It’s been a year since we framed up Underhill House. We spent the year before that selecting and preparing those timbers. Watching them come together and sketch the shape of our home against the sky was beyond thrillling.
So here’s a photo replay of some of the most amazing days of my life.
Getting all the bare ground covered with growing things around Underhill House is a bit daunting.
Our first step was to try transplanting a hedge of Red Osier Dogwood from our restored prairie to create more bird habitat.
That is a gratifying success. They are doing so well that the deer are starting to eat them. The deer browse started right after we mowed the tall grass that was crowding them. I guess the deer saw that as putting them on a desert plate. Sigh. Hoping we won’t have to fence them.
The second project was to plant several trees and shrubs that will also be part of the bird habitat. We got them from the University of Wisconsin Arboretum annual native plant sale.
- American Plum Prunus Americana which has pungently sweet blossoms that result in edible plums
- Black Chokeberry Aronia melanocarpa which flowers and produces berries that are a bit astringent. Birds don’t like them much – that’s good because when all the tasty berries are left and the winter is feeling harsh, then chokeberries become survival fair.
- Highbush Cranberry Viburnum trilobum, which is noted for making a great hedge over time and attracting wildlife.
- Pagoda Dogwood Cornus alternifolia, which is a very pretty little tree and it’s fruit is an important source of food for birds as they prepare for the fall migration. (This is also the one that the deer like best, but so far they have only eaten a few branches.)
Then I planted the flats of native flowers that I got at the same Arboretum plant sale.
There aren’t too many areas in our yard that are ready for anything more than healing ground cover. Our poor yard has been repeatedly dropkicked by one piece of heavy equipment after another.
But I felt compelled to jump right in and start a little nursery of prairie flowers right outside my office window. It’s a protected spot (as far as the remaining heavy equipment projects are concerned. So I’m taking my chances.
It is not very great soil, but I’m hoping they will make it. They are prairie plants — hopefully their roots are tough.
- Butterfly weed Asclepias tuberosa
- Prairie Smoke Geum triflorum one of my absolute favorites.
- Prairie Blazing star Liatris pycnostachya
- Red Milkweed Asclepias incarnata
- Black-eyed Susan Rudbeckia hirta
- Columbine Aquilegia canadensis
- Show Goldenrod Solidago speciosa
- New England Aster Aster novae-angliae
- Bergamot Mondarda fistulosa
- Pale Purple Coneflower Echinacea pallida
So far every single plant is hanging in there. I’m dreaming of collecting their seed and expanding their domain. I spent several of my most formative childhood years in Illiopolis – the geographic center of Illinois – and I imprinted on big sky and prairie flowers. They are also (and more importantly than my own aesthetic) all great for native pollinating insects and humming birds.
To keep the water flowing where it should, our excavator built up a little dike running from the house toward the pond. He built it out of really crap soil, so we added a few inches of top soil, and seeded it in with buckwheat and annual rye. The plan is to cut it down before it goes to seed and work it into the soil before more permanent, native plantings this fall.
This morning we gave another section of the yard the same treatment. Several days ago, our excavator helped us move out some gravel that had been put next to the house to help draining during building and then we added more topsoil and the same buckwheat/rye mix.
It’s supposed to rain tonight.
Time to grow, ground cover. Do your thing. Insinuate your roots deep and start to uncompact this soil and fill it with your decaying matter to turn this hard pan back into a vibrant microbial community where the plants that come after you can thrive
I can hardly wait to see Underhill House ringed with happy plants!
Are you seeding in any areas this growing season? I’d love to hear about your project.
Tuesday morning we woke up earlier than usual.
And that was a good thing.
I was very glad we were already awake (if not actually up and dressed) at 6:30 a.m. when our excavator, Bruce Lease, rolled past our bedroom window in his back hoe.
I scurried into the bathroom with my gardening duds before he came back the other way with his first bucket full of sandstone from the back of the house where we are digging in for a root cellar.
Root cellar underway – bright and early. Yay!
Underhill House gets its name from being built into our hill, but the reallio, truelio Underhill House will be the root cellar.
By mounding up the ground on top of the root cellar just a little, we can guide the rainwater rolling down the hill at the house so that it will flow away to the south toward the pond or to the northwest toward the site of the future garden – leaving our basement dry.
Doug and Bruce plan to set the floor of the root cellar at about the same level as the house. Then Bruce will sculpt the earth between the house and the hill into a gentle swale so any water that gets that close to the house will also head for the pond and not our lower level.
As soon as he is free from other jobs, Mike Flynn who has poured all the concrete for Underhill House will pour us the walls and roof for the root cellar.
In the meantime, we have an amazing cross section view of what is going on beneath our feet on the hill behind us.
The soil is deep and rich from being covered with trees for since European settlers arrived and stopped the burning of the prairie that used to cover this part of the world. Its steep angle has saved it from the farmer’s plow.
What a treasure good soil is.
Everything depends on it!
We bought 21 yards of screened topsoil for the roof. And we had another truck of regular top soil delivered this week to use when we can finally start repairing the poor, beaten-up land around the house.
What I can’t understand is – who is selling this topsoil to our suppliers? It feels like selling your first born to sell the topsoil off your land. It is irreplaceable.
Who actually strips and sells their top soil?
It’s impossible to fathom.
Have you ever bought or sold top soil?
This is a follow-up for a post I wrote in mid-April when we tried 3 different methods for planting Redosier Dogwood.
The yard area carved out around Underhill House was a vast wasteland at that time. New construction, even when you are trying to be as green as possible seems to leave conditions that resemble a war zone in its wake. And it is common to really compact the soil around a new home so that the water will run down and away on this nice, hard surface. This is good for drainage and disastrous for plants.
We chose to start addressing this no-plant’s-land by transplanting some twigs and then some small off-shoot shrubs from the flourishing Redosier Dogwood thicket on the edge of our prairie.
We had tried to start new clumps of dogwood before with no success, before we lived out here, and I suspect that – though we hauled many buckets of pond water to our twigs, that some brutally dry day may have snuffed them out when we weren’t here.
So we planted our new hedge with high hopes, but a wait-and-see attitude.
We tried three transplant methods.
- Taking sections of branch about 18” long. Cutting them flat on the top and at an angle on the bottom. Making a hole by driving a metal pole into the soil. Sticking in the twig, watering and mulching with straw.
- A few days later I read another planting instruction that said it was crucial to dip the bottom end in rooting hormone. We had some, so we cut more twigs and added one to the back of each group of 2 twigs (one thick – one thin).
- Then I read that the best way was to dig up little shrubs that pop up like satellites around the main shrub. So we took our power wagon and some wet burlap up to the prairie one more time and dug out about a dozen little shrublets, wrapped their tender roots in wet cloth and planted them immediately beside the twigs.
THEN WE WAITED!
In the mean time I also brought in an armful of bare red branches and put them in a glass vase. I was hosting my book club April 19 and wanted a local bouquet. ( I don’t ever get imported cut flowers. What that toxic industry does to the people and land where they grow those flowers is really terrible.)
The red twigs looked very pretty. Then they started to leaf out, and they looked amazing. Outside every branch was still bare, but inside I had spring on my table for over a month.
However, seeing how they could leaf out with no root growth at all made me a little suspicious at first of the leaves that began to form on our transplanted twigs.
Now I’m convinced that they are growing from new root support. My bouquet finally went limp, but the twigs in our new hedge row are going strong!
Which method is working best?
- Well, the transplanted shrubs have a jump on the others. They already have multiple branches and are leafing out the fastest.
- The twigs with no hormone are also looking good.
- But I would have to say that the twigs with the rooting hormone seem to be doing a little better. They were planted a week later, but have caught up with their non-treated cohorts and the leaves look a little greener.
So if you have root hormone and want to use it, it will provide a little boost, but it is NOT necessary.
If you want some Redosier Dogwood in your yard, and I highly recommend this fine plant – it’s easy as pie (actually a LOT easier).
Next April, locate some Redosier Dogwood, get permission to take some cuttings and follow our method as described in the previous post. Redosier Dogwood will beautify your yard both summer and winter, and it will attract birds who like its shelter and its berries and native pollinators who will visit its blossoms.
Since we bought our land, Doug and I have spent every free moment out here.
Now that we finally live here, we actually went somewhere else for Memorial Day weekend.
We knew just where to go – to Wheatland Traditional Arts Weekend in north-central Michigan.
This is a pilgrimage we have made many times before, but not once since we bought our land some 10 years ago.
Wheatland Music Organization hosts a massive fall festival the weekend after Labor Day that draws about 15,000 happy campers to the 160 acres of rolling, wooded hills and grassy meadows. The facility has been in the making since 1986 and now has a number of buildings: the main stage, the dance pavilion, food prep building, and other amenities. In the fall people come to see the great and the up-and-coming performers in a variety of traditional music venues. At any moment concerts will be going on in many locations, the kid’s hill will be jumping with crafts and games for young Wheaties, and various tents will be hosting technique workshops taught by the main stage performers. It’s an amazing experience.
The spring event is on a much smaller scale, with the number of people in the hundreds, rather than thousands.
The emphasis is on workshops, which fill the days and dancing and performances fill the evenings into the wee hours. There are 17 different spots where workshops are happening simultaneously. This year the topics ranged from Gypsy fiddle to playing the saw to lace making to astronomy to Irish dance steps to bees and beekeeping to 12-bar blues. I spent my first workshop learning a great fiddle tune called Reel du Joie while people learning gospel harmony singing I’ll Fly Away in the next tent added a wonderful ambiance.
At night there is couple dancing, squares and contras, Cajun and salsa and clogging.
Doug and I were curious to see how things would change in 10 years.
The trees are bigger. The driving lanes are a little better organized. People were camping in several new areas, but it still felt exactly the same.
We filled Saturday and Sunday with classes. Doug took guitar workshops. I took fiddle classes, and we met for beginning then advanced Salsa dance Saturday and Cajun dance Sunday. Each night there was a chance to use what we learned with great bands.
We also came away with a new favorite group, Notorious. I took a fiddle workshop from Eden MacAdam-Somer of Notorious. She was an amazing performer and a wonderful teacher — very clear as she taught us the melody and then showed us how to bring it to life.
I need to note that I am a complete novice at fiddle.
Moving to a smaller house has made us examine each thing we own. Does it make the cut?
I asked myself that question about my dear mother’s violin.
She started playing this violin as a child in Indianapolis. (My grandparents were driven off their farm and into the city by the Great Depression. To pay for that violin, my grandfather refinished her piano teacher’s floors. My mom devoted herself to this precious gift and made it sing. I couldn’t let it go, so I decided I will learn to play it as a fiddle. I sat through hundreds of Suzuki violin lessons with my daughters when they were small, so I feel like I have an ingrained sense of the instrument. So far, so good.
I have come home with a headfull of great songs from my four fiddle classes (also recorded in my smart phone so I can really take them apart and put them back together at my own pace). I can’t really play them yet, but we have been introduced, and I am ready to take up this violin-shaped torch and run with it.
We used to go to Wheatland with our girls with they were small. The place has a wonderful family-friendly atmosphere.
That’s one of the things that makes Wheatland a font of truly sustainable music.
At one point during dance class, Doug was dancing with a young woman who told him she had been coming to Wheatland and taking dance classes since she was a small child. She will no doubt bring her own children here someday. I hope my own girls will. This is a place where traditional music gets handed on from player to player, everyone leaves with renewed enthusiasm and respect for a variety of musical heritages, new crafts and new friends.
If you are in the Midwest, consider going to the fall or spring festival. It is like taking a trip to the way the world ought to be.
Check out the 2012 Photo Contest Winners here. http://www.wheatlandmusic.org/2012-photo-contest-winners/
Peace on Earth – Good will to Wheatland!
Underhill House now has the hopefull beginnings of a sod roof.
This has not been an easy project!
I call it a saga of dirt, sweat and tears.
The tears are mine. They are tears of frustration.
I’ll get to that later.
Our roof undulates with the natural curves of the unmilled trees that make up it’s timber frame and rafters. It’s flowing lines are a thing of beauty and have been an engineering challenge every step of the way. It is very well insulated with many non-conducting layers including blown in castor bean oil foam that was topped with wood decking and a layer of old billboard tarps and a layer of the kind of rubber sheeting used on flat roofs and under the ponds people make in their yards. And over that was placed another layer of old billboard tarps to protect the rubber membrane for the winter.
The roof wasn’t ready to plant until it was too late in the fall. If we had put the soil on the roof without planting, it would have been blown away so it went through the winter like that. And it worked very well at keeping in the heat! Our passive solar and solar hot water heat system and great insulation kept the house comfy with very little need for the propane backup we have built into the system.
But there is another kind of protection a roof need to give in the summer — keeping the heat out instead of in. Something tells me our summers are not going to get cooler. That is where we are counting on the sod roof. The 3 inches of soil and plants will not only provide thermal insulation — the plants will absorb that solar energy beating on its surface and photosynthesis will transform the blazing heat into more plant material.
It’s a lovely idea, and we were ready to help pioneer a workable, growing roof.
Our builder, WholeTree Architecture and Buildings has done some growing roofs before, but none quite as big or high in the air as Underhill House, and that meant we were all winging it. Doug and I researched what to plant up there, what kind of soil to use and how to get it up on the roof.
For plants, we consulted extensively with Neal at Prairie Nursery and decided to grow two prairie grasses in the 3″ of soil on the roof — June Grass and Side Oats Grama Grass . We picked these because they will need very little watering. Once they are established, unless we are experiencing true drought conditions, they will just go dormant when the weather is dry. When we get more rain, they will spring back to life.
Our other choice of no mow fescue, would need more watering. When ever the weather gets dry, it could quickly go beyond dormant to dead.
Fescue is that it is easer to start. Prairie grasses, though they are very touchy to establish, should be a more sustainable solution long-term.
For soil, we opted for screened soil mixed with compost and sand from Keleny Top Soil.
in Madison. Our normal source for all the gravel, sand, Ivey’s on Mineral Point, was like most top soil providers in the area — they keep their soil outside, and it was too wet to move. Keleny keeps some soil under a roof, so it is ready to go. It was also screened, so that it would be poured more easily.
Then a layer of discarded and recycled wall to wall carpeting went on to provide more gripping surface for the dirt and protect the rubber membrane. ost people replace their carpet because Fifi had a bladder problem, but that should just make them more attractive to plants.) We have been VERY careful not to puncture that membrane.
Last Monday the screened dirt arrived. To get this fine soil on the roof, we needed a crane to hoist it up in a giant bucket. We turned to McCutcheson Cranes in Dodgeville just 10 miles away.Tuesday morning the crane was trucked in. It was a challenge to find a good place to anchor it, and the most secure spot to set up the crane did not allow Mike McCutcheson to see what was going on the roof, so Doug took the task of giving him hand signals about where to swing each bucket full.
We had estimated we would need about 17 cubic yards for the roof, and since the truck holds 21 yards, we asked them to bring a truckfull, expecting to use the rest on the ravaged ground around the building site.
Unfortunately, the roof gobbled up just about all the screened soil.
Over the course of the morning, as soil was dumped on and smoothed out, it became impossible to tell how deep it was in any given spot – because of those lovely undulations. So the men underestimated how close to 3 inches of soil had been haulted up and opted to leave the last bucket or two on the ground.
So far so good –
but we are coming to the tears part now.
Sitting next to the was a big pile of clay that has been abandoned there since last summer when our plastering team decided that this particular clay would not work on our walls, and they used a different clay for the job. What to do with this pile of clay has been a puzzle. It can not be spread over the ground. It can’t be put in the garden.
It is the kind of clay used to seal walls and make pottery. Though it looks a lot like soil – it is not soil.
Suddenly Roald Gundersen of WholeTrees began talking about putting that clay on top of our roof.
This came out of nowhere and completely dumbfounded me. He seemed to suddenly realize that something would be needed to hold down the erosion mat that goes on over the seed. He decided on the spot that it should be this clay.
I have been trained as a Master Gardener and had just been re-reading the extensive section on soil in my Master Gardener training materials because the soil where we are planning to plant our vineyard has been proving problematic. I was painfully, excruciatingly aware of negative consequences of dumping clay — even just “sprinkling” it as Roald wanted to — on top of prairie seed smaller than sesame seed.
I spent our lunch time trying to talk him out of it, but I could not. (If this were written on paper, there would be tears of frustration smearing the ink here.)
Against my express wishes, buckets of clay were hoisted onto the roof and dumped on two tarps.
Then we got to work preparing to seed.
Our first task was to make sure we had a soil depth of 3″ all over the roof. This was a laborious process of sticking pencils marked at 3 inches with tape into the soil over every few feet of the roof. I did a lot of the bending over and applying my depth guage and marking areas which Doug, and our two assistants hauled dirt to bring the level up to 3 inches.
At first, they were able to take dirt from the hollows in the roof, which were much more than three inches deep, but eventually, they had to go back to the remaining screened soil left on the ground, wheel barrow it around the house and haul it up the ladder by hand in 5-gallon buckets. I don’t have any photos of this process because we were all working too hard. I estimate that somewhere between 30 and 40 buckets were hauled up and distributed.
Finally we were ready to sow the seed.
The seed for the entire roof amounted to a mere 2 cups of June Grass and 11 cups of Side Oats Gramma Grass. To spread it evenly, it had to be mixed into a lot of saw dust. Fortunately, we have a vast supply of very fine sawdust from when we had a portable sawmill on site cutting some of our trees into the boards for the roof and the slabs for the window sills and counter tops. We divided the seed into two halves and mixed each up in our power wagon.
That was my job, and it was a treat. Running your hands and arms through cool, damp sawdust again and again is a very pleasant feeling. I found it soothing. I needed to be soothed. I was still steaming about putting the clay on the roof.
Doug and I carefully spread out the seed on the roof in 8-foot swaths from east to west. The planting instructions say rake the seed into the soil and then press it down with a roller to create good soil/seed contact.
There was NO WAY we were hauling a heavy roller up on the roof, so we stepped it in very methodically covering every inch with firm foot falls, although at the very edges, we reached our foot out while leaning away from the drop off. That area didn’t get such good compression. Couldn’t be helped. Safety first.
Then the 8-foot erosion mat was rolled out over the seed.
THE BAD NEWS
Then Roald sprinkled shovels full of clay all over it to “hold it down.”
It hurt me to watch him.
We got about halfway done by about 5. We were all seriously exhausted and starting to wobble in the brutal heat (mid 80s). Wobbling on the roof didn’t seem like such a good idea, so we quit for the night and had a beer.
Later that evening before full dark, a huge storm came up on the horizon. The wind was whipping, and pounding rain seemed imminent. I climbed back up on the roof with chunks of sand stone from where the hill was dug out for the house and placed them strategically. As I stood on the roof watching, the ominous, dark green clouds passed just to the south of us, and all we got was some medium wind and a bit of rain.
Wednesday, Roald came back with a couple of assistants. He threw the sandstone pieces off the roof, and we finished seeding, matting and shoveling clay clumps onto the roof.
Yesterday morning Doug and I woke up wind howling around the house. We quickly climbed to the roof to find that the whole south edge of erosion mat had already peeled back over a foot from the wind – which was building. The matwas ready to start rolling further. Doug carried the rocks back up by the bucket full, while I crawled along the edge of the roof rolling the erosion mat back into place and setting rocks all along the south edge.
That brought me as close to that south edge as I have ever come. It’s the farthest drop down on the roof, and it gave me a lot of respect for all the work that has been done on that roof by the carpenters as they built its many layers.
The storm once again spent most of its fury to the south of us, but the rocks held the mat in place. Away from the edge, the mat seems to have interwoven along the 3-4″ overlap between panels and is holding well.
So I’m hoping that the rocked-down erosion mat will continue to hold, and the grasses will germinate and grow. I do not have high hopes for all the places where there are clumps of pottery clay sealing them from water and making a barrier which may be too hard for their tiny spikes to penetrate.
Ironically, my book group is about to discuss When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams. She was raised Mormon, and much of the book is about her experience of how women are often ignored to the point they felt they had no voice. While I was reading, I felt glad that I haven’t had that awful experience — suddenly I felt like a chapter in the book.
Today as I was driving to Madison I watched young grasses about a foot tall ripple in the wind like waves on the water. I hope our roof will look like that by end of summer.
I wanted to share a press release I got from UW-Madison this week. It may be to contemplate snow just as spring is finally bursting out all around us, but this piece puts the data behind a subject I have been worrying about a lot lately — the way our snow cover melts away multiple times each winter these days.
MADISON – For plants and animals forced to tough out harsh winter weather, the coverlet of snow that blankets the north country is a refuge, a stable beneath-the-snow habitat that gives essential respite from biting winds and subzero temperatures.
But in a warming world, winter and spring snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere is in decline, putting at risk many plants and animals that depend on the space beneath the snow to survive the blustery chill of winter.
In a report published May 2 in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, a team of scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison describes the gradual decay of the Northern Hemisphere’s “subnivium,” the term scientists use to describe the seasonal microenvironment beneath the snow, a habitat where life from microbes to bears take full advantage of warmer temperatures, near constant humidity and the absence of wind.
“Underneath that homogenous blanket of snow is an incredibly stable refuge where the vast majority of organisms persist through the winter,” explains Jonathan Pauli, a UW-Madison professor of forest and wildlife ecology and a co-author of the new report. “The snow holds in heat radiating from the ground, plants photosynthesize, and it’s a haven for insects, reptiles, amphibians and many other organisms.”
- Since 1970, snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere – the part of the world that contains the largest land masses affected by snow – has diminished by as much as 3.2 million square kilometers during the critical spring months of March and April.
- Maximum snow cover has shifted from February to January and spring melt has accelerated by almost two weeks, according to Pauli and his colleagues, Benjamin Zuckerberg and Warren Porter, also of UW-Madison, and John P. Whiteman of the University of Wyoming in Laramie.
“The winter ecology of Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest is changing,” says Zuckerberg, a UW-Madison professor of forest and wildlife ecology. “There is concern these winter ecosystems could change dramatically over the next several years.”
As is true for ecosystem changes anywhere, a decaying subnivium would have far-reaching consequences.
Reptiles and amphibians
which can survive being frozen solid, are put at risk when temperatures fluctuate, bringing them prematurely out of their winter torpor only to be lashed by late spring storms or big drops in temperature. Insects also undergo phases of freeze tolerance and the migrating birds that depend on invertebrates as a food staple may find the cupboard bare when the protective snow cover goes missing.
“There are thresholds beyond which some organisms just won’t be able to make a living,” says Pauli. “The subnivium provides a stable environment, but it is also extremely delicate. Once that snow melts, things can change radically.”
when exposed directly to cold temperatures and more frequent freeze-thaw cycles can suffer tissue damage both below and above ground, resulting in higher plant mortality, delayed flowering and reduced biomass. Voles and shrews, two animals that thrive in networks of tunnels in the subnivium, would experience not only a loss of their snowy refuge, but also greater metabolic demands to cope with more frequent and severe exposure to the elements.
The greatest effects on the subnivium, according to Zuckerberg, will occur on the margins of the Earth’s terrestrial cryosphere, the parts of the world that get cold enough to support snow and ice, whether seasonally or year-round. “The effects will be especially profound along the trailing edge of the cryosphere in regions that experience significant, but seasonal snow cover,” the Wisconsin scientists assert in their report. “Decay of the subnivium will affect species differently, but be especially consequential for those that lack the plasticity to cope with the loss of the subnivium or that possess insufficient dispersal power to track the retreating range boundary of the subnivium.”
As an ecological niche, the subnivium has been little studied. However, as snow cover retreats in a warming world, land managers, the Wisconsin researchers argue, need to begin to pay attention to the changes and the resulting loss of habitat for a big range of plants and animals.
“Snow cover is becoming shorter, thinner and less predictable,” says Pauli. “We’re seeing a trend. The subnivium is in retreat.”
We have been dreaming about growing grapes on our south-facing slope for many years. Now the rubber is starting to meet the road. Or rather, the caterpillar treads are starting to meet the ground.
When we walked the site with Judy Reith-Rozelle, our grape consultant, we learned that there is more to an ideal site for a vineyard than simply south facing.
She noted that our site not all the way to the top of the south-facing slope. That means cold air falling down the hill and threatening our grapes.
It’s always cooler in the bottom of the valley. My best friend, who lives in a sweet, old Victorian farm house nestled deep in a valley named her place Frost Pocket Farm.
Judy looked down from the vineyard site at a clump of about 100 spruces at the bottom of the valley and said they would have to go. The cold air falls down the hills, pools up against the spruce barrier and then fills back up into the area where our tender young grapes would be shivering.
The worst part of the frost is before the grapes have leaves on them. All you have is the bare cordons. What you are concerned about is when the buds start to break in early spring. You can get really bad frost damage, and also when the flower clusters are just starting to open is another frost danger zone.
That’s why the cold air can fall safely down through the rows of vines. They haven’t leafed out to form a barrier that would trap the chill, and by the time they leaf out, the weather is no longer fatally cold.
Judy suggested we replace the spruce “dam” with a pollinator-friendly prairie.
Then she turned east toward the clump of trees growing out from our northern border just beyond the vineyard site.
“I’m looking at those trees,” she said. “You could open it up to more sun.”
She looked west. The sumacs growing there would block western breezes blowing through the rows of grapes which help keep them from getting too damp and being vulnerable to mildews.
Doug and I were feeling overwhelmed. We have cleared small areas for prairie and savanna by ourselves, but the scope of this project was beyond our power.
We turned to Bruce Lease, the man who has done all the excavation for our lane, our barn and our house. When Bruce climbs up into the cab of his back hoe he becomes one with the machine. It’s always been amazing to watch him work. He knows what can and can’t be done. He knows what should and shouldn’t be done based on an almost intuitive sense of the lay of the land.
It was the work of a morning for Bruce to transform the spruce stand into the beginning of a bonfire. Since then, Doug and Bruce have been working together. Doug has been felling the trees around the edge of the clump on our northern border just to the east of the vineyard site. This area is one of those spaces where no one has cared what grew there for decades. It was too steep to plow for agricultural use and was left to itself.
What grew there was a crowded mishmash of pines, cherry, oak, and mostly box elder.
The box elders made a place for themselves by wrapping themselves around the straighter trees and then growing out from the clump at 45% angles.
The hardwoods were crowding each other so closely that felling them proved very tricky. In one case, a cherry and oak seemed to have bonded over about 8 feet of their length. When we finally got that cherry down, the center was completely rotted out in the area where they had been fused.
Our karma is taking on the lives of so many trees for this project, but I believe that when the sawdust settles, there will be a much more sustainable environment in place.
Our goal to grow seedless raisins and be part of the local foodshed seems worthwhile. And we are replacing 100 spruce that were planted too close together and for which there is now no market so we could never afford to thin them with a pollinator-friendly prairie (we plan to use the seed mix just developed by Xerces Society ) and sold by Prairie Nursery. The new planting will help provide habitat for endangered native pollinators – and they are endangered.
It’s taken a lot of soul searching and petroleum-powered brute force to make these dramatic changes to several acres of our land.
We hope we will look back, weigh it all in the balance and be glad we did.
Today was a wonderful day for Underhill House. Marcia Nelson arrived with the stained glass windows for the bathroom wall. It’s been a long journey.
Following our Small is Beautiful motif, the bathroom is small, and its wall is small. We wanted some high, narrow windows in the wall to let some light flow from between the front and back of the house. We thought we would find some beveled glass windows salvaged from a demolished or remodeled house, but had no luck with our specific size requirements.
Our next thought was to work with a stained glass artist to fill the space.
Once the idea to do stained glass was hatched, it seemed right. We wanted some stained glass in our house, but with such wonderful views out all the windows, it seemed wrong to block any with stained glass. So the bathroom wall seemed perfect.
I have loved – I mean LOVED – stained glass since I was a little girl. My father was a Methodist preacher, and I spent many Sundays sitting on hard wooden pews becoming totally lost in the intense colors and patterns of the church windows. Seeing light pass through stained glass became a spiritual experience that transcended the sermons and the hymns and made light glowing through colored glass seem like the essence of existence.
What kind of stained glass was the question.
We discovered Marcia’s work one day while strolling down High Street during our sojurn in the apartment in Mineral Point after our house in town had sold but before Underhill House was ready.
Here was stained glass combined with glass pebbles that freed itself from the plane of the window and incorporated open air into the design.
It was love at first sight.
We got Marcia Nelson’s contact info and met at the gallery the next time it was her turn to staff the place.
Unfortunately, the open spaces in her work that so captivated me, had to be dropped from the plan almost immediately.
Doug’s practicality sounded their death knell.
The bathroom is ventilated as part of our air to air heat exchanger, which draws air from the house and exchanges it with air from the outside. Both streams pass close through a system of fins, and the fresh but cold or hot exterior air is brought closer to room temperature in the process. This air exchange system allows us to have the nice, air-tight house that makes it more efficient to heat and cool.
Doug had them do double duty by putting the drawing air out vents in the bathrooms.
To ventilate the bathrooms, they need to be an enclosed space. Gaps in the stained glass right up next to the vent would pull air from the main room and less air from the bathroom. And we all know there are times when one really does want to replace the current bathroom air – quickly!
We thought about just putting another pane of glass behind the stained glass to seal the room. But we live in the country, and flying insects do make their way inside with a wearying frequency. I could imagine the dead flies piling up between the two panes. It was NOT a pretty picture.
We finally settled on a modified design where the glass pebbles were affixed to clear, textured glass.
Then we went through a lengthy period of bringing home different pieces of glass and holding them up to the space. We fell for a swirling, orange glass called Cat’s Paw. It is the same kind of glass used in the restoration of the Wisconsin State Capital building.
Marcia took it from there.
It’s been months in the making. We probably first saw Marcia’s work in October.
Marcia kindly brought the finished panels out this afternoon, along with a file to carefully grind away any bit of zinc edging that might be too big for the space. That process ended up taking several hours of fitting and filing and fitting and filing.
Now that we are living in Underhill House, we love watching the ducks, geese and other migrating birds that take a break in our little pond, but it’s obvious that the feeling is not mutual. That’s why we are planting a hedge between the house and the pond. The plants we choose for the hedge are all native and offer some benefits to birds, such as seeds, fruits and sites for resting and nesting.
We decided to make elderberries, Sambucus nigra, a part of that hedge. Birds eat the fruit, and humans can too.
Before I rave about the reputed health benefits of the elderberry I have to start with a warning.
THE BAD NEWS
Never eat or drink any product made from raw elderberry fruit, flowers, or leaves. They contain a cyanide-producing glycoside and must be cooked before injested. According to the Poison Plant Patch of the Nova Scotia Museum website, glycosides are toxins in which at least one sugar molecule is linked with oxygen to another compound, often nitrogen-based. They become harmful when the sugar molecule is stripped off, as in the process of digestion.
Please, talk to your doctor or pharmacist before adding elderberry to any other drugs or supplements you already take. Elderberry is not recommended for children or women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Now, for those intrepid readers not running for the hills:
THE GOOD NEWS
Elderberries are a good source of anthocyanins, powerful antioxidants which are responsible for giving many red and purple fruits their color.
According to WebMD, Elderberries contain natural substances called flavonoids. They seem to help reduce swelling, fight inflammation, and boost the immune system.
Studies have found that elderberry eases flu symptoms like fever, headache, sore throat, fatigue, cough, and body ache. The benefits seem to be greatest when started within 24 to 48 hours after the symptoms begin. One study found that elderberry could cut the duration of flu symptoms by more than 50%.
Lab studies have found that elderberry might be effective against H1N1, or swine flu.
A few studies have suggested that elderberry could help with bacterial sinus infections or bronchitis. More research needs to be done.
Some people use elderberry for high cholesterol, HIV, and many other conditions. Again, more research needs to be done to confirm this.
Elderberries grow into a nice thick shrub that should be a great addition to our hypothetical hedge, and they are very easy on the eye. They have gorgeous big flower heads that turn into easy-to-harvest handfuls of those berries full of all those useful antioxidants.
What can you do with them?
Make them into syrup that can be diluted into a pleasant drink. Make them into preserves to spread on fresh-baked bread. Ferment them into elderberry wine. Remember the nice little old ladies in Arsenic and Old Lace?
We got our elderberry cuttings at MOSES Organic Farming Conference from Norm’s Farm and have kept them in the fridge for the past month. They were starting to sprout in there, so we were very happy to see conditions get good for planting them outside.
Cornell University says, elderberries grow best in moist, fertile, well-drained soil with a pH between 5.5 and 6.5, but will tolerate a wide range of soil texture, fertility, and acidity. It’s a myth that they prefer swampy areas. In fact, they do not tolerate poor drainage. Plant elderberries in spring, as soon as possible after they arrive from the nursery to prevent plants from drying out. Space plants 6 to 10 feet apart. Elderberries are shallow rooted, so keep them well-watered during the first season.
We selected the new cultivar Bob Gordon , which has a larger berry and yielded nearly triple that of other varieties at Norm’s Farm. It will grow with flowerheads upside down which protects berries from birds. (We picked Bob Gordon before I started thinking from the birds’ perspective.) The Bob Gordon was the number one producer in trials and researchers are confident Bob Gordon is a truly superior cultivar for the Midwest and other areas of the country.
Since we planted them, I have read that it’s good to plant several varieties together, so we’ll have to decide this year what to add. I’ll be looking for a heads-up variety to give the birds their share.
We planted the elderberry cuttings much the way we planted our Red Osier Dogwood cuttings last week. (See my post Transplanting Red Osier Dogwood) We read that elderberry cuttings do much better if the end is dipped in rooting hormone. We had some in the greenhouse, so we covered them liberally. (We also went back and added an extra cutting to each Red Osier Dogwood group which we dipped in rooting compound. Now we’ll see if it makes a difference.)
Like the Red Osier dogwood, each cutting was placed in a hole made by pounding a metal rod into the ground. Then each was mulched and well watered. Stay tuned!