Saturday, February 28, 2009

Sandhill Cranes and Bluebirds

This afternoon shortly before sunset we heard the call. Echoing across the snow and mud came the prehistoric warble marking the return of our long-legged friends with the red eyemask - the sandhill crane. (Hear the call yourself at the International Crane Foundation site. Awesome!)

Moments later we spotted a bundle of flitting figures caped in blue with their little organge cravats. These we'd seen sitting on the branches of a new pear tree in the front yard and in the catalpa. The bluebird, too, had come back.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

My Mother's Meatloaf

I'm diverging for a moment from gardening to a favorite recipe of my mother's that I recently made for my in-laws. I hadn't made it for a long time, and I'd forgotten how absolutely wonderful it is.

My mother makes the best meatloaf ever. I've had a few others, and they don't compare. I loved it as a kid, and still find it irresistable. We request it (along with her blueberry pie) when we go home to Wisconsin, and if we don't get it there's so much pouting on my husband's part that she ends up making it anyway. It's spicy, saucy, and comforting. A bit like my mother now that I think about it. (I don't think she'll mind that I'm comparing her to her meatloaf. Maybe.)

Dorothy's Killer Meatloaf
1.5 pounds ground beef (I've used venison, and it worked like a charm.)
1 cup fresh bread crumbs (She makes her own chunky-ish style, and so that's what I do, too.)
1 onion, finely chopped (I went for a medium-large onion.)
1 egg, beaten
1.5 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
2 cans tomato sauce (I used my a pint of Kingsolver sauce and a pint of my plain tomato sauce.)
1/2 cup water
3 tablespoons vinegar (I make these a  bit generous.)
3 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons prepared mustard - the horseradish kind. (Again, I was very generous with this.)
2 tablespoons Worcestshire sauce (Surprise! I was a wee bit generous with this, too.)

Mix together the meat, onions, crumbs, egg, salt, pepper, and a half can of the tomato sauce. Form it into a loaf and put it in a shallow baking pan, roughly 7 x 10. Smear the mustard on the loaf. (I kind of slathered it over the top in my generous way. I like it like that - saucy and spicy.) In a separate bowl combine the rest of the ingredients, and pour them over the loaf. Bake at 350 for about 1 hour and 15 minutes, basting occasionally.

We serve it with our house salad - red cabbage with kale, carrots, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, raisins, fresh pressed garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, and a good dollop of soy sauce - and a wild rice mix stirred up with a bit of olive oil or cooked with a bundle of frozen pesto cubes on the top that just get stirred in.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Touting Native Plants in the Paper

A recent editorial in the Ann Arbor News supported the notion that native plants are, literally and figuratively, a necessary part of the landscape of our future.  Native plants are becoming more popular for any number of reasons not the least of which are their lack of need for expensive and possibly harmful fertilizers and their tolerance for drought. I've talked about all of this before, so I won't dwell on it again. 

Suffice it to say, our  neighbors think we're crazy to have native plants, a.k.a. weeds, growing in our yard. I like to wave at them while their mowing for hours and hours, while I wonder how expensive the mower is to maintain and fuel.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Sedges have Edges...

A recent post on an alternative use for grass elicited a great response from a reader about alternative lawns. As I've said before I'm not a big fan of grass, but I know there are reasons to maintain these open spaces - family recreation, picnic spots, pets, etc. - that look a little more traditional. Buffalo grass and members of the sedge family are two options that come to mind almost immediately as viable alternatives.

Sedges look like grass, but are not. In the woods they often look like a wispy version of lawn grass, but upon closer inspection they have an edge. Literally. If you've ever pulled a piece of grass, you'll notice that the base stem is round with a hole. A sedge is not round, but has an edge. A good friend reminded me of this little ditty: Sedges have edges, rushes are round, and grasses, like a--es, have holes. A native plant unlike traditional lawn grasses, sedges have a deeper root system, can be deer repellent, and relatively drought resistant. David Mindell at PlantWise, a friend as well as a restoration and native plant expert, suggested Pennsylvania sedge as a good option. "It tolerates light shade, some traffic, and dry conditions. It's beautiful, never needs mowing, and can be established with plugs or seeds."

Buffalo Grass
Buffalo grass is a grass, but a native one in the western prairies that works well for grazing. With roots that can reach five feet down it is terrifically drought tolerant and great for stabilizing soils, and is especially happy in sandy, well-drained spots. According to David Mindell at PlantWise, he's used it on the west side of the state with great success.

Useful Information Sources
Planting and Maintaining a Buffalo Grass Lawn by Terrance P. Riordan
This book from the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens on installing and maintaining a buffalo grass lawn looks quite promising and helpful. The page itself about the book clarified a great deal for me, and offered further inspiration.

Sedge Lawns for Every Landscape by John Greenlee
Another great book from the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens this one offers a number of good suggestions about sedges and using them as an alternative to grass.

Michigan Wildflower Farm
A local source for alternative lawn mixes using seeds from Michigan natives. David has used some of these at different sites with good success. The site also offers valuable information to get you started with native plants.

Wild Ones
Another great resource for learning about native plants and how and why to incorporate them.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

More Buzz About Bees

(Confession: As we get ready to move to Japan, I'm doing a fair amount of cross-pollinating, if you will, with what I write for the Project Grow blog. We're knee-deep in boxes, visitors, cleaning and tidying projects, plus the highs and lows of leaving one great place for a new adventure in another. I feel a bit like a cheater-pants, but it's all good stuff that I want to share anyway. Thanks for your patience!)

I also wrote about this little piece from Grist about cities that are allowing and even I dare say encouraging their citizens to keep bees. These little pollinators are pivotal to our produce. (Ok, I like alliteration. I'm an English major, for heaven's sake.) And how much fun would it bee (see that?) to don one of those nifty suits and harvest your own honey! All while the chickens roam about in the near distance...

Monday, February 9, 2009

Hoophouse Growing Reflections

I recently gave a talk for Project Grow about Growing in a Hoophouse, which was great fun. There were so many interested participants who also offered so much of their own knowledge and experience that I felt I learned a whole load of new information, too. The following post is one I wrote for the Project Grow blog, but thought it would be good to add here, too.

We are working on getting the documents up from Saturday's class. (We're experiencing some technical difficulties, but they will hopefully be remedied shortly.) Drop us a note at Project Grow and we'll find a way to get you the information you want.

The Resource List offers links to various websites, recommended reading, and a short list of blogs. Suggested additions to this Resource List would be more than welcome. One great idea from an attendee on Saturday for those who don't wish to fool around with creating their own was, I believe, the Greenhouse Mega Store.

The actual presentation offers mostly pointers, guidelines, and some lessons learned. Questions on Saturday centered mostly around ventilating - how long and at what temperature; building materials - PVC or no PVC; site selection and ordinances on building such a structure.

Ventilating the hoophouse is pivotal. Built to help retain heat and protect plants inside from cold weather, temperatures inside can easily and quickly run high. Left unattended a little too long in the early days of having one, our temperatures reached into the low hundreds. The transition from hot to cold could prove a bit much for plants - cooking then freezing which would wilt me, I must confess - and needs to be mediated a bit. A good rule to follow would be that if interior temperatures run above 90 degrees it's time to ventilate. To keep some of that great heat it's best to close it up again an hour or so before sunset.

Some suggestions about heat included having barrels of water inside painted black. These would act as a heat sink during the day and slowly release their accumulated warmth through the night. They could also be used as a water source for plants. Others suggested building the hoophouse against another structure with a south-facing wall such as a garage, shed, or fence.

Building Materials
We used PVC pipes and translucent plastic, but not without some trepidation. As we learn more about how such plastic is not the best for us, some attendees asked about alternative materials such as electric conduit. Our neighbors at Frog Holler made theirs out of cedar milled from their land to create one of the prettiest hoophouses one could imagine. (Theirs also succumbed, unfortunately, to the snows this winter.) No structure is infallible, but it pays to research the design as well as the design materials to see what you think will work best for what you want.

Our criteria were that it be relatively easy (we're not handy people), inexpensive (the whole point of building this was to keep eating our own food as much as possible), and temporary (we wanted to switch it to other beds or take it completely out as desired.)

Site Selection and Ornery Ordinances
We built ours on existing garden beds with relatively established crops we wanted to keep growing and that were cold tolerant, i.e. kale, broccoli, parsley, beets, swiss chard, etc. The spot already received a fair amount of sun and would continue to do so over the coming chilly months. Remember the sun swings lower in the sky, so trees or buildings that might not cause a shade issue in the summer may as winter approaches.

We also live in the country so we have relative freedom to do what we like despite the opinions of our neighbors. Folks in the city may not have this luxury, and it might be a good idea to chat with your neighbor who shares the view of your backyard. (An offer of vegetables, soup or other meals might prove the winning ticket in this instance. Maybe even space to grow something!) You may also run up again rules of neighborhood associations or the city itself. As someone at the recent Local Food Summit suggested, a touch of green civil disobedience may be interesting and generate interesting conversation for these long winter months.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Possum Coop?

The warm weather seems to bringing out our local marsupials. About two weeks ago we spotted this little fellow ambling around the compost bins and garden fence. Filled with envy for a tail of my own, I watched him attempt to climb on the chicken wire and the garden fence so he wouldn't fall in the snow. I wondered if it was fun in some way or simply the grogginess of the first sunny day in some time. (It would have been much more efficient to simply plop down and wade through the snow to the fence, climb the fence using the tail as needed, plop again, and then dig for food. But, who am I with my longer legs and opposable thumb?)

Yesterday, though, these little fellows put their names on my list. My list of things that need to go, that is.

I returned from a run around our country block to see two opossums eating from the chicken feeder. I walked up speaking loudly, and one darted between the coop and the barn, and the other (this is where I absolutely shrieked!) went directly into the coop. I bounded over and quickly opened the roof to find...just the opossum. Sitting in the bottom nesting box like a furry chicken with a ratty tail.

My greatest relief came when I saw the girls standing in an empty bay of the woodshed just behind me. Whew! Now, I just needed to get the opossum out of the coop. Easy.

I live in a fantasy world of logical small animals.

I tried shooing the opossum out. No go.

I gently poked the opossum. It ran out of the nesting box and climbed on top of another one where it waited. I don't know what it was waiting for, so I tried tipping the box with the stick. The stick slipped and the opossum fell between the wall and the nesting box. No injuries except perhaps to the pride of both of us.

I finally tipped it over, and it ran back into the first nesting box. At this point, I simply lifted out the entire box and set it down in the snow. The opossum ambled out and into the barn. Not rushed at all, but I'm sure it had a headache.

The other opossum was still between the barn and the coop, and hissing at me. It would not budge despite a little gentle poking, and moving things out of its way to encourage progress. No go.

Meanwhile, the girls behind me started making those "I'm ready for bed, how about you?" sounds, and walking toward the coop. Good grief. Any other time I want them to go to bed, it's an Olympic feat to catch them. So, I closed the door to the sound of a hissing opossum, and then lifted the girls in to their roost. Thankfully, that was very easy. They must have been tuckered out after a day in the sun.

A little more poking, and the second opossum started on its way. And now we've got the live trap out and ready.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A Good Use for Grass?

I'm not a big fan of grass. It has its place, but I'd prefer to not have that be in my lawn, if I can help it. Ever since hearing Fritz Haeg speak this fall, I look at every lawn (including my own) and imagine a garden. (Full disclosure: I wrote this blog entry for Project Grow.)

But perhaps a use has been found! Check out this post about grass-lined green railways - absolutely brilliant! I might rethink my opinion of that short green stuff.