12/28/2012 COMPOSTING REDUX
Snow drought: I’d never
heard the term before this winter.
The drought that plagued the Midwest all summer continues, and on
our farm, as throughout much of the region, the first significant winter
precipitation has come only in the last several days.
Mississippi River is running dry—barge traffic is already limited,
and the depth at Thebes,
Illinois, will drop to three
feet within a week. Three feet! The Great Lakes, too, have dropped to
historic low levels <See http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com on low water levels
>. The Midwest relies heavily on the Mississippi for transporting grain
out, and petroleum and fertilizer in—if barge traffic is further
limited or stopped, as seems unavoidable, the effect on the entire region,
especially farmers, will be enormous.
snow finally fell on December 26th, there were no complaints in
our home about the cold, and our ordinary delight in a landscape
transfigured and illuminated by snow was only increased by the vigor of the
storm: more than four inches
fell, according to our gauge.
That’s big snow by southeast Michigan standards. Still, snowfall in many parts of
Michigan remains ten—or twelve—or seventeen inches below
lived most of my life in various warm-weather regions of California, and
spent more than two years in equatorial Africa. Given a choice between a beach and a
ski slope, I’d choose the beach every time. This morning, my cowardice regarding
the cold struck as it occasionally does in winter: I hesitated in the warm kitchen, a
bowl of kitchen leftovers meant for the compost bin in my hands. Outside, the bins were lumpy white,
hump-backed creatures under thick furry snow coats, and I thought of the
kitchen garbage bin, which was so close I could easily reach out and dump
the bowl’s contents into it.
Seven weeks ago, I shoveled ripened compost out from the bin
I’d filled with kitchen scraps and garden trimmings last winter and
spring. The compost, a ruddy
chestnut brown, yielded to the shovel’s edge, crumbling, and filled
my ten gallon bucket to overflowing.
I felt rich as I raked the compost over my raised beds, envisioning
spring vegetables sprouting in it, greening, flourishing
on the compost’s vast treasury of nutrients.
unlike most commercial soil amendments, needn’t be brought in a barge
or forged from fossil fuels.
And so, remembering the fall compost harvest, I went out this
morning into the snow and wind with my offering of onion skins, steeped tea
leaves and coffee grounds—some of which I spilled, wrestling open the
door of the compost bin, which had conveniently frozen shut.
I am struck by the inadequacy of my little efforts to repair the damaged
earth, ferrying kitchen parings to a compost bin, or writing
poetry—and all the while, a great river is drying up; another species
has died off while I type. And yet, in the cumulative effect of small
choices—scraps to the compost bin rather than dumped in the garbage
pail; a family’s tomatoes grown on a balcony, its chickens in the backyard;
writing a poem, a song, a story that embraces the beauty and fragility of
the natural world—lies some hope. As New Hampshire poet and farmer Maxine Kumin writes, from out of “our spatterings and embarrassments—/ cat vomit,
macerated mice, rotten squash, / burst berries.../ arises a rapture of
OF APPLES AND PEARS, GRAPES AND POTATOES
Enormous flocks of crows normally visit
our apple trees in late fall, gleaning the withering fruit that we could
not reach at the tops of the larger trees. But our entire fruit crop failed
this year, and the crows instead headed for the harvested wheat field,
searching through straw for the seeds that remain.
Every year, something we’ve planted
fails, and something else astonishes by producing more—wildly,
crazily, wonderfully more—than expected. Usually, we’ve been glad of a
few delicious clusters from our grapevines. As if to compensate for the lack of
apples, pears and cherries in the orchard, the grapes this year fruited
with great exuberance from vines growing so enthusiastically that I had to
cut them back repeatedly as they attempted to take over the espaliered
passion fruit and the tomato bed as well.
It took some work to keep the grapes from
being appreciated and consumed solely by the insect world. We fought off an attack by grape
berry moths in spring using sticky traps, hand picking, and a spray of
agricultural kaolin (a fine white clay). In mid-summer, Japanese beetles
staged a follow-up attack but were easily distracted by pheromone
lures. And so in September, we
had a splendid grape harvest.
We ate cluster after cluster, and still had an abundance to
gather—ripe berries for flavor and color, green grapes and stems for
pectin to thicken the juice—plenty to mash, simmer, strain, and then
store several jars of tart, garnet-colored grape jelly.
And then, in October, came the potato
harvest. We plant our seed
potatoes at a shallow depth, and rather than hilling them with dirt, use
straw left from the wheat harvest. (The tubers must be covered, because
those that undergo photosynthesis turn green and produce the nerve toxin solanin—the same glycoalkaloid
that gives deadly nightshade its well-deserved reputation).
you remove the straw at harvest time, the potatoes sit cradled in the soil,
bright in their skins of pink, red, gold, purple, blue and brown. From eight pounds of seed potato
planted in May, we harvested over 80 pounds of potatoes for eating, giving
away, and selling—Prince Edward Sunshines
for roasting, coated with olive oil and rosemary; bright purple Caribé for frying with lemon and parsley; and
rosy-skinned French Fingerlings with
their superb, nutty flavor for boiling and mashing and baking.
can one be grateful enough for all of this—for the grapes and the
potatoes; for the planting and the harvesting; for the work of tending the
land and for the winter’s rest from that work?
9/19/2012 WATER, WEATHER AND WILDLIFE,
This year of drought, wild creatures have
come in extraordinary numbers to spend summer and early fall on our farm. Mid-day, a pair of red-tailed hawks
hunt, riding the updrafts above the bright gold straw in the harvested
wheat field while goldfinches dart along the thistles at field’s
edge. Warm afternoons, indigo
blue buntings flit among the blue vervain and a family of four sandhill cranes
stalk their way through the hedgerows and the goldenrod. Young cliff swallows swoop and swing
across the sky, chasing enormous, fat dragonflies, then rest on the rain
gutters of our house. As our
sprinklers go round—trying to keep emerging native grasses and our
young native trees alive—robins play in the spray and hunt worms and
grubs. Later, the young
groundhog lounges out of his (her?) burrow beneath the woodpile and yet
again tries to find a way into my fenced garden, its ripe fat
blackberries. A dozen turkeys,
led by the matriarch (an unusual mostly white wild turkey called a piebald
or Smoky Grey), scrounge for beetles beneath the orchard trees, give up,
and invade our neighbor’s chicken coop.
In the long shadows of early evening, we
often walk the path that skirts the edges of the native prairie. This year, more cottontails than
usual scatter before us on the path and piles of coyote scat, thick with
fur of rabbit, raccoon and feral cat are numerous. A couple nights ago, near the larger
of our wetlands, we startled a pair of three-point bucks which leapt away
from us, magnificently, through the grasses that had hidden them. And as I made dinner three weeks ago, I watched,
entranced, out the kitchen window as two still-spotted fawns wandered
delicately about our yard and dined at my poor, deer-harried hosta bed.
Our own dinner was a little later than I’d planned.
no doubt the abundance of wildlife results in part from the native grasses,
wildflowers and trees we’ve planted. Mostly, though, it’s
water that brings so many animals here. For water, like hope—hope for
the drought’s end, hope for a better harvest next year, hope that we all will tend to this planet we’ve been
given before unusual weather like this year’s becomes the
norm—continues to come to us through the farm. Water springs out of the
hill’s side above our ephemeral kettle pond, and in this year of drought,
I’ve come to a better understanding of why springs were sacred to the
ancient Greeks. Our water has
slowed to a trickle now, but there, all around the water’s short
muddy course before it is absorbed by the thirsty clay, animals have
trampled and hopped and left their marks.
8/1/2012 WATER, WEATHER AND
WILDLIFE, PART 1
The skies have not been kind this spring
and summer. We received less
than a quarter inch of rain in all of July, and the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration map shows our farm in a Severe Drought region
(the U.S. Drought Monitor: http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/
). I wonder, sometimes, whether
the nation at all realizes how dire the situation is: drought has stricken the places
where most of our food is grown, but barely touched the coasts, where most
of us live. It’s hard
even for me, living in Michigan, to imagine how it could be much worse, in
the Extreme and Exceptional Drought Areas of Indiana and Illinois.
Even before the
drought, farmers in Michigan were having a rough year. The historic warmth we experienced
in March (in the ’80s for over two weeks)
meant fruit trees budded out too soon. And then normal cold returned. Once buds are on the trees, it takes
only half an hour at 25 degrees to destroy ninety percent of a fruit
crop. For all my efforts at
wrapping trees in fabric to hold in warmth and tucking hand warmers by the
dozens into the crotches of limbs, the nascent fruits in our orchard were
killed by the April freezes.
Michigan, which provides three-fourths of the nation’s tart
cherries, experienced a near-total loss of its crop (ninety-seven
percent). It’s particularly
sad because this is a state of small, family farms, many already
struggling. Not a single piece
of fruit hangs on our orchard trees this year, not even on the glorious
heritage Gravenstein, normally loaded in August
with hundreds of stripy red and yellow apples that we simmer into pale pink
applesauce and preserve for winter.
And then, there’s the effect on
plants and wildlife. The little
seepage spring that gives rise to Raspberry Rill—the rivulet that
flows into the two-acre wetland on our farm’s northern edge—has
dried up, as it does every summer.
But this time, it trickled to a stop a month earlier than
usual. And with no rain to
provide groundwater flow, the wetland itself is an expanse of cracking, dry
ex-mud. The beautiful elms, basswoods,
and old oaks near it are yellowing and dropping leaves, and I worry about
the frogs, toads, salamanders, and little, shy, Massasauga
rattlers that live there—.
Every day, I scan the sky for rainclouds several times, check the
radar hoping for the approaching blotches of orange and rust that mean
rain—and hope and hope and hope for rain.
7/6/2012 THE PRAIRIE IS GROWING
swath of gold-yellow is lighting up the eastern slope above our kettle
pond. Despite drought, despite
blazing heat, the black-eyed Susans that we sowed
last fall in our native prairie are blooming by the hundreds. From my desk, the individual,
pointillist flowers are indistinct—as if an enormous paintbrush
dipped in glowing paint swept across the hill’s lower contours.
The hard work of preparing the
soil and planting our native prairie seems so long ago—before spring,
before winter—and we’ve been so busy this spring and early
summer with garden and orchard, that we had forgotten to watch for the
blooming of the wildflowers.
They came to us like an unlooked-for gift on a half-birthday.
Tens of thousands of native asters
and goldenrods flourished here before we planted the prairie, and
they’re back, though most are not yet in bloom. Cattails are growing in the wet
bottom of the seasonal kettle pond, and some uninvited beauties--flowers
like miniature sombreros, yellow-petaled, with
tall thimble-shaped seed heads—burst open in mid-June, alongside
simple, soft yellow blooms and others with centers the color of ripe melon
that flicker to marigold yellow at petals’ end. I haven’t yet identified them
with certainty, but hope they are natives, or at least not invasives that will push the natives aside. All the
while, grasses—Indian grass, switchgrass,
and the endearingly named little bluestem—rise towards sun and sky,
shaped into wave upon green-gold wave by the wind.
by some good wind, butterflyweed, a milkweed type
which we had not planted, came to us this year. Also called Pleurisy Root (Native
Americans chewed on its roots to relieve pleurisy and lung problems), its
clustered, intricately shaped flowers glow orange on the northeast
hillside, not far from our stand of black walnuts and wild
raspberries. May its nectar, a
butterfly favorite, succour for many years the
monarchs that grace our farm, sailing through on south winds each spring.
5/31/2012 PRAISE FOR DAPPLED
Over six thousand daffodil
cultivars were grown, or grew wild, in the 1930s—daffodils
with names like Trumpet Major (known since at least 1576), Twin Sisters
(1597), Campernelle (1601), and Madame de Graaf (1887).
Just a small fraction still exist, and many
even of these are disappearing.
We favor native plants on our land, but there’s
good reason to preserve non-natives like our heirloom hyacinths and
daffodils (some favorites are in these photos I took in April) that
won’t push the natives out.
Preserving variation among and within species is surely important so
that plants can fight off diseases and pests. But we also think the flowers
are just plain pretty. All
winter, we anticipate the little miracles of spring blooms pushing up from
bulbs hidden in the warming earth.
The small purple cups of crocus appear first, opening to reveal
gold-furred stamen. Then pools
of blue scilla spread in shady spaces, the
sweet-scented hyacinth spikes push up, and finally the daffodils. Especially the daffodils.
In his gorgeous 1877 poem,
“Pied Beauty,” George Manley Hopkins praises variety, not just
of the natural world, but of what we humans create, especially the places
where we embroider and elaborate on the natural:
Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of
couple-color as a brinded cow;
rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim...
plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough.”
And glory be,
too, for those people who are saving what remains of “dappled
things.” We buy our bulbs
from them—mostly from the wonderful folks at Old
House Gardens here in southeast Michigan < http://www.oldhousegardens.com
I enjoy looking closely at the daffs
I gather from our yard and farm:
they are so different, not just in the more obvious qualities of
color and size, but in the lengths of their trumpets, the angles between
petal and stem, the frillings of the corona. We don’t just lose genetic
diversity or disease resistance when we breed a world in which every apple
is a Red Delicious or Granny Smith, every daffodil a King Alfred. Whether the source of that variation
is natural, human or divine—or some combination—we lose a vital
source of our own joy in that world.
4/21/2012 TURKEYS AND HUNTERS
Three years ago, we first
sighted a lone female turkey on our farm. Half a year later, we saw her leading a little
group of poults. Today, a flock of at least eight
adult wild turkeys roams the farm.
Turkey on Our Farm, April 2012
Wild turkeys have a prehistoric
tone to their walk—long-legged; a little awkward; thrusting—and
they’re big. The turkeys who choose to live
here hang out mostly among our tall native forbes—goldenrod
and aster, bergamot and milkweed—and along the edges of our wooded
areas of native plum, hickory and black walnut.
Last fall, when we planted our
five-acre native prairie, we kept the turkeys in mind, seeding the
bunchgrasses they love—switchgrass, Indian
grass, and bluestem. The native
prairie, it’s nice to realize, is in keeping with long
tradition: the idea of
conducting burns in order to maintain meadows for turkeys originated with
the Ojibwe, who were numerous in the immediate
area of our farm before the settlers.
In the last month—March
and April are mating season— the males have been strutting for the
females, puffing out their abdomen feathers and spreading their tails
vertically, as if they were feathered platters on display. We’re hoping for a multitude
of poults in a month or two.
The turkey in the photo became
separated from the flock for awhile.
After I took this photo, it came within fifty feet of our house, and
we were thrilled.
But perhaps these turkeys’
relative comfort with humans isn’t in their favor. Last weekend, a young neighbor
decided to come onto our land, apparently to hunt them. It was not turkey season; nor is
hunting with firearms allowed by local ordinance, in our area. People with guns on our farm are
more than a little scary, as we and our children work on the farm and walk
there quite a bit. It would be
easy for someone to think that the person moving about in the tall grasses
or woods was a deer. This young
man actually stood in the backyard of our house, aimed a shotgun out over
the farm, and shot at the turkeys.
Unfortunately, by the time police arrived, he had run off to his
family’s woods. The
good news: the turkeys had
escaped. This time.
This morning, I dumped into the
compost bin: three
half-grapefruit rinds, two cups used coffee grounds, a cardboard take-out
container, and several withering strawberries sporting grey-green coats of
mold. “Like a still
life,” I said later, describing how beautiful our kitchen scraps looked on
their background of half-decayed vegetables and paper shreddings.
“You have got to be kidding
me,” said my husband, who has gradually come round to the idea of
composting but is no true believer.
In fact, he is quite happy to “let” me take care
The word compost comes from the Latin—com, meaning “together,” and ponere, “to bring.”
Thus, to compost is to bring the disparate together—but to do
so with intention. The Latin
root also begets words describing the work of cooks, visual artists, and
music composers: compote, borrowed from the French,
for a delicately simmered mixture of fruit, and of course composition, for—as the Oxford
English Dictionary puts it—“the art of constructing sentences
and of writing prose or verse” and also for composing music, drawing
or painting “to form a harmonious whole.”
an actively decomposing compost pile does indeed involve maintaining a
harmonious balance of nitrogen-rich and carbon-rich additions, plus enough
moisture. And the pile must be
aerated, since it’s aerobic bacteria that
convert kitchen, garden and paper waste into carbon dioxide, heat
and—most important for finished compost’s use as a soil
conditioner—nitrites and nitrates.
My compost piles don’t
always achieve that harmonious balance. A large, wire bin sits outside the
garden gate for garden waste, and two bins just outside our back door take
in kitchen scraps and shredded paper from our home business. We alternate use of the kitchen
composters, letting the compost in one bin “cook” while filling
the other. But because
I’m rather laissez-faire about the whole thing—I don’t
cut the scraps up small, I don’t work hard at maintaining the perfect
balance of the nitrogen-rich and the carbon-rich—in late summer the
bins occasionally offer up an odor that is definitely less than
husband was right in at least one way:
compost is anything but “still life”—it is made up
of the dead, and of what living plants let drop as we do our fingernail
clippings: browning leaves,
frost-withered tomato plants, carrot peelings, beet tops, and the corn stalk’s hairy roots. It changes at the microscopic level constantly, and to the naked eye from day to day. And that rapid movement toward decay
is what works the miracle, makes dirt fertile beyond imagining out of what
would otherwise end up in a landfill, where without air or adequate
moisture, the same process can take hundreds of years.
The happy news for someone like
me—who, like most of us, strives to compose a harmonious balance
among the too-many things we do—is that my composting is good
enough. I toss things in as
they come along, shred or tear up paper, pour in water when the mixture
looks dry. I bought kitchen
composters that rotate easily, so I don’t need to get the pitchfork
to turn the pile—I just give them a spin every week or two, to keep
the mixture aerated. If my compost were a poem, it would be a found poem,
pieced together from randomly chosen lines of other texts. Sure, the process takes a little longer than it
would in a perfectly orchestrated pile, but the first two batches of
compost, which ripened last summer and fall, turned out sweet-smelling
(really!) rich black dirt.
“Don’t be ashamed to
saturate dry soil / With rich manure, and scatter grimy ashes / over
exhausted ground,” Virgil writes. So with a certain sense of ceremony,
and of connection with others who have loved and stewarded and nourished
the earth, I dug the compost into two of my garden beds. Come spring, come summer: I’ll see how my garden there
From the perspective of a gardener in the
temperate latitudes, the Romans got it right when, around 450 BC, they
modified their calendar and made January the first month of the
year—January, named for Janus, god of time and transitions, of
doorways and beginnings: the
god of two faces, one looking backward on the year just passed, the other
gazing forward on the year to come.
looking forward to the new year of growth in garden, orchard, native
plantings and farm—and to the days at my desk, growing stories and
poems and my novel; I’m also looking back on what worked well (and
not so well) in 2011, and have begun the luxurious thumbing through of my
garden journal, deciding what to order again and what not, and of paging
through seed catalogs—Abundant Life Seeds (organic,
sustainably grown, with lots of open pollinated & heirloom seeds),
Peaceful Valley (more organics), and Territorial (terrific planting and
cultivation explanations; good garlic selection). It’s easy to get excited and
greedy. If I wrote everything I
first hope to, when thinking ahead, and if I actually ordered every
interesting seed, fascinating plant or delicious-sounding tuber that I
circle on my first time through the catalogs, I’d have no time for
sleep, and we’d need a pickup truck to collect the seed boxes
delivered to our mailbox down the road.
Garlic is going
to be a big part of our garden this year. It’s easy to grow, and the
difference between a really good garlic and the
hybridized types sold in the stores is as huge, in my family’s
opinion, as that between a home-grown heritage tomato and one produced in a
mid-winter hydroponic hothouse.
Most stores carry two types of garlic (elephant and
“regular”), but there are hundreds of garlic cultivars, each
with its unique flavor, ripening time, and skin color. Our family actually did blind taste
tests last year, with bowls of roasted garlic from the store and from the
garden. The store garlic went
uneaten after the first taste.
2011, German Red garlic did spectactularly for
us, so we’re planting several rows of it for 2012. It’s a mid-season
hardneck garlic, which you’re very unlikely
to find at the store, since
the hardneck garlics
don’t store as well as the softnecks (hardnecks have a woody central stem, on softnecks, the stem is soft). And yet the best, widest range of flavors are found in the hardnecks. German Red is gorgeous, its
translucent white outer skin layered over an inner skin of pale, glossy
terracotta—like chiffon over bisque satin. But it’s the flavor that gets
to you. Strong, rounded, a
little challenging. Perfect for
roasting until caramelized and
then smearing over a slice of sourdough.
as with the garden, so—stretching a little for this metaphor—I
hope to do with the writing: to
write what is strong
and true and rooted in the earth, what’s not found in the usual
marketplace. And what makes you
want to come back for more.
12/27/2011 WORD AND WORLD
Flakes and froths of snow are
falling slowly, almost tenderly, on orchard and forest, garden and
farm—as though the snow has something to say, something that should
be listened to. I’ve had
the privilege, today, of having time to watch and listen to that slow fall
of snow, to the wind, to the movement of four does and a buck through
brush, to the red-tailed hawk circling over our farm during the hour,
mid-day, when the snow stopped.
Buck and Goldenrod, November 2011
Tending to the natural world
nourishes and sustains the world of the word, both spoken and written. Homer relates that Odysseus, that
master of word and wile, learned horticulture as a youth from his father
the king, and it’s in the land of the Phaeacians, whose marvelous gardens Homer describes
with admiration, that Odysseus first tells the story of his travels. In his Georgics, Virgil takes
“what makes the corncrops glad, under which
star/to turn the soil” as his subject. And in Genesis, after speaking
the universe into being, and immediately after creating the first human,
God places the human in a garden “to till it and keep it”: a garden is our first and natural
home, and keeping that garden our first vocation.
At home: this is indeed how I feel when
I’m digging the soil in our garden, turning up its mineral-laden
clay, streaks of sand that allow the soil to breathe and drain, worms that
quickly turn back down into the dark, the rich, the good earth. While pruning peach and pear trees,
planting early pea seeds in half-frozen dirt, tilling manure in around the
rhubarb, so often the word I’ve needed for a poem, the plot turn
I’ve needed for a story, simply comes to me. When I look up from my desk, out at
the wind sweeping the grasses on the eastern slope into wave after
magnificent green-gold wave, or raising a mist of fine snow crystals over
the ice-touched pond, the same often happens. As if in order to hear what the
words want to say, I need to hear what the world of wind, wing and water
wants to say, too.
11/10/2011 OUR NATIVE PRAIRIE
we completed the planting of native grass, wildflower, and sedge seeds on the
five acres of the farm that include our seasonal kettle pond and the slopes
around it. We’d planned
to sow all the seed in May, but it was the rainiest spring since we bought
the farm, and more than an acre of the bottom of the kettle—which
normally dries out in late spring—was underwater. So we planted four acres in spring,
and waited for fall to spread the seed on the wettest section.
Kettle Pond, May 2011
this five acre section, we’re using the usual (and, we’ve
learned, expensive) method of developing a native prairie. It’s taken four years, five
acres, 40-some pounds of native seeds and 15 lbs of rye grass for a cover
crop ($1,600), three prescribed burns ($5,400), tilling, sowing, and
rolling—and an awful lot of sweat.
other twenty-five acres are what I sometimes call The Lazy Woman’s
Prairie. We’re going to be very interested to see how the five acre
section compares, over time,
to these twenty-five acres where we’re trying something completely
different in native prairie development: keeping costs, effort, and carbon
footprint to a minimum. In this
area, over the last four years, we’ve been controlling non-native
plants, particularly those that spread rapidly or are toxic to native
plants—for example, garlic mustard. I’ve planted a few native
plants that I couldn’t resist at native plant sales, or that friends
gave me. And three years ago,
we tossed four pounds of native wildflower seeds onto the ground in a few
places, with our blessing, but with no soil preparation,
no watering, and no fertilizing.
This year, for the first time, some of those wildflowers
In January, 2006, my husband and
I bought a farm in Southeast Michigan.
He’s an engineer; I’m a writer by choice, a social
scientist by training—we were some of the most unlikely and
naïve farm owners ever.
But our home overlooked an 80
acre farm, and developers had been bidding on it. We desperately wanted to save the
sloping land with its small wooded areas, its wildflower-rimmed fields and
its wetlands, its hedgerows sheltering wildlife, from being turned into
neat rows of houses marching up and down denuded hills—this, in an area
with no need for more housing.
Wheat, October 2011
And so we became the owners of Windhover Ridge Farm.
It's been a wild and wonderful
ride, and we learn more every year.
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