Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Here's a classic photo of the sheep returning from the pasture through the Torii. The thin one in the lead is our beloved 12-year-old Eider, a Very Wise Sheep known for her distinctive bass voice.

The Torii is in many ways one of the most permanent and unchanging elements of the farm. The seasons may coat it with rain or ice or snow, blast it with sun or buffet it with wind. It stands, growing ever so slightly grayer.

The trees bud and bloom in spring, flourish in summer, autumn leaves fall, branches shatter, roots give way and trees topple in storms. The Torii stands firm.

Fences are stretched by leaning livestock, sag in the hot sun, the posts lean in the soft soil...the Torii stands as straight as it was on Ross and Jeanne's wedding day, when it was erected as their processional arch.

Buildings decay, the temporary ones are moved, the permanent ones are remodeled. The Torii requires no maintenance, its Osage Orange posts will last a hundred years.

It truly sets aside a sacred space, connects the farm to a spiritual dimension of life to which no ordinary gate could lead.

It is a good place to dig graves for beloved pets, and to scatter ashes of beloved people. We will always know where their bones blend with the soil. It's hard to lose.

But to sheep, it is a nice solid thing to rub against, and a cool space among the willows to rest in the heat of the day.

Passing through it at mid-day, the lambs must jump as high as they can, just in case the dark shadow it casts on the ground is a cliff they must leap.

It is hard to believe, looking at this photo, that I-70 is just 1/4 mile beyond the trees in the middle, and the Juvenile Detention Center, a motel, and busy 4-lane North 2nd Street (Hwy 24/59) all lie just west of the trees on the left. 12 years of intensive carbon sequestration have paid off handsomely in screening our property from the hustle and bustle of modern "life". My kind of development plan, coming into fruition!

"Building" biological "structures" like these living, weather-control, sound-barrier, light-blocking walls of trees can be painstakingly slow on such a large scale, but it's exciting to realize that it WORKS! Of the 80 lights that could once be seen from here, only about 5 are still visible at night when the leaves are on the trees.

Monday, May 25, 2009

May Flowers, courtesy of April Showers

My camera has been out of commission for a couple weeks, and I'm just getting going with a new one. Meanwhile, the garden is blooming!

Many of the blooms mean that the plants are bolting, which means they have traded in vegetative growth for reproduction, and in most cases that means the market crop is done. BUT many of the flowers are beautiful in the garden...edible in their own right, and eye catching on the market stand or in a salad...hosts for beneficial insects...and will produce seed that I can use for future plantings (or as a spice, in some cases like cilantro which produces coriander seed). What's not to like? There's arugula, overintered Bok Choy and Improved Siberian Kale, all varieties of radishes, tat soi, mizuna, cilantro, and peas.

And then there are the "weeds", in colorful (and in many cases edible) splendor. Dandelion, red clover, white clover, hairy vetch....

Now you can figure out which is which!

I dispair of ever figuring out how to actually LAY OUT a page of photos in Blogger, or put in captions. Sorry for the randomness.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Ant Farmers, Aphid Farms

Sometimes I think we are ant farmers more than anything else--they certainly seem to comprise the largest population of "livestock" on the farm, by sheer number of individuals. They make a vital contribution to the health and well-being of the farm by constantly building aeration and drainage structures. They clean up weed seeds and dead insects and all sorts of stuff.

But THEY are farmers, too. Or maybe ranchers or dairy operators would be more specific.

Many folks are familiar with the phenomenon of ants "farming" aphids. The ants feed on the "honeydew" secreted by the aphids as the aphids feed on the host plants. In turn, they manage and protect the aphids. It's an interesting relationship, but not so happy for the vegetable farmer if the host plant happens to be a valuable crop.

In the past couple years, I've become aware of a new aspect of ants "farming" aphids that I had not realized, perhaps because I don't spend a lot of time pulling dandelions. The sheep eat them out of the yard and pasture, and I tend to tolerate the few that grow in the garden. But the garden population has increased in the past few years, and we have a real bumper crop this spring. That's not all a bad thing, since they are a nutritious and tasty salad green or cooked vegetable when expertly selected--a skill I've been honing for years.

But today, I had to pull a bunch out of a fallow bed where I wanted to put in some perennial herbs. Several of them had ant hills around them--our classic small golden-red ants. When I pulled those dandelions, the long tap roots--some over a foot long--came up easily due to the loose soil of the ant nests. And those roots were covered with white specks--aphids, growing underground on the dandelion roots, up to 5 or 6 inches below the soil surface. With ants tending them.

No hard science here, but it sure looks to me like the ants have created artificial underground living space for the aphids, where temperatures and other conditions are more constant than above ground, and the aphids (and their keepers) are protected from predators, wind, rain, etc. Sort of a CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operation--i.e., feedlot) for aphids. Without the drainage and aeration provided by the ants, the root zone would be inhospitable for the aphids. The roots provide all the food the aphids need.

I think I've seen these ant-run "aphid farms" on other plant roots, but not very often and not at this early season. That makes sense--the dandelion certainly stores a lot of nutrients in its roots, and pushes up leaves to replenish those stores early in the spring.

Needless to say, the dandelions seem to be unperterbed by their status as feed supplier to these extensive underground CAFOs. It actually looks like an incredibly sustainable farming system. I'll be watching and pondering this phenomenon more closely, looking for the lessons it has to teach us about making our own farming more sustainable.

Many mantids

Housecleaning is not a high priority this time of year, to say the least. With the rainy spring we've had, the entryway has been a constant repository of barn and garden mud, along with boots, shoes, wet socks, dripping raincoats, buckets of tools that ran in from the rain with us, etc.

Over the past 12 years of farming, I've learned to turn a blind eye to dirt, when I'm on a mission, which is just about every time I go through the entryway. OK, OK, you're right, I'm ALWAYS on a mission of some sort. So since I don't just hang out in the entry way, I definitely don't pay attention to the dirt building up on the floor.

Unless it bleeds--like the time a friend's dog transported a million tiny seed ticks to the house, which promptly fell off and crawled s-l-o-w-l-y all over the floor, looking like little dirt specks until you stepped on them. Then the engorged little monsters popped like water balloons, leaving a trail of bloody spots across the white floor wherever a foot landed. One GOOD reason for a farmhouse to have white floors. On dark speckled floors, we would never have noticed the hoard of ticks until they hatched out a size larger in a few months, and devoured us in the middle of the night. What a horrible thought! A vacuum cleaner and mop took care of the problem, though that episode still gives me the heeby-jeebies.

Or when the little bits of grass clippings start walking, as they did tonight. HUH?

Apparently some bucket or pocket held a praying mantis egg case. I often find them (probaby a dozen or more just this spring in the garden) when I'm cutting down dead weeds in winter. They seem to like Lambsquarters, but will nest on trees, fence posts, or anything else. If the area where I find them is liable to get trodden a lot, or otherwise disturbed, I take them to safety elsewhere. This often means the barn, since I really never quite know where I want them. Thus the lambsuqarter patch in the barn is now home to dozens of tiny mantises.

On closer examination, the moving grass clippings were actually tiny mantises. I tried to get a photo, but my ancient digital camera seems to be dying a slow and painful death. I'm not sure it would have magnified them enough, anyhow. They are shaped exactly like the adults, but without developed wings, and only 1/2 inch long. Very, very cute.

But liable to starve in the entry way, not to mention being in grave danger of boots, shoes, wet socks, dripping raincoats, buckets of tools, etc.

Obviously they must go outdoors. But how? Watching the beekeeper move the swarm gave me a clue--I got the broom and dustpan and swept them up. They scurried around on the dustpan unharmed. When I tried to just pick one up in my fingers, I couldn't--they were so tiny and active.

These are the large triangular egg cases. There are also less common (or better hidden) oblong cases that are much smaller. Hopefully someday I'll be able to identify the cases and the mantises by name.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Bird and Snake, 2009

We found the two baby wrens--they WERE still in the bag of wool, buried deep down, miraculously dry after several intense thunder storms pouring on the bag that had been casually thrown out the door to clean for the Soil Quality Workshop. We found them by following the cheeping. They seemed unconcerned to be rousted out of the bottom of the sack and exposed. They are each about the size of an English walnut--so tiny! We arranged the top of the sack to shed rain yet allow the parents to enter. I later saw them duck into the pile, unconcerned by our meddling. Wrens are much more tolerant of human neighbors than other birds.

While we were cleaning, we also found a black rat snake that was preparing to shed its skin--it was coiled under some other bags of waste wool, with milky eyes. We just left those bags in place and put something on top of them so that no one would disturb them. Moulting, the snake is likely to not go very far.

How lucky for the baby wrens that the snake was in a different wool pile! J. found a black snake with "lumps" in the hens' nest box the other day. The hens are laying better, but we have to check for eggs frequently in order to get them for ourselves.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Glimpses of Spring

The first firefliy of the season was sighted a few days ago, right on schedule compared to last year.

A wren built a nest in a bag of waste wool in the barn. We think the dog tore it all up, but a wren is carrying worms to some cheeping thing hidden somewhere near the tool shed, according to J and A.

I watched a thrush on a dead branch near the garden for a while this morning. S/he watched me squatting in the garden.

We put seeds in the ground and less than a week later they are up. Of course, the weeds are growing just as fast...likewise the grass. But we are actually getting the upper hand here, and the garden looks WAY better than ever before. Planting marches on, several beds a day.

We clipped the feathers on the hens' wings tonight, because one hen (the white one with reddish blush on her breast) keeps jumping up on top of the shed and then working her way onto the top of the fence and flying out into the garden. From past experience, this probably means either the sun is beating too fiercely into their little shed in the morning, or she is trying to hide a nest to hatch somewhere. But we certainly don't want her in the garden! J and A put up a shade cloth over the front of the chicken house.

A friend offered for us to dig wild gooseberry bushes in his woods, and J (who LOVES gooseberries) went and dug with a passion. We now have a 75 foot row of gooseberry bushes! We have assured J that we will airmail gooseberries to him next year if his Master's program keeps him in the East. Gooseberries should ship well.

But--the special mulberry tree behind the brooder house is loaded with tiny green mulberries, getting bigger each day, and J is looking forward to picking them. We'll get him hooked on those, and he'll HAVE to come back--they are so fragile, shipping would be out of the question.

It's a bountiful year for 4- and 5-leaf clovers, all over the farm. A hint of 2-4-D in the air, perhaps? Or just an odd season? Someone at Farmer's Market said they had been finding an unusual number, as well. It has been a bumper crop year for dandelions everywhere, too.

Someone commented that their carrots weren't germinating well. I noted that the volunteer carrots from last year's carrot flowers were just starting to come up. When I mentioned this to another Farmer's Market friend, he said that he'd talked to a fellow market gardener who had been monitoring soil temperature. Between late winter and mid-April, the soil temperature actually DROPPED 5 degrees due to a string of cold nights. Other growers have commented that things are generally 2 weeks behind.

No June bugs yet, at least...when I searched the blog for last year's firefly date, I noticed that we'd had june bugs in April. I did find two Colorado Potato Beetles today, though--hopefully not a sign of things to come.

Several of the praying mantis egg cases on the desk in the barn have hatched recently, since the barn is a good bit warmer than outside. It is always fun to see the tiny babies scurrying around. Not sure why, but they remind me of baby guppies.

And so forth. It's the season at the farm where just a moment of stepping outside on a softly drizzling evening, or a market morning at dawn when the birds are just plumb shouting, is somehow worth everything.

Someone said the other day, "It's Eden!" as they looked around at the green grove that had sprung into lovely leafiness in just a week. And so it least a glimpse of Eden.