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.


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 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.


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.


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).

Weekly Homestead Report 5: Sept 12, 2016

This week Hurricane (then Tropical Storm) Hermine  made its way up the coast. In Northfield, it manifested as two days of misty rain, high humidity, and relatively cool weather. I jumped on the opportunity to divide perennials and fill in the new flower beds by the driveway.  We got almost 3/4 of an inch of rain on Friday, and another half inch (along with serious wind and a little thunder) on Sunday, all of which should help the plants survive the uprooting.


This is the season of being overwhelmed by the garden’s productivity, so I’ve been busy preserving it. I canned another batch of tomato sauce, a big batch of salsa verde (tomatillo base), and a ridiculous quantity of hot pepper jelly. Tomatoes are ripening faster than I can keep up with them, so we’ve been trying to give away a lot, too. We’re getting lots of cucumbers, ground cherries, tomatillos, peppers, squash, and eggplant. We picked another outstanding watermelon, and made our first pumpkin pie of the season. I’ve been collecting dry legume seeds; we’ll plant the peas in the hoop house this winter to eat the greens, and the black beans are just plain food. Charley brought the first bunch of delicious fox grapes home from work on Friday. A few more beach plums were ripe (one bush makes orange ones instead of purple, we learned yesterday), and we’re still getting strawberries. The raspberries are going strong.

Last week (Wed, Aug 31st), I saw a monarch lay her eggs on a milkweed plant, and posted Charley’s photo. Nine days later (Friday, Sept 9th) the eggs hatched into these tiny caterpillars! On the third day, one of them had molted into its second instar.

Eager to get things going in the hoop house, I started building the raised beds. This one bed will have the highest quality compost, since we have only produced a limited supply and need to use some of it in other parts of the garden.

Our soil is dramatically different across our property. This is well demonstrated by the size and vigor of kale planted on the same day in the “upper” and “lower” gardens, but perhaps best seen by comparing these sunflowers. They range from about three inches to eight feet tall, with flowers of less than an inch to over a foot in diameter.

Having a “wild” yard means we get to see wildlife. On Friday a big flock of turkeys wandered through, eating grass seed and insects. I really enjoy their dinosaur-esq appearance, and I’m glad they’re not as damaging to the landscape as chickens (which seem to prefer bare dirt, and scratch the vegetation to death if allowed enough time). In the interest of full disclosure, this photo is from last year.


I’ve been mentioning different asters blooming in each post; this week belongs to the Smooth Aster (Symphyotrichum laeve). This particular plant seeded itself in right by the corner of our driveway turn-around. It’s over four feet tall, although someone drove over it in June and many of the stems were broken off. It has re-sprouted, but the flowers on those younger stems aren’t yet open.

Several of the perennials that I grew from seed this spring started blooming. The verbena started almost a month ago, but the hyssop and balloon flower just opened up this morning! Some kind of hypenoptera (a cuckoo bee, I think) was sleeping in the hyssop when I went out to photograph it.

Weekly Homestead Report 4: Sept 5, 2016


IMG_5826My parents, Charley, and I skinned the greenhouse and did a lot of the fiddly little finishing work on Tuesday. Then I picked up a bunch of cardboard by hanging around at the transfer station intercepting people with big boxes on their way to the recycling bins. I’m using it to smother the grass; hopefully in a year or so, both the sod and the cardboard will have turned into good soil, without us having to dig it up (a lot of work that would apparently disturb the good soil microbes). Now we just need to frame the raised beds and fill it up with compost and some seeds for this winter!

IMG_5931After getting to a stopping point with the hoop house, Dad went fishing while Mom and I picked about 8 pounds of Hungarian hot wax peppers and pickled them. We made 11 half pints and 4 pints of sweet hot peppers, and managed not to burn our hands or eyes with the pepper juice (gloves are essential for this operation). Thursday was another tomato day, with 4 jars of stewed whole tomatoes, and 9 more jars of sauce (a few jars thick enough for pizza sauce this time).

Wednesday, August 31, sometime while I was taking my parents to the airport, a grouse struck the fence of our chicken run, killing itself.

This is not the first grouse-smacking-chicken-pen incident at our house, but it is the first that ended with a death. Last April a grouse hen flew into the closed shed door while I was in there getting food for the chickens, which was quite alarming for both of us. She sat, dazed, on the ground for long enough for me to take some pictures. When Charley opened the door a while later, unaware of the event, she spooked and flew into the side of the chicken fence, then veered off into the woods.

IMG_9810Later that summer, we found a grouse-sized dust bath, complete with a feather, under our rhubarb patch. This year, we have routinely flushed a family of at least five grouse from our blackberry patch, and recently found another dust bath sufficiently large for the whole family on the dirt among the roots of an upturned tree.

IMG_5877I suspect this bird was one of those. It is always very sad to find that our human infrastructure has caused the death of an animal, but around here, we try hard not to waste food, especially meat. I don’t usually photograph my dinner plate, but the “chicken” vindaloo with fresh tomatoes and onions was mighty fine.

Wednesday was an interesting day for another reason, too. Just after finding the dead grouse, I spotted an adult monarch butterfly. She fluttered over the garden and laid several of the distinctive ribbed yellowish eggs on a small patch of milkweed. Charley took some closeups of the eggs (it’s his photo below), and we’ve been checking them every day so we can record how long it takes them to hatch, and photograph the young caterpillars.IMG_0214In the yard, lobelia is blooming, and the red maples are just starting to turn reddish-orange, but most of the woods still look green. We found some mating ambush bugs hanging out with a dead cabbage white butterfly in the woods today.  We’ve been chasing the little buggers around the yard with nets, trying to feed them to the chickens before their caterpillars finish decimating the brassicas, so it was nice to find an ally.

We ate our first ripe watermelon of the season and a few beach plums, as well as an abundance of ground cherries, tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers, squash, beans, etc. We probably ate the last of the corn, though maybe there are a few ears yet to be found.

This weekend we started digging an expansion of our perennial bed by the driveway/ solar panel area. It has been a week of unbridled productivity due to the pleasant weather and my computer not being around (it got some kind of virus and had to take a trip to the neighborhood computer-repair guy).

IMG_5927.JPGI suppose it won’t look like much until next summer, but I’m excited to get it all planted and mulched in the next week or so.

Weekly Homestead Report 3: Aug 29, 2016

There are two bits of exciting news this week: we found that our rock garden isn’t a complete failure, and we started construction of a hoop house!

When we dug up parts of the lawn for our vegetable garden about two and a half years ago, you could see the four rock piles on satellite imagery (just below the rectangular beds, from Google Maps).

After using some of the rocks for the floor of an outdoor shower, to level off the road edge by the mailbox, as steps down from the driveway to the “lower garden,” and other projects, there were still lots of rocks left. We decided to spread them out and fill in the spaces with dirt and sand, and then sprinkle in some seeds we collected from open sandy habitats. Crickets quickly moved in and made homes in the miniature caves. This spring, we neglected the rock garden and it became covered with cinquefoil, horseweed, and milkweed.


On Tuesday when I was weeding the cucumbers just on the other side of the fence from the rock garden, I discovered a funny-looking plant, something I was pretty sure was a sandplain specialist. Sure enough, Charley identified it as orange-grass St. John’s-wort, or Hypericum gentianoides, a plant of rocky ridges and grasslands, especially disturbed habitats like the sand pit created by four-wheelers where we’d collected the seeds. The plant has tiny (practically nonexistent) upright leaves, small yellow flowers, and orange-red fruits.

When Charley came out to see the St. John’s-wort, he looked over the fence at the rock garden and spotted what I had somehow missed—blooming bluecurls! Forked bluecurls, or Trichostema dichotomum, is appropriately named, as it is blueish-purple with two long curved (curled) stamens that would clearly get pollen all over the back of a bee. Like the St.John’s-wort, this is a grassland plant that readily colonizes disturbed places. I had never seen the flowers before, but the dried stems and seedpods were charming when we collected them last fall. Each plant is about one foot tall with dozens of flowers that open each morning and wilt by mid-afternoon.

I decided to pull out the cinquefoil and horseweed to see if any of the other rock/ sand specialists had sprouted. I got about 3/4 done when a couple of irritated paper wasps came over to let me know that I was disturbing their nest. I left. Lucky for me, we’ve had a few skunks hanging around. We’ve seen them in the driveway at night, and gotten a few photos on the wildlife camera. Skunks really like munching grubs, and don’t seem to mind a few stings if that’s what it takes. Two days after I abandoned the weeding project, a skunk (I presume) had pulled a few rocks out of the way and ripped the nest out, devouring the grubs, and digging out some of the dirt. There are still a few unhappy adults around, but now that the nest is gone, I can probably get on with weeding without getting stung.

There is purple-stemmed aster (Symphyotrichum puniceum) growing out of the pavers in our patio under the deck. It started blooming this week. That makes aster #3, after the white wood aster and calico aster.


In our woods  blooming plants include: virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana), monkeyflower (Mimulus ringens), meadowsweet (Spiraea alba), Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), Indian tobacco (Lobelia inflata),  jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), willow-herb (Epilobium), and white turtlehead (Chelone glabra). Our cultivated pink turtlehead just started blooming by the driveway, too.  Additionally, in the powerline cut behind our woods, we found blooming joe-pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum), purple milkwort (Polygala sanguinea), gerardia (Agalinis), rattlesnake root (Prenanthes trifoliata), and flat-topped aster (Doellingeria umbellata).

I find it fascinating to watch bumble bees collecting pollen from the turtlehead. They pry open the lips of the flower, squeeze inside, back out after about 5 seconds of buzzing, and briefly attend to collecting the pollen from their furry parts and transferring it into the pollen baskets on their hind legs before heading to the next one.

We’re pretty much eating the same things as last week. This is the time when the garden swamps us with its abundance. There are so many tomatoes!  I picked 32 pounds on Friday and made 12 pints of tomato sauce, and that’s in addition to dehydrating all the ripe cherry tomatoes on Tuesday (now they fit into a one quart bag).

And now, the hoop house! My parents are visiting from Ohio. My dad is a remodeling contractor and someone who doesn’t relax much. My mom is an avid gardener and food preservationist. They recently built a hoop house using hog panels (4′ by 16′ stiff welded wire fence), and had such a great time eating salad all winter that I wanted one too… So before they came, I measured my space and gathered up materials. Because of the way it is constructed, with the 16′ hog panels creating the arc, it can only be about 7-8 feet wide if you want to be able to stand up inside. We decided to use 6 panels for a 25 foot length. I also bought six long 2 x 8s for the box at the bottom, some 5/4 decking material to build the ends, and some hardware. I’m sorry I didn’t take a photo of the little-Honda-Civic-that-could hauling everything from the lumberyard, because it was impressive! This is a great experimental greenhouse, because the materials cost just $426, and two of us built the entire frame in less than 6 hours yesterday. Today we built and hung the doors and put plastic on the two ends. Tomorrow we’ll “skin” the main part.

The hoop house is currently oriented with the long sides oriented east-west, mostly because our corn patch is in the way of where we wanted to put it, oriented with a long side facing south… BUT, according to the New Mexico Extension website: “For maximum passive warming in the winter months, consider orienting your hoop house so the long side runs east/west.” Okay, done! I think leaving it where it is sounds much better.