Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Wearable Tech for the Backyard Homesteader

If you are one of the estimated 50 million people who received some sort of wearable technology this Christmas, you are most likely thinking about how that gear will help you improve your fitness, lose weight or become a better athlete. While all of these are great, there's a lot for the backyard homesteader to love about this technology, as well. No, your Fitbit won't tell you when to plant your garden or water your lawn... yet, but it will provide valuable feedback on the energy you are expending doing those things. If you watch shows like Mountain Men, you will occasionally hear the narrator refer to the extraordinary number of calories the men burn each day as they go through their rigorous outdoor activities. For those of us who merely putter for a couple of hours each day in our backyards, though, it was difficult to get a feel for the level of exertion and how it related to other activities, like running or a gym workout. Sure, there was a general sense that mowing the lawn was roughly equivalent to taking a long walk, and that raking leaves was a pretty good upper body workout, but these activities were difficult to quantify in a meaningful way.

When I got my first piece of wearable technology, a simple Fitbit Flex, almost four years ago, all that began to change, and now, with my more advanced Charge 2, I can keep a reasonably accurate accounting of the calories expended doing just about any kind of outdoor task. If your response to that is, who cares? you are probably 25 and could eat a side of beef in one sitting without gaining a pound. I was there once, myself, but these days if I want to avoid having to buy new pants a size bigger every year, I need to keep track of such things. 

The least expensive devices, typically under $100, use a simple accelerometer to track body movement and translate that into "steps." This data is then uploaded to a computer, tablet or smartphone and translated into an estimate of distance traveled and calories burned. It's not an exact reading, of course, but as a general rule, I found my Flex to be fairly accurate in terms of relating my steps to the distance traveled, and the calorie count to be conservative relative to other methods of calculation. I learned that mowing my lawn was the equivalent of a two mile hike, and that 30 minutes of rigorous hedge trimming burned at least 300 calories.

Devices like the Charge 2 ($150) add features such as a heart rate monitor and an altimeter. Together with the accelerometer, these generate data used to provide an even more accurate and complete profile of physical activity, accounting for the fact that walking uphill burns more calories and that activities like moving landscape stones expend energy without a lot of body movement. The most expensive wearable tech, like the Fitbit Ionic ($299), Apple Watch ($329) and Garmin Fenix ($549) include a GPS for even more accurate distance tracking.     

Statistics show that about a third of owners stop using their fitness trackers after the first six months, and that only half of Fitbits, the market leader with almost a 75% share, registered are still actively used. While that figure may be a little misleading because I suspect many Flex users, like me, upgraded to the Charge, there is no doubt that the attrition rate is relatively high. One of the key factors noted by those who gave up the devices is that the information generated was no longer useful or interesting. After a couple months they got the general idea that a normal day's activity was worth 3,000 to 4,000 steps and that a three mile evening walk or run added to that got them to their 10,000 step goal. There was rarely anything new or novel to be learned; which I think says a good bit more about the lifestyle of the average person than it does about the usefulness of wearable tech. 

For the backyard homesteader, however, the sheer variety of different things we do and the seasonality of those activities should keep the information fresh for a very long time. Filling the bird feeders, trimming shrubs, planting seedlings; these all have an exertion value and they are all different. Before fitness trackers, we were told that an hour of "gardening" burned 275 calories, but there is a huge difference between holding a garden hose for an hour and double-digging a plot of land for an hour. My Fitbit captures that difference and that information is very valuable to me as I plan my meals and my supplemental exercise activity.     

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Keeping Christmas Plants Alive After the Holidays

Maybe you got it as a "hostess" gift, or maybe you bought it yourself to brighten up the house for the holidays; a Norfolk Island pine, rosemary topiary, Christmas cactus or poinsettia. And if you are like 90% of people who buy these plants, the minute the holiday decorations come down they will be headed to that great compost bin in the sky. That's really a shame because most of them make great year-round houseplants, and with a little care can provide many years of enjoyment.

First, a couple of caveats:

​The businesses who grow and market Christmas plants fully understand that the vast majority of people are buying them as a sort of extended cut flower arrangement. Their efforts go into getting them to bloom at the correct time and stay relatively fresh and attractive looking for the 4 or 5 weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. This impacts the way the plants are potted, fertilized, transported and even the specific varieties grown. In other words, very little thought goes into the long-term health and vitality of the plant, so keeping them alive past January can be a bit of an uphill battle.

Also, Christmas plants are often displayed in discount stores and convenience marts or in parts of home & garden stores where plants are not generally sold, so the employees are often clueless about how to maintain them. You can pretty much assume that a plant bought from a temporary rack at the front of a Walgreens has been stressed by too much or too little water and insufficient light; possibly beyond the point of recovery.

​Generally speaking, if you are going to buy a plant from a "non-traditional" seller, it is better to get it toward the beginning of the season. A few days before Christmas, stores will begin selling these plants at a deep discount, but you need to be extremely careful about buying something that has been sitting in a dimly-lit aisle, likely without water, since Thanksgiving.

Poinsettia

Of the four plants we are discussing today, poinsettias are the least likely to survive into the next year. A colleague of mine whose thumb is at least two shades greener is able to keep them alive, but it's hard work and getting them to bloom again is hit-and-miss. Honestly, it's probably more trouble than it's worth, but here goes...

If you are planning to keep your poinsettias, the first thing you need to do when you bring them home -- and this goes for all the other plants as well -- is re-pot them. The soil mixture used to grow the plants is designed for fast growth in carefully maintained greenhouse conditions. It is not intended as a long-term growing medium. Use a high-quality potting soil that drains well while retaining moisture, or make your own by combining equal parts peat moss, compost and vermiculite. Poinsettias are tropicals and require lots of light and water, so keep your plant in a sunny window and water whenever the top of the soil feels dry. In a house with dry winter air, you will need to water frequently; at least 3 or 4 times per week.

In the spring, start cutting back on the water and move the plant to a cooler location like a basement or garage. As summer approaches, cut the stems back 2-3 inches and add a bit of organic fertilizer -- I like Espoma Plant-Tone -- every couple of weeks. Once the temperature reaches the mid 70's during the day and doesn't drop below 60 at night, move the plant outdoors to a partially-shaded location. Continue to water and fertilize. Around the 4th of July, pinch each stem back an inch to promote balanced growth. By mid-August, you should see significant new growth. Pinch these new stems back a half-inch in late August.

Now, here's the tricky part. Poinsettia blooms are triggered by the length of the day. In their native habitat, they bloom after 8-10 weeks getting less than 10 hours of light. If you do the math, you will realize that poinsettias don't naturally bloom at Christmas. To force the blooms, place the plant in complete darkness for 14 hours each day, beginning in early October. By late November or early December you should see new buds. Once these appear, you can leave the plant in a sunny window full-time, and if the poinsettia-gods are smiling you should have beautiful new blooms in time for Christmas.

Rosemary

We go from the most difficult plant to keep alive after the holidays to the easiest. Rosemary is actually a small shrub, a fact that is lost on most non-gardeners until the Christmas season when they are often sold as topiaries cut into the shape of Christmas trees. If you are planning to keep your rosemary as a houseplant, re-pot it as soon as possible after the holidays using a good quality potting soil. Rosemary requires full sun, but is drought-tolerant, so you can let the soil dry out just a bit between waterings. Do not allow the roots to sit in water. In many climates, including here in the North Carolina Piedmont, rosemary will grow as a perennial outdoors. If this is your intent, simply transplant into your herb garden or landscape bed right after the holidays.

Christmas Cactus


A Christmas cactus really is a cactus, although it bears little resemblance to what we traditionally think of as cacti. Native to the coastal mountains of Brazil, they grow wild on trees or rocks with very little soil, poor light and high humidity. They were first cultivated as exotic houseplants in the 19th century and became associated with Christmas in the United States because they are relatively easy to force into bloom in the late fall. After the holidays, re-pot using a soil that drains well. The commercially available "succulent" soils work well, or mix equal parts compost, sand and peat moss. Place the pot on a small saucer filled with gravel and water, refilling the water on a regular basis. This will help keep the plant moist. Water frequently, allowing the soil to drain completely. The plant will thrive in moderate light, but like the poinsettia requires extended periods of darkness to bloom. For Christmas blooms, place the plant in complete darkness for 14 hours each day beginning in mid-October. Having said all that, my mother had a Christmas cactus that grew to the size of a large beach ball over a period of ten years and routinely bloomed in late December without any special treatment whatsoever.

Norfolk Island Pine

The very first houseplant I purchased with my own money was a Norfolk Island pine. It was about six inches tall and I bought it from a display near the front entrance of the Woolworth's in the Sandusky Mall circa 1977. That tree grew to be over a foot tall in my south-facing bedroom window and thrived until I went off to college to 1980 and my mother apparently forgot to water it. Since then, I have bought many "seasonal" Norfolk pines and have yet to recreate the success of that first one. It's a plant that I seem to have difficulty keeping alive much past the holidays, despite doing "all the right things." And here's the reason; remember how I said that growers are more concerned with the plants looking good for 5 weeks than they are with their long-term viability? It turns out that many growers spray these trees with a green colorant to make them more attractive in the stores, and this interferes with the ability of the plant to photosynthesize food over the long-term, essentially starving it. So, be aware that the odds may be against you on this one, and that the first thing you should do if you are planning to keep a Norfolk Island pine is to give it a good washing, preferably outdoors where you can really spray it well. Norfolk Island pines are one of the few trees that respond very well to being misted with cool water rather than room temperature water.

These trees are native to, well... Norfolk Island, which is located off the coast of Australia. They are actually an ancient species that would have been very at home in Jurassic World. The trees grow especially well in high humidity environments, so frequently misting them is important for their overall health. Norfolk Island pines should be watered every week during the summer months so that the soil is kept moist. During the winter months, however, the soil should be allowed to dry out completely before the tree is watered again.The pines grow best in cool daytime temperatures and indirect sunlight, but cannot be grown outdoors in the United States; too cold in the winter in the north and too hot in the summer in the south. When placed in a window, the plant should be rotated periodically so that all sides get equal light and the plant grows uniformly. This is important because these pines do not tolerate pruning.

I hope you enjoyed this primer on Christmas plants. I will be taking a few days off over the holidays and doing some fishing at the coast, so I want to take this opportunity to wish all my readers a Merry Christmas. See you again in the new year!

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Buying Christmas Gifts For Fishermen

A few years ago I received a well-intentioned Christmas gift from a family member who was not a fisherman; a bait-casting rod paired with a spinning reel. How exactly that particular combo came about is a story I would have loved to hear, but not wanting to hurt his feelings I simply said "thanks" and later bought an appropriate reel to go with the rod and appropriate rod to go with the reel. On the bright side, I guess you could say it was two for the price of one. While the "innovative" bait cast/spinning combo is maybe an extreme example of a non-fishermen buying questionable gifts for their fishing friends and family, it's not as uncommon as one might think, so I want to offer some simple advice for the non-fisherman who wants to purchase fishing-related gifts:

1. The number one best piece of advice I can offer is get professional help. No, not that kind of professional help, but the assistance of a sales associate that at the very least has been fishing once or twice in their life. While it is possible you might find such a person at a big box retailer, it's essentially a crap shoot. I have overheard some extraordinarily bad advice doled out by the employees of a large store chain whose name starts with a "W," ends with a "T" and has a logo resembling a big asterisk. The best advice can typically be found at a small, locally-owned fishing or outdoor sports stores, but big box sporting-goods retailers like Dicks, Cabela's and Bass Pro generally have someone manning the counter in the fishing department who has at least a decent knowledge of the sport. If you describe the type of fishing your friend or loved one does or at least where they fish and the type of fish they catch, a reasonably sharp person can probably point you in the right direction.

2. Unless the gift recipient has provided you with a very specific description -- and we're talking manufacturer and model number -- of what they're looking for it is best to leave rods and reels alone. There are too many options, too many variations and too much personal preference involved. And, of course, any fishermen worth his salt already has a nice collection of rods and reels, so even the most knowledgeable salesperson would have difficulty anticipating what they have, don't have and would be likely to need. Plus, a rod and reel that's going to be of any value to an enthusiast is going to be a relatively expensive item and one that you really don't want to make a mistake with. The caveat is a custom-built rod. This is something that you can give as a gift certificate which allows the recipient to get exactly the sort of rod he/she wants, built from scratch to meet their exact requirements. You can find a local custom rod maker by Googling "custom fishing rod." However, keep in mind that custom rods are not inexpensive and if you are used to seeing the $39.95 rods sold at the big box stores there's probably going to be a touch of sticker shock when you find out that even a modestly priced custom rod is going to run upwards of $300.

3. Clothing makes a good gift for the angler, and if you happen to be married to or living in proximity to that angler you have a pretty good idea what they already own in terms of fishing clothing. Personal tastes vary significantly, of course, but we know very few fishermen who would not enjoy a good quality fishing shirt like the Columbia PFG series or the Under Armour Flats Guide series. These are light weight, well-ventilated apparel designed specifically for fishermen. A logo tee or cap from a favorite brand or location is also a good bet.

4. Lures and other tackle make great Christmas gifts and stocking-stuffers. Even though you run some of that same risk of not getting precisely the right thing, the price point for these items is such that it's not going to be a major issue. Again, your best bet is to seek advice from a local store on exactly what type of lures are most commonly used in the area for the type of fishing your friend or loved one does. Lures are categorized into major groupings like spinners, buzz baits, crank baits, soft plastics, and the like, and within each of these there are a variety of variations, sizes and colors. There is no way I can possibly bring you up to date on the literally thousands of options available in the lure aisle(s) of even a small sporting goods store, but a good bet for general-purpose stocking-stuffer is a French spinner. The most popular brand of this type of lure is called a Mepps, although several other manufacturers produce their own variations on this theme. The size of the lure corresponds vaguely to the type of fishing setup the angler is using; from #0 or #1 ultra-light spinners, which weigh a 10th of an ounce or less, all the way up to a #7 which is used for large freshwater fish like muskie and pike. A good middle ground is the #3. These tend to run about 1/4 ounce and, while generally used on a light to medium rig, they are at the very extreme top end of what can be effectively cast with an ultra-light setup and can be used with heavier equipment, as well. There are a couple of different philosophies as far as colors go; there's a school of thought that says that lure colors are essentially meaningless and more important for the angler than they ever would be for the fish, but there's another school of thought that says fish really do respond differently to different colors under different conditions. I tend to side a bit more with the first camp (although I keep an open mind) and as a result tend to go with fairly basic colors and patterns. Having said that, if you like the brightly colored or intricately detailed designs, knock yourself out.

I hope this brief guide has been of some help. If you have any questions or if I can offer more specific assistance, please drop me a line at John@WynfieldCreekHomestead.com.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thanksgiving At The Homestead; The Wynfield Creek Years

The biggest change in most people’s holiday traditions typically results from marriage. Two completely different, often conflicting, sets of traditions have to be consolidated, mashed-up and ironed out. This process is even more difficult if the parents of the person you are marrying are divorced, which means you essentially have to merge THREE different sets of traditions. For the first several years Janet and I were married, we lived in The Little House on the Highway, which was not quite half-way between my parents’ house in Port Clinton and hers in Ft. Wayne. The first year, Janet’s mother actually came and had Thanksgiving dinner with us at my parents’ house. Back then, I was working as manager of a retail store, and while I had Thanksgiving day off for the first time in years, I would be putting in 14 hour days the rest of the holiday weekend, so it was impractical for me to travel anywhere. Once I got out of retail and into a more sane holiday work schedule, we began alternating Thanksgivings, typically spending Thanksgiving day with one family and then the day after with the other. The Ft. Wayne festivities were generally held at Janet’s sister’s house and not at one of her parents’. Her sister’s house was larger and also had the advantage of not showing “favoritism” toward one parent or the other. Truth be told, I actually enjoyed the Ft. Wayne Thanksgivings more than the Port Clinton ones, which by this point, due to the size of the extended family and some “personalities and issues,” had become something of a theater of the absurd.

In 1995, Janet and I moved to Charlotte and settled into the Wynfield Creek Homestead. We hadn’t really given much thought to how this would effect the Thanksgiving tradition, and the first year, we decided to just keep on as we had, albeit with a much longer drive over the river and through the woods. The drive north wasn’t too bad. We left our house around 9:00 AM on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and arrived at my parents’ house around 8:00 that night. Thanksgiving day was perfectly ordinary. On Friday we drove to Ft. Wayne and had another Thanksgiving dinner with Janet’s sister and her family. Early Sunday morning, we left on the return trip and that’s when things turned ugly in the form of 500 miles of bumper-to-bumper holiday traffic. We pulled up to our driveway around midnight, turned to each other and said in unison, “okay, never doing that again.”

Consequently, the next year we went off in search of our own North Carolina Thanksgiving tradition. We couldn’t see the value in cooking a whole turkey for just the two of us, so I fell back on the “Thanksgiving dinner out” concept from my days at the CIC, with a touch of Manly Outdoor Activity for good measure. We spent the first part of that Thanksgiving hiking at Lake Norman State Park, then had dinner at Cracker Barrel. It was an okay arrangement, but not very Thanksgiving-y.

The next year, we were invited to Thanksgiving dinner by a colleague at the software company where I worked. With no other particularly good options, we accepted. I’d love to tell you more about that day, but honestly I don’t remember. My colleague was such a good host that my wine glass remained completely full for the whole day. I have no idea how much I actually drank, but I recall at one point wanting to stand up and realizing that I couldn’t.

In 1998, I took a job with another firm and was immediately introduced to a new Thanksgiving tradition, the Turkey Trot. I was told that everyone from the office ran in this annual event on Thanksgiving morning at the South Park Mall. I hadn’t run much since college, but certainly didn’t want to be the odd man out at my new firm, so I started training for what I initially thought was a 5K. About two weeks before the event, I learned that it was actually an 8K, which doesn’t sound like a huge difference; unless you are barely making it the 5K. For those who are metrically challenged, it’s the difference between 3 miles and 5 miles. Finally, on the Sunday before Thanksgiving I made the full 5 miles under 55 minutes (which I perceived to be a slow, but not embarrassing pace) for the first time. I was ready. Of course, on the actually day, everybody else from the office begged out of the race for one reason or another, leaving me to run all by myself.

I ran in the Turkey Trot for the next several years until my bad knees finally caught up with me. During those years, we alternated between cooking a full-blown Thanksgiving dinner at home, occasionally joined by Janet’s father, having Thanksgiving dinner at the very CIC-like North Harbor Club, or joining our friends, Steve and Fern Dallas, for their family dinner.

Sometime around 2005 or 2006, a local radio station offered free Charlotte Bobcats tickets for the night before Thanksgiving to anyone bringing a frozen turkey to their station to donate to a local homeless shelter. That sounded like a neat idea and a new tradition was born. For whatever reason, the Bobcats - now Hornets - tend to play a home game on the night before Turkey Day. I think they have done so 5 of the past 7 years, and when they do, Janet and I are at the game.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Mean Estate: Thanksgiving Short Fiction

By the last week of November, the hills of western Virginia have gone a mossy brown. From twenty-five thousand feet, they resemble nothing so much as the rough, irregular hide of an alligator mottled with the bright white crescents or ovals or s-shapes of ski resorts awaiting the early-season crowds.

The plane is a turboprop Dornier 328, the workhorse of US Airways commuter fleet, and standard equipment from Pittsburgh to Greensboro. It is cramped and noisy, a plane he knows well. The FASTEN SEAT BELT sign blinks twice, and before the flight attendant begins her “tray tables and seat backs” announcement, he begins stowing his laptop for the initial descent into the Piedmont Triad airport. He knows to do this because he makes this flight nearly every week, and has for nearly as long as he cares to remember.

On the ground in Greensboro, he rolls his single carry-on bag out of the terminal, past the cascading fountain and out into the crowded parking lot. It’s a sunny day, seasonable, twenty degrees warmer than the wintry morning he left behind in Cleveland. His Ford Crown Victoria, (“company car,” he would add, apologizing) waits for him in the space where he parked it forty-five hours before. If it were capable of speaking, it might question why he is back so early this trip. But it is just twenty-three hundred pounds of steel, glass, rubber and plastic. It does not know today is the day before Thanksgiving and that all good business travelers are either home already, or well on their way. For him it’s the latter, as there’s still the matter of the hour drive from the airport to his suburban home.

Leaving the airport and merging onto the highway, he checks his voicemail, and finds, as expected, only one message, from his wife, Claire, reminding him to pick up a bottle of wine for the Scanlon’s. A glance at his watch confirms that it is after four o’clock, and that the business world is winding down for the long holiday weekend. A quick call to the office reassures him that there are no last minute fires to be doused or feathers to be smoothed. He turns the radio up and cruises west, eventually taking the Hargersville exit and turning south onto the wide tree-lined boulevard.

The Wine Shop is located in a cluster of gray clapboard buildings designed, to the folly of the Boston-based developers, to resemble a New England whaling village; or at least a New England tourist destination designed to look like a whaling village. They retail space is called The Shoppes at Pequod Landing; Pequod Landing being the subdivision where his house, 4BD/3BT 3500 SQFT, sits on its pie-shaped wedge of cul-de-sac; Lanyard Court. The Shoppes consist of a dozen small retail establishments, a Blockbuster, a Domino’s pizza, a candy store, a pharmacy, a card shop... all bobbing in the sea of asphalt that washes upon the shores of the Harris Teeter grocery store. It’s cheerfully upscale and painstakingly inauthentic. On this day, at this hour, the lot is packed with minivans and sport-utes, and he is silently grateful that he does not have to fight the rush of last-minute turkey-and-yam-seekers descending on the Teeter. For the first time since Claire suggested -- insisted actually -- on having Thanksgiving dinner with the Scanlon’s, he sees the value in letting someone else do the leg-work.

A circuit of the lot reveals an open spot a few spaces down from The Wine Shop’s door, directly in front of The Ribbonry. Apparently there are few last minute lace and bow shoppers today, and he quickly tucks the “Vic” in between a monstrous Suburban and a Mercedes sedan. Inside, Fred, the shop owner, finishes up with a couple who are clearly planning one heck of an boozy extravaganza for turkey day, but gives a courteous nod of acknowledgement as he ushers them and their case of clanking bottles toward the Suburban.

“Dan,” the shopkeeper says warmly, “let, me guess; looking for something that goes with turkey and cranberries?” He says this with a cheerful, off-the-cuff, nonchalance that Dan is certain has been the go-to greeting for the past week.

“That sounds about right.” Dan says, actually quite impressed that Fred remembers his name; he is hardly a regular. “We’re having Thanksgiving dinner with some business associates of Claire’s; some folks new in town from Chicago.”

“Ah,” the short, balding man says knowingly, as he heads off toward a stack of crates near the front of the store. “This Kongsgaard Syrah is a good choice. It has strong spice and black pepper qualities with some smokiness, a smooth finish, and just enough “sticker” to impress,” he continued, holding the bottle out boldly so that the three-figure price was clearly visible. It was an expensive bottle, at least by Dan’s standards, but he knew that Claire would want something nice.

“That sounds like just the ticket.”

“Great. If it’s a hostess gift, I have some nice wrap and ribbon, I could pretty it up a bit.”

“Sure. That would be great,” Dan offers while absently wondering if the ribbon came from The Ribbonry next door.

- -

Thanksgiving Day dawns clear and warm, with the temperature pushing 70 by the time Dan and Claire leave for the Scanlon’s, just after noon. Bill and Veronica Scanlon live near uptown in a fashionable older neighborhood called Berwick, where modest two bedroom bungalows on postage-stamp plots of land easily fetch three-quarters of a million dollars. Claire navigates from hand-written instructions Veronica scrawled the day before. New in town and working from memory, Veronica mislabeled a critical turn, and the result was an increasingly frustrating tour of the side streets and back roads of Berwick, heightened by Claire’s refusal to call for directions because that would require her to admit that Veronica’s directions were wrong to start with.

After thirty minutes of trial and error, Dan coaxes the “Vic” to a stop in the driveway. The skies have clouded over, but it is still warm, “more like Labor Day than Thanksgiving,” Dan thinks, as they make their way up the quaint cobblestone path toward the front door. Clearly, the Scanlon’s have been waiting impatiently for them, as Claire’s knock is greeted almost simultaneously by the opening of the door. Alarm bells ring in Dan’s head as he gets his first look at his hosts. Bill Scanlon is tall and handsome, five or six years older, but trim and fit in a casually athletic way that Dan has never been and will never be. His tanned face contrasting pleasantly with his close-cut silver hair. He is dressed in a short-sleeved black silk polo shirt and silver-gray silk and wool slacks that make Dan think of cool stone lining the walls of some hidden canyon. He wears no socks under black Gucci loafers. Veronica is outfitted in a little black dress that Dan suspects cost more than the Vic. For his part, Dan wore a blue and green plaid Lands End shirt and khaki Dockers. He supposed he should have inquired about dress code, but had never heard of anyone dressing up for Thanksgiving dinner this side of the freaking White House.

Greetings and introductions are exchanged as the couples make their way through the small foyer into the living room. The house, a contemporary design from the 1960’s is painted sparkling white throughout and decorated in a style which could charitably called minimalist. Dan is almost seated before he remembers the bottle of wine in his hand and thrusts it awkwardly toward his hosts.

“Oh, thank you,” Bill says with a forced sincerity that is both practiced and unconvincing. “This is a great little winery. Have you tried their Merlot? ‘Roni and I stopped by there on our annual Napa wine buying trip; what was it dear, two years ago?”

“No,” Dan answers quite truthfully, and unable to think of anything else meaningful to add babbles a short and disjointed series of comments about The Wine Shop and the half dozen random bottles he has purchased there, mostly as gifts, over the past few months.

“Hmmm,” Bill responds, feigning interest, or at least acknowledgement. “Well, let’s get this bottle open, shall we. I normally like to let a bottle breathe for at least half an hour. Can I get you something to drink in the meantime?”

“Uhm, sure. Scotch?”

“Glenmorangie Port Wood Finish okay?” It is more a statement than a question.

“Uhm, sure.”

Bill walks over to the small bar and pours the drinks. Claire had deserted them, heading into the kitchen with Veronica, and he is left in the living room with Bill and his expensive scotch.

“This…” Dan scans the room, which to him resembles a museum of modern art he once visited in New York, “is very nice.”

“Oh, thanks.” Bill says with the mock humility understood to mean, IT IS IMPRESSIVE, ISN’T IT. “We brought a lot of our decor down from Chicago. It was a real trick to get it all to work in this space, but I think Roni’s done a super job. So, I understand you’re involved in plumbing somehow?”

“Well, actually, my company makes industrial valves and fittings.” He considers adding, “I’m a regional sales manager,” but doesn’t want to sound pretentious.

“Oh!”

Silence.

“And I understand that you’re in banking?”

“I’m the Southeast Regional Vice-President for Midwest Savings Trust.”

So much for pretentious.

“Oh!”

Silence.

And more silence.

A voice from the other room announces that dinner is served. The dining room is equally white, the furniture equally severe, the art equally funky. In one corner stands an abstract sculpture that, at first glance, appears to be a horse being devoured by huge tentacled creatures. Dan doesn’t hazard a second glance.

The two couples sit in bright chrome and black leather chairs surrounding a glass and chrome table. Bill closes his eyes and extends his arms, prompting everyone to join hands. The room is eerily silent for what Dan thinks is an absurdly long time, then Bill begins an incantation of grace the like of which Dan had never heard before. He doesn’t catch it all, but manages to pluck out references to Mother Earth, the Gods of a Million Stars, and something he thinks might have to do with reruns of Bonanza. Then they sit in complete silence for another minute, maybe two, before Bill finally breaks the trance like mood.

If Dan had been uncomfortable earlier, he is in shock now. Closer inspection of the food spread out on the table reveals nothing he recognizes. In the center of the table is a large brownish clot. Beside it is a bowl of what appears to be purple rice, and a bowl of what appears to be red broccoli.

Where the hell do these people shop, Whoville, Dan wonders?

Another bowl, already being passed from Veronica to Claire contains a mixture of red and white beans. Bill stands and begins “carving” long gelatinous hunks from the congealed brown mass. “White or dark, Dan?” he asks with a wry grin, and motions for Dan’s plate. It was coming to Dan now. He knows what this is. He read about it somewhere, maybe one of those fitness magazines at the club.

“Is that Tofurky?” he asks, hoping not to belie his revulsion.

“Nothing but; fat-free 100% vegetable protein,” Bill responds with a smile, still holding out his hand for Dan’s plate.

He shoots Claire a quick glance and her return stare communicates the new theme for the day. Eat it! Eat it all! Don’t say a damn word! Eat the goddamn Tofurkey!

Dan dutifully hands his plate over and is rewarded with an extra large portion. The remainder of the bowls are passed and soon Dan’s plate is covered with small piles of the purported food. Dan is relieved, quite relieved actually, to find that the mystery meal is merely bland and gummy, not wholly inedible.

Conversation is a bit smoother now that there are four people to carry the load. Things are beginning to wind down and Dan thinks he might be able to stick it out, possibly even get home for the end of the Cowboys game, when the other shoe drops in the form of Bill’s leading question, “so, have either of you ever heard of The Power of the Cosmos?”

Neither Dan nor Claire have. Fortunately, Bill and Veronica have some brochures, and a nicely produced three hour video which covers the basics; the essence of which is that one can achieve total enlightenment by becoming one with Mother Earth, Sister Moon and, yes, the Gods of the Stars. And best of all, this “oneness” can be arranged on the installment plan.

By the time Dan and Claire engineer a departure, complete with much hugging and a promise to call after they had thought over “their place in the cosmos,” the sky is dark and a chill wind has swirled up.

The first ten minutes of the ride pass in silence. Claire is the first to speak.

“Well, that was interesting.”

“Interesting, INTERESTING? That was a freaking carnival sideshow! I’m still trying to figure out what half that stuff we ate was supposed to be. Mother Earth, Sister Moon, Star Gods? Throw in a witch and a gypsy and we could have had Thanksgiving dinner with Stevie Nicks!!!”

“Oh, they’re just a little quirky. Anyway, you seemed like you were having a good time.”

“I’m a salesman for heaven's sake. I sell industrial valves and fittings. Pretending to be interested in stupid shit is what I do. Do you really think I find pressure nozzles fascinating? A Tofurkey, Claire? A Tofurkey? I spend four nights a week in bad hotel rooms and nod off to the local news of some city whose name I’ve forgotten. I eat more meals in Applebees and Ruby Tuesdays than I do in my own home. All I want is to have a nice traditional Thanksgiving meal. It’s really very simple; turkey, dressing, cranberry relish, yams, pumpkin pie. You say grace, you stuff yourself. Afterward you waddle over to the living room sofa and alternate between napping and football -- always the Lions, always the Cowboys -- next to a roaring fire. Maybe later you have a second piece of pie. If you want to be adventurous, you add a little horseradish to the cranberries or maybe, just maybe, pecan pie instead of pumpkin. But tofu and genetically altered broccoli, Claire, I DON’T THINK SO!!!”

The rest of the drive passes in silence.

Once home, Dan pours himself an oversize tumbler of Johnny Walker, lights the gas logs in the fireplace and settles back in his leather recliner. He surfs distractedly up and down the cable, pausing for a few minutes to watch sharks on the Discovery Channel and something about Japanese submarines on THC. On his way back up toward E!, something catches his eye. In a black and white New York, a jolly old man in a tailored suit walks briskly down the street. Dan knows this man, this film; MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET. Back in Ohio, where he grew up, the local television station broadcast MIRACLE every Thanksgiving. He has seen it maybe half a dozen times, but not since he was a teen. He takes a sip of scotch and places the remote on the side table; watching, fascinated, as the images burned deep into his childhood psyche refreshed themselves from the screen. By the time a pre-pubescent Natalie Wood is doing her monkey impression, an idea is germinating in his mind, and by the time Maureen O’Hara and John Payne find Kriss’s cane in the corner of the country house, he is filled with a warm glow that was part scotch and part nostalgia. He flicks the television off and shuffles unsteadily off to bed, whispering to Claire as he slides in beside her, “this year Claire, we’re going to have a real Christmas, traditional, just like when we were kids.”

“Sure, honey, good night,” she says as she sleepily kisses his cheek and rolls onto her side. Little does she know those will be the last rational words spoken in that house for a month.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Lasagna Gardening Might Be The Answer To The Question You Didn't Know To Ask

For the homeowner who doesn't spend hours each week immersed in gardening journals, tweets and blogs, the term "lasagna garden" probably conjures up visions of tidy plots of Italian herbs and Roma tomatoes. But lasagna in this case refers to the process, not the product, of the garden. Also known as "kill mulch" or "sheet mulch" gardening, lasagna gardening is a no-till method which uses layers of mulch and compost to create a stratified growing medium while simultaneously enhancing the underlying soil.

I stumbled across the idea a few years ago while, ironically, expanding my Square Foot Garden. I wanted to reclaim space for several new raised beds from my lawn and didn't want to use any sort of herbicide to kill the grass. I got the bright idea of cutting the grass as short as my mower would allow, then covering it with a layer of newspaper and several inches of shredded leaves. It was a fall project and effectively allowed me to kill two birds with one stone. My intent was simply to kill the grass in a natural way, but when spring rolled around I was surprised to see that the creeping myrtle from an adjacent bed zoomed in to cover the unused spaces. A little digging on the Internet confirmed that I was not the first to discover this concept and that, in fact, versions of the method had been in use for hundreds of years. Some additional tinkering led me to a system that I am confident is repeatable and will work well for just about any garden situation.

Now, you may be asking, if you are a proponent of Square Foot Gardening (which I am) then why are you promoting a different method? There are two answers to that question. First of all, while you can grow ANYTHING in a Square Foot Garden, some plants are not very practically grown that way. The "umbrella" squashes like zucchini, for instance, are just not well-suited for that method, as even the smaller hybrids will quickly grow to cover an entire raised bed. Second, the initial investment required for a larger Square Foot project can be prohibitive for some gardeners. Yes, it is true that a 4' X 4' Square Foot Garden will produce as much as a larger row garden, but it will also cost around $100 to build. For hobby use, there is a justification for that cost in terms of seed, water and fertilizer savings, but for a larger scale or semi-commercial gardening operation those costs get out of hand very quickly. So, what I have developed for the cost-conscious gardener is something of a hybrid approach which incorporates some of the advantages of the Square Foot method with the minimal investment of the no-till lasagna method.

Fall is the best time to start a lasagna garden, since there is a ready supply of fibrous mulch (shredded leaves) and the time between now and spring planting will give the garden time to "age." As implied by the term no-till, there is no digging required to start, the garden is built on top of the ground. The first step is to lay out the area that will become the garden. Following one of the Square Foot principles, the area can be any length but should be no more than four feet wide -- 4' X 8' or 4' X 10' are good to start -- and there should be at least two feet (I prefer three) between the beds. I use mason's line and landscape pegs to define the area and then use a lawnmower or string trimmer to cut the grass inside the lines as low as possible.

Next, place a layer of newspaper 2 or 3 sheets thick directly on the grass/ground. You will want to wet the newspaper as you are laying it to prevent it from blowing away and to begin the decomposition process. Once the area is completely covered in paper, add a layer of organic material eight to ten inches thick on top. You can use just about any organic material available to you including shredded leaves, grass clippings, coffee grounds, shredded newspaper, etc. While you should try to have some of both "brown" and "green" materials, there is no particular formula you need to follow. If you are using shredded leaves almost exclusively, however, you may want to add a little blood meal as a source of additional nitrogen. 

Again, to prevent the material from moving and to help start decomposition, wet your "stack" thoroughly at this point. It is okay to leave the stack at this stage for a few days or even a couple of weeks. As the material settles and begins to decompose, the stack will decrease in height and it's okay, although not necessary, to add another couple of inches of mulch as is does.

The next layer can be either a single layer of corrugated cardboard or a layer of newspaper five or six sheets thick. Be sure to use only uncoated cardboard as the glossy type does not decompose well. On top of the cardboard or paper, add a layer of good quality compost two to four inches thick and water the whole stack thoroughly. From this point all you need to do is wait for spring! Your seeds or seedlings will be planted in the compost where they will grow down into the decomposing mulch. Worms will be attracted to the rich organic matter and break up the underlying soil in the process. Weed growth will be minimal, just as in a Square Foot Garden, and you can even use the Square Foot planting rules as a guideline for your lasagna garden. Each fall, a new layer of mulch and compost will be added, maintaining a permaculture cycle. 

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

It's An Amazing Time To Be A Rural Entrepreneur: Five Unusual Ideas

For my last two years of college, I drove an hour every Friday afternoon from my dorm at Bowling Green State University to my hometown of Port Clinton to work a weekend job and then back again every Sunday evening. The route I took was SR 105, a two-lane country road that roughly traced the path of the Portage River. At about the halfway point, just outside the tiny hamlet of Woodville, I would pass a small enterprise tucked between the road and a 20 foot cliff overlooking the river. While I forget the name, I recall that it was a hunting and fishing outfitter that advertised custom-made fishing rods. I never stopped, because I was always in a hurry to get to my job on Fridays and the shop was closed by the time I would pass late on Sundays, but I was always curious how successful that business could possibly have been, located as it was on a sparsely traveled back road far away from any population center.

That was the mid-1980's and rural businesses faced a variety of marketing challenges that might seem quaint today. To effectively expand his market, the proprietor of that custom rod shop would have had to place expensive print ads in magazines such as Field and Stream or Outdoor Life or travel to fishing and outdoor shows across the country and sell direct. These days, with a couple of clicks of the mouse my custom tackle business can access a global marketplace, be seen by thousands of potential customers and close a sale; all from the comfort of my back deck. It's pretty miraculous when you think of it, and it creates opportunities for rural entrepreneurship which allow modern homesteaders to live the lifestyle they desire while still earning a decent living.

Of course, not all rural businesses have to be Internet-based or the same-old-same-old. Here are five unusual business ideas that rural entrepreneurs might consider:
  1. Goat and Sheep Rentals - People and businesses who have a lot of land and don’t want to spend the time to mow it could potentially use the help of goats or sheep. Solar farms, in particular, are a good market for sheep, since goats tend to want to climb on the panels and occasionally even eat them. You could start your own business where you care for goats and/or sheep and then rent them out for that purpose.
  2. Worm Farming - There are two distinct markets for worms. The first is live bait for fishing the second is to gardeners to help speed composting. 
  3. Garden Sitting - Gardeners like to take vacations too, but the almost constant care required to maintain a large garden during growing season can make getting away for more than a day or two difficult. You could build a business around providing "sitting" services (watering, weeding, pest control) for gardeners while they travel.
  4. Snail Farming - If you have limited space and are looking for a very small, but profitable, type of animal to raise, you might consider snails. It might sound strange, but you can raise snails for use in cooking. And snail slime can also be used by companies for a variety of different purposes.
  5. Rural Coworking Space - A great way to become a rural entrepreneur is by providing a place for other rural entrepreneurs, freelancers and professionals to set up shop. A business could be built around providing just a workspace with a monthly rental fee, or you could provide ala carte services such as coping, bookkeeping and graphic design for your clients.
What are some other off-the-wall ideas for rural entrepreneurship?

Monday, October 30, 2017

Halloween At The Homestead, 1987

Halloween, 1987 fell on a Saturday, and that's why it was doubly disappointing to us that no trick-or-treaters knocked on our door. My wife, Janet, and I, along with our brand new beagle puppy Jake, had moved into the farmhouse along a rural stretch of US Highway 25 midway between Bowling Green and Perrysburg, Ohio two weeks earlier and were excited to spend the first "holiday" in our new home. We didn't expect a large turnout, of course, but there were a dozen or so houses within a mile or two of ours and we assumed at least a few of them must have children. Sure, we were new to the area and had not yet had the opportunity to meet anyone except the "older" (they were mid-50's, about the same age I am now) couple next door, but we assumed that people would [super] naturally gravitate to a house with a carved pumpkin and illuminated porch lights on Halloween. Wanting to make a good impression, we had stocked up on a selection of full-size candy bars, and had a gallon of apple cider at the ready should any of the adults want to stop and chat for a minute.

At the first sign of dusk, about 6:30, we lit the candle in our carefully carved jack o'lantern and turned on the porch lights. Jake barked expectantly as we positioned ourselves on the sofa near the door and waited... and waited. Around 7:30 it was full dark and I walked the 30 yards out to the highway and wondered if maybe we should have put some sort of sign out by the mailbox. The neighbor's house was completely dark. They were either out for the evening or had turned in VERY early. There were no cars filled with little ghosts, ghouls or witches stopped anywhere along the road, so far as I could see.

Well, it was still early.

I returned to the house, poured myself a glass of cider and unwrapped a Clark bar. Jake had curled up on the sofa next to Janet, who was paging through an accounting journal.

"Let's see if there are any Halloween shows on TV."

By the mid-80's, more than 70% of the households in the U.S. had access to cable, but our house was not one of them. Consequently, we had access to four channels, not counting PBS... because, seriously, who counts PBS. Two of the channels were broadcasting the tail-ends of uninteresting college football games, the third was running some sort of Lawrence Welk-esque variety show and the fourth some syndicated game show. Nothing very Halloween-ish. Where was the holiday spirit? The Sunday before, NBC had broadcast a cheesy made-for-TV horror movie called Bay Coven which we had watched with the intent and undivided attention of a rural couple with no cable. Pamela Sue Martin and Tim Matheson played yuppies who moved from their Manhattan apartment to an isolated community off the coast of Massachusetts (I could relate!) which was secretly inhabited by a coven of witches (Not so much!). 

Around 8:30 we finally gave up, turned off the porch light, blew out the candle and resigned ourselves to the fact that folks in that part of the county must not do Halloween. Of course, we woke up Sunday morning to find that wasn't exactly true, since someone had toilet-papered our apple tree and put Vaseline on the door handles of our cars.

The trick-or-treater no-show was merely the first in a series of misfires, disappointments, and outright failures that would come to characterize the four years we spent in what we would derisively come to call "The Little House on the Highway." Looking back, it's easy to see how hopelessly naive we were about our first homesteading experience. From the worm-ridden apple orchard to the sulfur-infused groundwater to the oddly infertile soil, the problems built up one on top of the other until they crushed our ambitions for a "simple life" under their considerable weight. Maybe if we had some of the resources available today; the Internet, excellent homesteading books and magazines, and access to a knowledgeable support network, things would have been different, but somehow I doubt it. I have come to understand that when it came to homesteading 1987 wasn't my time and Wood County wasn't my place. There were things I needed to do, needed to see, had to experience before settling down to that simple life. If the trick-or-treaters had shown up that Halloween thirty years ago, or my apple orchard prospered I might never have had the chance to spend St. Patrick's Day in Boston or the 4th of July in Alaska or the blustery Halloween nearly a decade later in Charlotte that convinced me that this is where I wanted to live and build my first successful homestead.     

This is the first of three holiday-themed articles I will be publishing between now and the end of the year in recognition of the 30th anniversary of The Little House on the Highway.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Unschooling: When Is An Outdoor Education Not An Education?

When I was a senior in high school, I took an aptitude test that indicated the occupation for which I was best suited was... forest ranger. I laughed and laughed. Forest ranger! What a ridiculous idea! Well, as you have probably gathered, time has proven that idea to be far less ridiculous than I thought. For better or worse, our educational infrastructure is designed to target very specific skills and promote very mainstream career options, often to the detriment of creativity and unorthodox choices. I see this in my day job as an economic developer for a rural community; manufacturing careers have been devalued to the point where we need special programs to explain to middle school students that there are good career opportunities in advanced manufacturing. I'm not saying that had my high school's curriculum been a but different, I would have embraced rather than scoffed at a job with the forest service. I'm not sure that, ultimately, I would have lived happily ever after with my little woodland friends, but the lack of any sort of "outdoor" component in that curriculum certainly contributed to my negative attitudes about that path.

That's why Ben Hewitt's article, We Don't Need No Education, in the September issue of Outside magazine struck a chord with me. In it, Hewitt details the growing "unschooler" movement, and why he decided to eschew traditional educational pathways for his two boys, Rye (12) and Fin (9) and essentially let them educate themselves on the farm and in the woods near their Vermont home.

I will be the first to admit that I am somewhat on the fence about home schooling. While I believe it is a parent's right to educate their children in any reasonable way they see fit, I do wonder about the unintended consequences. While a good part of my middle and high school experience was less than wonderful, I did develop some social (survival) skills and do have a few good memories. And the more negative aspects unquestionably hardened me and taught me how to deal with a broader society that can be difficult.

Hewitt positions his "unschooling" methods as an even more fundamental form of education than traditional home schooling. And lest you think he is some sort of backwoods anti-government survivalist type, he and his wife are both well-educated and well-grounded and appear to lean to the left politically. His distaste for school can be traced back to his own time in an educational system which he has likened to incarceration. More to the point, he feels the system failed him by stifling his creativity and preventing him from pursuing activities in which he had an interest and aptitude while promoting more mainstream pursuits which were, for him, a dead end. While he acknowledges that children will not spontaneously learn things such as reading and math, he believes that structured learning component should take up no more than a couple of hours per week.

I am with Hewitt to a point, and that point comes about halfway through the article when he suggests that this approach would work equally well on the streets of a big city as it does in rural New England. I'm sorry, but the things an enterprising 10-year-old explorer comes across in the woods is SIGNIFICANTLY different than those they would discover on the streets, and while there are unquestionably things in both places which could potentially be dangerous, I prefer to take my chances with nature.

I definitely think there is some merit to Hewitt's overall reasoning, but from a practical standpoint, I think there are circumstances in which his version of anti-education could be effective and appropriate, and circumstances in which it clearly is not.

Read the article and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Don't Stow Your Kayak Just Yet

Kayak angling offers many advantages over traditional motor boat fishing, not the least of which is the relative ease of seasonal storage compared to a boat. With a kayak there are no fuel tanks to be drained or lines to be cleared; no engines to be winterized. As we work our way through October and head toward November, even in these warmer climes, a lot of motor boat owners start thinking about storing for the winter, and even paddlers often see the shorter days as good reason to stow their kayaks until spring and begin thinking more about deer and duck.

Because I am not a hunter and my fall days are not consumed with thoughts of blinds and stands, I tend to bleed every last drop out of the fishing season. And the truth is, I actually like these cooler days on the water after the hordes of recreational boaters that clog the waterways May though September have largely evaporated and it is possible to spend an entire Saturday morning paddling and fishing without encountering even one lunatic jet-skier.

Although most fishermen would consider October and November to be "off-season" for big bass, those months can actually be surprisingly productive, if you are using the right techniques. The key to finding trophy bass in October and November is fishing slow and deep. This is the time to pull those slow-running, deep-diving lures with the outrageous platypus lips out from the bottom of the tackle box and give them a cast. In the cooler autumnal months, lakes have turned over and fish can be found deeper than during the summer. A lake turns over when the water on top is colder than the water on the bottom, due to seasonal changes in temperature and density. In general, fish favor warmer water and so, all things being equal, they tend to run deeper in the colder months. Many anglers also believe that the shorter days and cooler temperatures trigger some sort of a feeding response I big bass, a get-it-while-you-can mentality.

Although deep diving crankbaits are relatively new in the world of bass fishing, having been around only since the late 80's, a tremendous variety can be found in even the most inventory-challenged bait and tackle shop. While manufacturers often list their baits as diving as deep as 20 feet, a more realistic number in practical usage would probably be 15 to 18 feet. Although you will need to crank a little faster early in the retrieve in order to get the lure to depth, a good quality diver will hold its depth throughout a fairly slow retrieve. And don't worry if the water you're fishing is shallower than the max depth of your lure. Many fishermen like to run and bounce their divers along the bottom, mimicking the action of small baitfish.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Certified Outdoorsman... or Just Certifiable?

A couple of years ago, I sent out a press release announcing my participation in the 28.3 mile Ultimate Hike Against Children's Cancer. The purpose was to generate awareness of the event and, hopefully, to help me solicit donations for the cause. I was pleased when two local newspapers, the Statesville Record & Landmark and the Lake Norman Citizen picked up the story, but there was one thing about the Citizen article which bothered me a little. The press release was a modification of a boilerplate document provided by Ultimate Hike, and one of the lines read something like, "as an outdoorsman and adventurer, I am familiar with the risks and rewards... yada, yada, yada." The Statesville paper printed that line more or less verbatim, but the Lake Norman paper printed, "Marek, who describes himself as an outdoorsman..." I hate to be disagreeable, Mr. Editor, but when you finish your 28 mile hike and the 100 plus hours of arduous outdoor training for it, perhaps you can question my credentials as an "outdoorsman." Until then, you're just going to have to take my word for it.

It does beg the question, though, what makes someone an outdoorsman? In the economic development world, we speak of industry-recognized credentials. If you're a certified welder, you're a certified welder. If you're a registered nurse, you're a registered nurse. But, short of being a Maine Guide, there's no standardized credential that makes you an outdoorsman. Every year when my new guide license arrives in the mail, I open the envelope and proclaim in my best James Bond voice, "licensed to kill fish, by the State of North Carolina." Does holding a fishing or a hunting license make you an outdoorsman? If so, that's a pretty low standard, as credentials go.

What about clothing? The Robertson clan on Duck Dynasty (remember them?) brought camo so far into the mainstream that ten-year-olds who wouldn't know which end of a rod or gun to hold are dressed to (not) kill in RealTree; but I'm going to confess, I don't own a single piece of camo clothing. It's been my experience that the fish aren't fooled one bit by it, and I'm not sure all that many land animals are either. I've always been more of the L.L. Bean type; button-down flannels and Gore-Tex-lined chinos. Phil, Si and the boys had a nice run, but in ten years no one will remember Duck Dynasty and the world will still be buying L.L. Bean. Some things are timeless... and deserve to be.

So if it's not what you wear, maybe it's what you drive. I was paging through Popular Mechanics the other day and came across an article comparing full-size pick-up trucks, and was kind of surprised to see that the stickers on those bad boys were all a good bit north of 40 grand. Seriously, forty-freakin'-thousand-dollars for a PICK UP TRUCK? No thanks. I've become fond of saying that my next new car is going to be a 30-year-old truck... or more accurately, SUV. Been keeping my eyes open for a late-80's/early-90's Jeep Grand Wagoneer. Now that's an outdoorsman's vehicle. Sure, they get 10 miles to the gallon, but what's a couple of oil wells?

Monday, October 2, 2017

Book Review: The Jesus Cow by Michael Perry

Until The Jesus Cow, author Michael Perry was known primarily for non-fiction writing which detailed the lives of rural Wisconsinites, so I was very interested to see how he would tackle a work of fiction that dealt with made-up versions of those same people. Whether though fiction or non-fiction, Perry is at his heart a storyteller, and he excels at crafting interesting characters and placing them in interesting situations. As you might expect from a novel called The Jesus Cow, there is a bit of an absurdist tone to much of the book, but it is balanced with serious reflections on faith materialism, loneliness and the vagaries of adult romance.

The plot involves a farmer, Harley Jackson, who births a Holstein calf on Christmas Eve. The calf bears a spot on its flank that looks like the face of Jesus. Concerned about the unwanted attention the calf might bring to his life, he initially tries to hide it, but eventually gives in to temptation and exploits the calf for financial gain. While this is happening, he meets and falls for a new woman in town, and it is in Perry's depiction of the course of this relationship that the book really finds its footing. I suspect there are few readers who will not relate all too well to this particular story arc.

In the end, Perry swaps wink-and-nod humor for all out semi-apocalyptic silliness, and honestly I'm not sure there's really any other way to complete a story like this. The Jesus Cow doesn't have the emotional resonance of Truck: A Love Story, but it is a nicely wrought fiction that will occasionally make you think and occasionally make you laugh, and that's more than I can say for most of the books I read. I grade it B+.

Time for Ol' Slim in the Garden

It's odd, I suppose, that I wait until autumn each year to set my scarecrow out, since it's purpose is ostensibly to protect the garden from birds and small animals that might eat the seeds or disturb the crop. During the growing season, I use a variety of modern techniques to keep the critters away from my plants, everything from organic sprays to ultrasonic repellers to traps, but when the days get short and the evenings get cool, I like to bring out Ol' Slim.

Scarecrows of Slim's sort have been keeping the crows away for centuries, and have had a spooky presence in literature for nearly as long. A Japanese book written in the 700's tells the story of an all-knowing scarecrow deity, Kuebiko. Closer to home, Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1852 story "Feathertop" is about a witch who casts a spell on a scarecrow, bringing him to life in order to woo the young daughter of a rival. And, of course, a scarecrow plays a major role in L. Frank Baum's tale The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, although that scarecrow is notably less menacing.

Down through the years, the scarecrow's primary job was to act as a wildlife deterrent, but it's not hard to see how they began moonlighting in horror fiction. The overall image of a dead man hanging on a pole in the middle of a field is as fertile ground for the imagination as the soil beneath it is for corn.

These days, commercial farmers still use scarecrows, of a sort, but they are now more typically hanging mylar curtains that move in the breeze and reflect sunlight or mechanical devices that issue a loud sound at irregular intervals. The mannequin-style scarecrow has largely been relegated to seasonal decoration or as a nostalgic throwback for small-scale farmers and gardeners. For me it has become one of the cherished rituals of autumn, along with Indian corn and pumpkins.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Book Review: Trespasser by Paul Doiron

Trespasser is the second book in the Mike Bowditch series by Maine author Paul Doiron. I reviewed the first book in the series, The Poacher's Son, a couple of months ago and gave it generally high marks (B+).

The series follows the adventures of Maine game warden Mike Bowditch. The first book explored Mike's upbringing and his strained relationship with his n'er do well father, who was accused of a grisly murder. Trespasser takes place several months after the events of that book and starts with Mike trying to reconcile with his girlfriend, who sees his outdoor lifestyle and poor-paying job as roadblocks to their relationship.

Called to the scene of an accident in which an out of town motorist hit a deer, Mike is surprised to find the car abandoned and the deer gone. A complex series of events eventually turns into a murder mystery with startling similarities to a decade old murder case which resulted in the conviction of a man named Erland Jefferts. Many in the community believed that Jefferts was innocent and this new crime may give them the ammunition they need to seek a new trial.

As in his first book, Doiron dives deep into the psychological makeup of his characters and chums the waters with enough red herrings to keep the reader unsure of the identity of the killer until the final few pages. Unfortunately, it is in those pages that the plot comes somewhat off the tracks. I understand what Doiron was trying to do; offer a nuanced resolution rather than a tidy one, but the supposed motive of the accomplice in keeping the secret didn't make any sense to me. As a result, I'm going to give this one a C+. It's a good effort and entirely readable, but gets bogged down in its own ambition at the end.   

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Fall Lawn Maintenance: Overseeding

Now that we have dethatched and aerated, the next step in our fall lawn care regimen is overseeding. Let me stop here and say that some lawn care professionals do not agree with that order and suggest that you overseed before aerating. The theory behind this is that the holes created by aeration are too deep for seed to germinate and that a significant amount of seed spread on an aerated lawn will fall into those holes and be wasted. I have tried it both ways and for me seeding after aerating has been more effective, but either way will work perfectly well for most situations. I am also going to lump pH testing and lime application in with overseeding because, again, for me that has been most effective.

Applying lime is one of the more commonly misunderstood lawn care tasks. In this part of the country (Carolina Piedmont) many professional lawn care services routinely spread lime in the fall because our heavy clay soil tends to be slightly acidic. In most cases this approach does little harm and probably some good, but the proper way to determine whether your yard requires an application of lime and the appropriate amount is to conduct a pH test -- a test to determine whether your soil is acidic, neutral or alkaline. Soil test kits can be purchased for less than $10 at most garden centers and hardware stores. You can also send your soil sample to your agricultural extension office (for a fee) and they will provide a more accurate and detailed soil evaluation. Each method has its own specific instructions, but typically involves taking 3-5 samples from various places in the lawn, mixing them together, letting them dry and then doing a chemical test. Most grasses do best in soil with a pH of 5.5 to 7. Soils which are too acidic (below 5.5) will require an application of lime. In the somewhat rare case, in these parts at least, that your soil is too alkaline (above 7), you will need to add sulphur. The amount of amendment to add depends on the degree to which the soil is too acidic or alkaline, with a general rule of 50 pounds per 1,000 square feet of lawn for mildly acidic soils. More strongly acidic lawns may require multiple applications; one in the fall and one in the spring. It is important to note that soil pH does not change immediately upon application of the amendment and may take up to 6 months, so performing another test a week or two after application is useless.

Once you have determined the pH of your soil and added amendments as appropriate, you can overseed. This can be done on the same day or a few days later, as applying lime will not impact the germination or growth of grass one way or the other in the short term. We overseed because grass, although a perennial, has a lifespan and needs to be replenished. In nature, turf type grasses propagate by dropping seeds from tassel-like pods, constantly reseeding themselves. Since we keep our lawns cut to a height that does not allow them to go to seed, wee need to mimic that process by spreading seed on our lawns in the fall or spring; a process that has become known as overseeding. In most instances, you will want to overseed with the same type of grass that is currently growing, although there are specific circumstances that are beyond the scope of this article in which an annual grass type might be seeded over a perennial grass.

Apply the new seed with a drop or broadcast spreader, following the product's recommended coverage rate for the type of spreader you're using. Although not necessary, you can use The back side of a garden rake on bare spots to help work the seeds into the soil. It's ideal to overseed during a cool, wet period, but we cannot control the weather. For best results, keep the soil moist until the seeds germinate; a week or two. We finish up next week with an application of winterizing fertilizer.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Fall Lawn Maintenance: Core Aeration

In north-central Ohio, where I was born and raised, aeration was for golf courses and other high-traffic grassy areas; the average homeowner rarely, if ever, aerated their lawn. The soil there had a high humus content, drained well and didn't compact easily. Conversely, in the North Carolina Piedmont, our heavy red clay soil is essentially brick waiting to happen, and the only thing we can do to prevent that is annual core aeration.

Like dethatching, core aeration comes down to a do-it-yourself versus pay-someone-to-do-it decision. The difference is that while there are viable manual and lower-cost methods for dethatching, core aeration requires a fairly pricey piece of equipment or a tremendous amount of labor. There are, to my knowledge, no reasonably effective electric aerators, although a manual device that resembles a cross between a pitchfork and a shovel can be had for around $35. I suppose if you had a VERY small lawn this might work, but even then the idea of aerating a lawn two holes at a time is daunting from both a time and physical effort standpoint. Some gardening catalogs sell "aerators" that are long spikes which attach to the bottom of shoes. My guess is that those are just about as useful as they sound.

Core aeration is the process of removing plugs of soil roughly 3/4 inch in diameter and 2 to 3 inches in depth from the top layer of lawn. Most power aerators will remove six to eight of these plugs per square foot. This serves two purposes. Primarily, it opens the soil up so water and nutrients can reach the grass roots, and secondarily it reduces the physical density of the soil, effectively "un-compacting" it. Without annual aeration, red clay soils become very dense and do not promote deep root growth. When grass has shallow roots, it becomes susceptible to drought and disease and does not grow as full. As an added benefit, the removed plugs break down on the lawn surface, providing an excellent medium for the growth of new seed.

Walk-behind gasoline-powered core aerators sell for $800 and up, putting them out of the reach of most homeowners for this once-a-year project. Rental stores typically charge $50 to $75 for a half-day rental, but you will definitely need to book in advance, since just about everyone wants to aerate during the same 3-4 week period in the fall. Also, be sure that delivery is included with the rental. These machines are very heavy with lots of sharp points sticking out of them and they will do a job on your truck bed, not to mention your arms, legs and torso. If you own a riding lawnmower, core aerator attachments can be purchased for as little as $180, making them a reasonable investment for owners of larger lawns.

Most landscape and lawn care companies offer core aeration either as part of their regular maintenance program or as an ala carte service. Rates for a typical suburban lawn run $100 to $200 and often include overseeding. Frankly, if there is one lawn maintenance activity that begs outsourcing for the average homeowner, it's core aeration. The equipment is expensive to rent relative to the cost of the service, and it is physically demanding to use... sort of like a jackhammer on wheels. If you do go that route, however, be sure to get a firm date and time from the contractor, because you will need to prep your yard in advance. In fact, whether you choose to D-I-Y or outsource, there are three things you need to do in advance of the aeration to ensure your property is protected and your lawn gets the maximum benefit:

  1. Clearly mark the location of all irrigation sprinklers, underground "fence" wires and other in-ground equipment you do not want destroyed. The aerator will penetrate as deep as 3 inches. That's not deep enough to cause concern for underground utilities, but it can cause problems for shallower items. I didn't consider this the first time I aerated and knocked out my Invisible Fence. 
  2. Remove any dead grass or loose debris from the lawn, cut out any interfering tree roots and fill any resulting depressions with top soil. We discussed dethatching last week, and that process should remove most of the loose debris. If you have shallow tree roots that need to be cut out, you should do this prior to aeration. The aerator will not do a good job in rooty areas. 
  3. Thoroughly water your yard 24 to 48 hours before you aerate. Ideally, wait to aerate after a couple of days of rain, when the soil is wet, but not saturated. Unless you own an aerator and can be extremely flexible, however, it's difficult to time that out perfectly. In lieu of rainfall, you will want to put a minimum of 1 inch of water on your entire lawn 24 hours in advance. Aerating soil that is either too dry or too soggy does not yield good results. Note that it may take several hours to deliver an inch of water across an entire lawn, depending on the type of sprinkler you are using. 

The power aerator is used somewhat like a lawnmower, but is a much heavier device with a much wider turning radius. If you try to stop at the end of a row and make a pivoting turn, like you do with a walk behind mower, you will most likely rip up a divot of lawn the size of a card table. Instead, get a feel for the natural turning radius of the device and don't make any turns sharper than that unless you completely disengage the core pluggers. It goes without saying, I hope, that you will want to keep children and pets safely indoors while you are using the equipment.

If you thought your yard looked bad after dethatching, just wait until you see it right after you have finished aerating! The good news is that those individual plugs of soil that somewhat resemble, uh... Baby Ruth bars, will begin to break down with the first good rain. Which brings us to the next step and next week’s discussion, overseeding.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Fall Lawn Maintenance: Dethatching

One of the key elements of successfully maintaining a suburban homestead is learning to think simultaneously about next week and six months into the future. Recently, I wrote about preparing the garden for fall planting, and today I want to begin a discussion about preparing the lawn for next spring. Note that this advice is intended for turf-type lawns, which are the most common in the North Carolina Piedmont, and may not be appropriate for other types.

There are a few essential tasks which must be completed within the next 4-6 weeks if you want to ensure a healthy lawn next year. There's no way around it, if you want lush green in April or May, you will have to put the work in now. This was a particularly bad summer for lawns in the North Carolina Piedmont, with a wet June and a long stretch of very hot, very dry weather in July and August. Even the healthiest, most liberally watered lawns were stressed to the max. If you, like me, tend to take a more natural and sustainable approach to lawn maintenance, you are probably looking at a tangled brownish mat right now. Fear not. Your grass is not actually "dead," it has merely gone dormant. In fact, in my neck of the woods, the recent rain showers and slightly lower daytime highs have greened things up just a bit. If you want to maintain that green momentum right up through next spring, the first thing you need to do is dethatch.

Thatch, the layer of decaying grass clippings and other organic debris that works its way down to soil level is actually a beneficial thing. It helps preserve moisture and prevents weeds from taking root. That's why we use the "mulch" feature on our lawnmowers and don't (always) bag and remove our clippings. At this time of year, however, thatch that is too thick can have a detrimental effect on some of the other critical maintenance activities we need to perform, and we need to remove it to give the grass a chance to "breathe" and to let water and nutrients reach the roots.

There are four ways to dethatch a lawn and the one you choose will most likely depend on your lawn's size. For very small lawns a manual dethatching rake is a possibility. These rakes sell in most hardware stores for $30 to $50. It takes about an hour to thoroughly go over a 300-400 square foot patch with one of these and it is fairly intense labor, so unless you have a postage stamp lawn or are looking for a real workout, a manual rake is probably not the best option. A distant cousin of the manual rake is the dethatching lawnmower blade attachment. I have never used one of these myself, but everyone I have spoken to that has deemed them utterly and completely worthless.

You can also rent or purchase a power dethatcher. These devices look like old-fashioned reel lawnmowers and come in electric and gasoline models. They have adjustable tines which, in theory, rotate just deep enough to lift the thatch without ripping up the grass. For smallish lawns - up to, say, a quarter acre - an electric model, which will run you $150-$200 would probably suffice. A gasoline model will cost roughly twice that to buy or around $50 for a half-day rental. Keep in mind that this is a tool you will use once per year, and that the maintenance involved with the gasoline models probably make them a better rental than a purchase. One thing to be aware of with power dethatchers is that they do NOT collect the thatch. You will need to do that with a leaf rake or with a bagging power mower. Although some models come with a "thatch catcher" bag, the consensus opinion is that they are, at best, only marginally effective.

The third option, for larger lawns, is an implement which attaches to and is pulled behind a riding mower. These look like miniature hay rakes and can be purchased at lawn & garden or farm stores for $100 to $150. If your lawn is larger than a half acre and you already have a riding lawnmower, this is probably your best option.

Finally, of course, you can always pay someone to do this for you. Some yard maintenance companies will include dethatching in a "complete" fall maintenance package, but in most cases you will need to specifically ask for this service. The cost varies according to the size of the lawn, but you are probably looking at $75 to $150 for a typical suburban lawn, including removal.

The dethatching, itself, is a relatively straightforward process akin to mowing, albeit quite a bit more time consuming. As noted earlier, the power dethatcher only loosens the thatch and brings it to the surface. It must be removed by some other means. For a small yard, raking into piles, onto a tarp or into a wheelbarrow will work. Another, less physically demanding, method is going over the lawn with a bagging lawnmower on its tallest setting. A word of warning; dethatching will generate a surprising volume of material and you will want to give some consideration beforehand to how you intend to dispose of it. Thatch makes excellent compost, so if you are already doing home composting, this will give you a huge boost of quality material that has already started to decay. If you are not composting or cannot use all of the material, you might check with a neighbor or a local community garden that composts. They may even come and haul it away for you. As a last resort, you can bag it up and put it out for removal as yard waste.

The dethatching process will likely make your yard look a little "rough." Often the first-time dethatcher will wonder if they have destroyed their lawn. That's to be expected, it's just the first step in the process. Next week, we will discuss core aeration.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Darkness on the Edge of Town

I saw a sign along the highway driving from my office to the homestead today, “Eclipse 8/21 Prepare for Traffic Delays.” Say what? How could an eclipse possibly affect traffic? The North Carolina Piedmont where I live and work is close to but not directly in the path of totality. My office in Wadesboro, where I’ll be that day, will experience 97% of the eclipse. It’s not the loss of sunlight that will impact traffic, though. It’s the millions of people who will be making the two hour drive south to Columbia and Greenville to witness the full eclipse. Honestly, I’m a little surprised by the hype the eclipse is generating nationally. Sure, a total eclipse is a twice-ish in a lifetime event, but as Lovey Howell famously said, “December 14th only comes once a year so we like to celebrate it.”

Of course, as a modern, sophisticated society (certain recent events notwithstanding) we understand that the eclipse is just a matter of interplanetary physics and the odd coincidence that our unusually large moon is at precisely the right distance that it appears to us to be almost exactly the same size as our sun. But imagine what our distant forefathers must have thought about the sun disappearing; I’m guessing complete and utter terror followed by, if all those warnings about not looking at it are correct, blindness. Little wonder that ancient civilizations put so much time and effort into tracking celestial bodies and trying to predict things like eclipses.

Although someone really paying attention would begin to notice the sun slowly disappearing, the easily noticeable effects start about 15 minutes before totality, when the quality of light on earth starts to change. Everything gets darker and darker minute-by-minute. There will be a sudden drop in temperature and wildlife, especially birds, will start to go quiet as they notice the odd change of light.

Just before totality, things start to get surreal. It doesn't feel like day, but it's not like night either. Nor is it like dawn or dusk. It's an eclipse. Depending on the atmospheric conditions the sky can start to display some unique colors. And if you’re up high on a mountain or have a good view of mountains to the west, you might be able to see the edge of the moon’s shadow moving across the land.

Perhaps the most unique phenomenon that can happen just before and after totality are shadow bands. These are faint and mostly noticeable on smooth, flat and light colored surfaces. They dance around and are best compared to the shadows seen on the bottom of a swimming pool.

Happy viewing!

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