Homestead Report 29: Ushering in the new year

It’s a new year, and that brings reflection on the past and planning for the future.  Actually, it’s just so darn cold that it’s hard to stay outside long, which leaves a little more time than usual for contemplation.

I spent the last days of the year drooling my way through the Fedco seed catalog, but managed to keep this year’s order under $70, with only a few wildcard “just for fun” varieties and an adequate supply of the old standbys. I also sorted my saved seed and went through older packets to see what is still good from previous years.

I’ve vowed to do a better job of succession planting this year. I tend to get very excited about the first round, and then forget to plant again until a little too late. I’m working on adding notes to my calendar to re-plant various crops so they aren’t neglected.

I actually did a decent job of getting the greens going in the hoop house in time for winter, but with a week of sub-zero temperatures, I haven’t even gotten up the nerve to open the door to see if anything is still alive. And that’s in part because the patterns of ice on the door are so beautiful.

I’m also hoping to be a more consistent vendor at the farmers’ market. The last two years I’ve been a regular for the early months, then dropped off as my schedule becomes complicated, my crops look less perfect, and I strive to preserve food for the winter in my spare time. The motivation to be a vendor is not about income (though I hope to at least pay for my seed order), and more about being a part of the community, and providing delicious, healthy food to people. Sometimes it doesn’t feel worth it to spend all morning packing up my veggies and trek into town to sit in the sun for three hours just to bring home $50. But those are the days when I need to remember the friendships I’m nurturing and the joy of handing over my food to someone who’ll go home and enjoy eating it.

And that will keep me as busy as the beavers who’ve moved in next door.  But I like being busy. I like growing food. Action, nutrition, and dirt under my fingernails keep me from feeling overwhelmed and depressed.

Actually, another goal this year is to really believe in the possibility of a better future for our world. Lately, reading the news has gotten me down. Every struggle just seems so exhausting, overwhelming, unwinnable, damaging. But then I look around, and see myself surrounded by truly good people, people who are kind and funny and work hard and care about justice. I see beautiful forests and tangled thickets that give me delicious berries to eat year after year. I see a world worth fighting for.

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I’m learning to be brave. My father told me that one of his and my mom’s goals in raising my sister and me was to help us believe that we could do anything, be anything, fix anything. They succeeded. I believe that together, as a community of people who care, we can fix the problems I see in our society. It’ll take team work, time, sunshine, water, and back-breaking effort, but we can grow a better world. We must.

Part of that, I believe, is being in love with and in awe of the world we have. It’s time for me to let the beauty of ice crystals take my breath away, the miracle of bird wings to make me stop in my tracks, and my sweetie’s excitement about a parasitic wasp’s life history become mine. The wonder will give reason and energy for the difficult work of activism.

Homestead Report 28: Harvest accomplished

Once again, much more time has passed than I intended to allow between posts. Oh well.

We’ve had our first frost on Oct 17, our first fire on Nov 1, and our first light snow on Nov 9 (I think). Today I finally got the rain barrels drained and the hoses in the shed. The chainsaw is at least mostly functional, and we’re cutting a little bit of wood for 2018/19. It’s starting to feel like winter.

On Oct 22, we held our first Cider Party, in the tradition of my parents’ annual Fall Party. It was a blast… about 30 friends/ family came over; we pressed 8 gallons of cider, had a delicious potluck, some rockin’ music, and just great company and fun.  The kids discovered the inspiration for velcro.

Just before our party we had our septic system pumped and used it as an excuse to finally fix the odd topography of the area where the septic lids are. When a new tank was installed before we moved in, no one graded the area, so what should have been a path wasn’t. We leveled the path, covered the lids, and planted strawberries on the slope.

This fall was exceptionally warm and pleasant. We had monarchs and bees nectaring through the second week of October. Some people said the leaf color was a let-down, but I found the foliage to be quite gorgeous.

Our first two frosts were mild enough that a sheet over the raspberries meant we still had fruit. Basically, only the tomatoes and ground cherries were killed. Then, a few weeks later, as we headed into the low 20s overnight on November 9th, we picked the last of the eggplants, peppers, lettuce, leeks, squash, some Brussels sprouts, turnips, green beans, fennel, cilantro. Lots salvaged. The several small leeks I left in the ground are severely damaged now; perhaps they’ll resprout in the spring. Hopefully the last of the Brussels sprouts, kale, and cabbage will last a bit longer outside.

In the hoop house, the Swiss chard has melted into a dark green/ brown soup. The lettuce and spinach, under an additional row cover, looks healthy, if not likely to grow much for a while. We have a vole or something that delights in munching the broccoli and other young plants in the hoop house. I don’t have the heart to trap it, though we may be left with no winter greens.

Last night we shelled all of the black and kidney beans. I’d picked some of them just before that really cold night, and the pods were wet. Some mold, but not much loss. There must be about a gallon of dried black beans. Fewer kidneys and limas. The night before last I shucked the popcorn. This also sat inside, in husks, for almost two weeks before I got around to dealing with it. Again, some mold, but not too much seriously damaged. It’s drying in pans by the fire.

On Nov 4th, we celebrated Charley’s birthday by presenting at the Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative conference (where we met six years ago).

I’m just so grateful that I have a garden to escape to when it feels like my heart is going to explode from the stress of trying to be a well-informed American citizen. I am a little afraid of the winter, when I don’t spend as much time with soil under my fingernails.

On another note, here’s a beautiful ichneumon wasp ovipositing in some unsuspecting stem borer in a marsh elder on Nantucket.

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Homestead Report 27: another belated installment in a busy summer season

This is the time of year when I glory in bringing in the harvest. It never ceases to amaze that a tiny seed, given rain, sun, soil, and a little love, will grow into a great vigorous plant that miraculously produces big, juicy, delicious fruits that feed us until we can’t bear to eat any more.

We’re overrun with luscious fruit!! Over 55 peaches eaten fresh in just about 2 weeks of gluttonous delight! Everbearing strawberries are still producing. Tiny blueberry bushes loaded with berries. Raspberries dropping off the canes (but covered with horrid fruit flies). Watermelon, cantaloupe…

Vegetables are doing well too, for the most part. I’m swamped with produce to put up for the winter.

But I say “for the most part” because the tomatoes now have late blight. It’s horrible. The fruits get gross blisters and the whole plants wither and die.

My parents visited and we fixed the hoophouse that partially collapsed in the snow last winter. This fix makes me feel much more confident that we will survive the next big snowstorm without further damage, plus we can now walk through the central aisle without dodging boards.

I’ve also been working on our high porch railing, in part to keep all of our friends’ kiddos safe from a second story drop-off; previously the railing basically functioned as a ladder.

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The flowers are nice too…

Our hugelkultur bed succeeded in growing pumpkins and tomatoes, despite the fact that it is essentially still a pile of logs, sawdust, and grass clippings.

A few hen turkeys along with their mixed-age young like to journey through our yard frequently, eating grass seed and dust-bathing in the potato patch.

We found this gray tree frog resting on a grape leaf.

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Homestead Report 26: July 16, 2017

Somehow I took over 700 photos in the last month and didn’t post any of them… leaving me a bit overwhelmed as I sort through them now. It’s the glorious growing season and we’ve been BUSY as bees (or beetles, bugs, flies, moths, or any of the other creatures visiting the flowers these days).

At the beginning of the month, we were swamped in strawberries. This season we picked over 40 quarts of strawberries. I sold about 25 quarts at the farmers market. I also froze 2 gallons, made 3 batches of jam, gave away several quarts, and made a raw pie for the 4th of July.  They were tremendously abundant, and then abruptly done around July 8th.

Next up are black raspberries, blueberries, red currants, and chokeberries. All of our black raspberries are “wild,” but we’ve been encouraging them by beating back the blackberries in the edgy parts of our yard and woods. We’ve been picking them since the strawberries quit. We have about 10 highbush blueberry plants of different varieties. A few of them are producing berries, though they’re all just a few feet tall. I think we’ve eaten about 10 berries so far. The white cultivar of the red currant under our solar panel is loaded, and so far the birds haven’t found them–same with a feral red currant we stumbled upon in the woods. We also found a patch of purple chokeberries up on the Crag with abundant berries.  Quite delicious after a climb up there.

The partridgeberry is blooming. You can see the paired blossoms, which make a single fruit with two “nozzles” evident in last year’s berry in the upper right. The cranberries seem happy in our yard too, even though it isn’t a bog.

Speaking of bogs… I’ve had the opportunity to accompany Charley to work a few times recently, and lucky for me, that means admiring the carnivorous plants and insects (and non carnivorous things too) that live in bogs and shrub swamps.

Insects are everywhere! And it is awesome! Here’s a selection. The captions will tell you what things are.

Milkweed is a favorite not just of monarch butterflies; but also of ants, bees, flies, and moths that are nectaring on the blossoms right now. Also present are the characteristically orange and black milkweed feeders (bugs that eat milkweed leaves have various strategies to survive the toxic latex; they often become distasteful, making the warning coloration effective).

One of my favorite plants is meadowsweet (Spiraea alba). The bugs are loving it right now too.

On our most recent walk I noticed this adorable jumping spider.

Also, a spider filled this acorn cap with silk. Perhaps it is an egg sack?

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We’ve been seeing a young porcupine around (as well as a bigger one, sometimes).

And there are other rodents of unusual size around, too! The old beaver pond on our neighbor’s property has new activity! A dam!
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Our motion camera caught this young fox and its parent (I think) as well as a fawn.

The chamomile is going crazy. Lots of flower picking/ drying for tea.

Carrots! 3.7 pounds of them, harvested yesterday.

carrots (Napoli and Yaya)

And so on.

Homestead Report 25: June 14, 2017

Veggies are all planted, the flowers are looking lovely, we had two 90 degree days in a row, and we just ate the first strawberries of the year–we’re starting to get a taste of summer!

Strawberries are pure bliss. At this point, we’ve spread the plants around our yard to the point that we can hardly remember all the places to look–but that is sort of the goal, because if we have that many, it doesn’t matter if the birds or voles or slugs destroy some berries. And it feels like a treasure hunt. We have two varieties: Seascape everbearing (which have already started to ripen, and last year went well into October, and are delicious, but don’t self-propagate well) and Honeoye Junebearing (which are also ripening now, but only go for a few weeks, and make TONS of daughters for us to spread around).

Aside from strawberries, the honeyberries are ripening. This is our first time eating them. Honeyberry is an edible blue-fruited honeysuckle, with a flavor somewhere between cherries and blueberries. I think they aren’t fully ripe yet, though the one I tried was tasty even so.

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Just about everything is planted in the vegetable garden, which is a good thing, because I had minor hand surgery last week and can’t play in soil until I’m all healed up. The tomatoes are looking vigorous and a few have started to flower. The beans (soy, green, black, lima, kidney, pole) are all sprouting. The last few days have been HOT–in the 90s. Today was very pleasant though, after a storm front came through last night.

The flowers by the driveway have really started in earnest. Lots of irises, bachelor’s buttons, lupines, chives, red yarrow, garden heliotrope/ valerian, Canada anemone, campanula–a purple clustered bellflower, garden loosestrife, and more.

And all those flowers are making the bugs happy. The valerian was abuzz all afternoon, mostly with little cuckoo bees (in the Nomada ruficornis species group) with two yellow spots, and drone flies (Eristalis tenax) that look a lot like bees if you aren’t paying close attention. Charley says the drone fly larvae are rat-tailed maggots and live in sewage. The adults seem nice enough, though.

Last week the phoebe babies were practically bursting out of their nest atop a light fixture in the woodshed. They fledged on Friday, June 9th.

The bluebirds fledged a while ago, but can still be seen occasionally harassing their parents for food. Tree swallows, likewise, fly over in formation, the young ones chasing their parents, begging, though they seem fully capable of foraging on their own.

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The ticks and black flies seem less abundant this week, though mosquitoes are picking up. The young chickens are happy to eat cabbage white caterpillars as well as ticks and cutworms tossed to them. They are supposed to be preparing that area for corn seedlings to be planted, but they seem to be letting the mustard go to seed.

I just can’t resist the beauty of lupines. In the story Miss Rumphius, by Barbara Cooney, the lupine lady is instructed as a young girl to do something to make the world a little more beautiful. That certainly doesn’t always mean planting flowers, but these ones sure do their part.

 

 

 

Homestead Report 24: June 4, 2017

With this country pulling out of the Paris Accord, I feel extra drawn to wiggle my toes down into the soil and work a little harder at the things I can control to combat climate change. Mostly, that looks like growing as much of our food as I can (thereby relying less on harmful big-agro farming practices and transcontinental shipping), but also includes eating less meat, planting trees, talking to kids about nature, avoiding driving whenever possible, conserving power and producing solar power, working with the town to hopefully purchase renewable energy for town buildings (and eventually residences too), and advocating for (and against) various things with our state representatives. If we all work at different angles–conserving land, transitioning to renewable energy, building bike paths, growing food, we perhaps have a chance at averting some of the worst consequences of climate change; and failing that, we’ll at least have built a better community.

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We have been tremendously busy these last few weeks planting, planting, planting. I’ve even been selling some stuff at our little farmers market (seedlings, some greens, rhubarb, and eggs). Leaf miners are again so abundant that it is hard to take a walk without finding something new.

One of the most exciting things to do is watch fruit develop. We are eagerly anticipating eating peaches, blueberries, strawberries, apples, serviceberries, and sweet cherries.

Blackberries, goumi (like an autumn olive, but not invasive, at least in MA), mulberries, and black cherries are blooming, but don’t have fruit set yet.

Blooming wildflowers include wild geranium, golden alexanders (in the parsley family), rue anemone, phlox, wood hyacinth, blue-eyed grass (actually a tiny iris), azalea, columbine, and white campion (actually a non-native).

In the mostly nonnative perennial category, iris, lupine, comfrey, bachelor’s buttons, and violas are blooming. On June 2, I noticed the first hummingbird of the year visiting the comfrey flowers. It also visited pea and kale flowers inside the hoophouse! Luckily, it seemed to have no problem finding the exit.

We’ve eaten the last of the asparagus (choosing to let our plants have a rest and feed their roots) and I ate the first of the peas.

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We’re always looking at bugs, especially leaf miners, around here. You can find Charley proclaiming the glory of them on his blog, bugtracks–and I admit that I appreciate most of them too–but there is one, a fly that communally mines spinach and chard, that I could do without.

If we stay on top of eating the spinach, we end up just eating the eggs (no problem, just a little extra protein), but if we let it go a few days, the turn the leaves to mush, good for chicken food but not much else. I think I am starting to understand why people use row covers…

We moved our young chickens from the upper garden, where they prepared a few beds for me by scratching up all the weeds, into the lower garden. They are enjoying the mustard, as well as hopping out of their fence and scratching up my onion patch.

Goldfinches have been descending on our yard in big flocks to devour dandelion seeds. A few times, we’ve seen a gorgeous male indigo bunting joining in the feast. Speaking of bright, beautiful birds, we’ve been hearing scarlet tanagers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and Baltimore orioles regularly.

A chickadee is feeding young in one of our nest boxes. The bluebirds and tree swallows seem to have fledged, although we never did see the young birds. Phoebes, catbirds, flickers, chipping sparrows, robins, and common yellowthroats also seem to be nesting nearby.

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I hope you’ll join me in thanking some trees for turning carbon dioxide into oxygen this week. I’m pretty sure plants listen.

Homestead Report 23: May 10, 2017

In honor of May, I give you Canada Mayflower, Mayapple, and a Mayfly. Note: mayflies are easily identifiable by their three “tails” and upright wings.

Spring ephemeral wildflowers make my heart sing!

Going for a walk in the woods practically takes my breath away. The carpets of Canada Mayflower, the vibrant green of false hellebore, the gurgling stream…

We have a regular woods path that we try to walk every day; we’ve been placing some stepping stones in a wet area, and got caught on our own camera trap.

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We have some brand new pullets, which are living in the corner of our garden, safe from  our murderous older hens as well as foxes and raccoons (we hope).

When we eat meat, we usually leave the bones out in the woods as an offering for the local wildlife. Our “stealth cam” gets to witness the result…

Charley and I had the good fortune of surprising a porcupine on our afternoon walk today. It slowly shuffled away and climbed a tree to escape from us.

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Homestead Report 22: May 4, 2017

I’m relieved to report that I survived my first annual town meeting as a selectman with only a few sleepless nights and some nail biting. Now that my stress levels have returned to normal, I can again appreciate the spring flowers. We’re eating enormous salads out of the hoop house, and lots of asparagus.

Our spring ephemeral bed is a huge success, with spring beauties and cut-leaf toothwort spreading around the patch by seed.  The wild ginger is spreading aggressively, probably vegetatively.

There are healthy flowering clumps of dutchman’s britches, bloodroot, twinleaf, hepatica, and rue anemone.

The may apples and trout lilies are not as well established, but everything is still alive. No flowers this year.

In the woods, zillions of little sedges (Carex) that we haven’t yet keyed out, smooth white violet (Viola pallens), and my favorite, wild oats (or sessile bellwort, Uvularia sessilifolia), are blooming.

Fruit trees are also blooming (just in time for tonight’s predicted frost…) There are a good number of blooms on the sweet cherries, wild pin cherries, and peach trees. The plums seem to be about done.

A lot of people like to hate on tent caterpillars, but they are a native species, they specialize on cherries (and there are plenty to go around), and they are the preferred food source for both yellow-billed and black-billed cuckoos. Plus, in later instars the caterpillars are actually gorgeous. They’ve just emerged and started to make their first communal “tents” in the last week.

Now, if you want to hate on an invertebrate, I’ll gladly join you when we’re talking about ticks. This year they seem especially abundant. We’ve been finding them chilling on the top of grasses, reaching for anything warm that moves. We’re fortunate that we’re mostly finding the larger dog ticks (also called wood ticks, Dermacentor variabilis), which are easy to feel walking on you and don’t carry Lyme disease (among other diseases) which is prevalent in deer ticks (also called black-legged ticks, Ixodes scapularis).  I’ve been “collecting” them by setting out a 5-gallon bucket next to my hoop house; they climb up to the rim to wait for me, so each day I go out and feed the lot of them to the chickens.

 

Sorry to get you thinking about ticks. They always make my skin crawl…

I hope you can pause to appreciate the way water droplets collect along the margins of strawberry leaves. And then, consider the fact that in about a month and a half we’ll be eating delicious strawberries!

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Homestead Report 21: April 24, 2017

More blooming flowers (mmmm…) and the first black flies (no!!!) greeted us this week.

As we wait for various things to leaf out, I’m noticing that the animals are waiting too–impatiently. A month or so ago, I’d pruned our raspberry patch, carefully following directions set forth in Lee Reich’s Grow Fruit Naturally, only to discover on Thursday that a porcupine decided to prune a bit more (and more each day). It seems to cut  most canes off at about a foot high, and leave the cut pieces scattered below. I can’t tell exactly what it is eating, but I wish it would just leave well enough alone. I’m afraid with such short canes we won’t get fruit to ripen until so late in the year that we’ll lose most of it to frost. Fortunately, we do have a lot of plants, and in fact have just dug a new bed for transplanting some of the raspberry shoots that are coming up in the lawn.

Today a few plum blossoms opened all the way, just barely beating out the peaches, whose petals began to peek out of their buds today, but aren’t yet fully open.

In the spring ephemeral bed, the dutchman’s britches (Dicentra cucullaria) are fully open, as is the hepatica (Anemone americana) and blood root (Sanguinaria canadensis). We just saw the first spring beauties (Claytonia virginica) open today. Rue anemones (Thalictrum thalictroides) and trout lilies (Erythronium americanum) pushed up out of the ground today too. Cut-leaf toothwort (Cardamine concatenata) and ramps/ wild leeks (Allium tricoccum) have been up for a few days, but aren’t flowering yet.

In the woods, coltsfoot and golden alexanders is blooming.

Charley and I had the good fortune to lead a vernal pool walk on Sunday in the Holyoke Range. We checked out five vernal pools and found spotted salamander eggs, marbled salamander larvae, red-spotted newts, and a disturbing absence of wood frogs.

We also spotted a number of neat invertebrates including fairy shrimp, giant water bugs, and a predaceous diving beetle larva (eating a fairy shrimp).

I’ll just leave you with these lovely purple hepatica.

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Homestead Report 20: April 17, 2017

Spring has sprung! The last bit of snow melted last Tuesday (April 11), some of our summer birds have arrived, flowers are blooming, and our hoop house is bursting with life. I’m excited to get my hands in the dirt and just to be outside.

Bulbs (scilla and crocus) are blooming– the crocuses have been out since April 1st, when we had a couple of inches of snow on the ground! Most are already fading. Daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths are all poking out of the ground, but no flowers are out yet.

Spring ephemeral wildflowers, including spring beauties, waterleaf, hepatica, and Dutchman’s britches, are poking out of the leaf litter on the east side of the house. The first hepatica flower opened today; the others are still just in bud.

The forsythia flowers opened yesterday at our house, though we’ve been seeing blooms in Northfield for at least a week.

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One clump of Johnny jump-ups started blooming several days ago, and there are lots more with bursting buds.

Red maple flowers have painted the hills a subtle red-orange. Our recently-pruned fruit trees have swollen buds. We’re hoping that this year we won’t have a killing frost once they flower. Last year there wasn’t a peach to be found in all of western MA.

Our wildlife camera found a pair of nocturnal visitors last night.

Birds!! For several mornings, a pair of pileated woodpeckers has been hammering away at a rotten log that must be full of carpenter ants. We can see them from our breakfast table.

IMG_9058We’ve been listing dates of our first sighting of each spring migrant: red-winged blackbirds on March 26; song sparrow arrived on April 1 at our feeder (10 days after last year’s first arrival); phoebe on April 4th; yellow-bellied sapsuckers drumming on April 10; tree swallows and eastern bluebirds on April 11 (and both species already in and out of several nest boxes); chipping sparrow and northern flicker on April 12. There are other birds around of whom we haven’t taken such careful note. We are still seeing juncos today, but fewer and fewer. It’s hard to take note of someone’s “last day.”

Inside, our lovely orchids continue to put on a nice show.

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