Weekly Homestead Report 3: Aug 29, 2016

There are two bits of exciting news this week: we found that our rock garden isn’t a complete failure, and we started construction of a hoop house!

When we dug up parts of the lawn for our vegetable garden about two and a half years ago, you could see the four rock piles on satellite imagery (just below the rectangular beds, from Google Maps).

After using some of the rocks for the floor of an outdoor shower, to level off the road edge by the mailbox, as steps down from the driveway to the “lower garden,” and other projects, there were still lots of rocks left. We decided to spread them out and fill in the spaces with dirt and sand, and then sprinkle in some seeds we collected from open sandy habitats. Crickets quickly moved in and made homes in the miniature caves. This spring, we neglected the rock garden and it became covered with cinquefoil, horseweed, and milkweed.


On Tuesday when I was weeding the cucumbers just on the other side of the fence from the rock garden, I discovered a funny-looking plant, something I was pretty sure was a sandplain specialist. Sure enough, Charley identified it as orange-grass St. John’s-wort, or Hypericum gentianoides, a plant of rocky ridges and grasslands, especially disturbed habitats like the sand pit created by four-wheelers where we’d collected the seeds. The plant has tiny (practically nonexistent) upright leaves, small yellow flowers, and orange-red fruits.

When Charley came out to see the St. John’s-wort, he looked over the fence at the rock garden and spotted what I had somehow missed—blooming bluecurls! Forked bluecurls, or Trichostema dichotomum, is appropriately named, as it is blueish-purple with two long curved (curled) stamens that would clearly get pollen all over the back of a bee. Like the St.John’s-wort, this is a grassland plant that readily colonizes disturbed places. I had never seen the flowers before, but the dried stems and seedpods were charming when we collected them last fall. Each plant is about one foot tall with dozens of flowers that open each morning and wilt by mid-afternoon.

I decided to pull out the cinquefoil and horseweed to see if any of the other rock/ sand specialists had sprouted. I got about 3/4 done when a couple of irritated paper wasps came over to let me know that I was disturbing their nest. I left. Lucky for me, we’ve had a few skunks hanging around. We’ve seen them in the driveway at night, and gotten a few photos on the wildlife camera. Skunks really like munching grubs, and don’t seem to mind a few stings if that’s what it takes. Two days after I abandoned the weeding project, a skunk (I presume) had pulled a few rocks out of the way and ripped the nest out, devouring the grubs, and digging out some of the dirt. There are still a few unhappy adults around, but now that the nest is gone, I can probably get on with weeding without getting stung.

There is purple-stemmed aster (Symphyotrichum puniceum) growing out of the pavers in our patio under the deck. It started blooming this week. That makes aster #3, after the white wood aster and calico aster.


In our woods  blooming plants include: virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana), monkeyflower (Mimulus ringens), meadowsweet (Spiraea alba), Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), Indian tobacco (Lobelia inflata),  jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), willow-herb (Epilobium), and white turtlehead (Chelone glabra). Our cultivated pink turtlehead just started blooming by the driveway, too.  Additionally, in the powerline cut behind our woods, we found blooming joe-pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum), purple milkwort (Polygala sanguinea), gerardia (Agalinis), rattlesnake root (Prenanthes trifoliata), and flat-topped aster (Doellingeria umbellata).

I find it fascinating to watch bumble bees collecting pollen from the turtlehead. They pry open the lips of the flower, squeeze inside, back out after about 5 seconds of buzzing, and briefly attend to collecting the pollen from their furry parts and transferring it into the pollen baskets on their hind legs before heading to the next one.

We’re pretty much eating the same things as last week. This is the time when the garden swamps us with its abundance. There are so many tomatoes!  I picked 32 pounds on Friday and made 12 pints of tomato sauce, and that’s in addition to dehydrating all the ripe cherry tomatoes on Tuesday (now they fit into a one quart bag).

And now, the hoop house! My parents are visiting from Ohio. My dad is a remodeling contractor and someone who doesn’t relax much. My mom is an avid gardener and food preservationist. They recently built a hoop house using hog panels (4′ by 16′ stiff welded wire fence), and had such a great time eating salad all winter that I wanted one too… So before they came, I measured my space and gathered up materials. Because of the way it is constructed, with the 16′ hog panels creating the arc, it can only be about 7-8 feet wide if you want to be able to stand up inside. We decided to use 6 panels for a 25 foot length. I also bought six long 2 x 8s for the box at the bottom, some 5/4 decking material to build the ends, and some hardware. I’m sorry I didn’t take a photo of the little-Honda-Civic-that-could hauling everything from the lumberyard, because it was impressive! This is a great experimental greenhouse, because the materials cost just $426, and two of us built the entire frame in less than 6 hours yesterday. Today we built and hung the doors and put plastic on the two ends. Tomorrow we’ll “skin” the main part.

The hoop house is currently oriented with the long sides oriented east-west, mostly because our corn patch is in the way of where we wanted to put it, oriented with a long side facing south… BUT, according to the New Mexico Extension website: “For maximum passive warming in the winter months, consider orienting your hoop house so the long side runs east/west.” Okay, done! I think leaving it where it is sounds much better.

Weekly Homestead Report 2: Aug 22, 2016

First, a note to my email subscribers: the formatting will be much better, and the photographs larger, if you click on the link and read the blog online rather than in your email program. I think I’ve set it up so your email will be a summary with a button that will link you to the blog, but since I’m new at this, I’m not sure. Now, on to the week’s news!

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This is a week of beautiful caterpillars.

Over the last three years, we have converted a sterile lawn into habitat-rich orchard, vegetable garden, and meadow. The meadow has grown simply by not mowing regularly, and selectively mowing around desirable plants to promote them and suppress the prolific non-native invaders. The meadow and flower beds now include several large stands of common milkweed, lots of goldenrod and asters, a sea of Queen Anne’s lace, and some native shrubs—like spicebush.

Last week I posted a picture of a spicebush swallowtail caterpillar. This week, you can enjoy a younger instar. It has cleverly disguised itself as a bird dropping with eyes. All instars have pretty convincing false eyespots. The caterpillar’s actual head is tiny and tucked down, making it difficult to see its true eyes, and I suppose the guise works to persuade potential predators that it is actually a snake or something much fiercer than a caterpillar.

Queen Anne’s lace is in the parsley/carrot family, so native insects associated with this family are happy to eat this non-native plant. Just yesterday, we spotted a black swallowtail caterpillar. Last year, we found a few eating our cultivated carrots, and transferred them over to the Queen Anne’s lace. This one had found the Queen Anne’s lace on its own.


Sometimes, very bland moths are very beautiful as caterpillars. Brown hooded owlet moth caterpillars certainly fall into this category. The caterpillars eat goldenrod and asters, so they’re happy in our yard!


In the past, we have noticed milkweed beetles and milkweed bugs, but this week, for the first time ever, we spotted a monarch caterpillar! As is broadly known, monarchs are in decline for a number of reasons, including increased pesticide use and decreased habitat (farmers eliminating “weedy” hedgerows to maximize crop area). We have only one record of an adult monarch in our yard, on September 29, 2015. Obviously there must have been one in our yard a couple weeks ago, too, in order to lay the egg! We also spotted a milkweed tussock moth caterpillar and fall webworm eating milkweed.

Aside from caterpillars, we’ve been enjoying some great wildflowers. By the chicken house, the native sunflowers that we yanked up from the gravelly shoulder of the road near Charley’s parents’ house are blooming.  It was a patch he’d been admiring for most of his life, and when we noticed that they’d spread into the path of the highway department’s mower, we decided to transplant a few of the most at-risk. In the two years since then, they’ve spread wonderfully. Yesterday I photographed bumblebees, hover flies, a crab spider, and even a dance fly hanging out on them. Hover flies are bee mimics, reminding me of sweat bees, and while they do sometimes hang around sweaty people, even lapping moisture off of us with their sponge-like tongue, they are truly flies. They are in the family Syrphidae; many syrphid larvae eat aphids, and therefore are important biocontrols for farmers and gardeners.

In the woods, hog-peanut, common boneset, and white wood aster have started blooming. White wood aster is one of the most abundant woodland plants in New England, and its sweet white flowers brighten up the woods in late summer. At least on our land, they are the first of the asters to bloom (although we spotted the first calico aster bloom today, just a few days after the white wood aster).

In the garden, we’re picking an abundance of corn, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, summer squash, and eggplant. I’ve been canning. In the photos below, the really tall plant behind Charley is broom corn.

We’re finishing the last of the black currants and gooseberries, and are still enjoying ever-bearing strawberries. The ground cherries (or husk cherries) are just starting to ripen, and they are delicious! Ground cherries are native nightshades (the family that contains tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplant). The fruits, like those of tomatillos, are “wrapped” in a papery husk (a modified calyx). The fruit falls off the plant and finishes ripening on the ground; the husk turns brownish and crinkly when the fruit is ripe. Unwrapped, the fruits look like golden tomatoes, but taste sweeter and less acidic (Charley says, “like creamsicles”). Last year we dried some, creating unusually delicious raisins. So far this year, none have made it beyond the garden fence.

In other news, we acquired two additional hens on Wednesday. These girls showed signs of scaly leg mite, and even though their previous owner said they’d been treated, we decided to give them another leg-drenching and a 24-hour quarantine before introducing them to the rest of the flock. They’re still a bit shy with us and the other chickens, but I’m confident that they’ll fit in soon.

Weekly Homestead Report 1: Aug 15, 2016

My intention with this blog is to write once a week about biological and other happenings at our little homestead on Crag Mountain. This will serve as a reminder for Charley and me to slow down and take stock of what is sprouting or blooming, what creatures (bugs especially, of course!) we’ve noticed, and what we’re eating out of the garden and woods.  Assuming I am properly diligent, we can know what to expect in future years, and document any phenological changes from year to year.  It’s also an excuse to spend some time taking photos of beautiful things. In addition to close-ups of creatures mentioned, I intend to post pictures of certain parts of our yard repeatedly, so we have a log of changes over the seasons.

Solar panel flower garden in April, June, and August.

Back, or down-hill garden on July 7 and today (August 15).

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As anyone living in the New England knows, we’ve had a significant drought over the last two months. This week we finally got some rain, but the garden still looks tired (like I feel in the heavy humidity). Nonetheless, the yard is thick with Queen Anne’s lace flowers, the Canada goldenrod is just starting to bloom, and milkweed pods are swelling.

In the woods, monkeyflower (Mimulus ringens) is blooming.  We found a stem mining fly in the monkeyflower in our woods just two days before it emerged—the fly, or at least its life history, is unknown to science, so Charley will send it off to a taxonomist now that we have reared the adult.  You can read more about our (especially Charley’s) bug adventures at his blog, bugtracks.

One of my least-favorite plants, tearthumb, or Polygonum sagittatum, is also blooming in the woods. It sprawls across the ground, tearing not just thumbs, but also legs and any other tender bit of skin that it touches. Our woods was logged 4-5 years ago, and tearthumb is an early colonizer of seepy places with some sun.

On the garden fence, groundnut (Aprios americana) is blooming spectacularly. Groundnut is a native legume with delicious edible tubers, so we’ve encouraged it to spread.

In the garden, we’re picking sweet corn (sweet ambrosia), the first of the tomatoes, bush and pole beans, zucchini and yellow crookneck summer squash, eggplant, peppers, chard, broccoli, and kale. We’re still harvesting the ever-bearing strawberries, and ate the penultimate mulberry yesterday (it’s only a two year old tree, so we’re thrilled to have gotten about 15 berries).  Also yesterday, we ate the first two ground cherries of the year.  Around the county, blueberries have been ripening for almost a month, but up here on the mountain, we’re just picking the first both wild and cultivated blueberries this week. Our cultivated beach plums are starting to turn.

I almost forgot to mention the wild blackberries, though they are the highlight of the week! The patch is in full swing. I picked 3 quarts easily in about an hour, and made blackberry jam (strained this year, so we wouldn’t have to crunch through so many seeds). Last year a bear crashed some helpful paths through the prickly patch… no such luck yet this year, but I’m setting the motion camera out in the berry patch today just in case. At the least, we might get a photo of the grouse family that we keep flushing.

We’re still picking an abundance of Japanese beetles off of the cherry trees, grapes, evening primrose, and raspberries, even though it seemed like they had slowed down last week. We pluck them into a container of soapy water and dump it in the chicken yard; the hens gobble them up in seconds flat. There have also been some red-humped caterpillars (Schizura concinna), a species of notodontid (moth) whose caterpillars devour leaves of apples, cherries, and in our case, plums. They go to the chickens too, but sometimes Charley is nice and moves them to a wild cherry at the edge of the woods. This week we’ve noticed lots of grasshoppers and the first evening feeding swarms of Aeshna (Darner) dragonflies.  Spicebush swallowtail caterpillars have been folding the leaves of the spicebush we  planted by the front of the house.

In the flowerbeds, purple coneflower and black-eyed Susans are blooming, and covered in pearl/ northern crescents (Phycoides sp).


In the mega-fauna category (comparatively, anyway), we’ve been hearing a family of Barred Owls, the young making a very peculiar sound as their parents school them on proper hooting. Yesterday we saw an American Robin take the first real bath that we’ve witnessed in our birdbath. Its three puffy fledglings looked on from the grass as it splashed in the water and shook its feathers dry.  I haven’t managed a photo yet, but I’ve been seeing a young porcupine ambling along in the woods, and tonight, there was one sitting in the middle of the road. Two days ago, coming home in the dark, we had to physically remove two American Toads from the driveway before driving up it to avoid squashing them. Since the rain a few days ago, I’ve noticed at least a dozen young pickerel frogs jumping out from underfoot as I walked through the dewy morning grass.  Below, you can see one hiding under the rhubarb shot through a hole in the leaf.

I can’t wait to see what new things this week has to offer!