Sunday, May 31, 2015

May Flowers

It is the season of the oak gall wasp, bungeeing caterpillars, and relentless paper wasps. At night its June bugs bouncing off screens and, tonight, the first lightning bugs. We have been miraculously without mosquitoes -no one's complaining.

In the woods Red Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis, bloom.

It's a bit regal

In its dusty crown.

The first sight of the Woods Geranium, Geranium maculatum, is always a surprise in the shadowy under-canopy.

Geranium grows throughout the woods, but only one here, two there. In the area I call the council circle (laughably and yet to be introduced here) the geranium grow profusely.

Virginia Wetleaf, Hydrophyllum virginianum, has been in flower for over two weeks now.

It's pale purple mass of flowers create glowing, floating dollops wherever it grows (and that is nearly everywhere).

Friday, May 29, 2015

Open Season Fungus

These morels were brought to us by our hunter. He foraged them from our woods after a couple hours of chainsaw work clearing old timber fall on the trails. We dried them for future cooking.

Now that it is raining, mushroom season opens in earnest. Oysters and jelly fungus are appearing, and soon enough there'll be chickens on oak timbers.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The lilac in the back has been blooming for a few weeks now, for about as long as we've been busy getting the estate sale ready. Now that is done, the weather was perfect and we sold quite a few of Rex's old things. The dealers and collectors, they came early or last, buying up Americana for upselling or decorating their homes with wood, fabric and cast iron. Our place, hidden from the road as it is, wasn't great for pulling in customers, although those brave enough to turn in were treated to woods normally seen from without and at a distance.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Cooking Local

Allium tricoccum var. burdickii, prepped for cooking, common to our woods (99.5% are this variety) and delicious. They are milder and I think sweeter than the more common, larger-leafed, red stemmed ramp. I've made ramp pizza, pasta with ramps, stew with ramps, eaten them raw, put them in nearly everything. One of my favorite spring dinners is asparagus and eggs. Why not add ramps to the mix?

First, I made some polenta in our rice cooker.

Six organic eggs from our local farm park.

Fried some naturally cured bacon from the very same local farm park.

First layer asparagus and ramps, then eggs, and more ramps on top, cover, cook and flip once.

Stack polenta, bacon, egg, asparagus and ramp mixture. Add grated Parmigiano reggiano and black pepper to taste and I like to drizzle Arbequina olive oil over the top.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Solar Gardening

We're looking into solar. 

We belong to a electric utility cooperative. What this means is that we are members of a regional electricity distribution network that buys power from other producers (what they call -upstream supply). As members we have access to an opportunity to participate in a solar garden.

What's a solar garden? It is a small field, an acre give or take, that has been set up with a solar array. The coop pays for the installation of the solar array with member dollars who opt to prepay for their "share" of electricity. Each panel installed in the garden is worth a set amount of annual kilowatt hours. You can pay for your whole home electricity needs or just a portion of its needs. You may purchase 20 years of your electricity outright (and therefore pay nothing more for your monthly usage over that 20 years) or pay a predetermined KwH rate for that 20 year period that averages on par with the conventional electricity rate. In other words, no matter how you pay for it, your electricity rate is flat over 20 years.

The "garden" is shared among any cooperative members who buy in. The electricity is delivered over the cooperative's electric lines already in place. This way you do not need to install any panels on your home, cut down any trees for efficiency, or disturb your roof or even worry about damage (insurance is included in the rate). The panels in the garden are installed in the optimum position for maximum light gathering.

You may be thinking, isn't it cold and snowy in Minnesota for solar power? It is, but we have other advantages. Solar panels are more efficient in the cold than they are in, say, the heat of an Arizona desert. We also have exceptionally long summer daylight hours, so the panels make energy for longer periods than in a place closer to the equator. So, while our efficiency decreases in winter due to lower light levels, we make up for it with our cooler, longer summer days. The panels will be maintained by the cooperative who have so far shown to have first rate service (I've had them over twice for service -I did not pay for this and they were generous and courteous).

I'm very excited by the idea of cooperative electricity. Now, if only the giant upstream producers had less legal pull in the state capitals, we could build more of these solar gardens. As it is, the cooperative must get permission to build the gardens, and does not get to own them outright. The machinations of power are complex, it appears, something I hardly understand enough to discuss. At this time the coop has 50,000 members but there are only 400 solar garden members. This needs to change.

Friday, May 15, 2015

What About The Garlic?

 Some of you may be wondering what has happened to my garlic farming since the move.

It has been put on hold until we can get established. However, Betsy did hastily plant some garlic in the front yard last October and it appears to be doing exceptionally well with little work on my part.

The French Grey Shallots are doing very well, as are most of the garlic varieties. 

I will only have enough for our kitchen this season and will need to decide soon what I plan to do for the next. We do not have agricultural land here in the woods. In fact, the front yard is becoming our vegetable plot since it is the only flat land that receives enough sun for summer produce.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Spring Ephemera

Too much woods and too little time.

I am excited to find ordinary ramps, Allium tricoccum, the kind that grows in dense matts, has larger leaves, and reddened stems in a far corner of the woods, just below the road, next to an ash tree, Virginia Wetleaf and Wood Anemone. I've looked in all corners by this time, and this appears to be the only patch making the common ramp the rarer of the two in our woods!

In other ramp news, this patch of A. burdickii appears to have been chomped by deer with good taste.

At the edge of the north slope, Large-flowered Bellwort, Uvularia grandiflora. Could its wilted appearance be a defense against browsing deer?

According to Illinois Wildflowers: "The presence of this plant in a deciduous woodlands is an indication that much of the original ground flora is still intact." That's good news, but it's not the whole story in our woods. I do think this bellwort is another worth trying to cultivate.

The quantity of Viola species makes identifying them a hassle, at least for busy guys like me. They grow everywhere -in the lawn, in the gardens, in the woods, on the old farm roads and paths. They are lovely. This one might be Northern Bog Violet, Viola nephrophylla.

We have blue, white, lavender, purple and yellow violets growing all around. Above, Downy Yellow Violet, Viola pubescens.

Jack In The pulpit, Arisaema triphyllum, are coming up throughout the woods.

Jack can change to Jackie from year to year, depending on reproductive success in the prior year. According to Minnesota Wildflowers: "Males tend to be smaller than females and have a small hole at the bottom of the spathe which allows pollinators to escape (with their pollen) more easily. Female plants lack the hole and pollinators are more likely to become trapped, better ensuring successful pollination." Pollination leads to the multicolored fruit seen here.

Wood Anemone, Anemone quinquefolia, growing in the drier, upslope woods near the old tractor road. 

In another, forgotten location, a pink variety of Wood Anemone.

I spotted this from across the bridge. Lousy phone photo, but maybe you can help ID it. The leaves are reminiscent of Red Elderberry. It is a pretty weak specimen, looks to be damaged by limb-fall, and is growing under a canopy of cottonwoods.

Walking the old tractor road, pulling buckthorn, I leaned in to pull this one until my vision kicked in to halt me.

A nest of baby spiders, no idea what kind, but possibly an orb weaver type. An ephemeral of another kind -off into the world younglings, and do your good work.


The greatest, visible threat to the woods and its ephemerals is the invasion of the biennial herb Garlic Mustard, Alliaria petiolata, and the shrub or small tree known as Common Buckthorn, Rhamnus cathartica.

In this fine looking scene it is easy to forget that it is greened with an army of mustard only a week away from blooming. I've begun pulling it out as I walk through the woods, but this process eats time quickly and there is always more mustard to be found! I may have to wholesale cut them back with a weedeater or sickle just to stem the tide. As is so often the case with strong weeds, these break at the root only to regrow. Any gardener knows what happens then -it simply grows back even faster, setting flower and seed on a smaller, harder to pull plant. Garlic Mustard has a 5-7 year seed bank, but it should get a little easier each year.

Garlic Mustard is bad, but nothing in our woods is as challenging as Buckthorn. Every fallen tree is another opportunity for this plant. While this corner has been a Buckthorn stronghold for many years, it really took off after a great White Oak toppled in a bad thunderstorm four years ago. It now grows on the trail as much as to the north and south of the trail.

Buckthorn can become an impenetrable thicket above and below ground. A tangle of fibrous, tough roots chokes out plants below the soil and a dense cover of leaves smothers ephemerals and low growing shrubs from above. Although many young saplings die back in winter, each sprouts new leaves from the lower stem and ground each spring. I hand pull up to 1/4-inch diameter twigs in advancing areas, but in established "groves" larger shrubs and twigs must be dug out, doing further harm to the plants that may have coexisted thus far.

Within the great wetland, large Buckthorn grow on the slightly higher ground occupied by the beautiful Red Osier Dogwood and Pussy Willow. Its seed is dropped by perched birds, which then sprout and overtake the dogwoods and willows. I haven't seen it to go head to head with cattails or get a sure foothold in the ephemeral pond of the back swale. In fact, after last year's flooding, I see many small upstarts didn't sprout this spring. Can we flood them out? If not water, then I love the idea of burning them out, although this would be hard to do safely.

Forestry experts, ecologists, park managers, and many others often discuss the advancing Buckthorn and Garlic Mustard as an ecological issue, a problem of "native" forest habitat. Surely it is, but for me this is a gardening problem. Intellectually, I agree with the experts, but my motivations are less than pure. I simply don't like the look of a Buckthorn monoculture and prefer to be able to see through the woods. I like surprises, yet Buckthorn and Garlic Mustard offer none other than the ability to show up in a previously unheard of location. It may be that ecological problems are more easily taken on when we believe we act for our own interest.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Bard Of The Woods

We become aware of birds by sound.

The Barred Owl, Strix varia, amongst the trees just south of the small wetland. Perfectly blended with the contrasty shadows and light of the cool season forest -elusive by design.

This owl, flying just overhead, eyed my friend and I as we maneuvered the 24 foot moving truck through the woods out to the road in the midst of a snow squall. He said it was his first owl sighting. The owl probably thought, new humans. Although it has no difficulty floating amongst the tangle of branches, I've spotted the owl using the drive as a flyway. The Barred Owl is at home in the woods, mid-canopy, and by my observation, never high up in the trees. It is rare to see the owl in situ, only shadowy, swooping, grey glimpses, if at all.

There are two in the woods, probably nest mates, that I hear calling to each other at night. Their call, Who looks for you. Who looks for yoooahahah, is a soulful incantation. Not long ago, I saw them swooping together.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Greening

The greening of the woods is upon us. We will soon shift from an ambiguous space of light and shadow to a mysterious green blue underworld. By the time you read this, the great wetland and back woods will no longer be visible from the yard.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Hunting Lodge

It's turkey season. 

Folks drive up to ask if they can hunt in our woods. Folks call to ask if they can hunt in our woods. We joke about opening a hunting lodge B&B. Who knows...

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

What The Duck

How much wood would a wood duck quack, if a wood duck could quack wood? 

Be honest, what's my best side?

My left?

My right, right?

Alright, enough quacking jokes about ducks. Two Wood Ducks, Aix sponsa, flew up into the oak trees outside our attic window. Striking to see ducks in trees, especially such good looking ducks, I grabbed my great camera with the poorly-qualified*, 30 year-old Minolta manual zoom. This pair has likely been hanging out in the ephemeral pond in the back swale, and possibly nesting in one of our many dead trees. The female lays ten to fifteen eggs each spring, which means we may see ducklings at some point.

Wood Ducks are legally hunted in Minnesota and from what I understand, have a pleasant mild duck flavor. I don't think we'll be hunting our ducks, although hunting requests have been stacking up on the answering machine and sometimes at our doorstep. That, however, is a post for another day.

*all my bird shots are made with this combination, often through windows and screens, leaving us with useful if not stellar imagery of birds.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Gardening at the Boundary

That day, maybe a week ago, it really came down.

I know nothing about late spring snow. Nothing. When I was a child, in New York, it snowed during our Easter break -it was early April. The day prior was warm, even the day it snowed it was warm, so much so that I was out riding my bike in the street with my brother. Although it was cloudy, the big, wet flake snow came without warning.

This snowfall is different, intermittent pellets and flakes. It was windy too, driving the pellets hard. As is often the case, the snow did not stick. The snow was not the trouble at all. It was the cold that presented itself the following night. 

I woke to find a frost on the little wetland.

 Crystals coated all the leafed out, saturated-looking plants in the early sun.

The parsley I had just planted showed crystallization along its veins (interesting that this happens, no?).

The  cilantro.

The Virginia Wetleaf succumbed (but recovered) to the eight or so hours well below freezing.


The last frost date for our location is roughly May twenty. I do not think anyone would suggest that the last two months have had ordinary temperatures, we haven't. Since March, we have had days that topped out at 10ºF and 82ºF, although most have been in the forties through the sixties. Our March monthly average high temperature was nearly 46ºF and the April average so far is 59ºF. Daytime temperatures have long suggested I should be growing things that California is having trouble providing. Think twice. I watch the trees and the vegetable gardens. Only this week are the oaks beginning to show the chartreuse of spring and there has been zero garden activity.

Warm air masses, heated by their descent from the Rockies and Great Plains, move in from the south and west, and locally there is sunlight warming the thermal mass of land without the cooling influence of great bodies of water. The day warms nicely. At night, however, without the moderating influence of clouds, radiational cooling is strong. I recall a typical temperature differential in NYC to be about 15 degrees. Here, in Minnesota, I have seen 20+ as the norm. Beyond nightly cooling, there is always the threat of a cold airmass coming down from the north whenever the jet stream decides to do something funky. Minnesota is the common entry point for cold air, it is the reason people think this state is cold. 

Which brings me to another weather detail. I noticed the window box of just planted pansies was bone dry. What? I had watered it in, deeply, just the day before. Hmm. Something unusual had happened -dry air, exceptionally dry air. Two days after the snowfall, and the day of the overnight freeze, our relative humidity had dropped to 12%, twelve percent! Our dewpoint was nearly 1ºF by the late afternoon. Meanwhile, our high temperature was 55ºF and the winds were up. The water simply evaporated. Despite this, the pansies toughed out the freeze and drought, as those in the pot above attest.

The dry air, the sudden cold from the north, the high temperatures, the wind, no rain, and of course, heavy rain are all typical. We live at a climactic boundary with little to moderate each influence. This is the education of a gardener.