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.
The making of Underhill House was also the destruction of all but the most rugged organisms living in the soil around it. We moved here in January, and as soon as the snow melted, I was counting the days till I could start to heal the earth outside our walls.
Our excavator, Bruce Lease, pointed out that if we wanted to dig a root cellar into the hill, we should do it BEFORE any planting because heavy equipment needed for the project would tear our landscaping up again.
We surely did want to dig in a root cellar — we were just suffering from building fatigue and thought to put it off till fall or even next year.
But Bruce had a valid point.
After seeding, we very precicely covered the ground with a very thin layer of straw designed to shade and protect tender seedlings without burying them. All our painstaking straw placement was rudely redistributed by some big winds we got before it rained. We tried to put them back the way they were, but that’s easier said than done.
We planted a band about a truck lane’s width (also about a fire lane’s width-dry prairies have been known to catch fire and burn fast) with the No Mow Fescue mix prepared by Prairie Nursery. I have high hopes for this grass. It is a blend of fescues that combine to form an interlocking, dense, durable sod that is low maintenance and drought tolerant. It only requires mowing once or twice a year, if you want a groomed look. Or you can let it just grow up to its short height and wave in the breeze.
Beyond that fire lane band, we have planted annual rye as the first of several cover crops in preparation for seeding in the Xerces Pollinator Mix Prairie next fall.
Because we were getting a late start, and there was no rain forecast for over a week, we decided to water it in. This was a major operation that involved moving our little sprinkler dozens of times to cover all the seeded area, but by the time the rain came, little shoots were peeking out, and they really took off since the rain.
Now everywhere I look I see the warm golden green of the rye, or the slightly more mint green of the fescue. It’s a wonderful feeling.
I didn’t even realize how oppressive all that bare dirt was until it was gone.
What is more revitalizing than watching new leaves grow? It’s a tantalizing juxtaposition with all the plants that are starting to give up the ghost as the days grow shorter and the nights colder – kind of like the bracing sensual contrast that a sauna and snow can provide.
The list of projects waiting our attention is as long as ever, but for the moment the race to beat an uncompromising seasonal deadline has been won, and that feels very good!
Speaking of grass, the grassroots Solar Tour (see Solar Tour post) last Saturday was great. Even though it was a cloudy day, spitting rain, 14 people showed up to see what they could learn from our sustainable building experience. That feels good too.
Have you got your fall chores under control?
What’s your biggest satisfaction this year?
Saturday October 5, Underhill House will be part of the National Solar Tour — the world’s largest grassroots solar event.
We are so thrilled to part of a coalition of over 5,500 home and business owners, volunteers, solar installers, public officials and grassroots organizations who conduct open house tours of their energy efficient and solar-powered buildings.
Over the past 5 years as we planned our own house Doug and I visited homes in the Wisconsin Solar Tour – looking closely, making notes, mulling over what we see and hear from helpful home owners.
Now comes pay back where we can give others the benefit of what we are learning from our own solar projects.
We moved into our passive solar design and in-floor solar heated house in January and had a very cozy winter supplementing with only a whisper of propane. Our passive solar design and strawbale-insulated walls kept us cool enough all summer with only a little electricity spinning a few strategically-placed fans at the right moments.
Our temperature-control systems are really working, and we are eager to pass our discoveries along.
The solar tour, which has taken place the first weekend in October for 18 years is the brain child of the American Solar Energy Society. The nonprofit ASES has been encouraging the use of solar energy since 1954.
But the engine that drives this movement is the more than 400 grassroots organizations, installers and non-profits who locally coordinate sponsor, and promote these open houses. Also the home and business owners who share their personal solar experiences and educate others about the benefits of energy-efficient living is who makes this event a success.
In 2012, the Solar Tour drew more than 90,000 people in 38 states to over 9,000 sites.
This year 75 solar homes and businesses around Wisconsin are opening their doors. Come and learn about renewable energy, green building techniques, and sustainable living ideas. Tour sites are owned, lived in, and worked in by ordinary people who are part of a grass-roots push to renewable energy.
You can get all the details about Wisconsin by checking out this map.
It will clearly detail what there is to see in Wisconsin and allow you to tailor a tour to your own interests.
You can find tours all over the country here.
Ellie Jackson, Events Coordinator of the Midwest Renewable Energy Association, who facilitate the Wisconsin Solar Tour says, “There are lots of ways to use the sun’s energy. The Solar Tour is like a back stage pass. It’s a really cool opportunity to meet people who are making solar energy work. There isn’t some huge corporate sponsor making it happen – it’s people who have a passion and are sharing what they’ve learned.”
Jackson, acknowledged that in the past few years attendance is down a bit. She attributes it to the fact that sponsorship, which provides the funds to get the word out is also down. “Funding is harder to come by, and that ‘s not unique to solar projects,” she says.
There are so many sad reasons why solar energy is not supported in this country. That’s not what this post is about. Blogs are a way that information can travel without a corporate sponsor, so spread the word about the 2013 Solar Tour, and check it out, if you can.
Even if you are not thinking of a solar project right now, the leaves are starting to turn their spectacular fall colors. (check out the Wisconsin fall color map here. ) It’s a great way to spend a day getting out and exploring some interesting spaces. You’ll meet people who are pioneering solar power and see how they are making renewable energy work one house at a time. The website will give you enough detail so that you can tailor a tour that fits your interest and time constraints.
Again, if you live in Wisconsin, design your tour using this map.
If you live in South Central Wisconsin, I hope you’ll put Underhouse on your list and come on by. I’m hoping to be able to slice you some bread baked in our outdoor cob oven.
Doug and I have had several houses with shingle roofs and even lived in a house with a thatched roof in the Netherlands, but a living roof is a whole new beast. In fact, it seems a lot like having a pet.
In review, we craned about 3 inches of top soil onto the roof.
We watered it regularly and sat back to watch it grow. It took a lot of watering – more than we gave it in some areas – because this has been a brutally hot dry summer in Southwestern Wisconsin. It did grow, but the grasses didn’t look much like Sideoats Grama Grass or June Grass.
People keep asking us how we are going to mow it, and in fact, we don’t intend to – once the prairie grasses are established. But, being newbies, we were a little too happy just to watch it turn green. Gradually we began to realize that we should scythe these rogue grasses.
I was a little hesitant to go up on our roof with a scythe, and we were very careful about where we set our feet when scything along the edges (also when scything near the watering hoses). We have our sprinklers set up on old milk crates so they weren’t overwhelmed by the tall grass surrounding them.
Hopefully we did not act too late.
As always, it’s wonderful to be up on the roof, looking out across our valley, and it took less than an hour to scythe the opportunistic grass we that we don’t recognize, rake it up and tossed it off the roof.
With any luck, next year, the prairie seeds will make their appearance, and our roof will get some stability. The prairie grasses should be more drought resistant, and gradually we will probably add more types of plant as we get more ideas. It has been a blistering summer, and we stayed pretty comfortable without air conditioning — I’m sure part of the reason is that our roof was using that solar energy to grow grass instead of convert to heat.
If we did it right, it is going to last much longer than asphalt shingles, and even longer than a metal roof.
What do you think about sod roofs?
Do they seem too far out there?
Would you consider one for your next place?
When Doug was hiking in Nepal years ago, he saw many examples of how the people in that steep land terrace the garden beds they depend on. We decided to do the same on our own slanty land.
Fortunately, our rock wall builder still had a few more rocks that he salvaged when he redid the retaining wall for a bank in a nearby town. These slabs of limestone were quarried nearby and had a former life as a retaining wall for a bank, also dealing with the hilly nature of the Driftless Area.
How close do you like to have your garden to your house?
Did you place it or inherit it?