Archive for July, 2010


Though I think that the expanses of turf that constitute most lawns have  all the classy appeal of Astroturf, and are an generally an environmental travesty, there are some things to be said for this stuff:

So, if we must have grass, let’s make it sustainable  grass.

My master gardener volunteer class this week was all about the latest findings on how to take care of our turf as ecologically as possible.  So let’s re-examine the  three things turf requires: (more…)

July 30, 2010 at 12:49 am 2 comments


The most e-mailed article in the NYT yesterday wasPaul Krugman’s “Who Cooked the Planet?

He calls 2010 the year in which all hope of action to limit climate change died, and notes that ironically the first half of this year has been the “hottest such stretch on record.” He blames the pipeline of funding from the big energy companies to anyone who can be bought to refute findings all legitimate scientists unanimously support – that the climate is warming, and the consequences will be dire.

Also on the most e-mailedlist is Thomas L. Friedman’s “We’re Gonna Be Sorry.”

Friedman says, “Fasten your seat belts. As the environmentalist Rob Watson likes to say: “Mother Nature is just chemistry, biology and physics. That’s all she is.” You cannot sweet-talk her. You cannot spin her. You cannot tell her that the oil companies say climate change is a hoax. No, Mother Nature is going to do whatever chemistry, biology and physics dictate, and “Mother Nature always bats last, and she always bats 1.000,” says Watson. Do not mess with Mother Nature. But that is just what we’re doing.” (more…)

July 27, 2010 at 12:30 am 6 comments


We thought finding windows for the barn would be a simple matter of a couple of trips to the ReStore.  We did find the door from the barn into the greenhouse there – a lovely solid oak door with glass so old, it has gone rippley.

But we were up against it for windows.  ReStore will only accept insulated windows, and we didn’t really need that.  The barn walls aren’t insulated, so why should the windows be?  As soon as our house is built, there will be no  need for an insulated space in barn, and it seemed an expensive waste to insulate for a couple of years.  Our daughter also specified NO VINYL.  That cuts out most of the windows in the ReStore right there.

I kept looking every week, and one day we got extraordinarily lucky.  Someone had dropped off three non-insulated, multi-pane windows after hours (kind of like abandoned kittens).  They brought them in and marked them for $20 each.  They were perfect for us. (more…)

July 23, 2010 at 12:07 am 5 comments


I don’t even want to know how much chemical fertilizer, pesticide, fuel for hot houses and refrigerated air transport goes into “saying it with flowers.”

My favorite option these days is just walking around my land, which is a constant profusion of flowering plants.  When I have a minute, I grab the camera.

How lucky we humans are to have color vision!

Black-eyed Susan  Rudbeckiea hirta

Who can not love black-eyed susans.  What a happy-go-lucky plant.  It  can thrive in fields, along the road, in many different soils as long as they are drenched in sun. 

They are biennial, which means they live for two years.  The first year, they grow a flat rosette of leaves spread out on the ground, but the second year, they erupt in a bouquet.  Butterflies and other insects feed on their nectar while they bloom from June to October.  I’ve seen warnings to gardeners that they can get pushy and need to be controlled, but  out in nature, they seem to find their place in the melee. (more…)

July 20, 2010 at 8:50 am 6 comments

Six Sites to See Great Straw Bale Projects

Straw is a natural material that can be sourced very locally.

Isn’t it great to see examples of straw bale construction popping up all over the world?

I can make such a grandiose statement because I have found a really cool application of straw bale construction in England.  The other sites chronicle projects in Kentucky, Montana, Arizona, Maryland and Wisconsin.


The BaleHaus was designed at University of Bath’s Centre for Innovative Construction Materials.  This project kicks down the door of our preconceptions of what a straw bale house looks like.  They are determined to dash the common public misconceptions that straw bale is not durable, and only for hippies. (more…)

July 16, 2010 at 12:11 am Leave a comment


Here is your chance to learn about straw bale in  some great workshops coming up very soon that still have openings.

...(photo courtesy of Whole Tree Architecture and Construction)

Bear Paw Construction and Whole Trees Architecture and Construction are teaming up on the construction of a one-of-a-kind home – the Kara Woods Residence on the grounds of the Christine Center in Willard, WI.

..(drawings courtesy of Whole Trees Architecture and Construction)

This one-of-a-kind dwelling incorporates whole tree timber framing, straw bale infill, a living roof, and more.

There will be two, 3-day workshops July 30-August 1 and Aug 6-8.  These back-to-back workshops offer the opportunity to stay between for more time and experience.

These straw bale construction workshops will be led by Mark Morgan, an experienced natural builder and board member of the Midwest Renewable Energy Association.  I attended his lectures and demo/workshops at the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair last month and learned a ton!

“We can do so many different things with straw,” Mark told me on the phone Monday, “but this building will be a really unique opportunity and challenge.  This building has a whole tree frame, which presents some challenges.  That’s the best part of it.”

There are two types of straw bale:  load bearing, where you set the weight of the building on the bales, and non-loadbearing with a wooden frame bearing the load.  This building is a hybrid.

“It will have some of the complexitieis and features of the loadbearing in it, so you can learn about both types of building in one structure,” says Mark.  “We are also going to be doing both cement plasters on the outside and earthen plasters on the inside.”

..Mark demonstrating and the energy fair.

Mark will take participants through the whole process:

  • How to prep bales
  • What they sit on
  • How they connect to each other
  • How to install windows and doors
  • How to finish walls with plaster and stucco

Mark knows the nuts and bolts of alternative building, and his workshops will provide technical expertise as this amazing structure comes together.  But Mark also knows that good building projects are driven by “why” as much as “how.”  “Building involves the heart as well as the head,” says Mark.  “My beliefs on building really come through in my workshops.  Every day I bring my best and I ask everyone who participates to do the same.  I carry that forward.”

For  a sneak preview of Mark’s style, check out the DVD he has created called Building a Straw Bale Home: A Practical and Spiritual Guide.

The fee is $350 for each weekend.  For more info, contact The Midwest Renewable energy Association at or call 715-592-6595 x112

If you are thinking about alternative building techniques, a workshop like these is a great way to find out if this is the method for you.

July 13, 2010 at 12:19 am 2 comments


I was shocked when our timber framer, Mike Yaker, urged us to forget painting the inch-thick oak boards on our new barn.  To me the prototypical barn was barn red.  I have always loved to see red barns.  They look great against a background or green fields, golden wheat or sparkling snow.

But the natural golden color of our barn siding was gorgeous.  The grain of each board was a masterpiece of pattern.  Mike said the oak would weather to a silvery gray and would not degrade any faster without paint.

I did a little research and found that according to the research from the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin, oak does just fine without a finish.

All woods will change color quickly under the harsh glare of the sun.  Within a few months, the surface turns every tone of gray, but a few millimeters under that silvery hue, the wood is unchanged and unaffected.  Wood’s marvelous elasticity and compressive strength are not affected by surface weathering.

I realized that gray was the new green.

By not painting our barn we have avoided putting a lot of toxic stuff into the world.  Most of the products used to coat wood contain volatile solvents and other toxic chemicals.  They are added to improve performance and durability, and if you use oil-based paints, the clean up is another toxic solvent. The list is long and nasty.

1,4-dioxane and acetaldehyde are suspected carcinogens.  N-methyl pyrrolidinone is a reproductive toxin.  And aromatic solvents such as toluene and xylene can cause a number of health problems.  Just think about all the lead-based paints people used to use.  Some of the substitute metals in current paints aren’t much better.

These materials are chipping and falling off the wall surfaces and settling into the soil, where they will be toxic for a long, long time.

And speaking of long time, that is just what your exterior wall coating is not going to last.

According to Tips by Real-Estate Agents, here are some average time frames for an exterior coating:

Latex paint  — 5-7 years

Oil paint – 6-8 years, depending on sheen.  (Semi-glossy surfaces will last longer.)

Semi-transparent stain –3-4 years

Solid oil stain – 5 years

In a very short time, you are going to be poisoning yourself and your world again to try to maintain a look that is inherently not durable.

That silvery finish of weathered wood is looking better and better.

July 9, 2010 at 12:16 am 4 comments

Board and Batten on Our Barn

...Raising our barn in 2007.

When we decided to build a barn on our land, our daughter/architect quickly sketched up a shape that would maximize future solar panels and provide the most possible headspace for a loft area where we could camp.  We took her plan to Mike Yaker, a local timber framer, who crafted its solid wood bones and helped us side it with inch-thick slabs of white oak in 2007.

The plan was that Doug and I would attach the battens ourselves.  We attached the first ones yesterday.

Why did that stack of rough-hewn batten boards sit on the barn floor for almost three years?

Well, we have been devoting our time and energy to habitat restoration.

But the main reason was that I was hesitant to cover the brilliant strips of light that poured through the spaces that formed as the fresh oak slabs dried and contracted – sometimes a full inch.

That airy feeling seemed pleasant – kind of like a tobacco drying barn, except that driving rain or snow, especially from the north or east, came on through to soak anything stored near those “walls”.  But the barn’s interior had a non-confining property that I loved immediately.

Finally the task could be postponed no more, and we set up shop to carve out the back sides of each board if necessary to accommodate the warpage and uneven joint between siding boards.  Battens are traditionally nailed on, be we have opted to use screws, and that works very well with the uneven surfaces.  It’s satisfying to watch the boards snug up as the battery screwdriver twists each screw in tight.

Board and batten is a time-honored siding technique.  The battens are not attached to the siding, but to the structure beneath them, so that each panel can expand and contract at its own rate without stressing its neighbors.  And it’s a visually pleasing look of vertical lines marching along the surface, changing throughout the day as the battens catch light and cast shade from the shifting sun.

And speaking of sunlight, I am amazed at my reaction to the changing light in the barn’s interior.  As we have closed off the gaps to light, the whole quality of illumination is changing in a way that I am loving.  Suddenly I can see tone and texture in boards that were lost in the distracting glare from the gaps between boards.

More than that, the interior is taking on a feeling of security that I’ve never felt in there.  A sense of true shelter that one would expect from a structure made of 10×10 posts and beams.

It seems somehow right that the light should pour in only through window panes.

If you want to learn more about board at batten, here are a couple of how-to sites, Board and Batten and How to Make Board and Batten although I will note that we have not followed their advice.  Our barn is not insulated, which makes a much simpler plan possible.  Nail the boards to the horizontal girts and screw the battens to the girts through the gaps between them.

Call it done.

Call it well done.

July 6, 2010 at 12:13 am 5 comments


If bugs wrote books, they would probably begin their book on the human era, “It was the best of times.  It was the worst of times…..”  They would probably consider it a slightly scary book.

I thought the Master Gardener Volunteer program (see my post Becoming a Master Gardener )  I enrolled in would teach me more about plants, but the most thought-provoking class so far was this week’s lecture on insects.

...Here's looking at you!

Phil Pellitteri, University of Wisconsin insect diagnostician, took the class on a whirlwind tour of the bug world, and  I am now more than ever in awe of insects.   They were here with the dinosaurs, and they’ll be crawling and flitting about the planet long after our species has been invited to join the Nameless Fossil Club.

Insects are, as Pellitteri said, a little hard to warm up to.

Whenever sci fi film makers have to come up with a new alien menace, it’s likely to look like a bug.  It’s too bad we see the relationship as adversarial, because, there isn’t enough Raid in the world to keep these billions at bay.  Lucky for us that  99 percent of the world’s insects go about their business without harming humans or their crops in any way.

Why Do They Look So Strange?

Insects are built differently than us from the inside out.

We are propped in shape by our skeletons.  Insects go through their adult life mooshing around inside a set of armor that defines their shape.  Just imagine living inside a skin-tight, brittle plastic coating.  It would not be so easy to taste, hear, see, smell or feel inside a bug suit.

..Helmet beetle, one of the biggest insects in Wisconsin. Harmless.

But insects have ways of taking in the world.  All those creepy looking little hairs are sensors.  Butterflies taste flowers through pads on their feet.  A male moth’s antennae can pick up chemicals emitted by a female moth half a mile away.  And what must the world look like through those crazy eyes?

Their world has looked different to bugs since a Swiss chemist rediscovered DDT in 1939.  Really, our world has looked different too.  He was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for finding out that DDT killed bugs.  It was the beginning of Better Living through Chemistry.  But within three years, DDT already didn’t work on some bugs.  They had mutated resistant strains that fast!

No problem!   Chemists had a whole new arsenal of nerve gasses to play with after WW2.  It was and is a profitable business, making and selling these poisons.

Farmers and home owners started drenching everything they grew, “just in case.”

...We'll never get rid of all insects, but we've done in a number of species. This Karner blue butterfly is endangered.

In the process we have made pests out of insects that were not a problem before by destroying their natural enemies, presenting them with huge fields of tasty monocultures.

Really, just reading the history of modern agriculture is scarier than any science fiction book published.

Whether you see them as the enemy or as fellow earthlings, it makes sense to get to know more about them.  Pellitteri recommends a book called Garden Insects of North America: The Ultimate Guide to Backyard Bugs by Whitney Cranshaw.  This is a good book!  It’s gardener friendly  because it is organized by the plant area affected by the bug.

I’m on my way to the book store now!

July 2, 2010 at 7:45 am 2 comments

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