Overdue homestead update and Travel Log

I have not kept up with my so-called weekly reports, but it is not because of a lack of things to report. January and February brought snow and mammal tracks to look at, fiber arts, and writing projects; by March we were already well into a month-long excursion to the desert of California, from which we just returned.

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Our trip took us first to my parents’ house in central Ohio, where spring was already well underway on Feb 21st. The vernal pool was full of chorusing wood frogs and salamander eggs. The first of the spring ephemeral wildflowers, harbinger of spring (Erigenia bulbosa), was up and blooming.

The next big stop was in New Mexico, where we toured Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. I love the sense of standing on ground where people made their homes hundreds of years ago.  Pictured below are some of the dwellings (a series of 6 caves contains around 40 rooms) and pictographs from a few miles down the road. Near the pictographs was a single cave with three rooms. The wood over the entrance contained evidence of bark beetles over 600 years old.

Wanting to escape the chilly air in New Mexico and fulfill the mission of the trip (finding leaf-mining insects in the desert), we headed into the glorious canyons of southeastern Arizona. We camped in Cave Creek Canyon and Millers Canyon, and explored a Nature Conservancy property in Ramsey Canyon. Each canyon feels quite different, but all are lush with birds, plants, naturalists, good hiking, and insect mysteries solved or discovered.

To get a sense of the Sonoran Desert surrounding these canyons, we decided to go to Saguaro National Park, where everything seems thorny!  The curve-billed thrashers, mockingbirds, cactus wrens, and Gila woodpeckers were abundant and noisy, and we glimpsed a trio of shy Gambel’s quail.

After Tucson, we headed north to meet up with our friend Eric LoPresti near in the Tonto National Forest near Phoenix. A fellow bug-hunter, he proved a valuable asset by spotting leaf-miners, driving us to inaccessible places in a four-wheel drive high-clearance truck, cooking countless meals with us, and convincing us to come on the trip in the first place.

After finding several leafminers likely unknown to science, we caravaned through the strange town of Blythe into the California desert, camping in a bizarre moonscape near a military gunnery range in the Chocolate Mountains. The area looked blasted (more likely by OHVs than missiles) and had very little vegetation—but we found locally abundant teensy moths on desert ironwood (Olneya tesota).

A stop in the Algodones Dunes got us into a whole new set of plants, and a whole new bizarre landscape, which seemed like it didn’t belong so far inland. We encountered one of Eric’s favorite plants, Abronia (sand-verbena, a pretty purple flower), for the first time. He studies insect herbivory and plant defenses at UC Davis, and his normal high level of enthusiasm would increase to animated shouts whenever he saw a plant so sticky that it became covered with sand.

Our next stop was Shell Canyon, near the town of Ocotillo. We ambled through the wildflowers beneath a bunch of wind turbines for an hour or so, then drove to the end of a very rough road into a slot canyon to camp. White-fronted swifts (Cypseloides storeri) were feeding nestlings on the cliff wall.

Then, finally, we reached our destination and turn-around point: Anza-Borrego State Park, which was also the destination of everyone who watches ABC or CNN or reads the Washington Post; there had been extensive coverage of the super-bloom the previous week. We encountered the flowers pictured below in the southwestern edge of the park along the road and near the Bow Willow campground.

We stayed at a University of California field station near Borrego Springs, where we met up with other entomologists and took day trips out to search for bugs (and enjoy the flowers). We saw “flower alley” in Coyote Canyon, which was full of tourists, and much farther up the canyon was a stream with running water and willows. There was also quiet, lovely Tubb Canyon, on an impossible road, and we drove into the desolate Wind Canyon and hiked out to see the Elephant Trees.

The most spectacular place was called Hawk Canyon; we first got there taking a trail to “The Slot” and then clambering down into the canyon, which turned out to be full of lupines and evening primroses.

Heading home, we couldn’t resist stopping at Madera Canyon (just south of Tucson, AZ), which is one of my favorite places in the world. We stayed there for several days in November on our first big road trip in 2012; this time we didn’t have the campground to ourselves (in fact, the campground was full and we had to camp out in the open range with a bunch of cows), but we met up with a friend from college and hiked up to an old mine and on the little streamside nature trail, plus we found plenty of interesting birds and bugs.

Last stop: a 5000-acre ranch owned by a moth enthusiast in southern Texas. We found so many great leafminers there that I forgot to take pictures!

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On the way home we slept in the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri, saw my sister in Ohio for her birthday, and made it home in time for a selectboard meeting. Back in Massachusetts, we found a foot of snow and a partially collapsed greenhouse, but also a nicely plowed driveway, happy chickens, intact pipes, and blooming orchids.

 

 

 

 

Weekly Homestead Report 18: December 19, 2016

This weekend we had about 9″ of snow, then maybe half an inch of rain, and now it’s back to freezing. We’re starting to get festive and really look forward to visiting family!

There is a small group of young grouse hanging out near our solar panel along the driveway. Three of them have been around consistently for the past month, but today I got to spend some time watching and listening to one without flushing it.

This week, we ate the very last tomato, which we picked from our garden about a month and a half ago as a greenish pink thing and stored in the basement. Not bad.

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I made some whisk brooms out of broom corn (a kind of sorghum we grew this year).

Charley walked back and forth in front of our trail camera, which was on the garden corner fence post. There are rabbit tracks right in front of it, and we set it up there because we found gray fox tracks in that location, but somehow the camera only caught us.

I have since moved the camera, as we found bobcat tracks entering a thicket behind our chicken house.

 

In the last 2-3 weeks, we’ve seen the following birds on our feeder: downy woodpecker, dark-eyed junco, American goldfinch, tufted titmouse, black-capped chickadee, northern cardinal, mourning dove, purple finch, white-breasted nuthatch, blue jay, and European starlings (just once, and they didn’t eat, oddly). Gray squirrels come to eat as well.

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Weekly Homestead Report 17: December 5, 2016

This week we picked medlars and broccoli, it snowed, we found life in an ugly plastic box, I turned 29, a tree fell down, and I made it through my first town meeting as a member of the selectboard.

First up: life in a storage box. We keep this ugly left-over from our house’s previous occupants so that the mail carrier can leave a package for us in inclement weather. Apparently it also serves as valuable habitat. We found three different spider egg sacs, about 10 jumping spider houses (one in each molded notch), a funnel web, stink bug eggs, and a paper wasp nest (with wasp still sleepily clinging to it). The northern paper wasp, Polistes fuscatus, is the common native species in the Northeast.

Nice to know that the junk also has biological function.

Walking in the woods, we found red maple tree that had recently broken off. Brief investigation led us to suspect beetle damage as the cause of the death of the tree. We found several little channels filled with sawdusty frass, a strange series of holes with little webby sacs in them, and a wriggling beetle larva!

For my birthday, we got to pick medlars. Medlar, Mespilus germanica, is in the rose family along with apples, and the fruit looks like a cross between a rose hip and an apple. Apparently it should be picked in December and stored until March, then eaten when the fruit is soft. It has been likened to a baked cinnamon apple. Never having eaten one didn’t stop Charley from buying the tree two years ago. We picked five fruits; one seemed appropriately squishy, so we tried it out. I’m waiting until March to really assess, but so far, I like apples better. However, the idea of having ripe fruit in March is still appealing.

I’ll leave you this with this beautiful elf shelf mushroom.

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Weekly Homestead Report 16: Nov 28, 2016

Not much to report this week. We made and ate a lot of food, visited with a lot of family, and didn’t go out into the cold mist very much. I’ve been knitting. Johnny jump ups are still blooming, and the strawberries are a nice shade of red.

We made a new bluebird/ swallow box and hung it on the trellis by the garden.

Our motion camera only took pictures of us, despite the tell-tale fox droppings in the yard near the hugelkultur bed where it was aimed. You can see that this is the time of year when we wear orange as if it is armor. So far, so good.

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It really feels like we’re about to launch into winter. The chicken water is almost always frozen in the morning. I finally drained the rain barrels and hoses, and put away the last of the garden tools. I put snow tires on my car. Crazy that this week two years ago, I seriously needed them–this photo is from Nov 26, 2014.

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Today we saw a bald eagle fly by our perch up on the vista above the Hermit Castle in Erving. (This is the place, but the photo is from mid October–now, all the deciduous trees are grey skeletons among the evergreens).

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Weekly Homestead Report 15: November 21, 2016

This week has gone by quickly. The weather has been sufficiently crappy that we can be relatively content working indoors with just one daily walk. We’ve been eating some of our dried, canned, and frozen foods.

The dried beans, in particular, have been great. I didn’t even realize I was craving them until we cooked a bunch up and I keep sneaking a few, cold out of the fridge.

The popcorn, too, has dried properly and now pops like popcorn should in our fancy Whirley-pop pot.

We’re still eating tomatoes and tomatillos we picked green before the last frost. We make a new batch of fresh salsa every couple of days. I have to admit, though, they don’t taste as good as they do in July.

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With the help of a light on a timer that goes on for a few hours in the evening and morning, the chickens are back on track, laying a reasonable number of eggs (4-6 per day, up from 0-2 during the worst of the molt). We haven’t accumulated quite enough to want to sell many to the neighbors, but we’re not rationing them out at breakfast, either.

In the woods, the witch hazels are still blooming abundantly. We took a hike up into Satan’s Kingdom to discover this pretty scene.

In the hoop house, I planted some more spinach and Swiss chard, as well as transplanting some lettuce from the little plastic boxes into the ground. I put the now-empty boxes over them to form a sort of second greenhouse to try to retain additional heat and moisture since my first transplants all disappeared into death and nothingness.

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It has been relatively chilly, with a few snow flurries, and this afternoon I noticed that some of our exposed soil is displaying ice needles, a neat phenomenon of capillary action which causes the soil to heave in little pillars.

Time to put on my snow tires, I guess. And keep cutting firewood. And cuddle up next to the stove to get some work on knitting projects done.

 

Weekly Homestead Report 14: November 14, 2016

This earth remains beautiful. The sun still rises every morning. And, there is still work to do. Life goes on (it must!), no matter who we elect on the second Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

It’s mid-November, and our garden is still making food. This week we have broccoli, kale, the best spinach I’ve ever grown, lettuce, arugula, and chard, plus four goumi berries (our first). The hoop house is really working out.

Hyssop, red yarrow, viola, and mullein have put out fresh blooms, while the asters fade.

In the woods, witch hazel is still blooming.

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Three very confused sheep laurel plants up on the Crag are also blooming. These same plants did the same thing last fall, too.

The mums continue to delight me as well as a variety of beetles and flies.

Yard work has mainly consisted of mowing and piling up the grass clippings and leaves on the hugelkultur bed, but we also reinstalled vole guards around the fruit trees and cleaned up the weedy areas around them to try to eliminate vole habitat. In a move that our neighbor warned us we’d regret, we used dead trees found in the woods as fence posts and birdhouse poles when we put them up two years ago. Sure enough, one tall bluebird box and two fence posts rotted off and fell over within the last two weeks. This week found us adding metal posts and replanting the birdhouse (we had made it absurdly tall so the neighbors’ abundant cats would be dissuaded from climbing it; this is no longer an issue, so it is okay that it is a normal height now).  We expect it and other posts to rot off over the coming years. So be it.

I find that I must get into the woods and take a hike as often as possible!

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Weekly Homestead Report 13: November 7, 2016

It’s hard to think of anything other than tomorrow’s election, but in between reading articles about various election outcomes and watching the Daily Show to try to lighten it up a little, we did go outside a few times.

Charley’s birthday was Friday, and we took the opportunity to go out collecting nuts and berries; specifically, wild cranberries and acorns.

It was a gorgeous day to be outside. The marsh (an abandoned beaver pond) with the cranberry bog was sunny, a little breezy, and had abundant cotton grass growing.

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Cotton grass is actually a sedge in the genus Eriophorum, and adds a really nice touch to many of New England’s fens and bogs. It’s like something extra elegant out of a Dr. Suess book.

We also did a little fall yard cleaning this week. We added most of the pile of rotting firewood left over from the house’s previous owner onto our hugelkultur bed. Some grass clippings and leaves also ended up as part of this experiment.

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Back to tomorrow’s election. Charley and I are both feeling some intense anxiety about what tomorrow evening will bring, and fear for the country no matter who wins the presidency. Dear readers: please, please go vote, and please don’t waste your vote on a third-party candidate. As Charley wrote yesterday, “There are only two presidential candidates who have a chance of winning. Hillary Clinton is far from perfect, but she wouldn’t be any worse than Obama or Bill Clinton, and they’re the best presidents we’ve been able to come up with in the past 50 years…Okay, thanks. Now back to bugs.”

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Or in my case, off to bake some very decadent brownies for the library’s election day bake sale.

Weekly Homestead Report 12: Halloween 2016

Nothing like a little snow to change the scene in a hurry! Don’t worry, it all slid off the solar panel before the sun was up the next morning, and two days later nearly all traces of snow were gone.

But the plants felt the cold. Here are the same three flowers, separated by one frosty night.

Happily, those mums I mentioned last week seem to be able to take it. They’re about the only flower left at this point. The New England asters are still alive too, but barely.

 

The milkweed seeds are dispersing.

Before the snow, we harvested amaranth seeds (below; approx 1.5 cups from 3 large plants), herbs for drying (oregano and parsley),  pink and green tomatoes, the last of the peppers, and huge numbers of butternut squash, pumpkins, and spaghetti squash.

I cut out a new chicken door in the coop, which we’ll be able to manually open whenever our fancy electric door quits working. It seems to run out of battery every few months, just when we are getting used to relying on it (and/or when we go on a trip, leaving our neighbors in charge of the chickens).

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If this works, you’ll see footage of the door closing and opening after manual prompting—a test, after I recharged the battery. The timers are set to open the door for 7:00 am, and close it at 8:00 pm. The chickens are safe and happy, and that makes me happy.

The woods are really lovely this time of year. Yesterday we hiked up to the Crag to enjoy the view and get a little sunshine and exercise, but the little loop through our woods is just as beautiful. It’s worth mentioning that this year there was no fall black fly emergence, for which I am extremely grateful.

I feel like I’m trying to hold on to the essence of this gorgeous season in New England. I’m pretty sure you can’t capture it this way, but the leaves are very pretty.

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But of course, autumn is more than yellow-orange-red; it is the feel of the air, the crisp crunch of a fresh apple, a pot of butternut squash soup simmering on the stove, and the cozy feeling of curling up next to the wood stove with a book after a long day cutting, splitting, and stacking firewood.

 

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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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