Thursday, January 29, 2009

Gauging the interest in my rain gauge

I received a couple of e-mails asking me about my rain gauge. (See yesterday's post below.)

My old one cracked so I picked up this one from a local garden supply store. The nice thing about it is that I can read it from my porch without having to get out in the weather. The red float tells the amount of rainfall. The tube is made of soft plastic so I hope it doesn't crack in cold weather like my old one.

Last year we hardly needed a gauge. This year it's getting a workout.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A weather front by the numbers

A fast moving cold-weather front came through East Tennessee today. From 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. this is what happened:

* Temperature dropped 20 degrees from 60 to 40.
* Almost 2 inches of rain fell.
* 30 MPH winds once again littered woods around the house with wagon loads of downed limbs.

This Internet diary was not supposed to turn into a daily weather report, but watching the weather seems to be all I can do. I can skip rocks on what is supposed to be my berry patch.

I may consider being a catfish farmer instead of an orchardist.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Before, after . . . and after after

With the rain coming down for the next 24 hours (and maybe some sleet and snow), the only thing I can do is piddle around with my camera.

The top photo was taken shortly after we purchased our place in Deerfield in March 2006. The bottom photo was taken today from the same spot. You can see the red barn has been moved to the right and much of the land has been cleared. The slope to the left is where my orchard is planned with the berry patch and garden on the flatter ground.

Sometime this summer I hope I can add the "after after" shot showing everything in resplendent bloom. Right now, it's only in my mind's eye.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Woodman's Pal

Anyone who has any land to clear needs to think about getting a tool called "The Woodman's Pal." It's a combination machete and ax, but it's lightweight and easy to handle.

I've had mine for two years. Before I got my tractor and bushhog, the Pal was my main tool for cleaning up and clearing land. It takes a while to get used to it because you have to use more wrist than arm, but once you get the hang of it two-inch privet hedge trunks are no problem at all.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Slow and steady wins the race

Although the ground in Deerfield continues to squish underneath my boots, I couldn't resist the siren call of the bright sun this afternoon. I decided it would be a good time to clean up all the downed limbs in the woods around the house. I started at one end with a plan to sweep all the way around the house.

After two hours, though the work was not heavy, I could feel my legs quivering and my knees starting to ache from walking on the uneven slopes. The winter has left me heavier than I have been in a long time and completely out of shape.

My normal modus operandi would be to work until I was down in the back with swollen knees and then crawl into bed with a double dose of Advil.

I decided two hours was enough, a good start to ease back slowly into working shape. A gardener, even a gardener want-to-be, should be in it for the long haul.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Getting the dirt on my dirt

Today I took a sample of the dirt where my garden/berry patch/orchard is planned to the Blount County Farmers' Co-op. I should have the test results back in a couple of weeks. The test costs $8.

I carefully followed the dirt gathering instructions which included digging down 6 inches and getting samples from a dozen different spots. The samples were mixed together in a kind of a dirt soup and then I put them in a plastic bag, a dirt bag if you will.

I took dirt for granted before I moved to Deerfield, but dirt has different properties. There's good dirt and bad dirt. I'm hoping mine is good or at least tolerable because it takes some doing to turn bad dirt into good.

Here's a Miracle-Gro toast to good dirt.

WEATHER NOTE: The weather forecast today was for a high of 60 degrees. I checked my weather station thermometer all afternoon, but it only made it up to 59.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Are ashes good or bad?

My research for the day is an attempt to answer the question of whether or not to put ashes from a wood stove on a garden plot. I've heard both positive and negative comments. You can easily spend a full day researching the question on the Internet. Here are my conclusions drawn from a dozen or so Internet posts:

* A small amount of wood ashes properly scattered will usually help the soil, especially if the soil is overly acidic. Large and concentrated amounts should be avoided.

* Never use ashes from wood that has been chemically treated or painted.

* Do not use on soil intended for blueberries or potatoes.

* Ashes from hardwood trees integrates into the soil more easily because it usually burns hotter and results in smaller particulates.

* Use ashes in a compost pile in small quantities, perhaps only one small bucket each 12 months.

So, I will scatter my ashes accordingly.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

An indispensable tool

One of my gardening books says that the wheelbarrow was invented in China around 150 A.D. It was designed to carry military supplies. The first agricultural wheelbarrows were found in Europe in the 13th century.

My wood-toting wheelbarrow came into being in 1989 A.D. after I took the frame and handles from a rusted out barrow and converted it into the perfect wood-hauler. I would probably have to give up our wood stove if I didn't have this contraption. My ax and splitting maul fit perfectly on the handles and the little bucket in front holds wedges and sharpening files.

Nothing fits in the hand so well as a tool that does its job well.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A measurable snow

Our first measurable snow is on the ground since we came to Deerfield more than two years ago. The official measurement at the airport was a half inch. (No laughing from Minneapolis, Lem.)

My plan was to spread some grass seed before our first snow, always the best time to sow seed randomly, but we were out of town and so I missed my chance. I hope we have a least one more good snow so I can do my seeding trick. As the snow melts it draws the seed down into the soaked ground to just the correct depth.

One more snow and then bring on spring.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Answers to my robin query

A Googling friend supplied me with some possible answers to my questions about the surfeit of agitated robins in my woods (see previous post). The theories are interesting.

(1) Robins are territorial loners in the spring when they are breeding, but they stick together in large flocks in the wintertime. As winter wears on they simply get on each other's nerves.
(2) Robins practice "thermo-regulation," roosting close to each other to take advantage of each other's body heat. The colder the day the closer they convene. Familiarity breeds contempt even in the robin world.
(3) Robins share information during their roosts. For instance, a skinny robin will roost next to a fat robin and then follow it the next day when it forages. A skinny robin has to be sure the fat robin's name is not Bernie Madoff.

It appears robins are more like humans than we probably care to admit.

Many thanks to my robin researcher.

BLOG NOTE: Deerfield Diary will be on a brief vacation until Tuesday, January 20. Robins aren't the only ones who need a little break.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Robin phenomana

On Thursday the bright sunshine and threat of single digit temps brought out the robin show we had seen only once before in Southern Indiana.

Robins by the hundreds filled our woods both in the trees and on the ground. They seemed to be agitated and nervous. They would flit from tree to ground and back to tree, rarely staying put more than a few seconds. An occasional fight would break out. The only interesting information I could glean from our bird book is that the American robin in a non-migratory bird in Tennessee.

I came up with two scenarios:

(1) Local robins were grumbling: "This is not what we signed up for. Let's pack it in and head for Florida right now."

(2) Yankee robins who had migrated to Tennessee were confrontational: "Who's the bird brain who decided to stop in East Tennessee? We can get all we want of this weather in Michigan."

Today the robins have disappeared in their vast numbers. The woods are quiet once again. Perhaps the next time we see the grand flocks of robins it will be early spring.

Can anyone out there tell me what the robin show was all about? Get back to me before spring.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The reality of Nature's clock

As I thumb through my UT Agriculture Extension Service pamphlets, my psyche is slammed back to earth with the maturation timetables of different fruits and berries. Here are a few:

blueberry -- 3 to 5 years
apple -- 3 to 6 years
pear -- 4 to 6 years
plum -- 4 to 5 years
cherry -- 4 to 5 years
grape -- 2 to 3 years
blackberry -- 3 years
raspberry -- 3 years

These are maturation times for the first fruits, not a full harvest.

As a person used to a deadline every 24 hours, these timetables are a little frightening. It's Mother Nature's way of saying "Slow down, Bub. If you're not in it for the long haul, don't even attempt it."

My mind's eye envisions my hills and slopes brimming with trees, trellised vines and wheelbarrow loads of fruits and berries. Reality will be far different unless I take my time and get on Mother's schedule.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Hunkered down

As we enter the coldest week of the season with temperatures expected in the single digits, all we can do is read our books and extension-service pamphlets and dream of warmer days. Our dogs, Willie and NellyBelle, can be found either cuddled up on the couch or cozied up to the wood stove. Needless to say, they have their hunkering down pat.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Working behind the scenes

As I try to stay warm by the fire, I look at the calendar to see how much of the year has passed without a spade of dirt being turned due to the saturated ground. NOTHING IS GETTING DONE.

Then I make my daily trip to the composting bin and I'm reminded that millions of micro-organisms are hard at work turning our yard refuse and kitchen waste into a rich soil additive.

I made the bin about six months ago out of concrete blocks. The boards on the front are removable. I slide out the lower ones to get at the rich, dark compost at the bottom of the pile.

I'll use the compost in some raised beds I'm planning. I wish I had enough to mix with all the clay-based topsoil, but good compost is like gold. I'll have to use it judiciously.

BLOG NOTE: My blog advisors say that I'm evidently getting page views from people that don't know me, so I should add my picture instead of Willie's, my boxer. So I did, but I borrowed Willie's hat.

Monday, January 12, 2009

A few fences, great neighbors

The Deerfield community consists of thirty or so parcels of land from five acres to more than a 100 acres. The land belonged to the Cox family during the Civil War. There remains a small Cox family graveyard on the property with tombstones dating to the 1800s.

One of the pleasures of living in Deerfield is the eclectic assortment of neighbors. Consider a few:

* A world-traveling family which has lived or traveled on most of the continents in the world during the father's time with the military/Peace Corps/Foreign Service/USAid/State Department. The inside of their home is like a museum of the world.

* A neighbor who builds his fences with recycled telephone poles.

* A veterinarian/researcher with the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Services.

* An engineer who runs his 1980s model Mercedes-Benz on recycled cooking oil. I love the smell of french fries when he comes down the road.

Everyone in Deerfield seems to have their own story. Perhaps our only common bond is that we like our neighbors enough not to be too near.

When we first moved to Deerfield, I was excited to learn that my world-traveling neighbor restored cars as a hobby in his huge workshop. I could imagine glistening Ferraris, Jaguars and Lamborghinis from all over the world lined up in the garage. Instead, I found 10 or so 1980s model AMC Eagles. Like I said, eclectic.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Ways of the woodsmen

The Anderson family (pictured above), third-generation Blount County timber cutters, amazed me with their knowledge of trees and the woods during the month they worked at Deerfield. They know more about woodland ways than I could hope to learn in ten life times.

Here are a few of their observations:

* If your wood stove is designed to handle 18-inch logs, cut your wood 16 inches or even 14 inches. Shorter logs burn better in a stove. I tried it. They are right. (This doesn't apply to fireplaces. Only enclosed wood stoves.)

* To keep a fire in your stove all night, burn green hickory. You will be greeted in the morning with red-hot coals. I tried it. They are right. The Andersons cut a hickory tree each fall to use as their "night logs."

The Andersons can tell a tree by its leaf, its bark or the smell of the sap when it's cut. They showed me a "double-hearted tree," which the sawmills will not accept for lumber. I'll tell you more about that later because it feels like there's a splendid essay in there somewhere.

One morning when the clouds were gathering, I asked the patriarch of the bunch if they worked when it was raining. His answer: "Not when it's raining straight." I knew exactly what he meant. When a long, hard rain sets in, the rain comes straight down from the skies. A blowing rain is hit or miss and usually fairly light.

Their utilitarian knowledge extends far past the woods. I watched them change out a brake master cylinder on their work truck one night with only a flashlight, a screwdriver and a pair of Vise-Grips. If they had to, they probably could have done it in the straight rain.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Walnut-harvesting tools

In an effort to keep this blog halfway readable during this time of cold, nasty weather when I can't get outside, I'm reverting to show-and-tell.

In the photo above you can see some of my somewhat unorthodox walnut-harvesting tools. Starting at left is what is commonly referred to as a "doggie pooper-scooper." I put stiffer springs on this one and it is the perfect walnut picker-upper, saving my back from torture. (For those who have partaken of my walnuts, this scooper was purchased new and has never been used for the purpose it was intended.)

In the middle is a contraption I made to husk the walnut. You simply place a green walnut on top of the appropriate hole and drive the walnut through the hole with a rubber mallet. The outer husk (not the shell) comes off cleanly and the walnut drops to the floor. For anyone who wants to make one, the most used hole is 1.25 inches. The 1.5-inch and 1-inch holes are used only occasionally.

The anvil is where I crack the walnuts with a hammer. I have carted this vise around the country faithfully for 52 years after receiving it on my 10th birthday. The vise mechanism is worn out and doesn't work anymore, but it's walnut-cracking potential remains endless.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Mother does as she wishes

A large walnut tree (about 30 inches in diameter) at the edge of a slough succumbed to the newly saturated ground and was uprooted by a moderate wind. After I pulled the tree to a flat spot with the tractor, I began chainsawing the trunk and limbs for firewood.

A limb about 35 to 40 feet up the tree caught my attention. The limb was covered with a beautiful stand of fern. I assume it's tree fern, but I don't know that for a fact. Even after several nights in the 20s, the fern on the high limb was thick and a luscious green.

I sawed a 4-foot section out of the limb and placed it in a moist and shady spot in the woods . . . but I know the fern will not live. Mother Nature has a way of growing her flora where she wants. We can transplant it to what we think is a perfect spot, but it will wither. If Mother wants to grow fern 35 feet above the ground in the freezing air, she will.

I can just imagine her smiling at my feeble attempts at fern horticulture.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

For the birds

With the ground saturated there's not much that can be done outside, so I spend my time fooling with the birds. You might notice the birdhouse resembles our house (upper right photo of blog.) The birdhouse was my Christmas present to Betty, big spender that I am.

For the record, the bird at left is a white-breasted nuthatch; the two yellow birds in the middle are American goldfinches; and the bird at right is a black-capped chickadee. The are 119 species of birds native to Tennessee. We hope to visit with all eventually.

Bringing birds to the property is always a too-edged sword. They will also come in the growing season and have their way with my berries. My wish is that there will be enough for all.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Is the drought over yet?

Deerfield received 4 inches of rain in 36 hours Monday and Tuesday. Louisville Road was closed due to high water for several hours Tuesday night. The ditches that carry the runoff to Deerfield Creek were overflowing.

I expected a lot of topsoil from the recently denuded slope to be down at the bottom, but to my surprise the erosion was minimal. When the timber cutters were cleaning up after cutting the trees, I had them cut a switch-back road to the top of the hill. I lined the road with some of the smaller logs to slow down the runoff. It looks like it worked.

The ground is so saturated it will take 10 days of clear weather and wind to dry out the earth. I'm ready to start soil preparation, but Mother Earth will be ready in her own time and not before. If patience is a lesson I must learn, the classes are starting early.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Never lonely in Deerfield

Visitors come every day to Deerfield, but mostly they are of the feather and fur variety.

At left is the renowned Pileated Woodpecker that grows to a length of 19 inches. Soaring through the woods to land in a dead tree, the woodpecker seems almost as large as a hawk or a crow. Last spring I watched a male and female playing house in the top a tall dead tree in back of the house.

I had to use my 300mm lens to get even this close to Mr. Woodpecker. They don't like being spied on.

In addition to all manner of feathered friends, we have deer, turkey, raccoons, possum, groundhogs, a ton of turtles and a squandering of squirrels. I'm sure if all the local wildlife knew of the orchard, berry patch and food garden I am planning they would be licking their chops. I'm halfway expecting the deer to leave me a request for what they wish me to plant.

I should restate my opening sentence. Perhaps we are merely the visitors and the wildlife are the bona fide inhabitants. I need to remember that.

Monday, January 5, 2009

A picture is worth . . .

Several site visitors have asked to see more photos of Deerfield. I will oblige as soon as I get another lesson from my daughter on how to run this site. I've got the photos in the computer, but, Luddite that I am, I can't make them jump over into the blog.

In the publishing world in which I grew up if you wanted to put a photo in a story you had a zinc engraving of it made and plopped it down on the page that was full of lead type. That was 40 years ago.

I'm anxious to get started on the greening of Deerfield, but the rain will have none of that, so I sit and read my books on orchards and berry patches. I hope I don't take root in my recliner before my seedlings do.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

From a sinkhole to the sea

The little creek that runs 800 feet down one side of our property erupts from the ground at the base of a large sinkhole at the back corner of the land. The creek can be traced on maps of the area all the way to the Tennessee River which is about 1.5 miles from us as the crow flies.

I like to think of a single molecule of water making its way from Deerfield all the way to the Gulf of Mexico by way of the Tennessee River and the Tombigbee Waterway. It could also make the trip via the Mississippi River but the Big Muddy would surely lose my little molecule.

The timber cutters say the area around the sinkhole is filled with caves because they felt the vibration of the ground as the log-skidder rumbled over the area. Someone with a leaner body profile than mine will have to do the spelunking.

The little creek as far as I know doesn't have a name, so I hereby christen it "Deerfield Creek."

Saturday, January 3, 2009

A bounty of black walnuts

You know the nut crop is good if the squirrels stop raiding your birdfeeders.

The black walnut crop at Deerfield is the best in recent memory say some of the locals.

I gathered more than 100 gallons of unhusked walnuts. I managed to husk about 20 gallons so far. I found it takes about 3 gallons of husked walnuts to give you a pound of shelled walnuts. I guess it's sort of like mining for gold. A lot of work and not much to show for it.

I doubt if I manage to get to all the walnuts this year. There are only 24 hours in a day even for retirees.

Friday, January 2, 2009

So where did all the hackberry go?

Of the 300 trees we had taken down, about 80% went to the pulp wood mill in Calhoun, Tenn., where it will be turned into newsprint. The species that went to pulp are hackberry, pine, cedar, yellow locust, sassafras, hickory, small poplar, gum and a few small maples.

About 15% -- mostly large poplars -- went to the sawmill for "peeler logs" which are peeled like an apples to make plywood. About 4% -- black walnut and cherry -- went to specialty sawmills where they will be used for veneer.

The last 1% will be used by me and the neighbors for firewood. We will be sawing, splitting and stacking that wood for the next two years.

I killed many trees in my 35 years in the newspaper business. I'm done now.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Open spaces

When we moved to our 10 acres in Louisville, Tennessee, in 2006, all but about a half-acre where the house sits was heavily wooded. No, “heavily wooded” does not describe it. The land was dark, impenetrable and strangled by gnarled vines of the possum grape. Some of the grape vines were 8 to 10 inches in diameter.

I spent the first couple of years hacking and whacking enough to find a few stray rays of sunlight. I felt like a lone warrior trying to beat back the marauding hordes.

This fall I signed on some timber cutters who came in with a monstrous dozer, a gargantuan log skidder and blazing chain saws Three weeks and some 300 trees later, we now have about 4 acres of semi-cleared acreage. About half of the open acreage is on a slope and the other two acres somewhat flat.

My grand plan for the next two years is to turn my newly cleared earth into an orchard, berry patch and vegetable garden. As I look out the window now after the wettest month of 2008, all I have now is a huge mud hole.

Betty came through this Christmas with several good books on orchards and gardens. I have a 3-cylinder John Deere tractor (diesel, 4-wheel-drive) sitting behind the garage ready to go.

Much of this Internet diary (sounds better to me than “blog”) will deal with what I hope is the creation of a thriving garden and orchard. My goal is to write a few words each day on what this 10 acres has to teach.

I begin 2009 with excitement and small voice in my ear saying: “Be careful what you wish for.”