Archive for the ‘Home & Farm’ Category

Worms and Potatoes

October 9, 2011

When I pulled back the worm bedding, this is what I found.

Two winters ago, J & I made a foray into vermiculture. We keep the worm bin in the basement, where we alternate layers of shredded newspaper with food waste. The worms plunder their way through this bin, leaving behind one of the richest manures on earth.

Throughout the winter, whenever I notice that something I’m storing in the basement has gone bad, I chuck it in the bin. (I store turnips, cabbages, squash, onions, potatoes, and other items in the basement over the winter.) In late winter this year, all the potatoes sprouted like crazy. Many of them were small and not worth saving, so into the worm bin they went.

Harvesting worm castings is a tedious job. The method is to make a bunch of little piles in the bright sunlight. The worms bury deep into the piles to avoid the light. You take the castings from the top and sides, then wait for them to bury still deeper and again scrape around the edges. But truthfully, you never avoid getting a bunch of the worms along with the castings—at least I don’t.  I tend to put the task off, but today I figured I better take advantage of the unseasonably warm weather to get the job done.  When I dumped the box onto a tarp, I found the most amazing thing.

The potatoes I had tossed in months earlier, had thrived in the worm bin. With no leaves for photosynthesis, these potatoes had somehow multiplied like crazy. The worms didn’t seem to be eating them at all, but they did seem to eat all around them. Many of these potatoes came out of the bin shiny and clean (though not the ones in the photo here), except that they were covered in worms that were not eating them. None of the potatoes had gotten very big—most were smaller than my pinky, but some of them grew in sizable clusters.

How did the potatoes grow without photosynthesis? None of the potatoes still had the sprouts that had caused me to pitch them in the first place; they were not even trying to get to sunlight or set roots. And why did the worms leave them alone? Was the potato growth simply able to outpace the pace of the worms, or did the worms avoid eating them for a reason? And why didn’t these potatoes begin to decompose anyway, even without the worms? They were in a moist, sometimes wet, place for more than six months, I’ve seen potatoes rot under much better conditions, even in the ground.  I have to wonder if there is some sort of symbiotic relationship going on. If anyone has any knowledge about this, I would love to know more!


Cranberry Flan

November 13, 2010

Last week I made an impulse buy of a pound or two of fresh cranberries. A couple days later I made some French toast and had a fair amount of batter leftover. I decided to combine the two in this unusual cranberry dessert. I am reconstructing the measurements here since I didn’t measure them at the time.

The batter:

Vaccinium oxycoccus (Cranberries)

Image via Wikipedia

Whisk together:
3 eggs, beaten well
4 Tbl melted butter
2 Cups milk
4 Tbl vanilla
4 Tbl sugar
2/3 Cup flour
Dash salt

The fruit:
3 Cups fresh cranberries
2-3 large apples, cored and sliced
1-1/4 Cups honey
1 tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground cloves
¼ tsp ground allspice
Pinch nutmeg

You will also need some more butter, some maple syrup and (if you like) some powdered sugar.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Butter a 9×12 baking dish. Spread the fruit mixture into the pan. Put a few pats of butter here and there on top of the fruit. Pour the batter evenly over the fruit. Bake for 45 minutes or until done. When it is out of the oven, drizzle about 1/3 cup maple syrup on top. Taste a cranberry, if it’s a little tart, that’s okay because the syrup honey and syrup will sink into the batter and make the dessert as a whole sweet enough. However, if it’s really quite tart, add more maple syrup until you are satisfied. Sprinkle the whole thing lightly with powdered sugar. Good warm or cold.

The Unending Gift of Compost

October 11, 2010


A picture of compost soil

Image via Wikipedia


Compost is amazing. I spent a few hours yesterday sifting the last couple months worth of the compost I’ve been collecting. Or rather, I’ve collected vegetable scraps and they are now sweet-smelling compost.  I use a 35-gallon plastic trash can for my main compost collector. I drilled holes in the side and bottom to provide air flow, and I roll it around once a week to keep it aerated. I also have a less-useful metal trash can with no holes drilled in it that I use when the first collector fills up. Because of the lack of air flow, the compost in the metal can gets pretty stinky, but I stir it around as best I can with a stick once a week. Yesterday, I poured all the compost onto two tarps in the morning and let it dry all day before sifting it. When I returned late afternoon with my sifting frame (some hardware cloth stapled to scrap 1x2s), the sun was already hanging low in the sky. Summer is truly waning. How pleasant then, to come across the mass of corn cobs and to remember sitting around the fire when Heather, Jonathon, Eliza, and Simon came to visit. We laid the fresh corn on the coals, then pulled back the shucks and silk to eat up. (The corncobs, of course, were not yet decomposed and went back in the collector.) Sifting farther, I came across a wine cork and remembered the lovely bottle I shared with Sigrid when she visited. Digging still deeper, I found the stem from last year’s jack-o-lantern, hardly decayed at all. I thoroughly enjoyed my unorthodox excavation of food scraps. It’s practically just a bonus that I now have about 40 gallons of compost in the basement, waiting to be mixed with potting soil or applied to the garden.

Mummies at Twilight

October 4, 2010

I plan to dress as a mummy for Halloween. Here is a picture of my costume.

But how, you might ask, will I move? My costume has no space to move my legs to walk, to hold out my arms for balance. It barely provides any scope of vision. To which I reply “Precisely! THAT IS WHAT MAKES IT SO SCARY!”

This is more than just a Halloween costume, people. This is my sleeping bag. These new-fangled mummy bags are great for backpacking. Lightweight, compact, and designed for warmth, a mummy sleeping bag is the only style you will find in the backcountry these days.

Normally I am not particularly claustrophobic. (My phobias are much more profoundly disturbing than the commonplace fear of enclosed spaces. I won’t go into them here. If I did, you might never sleep well again.) However, I spent virtually every night for the past ten days wrapped in this bag. Of course, it is entirely possible to extricate oneself from the bag, but not terribly quickly. As I lay alone in my tent with no one around for miles, I found myself wondering what I would do if a tree fell on me, or if a falling meteorite set fire to a bush and the flame leaped over to my tent, or if a bear insensibly decided to drag me from my tent and gnaw on me. I would not possibly be able to get myself out of the sack in time to do anything remotely useful.

These are not things I have ever worried about before. I’ll admit that I am more skittish about bears than I used to be, ever since that little incident in which I was charged by a grizzly in the Canadian Rockies. Even so, I am not much of a worrier. I know that most tragic incidents of bears attacking people in tents involve campers who brought food with them into a tent, or wore clothes that had food on them. I am meticulous about these matters and ought to sleep pretty soundly. Especially this time of year when bears are getting to be homebodies, readying their dens for the big sleep. But when I am trying to catch some shuteye on a small sleeping pad on the ground in 30-degree weather, sleep doesn’t always come as quickly as I might like. As I lay in the dark, every time I tried to turn my body I was reminded that these mummy bags are not built with range of motion in mind. I had time to consider the numerous times in my life that I’ve found range of motion useful in extricating myself from what might have otherwise been a perilous situation.

My encounters with other people during this backpacking trip were limited, but almost invariably involved  random people cheerfully giving me the latest news of recent bear attacks. Apparently a woman fought an attacking bear off with a zucchini somewhere out West. This should have been comforting—all it takes is a zucchini!—except I wouldn’t even be able to swing a toothpick until I could get out of my sleeping bag. (more…)

Jammin’ Out

August 9, 2010

Thanks to kind neighbors with surplus rhubarb, I’ve now made three batches of this simple rhubarb jam.  The recipe comes once again from Simply in Season, an excellent cookbook put out by the good folks at the Mennonite Central Committee (thanks Pam for giving me the book!).  The recipe says it yields 7-8 half-pints, but I get 3 pints a batch.

Rhubarb Strawberry Jam

6 Cups diced rhubarb
2 Cups lightly mashed strawberries
3-4 Cups sugar

Put the rhubarb and strawberries in a large saucepan with a heavy bottom. Bring to boil. Add the sugar and boil uncovered 20 minutes, stirring frequently. Pour into hot sterile jars to within 1/2 inch of top. Seal with sterile lids and process in boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

A Rabbit Truce

June 24, 2010

I’ve got rabbit problems. They eat the bushes, the flowers, the seedlings in my cold frame. So a few years ago, I decided to get a dog. I figured that would help keep the rabbits and deer away. But then the dog I got was  Anna: a very sweet 7-year-old lab who, it turns out, was trained as a bird dog. Part of that training involved learning to never chase deer or rabbits or anything but a few species of birds. Not blue-jays, apparently, since she will sit and watch them swoop down and take the food out of her dish. I thought I might be able to break her training, so for awhile whenever I saw deer in the field I would take her outside, point at them and urge her to follow what were surely her natural urges to chase them. Eventually, the deer would notice me gesticulating and shouting and run off without so much as a glance from Anna.

Anna the Dog

The rabbit problem continued unabated, and my yard began to look more and more like a fortress, with chicken wire surrounding all my little blueberry bushes, asparagus, and other treasures. Since I can’t be bothered to remove the fortresses when I mow, the lawn gets to be pretty shabby by the end of the summer. I blame Anna the Dog.

About six months ago I acquired two little kittens, both of whom adore Anna. One of them, Ice Cube, imitates her whenever he can. If Anna curls up to sleep, Cube curls up right next to her. If Anna spawls out, Cube forms a perfect image of the same sprawl just a few inches away. The other day, in an incident I would rather not expound upon, Cube caught a small rabbit. Anna took an interest in the whole process at the time, but it never occurred to me that she would aspire to imitate Cube.
Today, much to my dismay, Anna emerged from the woods carrying something small and fuzzy.  My only thought was that she had stumbled across something dead. But I took a closer look and the little rabbit appeared to still be alive, though it wasn’t moving at all.  Anna is known to vigorously shake anything floppy she gets a hold of, so I could only imagine that she must have broken the poor creature’s neck and that it would be dead very shortly. I thought that relieved me of the obligation to put it out of its misery. I went inside, telling myself to let nature run its course. But I looked outside, and there it was, with Anna carrying it around, sometimes setting it down for a bit, picking it back up again.  I stepped back out, and Anna brought it to me as she does her other toys. The rabbit was still alive. (more…)

Hard to Bear

June 15, 2010

some bear tracks found on a walk this weekend

Anna the dog and I have seen quite a few bear tracks on our walks lately.  I always enjoy trying to reconstruct the bears’ movements from the markings they left behind.  Could they have been responsible for digging up that ant hill?  Do these tracks explain the absence of berries on these wild strawberry plants? Anna the dog could frankly care less about the tracks, but she lives to chase live bears.  The sight of a bear, however large, transforms my ten-year-old gentle lab into a barking bullet with one objective: drive the bear back. She is not normally an aggressive animal.  If she sees chipmunks, rabbits, deer, or cats, her attitude is “live and let live.” She reserves her fierce sentiment for only two species: bumble bees and bears.

Happily, we saw no live bears this morning, but we hadn’t gone far when I heard a diesel motor.  I put Anna on the leash as we crested a hill.  Two ATVs emerged from the woods. The middle-aged woman on one of the machines waved me over. With a concerned expression, she explained that she and her husband (on the other ATV) were baiting bears back there, and that I should keep the dog on a leash on these walks. The bears hear their motor and about fifteen minutes after the humans leave, the bears descend on the food.  (Bear baiters train cameras on the bait so that they can monitor when bears are feeding, how many there are, how big they are, etc.)

Impressive bear scat near the tracks this weekend

I really wasn’t that worried about it, because Anna rarely heads in that direction and I rarely am walking her as late as today, so I would be ahead of the food delivery. Someone or another has been bear baiting portions of the walk all three years that I’ve lived here. Still, I appreciated them letting me know so that I can be on the alert. By way of making conversation, I noted that I certainly had seen quite a few bears this year.  “Oh, I know,” she said. “The DNR should really issue more [hunting] permits for them, there are so many. I used to take walks too, but now I don’t because there are so many bears.” The husband noted that the bears tear down their bird feeders every night. I am not an ecologist, and I don’t really know if I think there are too many bears relative to the rest of the ecosystem, but it sure seems like a bad idea to feed them if you think there ought to be fewer bears.

I have never liked bear-baiting. In fact, I’ve never liked the idea of baiting any animal.  If you want to hunt, that’s great, learn to hunt.  That means understand the subtleties of your prey, spend time in the habitat, and take only what you will use.  If you are actually on the verge of starvation, I can understand wanting the certainty of being able to show up at the same place where bear is used to getting donuts, and blowing it away.  But for recreation? I don’t get it.  (Actually, in possible proof that bears are smarter than humans, after a few months, they are less likely to show up at the source of free donuts.)


Organic Gardening 101

January 20, 2010

I was asked to give a talk recently about organic gardens. I thought that some of my blog readers might enjoy this very brief season by season overview. I also had two handouts, one on crop rotation and one on tilling. The source of information for tilling was a workshop I attended at an organic farming conference, but I no longer have the name of the presenter. All of the documents are in pdf format.

The presentation: OrganicVeggie

The handouts: Tips for tilling, Crop Rotation

An Old-Fashioned Christmas

December 28, 2009

Have you ever heard the oldsters wax nostalgic about the Christmases of yore?  The simple, handmade gifts.  The stocking with a single orange and a handful of nuts.  The real candles fastened to the tree.  The outhouses.  Okay, so they did omit a few details.  But I am here to illuminate you, because on Christmas Eve we discovered that the septic alarm was tripped.  For those of you who may never have had the joy of learning about septic tanks, the alarm goes off when the holding tank is full.  You then call the septic pumpers, who come and empty it for you.  (This is only for those of us whose soil can’t support a septic field.  I could go on about the various models of septic systems, but perhaps I’ll save that for another post.)

We did not actually hear the alarm sound because for some reason the alarm’s bell had been flipped to silent mode.  We suspect kittens were involved.  So there we were on Christmas Eve, looking at the red light indicating that we had about three days to get the tank pumped if we didn’t want raw sewage to start backing up into our house. How long had this little light been red?  It is housed in the basement, where we don’t go that often.  Neither of us could identify the last time we were sure the light was green.  (more…)

What a Difference a Hind Leg Can Make

December 6, 2009

Cougar Track (photo not mine!)

I set out to walk Anna the Dog in the 1-degree morning.  The previous evening, I had seen some very large roundish tracks leading into the woods at the end of our field.  The tracks were not very fresh and the wind plays such tricks on tracks in the snow, so I thought it could either be a large dog track that had been enlarged or a boot track that had been shrunk.  The boot track would have most likely been someone stopping by the road to take a quick piss, nothing I would worry about. True, the tracks didn’t come back out again, but the wind could have explained that too.

This morning Anna danced like a puppy in the frigid air, eager to check out anything that might have changed in the last twelve hours.  About a half-mile into our walk, she disappeared into the woods. My ears, muffled by hat and scarf, picked up some kind of unusual sound from the direction she had last been seen, but I didn’t think anything of it. Then, about twenty yards down the road, I again saw the large round tracks.  I looked closely and found one that left a clear imprint.  This was no trick of the snow, the print at my feet was nearly the size of my open hand.

It’s the sixth of December. According to the Wisconsin DNR, bears usually begin hibernating in October or November at the latest.  I didn’t think this track could belong to a bear.  I wondered if this track could be a cougar.  Cougars are believed to be rare here, though a few confirmed sightings in the region have occurred in the last 24 months.  (more…)