Biggest Change Yet

About once a year my daughter Claire asks me to lop a few inches off her long hair. We stand on the back porch where I brush it, always telling her that it glows gold and bronze in the sun. I inexpertly trim away the length she requests. Then, without a moment’s ceremony, we toss the locks over the porch rail onto the grass.

There they are scattered by the wind and washed by the rain. Some strands may end up woven into bird nests or fluffed around baby bunnies. Some surely return their carbon, nitrogen, and other constituents back into nature’s elaborate cycles. With the little I know about science I think of the sugar snap peas that Claire picked off the vine to eat, thereby contributing nutrients to the hair we just cut off, now tossed back onto that same land.

Claire has been, all the years we’ve had animals, the main person who made our little homestead work. She went out back several times a day no matter what the conditions: blizzard, extreme heat, driving rain, floods. She did this whether she was sick or studying for college exams or volunteering all day. She fed and tended livestock. She cleaned barns, spread manure, hauled feed, and led our steers on their final long walk. She paid close attention to the flora and fauna around her with her the aliveness she brings to everything. (For a glimpse, here are some of her pictures.) Perhaps those thousands of hours outdoors were part of what inspired her to major in biology.

Claire vowed to stay here until the end of her beloved cow Isabelle’s life. A woman of her word, she did. This week she has moved into her own lovely place with room for her many aspirations. We’re completely thrilled for her.

Her dad and I are now the ones heading out back several times a day in a pale imitation of Claire’s steadfast determination. Each time I walk past the last few strands of her hair on the grass I pause to see it glow gold and bronze in the sun.

 

 

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August Idyll

Bringing summer indoors.

Bringing summer indoors.

Ah, the quiet heat of August. At this point in the summer I no longer care about weeding. I tell myself weeds are improving the ground (they are, really) and shading our sun-parched soil.

Besides, we have to muster up the energy to start canning soon.

Daily tomato pickings.

Including these cheeky ones.

We’re eating lots of kale, chard, new potatoes, and cukes. Powdery mildew is already rampaging through my squash plants, but they’re still producing a few zucchini here and there.

Beans. So many beans!  We’re eating them in salads, stir fries, and making them into dilly beans. Some I leave on the vine to mature so I can shell and dry them for winter use and for next year’s seeds.

Here’s today’s haul, ready to turn into supper.

Every year I make fresh new gardening mistakes. This year a few rows of seedlings kept washing away in all our spring storms. I’d grab some seeds and start over, often in haste, not always keeping track of which row I was replanting with what. That explains why we have (ahem) three substantial rows of rutabagas. Yeah, we’ll be eating lots of those.

Milkweed is doing its caterpillar-luring thing.

Sunflowers are popular with pollinators.

bees

Make that doubly popular.

Queen Anne’s lace is bobbing and curtsying in the wind.

The noble thistle is doing its bristly best to improve the soil.

And I’ve given up pulling Joe pye weed. In part that’s because they grow deep roots very quickly, making them practically impossible to pull out. I’ve decided they’re wildflowers and enjoy their lovely blooms.

While watering yesterday I happened upon this malva, overlooked and nearly parched to death. I’m heartened to see that, even though its leaves are reduced to lacework, it’s still budding and blooming. Nature is full of hope. (Yes, I watered it!)

In my opinion, the best way to spend time outdoors in August is by reading on a shady porch or under a friendly tree, cool glass of something at hand. That’s where I’m headed. Right. Now. Hope you are too.

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Grass Knows Something

All things in nature are alive with intelligence we cannot entirely comprehend.

Inspired by reading the work of naturalist naturalist Henry Beston, I wrote an article asking why we place animal kingdoms below us. My piece, titled “Are You An Anthropocentrist?” is packed with facts but doesn’t truly get to the heart of what I hoped to say.

I found that heart.

It beats resoundingly in a deeply wise essay by Canadian author Luanne Armstrong. She puts into words, beautifully, what I so often think about as I observe the living world around me.

Grass is not only alive, it is responsive, and in its grass way, aware. Grass, mowed, turns into lawns, but given a chance, it will spring up and go wild in a very short time. It will cover sidewalks, parking lots, and walls. People rarely notice grass and yet they walk on grass all the time. They sit on it, lie on it. How many look down and see that the grass is alive?

Current research indicates that grass knows something. The smell of mown grass, which to the human nose seems so pleasant, is actually the smell of pheromones sent out by the grass. It is threatened, calling to pollinating insects. But we don’t hear it as that because we don’t know.

The grass is alive, I can say. But then I stop. What do I mean? Does the grass have consciousness, emotions, intelligence? I can’t tell. How to translate the grass? The grass looks inert but it is always moving. It grows, changes, exudes pheromones, and sends out root tendrils that find cracks in the strongest concrete. If I lie on the grass, does the grass say hello back from within its grass aliveness?

I may never truly know but it doesn’t matter. The realization of the aliveness of the non-human is the crack in the paradigm, a shift from understanding nature as passive, unfeeling, and mechanical, to seeing the non-human all around us as aware, a huge something in which we, as humans, participate but can never control, that we can study, become aware of, learn about and find many patterns of translation.

Read her entire essay here.

And check out Ms. Armstrong’s recent book, The Light Through the Trees: Reflections on Farming.

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Every House Needs A FoodRoom

foodroom,

If you’re not familiar with Gene Logsdon, Ohio native and lifelong farmer, you’ll want to get right out there and wallow in the rich soil of his work. He’s the author of dozens of books, each one deeply wise and entirely useful. Some of our favorites are The Contrary Farmer , Living at Nature’s Pace: Farming and the American Dream, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming. He’s written guides to growing berries, small-scale grain growing, even a book titled Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind.

I read his posts each week on his site, The Contrary Farmer, and enjoy every one. But this week’s post is too good not to share. It should go viral. It’s titled “Foodroom Gardening: No Rows, No Woes.” What he proposes is genius.

Each house, as he envisions it, would have a FoodRoom. It would be covered by a translucent roof that could be slid away during good weather. It would consist of garden beds the height of a tabletop where plants could grow year-round. No stooping or bending, no plants nibbled away by animals, no mosquitoes, no frost, no misery. It would provide an ongoing supply of fresh food  with minimal effort while making us all just a little more self-reliant.

As Gene writes,

Just think what would happen when the furniture business got wind of the new foodrooms. They would outdo themselves over who could make the most comfortable bar stool to glide alongside the plants to make eye level weeding and harvesting even more convenient.  And over the mantel of the typical American fireplace would not be a muzzle loader, but a hoe.

Please, go read his post. Then share it wherever you share great stuff.

Foodrooms,

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Use Till Tattered

Porch peace flags still hanging in there.

Porch peace flags still hanging in there.

Erma Bombeck, comedian of all things domestic, once wrote,

My mother won’t admit it, but I’ve always been a disappointment to her. Deep down inside, she’ll never forgive herself for giving birth to a daughter who refuses to launder aluminium foil and use it over again.

My parents used what they had until it couldn’t be used again. Clothes that couldn’t be repaired became rags (although I refused to use my father’s old underwear for a dust cloth). Bread bags were washed and turned inside out to dry. And yes Erma, sometimes foil was reused too.

My kids would surely say I uphold that tradition. It might be frugality, but I think there’s more to it. I have sort of a Velveteen Rabbit feeling about objects worn from use. I like using the same cloth bag to carry library books home. Sure it’s frayed, with straps ever shorter from being sewn back on, but the bag has life left in it. I wear shoes until sunlight shows through, then relegate them to gardening shoes. I save old jeans too, using them for everything from a jeans quilt to trying out my weird idea for jeans-based weed control.

I once wrote a post about the psychological effects of materialism, illustrating it with an image of my toe peeking through a hole in one of our very old blankets. My toe really didn’t appreciate the publicity. Yet here’s that photo again because it really illustrates my point.

Who takes pictures of their own toes in a past-its-prime blanket?

Who takes pictures of their own toes in a past-its-prime blanket?

We have lots of dear ones over for dinner on a regular basis. Each time, I use trivets that were probably given to my parents as wedding gifts over 50 years ago. The cork covering has degraded pretty badly, but they deflect heat as well as they ever did.

Useful, just unattractive.

Useful, just unattractive.

I also use the best hot pads ever. These were crocheted in tight little stitches by my grandmother sometime in the 1960’s. They still work perfectly even if marred by scorch marks. I’ve tried all sorts of replacements, from thermal fabric to silicone. Nothing is as flexible and washable as these handmade circles sewn together. If I could buy such crocheted hot pads, I would.

In use for decades. Stained but still perfectly functional.

Our towels are, as you might imagine, pretty tattered. Of course they absorb moisture as well as they did when their side seams were perfect.

Absorbent yet tattered.

Absorbent yet tattered.

We actually do buy new things. I can prove it.

The comforter on our bed had been worn through for years. I repaired it over and over until the fabric got so thin that it simply split. It had also been indelibly stained. I remember the origins of some of those stains. Like the time one of my son’s friends came in our bedroom late at night to seek our counsel on some apparently vital matter, sitting on the edge of our bed (with bib overalls greasy from working on his car in our garage) while chatting with my husband and me. Those stains wouldn’t launder out.

Bedspread of 20 years.

Bedspread of 20 years.

We used it with peek-a-boo batting for years until we broke down and bought a (severely marked down) bedspread. “A new bedspread? Who are you?” my daughter asked, “It’s like I don’t know you any more.”

Something new. It happens, even here.

Something new. It happens, even here.

There’s a heightened beauty in things we use everyday. I see it in our daily tablecloth, our heirloom serving dishes, our antique furniture. I like the sense of completion that comes when using something fully.  We’re supposed to use ourselves up too.

While we’re not defined by our things, they do say quite a bit about us. I guess I’ve said this already in a poem I tossed in my book Tending. Nuff said.

Object Lesson  

18 and in love

I heard

Too young.

Won’t last.

Yet each solid thing unwrapped

from fussy wedding paper

made it real.

The cutting board

too thin to last

split into kindling.

Paint chipped off leaky flowerpots

used until they cracked.

Bath towels, coarse and cheap,

wore down to barn rags.

Bed sheets, gone to tatters, torn

to tie tomato plants and peonies.

One last gift, a satin-edged coverlet

saved for good till every other blanket

fell to pieces. Pretty but polyester,

it too frayed to shreds.

Nothing temporal

remains inviolate.

All that’s left are

clear glass canisters

holding exactly what we put in them

right here on the counter

for us to see

each day of our long marriage.

Posted in frugality, gratitude, poem, repurposing, simple living | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

What The Plants Say

What The Plants Say

Tree, give up your secret. How can you be so satisfied? Why
don’t you need to change location, look for a better job, find
prettier scenery, or even want to get away from people?

Grass, you don’t care where you turn up. You appear running
wild in the oat field, out of a crack in a city street. You are
the first word in the vocabulary of the earth. How is it that you
are able to grow so near the lake without falling in? How can
you be so alert for the early frost, bend in the slightest breeze,
and yet be so hard to break that you are still there, quiet, green,
among the ruins of others?

Weed, it is you with your bad reputation that I love the most.
Teach me not to care what anyone has to say about me. Help me
to be in the world for no purpose at all except for the joy of
sunlight and rain. Keep me close to the edge where every wild
thing begins.

~ Tom Hennen,  from Darkness Sticks to Everything

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Indoor Seed Starting Problem Solved

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There are few things more glorious than a seedling emerging from the soil.

We’ve been starting seeds for decades with great success. We used to set up a low bench in front of a south-facing window and start a few tomatoes and peppers. That operation expanded. Soon we were also starting squash, cukes, eggplants, broccoli, even some flowers indoors. We got a little fancier about it each year, using warming mats, clear plastic sheeting, and grow lights; following all recommendations.

Each year we start seeds we’ve saved as well as seeds we buy from reputable companies like Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and Turtle Tree Seed. (You’re probably aware Monsanto owns the vast majority of seed companies including favorites such as Jung, Park Seeds, Stokes, and Wayside Garden. Burpee buys seeds from Monsanto subsidiary, Seminis. Even eco-friendly Seeds of Change is owned by the candy company Mars, Inc.).

We’ve tried all sorts of pots, from egg cartons to black plastic pots saved from nursery plants. One year we made little pots out of newspaper. It’s easy to do, but a few weeks of daily misting and the papers sprouted mold. That didn’t seem to hurt the seedlings at all, but our sinuses weren’t happy. 

Some seeds we start late in March, others not till mid-April. While wind, rain, and snow make our garden outdoor suited for only the earliest of plants, our little indoor plants flourish in cradles of dirt under benevolent artificial suns.

That is, until we bought online a huge supply of NK Seed Starter Pots sold by Plantation Products. An entire gross of multipacks.

Last spring we planted some seeds in these pots while using up other peat pots we’d bought locally. Quite a few seeds didn’t germinate, a first for us. We weren’t sure why. We thought that since NK pots are thicker and sturdier than other peat pots that we should water more or cover them longer, but none of those efforts worked. We ended up buying a few dozen tomato and pepper plants from a family not far from us. Disappointing.

This year we planted all our seeds in NK pots. Again, they were kept on warming mats under carefully calibrated grow lights. I imagined them awakening each day as I carefully tended (and yes, chatted with) those seeds. Instead we were shocked by a 95% non-germination rate. The few seedlings that emerged died within days. Okay, we thought. Let’s solve this. The pots are not too dry or wet, the light is not too low or high, the seeds are ones we saved or from reputable growers. What factors could be in play here?  We sterilized our seed starter potting soil (not a fun process) in case our soil harbored some evil dampening off virus, then replanted. Another week or so and again only a few seedlings emerged only to die.

It didn’t occur to us that the only variable was the pots themselves until we read a NYT article about a class of chemicals known as poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs, the same ones that help pizza boxes stand up to moisture without breaking down. PFASs are now implicated in health problems including cancer.

I don’t know if the NK Seed Starter Pots contained PFASs, but we realized something about those pots must be toxic. Coincidentally, I found several of last year’s discarded pots outside our barn. They’d been lying there exposed to 12 months of rain, snow, and mud. They were not even remotely decomposed, simply discolored. That’s odd, because right on the package growers are told to “plant pot and all.” No way could roots get through those stiff, unyielding pots.

The NK Seed Starter Pots are, according to the packaging, “Biodegradable. Made from organic recycled materials. All Natural Fiber Seed Starter.”

I say that’s not possible.

I emailed the NK Lawn & Garden people. I asked what “organic recycled materials” are used to make these pots. I offered to send them the dozens of unused pots of theirs we still have in their packages so they could test them for toxins and pathogens.

They replied the same day, offering to send different pots they produce.

Nothing can refund the time, money, and disappointment of having none of our own seedlings to transplant into the garden. No Dragon’s Egg cucumbers, Black Hungarian peppers, Rosita eggplant, Red Kuri squash, Jersey Devil tomatoes, or Cherokee Purple tomatoes.

Thank goodness the seeds I planted outdoors are up and growing heartily (so are the weeds). The peas are flowering and the broccoli is knee-high in places. Carrots, kale, chard, squash, rutabaga, cilantro, sunflowers, and corn are flourishing.

Next year we’ll go back to using old nursery pots we’ve saved. But if you’ve had problems germinating seeds indoors, consider peat pots as a possible villain.

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Posted in gardening, seeds, spring | Tagged , , , , , , | 21 Comments