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With a major winter storm forecast – snow, freezing rain and potentially an inch of ice accumulation starting later this evening and the local news going on about emergency crews on stand by, shelters ready to open their doors and  reminding people they still have time to run to the store (glad I’m not going there) I’m reminded of the Big Ice Storm of 2007.  

 On January 12th 2007 a light rain turned to ice and continued for hours.  As the ice thickened overnight the sounds of cracking, splitting branches and falling trees was unceasing.  Locally, the National Weather Service officially recorded one and  a half  inches of ice accumulation.     Approximately 200,000 residences lost power throughout this corner of the state.   We were fortunate in many ways, we heat with wood and during the heating season our porch /entryway is kept stacked full of firewood.   Not the most upscale  decor but it sure is convenient.  During the noisy night as the electric lines went down, we already had a toasty fire going, flashlights and lanterns close at hand.

The morning after

The next morning as it became light I tried to call the elderly next door neighbor, no answer, so I headed that way.    She was over 90, quite spry and good on her feet but at times rather vague mentally.   I found her wandering in the yard, dressed only in her night-clothes, unable to comprehend what had occurred overnight.   Even though her furnace was not working and the temperature had dropped significantly in her house she refused to leave and come over where it was warm.  Thankfully I had phone numbers for a relative, was able to reach them and they arranged for another extended family member who lived close by to come pick her up.  She never did really recover from the shock of waking up and seeing an incomprehensible  landscape that resembled a war zone.  From that day forward she lived with her niece.  

Fortunately, even with the thick ice, the temperature was hovering a degree or two above freezing.  The roads had accumulated heat from previous warmer days and the freezing rain melted upon hitting the pavement and not frozen on the roads.   Had the streets been covered, as most else was, with the one and a half inches of ice, the situation would have been much more dire.  Some people just headed out of town for a nice hotel stay. We did not venture out on the roads that day or for several after but saw vehicles go by. 

 

My elderly father in law had fortituiously ended up staying with us – he lived about three hours north in a rural area by himself.  On New Year’s Eve two of his adult grandchildren went to check in on him and visit.   He came to the door in a bloody undershirt with a kitchen hot pad tied onto a string that he was attempting to position to stem drainage from a deep abcess in the middle of his back.   They packed him off to the VA hospital located about 20 miles away where they cleaned and bandaged the abcess and sent him off with a large bag of packing gauze, dressings, saline solution and antibiotics.   The ice storm did not hit as hard where he lived but it was effected and there were power outages.   I firmly believe his grandchildrens timely visit saved his life.  He stayed with us for the next three months while recuperating.  These two personal stories made a  blog post by Dene, The Country Consultant on taking care of elderly neighbors in time of crisis  really resonate with me.  Her article is spot on, worth a read and especially important today with the break down of extended families and rampant social isolation.

Again, due to the previous warm days and the temperature hovering around freezing,  the ground was not as covered as the trees.   The grass was ice covered, but much thinner and it was still crunchy underneath making walking a lot less treacherous that it might have been.   I remember another ice storm in the mid 70’s, although not near as devastating as the 2007 storm, did have a significant ice covering on the ground.  Not having ice cleats or golf shoes I remember having to literally chop footholds in the ice and sprinkle them with wood ashes to make it uphill to the barn safely.

Next door a huge section split off  an old oak tree.  The same elderly neighbor, who had grown up just down the road, had  previously told me stories about how when she was young the entire stretch of road was lined with  oak trees, which were even then large enough that their branches extended over the road and made a tree tunnel.  This tree was one of only two left.  The other one also lost major limbs to the ice.   

The partial tree fall narrowly missed the  house next door.

 

A stand of  small pine trees, about 8 years old at the time,  bent double to the ground under the weight of the ice.  

 

 

It took a few days for electric crews to begin the first steps toward restoring power.  First was cutting back limbs that still endangered lines.   There were many places where it took two to three weeks or more to restore power.  Due to the construction of subdivisions just  up the road the lines had been upgraded to three phase sturdy new lines  a few years back.   Since luckily the line to the house was undamaged we were only three days without electricity.  Next door where the weatherhead was taken out and supply lines down it took two weeks.  Repair crews from all over the country converged on the area, working day and night to get the grid back up.  Of course there was a run on generators, which soon disappeared from local stores.  It did not take long for people to bring in truck loads from out of the affected area, offered for sale at premium prices.   Our kitchen range uses natural gas and could be lit with a match so we never missed a meal.  Our property is on a well so with no electricity no pumped water. Thankfully we had plenty of drinking and cooking water on hand.  Our supply of toilet flushing water was limited, but again we were saved by a few degrees of temperature and were able in the days after the storm to catch ice melt off the roof  in plastic tubs.   We have since upgraded our stored water supply significantly.  That was probably the area where we were least prepared and fortuitously spared by the  few degrees of warmth above freezing that followed the storm.

Storm clean-up was an ongoing job for months afterward.

Twenty two trees on our property were either lost or significantly damaged.  It took lots of work over several years to really clean up.  The bright side was lots of firewood available close by.

 

Crews from out of town were hired to haul away debris from the damaged trees. They made several passes a few weeks apart through the city and county. A large field north of town was designated as a dumping ground and smoke from the burning of the debris could be seen for many days.

 

As challenging and damaging as the Storm of 2007 was the ice also had a strange beauty.  We also learned some lessons on  preparedness and how very small unpredictable things (ie: a few degrees of temperature) can make a tremendous difference.  

  The word on the tube is that the current incoming weather will not be near as severe as 2007, hopefully the weather guessers are right.

This year yielded a crop of approximately 25 heads of Napa cabbage.  The outside leaves may look a bit ragged from the garden insects taking their share, but once peeled away the insides were untouched, succulent and wonderfully tasty.  We’ve been enjoying variations of  Napa salad, throwing it into stir fried veggie combos, making kimchi and gifting some when possible.

Heads of Napa cabbage in the garden

Hearts of Napa

This was an extra good salad – chopped / sliced Napa with green onion, diced yellow pepper, parsley, hyssop and shoots (just beginning to flower) from bolting turnips. 

Napa salad

The dressing was a mix of homemade kefir, some sour cream, a dash of  my favorite junk food – Miracle Whip,  poppy seed, salt and pepper.

Salad dressing ingredients

I also made some naturally fermented Kimchi (Korean Sauerkraut) loosely following  the recipe from Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon. 

For 2 Quarts:

1 head Napa, cored and shredded

1 bunch green onions, chopped

1 cup carrots, grated

1/2 cup daikon radish, grated

1 tablespoon grated ginger

3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

1/2 teaspoon dried chile flakes

1 tablespoon sea salt

4 tablespoons whey (if not available use an additional 1 tablespoon salt).

Place vegetables, ginger, garlic, red chile flakes, sea salt and whey in a bowl and pound with a wooden pounder or a meat hammer to release juices.  Place in a quart-size wide-mouth mason jar and press down firmly until juices come to the top of the cabbage. The top of the vegetables should be at least one inch below the top of the jar. Cover and keep at room temperature for about three days before transferring to cold storage.  

Kimchi

I didn’t have any green onions or daikon radish on hand and some of my family swears that garlic causes unpleasant intense dreaming, so those ingredients were omitted.  I did have whey that had been strained from some plain yogurt with live cultures.  I used pepper flakes from homegrown dried tabasco peppers.  In fact I rather overdid it on the first batch – whew! was it hot!  Fortunately that perfectly suited my son and granddaughter and I learned to tolerate it in small doses.    The  jar with the pink tinge on the right included some chopped radicchio leaves which imparted a very slight bitter flavor (not unpleasant, if you like that sort of thing).  

Radicchio in the garden

Radicchio

I made about 12 quarts total and  four or five  months later we’re down to just a few jars.

I try to remember to serve some naturally fermented veggies with every meal, just a few spoonfuls provides a healthy dose of probiotics and pungent punch of taste.

View across garden towards the end of summer

This past summer has been challenging with extreme heat and drought.  A few plants suffered inordinately in the garden; the usual prolific asian long beans languished and barely produced after a first flush of young tender beans, tomatoes were attacked by hordes of aphids early on, recovered and produced until the extreme heat, and only after a bit of cooling and some rain are flowering & putting on new fruit.   Early in the year the Napa cabbage crop was outstanding, was able to make quite a few quarts of naturally fermented Kimchi.

Rain!

Finally, a few weeks ago the rain started, and since then we’ve had fairly regular soakings.  The rainfall  this year has been over twelve inches under average so the rains are very welcome.

Fall greens

This year a lot of the fall planting has been from a mix of  lettuces, greens, radishes, turnips, and specialty asian and winter hardy varieties that I sow a small patch of every few days.  In order to keep the plantings from being too thick I mix the seeds with a generous amount of sand and also try to sow thinly.   We’re finally able to again consume daily salads in quanity!

Turnips

My favorite fall turnip varity- Hakurei, a sweet fast growing salad turnip.  Also makes great mashed turnips.

Herb row

Still harvesting herbs – mint, goldenrod,  marshmallow leaves, tulsi (holy basil)  and lemon balm for tea.  Dug several echinacea roots that are currently macerating for tincture.  Still need to dig marshmallow and dandelion. 

Tangle of plants

It’s that overgrown time of year.

Globe artichokes and asparagus patch

Volunteer Mustard Greens

In back of the pineapple sage is a batch of volunteer mustard greens that re-seeded themselves from a plant that I let mature and go to seed earlier in the year.

Green tomatoes

After languishing in the heat of summer tomatoes are again beginning to set and grow.  There is likely at least 4 to 6 weeks before the first frost so I am hopeful of a good harvest. 

Yard edge with stinging nettle patch

This is the edge of the yard  that we cleaned up last winter / spring.  An area approximately 20 feet by 200 feet was reclaimed from a tangle of  invasives.     After the clean-up it was seeded with creeping red fescue and white dutch clover which grew well at first .  During the heat / drought of mid summer it turned brown and crunchy and I had mostly lost hope of its survival.   With the recent rain it greened up and is looking lush.

Ongoing Hugel mound project

These are the two hugelkultur beds we built this spring / early summer.  I’ve been transplanting herb divisions from the main garden into them, throwing out plentiful amounts of seed mixtures (third crop of buckwheat sprouting)  and have stuck in a bunch of cabbage plants recently. 

Pine tree corner

Greens

A surprise globe basil surrounded by arugula, turnips, mustard and mixed lettuces.

Hardening off Plants

Last week the weather was relatively mild with the exception of a cold winter like day of alternating sleet, rain, hail and giant snowflakes.  Then came several beautiful spring days, and today one would think it’s summer, with a close to record breaking high temperature of 81 degrees.  For over a week, on the pleasant days, I’ve been hardening off plants outside, gradually increasing the time they spend in the protected sunny microclimate corner.  Early morning  I make sure they are well watered. Today when I checked them mid morning a few were beginning to wilt and  look very unhappy in the intense sun, so I threw a piece of shade cloth over the top of the plant rack, secured it with clothespins, and made sure they everything was well watered again. 

Shade cloth protected plant starts

The shade cloth provided a nice dappled shade for the flats of plants but still allowed air circulation.  I’ve read that some breeze helps strengthen the plants as opposed to those that are kept in a more static atmosphere.

Plants in dappled shade

A few days ago I potted up this tray of tomato plants.  They were started in soil cubes and repotted into 4″ peat pots where they will continue to grow until planted into the garden late April or early May.  The low plastic containers seem to work well, 24 plants fit perfectly, they can be watered by pouring about 1/4″ of water in the bottom of the container and the peat pots wick the water quite nicely.  

Bottom watered tomato plants

So far the shade cloth solution is working well for hardening off plants, allowing them to stay outside with better sun exposure vs being still inside, yet not scorched, wilted and possibly killed and requiring less checking and watering during the day.

Sunny Microclimate

With a sunny warming south / southeast outlook and sturdy protection from north / northwest winds this corner of the lower story of our house makes for an amazing microclimate. The room to the left of the overhead doors has undergone several transformations in the past decade. When we bought the property it had old large leaky aluminum windows covered with Celotex, the uneven floor was a mix of clay and gravel and it was generally cold, damp  and unpleasant.

Sunny microclimate

It stayed in that condition for several years. We then scored some used windows – 3 big patio door size, a large slider and a smaller double-hung.  After window installation, leveling the floor with loads of gravel and sand, laying 12″ square pavers from Lowe’s and a bright green paint job on the walls – we had a very different room:
First transformation
With the addition of some used furniture, plant stands made from some of my old art show pottery displays, and a bit of decor – it became what we called the “Cabana room”
The “Cabana room”

 This delightful sunny room was enjoyed for several years, used as a guest room, and with the addition of small AC unit, as a comfortable place to cool off in the summer without having to air condition the rest of the house.  The next tansformation was into a temporary  pottery studio: 

Pottery studio
It functioned as studio space and part time plant room for a few more years, I then packed up the pottery equipment  and it is now pretty much a dedicated plant room.  

Plant room

 

Seedlings in the sunny window

 
 
 

Grow light assisted seed starting

 

A Tangle of Invasives

Since this winter has been exceptionally mild it has been possible to work on some outdoor projects that have been looming for some time.   One of these has been tackling the tangle of invasive plants that has slowly taken over a good 20 feet on the edge of the yard.    I’m extremely thankful there is a narrow wooded strip that separates the yard from a large church parking lot, an animal shelter and beyond that a busy highway.   It functions as a wildlife corridor, extending beyond our property, behind other large lots and through a few remaining fields, ending at a subdivision. During the summer it provides a visual barrier and somewhat mitigates highway noise.   However it also provides a nursery bed / staging area for an increasingly aggressive advance of bush honeysuckle, japanese honeysuckle, winter creeper and multiflora rose.   

Bush honeysuckle advancing
There is a range of opinions regarding invasive plants:   some would say bring on the chemical poisons and stop them no matter what the cost, others would argue that the invasives fulfill a necessary function in healing worn out degraded soils. Some suggest researching the uses and benefits of invasives and making use of them.   I can see value in most of those positions.  But, argh – they are eating my yard and space available for more desired plantings – patches of stinging nettle,  lemon balm and other herbs that I planted several years ago were being increasingly overshadowed,  difficult to access and barely hanging on under the arching droop of bush honeysuckle and the hours of sunlight reaching a strip planted with berries, herbs and flowers was quickly diminishing.  Our small orchard is also in the line of encroachment.  The strip of woods has become degraded over time, the large Osage orange and oak trees giving way to straggly post oak, stunted cedar and now the tangle of invasives.
We have been cutting, chopping, lopping, sawing, pulling, raking and occasionally cussing  as the undesired plants are removed, or at least slowed down.   Hard work but a lot cheaper than a gym membership, plus one gets a healthy dose of sunlight and air.  
Edge in winter – Clean up in progress
During the Big Ice Storm of 2007 many trees fell or were damaged, the upper limbs broken off or left hanging by a few fibers, making for a dismal winter skyline.
 

Tree damage still visible 5 years after the Big Ice Storm of 2007

Amur bush honeysuckle ( Lonicera maackii) is by far the largest and most aggressive of the invasives we are dealing with.  The common name Amur Honeysuckle comes from the Amur River which forms the border between the Russian Far East and Manchuria in China. It is native to the area surrounding this river and was introduced in the mid to late 1880’s for landscape ornamentals, wildlife cover and erosion control.  (sound familiar?)  It can grow to 20 feet tall and thrives in shaded forest understory.  In spring they are covered with fragrant white or pink flowers that become yellowish as the plant matures.  In fall red berries are produced, billions of berries, that are distributed by birds and small mammals. Last month (January) as we began to clear the edge there were still some berries on the bushes and numerous ones on the ground.   They form a thick understory that limits sunlight, moisture, nutrients and access of pollinators to native plants.  It is thought they may also produce a chemical that inhibits native plant growth.  The berries are carbohydrate rich and do not provide migrating birds with the high fat content they need for migratory flight.    The recommended methods of control mostly involve the use of glyphosate (Round-up), burning or pulling out if the entire plant is removed.  Cutting back results in more vigorous growth.  Round-up use  is unacceptable  to me, burning is not feasible so we are going with the removal method.   The bushes on the very edge of the woods where they get the most light are the largest, fastest growing.  The woods behind them is filled with smaller specimens. Clearing them all out is impossible so the plan is to push them back about 20 feet, establish  a perimeter and try and hold the ground from further incursion.   I sense it will be another ongoing front, added to the active Johnson and Bermuda grass wars.   I really do not enjoy taking such an adversarial position but they are fast encroaching on a line of raspberries, gooseberries, herbs, rhubarb, fruit trees and other perennial plantings that we’ve worked hard to establish.   
 Our state Department of Conservation has a very informative bulletin on bush honeysuckle.
Plants for a Future (PFAF)  has a website that provides information on over 7000 species of plants growing in temperate climates that have potential edible, medicinal and other uses.   According to their database bush honeysuckle is not known as an edible. Historical herbal medicinal actions include: leaves – diuretic, bark – laxative, and infusion (tea) used to increase milk flow in nursing mothers and as an eyewash for sore eyes.
The lower portions of the multiple stems of the clumping bush honeysuckle are also useful for firewood.  As part of the clean-up process we sawed up a goodly number of 4 to 6″ diameter sticks of firewood.   They may not have the heating value of oak or hickory but have been burning just fine in our basement wood stove. 
Bush honeysuckle – billions of berries

Bush honeysuckle stumps

Then there’s  Japanese honeysuckle  (Lonicera japonica) – native to Japan it was introduced in 1806 for horticultural ground-cover.  It was not until the early 1900’s that it became widely established in the eastern U.S., again, mostly spread by birds. It climbs over native vegetation, shading and smothering  it out. (Kudzu lite)  Glyphosate is the recommended treatment, along with burning.  Mowing and mechanical cutting are also mentioned.    Flowering and seed development are heaviest in areas where tree falls or damage allow a greater light intensity, such as happened locally with the Ice Storm of 2007.  If we can cut out what is in the 20 foot no invasives zone and prevent its advance  I’ll be satisfied.   
According to PFAF historically the parboiled leaves have been used as a vegetable, although there are strong cautions because  the leaves contain saponins which can be toxic to humans.  There is a long list of traditional medicinal use including reducing blood pressure and cholesterol levels,  treating arthritis, mumps, hepatitis, pneumonia, bacterial dysentery, colds and pain. 
Japanese honeysuckle draped through the trees
Winter Creeper (Euonymus fortunei) vies with bush honeysuckle as the most persistent and dense plant .  It comes from China, introduced in 1907, as yet another ornamental ground cover.  Some nurseries still sell it.  It is indeed a tough ground cover, growing rapidly under harsh conditions.  My first experience with it was in the 1980’s when we moved into an old Victorian style house built in 1904.  There was a huge mulberry tree in the backyard surrounded and entwined by what I then (ignorantly, mistakenly) thought was a handsome vine.  After doing extensive rehab work on the porch that wound around two sides of the house and having a planting area of dense clay soil in  front I thought sticking in a few springs of the handsome vine out back for ground cover would be an easy fix.  Well, fast forward a few years and we’re cutting, chopping, and crawling under the porch to rip out what we can of the vines.  They grew so fast and  densely that the porch was literally being ripped apart.  Lesson learned.   Yet again, glyphosate is the recommended control.  Easy to see why Round-up is so pervasive in our environment today, not only its wanton use by industrial agriculture but also in many backyards, parks, and  lawns.
Winter creeper has no known edible use according to PFAF but does contain an anti-cancer compound and has been used to treat women’s issues.  

Winter Creeper

 
Multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) is a thorny shrub of medium height that was originally introduced from Japan in1886 as rootstock for cultivated roses.   In the 1930’s it was promoted by the U.S.  Soil Conservation Service for control of soil erosion.  As late as the 1960’s state conservation departments were giving out rooted cuttings to landowners for living fences and wildlife habitat.  It now occurs widely  in fields, pastures, roadsides, stream banks and tree fall gaps in forests.   Multiflora spreads by seed disbursement by birds, and natural layering, where canes touch the ground and form roots.   It can form dense impenetrable thickets. Grubbing out, burning, successive mowings and of course glyphosate are the suggested control measures.   Repeated mowing seem to be effective, but be prepared for flat tires.   
The PFAF database indicates multiflora rose hips have been used in jams, preserves and pies. However there is a layer of  hairs around the seeds that can be irritating to the mouth and digestive tract and should be removed before using.  Historically the young leaves and shoots have been used raw or cooked as a  source of vitamin C.  Traditional medicinal uses are leaf poultices applied to sores,  the fruit for lowering blood sugar  and as an antidote to fish poisoning, treating constipation, wounds, sprains and injuries.  The fruit is rich in vitamins and minerals, especially vitamin A, C and E and a good source of fatty acids.  It is being investigated as a potential anti-cancer agent.
However, at this time the potential usefullness of the invasive plants does not outweigh the negatives.  Although I can appreciate the benefits and even the beauty of these four plants, it’s a case of  Not in MY Backyard.
Multiflora Rosa
Some of the themes that keep recurring as I’ve read up on our local invasives include:
  • Good intentioned introductions followed by unintended consequences.
  • Soil and habitat degradation creating conditions favorable for invasives establishment
  • Invasives winning the competition for sunlight, moisture and nutrition therefore crowding out native species
  • Invasives with thorns, tough vines and fast growth being very difficult to irradicate
  • The more invasives are chopped, hacked and cut back the more persistent they can be

On my regular library trip yesterday a book on the New Books shelf  jumped out at me: Weeds – In defense of nature’s most unloved plants written by Richard Mabey, one of Britain’s best known nature writers.  He takes a look at just what are weeds and how changing times and perceptions change the answer to that question, how weeds have influenced civilization, perhaps even made it possible and the effects civilization has had on weeds.   Perhaps by the time I’ve finished the book my militant view of the backyard invasives will have tempered a bit.  We’ll see…

 
 

Summer Butterflies

It’s winter, even if it’s a mild one, and I’m thinking about summer:

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