredible resource, both in identifying the pest of the moment, and in suggesting treatment alternatives. Check there first, before resorting to the hardware store.

I have spiders in my garden, too. They are honored guests. I try to water and weed without disturbing them. They are my plants’ guardians. My family will be surprised that I have made my peace with spiders. From arachnophobe  to arachnophile in just a few short garden seasons.

Now if we can just do something about the gophers.

 

A.V.Walters

We have settled into our normal summer weather pattern. That’s warm (80s) days and cool nights, fueled by ocean fog. It slows down the garden some, but makes this valley extremely livable. You can watch its magic, just before dusk when the winds from the west sweep in a low ‘cloud’ layer, that’s really high fog. Some evenings the sunlight streams in, below the fog, and its raking light illuminates the fields, revealing things you never see in mid-day.

This pattern lets us reap the benefit of old-fashioned air conditioning—we open the windows at night and close them in the morning before the first glimpse of sunshine. It keeps the house in the 60s and 70s, regardless of the daytime highs. Each day the overcast, fog really, clears by about 10:00 am. This gives us marginally shorter daylight exposures, and, sure, that makes for a slightly longer number of days to harvest. It’s worth it. Because our daytime temperatures are also mediated by the ocean, we don’t get the blistering summer temperatures of the inland valleys. It keeps the grapes away. The grapes like really hot days.

Now, doesn’t that sound catty? The NorthBay area, famous for it’s stellar wines and acres of rolling vineyards, has agricultural flair, but sometimes lacks the depth of real farming. It is boutique and/or corporate. Throughout the north bay counties our organic farmers and Farm Trail participants keep it real. It’s only my opinion, but to keep the farm atmosphere, I think the investment side needs to have a stake in the game. Put simply, I like to see dirt under the fingernails. Elmer doesn’t do dirt, but, at an age when most would’ve retired, he still sweats the details of chickens and sheep. If the coyotes yip and howl at night, he wakes up to listen—are his flocks at risk? And he’ll roll out of bed to pull on his jeans and shoes if there’s something to be done about it.

I’m not against vineyards, but when I head inland and see those valleys covered with endless rolling fields of vines, I wonder just who is going to drink all that wine? And, from a gardener’s perspective, monoculture often means too much of a good thing. I believe in diversity.

These past four years have been telling for the grape growers. In this economy, who can afford twenty-dollar bottles of wine? It’s been a boon to cheap wine drinkers, but has put the squeeze on the vineyards. As the high end wines lost market share and reduced their ouptut, the quality vineyards have been forced to sell their grape juice to some of the lower end producers. For the savvy shopper, that spells pretty damn good wines at very reasonable prices. (She smiles as she licks her lips.)

Still, I like that our valley’s climate has kept us in more traditional agriculture. Even though we have great soils, our cooler climate makes real crop/vegetable farming a challenge. So these rolling hills are still host to chicken farmers, rangeland for beef cattle, and dairies.

A dairy is a strange kind of range. Around here we see old-fashioned dairies, where the cows primarily eat grass and the size of the operation is limited to how far a cow can walk twice a day. The dairy next door rotates its fields, and has extra land for harvesting hay. That hay feeds the cows once our dry summer hits and the green drains out of the landscape. We watch out the windows as the cows move from field to field, and every night and morning head in for milking, like city commuters. Right now the only green grass in sight is in the very bottom of the valley, which currently is crowded with cows.

The garden is in. Now we just water, weed and wait. We are behind, but I’m not worried about it. It’s not like last summer, when the fog lasted through the days and the garden just didn’t mature. Even with our late start, things are perking along nicely. We’ve had a couple of crook neck squash, tomatoes and cucumbers so far, with the promise of many more—copious flowers and many many baby green vegetables in sight. It’s a nice time to pause, count our blessings and catch our breath. After all, in a few short weeks we’ll be starting in with some of the winter vegetables, and there’s harvesting and canning to come. For now, we can let the bees do the work.