Friday, October 31, 2014

Autumn Nostalgia in the Park

I must admit, a lot of the time I take where we live for granted.

We are surrounded by 6,000 acres of unspoiled wilderness. We have one of Tennessee's most beautiful lakes, and the state's number one trout river right at our doorstep.

There are 11 miles of hiking trails easily within our reach, but there are also plenty of other places we hike to that are not to be found on a map.

In the spring and summer wildflowers bloom and spill from the ridges and valleys.

This place is also a bird-watcher's paradise; from our year-round residents, to a slough of warblers in the warmer months and the loons calling on the empty lake in winter.

Fall, however, is also stunningly beautiful.

While our colors aren't the most vibrant in the state, the dramatic landscape makes for some lovely vistas.

Today I thought I would just show you around the park, and share with you what a typical Autumn is like here.

 The view from our driveway with the lake sparkling in the distance

looking down at Indian Creek winding through the hills

steep ridges make for tall trees: mostly sugar maple, chestnut oaks and hickories 

 fruit of the rusty blackhaw

 bald eagles are pretty much an every day occurrence around here

wild persimmons

As we begin the process of buying a house off the park, I find myself growing increasingly nostalgic. 

I first came to work here EIGHT years ago (EIGHT?! That can't be possible). 

Look at that skinny little dork!

This is of course, where I met Mark, and then married him a year later.

Our wedding even took place in the park, at a place we've strolled hundreds of times to skip rocks, drop a line in the water, or take a swim.

I think back to those years of college...... Driving back home after a stressful day I'd drink in the scenery thinking to myself "Do I really live here?"

I've lived in the park now for seven years, Mark for twelve.

This amazing place has become my home, even though I share it with thousands of park visitors every year.

The thought of leaving it behind definitely pains my heart.

We've always known it wasn't really ours. We've always known one day we would have to leave.

Maybe I'm being a little dramatic. We won't be moving far, and Mark will still be working here.

It's not like we'll never come here again. 

But there's something about LIVING HERE that is just so special.

So now I'm trying to savor every moment, like I should have been doing all along.

Really though, this should go for any of us, no matter where we live. There is so much beauty in our world, even if we have to look a little harder to find it sometimes.

And there are many more beautiful days yet to come...

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Pros and Cons of Deep Mulching with Hay

All of us gardening homesteaders are always on the lookout for tips and tricks to maximize efficiency with the least amount of input.

Input = time, energy and resources that are always at a premium, with so many other things to do around the homestead.

Deep mulching with hay is a concept that's been floating around for awhile. It's nothing new, really.

But with a renewed interest in home gardens, it's had a bit of a revival.

I first ran across the concept on The Prairie Homestead, and I decided I would give it a try. As a new mom, with less time to spend weeding and watering, it really appealed to me.

We tilled up our garden space this spring and applied a thick layer of grass hay, since that's what I had on hand. Theoretically, once you apply your mulch you should never have to till again.

Tilling, albeit necessary to plant things, is actually pretty destructive to the soil. It exposes all those delicate microorganisms to the elements, destroying many of them. Those critters are essential to the health of your soil, and the plants you put in it.

Disturbing the soil also brings up weed seeds which gives them a chance to grow, adding even more work.

So after a season experimenting with hay mulch, here are a few things I've discovered..........



Now, when we spread our hay mulch right after tilling (I know, there always has to be a story), there was a storm fast approaching, and we had a little 6 month old out there with us.

My plan was to rake through it really well to remove upturned weeds and rocks.

Didn't happen. 

We did well to get the hay spread before the storm hit.

In other words, I spent a lot of time fighting those weeds (mostly violets). With their roots in tact they were able to push through the thick layer of hay. If it weren't for them, weeding would have been minimal.

All the covered soil remained weed free. There were a few spots of hay seeds that sprouted, but they were easy to yank up and throw back down (a spading fork works well for this).


This may not have been the best summer to test this theory, since it was unusually wet and mild like the previous year, but we did have at least two weeks of really hot and dry weather.

I still watered my plants daily for a week after I planted them; and then intermittently the rest of the month, just to help them get established. But that was ALL. Afterwards I didn't have to water them ONCE.

Even if some of the plants looked a little stressed at midday, they would perk right up later on.

I never once saw the soil look hard, dry and cracked like it usually gets in mid-summer.

There were days when I would go out to check to see if they needed water and was surprised to see the exposed soil was still dark and moist.

I've heard of homesteaders in drier climates having great success at conserving moisture with hay mulch.


In nature, prolonged exposed soil is not a natural state. Any disturbed soil quickly becomes colonized with germinating weed seeds, beginning a succession of plant habitats which ultimately result in a forest (or whatever the native habitat is for that ecosystem).

With the natural cycle of plants dying and trees shedding their leaves, organic matter is continuously being returned to the soil. In a way, hay mulch mimics this process.

The thick layer of hay helps protect the delicate soil structure, allowing it to develop naturally.

Over time the hay mulch will break down, returning carbon and organic matter into the soil. 

This is great for your plants!



This may go without saying, but if you're allergic to hay or sensitive to mold, you may need to wear a respirator whenever you're working in the garden.

Once hay is exposed to any amount of moisture, it becomes an ideal breeding ground for mold. This is why hay for livestock has got to be kept impeccably dry and well aerated. 

You will have to rake back the hay from time to time to plant seeds. I noticed big clouds of mold spores anytime I disturbed the hay. I'm not terribly sensitive, but would cough and sneeze from time to time. (This is probably more of a problem in humid climates.)


While the hay is good for beneficial organisms, it is also very attractive to unwanted ones.

Garden enemies like squash bugs and potato beetles LOVE them some cozy hay to hide in. If you already have trouble with these pests, you may need to re-think deep mulch, as this will create a LOT more work for you in regards to pest removal.

A layer of hay is also very attractive to rodent pests who will burrow throughout. Snakes will follow and help remedy this problem, but if you are petrified of critters of the serpentine race you may need to re-consider.

A gray rat snake should be a welcome sight on any homestead!
We don't have gophers in this neck of the woods, so I'm not sure how the hay would affect their impact on the garden.


If you adore soil so loose and fluffy you could blow it away, you may not like deep mulch hay. 

Looking again at nature, loose soil is not a stable environment. This would quickly wash away with the rains or be whisked away by the wind. Soil is held in place by networks of plant roots which help provide structure and stability. Worms and other microorganisms tunnel through the soil, providing fertilizer and aeration. 

Because you aren't going to be tilling regularly when using hay mulch, the soil will compact down more than you may like. This necessitates using minor cultivation anytime you need to plant something.

Of course, this may also depend on your soil type.

Here in middle Tennessee, clay comprises a large part of our soil. Though fertile, it tends to compact easily.

I think this isn't such a big deal, since it's easier to cultivate by hand here and there than it is to drag out the big gas tiller and turn the whole garden under.


So there you have it.

My analysis of deep hay mulch.

Overall I am pleased with the results, and will continue to use this method for now.

Have you tried the deep mulch method with hay? 

What would you add to this list?

Friday, October 24, 2014

October Rabbitry Update

The rabbits are all together under one roof at last.

The New Zealand Reds passed quarantine, and have finally come of age.

Here's the breakdown:

Ichigo: broken New Zealand Red buck

Star View Turn: Creme d'Argent buck

Star View Colbert: Creme d'Argent buck
This picture does NOT do him justice. He is one handsome dude. 

Cardamom: broken chestnut New Zealand doe

Acer: New Zealand Red doe

Just for the record, I made no attempt to actually "pose" the rabbits, so no critiques please.

They were all anticipating their ear mite treatment. Not something they enjoy too much.

And that orange towel is atrocious. But as you can see by the waiting hubby in the background, I was in a hurry to complete my photo shoot before he had to go on duty.

I suppose the orange sort of works for Halloween......

Three bucks and two does is an odd ratio, but I'm still waiting on my replacement Creme d'Argent does. The breeder is over 300 miles away, and as far as I know is still having trouble getting her Cremes bred back. (Oh, and in case you're wondering what happened to my Creme does, you can read about it here.)

I went ahead and got a trio of New Zealand Reds so I could have some purebreds, as well as experiment with a cross I don't think has been attempted before. Cremes are a rare breed to begin with, and the people who raise them are more concerned with breeding pure lines (which is a good thing).

From what limited information I've found, even though the silvering gene is recessive, it tends to behave dominantly when crossed with other colors. So I'm eager to see the results.

Here is a closer look at the coat of the Creme d'Argent so you can see what I mean by "silvering." The base of the hair shaft is an orange cream color, changing to silver at the end. Oh, and notice the scratches? Yeah. You'd think I was raising rabid ocelots. You should see the rest of my arms.

My plan was to breed Cardamom to Ichigo, and Acer to Colbert....

= broken reds and chestnuts (theoretically)

+= ???

I'm pretty sure Acer and Ichigo are siblings, and Cardamom is a half-sibling to Ichigo.

Breeding rabbits from the same litter (inbreeding) isn't really recommended. But half-siblings or parent/offspring crossings (although horrific from a human standpoint) are usually fine. This is known as linebreeding.

My ultimate goal with my rabbits, however, is to make more of them so we can eat some. Healthy, home-grown lapin . So I kept my plan flexible. I'm tired of feeding rabbits without getting anything to eat in return.

Since Ichigo and Cardamom were both first-timers, he wasn't able to get the job done. She is of a dominant personality, and really needed an experienced buck to show her what's what. She was unwilling to boot, running circles and plastering her butt to the floor.

Check out this venomous expression. She used to be so friendly. Ugh, teenagers.

So I ended up putting her with my older Creme buck Turn, who's had lots of breeding experience. He appeared to be successful, even though she wasn't exactly hot to trot. I tried a second breeding the following morning, but she wasn't having it. I decided I would just wait and see.

I think part of her problem, besides her hateful personality, is she is too fat. Because she and Acer have been housed together since day one, Cardamom has apparently been hogging the food. She may have to slim down before she can get bred.

The other pairing worked out great. Acer was definitely in the mood, and lifted for the inexperienced Colbert several times. There was no question that their breeding was successful.

I think they like each other

So I should be getting kits out of at least her by November 23rd. Hopefully Cardamom got bred too.

I could try again this evening, I suppose, but I think Turn is tired.

At 3 years he is the old man around here, after all.

If she didn't get bred, I'll try her with Ichigo again in a few weeks.

We still have to hang one more cage, but we'll have to hang it below the rest, since the top row is full. I need to get the does separated before they kindle.

And get Cardamom on a diet.

I'm planning to use the large 36x32 cages as grow out pens, in addition to brooding cages. So we need to get two more 30x30 cages for each doe.

The 24x24 size cages are really too small for rabbits of this size, but we're just working with what we have right now. I may try to combine two of them to make a larger cage, or just go ahead and buy several 30x30 cages.

I'm still working on getting my barley fodder system up and running. I just haven't found the right sized trays for my rack, or a plastic bin for it to sit in (to catch the rinse water). I did find a feed store in Sparta that can order whole barley, but I need to call and double check if it is heat treated or not.


I'm the kind of person that likes to make things happen RIGHT NOW.

Oh wait, I think they call that "impatient." Yeah, I'm impatient.

Trying to work on that, by the way. But I think I have just the thing to help me out.....

Just have to take baby steps. We'll get there.

Baby steps ...

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Demise of the Honeybee is the End of the World! ................ Or is it?

I thought I would take some time today to discuss a bit of a pet peeve of mine.

It's something I've been mulling over a great deal, as I stroll next to my flowerbeds or walk through my garden.....

It's in regards to the honeybee, and how it's widely claimed that their extinction in America would be the end of all crop pollination, resulting in a National famine and ecological disaster.

But would it really?

Let's delve a little deeper into the subject...

Here's the thing about honeybees: they are NOT native to the US.

They were introduced by European colonists in Jamestown, in the year 1622. They brought with them crops from their homeland as well, and assumed the honeybees would be essential for pollinating them.


Mankind's relationship with the honeybee extends much further in history, however.

Early cultures mastered the art of hunting down colonies and raiding honey, and beekeeping was common practice in may cultures such as Greece, Egypt and Rome.


The honeybee is unique as the only insect to be "domesticated" by humans. Their pollination abilities, delicious (and nutritious) honey, pollen, wax and other by-products have served humans well throughout the centuries. It is a delicate partnership between soft-fleshed keeper and venom packed stinger.


After their introduction by the colonists, honeybees spread throughout the continent. Not only did Europeans bring them along as they moved from place to place, but the colonies would swarm and escape into the wild.

A feral hive that has taken up residence in a hollow sassafras tree
They were known as "white man's flies" by the native peoples. Europeans brought other plants with them to provide nectar for the honeybees; plants like dandelions and dutch white clover - established plants that are very familiar to us today.

Interestingly enough, this is the only introduced insect that has been mostly beneficial, with the exception of aggressive Africanized strains and widespread allergies to their venom (me included).

(There is evidence though that honeybees do compete with native pollinators.)

With the commercialization of agriculture, Apis mellifera has proven to be invaluable. Hives of honeybees are trucked in to pollinate large expanses of crops like apples, canola and alfalfa.


Unfortunately, honeybees are plagued by numerous pests and diseases, and don't always prove resilient on our native soil. Colony Collapse Disorder is a term many are familiar with, and is often equated to the destruction of mankind.

What so many people don't seem to realize is that pollination has been happening on North American soil for thousands upon thousands of years before the honeybee arrived. But who's doing it?

There are over 4,000 native bee species, visiting flowers right beneath our noses. But it doesn't stop there....

Beetles, moths, butterflies, ants, flies and even birds can be credited with pollinating plants to some degree.
A Snowberry Clearwing Sphinx moth pollinating Verbena canadensis
A Locust Borer beetle visits goldenrod
A Zebra Swallowtail butterfly nectaring on wild blackberry

There are many, many plants for which only one species of pollinator is equipped. These animals are known as specialists. Some of these insects are hardly discernible with the naked eye.

What about these guys pollinating a sunflower? Can you see them?

 Look closer.......

They're there, I promise!

Or this fly species visiting wild Miami Mist....

There seems to be a lot of confusion, as most every good-hearted activist seems to think honeybees are the ONLY bee. One popular article is this one listing 10 crops that would disappear along with the honeybee. Ironically, bumble bees are pictured, and most of the crops on that list are pollinated primarily by NATIVE BEES, not honeybees.

Honeybees are not efficient pollinators for a great many plant species, including tomatoes and blueberries, and almost all of the stone fruits.

In fact, native bees pollinate 80% of all flowering plants, and 75% of the fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in the US. These plants include common grocery store items and veggies grown in our backyards.

Blueberries are one example:

On almost every webpage I've found touting the all importance of honeybees, it is listed that THEY are the primary pollinators for blueberry plants.

This is NOT true.

There is a native bee, known as the Southeastern Blueberry Bee, that is designed specifically for this purpose.


At first glance it looks like nothing more than a small bumblebee. But it is in fact a seasonal insect whose life cycle coincides precisely with that of the blueberry plants.

It can visit as many as 50,000 flowers in its short lifespan.

Honeybees have to be stocked very densely in blueberry orchards, and they are still just considered supporting pollinators for native bees.

Another good example is the Squash Bee:

While they resemble the honeybee, they can be told apart by their behavior in the garden. They are out at first light, when the squash flowers are open, and dash right in without hesitation. Honeybees are later risers, and tend to buzz around the flower before entering.

Even though honeybees will visit flowers of the curcurbit family (that would be your squashes, pumpkins, cucumbers, melons and the like), the Squash Bees are far more efficient, pollinating many times the amount of flowers that honeybees do.

And what about tomatoes?

Sorry, honeybees won't go anywhere near them. A larger bee is doing all of that work: the bumblebee!


While we tend to think of bumblebees as just bumblebees, there are actually about 50 species found in North America.

They are more social than the smaller native bee species, but not nearly as structured as European honeybee colonies.

These guys are known as generalists, visiting a wide variety of plant species throughout the growing season.

They have a very special way of pollinating called "buzz pollination," also known as Sonication.

Plant species like tomatoes do not give up their pollen readily. They can self pollinate, but the results are poor. It takes a low frequency vibration to release it, and bumble bees can do just that. Cool huh?

It doesn't stop there! Other crops that require buzz pollination are cranberries, blueberries, potatoes and eggplants. Honeybees are just not capable of this.

So why are honeybees really so important to American agriculture? The answer can be summed up in one word: monoculture.

Honeybees for pollinating huge expanses of canola

Acres and acres of a single crop do nothing to attract native pollinators. Add to that the fact that many of these crops are sprayed heavily with pesticides, and this simply compounds the problem.

I find it ironic that while honeybees are depended upon for pollinating this canola field, the plants are dusted while the bees are undoubtedly visiting the flowers.

Native pollinators thrive on biodiversity. In fact, native anything thrives on biodiversity. Heck, even WE thrive on biodiversity!

Interestingly enough, commercial orchards in the western US are starting to use native bees, due the the rising cost of trucking in honeybees.

The Blue Orchard bee is used as a less expensive and more dependable pollinator, especially for sweet cherries.


It is technically a mason bee, a solitary species that nests in wooden structures. The USDA outlines methods for trapping the wild bees, and provides instructions for building special nesting structures to house them.


In the end, pesticide use will have a negative impact on one and all, killing off the honeybee and native bees alike.

I guess it's easy to use the honeybee as the poster child for the war on pesticides, but it tends to narrow down everyone's focus too much.

The death of the honeybee would indeed have a huge impact on the economy. Industrial agriculture would suffer a crippling blow. Those who depend on supermarkets for their produce will be forced to look elsewhere.


Farmer's markets, maybe? Would it be entirely a bad thing?

Farmers would be forced to plant heirloom crops that aren't dependent on protection from pesticides. More and more people would begin growing their own food, working with the seasons.

This of course, would be the best case scenario.

I don't want anybody to think this post is meant to bash the European honeybee, as it is still near and dear to my heart.

Like many, I greatly enjoy the delicious honey, and benefit from its ability to cure pollen allergies, among other things. It is a miracle of nature: both superfood and powerful medicine.

I just want people to see the bigger picture. To view the environment as a whole.

But if worse should come to worst, and the honeybee really does die out, us backyard farmers need not despair.

While we would greatly miss that honey, at the end of the day, most of our plants would still get pollinated.

We just have to look a little closer to see who is REALLY doing most of the work.

Sweat bee nectaring on some mountain mint

Us homesteaders need to focus on creating good habitat for our native bees by encouraging biodiversity.

Consider allowing parts of your yard to grow naturally, letting grasses and wildflowers colonize. Let the leaves pile up under your trees. Leave fallen logs on the ground and let dead trees stand (wherever it is safe) to give native bees a place to nest.

Plant some beds of native flowers to encourage a variety of pollinators to visit your homestead.

Grab a book or two on insects, and spend time watching all those creepy crawlies as they come and go. 

You will soon discover there is a whole other world right in front of your eyes.

Want to read more? Check out this awesome handout by the USDA: Bee Basics: An Introduction to Native Bees