Friday, May 28, 2010

Dandelion seeds

Photo from

The architecture of plants is amazing. Their roots, stems, leaves, flowers and seeds all have evolved to fit the ecological niche in which that plant grows.

White oak seedlings send down a long, fat taproot to anchor what will one day become a tree with a massive canopy. The deep seated roots stabilize the tree in wind storms and soak up moisture from deep in the earth, keeping the tree alive during dry years.

The bittersweet is a vine. It’s stem is too weak to support the entire plant, and so uses the support of the trees around which it twines as a support. The growing tip of the bittersweet waves around in a circular motion known as circumnutation until it finds an appropriate small tree and then starts wrapping around it to extend upward. The tip of the vine keeps nutating and the vine continues its climbing process by forming a spiral around the tree.

The petioles, leaf stems, of sugar maple trees have an abscission layer, a group of cells that shut down when day length shortens in the fall. When these cells shut down, the tree no longer wastes water and nutrients on leaves that will soon freeze and die. The water and nutrients are stored in the roots, ready to rise as maple sap the next spring - a successful conservation of resources by the maple and a wonderful opportunity for us to harvest sap for maple syrup.

The small white flowers of the plum trees in our back yard need to be pollinated; they don’t self pollinate in the wind. the anatomical structure of the blossom is ideal to encourage fuzzy bodied bees to do their job. The bee has to crawl over the anthers of the flower to reach the nectary where the nectar the bees need is secreted. As bees fly from flower to flower collecting nectar, they pick up pollen from every flower they visit and distribute it onto the next plant. In their travels, as long as two types of plum tree in the area, the bees will successfully pollinate them, ensuring ripe plum seeds at the end of the summer.

Right now, I’m admiring dandelion seeds. As much as I despair at ever controlling these botanical pests, I love the seeds. They are beautiful in their apparent simplicity and in their ecological complexity. I like to use the image of a single dandelion seed floating in the air in my fiber work. I blow dandelions just to watch the tiny pale gray green seeds drift, hanging from ethereal white silk umbrellas.

Way beyond their beauty, dandelion seeds are triumphs in the game of survival that is their reason for existing. One dandelion produces hundreds of seeds that cling to the flower stem until ripe and dry and then spread for miles on the slightest breeze. Dandelions are even more impressive survivors. Our daughter Amber and her husband Jesse did a major weeding of their flower gardens last week. They ripped hundreds of golden yellow dandelion flowers, their stems, leaves and long fleshy roots from the ground and piled them on the mulch in their garden to wither and die in the sun. The leaves withered and died, but those fat fleshy roots continued to feed the golden flowers which ripened into striated gray green seeds with silken umbrellas. The white puffs of seeds waited patiently for that gust of wind that would sweep them into the air and carry them to neighboring lawns and gardens.

The day before the wind blew, we carefully lifted those lifeless plants, and without disturbing the seeds, stuffed them into black garbage bags, ensuring that the entire dandelion, seeds included really was lifeless.

I love the architecture of plants, in all its amazing combinations.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


I love flowers. I learned to identify them as a child at my mother’s side. We walked the woods and her gardens identifying blossoms and leaves. I love the rationality of identification. If a plant has two big three lobed basal leaves with distinctively shaped nodding red and yellow flowers, blooming in May and June, it’s a wild columbine, Aquilegia canadensis. If it’s a low spreading perennial found in moist dense woods in May and June, with two heart shaped light green leaves and a single purplish brown three petaled flower hiding beneath the leaves, it’s wild ginger, Asarum canadense.

The flowers I’ve learned since childhood are less well cemented in my memory, but I still love figuring out their names and discovering new finds and old friends in the woods and gardens. I can almost always tell the difference between the new shoots of a perennial and the new shoots of a weed in my sun garden.

Weeds are the main frustration to do with flower gardens, at least the flowers with mine. After six years, the tulips, iris, and phlox have established themselves well and the lamia and daisies are close to taking over, except for the weeds. Thistles, dandelions, and grasses are the clear winners in my garden.

Why am I surprised? The lawn and hayfield are plagued by the same weeds. It’s not that I don’t weed. It’s mostly that I don’t enjoy weeding. I’m not the kind of gardener who stops and pulls every weed she passes. There are just too many weeds and too little time. I do my weeding in big aggressive campaigns – shovel, garden gloves, and book on tape are my weapons. I wait until after a good rain and then weed for hours, filling the garden cart with weed bodies. When I get to the end of the book or the end of the garden, I get a new book on tape and begin again.

Someday, I hope my sun garden will be so full of beautiful perennials that I can spend my time just listening to the book on tape and enjoying the flowers. Somehow, I doubt it will happen, and perhaps, real enjoyment of the flowers only comes as a result of the weeding.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


One morning I walked into the barn and found 85 orange, a big white lamb lying in the corner. She struggled to her feet and tried to run away, but her front legs buckled. She straightened them and staggered out of the barn and into the rain.

I stared after her, trying to problem solve. She might have been in the barn because of the rain, but none of the other lambs had sought refuge from the soaking gray haze.

She might have been the lamb born crippled, but when she recovered her balance, her front legs were straight. She didn’t have diarrhea so it wasn’t worms or coccidiosis.

I dashed after the lamb and grabbed her just as her front legs collapsed under her again. I picked her up and carried her into the barn. This was a big, heavy lamb. But she didn’t struggle in my arms. I laid her down by the water trough and collected the thermometer from the barn cabinet. I knelt down beside her, inserted the thermometer under her tail and waited for it to equilibrate. 102˚, 104˚, 104˚. Okay, she didn’t have a fever. I filled a bucket of water and a bucket of creep feed and set them beside her.

I don’t know what I expected to happen overnight, but the next morning she was worse. The lamb didn’t even struggle to her feet when I walked into the barn. She hadn’t eaten any of the feed or drunk any of the water. Her temperature was still normal, But she just lay there, breathing.

We own three sheep raising books and two sheep veterinary books. None of them listed diseases that matched 85 orange’s symptoms. I gave her 3 cc.s of Exonel, a broad spectrum antibiotic, just in case.

The next morning 85 orange was dead.

Dave carried her body to the compost pile and covered it with manure. We both stared out at the rest of the flock, depressed. It had been such a good lambing. What had gone wrong?

A week later, 99 orange scrambled to her feet when we found her in the barn, stumbled and recovered to dash out into the rain. Dave checked the barn later in the day. She was laying in the corner. When he encouraged her to her feet, her knees buckled and she staggered out of the barn. He came back to the house for the antibiotic and took a fecal sample into the vet. We’d vaccinated all the lambs, lifting each one over the fence when we were done, so that we knew they had all been vaccinated, but maybe something had gone wrong. The sample was negative for worms and coccidia. We paged through the veterinary books again.

Our corn was moldy; everybody’s corn was moldy, but the tests we’d had done indicated that the mold shouldn’t have been a problem. The sheep had been on new pasture for almost a week, they barely touched the corn we put out; but we decided to discontinue the corn.

99 orange didn’t have a fever. What were we missing?

In the morning, 99 orange was dead. I couldn’t bear it.

A week later, 92 orange staggered to her feet when I walked into the barn. Her front legs buckled. I turned around, walked back to the house and called the vet.

“Is this the lamb we did the fecal on?” they asked.

“No. She died. But this is the third lamb with these symptoms in two weeks.” They squeezed us in at the end of the day. I carried 92 orange up to the car and settled her on the towels Dave had spread in the backseat. He drove her to the vet’s.

“Selenium deficiency,” he said when he walked back into the house an hour later. “Dr Weckwerth gave her an injection. I’ve got more in case anyone else looks sick.”

“Can’t we just give all the lambs selenium?” I asked.

“He said the therapeutic dose could be toxic in a lamb without a deficiency.” I sighed, more waiting.

A week later, we couldn’t pick 92 orange out of the flock. She had completely recovered. Recovery was like a gold star. Dr. Weckwerth’s diagnosis was 100% correct. Our diagnostic skills had been deficient. That’s why he’s the vet and we’re the shepherds.

Monday, May 17, 2010


In two and a half hours, we vaccinated and wormed 75 lambs and 50 ewes. It was a record for us. I think the big difference was using a pour on form of ivermectin as the wormer instead of an injectable. Dave used to catch every ewe and either hold her against the wall, or take her down on her side so that I could inject the wormer. Worming and vaccinating the entire flock could take all day. This time, Dave walked up to each ewe, squeezed the wormer bottle to move a measured amount of wormer into the cup, then turned the bottle and cup upside down and let it drain onto the ewe’s back. Then I squirted red Kool Aid onto her back to mark her so we wouldn’t worm anybody more than once.

The lambs were more work. Dave caught and picked up each lamb while I injected the appropriate amount of wormer into a little tent of skin under their hind legs. Then I injected 2 cc.s of a vaccine against overeating disease, a bacterial overgrowth of their gut that can cause fatal diarrhea.

We always vaccinate our sheep. I know of shepherds who don’t, but I’ve also had lambs die from Clostridium perfringens infectons and I don’t want to ever see that runny yellow diarrhea again.

I’ve also had to clean up ewes that developed fly strike because of diarrhea. Sheep pick up worms when they graze. Most pastures that have been used in the last several years have worm larva living in the grass. As the sheep eat the grass, they ingest the worms. The worms multiply in their gut, and if they aren’t kept under control, cause horrendous diarrhea. The diarrhea can, at worst, starve a ewe to death, or cause an imbalance of her electrolytes leading to heart problems. At best, the diarrhea coats the sheep’s tail, bottom and hind legs. Flies lay their eggs in the feces. The eggs hatch into maggots and the maggots eat through the feces and right on into the sheep.

Fly strike can kill a ewe just because she feels too bad to eat or drink. However, there is a solution albeit an unpleasant one. The shepherdess grabs the ewe, lays here on her side and kills the maggots with alcohol. The last time I found a ewe with fly strike, I told Dave how much I dreaded touching the maggots, hoping he would take care of it for me. He very thoughtfully suggested that I wear surgical gloves!

The surgical gloves actually did made it a tolerable job as long as I squinched my eyes shut so that I couldn’t feel or see what I was doing. After I scrabbled all the maggots out of her wool, and washed away all the feces, I sprayed her with fly repellant and wormed her again.

It probably only took thirty minutes to clean up that ewe who had been missed when we wormed. But my life would have been just as meaningful and considerably more pleasant without that experience. And so now we vaccinate and worm our animals and see it as time well spent, no mater how long it takes.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


Photo by Peter Brooks Jarvis

Dave put out the hummingbird feeder and we immediately saw the black and white striped sapsucker clinging to the perch. The hummingbirds will follow soon, and the orioles will find the orange halves and grape jelly within a few days.

I used to worry that the hummingbirds were pushing the season. There couldn’t possibly be enough flowers yet to feed all the migrating hummers. But they follow the sapsuckers for a good reason. With their long tongues, hummingbirds can extract nectar from the holes sapsuckers make in trees. What a wonderful congruence.

Although we only see the sap suckers in the spring when they come to our feeders, we see the hummingbirds all summer long working in my sun garden. What a wonderful reason to plant flowers.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Double flowering plum

photo by Beth Jarvis, University of Minnesota Extension, Yard and Garden Line News, 2002

The double flowering plum blooming gloriously in our backyard doesn’t belong here. A native of Central China, it grows well up to zone 4, and so bloomed profusely at my childhood home in White Bear Lake. The first summer we lived in Pelican Rapids, 4 year old Amber bought me this double flowering plum for Mother’s Day.

The bush grows enthusiastically and we’ve pruned it back many times in the last 30 years. But most years, because we live in a zone 3 gardening area, it only flowers on the bottom branches, those protected from the bitter cold by snow drifts. This last winter was so mild that my double flowering plum is a 10 foot diameter mound covered with pink, tissue thin, double flowers. The deep red buds unfurl to pale pink cups of petals like tiny old fashioned roses, perhaps the reason the bush is also called the Rose Tree of China.
The bees are at work around the bush harvesting pollen and nectar.

Every trip through the yard takes me past the plum and every sight of the blossoms is a trip back to childhood for me and the memory of the lovely double flowering plum that bloomed so profusely every year at the corner of my parent’s yard.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Non-native food

Dave and I have continued our conversation about native species. The asparagus I steamed for dinner grew on our farm, but is native to the Mediterranean countries. The tomatoes in our chilli are native to Central and South America. Even the alfalfa we grow in our fields for the sheep is not a native species. It originally came from the Middle East.

Those non-native species are delicious, nutritious, grow well in our climate and have grown well here in Minnesota for over a century. The dandelions which are gradually replacing the alfalfa plants in sections of our hayfield are also non-native. As much as I enjoy their brilliant yellow flowers, the dandelion plants are pests. They crowd out the alfalfa and are too short to be cut by the haybine, and so provide no food for the sheep. Right now, we are trying to control the dandelions by digging them and replanting the area with alfalfa seed. If that doesn’t work, we’ll have to spray.

We don’t farm organically, but we get as close to organic as we can. At the least, we try to farm sustainably, balancing fuel use with herbicide use, wind and water erosion of the top soil and the necessity to rotate crops. I wish someone could give us a flow chart – if “a” happens, do “b”. If “c” happens, try “d”. But there are too many variables. All we can do is try every year to make the best decisions for our land, for our sheep and for the environment. Right now, that means planting non-native alfalfa and killing non-native dandelions.

There are farmers who cut prairie grass for hay and farmers who grow prairie grass for ethanol. I want to learn more about both things, but for now, we plant non-native alfalfa, kill non-native dandelions and perhaps, since they’ve been in the country for about 250 years, we eat tomatoes and think of them as native plants.