Buttoning Up

Many of the tasks we can’t quite get to during the growing season are now being tackled. The two little cabins are being ‘buttoned up’ with a siding of batt and boarding. The little guest cabin is done, the lights are on, and it’s a warm and toasty place to spend a wintery evening. Down through the woods, the cabin our son Noah built is getting its own finishing touches. A finished floor using some grand wide planked pine from a local mill, really beautiful! An Atlantic Kitchen model 121 woodstove has been put in, a stove we’ve had sitting around waiting for a purpose. This week we’ll design a small kitchen countertop ( a gifted piece of left-over granite countertop), a sink (a small double basin salvaged out a camper), and some storage shelves ( above and below). This is fun work for Rick and I. We love putting our heads together to utilize these small cabin spaces in both an aesthetic and efficient manner. The guest cabin is 10×12 sq. ft. Noah’s cabin is 12×12. Both cabins have a fairly roomy sleeping loft. Aside from the lumber which has been sawed at a local mill, the cabins have been outfitted using recycled or upcycled material. Windows from a friends sunroom, doors salvaged from a carpentry job that Rick had worked on, and much of the interior furnishings were collected from yard sales, roadside, friends, and second-hand stores. The Liberty Tool Company right down the road from us has been a heavily tapped source!
The cabins make a great space for visiting friends, family, or WWOOF volunteers. And, on a snowy afternoon…a great place for me to tuck away with a cup of tea and some knitting!!!

Native Plants and Biodiversity

Not too late to order this book for Christmas!
A great book that helps us to understand the importance of bio-diversity within species. We may not always condsider the reason behind diversity and how it plays an essential role in our ecosystems.
Here’s a great article also by Doug Tallamy that makes the point:

Bringing Nature Home
Gardening for Life
Chances are, you have never thought of your garden — indeed, of all of the space on your property — as a wildlife preserve that represents the last chance we have for sustaining plants and animals that were once common throughout the U.S. But that is exactly the role our suburban landscapes are now playing and will play even more in the near future.

If this is news to you, it’s not your fault. We were taught from childhood that gardens are for beauty; they are a chance to express our artistic talents, to have fun with and relax in. And, whether we like it or not, the way we landscape our properties is taken by our neighbors as a statement of our wealth and social status. But no one has taught us that we have forced the plants and animals that evolved in North America (our nation’s biodiversity) to depend more and more on human-dominated landscapes for their continued existence. We have always thought that biodiversity was happy somewhere out there “in nature;” in our local woodlot, or perhaps our state and national parks. We have heard nothing about the rate at which species are disappearing from our neighborhoods, towns, counties, and states. Even worse, we have never been taught how vital biodiversity is for our own well-being.

We Have Taken It All
The population of the U.S., now over 300 million people, has doubled since most of us were kids and continues to grow by 8640 people per day. All of those additional souls, coupled with cheap gas, our love affair with the car, and our quest to own ever larger homes have fueled unprecedented development that continues to sprawl over 2 million additional acres per year (the size of Yellowstone National Park). The Chesapeake Bay watershed has lost 100 acres of forest each day since 1985. We have connected all of our developments with 4 million miles of roads, the paved surface is nearly five times the size of New Jersey. Somewhere along the way we decided to convert most of our living and working spaces into huge expanses of lawn. So far we have planted over 62,500 sq miles, some 40 million acres, in lawn. Each weekend we mow an area 8 times the size of New Jersey to within 1 inch and then congratulate ourselves on a job well done. And it’s not like those little woodlots and “open spaces” we have not paved over or manicured are pristine. Nearly all are second-growth forests that have been thoroughly invaded by alien plants like autumn olive, multiflora rose, Oriental bittersweet, and Japanese honeysuckle. Over 3400 species of alien plants have invaded 100 million acres of the U.S, and that area is expected to double in the next 5 years.

To nature lovers these are horrifying statistics. I stress them so that we can clearly understand the challenge before us. We have turned 54% of the lower 48 states into cities and suburbs, and 41% more into various forms of agriculture. That’s right: we humans have taken 95% of nature and made in unnatural. But does this matter? Are there consequences to turning so much land into the park-like settings humans enjoy? Absolutely, both for biodiversity and for us. Our fellow creatures need food and shelter to survive and reproduce and in too many places we have eliminated both. At least 40% of Delaware’s plant species are rare or extinct, and 41% of its forest birds no longer nest in the state. Over 800 plant and animal species are rare, threatened, or endangered in Pennsylvania and 150 have already disappeared entirely. Many of those that haven’t suffered local extinction are now too rare to perform their role in their ecosystem. These can be considered functionally extinct. The song birds that brighten spring mornings have been in decline since the 1960s, having lost 40% of their numbers so far. Birds that breed in meadows are in even more trouble. Once common species such as the northern bobwhite, eastern meadowlark, field sparrow, and grasshopper sparrow have declined 82%, 72%, 68%, and 65%, respectively, in total numbers, and are completely absent from many areas that used to support healthy populations.

Why We Need Biodiversity
For most of us, hearing such numbers triggers a passing sadness; but few people feel personally threatened by the loss of biodiversity. Here’s why you should. Biodiversity losses are a clear sign that our own life-support systems are failing. The ecosystems that support us – – that determine the carrying capacity of the earth and our local spaces – – are run by biodiversity. It is biodiversity that generates oxygen and clean water; that creates topsoil out of rock and buffers extreme weather events like droughts and floods; and that recycles the mountains of garbage we create every day. And now, with human induced climate change threatening the planet, it is biodiversity that will suck that carbon out of the air and sequester it in living plants if given half a chance. Humans cannot live as the only species on this planet because it is other species that create the ecosystem services essential to us. Every time we force a species to extinction we are encouraging our own demise. Despite the disdain with which we have treated it in the past, biodiversity is not optional.

Parks Are Not Enough
I am often asked why the habitats we have preserved within our park system are not enough to save most species from extinction. Years of research by evolutionary biologists have shown that the area required to sustain biodiversity is pretty much the same as the area required to generate it in the first place. The consequence of this simple relationship is profound. Since we have taken 95% of the U.S. from nature we can expect to lose 95% of the species that once lived here unless we learn how to share our living, working, and agricultural spaces with biodiversity. 95% of all plants and animals! Now there is a statistic that puts climate-change predictions of extinction to shame. And studies of habitat islands with known histories, such as Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal and Ashdown Forest in England, have so far shown these predictions to be accurate. Species are lost at the same proportion with which a habitat is reduced in size. The good news is that extinction takes awhile, so if we start sharing our landscapes with other living things, we should be able to save much of the biodiversity that still exists.

Redesigning Suburbia
What will it take to give our local animals what they need to survive and reproduce on our properties? NATIVE PLANTS, and lots of them. This is a scientific fact deduced from thousands of studies about how energy moves through food webs. Here is the general reasoning. All animals get their energy directly from plants, or by eating something that has already eaten a plant. The group of animals most responsible for passing energy from plants to the animals that can’t eat plants is insects. This is what makes insects such vital components of healthy ecosystems. So many animals depend on insects for food (e.g., spiders, reptiles and amphibians, rodents, 96% of all terrestrial birds) that removing insects from an ecosystem spells its doom.

But that is exactly what we have tried to do in our suburban landscapes. For over a century we have favored ornamental landscape plants from China and Europe over those that evolved right here. If all plants were created equal, that would be fine. But every plant species protects its leaves with a species-specific mixture of nasty chemicals. With few exceptions, only insect species that have shared a long evolutionary history with a particular plant lineage have developed the physiological adaptations required to digest the chemicals in their host’s leaves. They have specialized over time to eat only the plants sharing those particular chemicals. When we present insects from Pennsylvania with plants that evolved on another continent, chances are those insects will be unable to eat them. We used to think this was good. Kill all insects before they eat our plants! But an insect that cannot eat part of a leaf cannot fulfill its role in the food web. We have planted Kousa dogwood, a species from China that supports no insect herbivores, instead of our native flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) that supports 117 species of moths and butterflies alone. In hundreds of thousands of acres we have planted goldenraintree from China instead of one of our beautiful oaks and lost the chance to grow 532 species of caterpillars, all of them nutritious bird food. My research has shown that alien ornamentals support 29 times less biodiversity than do native ornamentals.

Your Garden Has a Function
In the past we didn’t designed gardens that play a critical ecological role in the landscape, but we must do so in the future if we hope to avoid a mass extinction from which humans are not likely to recover either. As quickly as possible we need to replace unnecessary lawn with densely planted woodlots that can serve as habitat for our local biodiversity. Homeowners can do this by planting the borders of their properties with native trees plants such as white oaks (Quercus alba), black willows (Salix nigra), red maples (Acer rubrum), green ashes (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), black walnuts (Juglans nigra), river birches (Betula nigra) and shagbark hickories (Carya ovata), under-planted with woodies like serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis), arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum), hazelnut (Corylus americnus), blueberries (Vaccinium spp) . Our studies have shown that even modest increases in the native plant cover on suburban properties significantly increases the number and species of breeding birds, including birds of conservation concern. As gardeners and stewards of our land, we have never been so empowered to help save biodiversity from extinction, and the need to do so has never been so great. All we need to do is plant native plants!

Home

Home. Home to trees and fields, dirt roads, and cooler temperatures. Home to the family. Home to my friends and community.
When I arrived on Tuesday, the house was woodstove warm and welcoming. Both dogs were overjoyed that I wasn’t ( apparently) gone for good. Aah, home.
Now back to work. Winter projects on the docket. Work on the board and batting for the studio. Re-shingle the back of the house. Wool to spin and send out for the yarn CSA.
Speaking of wool, in Ireland the landscape is covered with sheep. Most are breeds suited for the conditions there, cold and wet, and most breeds are raised for meat. The market for fleece is not great and it may be difficult to find yarn made from Irish sheep. Real Irish yarn, that is. Not likely that you will find merino sheep on an Irish farm. The merino would not stand the conditions in Ireland. The breeds in Ireland tend to be a courser breed of sheep, great for rugs and weaving. The fiber in Ireland would be considered ‘carpet wool’, strong, coarse fiber truly great for weaving tapestries or rugs but often considered too scratchy for garments. But, I love wool and back in the day, even our wool here in New England was typically more scratchy than it is now. Remeber those wool snowsuits kids wore? Breed importing has improved over the last 50 years and raising sheep breeds that have soft, fine fiber, are now widely available here. Our weather in the Northeast being dryer allows us to manage with some of the finer wool breeds. Still, I personally love that old fashion course and strong wool all sweaters and socks ( and snowsuits!) were made from in year’s past. Bartlett wool and yarn from Briggs and Little are still companies that produce yarn using fleece that is a mixture of breeds, all put into a wool pool, and spun into yarn. Lots of my socks are knit with wool from Briggs and Little. I call them ‘socks that are not for the faint of heart’. They are a bit scratchy (I don’t get the heebie-jeebies from scratchy wool on my skin) and they are tough…the course wool does not pill or tear as easily after lots of use. In Ireland, I did find a shop that carried true Irish yarn ( in Donegal) and it is scratchy, but I love it. My green wool hunting pants are scratchy. My vest from Filson is a thick felted wool that is scratchy. But both are two of the warmest garments I own. The sheep we raise at Fernwood are a fairly longwool breed, soft and lustrous, beautiful wool….and warm. They are a sheep breed I find really works for all the various knitting and felting I do.They grow excellent lamb for the freezer. I’ll always buy some rough and tumble yarn for sock knitting or for that outdoor barn sweater I know will stand the test of time (and abuse). Among the other projects on the needles these days…a baby sweater, some mittens, a few scarves, there are also some hearty socks in progress, made with tough and gnarly wool, just waiting for the inevitable cold our Maine winters bring. And I know they’ll do their job!

Sunday

Today we’ll slow things down a bit. No racing about, no running for things in town. We’ll spend some time at the farm, visit with the donkeys, we’ll layout the picnic basket. As often as I can, I walk a loop with Sally’s dog, Frazier. He and I travel the narrow and windy roads away from the farm, passing the neighboring fields of cows and sheep, just to admire and take in the incredible beauty of Ireland.

An afternoon tea with “Teddy”….try and tell me that Teddy is not adorable!


The word ‘profound’ always comes to mind when I am asked to describe the landscape here. It is a landscape that seeps into your soul….it feels grand, it feels bigger than life. An arrangement of green and rock, mountains and expansive field, that is close to God.

Today,I am thinking this….
“Look around you. Appreciate what you have. Nothing will be the same in a year”.

Also, I’ll re-post this poem by Paul Corrigan( which I love). It always reminds me of how fleeting life can be…even with the things we savor. Then there are the uncertainties and unfortunate moments that fall on all of us, and we repeat the proverb “this, too, shall pass”.
Stay in the moment. Pay attention. Don’t wish a moment away.
Have a good day everyone.

He, To His Wife

Sit with me here on the landing
and watch how the moon hangs
like some pale, winter fruit
in the branches of our crabapple tree.
I noticed it last night, but you
had gone to bed. And since last night
the moon has ripened and is full
and looks ready to plummet off the tree
and drop below the horizon.
Sit down here beside me.
It’s not something we’ll see
every month. The leaves will hide it,
or the clouds. One of us will be away,
or we’ll both be asleep and it will rise
and hang in the branches without us.
How odd not to have seen it before now;
to have lived in this house a year
and not had a cloudless night when the leaves
were down and the moon was waxing.
How soon will it be before clear weather
again reveals it in its brightest phase
hanging in those bare limbs?
We ought to watch the skies more faithfully
and try to be here on the stairs
to catch the next rare conjunction
of the moon in our tree
Come sit with me in the dark for awhile.

by Paul Corrigan

Barn Dinner

Before I left for my time in Ireland, I catered a dinner in a barn/studio for a friend. It was the end of September, the nights were perfect for an outdoor fire and to have the big barn doors slung open to let some sea breeze in. There was still plenty of garden produce available for salads and side dishes and it was also cool enough for several crocks of baked beans. Steamed lobster, a broth made with mussels and saffron, and ice cream sandwiches made with home baked molasses cookies, helped to round out the meal. Every year I cater a limited amount of these farm to table dinners. I love doing them. I enjoy cooking at different locations, working with the scenery and atmosphere that each one offers up. Next summer I hope to offer a few Tear Drop trailer dinners. What do you think… vintage Tear Drop trailer, an ocean view, and a meal prepared with food from our farm and locally sourced ingredients?
Here are some photos from the barn dinner….and, yes that is a sheep making her way through the dining area. I did mention the word barn, didn’t I? Oh my! If you have any interest in having a very special meal prepared and served out of the cute and cozy teardrop trailer, email questions at fernwoodnursery@fairpoint.net. I’ll even brings along some sheep if you’d like!

A Few Things….

In Ireland….wear boots, always. Understand that when the sun shines, regardless of the time of day, it should be coveted and celebrated. It also reveals a brilliance that I’m not sure is experienced any where else in the world. The view is long, unlike home where the trees break up the scope of things, you can see long distances and this will make you want to put on your walking shoes (boots, remember) and start covering some ground.

Sally’s latest addition to the farm…Herdwick sheep

Around every bend there will be donkeys, and a sea of sheep, and fields and fields of grazing cattle. Horse fair are held in the middle of town and they are meant for trading. The grass, even in November when Maine farms are already tossing out hay to their critters, is green, green, green… but soggy, so as I mentioned before, you’ll want boots. The wind blows sideways ( I kinda like that) and the rain just shows up anytime it has a hankering to do so. A good rain jacket to go along with your boots is a good thing. The air smells smokey and peaty and moist. Quite nice and earthy. Learn to like tea, learn to love tea. And scones, with butter or jam, and definitely eat lots and lots of local yogurt, because that green green grass helps to grow great cows, which produces rich and tasty milk, which can be made into sweet and tangy yogurt. And butter. And cheese. And who wouldn’t travel far and wide for delicious cheese and butter?
Well,that’s really all for now….more to come, I’m sure.

Sally and her trusty companion, Frazier, laying in the green, green grass

Video

What Are You Doing There Now?

I am often asked this question when my friends and family back home find out that I am flying off to Ireland again. Coming to Ireland in the late fall, after the nursery closes and the firewood is put up and the hay is mounded in the barn, is something I have been doing over the last several years (7 years?). The first time I came was to help my friend Sally with a photo exhibit she was doing here in the town of Kilorglin. Next, it was to help her with her book project and collecting stories for A fair Day, The Horseman Of County Kerry. After that, I just kept coming and because we were (and are) having so much fun we’ve had to dream up new projects to warrant little ol’ me getting on a plane (which I don’t love) and leaving my home ground in Maine (where I am happily rooted) and then spending a goodly portion of the fall traipsing behind her as she conjures up new adventures. This year it has been helping her reclaim a farm in Glenbeigh. Reclaiming isn’t really the right description…. the land has been lovingly farmed and cared for over many generations. It is where a man lived his life and raised his cattle and did his chores and cut silage and helped birth calves and worked daily as all farmers do keeping with the tradition of such things. Now the man is gone, and though his nephew will continue to graze cattle and make hay on his uncle’s land, Sally has stepped in to help ensure that some of the buildings and barns are preserved. Right now the old house is getting a bit of a make-over….insulation, a new floor, a kitchen,, and a heating system. Like many of the old farms the house was not terribly insulated and therefor quite drafty…..a bit like our old farmhouses in New England, yes? The work has been going on for the last several months and before long ( 3 weeks!!!??) the house will be ready for a small gathering. Hooray!
Outdoors, two amazing stone workers (who are also sheep farmers) are busy mending some of the grand old stone walls that frame in the farm’s lush green fields. They’re building some new ones, too.

Lar and Pat
Farmers. Stone Builders.

I am in awe of their work, their keen eye for each stone placed or rock split perfectly and then positioned. True craftsman, really. I do love seeing the house being transformed into a much warmer and well lit dwelling. The crew working on that part of the project are genius as well, but it is the keeping and tending of those old stonewalls that has my attention. Knowing that each stone was handled before by some diligent farmer with an intention to contain his livestock and to create separate grazing fields reminds us of the work that was done before mechanization. Now history is coming full circle and being preserved by two thoughtful men who are honoring their roots and rural traditions. Slowly, carefully, and with great craft they are re-building the stone walls. Beauty, behold. Because I come from a long line of farming, my own roots dating back to the earliest settlers of New England and where stonewalls are a part of our own cultural landscape , I truly appreciate this commitment to land and farming and community. As I have said many, many times before…..traveling away from my life in Maine is never easy, but coming to Ireland is always a profound blessing.

And….Off I Go

Off I go to Ireland, to walk that beautiful landscape, to visit with friends and farmers, to help Sally with all her projects ( sheep, farm dinners, classes, and house renovations), to enjoy the mist and truly the most emerald green pastures, to drive those narrow curvy roads that lead you up and around and down windy bends, to visit those butcher shops that I love, and to settle into the now familiar and delightful routine that will greet me as I step off the plane. Home is home. Maine is home. I’ll be back soon enough ( December). Isn’t it nice though to find a place that feels almost as good as home? I’ll write when I land, I’ll post pictures, I’ll keep my friends abreast. Til then…..

These Days

Soon, I am off to Ireland to help my friend Sally with some farm projects. We have some ‘irons in the fire’ with regards to Herdwick sheep , in addition to collecting more oral histories. I’ll be writing about this later and more than likely from ‘that side of the pond’, as they say.
In the meantime, here are a few things happening at Fernwood as we ready ourselves for the colder months ahead….
Some of the potted begonias have been brought in with hopes that I don’t kill them over the winter ( can you believe that someone who co-owns a nursery can kill a houseplant in no time at all!).
The Ray’s Calais corn has been brought in from the garden, shucked, and is now in the greenhouse for further drying. Those jewels of kernels, beautiful, yes?
The winter squash has a couple more weeks of curing and then we’ll haul them in for storage
The carmal colored Adzuki beans are now on the top of the threshing list.
Swiss chard continues to thrive and wave like a row of rainbow flags in the garden.
Playing around a bit with shorn ( uncleaned) fleeces and felting them to processed roving, the result being a ‘sheepskin without the hide’.
And, the knitting continues…

Three Kinds Of Beans

We don’t grow acres of beans, but we do grow enough to get us through the winter. Most often, we plant three types of beans for storage…Vermont Cranberry, Black Beans, and Adzuki Beans. The black beans were pulled a couple of weeks ago, their leaves had dropped and the beans themselves were fairly hard. I pulled the entire row, lashed together bundles of plant and pod and hung them in the greenhouse for further drying.
At the end of the day, we’ve been lighting a small campfire and sitting out to enjoy the evening, often having dinner by firelight. We hardly ever do this during the middle of summer, we’re so busy and tired from the day’s pace that we come inside after dark, eat, and flop into bed. Sitting by the fire, last night along with our friend Jack, who tells good stories, I shucked beans and listened to Jack talk about his travels through Europe and about growing up here in Maine in the fifties.
If we grew fields of beans we’d need a bean thresher, doing this task by hand would then be pretty impractical. Growing just enough for home use makes it possible to thresh beans by hand (preferably by a campfire, ha!), perhaps a bit tedious and time consuming but something I enjoy doing. The next batch of beans are not quite ready, we’ll leave them to dry on the vines for a while longer. Once they’re harvested, they can hang in the greenhouse until we can get to them ( before Christmas, I hope!).
The gardens here are slowly winding down. However, the broccoli is still producing lots of side shoots, the chard is tall and handsome, cabbage, Brussel sprouts, and leeks are waiting to be harvested, and there are still tomatoes and peppers in the hoop house to be gathered.The winter squash is all laid out on tables curing for winter storage. A few tender late planted greens continue to provide for fresh salads and sauteing. Even now, as the weather turns and we begin preparing for those long (delightful) winter months, there continues to be plenty. Very thankful, we are. Very thankful.