Rural Roots Blog
Exploring the world outside our windows through gardening, farming, cooking, decorating and more.
Downsizing the veggie garden has its benefits
September 20, 2018 | 02:02 PM
I vowed to plant a smaller vegetable garden this year and I'm glad I did. At some point in the near future I'll probably increase my square footage again but for now, my plot is manageable. I know from experience that when garden projects are too big, burnout happens and the work is not enjoyable.
I ended up with two zucchinis, three red peppers, two mini peppers, two hot peppers, three broccoli, one eggplant, two cherry tomatoes, one slicing tomato, two and a half rows of beans, two meager rows of popcorn and two butternut squash plants. The pumpkin bit the dust. That might not sound so small but it's scaled back from prior years.
Of course, going on that hunt for the perfect plants is fun. Plotting out just how I'll plant them is pretty enjoyable too. Actually putting them in the ground isn't too hard either but what usually gets me is that first flush of weeds. I thought I would be smart this spring and mulch with straw soon after planting. Well I must have been a little too slow on the draw and I ended up having some very weedy spots, plus volunteer wheat to contend with! Add to that the regular watering everything needed just to stay alive and my workload for this "hobby" was at its maximum level throughout June.
After battling back the weeds and welcoming a few rain showers, things got better and the garden needed nothing more than just occasional visits to check on maturity, impatiently waiting to harvest.
I will admit I am sometimes bummed my nightly trip to the garden isn't longer. It typically takes me less than five minutes to check the zucchini, beans and tomatoes and then dirty dishes and rowdy children await me back in the kitchen! As a result, I've probably pulled a few errant weeds just in order to enjoy the peaceful setting for another five minutes!
On the other hand, having fewer plants to water this season during dry spells was a plus and has prevented me from being overwhelmed by a flush of produce. In fact, it's been a season of "just one." My eggplant, Cherokee Purple tomato and poblano put all their early efforts into growing just one single vegetable (or fruit in the case of the tomato). I don't have much hope the eggplant will give me anything more; the poblano is now pushing out a multi-pepper crop and the tomato has upped its game but the slugs are negatively impacting that harvest.
I pick all of about five beans per day, meaning we have enough for a meal every 10 days or so.
I just realized the other day that I haven't had to try one new zucchini recipe and frankly I'm okay with that!
How has your garden grown in 2018?
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September 10, 2018 | 12:04 PM
ALMONT TWP. — While the debate rages on about how soon is too soon for the onslaught of pumpkin spice anything, that other fall favorite—apple—is coming on strong and in it's purest form. In fact, the 2018 apple season started back in late July for Will and Chuck Bristol of Brookwood Fruit Farm. While produce stands were just starting to stock sweet corn and tomatoes, the son-father team and their employees were already harvesting one of the earliest apple varieties from their orchards, Lodi. Now through late October, apples will be ready for picking at their Bordman Road orchard. That's due to the fact that Brookwood is home to more than 50 varieties of apples—53 to be exact.
"Some parts of the start are ahead of normal for maturity but our farm is right on it's normal picking schedule," Will, Brookwood's assistant manager said.
Other varieties that have already been harvested include early McIntosh varieties, Tydeman's Red and Paula Red.
"We picked our fifth, sixth and seventh varieties already this year," Chuck said on Friday.
Although it's still officially summer on the calendar and summer-like weather has persisted, Will said it won't be long before customers are clamoring for that quintessential fall trip to the orchard.
Locals' appetite for apples typically starts once those early, fresh fruits get put in a homemade fundraiser pie or appear in a cafeteria line.
"Some of our apples go to schools for their hot lunch programs. Kids go home and tell their parents about it and that seems to be when we see an uptick in sales," Will said.
On Friday, Will and Chuck made a delivery of Paula Reds to Rochester where the local senior citizens center would turn them into pies as part of a fundraiser.
This Friday, Sept. 7, Brookwood's u-pick season will officially begin. That's when their first big crop, the Gala variety, will be ready.
"For us, once u-pick starts that's when it gets into a lot people's minds," Will said.
Also due to be available in September are Ginger Gold, Zestar and McIntosh, Cortland, Jonathan and Empire.
"Our biggest in-season demand is the first to second week in October. That's when Northern Spies start. Also coming in then is Honeycrisp, Jonagolds and Fujis," Will said.
The Bristols grow a variety of Spy apples which are ideal for making pies. Besides selling in-person to customers, many of those apples will be shipped out too.
Some of those Spy trees have been in production since the 1960s when Will's great-grandfather planted them, but the newer varieties that consumers request are also coming into their own, especially Honeycrisp and other fresh-eating kinds, like Snowcrisp and Evercrisp.
No matter the type or time of harvest, the 2018 harvest is expected to be large.
"Last year we were down in quantity–30-40 percent of normal–but the quality was excellent. This year, we're right back up to normal. In fact, we expect a crop around 110 percent and the quality looks good again," Will said.
In order to keep those apples fresh and provide a variety for customers to choose from in the coming weeks, the Bristols will store their crop in two coolers, each capable of holding 5,000 bushels each.
Starting around Sept. 14, they'll start selling cider made from their own apples.
Brookwood Fruit Farm is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Visit their website at www.brookwoodfruitfarm.com to see an anticipated harvest schedule.
August 16, 2018 | 09:46 AM
First, it was fear of deer ticks that kept us out of the tall grass from spring into summer. Now the thistles, reaching their full height, threaten to make any venture painful for bare legs.
Although they have little to no value for us humans, the bees, butterflies sure seem to love their cushy-looking flowers. One afternoon last week I ventured out our backdoor with my camera in hand and found the predominant thistles on our property—bull thistle, Canada thistle and teasel—hosting all kinds of winged creatures.
Both bull and Canada thistle are considered noxious weeds by the state of Michigan's Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. That means it's a violation of state law if seeds from either of these plants contaminate any kind of seed that's for sale.
Bull thistle, well that's pretty easy to identify—it's large and aggressive like the bovine kind. The leaves are very hairy and boast long, unforgiving spines. According to Invasive.org, the bull thistle can grow up to seven feet tall. It's purple flowers mirror the plant's spiny appearance but are soft to the touch. On Sunday, the bees were all over the one plant that invaded my onetime strawberry bed. Native to Europe, the bull thistle had no problem assimilating to the New World as it is now established in all 50 states.
Canada thistle is more diminutive and less thorny than the bull thistle, but the Xerces Society deems it the "most persistent and difficult to control among the invasive thistles." They note it spreads by both seed and root and subsequently, crowds out other important native plants as a group. It's solidly distributed across the northern U.S. and is an unwanted guest wherever it goes. Twenty-four states, plus Michigan, have slapped Canada thistle on some form of a regulated list, like Michigan's noxious weed designation.
Then there are the teasels. Yes, that's plural because there are two different kinds that seem to crop up in tandem. Cutleaf teasel boasts deebly-lobed leaves and tall white flowers while common teasel is typically shorter with purple flowers and smooth leaves although either flower color can occur within each kind. We have a healthy batch of it-mostly the cutleaf variety-growing behind our barns.
I find them to be pretty fascinating plants. The leaves on teasels are aligned and fused around the stem which forms a cup that can collect rainwater. According to the Ohio State University Weed Guide, its name refers to the practice of using its flowers to tease wool. Birds, like goldfinches, love to eat some the 3,300 seeds each plant produces, helping the plant spread to new locations too. It can grow to heights of eight feet.
Teasels are easier to control than Canada thistle (the experts say cultivation works) but they have a "presence" even after they're dead. The stems of cutleaf teasel are very pithy and persist for many seasons after they've died. This spring, while searching for asparagus, I walked through a patch of broken stems and stepped just so one jabbed me in the thigh, leaving a significant black and blue mark for weeks. It's considered a noxious weed in just six states so it doesn't have the same notoriety as other thistles but it's still considered an unwanted guest in general terms.
According to the Xerces Society, Michigan only has about three native thistles: roadside or tall, field thistle and the prairie or Flodman's thistle. There's also Pitcher's thistle but it's only found along beaches in the Northeast part of the state.
I wish I had found some native thistles during my exploration but I'm happy to know the pollinators aren't going hungry this summer.
What's pretty but prickly in your backyard?
Contact Maria at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The result of trees and plants competiting for water
August 16, 2018 | 09:45 AM
My plants haven't enjoyed it all that much but this extended dry spell we've been experiencing has resulted in some spontaneous demonstration trials.
As those rain clouds have dissipated and the kids and I have lost interest in watering every single plant every single day, I've watched with curiosity how the vegetables and annual flowers react.
I seeded just three short rows of green beans in early June. This season I opted to move everything a bit closer to the field's edge and, therefore, closer to a row of mature maples in the yard and the lawn.
In that first row of beans closest to the trees, a mere three seeds germinated. In the second, my population count was closer to seven. In the third and farthest row, there are more than a dozen on their way to producing a nice crop.
I planted them when the soil was still moist and even after planting we had several nice rain showers but my little bean trial shows just how water hungry the maple and grass is compared to my humble beans.
It's obvious the point on the calendar plays a big role too.
This spring, we grabbed a tray of pansies and planted nearly all of them in a container by our back door. Two were leftover and my six year-old decided to stick them in some dirt under another maple tree.
When it came time to replace the pansy planter with summer annuals, those pansies joined the others under the tree. Those latest transplants have struggled from day one in that spot despite regular watering and a layer of mulch. As of this weekend, they are officially dead while the original flowers are still holding on.
Here I was thinking the trees would cast too much shade on the vegetables but that doesn't seem to be an issue.
Don't get me wrong, planting under or in close proximity to trees isn't wrong, it just requires careful consideration or vigilance. I'm not sad over losing a few seeds and annuals but if it was a pricey perennial...that would be a different story.
In fact, some plants can thrive in dry shade but it all depends on the conditions. Perennials often on that 'dry shade' list include hostas and painted ferns. I have both under a very tall blue spruce. The hosta is doing great while the ferns are really struggling. Meanwhile that same type of hosta is floundering in another dry shade spot near a peony bush.
The conditions this growing season just prove that there isn't a gardening formula that delivers guaranteed success. Sure, there are enough seasoned gardeners and plant scientists out there to offer guidance and data but without being able to see the dynamics under the soil, the only answer is to fill that watering can one. more. time.
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August 16, 2018 | 09:44 AM
June 17-23 is National Forage Week. This spot on the calendar might not sound all that exciting but the fact is that forages (a range of plants that get cut above ground, chopped, baled and bagged or grazed) helped put that Father's Day steak on your grill, the ice cream in that cone you'll buy your kid this week and played a role in nearly all of the other meals you'll eat in 2018.
In essence, we're talking about hay of all kinds, corn silage and the grasses that cattle, sheep, goats, horses and other livestock eat directly when pastured. In these parts, forages play a major role in a deer's diet too so hunters should be joining farmers in this week of recognition.
For the last four years, the American Forage and Grassland Council has been working to promote the importance of forages in our everyday lives, an effort that gets magnified one week every June.
First of all, a lot of land in this country is dedicated to forage production because animal agriculture depends on it. According to the AFGC, more than 520 million acres are used to grow the stuff every year. The crops harvested from that land are used to feed approximately 109 million head of livestock including the dairy cows that turn it into 20 billion gallons of milk every 12 months.
To humans, forages have little value in their simplest form because we can't consume them directly. Livestock bridge that gap by turning those inedible plants into something nutritious. Cattle, in particular, produce 19 percent more protein than they consume, according to the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology. Even if you prefer your beef to be corn fed, those animals started their lives as calves on pasture.
Forage production plays a significant role in our local ag economy too. According to the latest Ag Census, forage ranked third (behind soybeans and corn) in dedicated production acres at 21,000 in Lapeer County. Lapeer's hay value was ranked 10th in the state. St. Clair County's stats are similar. Forage production stood in third place at just shy of 17,000 acres and the value of their hay production put them in the top 20 too.
The AFGC also points out that forages help feed people by providing diverse habitat and shelter for wildlife and pollinators. Legumes, like alfalfa and clovers used in rotational grazing systems, can serve as a food source for bees who, in turn, are necessary for pollinating many fruits and vegetables.
Forages also play a role in protecting the stuff we need to grow those plants—the soil. According to the AFGC, an acre of forage can prevent two million pounds of soil from eroding each year. Additionally, they help filter sediments that otherwise contribute toward water pollution and those forage legumes, like alfalfa, return nitrogen to the soil, reducing the need for fertilizer.
Forage is a necessary ingredient in recreation too. All those horses and ponies who provide countless hours of riding, pulling and racing fun are fueled with forages.
Hay fields may be just a blur of green to the average person driving by but those humble plants play a mighty role in our everyday lives.
I'll do my duty and officially mark Forage Week with an extra helping of ice cream...it's only appropriate.
Contact Maria at firstname.lastname@example.org.
June 04, 2018 | 01:58 PM
Things are getting more colorful and it's more than just blooming spring flowers. Colorful winter migrants have winged their way home and are livening up the landscape.
I typically hear the first Baltimore Oriole before I see it. Fortunately, he was perched in the still leafless locust tree outside the office window so it wasn't hard to set eyes on him too. The hummingbirds have arrived too so there's almost always something fun to see out the window.
This year, we've been treated to several sightings of another colorful bird, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak. The flashy male and the more subdued female showed up late last week. She settled in at the suet feeder and he perched on the hummingbird feeder to stare into our kitchen window. More than likely, he probably saw his reflection and was trying to scare off his twin. He would make several swooping passes across the window before leaving momentarily to check on his mate. Although the drab females could be confused for a sparrow, Grosbeaks are larger in size (comparable to a robin) and have that signature triangular bill.
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks live in Central and South America during the winter. They come north for the breeding season, settling in the northeastern U.S. and will often choose spots close to civilization to raise their young, like parks, gardens and orchards. The Cornell experts say Grosbeaks construct rather loose and flimsy-looking nests in saplings but the birds' penchant for using forked twigs is believed to help hold their homes together. They'll raise 1-5 eggs at a time and have one or two broods per season.
Red-breasted Grosbeaks enjoy a varied diet of insects, fruits, field crops (like wheat and oats) and tree flowers and buds. They have a rich song, similar to a robin's, but considered more "sweet." Cornell notes that Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are one of the few birds known to sing while sitting on a nest. Females will reportedly sing while building her nest, incubating her eggs and brooding her young.
They are considered a common forest bird, but according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, their populations have seen a slow decline since 1966.
"These birds nest in saplings, so their numbers could be dropping as forests start to mature over the eastern United States," the Cornell Lab notes on their website.
"Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are commonly trapped for sale as cage birds in their wintering range, and this has an unknown impact on their population."
Hopefully the view out your windows is colorful in more ways than one this spring!
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Petite plants provide weeks’ worth of spring color
April 30, 2018 | 10:05 AM
Of all the spring bulbs out there, crocus is probably best suited to endure the kind of nasty weather we've had lately. Its petals are hardy and thanks to its low stature, crocuses stand strong through rain, sleet, snow and even ice.
Because of their hardy nature, they also seem to have some staying power and can provide a weeks-long color display. Some of that can be attributed to the fact that they bloom early in the season when things are still quite cool and that their petals are fully colored when they emerge from the ground too unlike tulips' green buds that only slowly develop their hue.
I added two new varieties (or so I thought) to my yard this past fall and we've been grateful for the pops of color they provide, especially now that nearly nothing has begun to green up.
One was 'Cream Beauty,' considered a species or botanical crocus. It turns out this is the same variety I already had planted in the yard. I'd purchased a small amount some years ago at a local garden center and I guess they caught my eye again in the fall when I spotted them in a mail order catalog. By the way, crocus bulbs are technically called "corms."
Their blooms are creamy, light yellow with bright orange anthers inside. They only reach a height of four inches and their foliage is rather sparse. This variety has been blooming since late March.
Last week Pickwick popped out of the ground. This variety comes from the Dutch Large Flowering type of crocus and, as the name suggests, has a larger, slightly taller flower. I don't normally like stripes but Pickwick's lilac and white pattern is quite eye-catching. The Missouri Botanical Garden considers Pickwick a suitable cut flower.
Most experts have deemed crocuses to be versatile and I would have to agree. I've had luck using them under trees and as a bright border along a walkway. Any place that's not too soggy should work. When they're done blooming, the foliage and flowers melt away into the landscape.
When it comes to spring bulbs, growers have to consider wildlife. Thankfully deer don't like to eat them but crocus can be a tasty treat for squirrels, especially in the fall when the bulbs are newly planted. Some of the later blooming types attract bees.
If the deer devour your tulips or digging deep holes for daffodils isn't your thing, grab a package of crocus corms this coming fall. Crocuses are a "small but mighty" powerhouse in the spring landscape.
Contact Maria at firstname.lastname@example.org.
April 12, 2018 | 11:46 AM
With winter-like winds still howling, a lovely vegetable garden still seems a long ways off but now's the time to be planning for a bountiful harvest; specifically, now's the time to purchase seed while quantities and varieties are still available even if it's a bit early to stick them in the soil. I purchase most of my vegetable plants from the greenhouse mainly because I don't have the space or gear to start seed myself but it's a fun thing to try and, with most packets costing less than $5, it's not an expensive project.
Nevertheless, those $3 packets can add up quickly if you grab one of everything. If your gusto for gardening starts to wane as the season develops, many might never get opened. Case in point, I rifled through my seed bin and found untouched packets of spinach, kale, sunflower and snap bean seed. I guess I overbought! Although most seed is still viable for about two years, the quality is usually reduced if it's not used the same year it's sold.
With those factors in mind, I like the suggestions the Home Garden Seed Association offers in their seed starting guide. Aside from tips on light and water requirements, they give a listing of what seeds should and shouldn't be started indoors. Considering my situation, my eyes were drawn to that "either or" list. It includes:
•lettuce (plus other salad greens)
•herbs like basil, parsley
•flowers: sunflowers, zinnias, nasturtiums
It's good middle ground in terms of growing on a budget. If you don't get the seed started indoors or the crop fails for some reason, there's still time to push that seed into the ground once the conditions are ideal.
Likewise, it makes financial sense to purchase seed for those plants that grow best from seed. Sure, you can get just about anything at local greenhouses these days but transplanting things like sweet corn and carrots doesn't work so well. Going from a balmy greenhouse to the colder spring ground can be a tough transition.
This list includes:
•herbs like cilantro and dill
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March 29, 2018 | 02:43 PM
The setting sun was shining just so that the light made the owl's feathers almost glow. I just so happened to see the bright white body out of the corner of my eye. Before I even got a good look at what was perched in the tree, facing east, I knew it was a snowy owl. Grateful that I had my work camera with me, I turned my car around and inched up the road's shoulder, hoping I wouldn't scare if off.
My five year-old was trying to engage her little brother in the excitement too and point his attention to the tree. "Hello penguin," the two year-old said from the backseat. Close, I guess.
The bird watched me slowly walk toward him with my camera in hand but wasn't too concerned. He watched cars going by and something in the field to the north…maybe a rabbit? That amazing head/neck of his swiveled from side to side with ease.
I tried to capture those seconds when the owl and those piercing yellow eyes were looking my direction. I hopped back in the driver's seat, turned around for a second time and slowed down to get a few other photos through the car window this time.
The next morning he was still in that same tree, along Graham Road in Imlay Township, and still watching the cars pass by with interest. Later in the day he was gone.
My boss, who's a lot more familiar with creatures of the north country, takes a look at my pictures.
"It's probably a young male," Randy said. He's seen snowy owls on one of his hunting expeditions to Saskatchewan.
Photos from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology confirmed his opinion. This bird is almost nearly all white with a few dark brown feathers by his feet. Females and immature males have barring or dark spots all over their body, except for the face.
It's rather common for some snowy owls to spend their winters in Michigan and New England. During the breeding season these birds call the arctic home….what a trip! Many have obviously felt the need to come south this winter. News agencies from across the state are reporting that there have been many sightings of these amazing birds since December, including downtown Detroit. This event is called an irruption and, according to scientists, happens following a strong breeding season. Previously it was thought these birds came south in winter to look for food but that's been disproven since researchers, including citizen scientists, found that the majority of these migrants had above average body mass.
I had to share my pictures with Daryl Bernard, director of Seven Ponds Nature Center, who I had just chatted with for a story about the center's most recent birding tour in Texas.
Daryl said that he and other birders have been combing farm fields in northern Lapeer County this winter in hopes of seeing a snowy, but they've not had any luck so far.
"It has been a very good winter for snowy owls, and I've seen many - but none in Lapeer County," Daryl said in an email.
I'm usually hoping that some unique bird will visit my feeders at home but this chance spotting was probably better that anything I'll see out my kitchen window. It also doesn't hurt that I had my camera ready and kids in tow.
Email Maria at firstname.lastname@example.org.
March 29, 2018 | 02:42 PM
It's report time in the world of agriculture. When the growing season comes to a close, the statisticians employed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) dive into production and price numbers and over a period of several months their findings get published in a steady stream of news releases. Unfortunately, that news hasn't been too positive of late.
The farm value of the state's field crops dropped by nine percent in 2017, the USDA reported last month. According to figures calculated by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, wheat values saw the biggest decline, dropping 28 percent to stand at $151 million with an average price of $4.50 per bushel. Both corn for grain and soybeans saw their values drop by nine percent with overall production values for corn topping out at $1.01 billion and $897 million for beans.
In 2017, Michigan farmers raised fewer cattle, sheep and goats and received less money for what they did raise. Dairy production, a staple of Michigan's ag economy, is hurting too because of low milk prices.
Last month the USDA also reported that 2017 came to a close with 500 fewer farms in the state than 2016, dropping to 50,900. Although the number of operations declined, the amount of land in farms was unchanged at 9.95 million acres. As a result, the average farm size grew by one acre to stand at 195 acres.
The feds define a farm as "any establishment from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold or normally would have been sold during the year." Nearly half of those 50,900 farms fall into the smallest sales class-$1,000 to $9,999 per year. That sales class also saw the biggest drop in farm numbers, falling by 1,000 from 25,500 to 24,500. Maybe some of them moved into the next highest sales class ($10,000 to 99,999) which grew by 500 farms-the largest increase seen among all classes. Likely several just dropped out of the mix after trying their hand at growing something. Lots of well intentioned folks dream of making a living off the land but the demands and lifestyle just aren't for everyone.
It was somewhat surprising that the amount of land in farms didn't decline from one year to the next. With a depressed farm economy and healthy housing market (those two are often opposite one another, farm economists note), it would seem likely that new construction would gobble up at least some of those ag acres but, then again, take a drive around the Tri-City area and you'll note most new houses are being built on land that's been advertised for development for years. Not surprisingly, the land in farms by sales class saw the biggest gains in the highest class-those operations that sold $1 million or more in 2017. Yes, the big farms are likely getting bigger despite a push by retailers and consumers to recognize smaller scale producers.
Currently, commodity prices aren't so awful it's that land rents and some crop inputs remained inflated after the markets became more settled.
Governor Rick Snyder had lots of positive things to say about the state's ag economy in honor of March, deemed Michigan Agriculture and Food Month, but he seems to acknowledge there's room for more growth.
"The food and agriculture sector is one of our state's critical economic drivers, contributing more than $101 billion to the state's economy each year," Snyder said.
"There is a tremendous opportunity for food and ag businesses to take a national leadership role in research and development, food processing, and exports from Michigan."
It's hard to say where the local or state farm economy goes from here. Fortunately, the 2018 growing season is just around the corner and that seems to put a spring in every grower's step. As Will Rogers said "The farmer has to be an optimist or he wouldn't still be a farmer."
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