April 1, 2015

Seedlings of matted knotweed (Polygonum aviculare) in the driveway this afternoon. This plant is tough and the first to sprout every year.
Seedlings of matted knotweed (Polygonum aviculare) in the driveway this afternoon. This plant is tough and the first to sprout every year.

 

No fooling here! Just a recap of the weather and other happenings in March. Although it is still too cold for anything to be growing in the garden I’ve already planted a flat of paste tomato and hot pepper seeds. These are up now and have just begun to grow their first set of true leaves. The next batch of seeds planted are basil, sage, okra, and another group of peppers and tomatoes. These should be up in ten days or so. I start most of my tender annual seeds indoors on temperature regulated heating mats. Light is supplied by a bank of 40 watt fluorescent lights on a timer set for 15 hours a day which will be close to the natural day-night cycle when the plants are set out. Our March weather has been warm and cold a typical scenario for March in northern Minnesota. The month started out with a week of low temperatures that got well below zero. On March 4 the low was -11° and the next day -26°! That’s in Fahrenheit. But beginning on March 8th the lows weren’t so low and stayed around the mid-20’s and highs reaching from the 30’s to 50’s melting our scant winter snow and thawing the river. There were two nights when lows went down to about 10 above zero and that was enough to re-form a thin layer of ice on the river but not for long. Usually, in March there is a heavy snowstorm (these frequently happen in February, too), but this year there were no storms with 30 mph winds and snow piling up over a foot in a day. On March 3rd we got five inches of snow and that was it. It was almost completely gone on March 8th when the highs reached 46°. After the snow melted the ground in the fields and woods remained frozen. In the gardens it thawed and re-froze so doing any garden work was not practical. I took the time to clean up more clutter, pile up spoiled hay for mulch, and get more poles for my squash trellis. And I fixed the rams’ shed roof which they had knocked down over the winter by slamming into it everyday until the sheet metal and beams were disconnected from each other and the posts. It’s a temporary fix and I’ll need to add more posts and beams.

A rooted currant branch just transplanted to its new row.
A rooted currant branch just transplanted to its new row.

During the last week of March I was able to measure out rows for a new berry patch. I’ll be planting rooted cuttings and divisions of currants and honeyberry bushes. Sunday and Tuesday the ground softened enough that I got all the holes dug and even planted three currant cuttings. Rain on March 30th. Real rain, not ice pellets, all day long and gentle slowly accumulating to a quarter-inch. Warmer weather is forecast for the rest of the week. The chickens are back in full production laying an average of four eggs per day. The sheep seem glad for the warmer weather, too. They are also really happy about the hay I’ve been feeding them this month. These bales are very green and leafy. During the winter I was opening some bales of alfalfa that were moldy and it was a daily task to pick out the worst parts. To make sure they didn’t suffer any nutrient deficiencies I fed them field peas and whole corn as a supplement.

Duckweed (Lemna minor) that has survived intact frozen in the river ice all winter and now ready to grow again.
Duckweed (Lemna minor) that has survived intact frozen in the river ice all winter and now ready to grow again.

Warming weather and ice-free water means more wildlife and new birds coming in for the summer. So far, there have been sandhill cranes, Canada geese, a redwing blackbird, juncos, robins, purple finches, and bald eagles. Today there were three black ducks on the river. Otters are living in my river, too and on March 11th I saw a pair of them. There should be lots of crayfish in the river at this time of year. I put out a fish trap at night to find what is living there but so far no crayfish. I think the otters have eaten most of the crayfish as their abundant scat is full of shell fragments. There are plenty of mudminnows, though, and many look like they are full of eggs. Breeding season for these little fish is in April or May around here depending on water temperature. I’m still finding new lichens including more colonies of a rare one. On March 30th I found another species called Tuckermannopsis americana which is widespread in the state but apparently scarce in my woods growing mostly on the ends of branches of old tamaracks. I’ve also been measuring tree diameters and have found some huge specimens. One white pine is about three feet in diameter and there are several tamarack, yellow birch, red maple, and black ash about half that size. I’m not doing this to calculate board feet but in order to determine if some parts of the forest are approaching old-growth criteria. I’ll be posting about this in the future.

Tuckermannopsis
Tuckermannopsis americana

Wind Chill

Ewes huddled together out of the wind.
Ewes huddled together out of the wind.

It’s very cold today. This morning the low was minus 12 F at sunrise and three hours later the temperature has only risen to minus 4. The wind chill is at about minus 35 a dangerous situation. As painful as the wind is, it is important on days like this to make frequent checks on the animals to be sure they are safe and comfortable. And it is also important to keep their water fresh and not frozen.

My ewes were all bundled together in their shed to keep out of the fierce winds and only very slowly came out to eat the hay I brought them this morning. The rams, who are in a separate area, were also huddled together and reluctant to come out. But they all did, quickly ate their hay and went back to their shelters.

Cernunnos is not liking the cold wind very much.
Cernunnos is not liking the cold wind very much.

We got a little snow on Tuesday and that covered up all the hay I’d been spreading in front of the chicken coop so the chickens aren’t too eager to come outside. I just brought them some yogurt that had turned into something like cheese and they seem happy to have that along with the usual corn, peas, and sunflower seeds. Later, they’ll be getting some cooked winter squash and potatoes with a little peanut butter mixed in.

17 Below Zero at 7 AM but…

… it will only last a few more days. The chickens have been fed this morning a mash of corn, sunflower seeds, and boiled potatoes. The sheep are done eating a good mix of grass and alfalfa hay. Yesterday they had a treat- five gallons of chopped winter squash. Today they’ll get some aspen and balsam fir saplings.

So I’m indoors for a little while looking over photos of spring flowers like this one of white trout lily (Erythonium albidum) growing in my wildflower garden back on May 19, 2014.

Erythronium albidum (White Trout Lily)
Erythronium albidum (White Trout Lily)

Since I Last Posted

One of twenty rhubarb planted in the summer of 2013 on May 16, 2014.
One of thirty rhubarb planted in the summer of 2013 and now growing luxuriantly on May 16, 2014.

It’s been almost a year since I last posted to my blog back in January when I decided to take a break from blogging. Back then it had become apparent that the winter would be very harsh. The cold weather brought down by the Polar Vortex was going to stay much longer than we usually experience. In early December there was rain mixed with snow. This turned into eight inches slushy snow that froze solidly to my roof and remained in place into April. In the following months we had many consecutive days of below zero temperatures even in the daytime. Life was very difficult for my sheep and chickens that winter.

And I was feeling worn out from writing and researching a complicated technical report I had worked daily on for three months. After I submitted the report it must have landed straight into the trash because I never heard from the client again. I guess it was one of those reports that came to the wrong conclusion (that would be the one supported by observable facts and not an ideological agenda). So it goes. Not the first time, either.

During the time I left off from blogging many things have happened here, some good and some bad. I had actually intended to start writing again in June. But a busy summer with a new job (a mixed bag of good and bad) that included long commutes and long days left me too tired to sit down and write and (barely) keep up with my gardens.

Late Summer, Fall and Winter 2013
In August 2013 I planted 30 rhubarb root divisions in a new patch that I’d been building up with cover crops and sheep manure and bedding for two seasons. I also started a new patch next to the rhubarb for a spring planting of asparagus and continued working on a new site for currant bushes adding more wood chips, old hay and planting with cover crops of buckwheat, oats, wheat, and peas.

The harvest from the main vegetable garden in 2013 was very good considering the fluctuating temperatures and spotty rain during the growing season. My freezers were filled with rhubarb, apple sauce, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, string beans, onions, garlic, and summer squash, enough for more than a year. The Painted Mountain Corn plot (30 feet by 60 feet) yielded about 30 pounds of grain a real improvement from the earlier years. There were 300 pounds of potatoes in the basement. I harvested about 400 pounds of winter squash which is much more than I need. The extra squash was put to good use as feed for the chickens and sheep.

Recently harvested winter squash in the late afternoon sun (September 23, 2013).
Recently harvested winter squash in the late afternoon sun on September 23, 2013.

The fall of 2013 was unusually cold but tolerable until November. Hard frosts in September quickly put an end to most of the vegetable garden except for kale and cabbage which were kept under a double layer of frost blankets up to the first day of December. In September, before the weather got too cold, I planted 900 cloves of garlic, and 200 shallot and yellow multiplier onion sets.

Frost blankets over cabbage and kale on November 20, 2013.
Frost blankets over cabbage and kale on November 20, 2013.

Then, beginning in December, the Polar Vortex struck. The first snow was a slushy mess that glued itself to the roof. After that it snowed heavily and often. Temperatures were extremely cold for days on end all winter and often below zero. The snow was deep eventually reaching four feet which spelled disaster for my apple trees. On top of the deep snow meadow voles were able to climb into the upper trunks and branches of the trees and strip off the bark. They even climbed down into the tree guards and ate off bark from the lower trunks. Most of my trees died as a result.

Hay for livestock was hard to come by in 2013. Many people in the area got only one cut from their fields because of low rainfall and cool temperatures. On top of that a lot of hay was shipped to other states where pastures and hay fields were drying up. What hay was left was expensive and sometimes of low quality. Some of the hay I bought contained, besides grasses, sedges and rushes which are a poor forage as they contain sharp silica spicules on the leaves and toxic chemicals. One bale of hay proved to be very bad although it looked fine otherwise. When Aries, my ram, ate from that bale he also ate a piece of sharp plastic trash that was in there. The plastic was from some sort of fireworks (I later found other pieces in the remains of that bale). The plastic cut his rumen leading to an infection that killed him. After that I tore up every bale of hay and checked for trash. All of my other sheep made it through the winter without any serious harm but a few times one of the young rams got his horns stuck in a fence. He seemed to always pick the coldest mornings for that. And there were times when two of the rams locked horns. I managed to separate them with no injuries but it was a little nerve wracking fearing they’d break their horns.

Winter seemed unending and although we didn’t have temperatures lower than -30 F most of the time we did have long stretches of below zero weather. But winter did finally end as spring arrived slowly with cool weather and some more snow in April and again in early May.

A snowstorm on April 16, 2014. This is the scene in the marsh near my house.
A snowstorm on April 16, 2014. This is the scene in the marsh near my house.

Spring 2014
April remained cold and after a few days of mild weather that melted a lot of snow and even some river ice we were visited with a bout a half-foot of snow on April 16th. Much of this melted in a few days but the temperatures were still below normal. Willows begin blooming here around the middle of April but this year none bloomed until the first week of May. Even alders and hazels, two more early bloomers, were late.

At last the weather got warm, the ground thawed and life returned. In late May the garlic began to push up through the mulch a full 30 days behind schedule. I had a job offer in May doing botanical data collecting that looked good so I took it. Work on this project would begin near the end of May so I rushed getting vegetable seeds and potatoes into the ground, trellises built, mulch spread, animal pens cleaned, new apple trees planted, and fences repaired. By May 25 I finished planting onions, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, potatoes, carrots, and parsnips in the vegetable garden. Between then and the first few days of June I had also planted squash, cucumbers, corn, beans, and tomatoes in their plots.

When June came I was working full-time on the project collecting data trees and other plants at pre-selected points in forests. Most of these sites were a 2 or 3 hour drive one way from my home. Each weekday morning I got up at 4:00 to feed the sheep and chickens before leaving for work at 5:30. I usually got home by 7:00 PM but still had to check on the animals and gardens as well as get ready for the next day.

In spite of the busy work schedule and a summer with cool weather alternating with hot and long dry spells the harvest was good for most of my crops. But some parts of my garden suffered and are overgrown with weeds and lots of little repair and maintenance projects never got done. More about that and other things that happened over the summer in future posts.

Garlic emerging from the ground on May 09, 2014.
Garlic emerging from the ground on May 09, 2014.

Wild Oyster Mushrooms

Oyster mushrooms on trunk of dead balsam polar.
Oyster mushrooms on trunk of dead balsam polar.

On June 18th in the afternoon after the big frost that settled over my gardens I was out walking in the woods with my camera. There is a small grove of small quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) and balsam poplars (P. balsaminifera) on moist soil at the edge of the woods. I cut trees from this grove and feed the branches to my sheep who relish these treats. Cutting down the trees won’t hurt the grove. When an aspen or poplar tree is cut the roots are stimulated to sprout new replacement shoots. Some of the balsam poplars have died and it was on one of these that I found a colony of oyster mushrooms (Pleurotis sp). I went back several days later and saw more dead balsam poplar trees sprouting bunches of oyster mushrooms. I am not absolutely certain of the identity of the species but think it may be Pleurotus populinus. On my day off this week I am planning a hike to the western third of my property (a nice half mile trek through a sedge marsh and shrub swamp) where there are many more aspen trees and hope to find oyster mushrooms and other interesting fungi.

Progress in the Garlic Patch and Elsewhere

This year the garlic got off to a late start. Most years it is up by the first week of April and nearly a foot tall by May. Not so this year. The spring thaw came later than usual and April was a cold, wet, snowy month. May hasn’t been much better either.

On May 7 the first feeble garlic shoots emerged from beneath their moldy mulch almost 40 days later than in earlier years. The heavy April snows had compacted the mulch into something like cardboard. As the snow melted it soaked the mulch creating ideal conditions for a film of white mold to grow over it. After a few days I decided to lift the mulch off the garlic so that the sun could warm and dry the soil. I also started my tractor and tilled up a wide strip on the west side of the garlic and planted six fifty foot rows of onion sets and a few red shallots. These are starting to come up now.

Garlic emerging from soil on May 14 after old mulch removed.
Garlic emerging from soil on May 14 after old mulch removed.

Lifting the mulch worked and more garlic cloves sprouted leaves. In a few more days almost all the cloves I had planted last fall were up. Now it was safe to mulch again so I spread a thin layer of about 20 wheelbarrow loads of spoiled hay over the garlic and onions. In seven to ten days when the garlic plants are taller I will add another layer of spoiled hay. This will keep the soil moist and cool and suppress weeds.

Garlic with new mulch on May 19.
Garlic with new mulch on May 19.

On Saturday, I tilled the corn patch once more to mix the manure and bedding more thoroughly. On Sunday afternoon, after feeding the sheep their grain and before the rain came, I tilled my potato patch, mulched it with spoiled hay, cut up five pounds of seed potatoes, and marked out the rows getting it all done by sunset. The rain clouds were gone Thursday (we’ve gotten almost 2 inches since Monday) and I was able to plant 200 feet of potatoes. On Saturday I am hoping to plant more potatoes and get the rows ready for my flour corn. The winter squash mounds are done and covered in a thick layer of rotted hay that is almost like soil but it is still too early for the squash which will be planted around June 5. I’m still working on getting the summer squash, string bean, and tomato areas fixed up.

It is finally warm enough by the house at least that I can leave the tomato seedlings outside. I don’t think I will bother selling any this year. The late spring set me back and I could not put any plants outside until May 18 so many of my seedlings did not grow large enough to be worth selling. I will still have plenty of plants for my use and for tomatoes to sell at the farm market later this summer. I tilled under last year’s mulch in the tomato area today but still need to put down a new layer of spoiled hay.

Elberta Tomato
Elberta Tomato

Apple trees and Siberian and Korean nut pine seedlings I ordered over the winter arrived in late March and early April. The plan was to plant them in the thawed ground the day they arrived like last year. Instead, I had to keep them in their shipping boxes and it wasn’t until last week that the ground had thawed enough to dig last week. Even then I had to pour hot water in some holes to melt the ice. On Tuesday this week I repaired the fencing around all the Siberian and Korean nut pines and the apple trees planted last year and put new fencing around this year’s plantings to keep the sheep from eating them. I am planting fruit and nut trees in the sheep pasture to make better use of the limited arable land. In the next few weeks I’m also going to be planting willows along the outside of some fences for a hedge to grow fresh willow branches for sheep forage.

Siberian Stone Pine shoots
Siberian Stone Pine shoots

On May 17 last week I picked up my order of thirty basswood trees from the conservation district. So far I have planted 25 trees including 4 in the sheep pasture. It’s been quite a job so far as the roots are over a foot long. The holes have to be dug deep and large just like the ones for the apple trees. I’m mulching these with old cardboard sheets covered with spoiled hay. My hope is that in several years they will begin to flower. Basswood flowers are very fragrant and the honey made from them is prized. But even if no honeybees use them they will still be nectar and pollen sources for wild bees.

The sheep have been wanting to get into their pasture for a couple of weeks now. I have been letting them out to graze for brief periods last week but the grass was not tall enough to leave them all day. On Tuesday (May 21) they got to spend the whole day in the small paddock after a week of only a half hour per day to get them adjusted to fresh food again. On Wednesday, after feeding them a pile of hay, I let the sheep out into the larger paddock for a few hours before sunset. Now they are in the pasture everyday feeding on fresh grass and clover whenever they want. Everyone seems fine and able to handle the fresh grass.

Some of the lambs in the pasture early Wednesday evening.
Some of the lambs in the pasture early Wednesday evening.