Wednesday, July 29, 2009

When the wind blows

photo by Aubrey Ellison

Dave and I just finished a week long canoe trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. We had a wonderful time! There were great people, great scenery, great food, and best of all, there was the wind!

The mosquitoes were bad. On the portages and in the woods where we pitched our tents, the mosquitoes swarmed around our heads and feasted on any bits of uncovered or unsprayed flesh. The wind saved us.

We always chose campsites on large expanses of rock that ran right up to the lake, rocks that thrust out into the wind, sweeping the mosquitoes away from us. When the wind died in the evening, even a fire couldn’t keep the mosquitoes from invading; so we took ourselves early to bed. After a fierce massacre of all the insects that had followed us into the tent, we lay in our sleeping bags and listened to the mosquitoes buzzing just beyond the tent netting, and the wind high up in the trees.

At home again, I still feel grateful for the wind. We’ve had a wind generator in our hay field for thirteen years now. It supplies about one half of our electricity. Because we can’t use all the electricity generated by our tower when the wind blows, we sell about three fourths of the electricity generated to the power company. The machine has nearly paid for itself and is now producing clean, pollution free power for us and for our electrical coop.

The wind also helps us at ground level. Dave began cutting hay today. With warm sun and a nice breeze, the hay will dry rapidly and we’ll be able to bale it before it can be rained on and ruined.

And finally, Aubrey weeded the asparagus patch. The breeze kept the mosquitoes out of her way – only four bites in seven hours. Life is good when the wind blows.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Eating locally

I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, on a canoe trip to the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota. It changed my outlook on eating.

My first shopping expedition after the trip was a big disappointment. I hoped to convert our diet to locally grown foods, but in a small Minnesota town, in October, the only locally grown food in the produce aisle was winter squash.

A friend aaked “Why are you doing this?” when I said I wasn’t buying bananas any more.

In part, it’s to see if we can live off the land – grow or barter our own food. We are fortunate to live in the country. We have infinite garden space and plenty of room for animals. But I also like the idea of supporting the local economy. I buy strawberries and raspberries from a woman I know at the Tuesday farmer’s market in town. I buy cabbage, beans, and summer squash there also.

If someone sold local cheese, I’d gobble it up, but unfortunately, no one does. I learned how to make mozzarella after reading of Barbara Kingsolver’s adventures. It was dead easy and tasted wonderful with dried leaves from our own purple basil plant mixed in. But I might as well support our dairy farmers by buying cheese from a Minnesota dairy rather than use nonfat dried milk from who knows where, to make my own. Also, although my first batch of mozzarella was almost perfect, each succeeding batch was less successful. I am perhaps not cut out to be a cheese maker.

In fact, a large part of our diet is locally grown – lamb, maple syrup, honey from our own hives, eggs from the neighbor just north of us, and garden produce starting sometime in late May or early June.

This year, I decided to find other local foods, and to stretch our garden season. The neighbor who sells eggs also sells chickens. I harvested lambs quarters, dandelions and amaranth along with some self seeded lettuce from last year for May salads.

We also began picking rhubarb in May. With thirteen well established plants, we had an almost inexhaustible supply. I froze it, gave it away, made sauce and desserts. Rhubarb grows enthusiastically and easily and continually for over a month, almost two - it would be a perfect food if you didn’t have to use quite so much sugar to make it palatable.

As gardeners, we are quite successful. Dave orders seeds in January and plants melons, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, peppers and herbs in the house in April. He nurtures them, rotating the flats so they get the best warmth, the best sunlight, the best chances to grow, until late May when we set them out in the garden. He tills the garden behind the house, a spot that was once solid clay and is now a wonderful, rich bed of black dirt and humus, thanks to thirty years of mulch.

We plant corn, cucumbers, squash, carrots, potatoes, lettuce, cilantro, peas and spinach. I add nasturtiums to the flower garden for spicier salads, and perennial herbs to harvest in the summer and dry in the fall. And then we wait for things to grow.

It has been a cold summer. Nothing is growing rapidly. But we finally are harvesting cups of sugar pod peas – perhaps our most successful crop - daily. We cut off all the Swiss chard and all the spinach yesterday, and blanched and froze all the leaves – two quart bags for spinach soufflĂ© next winter. At that rate, two bags of frozen spinach from ten feet of row, we’ll never be self sufficient. But we’ll re-harvest the spinach in a few weeks and by then the cucumbers will be ready and we can shift from eating chef salads made mostly of greens for supper, to chef salads with cucumbers added.

June berries look like small blueberries, they have an intense flavor and more seeds. They taste great on granola and freeze perfectly and easily for winter. In the past, the birds had always picked all our June berries as they ripened and I never found any to harvest. It took us several seasons to figure out what was going on. Now, we cover the bushes with bird nets and several weeks later, pick quarts of the berries.

Nankin cherries ripened in mid-July, but their seed to fruit ratio is quite high so I only use them for jelly or juice. I froze a scant two cups of juice yesterday – not enough to do more than flavor apple sauce.

We won’t have apples until mid-August when the first summer varieties ripen. Those are also best used in sauce or pies. I’m not a good pie maker, so last year, Dave and I sliced our early apples and dried them. Tomorrow, we’ll take dried apples on our next canoe trip.

Monday, July 13, 2009

When the daisies bloom

Daisies grew at the back of my grandfather’s land on the railway embankment. I loved going out to pick them. I was blonde and blue eyed and the daisies reached my waist. My grandfather used his pocket knife to cut the stems; I carried the armload of blossoms. In my mind’s eye, it is a beautiful image.

Perhaps that is why I have such a hard time ripping the daisies out of my garden.

They are wonderful flowers, simple flowers – crisp white petals surrounding a warm yellow center. They withstand strong winds and harsh temperatures. Their seeds over-winter well in our part of Minnesota. They make beautiful bouquets, and they grow like crazy.

Thus the idea of ripping them out of my garden. In June, as I weed, I leave the daisy seedlings with their charming little ruffled leaves, except right around the perennials that will be growing larger through out the summer. I am always optimistic that the perennials will grow faster than the daisies.

In July, when the daisies are in full, riotous ( and I do mean riotous – as in wrecking carnage on their surroundings) bloom, the perennials are struggling to be seen. And the annuals that I planted in June, the alyssum, nasturtiums and zinnias, are struggling to survive, blanketed as they are by masses of daisies.

Dave doesn’t have my fond memories of daisies. He recognizes them as weeds and treats them accordingly. I cut the daisies to fill vases all through the house, hopeful that they will re-bloom later in the summer. Dave rips them out of the ground in great flowery bunches.

By August, the gaillardia will be in full glory; the fragrance of alyssum will saturate the air; and tasty orange nasturtiums will form mounds at the edge the garden. The glads and hollyhocks will tower over the blossoms in front of them; and the phlox will just be coming into their own. The garden will be a mass of brilliant colors and textures.

But my favorite time in the garden is right now, when the daisies bloom.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


“I have to change my internal dialog,” Dave said to me last night, “from ‘Oh My God! for the last four weeks it’s been raining and we’re not going to get the hay up’ to something more positive like ‘Let’s go canoeing with a friend, it’s a fun thing.’”

Dave and I keep having these conversations over and over. Life is too busy. I am too busy. You are too busy. How do we solve this problem. How do we find more time to relax. We only do the things we love, why are we complaining?

Canoeing was great. The sky was a summer blue, flecked with clouds. Purple iris bloomed in the cattails along the banks of the Otter Tail River. Blue dragonflies drifted from one yellow pond lily to the next, touching down, then drifting on. There were no mosquitoes on the water. A soft wind kept us cool. Cattails rising above our heads obscured the houses along the river. We moved as if in a wilderness, our paddles pushing us along the current. The water was clear; the clamshells on the sand below us seemed within reach. We paced a great Blue Heron; a pair of bald eagles flew buy. We drifted slowly past a pair of loons, close enough to see the brilliant red eyes, the black and white checks, the thin line of white feathers circling their necks. They watched us as we watched them. Then, ten feet away, they tipped their heads and disappeared under the surface.

It was a day out of time, laughing, talking, relaxing with a friend.

When we returned home, Dave looked at the thistles towering above the alfalfa in the field, their buds beginning to swell, ready to bloom. “We need to cut hay before the thistles bloom,” he said. “If I cut the east field on Friday, maybe it will dry while I’m at work and we can begin baling on Wednesday. We’ll have four days to bale. If it doesn’t rain, we’ll be fine.”

My heart sank. I wasn’t ready to begin worrying about rain and hay quite yet.

This morning we walked out into the east field to look at the alfalfa and the thistles. At its best, the alfalfa was a foot high. The thistles were at least six inches taller and were indeed ready to bloom. But there weren’t thistles everywhere.

“We won’t get much hay if we cut this week,” Dave said. “It will be a better crop in a few weeks when the alfalfa is taller. Let’s just cut the thistles by hand, either with the scythe or the weed whacker.”

He took my hand and we walked back down to the house. We would both need to cut thistles to get most of them, but just cutting thistles seemed much more doable to both of us than the idea of beginning baling already. We could drift just awhile longer.

Saturday, July 4, 2009


The mosquitoes are ravenous!

I really have no idea how the Indians and the early settlers withstood the mosquitoes. I’m not sure that I could live in Minnesota without Bt or DEET.

I didn’t stock up on mosquito dunks this year – those cute little brown donuts of bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that we usually float in all our sloughs and ponds. I didn’t even think about it until the first mosquitoes appeared about a week ago.

Now, I really regret that lapse in memory. Mosquitoes are always bad first thing in the morning and in the evening, especially after sunset. But this week, they swarm around me in full sunshine, at noon. Especially when I am hanging clothes on the line, both hands busy, face and arms completely exposed, or weeding the garden with my shirt riding up over my back and my ankles vulnerable below my jeans.

The mosquito dunks form of Bt is bacillus thuringiensis servovar israelensis. This bacterium attacks mosquitoes. It produces a toxin that inserts itself into the cell walls of mosquito larva guts, and lyses them, so the larva die. I love the idea of mosquito larva dieing from burst cell walls in their guts. It just seems so right. I also love that we can kill them with an environmentally friendly pesticide. The Bt has little or no effect on humans, wildlife, pollinators, or other beneficial insects.

But without the forethought of mosquito dunks, I am forced to rely on mosquito repellants. I’ve tried the nontoxic mosquito repellants – the citronella candles and the Skin So Soft lotion. They don’t touch Minnesota mosquitoes. Even the more suburban mosquito repellants don’t really work here. It takes substantial concentrations of DEET (N,N – diethyl – m – toluamide) to really repel mosquitoes. The nasty bugs are attracted to humans because of the odor of our skin and the carbon dioxide we breathe out. DEET jams the mosquitoes sensors so that they can’t land and bite successfully. We spray it in our hair, on our clothes, and rub it on our faces. It is such a relief to see the mosquitoes swarming around me, hear their incessant buzzing, and not be bitten.

My niece, Aubrey, asked what mosquitoes are good for. My gut reaction was “NOTHING!” But actually, we probably have so many barn swallows because of our mosquito population, and the beautiful gold and red bodied dragonflies swooping through our yard on iridescent wings eat many times their own weight in mosquitoes. In fact, the swallows nurturing babies in the rafters of the barn, and the dragonflies resting on flowers more than make up for the mosquitoes.