Friday, April 27, 2007

It's Arbor Day

TreeCelebrate Arbor Day by planting a tree this weekend.


A shade tree on the south side of your house can cut your cooling needs in summer, but let the sun shine in during winter.

An evergreen tree to the north can block chilling winter winds.

Trees can certainly add value to your home.

Fruit and nut trees can provide you with a food supply (for wildlife, livestock, or you) that doesn’t need annual digging or fertilizing.

Trees can provide leaves for mulch, or for a valuable addition to the compost pile.

Trees can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and replace it with oxygen.

Trees can eventually be used as building materials or heating fuel.

Trees provide habitat for wildlife.

Trees can draw nutrients from deep in the soil, and deposit some of those nutrients on the surface, in the form of autumn leaves.

And some trees can even add nitrogen to your soil.

You can get 10 free tree seedlings from the National Arbor Day Foundation.

If you don’t have room for 10 trees, no problem! Share them with your neighbors. (Or just send the extras to me!)

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Parasite? Decoration? Alien invasion?

Okay, my botanical friends...
What, exactly, is this:

Insect eggs maybe?

My instincts say to cut the branch off and burn it.

This is on the branch of a tri-color beech tree
(Fagus sylvatica 'Tricolor')

Any ideas?


Sunday, April 15, 2007


Laura in NJ has tagged me as a "thinking blogger". Right back at you, Laura! -- Sometimes I think a little too much, but I'll take the compliment.

Coming up with a list of five blogs that make me think is a challenge. There must be a couple dozen out there. (Thank you to Bloglines for helping me keep track of them! Bloglines tells me I am currently subscribed to 61 feeds! They're not all blogs, but still... Yikes!) Out of necessity, I'm going to exclude a whole swath of blogs, in the homestead / rural life realm, because frankly, I have to narrow it down somehow.

Head over to Maison Madcap, where intriguing questions abound. Madcap was the first one I thought of when I saw this meme. I'm sure I'm not the only one.

Beo and Mia always have something interesting to share, on the greener side of the street. I know, it's cheating to do a 2-for-1 here, but you'll just have to hate me for it. Thanks to Beo for his garden tool report, and to Mia for her mention of among various other cool stuff.

Julie Zickafoose is a recent discovery - she writes about, illustrates, paints, talks about, and otherwise basks in Nature. For a living! My hero.

The Archdruid Report is for when you're in the mood for deep thought. The author is the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America. No, really. Who knew such an organization existed? Or, for that matter, that their representative would have so much interesting stuff to say?

PeakShrink's Peak Oil Blues blog covers the subject that haunts me most. And no, it's not Don Imus.

And finally, Scott Adams, the Dilbert guy, has an always entertaining blog. He's a shameless troll sometimes - doing cannonball dives into controversial subjects. But he makes me think.

Wow. Now I know why I don't do these meme things. I think I broke every rule and convention involved. And... I can't even count!

Uh oh. Here come the blog police. So that's what those black helicopters were about!


Saturday, April 14, 2007

Garden prep in words and pictures

So, like a good gardener, I did some soil preparation last fall for this year's big veggie garden. I piled up all the wood ash, manure, straw, and organic matter I could find. Like a bad gardener, some would say, I rented a rototiller and tilled it all in, with as little tilling as I could. The turf was torn up and incorporated into the rows, and in the end, the soil tilth looked pretty good - small and crumbly. I covered a good bit of it with straw and called it a season. All that was left was to wait for Spring to arrive.

Or so I thought. After pulling back the straw, here's what I ended up with:

Turns out, you can't overcome the clayey nature of clay quite that easily. So, back to work.

I went after the first row with a broadfork. In this heavy clay, it ends up working more like a very large shovel, but that's ok. A bit of hard labor, and I managed to get to this point:

Better, but still tough to plant in. What was really needed was more organic matter. Lots more.

OEFFA to the rescue! After consulting my member directory, I found an organic dairy farmer about two miles away from me. A quick phone call and I was in luck. All the compost my pickup could carry. He was a little concerned that the texture of the compost wouldn't be what I expected - they don't screen it or anything, so it wouldn't look like what comes out of the bags at the garden center. I assured him that the stuff in bags never looks like I expect, and that coarse compost would be just fine.

More than fine, in fact. This stuff is gorgeous. (Leave it to a gardener to get misty-eyed over what used to be cow dung...)

So, more work, but at least this felt like significant progress. E5 had the ceremonial first scoop:

If you click to enlarge, you can see the fabled clothesline, a bunch of wonky 4x4 posts that will eventually morph (theoretically) into a lovely grape arbor, and a bright blue rain barrel destined for our pole barn (if it ever gets built!).

But back to the compost.

Oh yeah!

I had the ceremonial second through two-hundredth scoops, with some hundreds more to go. But hey, if I have to grow my veggies in pure, organic compost, so be it.

Aaahhh. Much better.

For what it's worth, this year's garden spot is apparently still in the subsoil zone, where they spread out the dirt they dug out for the foundation of our house. While digging holes for some peach trees, I discovered some much better soil about 50 feet further from the house. The top inch looks like the same awful clay, but below that is some much nicer, blacker, crumblier clay. Can you say "garden rotation"?

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Friday, April 06, 2007

Dehydrating our laundry

In my ongoing quest to reduce our electricity usage, here's the latest report:
January 2006:  1255 KWH used
January 2007: 793 KWH used

February 2006: 1169 KWH used
February 2007: 618 KWH used
That's a reduction of 42% (and about $80 off the two bills). Woohoo!

And that was even before the clothesline was installed.

I learned an odd thing last week: There is no such thing as an Energy Star clothes dryer. According to their web site, "ENERGY STAR does not label clothes dryers because most dryers use similar amounts of energy." Weird.

So I did something the other night that was probably pretty high on the dumbness scale. I drove 20 miles to pick up a clothes dryer, while it was lightly snowing and very windy, in a truck with very bad brakes. How many levels of "Duh" does that constitute?

Well, Lowe's might have beaten me on the "Duh" scale. They didn't have the dryer that we'd already paid for, and that they told us we could pick up on Wednesday. Did they call to tell me it didn't come in? No. Did they tell me when I got there? No. Did I know yet, 30 minutes after arriving? No. Did they know when it would arrive? Not a clue. Did I get a refund and take my business elsewhere? Absolutely.

We got essentially the same dryer, for $50 less, from the Sears store at the other end of the parking lot.

But the clothesline will be getting a workout whenever weather permits. We think it actually works faster than the dryer anyway.

And the best part about the clothesline? Now that we've got it nice and taut (thanks to a fence stretcher), whenever the wind blows hard enough, it creates just the right oscillation to make old Sci-Fi spaceship sound effects in our house. The first time I heard the high, gradually varying "woowoowoowoowoowoowoo" sound, I was pretty sure I'd look out in the back yard and see some skinny grayish dude with a big head and gigantic black eyes staring back at me. Fortunately or unfortunately, it was just the clothesline blowing in the wind. At least as far as I know...

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Solving the Pollinator Problem

You’ve probably heard that honeybees are facing a mysterious crisis right now in North America, and to some extent Europe as well - something called Colony Colapse Disorder (CCD). And this is a problem because many of our food crops are pollinated by bees. Without good pollination, you don’t get good production.

Many want to blame modern agriculture (pesticides, genetically modified crops, monoculture, etc.), and while those seem like great places to look, the truth is we just don’t know. One researcher compared it to trying to solve a murder without the victim’s body.

orchard mason beeWithout knowing the why, it’s hard to know what to do. Planting a pollinator garden is a great idea. Here’s another one: Attract other pollinators.

Mason bees are a North American native, and don’t seem affected by CCD. Attracting them is not hard. If you have a drill, a 5/16-inch (7mm) drill bit, and some scrap lumber, you have everything you need to create a mason bee habitat.

If you want the long version, get a copy of The Orchard Mason Bee by Brian Griffin and Sharon Smith. The book has a lot of details for building optimal mason bee habitat, protecting from woodpeckers, wasps, weather, etc. It’s a pretty good book - interesting and easy to understand. I’ve followed their instructions to make some mason bee nesting sites out of scrap lumber. (As you can see from the photo below, aesthetics weren’t a big concern for me…)

Mason bee home Here’s the short version: Drill 5/16″ (7mm) holes, as deep as your drill bit will allow, into blocks of untreated wood. The holes can be as close as 3/4″ apart in a grid pattern. Six-inch depth is supposed to be ideal, but 3 1/2″ depth will work pretty well. The more holes you can drill, the more bees you can attract - hundreds or even thousands of holes are not too many. Set or hang the wood in a place that gets some sun early in the day but has some protection from rain (like under east or south facing eaves).

You might also want to plant some early-flowering shrubs near your nesting sites, so that when the bees emerge in spring, they have an easy nearby food source. The authors recommend Pieris japonica, but I’m going to try forsythia myself.
There’s more to it if you want to keep them around for the long haul and minimize their parasites and such - but not a lot. You can sanitize the nest blocks with 10% bleach each year, rotate through a couple sets of blocks from one year to the next, or just burn the scraps as firewood, and drill out new ones the next year.

You won’t get honey, but you will get your garden and/or fruit trees pollinated. And the odds are pretty close to zero of ever getting stung by a mason bee.

So get drilling!

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Sunday, April 01, 2007


Life has been on the verge of chaos since Winter released her icy grip.

Amelia is sick with an ear infection. Well, the ear infection is waning (we think/hope) but the antibiotics are causing her to have an upset stomach. Today was the first day in almost a week that she's seemed anything close to herself.

E5 is also sick, with a fever. Poor kid woke up during the night last night, very alarmed that his bed was "doing something by itself." "What's it doing?" I asked. "It's tipping way over," he said, his voice quivering a bit, and then added, "Let's get out of here!"

We also got new neighbors. They have five, count 'em - five, kids. From fourteen years (hello babysitting!) down to eighteen months. E5 has been in heaven, asking to play with them nearly every day. And they've all been thrilled with their new playmates too. They seem like really good kids too. They were very polite, inquisitive, and conscienscious as I gave them the grand tour. (What kid can resist a donkey, baby goats, and baby chicks?) They even let E5 borrow some of their toys for a few days.

The parents seem to be on a similar wavelength with us. They're interested in getting some sheep or goats. They're putting in a huge (huge!) strawberry & blackberry patch. I noticed compact fluorescent bulbs in all the outdoor fixtures just a couple days after they moved in. They don't care that their vehicles are slightly beat up, as long as they get the job done. They've already given our kids a stack of hand-me-down books and a stuffed animal, and they met us for pizza one night last week.

As if all that weren't enough, we've crossed off a number of quick-but-necessary projects in the meantime.

Our dryer died. We're getting a replacement. In the meantime (and for future use), I put in a clothesline. It's just temporary, until our pole barn goes in. Metal T-post plus baling wire, a hook, a couple of pulleys, and some crappy clothesline that stretches like crazy. I actually had to use a fence stretcher to tighten it enough to keep the clothes off the ground. Who sells something stretchy as clothesline?!

Mother Nature played a little April Fools joke on us, bringing down the rain 30 minutes after we put some clothes out. The good news is that with our constant breeze, the clothes actually dried faster on the line than they did in the dryer.

Mason bee home
With honeybees mysteriously dying in droves all over the country, I decided to try attracting some native pollinators - namely mason bees. It's pretty easy. Some scrap lumber and a drill was all that was required. I'll write something up on this if I get a chance.

We had some drainage work done last spring, which alleviated a very soggy area in our back yard. The drainage path leads the water into one of our ponds, which is wonderful. Unfortunately, the path of the water and the path out to the pasture intersect, which left us with a frequently muddy ditch to cross. Now we have this handy little boardwalk.

More baby goats
Our last pregnant doe, Lolly, had her babies last week. A boy and a girl. They look so tiny compared to the brutes born last month. They're already climbing on top of their shelter like old pros. We (particularly Lori) had the unpleasant task of disbudding (de-horning) two kids and wethering (neutering) two more today. Man I'm glad that's over.

Growing chicks
They're gettin' bigger. Their wing feathers are coming in, leading to some interesting striping and coloring, especially on the Buckeyes. They've also figured out how to escape their pen in the garage. Luckily, they're not venturing too far to date.

More projects on the way, so stay tuned

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