Archive for the 'Trees and Plants' Category

Poke Salad Annie

September 9th, 2010

Beautiful mornings with cooler temperatures. The days are becoming noticeably shorter, and the light just changes somehow. I love how the sun is lower in the sky, especially in the afternoons. Light filters through the trees and reflects off the pond in different ways, shimmering as the wind drifts across the water…

 The nights over the past week have been interesting too.  I’ve seen glow worms in the grass… I know, most people say, “Glow worms? There’s no such thing!” Ah but there is.   Really they are just firefly larvae, but most people have never seen them.

When you walk along at night, with dew on the grass at this time of year, you think you may be seeing things.  As you walk along you begin to notice little sparkles of light, almost like the stars above, yet twinkling all around you.   It’s natural magic I tell you…

As I write early this morning, Captain Jack is outside crowing like a banshee.  Or, um, a rooster I suppose.  Good thing we live a few hundred yards from our neighbors! If I listen carefully, there’s another rooster crowing a good distance to the south, so maybe he’s just keeping up appearances :)

I have to say the eggs these little birds give us each day are really wonderful.  I’m officially spoiled now with having fresh eggs and store bought cartons will never seem the same.  So in the name of enjoying such bounty, I’ve decided to encourage the girls to continue laying this winter by adding a little artificial light.

There’s a host of passions on the issue, but honestly the chickens I have are bred to be decent winter layers anyway. But I realized an extension cord into the nearby shed would be too simple, and perhaps it will give the girls a little extra heat in the winter. I’ll keep the light going for a few extra hours each evening, and that should be just enough to keep their egg production going well. I have to admit I also like the idea of the chickens earning their keep!

So the cool thing about how the coop fits together with the shed is that the window in the shed serves as both the “feeder door” and as a window for the light to shine through.    I put the food into a 30 gallon galvanized can to minimize the mice or other critters getting to it. When it’s time to feed (which seems to be all too frequently lately!), we just scoop it up and reach through the window to their feeder.

Makes it so much simpler, and I’m soooo glad I built it there.  Between the shed and the nest box door outside the coop, we don’t have to go inside the run and coop itself very often.   Of course if all the hens laid their eggs in the nest boxes, we’d only have to go in the coop every few days to change water.   There’s a couple of hold outs…  those hens seem to lay their eggs wherever the mood strikes them!

The light works well enough, although I may run it into the coop this winter to provide a little extra heat.  Or maybe the inherent heat within the shed will help keep the coop warm.  Either way most of the walls are insulated, and when I figure out what to put over the screen windows the chickens should be fine.

Otherwise it’s time to clean up around here.   I’ve been battling weeds and grass, and thinking of preparing for winter.  Summer’s done gone…   The cycle begins again it seems.   I did come across an interesting plant, way up high in a dead tree.    This snag has been around for a long time, and this year a Pokeweed plant (Phytolacca americana) decided to grow about halfway up on the right side…

Have you ever had poke salat ?    Lots of folks in the south have made it a staple, at least in the older days.   I tried it last year, not bad… if you like cooked greens.   When the little head and shoots are coming up around 6 inches in the spring, you just cut them off at ground level.

Then you boil the heck of them (two or three times is a good idea) and maybe saute them like spinach with butter or garlic and olive oil.  Pretty tasty, although I was a little hesitant because just about the entire plant is poisonous!   You can’t eat the plant or the berries in their mature form at all.

But if you never ate it before… then maybe you’ve heard the song.   Remember Tony Joe White’s Poke Salad Annie?   Here’s a grand ‘ole duet with Tony on the Johnny Cash Show from April, 1970… think I was in third or fourth grade, somewhere between California and New Jersey…

That’s just plain good stuff…


Flowers and Fungi

August 10th, 2010

The vegetables are slowing down and the flowers are too, but a host of yellow daisies still brighten the day. I’m not sure what this flower really is, but yellow daisy seemed fitting.  I’m glad they still bloom under the August sun.  I haven’t seen any bees or or insects on them.  I would love to find something the bees could use in late summer.

As we made the rounds last week with the yellow lab, we found various fungi that popped up rather quickly after the last rainfall. He was a curious pup, yet smart enough not to mess with them. 

This one was really cool looking… I love the split edges.   Since they are not morels however, I just enjoy them for pictures.

Not to be outdone, this one was reddish colored with yellow patches where the skin was open or perhaps chewed away. Maybe one day I’ll learn more about them. 

Life and Death on a Black-Eyed Susan

July 24th, 2010

The Praying Mantis finds its prey…

A Sunflower Brightens the Day

June 25th, 2010

The birds really love sunflower seeds… especially fresh sunflowers.  This goldfinch was testing out the buffet, although I hope to get a few mature seeds for planting next year before they’re all gone.  This one grew as a lucky volunteer from scattered winter seed… there’s three in the same area.  I’m amazed at how large they can grow, and it’s just a fresh, sunny feeling when you walk by and see them.

The size of these leaves is amazing.   I placed my reading glasses on the top for comparison.   Those are just enormous photosynthesis machines in action.  I remember driving through Illinois last year and seeing vast stretches of sunflowers growing in the fields.  It looked beautiful…

Our Days Are Worth So Much More

May 26th, 2010

I have been amazed at the season’s changes.   Yesterday I saw a trio of swifts!  Have you ever seen these fleeting, amazing birds?  They are usually seen high in the sky, sleek and fast, tiny wings, twittering as they fly by living almost their entire days aloft, returning to earth only to skim across the water or in the evening to roost for the night in chimneys or hollow trees.  Three of them came flying by, just over my head and made several circles throughout the trees chasing each other.   They were gone as quickly as they came. I wanted to join them…

Over the past week I’ve heard whipporwill’s, owls and coyotes at night, while during the day even the bullfrogs have begun calling.  The deep, stuttering and resonant brruo-o-ommm! bro-o-oummm! bro-o-oummm! of the bullfrogs speaks of mid-summer nights.  

We have the heat this week, over 90 in late May, so why not bullfrogs?   With the heat came afternoon clouds, and as I worked late one hot afternoon, dripping wet from digging post holes for the chicken coop run, I caught a glimpse of diffracted rays of the sun over the trees.  I  took a break and ran to the top of the hill for a better view. 

I see the sun and clouds shining beautifully in this way and it reaches to the depths of my soul.  Why is that?  I feel so many things, and among them all…  hope. 

I watched the sun slowly set, and the perspectives of light changed from above to the sides and around through the clouds and sky.    I think how so many people face challenges or difficulty in one way or another.  And yet there is so much more to us and beyond us!   As the sun showers its rays of light across the sky, it seems that we too can transform our own lives in so many glorious ways.  There is always hope, and change.

The past few nights have been magical too-  I wish I could share them in pictures.   Last night was incredible: There were distant thunderstorms with high dark clouds filled with the glow and flash of scattered lightning to the north and west. The clouds would burst from shaded gray and black to bright flashes of yellows and golds,  an incredible show of light, and contrasted with hazy gray clouds and the diffused light of a nearly full moon bright and shining in the southern sky.   

If that wasn’t enough, I could look out across the fields of grass below the horizon and see thousands of twinkling fireflies.   It was all happening at once and I was there, alone, an audience of one to marvel at the majesty of nature at night.

“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore;  and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown!   But every night comes out with these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.”

                                                                            Ralph Waldo Emerson


And then the morning.  To wake early enough to see the sun’s rays return across the landscape from the east.   I walk outside to breathe the fresh, cool air and see the world come alive again.    I look up into the trees as the yellow light of the sun colors the bark of their trunks.   It brings each tree alive, and I marvel at seeing things in a new way.    I wonder how old it is?

How many years have passed for this mighty oak tree, and how many birds have graced its branches?  How many leaves have fallen…  Ah, too many questions, without answers that do not matter anyway.   It is simply reaching for something, perhaps a measure of time and a greater perspective with which to compare our life.  The tree itself seems timeless.   Certainly the tree grows and ages in time beyond our own measured lives.   All that we experience, or see, or become a part of…  still the trees may grow, patiently, a witness to generations of people come, and gone.

“I still find each day too short for all the thoughts I want to think, all the walks I want to take, all the books I want to read, and all the friends I want to see.   The longer I live the more my mind dwells upon the beauty and the wonder of the world.” 

                                                                               John Burroughs

Hard Woods in Still Waters

March 31st, 2010


“Only in quiet waters do things mirror themselves undistorted.
Only in a quiet mind is adequate perception of the world.”
                                                                                                         – Hans Margolius

And yet what is our perception except for that made real by the changing color and context of our experience?
In a matter of weeks, days really, nothing here will look the same…

Digging, Jumping and Cooking

October 29th, 2009

Where has the week gone!? We picked a wonderful couple of days to enjoy camping last weekend… it has been nearly the only sunshine we’ve seen in about two weeks. We really had a great time, and I’ll share a little more later. All the rain is incredible though, we’ve had far more than usual.

This maple tree was beautiful in the sunshine last Saturday. Some of the maples turn orange and red, and others a bright yellow. Maybe a sugar or silver maple?


I’ve been trying to work outdoors these past few weeks, but the weather hasn’t cooperated too much. My shed project is still there… waiting for drier weather. I managed to dig out the base for the foundation from the hillside. An enormous amount of dirt that I placed behind the barn near the beehives.   I wanted to remove the soil from the work area so the rain didn’t cause a muddy mess… that turned out to be a good idea.


After I finished digging it out, I packed down a small entrance drive and the interior with gravel and it really worked well to prevent erosion and mud from heading to the barn.  My plan is to build a small retaining wall at the back, and then use dek-blocks on top of gravel for the foundation structure.  Not sure what kind of retaining wall I’ll build yet…

Of course the boy found the gravel pile a great place to test his jumping abilities. And yes, he’s wearing his pajamas. It seems that part of the school activities this week included “pajama day.”   I would never have thought of wearing pajamas to school as a kid… these days they seem to love it.  After school he thought it great fun to run around in them, especially with the brief sun that emerged for about 10 minutes!


While it’s been raining (and chilly!) I figured it was time to get out the crock pot this week.  Started a new recipe that I call Harvest Slow-Cook Tenderloin… and it includes potatoes, onions, carrots and even apples.   Isn’t it colorful?  The tenderloin is under all the veggies and broth.


I let it cook for about 4-5 hours, and the crock pot does all the work.   The pork tenderloin comes out nice and well… ah, tender! 


I’m one of those cooks that makes things as I go along… recipes are simply recommendations… no hard and fast rules! It was pretty tasty.

Changes in Autumn

October 14th, 2009

I hope it’s warm and/or sunny somewhere else, because it sure hasn’t been here the past couple of days! To be fair we had a beautiful Sunday last weekend and those are the pictures I’ll share today.

The leaves are changing now everywhere.  It seems so gradual at first, and then before you know it the colors are everywhere. The walnut and ash trees have dropped most of their leaves, but the oaks and maples are hanging on for a colorful bouquet.  We’re saying farewell to the green and I’ll share the colors as I can the next few weeks.


The oaks transition to a beautiful red leaf color- sometimes it’s very dark, but when the afternoon sun highlights the landscape the leaves almost glow and shimmer.


I love seeing the oak trees surrounding the pond, especially bathed in sunlight on a quiet afternoon.  They look majestic and timeless, with the reflections giving such depth to the landscape.  I sat near the edge of the pond and breathed deeply as the light faded, thinking about things.  Mostly nothings… 


* * *

Over the summer a Gray Treefrog (Hyla chrysoscelis or versicolor) took up residence in a birdhouse on my Mom’s porch.  She said it hung out everyday, peeping out the little entrance hole. 


Sometimes it could be found near or under a chair cushion. At one point there were a bunch of smaller bright green treefrogs, so it looks like a family of treefrogs grew and enjoyed this little homemade habitat. I finally came by with my camera and the frog gladly stayed in its pose for a picture. I wonder where they will go for the winter…

Cutting Up the Fallen Hickory

August 28th, 2009

A busy day yesterday with a few projects, including finally getting around to cleaning up a fallen hickory tree below the dam.  Seems like it was late spring over a year ago when this tree blew down in a storm.  When I saw it laying across the path then it looked a little intimidating. And the trunk was just too unstable for some time… to think of cutting something unstable that weighed thousands of pounds nearly head-high with a chain saw was not my idea of fun.  So I decided to think about it a while…  And see that vine running along the tree?  That was a poison ivy vine over an inch thick that ran all the way to the top of the tree.


But the tree didn’t affect too much where it lay, except acting as a locked gate that blocked the path to the boy’s secret spot.  Getting that tree cut up was one of those myriad things that’s been bothering me to get accomplished, especially when the boy asked when I was going to move it away…  so for whatever reason I finally decided to tackle it yesterday, over a year later.  Well the reason also involved the fact that the ground was finally hard enough to get the tractor down there too.    Meanwhile the vegetation grew and grew back there, with brambles, weeds and all sorts of critters.  


With time the tree had also “sank down” and settled a little more over the past year making it easier (and safer!) to cut with a chain saw.   It was about waist high now and I started at one side, below the trunk and made a cut halfway up. Then on top of the log to make a wedge cut and Whump! – one side of the tree fell safely to the ground near the stump.  With a bit of lucky foresight, I made several more cuts from underneath so that when the log was on the ground it would be easier to cut into rounds.


So then to cut the other side after which another Whump! as the log rolled away. Always good to make sure where your hands, feet and saw blade are when things start moving!   Bucking a tree safely can be challenging- they don’t seem like big pieces, but each round was probably close to 150 pounds.  We’ve had other fallen trees from storms, and I’ve written about chainsaw safety before too. Like many tools the chainsaw can be a blessing, but it can also get you in trouble quickly.

Finally the log is on the ground in pieces.  Then it was just a matter of moving the rounds to where I would split them, and that’s where the tractor and loader came in.


Most of the year the ground is too soft below the dam, and even a small compact tractor is too heavy and would leave ruts, or the tractor could become stuck.   But we’ve only had a little rain the past month so I was able to gingerly drive down the hill along the fence side, and make three trips hauling rounds back up one hill and across the dam, then up another hill to the barn.   Hooray!


Of course the final thing to do was to cut that overgrown secret spot… and it felt good to run around chopping up the weeds and brush.  Amazing how fast nature takes over when you leave things be, but I like it a lot better opened up.    Doesn’t this look nice?  I still need to take a pole saw and the chain saw and cut the borders of the woodlands.  For now the bluebirds and flycatchers can enjoy a little open forest area.


Think we’ll wander around the secret spot today a bit- I know someone who will be pleased. Of course he never let that ‘ole tree stop him before, he just ran down the hill through the woods!

Keeping the Privy Up and Felling Dead Trees

May 21st, 2009

With the demands of spring outdoors, we also have the need for taking care of those things that make a house a home.  This week included replacing air filters in the ventilation system, and turning on the water valves inside the house to a couple of outdoor faucets that we finally need.   It’s time to set up the watering system for the garden again.  Also time to clean out a few more gutters, and clean up around the air conditioning systems.  The garage still needs cleaned and the weeds are going crazy now.  Of course the washing machine started leaking too, why not right?  We finally fixed that last night with a hose replacement and a sigh of relief that it wasn’t something else.

I also had the chainsaw out and some helpers last weekend, and finally decided to cut down a few dead trees that I’ve been watching for at least a year.  Warning!  If you’re a died-in-the-wool tree hugger (I am!) this may be difficult to read.  I love trees too, and I assure you that no living mature trees were harmed during the photography or production of this blog post.   Sometimes dead or hazardous trees simply have to come down, and for us they will serve a purpose in providing warmth for our family next winter.


It’s a little tricky, but after you figure out the “fall line” of the tree based on its growth form, the natural slope of the land and gravity, then you pick an axis that you want the tree to drop along, making sure of clearances to other trees or obstacles,  power lines, etc.  If I was doing this near a house or a neighbors house, I would call in a professional and maybe some tree climbers to cut from the top down.  And if the tree has been dead for a long time, it may be too dangerous to cut down without extensive cables or other safety devices.

We’re cutting on open, sloped land, and like saving money, so it was just a matter of using the chainsaw safely.  I first cut a large notch on the face side of the tree that opens along the fall line.  This notch is a little deeper than I wanted- about 40% into the tree instead of a third of the way, and not quite as open as I would have liked, trying for around 70 degrees.  But the corner is connected and it worked just fine.


After the notch cut, you come in behind on the back of the tree, and make a cut just at or above that notch angle corner, cutting slowly toward the notch and making sure to leave a hinge, or a strip of wood along the notch corner that connects the tree.  The tree should start to fall toward the planned fall line, and you can use a wedge to help start it falling if not.   Many things can  happen of course, and you can also slightly influence the fall by cutting one side toward the hinge a little more than the other.  Fortunately this tree fell right where it needed to, between the septic observation pipes.

Which brings up the real reason we were out with the chainsaw.  Yesterday I had the septic tank pumped out (woohoo!) and it’s now clean and refreshed, enzymatically speaking.  Which really is good news.  It had been three years since the last time and I wanted to make sure it was in good shape.   Nothing like making sure the toilet flushes like you want it to!  To go along with the the septic maintenance, we really needed to clear some vegetation surrounding our drainfield, and that’s what we started doing that day.

For those who have sewers or are not familiar, the septic drainfield is a system of underground pipes that help drain and distribute water filtrate / effluent that comes from the septic tank over a large ground area (you can see one drainfield line with those pvc pipes sticking up out of the ground in the picture below).   The septic tank holds the solids, and the liquid drains out slowly into pipes buried in long gravel channels and soil while becoming purified by good bacteria, plants, etc over time.  The septic tank and drainfield actually serve as a functional biological system- as long as it’s working properly.


Our drainfield is probably at least a hundred square yards in area.  The reason you have to monitor the tank and drainfield is not only so that your bathrooms function normally(!), but also because repairs and replacement are very expensive- to the tune of thousands of dollars.  We even monitor what goes into the septic tank in terms of chemicals and such to make sure we don’t hurt the system.   Thankfully the previous owners had the foresight to upgrade the drainfield and make it larger to support future demand.  Just to be sure it was working properly, I opened up one of the “distibution” boxes to see how things looked, and cleanish water was flowing slowly into the pipes like it should.  That was good news too.

But I realized that we had too many small  saplings that had grown up closer to the drainfield than they should, and we needed to clear them.  Left unchecked, those trees could develop very strong root systems that not only seek out water, but rich and fertile water coming from the drainfield.  You guessed it- those roots could take over the drainfield and pipes, eventually clogging the system and requiring replacement costing mucho dinero of new digging and pipe replacement.

So for some fun excitement last weekend it was time to cut down and clear the brush and saplings.  Yipee.  Fortunately it wasn’t too bad, at least after I got out the chainsaw, and we carried off the cuttings to the burn pile.  It was really great to get it done!


I spent the next day cutting more saplings all around the bordering woodlands and the drainfield itself, after I realized how large it really was.  In fact there’s more cutting and clearing to do just to make sure.  But for the trees already cut down I painted the little stumps with herbicide so they don’t grow back.   It really looks a lot more open now, and with a little luck our drainfield should last for at least 15-20 years.  I suppose keeping the brush and shrubs cleared will be something we need to do each year- the joys of rural living.

Then it was time to work on those large, dead oak trees that I’ve been wanting to cut down.  By the way- I use a lot of cordless electric power tools including hedge trimmers, weed wackers, pruners, saws and drills.  They’re quiet, simple, portable, they save on gas, and theoretically pollute less.  I even have a cordless chainsaw.  But to be perfectly clear- cordless tools are for small jobs that require short duration of power and strength.  If you’re going to cut firewood often, you need a strong, reliable gas-powered chainsaw- get the best you can afford.  I would even say a weak or underpowered chain saw is a safety hazard for the operator.  It’s important to know your needs.   For this acreage I use a host of tools- and make sure they’re appropriate to the job at hand.

The tree below was actually leaning out over the pond… it had already lost many large branches last year.   I didn’t really know how to get it to fall correctly, but tried notching it to the left side parallel to the shoreline, and gradually cutting into the lower side of the notch first to start it falling from that side and holding on more to the upper corner.


I was really surprised that it fell exactly where it was supposed to- right on the bank!  It rolled and settled, finally stopping before continuing into the pond. Hooray! I really didn’t want to have to drag it out of the water and leave a lot of branches in the pond.   If this was golf  I felt like it was a hole-in-one… small victories in the country.



I don’t cut down live trees on our property, at least the big ones.  These large oaks died over the past few years, hit especially hard during the drought seasons in 2006 and 2007.  We don’t cut them all down, and still have several large dead snags standing upright near the woodlands for the woodpeckers and such.  But these trees were safety hazards- too close to the areas we live and play in, with many large branches falling to the ground over the past year.

I was a little hesitant to fell three large oaks by myself…  not that I couldn’t do it, but if for some reason I ended up under a big ‘ole oak tree with my arms sticking out I wanted someone there to know about it!  :)

So the boy stood way back holding a dog or three and watching, ready to yell if the tree started falling the wrong way.  I’m not sure I would have heard anything over the chain saw, but you’ve got to have a plan.  If I saw the tree even waver in the wrong direction, I was running away at an angle.  Fortunately luck and a little experience helped win the day and the trees went where they needed to go.




This tree already had a nice lean close to the right direction, and dropped nicely toward a picnic table near the pond- it fell between two other oaks so it wouldn’t mess up their good branches.  I raced back a bit to stay out of the way…






Whump!  The tree hits the ground with an enormous thud you can feel in your feet.

With the tree down it was time for a break.  Being curious, I counted the rings on the stump- this tree was over 180 years old!  Hard to imagine, but there are much larger oaks around the property.  I just love thinking about history from the perspective of a tree.  It brings a little needed clarity to the context of our own life, and the pace of the seasons that took this tree so long to grow.

While I was daydreaming, the boy found a cool seat to imagine riding a Star Wars speeder bike (remember the Empire Strikes Back?) with his light saber in hand- it even bounces up and down a little bit!


Then the little shiba had to get in on the action too, the basset and yellow lab were having too much fun.  He’s the foxy looking guy that I use for the site’s browser icon.


So now the real work begins in cutting up, or bucking, the trees.  I’ve written about bucking a log before- it takes some time but is rewarding with the knowledge that the wood from those three trees above will help heat our home for at least one, and maybe two winters.  We try not to waste too much, and nearly all the branches will serve a purpose.  I know trees are a renewable resource, but I treasure the ones we have living on our little acreage.  They may be renewable, but it takes many human lifetimes to see an oak tree mature.

I hope we don’t have to cut down many more trees, but there are a few more oaks in decline around the property- I suspect we’ll have firewood for a good many years still.   To help make up the losses, I’ve planted many other trees over the past few years, including oaks. Whoever lives here in fifty years may get to see a red or white oak rising to the sky.

In more amusing news, it looks like Quackers the Duck still patrols the area.  Apparently he was seen on a neighbors pond, but he was roosting here again last night, and then paddling around this morning.  I think he decided to pose for this picture. Now I wouldn’t exactly call him pretty or handsome, but he certainly looks the picture of health and has a fine figure!


Next »