Gardening Experiment 1: Raised Bed Gardening (in February!)

Okay, I couldn’t help it. We had a week of unseasonably warm weather in mid-February. The sap started running on February 17th (no tapping yet, though). The snow melted back severely and we didn’t even know if we would be able to snowshoe to the cottage without trudging through 18 inches of “mashed potatoes.”

So what else could I possibly do besides garden?!?!

I’ve been reading a lot of permaculture plans lately, and have been interested in the idea of zones. Basically, you orient your yard/homestead/property into a series of zones based on the intensity of use. Zone 0 is your residence and zone 1 is the area nearest your residence that’s very accessible and perfect for veggie gardens, animal pens, and anything you need to tend to frequently. The zones continue outward until zone 5 which is called “wilderness” where nature can do its thing.

This is such a simple idea that it seems obvious. Of course one should have their gardens right next to the house—it’s so convenient to have veggies out your front door! But my garden is unfortunately in the wrong location; it’s on the other side of the garage in what is probably zone 2, which has the best light but is not the most convenient.

Our 2.75-acre yard, by zones.
Our 2.75-acre yard, by zones.

I decided that I wanted a veggie garden closer to the house—at least for a few things that we eat all of the time. I spent a ton of time working on the gardens around the house last summer, so I’m not willing to tear those up yet. The soils there are pretty crummy, anyway. And most importantly, it’s (despite the sunshine and 50º temps) still February and there’s still all that snow on the ground

The clear solution was to build a raised bed close to the house. I built a raised bed using a pattern that I designed a few years ago. The placement is genius—we put the raised bed inside of an existing (but under-developed) garden right outside our back door. The raised beds hovers over the stupid covers for our septic tank, which was a weird spot in our yard anyway. Very sneaky!

20170220_113220.jpg
The mounds of leaves are the covers for our septic tank.

Then, I designed a hoop house to go over the raised bed. It took a few tries to figure out how to do it, but this seems pretty stable.

PVC frame for a hoophouse.
PVC frame for a hoophouse.

I filled it with two big bales of potting mix (all of our soil and compost is buried), which is pretty fancy. I planted cold-hardy greens—lettuce, spinach, mizuna, and arugula— on February 22. Then we put a 4-mil plastic cover over it.

The finished product, before it started snowing again.
The finished product, before it started snowing again.

And now we wait and hope that things grow, despite the snow.

(Want to know what happened? Check it out here!)

What I Found When I Went Looking for a Moose

My neighbor’s have been hearing a strange bellowing noise by Mud Lake, and they think it might be a moose.

It’s not entirely impossible. There’s a population of about 400 or so moose in Michigan’s western Upper Peninsula, although these are found quite a ways south and east of here in Baraga, Iron, and Marquette counties. During one of the years that I lived in the town of Alberta, the lake was drained to do some repair work on the dam and there were a lot of moose tracks in the muck that had been the bottom of the lake. That’s only about 20 miles away from here as the crow flies (and perhaps as the moose walks?). A moose was even seen another 15 miles to the northwest of here (i.e., even farther away from their normal location) a few summers ago.

It’s not entirely impossible, so I decided to go looking for a moose in our neighborhood.

It was a really nice morning to get out. It was colder, about 11 degrees F, so I bundled up and grabbed my snowshoes. If there were a moose, it would probably be on the north or west side of the lake away from my neighbors’ houses. Also, if there were a moose, it seems like it would be more likely to be hanging out among the conifer trees that ring the edge of the lake since most of the other forest is primarily maple and other hardwoods.

Approaching the lake
Approaching the lake

I took our dog, Bailey, with me.

Bailey and me walking the lake edge
Bailey and me walking the lake edge

We flushed a few grouse, and I heard crows and chickadees. Other than that, it was pretty quiet. We didn’t even see any squirrels.

Something lives here
Something lives here: probably a squirrel.

I didn’t think that I’d actually see a live moose, and was just looking for tracks. There were few tracks overall: no deer tracks, just a few squirrel tracks and a two trails of what was likely a coyote (the snow was fluffy and didn’t retain much detail).

20170204_104308.jpg
A beaver took away this whole tree.

There were no moose tracks. There were no patterns that looked like moose tracks that had been covered by snow. Nor were there any noticeable amounts of herbivory, from moose or deer.

Check out this cool fungus.
Check out this cool fungus.

So, I didn’t find a moose or solve the mystery of the weird noise. But I did have a nice winter walk, and that was good enough.

Getting Ready for Maple Syrup Season

Groundhog Day was last week. I have no idea what the groundhog’s verdict was this year, but it doesn’t seem relevant around here when the snow can stick around into April or even May. But, come to think about it, perhaps Groundhog Day does hint at one sign of spring:

It’s about six weeks until maple syrup season begins around here!

In fact, we just had a meeting this past weekend to make our neighborhood group of “sappers” into a full-fledged cooperative effort. This year, tapping day will be on March 11 or 18, depending on the weather between now and then. I wonder what the Groundhog would say about that.

Maybe you live in a place where you can start making maple sooner. Regardless, if you’re thinking about it, I thought you might be interested in this series of articles that I put together to help get you started:

If you’re looking for more information, the Tap My Trees website provides some more details for beginners. The Extension programs at Cornell University and the University of Vermont also have tons of information, especially for larger production systems.

Happy sapping! I’d love to hear about your maple syrup season!

Winter Foraging: Chaga

It was only a matter of time before I tried chaga. After all, my friends had offered it to me several times and raved about how good it is. It was a gentle, adult form of peer pressure where the primary benefit was not being cool or getting a thrill like it was during the teenage years; nowadays it’s about participating in the latest health trend, like chia seeds or Cross-fit. Among my friends, chaga is where kombucha was three years ago.

Chaga, if you haven’t been introduced to it yet, is a fungus (Inonotus obliquus) that parasitizes birch trees in northern forests. The fungus enters the tree stem through a would or old branch stuff and sends fungal threads into the tree in order to access the tree sap. Meanwhile, the fungus produces a crusty, browish-black growth (the chaga) on the outside of the tree stem. In forestry school, I first learned of this fungus as “bear shit on a birch tree” because of its ugly appearance.

20170108_150833.jpg
Chaga on a snowy yellow birch.

But over the last few years, its been reintroduced to me as a dark, tea-like drink made from this funky mushroom. Chaga is a folk medicine used by native peoples across the northern hemisphere to treat a wide variety of ailments, including stomach disorders and cancer, although the scientific evidence is still incomplete due in part to a lack of animal and human studies. There’s a good amount of evidence that suggests it might be beneficial and nothing that says that it is harmful.

So, after years of offers, I recently tried it. At a friend’s house, a concoction of chaga and cinnamon was kept warm on the wood stove. The flavor was mild, similar to a black tea or a weak coffee, but with no bitterness. It was not bad, and seemed like something that would be good mixed with strong blend of chai spices.

We decided that it would be fun to do a little winter foraging and find some in the woods. We discussed three potential locations near our house, all northern hardwood forests with some yellow birch. I advocated for a place a few miles from our house, where the ground slopes down to a creek and ultimately the river a mile or so away. I haven’t spent much time in this area, so it was a good excuse to go there. I had a hunch that it might have more yellow birch than the other areas we were considering, and it turns out that I was right. There were tons of yellow birch trees in the snowy forest.

20170108_143813.jpg
Looking for yellow birch trees (and chaga) among the hemlocks.

We went out on our cross country skis, although snowshoes probably would have been more efficient in the deep, powdery snow. The forest had a lot of yellow birch, as well as hemlock, but we didn’t see any chaga for a long time. We’d meander from birch tree to birch tree, occasionally using our ski poles to knock clumps of snow off the bole and see if anything was underneath. But nothing was underneath and the snow would just fall into our faces or down our collars.

Eventually, we found chaga on a few trees. We used a hatchet to remove it from the tree (which doesn’t hurt the fungus or the tree if done correctly) and put it in a backpack to bring home. Lately, we’ve been having chaga tea in the evenings. Hopefully the claims are true and there are health benefits, but it’s a nice little evening ritual regardless.

Foraging Starts in Winter

I’ve had aspirations to forage for a long time. I have a copy of Edible Wild Plants that I bought sometime while I was in high school. It’s one of the oldest reference books that is on my shelf, and yet I haven’t used it that much. While I know that many of the plants that I frequently see are edible—like cattail and wintergreen and nettles—I generally haven’t gone through the effort to find, collect, prepare, and eat these plants. Beyond berries and other wild fruits, my foraging efforts to date have been pretty limited to a handful of trips to gather wild leeks and search (generally unsuccessfully) for morel mushrooms.

Wild leeks in spring.
Wild leeks in spring.

I want to forage more this year, but there isn’t much available in the middle of winter with two feet of snow on the ground. It will be about two more months before the maple sap starts to run, signaling the beginning of the new year from the perspective of a plant or hibernating creature.

In the meantime, I am taking time during the long winter to locate foraging opportunities for later in the year. The snow makes it easy to get around in the woods (with snowshoes) in places that are too wet or brushy to easily get to during other times of the year. Plus, the lack of leaves on deciduous plants makes it easier to see longer distances in the woods, some plants to stand out. Ostrich fern is one of these notable plants because it leaves its fertile fronds out in the winter. These poke through the snow and point to where to look for fiddleheads this spring. I noticed abundant ferns during the summer, and now I’m looking for more locations where they are particularly dense. Yellow birch and burdock are other plants that are in my sights these days, so hopefully there will be more foraging in the future.

Ostrich ferns in the winter.
Ostrich ferns in winter.

 

Places of 2016

It’s that time of year again—the time in late December when I get cozy in our warm house, watch the snow fall, and think about the new year. It’s also time for my annual summary of the places I’ve been this year. This is the fourth year in a row that I’ve summarized my travels, and I like how it pulls everything into a single place.

Work Travel

Work always takes me to new and interesting places, but this year was a bit different and I traveled less than I have in past years. During the first part of the year, I deliberately avoided travel so that I could spend time writing and get a few big reports published (BTW, it worked!). Then at about the time that I was about to start ramping my travel back up, Sexy broke his ankle and I cancelled a few trips.

Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks
Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks

Madison (March & November): This year I went to Madison twice. I made the trip down in early March to facilitate a meeting that I helped organize. In November I was able to attend the Society of American Foresters National Convention; that meeting is always a blast, and it was especially exciting this year since I knew so many people from across the region who were there. The meetings was very busy, which meant that I didn’t have a lot of time to get outside and explore. Luckily downtown Madison is so walkable that I was able to stretch my legs (and get some good food too!).

New Brunswick, Canada (March): I was invited to participate in a meeting on climate change adaptation for foresters in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Again, I was mostly stuck inside during the meeting, but I learned a lot about the forests in this corner of the world.

Massachusetts (March): I finished up a busy month of travel in March with a great trip to the area around Sturbridge, Massachusetts. At the Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary, I got to spend one day checking out an adaptation demonstration site and then the next day we had a field tour in the woods with about 20 foresters and natural resource managers. The weather was gorgeous and springlike, which gave me a nice break from the snow that was still on the ground back home.

Some critter's hemlock home.
Some critter’s hemlock home

Wisconsin (April): I made a super-quick trip down to the College of Menominee Nation in April. On the drive back, I stopped at a National Forest trail head to stretch my legs.

20160419_175054.jpg
A trail on the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest

Northern Vermont and New Hampshire (August): I cancelled some work travel planned for June and July, so it was August before I got to head back east. This may have been my favorite trip this year; it was certainly the most exciting from the perspective of getting out in the woods. In involved flying in to Burlington, Vermont, and driving three hours east to the Maine border and staying in a remote camp with interesting scientists and good beer. The highlight of this trip, swimming in a deep pool on a picturesque river with two friends, was one of my favorite moments of the entire year.

20160803_062238.jpg
Northern New Hampshire

New York, Vermont, and Massachusetts (September): Since my travel time was limited this year, I crammed as much as possible into this one trip. After arriving in Burlington, I took a car ferry over to New York; in an unbelievable coincidence, Sexy was on a car ferry in Michigan at the exact same time, also for a work trip! I spend a day learning about the Adirondacks. Then, I met up with a co-worker and visited a few partners in Vermont and bordering Massachusetts. This was the first time in nearly 10 years that I got to go in the woods on three consecutive days, and it was great. After all that, I attended a conference and gave a presentation. What a trip!

Northern Michigan (October): I made a quick trip to give talks at the Michigan Society of American Foresters meeting and a meeting of some Department of Natural Resources foresters. After being stuck inside and stuck in a car, I planned to find a spring along my travel route to get some fresh water and stretch my legs; unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find it.

Minneapolis (October): This trip was to go to the National Land Trust Rally where I helped lead two workshops. It was an amazing meeting with great people and energy. Since I’m getting more involved with the local Keweenaw Land Trust, I was also on the prowl for good ideas to bring back home!

20161030_132849.jpg
Between Minneapolis and Madison

Madison (November): I got to go to Madison twice! In the fall, I attended the Society of American Foresters National Convention this fall. That meeting is always a blast, and it was especially exciting this year since I knew so many people from across the region who were there. I ♥ foresters!

Texas and New Mexico (November): This trip involved flying into El Paso, Texas, for a work meeting about an hour away in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Travel snags on the way where meant that my coworkers and I arrived in the dark, and I wasn’t able really take in the scenery until it was time to drive back to the airport. But we did eat lunch outside in a courtyard where rosemary was used as a landscape plant and made the entire area smell wonderful.

Vacations

It’s been a while since I’ve gone on vacation outside the Lake States, but this year I hardly went anywhere at all!

Northern Lower Michigan (February, July, and December): We took a few trips Downstate this year to visit Sexy’s family. We got to meet our new niece in February, and I finally participated in two important family traditions: making Polish sausage and the winter bonfire on Hamlin Lake. That trip was tacked on to some work travel for Sexy. My plan was to go cross country skiing and write while he worked, but I came down with the flu instead. Our July trip was also different than expected, since we were limited in what we could do with Sexy’s broken ankle, but I still biked to Lake Michigan and went for a swim. Our December trip was also short, but we spent two mornings outside stacking split wood for his family to burn during the winter.

Family bonfire
Family bonfire

Western Upper Peninsula (May, July, and October): One Friday night in May, I realized that I didn’t have any plans and decided to join Sexy and his friends at a cabin on Huron Bay. But instead of staying in the cabin, I spent the night bundled up in my new hammock. For my birthday in July, I made a small getaway and biked to the Porcupine Mountains. Sara and I camped on the shore of Lake Superior. In October, Sexy and I spent a weekend in Copper Harbor. I raced in two cyclocross events, and we hiked to the top of Lookout Mountain.

20160707_201354.jpg
Camping on Lake Superior

Northern Minnesota (June): Sara and I did the canoe triathlon again this year, which I always look forward to. We’re already planning to do it again next June.

Central Minnesota and Wisconsin (November): I took a vacation between work trips to Minneapolis and Madison. I explored areas that I’d never been to, even though I grew up not far away. As I drove from Minneapolis to my parents’ house, I wished that I had more time to see everything along the way. I stopped at a nature center along the Mississippi River and talked to two old men who were out birding. When I was visiting my parents, my brother and I spent a morning driving around Amish country; we bought string cheese from the cheese factory and a pineapple from the grocery store (because why not?!).

Upstream from where I grew up
Upstream from where I grew up

Home and Nearby

Because I didn’t travel as much this year, I spent a lot more time locally—so much so that I hardly know where to begin talking about all of it. But then a movie line rings in my ears that says, “When you don’t know where to start, start at the beginning.”

Winter is always a good time to stay at home, and so I played hermit. I didn’t ski as much last winter as in previous years, but the skiing that I did to was generally in the woods near our house. Sara and I met up to ski at Courtney Lake; we ended up and the rustically-spectacular Rousseau Bar. I also spent a considerable amount of time moving snow because, well, it’s the Keweenaw.

Courtney Lake ski trail (it's never too far to the Rousseau Bar...)
Courtney Lake ski trail (It’s never too far to the Rousseau Bar…)

As the snow melted, we celebrated with neighbors by making maple syrup. As soon as the weather warmed up, I started biking to work and training for the canoe triathlon. Sara and I met up one morning in May to canoe on Otter Lake, and it was so foggy that we were barely able to see the shore from the water. Sexy and I took a day trip to Copper Harbor in the spring to ride bikes, which I always love.

Canoeing in the fog
Canoeing in the fog

Gardening also took up a tremendous amount of time during the winter and spring. During the winter, I took the Master Gardener class and made raised beds for the elderly as one of my projects. I did a lot more garden planning than in previous years. As the weather warmed, I spent long days working in the gardens, planting berries and vegetables with mixed success.

Garden beds made for my Master Gardener project
Garden beds made for my Master Gardener project

I spent a lot of time this summer hanging out on the porch since Sexy was on crutches. We did, however, go to our little town’s first (annual?) 4th of July parade and kayak on the lake.

We bought a some land and a cottage near the end of summer, which was the major highlight of the year. We spent every weekend there into the fall, cleaning out old clutter, rearranging things, and exploring the property. We had a big party there on Labor Day weekend, which involved a 9-mile river paddle down the river with friends and catching frogs with kids. I spent a night sleeping in my hammock by the lake (and didn’t die).  We lived there for a week in the fall—at least until we used the electric stove and filled the entire cabin with the most awful-smelling smoke because mice had found their way into the insulation (so gross!). As fall has transitioned to winter I started taking down some trees so that we can better wildlife habitat next year and explored the property on snowshoes.

View from the cottage
Near the cottage

Those are some highlights from 2016.

Happy New Year!

First Snowshoe of Winter

The first “real” snow only came 10 days ago, but winter is already here in full force. Cold, blizzardy weather closed the local schools for 3 days and had everyone talking about the whiteout conditions. The season’s snowfall total is already more than 50 inches and technically it’s not even winter yet.

On Sunday afternoon, we got out our snowshoes and went to the cottage. It was extremely sunny out and very cold with the temperature hovering a degree or two above zero (in Fahrenheit). I wore tights and insulated pants, a few tops including a wool sweater and my winter coat, hat, a scarf to cover my face, and mittens over gloves—which was perfect for the conditions. I also wore my new boots, which seem to be plenty warm in the cold weather even though they aren’t insulated.

We parked the truck at the end of the plowed section of the road and walked in to the cottage and then continued on to the lake, a distance of about a mile. The snowshoeing itself was easy going on top of about a foot of dense, settled snow, and our traditional wood snowshoes sunk only an inch or two with each step. On the way back, we walked along the edge of the lake where a few inches of snow covered solid ice.

Winter is quiet. We saw very little sign of animals, just a few tracks. In the forest, deer are migrating to winter ground. Along the lake edge, muskrats have left some tracks on the top of their huts while other tracks suggest that a curious coyote is also in the neighborhood. I was disappointed that there wasn’t much too look at; it was not surprising to see only a few deer tracks when I went skiing in the woods behind our house on Saturday, but I was expected to see more action by the lake.

Regardless, it was great to get outside and see the place at a different time of year. I hope to get out before Christmas and continue my work with my ax and saw.

 

Ax and Saw: A Project for Fall and Winter

There are two quirks of my personality that have a habit of sabotaging me this time of year. One is my natural tendency to want to hibernate as the days get colder and darker, and I’ve written in the past about how I struggle in the fall to keep up my positive attitude and maintain healthy habits. The second is that I always want to be doing something productive. It’s hard for me to convince myself to go outside to take a leisurely walk on cloudy cool days because it doesn’t feel productive; I might, it feels like, as well stay inside and get something done around the house. For these reasons, I don’t go outside as much as I would like to in the fall, which also means that I don’t get much exercise either.

So this year, I conspired against myself. There is a row of box elder at the property, running along a tall bank on the edge of the old river channel. The trees are short and mangy, which is pretty much the standard with box elder. As we think about the work we want to do on the land, we see opportunity to plant different trees in this place.

Row of box elder along the old river channel.
Row of box elder along the old river channel.

I decided that my project for this fall and winter would be to take down this row of trees so that we can plant something else (probably oaks) there in the spring. Also, I decided that I would do as much of the work as possible using hand tools. Hopefully, I thought, having something productive to do during the cold months would be a convincing way to sidestep my tendency to cocoon this time of year. A few weeks ago I bought a small double-bit ax (which turned out to be more like a large hatchet) and small bow saw with an extra blade made for green wood. Then this weekend was the time to test it all out.

Overall, it was a good start to the project. I cut down a half dozen or so box elder trees. Some were only a few inches in diameter and it only took a few seconds to saw them down. It was interesting to see that box elder trees have pink wood at the boundary between the heartwood and the sapwood. This is a known trait of the species, but I just learned it while watching the saw kick out pink shavings as it cut through fresh wood.

20161126_095915.jpg
Small box elder stump.

I knocked down several smaller box elders and dragged the tops into the woods, piling it up to make homes for little critters and decomposing organisms (aka rabbitat). I also cut down some tag alders along the shore that seemed likely to compete with the future seedlings for light. Some of the tag alder I dropped directly into the old river channell, presuming that beavers will appreciate them once the water is fully iced over. Others I temporarily placed in a pile along the shore—in a week I’ll come back and see if beavers have taken advantage of the easy food source (and saved me some work of dragging the brush elsewhere).

The last tree that I decided to knock down that day was also the largest. It was about 8-10 inches around, and it took me a half hour of work to get it down. I alternated between using the ax to make a notch in the direction I wanted the tree to fall, and sawing on the opposite side. Much of the time I would saw while kneeling on the ground, making in easy to take small breaks, look around, and enjoy the day. After it dropped, I sawed off the smaller branches of the crown and carried them into the woods, leaving the large bole on the ground to deal with later. While picking up the last of the sticks, I heard a funny sound across the old channel and stopped to look and figure out what it was.

It was an otter. I quickly grabbed my tools and hurried the dogs to the cottage, and then came back with binoculars. Hiding behind the newly-fallen tree, I watched the otter feed in the old river, which was skimmed in a thin layer of soft ice. The otter would swim in the breaks between the ice, dive down, and resurface in another opening.

Watching an otter from behind a felled tree.
Watching an otter from behind a felled tree.

When I decided that I was going to cut down the trees by hand, some of my friends laughed at me a little and asked why I wouldn’t use a chainsaw. While I was dragging tree limbs into the woods, I could imagine my husband pointing out that we have a tractor that could make the job easier. I knew it would be hard, and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to do it. But in just a few hours, I removed about a quarter of the trees without too  much difficulty. It was exactly what I wanted: an excuse to go outside and work, so that I could really play.