Doug and I try to eat as locally as possible, and with a year-round farmers’ market in Madison, we are still getting apples, and root vegetables grown last year – even cabbages, which are so much sweeter and more flavorful than anything that has been drenched in petroleum while being hauled from who-knows-where.
Normally we can keep eating local hoop-house spinach all winter long, but this winter defeated the heated hoop houses, and spinach disappeared from the farmers’ market early.
Of course, the most local food comes from your own garden, and we have just had our first home-grown greens of 2014.
We have an unheated, lean-to greenhouse on our barn, and this year the polar vortex is keeping it cold a little longer than usual, but February 8 we planted the last of our spinach and lettuce seeds from the previous season in pots.
February 9 (after a trip to town) we added Italian Heirloom Kale, Parsley, Spearmint, Oregano and Sweet Marjoram to our little table-top garden.
Watching them grow, monitoring their moisture and moving them around the room to keep them in the best possible light has been an entertaining project. Starting seedlings in your kitchen is almost like having a very quiet, fuzzy green pet.
We put about 4 seeds in each pot. A few pots never burst forth, but after 2 weeks, Doug transplanted extras from the successful pots into the empty ones. They are still a little smaller, but coming along.
At first we were misting the surface of each pot every day (more sometimes on sunny days), but once their first leaves unfurled, we started tapering off the water to avoid creating a fungus farm around their delicate and vulnerable stems. Growing them with only available light makes them a wee bit spindly, but everything is a trade-off, and we chose to skip grow lights this year and see what happens.
March 2, we thinned each pot to 2 plants and had our first salad, dressed with a little olive oil, balsamic vinegar and cranberry mustard. Magnifique!
Doug has placed 4 hi-lo thermometers in the greenhouse, two inserted into the soil and 2 just above. Yesterday was sunny, and the air got up to 63 F. The soil temp is only 30, and the nights still go below freezing, so we are waiting for the nights to get a little less intense out there before we replant our little darlings to the greenhouse.
Next up — my best friend and gardening consultant, Susan, tells me it’s time to start onion seedlings for transplanting directly outside.
Do you have a greenhouse or cold frame that you are using to get a jump on spring?
How far along are your greens?
I’d like to share my second article that appeared recently in The Dodgeville Chronicle. I’m covering a 4-part series of evening presentations called “Floods, Droughts, Land and Energy: What Is Wisconsin’s Future.” (Check out the first installment How Will Global Warming Affect Wisconsin.”
“We all have a role to play in how Wisconsin creates and uses energy,” Sherrie Gruder, UW-Extension Sustainable Design Specialist, told an audience who braved another intensely cold night to attend the second of a four-part series on Wisconsin’s future weather and its implications. “How we use energy will play a crucial role in Wisconsin’s economy, environment and public health.”
“We are moving toward a low-carbon economy based on new energy,” she said. “It may not always feel like it, but it is steadily happening all around us. New energy will create jobs and decrease the negative impact that coal-generated power has on our land, water and our health. Burning coal produces a lot of sulfur dioxide, which causes respiratory diseases like asthma. In addition, every lake in Wisconsin has mercury pollution from these coal plants. That’s why we have health advisories that limit the number of fish we should eat – especially pregnant women.”
Wisconsin spends about $19 billion each year on energy, and almost $13 billion of that total leaves the state because we have to buy our power elsewhere.
According to Gruder, what’s needed is a new energy economy in which many people and communities become “prosumers” – not just consuming energy, but producing energy using the sun, wind and biomass. Read More here.
Thanks to the polar vortex,
I have listened to many complaints about below zero temperatures
I’m looking on this winter the way I might have gazed at the buffalo if I could travel back in time and view them from the first railway to cross the U.S.
But today I’m trying not to think about the global warming havoc occurring everywhere we look.
Today I am appreciating this winter gift from the good old days
and simply reveling in its stark beauty –
Plants can’t migrate.
They have to stand there
and take what the weather throws at them.
What are your favorite flowers of winter?
Anyone who lives in or has traveled through the Driftless Area (where Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa meet) can see at a glance that this is dramatically different from the land encircling it. Because this region was untouched by the last three glaciers, it is defined by rugged ridges and deep valleys that preserve the world here must have all looked like before mile-thick ice sheets flattened the surrounding terrain.
Eric Carson, geologist with the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey does geologic mapping in the Driftless Area of southwestern Wisconsin, and his work in the past year is going to rewrite the natural history of the Wisconsin River. According to Carson, at one time, the Wisconsin River flowed from west to east – the opposite direction of the current current.
A geologic feature, the Military Ridge, runs high and proud, just south of the Wisconsin River bisecting the Driftless region. These days most people know it as a rails-to-trails bike path but it has a long history as a pre-settlement passageway.
In geologic terms, the Ridge is a cuesta, created from cracked and tilted substrata that shoved up a barrier that today creates a regional watershed divide– from which streams north to the Wisconsin and south to the Pecatonica, the Sugar and the Rock.
Up to about a million years ago, the Ridge was enough to turn the flow of the upper Mississippi River to the east at what is now Prairie du Chien along the present-day Wisconsin River bed – it’s waters mixing with Lake Michigan along Door County and eventually disgorging into the Atlantic through the Saint Lawrence Seaway.
Today the Wisconsin River bed gradually drops from east to west. But buried by 50 meters of silt lies the bedrock of the original river that Carson has named the Wyalusing River, and that ancient bed slopes the opposite direction. It’s a case of what is known as “river piracy,”and it’s geology protocol to rename a river whose bed has been stolen.
This information has all been discovered in just the last 8 months!
Carson’s excitement filled the room as he shared his data in a presentation last week at Wednesday Nite at the Lab, “When the Ancient Wisconsin River Flowed East.”
What turned the Wyalusing River around?
A glacier advancing from the northeast blocked the river’s flow, backing up its headwaters and creating a great lake (and that 50 meters of silt). Eventually all that water pouring in burst through, forming a gap in the Military Ridge near Wyalusing State Park. Picture the homes washed away when Lake Delton overflowed in the 2008 flooding see video then multiply it on an inconceivably massive scale.
I am awe struck when I try to visualize geologic events of these proportions!
How Do We Know?
This glimpse of our present world being sculpted by ice and water has been revealed thanks to two new technologies that Carson has been using.
One is a new coring method using Geoprobe coring technology. It’s cheap and fast, compared to previous coring methods. A two-inch barrel is pounded into the ground to establish the top of the bedrock. “It allows multiple holes to be drilled per day, rather than many days per hole,” Carson said. Combining the data from his own boring and the public records from deep-well drilling done for commercial purposes in the state, he was able to clearly chart that the ancient river bed drops to the East.
The second new technology is improvements in LiDAR imagery. LiDAR stands for Light Detection and Ranging. It’s an airborne sensing method that uses a pulsed laser to measure the distance to the earth from a plane. It allows scientists to study the surface of the earth, with a resolution that recently improved from about 1.5 meters to about 5 centimeters. It is giving scientists an amazingly detailed look at the contours of the earth, and allowed Carson to see places where the ancient river bed cut terraces into bedrock near Prairie du Chien, Wauzeka and Muscoda.
Research has also established that the Ohio and other rivers out East had their flows pirated away from Saint Lawrence to toward the Mississippi as well in ancient times. Altogether, Carson estimated these piracies cut the flow of the St. Lawrence into the Atlantic by about a third.
Carson undertook this study as part of a multi-county mapping project that will be used in county planning, but it also may help geologists and climatologists identify the causes of shifts in the prehistoric climate that will help us understand our ongoing global warming in greater detail.
I got a chance to do just that recently when I read in the local newspaper, The Dodgeville Chronicle, about an upcoming 4-part series of evening presentations called “Floods, Droughts, Land and Energy: What Is Wisconsin’s Future.”
We now live about 11 miles from Dodgeville, our county seat, with a population of about 5,000. We subscribe to The Chronicle, but I never thought to write for it before – having spent many years working for big city papers and lately writing mostly for magazines and working on books and my blog.
Doug and I were both excited to see global warming becoming an official topic of conversation in Dodgeville, and he suggested I ask The Chronicle if I could cover the series for them.
So now I’m also a correspondent for The Dodgeville Chronicle!
What is Wisconsin’s Future?
|by Denise ThorntonIowa County needs to be better prepared for natural disasters, cautioned Iowa County Emergency Government Coordinator Keith Hurlbert last Thursday at the first of a four-part educational series, Floods, Droughts, Land and Energy – What is Wisconsin’s Future?
“Think about the storms you’ve seen in the media in the past two years: the tornadoes that hit Joplin Missouri and Alabama, the perfect storm that hit the East Coast and the record-setting storm in Oklahoma City,” Hurlbert said. “These storms are increasing in frequency and growing in size. That’s why climate change is important to me and to all of us. We emergency managers get concerned about how well people in our area are prepared for disaster.”
Hulbert advised that checking the website ready.wi.gov is a great way to learn how to be prepared.
In the event of a disaster, help may take days to reach you, or you might have to evacuate at a moment’s notice. The website offers suggestions of how to create a basic survival kit as well as an evacuation kit of essential belongings and provides a step-by-step Online Family Emergency Planner.
“Climate change is raising the odds of disasters,” Hurlbert said. “How would you handle closed roads and downed power lines? It’s my job to help people think about how to be prepared for disaster.”
“There are both risks and opportunities in climate change,” said David S. Liebl, University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension Statewide Outreach Educator Specialist. Liebl’s part of the presentation focused on how climate change is going to affect our county.
January 6 was the coldest day in the past 10 years here in rural Ridgeway.
A newly-named weather phenom, known as a polar vortex, had descended on the Driftless Area. In downtown Dodgeville, -22F was flashing out front of the Wells Fargo Bank – and a brutal wind produced a plummeting wind chill as the day dawned.
It warmed very little during the day and got almost as cold the following night as the wind began to die down.
Saturday and Sunday we hastily sawed and split extra firewood, and jamming it under the loft ladder next to our wood-burning stove. Though we’ve never had a fire for more than an hour or two in the evening, we feared that we might have to burn wood constantly – as opposed to our usual hour or two in the evening.
We watched the temperature drop and went to sleep listening to the cold wind howl. Monday morning dawned clear, but before the sun rose over the hill, we both had to venture out. We wanted to experience the coldest air we’d known in a long time, and we had chores out there.
Doug made an early morning foray out to the barn and two hikes down to the highway to put out the garbage and recycling. We weren’t actually sure it would get picked up in such bitterly cold weather, but our intrepid trashmen came through.
Meanwhile I ventures out on a mission of mercy for the birds. Doug and I decided last summer that we would not put out bird feeders this year and work instead on turning the land around our house into the best bird habitat we can. We are planting various dogwoods, viburnums and other bird-friendly shrubs to provide natural food and shelter.
However, the day before the cold set in, I began to fear for my feathered friends and determined they could use a little immediate help finding fuel in this intense cold, so we made a last-minute trip after dark for sunflower seeds and suet. So there I was in the first light, shoveling an area to spread seed and trying to wire up a suet feeder without taking my gloves off – that proved impossible, and my fingers immediately began to burn. I got out my phone to take a photo of the sun rising, and it immediately froze.
Less than half an hour out there gave me a great appreciation for those creatures who find their winter shelter and food where they can. ( All day, we saw no creature of any kind venture out into the teeth of the windstorm. In fact, it was a couple of days before the animals began to appear.)
We came in and warmed up with hot tea and steaming porridge, but we held off lighting the fire. The sun was just hitting the solar panels and starting to spread out on the surfaces inside our house.
We designed this place with:
- Straw bale insulation
- Passive solar design
- Over-insulated foundation walls
- Thermal mass
- Solar hot water infloor heat
We wanted to see what Underhill House could do.
The backup propane boiler turned itself off at 9 a.m. — almost as soon as the brilliant morning sun started to shine through the windows. By 10, the solar hot water panels were replenishing the heat in the 160-gallon storage tank in the mechanical room.
By lunch time, we were down to t-shirts as sat in our loft watching the snow glisten and the trees toss. On many a sunny winter day, Underhill House has warmed us to t-shirt temperatures with its one-two punch of passive solar heat pouring into the house through the windows and the heat collected in the solar panels coursing through our concrete floors, but we weren’t sure it could kick such extreme cold.
No propane use, no wood stove fire – indoor temperatures near 70, and water coming off the panels and into our basement storage at 130 degrees.
We didn’t start a fire in the wood stove for almost two hours after sunset, which allowed us to coast comfortably through the evening on the main floor. Meanwhile the stored heat in the tank kept the downstairs (which receives little passive solar input) in the low 60s. We let the fire die down and went to bed about 11. The residual heat from the day’s sun and the wood fire kept the upstairs thermostat above 60 all night long – except for our bedroom and the front hall, which we keep cooler.
The only propane we used, heated our downstairs offices starting about midnight.
Bottom line? We had a 5-hour-long wood fire and perhaps 7 hours of propane used to heat less than a quarter of our living space in the coldest 24-hour span in the last decade.
No compromises. We were cozy through the bitterest cold our climate is likely to throw at us.
Cozy and a bit bemused by the whole experience.
Deer are the largest and most dramatic wildlife most of us see on a regular basis.
This summer we enjoyed watching a mother and her two fawns regularly explore their botanical buffet within feet of our bedroom window. They were incredibly endearing at such close range, but a cloud hung over the tableau.
I knew only too well that those same sweet creatures will ravage the helpless plant world this winter. A 2006 survey of Wisconsin Conservation Reserve Program hardwood plantings confirmed that deer browse is devastating the survival of hardwood seedlings. I know it’s true. I’ve seen it again and again on our land. Promising young white oaks eaten back to the kindling each winter.
For obvious reasons, winter is the most nutritionally stressful time of the year for deer. Browse (defined as the leaves, twigs, and buds of woody plants) is the staple of a white-tailed deer during those long, cold months when greenery is only a memory, and white oak is a favorite.
I tried an oak bud one winter out of curiosity, and found it amazingly appetizing. I didn’t care for the flavor much, but it was tender and juicy and crisp. But buds are so small, I can only imagine how many it takes regulate a deer’s temperature in the cold.
If only the number of deer and buds were in balance.
It seemed to work. The deer passed over the foiled buds, and the trees lived to have a good growing season.
So here we go again.
The tricky part is when to take the aluminum foil off. Buds often get browsed during the early growing season when the treelings need that foil OFF their new vegetative shoots.
It’s a game we are playing again this winter and hoping we will again be able to leave the foil on till there are enough other options for deer the oaks we are encouraging will not get nipped.
We also are foiling the buds of two heirloom apple trees I grafted a few years ago – a Black Gillyflower and a Prairie Spy. In the past, we tried to protect them with chicken wire cages, but recently the deer flipped the cages yards away and feasted on apple buds.
By next year we plan to have our little “orchard” and the adjoining garden fenced, but for now 0.2 mm of aluminum will be their only protection.
How do you keep the deer away from your botanical pals?
Black walnuts are intense trees.
But black walnuts bite!
In Madison, we had a black walnut growing in front of our house – right where we parked our cars. The pounding those cars got when the nuts fell left a dappled texture of the sort people expect from a hail storm. That was the price we had to pay to park next our house.
What I’m not so wild about is that walnuts do not play well with others. They produce juglone in their leaves, roots, husks, fruit and bark. This is an alleopathic compound – a substance that the walnut uses to inhibit the metabolic function of other plants – many other plants. Check out this Iowa State University site for a list of what plants juglone attacks and doesn’t.
Be that as it may, these killer trees are native to the Midwest, and they have been growing very happily on our land since long before we moved here. We used a number of black walnuts for branching timbers and shelving in our house, and I am learning to make my peace with them.
This year I decided to bond by harvesting some of their very prolific nuts. I didn’t start very early, and wasn’t quite sure how to proceed. Black walnut kernels have a reputation of being challenging to access. The tasty nuts are packed into convoluted and very hard shells. The shells are encased in a thick, tough husk that starts out looking green and gradually turns to dark brown mush. Green or brown, the husks can stain your clothes, hands and tools a deep and lasting brown.
I collected about 50 gallons of them by walking our trails with 2 5-gallon plastic buckets balanced by rope from our yoke.
I have since read that walnuts taste better if the husk is removed while green, but I collected many of mine after the husks turned brown, so we shall see about that.
Some people remove those pesky husks off by placing them the drive and rolling the car back and forth over them. I followed the advice of a You-tube presenter who hammered off his husks. That worked well with the green ones, and by that I mean, it was pleasant to sit outside, listening to a recorded book on my smart phone and enjoying the pleasant view for 30-40 minutes per 5-gallon bucket. A bucket of gathered walnuts produced half a bucket of hulled nuts.
Next I took each half bucket of hulled nuts over to the water faucet and filled the bucket with water. Any floaters were removed. Then I dropped our pitch fork into the bucket and rotated it vigorously for a few minutes. That turned the water almost black. Then I carried the buckets down the drive to an area where I don’t care if it is stained or toxic and poured out the black water. I rinsed them one or two more times – depending on my mood.
How to crack these Fort Knox of nuts? I tried pounding them with my hammer, but that was hard and tended to mash the kernels badly. Then I remembered an article in the recent Mother Earth News about a hard shell nutcracker from Lehman’s.
It cost $70, but we decided that it could be worth it over the years. Doug and I are vegetarian, and we eat a lot of nuts. I am also entranced by the idea of adding such a nutritious food source to our local list.
The nutcracker works very well. It is designed to deliver a measured amount of pressure to the nut in a vertical direction and to make cracking easier with the use of a long lever. The nuts crack into pieces, the shells fly everywhere, so I do this step outside. When I fill a bowl, I take them inside and remove the kernels with a standard nut pick.
Some of them come out in fine, large pieces. Others have to be clawed out of convoluted recesses and get ground to pulp in the process. That walnut mush made us think about nut butter, so we tossed our first few cups into the food processor and pureed them.
Black walnuts have a much stronger, earthier flavor than the English walnuts we get in the store. Because of that, I pureed up a couple cups of English walnuts and blended the two together. It’s still quite a mouthful of flavor and tastes amazing with our raspberry preserves, pear butter or some good, local honey (see my post Where Is Your Honey From? ).
I’m here to say, that the ending up with black walnuts in our diet seems well worth the trouble.
Have you tried harvesting black walnuts?
What is your advice?
I’ve been given honey twice in the past few weeks.
What a wonderful gift!
It’s a gift that has been given twice.
People gave it to me, but bees gave it to them.
Some new friends, Amber Nicole and Paul, gave us a jar of Mad Urban Bees honey. http://www.madurbanbees.com/
Nathan Clarke operates Mad Urban Bees, one of the first urban apiaries in the country. He has two hives in his back yard and another 50 hives around the Madison area hosted by people who understand the benefit that bees bring to the urban ecosystem. Amber Nicole and Paul are bee hosts. Amber Nicole said she was a little concerned at first that bringing a hive of honey bees into her yard would compromise the population of native bees already there, but her observation was that they co-existed peacefully.
According to Clarke, city bees can actually be happier than country bees. They live in a world of flowering trees and ornamental varieties, giving them a bounty of nectar and pollen from which to choose, and the growing season in Madison is longer than that in the surrounding farmland.
They feast on basswood, apple and crabapple trees, dandelions, creeping Charlie, bergamot, sedum, asters, mint, oregano, roses and the list goes on and on. Clark says all that variety really improves the health of the bees and the taste of the honey.
Several weeks ago, Doug and I got together with Marci and Jim Hess. They are restoring prairie on their land near Blanchardville, and we shared our projects in a great day of hiking and talking on each others’ land. We saw their restoration efforts in their woods and their marvelous newly-created prairies.
They shared with us a jar of honey from the bees that they keep beside their prairie. I was really excited to have a jar of prairie sweetness now that the grasses and flowers have gone into their winter phase. I love the beauty of winter stalks edged with snow, but prairie honey is a wonderful reminder of when these plants were moist and green and soaking in the sun.
I put them on the shelf next to our most recent farmers’ market honey purchase, from Dale Marsden who keeps bees near Madison. He keeps about 60 hives, and says each hive can produce about 100 pounds of honey a year. His bees frequent dandelion, locust, Russian olive, clover and occasionally blackberry and raspberry. He also takes his bees to Spooner for knapweed, basswood and purple loosestrife. Sometimes he stops at the cranberry bogs in Warrens along the way.
WHERE HAS YOUR HONEY BEEN?
It’s a good idea to know where your honey came from. If it doesn’t say on the jar, it may come from China. and may contain additives you would not like. Processed honey you buy in stores may have been heated and forced through an ultra-filtering process that removes the pollen to improve shelf life. It may even have corn syrup added to it. The Food and Drug Administration says that ultra-filtered honey without pollen is not actually honey, but loopholes get it on the store shelf labeled honey anyway.
Since I found myself with three jars of honey in the pantry, I decided to have a honey taste test. All three of my types are quite light. I have heard that darker honeys have more flavor and more antioxidants, but I could detect subtle differences between them. My personal favorite is the Prairie Honey, but I did not do a blind test, and I may have been influenced by my enthusiasm for prairie and love of its flowers.
Do you have a favorite type of honey?
I’d love to hear about it.
Last July, Doug and I joined the timber-raising of one the carpenters who helped build Underhill House. (Check it out in my post Timberframing with Friends: Sweat, Love and a Little Drama. )
The addition is being insulated with straw clay infill. This is a great substance. We’ve visited several homes made this way and participated in a straw clay workshop a few years ago. Straw traps air in the wall and creates a good thermal barrier. The clay hardens fluffy straw into a solid block and provides some thermal mass. The materials are inexpensive, and natural. The skills required are easy to learn in a few minutes. However, everyone I know who has built in straw clay (this includes me) agree that straw clay infill is very hard work. That’s why Doug and I went over this Tuesday to lend a hand.
Prairie has made a lot of progress since July. He’s got the roof on and everything framed in. He had begun the straw clay process, finishing the bottom of the south-facing wall. That’s the easy one, it’s going to be almost half windows in the best passive solar design.
Preparing the Clay Slip
Prairie is using a watering tank to mix the clay slip, a concoction of clay and water mixed together into something that resembles a chocolate shake. When left for a few days, the clay particles sink, so Doug’s first task was to mix it back up again using a mixing paddle on a power drill.
Tossing the Straw and Clay Together
Each straw needs to be very lightly coated with this mixture. Prairie was working with a ratio of about 4-1/2 gallons for each straw bale. There are many ways to combine the slip and the straw. We were working with the basic, fluff-it-with-your-arms method, which gets the job done and is a full-body workout besides. It’s like tossing a huge straw salad until every single piece is lightly coated in clay dressing.
TAMPING AND STAMPING
Straw clay infill is then transformed from a sloppy pile of clay-coated straw on the floor to a solid wall by being molded in a temporary frame. Each bale/batch was gobbled up as soon as it could be mixed. At first the frames were close to the ground, and it was easy to climb in and compact the mixture by foot. We tamped into every little corner and crevice with wooden sticks to make sure every square inch was filled uniformly. That is a LOT of tamping as well as stamping.
We got a good rhythm going with Prairie building frames as fast as Doug, I, Issac and Todd could mix up straw and clay and pack it in. When we reached the top of the first frame, Prairie was ready with the next.
We called it a day as we all began to feel like our quality control might be starting to slip. By that time – even though it had been raining all day, Prairie was already able to remove the bottom frames, and we got to assess our work. There are always a few soft spots that missed compaction, and those can be filled from the outside with a mixture of straw clay that is a little more wet with clay. It is far from dry, but will hold its shape now and dry faster without the frame.
The outside will be sided with wood, and the inside will be plastered with earthen clay. It’s so satisfying to watch an old farm house in a beautiful setting get a new lease on life, with the kind of sustainable materials and a sense of community that no doubt built it in the first place.