Friday, July 1, 2011


It's wineberry season. This week both kids had camp and I found time to slip out to pick berries. We've eaten them for breakfast, snacks, and dessert; I put five quarts in the freezer, and I have a batch of jam cooking right now.

In my ongoing battle with the invasives on our property, the wineberry gets special treatment. Out of season, I pull the bushes without compunction (but not without puncturing. Sorry, couldn't resist. These babies have barbs.) I am particularly diligent in the parts of our woods where I find most of the native spring ephemerals. But come summer - I walk out in the woods and look up at the sea of red berries and I become a fanatical forager.

Wineberries are delicious. Tart and juicy - they resemble a raspberry most but are in the blackberry family. They were undoubtedly brought here as an edible ornamental and like many guests, have stepped slightly beyond their boundaries. I am certain they are squeezing out other native plants, but because they don't climb the trees and choke out everything in sight, they are not at the top of my eradication list. And also - it's worth saying again - they are edible. I can pick these and enjoy a tropical-esque treat without adding to my carbon footprint. And I figure eating them can be our containment strategy until we have time for more drastic measures.

A couple weeks ago Dexter and I watched a show about what the world will be like in a few decades. I don't remember the title (he would) but one little factoid stands out. The show stated that if all people in the world consumed a diet like that of an average American, it would take four earths to feed us all. Four. No wonder people hate us.

Since it isn't likely that we'll find three more earths in the near future, I've been thinking about eating more ethically. I don't really mean the ethics behind how my food is raised - though that comes into it - but the impact of my food choices. How can I eat, and feed my family, in a way that is at least closer to our fair share of the world's resources? I can promise one thing - the answer has nothing to do with Atkins.

So, this year, I've redoubled my foraging efforts, and I have been really enjoying my wineberries mixed with quinoa, a little cinnamon, and a drizzle of honey. If you haven't tried quinoa - it's an amazing seed that can be cooked and used like any grain (think rice, or couscous), but packs a complete protein punch. I haven't converted the kids - but I'm going to keep trying. You can find lots of great uses for quinoa here:

Prairie update:

My prairie is not only up - it's blooming! Of course it is coming in a bit spotty. The section we were able to drive over with the tractor after seeding is thick and full of flowers and grasses, while the other areas are still pretty thin. I'll reseed late summer/early fall, and maybe this time I'll get some kind of big roller so I can pack the seeds down into the dirt a bit. I'm waiting for a few more flowers to bloom - then I'll post some photos.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Which Comes First?

Ah, the age-old question. While I'm on the side of the chickens, I thought in our household, the egg would win. But no. A pre-Easter trip to Tractor Supply (how did I not know about this store before?) with the thought of purchasing incubating supplies and eggs resulted instead in a boxful of six fluffy chicks. What's that other saying? A bird in hand....oh yeah, for the kids, the immediate appeal of chicks far outranked the delayed gratification of eggs.

But back to the first question. Which comes first - the chickens or the coop? If you know us, or have followed this blog at all, you may be able to guess. Remember the 100 little crabapple trees? Most are still in their "temporary" home dug rapidly after the trees were purchased. The puppy came before the house was done, the horses preceded the barn, the prairie seed came before the prairie site was prepped. Our poor garage has gone from dog house to tractor shed to chicken coop. Someday, maybe, I'll park the car in there.

So finally, we're building the coop. Lovely, isn't it? What a cool coop!

Wait. That's not our coop!

That coop is for some "city chicks". Not sure where you get the chickens to go with it - I really don't think you can put $2 Tractor Supply chicks in a $3,500 coop. Maybe you could re-write the fairy tale - you know the one about the goose with the golden eggs? Because chickens who lay golden eggs are the only kind who should live in that little coop.

This one - this is our coop. Shabby chick perhaps? Dad is building it - I'm assisting. There are no plans other than whatever Dad has in his head. The lumber is mostly from the leftover trees we had milled on site - to call it rough cut would be generous. The rest is all scrap wood from the barn. We'll use the salvaged metal roofing left from the house and barn - mismatched pieces originally used just to protect the actual roofing material. But it will be solid, dry, and safe from whatever predators might lurk in the woods at night, and I think the chickens will be happy.

And here's one of those happy chicks. This is our little easter egger, Bunny, who is supposed to lay pretty colored eggs in those handy nest boxes. Except that I have re-named Bunny "Little Roo". Based on zero knowledge, just a hunch, I think she's a he. You could play this guessing game for hours - and some do over here at Coloring, when the feathers come in, whether the chick has a 3-rowed pea comb or a single row -- it's mind-boggling. So I'm just going with my gut. What do you think?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Reluctant Roundup

Two weeks ago, seeds in hand and recommended planting deadline approaching, I did my final review of recommendations for prairie site preparation. Our selected site, the south-facing slope that makes up the approach to our house, was about equal parts bare dirt, weeds (including a healthy sprinkling of poison ivy, multiflora rose, and of course, bittersweet), and mixed grass/clover. Maybe a little less on the grass/clover part. I knew that if I had any hopes of establishing a prairie, I needed a well-prepped site, meaning bare soil -- weeds and competing grasses gone, clots and rocks removed. And though I had started planing for the prairie late fall, other spring projects distracted me and the site was now far from ready.

Nearly every source I consulted recommended the use of Round Up or other chemicals to kill weeds and competing grasses. As an organic (no exceptions!) gardener who is reluctant to reach for any spray - even those with the organic seal of approval - this was not a recommendation I intended to follow. So I braved the hill with my pick and hoe. Several hours later, I had removed the weeds and grass from a strip about 5 feet wide. Only a couple hundred to go!

Round two - Round Up. Not the real stuff (expensive) but the generic equivalent. It's not like I'm a chemical virgin. Last fall, I hired a crew of 10 guys to help triage the trees. Working in teams, we hacked our way through giant bittersweet vines, then carefully painted Round Up on the stumps. This spring I've noticed that the stumps are not sprouting new vines, and I think all the trees are going to survive. I count that as an acceptable trade-off. And I routinely patrol the perimeter and main paths through our woods to spray the poison ivy. As I write, my eyelid is twitching with several small spots of rash from that dreaded ivy. I'm sure I brushed against it with my gloves, then used a gloved hand to swat a gnat. Another trade-off I'll willingly make. And now I've added convenience. It was just faster and easier to carefully spray the unwanted grass and weeds then it was to dig them all out. I can justify this trade-off as well - my prairie will provide great cover and food for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife, and waiting another season to plant would mean a lot of erosion.

My funny ethics of chemical use triggered my thoughts on the trade-offs we all make every day. I freely admit that our choice of 11 acres of woods for a homesite was one of the least green choices we could make. Part of my determination to be a "good steward" of this land stems from this knowledge - we could live more sustainably on a small lot in town, within walking or biking distance from basic necessities. And this drives many choices - building green, sharing the land with my parents, carpooling whenever possible, gardening for high yield of foods we frequently eat, adding chickens, composting and recycling fanatically.

I recently heard historian Adam Goodheart on NPR's Fresh Air program. I won't get the quote right - but he was talking about context for the South's desire to hold onto slavery. At that time the South's economy was built on slavery. It wasn't just about cheap labor. Slaves represented people's daily livelihoods, their savings for the future, their inheritance. He compared this to our dependence on oil, suggesting that the twinge of guilt we feel when we climb behind the wheel of the car is akin to what individuals at that time must have felt. They likely knew slavery was wrong - but couldn't get over the hurdle it took to leave it behind. I simply can't get this out of my mind. I guess I'm looking for the Abe Lincoln of energy. Who has what it will take to lead us through the painful trade-offs we all need to make?

Meanwhile, I'm hoping that the rain, heat, and humidity of the past week will help my seeds sprout. I'm watching for the first tiny hints of green. I'll keep you posted.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Part 2

One year. In which we added a third generation, a second house, a tractor, a barn, the foundation of a chicken coop, three horses, a dog, and seven chicks. More, I'm sure, but I really don't remember what. I intended to write but there seemed to be no good place to start. And my reasons for writing have changed. I no longer wonder whether we did the right thing, transplanting ourselves here. I don't need to work through the process of starting over. My kids are thriving, firmly grounded in their new friends and activities, and their lives have attained a level of healthy ordinariness. I still find myself thrilled by the beauty -large and small - that surrounds me here, but the newness is past. And honestly, I'm no longer in a rental house with extra time on my hands.

But I miss the act of reflecting. Selfishly, I need the opportunity to document our efforts to restore our woods, improve our land, and continue experimenting with the concept of sustainability. And so the postings resume, however sporadically.

I can't possibly bring everything up to date in one post. A list will have to do for now. Each of the following is worth some reflection:

1. Last fall, my parents left Pella, Iowa - my birthplace and their home for over 40 years - and set up camp in a nearby apartment while their home was built. They moved in in March and are now literally next door. They account for the dog and the three horses, and are the impetus and the labor behind the pasture and the barn.
2. The ongoing war in the woods. I continue hand-to-hand combat with a plethora of invasives. First among evils is bittersweet. In the fall I gave in and hired a small army to help clear the strangling vines from the most endangered of our trees. While I don't actually keep track, I suspect I spend 10 - 15 hours weekly hand-pulling smaller vines. In addition to bittersweet, I am pulling multiflora rose, wineberries (delicious but out of control), japanese barberry, and cat briar. All but the bittersweet have thorns and all appear to grow faster than I can move. I am presently seeking more fire power.

3. The tractor. Twenty-odd years ago, if you had told me Kirk would someday buy a tractor, I would have laughed. Or, as he said, I wouldn't have married him. True enough. FAA sweetheart I wasn't. He loves to find a reason to fire it up and forget about education policy, statistics, and employees for a bit.

4. The garden. My garden still grows and I am learning much through experimenting. I tried simple hoop houses over the winter. I thought they were a bit of a flop - until I started harvesting arugula, chard, spinach, and carrots by the first of February. Now - in May - we're eating strawberries, fresh lettuce, rhubarb, and herbs. Peas are scrambling up the tee pee, I've got potatoes planted two ways, garlic mixed in with cabbage, and I've planted seeds of beans, cucumbers, squash, carrots, beets, parsnips, more herbs, edamame, and too many flowers to list.Tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and sweet potatoes will come soon, and we'll add some pumpkins for fun. The blueberry bushes planted last year are doing well, the blackberries are already fruiting, and the apple trees seem to have survived last year's beetles. I've enjoyed the early spring's reprieve from bugs - but I've been studying up for when those battles start up again.

5. The chickens. Oh yea - chicks. I gave in to their Easter charms and brought home six chicks from Tractor Supply. The kids adopted and named them. The first death was met with much wailing. The second - a few tears. By the third - barely a yawn. Five of the first girls are molting and ridiculous and I'm keeping my fingers crossed for the two still-tiny Easter Eggers.

6. The prairie. Today I planted a mini-prairie consisting of four native grasses and a mix of native flowers, all along the southern slope that winds up to our house. The mini-prairie joins the mini-orchard of crab apple trees - the result of an unrestrained purchase of 100 seedlings last spring. More manual labor in the hopes of reduced mowing, happy pollinators, and a bit of added beauty. In my imagination, the crab apples bloom like cotton candy in the spring, with a carpet of daffodils at their feet. The prairie then greens up and provides a summer of ever-changing delight. In my real world, the tiny crabs look like overgrown weeds, and the only carpet at their feet is the straw I strew there today. But hey - we can all dream, right?

I'll probably add more on the prairie first. It's my most recent project and one I really hope will turn out.