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, 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
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.

Weekly Homestead Report 7: September 26, 2016

This was a very full week, with little time or energy for the garden or woods; however, as there was some chance of a frost Sunday night, Charley and I harvested all the ripe squash, tomatoes, and a lot of other veggies this weekend. We picked 19 butternut squash, about a dozen acorn squash, seven pie pumpkins, six spaghetti squash, and about 25 pounds of tomatoes, as well as a large quantity of ground cherries and a few pounds of tomatillos. We harvested all of the dry lima beans, and enough green ones for a meal. I also picked a bunch of herbs to dry or freeze. We’re still getting a few strawberries, as well as red and yellow raspberries.


Earlier in the week, we picked 13 pounds of grapes (a mix of our cultivated Concord grapes and wild fox grapes). We simmered, smashed, and strained them, but the juice is waiting in the refrigerator for me to have a couple of hours to make it into jelly!

I have been featuring a different aster each week. Over the weekend, I noticed that the New England Aster, Symphyotrichum novae-angliae, had begun to bloom. This particular plant is glorious, over five feet tall, has dark purple flowers with orange centers, and is loaded with buds. According to the excellent website GoBotany, New England asters are distinctive because they have “more ray flowers than other American-asters (45-100 per flower head).” They are also the deepest purple of the asters in our yard.

The monarch caterpillars we’ve been watching disappeared from the plants they’ve been feeding on early last week. However, we found three previously unnoticed caterpillars on a patch of milkweed on the other side of the garden this past weekend. They seem to be at a similar stage of development, almost two inches long, so we’ll follow these guys now. Mysteriously, the smallest of the three was resting on an ash leaf as if it were about to pupate.

Weekly Homestead Report 6: September 19, 2016


I’ve been on Nantucket for most of the past week, so I’m relying on Charley to provide much of the fodder for this post. I work in the natural science museum at the Maria Mitchell Association; this week I had the honor of meeting our new Natural Science Director, Dr. Emily Goldstein, as well as seeing off my good friend and previous Director, Andrew Mckenna-Foster. Just before catching the ferry home this morning, I went out with them to check American Burying Beetle pitfall traps (evaluating a long-term reintroduction project). I’ll write more on that first insect love of mine another day, but that’s what is going on in the photos below. I’ve included photos of the endangered ABB (Nicrophorus americanus), as well as its more common cousins N. marginatus, N. orbicollis, and N. tomentosus. 

Anyway, before I left home on Wednesday, I finished blocking in the raised beds in the hoop house and planted some lettuce in the bed that I’d already filled with compost.

Charley has continued tracking the development of the monarch caterpillars that hatched last week. They’re getting bigger. We’ve also been seeing several fresh-looking adult monarchs on the butterfly bush and wildflowers in the yard.


Both the wild fox grapes and our cultivated Concord grapes are ripening and smell delicious. I sense grape juice and jelly in our immediate future.

A bear left its calling card on the path between the chicken coop and the shed. It had obviously been enjoying the grapes as well. In fact, seeing this is what reminded Charley that it was time to check on the local grapes.

About once a week, we think we’re eating the last mulberry, but then we spot a green one. This time around, when Charley ate the one ripe mulberry, he discovered two additional flowers! I’d be surprised if these ripen before the frost, but we’ll see.

Charley also noticed this millipede while he was mowing some grass by the pawpaw patch. It’s a Narceus sp.  People often confuse millipedes and centipedes. Centipedes have just one pair of legs per segment and are somewhat flattened; millipedes have two pairs of legs per segment and a rounded body. (I remember that millipedes have more legs than centipedes because a million is more than a hundred).


Charley found some other fun bugs munching on the birch in our woods on Friday morning. You can read about it and enjoy his fantastic photographs on BugTracks.

There are still lots of veggies in the garden. Charley picked an oddly deformed tomato, and I remembered that I’d found one like it a few weeks ago. I’m not sure what’s going on with these.

On Nantucket, in addition to preparing lots of birds as specimens for the museum, I had the opportunity to witness the beautiful spectacle of a tree swallow tornado. At dusk, around 50,000 swallows began swirling around our hilltop perch in Sanford Farm. They flew all around us in a disorganized flurry for about half an hour, wowing me with the sound of their wing beats as hundreds flew past at once.  Finally, when it was just too dark to get a decent photo, the whole flock rose up quite high above Hummock Pond, forming a murmuration like a school of fish that bent one direction, then another, and then down, down, in a ribbon to roost in the phragmites and cattails in the marsh. It was a graceful tornado, a ribbon with a curl. Finally, they were all down and out of sight. Less than a minute later, a strikingly large and orange full moon rose in the east.

The following day, about 20 birders walked out to witness the beautiful event together. David Policansky got some nice video footage. You may be able to view it here (on his Facebook page).