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Updates on drip irrigation and caterpillar tunnels (plus cantaloupes)

Wed, 08/05/2020 - 15:18

July and August are always the months when I look at our garden and despair. Not for the usual reason --- weeds. But because perfection was not achieved.

This year, we're trying out drip irrigation, set on a timer to water for three hours twice a week. When I got the first monthly water bill, it had skyrocketed up $55. Yikes! Was the haul worth the sticker shock?

On the one hand...very much! All of that water has our asparagus sending up enough spears that we're harvesting a meal weekly, figuring we might as well pick the spears since the canopy is already completely full of happy, older fronds. At organic, summer prices, that pays for about half of our water bill right there.


And the cucumbers! I always succession plant in case bugs and disease get the early crops, which means we've been rolling in cukes. We eat about six a day and I've still been having to gift grocery bagsful to the neighbors.

Oh, and did I mention lettuce? Mark's gotten into the habit of making us salad for lunch every day, which can be tough in the summer. But drip is keeping leaf lettuce soft and delicious as long as I plant a new bed each month.

So what's the problem?


The walnut trees. We have a couple of largish black walnuts about fifteen feet from one corner of the garden and they never caused problems in the past. But I suspect irrigating strips of garden beds tempted walnut roots to concentrate their attention on my growing area. As you likely know, walnut roots produce toxic juglone. When many garden plants come in contact, they go kaput.

To cut a long story short, the first to wilt were the tomatoes. Then the summer squash --- we only got one zucchini! The pepper plants look okay, but they're barely producing. Even the green beans appear to have been hit.

And the walnuts are sandwiched right between the garden fence, the electric pole, and the road. I suspect we're going to have to hire a pro to cut them down. Expensive!


Hopefully that will be a one-time fix. The other issue, not so much.

The photo above shows my carrot bed. Notice how the only sizeable plants are right along the drip line? I started some more carrots inside (the tiny plants closer to the bucket) to fill in the gaps. Lesson learned --- drip irrigation isn't sufficient to get fall crops up and running during our parched summers up on the ridge.


Okay, enough about drip. How about Mark's caterpillar tunnels?

On the one hand, they are awesome! Look at those brussels sprouts --- thriving under their covers!

On the other hand...wedding tulle is so very, very tender. I swear, our caterpillar tunnels sprout holes even when they haven't been touched.

I've been mending these gaps at least once a month, but even that wasn't enough to keep caterpillar worms out of one tunnel. On the other hand, the real fabric intended for this use is $300 and up per roll, so maybe I'll learn to enjoy mending.


In other news, while I've had lots of unexpected garden failures this year, I've also had one unexpected success. I've never managed to ripen melons previously, which was mostly due to viral diseases caused by bugs. But research turned up the tidbit that melons are very sensitive to cool soil, so I held my horses and planted a disease-resistant cantaloupe (Divergent) outside on June 4 (after starting the seeds inside a month before).

How's it doing? The vines are taking over the garden! There are lots of big fruit hiding under those leaves, the skin crackling and starting to yellow!

Which brings me to the garden lesson I never seem to learn --- for every unexpected loss, there's an unexpected win. Now if I can just figure out when cantaloupes are ripe...

How to identify fireflies

Wed, 07/15/2020 - 15:43

I'm happiest when I have something complex and natural to keep my brain occupied. This year I found the perfect hobby --- fireflies! A citizen science project asks you to spend thirty seconds once a week counting the firefly flashes in your backyard. I gave it a try...and was instantly hooked.

Did you know that there are hundreds of species in the U.S., possibly dozens within a single backyard? One species, though, is pretty simple to figure out. The male Big Dipper (Photinus pyralis) usually comes out right at sunset and flies for half an hour or so. He's got long, yellow flashes that are either J-shaped or (as in my yard) simply rise upward. Count about 5 seconds of darkness in between at 76 F and you've got one firefly species to check off your life list!

(Why do I say "he"? Because the female is hidden in the grass, surveying the field and choosing a mate. Yes, firefly flashes are all about sex.)


Then, of course, identification gets more complicated. The other common type of fireflies --- Photuris species --- is often predatory, preferring to hunt flashing fireflies of other species rather than seeking mates of their own kind. So Photuris will mimic the flash patterns of other fireflies as well as (sometimes) making specific flash patterns of their own.

There are also a lot of Photuris species out there. I've plotted out a 550 square foot section of our septic field for summer studies and I usually manage to watch about the first half hour of the Photuris show twice a week. Over the course of the last month, I've found at least five different Photuris flash patterns before my eyelids get heavy. Are they all different species? Who knows!

The flash photo above, by the way, shows a typical Photuris habit --- when caught (in a petri dish in this case), they scurry around flashing as fast as they can. Did you notice the flashes here are green rather than yellow, like the Big Dipper's? That's a diagnostic difference between the two genera, along with the long legs of the Photuris and the stripes you often see on their wing covers.


If you want to delve deeper into fireflies, I can recommend some books and gear. Fireflies, Glow-worms, and Lightning Bugs is a beautifully illustrated and easy to read field guide...to a few of the most common species.

Definitely start there, then once you outgrow easy you might want to download the free, intense, and highly technical A naturalist’s long walk among shadows: of North American Photuris – patterns, outlines, silhouettes… This book will help you realize that scientists don't know enough yet to ID a lot of the Photurises. Still, it's fun to try!

Trying involves catching and photographing fireflies after you've gotten a handle on their flash patterns. (Here's a free download to some of the most common patterns.) For catching, I found this net to be cheap and effective (especially when combined with masked, socially distancing neighbor kids). Glass petri dishes made it much easier to photograph fast-moving Photurises, and it's now a breeze to measure insects in those photos since I drew a 1 cm grid on the bottom of the petri dish with a sharpie.

Other than that, the only hard part is staying up late (can't help you there --- I'm terrible at it). Oh, and accepting that firefly season is fleeting with species winking out with each week of summer. What better way to squeeze every bit of joy out of the year, though, than to watch fireflies during these short, hot nights?

Adventure from your armchair

Wed, 07/01/2020 - 11:07

I have a new book out...and it's a total pandemic experiment. Gap Year is available in print only and is on the pricey side for 32 pages (full-color will do that), but it should also be very easy to request at your local library through their regular channels.

The book is a travelogue, mostly in pictures, from the time I spent backpacking and drawing plants right after college. I figure there's a 50% chance no one except my mother will be interested, so feel free to skip this one if it's not your cup of tea. On the other hand, if you like it, writing a review and spreading the word will ensure there's a sequel.

Speaking of reviews, here's one to give you an idea of what you'll find inside:

“This will be one of the easiest 5-star ratings I’ve ever given. The journal style of the book presents the reader with a unique glimpse into the author’s year-long journey around Europe. Beautiful drawings and snippets from her letters home draw the reader into her adventure. I’m definitely looking forward to the next volume. This book would make a beautiful gift to anyone who loves travel or nature.” — Turtle Dove

Available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Thanks in advance for giving it a try!


Squash pollination, broccoli caterpillars, chipmunks in the berries, and more

Sun, 06/21/2020 - 13:33

Summer is here, and with it comes the learning portion of the gardening year. On the positive side, Mark's caterpillar tunnels are game changers. Seen above are little brussels sprout plants, thriving without the cabbageworm pressure I usually struggle with.


Also under caterpillar tunnels, our broccoli has treated us to weeks of daily meals. For the first time in my gardening life, I'm preparing to pull the plants out, not because they're so bug-bitten there's no point in keeping them, but because the side shoots are getting small and tough and the soil is ready for some compost and rest. (Plus, our palates are ready for summer crops.)


With all of that success, I went a little crazy and put a caterpillar tunnel over some cucurbits, in hopes of keeping various bug issues at bay. Of course, unlike crucifers, the covered squash and cucumbers require pollination. So once the plants were big enough, I started hand-pollinating.

The hand-pollinating got old after a week, at which point I took the caterpillar tunnels off. But, in the meantime, I learned why my recent summer-squash harvests have been so-so. Without chickens to eat excess fruits, I'd cut back to one crookneck squash and one zucchini during each succession-planting period...but that's not enough for proper pollination since the two species don't cross!

On many of my hand-pollinating days, there were no male flowers open when a female squash flower was due to be pollinated. Sometimes, I was able to tear open yesterday's spent male flower and get a bit of pollen. Sometimes that didn't work. Now I know --- better to plant each summer squash species at least in pairs!


Now for the failure. Berries, berries, beautiful berries! We built a netted enclosure after the chipmunks ate all of our strawberries last year, and for a couple of weeks it seemed to be working. Then the chipmunks found a way in and demolished the rest of the patch in a matter of days. We'll be working on that problem before next year. In the meantime, at least the evil rodents can't reach our raspberries and the netting keeps the birds out.


On a happier note, we spent some of our stimulus money on drip irrigation this spring and it's working like a charm! If you're pinching pennies, you can put together a cheaper option piecemeal, but we opted for a kit from Johnny's (who gives us no kickback for mentioning them, darn it! But their products are so good I do it anyway). Mark put the pieces together without needing to read the instructions, and now the timer automatically soaks the soil for three hours twice a week.

The question will be --- how much does our water bill rise as a result of giving the garden what it needs? Since we're steering clear of the farmer's market this year due to crowded coronavirus concerns, high-quality produce is likely to be worth whatever the water costs.


And that's all for now, although I have something different and fun coming your way later this week. Stay tuned (or follow me on Amazon if you think you'll forget).

Deep Discount on The Weekend Homesteader

Wed, 06/03/2020 - 13:16

I have something new and different coming down the pike in the book department this month (or possibly next month....). While you wait, I couldn't resist sharing this deep price-drop sale on The Weekend Homesteader.

Now is the perfect time to start with small projects that build your self-sufficiency. I hope you enjoy the journey!

Lessons learned from jumpstarting a weird spring

Sat, 05/30/2020 - 14:08

Current events aside, this has been a crazy spring. It was so warm in March that I started doubting it would ever frost again. Despite that aerial warmth, the soil was colder than average (perhaps due to winter cloudiness?), with predictable impacts on available nutrients. Then, of course, we ended up having a couple of late, hard freezes.

Want to see what happened when I planted things way too early during that weird spring? Read on!


The carrots loved it! They sprouted well after being planted on March 12, grew happily, and are now providing us with the first baby carrots.

Peas also did pretty well...the ones that came up. I ended up having to sprout a lot of peas inside and set them out to fill in the gaps though. I probably would have been better off waiting until mid to late April after all.


Broccoli was even less pleased. Cold soil meant these heavy feeders weren't getting the nutrients they craved, so leaves started turning purple. I topdressed with worm castings to solve that problem then covered them up with Mark's awesome caterpillar tunnels.

The final product is early, smallish heads on the prettiest plants I've ever grown. Since there are no cabbage worms nibbling, we'll get to keep the plants around long enough to eat lots of side shoots. Overall --- success!


Warm-weather crops, of course, hated my crazy early plantings. In case you're curious, baby squash plants melt into piles of goo when the lows dip to 34. The only early cucurbits that survived my early plantings were a few cucumbers set out at the end of April and covered with two layers of row-cover fabric during a late frost.

As you can see in the photo above, even the squash plants set out right after the frost-free date didn't thrive due to cold soil. Another plant of the same variety transplanted into the garden two weeks later than this one has already overcome the older squash in size (although it hasn't yet bloomed).

Moral of the story: let the poor cucurbits wait!


The one warm-weather crop that did okay with my jumping the gun was bush beans. These nitrogen-fixers don't mind low soil nutrients, and they only lost a little bit of leaf when covered with two layers of row cover during the last freeze. So if you really, really want to plant summer crops too early, start with beans!

(No, the photo above isn't a bean. But it's now Blackberry Winter --- the conclusion of this crazy spring in which it's forecast to drop to 42 on the first day of June, so the picture seemed apropos.)

Caterpillar tunnels: Hinged quick hoops for pest control

Thu, 04/23/2020 - 14:25

Mark's taken advantage of the lockdown to perfect a prototype for what we're calling caterpillar tunnels. The idea is to block cabbage white moths from laying their eggs on crucifers. I've used row-cover fabric for this purpose in the past, but the thicker cloth overheats cool-weather crops. Plus, Mark wanted to improve upon my quick hoops, which are a bit of a pain for frequent ingress.

To cut a long story short, he tweaked and came up with a no-work organic solution for controlling of one of my least favorite pests --- cabbageworms. Of course, I mean no work for me once the caterpillar tunnels are installed. Building them was work for Mark!


He started with 2X3s, a compromise between what he wanted (2X6s for longevity, but which I argued would shade plants too much and be too heavy) and what I wanted (2X2s, which he considered too flimsy). It still counts as meeting in the middle if he comes almost all the way over to my side of the fence, right?


After building two frames out of 2X3s and hinging them together along one long side, Mark used a 3/4-inch hole saw to install our usual quick hoop pipes (1/2-inch PVC). Your measurements can match your garden, but ours were:

  • Frame --- 8 feet by 4 feet for maximum use of lumber
  • Pipes --- 6 feet long



A furring strip along the top gave the hoops a bit more rigidity while also providing something for the eventual covering to bite into. Since we didn't have treated lumber on hand, Mark gave it all a good coat of barn paint.


Oh, and did I mention handles? For the first prototype, Mark had some really awesome storebought handles to use. But for the later ones, he's building our own out of wood.


Anyway, back to the prototype. We covered it with wedding tulle, which  will let air and light through (meaning it's summer-garden friendly) without allowing in bugs. Various forums suggest this stuff lasts almost as long as the much-more-expensive garden netting you can buy from farm-supply sites.


How did we attach the tulle? Mark used plastic plumbers' strapping plus screws --- fast and easy as long as he borrowed another set of hands (mine) to hold the tulle in place.

Did you notice the small rip? Be careful! Splinters can damage your covering as you pull the fabric tight.


Mark also used the plumber's strapping to prevent the top from hinging all the way open. This way, it won't fall on the bed behind it and is easy to grab and pull back closed.


Here's the finished product, taking over for my quick-and-dirty tulle-only covering. The broccoli are enjoying having room to stretch out.

Oh, but, honey, I need three more....

Building soil during lockdown

Sun, 04/05/2020 - 07:54

(This is a personal post, mostly written for my future self. It gets long, so feel free to ignore!)

What does it feel like to begin our fourth week in lockdown? Surreal, knowing the world is imploding while (if I can get my head out of the news) my days are filled with beautiful hours of sunshine and garden and wildflowers and a perfect husband.


The first week was the toughest. Warned by my tuned-in brother, Mark and I went into voluntary lockdown while our neighbors were still poo-pooing widespread issues arising locally from COVID-19. It was odd to watch the social unacceptability of our stance --- why are you standing so far away? why can't we come into your house? --- fade into fear as our forward-thinking governor put increasingly restrictive rules into place.

The change has been extreme. Mark and I moved to Ohio two years ago to take advantage of the excitement of a university town, with all of its educational events and sustainable initiatives. Now, it feels like we've been tossed back to our solitary lives in Virginia (albeit with more amenities and neighbors who stroll by on the road and say hi).


I leave home once a day to go to the park, carefully choosing trails I'd already scoped out as having few or no people on them. My selection is due to the fact that park visitation is about four times as high as it used to be and passing a single person on the trail can be daunting if they're not tuned in to social distancing. I now have a face mask to pull on in desperate situations, although I haven't had to use it yet. Instead, I feel like an antisocial weirdo as I bushwhack eight feet off the trail...only to find, as I did yesterday, that the other hiker has a similar mindset and is grateful for my preventative action.


Mark and I are also lucky on the food front, both because we stocked up on a month of frozen meat and non-perishables before the rush and because it's far enough into spring now that the garden would feed us the bare minimum vegetables without much fuss. We run out of fruit and salad toppings within a week, though, and figure out curbside pickup and even (surprisingly) delivery to our little homestead fifteen minutes from town. I'm scared to do even that, but Mark insists. Shortages result in strange substitutions while basic items like tylenol are only available online for exorbitant prices. We make do.

Delivery ends up costing only $10 plus tip (another $10), which seems like very little money for the delivery driver to risk her life repeatedly entering a building likely full of COVID-19. But, a few days into our statewide lockdown, she's one of the people poo-pooing the danger. Beginning as I intend to go on, I talk to her from ten feet away (social excuse --- on the other side of the garden fence, pruning blackberries). After she's gone, I laboriously wash every item in soapy water doctored with bleach, ending up with hands dry and bleachy smelling.


Hands --- that's one of the big changes from the last month. At first, before mandatory lockdowns, elected leaders just told us not to touch our faces and to wash our hands as often as we could. I didn't try to stock up on hand sanitizer (impossible to find anyway), and instead learned the real way to wash hands. Tops and bottoms, tops and bottoms, interlace.... Working my way through the various steps to the tune of Frere Jacque, my hands dried out fast.

But once we were in solid lockdown, I didn't have to lotion up quite so often to counteract endless handwashing (and I also stopped wiping down door knobs and light switches daily). I stopped waking up in terror, having dreamed I was touching my face.


The mail, though, remains a daily contagion point. I usually save it until I know I'm paying attention, then I'm careful to leave the door ajar as I go out so I won't have to touch the knob coming back in. Grabbing the mail, I carry it back up the driveway to the trash and recycling bins, shedding outer layers of packaging there along with junk mail. Anything I want to keep comes inside, paper set aside for a day while hardier items are washed in soapy bleach water.

All of this extra work feels like overkill when only three people in our county have been confirmed to contract the virus. But one of those people died, and I believe strongly that the it's better to assume COVID-19 is everywhere rather than lowering your guard and regretting it. Plus, Mark is ten years older than me and a man, which puts him in a higher risk group. I'm adamant that I be the one to touch anything dangerous and that we minimize all risk.


Speaking of Mark, I feel like lockdown is a little harder for him than me. At first, I was the one melting down as I missed weekly joys --- dance class! neighbor twins invading with their mess and loudness! --- but my life was due for a little extra focus on home. Mark's was ready to expand, with new and old friendships at that precarious stage where you can't really connect other than in person. While I learned to video chat and started actually using facebook for more than "work," Mark was the one who began to admit to occasional dark days.

The trick, I've found, to dealing with the darkness is to expand the accessible brightness in your life while taking the rest one day at a time. I'd never explored the far reaches of our property in the two years we'd lived here, but now I pulled out a deed, compass, and flagging tape and found the boundaries. I dove deep into iNaturalist bioblitzes, both of local nature preserves (very lightly trafficked) that had requested citizen identification sprees and of our own land. And the garden, of course, rewards me daily with both food and spring grace.


After the first week, I started sleeping better and my brain started letting me write again without strain. Mornings spent the way I always spend them --- lost in fantasy worlds --- ease my way into the new normal.

Mark's first lockdown project was his not-really-teardrop camper, hooking up a solar cell to a battery and radio. On the other hand, the film class he was taking at the local university extended its spring break then turned into an online class...and after much hassle and consideration, he dropped it. Like me, he's coming to realize that it's not worth pounding your head against a wall at a time like this. Better to focus on easy and fun.


Because, even though the world is fighting a physical illness, those of us hiding from the virus have to focus on our own mental health. The hardest part right now is fear for other people, who either refuse to acknowledge the danger, are unable to wrap their heads around changing their lifestyles, or are financially/ethically unable to do anything but continue going to work.

A gardening mindset helps me move forward. I imagine lockdown the same way I would imagine nurturing a young peach tree. You plant and mulch and weed and prune, dreaming of future joy while knowing there will be bugs and fungi to knock your aspirations off track. Even if you end up cutting the tree down after realizing spring frosts plus summer rot wipe out 99% of the fruit, you'll still have rich soil in which to grow something else.

For now, I'm building soil.

Homegrown Humus free (and garden update)

Tue, 03/17/2020 - 13:25

To give folks an easier entrance point to self-sufficiency, I enrolled most of my books in Kindle Unlimited for the spring season. And one of them --- Homegrown Humus --- is free today!

This book, full of tips on improving your soil with cover crops, has sold over 10,000 copies since it launched in 2013. If you've been gardening for a while, you'll understand why. The idea of turning your garden soil black through the application of a few seeds is like magic. I hope you'll grab a copy and work some magic today.


Speaking of black gold, I finally delved into our two bathtub worm bins to see how they fared over the winter. The bin we'd left alone had a few large worms in it --- perhaps enough to recolonize the half-composted manure by summer. The bin in which Mark had installed an electric heat pad on low, though, was so full of worms of all ages that we could have seeded a dozen more bins!

Since we don't have that infrastructure in place at the moment, I instead raked the finished castings to one side and filled the other half of the bin with semi-fresh horse-stall leavings. Hopefully the worms will migrate over, leaving uninhabited castings for me to spread on the garden in a few weeks. (I also scooped some of the worms over into the other bin to get that composting process moving a bit faster. Experiment is complete --- time to make double the black gold!)


March is the season when our garden really gets going, and this year's coronavirus outbreak has made me more serious about the task than I have been since our move. Luckily, the winter was mild, so a bit of overwintering lettuce and spinach plus masses of kale are all available to keep us healthy without hitting grocery stores.

Leafy greens do get boring after a while, though. That's why we have new lettuce and peas coming up, lots of seedlings inside, and are planting potatoes for the first time in quite a while.

Yep, potatoes. When I feel insecure, I stock up, and potatoes are an easy way to ensure we'll have calories in a few months no matter what. Plus, the more time I spend in the garden, the less I'm listening to the news. Win-win!

Social distance with a garden

Thu, 03/12/2020 - 11:24


It was a tough call given that there is only one community-spread case in our state as of yesterday. But deeper reading suggests what we are seeing is only the tip of the iceberg. While I'm at very low risk from coronavirus, each person who contracts the disease spreads it to three other people and mortality rates skyrocket each decade for folks over 60. Between us, Mark and I could be responsible for a grandmother's death.

So we're going into social-distancing mode. We stocked up on a month's worth of non-perishables earlier in the week and voted early yesterday. The only reasons to leave home now are optional.

I'm keeping some of those optional outings. Hikes at the park seem very safe, playing in my garden safer yet. Letting the neighbor twins come down (with new, strict handwashing procedures they reluctantly agreed to comply with, plus new surface-cleaning protocols after they leave) seems like a worthwhile risk now that school is out and their worlds are smaller. I'll likely still go down the road to buy eggs from another neighbor, although we'll chat outdoors and keep our distance.

It feels a bit silly at this stage...but all of the experts I've heard in the last week explain that social distancing is most effective when it feels silly. If we wait until the ax looms, the health-care systems will be in danger of being overwhelmed. (Don't forget that 5+ day lag between getting sick and showing symptoms!)


So what am I telling you to do? All of the obvious stuff mentioned above...and maybe also hurry up planting your spring garden.

Don't know where to start? Take a look at your region on this soil-temperature map, then compare it to the minimum germination temperatures for crops here. Easy and fast crops at this time of year include lettuce, radishes, and most leafy greens.  These will be great for keeping the monotony of beans and rice at bay!

High-calorie crops that can be planted now --- in case your stored staples don't last the length of the outbreak --- include potatoes and carrots and peas. For us, now is also the time to start a lot of summer crops inside to jumpstart the frost-free date. Our broccoli sets are at the two-leaf stage and I'll be filling a flat with tomato, basil, and pepper seeds today.

I know that many of you can't simply hunker down in place. But if you can stay home, just think how much more fun it will be to social distance within a vibrant, food-filled garden.

And don't forget to wash your hands!

Honey locust and osage orange as firewood

Wed, 02/05/2020 - 13:59

Every location has a few easy tree species to harvest for firewood. Here on the ridge, we have a massive pile of lumber that was pushed aside during the construction of our septic system. And just about all of it is either honey locust or osage orange. The question became --- are either or both good for firewood?

Short version: both burn hot and well. Of course, it's more complicated than that.

Honey locust turns out to be a pretty optimal firewood (as long as you're careful not to jab yourself with the thorns). At 26.7 million BTUs per cord, it burns nearly as hot as black locust (27.9) and is much easier to split. I'm so glad to have such an excellent keep-the-fire-going wood close at hand!

Only downside? Honey locust is not a kindling wood. If this was our only wood, we'd have a bear of a time getting a fire started.


Unlike honey locust, osage orange is impossible to confuse with anything else. As soon as we cut into our first log, we were wowed by the yellow sawdust. Then we brought some to the chopping block and started swearing --- despite what the internet says, our osage orange was pretty difficult to split. Luckily, most of the logs were small enough they could go into the fire whole.

Inside, I soon found that osage orange is great for starting fires. Even though the logs feel heavy (and do burn extremely hot, clocking in at 32.9 BTU), they have a chemistry that makes them spark heavily. I suspect that same chemistry makes kindling light fast.

One warning: do not leave an osage-orange fire unattended unless you completely close the stove air vent because the sparks travel far and wide. On the other hand, the same feature can be very entertaining if you're sitting in front of the stove with a cat and a book listening to the snap, crackle, pop.

Overall, I'd say we got very lucky with our first round of firewood species here on the ridge. High BTUs mean much less work per unit heat. I'd say we've put about half as much effort into our fire this winter compared to what we used to do when burning tulip poplar, box elder, and black walnut down by the creek.

Growing winter lettuce indoors

Fri, 01/24/2020 - 13:43

We've had so much kale under our quick hoops this winter that we're starting to get tired of it. But lettuce was nipped back by an early cold spell, which left us buying salad greens at the store.

"Why not try to grow some lettuce inside?" Mark asked.

"Okay," I said dubiously. "I'll try."


I filled a flat with damp potting soil, sprinkled seeds on top, then put the lid on. Sure enough, sprouts happened, leaves grew, and in about four weeks we cut our first harvest!

Now, four weeks after that, we've enjoyed about eight servings from this one small flat. I haven't plugged in a kill-a-watt meter to be sure running the light 14 hours a day is worth the harvest, but it certainly is nice to have something green to look at, along with one meal a week of homegrown lettuce on our plates.

As usual, Mark was right!

Through the wall chimney kit

Fri, 01/17/2020 - 12:25

My greatest joy this winter has been getting our old wood stove into our "new" place! Yes, we dragged our darling Jotul from Virginia then let it sit in the corner for two years before installing. Instead of boring you with the vacillating in the middle, how about I skip to the happy ending?


Rather than building a new room or piercing a non-leaking roof, we opted for a through-the-wall kit. My top takeaways from this project:

  • Despite warnings on the internet, a horizontal stove pipe didn't mess with our draft all. The stove starts and runs just as delightfully as it did in Virginia.
  • Heat output with the wood stove in the middle of the room is even greater than we saw with the same stove in an alcove. Our little Jotul easily heats the open central half of our trailer (about 400 square feet) while burning on medium or low.
  • Creosote is more tricky. Make sure the horizontal part of the interior stovepipe isn't really horizontal and instead slants slightly down toward the stove so you don't end up leaking black goo in unwanted places.
  • The price tag was higher than expected because Amazon's through-the-wall kit requires triple-walled stovepipe once you get through the wall. It might be worth paying the higher price for Lowes' through-the-wall kit so you can use slightly cheaper double-walled stovepipe (available locally) instead.
  • On the other hand --- safety first! We're very pleased to find that the outside of the thimble (black part that goes through the wall) isn't even warm to the touch.

Are we glad we did it? The cats and I are basking in the radiant heat, our inside temperatures are 15 degrees higher than the minisplit managed, and the electric bill is $100 less per month. At that rate, it won't take too long for installation to pay for itself.

(Short answer: yes!)

New mushroom books and movie

Sun, 11/17/2019 - 17:46

During the last month, we had a very late first frost (November 1), rapidly followed by a freeze down into the teens. I went on a caving adventure, Mark learned to make movies on a hand-cranked, black-and-white, film camera, and I published a new werewolf novel.

But none of that is the topic of this post.

Instead, I want to talk more about --- fungi!


Fantastic Fungi
Mark and I just got back from a showing of the documentary Fantastic Fungi at the nearest art-house theater. We both highly recommend you check this movie out!

The stunningly beautiful time-lapses alone were worth the price of admission. But it was equally fascinating to hear Paul Stamets speak about his life and work. (Michael Pollan, although listed in the description, plays a much smaller role. There is also a cameo appearance by Tradd Cotter!)

I was a little uneasy about certain New Age/overly-poetic language. But Mark felt like the subject matter merited the flourishes. The second half also goes deep into psilocybin/consciousness/mental-health experiments and theory, which was thought-provoking but may turn certain members of the audience off. (I can't decide whether or not I'm among that number.)


New Mushroom Field Guides
Of course, my feet remain firmly planted in the dirt, so I got just as much out of the two new field guides I splurged on a couple of months ago. When I experienced my first round of mycophilia two decades ago, there were so few book choices out there that I was soon disappointed by the fact many of the species I found weren't ID'able. Nowadays, there are lots of local field guides that contain most of the species in certain areas.

For our region, I settled on two new editions. First, Appalachian Mushrooms by Walter E. Sturgeon feels like a (big but) traditional field guide. Species are divided up by category with great images and descriptions.

In contrast, Mushrooms of the Midwest, by Michael Kuo and Andrew S. Methven is a little denser and more scientific (arranged alphabetically by scientific name), although still with excellent photos and good descriptions.

The rule of thumb when identifying mushrooms you intend to eat is to use at least two field guides for ID, preferably also begging backup from a real, live person. Together, Appalachian Mushrooms and Mushrooms of the Midwest make me feel good about at least some of my IDs. Obviously, I don't eat the ones I don't feel good about.


Mushroom ID Websites
Of course, you don't have to pay for books unless you want to. As I think I mentioned in a previous post, iNaturalist is a great social-media-style gathering place to share information about species you find in the wild. Don't eat something just because someone on iNaturalist tells you it's okay! But, beyond that caveat, you can learn a lot by posting your tentative ID and waiting to see what others think.

A more field-guide-style website is MushroomExpert.com. This labor of love is put together by one of the authors of Mushrooms of the Midwest, and it has even more photos and species than Kuo included in his book. Definitely worth a visit if you have an unknown fungus in your hands!


And that's probably about as much mushroom enthusiasm as you can handle for one day. I hope you enjoyed the photos, which came from various hikes over the last few months.

Gardening during drought

Tue, 10/22/2019 - 13:05

Life on a ridge is very different from life in our former swampy bottomland. On the plus side, we miss a lot of gentle frosts and we never have to deal with waterlogging. On the downside, this past summer's hot, dry weather was really, really dry.

Dealing with drought is very new for me. So this post is probably Drought Homesteading 101 for many of you. Still, just in case this is new....

Composting in dry conditions


I'm so used to piling up organic matter then coming back in a few months to beautiful humus, so this was a shock to me. But the lovely pile of manure above...did absolutely nothing all summer long.


What worked? Our bathtub worm bins. I actually had two side by side, one seeded with worms and one not. Both promoted a lot more composting action than happened with the compostables piled up out in the open.

In retrospect, this is pretty obvious. Contain the moisture with an impermeable bin, then top it off with a lid that holds in water while letting a little rain drip through. Voila --- perfect composting environment!

So, yeah, bins are clearly the solution if you need to compost in the dry.

Seedling germination during drought
Compost, of course, was the least of my worries this past summer. In retrospect, I should have started watering the instant the ground went a little dry and kept it up multiple times a week. In reality, I let the soil grow so parched before I started irrigating that getting seeds to sprout and seedlings to stay alive was an uphill battle.


Luckily, nature is resilient. Remember those wood-chip aisles I put between my beds? I let spring kale and lettuce go to seed before pulling them out, and both managed to self-seed into that high-humus, moisture-rich environment. Which sure is lucky because almost none of the seedlings in the beds themselves sprouted!


Transplants moved from aisle to bed at the couple-of-true-leaves stage saved the fall garden (although I wasn't so lucky with the pea and carrot crops or with a lot of my second and third summer plantings). Phew! Lazy garden-bed cleanup to the rescue!

More to learn


Obviously, I have a lot more to learn about ridgetop gardening. For example, we need to get gutters on our trailer so we can capture rainwater, and we need to try some other irrigation tactics. (Impulse sprinklers were awesome in our damp, free-water environment of Homestead 1.0 but didn't cut it here when the ground was deeply dry.) But that can wait for another post and another drought. For now, the rain has returned!

I guess summer's over even though it's 92 degrees....

Thu, 10/03/2019 - 06:59

What a summer! We dug up an amazing harvest of spring carrots, then drought came and depressed our other crops by 40%, my gardening enjoyment by 80%, and my impulse to post by 100%.


Meanwhile, various leaks soaking into the trailer's subfloor resulted in a major renovation project. I now have a fancy dual-flush toilet just like Mark saw during his August trip to Amsterdam! (And a very cute shower curtain.)


Speaking of trips, we took a lot of them. We traveled to New York City so I could speak at a writing conference. Then we bought a used Runaway camper and started enjoying overnight jaunts in our metaphorical backyard. There was also a Ren Faire, a Steampunk Spectacle, some flintknapping, weekly Irish dancing, and lots and lots of mushrooms!


That's right, wild fungi, photographed and (occasionally) eaten have been the highlight of my summer despite the drought. And they deserve a post of their own...so more on that sooner than three months from now, I hope.

Spiralizing zucchini, feasting on chanterelles, and more

Sat, 07/06/2019 - 14:14

It's been six weeks since I last regaled you with my adventures. Let's see if I can sum it all up in ten pictures or less....


I'll start with the most relevant bit --- the garden. As might be expected, our plot is feeding us bountifully (especially in the zucchini department). We've been building a tremendous netted anti-aviary around the berries, which I hope will be chipmunk proof before the second round of strawberries starts to ripen. And we're weeding (never quite enough), planting, and even freezing dribs and drabs of extra produce.


The woods are also providing delicious feasts in the form of wild mushrooms. My current favorite is the Smooth Chanterelle, which smells like apricots and tastes even better. At the moment the forest is providing more than we can eat!


Meanwhile, a garden tour provided lots of bright ideas, like this pretty and functional compost bin.


Then we caught sight of a Bouche-Thomas Hedge at a Xenia arboretum. Unfortunately, closer inspection revealed that the apple trees had almost no fruits on them. I suspect the complexities of managing for both aesthetics and productivity are beyond most gardeners.


And then there were visits...


...lessons in spontaneity from the neighbor kids...


...a fascinating tour of an active archaeological dig...


...another hands-on lesson in mushroom identification...


...and seemingly endless beauty.


How was your June? (Did you notice I snuck in photo number eleven?)

Second summer joys and trials

Wed, 05/29/2019 - 15:13

We ate as much as we safely could of our first-year asparagus, have gorged on lettuce and broccoli and kale, and now it's time for the summer crops to begin. An ultra-early last frost means ultra-early cucumber blooms. We should be adding these crunchy fruits to our salads starting next week.


On a broccoli side note --- lowish nitrogen in the soil meant our heads were smaller, but also faster, than usual. Interestingly, we've also seen very few cabbageworms so far this spring. The moths have been quite visible, but seem to prefer the flowering kale at the moment. Could that be because of the lower-nitrogen plants?


Lower cabbageworm pressure means I've been able to leave the broccoli plants in place for side shoots to form. (I usually pull them out after first spring heading because otherwise they become a bad-bug nursery.) The result? Possibly more total pounds of harvest than previously, definitely spread over a longer time span. Despite not planning to preserve excess food this year, I ended up packing away about a gallon of broccoli in the freezer.


On a less pleasant note, our strawberry harvest looks like it will be nonexistent. The berries started, a bird found them, I put bird netting on top...and someone strong and vigorous (probably a squirrel) snuck underneath and worked through the patch like a tornado. Every strawberry of any size was removed, discards were strewn around the garden, and Mark is now working on a berry enclosure to ensure this won't happen again next year.

You win some and you lose some.


Speaking of winning --- wow, the manure! We're stocking up on truckloads of this precious resource, in part because it disappeared midsummer last year but also because the organic matter is full of wood shavings and needs some rotting before it will be putting off much nitrogen for our plants. Our worm bins quickly filled up, so now we're starting a manure pile in the yard.


I'm also laying manure down on beds I don't plan to use in the next several weeks, the time expanded from my initial plan of the next month. Why? Because the tomatoes I set out into one-month-old manure beds turned yellow and required chicken-manure topdressing to save them. Luckily, they've now bounced back and are setting fruit.


In our second year, we're also starting to have a bit of time for prettiness, like this grape trellis Mark made out of a cattle panel and four fence posts.


A few weeks after erecting it, the 18-month-old grape vines are already starting to fill their space. One plant has even begun to bloom!


What's coming up? This is a Prelude raspberry, a new-to-us variety that's supposed to ripen before any other brambles in the patch. It didn't bloom any earlier than my other varieties, but fruits are starting to plump and blush. If the birds don't get them, we might have a replacement to my demolished strawberries!

Two edible mushrooms for May

Mon, 05/20/2019 - 17:06

The second Rural Action mushroom foray took to the woods amid pollen so severe my black shirt turned gray and my eyes began couldn't quite decide whether to itch or tear up. I don't even get allergies! I can't imagine how the more susceptible felt.


Despite adverse conditions, we collected over twenty species in three short hours. While plucking fungi from the woods, many seemed very similar and I had a sinking suspicion I was bagging the same species over and over. But once we spread them out on the picnic table, differences became clear.


I'm going to focus on the edibles again (although I've included a couple of inedible beauties at the end of this post). First, another turkey-tail lookalike --- violet-toothed polypore. My specimens of both species are old and faded, but you can still see a little purple around the rim of the polypore, the same color that is much more obvious underneath when the fungi are fresh.

Lacking that giveaway, you can distinguish violet-toothed polypores from turkey-tails by peering at the undersides with a hand lens. As the name suggests, the former has teeth while the latter boasts pores.


Next, a new-to-me edible...that I never would have been brave enough to taste on my own. Fawn mushroom (aka deer mushroom or Pluteus cervinus) looks an awful lot like another hundred or so species of brown, gilled mushrooms. But if you peer closer, there are quite a few distinguishing features.

First pay attention to ecology --- fawn mushrooms grow on rotting wood. The gills are free, as you can see in the top photo. And (at least when they get a little age on them) the pink color underneath can be distinctive.

The real clincher, though, is the aroma. Fawn mushrooms smell just like lightning bugs! With that in mind, I was much more willing to cook them up to taste.

Flavor was good but not amazing. Worth eating if you stumble across them, but not worth an earmarked hunt.


A huge thank you to our fearless leader who helped us separate the wheat from the chaff.


Although she didn't appear to consult her library, Martha recommended the books above for mushroom-hunting in southeast Ohio.


And now, eye candy! Orange mycena...


...and my very favorite, the split-gill mushroom.

I wonder what we'll find next month?

Dreaming of a Vetter World

Thu, 05/16/2019 - 14:54

Mark and I recently attended a showing of Dreaming of a Vetter World, with a Q&A by Donald Vetter afterwards. If you've never heard of him, Vetter is a farmer right up Joel Salatin's alley who uses long crop rotations combined with rotational grazing to improve his soil. After decades of this treatment, Vetter's soil can soak in up to eight inches of rain per hour while his neighbors' conventional fields start ponding and eroding after half an inch in a similar time period.

So what does Vetter do to get such great results? He uses a nine-year rotation, a third of which involves cows and pigs on pasture. We'll start with that part --- the soil-building end of the spectrum. After planting a grass/legume/forb mixture, he utilizes rotational grazing for three years, then he tills the rich greenery in.

Next comes the cash crops --- soybeans in year one, corn in year two, then an Ethiopian land race of barley that his sister company (a small-scale, organic grain-processing operation) bags up to sell as bird seed. After a winter of cover cropping combined with fall and winter grazing, it's back to soybeans for a year followed by a final season of popcorn.

Using this rotation, Vetter has added no off-farm inputs for twenty years and sees annual improvement of his soil. He doesn't even buy animal feed --- the waste seeds from his grainary supplement his livestock's dependency on grass. The result is a beautiful permaculture system that runs smoothly...when combined with a lot of hard work.

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