Archives for posts with tag: botany

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.

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A Storm’s A-Brewin’

A.V. Walters

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There’s a storm on its way, so I woke at first light, for chores. I wanted to wash and line-dry three loads before the rains came. I don’t think it’s going to be a problem. There’s a fierce wind—the one that will bring the storm, and the laundry is hanging horizontal. I don’t think they even make a clothes dryer that works as fast as this. A wind this strong actually shakes out the lint, and leaves even line-dried clothes as soft as a machine-tumbled load. As soon as my basket was empty, even while I was still wrestling to pin the last item, off it went, rolling in the wind. Last year’s standing corn plants, in the field next to our clothesline, make quite a racket, rustling in a wind like that.

There it goes in the wind!

There it goes in the wind!

I’m glad for the weather, though. A good wind can blow out the cobwebs, literally and figuratively. Admittedly, I’ve been in a funk. We’ve been hiking in the woods quite a bit of late, and doing some unexpected detective work. You see, we’ve been finding cut logs and stumps. Someone has been cutting wood on our property. This breaks all the rules.

In the world of making wood, there is no need to cut live trees for firewood. With weather and wind and blights, there’s always plenty of dead wood (or “deadfall”) to forage. Gathering deadfall cleans up the forest—and gives you a head start on seasoning the wood, for burning. Cutting live trees is reserved for timber cutting, either as a harvest, or to thin the forest. We did a “thinning” harvest 11 years ago. Now, with the emerald ash borer damage, we have no further need to thin the forest.

This property has been without stewards for a couple decades. Vacant land is often considered ‘fair game’ in rural areas—at least for gathering. Last Spring we politely disinvited some locals from morel mushroom hunting on our hills. There’s a longer story there, but basically, they were put out that we’d returned to the land—a gathering zone that they’d considered theirs, for decades. I do understand; I have my own secret berry patches in the woods where I grew up. I don’t own them, but I am proprietary about not revealing my sources. Had these ‘locals’ not been outright abusive in years past, I might have invited them to keep up their tradition.

Vacant land is also a source of deadfall gathering. I know that, in our absence, at least three neighbors had fuelled their winter heat from our slopes. It was fine. They kept trails clear and didn’t (for the most part) abuse the privilege. But, we’re here now. A few faces fell when, otherwise friendly neighbors, realized what our return meant. You see, they follow the code. One might gather from vacant land, but you don’t harvest from your neighbor’s land. Even without fences, there are boundaries.

We’d been finding cut logs for several weeks. They were pretty consistent, six to eight feet long, saw cut, top and bottom, five to six inches in diameter. An easy size to carry, and one that can be burned later, needing only to be cut to stove size, but not split. They littered our walking paths. In total, I’ve tallied (and collected) well over thirty such logs. And I’m sure I’ll find more. It seems that ‘they’ cut each year, and then the following year, when hunting season came, they’d collect the seasoned logs for burning. This annoys me, no end. We assume that these logs were left by the same “locals,” who were collecting the mushrooms last spring. They used to own the parcel behind us and had a deer-camp cabin there. It seems likely that they used our firewood to heat the cabin in deer season. As they’ve since sold the property, we figured that the wood-cutting would end, too. There’s no sense in being angry at a theft that’s past, and incomplete at that.

Lest you think that I’m just a wood miser, I’m angry mostly because of the way that this was done. With a forest rife with available deadfall, these jokers saw fit to cut living, young trees—for their convenience. Whether they wanted them for firewood, or for posts, doesn’t matter. And, they’ve cut slow growing hardwoods—maples and eastern hophornbeam. The hophornbeam is a tall, elegant tree of the understory of the forest. They have thin, shaggy-barked trunks; a hophornbeam’s trunk is rarely thicker than 9 inches. They like the shade of north-facing slopes. The thieves are stealing wood and damaging the forest. It’s like killing a generation of children. How can that gap be filled? Rick and I are already buying and planting trees from the Conservation District—an effort to fill in and diversify the forest following the Ash Borers’ losses. We expect to plant 50 to 80 trees per year and that’s just the beginning. There are right ways and wrong ways to manage a woodlot. What they have done is wrong in so many ways… in every way.

A weeping stump.

A weeping stump.

Yesterday we were out for a walk and I saw yet another stump. This one was weeping, literally. It means that it’s a recent cut. We dug about in the leaf litter, and, sure enough, found fresh chips and sawdust. The tree was cut last fall, we guess—just before the leaves fell. Now, with the spring sap running, the tree’s roots are trying to feed the treetop that has been taken. So, our problem is ongoing. I am sick about it. It was an eastern hophornbeam (also known as ironwood because it’s so hard.) They are very slow growing—they don’t even flower or make seeds for the first twenty-five years. Though I’m happy to harvest their deadfall, (because they’ll burn all night) I would never cut a living hophornbeam.

And right next to it, a deadfall tree of the exact same type.

And right next to it, a deadfall tree of the exact same type.

Rick and I don’t know what to do. We don’t want to post “No Trespassing” signs on the property. We have a number of neighbors who hike, snowshoe and ski its trails. We have no issue with respectful use. We like sharing its beauty. But, if I catch someone in the act of cutting, I will see to it that they are fully prosecuted. Michigan is a logging state, and they take timber theft seriously. When I say this, Rick raises his brow at me, wondering at my vehemence. We both hope that this is not one of our neighbors, but the chances are high that it is.

This evening, we’re waiting for the storm. It may clear my head. The whole week is expected to be unsettled—cool weather with the possibility of snow. Right now, the only rustlin’ I want to hear about, is the wind in the trees.

Ibuprofen Monday

A.V. Walters

Spring Peeking Through

Spring Peeking Through

It was a glorious weekend. Temperatures in the 60s and sunshine! Almost all of the snow is gone—except in a few spots in the shade (north facing slopes) or where Rick piled it with the blower during the winter.

There are a thousand things we should be doing. But the ground is not yet thawed, and … well, we rationalized why the highest and best use of our time would be to open up the trails to the “back forty.” The property has a slightly graded panhandle (for road access) and then a chunk of steep hills and valleys leading to an upper meadow. On foot, it’s a heavy breathing hike. Until now, we’ve only been able to access it with a vehicle by going on an old logging road through the neighbors’ back yard. The neighbors have been good about it, but not enthusiastic. So, really it was about getting access and keeping good neighborly relations. It had nothing to do with the outrageous weather.

We need the access because back there is where we harvest the deadfall for our firewood heating supply. The hills are heavily forested and, especially with the Emerald Ash Borer losses, they are littered with standing and dropped dead trees.

This ash is doomed. Pileated woodpeckers have  chipped off the bark surface to get at the borers, below.

This ash is doomed. Pileated woodpeckers have chipped off the bark surface to get at the borers, below.

It breaks our hearts, to see these dead any dying trees but we’d be fools to let the wood go to waste. The property is criss-crossed with old (and pretty steep) logging roads, many of them blocked with fallen trees. The weekend would be a trail clearing exercise. It was not to be a harvesting foray.

It started like this, just to clear the trail:

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But one thing led to another…and there was this:

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And then, when we made it over the ridge and down the trail on the Kubota, we could hardly contain ourselves. So there was this:

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And then, a couple of stragglers on the way home yielded this:

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We are agog over how much safer and easier the firewood harvest can be with Kubota assist. You can chain lift logs for safer sawing access, or just drag them down the slopes to cut where there’s no danger of rolling. Even with that, it’s heavy work. We came home each night achy and sweaty, but elated. We’re naming the “new roads” as we open them up.

Believe it or not, that's the "road."

Believe it or not, that’s the “road.”

The woods are lovely this early in the year. There’s the carpet of leaves, and just the tips of the wild leeks and Dutchman’s Breeches peeking through.

There’s only one hitch. Now there’s no doubt that we need a little trailer. Our lovely circuitous trails can get us in to make wood—but that’s where the wood will stay until we can wrangle a trailer in. It’s too much wood to try to remove with just the loader.

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And like many in the Midwest, after the first incredible weekend of spring, we’re stiff and sore.

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.

Sundays and Making Wood…
A.V. Walters–

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We’re busy building. I suppose, given how late it is in the season, we could/should just power on through and build every day. But there are other priorities in the mix. Once built, we’ll need to heat our new home. Our plan is to heat as much as possible using wood from the property. One cannot wait until the snow is thigh-high to go out for firewood. “Making wood” is what the old Finns call it, back home. Mostly, we’re cutting deadfall. There’s plenty of it these days, because those damned (but beautiful) Emerald Ash Borers keep killing the ash trees. At least the wood will still make good fires, and keep us warm in the winter.
Anyway, we decided to take one day a week to cut firewood. Sundays. It’s a lovely change of pace, and brings us deep into the forest. It’s still backbreaking labor, especially on our steep hills but there’s always something new to see. Today it was Indian Pipes.

Indian Pipes are a rare form of plant. Also called “ghost plant,” they are a luminescent white—turning to a soft pink. They have no chlorophyll, and so cannot make their own food. Instead, they tap into certain kinds of fungus, which themselves have tapped into certain trees. The fungus-tree relationship is mutually beneficial, but the Indian Pipes are parasitic—they do not give back to either the fungus or the tree. They actually flower, like a regular plant—and are food for bees, both in nectar and pollen. Because they have no “plant” color, many think that the Indian Pipes are fungal. Without chlorophyll, they don’t need sunlight and can grow even in the densest of forests. No bigger than the spread of your hand, they’re easy to miss on the forest floor. They are often found in areas with beech trees or pines. We have both.

We’ve seen several patches of them this summer. When I was a kid we used to find them in the northwoods of Keweenaw County. We picked one once, from deep in the forest, to bring to a naturalist friend for identification. She chastised my parents, because the ghost plants are so rare. That got my attention—an adult wagging her finger at other grown-ups—my parents! No picking! I took the admonishment to heart and, to this day, I treat Indian Pipes with respect. indian pipes2

The Indian Pipes were our big score of the day. Of course, the firewood, too. All of it came from trees that had already fallen. Unfortunately, when the ash trees fall, they take prisoners—crashing to the forest floor, dragging their neighbors down with them. Today we gathered mostly ironwood (hophornbeam), beech and a little maple. We’re clearing trails for future access, so the day’s haul was moderate. Next Sunday, we’ll be at it again and who knows what we’ll find.

Learning the Language…

A.V. Walters–

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I had the best of intentions this spring. We walk most days, and my plan was to try to identify all the new plants as they popped up through the leaf litter in the forest floor. Ha! Then, we started work on the apartment, putting in such long hours that we didn’t get out for our regular walks. By the time we got back into the forest, it was lush and green, overgrown way past my ability to catch up on the name-game.

It’s not like I don’t know anything. After all, I grew up around the Great Lakes—most of these plants are familiar. But I know them by the names that kids use, like sour grass, white man’s footsteps and sugar plums (oxalis, plantain, serviceberries.) I’m looking to upgrade my botanical vocabulary.

We’re back to walking regularly. My new goal is to positively identify at least one plant a day. We come home from our walks with pockets stuffed with leaves and berries. Then I hit the books (and the internet) to find their “real” names. We notice other things along the way, too. A few weeks ago someone dropped off a load of bee hives in a clearing along the road we live on. Sometimes, you can hear their hum from 100 feet away. A few weeks later, an electric fence went up around them. We scratched our heads. Just who was that fence supposed to dissuade?

According to the DNR (Department of Natural Resources), there are no wolves, bears or cougars in Leelanau County. You hear of sightings, but they’re never “substantiated.” I’ve been hearing of them for 25 years. I can’t imagine that the DNR has a stake in not acknowledging them, but neither is it comforting to think they’d be wrong for so long. (More head-scratching.) Almost twenty years ago I found a deep and impressive set of scratches in the bark of a tree—six feet up from the ground. That’s a bear. This winter, on one of our snowshoe hikes, we found (big) cat scratch marks on a deadfall tree—with big cat prints to match. (More tree scratching.) Yesterday, on my walk I found bear scat. I spent my childhood summers in Keweenaw County—I know bear scat when I see it. Then, I heard through the neighborhood grapevine that one of the neighbors had seen a bear in her yard.

For whatever it’s worth, these things don’t scare us. It doesn’t change how we move through the trails. (I might re-think planting blueberry plants around the new house, though.) I’m glad that the forest is healthy enough to support the critters all the way to the top of the food chain. Other than us, I mean. I have no intention of setting the record straight in any official capacity. I’ll keep cataloguing my way through the plant kingdom, so I’ll feel more at home, in my new home.