Eating in August

Dad pulled an old Weber Kettle Grill out of the tree line a few years back. I cannot believe what we have pulled out of the nearby woods. Most of it has not been useful, we once brought in a dumpster to dispose of much of it. On the other hand, this kettle grill has served great purpose. We keep starting fires in there and cooking stuff in it. Last week it was chicken thighs. But this year it has already cooked whole chickens and hamburgers and meatballs and bratwursts and shrimp and mushrooms and beets and Brussel sprouts. We roast onions and garlic in there. We fire roast eggs in the shell. I am sure there are more efficient ways to cook, but for a long time now I have been content with a Weber.

 
Talking about food, we have been picking zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, and strawberries. Our strawberry bed is full of a variety called Seascape. They are a day neutral berry that apparently starts to ripen in late July and will continue into Autumn. So far, we have kept the critters from them.

 
Elsewhere on the property, there are other critters looking for food. The trail cam has caught a coyote, red fox, and raccoon searching at night. There are multiple deer, including three different fawns, that have been showing up at all hours. Only one buck has made himself known at this point.

 
Recently, we have seen more rain. Often it comes along with a thunderstorm. Limbs, some of them heavy, have been falling, one right in the middle of the lane. This is what August is like back here, at least this year. At least the garden is getting some water. Back to eating, I recently had a tomato sandwich. No bacon, no lettuce, just tomato. No Weber necessary. It was a Brandywine and it was delicious. Not all food needs to be cooked. I am looking forward to the next one.

A Blueberry Summer (Almost)

One day there was a bird was in the blueberries. This spring, I had planted Top Hat blueberries. It is a compact variety developed at Michigan State University and the perfect size for containers. Surprisingly, a number of berries started to come on rather quickly. While I like the birds, I don’t like them in the berry patches. So, I found some stakes and chicken wire and constructed a makeshift cage in order to keep birds out.

It has been dry. Very dry. Keith’s patch of forest greens dried up. Some of the garden plants are drooping every time I see them. Still, daisies and coneflowers are adding some color to the garden. The tomatoes are coming along well also. We’ve been picking romas for weeks and have started to harvest some heirlooms. Carrots are looking good. We have about harvested all the garlic and the onions. Note to self – yes on both Walla Wallas and growing garlic for next year.

I think the newly emptied spaces will be perfect for more Bloomsdale spinach and another attempt at Bulls Blood Beets (something ate them in my attempt earlier this year). I added a ghost fern in a shaded part of the garden. Wrens have hatched in one of the nest boxes. Snakes are living in the compost bins. Hummingbirds are fighting for sugar water.

My excitement about the blueberries was short lived. I checked on them one day to find them gone. Something small enough to fit through the chicken wire had a sweet dessert one day. I am blaming the chipmunks.

Spring Eating

Garter Snakes and Red Efts and Wood Frogs and one American Toad have been showing themselves up close. Hopefully to eat some things I don’t want around. Raccoons and fox and deer and a wild turkey have shown themselves on camera. Probably looking for something to eat. Keith planted a patch of clover with the hopes that something would come along and eat it. It is growing well off the southeast side of the property.

The ground is finally warm enough for new things to go in the garden. The new beds are filled with dirt. The perennials are all looking good. We are picking the last of the lettuces and pickling the last of the radishes. The arugula and the spinach have been eaten; I sure hope we will be eating more in the Fall. Mental note, I will get the Bloomsdale spinach again.

Bloomsdale Spinach is an heirloom vegetable. Heirloom vegetables are colorful, nutritious, and have a fascinating history. For example, Cherokee Purple Tomatoes were rediscovered by a guy in North Carolina who received some seeds from a family in Tennessee. The Tennessee family claims they have been growing them for generations and that they first received seeds from the Cherokee Indians. That makes me glad we have a Cherokee Purple and some other heirlooms as well.

Carrots have been planted. So have tomatoes and peppers and zucchini. So have raspberries and strawberries and blueberries. I am guessing we will have to work to keep critters away from them later in the year, but so far critters have showed a preference for parsley and basil and beets and swiss chard. Whatever critters have been sharing our food, it was certainly a larger critter that tore down the bird feeders to eat the bird feed. One day they were attracting a lot of bird life, the next the feeders needed to be replaced and the food had been eaten. Undoubtedly, a bear passed through for a bite.

Things are growing. Many of them are getting eaten. I am just glad that I get to do at least some of the eating.

The Color and the Taste

It is the time of year that violets carpet the ground with purple. Keith has planted clover in some forest patches where the sun shines through the deciduous trees. It will be interesting to see what happens when it begins to grow.

In the garden, the perennial herbs look good. The daffodils are in full color. Tulips are not far behind. Hostas are popping up, so are lily of the valley, so are Purple Coneflower and Black Eyed Susans. We hope to see color through the summer. Joining the cardinals and other usual culprits at the feeders for even more color are goldfinches. One day a brown headed cowbird joined the others. Since this is the first we’ve noticed him here, we’re calling him a first time visitor. This is an interesting bird with a song that sounds like a gurgle followed by a whistle. They are not raised by their parents so it is a puzzle how they learn to recognize other cowbirds. For that matter, how do they learn to sing cowbird songs?

Earlier in the month I listened to Barred Owls make their music, but lately the loudest music is coming from Pileated Woodpeckers. When they aren’t singing their song, there are pounding on the trees. One day, Mom found one in the yard. I keep listening for turkeys, so far, they are silent.

The raised beds have produced arugula, spinach, swiss chard, romaine, bibb lettuce, and spring onions all month long. Daryl and his Mahindra leveled a space for those beds last year and this year he has leveled off another space parallel to the existing beds. That will make ninety-six square feet of raised beds for edibles. A tip of the hat to Daryl. I thin radishes from a grow bag and include the “thinnings” in my bag of greens. This will be the start of a tasty and colorful salad. Some nearby dandelion will find its way in there as well.

There’s a lot of color coming on around here… and sound… and taste. I am looking forward to it.

Quarantine with Owls and Lions

Quarantine has become an oft used word. I suppose if it is necessary then to find a place far away from the masses is a good idea. So, I find a place where the closest business establishment happens to be a big cat sanctuary. A half mile lane takes me back to a little hide-a-way in the shadow of Jacks Mountain where I have decided to overnight in a tent.

 

There is a dog that lives here, I don’t think he knows he is under a quarantine. I have strong suspicions the local birds do not know either. We watch birds of all colors and sizes fly back and forth between the feeders and the tree line. Others eat what falls to the ground. And others scratch at the edge of the forest for spring dinner. I fear that I am feeding the rabbits back here also. Something ate the parsley down to stubs; I am blaming the rabbits. I haven’t decided whether to be upset or to admire them for doing it while I was sleeping in a tent just fifteen yards away.

 

Perennials are starting to show themselves. I see thyme and sage and chives and lavender. I see daffodils and tulips and garlic. I replaced a rosemary plant. Bibb lettuce and romaine are in the ground. So is arugula and spinach. So are radishes and beets and onions and leeks and cabbage. Creeping phlox and lily of the valley have been added to the shade garden. I have traced an outline for a new garden parallel to the vegetable garden. Daryl has agreed to come up on the Mahindra and level it out like he did the original space last year. Joe and I moved the serviceberry tree in order to give the tractor more room to work.

 

There are some other things going on as well. One week, the wood frogs started to sing. The next week, the spring peepers joined in. That same week, I saw a garter snake soaking in the sun on the northern edge of the yard. Chickadees have been investigating the bluebird boxes. I would prefer bluebirds, but I’ll settle for chickadees. It is the time of year when the property changes daily. It is technically spring and did get up to seventy degrees earlier in the week. You might think that makes it a good time to overnight in a tent. As it turned out, it dropped to twenty-five degrees and when I woke up my feet were freezing.

 

But, the dawn chorus always makes it worth it to sleep outside. So many birds singing a song it is hard to pick out the individual sounds. Two barred owls sing. And then, a lion roar can be heard from the big cat sanctuary. This sounds so unnatural, but a lion joins the dawn chorus. It’s like I walked into a scene where lions lay down with lambs. Or at least a scene where they sing along with birds.

Life at the Edge

I watch the edge carefully. The space where the yard ends and the forest begins is an active space. Trees are lined around the perimeter of yard. This is the forest edge. A happening place. This is the kind of place a bird might perch while keeping an eye on the feeder. Somewhere a squirrel might sit scanning its surroundings. It’s the kind of place where a seed might be waiting with the intention of growing into a tulip poplar. In not too many weeks, any number of predators might lie in wait here while on the lookout for something to eat.

 
Not far beyond the edge we discovered that something took hold of a turkey and scattered feathers everywhere. Humans are not the only species who enjoy turkey. In not too many weeks, the low wet spaces will become places where spring peepers, chorus frogs, and wood frogs will begin a nightly concert series. They will be joined by spotted salamanders and they will all lay eggs in the warmest part of these waters.

 
The water remains frozen for now. When the wind blows the thin, small trees jutting up through the ice they make an cracking sound as they wave back and forth. It makes me feel like I am about to go through. The Snow Moon has waxed and now wanes in our sky. There were days when flakes fell casually while I wondered around the property, but traces of snow are now only visible in forested places. It is cold enough that steam rises when I turn the compost.

 
Inside the edge, right in the yard, something took hold of a rabbit and scattered hair everywhere. It could have been the fox who keeps getting his picture taken on the trail cam. Or the coyote who showed up last week. Or the cat Mom saw sitting next to the compost bin last month. I hear Great Horned Owls and Barred Owls, perhaps one of them had something to do with it. I find myself wishing it was a Screech Owl. But I have not heard or seen any sign of one yet. The nest box hanging at the forest edge is still empty. Where are those birds?

Walking Around in the Snow

South of Penns Creek and east of Troxelville there is still leftover snow from last week’s storm. The former is a stretch just downstream of famous trout waters. The latter was home to Euell Gibbons, famous naturalist and author of Stalking the Wild Asparagus (great title). Here, in this leftover snow, I follow tracks around the yard and through the forest. The air is pleasantly cold. A nip in the air and no breeze make it comfortable to walk around in. Afterward, I carried firewood inside and started a fire. A fire is one of the joys of Winter.

Compost is cooking. I toss in strawberry tops, egg shells, pieces of celery, onion skins, leaves, and straw. There must be the right mix of nitrogens and carbons. when I turn it I find the dark rich color of soil and the smell that goes along with it. We should have 24 cubic feet of this stuff for spring planting. It is hard to believe that I will be planting in these snow-covered spaces just two months from now. Mom recently saw a gray cat sitting near the compost as if waiting for it to finish cooking (more likely hoping for some critter to come out of the bin).

Last week, before the snow, there was a turtle in the yard. This isn’t the way it is supposed to be. Turtles that come out to play in January do not live long. This is a juvenile with colorful markings on his underside. Around the bottom of the shell, underneath his chin, and the majority of his plastron are the color of a banana. He has a long tail and the kind of claws you might expect on a creature who digs into the ground. As much fun as it is to find this turtle, I would have rather found him in April.

Birds are all over the suet and sunflower seeds. Nuthatches, chickadees, juncos, woodpeckers, and a pair of cardinals fly back and forth from feeder to treeline. That is not the only action. The trail cameras have recently revealed deer, including a buck, a fox, and a fisher. A fisher is an interesting mammal. Stories about them include successfully hunting lynx. Other stories include flipping porcupines onto their back (probably exaggerated) to eat their belly. I am still waiting for some action at the owl house. It looks like the kind of a place where a screech owl would want to nest… here birdie.

A Good Place to Be

Somewhere between Jacks and Shade Mountain there is a plot of mesic-hydric forest that gets crunchy underfoot this time of year. The sun is shining but snow still lies in shaded places. A dog named Duke ran through it with Rennan one day and with Mya the next. (Another dog Brooks, a Dachshund, tried to keep up). Duke went to the vet yesterday. It’s a busy week to be a German Shepherd.

 
We fill the feeders with seed and suet. The nuthatches are the first to find the fresh stuff. They dance back and forth on the feeder and a nearby tree. A large hornet nest used to hang from a tree in the back yard. It has literally disintegrated. A coyote, a fisher, fox, deer, and turkey have appeared on the trail camera. Three deer have been harvested this month and there is backstrap waiting in the freezer (yum).

 
A new composter is standing next to the older one. I toss in some finished compost, leftover grass clippings, straw, kitchen scraps, and coffee grounds from Starbucks (appropriately labeled Christmas Blend”). That should get the new batch started in hopes it will be ready for spring. Two composters mean more compost which means better soil which means more veggies and fruit and flowers.

 
Skeletal deciduous trees and evergreens surrounded by splotches of snow remind us what time of year it is. Bulbs and seed lie under the surface waiting for warmer weather. What will it all look like a few months from now? A large rosemary plant sits in a container at the entrance. Karissa, Joel, Ellie, Keightley, Nic and I enter to eat Mom’s vegetable soup and homemade rolls. The place is decorated for the holiday. There is a fire in the fireplace and a movie on television. This is a good place to be on a December day.

Winter and a Happy Soul

Somewhere between Jacks and Shade Mountain spring bulbs have been planted (some for color, some for flavor. I am talking about garlic). The root vegetables have been cured and we’ve picked the last of the lettuce. It is true that lettuce tastes different when it comes from your garden. A garden is, of course, for the flavors. But it is also for walking past and looking at. It is for food and beauty. It is a combination of charm and productivity. I am not sure ours has accomplished either in a substantial way, but it is a work in progress. Therefore, some changes are being planned for next year.

 
The present plans include growing more carrots (Mom has already eaten them all). Grow radishes and beets. Grow pumpkins on purpose. Add cucumbers and strawberries. More Purple Coneflower, more Black Eyed Susans, more garden herbs. We’ll keep the tomatoes and the peppers. I am undecided about Sweet Potatoes. It’s a tough call, they were brilliant in color and extra sweet (made me think those things at the grocery aren’t really sweet potatoes). But anyway, hats off to George the Tator Man who sold us the slips to get started.

 
Anyway, in order for any of that to happen, the soil is getting a heavy dose of compost and manure and straw. Before anything grows next year we need to amend the soil. Better soil will grow better plants. It’s that simple. I am hopeful that next spring we will already be far ahead of where we were last spring. I have already ordered a second composter.

 
The birdhouses have been cleaned and bird feeders have been filled. The feeders operate on a pulley system that hangs them high enough they are out of reach for any bears. Last week while filling them I lowered the feeders and noticed two Black Capped Chickadees still at the suet. I raised it and lowered it three times and they rode up and down. Why fly when you can just ride the elevator? I have some interest in larger birds as well. There are still a number of Wild Turkeys around. Keith scared them from their roost while entering the woods one morning last week. Soon, I will be watching the nesting box hanging just outside the yard for signs of a Screech Owl.

 
There is a fire inside. Not the most efficient way to heat, but it also warms the soul. Mom has a friend who raises grass fed beef. With gratitude there is a porterhouse on the Weber. Who invented this cut? It’s like a filet and a strip steak, why choose when you can have both? Again, cooking over fire may not be the most efficient way to cook. But it makes my soul happy.

Good Time for a Fire

Somewhere between Jacks and Shade Mountain it will soon be time to start a fire in the fireplace. Maybe light up the firepit. Maybe light up a bonfire. As the weather gets cooler, a fire seems to sound better and better. The trees seem to have already caught fire. Yellows, oranges, and reds mix with browns and burn from the surrounding branches. The leaves fall like sparks to the ground where the first frost already claimed the basil.

 
Lettuce, onions, and spinach are still growing. They seem to like this weather. I have pulled up the tomatoes and peppers. Harvested the sweet potatoes. One by one, the gardens are getting ready for Winter. We blanket them with lots of straw and compost. The hummingbird feeders are put away until next year. The other feeders are getting more and more action.

 
I’ve been gathering rocks all summer long. Been digging them out of the yard, finding them in the tree line, and carrying them in from the woods. They are beginning to look like a wall for a Spring garden. I hope it will be the perfect spot for tulips, daffodils, and garlic.

 
The fairly large hornet nest is still hanging from a backyard tree, we’ll wait until it gets colder to take it down. I am still seeing Valley and Ridge Salamanders and Wood Frogs hiding in the leaf litter. Along with deer, a Black Bear, two Gray Foxes, and a flock of Wild Turkeys have been showing themselves on the trail cam. Not satisfied with just being seen on a trail cam, Mom saw twelve turkeys in the yard one day.

 
On another day, we put a chicken on the Weber. Rub it down with butter. Add salt and pepper. Put it over a drip pan on the far side of the grill and add charcoal when necessary. As a bonus, eat the liver, heart, and gizzard while the rest of the bird is cooking. The smells and tastes were awesome. We call it wicked good. Fall is a really good time for a fire. Not too long ago, my favorite season was Summer. Now, I’m starting to think I’m kind of a Fall guy.