Friday, February 27, 2009

The cry of the hawk is a lovely sound

Of all the different types of wildlife inhabiting Deerfield, my favorite is the red-tailed hawk. I shot this photo yesterday around noon from our front porch.

Most of the time when I bush-hog, I see the hawks circling in the sky keeping an eye on a fresh snack that may scurry away from the tractor. I like to hear a hawk cry after it has made a kill. The cry sounds both gleeful and mournful at the same time, just like the tune "Ashokan Farewell."

A red-tail hawk weighs around three pounds. Hawks mate for life with both sexes incubating the eggs and feeding their young.

Our family often made a game of seeing who could count the most hawks sitting on trees or wires along the interstate. Many a time I have stopped the car to try to take a photo of a hawk, but as soon as the car door opens the hawk takes off.

Deerfield hawks seem a little more congenial, almost like they don't mind me living on the land they oversee.

WEATHER UPDATE: For once, I'm in sync with the weather prognosticators. A gentle rain started about 5 a.m. today, starting the process of germinating the grass seed I planted on Wednesday and Thursday. Two more days of steady rain and we are off and running.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Danger: Falling vines

I've mentioned how large the grape and honeysuckle vines are on our property. While I was preparing the yard for seeding yesterday, a dead honeysuckle vine fell out of a nearby tree and came close to clobbering me. I placed a brick to give you perspective of the size of the vine. (Photo appears to be a little out of focus. The blog's staff photographer needs to wear his glasses when he shoots.)

These vines will eventually kill a tree by robbing it of its nutrients. I cut them with my ax, Woodman's Tool or chain saw any chance I get.

UPDATE ON YESTERDAY'S POST: The weather reports continue to say we will have rain Friday through Sunday with possible snow on Sunday. Two days of rain and then a snow would do wonders for my 300 pounds of grass seed.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Weather person, don't fail me know

Three different weather reports say a slow rain will begin Friday followed by harder rain as a cold front passes through. Seizing the day, I rented a turf aerator and bought 300 pounds of grass seed.

I double aerated the front, back and side yards and over-sowed 300 pounds of Pennington Elite Rebel grass seed.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have done this three or four times and still have scant grass to show for it.

This is a new type of seed and I have a new attitude. Now, all I can do is wait for rain.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Forced firewood

The land-clearing undertaken this fall and winter has left me with enough felled trees to supply me with firewood for the next 10 years. Some of the hardwood trees no doubt will rot before I get to them with the chain saw and log splitter.

If a tree falls in the forest when no one is there does it make a sound? I seem to hear them in my dreams. Take the locust tree in the photo that's relatively near the house. The roots no longer hold in the soggy ground and it topples in the puniest wind. I walked out one morning recently to see it tangentially askew, hung up in another tree.

As a safety precaution, I'll get the tractor and pull the tree to the ground so it won't fall on innocent bystanders. As to when I'll saw it up, get in line, Bub.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Too early to the party

It was 18 degrees last night. This afternoon I spotted jonquils in bloom on the way to the mailbox. I hope they know what they're doing.

Do you know the difference between a narcissus, a jonquil and a daffodil?

Narcissus is the botanical name for all jonquils and daffodils. The name comes from the mythological Grecian youth who thought he was so beautiful he turned into a flower. Good enough for him, I say.

Daffodil is the English name for the jonquil. A daffodil usually has a single yellow trumpet flower surrounded by six petals on stems 14 to 20 inches tall. A jonquil can have up to three flowers on a stem and is shorter than its English cousin. A daffodil also drives on the wrong side of the road and eats beans for breakfast.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Call me a rhododendron

The half-dozen or so rhododendrons surrounding our house remind me of me. When the sun is out, even in cooler temperatures, rhododendrons open up to the warmth and attend to the order of the day. When it's cold, dark and snow is on the ground, they fold their tents in retreat.

I have so many things I could be doing to get ready for the spring: repairing screen doors ravaged by Willie, changing the oil and hydraulic fluid in the tractor, sharpening the chain saw; but the only time you'll find me outdoors when the wind chill is in the teens is to gather wood for the stove.

I need to ask my doctor-son if it's true that blood grows thinner the older you get, but I would have to push down my blanket and get out of my warm chair to make the call.

So, I let it slide.

Friday, February 20, 2009

More fun with fungi

Tree fungi appear to be a new experience for some. A reader asked exactly where and how do fungi grow on trees. I went to the Internet to read more about the tree parasite. It made my head hurt with words like mycelium, hyphae, cellulose, polysaccharides and lignin.

So, I'll let you Google "tree fungi" and become just as confused as me.

To show my faithfulness to blog readers, however, I toted a ladder out deep into our woods to get a photo of a fungus in full growth. This one was about 10 feet up a locust tree. One of the legs of the ladder mired in the soft ground and I immediately tumbled to the soft earth. No worries. Photographer and camera are fine.

Fungi are fun. Take a fungus to lunch one day. You'll enjoy it.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

An ode to tree fungi

As penance for my deprecating remarks about the sumac tree and to show my arborist beliefs are egalitarian, I'm going to trumpet the beauty of tree fungi.

When I walk through our woods, I'm always on the lookout for interesting fungi. I'm never disappointed.

The photo shows a fungus which I removed from a tree, shellacked it and now use as bric-a-brac on our front-porch coffee table. (The coffee table is an old chicken coop. It's an East Tennessee thing, folks.)

Hail to tree fungi, I say.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Another word on sumac

My post of Feb. 16 in which I made derogatory remarks about the sumac tree didn't sit well with one reader from more northern climes who emailed that he enjoys his grove of sumac trees and my disparaging remarks about the tree were off-base.

He goes on to say that many North American Indians drank a medicinal tea made from the bark of the tree.

As I mentioned, there are 250 varieties of the tree. Maybe he has the kind that doesn't stink. One man's weed is another man's rose.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Reality bites

I've spent the past few days preparing our front and side yard for reseeding -- again. This makes the fourth or fifth time I've tried to establish a lawn at various points around the house. I've tried sodding and several different types of grass seed -- creeping red fescue, Kentucky 31, rye. The only grass I've gotten to come to a good stand is in the fenced-in back yard around some flag stones I laid (photo).

All of which begs the question: Why do I think I can grow fruit trees, berries and a food garden if I can't even get grass to grow?

Another does of reality came calling yesterday. A neighbor who has forgotten more about gardens than I will ever know says that it takes at least three years to turn woodland into a proper garden site. He says the dense roots and compacted soil need at least two years and several turnings to become productive.

I'm going to UT Extension seminar in two weeks to learn as much as I can about gardens and landscaping. Time, don't fail me now.

Monday, February 16, 2009

A tree easy to dislike

The Latin name is ailanthus altissima. It's also known as the "tree of heaven." Some call it "Chinese sumac." I prefer a name I found on the Internet -- the "stink tree."

Sumac can be enticing in the fall with it's bright red leaves, but don't let that fool you. The sumac is essentially a weed on steroids. Growing 5 to 8 feet a year, the sumac will take over an open space and then send out runners which sprout into new trees. I have sumac trees over 50-feet tall (see large photo). They have a shallow root system which makes them prone to toppling in a high wind.

There are over 250 varieties of sumac. The kind we have in East Tennessee is the smooth bark variety. Older sumacs have giant pimples which are absolutely grotesque (small photo). I'm told any time the bark is damaged, a pustule will form. Just what we need, a tree with acne.

You almost have to hold your nose when you cut a sumac. The smell is sickening with younger trees giving off the raunchiest smell.

In some parts of the world, even in the U.S., sumacs are actually cultivated and sold in garden centers, which only proves that some people will buy anything.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Tarzan should be so lucky

We have owned our land in Deerfield for three years now. In that time I have chopped literally thousands of vines from our trees. Some are honeysuckle vines as big around as a full roll of paper towels, but most are wild grape vines, also known as possum grape. The photo shows a vine climbing to the top of a tree.

If a vine is left alone it will suck all the nutrients from the tree and eventually kill it. I don't know why our woods attract these parasitic vines. I walk through other woods in the area and I rarely see a grape vine.

Some of the vines are as big as a man's thigh and are best removed with a chain saw. After a vine is severed it will ooze sap for up to six months.

The only way to remove the vine completely from the tree after it's cut is to hook a logging chain on the tractor and pull it down. Often the top of the tree comes with it, and, in a few cases, the entire tree.

I enjoyed swinging on grape vines as a kid. Now, I enjoy swinging an ax at them.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Something you won't hear in the city

"Are you aware there are cows coming up your driveway?" asked the voice on the other end of the telephone.

A neighbor was letting me know the cattle were out again. It seems every time we get high winds, a tree falls over the barbed-wire fence on the 240 acres in back of our property. The cattle always seem to find the escape route.

I have "B.D. Cow" programmed into my cell phone. I dial the number and a fellow named B.D. says he's on the way to roundup the black Angus.

I'm told that the person who owns the 240 acres also is the owner of Crockett Beef Jerky headquartered in Maryville. I guess we know why the cattle are restless.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

New ground

Summer vacations on my grandparents farm in rural West Tennessee is all that heaven needs to be. If I have trouble sleeping, I place myself on my grandfather's 8N Ford tractor or shelling corn with the old crank sheller in the corn crib.

The lexicon of the farm was mysterious to a grade-school boy. I thought "ros'nears" was a type of delicious corn on the cob. I had no idea it was simply "roasting ears." We got "light bread" at the store, but it palled in comparison to "cracklin' bread." And always a big discussion was what to plant on the "new ground."

"New ground" could be 15 years old. It simply meant the latest piece of land to be cleared for planting. It was always the "new ground" until another plot was cleared. Clearing meant pulling stumps, tearing out surface roots and leveling the land so water wouldn't collect in low spots.

I finally have my "new ground." The cleared area in the foreground is where the food garden and berry patch will be. Going up the hill will be the orchard, a perfect north-facing slope. The line of 6 or so tall trees to the middle left are productive walnut trees. The area of the photo is about 2.5 acres.

It took 10 or so hours on the tractor to level the ground. I was hoping I wouldn't have to use a turning plow on the soil, but the ground is badly compacted. (Any neighbors out there volunteer their plow?) I finished the clearing just before the violent weather front came through today. It was nice to sit on the porch and watch the rain fall on the "new ground."

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Picture is worth a hundred words

My post yesterday caused some confusion, I fear, about the size of my brush piles. The picture above is one of the two large piles which I attempted to burn without much luck. My tractor gives you a sense of the size.

I'll just let the brush continue to age and burn it this summer. I had wanted to get all the debris cleaned up, but I'll have to have patience, a trait of which I'm in short supply.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Where's the fire when you need it?

As I watched the 6 o'clock news about the deadly fires in Australia, I thought about all the energy I expended today trying to get my brush piles to burn.

I started the day with three piles. Two of the piles were each about the size and volume of a two-car garage. The third was smaller, about the size of an automobile. After a full day of trying to ignite the piles with burning tires, old crankcase oil and diesel fuel, the only pile that was reduced was the small one. The two large piles remain essentially in tact. I even tried the old trick of using a leaf blower to fan the flames.

Even though it hasn't rained in a week, I knew the wood in the piles was still wet, but I thought it would burn if I could get a hot enough fire going. No dice.

I'm always amazed at the stories of forest fires, how easily they are started. When I called the U.S. Forestry Service to get my burn permit, the ranger said there would be a slight wind in the afternoon so I shouldn't leave the fire unattended. Though I tended and tended, I still have my brush piles.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

A better home for butterflies

The gardening books say the time to prune butterfly bushes (buddleia davidii) is immediately before spring growth starts (large photo). Seeing the forsythia and Bradford pears starting to bust out in today's 63-degree weather sent me to the shed for the pruning shears.

Now, here's the problem. I have a somewhat deserved reputation in pruning circles as Darth Vader. If one is supposed to prune with the skill of a surgeon and scalpel, I am closer to a lumberjack and chain saw. But I've been reading my pruning books and I vow to do better. Our butterfly bushes in our front yard attract butterflies by the hundreds.

One pruning book says to cut the old butterfly canes all the way to the ground. Another says to leave 3 to 6 inches. I tried to do 3 inches (small photo). The last butterfly bush I pruned, it had to be replaced. I hope I have done this year's bushes correctly or Madame Butterfly will likely take the shears to me.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Soil test is back. Now what?

With great excitement I opened the letter containing the results of my soil test. Did we flunk or do well?

After looking at the single page of numbers and tables, my first urge was to shout "I majored in journalism, not agriculture." I saw names which I had not seen since looking at the Periodic Table in 10th-grade chemistry. I was as lost then as now.

A cup of tea calmed me down and sent me to my library. After a few hours of study, here is what I think I know about my soil:

* Soil pH is 6. My goal should be to get it to 6.5-6.8. I need to add lime.
* I'm significantly low in phosphorus and calcium. Potassium and magnesium are close, but could use a slight boost. Should be able to adjust this with proper fertilizer.
* Soil is too acidic for everything except blueberries. I need to carve out a special spot for blueberries and back down the pH to around 5.
* If I don't do better in my garden than I did in chemistry, it will be a lean harvest.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The ways of wood

Since we are experiencing low temperatures in the teens, the subject today is wood, specifically firewood.

One of the many skills I wanted to learn when we settled on our land is to be able to identify trees by leaf, bark and grain. I'm not there yet, but I'm getting better. I try to identify each piece I put in the stove.

Here are some thoughts on how different types of wood burn:

* poplar -- Easiest to start but burns quickly like pine. The best wood for kindling.
* ash -- burns much like poplar and probably a little hotter.
* locust -- Don't even attempt to burn this without at least six months of cure time. Burns hot, too hot for lightweight stoves.
* hickory -- One of the best overall stove woods. A piece of green hickory will burn all night.
* hackberry -- Burn all you can. The cross-grain of this wood makes it useless for anything else.
* sassafras -- Looks like locust, but doesn't burn as hot.
*oak -- I don't have any except for one enormous red oak at the top of my orchard hill. The woodcutters said it's at least 150 years old. I hope to care for it so it can live another 150.
* walnut and cherry -- I hate to burn this wood because of its beautiful grain, but I do have some in my woodpile. The smoke from walnut and cherry is a sacrament to the heavens.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Natural fertilizer

On the day before the big snow I did get something done that should help in garden preparation. My late father-in-law always said the best source of organic matter to add to a garden is chopped-up leaves from the lawn.

I don't have much of a lawn, so I'm sure Deerfield residents were surprised to see me mowing the woods in front of the house in the dead of winter with the leaf-catcher attached. In less than two hours I was able to fill the cart more than a dozen times with chopped-up leaves.

I spread the leaves evenly over the garden spot. If I can do this a couple of more times before I plow the ground, I should have a better soil. My soil test is not back yet from the lab, but I'm sure it will call for more organic matter.

The snow pack will help the leaves decompose. I can feel that earth bubbling already.

Monday, February 2, 2009

At last, a snow worth its salt

Our Groundhog Day snow is the first one to give us a proper covering since we moved here in 2006. The wet flakes attached themselves to our dogwood trees at the side of the house giving us spring-like faux blossoms.

In the photo at right you can see our white boxer, Willie, quizzically looking out the window. Willie is 3 years old so this is his first snow.

I had intentions of sowing grass seed when the forecasters first told us about the possibility of snow last week. Just before a heavy wet snow is always the best time to sow grass because it pulls the seed down the correct distance into the ground. Then we were told the storm was going around us so we wouldn't see any accumulation. Alas, the seed is still in the sack.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Twice warmed

The writer Annie Dillard says that firewood warms you twice -- when you cut it and then when you burn it.

We had a neighborhood firewood cutting and splitting party this weekend. We were warmed significantly as we filled a large wagon twice with nice chunks of locust, poplar, hickory and hackberry. It will be cured and ready for burning next fall.

I helped my neighbor build a Taj Mahal of a woodshed this summer. I need to get something built before the next wood-burning season. My wood is stacked hither and yon around the place and covered with tarps, plywood and anything else handy.

Firewood needs a nice place to season before it follows through on its second warming.