Saturday, June 28, 2014


We've been talking to Doug, a friend who works for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, specializing in prairies. He's been part of a ten year study on what affects thistle growth in prairies in the Midwest. Is it the time of the seeding of grasses and forbs? Is it the seed concentration as they are planted? Is it the type of prairie? Or is it related to something else that no-one has even thought of  yet?

We have at least five different types of soil on our farm and the thistles grow everywhere.One possibility is soil microbiome, the bacteria that live in the soil. Plants live in a reciprocal relationship with the bacteria in the soil. Our son-in-law, Gautam, is studying these soil microbiomes. They can vary from sample site to sample site. The microbiome a meter away from your sample can be as different as the microbiome of a site half way around the world.

So what does that tell us about thistles? I'm not sure but the fact that experts don't know is certainly reassuring to me. If it's necessary to do studies to figure out why and where thistles grow, then we're not the only farmers who can't keep our thistles under control. A month ago, I sprayed four pastures to kill thistles. Three weeks later, I resprayed to get the thistles I had missed the first time. Yesterday, Dave scythed the remaining thistles in those pastures. In three weeks, the tiny rosettes of golden spine tipped leaves metamorphosed into thigh high plants bristling with thorns and ready to burst into bloom.

Hopefully we have sprayed and cut them early enough that the seeds won't open and I can sleep easy in my bed, content that I haven't been the Typhoid Mary of thistle seeds this year. If not, I'll enjoy the beauty of the blossoms and try to do a better job next year.

Sunday, June 22, 2014


Late Friday afternoon, Dave finished hooking up the drip irrigation system for our vegetable garden. About 5 pm, the weather siren went off. Dave took Oolong, the cat, and Newton the dog, to the basement.The lambs retired to the barn and the sheep moved into the shadow of the woods. By the time I returned home and Dave emerged from the basement half an hour later, we had received three inches of rain and had drifts of 1 inch diameter hail around the house and at the edges of fields.

photo by Dave Ellison
The animals were all fine. The oats in the field which had been standing about 6 inches tall, now lay in the mud, stems broken and bent. Our vegetable garden had been razed. A few leafless tomato stems rose above the mud. Under the debris of ripped and tattered  basswod and box elder leaves, we found half inch tall stubs of melon stems. Huge rhubarb leaves were completely gone and their red stalks were shredded and already browning. No trace remained of the corn seedling or the squash. The berries on the June berry bushes were now few and far between. The apple trees still had leaves, but we found no fruit.

The perennial flower garden fared better, but the peonies, poppies and iris were done for the summer, their flowers shredded and leaves either flattened in the case of the poppies or badly damaged. The later season flowers still had some leaves and will hopefully repair themselves as the summer progresses.

It was our woods that showed the greatest power of all that water. The rain had coursed down the slopes of our fields, then slowed and gathered at the top of the woods where it began creating channels through the underbrush. In the west woods, the rushing water followed the easiest path, deepening the ditch beside the driveway until it met a tree branch. As tattered leaves and black loam washed against the tree branch, a dam formed and the water found two ways around the dam, steaming either down the middle of the driveway or into the woods on its way toward the lowest spot on the farm, our south east pasture. It flowed across the barn yard and filled all the low spots in between. The south east pasture which had had swampy areas because of our wet spring was now completely underwater.

The east woods are lower than the driveway, so no ditch had been needed. By Friday evening, the water from the fields was carving a river bottom through the east woods. When the torrent hit an obstruction, a big rock or tree, it pooled until it reached a low spot and then spilled over, creating a new riverbed, over a foot deep in places. The lowest spot in that woods is just north of the house. Water has pooled there in the past. On wet springs, we throw mosquito dunks (Bacillus thurengensis) into the pond to help control our mosquito population  This year I'd already treated 1000 square feet. Friday's storm doubled the area of pooled water in the woods. The underbrush was struggling to survive in the middle of a pond.

 Saturday afternoon we made a trip to the nursery to rebuild our garden. The plants we bought were further along than the seedlings we had grown in our green house. We also got some North Dakota heritage tomato plants from a friend - ten different kinds. They were all varieties that we'd never tried before, so maybe the storm did us a favor in the garden.

We'll wait to see what happens with the oats. If the damage is bad enough we'll have to replant or buy hay for next winter. Our friend Glen remembered that in the old days, farmers sometimes let the cattle in to graze the oats before they sent up a seed head. The grazed oats produced underground shoots that made for a denser stand when they were finally harvested.  Dave thinks that the oats are standing straighter today than they were yesterday. Maybe, just maybe, the storm will have improved our hay harvest too

Our driveway will have to be regraded and covered with class five gravel; but that was a project we'd been putting off all spring. Foot deep gullies have forced that decision on us. Perhaps another positive from the storm.

The long term consequences of Friday's storm are not the changes in our garden produce, our  hay crop, or our driveway, but the recarving of the land, the movement of topsoil from the top to the bottom of fields, the new contours in the woods. Twenty years ago, the last time we planted field corn, a disastrous rain had also moved topsoil from the high points to the low points of our fields. Mud drifts several feet high along the fence line taught us that our fields were too steep for corn. The consequences of erosion were too great.  This spring, Dave had broadcast the oats, leaving no rows of plants divided by rows of dirt for the run off to follow. Today, we could see that there was soil in the runoff, but not the hundreds of bushels of soil we lost last time. The washing on this season's fields was much less severe.

The new rivulets and ponds will provide hours of exploration for our three grandsons who already find the woods a magical place that changes every time they visit it, just as it did for our girls thirty years ago when they put on their rubber boots and explored the woods after a good rain. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

A perfect spring

Every year, I think "Oh, the wind blew the blossoms off the radiant crab too soon", or "I wish that I'd noticed the trillium flowers earlier," or "the orioles are at the feeder for such a short time."
Every year I wish for more spring before the rains come or the winds blow, more time between the snow and the warmth of summer, more days and evenings when it's beautiful outside and the mosquitoes haven't hatched yet. Those changes would make for a perfect spring.

And yet, one of the important things about spring is that it is ephemeral. If the trilliums bloomed for weeks instead of days, we'd soon cease to notice them. If the orioles were at the grape jelly feeder all summer, that first flash of orange in the spring wouldn't be so breath taking. Wind and rain in the apple trees mean that I really have to smell the flowers every time I walk by. We pick asparagus stalks daily.

Spring in northern places is always breath taking and in some ways unbelievable. If we don't pay attention, it is gone before we realize it. A perfect spring is one that we appreciate, over and over again, as each flower blossoms, each bird passes through, and each insect appears, even the mosquitoes.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Some of the people

We have three hens that lay an indeterminate number of eggs a day (although never more than three). When we collected all the eggs everyday, one of the hens started moving her nest until we couldn't find it. When Dave was feeding hay one morning, he found a cache of 11 eggs under several layers of hay bales. We can't be searching the barn and woods for eggs every day, so Dave ordered a fake egg to trick the chickens into leaving their nest in the same place. If there was an egg in the nest every morning, they wouldn't feel the need to hide their nest, they'd be perfectly happy to set on the fake egg while we removed the fresh eggs.

 We left home for four days before the fake egg arrived. Every breakfast of our trip we had eggs, but they were not our wonderful bright yellow yolked, firm whited farm fresh eggs. They had pale yolks and flat, more liquid whites.

We arrived home late Monday evening with our daughter, Laurel, and her two boys.There was a carton of white eggs on the counter which I assumed that Kate, our animal sitter,  had brought to the house. Although I did wonder why she had brought eggs when she knew all she had to do was go out to the barn for wonderful, fresh, very bright yellow, firm eggs.

The next morning Kieran and I went out to collect eggs. Four eggs in the nest! Kieran picked up two eggs. "These aren't real," he said, "there's no chicken in them." I took the egg. He was right. They looked like eggs, their surface felt like eggs, but they were too light.

We carried the two real eggs into the house and broke them into a bowl to scramble. Since the white eggs on the counter had been out overnight, I decided to use them up. I cracked a white egg against the bowl edge. Nothing happened. I hit it again, harder. Nothing.

Those ten white eggs were all fake eggs. You could have fooled me.

Several days later, two chickens were nesting almost on top of each other in the corner of the barn. We didn't want to disturb them in case they started hiding their nests again, so we decided to pick eggs at night after the hens were in their coop. At ten P.M. they were still nesting.  Afraid that they would become disoriented if we moved them off their nests, we didn't collect eggs.

This morning, we reached under the white hen and retrieved the two fake eggs. We reached under the black hen and found nothing. They had been setting on two fake eggs, not laying anymore of their own. Perhaps they were tired of laying eggs and thought we wouldn't notice that they
were slacking off. Whatever the reason, I think that we have definitely proved, at least when it comes to fake eggs, that you really can fool some of the people (and some of the chickens) all of the time.