Micromanaging

Yesterday's kale.

Yesterday afternoon, in 95-degree temperatures, I harvested kale, broccoli, Swiss chard, and sugar snap peas. All of these are considered cool-season crops, and I have been impressed by their persistence as late spring has slammed us with some relentless midsummer temperatures this year. The greens and broccoli keep producing when by all rights they should bolt, flower, and go to seed. The sugar snap vines keep sending forth new blossoms when really it’s time for them to wither and brown.

What is going on here?

I’ve been reading a little about microclimates. A microclimate receives a kind of exemption from the rules of the USDA plant hardiness zones, which tend to govern gardeners’ decisions about what and when to plant. (Do you know your zone? If you live near me, you’re in Zone 7b. You can find your zone by zip code at the National Gardening Association website.)

Chard, broccoli, then the glimpse of a reddening tomato a few feet away.

Back to the microclimates: sometimes there are factors, or structures, or topographical/landscape features in tiny, specific areas where the rules simply change. Take my gardens, for example. I have lots of beautiful old oak trees on my lot, and I have had to work hard to plant around the prevailing shade. So while my veggies get enough sun every day to thrive, they do not get a ton of sun. There are little areas in my garden beds that stay pretty cool, and that’s where the kale, chard, peas, and broccoli are.

On the other hand, a mere six feet away, closer to the northern wall of my house, which gets lots of summer sun and therefore radiates heat, the tomatoes are starting to turn red—another microclimate.

As we gardeners encounter the exigencies of global warming, we are going to have to learn to microclimate manage. Therefore it’s probably a good idea to become more aware of the particulars of our own microclimates. Take some time to just study your garden beds over time. Experiment and compare. And do some reading. The best explanation I have found on the internet of microclimates is here, on the Cornell University Department of Horticulture website. The article begins with a great little piece of wisdom from one of their extension agents:

In the real world, we garden in microclimates, not hardiness zones.

Get to know your microclimates!

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Broken Tree

Readers might recall that back in the late fall I set two apple tree whips into the little strip of earth between the sidewalk and the street in front of my house. I chose that location deliberately, because I very much like the idea of sharing those fruit trees with my neighbors. In fact, while I was digging the holes, Anna, the eleven-year-old girl who lives next door, watched me with curiosity, asked what I was doing, and ended up helping me backfill the holes with soil and compost around the root balls.

Baby apple tree with new growth

I was delighted when those two twiggy  saplings began to show some signs of life. Green shoots emerged from brown bumps — first tentatively, then with a rush of vigor. I went out in April and looped string over the branched of both trees, then secured the string down taut in the ground with bent pieces of wire coat hangers to encourage the branches to grow horizontally, prompted by this comment on my original post about the trees.

And then one day, heartbreak. I came home from work to find that the top third of one of the trees had been broken off. By someone or something, I don’t know. On purpose or by accident, I don’t know. But someone had tried, strangely, to put the tree back together. The broken top of the trunk had been propped back up and was listing crazily to one side, held in fragile place by the strings, which had been haphazardly rearranged. I took the broken-off part into the house and put it in a jar of water, where it remains, even though the leaves are beginning to yellow. I haven’t been able to let it go. And for several days after, I couldn’t even look at the broken tree, it made me so sad. I think my feelings were hurt.

What amazed me, though, was that I wasn’t the only one distressed by the fate of that little tree. Over the next few days, many neighbors stopped me to tell me how upset they had been, too — that they had been keeping a fond eye on those trees since I had planted them. I had left the nursery tags on them so that passers-by could note that they were Fuji and Gala apples. Unbeknownst to me, folks had been as thrilled as I was to watch those green shoots emerge. They were curious about the web of string stretching the branches out as they grew. I wasn’t the only one with visions of a little apple festival on our street in the fall. And the sadness we all shared over the broken tree really was a kind of grief, as if a neighbor had suffered an injury.

The good news is that while the broken tree looks a little funny, I think it’s going to be just fine. It continues to push out new spring growth. It is shorter than its mate, but I’m hoping what it lacks in height it will eventually make up for in girth.

Even without apples — even before they bore a single leaf — those trees are already bearing a kind of fruit. I think they are off to a fine start.

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Time to Eat

In the past week or two the sheer volume and scope of food rising out of the earth has exploded. One can literally make a meal standing in the middle of the garden, picking, and eating.

Lots of what is ready in my garden never makes it into the house (the strawberries especially), but I did manage to get enough basil into my basket to makethe first batch of pesto of the season on Monday, tossing some into some cappelini and fresh sugar snap peas and freezing the rest. On Wednesday I harvested kale, cilantro, more sugar snaps, and mushrooms for a stir-fry with ginger and tofu. I have also picked six pints of strawberries this week; two went into the freezer for ice cream I’m planning to make for a special party the week after next, and the rest will go into some jam.

The mulberries are starting to come in, too, and a lot of folks have been picking them off the trees that hang heavy over the streets in my neighborhood and making pies. I picked about three cups today during my long morning walk with Caleb, and when I got home I decided I wanted to try making some scones. I modified a recipe I found for oatmeal scones, adding a touch of orange extract and using the mulberries instead of currants, and here is the result. In a few minutes I will  take a few of these next door to my neighbors.

The sugar snaps are copious and remarkably sweet this year. I love them in the pasta and stir fry, but I also love them fresh and crunchy, right off the vine.  That’s the experience I had in mind when I took a platter of them to a little farewell gathering this week for a friend who is moving away. I mounded some hummus in the middle of them, tossed on some kalamata olives and feta cheese, drizzled it all with olive oil, and sprinkled salt. Here’s what the platter looked like.

Enjoy this lovely day! I’m going to pick more sugar snaps.

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The Library Boks

Last Thursday about mid-morning, I received an email from a neighbor of mine who works in the Woodruff Library at Emory University: “I hear numbers between 15-20 for chickens in the library this morning. They are all rounded up, do you think there is a chicken rescue out there, or neighbors that would be interested? I think the library has called animal control.”

Now that is an email one doesn’t see coming, even in the life of an urban homesteader. But I have worked at Emory as a writer and an editor for seventeen years, and for some reason the message felt like a natural confluence of two aspects of my life that don’t usually overlap. So I got right on it. I called the library and begged them to hold off on calling Animal Control . . . too late! The birds were on their way to chicken jail.

But the librarian filled me in: some members of the Emory University Senior Class of 2011, in a classic “college prank” maneuver, released a bunch of pullets, a couple of hens, and a rooster in the reference section of the library. Here is the video of the birds making quite an impression on a bunch of strung-out students in the middle of final exams:

And here is a video one of the librarians took after the security crew rounded them up in the loading dock area and secured them with — what else? — book cases (I’m really sorry I missed seeing that):

Undeterred, I then called my next-door neighbor and one of my partners in all things chicken, Bill, and begged him to drop whatever he was busy doing and drive over to Animal Control with me. He laughed and, not one to dodge a wacky adventure, helped me load up as many animal carriers as we had between the two of us into his Jeep, and away we went. Here is the video I shot of our trip:

We brought home ten. I sent a few emails, and by the end of the day, I had identified more experienced flockkeepers willing to adopt them than I had chickens to place in new homes. So I decided to return to Animal Control on Saturday morning for the rest. But by the time I got there, the others had all been taken, save the rooster, who had wriggled free at some point and is now roaming the woods around Animal Control (I have secretly named him Lynyrd, as in “Freebird”).

The ten we gathered up seem vigorous and healthy. The little hen, whom we have decided to keep for ourselves, is already laying (we have named her Dooley, and the other two we are keeping are Charlotte Brontë and Dorothy Sayers, since they had such literary beginnings with us).

The Library Boks, taking it easy with a snack and some sunshine after their big exciting day.

The Library Boks will spend a full week in quarantine to make sure they are free from any sneaky diseases that might spread to other flocks. I devoted most of this weekend to placing them with their new families and helping folks figure out how to best manage the transition (the key is to do it gradually and to give the new birds a safe place to hang out while it’s happening, and to not be alarmed by some aggression while the pecking order is being established). Everyone who took some of the birds agreed to follow through on the quarantine. Here are some pictures of them as they meet their new flockkeepers:

David, with the pair of white ones he took home

Rebekah and Walton with two of the three they took home

And Rebekah with the third one

Scott and Margo with their adoptees, who have already been named "Emory" and Eagle"!

I know some have been troubled by the student pranksters’ lack of regard for the animals’ welfare. But chickens are resilient creatures, and these birds seem to have not been too traumatized. And they all have good homes and will have the best possible life a chicken can have. I love a happy ending.

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Southern Urban Bison-Hockey

Y’all are wonderful. So many people fell for my tall tale of the baby bison, and they were such good sports about it! Things went to a whole new level when my April foolery made the Decatur Metro blog. Suddenly I had an all-time record-breaking number of hits, emails and phone calls from people (some I know, some I have never met!) wanting to come and visit my bison, and a few astute folks calling me out on my bad photoshopping (true, that). Then I got a phone call from a local TV news reporter wanting to do a story about my bison. Then John Kessler tweeted about me!

Really. The best April 1 ever. Nellie and I thank you.

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Oh, Give Me A Home . . .

More than a few of us urban homesteaders — women especially — were fanatical readers of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books (and some, maybe, still are). We still harbor fantasies of a pioneer life, setting up our cozy homesteads on some pristine piece of prairie, mastering our survival skills, resting by the hearth after a day of hard work, our bodies and souls strengthened by the intrinsic value of having fed, clothed, and sheltered ourselves and our families.

It’s a distinctively American impulse, I think, that pioneer spirit. I recently decided to honor my own inner pioneer by venturing into the next “frontier,” if you will, in urban homesteading.

Meet Nellie Oleson, my first baby bison.

Nellie arrived on a methane-powered livestock truck from a ranch in Montana. She is a domesticated breed of the American bison, meaning that genetically she has some cow in her. This makes her (and the additional head I will acquire as I gradually grow my herd) easier to manage as livestock — hopefully she won’t knock down the rain barrels, for example, or trample my dog in a stampede.

Nellie’s getting lots of good, organic, locally sourced, non-GMO grains at the moment, but soon I’m hoping to free-range her in a large kudzu patch not too far from my house. The walks over there through the neighborhood will be good for both of us, too. I’ve already halter-trained her for a lead.

I believe that the bison’s presence in our city signifies a restoration of this land’s once-great biodiversity, not to mention the virtues of homesteading at its most Ma Ingalls authentic. But don’t get too attached. My plan is to raise Nellie to become a protein source, and I’m really looking forward to a nice, thick rug for my own hearthside. In the meantime, the manure is working wonders for my early spring crops. Check out this beet!

Slowly but surely, Nellie and Caleb are getting to know one another. Caleb was uncharacteristically timid at first and ran and hid in the hole he’s been digging under this cast-iron plant over the past few years. But Nellie’s good nose soon found him out. Here she is saying hello and trying to get him to herd her around the backyard a little.

I should add that in its typical progressive style, the City of Decatur and its officials have been more than gracious about my endeavors to conquer the next frontier in urban homesteading. I pulled some strings in city government, and the municipal code will soon be changed to accommodate this most American of efforts.

Also, I will be teaching a class later this year titled “Where the Buffalo Roam,” for city dwellers who want to get started with bison at home. Look for square-foot ranches to spring up in backyards all around town very soon.

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A Day in Knitter’s Paradise

When you give Barbie a haircut with someone, you form a lifelong bond. Even when you fall out of touch for, oh, twenty-five years and then reconnect through a mutual friend and Facebook, the ties remain strong. And that bond is reinforced when you discover that you share a passion for knitting.

Theresa was one of the folks who inspired me to take up knitting, and of course, her abilities far surpass mine. In fact, she is a knitting rockstar. She also spins and makes her own dyes from organic sources like mushrooms and such, and she even embroiders (check out this guitar-pickin chickin she made for me!).

The first time I mentioned to another knitting pal that Theresa of “Techniques with Theresa” on Knitty.com was a childhood friend, I thought I was going to have to scrape her off the ceiling, she got so excited. Now I get a thrill out of impressing People Who Knit with, “Hey, guess who I know . . . ?”

You can imagine, then, my joy when Theresa, who followed her heart to Europe many years ago to marry herself a handsome Norwegian, moved back home a few weeks ago (bringing said handsome Norwegian) — not just to the U.S., but to Franklin, North Carolina, where she is now nestled in the heart of her extended family on some beautiful, hilly farmland in the Southern Appalachians (she and I grew up not even a mile apart in Rabun Gap, Georgia, about 20 minutes south of where she now lives).

Last week I drove up to the mountains for a few days to visit with my family and reconnect with Theresa in person. Our plan was to indulge our shared fiber fantasies — from raw material to finished product. We began our day with a visit to an alpaca farm.

Merritt Farm is ten acres surrounding a lovely 100-plus-year-old log cabin in Otto, North Carolina, situated just between Rabun Gap and Franklin. Liza McArthur, farmer-in-chief, left police work in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, to pursue her dream there in 1996 with her kids. She spent the next several years restoring buildings and land in preparation for an alpaca herd.

Liza acquired her first alpacas in 2000. She breeds them and maintains her herd using environmentally sustainable methods (diatomaceous earth instead of toxic chemicals for pest control, for example), and her fiber is supple, soft, and strong. When Theresa and I visited, she had just received a supply of yarn back from a mill where she had sent off a batch of raw fiber. I bought two skeins of creamy, lustrous laceweight stuff, and Theresa bought some beautiful roving.

We sat on the porch of the cabin for awhile, listening to Liza’s story and running our fingers through her yarn. She could tell us the name of each animal from which each yarn came, just from the color and lustre of the stuff (mine came from a gal named Mawatta). Then we walked through her morning chores with her — feeding, weighing the cria (that’s what you call a baby alpaca), and just saying hello to everyone. Alpacas do spit, but only if provoked. Liza’s animals are gently handled from birth and therefore are very friendly. One even offered to style my ’do.

Liza also has a small flock of chickens and the beginnings of an orchard, plus like me, she nestles food gardens in every sunny spot she can find. She has several dogs who guard the female and gelded alpacas in shifts throughout the day and night, and a guard llama named Solomon protects her breeding sires.

Yes, you read right: a guard llama. I was fascinated to learn that llamas, it turns out, are very alert and have this fierce call that will sound an alarm if an intruder or threat comes around. They will even go after it kicking. Some guard llamas will draw their flock together and herd into safety, just like a herding dog. Who knew?

Theresa had visited with Liza before and had told her of her vision for her North Carolina farm home. Which may have been part of what she had in mind when she offered a couple of seven-year-old male Alpacas for Theresa to adopt! I squealed like a llama when Theresa provisionally accepted the offer, explaining that it would probably be wise for her to check with her family before bringing home two large mammals. After making plans to return to the farm in early May for Liza’s shearing days (fun!), off we went to Theresa’s house to check out her fencing and barn — both for the alpacas and the flock of chickens she’s planning on getting. I’m living vicariously through Theresa’s hoofstock acquisition, since City of Decatur ordinances prevent me from having my own.

Later we drove a little further north into downtown Franklin for lunch and a visit to the yarn shop there, where I got to witness a real rockstar moment. A woman ahead of us in the register line kept turning around and looking at Theresa — “I know I’ve seen you somewhere . . .” — and finally realized it was from her knitty.com column. Then the shop owner spoke to Theresa about teaching a few classes there. Hello, mushroom dyes and kitchener stitch!

Determined to find an excuse to stay in touch with Liza, who is someone you just want to know, I talked with her about starting a yarn CSA. She thinks it would work, especially if she recruited a few other producers in the area (llama, angora goat, and wool, maybe) in a cooperative effort. Knitting readers, would you have an interest in participating in such a thing? Liza thinks she might be able to handle 20 subscribers. Let me know if you’re interested, and I’ll share details as we work on them.

Here is an example of one yarn CSA.

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