Weekly Homestead Report 11: October 24th, 2016

In the spring, we used huge rhubarb leaves to form two lovely concrete birdbaths. Largely, the birds have ignored them. This week a couple of bluebirds found one of them and put on quite a show bathing.

In fact, all the splashing drew the attention of a yellow-rumped warbler and a junco, which hung around on the deck railing for the whole ordeal, as if waiting for their turns for a bath. When the female bluebird was done, the male jumped in, and eventually the others left.


Ants were on the move! These winged queens from a colony of turfgrass ants (Lasius neoniger) in our yard are about the size of carpenter ants, but if you look closely, there are small winged drones and tiny wingless workers all boiling out of the same hole.

Later, splitting wood toward the bottom of an old wood pile, we found actual carpenter ants, probably Camponotus novaeboracensis. These have a distinct red middle, unlike the common species, Camponotus  pennsylvanicus, which is all black.


Witch hazels are blooming! (This photo is from Northampton, but they’re blooming at our house too).


Our perennial mums (from my mom!) are just starting to bloom. This year I cut them back in early June, because my mom said that would keep them from getting so tall that they fall over, but as a result, they are starting to bloom a few weeks later than last year (I think, but don’t have any record). I hope we get a few weeks of blooms before a hard frost does them in.


Our current project is the development of a hugelkultur bed, after we were inspired by Margaret Roach’s awaytogarden blog and interview on the subject. The basic idea is to pile up woody debris, cover it with about a foot of soil, grass clippings, leaves, and other organic matter, and use it as a raised bed full of slow-release nitrogen. Since we have an abundance of woody debris (our property was logged about 5 years ago–just before we bought it), we thought we’d give it a try.

We’re eating/picking in the garden: raspberries, tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage, strawberries(!), squash (butternut, spaghetti, pumpkins), peppers, eggplants, and chamomile. Most of the ground cherries and tomatillos were killed in a light frost. The squash vines are also mostly dead. Some of the beans seem to be reinvigorated. Most of the brassicas look terrible–covered with cabbage white caterpillars, cross-striped cabbage worms, and aphids; I’m hoping the predicted hard frost on Wednesday night kills the bugs but leaves the plants unaffected.

In the hoop house, the new seedlings are all getting their first true leaves. Most of the transplants are faring okay, but we have something (a cutworm??) eating big sections of the swiss chard every night. I haven’t caught it in action, but it leaves behind big piles of wet goopy frass.

With the cool weather, we’re feeling a lot more like cutting firewood… I got the chainsaw sharpened up and running, and we’ve been cutting and splitting some of the tip-ups that are close to the yard. We burned fewer than two cords of firewood last year, so we have a good supply left over, but it is nice to be filling the woodshed for next winter.






Weekly Homestead Report 10: Oct 17, 2016

As we try to keep our anxiety about the upcoming election at bay, it is good to be able to walk in the woods and notice flowers.

Indian tobacco, Lobelia inflata, is blooming again, although it already has mature seeds.

Maple leaf viburnum, Viburnum acerifolium, has ripe fruits. Charley says that they’re technically edible but not worth it.

Japanese barberry, Berberis thunbergii, is (regrettably) also fruiting. Not prepared with gloves, we pricked our fingers pulling up barberry on a walk off of our usual trail where we’ve pulled most of the invasive plants already. Japanese barberry is one of our least favorite invasive plants because of its spines and the fact that it readily sprouts from seeds that the robins poop (along with multiflora rose and bittersweet).


This was the week of the first frost (10/14) and the first fire (10/16).

Well, it wasn’t really that frosty, but I didn’t get a photo before it was gone, so I found one from last year. We covered our strawberries and raspberries with sheets, and they still seem to be in good shape.

Of course the frost meant that we went out the day before to rescue the last of the tomatoes, tomatillos, and peppers… thus more hot pepper jelly, tomatillo salsa, and a batch of enchilada sauce.


One of our older hens died, so I put the carcass out in front of the wildlife camera. We were able to add a new mammal species to our yard list for the first time in a year or so: grey fox! We also got photos of a red fox, a coyote, and a couple raccoons.

In honor of Charley, and because we led an insect tracking walk today, I give you Coptotriche fuscomarginella (or possibly a closely related species). It’s the leaf mine and larva of a moth in the family Tischeriidae. What a beauty!



Weekly Homestead Report 9: October 10, 2016

Pictured here: fall’s finest bird food (poison ivy) and aster eye candy! This week a number of longstanding items got crossed off of our big to-do list, and in the process, we learned important lessons about timing harvests.

  • sweep chimney (nothing too bad, here)
  • dig potatoes (grrrrr! voles!)
  • pick and shell dry beans (oh, no! mold!)
  • pick popcorn (oh no, mold again! But not too bad.)
  • harvest remaining watermelon (gah! overripe!)

The dry beans seemed to be doing well last time I checked, but the last two weeks of wet weather caused some of them to get moldy instead of dry. I’ve been doing a rescue operation to try to salvage most of them. I could have picked the whole plants and hung them in the shed to dry, giving up the possibility of the younger pods ripening, but thoroughly drying those that had already made beans. Instead, I’ve been shelling not-quite dry beans, throwing out the ones that are slimy or moldy. There are still a bunch in the field that aren’t ready, but some weeding and propping up collapsed plants to allow greater air flow makes me think they’ll successfully dry on the vine. Lessons for next year…

Digging the potatoes really made me mad, because about 2/3 of the potatoes are damaged—some almost completely eaten—by voles.  Voles seem to be one of our main garden pests. We’re out there all winter shoveling the snow away from our fruit trees so it doesn’t top our hardware-cloth vole guards (they would happily eat all the bark they can get to under the snow, thereby girdling our trees). Next year, I will try to harvest potatoes early to mid September when the vines die back instead of waiting until October to harvest. My strategy was to “store” them where they were, to minimize their time in my root cellar, hopefully maximizing the length of time they would last before trying to sprout. If waiting allows the doggone voles eat them before I even get to them, though, that’s far worse than knocking a few sprouts off and eating slightly squishy (but intact!!) potatoes in March.

When I picked the first ear of dry popcorn, I panicked to find a tiny amount of mold… but it was just on a few ears, luckily. I spent an hour in the afternoon shucking the corn and crafting corn husk dolls to distribute to some of the kiddos in my life. This was satisfying.

When we picked the watermelons in anticipation of another frost tonight, we found that we had waited too long on some of them, and they centers around the seeds had deteriorated beyond enjoyment. This is truly a tragedy.

Because the Nantucket Conservation Foundation is hosting its annual cranberry festival this weekend, we decided it must be time to eat ours. Delicious!

We noticed some doll’s eyes, the creepy fruit of white baneberry, Actaea pachypoda. 

As for the chimney sweeping, it was a good opportunity to view the yard from on high.






Weekly Homestead Report 8: October 3, 2016

Dreary skies have made it difficult to appreciate the vibrant colors of the leaves, but they’re real nice. Today the sky finally cleared for a few hours, and then a huge dark cloud blew over and dumped a bunch of rain on us in the late afternoon.


The tomato vines are starting to look a bit brown, but we’re still overrun by tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and tomatillos. We just made some eggplant Parmesan to keep things under control. My food preservation efforts are starting to feel a lot less fun. For inspiration, I called up Jeannie Seabrook, a good friend who owns the Glass Rooster Cannery. She gave me a bunch of new recipes, so hopefully the next round will be more interesting.

We’re trying to grow every edible plant we can think of, including some that prefer conditions other than those we can offer. Cranberries fall into this category, since they thrive in bogs. This year one of our two cranberry plants fruited, and the berries are nearly ripe!


One of our hens laid a rubbery egg without a proper shell. We ate it anyway.

The monarch caterpillars continue to grow. One was missing yesterday (Sunday) and today I couldn’t find any of them. I suspect they went looking for a suitable place to pupate.

The asters are so striking that I couldn’t help but include them here, though I’ve already written about both smooth and New England asters.