Monday, June 29, 2009

Regrowth, and a Lesson about Old Blueberries

I think I cut down these trees in April, since they were blocking one of the highbush blueberry bushes. Blocking as in growing right through the thing. As you can see, they're doing their best to make up for lost time - these shoots are about 3 feet high already.
I've told several people about all the work I did this spring to eliminate all non-blueberry trees from the blueberry bushes(like that worked - hah). One old-timer told me that what I should have done was just cut everything down about a foot above the ground. The blueberries would love it, and it would give me a better chance of actually getting rid of the bad guys.
I recently got a book (Backyard Homesteading) that says the same thing. For old blueberry bushes that haven't been maintained, cut them entirely down a little above the ground. I think I'll try that this fall or next spring on a few of my bushes to see how it goes. Just need to figure out if I have to dig out the invaders or if there's something else I can do to get rid of them.


The milkweed here is not out quite yet, although it's blossoming in Stockbridge, Mass, and up in Saratoga (see Woodswalker's blog Saratoga Woods and Waterways for some wonderful pictures: ).
Looks like it'll be coming out soon!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Morning Walk Around the Yard

I think these are (will be) elderberries.

The highbush blueberries are getting bigger, but are still green. I think they'll be ripe around the end of July, beginning of August.

The apples are getting bigger too, and most of them have these 2 brown dots on them. Could it be a bug that goes in and out? As I explore my property, I keep finding apple trees. I'm up to about 10 now in various places, spread apart. The only tree that's making any number of apples is the one in the middle of the yard, west of the house. Maybe apple trees need to be near other apple trees for fertilization?

Leaves of the mystery bush

It's a little hard to see in this pic, but they're doubly compound.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

I Just Picked All of These

I'm waiting for my aunts and uncles to come over for lunch. They're having a ball this week exploring old haunts since they grew up within 2 hours of here. Right now they're in Altamont looking at something or other, and I'm relaxing at the computer with you because I had things to do this morning.

Here's a look at what I picked today.

I know the peonies and the irises, and the chives. Not sure about the rest. Hawkweed, I think, and some sort of rose, and some sort of pea (just the leaves). I have no idea what the tiny white flowers are, or the four-leaved purple things. Or the white flowers in the next picture are.

The cool thing is that even if I don't identify them, they'll still come back next year!

Mystery Bush

It is really neat to constantly be discovering things about my property, and watch mysteries turn into solved mysteries. Here's another one. This is a small bush that was by my front door. (Between the basil plants under buckets in an earlier post about the last freeze.) I saved it from destruction as I was clearing the area to plant herbs because it just looked like something that might have been put there on purpose.

The leaves have red edges and are prickly/furry on the back. I can't find it in the only books I have, Peterson's Trees and Shrubs or Peterson's Wildflowers. I'm guessing, because it's not a wildflower. Anyhow - any thoughts?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Cherry Tree ID

These pictures are for my friend Linda, the botanist (and anyone else with tree wisdom) to see if bark and leaf pics help to identify these trees.

It's hard to get a sense of scale - the tree trunk is probably 2-3 inches diameter.

Monday, June 22, 2009


My tomato plants are blossoming already! While this makes me happy, I wonder if I should be pinching off the blossoms. You see, these plants are still very short, maybe a foot tall. I can't imagine very many tomatoes would fit on this little thing. It doesn't even reach the first rung of the tomato cages.
Should I leave it to its natural ways, or should I pinch off the blossoms so it can grow a little taller? Tomato experts?

Lawnmower math and the cherry trees

I had to buy a lawnmower this spring, so I picked this beauty, my first riding mower ever. I've got to tell you that for creating that visible sense of accomplishment at a task completed, mowing the lawn even beats doing dishes. And it really helps that I didn't have to sweat in the process. This mower even has a cupholder! (Short aside: in the south, they don't mow their lawn. They "cut the grass." Every time I said I was going to "mow the lawn," I got blank looks.)

Now, I am an engineer by training and inclination, so I focus on things like "what path should I use to avoid the rocks and trees." I also want to avoid the situation where I end up making smaller and smaller circles that end up impossibly small and I can't make the turns. Further, my yard is very lumpy and it looks bad if I mow across the bumps (very short on top of the bumps and very long in the valleys). So I need to make sure that I mow parallel to the bumps, not across them. Actually, "need" is a pretty strong word. Grass is pretty forgiving. If I do it wrong this week, I'll have another chance to do it soon!

What makes it worse is that I am an Industrial Engineer first. Industrial Engineers are the optimization people. For me it's not "what path should I use," it's "what is the optimal path to minimize gas use, time mowing, make the lawn look best, etc, etc." Every week I try a little different set of paths to see if I can improve. I really enjoy this task. I can't help it - I really am an engineer through and through.

I suspect that other engineer-mowers have tackled the lawnmower math question and if I did a google search I'd find many algorithms. I wonder if they enjoy this as much as I do.

Immediately behind the lawnmower you can see 2 of the cherry trees. As you can see, the one on the right is maybe 5 feet tall and the one on the left is even shorter. I have no idea if they are adult trees of a short type, or baby trees that will grow much bigger. The cherries left over from last year were small too. Dwarf cherry trees are not this small (per the internet - source of all wisdom). Maybe they're not cherry trees at all?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The generator

I FINALLY got the 2 cords of wood out of the basement! The weather people say it's rained here for 17 of the last 20 days, and I think that all the nice days were when I was at work. So it's been pretty depressing - especially Monday when I sat at work all day looking at the sunny outside, thinking about how much I was going to get done. Then in the last 2 minutes of the 45-minute commute home it started raining. I was within a mile of home when it started - and it rained steadily all evening.

It's been bothering me because my home-made ramp is big and heavy and it's a real pain to move it in and out of the basement. So I left it in, meaning the basement doors have been open for all 17 of those rainy days, raining in the basement.

I finally got the other not-supposed-to-be-in-the-basement thing out too - the generator. We had an ice storm in mid-December that cut my power for 3 days, a thing I've never experienced in my life, ever. On the 3rd day (as far as I knew my power would be out for another week) I went to Home Depot and bought a generator. I got an electrician to meet me at home after work to hook it in. When I drove up the hill, generator in the back of my truck, my house lights were on. My water pump didn't start working again though, so I had the electrician fix that instead. (He jiggled the pressure valve on the water tank and ta-da I ha water again. 20 psi of it, which I now know is not nearly enough to have a reasonable shower. It was a month of that before I could get a plumber out to replace the valve with a 40-60 psi valve. There's some concern on my part that this pressure water might be straining my old pipes in new ways and water will leak in the walls. But I'll deal with that problem later. Probably when I'm least prepared to do it.)

So the generator sat, in its box in the front yard for several weeks before I finally figured I had to do something with it. I slid it down on a ladder into the basement where it sat molding with everything else until yesterday when it saw the light of day again. Now I have a hand truck and a helper (thanks mom!), and now the generator is in the shed. I still need to get that electrician out to hook it into my house. Hopefully I'll get that done before the power goes out for an extended period of time again.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Getting Ready for Winter

Piles of wood started sprouting in front of country houses sometime in April. First it was a pile of logs, and then a second pile of split wood started growing next to the first one. I've seen it in front of so many houses that it's clear that this is the way it's done. Make winter wood in the spring.
I had planned on renting a splitter, but they rent for about $100 for 24 hours, so I realized I'd be better off buying one, for all the years I plan to use my own wood for heating. This one got good reviews online, so now one sits by my front door, still in the box.
I have many (like 20-40) trees down from the excavator sitting a little ways uphill from the house. The next step is to use the chainsaw to cut the logs, bring them down to the house and then try out this baby. I found a reference piece online from the University of New Hampshire on estimating firewood from standing trees. At 9 inches diameter, 6 trees make a cord and at 8 inches, 8 trees make a cord. Using this reference, I think I have 3-6 cords down waiting to be cut, plus the 2 cords I'm taking out of my basement. Plus the 16 big pine and spruce trees 13-18 inches diameter. (Hopefully I'll use the Red Pine trees for flooring.)
I think I used about 2 cords last winter, so this should be enough wood for several years. I've heard that 2-year old wood is the best wood for burning. What I don't know is if I should cut and split it all and let it age, or if it's better to to leave it unsplit for aging. Also, if 2-year old wood is good is 3-year or 4-year old wood better?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Cherries 2008

In September 2008 when I was walking around the property with my real estate agent, we saw this tree. The entire tree might be 5 feet high. I had no idea what it was, so just took a picture and moved on.
Oh how I wish I would have tasted these things. I'm pretty sure they're cherries, but we'll see. At least I know that the fruit will be out at the end of September.
Now that I've cleared the area where this tree is, I found 5 others just like it. So if these are cherries, I've got 6 of them.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Things we found in the pit

The last tree of the 16 was the closest to the house, so Barry the excavator dug a hole on the away side to make sure the tree would incline away from the house as it fell.

As he was digging that pit he unearthed that nice rock you see in front of the Cat (my new favorite rock - I'll call it table rock). That's the first thing we found in the pit.

After the tree went down and before he started to clean up the area, I noticed a bunch of man-made stuff. Mostly beer cans, but some other stuff too.

Barry didn't like working my property much. He says I've got no topsoil, only rock. Every time he went in, he'd hit a rock, bone-jarring all the way up his spine.

Here are some things we found. The left jar says NoxZema on the bottom, going to the right, Bryce's First Prize Beverages, West Troy Pottery 2, Federal Law Forbids Sale or Reuse of This Bottle (the pint bottle), Liquid Detergent, and last but not least, Schafer's Beer. All of it is on the best find of all. The rock.

I was looking for a million dollars, but no such luck.

Cooper and Atticus

The neighbor dogs come over every so often, and when they do, Maggie goes a little bit nuts (their mom is a part-time resident on the street). Maggie doesn't see other dogs very often (Desmond, my older dog won't play with her). She gets so excited and is so overwhelming that the other dogs don't stick around long.

It's a little sad for me to watch. There's an invisible fence at the end of my driveway, so she can't follow. Every time I see this, I resolve to take Maggie to doggy day care where she can run with other dogs. (Thanks Linda for the idea.) Of course it's not that simple, mostly because doggy day care is hugely expensive, the hours aren't convenient, and it's tremendously out of my way. Excuses, I know.

Maggie is an unknown mix of mutt-hood rescue dog. Apparently though, there's a little bit of Lab or some other water dog in there. This recurring puddle is as close as I have to water, so she takes advantage of it.

Maggie and the Apple Tree

This time last week this apple tree would have been in shade now. This past Monday I had 16 big pine and spruce trees taken down.
I asked the excavator to save this tree if he could, but if he couldn't, I'd understand. He did a great job avoiding this tree, mostly (the downhill side is lighter than it was). It was very close to those old pines. (He also saved 6 small cherry trees that were even closer to the spruces, but that's another picture.)
Now that it's the only tree left to provide shade on the western side of the house, I am appreciating it more. Next week when my aunts and uncles are here for lunch, we may sit under it's branches. I wonder how many times people have sheltered themselves under this tree in the 200 years people have been living in this house (even though this tree is definitely not 200 years old, there is evidence that another tree was nearby).

Cool tool

I found a few of these in one of the sheds. I'm guessing it's a two-sided ...... sort of scythe? I tried it out last week when I was re-clearing an old path. You just sort of wave it back and forth, and things just die in front of it. It's really handy!

I can't really search google to find out what it is, until they come up with a picture search. So if anyone knows what it is, let me know. Thanks.


There's a ton of these little guys around, maybe 2 inches long. I have to watch if I don't want to step on one.

Barn Foundation

There's an old barn foundation somewhere under all this comfrey. I saw it on the survey. I wonder if I could clear a bit to find it (except I'm not clearing any more this year!)

Saturday, June 13, 2009

It was a Warm Winter

I had a terrible time last winter. I was SO unprepared for a true northern winter.

But let's back up a bit. First, I moved into this new (old) house on October 24, 2008. One week later we had a snowstorm. I heard the forecast, and on the way home from work as it was beginning to snow, I stopped at Target and bought a pair of snow boots and 2 windshield ice scrapers. Good thing, because if I hadn't done that I'd be scraping 6 inches of snow off my car hands? Yes, in October. When I drove down to work the next day, which is at the elevation of the Hudson River, maybe 200 feet, there wasn't any snow at all on the ground.

That's how it started. Then I got two rescue dogs (one housetrained and old, one not housetrained at all) and it got cold. As the weeks went on in November and December, I would come home from work, let the young dog out of the crate and keep her on a 6 ft leash all night so I could watch her and catch her before she made a mess. At the same time I would start a fire in the cold woodstove and spend, honestly, 3 hours trying to get it up to 400 degrees so I could go to bed and not freeze. Restarting it several times, etc, etc. I couldn't even leave the woodstove to make dinner on the other stove because the fire would go out. I was that bad. Even further, I had the thermostat at 60 degrees and used an entire tank of oil per month, which is 200 gallons of oil (at $3/gallon) for November, December and January.

It was pretty obvious to me that people don't live like this. It was hellish, awful life.

Then I went to a weekend organic farming thing in Rochester with a work friend. We spent hours in the car talking, and that's where I learned the secret to using the woodstove and how to keep it warm 24 hours a day. That made a HUGE difference. I hung some contractors plastic to block off about 2/3 of the house so the oil furnace and wood stove only had to heat a smaller volume. Maggie (my young dog) eventually got housetrained so life was immeasurably better in February and March. I also turned the thermostat down to 50 degrees and used the woodstove for heating above that, so I used a lot less oil.

Even with all of those improvements, when the wind blew, I felt a breeze in the middle of the room. I had hung plastic on the windows, and the sound of them sucking in and out when the wind blew was pretty fantastic. I had moved the bed right in front of the woodstove and even then, when the wind blew I could never get it warmer than about 57 degrees in there. It was pretty awful. The wind blew basically all the time. I live on a mountain.

Never mind that in December we had an ice storm that put out my power for 3 days ( a first for me), and more snow than I think I've ever seen. I was just totally bowled over by last winter.

So I would go into work and ask people if this is the way it normally is. Eventually my coworkers, I think to appease me, would just agree with me when I would say, "It's colder than normal, right?" Of course, they don't live on the mountain/plateau here. They didn't get the weather I got.

Fast forward to May 2009. I went on a hike with some folks from the Rensselaer Land Trust, which is a conservation group. After the hike, a bunch of us went to see one of the true old-timers around here, the last of a long and storied tradition of making charcoal in the area. He also lives about a 1/2 mile from my house and has lived here for something like 70 years. He's been in my house when he was a kid and played in the meadows on my property. (Meadows? There ain't any of them left.) Anyway - he says it was a warm winter. Windy though.

I think every day about what to do better this winter. I've checked. The walls are insulated. I think I need to focus on the windows and the floor. I've got plans!

Friday, June 12, 2009

My roof depresses me

I was bottom-feeding when shopping for a house.
I put my minimum criteria into's search function (10 acres), and then started with the cheapest house and worked my way up.

I saw this house when I was driving across the country to New York last September. It's partners in the same price bracket were trailers or cabins, so I was pretty sure it was a fixer-upper. That's fine with me - I'm comfortable around tools and have successful experience with fixer-uppers. The seller's disclosure said the roof is over 150 years old, but the house inspector didn't seem to have a problem with that (for other reasons, I now have a problem with that inspector, but that's a different story). There were stains on the ceiling of one of the 2nd floor bedrooms, but that didn't convince me the roof is leaking until recently.

A few weeks ago I started to get quotes on first, repairing the roof if possible, or second, replacing it. The challenge here is that the companies that advertise prefer to get their money on replacements not repairs, so they may say a roof can't be saved in order to get the replacement business. I don't know who to trust. One company has told me the roof can't be repaired and given me quotes of $7,500 to replace with shingle and over $16,000 to replace with metal. Another company sent their estimator out, he got halfway to my place and decided it was too far and then didn't bother to call me to say he didn't want to quote.

I was complaining about this to a coworker who has an alpaca farm and she gave me the name of someone she's used in the past and trusts completely. She says, "if he says the roof can't be repaired, then I'll believe it." I talked to this guy, he may come over in the next few days - hopefully I'll get a better feel for what course of action to take.

The prices are higher than I was expecting. The last time I had a roof replaced was about 15 years ago and half the price, in Cleveland. I guess that's inflation for you. I'm having a hard time thinking about shingles on this roof. It doesn't feel like the right thing to do to this house. This quote was for 30-year shingles. I'm not interested in having to replace the roof again when I'm in my 70's. That doesn't feel right either. The whole thing is just depressing right now.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

WWOOFing at SummerJos

This time last year I was in Grants Pass, Oregon, staying at an organic farm/restaurant called Summerjos. I traded 2 weeks of 6 hours/day work for room and board. I got lunch and dinner 5 days a week (plus all the food I wanted to pick from the farm). Amy Joy, the chef at the restaurant is wonderful, so I ate very well!

It's called WWOOFing (Willing Workers on Organic Farms). You can google WWOOFUSA to learn more about the program. Farms wanting workers can add listings to a directory and potential workers can join and then get access to the directory. I got a copy in the mail, and it was my bible last summer. After SummerJos, I went to Idaho and then Montana, but I'll write about those places (and post pics), in future

On Saturdays I worked the Grants pass farmers market. Along with the standard greens, they sell flowers, lavender and bread products. Both weeks I worked there, I got to have some of the extra bread left over after the market. Yum. Friday was harvest day. It was quite a learning experience. I could have stayed longer, but I was antsy to figure out what my future was going to hold, and it wasn't going to be at SummerJos.

I slept on a mattress under the stars. It wasn't dark, or quiet, since SummerJo's is basically within Grants Pass and is only 2+ acres. There was significant light pollution (as in bright lights just across the field), and noise from the neighbors and yappy dogs. The search for dark and quiet became a bit of a quest last summer, but sleeping outside was very nice.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Southern Rock

I've been on a southern rock kick lately. It seems to have the right amount of guts and rock to it, and is not excessively twangy. In the late winter months it was Drive By Truckers almost exclusively, and recently I've added Steve Earle, Joe Ely, Jack Ingram and James McMurtry to the mix.

Instigating this whole music kick was the XM radio channel Outlaw Country. It's pretty irreverent and I need some of that attitude these days.

It's a great mix: using the chainsaw or some other piece of noisy destructive equipment with my ears plugged listening to raucus country-ish music. I'm not ready to go full into country music, but just wait - as I become more homestead-y I may slide right into that country vein.

No More Clearing this Year

I think I'm going to lay off on clearing any more of the property this year. After the iris incident last weekend and the peony incident a few weeks ago, I think I've cleared plenty of things I shouldn't have because I didn't know what they are. The best thing would have been to spend the first year observing the ebb and flow, and identify what's here before I started clearing things out.

Lesson learned late, but there's still a few plants left I haven't cut down!

Of course some big clearing happened on Monday...

Check out the big Cat, and note the area of dirt behind it that used to be a big red pine. Also, you can't see the 6 large spruces in the back anymore (because they're down now), plus 9 other large red pines out of the frame of the shot. Sixteen trees altogether. All these big evergreens were on the south side of the house, and blocked the winter sun when I needed it the most.

You can see that I have a nice new rock now that was underground last week, courtesy of the excavator, and you can also barely see Maggie, one of my black dogs in the lower right hand corner of the shot.

It's amazing how different the south yard looks without those trees! It's very uneven - I think I'll have to have some grading done to smooth it out. I have plans for those red pine trees that involve using them as flooring. We'll see how that works out...

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

More beginner mistakes

When I bought the house, the woodshed was half full of wood. I had no idea how much wood that was, or if it would last through the winter. At the end of December, I decided to be safe and bought 2 cords of wood, which was dropped in the front yard and slowly got buried in snow around Christmas time. I thought I had to get the wood out of the snow, and seeing wood pieces in the basement assumed that that was where I was supposed to put the wood.

Some new neighbors stopped by to introduce themselves and together we spent 3 hours getting that 2 cords of wood into my basement.

It turns out that I didn't need that wood after all (glad to have it though!). It stayed in the basement and started to gather mold. Now it's June and the wood has all sorts of interesting layers of fuzzy things growing on it.

I was talking to someone last week and came to the understanding that I. have. to. get. the. wood. out. of. the. basement. (I don't know why I waited so long - I think I was hoping it would magically take care of itself, the wood would magically levitate or somehow it would turn out that the basement was the right place.) I designed and built a simple plywood ramp that I can use to pull the wood out with the winch on my ATV. You can see some wood inside the tarp on the ramp. I pull the wood from the tarp onto the lawn (where it started in December!), then carry and stack it in the woodshed.

This is extremely laborious work that I wouldn't need to do if I hadn't put the wood in the basement in the first place. I've been working on this now for 3 days and have gotten about half of it out, thanking someone for lessons learned all the way!
You can see in the top picture another mistake: Because the "driveway" was so icy from frozen puddles, I started to pull off to the side and park in the yard. When spring came and I had a truck-sized dead patch of grass in the yard, it took me a while to realize that the salt dripping from the truck killed the grass. Note to self - spend the extra time to fix the driveway instead of just avoiding it - if the grass ever comes back.

Another mistake

The previous owner of my house left some aerial photos with the house that were taken about 20 years ago. Then, the area around the house was open, for maybe 4 acres and blueberry bushes dotted the area as you can see in this shot, taken from the south.

When April came around and it got warm enough to spend time outside, I started clearing blackberry brambles and other weeds from some areas around the house to try and get it closer to the more open land I saw in the pictures.

After the blackberries were cleared, some tall, spiky grasslike stuff started growing. I cut it down a few times by mowing over it. Last weekend I realized that maybe I made yet another beginners mistake! Here's what I found in a patch I hadn't cut next to a rock. An iris! Sigh.

Saturday, June 6, 2009


An ocean of chives in the wilderness of my side yard.


Walking around the front yard today I saw these little babies. They're very small...and sweet!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Frost and Tomatoes

When the temperature went down to 28 degrees the other night, I covered the basil and dill. I didn't cover the tomatoes, broccoli, oregano and thyme. It looks like I should have covered the tomatoes at least. The plant farthest away from the house looked a little funny the next day.
Now it's yellower still. I wonder if the frost got to it?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Skunk Cabbage ... or not?

When I looked at the place that is now my home with the real estate agent last fall, one of the (many) things she pointed out to me was a patch of skunk cabbage where the old barn used to be. Later, after I moved into the house, I did some research into skunk cabbage.

I learned that it makes its own heat and tends to melt snow in the early spring. I learned that when it's leaves are broken, it smells - hence the name. When it came up in early spring, I looked for the snowmelt - none. I smelled broken leaves - no smell.

So I figured out that it's not skunk cabbage, but what is it? Many of the plant books are keyed to flower colors, and since this hadn't flowered, I was at a loss to identify the mystery plant. You also generally have to have a guess at something and then look up to confirm or deny. I had no guesses, so waited ... and waited.

Then last week someone else wrote in their blog about planting comfrey. Comfrey? I looked it up and it seemed possible. Then this week the mystery plant started to bloom. It's definitely comfrey!
Comfrey is interesting - in olden days is was known as bone-knit, used in poultices and teas. It's been researched as browse for ruminants (like goats), and is good, but not as good as other browses. Recent research indicates that ingesting large amounts could be harmful. It is nitrogen-fixing and can be used as mulch, but it propagates through roots. So if any root pieces end up in the mulch, you'll get a new plant.
So nice to be able to identify this new plant!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


I walked around the homestead last night and took pics of the babies.

Baby cherries

Baby apples

Baby blueberries

Monday, June 1, 2009

Last Freeze

It got down to 28 degrees last night at the homestead. I went into town for a choir concert, and when I came home I remembered to protect the basil and the dill. The oregano and thyme had to protect themselves.

I have no idea what the bush is in between the two buckets. I'll leave it for the season just in case it might be something I'd want to keep. (The story to this is that I've been clearing this wild, overgrown land since early April. Last week my father came to visit and I pointed out a "weed" that I'd cut many down of, and he said, "What, that Peony?") So, I guess I'll err on the side of caution for the first season at least.

You can see that I have fenceposts up, but not a fence yet. Hopefully I'll get the fence up before all the herbs are destroyed by my helpful dogs!

Lilac Season

As I was cutting the grass on Saturday, the wind was blowing the last of the lilac flowers to the ground. It still smells great, but not for much longer. Bye, lilac season! It was great.