Category Archives: Bees & Insects

Things to do when not farming…

The seed catalogs are piling up and it’s a constant reminder of how in flux we’ll be as of

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Identifying cool mushrooms…

June. It’s been a long time since I’ve not put in a large seed order, and frankly, I’m feeling a bit antsy about it this season. So, to take my mind off of what I won’t be doing, I’m thinking ahead to the things this extra time will provide in terms of opportunities for learning. An ever-growing, ever-bearing, zone 1-10 list of things to learn while not farming:

  • Tend to the travelling orchard
  • Improve spinning technique
  • Improve fiber processing set-up and technique
  • Experiment with natural dyes
  • Learn about medicinal herbs
  • Practice grafting techniques
  • Volunteer at school or public garden
  • Help a fellow farmer with farm chores, butchering, shearing, etc.
  • Learn old-fashioned candy-making
  • Focus on food preservation techniques:
    • Pressure canning
    • Smoking meats
    • Drying
    • Fermentation
  • Take a class in business planning for the fiber mill
  • Maybe, just maybe, learn a new knitting skill
  • Explore niche or value added markets
  • Take a botany class
  • Spend some time with growers using methods outside of your own, including conventional, biodynamic, and other permaculture or organic farmers and gardeners
  • Cut up seed catalogs to make art with the kids
  • Cut up seed catalogs to do some companion planting planning
  • Re-read Edible Forest Gardens

The list continues to grow and hope blooms eternal, so… suggestions are always welcome and may spring shine warm sunlight upon your gardens!

Healing the Tree: the Science Behind Plant Distress Signals

Apple trees do not suffer in silence. The other day, my husband called from the farm to tell me one of our apples had been badly damaged by rodents. Before asking, I was certain I knew which tree. Last summer, when selling our house, I had transplanted three healthy apples out of dormancy (a horticultural and pomological no-no).

Two of the trees went into healthy soil, and suffered very waxhealingtreelittle. The third tree, my personal favorite, I planted at a point that represents the entrance to the future orchard. The soil in that spot had been tilled and was badly depleted, but I nursed the tree along with high hopes. I pinned this hope on the fact that the tree was a highly disease-resistant Liberty on standard root-stock.

“The Liberty?”

It was. The sweet disease-resistant apple had taken yet another hit from an impressive rodent population living at the farm. Having already suffered through intense winter cold and heavy snowfall, it was no surprise that the tree had attracted the attention of some common orchard grazers. I knew this, not because I understood the science, but because it’s a pattern repeated in nature. Even predatory animals hunt the weaker of the herd.

The Science Behind the Pattern

It turns out, the scientific community has long been interested in the phenomenon of trees and plants putting out distress signals. A more recent study conducted by the Netherlands Institute of Ecology concluded plants and trees emit an odor that attracts predatory insects and birds to help ward off infestation or future attacks long enough for the tree to heal.

According to the journal article published in Ecology Letters, scientists examined apple trees specifically, and found that damaged or insect-ravaged trees attracted more birds than their healthy neighbors.

The journal article abstract concludes:

Birds were attracted to infested trees, even when they could not see the larvae or their feeding damage. We furthermore show that infested and uninfested trees differ in volatile emissions and visual characteristics. Finally, we show, for the first time, that birds smell which tree is infested with their prey based on differences in volatile profiles emitted by infested and uninfested trees. Volatiles emitted by plants in response to herbivory by lepidopteran larvae thus not only attract predatory insects but also vertebrate predators.

Scientists hope to apply their research to developing better (and natural) pest management strategies in commercial orchards.

In the meantime, I’ve treated the tree with a small amount of honey, some cinnamon (a natural insect and deer deterrent), and wax tape, affording the Liberty a little time to heal and a good bit of hope.

Rose Chafers

Rose_ChaferSo, I’ve had two emails and three phone calls in the last two days from people dealing with rose chafers. One farmer called and ask how we handle chafers and it occurred to me we’ve never had a problem with them.

Either we’re lucky, or the chives and other allium planted beneath our trees really does work to prevent parent bugs from laying eggs in the soil, where they would otherwise hatch and eat the trees.

So, we’re testing some natural deterrent sprays this week to see if they have any impact in the present, but for the long term, please consider planting polycultues with your trees and shrubs as a preventative measure.

Mama, the Unicorn can Sleep in the Barn

ideaboardWe gathered the kids together in the living room for some advice. In creating a five-year plan for the farm, we wanted some input from those members of our family not so limited by the confines of practicality, for inspiration, and to include them in the planning process as an educational component.

We were not disappointed.

While listing options for livestock, our eight year old suggested raising unicorns. “We could sell them for a lot of money,” she said. With a smirk, the eleven year old chimed in, “They also have healing powers.”

Me: “Sounds like they might be costly to purchase?”

Eight year old: “But they only eat grass.”

So, unicorns made the list, though in the end, they were voted down due to initial expense and size. Chickens made it to the top of the list, followed by Southdown sheep and a llama. Pigs and the cow went the way of the unicorn.

We then spent time working with the kids on examining structures on the property that might house chickens, food sources that are already growing/or will be grown there, costs of supplemental food sources, bedding, and what kind of egg production we might see out of which breeds. Our eldest began researching the number of chickens we could keep at two of the existing structures, based on square footage. She then calculated the approximate number of eggs they might produce per week, and estimated profits based on those figures.

Next, we looked at preparing for the first, second and third growing season. The girls drew site maps, noting soil types and proximity to water. We talked about elevations, using topographical maps to show low-lying areas where frost might make growing fruit trees more of an issue.

The eight year old made up a worksheet of questions to be answered, like “Why does the stream have fish?” and a question that was rather pertinent, “How did the river get here?”

One of the streams, we explained, was naturally occurring, but the other was created when the farmer long ago created a trench to reach his livestock at the barn.

In the end, the planning had less to do with how to do what, when, and where, and more to do with engaging this next generation in exploring a landscape, its ecosystem, history, and future. Making decisions based on the constraints of budget, landscape, utility corridors, soil types, etc. And without knowing it, they received a great lesson in the permaculture design process and without rolling their eyes even once.

The hill

I must find a man who still loves the soil

Walk by his side unseen, pour in his mind

What I loved when I lived until he builds

Sows, reaps, and covers these hill pastures here

With sheep and cattle, mows the meadowland

Grafts the old orchard again, makes it bear again

Knowing that we are lost if the land does not yield.

Jeanne Robert Foster

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Up an old farm road, some ways out of town, there’s a place that grows ideas. It’s a little unconventional (thankfully), and as the woman who owns the property has always said, “If you make it up the hill, you were meant to arrive.”

I could drive it, and sometimes I do, but mostly I prefer to park at the base of the hill and trace the two-track up through the still of the forest. A few days ago made the trek on foot and met up with a deer, all the while contemplating the juxtaposition between the system and game that is played in surviving via a new set of rules, versus the simplicity of rules laid out by nature. How one system deprives us of purpose, while the other feeds it to us in abundance.

I digress.

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The hill is my transition in and out. A time for me to process what I have learned, or while ascending, consider all that I have learned that has lead to my return. This farm is where I got my start in permaculture. It’s the place where I was given information, shown how to grow food, how to build soil, how to live and think outside of the melancholy of the free-market system.

A biodynamic farm. What happens here is dynamic, from how we build thematrix of the food web from that which we eat, to that which eats what we eat, to the larger picture of how we relate to the plants, each other, our place within this universe. This is where I first heard the universe described as “one voice, one song.”

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And that word “dynamic” – I love how it feels to say it. How it opens my throat like a yawn. How intrinsic a vocal movement meets definition is this word, dynamic.

We have been asked here to help an old friend restore her vineyard, planted 25 years earlier on a bluff over the bay. The vines are still bearing, though many other plants have joined them and there is much to learn about the ever-increasing intricacies of this now self-regulating ecosystem.

And in returning, we are visiting the ghosts of our past. Walking past echos of ideas still standing. Thoughts pending. Heartbeats rendered through the undulating landscape where milkweed, vetch, and valerian have replaced annuals in the fertile soil. This is a living memory. And to think I felt sadness when I first looked upon it! When it has so thoughtfully produced in our absence! Lifted the roof off the greenhouse, and blanketed the orchard in a cloak of yarrow and gentle green grasses.

We have been charged with more than the responsibility of salvaging a vineyard for harvest.

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That is too one-dimensional and careless a thought. We have been shown a path that will lead to wisdom gleaned from the harvest or from the goal of harvest. And what better way to begin, than to learn about a vine?  A vine that is so careful to root itself in depth and breadth before reaching out to others for support.

We will not be saving a vineyard; we will be saving ourselves.

At the root of any problem; find first the solution

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Branch infested with aphids prior to any application of spray.

We’re not your average farmers- eagerly awaiting a small infestation of aphids, so that we might experiment with solutions to eliminate them from our fruit trees, but there we found ourselves- eager at the sight of them to experiment with more traditional remedies. To prove more to ourselves than anyone else, that we can grow an orchard without chemical salts, fertilizers, and biocides- grow a food forest as nature might.

While nature doesn’t supply us with aphid spray (natural or otherwise), it does supply us with observable phenomena and if we apply this knowledge, rather than change the underlying structure, we can adapt and respond quickly; ensuring successful results.

We noticed not long ago that the tree suffering with curly leaf aphids was showing signs of stress. It had suckered on two occasions, and appeared thirsty. Within days, the aphids arrived.

Same branch the following morning.

People often look at aphids as the source of the problem with a plant, much as they might accuse the hungry woodpecker of destroying a tree. However, there are often underlying issues (and thankfully issues more easily resolved if noticed early on), that lead to infestations and disease.

Much as the overworked human might fall ill without rest and proper nutrition, and the tree, death by dismemberment, due to infestations of insects that attract woodpeckers, our trees will also suffer the consequences of illness, if not paired with good soil and adequate water.

Simply put, healthy trees stave off their own health issues. And trees interplanted with habitat for predatory insects that might feast on aphids, are at a huge advantage.

So apart from spraying a solution of peppermint oil, a soil conditioner, plus water (completely non-toxic), I also spent some extra time watering this particular tree and will interplant with some chives and comfrey in the next few days for added mulch and resistance to other aphid populations.

Normally, these trees would have been planted in an ideal mix of soil, mulched properly, and interplanted to start, however time constraints prevented us from first achieving the ideal conditions. What we hope to harvest from these trees, apart from eagerly anticipated apples and pears, is knowledge that may be applied in conventional orchards to replace costly and dangerous biocides.

“In teaching, there is healing; and in healing, we teach.”

Why weeds matter

By definition, a weed is any plant that crowds out cultivated plants.  In nature, plants will only crowd out other plants when the environment is altered and one plant is deprived of some nutrient or gained by another.  While we tend to think of forests as stationary ecosystems, they’re always moving.  As we see in succession, when one layer of pioneer plants has amassed enough biomass to sustain a perennial herb layer, the grasses move in and “crowd out” the pioneers.  As more biomass is generated at the top-soil layer by the bundled root-systems of the perennial grasses, the shrub layer encroaches followed by the shorter, then taller trees.  With each step, we see a more complex ecosystem unfolding until the web of biodiversity is strong enough to sustain minor alterations.  

“Weeds” or those plants we have labeled weeds, contribute to biomass, cultivation, offer a food source for beneficial insects and play a part in the development of the ecosystem.  And in many cases, those plants we’ve labeled “weeds” are far more beneficial than the plants we’ve cultivated.  Dandelions, for example, are completely edible, hold nutrients from the soil and redistribute these nutrients at the end of the life-cycle, are insectary, and offer humans some medicinal value.  Grass, on the other hand, prevents erosion and provides biomass, but otherwise, isn’t very useful to humans, doesn’t attract beneficial insects and takes in more nutrients than it contributes.