Winter Journal

Up early and at it hard. John’s down south all day in a Southwest Arts & Humanities Council meeting, and while that cat’s away, this mouse is playing catch-up. The sun is shining, and NOAA says we might hit 12 degrees above zero this afternoon with a less than 10mph wind, which seems like a certifiable heatwave given the past week’s brutal chill.

The chickens are finally outside after several days of being shut in. At one point earlier in the week I opened their coop door because the real temp was above zero, but not one of them took advantage, and then the wind came up, and down I went to shut them in again. The two Americanas are finally laying their pretty green eggs (both of them started on the same day!) after a six week hiatus–they are not dependable winter layers like the “Buffies” (Buff Orpingtons) and “The Coven” (Black Australorps), but I know my customers like to see those “Easter Eggs” in the cartons.

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Overall, laying is down even with supplemental light, but the few more minutes of day length we’ve gained since the solstice are giving us a couple more eggs than we got back in December. So far, everyone is doing fine in the unheated coop–last year’s hens proved themselves during the Polar Vortex (and Polar Vortex II), and this year’s batch are even heavier, hardier breeds.

John and I are planning our late winter travel. For me, it’s important to get out (if I’m going to get out) before seed-starting season commences in early March. I haven’t been to Seattle in five or six years now, and my dear friends out there should not have to wait any longer! That, and it’s always rejuvenating to visit the west coast in winter and to dream of what it might be like to live in a place where rosemary and lavender grow as luxurious full hedges rather than having to be potted up and brought inside or buried under bales for the winter.

Yes, it’s possible it might be cold there when I go…if by cold you mean, like, 35 or 40 degrees (it’s 46 there right now!). Maybe I’m nuts, but it seems a little safer, if I only have a week or so to travel, to go to someplace that’s only marginally warmer so that the contrast of returning to the northern prairie doesn’t send me into a deep-freeze-induced depression. The shock of returning to the cold climate should not be a problem for John, as his travel plans include a foray up above the Arctic Circle to visit a former exchange student and hopefully capture some aurora borealis images.

Seed and tree ordering has commenced, with our St. Lawrence Nursery order going in first of all since Bill MacKentley is retiring and there seems to be no clear succession plan at present. The first iteration of that order was pared back quite a bit, but I still got in a few things I’d been keen to try, but had cut from orders in the past: some hardy shagbark hickories, sweet sap silver maples, and blight-resistant American chestnut, as well as a couple of apples, a pear, a plum, and a few grapes.

The only thing I am having second thoughts about is leaving off a Northrup Mulberry, but I guess if I really want a mulberry tree (or fifty, or five hundred), I could get Harry’s permission to head down to the old farmplace in Vermillion and dig along the fencelines and then see what makes it through the winter up here.

I’ve also begun my regular winter session of being a pain-in-the-ass to my local SWCD guy by e-mailing him every other day to ask if he can get this or that native tree or shrub that’s not on their (really, kind of disappointingly short to a native planting fanatic like myself) list. So far he’s located bundles of Homestead Hawthorn and Nannyberry Viburnum for me, and we’ll add to that a few more oaks, hackberries, cottonwoods, cherries, hazelnuts, and maybe a few evergreens. My poor husband will think I am trying to kill him (again). I swear I will help more with planting this year, even if it means taking a couple of days off.

Seed orders are also taking shape–Pinetree is already done and submitted–I like their smaller size packets of herbs and flowers, plus squash and other things I just don’t need a ton of seed for. Their Summer Dance cucumber is the best, most productive and perfect-looking bitter-free cuke I’ve grown. I’m almost afraid to say that publicly, since a couple of other great F1 varieties I’ve raved about over the years (like Lavender Touch eggplant and Papaya Pear summer squash) have reportedly been bought up by Seminis (a subsidiary of Monsanto), and now I won’t grow them anymore. I grow very few hybrid varieties–if I grow one it has to be better (in my estimation) than anything else I’ve seen. When Summer Dance gets bought up, well, I’ll start trialing open pollinated cukes like I did O.P. eggplant and yellow summer squash. Not the end of the world.

Territorial Seed Company will be a small one–a few things I can’t get elsewhere (LOVE the Talon onion and wild garden mustards!), and Johnny’s is the biggie–though most of the volume is several kinds of organic cover crops–buckwheat, oats, field peas, winter radish. I’ll pick up a few other things from Prairie Road, High Mowing, and Seed Savers Exchange too, but I have quite a bit of seed that’s still good from the last couple of years. Everything from 2012 I’ll try to use up this season, and there’s no seed older than that because of the house fire in 2011.

In my fever of catch-up and planning ahead today, there’s still plenty of time for strolling the prairie and running the dogs. Vega will always be my “saint” dog–the one who’s stuck with me through some incredibly trying times in my life–but I am getting immense pleasure from Joe Pye’s company these last few weeks. I’ve nicknamed him “my shadow” because as soon as I get up from my chair, he’s right on my heels (sometimes literally!)–and especially if I head toward the outside door. No matter how brutal the day, he’s game to keep me company during chores and check-ins, and although I’m still working on training him not to rush the chicken pen fence just to see the “girls” scatter and squawk, I thoroughly appreciate his playful (and occasionally peaceful) presence.

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John and I have been taking the two of them for “prairie galavanting” twice a day almost every day since Joe Pye came to live with us, and the exercise has made a huge difference in Vega’s (and our) energy levels. Still, sometimes the “old lady” (Vega, not me!) needs to retreat and spend the afternoon stretched out napping on her upstairs bed in the sunshine, away from the attentions of her too-eager little brother.

I brought my camera on today’s morning walk to document some of what everyone in the region has been talking about since Thursday’s “big blow.” We took the least-used path that runs through the lower prairie along the west side of our property. It goes unused because it’s the most open to the prevailing winds, and snow drifts deep in those paths, making the way difficult for Vega with her small paws, long legs, and aging hips.

A plume of light brown road dust forms as a truck passes by.

A plume of light brown road dust forms as a truck passes by.

We live on a graveled county road, so we get a fair amount of dust rolling off from traffic. Our own vehicles are constantly coated in it, and this time of year it’s hard to get rid of because the car wash isn’t open and gas station squeegees are frozen solid from the intense cold. But road dust is an easily recognizable grayish-tan. What’s accumulating in our prairie is our neighbors’ good black dirt–topsoil, that is, pulverized, ridged, and bared by fall tillage, and eroding by the truck-full.

This ain't road dust, folks.

This ain’t road dust, folks.

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There does seem to be a little more stubble on the fields this winter–a few more roots left intact to hold the soil in place. I don’t know if that’s because farmers and landowners saw how bad the erosion was last winter and nixed fall tillage, or because the cold and snow came on too fast this year for the ground to get turned. I hope it’s the former.

A couple of fields down the road from us during a brief thaw a couple of weeks ago.

A couple of fields down the road from us during a brief thaw a couple of weeks ago. The corn stubble holds the soil and snow cover.

Absent a federal farm policy that actively and forcefully discourages practices that seriously damage the land, we are, all of us, counting on individual farmers and landowners to do the right things. By “right things,” I mean those practices that are proven to preserve and protect the soil & water–cover crops, no-till (or at the least, no fall tillage), grass waterways, buffer strips, and keeping marginal lands under perennial cover.

There are more, of course, and many of these practices are eligible for cost share and technical assistance. But they don’t work unless farmers and landowners use them, and it sometimes amazes me how hard Soil & Water Conservation District staff has to work to get farmers and landowners to sign up. I’ve heard conservationists say that farmers who are good stewards of the land will do the right thing regardless of programs and payments, but farmers who are only in it for the bushels (or dollars) per acre won’t do the right thing even if you offer to pay them (but they might if you fine them for not doing it).

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I don’t know if it’s that simple, but I sense there’s a grain of truth in it. Still, farmers, like everyone, need to make a living, and because we have a federal farm policy that encourages and even rewards practices that cause environmental degradation, we can’t only point our finger at farmers if what we get what we paid, and voted, for. We all have a stake in a better food and farming system, and unless we all push for policies and practices that encourage what we say we want (soil and water conservation, protecting pollinator and wildlife habitat, limiting the amount of toxic chemicals in the environment and in our food, and…you fill in the blank) and discourage what we say we don’t want, it’s just not going to get better.

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One more thought before I leave this depressing track: did you ever think there would come a day when we’d have to consider listing the Monarch butterfly as a threatened species? That day is sadly here.

Aside from documenting the collection of our neighbors’ topsoil, we’re doing a significant amount of farm planning for the coming year. With tree and seed orders going in, we’re also having to figure out where all this stuff will get planted, and how we’ll clear out more of the windrows of cut-and-dropped buckthorn in the grove to make room for things we’d prefer to have growing. If you’re feeling sorry for that invasive species we love to hate, don’t worry–we’ve also got a generation’s worth of buckthorn seeds just waiting to sprout that are causing us to consider (gasp!) getting a couple of goats. The final decision has yet to be made on that thorny subject.

We’re also hoping to remove a bunch of old fence from various parts of the grove–layers of fence in woven and barbed wire–fence that has become part of the living wood of the trees that have grown up through it. It will not be pretty (it’s not pretty now), and I’m guessing it will take many an afternoon with fencing pliers, wire cutters, colorful language, and probably a come-along to heave those old metal posts out of the ground.

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Doesn't this look like fun?

Doesn’t this look like fun?

And did I mention the chickens? An expansion of the laying flock and another round (maybe two?) of “Drummies” for the freezer are on the to-do list. A couple of rain gardens, maybe some rain barrels, too, and, oh, I think I want to take out the entire front lawn to build for a terraced rock garden for perennial herbs, flowers, and maybe a few vegetables, too.

I know that all this might not seem like enough to keep us busy, but I’m pretty sure I’m forgetting a few of the major projects on the list.

It’s going to be a busy year.

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4 thoughts on “Winter Journal

  1. The photos are great; your stories and ideas are enlightening. Thank you for taking the time to share these with us. We know you are one busy gal, and we appreciate your post!

  2. So wonderful that the dog you chose turned out to be a natural and first-rate farm dog.
    Your comments on rosemary make me recall yards full of rosemary bushes in Tucson, which I’d brush as I walked past to enjoy the scent filling the air…I’ve often wished to have bushes of rosemary in my own yard!

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