Monday, December 27, 2010

Twas a good Yule!

We hope yours was too. As you can see, we got a new camera!

I built this playhouse for the girls last summer out of scrounged or salvaged wood, used windows and some "boughten" lumber. Don't look too closely; I'm a biologist, not a builder.

We hosted a Solstice / Advent Spiral gathering for our homeschool group. I'm not sure how it worked 'cause I was off replacing a tire that developed a leak after hitting a gargantuan pothole.
Our favorite family gift was Wildcraft, a cooperative herbal foraging game from the nice folks at It's great fun for a wintry day, beautifully decorated, and really nice because the game ends when everybody makes it back to Grandma's house!
Now my mind turns to garden design and seed catalogs. But first I need to get a roof on the sugar shack so we can boil sap here!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The virtues of Elaeagnus umbellata

Much to the chagrin of the native plant lovers, I've had a conversion since we move in here at Snowy Hollow. I've come to appreciate Elaeagnus umbellata, know far and wide as autumn olive, the fast-growing invasive, thorny shrub that forms dense stands if left to its own devices. Years ago, I knew it as host to fruit-eating birds in fall and early winter. My first Bohemian Waxwings and Pine Grosbeaks were found in autmn olive thickets. As a kid, we planted one in the yard in northwestern Pennsylvania. Somewhere along the road, I bought into the "evil invader" line.
So, when I found a few on this land, I thought about taking them out. Then I started looking at them through the eyes of the ecosystem. I learned they fix nitrogen, a most valuable trait in restoring worn out and devastated soils. They can also act as a nurse plant for young trees, shading them lightly, protecting them, and providing extra nitrogen as they get started. And if that's not enough, the berries have 17 times the lycopene content of tomatoes! Autumn olive may be seen as invasive in some eyes, but I hold it to be an ecosystem healer and a free health food! We made a few pints of autumn olive berry jam this fall.

I'd highly recommend trying it; sort of a complex tart flavor that can be balanced with as much sugar as you want, but don't overpower it.
So here's what I've learned from Elaeagnus umbellata: dense growths of any species are a sign that it has traits or abilities that make it well suited for those places, and dense growths of anything don't last long. All ecosystems are trying to build fertility as they go through the process of ecological succession. In the case of autumn olive, it grows well where native ecosystems have been displaced and, very likely, where soils were trashed by efficiency-minded farming practices. It grows well in places that need its healing, nitrogen-fixing skills. If you seek to get rid of it, acknowledge this and replace it with something native that can do the same job. I'd also bet that this plant will put itself out of business as the fertility of the ecosystem improves.
One might come to another anaolgy involving "aliens": they do the jobs that natives (a.k.a. gringoes) can't or won't. Why do we depend on migrant labor to tend and harvest our food? Because we're incapable or too damn lazy! Let's not deport them unless we're prepared to take their places. So instead of annihilating a very helpful plant in the name of botanical purity (one could really make some analogies here!), consider what it does; then make some jam!

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Edge of the Petri Dish

My friends, I have something to tell you. As you know or can easily imagine, we live in a world with finite resources. And yet, our economy is based on an ideal of continual growth. For that to occur, someone needs to be selling something, and others need to be buying it, always, whether we need it or not. Cheap resources get converted into products. Where do the raw materials for those products come from? Earth; the water and soil of the planet. Everything we eat, breathe, drink and buy is some form of processed sunlight, in combination with soil and water.

As you can imagine, with about 7 billion people on the planet now, we are starting to run out of stuff. In some places, it’s clean water. In others, it’s topsoil. We are reaching the limit of the planet to support us, at least in our extremely consumptive Western lifestyle. Ecologists call this “carrying capacity”. On the graph below, the curvy line shows population over a period of time (the horizontal dimension). Note that the population reaches a certain level and begins to decline. After that it oscillates around a certain number, represented by the horizontal line. That number is the carrying capacity.

If this were a graph of GDP, the upward trends would represent economic growth, and the downward portions would signify recessions. Consider what we’ve been hearing lately: “long, slow recovery”, “double-dip recession”. Seems like recessions hit about every ten to fifteen years, though I may be mistaken. I’m just an ecologist. If we were to graph GDP over the last 200 years, might it look like the graph above?

I didn’t just summon you here for an ecology / economics lesson. By the way, Marston Bates eloquently reminded us they are the same thing. I wanted to share what I’ve been learning since last winter. One of the big resources that will soon limit our potential for growth is oil. Consider for a moment, or a day, how many things in our lives rely on fossil fuels, especially oil. Now the bad news: there is a growing body of evidence that global production of oil is at or near its peak, and will begin to decline in the next few years. We have every expectation that demand will not decline, however, and when demand begins to exceed supply, prices go crazy. Read this again carefully: we’re not about to run out of oil; we’re about to run out of cheap oil. Case in point: the summer of 2008. There are many others if one wishes to dig them up. Yes, we seem to be up against the edge of the Petri dish.

Before you panic, I’d like you to do one or more of several things: visit and watch the movie “In Transition”, or better yet, read The Transition Handbook by Rob Hopkins. I found section one to be very helpful in explaining the combined threats of Peak Oil and climate change. Section two is an essential reminder that dealing with what we are facing involves a grieving process and recovering from addiction (to oil). The second helpful thing I’ve found is The Archdruid Report, a blog by John Michael Greer. His wisdom and wit are delightful and thought-provoking. A third helpful thing is to attend one or both of the speakers in Traverse City this month.

Another very helpful and hopeful way to deal with the idea of economic, social and environmental upheaval is to remember the ancient wisdom about the healing and nutritive values of plants. Most of our pharmaceuticals are, in some way, derived from oil. They all rely on cheap oil for manufacturing and transportation. One of the solutions or inevitable outcomes seen by those peering into crystal oil drums is that production of just about everything will become much more decentralized, even hyper-local. Enter the beauty of knowing how to use a few herbs.

In my yard, I have plants that will nourish me (dandelion and burdock), treat wounds (yarrow), stabilize blood pressure (dandelion and garlic), reduce the pain of insect stings and bites (plantain), help one’s body use iron well, thus treating anemia (dock), reduce fevers (catnip), help treat colds and flu (elderflower and Echinacea), and many more I’m just beginning to learn. If we can’t get our prescribed pharmaceuticals, let’s go walking in the woods and fields. Those of us who know a few or some of these plants are in a position to help others. We might become the village herbal healers.

There’s a great deal to digest in the news that oil supplies will soon get precarious, or downright undependable. Take your time; go through the stages of panic and grief. After all, we may need to grieve the loss of a culture (also known as suburban sprawl). Talk about this with trusted friends, but they’ll probably look at you like you’re crazy. Get to know your neighbors, too. You might even share a favorite herbal tea with them. Friends, our actions now will determine whether we smack hard up against the wall of resource limitations, or whether we slow gently to a stop on our current path, and have time to steer a course toward a more balanced future.

(Previously published for the Herbal Alliance of Northern Michigan.)

Been building, not blogging

If anyone wonders about the lack of activity on this blog, rest assured I'm still here. I've been working on summer projects, like a playhouse for the human girls, and a hen house for the feathered girls (next year). It helps to get some things done before the snow flies. I'd like to have pictures, but LR dropped the camera in a mug of tea a few weeks ago.
We harvested about 25 pounds of honey last month, too. Thanks, bees!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Profound words

"Water and dirt are the most important things. Kind of like our mom and dad, and everybody in the whole world are the kids. Except some of the kids are treating them badly. A whole bunch of children are treating them meanly.
"Those plants and rocks and trees are my brothers and sisters. I want to write a book about it when I learn to write."
- words of LD, age 5, as best I could capture it.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

How long can you tread water?

Years ago, Bill Cosby did a comedy routine about Noah and his hypothetical neighbor. Picture Noah, working away on the ark, in suburbia. From memory:

Neighbor: “What’s this?”
Noah: “It’s an ark.”
Neighbor: “What’s it for?”
Noah: “I can’t tell you.”
Neighbor: “Right. Could you get it out of my driveway? I gotta get to work! (Pause) Really, could you give me little hint?”
Noah: “How long can you tread water?”

These days, I feel a lot like Noah may have felt, knowing what was to come and how it would affect people. Since last December, I’ve been attending a book study group/bunch of concerned people that has been reading Rob Hopkins’ The Transition Handbook. In it, Hopkins reviews the evidence for the twin impending threats of climate change and peak oil, and the evidence is pretty damn compelling. I have read it, and I accept the evidence as sound. This is not the same as “I believe”; it’s a case of “I have a pretty good idea (borrowed from the movie “Dogma”).
If you’d like to read the arguments for yourself, read Hopkins’ book and The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler. Review the past several months of weekly posts at The Archdruid Report. Don’t take my word for it, but start reading soon. The bottom line on climate change is we’re in for warmer, probably drier times in the short term, with droughts, mere water shortages, probable crop failures and other disruptions to the food supply, and certainly thousands, if not millions, of climate refugees.
As far as Peak Oil, we may have passed the time when worldwide oil production has begun to decline, while demand continues to increase. According to Kunstler, we are probably in for a period of uneven supply, and wildly fluctuating prices. The $140 per barrel oil of 2008 will seem like kid stuff. Oil supplies will not run out for a few more decades, but oil and shortly after, natural gas, are going to become more and more scarce. Some have said we have as little as two years.
Imagine how Noah must have felt, knowing that something completely disruptive to our culture is coming. I wonder how he looked at his neighbors, what he felt. If it was "you're gonna get what's coming to you, decadent slothful sinners", then I can empathize. Our way of life is based on cheap energy, particularly oil. We've been pretty lousy inhabitants of Planet Earth, rather like the spoiled "entitled" brats who trash hotel rooms. I also care about people, and hate to see suffering. I guess I would settle on "it's time to face the music", but I'm an oil-sinner too.
How do you carry around a secret like this? I would tell everyone I meet, but I (and others) risk being called Chicken Little or Boy Crying “Wolf”. We’ve had a taste of the economic chaos that lies ahead: corporations failing right and left, huge banks failing, government acting as fast as it can to do too little too late, or worse, something totally counterproductive. Hopkins offers two chapters on how we might deal with our grief for the loss of a way of life. For those who might pray for salvation, either technological or spiritual, I offer what I have learned from the Archdruid: “No one’s coming, Harry” (from Harry Potter #3). No one is going to bail us out of it this time.
So how does one bring up the notion of Energy Descent, coming down off our addiction to oil? I do believe, for the planet’s sake, it’s a good thing. But how will I get to work in the winter? Will I have a job? Will it matter? Will the bank holding my mortgage fail, and I can just squat here? How will we meet our needs for food, water, health and heat? And the big one, will people pull together as they do after disasters, or will they freak out and retreat behind parapets and portcullises (those pointy iron things that drop down in front of castle gates)? I really think we need to start talking, first with trusted friends, then with family, then with those in our communities.
Here’s my plan, and I have one big advantage over Noah: I’m not sworn to keep this a secret. I’ll get to know my neighbors, and find out what skills or goods we can provide for one another. I’ll get serious about saving seed and growing my own food, or seeing that it’s supplied from within a few miles. I’m already growing some plants for medicine, and I’ll expand this. After the chickens start laying well, I’ll offer eggs for trade. I know how to build good compost, so I’ll help them make good soil. I could even offer rides to town. Maybe then I'll mention that energy prices are going to shoot up like crazy in the next few years. Let's weave the fabric before we really need it!
We might make it if we keep the old adage in mind (if I might amend it): “Steal a man’s fish and you eat for a day, steal his nets and you eat till the nets wear out. Ask him to teach you to fish, and you both eat.” It’s not about treading water this time; it’s about learning to swim, and learning to swim together.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Repurposing and herbs

We're just past the Summer Solstice, and the harvests and gathering has begun. With regular showers and thunderstorms, the gardens and woods look like a jungle. We've been harvesting some herbs to dry lately, and I was motivated to finish a project I've been thinking about for awhile. When we moved in here 2 years ago, I found a crib in pieces in the pole barn, and I saved the mattress frame with a drying rack in mind.

I suspended the rack from the rafters of the barn. The herbs are bundled and hung inside paper grocery bags. Small things like flowers could be laid on top of the rack, then covered to keep the dust off.

The bags are labeled, of course, because the herbs won't look the same when they've dried.

When it's done, we heave away and raise the rack up to the rafter, where it's nice and warm. The oregano's a bit long so it hangs out of the bag.

The view from underneath. We have oregano, thyme, lemon thyme, parsley, sage, mint, chamomile and lemon balm for now. More later to be sure.

Sunday, May 30, 2010


Welcome to Snowy Hollow's fresh home-grown garden veggies! LR is dipping her toes in the waters of small business. Today's offering is leeks for a dollar a bunch. What a great home schooling opportunity!

Our other new undertaking is raising blue oyster mushrooms (no rock band references please!). A friend had a large maple come down across her road, and another friend had some leftover spawn. Manna from heaven!

Step 1: spread spawn over surface of green log

Step 2: stack on another log and spread more spawn

Step 3: Wrap the whole thing in plastic to keep out other kinds of fungi. Now go do something else for a year while the fungus eats the wood.

Spring at Snowy Hollow

Look who's coming to dinner! If he only knew how close he was to the table ....


One frame of the girls busy tending brood, packing in pollen.

One of the bees on an Evergreen Hardy White onion; seed-saving step one.
It's been warm and dry, and things are rapidly turning into summer. The spinach and pac choi will be bolting any day, but the turnips are coming on strong! I transplanted the tomatoes and planted cukes and borage near them on the south side of the house to capture some additional heat (permaculture!). The only thing left is the basil. Then we start the fall garden in soil blocks in late June.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Meet the ducks!

The pond in our backyard is as big as a good-sized bedroom when it's full. Most of the summer it's about half that size, and 2 summers ago it dried up completely, much to the dismay of the toad tadpoles. We're about a mile from the nearest lake. Still, we have a pair of mallards. They've been with us 3 springs now, never nesting, and they leave for the night.

The girls dubbed them Chris (short for Christmas-head) and Suzie. They're getting quite used to all the playing and commotion.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Weedy thoughts

As one of the human occupants of this place, I am trying to listen and heal the land from past abuses. We host one of the last remnants of forest for which Elmwood Township was named, or it was here until previous owners cut the “valuable timber”. The aerial shot on Google Earth shows a beautiful intact canopy. The timber was “thinned from above” as they say, meaning they took all the big trees and left barked-up smaller ones to sway in the wind. How do I save what’s left of that jewel, and ask the land to feed me, too? What do I do with the front yard, or the hill to the south?
As I learn more about plants and permaculture, this question becomes quite complicated. I’m getting a re-education about “weeds”. I’ve had to reconsider my attitude toward many plants in the light of new evidence. When we moved here, I saw sumac as an aggressive root-suckering plant, and autumn olive as a thorny invasive pest. Burdock was something to be given a wide berth, especially when wearing a wool sweater. Now I know sumac provides a refreshing beverage, stabilizes soil, and provides food for honeybees at a time when few other plants are blooming. Autumn olive is a nitrogen-fixing shrub, hosting microorganisms that pump nitrogen into the ecosystem. Its berries are popular with wildlife, and a related species is used as food for humans. Burdock is simply a medicinal, edible wonder plant; see its virtues as described by Susan Weed.
Native, invasive, naturalized, pest: all categories of species we like to use. The native plant proponents would have us go back to a pre-Columbian flora. Any more recent arrivals are treated as pathogens – pull them, spray them, just get rid of them. Are they pathogens? Is baby’s breath an infection of ecosystems along the Lake Michigan shoreline? In our bodies, pathogens move in when our immune systems are weakened. Numerous cultures can teach us that sickness is not inevitable, as American medicine seems to believe. Healthy ecosystems are resilient, and resistant to minor changes, so population explosions of a single species must be a sign of something wrong. What is out of balance in these ecosystems that allows one species to become so dominant? Joe Jenkins has an interesting view of humans as pathogens in his book, Balance Point.
I’m convinced that plants simply live where they can, or are needed. If they can fulfill a role (a.k.a. fill a niche) in an ecosystem, they do. If a non-pre-Columbian plant species get established, it may be because the existing ecosystem has changed significantly. Yes, spotted knapweed can dominate a landscape, and Phragmites can take over wetlands. But knapweed has a deep taproot and can bring minerals back up to a starved topsoil. It will eventually decline as soil organic matter builds up. It is also one our biggest sources of nectar and pollen in late summer, making a honey harvest possible. It has taken over the old farms around here because the soils won’t support much else but lichens. It’s soil-building starting from square 1 ½. Phragmites thrives along shorelines and wetlands with high levels of nitrates. It is actually cleaning up the excess nutrients before they can cause a destructive algae bloom. Now, where are those nitrates coming from?
Permaculture designers and gardeners use properties of various plants to imitate a naturally-occurring ecosystem. There are nutrient accumulators that bring up nutrients with long tap roots, ground covers that hold soil, nurse plants that protect young perennials, shrubs and trees, insectary plants that attract beneficial insects, and the well-known nitrogen fixers. So there are reasons to keep burdock, lamb’s quarters, autumn olive, clover, yarrow, Queen Anne’s Lace, and many others, even stinging nettle. Perhaps we should not be so quick to judge, or slap on a label like “weed” or “invasive pest”. Perhaps these plants are trying to tell us that these ecosystems are in need of serious help! Yet we insist on shooting the messenger again, or in this case, pulling it up by the roots. It’s been said that a weed is just a plant whose virtues have yet to be discovered. If that’s the case, there are few if any weeds.
So where does that leave me in my new education? Native vs. non-native has a much diluted meaning. Goldenrod is a valued friend, and knapweed stays where it can for now; the bees love them both. Sumac has a home on the steep hill in the powerline right-of-way crossing the property, and autumn olive is to be left alone to accumulate nitrogen in those nearly-bare areas. Many others are welcomed for their food or medicinal value, or for just plain beauty, like the thousands of Dutchman’s breeches blooming in the woods right now. Who am I to say what stays or goes? The land knows what she needs, and the plants are her way of healing herself. To paraphrase John Burroughs (I think), when you pull up one plant, you find it hitched to everything else, including yourself. Now, what happens if you pull hard on your own shoelaces?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A sweet, sweet day

Maple syrup season wrapped up a couple weeks ago, but we're still settling and canning. We put up another gallon and a half today. There's still another 2 gallons-ish waiting to be canned, so we'll end up with close to last year's total. Considering we added 12 more buckets, it comes out to be a mediocre year. Why should we be different than anyone else? Still, thanks to the trees.

Our last sap collection didn't add up to enough to boil for syrup, so I boiled the 4 gallons down to two, and pitched in a red wine yeast. It's bubbling merrily along.

It was a bittersweet day, too. Zelda's hive came through the winter very weak, and when I checked today, there were literally a half dozen bees flying around the entrance. When I opened the hive, there was nobody home. They had built comb at a crazy angle relative to the frames in one hive body; guess they didn't really know how to do it without foundation to guide them. Rebuilding those frames has been in the plan, so I brought it down to the garage and we had our first honey harvest today! The girls were just giddy with excitement over all that honey. We cut the comb out of the frames at first, but as things began to fall apart, we all dove in with our hands. Six very sticky hands. LR washed her hands in the pond so we could open a door and get in the house!

I tried a mashed-comb extraction technique I found on the web, which involved putting mashed comb in jars and filtering out the honey, ...

Trouble is, since honey is a bit viscous, the jars vapor-locked within seconds, and when I tipped them to allow air to move upward they leaked.

Version two features a paint straining bag suspended from a freshly-cut tripod. By morning, things should be well-filtered.

Our first honey harvest - nearly a quart of raw, golden elixir. There's a bunch more to be filtered, too. If a tablespoon is the life's work of 12 bees, then this quart is very hard-earned!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Parsnip follow-up

Given current practices in the farmer-foodie blogosphere, I feel obliged to tell you what I did with the parsnips. Call this soup what you will, perhaps a potato parsnip puree:

Slice half an onion, more or less, or chop up a bunch of spring leeks.
Peel and slice 3-4 good size potatoes, or whatever's left in the root cellar.
Scrub and/or peel the straightest parsnips of the scrawny lot you just dug up so you have at least 2 cups, and slice.
One could add a stalk of celery, but I didn't.
Sautee the onion in your oil of choice in a soup pot until nearly transluscent, then add potatoes and celery, and a cup or so of water so they don't stick.
When the potatoes are about half cooked, add 2 cups (or more) of vegetable stock, and the parsnips.
Cover and simmer until potatoes and parsnips are cooked, then puree (easiest with a stick blender).
While the potatoes are cooking, fry 6 strips of bacon until crisp. Break these up in bits and add to the soup just before serving.
Add a quart or so of water to increase the volume. We have some dairy sensitivities, but one could add a cup or two of Shetler's whole milk to make the soup rich and creamy.
Sprinkle in generous amounts of your favorite herbs. I used oregano, parsley and dill (no marjoram left). Now's the time to add the bacon.
Warm gently for several minutes and serve with a sprig of freshly picked parsley, and perhaps a chunk of good sourdough bread for dipping.

Eat slowly, with gratitude, and dream of spring greens, sunny days, and soft warm rains.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Spiral of Gardening

The joys of spring include the leftover garden bits from the previous year. Now's the time to dig parsnips, so that's what LD and I did today. She's holding up one of the better ones. Quite a few thought they were turnips, then went all uddery - 4 or 5 taproots heading in different directions. They looked like a root veggie being run by a committee! Pretty hairy, too. How does one radicle, emerging from a seed, with one meristem, split into so many? It's not that hard; it's called Follow-The-Leader. Divide, elongate, specialize, got it?
This year, I'll need to do something close to double-digging their bed, and beefing up the fertility. Oh, and some more water would be good. Susan Weed's book Healing Wise mentions a burdock tea for parsnips. The kids like them, so I'll try anything to get a good batch.
This warm weather has me thinking hard about planting peas. Sure, many folks have already done that, but up here the end of March often brings a nasty snowstorm. This year we may be over 60 degrees! A double-lamb March. A couple days ago, I sowed Asian greens and arugula in the cold frame. Peas and turnips are the next things on the calendar. Somebody talk me down from the composter bin before I jump!

Friday, March 19, 2010


It's officially spring, or at least late winter. On March 3rd, I sowed 4 flats of alliums in the greenhouse (at work, sshhh!), and on March 4th, I tapped 31 of our sugar maples. In a week, we had collected almost 90 gallons of sap; a slow start. The next week, we got 26. Then the night temperatures stayed above freezing thanks to unseasonably warm weather, the flow just about stopped. I sowed tomatoes in soil blocks tonight (at home this time), and the temps have been falling. Things are looking good for the next few days, and the moon is waxing for another week, so I'm hoping for a good run. Meanwhile, the garlic, rhubarb and daffodils are poking their heads up.

The sled is made from found lumber and some old skis.

This time of year is a strange mix of activities. Planting, waiting, planning, watching, gathering & boiling. Wonderful rituals, and good honest work. It feels so good to be outside every day, especially hauling buckets of sap. Last year, we collected over 300 gallons and drove every drop to the family sugar shack 25 miles away. Lots of work, but we brought home over 7 gallons of syrup. We just made it, too; I opened the last pint two days ago!

Thanks, maples, for a sweet gift.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A REALLY HOT Investment Idea!

In light of recent economic turmoil, with government bailouts and banks "too big to fail", we can see more plainly that greedy bankers and investors are using our money to gamble. They're not taking our cash to the casino, rather they're betting our retirement and pension contributions on the stock market and shady mortgage deals. Of course they're trying to bet on "sure winners" so they, I mean we, get the largest possible return. Here in the state hit worst by the collapse of the auto industry, I'm not pretending there will be much of a retirement fund when I get there. I won't be putting cash in jars and buryin' it in the backyard, but my savings will end up in the ground.

Then we add another great folly of our time: biomass fuels. Recently, we discovered that when you burn food for fuel, the food, corn in this case, becomes a commodity. Well, OK, corn already was. Our American appetite for motor fuel almost took the corn tortilla out of Mexican culture. Our local power company is in favor of a biomass conversion plant, where who-knows-what would be burned to heat water to make electricity.

In another column, soil fertility has been declining for years. That corn probably wasn't worth eating anyway, so poor was its mineral content. Thanks to the Haber process, we have a handy way to make nitrogen fertilizer out of, guess what ... natural gas. Thus, our soil fertility program is tied to the price of fossil fuels, and subject to international disputes (see Russia vs. the rest of Europe). While nitrogen fertilizer gets more and more expensive, we mine the mineral apatite as a phosphorus source. While you're waiting for Peak Oil, keep an eye out for Peak Apatite!
I have another idea. Listen carefully 'cause I'm only gonna say this once, "Invest in the soil!"I repeat, "INVEST IN THE SOIL!"

Here in northern Michigan, one does not need to look far to find a farm that would have benefitted from the advice of Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, the founders of permaculture, instead of the advice of John Deere, the inventor of the moldboard plow. It all comes back to those teeming millions of bacteria in the soil. When soil is disturbed (plowed, disced, rototilled), the foods for the bacteria get homogenized. It's like a dirt smoothie, and they can get all they need very easily. They grow like crazy, and as they grow, they consume organic matter. When the forests up here were logged and the land sold to immigrant with dreams of farms, the plows mixed the soil and the bacteria ate that precious 2-3 inches of topsoil. The potatoes yielded less and less, and the immigrants left for town, my ancestors among them. Nature has been trying to repair the loss ever since, with spotted knapweed and autumn olive, among other remedies.

Let's learn from history. We are living in an exciting wave of new agriculture: small farms, local markets, caring people. Those of us with gardens are right there with them. We are going to succeed in an era of high energy costs by our willingness to work at it. I offer one basic principle that farmers in India and China have been using for thousands of years: compost, compost, compost.

Organic matter in the soil increases water holding capacity, adds mineral ion exchange capacity, and provides homes and food to billions of microrganisms that provide plants with slow-release mineral nutrition in just the right form. Translated, this means, if your soil is rich in organic matter, you don't need to water as often, any nutrients you apply will stay in the soil instead of leaching out with rains, and you probably won't need to apply fertilizer anyway. On the balance sheet, soil organic matter adds up to work you don't have to do!

Here's my great investment idea: on the tiny cultivated fraction of my 6 acres, I'm going to work on building soil organic matter. Household food scraps and garden trimmings go in the compost. The compost will, of course, go on the garden. The worm bin gets shredded paper and junk mail (no shiny inserts of course). The worm castings will be made into high-quality compost tea and potting mix. Leaves, lawn clippings and such get piled in windrows on ground that will someday be garden. Soon, we'll have some cute little furry manure producers (a.k.a bunnies) who will add to the garden soil. After much permaculture reading, I've adopted a greater tolerance for autumn olive, a nitrogen-fixing shrub. I also plan to add more of the soil-building plants listed by Toby Hemenway in Gaia's Garden. If I can swing it, nothing organic will leave this place!

We shouldn't burn biomass for energy if we can help it. Since burning adds yet more CO2 to out beleagured atmosphere, we shouldn't burn ANY plant material, paper, cardboard, etc. that could be used another way. As individual landowners, even small ones, and as communities, we need to invest in the land that might sustain us. I say "might" because we've neglected this savings account for more than 50 years, and we're paying the price. Our land is our best investment. Carefully tended, it will provide riches in the form of good food for years to come.

So start a backyard compost pile or worm composting system. Everything, I mean EVERY thing that will rot needs to go in a compost pile, or be spread lovingly on the land in a sheet mulch. If we produce more compostables than you can use, we need to find a way to get them back to the farms that support us. In an ecosystem, all matter is recycled within the system. So must it be with our communities as well.

Monday, February 8, 2010

It's Almost Time ...

Groundhog Day, the sun climbing a little higher in the sky, a bit of warmth ... all signs that maple syrup season is not far off. The next wave of days when the temperatures get above freezing should get things started.

We got the buckets out of storage in the pole barn. Next we bleach them and rinse them. Then wewatch the forecasts.

LR and I asked one of the trees, "Is it time yet?" The tree replied, "ARE YOU CRAZY??"
I'm planning to add about 12 more trees to the Sugar Trail, as we call it; we could end up with about 50 gallons of sap per day. We'll be boiling at a friend's shack this year. Next year, I hope to boil here. Anybody know of a small evaporator for real cheap?
Soon, the hours of trudging through snow with heavy buckets, breathing the steam heavy with the scent of syrup, smelling of woodsmoke for days. Soon, drinking the sap as a ritual spring tonic, flushing out the crud of winter like so much dirty snow. Soon ...