Homestead Report 36: May 16, 2019

This week’s major project was fulfilling part of the “support” garden goal: building the grape trellis we’ve been talking about for two years while our grapes dragged the garden fence to the ground and allowed the rabbits in to eat the beans.

completed arbor/ pergola/ trellis

After much consideration and browsing of photos, I drew something up, made a cut list, and asked our local hero neighbor Cory at Northwoods Forest Products if he would be able to supply the lumber. Sure enough, he found cedar to mill for the posts in northern Vermont, and hemlock locally for the upper parts. A week after he dropped off the lumber, Charley and I redrew the plans completely differently (since I lost my original drawings), dug the holes, set the posts, cut all the lumber in the garage while it rained, and screwed everything together on Mother’s Day morning.

Nothing is flat around here, and I’d decided that keeping the arbor level would end up looking best… so I borrowed a level and got to work… and the optical illusions started. It was so hard to believe the level was correct that I took it inside and put it on the floor and wall to prove to myself that it was actually right on. The post closest in the picture below is about 5′ from the ground to the top; the one farthest away is almost 8′. The slope of the hedge/ road makes the whole thing look a bit like it is falling down, but hopefully when it gets covered with vines the optical illusion will vanish.

We have a lot of white violets near the garden.

Part of the reason we hurried to finish it all in just 2 days was that as we started to build it, tree swallows were taking interest in the nest box adjacent to one of the posts and we didn’t want to scare them off. When it was done, we were worried that they wouldn’t like how their view was obscured, so we added a new birdhouse on the front of it. Sure enough, Charley saw them bringing nesting material to the new box this morning.

We also spent some time this week delineating the beds in the lower garden, mulching paths, and generally setting ourselves up for soil success.

I’m a big fan of Lee Reich; I first heard of him through the fantastic garden blog awaytogarden.com, written by Margaret Roach, and now each winter/ spring as we get out the pruners I sit down with his guide to fruit trees “Growing Fruit Naturally.” Just a month ago, my sister gave me his book “Weedless Gardening.” The concepts he embraces are nothing new—as kids, our parents admonished us not to walk on (and compact) the soil in our garden, but coming back to this as an adult with my own garden makes me want to make it more clear to everyone who might wander into the garden where it’s okay to walk and where it isn’t. I’m also trying out Lee’s method of smothering the lawn with layers of newspaper and mulch, both as paths and as new beds that will get a layer of compost and straw on top of the mulch.

In the hoophouse, the greens are so abundant that we’re eating huge salads every day and I can’t even tell that anything has been picked.

The ostrich ferns have given us one fiddlehead from each plant in our breakfast omelets.

Seven plants from Margaret Roach, set in the ground five years ago, have now become 33 vigorous plants!

Many fruit trees and bushes are blooming right now—the plums are already finished, and the peaches look lovely (but I forgot to take a picture of them…)

lowbush blueberry blooms
gooseberry
honeyberry, a kind of honeysuckle that makes large, sweet, oblong blue berries with the orange mint moth
Asian pear tree, with “Julia” pear in the background

And we’re getting daily visits from our prickly neighbor, who happily munches dandelions, bedstraw, grass, and the occasional strawberry leaf. He (or she) calmly eats as we pass by with a wheelbarrow, hang the laundry, or sit down nearby for a visit.

Our recent bird list has been growing quickly as the weather warms. The daily regulars are: American goldfinches, ruby-throated hummingbirds, gray catbirds, northern cardinals, dark-eyed juncos, eastern bluebirds, chipping sparrows, tree swallows, barn swallows, yellow-rumped warblers, rose-breasted grosbeak, scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles, ravens, American crows… Today we had a nice close look at a gorgeous male chestnut sided warbler in a cherry tree.

Happy spring!

A final note today: last week Northfield held its local elections, and I am pleased to say that I have completed my term serving on the Selectboard. It has been interesting, at times challenging, and left me as a more well-informed citizen. I’ve grown into a tougher and more confident person. I’m looking forward to more evenings free of meetings, fewer stressful decisions, a lot less paper entering my house, and the opportunity to spend more of my time serving the community with “deep digs” into the issues nearest to my heart (land and energy conservation) instead of the higher-level attention to the broad range of issues I’ve been involved in these last three years. To the new board, I wish the best of luck, gratitude, and wisdom.

Homestead Report 35: May 3, 2019

Well, I have been delinquent in taking photos lately, but we have built a fence… fulfilling part of this years’ garden goal: Protect.

Last fall’s compost bins, along with our new fence

We carefully dug a 6 inch deep trench in which we buried the bottom of the fence, and worked on the gate so it swings just an inch above the ground. Our hope is to keep the voracious rabbits out, so we can grow beans again!

We also staked out the raspberries, gave them support wires, and dug out the ones that had transformed our original tidy rows into a wide, unpickable patch, immediately replanting them at the end of the rows.

The raspberries are to the right (north end) of the garden, here with a low fence to protect them from the porcupine, which had been pruning them aggressively.

Earlier in the month, while I was at work, Charley heard a monstrous noise at our neighbors’ house. For once, the sound brought joy– a wood chipper! Just a few days before he was wondering how we might be able to obtain an unlimited supply of mulch. Charley ran over and talked to the landscaper–Would he like a place to dump the chips? We had a place available and would be delighted to have them. One batch of chips was from a willow tree that had been damaged in a wind storm. As we have applied some of it around a few fruit trees, we collected several twigs that escaped the chipper and put them in water. In a week or so, they had sprouted roots and we put them in the ground. Perhaps our neighbors’ willow will yet live.

Mulch piles! In front, a low pile of last year’s aging brownish mulch. In back, creamy-green willow on the right, golden-yellow pine on the left.

I would be remiss if I did not celebrate the spring. Every new green thing, each individual flower is marked in this fresh season. We’re hungry for color, and go for slow walks around the yard and in the woods to see what tender new plants are poking up each day.

A bad photo of a lovely flower, Hepatica, 4/16/19
A blurry photo of the state flower of Massachusetts, Trailing Arbutus (or Mayflower). Beautiful, and with a sweet fragrance, it’s worth getting down on your hands and knees to appreciate its scent. 4/25/19

On April 26, Charley and I celebrated our 5th wedding anniversary. The day of was scattered and busy, so instead we got a whole week to draw out the observance… Generously gifted tickets to the hilarious Trevor Noah’s “Loud and Clear” stand-up show, the season’s first asparagus meal from our garden, a trip to see my folks and extended family–and the spring ephemeral wildflowers–in Ohio, and a visit from my dear friend Patricia (who also kept the chickens and seedlings alive while we were in Ohio).

Five years. Smiling, inside and out. Photo credit: Patricia Troy
Patricia on our hike

She literally “tied the knot” for us at our wedding ceremony, so it was especially fun this anniversary with her.

April 26, 2014; Patricia tying the knot in our handfasting ceremony; Denny Radabaugh officiated over the ceremony and did the pronouncing. Photo credit: Jennifer Edwell
Then, as now, we knelt together in the cathedral of Earth to admire the cycles of nature.
Photo credit: Jennifer Edwell

Set boundaries. Notice abundance. Speak gratitude. Expand joy.

2019 goals

Homestead Report 34: January 9, 2019

Kindest greetings, friends, neighbors, family, and followers!

I thought I’d call in the new year by reviewing my photos from the second half of last year and setting a few goals for 2019. Doing so just helped me remember that the world is very colorful compared to what I am currently accustomed to seeing. It is funny how that surprises me every winter.

The late summer and fall is a time of great abundance. The garden seemed to burst at the seams.

I spent a lot of time this late summer preserving food. Now we have a full freezer, a full pantry, a full list, and a full belly. I’m not a fan of the green tomato salsa, but the tomato-peach salsa is amazing, the regular tomato is pretty good, and so is the tomatillo. We have enough tomato sauce and salsa to make it to next July or August when there will hopefully be tomatoes again. We have too many jars of sweet-hot pickled peppers (my five Hungarian Hot Wax pepper plants outdid themselves, unlike the neighboring bell peppers).  We’re in good shape for pickles, jams, applesauce, peaches, and grape juice. Low on dilly beans, since the rabbits ate practically all the bean plants to the ground while we were in Canada.

In wildlife news, we had the great misfortune of a weasel finding our chicken coop just before the holidays. To make matters worse, it was while we were travelling, so our next-door neighbors had to deal with most of the carnage. However, we have the great good fortune of having of many fantastic neighbors, so we called on another to rescue our remaining hens by taking the girls down the mountain to their coop. Upon our return, we discovered a little weasel nest in a hidden corner of our coop, with lots of scat and a round weasel-sized impression on top of a mouse nest. Needless to say, we have shored up all the holes in the coop (adding rocks and concrete at ground level and hardware cloth around the eaves). An attempt to trap the beast has so far yielded two red-backed voles and an eastern cottontail, which we released. The hens are home and safe, but we have not yet dared to let them into their run. Instead, we’ve been taking them on escorted walks to scratch in the gardens. 

Way before being preoccupied with weasels, we enjoyed a robin nesting on our porch in June. Turkeys walked through the yard in August. A squirrel played in the chicken run in September.

A friendly porcupine hangs out in the yard regularly, mumbling under Charley’s window and munching branches. It seems to enjoy hemlock and elm especially. I’ve been trying to decide if our place needs a name for several years now, especially when I go to the farmer’s market. I’m beginning to think that the porcupine deserves to be featured. Perhaps “Contented Porcupine Farm” or “Mumbling Porcupine Farm”. Maybe one of you has a better idea. Do share.

Aside from wildlife visitors, we have had some human house guests, including my parents, my sister, my friend Patricia, and a whole lovely boisterous houseful of families making music and eating just before the new year. Plus, Charley and I took our annual birthday trip to the cranberry bogs. And as always, the weather was glorious.

And now for the goals:

Garden goals: cover, protect, support. I’m no fan of border walls, but in the garden, good fences do make good neighbors. I like admiring the wildlife without being angry that the rabbits destroyed my bean crop. Solid fences and row covers will be my friends this year. And I really need to give those grapes a trellis.

Life goals: Value my time by setting boundaries in volunteerism. Notice the abundance. Verbalize the gratitude. Expand the joy.

Travel Log: Michigan and Canada for fun and research

Charley and I just returned home from a two-and-a-half week long trip to Michigan and Canada in which we visited family and friends, looked for leaf mines (of course), and attended the Lepidopterists’ Society annual meeting in Ottawa. The meeting was the impetus for the trip and Michigan was “on the way.”

Our first stop was to visit our friend Eric LoPresti (who encouraged us to go to California last year, as I detailed here). Just a few miles east of East Lansing, he took us to a nice riverside park with abundant leaf mines, and veritable flocks of lovely Ebony Jewelwing damselflies.

On a tight schedule, we continued west to meet up with my parents at the Lake Michigan Recreation Area campground–a place my family used to vacation when I was in elementary school, but we hadn’t returned to since. Mosquitoes were abundant, but there was a nice breeze from the lake, interesting hikes into the Nordhouse dunes, and opportunity for refreshing swims in Lake Michigan.

After two days of hiking, swimming, cooking, and visiting, my parents had to drive home and Charley and I headed to Ludington to meet up with Charley’s mom, sister, neice, nephew, aunt and uncle. We enjoyed sailing with them aboard the Tiny Island, and kayaking with the kids. Cordelia even spotted a bryozoan colony in the lake, and we all got to take a look (sadly, no photo, but it looked like Pectinatella magnifica, pictured here).  Perhaps my favorite activity was building sandcastles with the kids.

Before the 4th of July, Charley and I left for the calm of the upper peninsula. First stop, dispersed camping at East Lake (well, after checking out some cool limestone “sea stacks” and buying very affordable wild rice).

Not our favorite camping for a variety of reasons including large numbers of biting flies, fishermen who hung out quite near our campsite, etc… BUT, we found nepticulid (tiny moth) leaf mines on a bulrush that were of great interest.

We did some sightseeing at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, enjoying the scenery, flowers, waterfalls, and I even took a numbing plunge into icy Lake Superior to escape the stable flies.

Heading north into Ontario, we began to experience biting flies in earnest! I resorted to wearing a headnet for moments of reprieve. The moth enthusiasts pictured below were impressively intrepid as we ventured into Algonquin Provincial Park.

The final portion of our trip was several days attending the Lepidopterists’ Society annual meeting. This was our first, and it was fascinating. Talks ranged from phylogenies of various moth groups, to caterpillar communication, to using CRISPR to alter butterfly wing patterns, to gynandromorphs (individuals with both male and female gonads and coloration), to butterfly surveys and conservation, to… you guessed it, leaf mines!

Arriving home, we discovered healthy, happy chickens (many thanks to neighbors who cared for them), a garden that looks like a jungle ravaged by rabbits, and a sad mulberry tree that a bear ripped in half to get at the berries.

I’ll leave you with these cool insects from Parc des Rapides-Deschênes, Quebec: a mayfly and a caddisfly.

Homestead Report 33: May 21, 2018

What a difference a month makes! Now flowers and leafy trees abound. I’ve been so busy the last two weeks that I forgot to take any pictures. Therefore, the photos here are all from the first week of April or earlier.

On April 28, Charley and I took a little hike to a waterfall on Mount Toby. I was loving the Trailing arbutus (or mayflower, the Massachusetts state flower), and seeing the first trillium and hepatica of the season.

Closer to home, on May 1 we checked out our local beaver pond and discovered heaps of snow fleas congregating on stumps of beaver-cut trees. These were covered with sap coming up from the roots of the trees. I’m not sure what the snow fleas were up to, but they were on multiple stumps, and it seemed like perhaps they were attracted to the moisture.

In early spring I just can’t get enough of the spring ephemeral wildflowers.  We’ve planted a bunch on the east side of our house, where they seem to be thriving–and spreading. Now, May 21, the phlox, dwarf ginseng, and waterleaf are also blooming.

We’ve been delighted that our plum trees really went to town blooming this spring for the first time. Now, fingers crossed that we might actually get to eat a plum… And we should, since a huge variety of native bees, wasps and flies were busily visiting the flowers every time I put my head anywhere near the tree.

Since we are no longer using fire wood, it seemed like a good time to get some more. Our neighbor delivered 3 cords of wood, backing up across our crazy yard without even squashing one flower, and when Charley asked if he could dump it “as close to the shed as possible, without crushing this daffodil” that is exactly what we got. Thanks, Northwoods Forest Products! Now we just have to finish stacking it…

We’ve also been enjoying the garden a lot. This time of year is all about salads and asparagus and rhubarb.

This morning I noticed that our first strawberry is starting to turn red (in the hoop house); the rest are blooming.  On May 18, I spent all day planting things– tomatoes, broccoli, onions (I know, it’s late for onions), leeks, beans. I’m experimenting with leaving more “weeds” and trying hard not to agitate the soil as I plant. Despite all I’ve been learning about soil microbes and what they need to be healthy, it’s still really difficult to train myself not to want to “prepare” a bed like I grew up doing. Charley mowed some of the meadowy parts of our yard that haven’t been mowed for a year, and I used the grass as mulch around my new seedlings. At this point, most bugs that were overwintering in dead stems should have emerged, so it seems an okay time to mow.

Most of our violets are purple, or white, or white with a few purple streaks coming out of the center. But these are speckled! They’re in the the “blueberry barrens” area up by the hedge.

Homestead Report 32: April 20, 2018

What a tough month! I’m overwhelmed at every level. When I watch the news, the deep dishonestly, corruption, and incompetence at the national level blows me away. At a local level, I find that my role on the selectboard is leaving me feeling drained. And then there is the fact that it keeps on snowing! I finally planted peas anyway (April 18, in the warm sunshine).

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Lower garden with pea trellis yesterday morning.

I am normally anxious to start planting seeds in early March, but this year it just seemed too early. Finally I got some seeds in pots on April 7… the bulk of the tomatoes, peppers, and flowers. They just sat there in the cold for a week and half until I stuck the flats under the woodstove; now they are starting to sprout, since we’re still having regular fires.  I had started a few tomatoes and broccoli to test seed about a month earlier, and they’re under grow lights now.

The flowering orchids have brought me joy, and about a week ago a begonia that my mom gave us started blooming too.

Outside, crocus! Every year I am so grateful for these first cheery little guys. So brave.

And the spring beauties are up (I’ve seen a few blooms elsewhere, but the ones in our yard are feeling shy). Harbinger of Spring (Erigenia bulbosa) is blooming, as are the female flowers of our cultivated hazelnuts. The male catkins still haven’t released pollen, so we’re hoping the female flowers can hang on for a while longer in order to make nuts.

Winter wonderland? April 19.

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Homestead Report 31: March 20, 2018

Today might be the first day of spring, but we still have about a foot of snow on the ground with the possibility of more to come tomorrow.

Yesterday we took a walk down to the old quarry to visit the local porcupine neighborhood and see who else was ambling around in the past week.

Turns out, in addition to porcupines steadily walking on well-beaten paths, a bobcat bounded around the quarry, daintily made its way across the snow crust, toes splayed wide like snowshoes, and meandered through the blackberry thickets in our woods.

And for a real treat, we found otter slide tracks around the edge of the beaver pond, complete with scat made of fish scales.

In garden news, not much is happening. We have lettuce and spinach growing under lights inside. In the hoop house, the voles happily ate all of the greens and even some of the tops of the leeks. Some chickweed is coming in… hopefully they don’t devour it all too!

The houseplants are feeling the longer days though.

Homestead Report 30: Feb 4, 2018

It was all going so nicely until it started raining tonight! Will tomorrow reveal ice-coated twigs, or slush?

We’ve barely gotten outside, but sometimes the cold just helps us be productive; Charley is working on his leafminer book (and you, too, could become a patron and obtain a copy of the first edition). Meanwhile, I have been identifying arthropods that fell in pitfall traps. And… we both took a trip to New York to learn how to dissect moth genitalia. Fascinating! Difficult. And essential for describing new species.

So, as soon as we get a new microscope and practice a whole lot more, we’ll be in business!

Okay, now on to the yard: There are greens in the hoophouse. Not a lot, but I imagine in a few weeks we might have enough to pick a salad.

There have been tons of turkeys in the yard. Here are some tracks where they’ve made canyons through the snow.

The beaver pond is very nice to visit too. We’ve seen fox and coyote tracks down there.

It feels good to go outside every day to greet the hens, and admire the snow, and leave our tracks among the animals’; and it feels good to come in and cozy up to the microscope.

 

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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