Contemplating the Hardiness Zone Changes

Just in case you weren’t aware of it, the USDA has recently changes the hardiness zones for the United States. The hardiness zones help you understand what will grow in your area. Certain plants require warmer temperatures in order to grow and others require cooler temperatures. For example, if you want peaches, you need to be in a warmer zone. Our area has changed from 4B to 4A, which means that some types of trees that I couldn’t grow in the past will likely grow now. You can see an animation of how the hardiness zones have changed on the Arbor Day Foundation site.

Most people would agree that changes of this sort make global warming undeniable. Of course, it’s a misconception to strictly say that the effect is global warming, which is a misnomer. Yes, the planet has warmed up some, but a more correct assessment is that the weather is going to become increasingly chaotic. The point of this post is not to drag you into a discussion of precisely how global warming will affect the planet, what generalizations we can make about it, whether our scientists can define any long term trends about it, or anything of that sort. I’ll leave the discussion of how much man has contributed toward global warming to those with the credentials to make such statements. The point is that last year I was in Zone 4B and now I’m in Zone 4A. The long term weather changes have finally appeared in the form of new charts from the USDA, which after all, are only predictive and not infallible indicators of anything.

There are some practical considerations in all this and that’s what you need to think about when reading this post. The change in weather patterns means that you need to rethink your garden a bit. Not only do you need to consider the change in heat (the main emphasis of those hardiness zone charts), but also differences in moisture and even the effect on clouds. Little things are going to change as well. For example, have you considered the effect of increased lightning on the nitrogen levels in your soil? If not, you really should think about it. The weird science bandied about by those in the know has practical implications for those of us who raise food to eat after all.

Even if you aren’t into gardening at a very deep level, the changes in the hardiness zone chart has one practical implication that no one can escape. The literature on the back of those seed packets you buy from the store is going to be incorrect for this year as a minimum. The changes from the USDA came out after the seed packets were already printed. When everything else is said and done, the main reason for my post today is to help you understand that you can’t believe the seed package—at least, you can’t believe it this year. By next year the seed companies will have recovered and the documentation on your seed packets will be useful again.

Springtime is approaching. If you live anywhere near my area of the country, it seems as if we’re going to have an early spring indeed. I don’t normally need to trim the trees in the orchard until the end of March. This year I’ll trim my trees on March 1st, a lot earlier than normal and even then, I might be trimming a bit late. A few people in our area have already seen budding trees. So, if you’re used to waiting until April or May before you get out very much, it may be a good idea to take a walk around your property now to see if there are any changes that you need to know about.

Global warming is a reality. The effects it will have on your garden and orchard are also a reality. Just what those effects are and precisely what has caused them are still being debated by those in the know, but if you’re a gardener, you need to be aware that the garden you had last year may not work this year. Let me know about the global warning-related changes in your garden at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Care and Feeding of a Wood Stove

After reading my recent post entitled, “Choosing Wood Carefully,” one reader wrote to ask me about wood stoves. Yes, you really must exercise care with your wood stove or end up paying the price. For that matter, any wood burning appliance requires care and if you don’t maintain it, you’ll likely end up with a chimney fire at some point. There is little doubt in my mind about it. Even if you don’t have a chimney fire, the wood will burn less efficiently and you’ll get less heat from it. In addition, there is always the problem of potential carbon monoxide poisoning. If you haven’t gotten the point yet, maintaining your wood burning appliance isn’t just a nice thing to do, it’s a requirement.

Make sure you perform your required maintenance. When it comes to my wood stove, that means ensuring I clean the glass twice a week so that I can actually see what’s going on inside the wood stove as the wood is burning. Opening a door when there is a burning piece of wood leaning against it (due to shifting) is never an easy task, but clean windows make things easier. You’ll also want to clean out the ash content from time-to-time (I do it daily) to ensure there is no buildup that could reduce the efficiency of the stove. As part of my personal regular maintenance, I also spray some Anti-Creo-Soot into the stove daily to ensure that no creosote builds up in the chimney. This product will greatly reduce the likelihood of a chimney fire and ensure that your wood stove continue to work a full efficiency at all times.

There is also annual maintenance to perform. The most important thing you can do is to obtain the services of a certified chimney sweep. You want a certified professional because they have specialized equipment to clean and check your wood burning appliance. In addition, these professional can usually perform repairs. For example, my wood stove has a very odd shaped window in the front. It broke at one point, causing the stove to operate poorly. Our chimney sweep was able to make the required glass insert when it was discovered that the vendor no longer supplied it, saving me considerable expense and worry.

When the chimney sweep is done, it’s usually a good idea to repaint any rusty areas on your stove. Make sure you wear a mask during the entire process because wood stove paint contains some incredibly nasty chemicals. Use a high temperature paint to repaint the surface after you prepare it. It’s absolutely essential that you paint your stove with all of the windows open and with a fan blowing air into the room. Using a spark proof fan (one designed for use in painting) is a good idea. Always follow the vendor instructions (including using the stove with all of the windows in the room open the first two or three times). Maintaining the paint job will help you enjoy your wood stove for a lot longer and present a nicer appearance when people visit.

Although it isn’t strictly a maintenance task, I also verify that my wood stove is burning at the right temperature. You do this by placing a magnetic thermometer directly on the stove pipe. It’s a good idea to keep the stove in the orange zone of a colored thermometer. Burning wood at too low a temperature causes creosote buildup in the chimney. Of course, keeping the stove too hot could result in a fire.

When you choose the right wood and maintain your stove, you’ll find that your wood burning experiences are significantly better and considerably safer. It doesn’t take long to perform these tasks and the savings from heating your home with wood are incredible. I find that the radiant heat actually feels warmer than the heat produced by a furnace. Let me know your thoughts on wood stove maintenance at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Fun is Where You Find It! (Part 4)

For many people, this time of the year is extremely depressing. There are all sorts of acronyms associated with this time of the year, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). I have no doubt that these disorders, diseases, and disabilities all exist and are quantifiable in some way. In fact, I imagine that there are tests to determine precisely which of them you have and to what extent you suffer from them. The bottom line is that the holidays are over, the weather is stormy, and the budget tight. Excitement is nowhere to be found—at least, not the sort of excitement that many people consider fun today.

It’s this time of year when Rebecca and I engage most strongly in crafting. Making things tends to take your mind off of all of the things that would make you SAD. For example, this is the time of year that I make knitted items most. A craft need not be expensive or require skills that most people lack. I’ve known more than a few families who have gathered pine cones in the fall, drizzled a bit of glue on them, dipped them in glitter, and added a bit of yarn to string the pine cones up. Not only do them make attractive Christmas ornaments, you can hang them up in a room as decoration. The cheerful colors and the occasional glint of the sun dancing off the glitter can dispel the gloom in any room. Stenciling and other forms of decorative art are helpful this time of the year as well. I got the idea for bright colors in a room from some of the displays in European Village at the Milwaukee Public Museum. Old world houses weren’t drabthey were colorful to keep things cheery during the winter months. This form of decoration improves your ability to withstand the drab winter months and could very well help keep SAD at bay.  The best part of all is that you can get the supplies for any of the crafts I’ve mentioned for less than $20.00 and some, like stenciling, can consume an inordinate amount of time that you’d otherwise spend feeling bad.

Of course, not everyone likes crafts and I wouldn’t want you to saddle yourself with something that you won’t ever enjoy (no matter how hard you try). This is also a good time of the year to take a winter walk. Wait for a nice day and go into the woods. The woods are amazing this time of the year and if you’re careful, you’ll see some interesting animals, such as a fox or weasel. You have to look extra hard in some cases. Some animals change color in the winter to better blend in with their environment. A white rabbit on white snow is incredibly hard to see.

So, you’re not into the outdoors and crafts have no interest. There are still things you can do to make this time of the year better. Some people live for sports. The Superbowl takes place in two weeks. Personally, I’m not much of a sports fan. In fact, I just barely know the names of our teams here in Wisconsin (much less the rest of the country). However, I do like action movies, so we have a Super Action Hero Bowl on Superbowl Sunday. Here are the steps for creating your own Super Action Hero Bowl:

 

  1. Create a list of the action heroes that appear in your movie collection (or that you know you can borrow free from somewhere like the library).
  2. Place the names in a hat and have someone draw four or five names.
  3. Create lists of the movies that you own for each action hero.
  4. Place the movies for a specific hero in the hat and draw out the name of a movie for that hero.
  5. Create movie lists and draw a movie name for each of the remaining heroes.
  6. Now that you have a list of names and movies, create a scorecard. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but each member of the family who participates in Super Action Hero Bowl should have a separate scorecard.
  7. Watch the first movie on the scorecard and mark that movie’s rank. Each movie should be ranked from 1 to 4 (or 5, depending on how many movies you choose). No two movies should receive the same score. (No peaking at your neighbor’s scorecard please!)
  8. Continue watching movies until you have completed them all.
  9. Tally the scores from each of the scorecards for each movie. The movie with the lowest score (the highest rank) wins.


It’s a good way to spend a day in family fun. It’s inexpensive and the competition adds a certain appeal to the event. Of course, just like the Superbowl, you can grab some special foods from your larder and serve them during the course of the day.

Just because the holidays are over, doesn’t mean you have to make things drab. Rebecca and i usually store some special goodies in the larder for this time of the year. When there is something to celebrate, we make an impromptu personal party using these items. We’ll play games, listen to special music, put puzzles together, or do other things to make the event special. Get a good report from the doctor? Why not have a party to celebrate it? It takes a little effort to avert the drudgery of this time of the year, but you can do it and it doesn’t have to cost a lot (or anything at all).

How do you avoid the January blues? Do you like crafts, a bit of nature, some mild competitive fun, or a bit of a party? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com. Make sure you also view the other Fun is Where You Find It posts for other ideas.

 

Choosing Wood Carefully

All wood will burn eventually. There is no doubt about it. Create a hot enough fire and you can stick anything in the wood stove. It may not burn immediately or well, but it will burn eventually. However, if you’re heating your home with wood, you don’t want it to burn eventually, you want it to burn now. Burning the wrong sort of wood has these negative impacts.

 

  • The wood will burn inefficiently, which means you’ll need to cut more wood to obtain the desired number of calories to heat your home.
  • You’ll see additional soot accumulation, which could end up closing your chimney and causing carbon monoxide buildup in your home.
  • The wood stove will require additional costly maintenance because of the way wet wood doesn’t burn.
  • Wet wood tends to mildew, which isn’t particularly good for your health.
  • All of these factors tend to pollute the environment to a greater degree, increasing your carbon footprint.


The problem isn’t strictly confined to wet wood. Choosing the wrong wood can also cause all sorts of problems. For example, if you burn wood from conifer trees extensively, you’ll find that you use more wood and that your chimney tends to soot easily. The creosote produced by conifers is especially hard to remove from the chimney. Of all conifer trees, cedar tends to be the worst. However, even kiln dried construction lumber isn’t good for your wood stove. Although these woods smell wonderful as they burn, you’ll want to burn them with high heat hardwoods to reduce their negative impact. Never burn treated wood in your wood stove. The chemicals in treated wood are truly terrifying and you don’t want to pollute the air with them.

When obtaining hardwoods, make sure that the moisture content is low enough so that the wood will burn efficiently. If nothing else, use a moisture meter to check that the wood is in the 10 percent to 15 percent range before burning. Sometimes wood looks like it’s perfectly dry, yet contains a significant amount of moisture. One of the worst woods in this regard is oak. The wood can exhibit all of the characteristics of fully dried wood, yet contain enough moisture that it won’t burn well.

One of the questions you need to answer when looking for wood to cut is whether that wood is dry. Generally speaking, a tree is starting to dry out sufficiency when the bark comes off easily from the trunk. It should literally peel off in large pieces. Before that time, the tree is still quite green. If you get wood from someone else and that wood has tightly attached bark, make sure you check it with a moisture meter. The wood may be green and you’ll find that it won’t burn well. Some less reputable woodsmen will try to sell you green wood because they have run out of good dry wood to sell.

Cut and split the wood into the size chunks you want to use in your wood stove. Measure the moisture to determine whether additional drying is required. Some woods, such as black locust and most species of elm, are ready to use almost immediately after you cut up the trunk. The wood dries thoroughly without cutting it up. As mentioned earlier, oak always requires a drying period after you cut it up because the tree would rather rot, than dry, when in trunk form.

A few trees will burn acceptably at higher moisture content levels. Maple falls into this category. It doesn’t burn as well as fully dried wood, but it does burn well enough not to cause a creosote buildup on your chimney. Even so, you should never burn these woods with greater than 20 percent moisture content. Lower moisture content is always better.

Another way to tell if wood is properly seasoned is to look it over carefully. Wood that has been stacked for two or three years (the recommended drying time for most woods), is usually blackened on the ends. The cuts won’t look fresh. The wood itself will feel somewhat light; although, some woods, such as locust and oak, are heavy no matter how dry they get.

The weight of the wood is important. A heavier wood normally has more calories to offer when burned. Consequently, if you have two pieces of wood the same size and dried to 10 percent moisture content, the heavier piece is worth more from a heating perspective. Heavier woods tend to be hard to start, burn more like charcoal, and burn long. Maple, box elder, and other moderately light woods make good kindling for starting a fire based on these heavier woods. If nothing else, use some of that pine for starting your fire.

Some woods smell better than others do when burning. For example, oak and maple both smell wonderful. As previously mentioned, all conifers smell good, but there is a price to pay in this case for the good odor.

A few woods smell truly horrible when burning. For example, I’d rather not smell poplar or paper birch again. Fortunately, both of these woods tend to be light when dried, so they offer few calories than other wood types—making them good woods to avoid.

The best tests of the wood you cut yourself or obtain from a third party is seeing how it burns. A sample or two will tell you about the entire load in most cases. The wood should start relatively easy (keeping in mind that truly dense woods such as locust, hickory, and oak start harder than less dense woods such as maple). It should produce some amount of blue flame, along with the usual orange and yellow. The wood should leave little ash behind (less dense woods tend to produce more ash than denser woods).

The ultimate insult in getting wood from a third party is when they sell you punky (partially rotted) wood. This wood tends to be really light when fully dry. You can’t typically see the rings as well and the wood itself has a papery feel. The wood will start with extreme ease, burn brightly for an incredibly short time, produce little heat, and produce copious amounts of ash.

Sometimes you’ll find that wood sellers talk about a “load” of wood, as if that’s a precise measure of anything. Most places have statutes in place the define wood as being sold by the cord or measured faction (such as a half cord). A cord is 128 cubic feet and is typically stacked 4 feet high, 4 feet wide, and 8 feet long (although, any stack that measures 128 cubit feet is a cord). Beware of the seller with face cords. In this case, you’re only getting 64 cubic feet. When someone insists on selling you a load of wood, make sure you measure the tightly stacked load yourself and pay appropriately.

In short, if you thought all wood was the same, you’re quite wrong. Choosing the wood you use in a fireplace or wood stove carefully is extremely important. Don’t let someone sell you wood that’s wet, punky, or simply unfit for burning. Inspect the wood for insect infestations and make sure you know what kind of wood you’re getting. What sorts of experiences have you had obtaining wood in your area? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Entering the New Year

Today is my first day back from vacation. I’ve been looking forward to telling you everything that has happened during my down time! In fact, unlike many people, I really look forward to getting back to work. Well, the crammed inbox is a bit of a pain, but even the e-mail surplus is a reminder to me that you’re finding the help in my books useful.

Vacation is a bit of a misnomer for me. Yes, I do unplug from the computer as described in my Learning to Unplug post, but there is plenty to do outside. One of the new experiences I had during vacation was working on a large tree. My uncle had an oak with a 44″ diameter trunk fall several years ago. It was time to cut it up this winter. I only have a 22″ bar on my chainsaw and a 22″ bar doesn’t quite reach 22″ into the trunk, so we had a bit of trouble getting the rounds cut from the trunk. Cutting as much as I could and then using wedges to do the rest worked fine. Moving pieces that large is also a problem because you can’t lift them (or barely budge them for that matter). I learned how to use a cant hook to move the large pieces of wood onto the splitter (my uncle has a hydraulic splitter attached to his tractor). I still use a 20 pound splitting maul and splitting wedge to hand split all of my wood. Most people use a lighter splitting maul, but the abundance of white and red elm, black locust, and hickory on my property makes a heavier maul a necessity. Lets just say that between helping my uncle and cutting a bit of my own wood, I didn’t lack for exercise during vacation .

This year we did get to spend quite a bit of time with family and friends, especially since the weather here is Wisconsin is unusually mild. We don’t have any snow on the ground to speak of at the moment and none is in the forecast. Of course, the lack of snow makes travel easy, but it’s also worrisome because our plants will miss the moisture come spring and we could experience problems due to the lack of cover. However, each winter is different and I’m sure we’ll get clobbered by a snowstorm or two before all is said and done.

Rebecca and I also spent time putting a puzzle together (a review will appear later this week) and we had some fun watching movies. Of course, the tea kettle received a workout as we spent time in front of the wood stove enjoying something good to read. Overall, a nice way to rest during vacation. We didn’t just stay at home though. The new Sherlock Holmes movie called to us, so we went to see it at our local theater. Of course, there were visits to Deli Bean (a local coffee shop) and Stone Hollow (our local restaurant), where we enjoyed some nice treats.

The mild weather also made it possible for me to walk in the woods. During one of my visits to the woods, I kept track of a fox. Cody (see Many Hands Make Light Work) and I had spotted a dead raccoon near a den in the woods, so I perched a distance from the den to see if anything came out. The den had a fox in it last winter and it appears that the same fox is there this winter. So, I sat on my stump for a while and watched. I find nature amazing. The woods provides us with food, heat, and entertainmentwhat more could anyone ask?

However, in addition to these activities, I also worked on some ideas for upcoming books, which is one of the focuses of this post. I’m planning to write some books on self-sufficiency. The books will have the same focus as my blog posts. I want to make things simple and to demonstrate ways you can also receive a financial benefit from your activities. Self-sufficiency is great because you help the environment, improve your health, and get a better product. For many people, these reasons look attractive until you start considering the financial element of self-sufficiency. Surprisingly, many people are unaware of the fact that self-sufficiency saves considerable money—enough that you really need to consider it as a source of income, rather than as a money sink. My new book will emphasize what you get in exchange for your efforts and how to optimize the benefits you receive. If you have some ideas on what you’d like to see in my book, please be sure to write me at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

Vacation is a time for equipment maintenance as well. I was able to get a few necessary maintenance tasks done during vacation. Another week off would have been nice, but I did get the essentials done.

One of my favorite activities during vacation was baking cookies with Rebecca. She makes the most delightful cookies and it’s always a pleasure to give her a hand when I can. We made sugar cookies this time around, but next time we may do something a bit more exciting.

Today is the first in-office work day of the year for me. Please be patient if you’ve sent me an e-mail while I’ve been gone. I promise to answer every e-mail that I’ve received while I was gone, but with a little over 900 reader e-mails in my inbox, it takes a while to get the job done. In the meantime, I hope that you’ve had a great start to the new year and I’m looking forward to presenting you will all sorts of really neat posts this upcoming year on just about every topic imaginable!

 

Many Hands Make Light Work

I’m not sure who first came out with this bit of wisdom, but it’s true. Dividing a task amongst many people does make the work a lot lighter. You get the task done a lot faster for a number of reasons, some obvious, some not. Of course, with multiple people doing the work, the task is completed faster and with less effort from each individual. The people working on the task can encourage each other and a gentle gibe can prompt less motivated individuals to work a bit harder. However, I’m not talking about a team here. Teams are organized and often rely on one really skilled person to carry other less skilled people along. What I’m talking about is a group of individuals, with relatively the same ability, getting together to accomplish a task without the usual trappings of the team environment. There truly is a difference.

I was reminded of this difference when I read the post of my friend Bill Bridges, entitled, “The Good Cheer Drive.” It’s precisely this sort of example that I’m thinking about when it comes to the expression, “Many hands make light work.” These people came together and in a dizzying array of disorganization managed to get food together for those who are less fortunate and need a bit of a helping hand during the holidays. There is no concept of team (and the associated ego) here—simply a group of people getting together for the common good. It sounds like my sort of event.

Self-sufficiency sometimes requires a touch of this sort of environment as well. Whenever I can, I try to get someone to help when I go into the woods. To do otherwise would be foolish. When I’m cutting wood, I fell old trees that no one is using (no animals or helpful insects have made the tree a home). The trees sometimes do unexpected things, especially when the crown is caught in the branches of another tree. If someone is there helping, they can at least go for help should a tree decide to fall on me. There is safety in numbers.

Trying to wrestle a large trunk is also quite an experience. It doesn’t take much tree to produce enough wood that it’s nearly impossible for even a well-muscled man to move it about. Since I don’t use any sort of heavy equipment, I have to rely on careful cutting techniques and the help of others to move some of these large trunks around. Most of the time, the time in the woods is spent with others who enjoy being out there as much as I do. We’re a group of individuals working together to get the wood down from the hill without disturbing other trees in the safest manner possible.

This year I’ve been relying on the help provided by a new friend, Cody. He’s been out at least once a week (and often twice) to help me get my wood in for winter. As a result, for the first time ever, I have almost all of the wood I need for the winter already stacked, and it isn’t even Christmas yet. Even Rebecca has been able to get out to help a little this year, so a number of us are involved in getting the wood done up. Many hands do indeed make for light work.

WoodCutting

When you start your self-sufficiency effort, consider the need to help other people and to ask others to help you as needed. Yes, you do need to do as much as you can, but when there would be an immense risk in doing the work by yourself, look for those individuals who are willing to help. Make sure they get something out of it too. Exchange labor as you would exchange products (see my Sharing and Swapping Food post for details). The most important gift you can get out of the exchange is a friend you can rely on and believe me, they’re scarce in today’s world.

How do you work with others? Have you ever contributed toward a group effort of the kind I explore in this post? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Flying Squirrel Antics

This is the time of year that I spend a good deal of time in the woods cutting fallen trees as fodder for my wood stove. Not only is cutting wood good exercise and a cost effective way to heat our home, but using wood can be better for the environment because it’s a renewable resource. We do our best to replace the trees that we use to heat our home. In fact, some areas of the woods that we initially began using 15 years ago are already growing back quite nicely.

Some people get the idea that I keep my nose to the grindstone while out there, which would be a true waste. For one thing, not paying attention to what’s going on around you is a really good way to get hit by a falling tree. They all have to fall sometime—there isn’t any unwritten rule that states they’ll wait until I’m no longer around to hit. However, the thing I like best about being in the woods is seeing all of the animal life. You might think that Wisconsin in the winter is a dead place, but life abounds in all its forms. So, it was with a great deal of glee that I watched flying squirrels glide between trees the other day.

It’s a common misconception that flying squirrels actually fly. They’re fantastic gliders, not fliers. A flap of skin between the front and back legs provides lift for them to glide between trees quite swiftly. In fact, of all the squirrels, I think they move the fastest (we also have red and gray squirrels around here). Trying to grab a picture of them is a near impossibility. I’m sure someone has done it, but they’re more skilled than I am .

I haven’t seen much of Woody, the pileated woodpecker this year. He often watches me work on trees. I can differentiate this particular woodpecker from the others in our woods in two ways. First, the bands of colors on Woody’s head are different from other woodpeckers in our woods. Second, he has a habit of looking at me sideways with the right eye. I’m not sure if his left eye is damaged or it’s simply a characteristic of this particular woodpecker. What attracted Woody is unknown to me. Most woodpeckers want nothing to do with me (granted, Woody does keep his distance and isn’t in any way tame).

Of course, there are always rabbits, endless assortments of birds, and all sorts of other animals in the woods. Sometimes I’ll see opossum. On one occasion I saw a fishersomething that is extremely rare from what I’ve been told. The fisher seemed to be chasing after rabbits, but it was far enough away that I don’t know what it was chasing with absolute certainty. On rare days I’ll see a deer, but because I make so much noise cutting wood, such sightings are incredibly rare for me. I’m most likely to see a deer on days when I go to the woods for the sheer joy of observing nature, rather than cutting wood.

Some people question why I’d go to the woods to sit on a tree stump in the middle of winter when I could be inside safe and warm. Nature offers considerable entertainment for anyone willing to take the time to view it. During this particular day, the antics of the flying squirrels had me chucking quite hardily. You just don’t get that sort of entertainment on television. Do you ever observe nature and all it has to offer? What are your favorite sights? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Working the Fall Schedule

There is a misconception that anyone who works in a farm-like environment simply takes a vacation once the crops are in (no matter what those crops might be). It’s true that I’m slightly less frantic now than during the summer months when I need to be doing three things (or more) at once. However, the work continues throughout the fall and winter. The fall period begins after the garden is cleaned up, tilled, and planted with winter rye. Our winter rye is just showing above the ground at this point. It’ll stay that way until spring, when it’ll take a growth spurt. The winter rye roots will keep our precious soil in place and also provide “green manure” in the spring when we till it under.

A lot of people are surprised to see the two buckets of what appear to be shriveled bean pods in our basement, alongside the potatoes and squash. They actually are dried green beans, which might seem like a less than helpful use for them. However, the beans you buy for soup in the store come from this source. When we’re done canning green beans for winter, we let the remaining beans dry on the vines. We then pick them off, shell them, and use them in soups or for baked beans. In fact, anywhere you’d normally use dried beans you can use the dried green beans from your garden. Our dried beans are a beautiful shade of brown this year. We’ve had speckled beans, solid black beans, and a number of other colors, all of which contribute to a colorful soup, even if they taste mostly the same. You simply remove the pod by shelling the dried green bean and you end up with handfuls of beans you can store without much fuss at all. In short, green beans are an extremely efficient way to produce food—you can eat them green or dried and they require no special storage when dried (an airtight container is helpful).

Of course, this is also the time of year that I start getting into the woods to cut wood for winter. I’m actually bringing down wood that I cut and stacked last year (or two years ago in some cases). It won’t be quite enough for the entire winter, but it’s a good start. I’ll look for dead, dry trees to cut up to complete our wood supply for the winter, and then begin on next year’s wood. Rebecca helps by carrying wood from the cart, wood pile, or from the edge of the woods and throwing it into the basementsaving me a ton of time. Some of the wood has to be split, a good job for my maul on days when it’s too windy to cut wood.

Self-sufficiency relies on a lot of equipment as well. During the summer months there is little time to maintain it. Yes, if something breaks, you have to take time out to fix it, but that’s not the same as maintaining it. During the fall and winter months, I’ll sharpen shovels and spades, repair equipment, change the oil, and tune everything up. These maintenance actions are essential if you want to have a good summer. Nothing is worse than trying to dig with a dull spade. Anything I can do to make our hand, electric-powered, and gas-powered equipment work better is money in my pocket and time to do something else. So these winter months are an essential time for me.

This is also the time I’ll be working on new projects. For one thing, Rebecca needs a bit more storage and better lighting in the larder. I’ve been wanting some shelving for my equipment for quite some time now and I may get to it this winter. The chicks need something better than a refrigerator boxI’m planning to build a box that we can use as a combination of brooder (to keep young chicks warm) and rabbit house (during the summer months after the chicks are put outside).

Still, nothing beats sitting by the wood stove after a day of cutting wood and feeling it’s warmth hit tired muscles. I’ll break out my Knifty Knitter to make some hats, scarves, blankets, and socks (you can see some of the things I’ve made in my Knitting for the Gentleman Farmer post). I may even engage in some latch hook this winter to make a rug or wall hanging. Winter is a time of crafting too! So, how do you enjoy the fall and winter? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Berries in the Woods

Many people see a woods and think about the trees. In fact, that’s all they think about. However, a healthy woods is more than just the trees. A healthy woods has a significant biodiversity of all sorts of plants and shrubs that rely on the woods for cover and environment. Along the ground you’ll see interesting plants such as the bloodroot shown here:

BloodRoot

There are a number of sources that tell you what a useful plant bloodroot is. Of course, the woods are also the source of foods such as the morel mushroomnot that I was particularly successful in finding any this year. When I do find them, they cook up nicely in a stew or simply sauteed in a bit of butter. The woods provides this amazing bounty without any effort on my part, except in preservation efforts I take on the wood’s behalf.

Keeping the woods happy is incredibly important. One food source (and the reason for today’s post) is the humble berry. My woods is simply packed with berry brambles. A personal favorite is the gooseberry shown here:

Gooseberry

The gooseberries have already blossomed and set fruit. I won’t pick them though until mid-summer. I prefer a mix of dark black and green gooseberries for use in preserves (jam) or pie. We have both European and American gooseberries. Even though the European gooseberry is larger, the American gooseberry doesn’t suffer from mildew problems and produces more fruit per bush. I’ve found that the American gooseberries are a bit more tart than the European variety and that they’re better a bit on the green side. Mixed, the two kinds of gooseberry produce a delectable treat you won’t find in your local store (at least, not without a lot of looking). Gooseberries are terribly hard to pickthe long thorns will rip up your arms, even with long sleeves. Gingerly picking up the individual canes and picking the berries underneath works best.

A berry that ripens earlier is the blackcap (also known as a black raspberry). They also flowered and set fruit quite some time ago. I keep a watch on them because they tend to ripen quickly and don’t last particularly long on the bushes. Blackcaps are the easiest berries to pick and have an amazing flavor that differs from their red raspberry counterpart. They’re a bit smaller than red raspberries. We have a few red raspberry canes in the woods, but not enough to do much, so we mix them with the blackcaps. Because we don’t have a lot of blackcaps, we tend to use them for preserves.

The last berry of the season is the blackberry. It’s larger than the other berries. In fact, in a good year, a blackberry will be about the diameter of my thumb and about half as long. The blackberries are still in bloom and won’t set fruit for another week or two as shown here:

Blackberries

In a good year it’s nothing for me to fill two or three gallon buckets with blackberries in an early morning picking session. We’ll use them for pie, preserves, wine, and just eating. The thorns of the blackberry are a bit longer than those of the blackcap. The longer canes make it harder to maneuver amongst the plants. In addition, our blackberries tend to grow on the sides of the hills, making them a little inaccessible at times. Of course, the taste is worth all of the effort.

I’ve only touched on a few highlights of the woods in this post. The biggest reason to maintain a healthy woods is that the majority of our pollinators live them. Every spring I count the number of different pollinators that visit our fruit trees. This year I counted eleven. Some I knew, such as the bumblebee, mason bee, black bee, and sweat bee. There were also a number of wasps and a few other varieties of pollinator that I haven’t researched as of yet. The point is, the majority of these pollinators come from our woods, so a healthy woods is essential to our health. Interestingly enough, the berry brambles in the woods are an important food source for pollinators in the early spring, so my delicacy is their delicacy too. What sorts of berries do you like? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Early Spring in the Woods

I’m sure many people are ready for spring. I know that I am. The ground is getting muddier by the second and the large drifts of snow have that decidedly tired and dirty look. Of course, winter will hang around for a while yet. We’re supposed to have another snow storm tonight. Just how much snow we get depends on the vagaries of nature. I don’t mind the snow; just don’t give me any ice.

Today was sunny and warm; well, warm for this time of year. I think the temperature got all the way up to 40 today, so there was more than a little melting underway. After checking my e-mail, getting all of my morning chores done, and making sure my wife didn’t need to go to town, I decided it would be a fine day to get up into the woods. I didn’t actually get there until afternoon, but I was still able to get quite a bit done. I keep cutting until the saw runs out of gas, then I start lugging the wood down the hill, 80 pounds at a time. Did I mention that my day in the woods normally involves walking six or seven miles (half of which involves lugging this 80 pound load)? It isn’t a bad workout for a 50+ year old man. This is the view from the hill where I’m cutting wood now.

WoodsToday

A day in the woods wouldn’t be complete though without some time spent looking at nature. I didn’t run into friend badger today. In fact, badger isn’t my friend and I try to give him a wide berth. I did see Woody though. Woody is the pileated woodpecker that hangs out in our woods. I tried to get a picture of him, but he’s shy. However, here’s a picture of his current favorite tree:

WoodysTree

Actually, Woody has a number of trees he attacks, most of which are snags like this one:

Snag

I have a personal rule that I don’t cut any trees that someone is using, so I’ll leave this snag in place. Eventually, someone will move into the holes that Woody has made. I’ve found all kinds of interesting things in trees over the years. We have several bee trees in the woods right now and I depend on the bees in them to help pollinate my garden and trees, so I definitely won’t cut the bee trees down.

One of the more interesting things I noticed in the woods today is that the buds on some of the trees are starting to swell. Of course, this is a sign that spring is near. The berry brambles are also turning quite red; another good sign. Here are some of the buds that I saw today:

SwellingBuds

I hope you enjoyed your tour of the woods today. I promise other trips as time allows. The woods is one of my favorite places to go. We not only get wood from there, but also a number of food items. I’ll show you some of them as I gather it this summer. Let me know about your favorite places in nature at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.