After 12 years of trying, we finally got our first paw paws today! I am beyond excited.
It’s April and the back of the yard is full of flowers. Yellow daffodils, purple comfrey and the beautiful white bell-shaped flowers on Solomon’s Seal make for a nice mix of spring colors.
The pitcher plants are thriving and making little ones.
The yard is teeming with life. L. and I have been doing a lot of digging in the backyard and occasionally we will leave a worm or two on top of the bluebird house. The babies fledged over the weekend.
The frogs have multiplied and made themselves at home.
Where there are frogs, there are herons. Last week I pulled open the curtains around 7 a.m. and there was the biggest heron I’d ever seen, beak in the water looking for his frog fix.
I lifted L. up on the kitchen counter to take a better look. We watched as the heron raised is head up out of the water, front feathers blowing gently in the breeze. He looked right at us, stood up and flapped his enormous wings. Next
thing we knew, he slowly lifted himself up from the pond and flew right towards
our window. He got so close to the window we could see the inside of his mouth, which was open. Then suddenly he swooped up and over the house and out of sight.
Our turtle, Mr. Fast, has risen up from the muck of the pond to make daily appearances. He has grown over the winter.
We have our own little wildlife habitat now!
Monday is L’s first day of classes at Club Boulevard School and he is really excited. Yesterday we delivered some snacks and supplies.
Last Saturday we joined some of the parents, staff, and students in a mulching project for the school. Levi had a good time mulching the walkway with his principal, Ms. Phillips.
It was a lovely spring day and everyone was in good spirits. L. had a good time working alongside his peers.
It was a long, wet winter but eventually the sun came out. The yard is squishy in spots, but it has never looked more fecund. Clover, chickweed, moss, daffodils and other flowers dot the yard now. The blueberries are budding. I saw my first frog of the year hop into Farthing pond today.
The pitcher plants survived the winter but some have turned bright red.
Since last year we’ve expanded our bog, which is part of an overflow area from Farthing Pond. That means more mixing of peat and sand.
We built a smaller, T-shaped pond and connected it with the bog area Levi calls “Mielke Creek.” We have a surfeit of rocks and are thinking about things like building a set of stairs around the pond and a bridge across the bog.
We went over to Uncle Darren’s and got a bunch of horsetail plants a few days ago. They are a very aggressive plant and Darren had plenty to thin out. I took a bunch back to our place but put the plants in pots so they wouldn’t spread everywhere.
My goal with the horsetail (or scouring rush) was to use it to bring more dragonflies to our yard. They love to perch on them. Not that we’ve had any problem seeing any dragonflies—they love our pond and I’ve seen a number of different species, with different colors. But you can never have too many to help keep the mosquitoes at bay. Mosquito eggs are a favorite dish of theirs.
Horestail have been around for almost 350 million years ago, when Durham was near the equator and Pangea hadn’t started busting at the seams.
The dinosaurs loved to eat them, I told Levi. A resilient plant, it could take chomps from a dinosaur because the rhizome would stay intact underground.
It also reproduces with spores, like ferns.
I went outside to feed the cats the other evening and saw a large turtle hanging out near the pitcher plants next to the pond. Amazed, I ran back in the house and grabbed Shawnna and Levi. When we got back outside the turtle was heading towards the deep end of the pond and we watched him plop right in.
He’s decided to stick around. Every now and then we will walk near the pond and see him gliding about 6 inches under the surface. It never ceases to amaze me. Levi has named the turtle “Mr. Fast.”
I think about the line If you build it they will come. We recently expanded the wetland area in our backyard with the construction of “Mielke Creek,” which started out as an overflow area in front of the pond. The frogs (and now Mr. Fast) seem to love it.
We connected the trench to our peat bog with the pitcher plants.
Currently we are working on constructing a bridge across Mielke Creek. We’ve spent hours of fun playing in the water and mud, moving rocks and dirt.
Being a permaculture enthusiast means playing the long game sometimes. It’s kind of like having an investment that eventually pays dividends.
I bought our house in 2007 knowing that I would be putting down roots in the City of Durham. What sold me on the property was our backyard—a fenced-in double lot, unusual for a house in the city. I remember kneeling down and scooping up some of the soil with my hands. The soil was black and earthy, unusual for our area where red clay is the norm. An old-timer from our neighborhood later told me that many years ago our backyard had been a sweet potato field.
A sign that things are now paying off is that after 12 years of trying, there were finally enough blueberries this year for our family and the birds. I had considered putting nets on our bushes to keep the birds away, but I didn’t relish the thought of picking birds out of nets. Plus it would just look kind of ugly.
I also thought about a cat we once had who used to kill birds. I did not want to be responsible for any more death and destruction. Eat freely, little birds, and sorry about all that carnage.
How wonderful that we can join the birds for this year’s bountiful harvest.
Our bluebird babies are getting ready to fledge. Last night a whole family of bluebirds flew into our backyard and perched themselves in a tree high above the bluebird house. The fledglings were poking their heads out, unsure of their next move. while our feral cat Grace was looking up at the scene, licking her lips. As a precaution, I locked her in our outdoor cat enclosure–aka the “catio”–until these little creatures can make it safely out of their nest.
Life in the Pandemic. It’s been a surreal month. We’ve run the gamut of emotions here at our house.
Later we pulled out our giant inflatable Mickey Mouse. Last week it was chalk drawings on the side of our brick house.
Our backyard has become a campground. We started by setting up our tent on top of tthe hill overlooking the pond and invited Levi’s best friend R. over for a sleepover.
That afternoon we dug a dakota fire pit and I showed the boys how to build a fire from tiny little twigs. When the sun went down we made s’mores.
We’ve kept the tent up. Wonderfully enough, our tent-wi fi is excellent so I have been able to spend some mornings sitting in the tent answering work e-mails and listening to the frogs. They don’t seem to be afraid of us as evidenced by one who crawled into the tent to hang out with us.
It’s been a beautiful spring and things are in bloom in the back yard: Solomon’s Seal, Star of Bethlehem, paw paw flowers. Pretty yellow irisies and purple comfrey flowers. We have a blueberry bush that has grown seven feet tall and is sagging with tiny budding berries. In the bog, the pitcher plants are having little babies.
Our yard is kind of sprawling and messy right now, though. I suggested to Levi that if we worked just a little bit in the yard every day, we could get some things accomplished. He liked the idea and now his favorite thing is to water the plants, whether they need it or not.
in addition to the backyard time, there have been frequent walks to the Beaver Marsh, one of Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association’s nature preserves (all of which are still open to the public.) A 34-acre urban oasis and a short walk from our house, it is teeming with life right now. We’ve seen herons, baby ducks, and hundreds of tiny little frogs jumping to and from the shore. Once we saw a beaver jumping from the lodge into the water. Most days we don’t see any other human beings in the marsh. it’s just us and the birds and the beavers.
It has meant so much to connect with nature during the time of Covid-19. As always, it brings great comfort and joy. I noticed the ECWA folks had Wendell Berry’s poem “The Peace of Wild Things” posted on their Facebook Page which hits home right now:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Lately we’ve seen cooler temperatures with periodic bursts of rain, filling up Farthing Pond and our big rain cubes. Last week I estimated that we had about 2,000 gallons of water at our disposal, so when Levi told me he wanted to “build some waterfalls” I was happy to oblige. I just let the water run from one of the 275-gallon cubes. Levi yanked the hose from me and started piling rocks and other debris on the sidewalk, joyfully watching the water trickle down the front of the yard.
After a while he started getting more creative, diverting the water flow through some old pvc pipe and letting it fill up an empty pond shell I had lying around.
It got interesting when he discovered that he could make his garden pinwheels turn if he directed the water flow towards them. It seemed like a perfect time to talk to him about the merits of turbines and hydropower. I told him he’d made an important discovery.
Feeling inspired, we turned our attention to Farthing Pond. What if we “made” a waterfall, or at least the appearance of one, trickling down from the pond? It would be a nice visual. And so we began pulling up large rocks and digging into the ground in front of the pond.
On this day the temperatures were much cooler. Levi asked me what the frogs of Farthing Pond did in the winter. I explained to him that frogs are cold-blooded, their body temperatures taking on the temperature of the environment around them. During the winter, they go into a state of hibernation, and some can be exposed to temperatures below freezing. I told him I thought they might be hanging out at the bottom of the pond, in the muck and the mire.
Minutes later, as I was pulling up a big rock to make room for our waterfall, I uncovered one of our beloved frogs. “He’s alive, and in perfect hibernation!” I yelled excitedly.
We just stared at him in amazement for a few minutes. “Looks like they love to burrow,” I told him. After that we decided not to unearth any more rocks. Let sleeping frogs lie.
This weekend Levi and I took advantage of the beautiful weather and took a hike and picnic on the Eno river. Our destination was the old pump station, which supplied water for the town of Durham from 1884 to 1926.
We stumbled across the old ruins as if we were in some enchanted forest.
We spent the rest of the afternoon playing in the river, skipping stones and looking for artifacts and enjoying the sounds of nature. For a while we were the only two in the forest, and magic was in the air.
I recently read the excellent book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles Mann. An overriding theme of this book is that pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Americas shaped their environment to fit their needs, time and time again. Some of these environments were barren intially but the land inhabitants were able to cultivate them with remarkable success. He sites, for example the terra preta of the Amazon Basin. This anthropogenic soil was made by adding a mixture of charcoal, bone, broken pottery, compost and manure to the otherwise relatively infertile Amazonian soil. The soil’s charcoal has remained in the soil for thousands of years.
I was thinking about the book when I stepped out of the house today. The backyard has become wild and overgrown due to my inability to tend to it this summer. In addition to the long grass there are beautiful red spider lilies popping up all over.
These flowers usually bloom around the autumnal equinox and apparently are bulb-producing perennials which likely means someone planted them before I bought the house.
Looking back it was the backyard that sold me on the house. A large, skinny double lot in the city, I noticed the rich, dark, earthy soil in the back which seemed anomalous considering most of the soil in the Triangle is red clay.
I asked my geologist friend Brian if our soil was rich due to some geological feature. He told me that it wasn’t, that it was more likely the yard had been cultivated by previous owners. He paused for a second and said “but if that’s not the case then it could be a burial mound.” Startled for a minute, I remembered that one of our elderly neighbors told me that back in the day, our yard was a giant sweet potato field. I started thinking about the lot’s previous owners and how long it had been cultivated. Hundreds of years? Thousands of years?
We continue the tradition by composting what we can and giving much love to our beautiful back yard. We plan on spending the next couple of weeks taming the yard back in shape. But we won’t mow over any of the beautiful spider lilies.
Last Saturday I took Levi up to Gramma and Grampa’s place in Watauga County, NC, otherwise known as “Mielke Mountain.” At 4,000 feet, the temperatures are usually 12-15 degrees cooler than Durham. It was wonderful to escape the oppressive heat for a little while.
This time we didn’t bring our tent, due to the presence of two black bears on the property. A couple of nights before, one of the bears decided it would be fun to visit the front porch and eat some birdseed out of one of Gramma Sue’s feeders. Unfortunately, bear habitat destruction and a rebounding black bear population in the area means we are seeing more of them.
Gramma Sue was a little freaked out about us romping around the 12-acre property with the bears so close by. Since we forgot to bring our bear bells, she hooked us up with some cow bells from my great grandfather’s village in Switzerland. How fitting, since the flag of the Canton Bern is the bear!
As we played, I was filled with immense gratitude for having grown up in one of the most beautiful places in the country. It was wonderful having the opportunity to share some of those same childhood experiences in nature with my own son.
Our first day there we headed down to the creek to see if the dam we built last summer was holding. There it was, still intact, holding back a nice pool of water—and some crawdads had moved in. I told Levi we’d created a crawdad hole and showed him how to pick up a crawdad without getting pinched. His excitement was contagious and I just had to get it on video.
We also found several large salamanders–too elusive for us to catch or photograph. I was glad to see them, as it seems there are fewer of them than in the past. North Carolina has over 60 species of them.
We woke up one morning to a beautiful scene of cloud-draped mountains. Levi exclaimed, “The clouds fell on the mountains.”
The whole week I’d been thinking about that wonderful summer of 1979, 40 years ago, in Boone, NC. Those beautiful, sometimes foggy summer mornings where you needed a light jacket, at least for the first hour of the day. Days spent swinging on grapevines, catching salamanders, picking wildflowers. A more innocent time for sure. Our town seemed like a small village back then. That summer, when, for a brief period of time our little town was in the national spotlight after the world’s largest windmill, built on Howard’s Knob, was completed.
How fun it was to relive some of those experiences.
Our 3 bluebird babies. born on Easter Sunday, left the nest on day 17. It was a remarkable experience to see these little things on the day they were born–tiny and hairless, like little pink shrimp.
We were all amazed at how quickly they developed. By day 4, we could make out their eyes–still fused shut. When I peeked in, they opened their little mouths, thinking it was feeding time. They were still covered with soft, gray down.
After a week or so we could make out the feathers. The last picture I took of them was day 16.
The bluebird parents did an excellent job guarding the perimeter, perched on our fig tree. We became familiar with their sounds and watched as they flew in and out, delivering grub worms to their hungry babies.
Our massive tabby Franklin would occasionally look up at the house, licking his lips and making that funny, chattering sound known as the kill-bite reflex. Too big and clumsy to scale the pole for a snack, he kept other potential predators at bay. Guardian of the yard, he resumed his usual practice of hunting for frogs in the pond. Fortunately, they too have proved elusive.
I told Levi we’d clean out the birdhouse and let another family start over again. He seemed pleased.
Three little bluebird nestlings arrived on Easter Sunday. They looked pink and mostly hairless, with a little bit of wet-gray down.
We caught a glimpse of mother bird before the weekend and thought she might be up to something…
One of Levi’s favorite books is Planting a Rainbow by Lois Ehlert. In this beautifully-illustrated board book, a mother and daughter plant a rainbow of flowers in their garden. One night after I finished reading the book to him, Levi told me that he wanted to plant a rainbow garden too. That week he’d been learning about the colors of the spectrum in school.
“Alright,” I said. I told him we could start in the front of the yard since we had a nice row of daffodils there. “We already have a lot of yellow,” I told him. That seemed pretty reasonable to him. “But we need to get some flowers that mama likes,” he said. I told him that his mother’s favorite flowers were tulips, so we could start with those.
The next week we added to the spectrum–orange marigolds and lampara, purple violets, and a beautiful cascading blue ground cover. A kind neighbor gave us some tiger lillies.
After we finished planting, Levi wanted to make sure that the plants got enough water.
He made several trips to the backyard pond, dunking his watering can into the water and then racing back to the front yard to take care of the flowers. It was exhausting to watch.
By the end of the day, we were tired but happy. I am so grateful that this child loves being outside with me.
This weekend Levi and I worked and played in the yard together. It’s an exciting time now, as he’s able and interested in helping out on the “Family Farm” on Farthing Street.
A few weeks ago we put together a bluebird house and stand. I didn’t let him use the drill of course, but his eyes, much better than mine, were able to find the drill bits for me. We staked the house next to the pond and I told Levi I bet they will love it here at Farthing Pond. We just have to be patient and wait.
Saturday the bluebirds arrived. We watched as one sat on the house, puffed up mightily, defending his territory from cardinals and thrushes. This morning, Levi jumped out of bed, opened the curtain and was delighted to see one of the bluebirds sitting on the house.
Outside, daffodils were everywhere like little coming attractions for spring. Together we planted tulips, which he’d picked out at the garden store for Shawnna (he knows they are her favorite flower.)
As we planted the tulips in a row in front of the daffodils, we’d dig up the occasional grub worm. I explained to Levi how bluebirds loved them and we left some as a present for our new friends.
Levi called the ground squishy in some places and he was right. We’ve gotten so much rain this winter. Over the last couple of months, when it hasn’t been raining, we’ve been expanding our bioretention area in the back. The pitcher plant bog is saturated with water and has looked like a small creek at times during the recent rains.
The plants are loving all the extra water that we are catching coming down our sloped yard. For example, we have 3 paw paw trees that are budding now. The trees sit next to a fake stream bed that I carved out at the top of the yard in the back. Paw paws are river trees. We might actually have some to eat this year.
Another example: in front of the bog we have a blueberry bush that is almost eight feet tall. It’s grown like a weed this winter. It’s also expanding sideways and is taken over everything with little runners sticking out all over the place
There should be enough berries for both birds and humans this year.
Trying to grow our own food has been a challenge, but in recent years we’ve had decent luck with our fruit-bearing plants like strawberries and blueberries, and our enormous fig tree. Every August we eagerly anticipate the fig harvest, and 2017 did not disappoint!
This year little Levi had fun picking figs for the first time. Earlier in the month I had explained to him that we can only harvest the figs when they feel “mushy.” After that, he’d run up to the tree and squeeze each green, unripe fig, saying “not ripe” to me.
When the first figs started turning, I pulled one off and broke it in half, showing him the sweet mushy inside, then took a big bite. He did the same with another fig but decided he didn’t really like the taste. That didn’t stop him from picking figs with Oma, though.
A few years ago I wrote about my obsession with the miracle plant, Comfrey.
I wrote how the plant has been used for a variety of purposes over the years, from healing fractures, helping with skin irritations, insect bites and inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis. It’s a nitrogen fixer too, which means it’s a great fertilizer. I love it’s pretty purple flowers, too, and so do the bees. So I planted a whole bunch of it, and it turns out that it is a very vigorous perennial indeed.
Before I work in the yard, I usually pick some comfrey leaves, tear them apart and rub my arms with them. The leaves produce a semi-sticky substance, known as allantoin, which keeps the poison ivy at bay.
When my wonderful mother-in-law, Rosemary, recently paid a visit, I told her how I thought it would be a great idea to make a comfrey healing salve. Before I knew it, she had taken my idea and run with it. She started by drying a mixture of salve herbs, including the comfrey leaves.
Next, she infused the herbs with oils. I gave her a giant slab of beeswax that had been taking up space with my art supplies. I had used beeswax for an encaustic painting project a few years back. She took the beeswax, shredded it in the kitchen and used it to finish making the salve.
Then, after letting the batch cool, she put them in little tins. For my part, I’m trying to design a logo for her product!
Rosemary, who is a member of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, plans on calling her salve “Cherokee Rose’s Healing Salve.” I hope she gives Burt’s Bees a run for their money.
Currently she’s looking for one more ingredient to add to the mixture that will give it a more pleasant smell, as the tea tree oil in the mixture gives it a very slight odor, not unlike insect repellent.
At our house, Rose is known as Oma, and we always look forward to her visits. Here she is in 2015, right after Levi was born.
Nice work, Oma!
Every weekend I strap Levi to my back–all 28.5 pounds of him–and head out into the woods for a little father-and-son nature hike. We both have a good time at some of our favorite places like West Point on the Eno or Occoneechee Mountain. It’s a good workout for me, too–I’m reminded of my backpacking days in the Boy Scouts of America.
Last weekend we decided to stay a little closer to home with a short hike down to Northgate Park, our beautiful 17-acre city park just a couple of blocks from home. A good section of the park has been transformed into a natural habitat after a stream restoration project from a few years ago. Along the banks of Ellerbe Creek is a “no-mow” zone which has grown wild with river birch, pine trees and a variety of plants and brush.
Apparently a group of beavers like it too, and have taken up residence there. I had spotted a small lodge a couple of weeks ago when walking across the bridge, so Levi and I decided to investigate. We followed one of the little footpaths down to the banks of the Ellerbe in view of the lodge. I took Levi out of the backpack and we both sat for a few minutes.
It wasn’t long before we saw a beaver swim from one side of the creek towards the lodge, then disappear. Regretfully, I was not fast enough to take a picture with my iphone, but Levi can vouch for me. He saw it too and started pointing and babbling excitedly. He kept running in the direction of the lodge, and I kept pulling him back, afraid that a beaver might jump out at him.
We went back a few days later, hoping to get another glimpse of beaver. Although we didn’t see any this time, we found footprints in the sand and gnawed bits of wood everywhere. We also discovered a second, smaller lodge further downstream, as well as what I think was the beginning of a third next to a concrete pipe. In the coming months and years it will be interesting to see what develops. Will their construction projects have any negative impact on the stream restoration there, creating challenges for the City? I will have to have a chat with friends in City Stormwater Services. Who knows, maybe Durham will have a second Beaver Marsh Preserve some day.
Spring is here, and the backyard is teeming with life. Everything is growing, budding, sprouting. The frogs have returned and the fish make regular appearances now. What could make us happier, other than the baby boy who will grace our doorstep any day now? I’m sure the stork will fly over our pond and eat a frog or a couple of goldfish on his flight back from our house. Everyone else does.
Shawnna and I have been laughing a lot and using the word fecund to describe everything. It’s one of those words I remember from the SAT. The word comes from from the French word fecond (“fruitful”) and from Latin fecundus, (“fruitful, fertile, productive; rich, abundant.”)
For example, in the very back of the yard near our paw paw patch, I dug a big trench, which gives the appearance of a fake stream bed feeding into the pond. It gets filled with water that would otherwise trickle down the yard and into the street. The paw paws, being river trees, seem to love the extra water.
We are also using drip irrigation for the first time, and I believe this is making a huge impact. We have hoses attached to our rain barrels, which are placed under every downspout. Some of the hoses have holes punched in them so they will drip like a soaker hose. For others, we’ve just let a slow steady trickle come out of one end.
We have a hose dedicated for the strawberry patch.
We’ve planted some beautiful comfrey around the strawberries, which are providing a natural source of nitrogen for the strawberries. Some of the leaves of the strawberry plants have now gotten as big as the palm of my hand.
For the first time our pitcher plants are producing flowers that are at once both strange and beautiful.
The ferns are opening back up. They remind me of tiny seahorses.
I thought I was a little crazy when I bought all those barrels and built a large pond in the backyard, but I think I had the right idea. Now we have about 2,000 gallons of water at our disposal. I’ve been amazed at how much our yard can use. And, with the drip irrigation, we can spend less time watering our yard and more time playing with our new arrival. Of course, he’ll be helping out on the homestead as soon as he’s able.
This weekend I went hiking with my father-in-law, Ken, and my brother-in-law, Jackson. Taking a day trip from Shawnna’s grandfather’s place in West Jefferson, N.C., we traveled to Pond Mountain, a 5,000 foot mountain in a remote part of Ashe County. Heading northwest, where the states of Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia converge, we looked forward to seeing the spectacular view of three states.
Ah, Beautiful Tennova.
Thanks to the efforts of the Blue Ridge Conservancy, 1800 acres of mountaintop land here have been preserved for future generations.
One of the most important things about the Blue Ridge Conservancy’s efforts is the fact that the entire mountain is a major source of water. We found several small ponds on the high ridges of the mountain, and there were numerous small springs bubbling out of the side of the mountain. These springs become the creeks that feed into the New River, one of the oldest rivers in the world. The river flows south to north, just like the Nile.
Pond Mountain was aptly named by Thomas Jefferson’s father, Peter, when he surveyed the North Carolina-Virginia border in the 1700s. I’ve heard that Jefferson’s surveying was slightly off, extending a little bit of North Carolina further north than it should have been. I guess that just means there is more of North Carolina to love now.
Jefferson, along with Joshua Frye, ultimately produced a famous map in 1752, The Fry-Jefferson Map of the Royal Colony of Virginia. Highly influential, this map had serious implications for North Carolina history, as it marked for the first time The Great Wagon Road that thousands of Germans, English and Scot-Irish would take from Pennsylvania to the Yadkin Valley.
As we started hiking up the mountain, we passed fields of Christmas trees. We found more near the summit, and the very top of the mountain was cleared for planting. It made me wonder if they had a partnership with any Christmas tree farmers. After all, this northwestern corner of the state is the Christmas tree capital of the world.
Typical of mountains in this area, we found beautiful grassy balds.
Near the summit we found some stands of Carolina Nightshade, whose yellow
berries were used by the Cherokee Indians for various purposes.
I’ve heard the Cherokee used the nightshade as an antihistamine, a sedative, and a pain reliever for teething babies. I, however, was disappointed that I wasn’t looking at cherry tomatoes. By that time we were getting hungry.
The view at the top was well worth the hike: looking north to Virginia, we could see Whitetop Mountain and Mount Rogers; to the west towards Tennessee, Cherokee National Forest; and to the South and east we saw numerous Ashe and Watauga County Peaks.
We slept well that night!
Last weekend we dug up a bunch of sweet potatoes and transferred them to the cellar, where they’ll be curing for a few weeks under a fan. If they promise to be sweet enough by Thanksgiving, we just might let them out of the basement for the celebration.
Earlier that afternoon I’d been staring at the pretty greenery of the sweet potato terraces I’d constructed back in the summer. Armed with a shovel, I hesitated for a minute, worrying that I might accidentally cut some of the little beauties open at first strike of the ground. I thought a little blessing might help prevent casualties. May this be a bountiful harvest, I whispered before taking a plunge into the ground. It didn’t work; as soon as my shovel hit the ground, I split a beautiful big sweet potato right in two.
Next year we hope to get an even bigger yield by using drip irrigation from our rain barrels. This year I found the biggest potatoes in the sections of the terraces where the soil stayed moist. Those potatoes that had the misfortune of being in the under-watered areas suffered. When dry, the sandy loam tends to clump up into little blobs, leaving a little shriveled potato in the mix.
We look forward to dining on sweet potatoes this holiday season.
There’s a rumor going around that 2014 is going to be a dreaded Black Squirrel Winter for the N.C. High Country. I am shocked that, having grown up in Watauga County, N.C., I’m just becoming aware of this phenomenon, what the Native Americans referred to as Black Squirrel Winter or Winter of Sorrows. It sounds so dark and ominous, like the Winter is Coming motto from the George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire. In my head I picture the ginger-headed House of Stark-of-the-Blue-Ridge-Escarpment whispering “Beware the Black Squirrel Winter” to one another, warning of the 16-year winter ahead, and the army of black squirrels that prey on human flesh.
The black squirrel is a darker version of the eastern grey squirrel, the result of a mutant pigment gene. They can be described as a melanistic variety. Melanism, of course, is the opposite of albinism. They evolved in old growth forests, which had much darker cover. Deforestation turned these squirrels grey: with the loss of the old growth forests, the black squirrels lost their evolutionary advantage, and grey became a better form of camouflage. Still, they’ve maintained steady populations in different areas of the country, including urban areas like Washington, D.C., where fewer predators make camouflage less essential for survival. They’ve also thrived in colder places like Ontario and the U.S. Northeast because they can retain heat in the winter much better than their grey cousins. This is probably why they don’t mind the unusually brutal North Carolina Winters when we have them.
The Choctaw had stories about the black squirrel being responsible for solar eclipses. Apparently the rodent liked to nibble on the sun. Villagers would try to frighten the squirrel away so that it would stop eating the sun; woman and children would shout and bang pots, while the men shot their weapons into the distance as if hunting for game.
If only frightening the black squirrels away could enlarge the sun, melting all the snow and ice. Winter is coming….
I was in the kitchen prepping for a spaghetti dinner when I spied a beautiful string of cherry tomatoes beckoning me from the backyard. I knew they would be a tasty addition to the evening’s meal, and I was so proud of myself for being able to grow my own food. Practically running out of the house towards the tomato patch, my joy turned to horror when I picked up one of the tiny beauties and rolled it over. It was grimacing at me with a huge, angry, gash-of-a-smile. Soon I realized that all the tomatoes in the patch, big or small, were afflicted with cuts of varying pattens.
This has been the story of the summer. (I wish I had a good tomato for everytime one of my Triangle friends complained about their tomato crop this year.) 2014 has been an interesting year weather-wise here in Durham, with some hot dry spells followed by monster downpours. Call it Bull City’s Monsoon Season. From what I understand, it is this disproportionate watering cycle that causes the tomatoes to expand to accommodate the influx of water. When the skin can’t grow enough to hold all the water, it cracks.
Bottom line, tomatoes need consistent watering. This is why they can be so hard to grow, and why some people grow them hydroponically. It has me seriously considering growing them bins or big pots in 2015, using overflow from one of our rain barrels to keep them filled to capacity. If we decide to grow them in the ground again, we’ll probably use slow-drip irrigation from one of our larger rain containers. Increasing the amount of mulch around the plants will also help them retain moisture. Of course, one could always water their tomato plants every day, but what fun is it if you can’t let Nature do part of the work for you?
This week the Nature Boy is thankful for the ancient Peruvians. Everything
that’s been going on in the backyard lately, they did it first, and better, too. More specifically, I’m referring to my attempts at:
1. Growing (massive amounts of) sweet potatoes
2. Storing, capturing, and distributing water for growing food
This moment of recognition-gratitude came as I gazed out at the terraces I’d constructed on the left side of our sloped backyard. I looked at the sweet potato shoots sprouting out of them, and thought of those tiny tubers growing under the ground. I licked my lips in anticipation of the fall harvest. (My obsession with the sweet potatoes is well-documented.)
The sweet potato was originally cultivated in South America, where remains of Peruvian sweet potatoes have been found going back almost 10,000 years. It has quite a history, but I’m just thankful that it made its way to the North American continent.
Looking at the terraces, I started thinking about the elaborate stone-faced terraces that the Incas constructed on the sides of mountains. They used them for the same reasons I’m using them: to minimize erosion, to capture water for growing food, and to create usable gardening space in a sloped environment.
This week’s trip to the library took me to South America, where I’ve been reading about the history of ancient Andean irrigation systems like the Puquios, a system of aqueducts near Nazca, Peru. It’s been fascinating to read about how people tapped subterranean aquifers to create wells and develop drip irrigation systems.
As for the sweet potato, we’ll probably never know exactly how it got from South America to North Carolina. DeSoto writes about finding them in Louisiana in the 1540s. Several of our regional Indian tribes grew them, including the Creek, Cherokee, Saura, and Tuscarora. Today North Carolina leads the nation in sweet potato production.
This month we mourned the passing of this mighty oak, one of the original trees planted on Duke’s West Campus. It was all the buzz in the sociology-psychology building. Sadly, no one could recall the tree’s name. We’ll have to give it the posthumous name of a dead social scientist.
Apparently the tree was terminal, suffering from a deadly fungus, discovered with the aid of sonic tomography. A tomograph is a technology that produces a cross-sectional image of a three dimensional object. In the case of a tooth, or a tree, it lets you see the rot that might not be apparent from the outside. I’ve heard that a lot of the “city” trees in Durham have a lifespan of around 80 years, so I’m not surprised that Duke was monitoring these. West Campus construction started in the 1920s.
All week we watched with fascination and a little sadness as crews worked with a with a giant crane, hoisting huge pieces of the tree over the building into the parking lot on the other side.
By Friday afternoon there was nothing left but a jagged stump.
Although the tree was gone, Duke promised that the good wood from the tree would be repurposed for use at the University and in the Durham community. Soon an e-mail circulated that there were tree cookies available for interested staff. At first I salivated on my keyboard, thinking of the Keebler Elves and their yummy confections. Then I remembered that I’d seen a one a long time ago in a science class. The teacher had shown us a tree cookie–a cross section of a stump or branch–to illustrate how trees grow. I remember counting the rings to figure out how long the tree had lived.
Last week I got the word that there was a tree cookie with my name on it. As I made the rounds, there seemed to be a cookie in every office. Bob Jackson proudly displays his cookie below.
Call me master of the obvious, but this week I’ve been thinking about our attachments to trees and all the reasons we love them–their beauty, their majesty, the cool shade that they provide. Folks on one side of the building have suddenly found that their offices are a lot brighter. It’s sad to think that something that was planted when West Campus was just being built from what was Rigsbee Farm is now no more. Feeling a little sentimental, I started waxing poetic, going back to my favorite nature-poet, Robert Frost. Pausing for a second, I looked down at my desk to realize that I had been using my tree cookie as a coaster. Feeling just a little bit guilty, I wiped off the wetness and placed my cookie next to the window.
This weekend I got to play tree doctor as I performed an IVF procedure in our paw paw patch. Fortunately, the procedure was inexpensive, requiring only a plastic bag and a paint brush, and a knowledge of paw paw anatomy. Paw paws can be tricky to fertilize because they are too stinky for bees, giving off a carrion smell that attracts flies. The flies are supposed to pollinate them, but haven’t been doing a great job. Since our trees haven’t borne any fruit yet, I decided to step in.
After a few weeks, the female flowers morph into males,
becoming “hairy” with a coat of pollen.
The procedure was pretty straightforward: I would take some of the flaky pollen from the male flower of one tree and transplant it to the stigma of the female flower of another tree. Fortunately, I had a few male and female flowers on each tree.
Pretty soon I identified my first male donor. He was ready to go and didn’t need any priming.
Nature is my first love and main source of inspiration. Lately I’ve been trying to express this in paintings. Bored with watercolors, I recently decided to give encaustic painting a try. This is an ancient form of art using hot melted wax with added pigments, and has a very interesting history. The ancient Greeks used beeswax to seal their warships, and it was only a matter of time before they started painting fancy portraits. Check out the Fayum Mummy Potraits from Greco-Roman Egypt. It was a relatively obscure medium until Jasper Johns repopularized it in the 20th century.
This weekend I attended an excellent encaustic workshop at the Durham Arts Council. We spent the first couple of hours learning the ins and outs of encaustic painting. Working off hot pancake griddles, we dipped our brushes in cans of melted beeswax and slopped the first coat on our canvases. For each layer of wax that we applied, we had to fuse it to the canvas using small blowtorches. I mixed the wax with the special encaustic paints right on the griddle. One of the biggest challenges is that the wax tends to harden as soon as it hits the canvas.
I knew exactly what nature scene I had in mind: a forest of birch trees in the snow. Lately I’ve been obssesed with birches. I’m sure Robert Frost would approve. I knew this painting would fit nicely in the jewel-tone blue of our living room. By the end of the day I was pleased with the results.
I realized this was a perfect medium for my nature portraits. The colors were more vibrant than those in my watercolor paintings. The wax layering created an amazing sense of texture too. I had lots of fun creating the dark horizontal lines you always see on birch trees, also known as lenticels. For this, I took an engraving tool and cut right down to the canvas, filling the grooved lines with black ink.
What to paint next?
On Saturday I woke up at the crack of dawn and headed to Duke Gardens. I had a homework assignment due at noon that day for my photography class, and I figured the gardens could provide some interesting subject material. There were snow clouds in the sky, and not a ray of sunshine, which concerned me. As I sipped my morning coffee, I worried that I’d have to use my Photoshop skills to enhance my pictures. Would my instructor notice?
When I arrived, the blue heron was waiting for me, and in perfect position.
Despite the cold and grayness, signs of spring were everywhere.
Seems like the Koi had gotten even bigger since the last time I saw them.
I kept roaming, looking for the perfect shot. For a while I had the whole place to myself. The peace and quiet was wonderful.
Coming out of the bamboo, I stumbled upon The Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden, a working homestead that includes a transplanted tobacco barn, a vegetable garden, and giant cisterns for water collection. The Brody Garden is one of two pilot projects at Duke that are part of the new Sustainable Sites Initiative (SSI), an international program created to promote sustainable land development and management practices.
Despite some of the primitiveness of the place, the fancy stonework and other stylized elements reminded me that I was still in Duke Gardens.
To my delight, a fancy pergola led me straight to a fancy chicken coop.
At the hen house, it was a veritable chicken potpourri. I counted 5 different breeds.
As I crouched to take some pictures, the chickens came running up to me, hoping that I was delivering their morning breakfast.
Having walked around for a couple of hours, I realized I was famished too, and headed back home for a bowl of oatmeal. I’ll be back to the Discovery Garden soon.
Winter Storm Leon moved into Durham last night, dumping several inches of snow along with plummeting temperatures. When I woke up this morning I noticed our feral cats, Sunshine and Gracie, weren’t at their usual spot waiting for me to come out and feed them. I saw their footprints in the snow and followed them to the edge of the pond.
Farthing Pond had completely frozen over for the second time this year. The goldfish were hunkered down at the bottom of the pond, chilling until the next warm spell. I’m sure they’ll surface again if we get any sunshine in February. I decided to bust up the ice so the cats could have a little drinking water.
After a few minutes Gracie decided to come out of her hiding place and have breakfast.
By the time I’d gotten back inside, Shawnna was checking out the bird scene in the front yard. The chickadees, cardinals and wrens were taking advantage of her squirrel-proof bird feeder. Franklin, our indoor tabby, could barely contain himself as he watched behind the screen door, making that funny chattering sound cats make, known as the kill-bite reflex.
We’ve finally decided to join Project Feederwatch, the winter-long survey of birds sponsored by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. They say that 292 species of birds have been spotted in the Durham area. Our favorite bird from today was a red-bellied woodpecker, who is just a little bit big for the bird feeder, but nevertheless decided to take a stab at it before giving up. Here he is hanging out on the trunk of the big oak tree in the front yard.
I miss the mountains, but living down here in the Triassic Basin has its advantages. The abundant sunshine is good for the soul. I was reminded on Friday of another reason I love living here: the 12-month growing season. After the coldest week we’ve had in a long time, I was astounded to see our daffodils and tulips coming up in the backyard.
Flashback to Monday. Bracing for single-digit temperatures, we left the kitchen faucet dripping. On my daily bike ride into work, I wore ski goggles and four different layers.
And now, a few days later, my grandmother’s daffodils and Shawnna’s tulips are popping up to say hello.
The day after Christmas I took my bike up to the Virginia Highlands. My destination was the Virginia Creeper Trail, an old railroad line that was turned into a 33-mile trail back in the 80s. It is one of the best bike trails in America in one of the most beautiful places on earth. My mom’s family settled in the region hundreds of years ago, so it always feels like home to me.
Part of the magic has to do with the geology of the region, which creates some stunning scenery. Just looking at the rocks takes you back almost a billion years. The whole region is underlain by hard volcanic bedrock. This erosion-resistant rock, known as rhyolite, comes from melted continiental crust, which takes you back to the time of the continental rift. In addition to the large rocks, I noticed lots of little colorful rocks with beautiful patterns on them, which are also some kind of volcanic matter.
I met up with my cousin Pat near Damascus, Virginia, a convenient point between the trailhead, 17 miles up Whitetop Mountain, and Abingdon, Virginia, 16 miles in the other direction. We decided to skip the mountain climb and head towards Abingdon. Our leisurely ride took us around the south fork of the Holston River. We’d stop occasionally to check out some of the more interesting geological features and massive icicle formations.
As we rode along the south fork of the Holston, we noticed a number of cabins for rent. My favorites were the tree houses. Maybe we’ll stay there next time.
After a bend in the woods, we passed a cave. I couldn’t resist checking it out. Although it seemed fairly cozy, I had already made plans to crash on the couch at the house my aunts had rented for our family gathering.
As the sun faded, the temperature dropped rapidly. We cooked a quick cup of hot
chocolate and then headed back to Damascus. That evening I stayed with my aunts, uncle and cousins. We got up the next morning and hit the trail again.
Nothing could have been more beautiful than mist rising off a waterfall in the morning sun.
Of course, with the beautiful, there is also the ugly. We found the head of a goat as well as a well-eaten wild turkey carcass. The coyotes must be hungry this year, and there must be lots of them. It made me remember that the original name of Abingdon was “Wolf Hills,” after Daniel Boone and his party were confronted by a pack of wild wolves.
I’d like to come back to the Creeper in 2014. Next time we’ll see if we can stay in one of the tree houses.
This week we brought our fingerling sweet potatoes up from the basement where they’d been curing after this fall’s harvest. Unfortunately our basement wasn’t as cool as we’d thought, so they were a little soft. Next year we’ll need to keep them under the fan.
This hasn’t make our little babies any less tasty, though—they are delicious–but it does mean we need to eat them up in a short amount of time. Of course, I’ve been binging on them from the moment I brought them up from the basement. It’s been a few days now, and my skin now has a nice, orange glow.
A couple of nights ago while peeling a bunch of them in front of the television, I discovered that our bobcat, Franklin, loves sweet potatoes almost as much as his daddy. He’s become quite a discerning herbivore with a sophisticated palate.
He loves the stringy ends of the fingerlings, usually slinging them around before crunching down on the delicious orange center. I gave him a few of the smaller ones. He seems to like the peeled skin too, which makes me wonder if he’s looking for nutrients. I did a little wikipedia research to find out about cats and vegetables. Apparently when cats kill a bird they eat the vegetable matter out of its stomach. Kind of gross, huh? Gives me an idea for a cat toy with a sweet potato center.
Triangle friends, I hope today’s headline scares you into reading this post. If you haven’t wrapped your oak trees yet, you’re running out of time. In December the female moths, after mating, will crawl up the tops of these trees and birth hundreds of green caterpillars unless they are stopped in their tracks. If you’re not scared yet, read my lamentful post from the spring.
This year I wrapped each tree with a band of cheap insulation covered by a second layer of tar paper. Yesterday I coated each tree-band with a ring of sticky Tanglefoot Glue, the adhesive that catches the moths.
I thought every store in the Triangle was sold out of this stuff, but it turns out Stone Brothers had family-sized tubs of it. Just like butter in a skillet, the glue went on better once it was heated up a little bit. I slopped it on with a stiff brush, learning after-the-fact that a putty knife would have been better.
The tree of greatest concern was “Old Cyclops,” the massive oak tree in our front yard that blots out the entire block from a Google-earth perspective.
He’s so named because of his one eye and small, gaping mouth. He’s so enormous that I used half a tub of glue on him.
Let’s hope this helps curb the worm infestation.
This year we had some butternut squash (Cucurbita moschata) grow up out of nowhere in our backyard. I’m sure a kindly bird dropped the seeds off for us (unless there is a Squash Fairy.)
I cut off a piece and tasted it; it was the most delicious piece of raw squash I’ve ever had. Later that afternoon I discovered a little secret, though: squash tastes even better when cooked with cream and sherry. That evening we dined on squash soup!
To prepare the soup, I had to cut the squash in half. This turned out to be an excruciating task. For a minute I thought about getting the electric saw out of the basement, but that thing scares me. Thankfully, Shawnna suggested heating the squash in the oven for 10 minutes or so, which made it easier to cut through.
Once I’d cut the squash in half, I placed the pieces in a baking dish with a little bit of water and cooked at 300 degrees for about 30 minutes. After letting it cool for a couple of minutes, I took out the remaining seeds and peeled the skin away. Throwing in some ginger, salt and pepper, I chopped up the pieces and mixed them in the food processor. Meanwhile, I sauteed some onions with butter, nutmeg and allspice. Everything then got thrown into the dutch oven with vegetable stock, cream and sherry.
Squash is a New World Native and was growing in Mesoamerica before the arrival of any humans. It was part of the diet for many indigenous people from South American to Canada, who started cultivating it between 8 and 10,000 years ago. I wonder if they had any soup recipes?
The vagrant chickens of Farthing Street have been reunited with their owner, who has vowed to clip their wings.
Who knew that chickens could fly? I sure didn’t.
Of course, their flying acumen is akin to the Wright Brothers first flight. These things aren’t ready to make a transatlantic voyage yet, but they were able to clear a fence and glide happily across another neighbor’s yard before landing in our tomato patch. (I’ve heard that chickens in the wild actually nest in trees. I’m sure the life of a wild chicken is “nasty, brutish and short” though.)
I had shooed one of the little darlings out of our sweet potato patch. It turns out she knew before I did that the sweet potatoes were ripe for harvest. When I went out to water the patch yesterday, I discovered a little dug-out area with the orange end of a sweet potato peeking through. They are Covington sweet potatoes, which are a little smaller than your run-of-the-mill sweet potatoes, but still just as tasty. Hooray!
Now I feel inspired to attend Durham’s own ChickenStock Festival this Saturday down at Bull City Burger and Brewery. (I told you the Bull City is crazy about chickens.) The fun starts at 4:00 p.m. and is described as a “free, fun and funky edu-party that brings the community together to learn about urban chicken-raising and sustainable living.” The Bulltown Strutters, Durham’s own New Orleans-style jazz band, will be providing the musical entertainment. Inspired I’m sure by Oktoberfest, they’ll be playing “The Chicken Dance.” That alone would be worth the price of admission, but happily, the event is free.
Peace out, chicken lovers.
When I pulled open the curtains this morning, there were three enormous chickens in our backyard. I have no idea where they came from. I love Durham.
They are still in the backyard–consider this a live blog–and I still haven’t been able to find the owners. It’s very amusing. Of course, it’s all fun and games until they start eating your food. When I went inside for a few minutes, they descended on our ‘mater patch with a ravenous fury and started feasting on cherry tomatoes. So much for tonight’s salad. They seem interested in the sweet potatoes too.
The timing is uncanny. Those of you who read my last post know that I pretty much swore off chickens. I feel like they are asking me for a second chance.
Before I die, I want to write a book called The Weird and Secret History of North Carolina. In it I’ll chronicle the strange, the beautiful, the little-known, and the god-awful things that have happened in this state, along with huge heapings of folklore.
In the meantime I have lots of reading and research to do. This week I’m reading volume 1 of The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore. Brown was a professor at Trinity College (now Duke University) and founder of the North Carolina Folklore Society. The book is a fascinating read. Last night I was reading stories about voodoo and witchcraft in our state before stumbling across a chapter on plant and animal folklore. This section contains tiny little nuggets of advice, gleaned from multiple sources over a number of years. If there was a North Carolina Farmer’s Bible, this might be the Book of Proverbs. Here are just a few of them:
It is bad luck to thank anyone for plants or seeds.
Sage must not be gathered during the dog days.
To make hydrangeas blue, place indigo at their roots.
To my delight, there was a ton of advice about raising chickens.
Although I’m not the Chicken Man, I’ve been wanting to write an authoritative piece on chickens for some time now. (After all, I am the Nature Boy of Durham, and, as you might know, the Bull City has seen a near epidemic of Chicken Fever over the last few years. This is not to be confused with the Avian Flu. Chances are you know somebody in Durham, NC who has chickens in their backyard, or is talking about it. I’m thinking the “Durham Chicken” could be a good mascot for Durham Bulls games; a San Diego Chicken-like foil for Mr. Wool E. Bull, if you will.)
So here you go, my chicken farmers and wanna-be chicken farmers. Behold these pearls of wisdom. These were collected from a number of sources in North Carolina between the years 1912 and 1943:
If you set eggs when the wind is eastward, the chickens will “holler” themselves to death.
If you count chickens, turkeys, etc., they will die.
Hens should be set three weeks before the full of the moon.
If there are thunderstorms while eggs are “setting,” the eggs will not hatch.
To break a hen from setting, put an alarm clock in the nest and let it go off.
To break a hen from setting, put a pan of water in the nest when she leaves and let her get in it when she comes back.
Do not set eggs so that they will hatch during dog days.
Always set a hen on thirteen eggs.
Little turkeys thrive better with a hen than with a turkey.
If it rains on Valentine Day, your chickens will stop laying.
To ensure good luck with chickens, let a woman carry them from the nest to the coop.
Grease little chickens’ heads with lard and kerosene when you take them from the nest and lice will not bother them.
Sprinkle ashes on animals and fowls on Ash Wednesday and they will not be bothered with lice.
Put Epsom salts in the chicken’s water (one tablespoonful to a gallon) and it will make them healthy.
Boil smartweed and scald out the chicken house to kill any kind of insect.
Cover newly hatched chicks with a sieve and place them in the sunshine a little while, and they will live.
When you have killed a chicken, make a cross on the ground with your finger, lay the chicken on its back on this cross, and it will not flop.
To keep a chicken from flopping when killed, tuck the head under the wing, swing the chicken around in a little circle several times, and then lay its head on a block and chop it off.
Oh, and I’ve heard that raising chickens can be hard, dirty work. That’s not in the book.
It’s fig season on Farthing Street.
This annual harvest is accompanied by a sense of urgency because there is always a very short window of time, sometimes just a day or two, when a fig is truly ripe and ready for consumption. Left on the tree too long, the fig will ferment and become food for wasps and bees.
For weeks I had waited, somewhat impatiently, for that special moment. Shawnna would come home from work and find me outside, my face buried in the branches of the tree, deftly squeezing the bulbous fruit for signs of “mushiness.” The mushiness means that the fig is sweet and juicy.
When that glorious day arrived, we had so many figs that I filled up a mixing bowl from the kitchen. I decided to try a recipe from our mediterranean cookbook, which involves wrapping the figs with pancetta and bay leaves, and then cooking them in the oven.
For you vegetarians or those of you on a kosher diet, pancetta is pork belly meat that is salt-cured and contains peppercorns. It is heavenly. I was caught off guard when I took it out of the package. It smelled so good that for a minute I lost the ability to concentrate. Fortunately I had already halved the figs, and the rest was easy. I gently wrapped my figs in the strips of pancetta, like little pigs-in-blankets. The bay leaves were the finishing touch. I placed them in a baking dish and set in the oven at 300 degrees for 20 minutes. Shawnna and I couldn’t get enough of them. Figs in the raw are tasty enough, but this was a culinary delight.
Fig trees, which thrive in mediterranean climates, are drought-tolerant plants. That means you don’t have to water them much, provided your yard gets a lot of sun. If you live in the Triangle, consider getting one. The leaves are tough and leathery (you may recall that Adam and Eve, in their postlapsarian shame, made clothes out of them.) I’ve noticed that the leaves seem to be impervious to the pests that like to chew up our fruit trees.
Plant a fig tree this fall! You won’t regret it.
Listen up gardeners, it’s time to talk about the miracle plant, comfrey.
The plant, which has pretty pink or purple blossoms depending on the species, was called knitbone for thousands of years because of its ability to speed the healing of bone injuries. The ancient Greek historian Herodatus wrote about it, and it’s very name, symphytum, comes from the Greek symphyo which means to “make grow together.” In addition to healing fractures, the plant can been used to treat abrasions, skin irritations, insect bites and inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis. I’ve heard of people rubbing their arms and legs with comfrey leaves before working out in the garden. The secret ingredient is allantoin, which lives in both the leaves and the roots of the plant.
In the garden, comfrey can be grown as a living mulch. That’s because the plant is a root accumulator, sucking up nutrients into its roots and leaves. Hearing about orchardists who plant comfrey around their fruit trees, I decided to plant ring of it around our plum tree this summer. Not only does it fertilize the tree now, but it keeps the weeds out, and the bees love the pretty purple flowers.
Because the leaves contain minerals like potassium, calcium, and magnesium, they make a great fertilizer. Our potassium-hungry tomato plants especially enjoy a liquid fertilizer mix of comfrey leaves and water. We create this mixture by putting the leaves in our watering can, filling it with water and then letting it soak for a while.
Some of you might be smitten now, thinking Comfrey, where have you been all my life?
To those of you, heed this stern warning: comfrey grows very aggressively. I’ve been astounded at how quickly the comfrey patch has grown up around our plum tree.
I pictured it filling up our whole yard, then spilling out into the neighborhood and spreading across Durham. It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. My legs get itchy riding my bike on the greenway, so having comfrey leaves available to me on the trail would be an added luxury.
Durham could then become the city of comfrey. Suddenly Tupac Shakur popped into my head…..In the citaaay, the city of Comfrey. This could be a really great track to perform next year at the Durham Hip-hop Summit. I’ll need to work on my flow, though.
Please stay tuned for part 2. I’m now working feverishly in the basement, like Grandpa Munster, to come up with a comfrey ointment. This could be big at the farmer’s market.
A black bear decided to visit Duke this week. Seriously, the bear took a stroll over to the VA on Monday, getting as far as the parking lot before darting back to the woods across from Erwin Road. On Tuesday he was spotted over at the Center for Living. (I say “he” because most of these “city bears” are usually young males in transit, looking for a new territory to call their own.) Sometimes
they get turned around. Fortunately our friend was close to Duke Forest, where he should have some good cover while planning his next move. I wonder if he knows that Carolina is only 8 miles down the road. Nobody got a picture of the bear, so I’m using one of my stock images below.
I’m always surprised to hear about black bears in the Triangle, but I shouldn’t be. Traditionally our state’s bear populations have thrived in our western mountains and our eastern swamps, where there are large tracts of uninhabited land. From what I’ve read, their population has increased substantially over the last 40 years, thanks in large part to efforts by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission. Now they are living all over the place, and sightings have become more common as the humans have spread out into previously uninhabited spaces.
As fate would have it, my dad saw a bear crossing Clark’s Creek road near their house this morning. A tiny image, but check out those long legs. Time to get back up to the mountains.
I’ve had a sweet potato obsession for a number of years now. There is the occasional week where I’ll eat so many that my skin will turn orange. (Now that Syracuse is in the ACC, I’ll have to be careful not to look like Otto the Orange if I ever get to go to a UNC-Syracuse game. My head is fairly round.) My doctor reinforced this addiction when she told me during my last physical that I should substitute sweet potatoes for regular potatoes in my diet, as they are better for blood sugar. All I could do was turn my head and smile.
Naturally I bring this obsession to the garden. Over the last few years we’ve grown them, but I want to really maximize our yield in 2013. This year’s goal is to fill our root cellar with enough sweet potatoes to feed the entire block, or use them as a food source in case of a post-industrial collapse. Those things keep for over a year at a time. You laugh now, but some day, on the brink of starvation, you might be eating sweet potato fries from our solar oven.
The first step involved research. I knew that North Carolina leads the nation in sweet potato production with around 40% of the nation’s yield. Most of them are grown down east, in the land of vinegar BBQ. They aren’t hard to miss if you’re ever traveling east of I-95, where you’ll pass by enormous irrigated fields, green vines basking in the hot sun. This makes sense because the sweet potato is a tropical plant, indigenous to Central America. Lots of sun and water are essential.
The soil in our Triassic Basin region differs greatly from the soil down east, which is much sandier. This eastern soil, called Cecil Sandy Loam, is a dirt/sand mix with a layer of red clay on the bottom. With this in mind, I created a new sweet potato patch, using 40% leaf compost, 40% sand, and 20% red clay.
I mixed the compost and the sand together, and placed it on top of the clay. I also made sure the patch was deep and in a well-drained location. A couple of sources indicated that the soil should be at least a couple of feet deep, so I piled our sweet potato patch up to 30 inches.
Next we bought a few sweet potatoes at Whole Paycheck and then cut them into pieces, planting the sections that had “eyes” on them. It took a couple of weeks for the vines to start poking through. A month later, they seem to be doing nicely, unaffected (as far as we can tell) by the rot brought forth by last month’s deluge. Wish we could say the same thing about our tomatoes!
This weekend we’ll be fertilizing them some, using a fertilizer that has a higher concentration of potassium and phosphate with lower nitrogen levels. If you have too much nitrogen, the vines will grow abundantly, but the potatoes will be puny when you dig them up.
With sweet potatoes, the waiting is the hardest part. We like to give them 120 days to harvest, which means we’ll be harvesting in October. It’s so much fun digging them up with the shovel, although I always end up cutting open a few by mistake. After the harvest we have to let them cure in the cellar for a couple of months. They need this time to become sweet and luscious. That means they’ll be ready for Christmas. I look forward to stuffing one in Shawnna’s stocking.
I’ve always felt drawn to black bears.
Perhaps I am a human-ursine hybrid. Many people over the years have told me that I remind them of a bear. It’s true that I have a keen sense of smell and not the best eyesight in the world. And of course I’m always foraging for my next meal.
Mind you, I only have this affinity for black bears, not grizzlies. Those things terrify me. I’ve seen Grizzly Man and I definitely wouldn’t want to become a wienerschnitzel platter for Mr. Chocolate.
I’ve always wanted to take a picture of one in the wild (from a comfortable distance of course.) Until that day, I have to be satisfied seeing them in captivity. Two of our favorite places to see black bears are the Museum of Life and Science in in Durham, and Grandfather Mountain in Linville.
The museum in Durham has a wonderful after-hours event for members called “Bears up Close.” For a small fee you get to tour the bear house and fling boxes of food for the bears to gobble up. The first time we went, a bear leapt up suddenly from nowhere and greeted us at the door.
The hair stood up on the back of my neck as my animal instincts kicked in. It’s probably a good thing I had the appropriate fight or flight response. Those nails looked long and sharp!
On our recent trip to Boone, we visited the bears at Grandfather Mountain. The bears seemed to be looking right at me, as if they had something to say.
I was smitten with the the beautiful cinnamon-colored bear on the right. Apparently only one percent of the black bear population have this coloration. Her beautiful coat glistened in the sun as she took notice of some frogs that swam up beside her. She seemed to be wary of them. Imagine that, I thought.
Suddenly I felt the inspiration to write a song about the cinnamon bear. A Neil Young parody, à la Weird Al Yankovic, popped into my head.
A dreamer of pictures
I run in the night
You see us together,
chasing the moonlight,
My cinnamon bear.
The cinnamon bear stayed with me for the drive back home to Durham. By the time I got back I was starving, but there was not a scrap in the kitchen. Famished, I did the only thing I could do at the moment: I went to the backyard to forage. To my delight, there were fresh figs waiting for me. And a few blueberries and blackberries too.
I stood up on my hind legs and spent the next half hour eating contentedly. Once I had gotten my fill, I lumbered back into the house and fell into a deep, peaceful sleep, dreaming of the cinnamon bear.
Last year I thought it would be a good idea to get some lily pads for the frogs of Farthing Pond. What I actually bought were some hardy water lilies, which contain lily pads. This morning I noticed that one was getting ready to flower. By 10:00 a.m. it had opened up in all its glory.
Nothing today could have made me happier than this. Duke Gardens hosts the annual water lily contest every year which is sponsored by the International Waterlily and Watergardening Society. It’s always fun to see those lilies; never thought I’d see one as beautiful in our own backyard.
We’ve got a new friend in the backyard. An enormous bullfrog, who I’ve named Jabba the Hutt, has established a presence at Farthing Pond. We’ve become quite close; I can sit down right beside him and he won’t even budge. He does let me know that I’m in his territory, though. He even answered my greeting of Die Wanna Wannga. Unfortunately, that’s about all of the Huttese language I know. (It just occurred to me in writing that phrase that Huttese might have some relation to German, although die in Huttese is pronounced day as in neighbor or way, and does not appear to be used as a modifier.)
I named him Jabba because of his resemblance to the fictional character, particularly in his sheer enormity, his brownish-yellow hue, and bumps around his mouth. Later, I had some regrets about the name I gave him; after all, the character from Return of the Jedi exemplifies morbid obesity and personifies at least four of the seven deadly sins, including greed, lust, gluttony and avarice.
Me: Do you think it’s disrespectful that I named our friend “Jabba the Hutt”?
Shawnna: I think he would be honored to be named after such an epic story.
My wife, master of the re-frame. Strong with the Force she is.
2013 will go down in history as “The Year the Frogs Came.” We finished Farthing Pond in 2010, and it only took a couple of months for the word to spread amongst the amphibians. We’d hear tree frogs and the occasional bullfrog after heavy rains. This year is different. They’ve totally established a beachhead. We hear them every night now, lots of them, regardless of the weather conditions. I’ve asked several of my neighbors if the noise bothers them, but they don’t seem to mind, maybe because it drowns out the sounds of I-85. When I close my eyes at bedtime I can imagine I am in a more bucolic locale.
The frogs love hanging out in the various plant containers I have submerged in the pond, such as this scouring rush.
The containers are submerged in the pond and held up by pvc pipe. The frogs enjoy them because there is enough room for them to sit upright in the container with their eyes just above the water. I never realized that in placing these plants I had helped create an ideal habitat for our amphibian friends.
I found this little one while I was re-potting one of the containers.
Feeling inspired, I decided to construct a shelter in one of the containers. I named it “Jabba’s Palace.”
Hopefully this will be a nice place for Mr. Hutt or members of his clan to chill on hot summer days. Who knows, maybe it will even provide some protection from the herons, raccoons, crows and kitties who consider Farthing Pond a fun, locally-owned restaurant and watering hole. They are true Durham foodies, believe me. I think that the birds have realized that it’s a nice place to fuel up on their flights from Northgate Park to the Ellerbe Creek Beaver Pond.
For various reasons, amphibian populations have been on the decline for the last few decades, including the extinction of some species. It makes me happy to know that we are encouraging amphibian conservation here in Durham. Even if you don’t have a pond at your house, constructing a toad house does not take a lot of effort. Remember that frogs and toads like to eat mosquitoes, and are a natural form of pest control.
For further reading, check out the Amphibian Specialist Group’s website.
Yesterday the rains came, completely submerging Northgate Park for a few hours until the water receded.
Kudos to our stormwater folks here in Durham; the fact that the water drained so quickly shows that all of their hard work and planning has paid off.
It was quite a sight to behold, and for a while I was thinking that they should invite the beavers over from the Ellerbe Creek Preserve and have them dam everything up. It would be lots of fun having a 17-acre lake or swamp only two blocks from the house.
Ellerbe Creek was raging; it was almost like being on the Haw River. I planned on getting my canoe out, until I saw a wicked current that could have sucked me under the bridge and spat me out on the other side. I decided it wasn’t worth the risk.
Back home, I had to pat myself on the back because the overflow from our pond was doing just what it was supposed to do.
I watched the water as it trickled down the side of our yard, into the driveway and down into the street.
All the swales in the backyard were completely swollen, and the bog we built for water overflow actually looked like a bog.
I shudder to think what could have happened to our basement yesterday had we not created the bioretention area in the backyard. In this era of climate destabilization, living a quarter of a mile from a floodplain tops my worry list.
I watched as water gushed down our street. Such a waste, I thought. I wish there was some way I could catch and store it. Who knows when we’ll have another drought…
For years we’ve been trying to grow blueberries, but we’ve had scant results. Despite giving them plenty of water–blueberry plants require at least an inch or two of water a week–the berries have always been few and tiny. That’s why my eyes almost popped out of my head when I visited our neighborhood friends Sally and Sandi yesterday.
Before my eyes were several blueberry bushes, sagging with plump, ripening fruit. Seething green (or blue?) with jealousy, I grabbed the biggest, fattest blueberry I could find, and ate it. At least it made me feel better.
Naturally I wanted to know what their secret was. Comparing and contrasting their bushes with ours, I discovered three factors that seems to have contributed towards their more bountiful harvest.
First, their blueberry orchard sits at the bottom of a sloped hill, an area of the yard that gets a lot of drainage. In fact, it is the perfect location for a rain garden.
Sandi told me that they don’t water their plants very often, and I can see why. Permaculture at work!
There are also no large trees near their yard, which meant that the plants weren’t visited by those pesky cankerworms this spring. These worms chewed huge holes in the leaves of our blueberry plants, which I know must have stressed them out. Next year we’ll be banding the trees in our yard to repel the cankerworm invasion.
What might be helping them the most, however, is something called soil acidifier, which is available at most garden centers. Sandi told me that she applies the soil acidifier at the base of the plant, careful not to get any on the leaves.
As you might know, blueberries love acidic soil, which is one of the reasons they thrive in the North Carolina mountains. Now I’m convinced that we might have the winning formula for blueberry production.
Why all this fuss about blueberries? For one thing, they are a healthy dessert alternative; one cup of blueberries has 80 calories. They are a true super food, containing antioxidants, Vitamin C and fiber. They seem to promote cardiovascular and brain health, and might help prevent certain types of cancers. Research studies have shown that they reduce brain damage in rats. And of course they are tasty!
For more on blueberries, check out the U.S. Highbush Bluberry Council’s website.
Nice work Sally and Sandi!
Last weekend the mountains were calling. On Friday we headed west, through the Yadkin Valley, then over the Blue Ridge escarpment to Elk Knob State Park in Meat Camp, North Carolina. The park is about nine miles north of Boone and only three hours from Durham.
(For those of you who are wondering, Meat Camp got its name from Daniel Boone and other hunters of the day who would pack their animal kill there before taking it back to the lowlands. It is not, contrary to what some might think, an Atkins-style weight loss camp.)
Elk Knob is North Carolina’s youngest state park, and owes its existence to the efforts of the Nature Conservatory and local landowners who kept it from being developed. The 3000-plus acres include a 2-mile trail to the summit of Elk Knob, Watauga County’s second-highest peak. The trail was completed in 2011.
The park is like nothing else I’ve ever seen in North Carolina, and I’m not being hyperbolic. I was in awe the whole time I was there. Once we reached about 5,000 feet, I started getting a little light-headed, as if I were hiking the southern Rockies again. Perhaps that might explain part of my euphoria.
Elk Knob is one of twelve mountains north of Boone known as the Amphibolite Mountains, composed of blackish-grey metamorphic rock known as amphibolite. We saw tons of it, as well as huge pieces of quartz. For a while I couldn’t stop taking pictures of all the interesting rocks.
These rocks are rich in nutrients, and as a result you find a lot of interesting plant life there, including endangered plants like Gray’s Lily. As soon as we got out of the car, we saw Trilliums everywhere, some together in large clusters. A kind stranger, probably as giddy as we were, told us that the White Trilliums become pink as they get older. We saw plenty of both.
Shawnna loved the Purple Trillium, also known as the Wake-Robin.
The amphibolite also makes the soil more alkaline than usual (a lot of mountain soil is acidic.) One consequence of this is that you don’t see any acidic-loving rhododendron at Elk Knob. Rhododendrons typically cover the western North Carolina landscape, but not here. In its absence there is an incredible variety of tree life. A lot of the trees on the mountain were ones that you’d find in northern hardwood forests. Take the buckeye, for example; Ohio usually comes to mind. Or the yellow birch, which is the provincial tree of Quebec.
Closer to the top, the trees became more stubby and gnarled, hardened from years of bitter winters and harsh winds. As we ascended, we both became somewhat light-headed. I guess we’ve lived in the lowlands too long. Next time we’ll stop and have a picnic at the stone bench halfway up the mountain.
The summit was breathtakingly beautiful. On the north side you could see as far as Pilot Mountain, near Winston-Salem. On the south side you could see as far as Mount Mitchell. And of course, you could see all the mountains in between. It was a true Blue Ridge panorama.
I took a nice shot of Snake Mountain, Elk Knob’s neighbor and another member of the Amphibolite range. It sits on the Tennessee border, near the community of Trade, Tennessee. In the 1970s, my mom taught at Trade Elementary School, which sat at the foot of Snake Mountain. One of my earliest memories is taking a field trip to Snake Mountain with my mom’s class as a three-year old. I rode in a little red wagon while the kids from my mom’s class took turns pulling me up the mountain.
Looking at the gap between the two mountains, I could make out the course of the Old Buffalo Trail, first used by migrating buffalo, then Native Americans, then the European settlers as they pushed westward.
We’ll be back to Elk Knob soon.
I read yesterday that Durham’s City Council is considering a measure to legalize bow-and-arrow deer hunting inside city limits.
From The Durham News article:
An ad hoc committee on curbing the deer population in Durham city and county has advised the city to allow bow hunting during the state deer season. It also recommends publicizing hunting regulations and
safety measures countywide, and encouraging hunters to donate deer meat to food pantries.
While I was reading this I couldn’t help thinking of what it would be like to walk down Main Street with a crossbow. Could you imagine? Archery has already made a big comeback due to the success of the Hunger Games. Maybe Durham’s millennials, inspired by the movie and the ecological benefits of controlled hunting, will start a local archery association. Better yet, it could evolve into a citizen’s militia which would defend Durham from invasions. That worked for the Swiss against the French, I believe. Time to listen to the William Tell Overture...
In all seriousness, though, I do like the idea of controlled hunting in Durham, and am intrigued by the added potential to feed our city’s poor. The rampant rise of North Carolina’s deer population over the last 20 years, a byproduct of suburbanization, has caused more tick-borne infections and car fatalities every year. Not to mention the thousands of dollars of damage to yards and gardens every year.
Our state already sanctions an “Urban Archery Season” that runs five weeks in the winter. According the the article, thirty-eight municipalities held Urban Archery Seasons 2013, but the Durham committee members working with the city council had advised against Durham joining them right away. (Chapel Hill, Pittsboro, and Wake Forrest already have already approved Urban Archery Season.) Any municipalities interested in participating must submit a letter of intent to the state’s Wildlife Resources Commission by April 1 of each year, complete with a map defining the area where hunting is allowed.
I’m not sure what the concerns are about bow hunting. I’ve been looking for stories on bow-and-arrow deaths in North Carolina, but wasn’t able to find any. On the other hand, there plenty of stories about the rise of deer-related car accidents.
And they shall cover the face of the earth, that one cannot be able to see the earth: and they shall eat the residue of that which is escaped, which remaineth unto you from the hail, and shall eat every tree which groweth for you out of the field. (Exodus 10:5)
As many of you know, those little green cankerworms
invaded Cackalacky again this spring.
They’ve disappeared now that their larval stage is over, but they left a wake of destruction. The leaves on our fruit trees and blueberry bushes look like Swiss cheese. While not fatal for these plants, the damage certainly contributes to our under-performing fruit harvest.
Last month they were everywhere, in places like our front yard, chewing up the leaves on our enormous oak tree (apparently oak is their favorite.) Often they would bungee jump off the tree, tied to a little silk thread, landing on my face, arms, or slithering down the back of my shirt. Once Shawnna picked four of them off me before bedtime. Whenever I walked outside, I’d hear a crackling noise, reminding me of the sound of sleet or frozen rain. My neighbor told me that the crackling sound was the gentle falling of worm excrement. The horror!
It’s so bad down in Charlotte that the city actually has a municipal program to control 73,000 acres of cankerworm infestations. That’s about 40% of the city.
Tree banding seems to be the most effective way to deal with these worms. The sticky bands prevent the moths from crawling up the tree to lay their eggs, but they must be installed in November, because December is moth mating season.
You can use a strip of cotton or insulation and wrap it around the tree, at least three feet from the ground, placed below the lowest limb. I’ve seen a lot of folks use staples to hold the strip in place. (One website recommends positioning a band of roofing felt over the strip and then attaching it with s staple gun.) Of course you don’t want to use staples on small trees, so try using something like electrical tape to hold the strip in place.
The next step is to coat the band with a sticky substance that prevents the moths from inching up the tree, such as Tanglefoot glue. The sticky band should be kept in place until the larvae disappear in April.
We’ll know better next time around!