Life in death

On a coffee break last Sunday, we sat outside watching the goats in their temporary pen. Large logs from the dead portion of the maple tree outside our kitchen door remained where they’d fallen—the goats like to climb on them, and one long branch looks like a sculpture of a praying mantis. So we had not yet cut them up and moved them to the splitting pile. Half of the maple had been dead for some time, with branches breaking off occasionally during storms. A couple of weeks ago we finally had our former neighbor from Waterman Lake, Mark Krawiec, of Krawiec Tree Service, remove that portion in the hope of extending the life of the tree and avoiding a crash through our kitchen roof.

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Tree sculpture

A lot of movement on one of the dead logs caught our attention. Upon closer examination we saw several bugs with lacey wings, a long red body with yellow and black stripes, and a black 3-inch “tail” walking along the log. Each bug appeared to feel, with its front feet, tiny holes previously bored into the log. When it found the right spot, it would do a handstand, raise its body in the air, and angle its long “tail” down, drilling it into the log. Once in place, it formed a bubble or transparent sack with an egg, and this disappeared down the tail.

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Log with several wasps
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Megarhyssa macrurus
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Rearing up
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Egg

A search online revealed that these fascinating bugs are Megarhyssa macrurus, or giant ichneumon wasps (one description can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Megarhyssa_macrurus). The tail-like appendage is an ovipositor, used to deposit eggs on a host: larvae of the horntail wasp, which bores holes in decaying wood to lay its eggs. The Megarhyssa macrurus larvae consume the host.

No doubt our every step outdoors destroys some habitat unseen by us, however we now know that the dead logs are filled with life and so we will leave them until next summer, when the Megarhyssa macrurus emerge.

Seeds of summer

Between my trip in January and the endless snow, the possibility of summer seemed very remote, and so I placed my Fedco seed order a month later than usual. Hopefully my order will arrive quickly because according to last year’s records I started our first seeds on March 4th.

One of the problems with ordering late is that many varieties sell out. However, instead of lamenting what I’d missed, I decided to experiment with some new seeds like the Yaya Carrot, and Winner Kohlrabi whose “tender sweet flavor was a revelation,” and Green Arrow Shell peas which “withstand miserable and extreme weather better than other varieties.” I am trying Golden Chard, which is an heirloom developed in the 1830s, originally known as Chilean beet. Looking for lettuces which withstand summer’s heat, I chose Anuenue Lettuce; the Fedco catalog says “In late July and even early August, this 1987 University of Hawaii product has no peers for crispness and sweetness…” How could I pass up Weisnicht’s Ukrainian Tomato, or Boldog Hungarian Spice Paprika Sweet Pepper? The Feherozon Sweet Pepper, described as incredibly productive, can be dried for paprika (I never thought of making my own paprika, but I just might). In Mexico, I saw garbanzo growing everywhere. They were delicious fresh or lightly toasted so I will try to grow Black Kabouli Garbanzo Beans.

Snow has melted this weekend in 50 degree weather, creating a treacherous, slushy mess. Tonight temperatures will drop again, turning the slush to ice. Winter’s end is still a long way off, but I’ve let a welcome touch of summer creep in.

Perfection

On this rainy morning I woke up out-of-sorts because of all the things not yet done…and the limited time I have to spend on them. The chickens have caused a lot of destruction in the vegetable garden—they’ve shredded much of our Swiss chard, and have pecked away at four beautiful cabbages. We now include cabbage in many of our dishes, and one of the farmers at the winter market was able to store (and sell) her cabbage almost until spring. So I’d hope to store ours successfully…along with butternut, potatoes, carrots, parsnips and kohlrabi. Only somehow another year has gone by and we still have not come up with a cold storage solution.

Now is a good time to remember what has been accomplished. Yesterday we bought our annual sack of corn from Woodstock Farm in Connecticut, and last night Cherisse parboiled more than 60 ears, removing kernels from the cobs and freezing them in vacuum sealed bags. Most of the cobs are also frozen, as a treat for the chickens during the winter.

Cherisse saved some of the corn and cobs for an amazing corn chowder. Last weekend, at Wings Hill Inn, the chef and owner Chris served a delicious corn chowder made by roasting the stripped cobs in the pan and then putting everything in the soup. The cobs (which he removed before serving) gave the corn chowder a much deeper corn taste. Cherisse tried this technique last night, along with adding leftover roasted potatoes, carrots and Swiss chard, and some of Pat’s Pastured bacon. The chowder was incredibly good.

At the Common Ground Fair, Michael Phillips talked about the natural imperfections in apples—and the challenge of a consumer mindset that won’t buy anything that doesn’t look perfect. Until I grew my own, I avoided all produce that had a spot or two. Now, I simply cut away an area chewed on by some creature, and enjoy the rest. As I husked the corn, a couple ears had a worm at the tip. Two chickens were standing by (and trying to get at my basket of corn), so I broke off the wormy tips and tossed them to the chickens. Growing fruits and vegetables is simply too much work to waste anything good. And unless a tomato is rotten, or a carrot riddled with holes, the undamaged parts still taste great.

Taste is the big difference. Those perfect looking tomatoes you buy in the dead of winter, or the apples flown from New Zealand—they simply don’t taste good. Or rather, they have no taste. Locally grown tomatoes are selected for flavor, not their ability to survive a cross-country journey in the back of a tractor-trailer, and arrive at the store unblemished. Apples grown without pesticides often have spots (which, to the trained eye of Michael Phillips, actually impart valuable information). And yet, picked at their peak, their taste is without compare. Many of our own peaches had black specks on the skin, but the flesh was juicy and delicious—so we peeled the skin off and savored our very own harvest. The parts we didn’t eat went to the chickens or the compost pile.

Growing our own food has forced us to adjust our perception of perfection. Food that we pull out of our own soil, or buy from a farmer who we can talk to (and compare recipes with), that is perfection.

Interesting links: an article about Michael Phillips, from the New York Times last year, and an article from Wednesday’s paper on the Common Ground Fair.

New York Times Growing Apples

New York Times Common Ground Fair

Summer wanes

Despite the beautiful day, I can’t shake this feeling of melancholy. I believe it is predominantly a change-of-season reaction or, more explicitly, summer-to-fall. I love fall, its crisp coziness, and the winding down of work in the garden. But unlike other seasons, this change seems less about a shift in the weather and length of day, and more about events. Labor Day weekend. The start of the school year (long past but still looming large in my memory). New beginnings. All things I relish and look forward to, once I give up on trying to answer the “what on earth happened to summer” question, and accept that, once again, much will be left to another year.

Yet the day—and weekend—was full of enjoyable and interesting moments. Today we checked the hives, discovering that the newer one might once again be without a queen. We found a great deal of honey but very little brood. The other, older hive is thriving, with good honey stores and brood. Some of the honey-laden frames are so fat they are touching neighboring frames. To create a bit more space, we pulled one out, and Cherisse used our casual extraction method to remove the capped comb and pull out the honey. Next weekend we will check the hives again, and we should be able to tell if there are signs of a queen in the newer hive. If not, we may try to combine the two; a queen-less colony won’t make it through the winter. In combining them, it is possible we might be able to take more honey (although the increased bee population will need additional food for the cold months).

Little brood in new hive
Too little brood in new hive
Brood in older, stronger hive
Brood in older, stronger hive
Capped honey
Capped honey
Extracting honey
Extracting honey

The baby chicks continue to grow rapidly. They venture further afield, intermingling with the older chickens outside. Soon we will figure out how to introduce them into the roosting area.

Cherisse’s hard work with the tomato fence paid off. She erected a nine-foot deer fence (the only fencing we had available) around the two tomato beds, and while squirrels could climb over this, it seems to have sufficiently deterred them. We are no longer finding half-eaten tomatoes…although someone has eaten half of one of the biggest cabbage heads  Our Raven zucchini and Yellow Sebring were so riddled with squash borers, Cherisse pulled them out. Only a couple of pattypan remain, and so we won’t have the winter stores of squash soup, ratatouille, or quite as much zucchini bread as in past years. Each year’s harvest produces different results, one of the key arguments for crop diversity. (On a related note, Mark Bittman had a great piece recently in his blog called “Celebrate the Farmer!” http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/21/celebrate-the-farmer/.)

The flower garden still looks beautiful (however another weekend passed without weeding). Our eggplant is now coming more rapidly, and for the first time in years our peppers are big and perfect looking. We have two large, lovely Asian pears on a tree, not quite ready to pick. So the days may get shorter and the nights cooler, the urge to start something new might linger in my subconscious, but melancholia has no place here.

Sunday afternoon, from the bee hives
Sunday afternoon, from the bee hives
The adults
The adults (the Dominique is on the seat behind the RI Reds)

The early bird

Three peach trees have borne fruit. The first, an early variety, was covered with beautiful peaches that turned a lovely reddish color. They smelled wonderful. This was the year we would outsmart the squirrels and get to the peaches first.

Yet somehow two days elapsed before we went back, and by then only five peaches were left. With the exception of one not-quite-ripe peach dropped at the base of the tree, there was no sign it had been laden with fruit. Exactly like fools closing the proverbial barn door once the horses had fled, we covered the tree with a giant net. Even then the squirrels managed to get in.

A second, bigger tree, grew heavy with ripening peaches and the squirrels began to test them. We found partially chewed peaches beneath the tree. This time we got a net over it before the tree was stripped. The squirrels managed to reach through the net, eating as much as they could before the peaches dropped out of their grasp. Finally, Cherisse decided to pick what was left—only a couple were perfectly ripe, but she ate those and declared them to be delicious. The rest are ripening safely indoors.

Our own peaches
Our own peaches

One more battleground (tree) to go.

 

Nature’s balance

Not only was I stung (twice) by a bald-faced hornet (after I foolishly, if unwittingly, disturbed their nest several times), Koa and Oliver have been stung a couple of times by a second hive near the chicken coop.

We never considered killing the hornets, though. Cherisse looked them up, and they are known as a beneficial insect. They eat other bugs (like flies, which could explain the proximity to the coop), and they are pollinators. While they tend to be more aggressive than other hornets in defending their hives, our solution is simply to give them a wide berth.

An example of the importance of not messing with nature came from a story on NPR this week. A professor of microbiology at the University of Florence (Italy), made a discovery about the role of European hornets and paper wasps in winemaking. Some 15 years ago he observed hornets piercing the skin of grapes. More recently, when Professor Cavalieri and his colleagues used DNA sequencing to compare the yeast in the grapes and in wasps, they understood the role these insects play. In biting the grapes, they pass on a yeast contained in their gut which helps begin the fermentation process while the grapes are still on the vine. Yeast can be added later by winemakers, but early application of the insect’s yeast has a profound effect on the wine’s taste.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2012/08/02/157606554/thank-the-simple-wasp-for-that-complex-glass-of-wine

Growing fruit and vegetables without chemicals is extremely challenging even on our small scale; we have great admiration for the farmers trying to make a living in this way. It is worth it. Nature’s balance is an awe-inspiring thing. I suspect we have only an inkling of the consequences of spraying pesticides, whether on hornet’s nests, mosquitos in your backyard, or crop fields.

Bald-faced hornet nest
Bald-faced hornet nest

 

Looking forward

Twelve months have passed since I began this blog, although, as is so often the case for me, the time passed in a blur. And yet a closer examination of the day-to-day proves how full those days were.

In the next twelve months many of our life’s activities will repeat. Vegetables will again be harvested and turned into soups, stews, sauces, loaves of bread and other foods that freeze well. Some plants will not produce; we’ll puzzle over them, and if we’re lucky, perhaps learn something that will help next year. The chicks will keep growing at their rapid pace, and so we’ll know in a couple of months whether we have hens or roosters. The older, diminishing, flock will hopefully keep laying eggs so we can put off a decision on how to manage their retirement. The revitalized bees should continue to replenish their population and stores in time for winter.

The parts that repeat won’t be exactly the same, however. And we will continually try new things, meet interesting people, and learn about subjects not yet considered. Such is the joy of life, and the pleasure of sharing it.

Future farmers

Every September, growing up, we looked forward to the Guilford Agricultural Fair. We loved the rides, the games of “skill”, the foods we never ate anywhere else. Most of all though, we loved the animals: cows, horses, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens. Kids our own age would lead their animals around for judging, and I envied them. Living in an apartment in New York City precluded the possibility of having any livestock…and in truth I was perfectly happy with my life. Except for Fair weekend, when I wished I was a farmer.

Today, for the first time, I had the charge of two cows, a horse, a goose and more than 40 chickens. Our neighbor asked us to take care of them for the weekend. The two cows have grain in big flat bowls in their stall, and the horse gets his feed in a bucket. After we put the food in place, Cherisse and I opened the pasture gate and they eagerly filed into the barn, into their respective stalls. Once they were locked up and munching, we tossed in hay. The cows’ bowls had to be fished out when they finished eating (so they didn’t get mucky overnight, and so we could fill them with breakfast in the morning). Somehow one of the bowls got nudged to the back, out of reach. Cherisse eventually worked her way behind the stall and hooked it with a rake. The goose has her own stall, and went in to escape us. When I brought her food, she hissed at me (I had read about geese hissing, but the reality is quite surprising).

I thought I would be an old hand with the chickens, but entering a coop with 40+ hens is a little unnerving. Like ours, they crowded around to get the feed and cracked corn we’d brought, which meant they were underfoot. Some of them flew in the rather close quarters, so I was happy when we’d collected a tin of eggs and made our escape. The dog, Jake, accompanied us on the rounds.

Tomorrow morning we’ll give everyone breakfast and then let the large animals back into the pasture. The cows go on their own, but I will have to lead the horse—just like those kids at the Guilford Fair.