Dark Days of January

This is about as far as we get out into the world nowadays. We took a stroll to the mailbox and listened to the crackle and drip as the heavy ice and snow cover began melting off the trees. We were fortunate that it did not break any big branches this time although the electric company alerted us that some neighborhoods have lost power.

I am content to stay home during these dark gray days, waiting for the sun to fight its way through the January Michigan skies. The goat and sheep are lying out under their big wooden spools, which surprises me. When it was just goats, they preferred to stay dry in their shed. The sheep don’t mind the wetness as much and the three of them are a family now so the goat follows them into the pasture. It’s pretty dreary.

I have been watching videos, reading books, setting up my loom for the next project, and now I’ve started on a knitting project for which my husband picked out the yarn for my birthday. It seems quiet and solemn in the house. That’s ok. It just fits the mood of the weather, the quarantine, and the days waiting for the change in government to turn over. Nowhere to go but up.

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Playing With Fire

We decided to do a little more clearing of brush out by the highway. We generally do this in the spring before the leaves come out, but the pandemic has us searching for interesting things to do at home so we don’t go insane. We hauled several trailers-full of sticks back to form a mountain at the fire ring and fed it until all that remained was a mound of embers that were still glowing softly into the evening. It was an eerie phenomenon, like a living thing.

Just in case the wind picked up overnight, we doused it with the hose before turning in, and this morning I turned the quiet white ash with a pitchfork and found the red coals living underneath that burst with smoke as they were touched by fresh oxygen.

I’ve always been attracted to playing with fire, be it messing with candles at the dinner table or tending a bonfire. As a child, my house was nestled within a huge oak grove and in the fall everyone in the family was forcibly recruited to help rake it all up, haul it to the garden, and burn it away. Tending the fire was the stunning conclusion of the big family effort and had almost a carnival feel to it. It always fascinated me to watch the coals and watch the effect of a sudden breeze or the dump of another bedspread full of new leaves. I learned to judge what was safe and what was the risk of flying ash or creeping boundaries getting it out of control. It was exciting and comforting at the same time. At the end of the day, we’d all come inside smelling of smoke and feeling satisfied with a day well spent.

It comes back to me here on the farm when we cook down the dry brush in our little fire ring. It is better controlled than the leafy bonfires of my childhood and we always have a hose handy just in case, but it brings back all those happy memories of the family all working together.

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Happy Feet – Lamb Style

I finally did the deed I’ve been working up to for months. I flipped my lambs onto their bottoms and trimmed their hooves. It was just as the books say — once they are flipped on their backs they are pretty well immobilized. I was overdue for getting my clippers sharpened and had to pry them open periodically to keep them working, but I powered through it. They now have all the excess cleared off so their feet are relatively flat on the bottoms again. I feel pretty proud of myself!

In this picture I am trimming Dot while Cookie hovers nearby. Cookie is always the braver of the two and I had done her first, but she insisted on crowding close to her sister while I worked on her. They feel much more secure near each other.

Look at their long wool. It is only seven months of growth and they aren’t due to be sheared for five more. I wonder how much of their weight is due to the wool because they were surprisingly heavy for little animals.

I am using this first year to gauge how much work the sheep are to care for. My husband is eager to get the girls bred so we can double or triple the herd, but I want to be sure what I am getting myself into first. I am very interested to see how different the wool is for yarn than the goat’s mohair. Mohair takes on color really well and sparkles with a characteristic “luster.” The yarn is very fuzzy, though, and it would be nice to have an alternative that is a bit smoother, perhaps even a blend to get the best of both.

Here is a picture of my latest sweater – all hand-spun mohair from Eddy. It’s the brown yarn that I dyed with walnut hulls.

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Reversal of Plans

As often happens, my big idea for a sweater flopped due to my inability to make yarn in the right size. That beautiful sweater in my imagination required very fine yarn and although I was confident that I could make whatever I needed it turned out that I am not that good. I kept making swatches with smaller needles until size 1 was the only one that would work and it made a very dense, stiff fabric. It would have felt like wearing a cardboard box!

I went to the local yarn store and they helped me accept that this pattern was not feasible with the yarn I’d made. I went home and searched for something else I could do that would still satisfy my yearning to use the walnut-stained yarn.

Here is the alternate sweater so far. I made the back piece of the pattern and found that the two to three colors of yarn on each row make a tighter, heavier weave than the plain stitch in the body of the sweater. I may try a larger needle size for the colorwork when I do the sleeves just to see if it solves that problem. It takes a lot of time and concentration to finish a block of the design and I just can’t see myself unravelling the work I have already done. I am hoping that after I stitch it all together the unevenness will not be so pronounced..

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Sweater Dreams

I think it may have been a phenomenon of the past, browsing the fabric stores and pattern books for cool new clothes to make. It was a thrill for me, as a teenager, to spend a couple Saturday hours leafing through Simplicity and Butterick books for just the right pattern and then imagining it in different textures, colors, and designs as I slowly paced the fabric aisles touching each bolt, my brain in overdrive with creative power.

I no longer sew my clothes, but in my retirement I have picked up the mantle again with my knitting and weaving. Every six months I shear Eddy, the Angora goat, and I begin again to imagine what I might make with his curly locks and what colors would be perfect for it.

Over the weekend, I decided to try something new, dying the hair with a natural dye from black walnuts I had collected from the edge of the woods. I have a good friend whose mother did a lot of this, and I wish she was still around to pick her brain. Instead, I turned to the internet and found it is easiest to drive over the nuts, pick apart the broken hulls, and soak them overnight in hot water. The resulting extract was dark brown and grimy but created a nice milk-chocolate-colored fiber for a future sweater. (Also shown is a pretty blue and apricot made from commercial dyes.)

As I was working on this, my mind once again went into overdrive, dreaming about the perfect item to be made with the precious hand-spun fiber. I looked through the internet version of the pattern books of my youth, and came up with this sweater that I like. The bulk of it will be the chocolate color, with two or three contrasting colors yet to be decided. I like that it has not only a pretty design but also added texture with different stitches. It will be fun to decide which of my dyed fibers would be best for the contrast, and I will have to experiment with spinning techniques to get just the right weight of yarn so it comes out in the right size once I am done. My spirit is lifted just anticipating the project.

If I’d known in the final years of my career how much fun I’d be having in the freedom of retirement, I’d have been a lot more relaxed anticipating the life transition.

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Glorious Fall Changes

We are surrounded by such beauty this week! It fully compensates for the loss of the leaves and cold, wet days to come.

My little red hen has suffered for months with a late molt that just did not want to grow back. I feared that the other hens were picking out her feathers each time they tried to re-emerge. Finally, though, the cold weather has prompted her body to generate a pincushion of growth and she may get back to her former beauty after all.

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For The Love of Yucky Jobs

“Love” may be an exaggerated term for the relationship I’ve developed with the more disgusting chores of running our little farm. I find I have recently been waxing philosophical more than usual, perhaps because as the world spins out of control around me I try to find the stable center. But today, as I fearlessly dove into some of these jobs, I became aware of how good it makes me feel to take care of the needs of my animals and property even when it smells bad, looks disgusting, or takes surprising muscle power.

When I was a teenager, I deeply resented being asked to do the tasks that seemed “gross!” My mother probably took care of most of these because it was just easier than fighting with her kids who were horrified to have to do the unpleasant stuff. I think my attitude first began to shift as I faced motherhood. Caring for a child, or even a pet, puts the responsibility squarely on your own shoulders for the wellbeing of someone you love. It was a shock and an awesome burden to realize nobody but you was going to take care of the things that had to be done and that if you failed in your duty someone else would suffer. I’m talking dirty diapers, caring for the ill, plugged plumbing, pest infestations, and the whole gamut of nasty, smelly messes that make up a life.

Somehow, magically, perhaps through maturity, I have come to love the feeling of satisfaction that I gave it my all to care for someone or something. I think the degree of unpleasantness correlates to how good I feel about it when I am done.

So, I don’t know — are you waiting to hear what awful things I did? Really, nothing special. I brought the goat into the barn to trim his hooves and give him his worming and lice medications. I noticed the brown mess on his undercarriage that had crusted on his thick curly hair where he pees. I actually got myself a bucket of soapy water and a brush and scrubbed him until it had softened up enough to trim it away, snip snip, so that he can go a few months without that overwhelming stink following wherever he goes. I like to think he is grateful, but yes or no, I have that satisfied motherly feeling.

Then I looked around for other tasks while I had the attitude. The compost heaps were filled to overflowing and slanted like mountains so that any new additions were rolling right off the top. I got out a pitchfork and turned the pile, flattening it out for the next pile of coffee grounds. Underneath were moldy rotting vegetables, starved for oxygen. that I like to think are joyous to have a refreshed environment to decay a bit faster. I scooped several shovels of charcoal from the fire ring over the top for some additional carbon and perhaps some absorption of the smells.

I swam this morning and noticed that the pumping tool that I use to suck up bits of dirt from the floor of the pool had a store of floating goo collected over months of use. I took it apart, brushed it out, and dropped the worst part into a jar of bleach while I swam, to burn clean the discolored rubber. Now it is sparkly white again and ready to begin accumulating new trash.

Ahhh. Several jobs well done and all is right with the world for a while.

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Luxury Winter Accommodations

One benefit of this unfortunate pandemic is the detailed attention we are giving to the farm. A few years ago we constructed a cover for the front of the goat shed to keep out the winter wind and snow. The next year we added a plexiglass window so they could see out, which was promptly shattered by goat battering and replaced with a much thicker and larger one.

This year, we took the old wall out of storage and assessed the way it had been nibbled to death around the edges. We brought home a new sheet of OSB and rebuilt the wall even more elegantly than before. It is mounted for the winter, and the herd seems quite happy with their Hilton Suite. It took no time at all for the sheepies to go in to investigate. While one looked out, the other came around the front and peered into her sister’s eyes through the window. They are less dumb than they look!

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Instant Gum Tree Grove

Last week I mentioned the little grove of transplanted trees we put in. A few days later, I found that all the leaves were gone and I couldn’t even see the stems anymore. I thought the transplanting had failed and felt a bit frustrated that it came apart so quickly.

Last night I took a closer look and found that it was probably rabbits that destroyed my little trees. The stems were still there but nipped off at the tops and where the leaves attached. Those little stinkers! I will leave the electric fence there to keep the goat from contributing to the carnage, and hope that next year the roots will sprout new growth.

In the mean time, we got the three Black Gum trees delivered and planted. They are also protected with an electric barrier and are way too big to worry about hungry lagomorphs. (Yes, I was going to say “rodents” but double-checked and found that rabbits do not belong to the rodent family after all.)

I am imagining a future in which these three trees tower over the barn and a flock of six or eight fluffy sheep lounge peacefully in the shade of the gum grove. Doesn’t it just make you go, “Ahhhh”? If it does, maybe you are an animal farmer at heart, like me.

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Last Harvest – Red Hots

Most of the garden has been cleaned out and winterized, but this week I gathered all the hot red peppers and threw them into the dehydrator so they could be crunched up for pepper flakes. I wore gloves and put the dehydrator safely out on the porch so we didn’t get overwhelmed with fumes.

Actually, my mouth is no fan of hot spices. I experience them as unpleasant except in small doses, but my husband is just the opposite. For him, it is “the hotter, the better!” in both spice and temperature. I find it interesting how we react so differently and did some internet research. Apparently, it comes down to science, genetics, and the life experience that influences your preferences.

I found articles from the points of view of Psychology, Medicine, and Food Preparation, and they all add to the picture. Here is something for you to chew on.

Capsaicin is an irritant for all mammals, and it causes a burning sensation when it comes into contact with any skin or mucous membrane. In the mouth, capsaicin bypasses your taste buds and binds to pain receptors on the tongue called TRPV1. “Your tongue has lots of nerve endings, so when capsaicin hits that area and triggers a chemical response between nerve endings, which sends a signal to the brain,” Dr. Vivek Kumbhari, director of bariatric endoscopy at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, told BuzzFeed News. Capsaicin also binds to receptors on the tongue that detect heat, which is why spicy food feels “hot.”

https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/carolinekee/worlds-hottest-peppers-health-benefits

So, there you go. I won’t likely be using those crushed peppers but my husband will put them on practically everything.

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Pasture Trees

This fall we decided it was time to add some shade trees to the pasture. The goat and sheep rarely venture out into their expansive banquet, and I don’t really blame them because with no shade it gets pretty hot. My more experienced farm friend suggested that I don’t need to be feeding them hay and store-bought feed every day, year-round. If they were hungrier, perhaps they would be out in the pasture munching more often.

Today, though, we got started on our shade tree plan. We have ordered three good-sized Black Gum trees to be delivered and planted for us because they would be too much for us to handle on our own. We wandered the pasture with stakes to gauge the best placement for the trees. The tractor needs to be able to squeeze by them to mow, and the nursery said they should be at least 20 feet apart. We thought through where the shade would be the most useful, at which time of day. I imagined the herd lying together in a lazy clump between the three trees one day, and I’d want to be able to see that from the windows in the house.

Next, we planted a little grove of home-grown seedlings in the back corner of the pasture. They will take years to grow to any useful height, but I still wanted to give it a try. The catalpa tree I’d dug up last month did not survive after I cut the tap root, but I still came up with three little tulip poplars, a small catalpa and a sweet little maple that had sprouted by the barn. We then strung some temporary electric fence wire across the corner so the goat wouldn’t decide to eat the trees.

Checking out the electric barrier

The crew came out to see what was going on and I was pleased that they all took one look at the stakes and wires understood that it wasn’t worth a snap on the nose to investigate any further.

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Battling the Mulberries

I have a friend who fondly remembers her childhood in Transylvania, picking mulberries from the tree and feeling gratitude for the privilege of having fresh fruit for free. I remember eating them off the tree in my childhood, but more vividly remember the seedy splats all over the sidewalk and the hood of the car.

Wild Mulberry Bush

On our farm, the mulberry bushes are never-ending plague as we nurture our wildflower prairie. They plant themselves everywhere thanks to the birds pooping them across the fields as they fly away from their feast in the fall. The next year, these fast-growing bushes sprout up and grow to five or six feet above the rest of the field in stubborn leggy clusters. We mow them down in the spring and they seem to be gone but then the roots gleefully re-sprout during the summer and by fall the bush is twice as big as it was the last time.

We wore ourselves out this week, my husband methodically whacking them down with a chain saw followed by me spraying the stumps with a mix of Round-up and a woody plant killer. Then we dragged the piles out of the field and loaded them onto a pile to be burned next week. I don’t know if it will kill off the roots but we have to try. If we let it all grow we’d end up with a forest instead of the tall grass prairie we have lovingly created.

What I do know is that our back, leg, shoulder, and arm muscles are feeling the results of the exertion and not happy about it. I think I’ve recovered a bit today after a sad day or two. Next decade we’ll be in our 70’s and I wonder if we will be able to handle the job? We may have to find some strapping young workers to come in periodically for the big jobs. I wouldn’t mind paying someone to take that job off my hands!

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Transformation of the Lambs

In April we added little Dot and Cookie, the Shetland sheep, to the barnyard. Sheep are a new experience for me and I received very little instruction so it has been a learning experience. Seeing them every day, I don’t notice their subtle changes without comparing them to the photos of their early days. It is really surprising how much they have changed in five months!

Apparently, this WordPress feature allows you to drag the arrows to compare before and after photos. Give it a try! Cookie is the dark brown lamb with the white nose. Dot is the white lamb with all the black dots. Looking at how they have developed, I was surprised to see that Dot’s face is all black now, with one white smudge. Their hair is thick and pale brown, bushing out over their little black stick legs.

I’ll be shearing Eddy, the goat, next month but the sheep don’t lose their hair till April. My gosh, how much heavier will it get over the winter! They will be nothing but big, dirty, cotton balls with toothpicks moving them around underneath.

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Trapped!

I’m so happy we finally got rain, probably the remnants of the bad weather down south. It had been quite dry here, and it kind of caught me by surprise. It had just started sprinkling so I hurried out to bring in the laundry from the clothesline. I came in and thought, maybe I should go out and get some onions from the barn and feed the animals in case it sprinkles all evening.

So, of course, as I got out to the barn, the heavens opened up with a bang and the metal barn roof roared as the downpour let loose. Fionn, the dog, gets really nervous during thunder storms and I wanted to get back to the house to reassure him, but it is stupid to run through the crashing thunder across a flat field. So, I sat quietly under the overhang and checked my phone for news and entertainment.

It occurred to me after a while to check on the herd and unsurprisingly I saw the goat and sheep calmly curled up in their shed, waiting out the rain. Their roof was noisy with the pounding rain but they know keeping to the inner wall will be their best bet. The chickens had plenty of dry real estate in their run so they looked up hopefully for me to throw them some food.

Being trapped in the barn slowed me down to settle into patience and take a moment to stop and appreciate the welcome change in the weather. The next few days will transform the garden and the fields into new colors and fast growth that they had been crying out for with their parched little voices. I looked out calmly on the steamy deluge and gave thanks.

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The Wasps Move In

This is the time of the year when we begin noticing little wasp nests beginning to form where the roof over-hangs and we sneak around with a broom handle knocking them off. We ran into some flaws in our solar array so a workman was sent to check it out, and he had to suddenly back away when he discovered this fully formed and populated paper wasp nest hanging from the solar panel. Yikes!

Tonight, my husband will suit up like a beekeeper and shoot it full of wasp spray. There is actually another smaller one about 10 feet away, hidden by the weeds. We don’t need anyone to be stung to death by a surprise encounter.

Other things we have learned to expect in the early autumn include subtle changes in color across the prairie. The seed heads on the Big Bluestem grasses, waving five or six feet above the ground, are beginning to mature and turn a warm reddish-brown, making a gentle golden haze across the fields. I notice it when I come out of the bedroom in the morning and look across the field. The color change takes me by surprise. Soon behind the color of the Bluestem comes the ripening of the Goldenrod that turns everything more of a vibrant shade of gold. We have a lot of that!

We had the strip of land out by the two-lane highway planted with wildflowers four or five years ago. My husband specifically asked for no Bluestem there, knowing how it takes over. We used a low-cost service and they did not take enough care, so now the Bluestem grass seeds that they let slip into the mix have taken hold. Now, if there are flowers under there they are crowded out by the grasses.

Still, I can’t deny that it is heaven to live among the prairie plants and inhabitants. It may not bend to my view of perfection, but we are so fortunate to be living full time in such an environment. Even the perpetual (losing) battle with the creeping poison ivy and climbing vines trying to choke our trees is worth it all.

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Horn Quintet

I play the french horn, in fact I have done so since elementary school with a 30-year break to have babies and build a career. Now, in retirement, I am back to playing in a couple bands but the pandemic has thrown that all into chaos. The St. Joseph Municipal band normally plays at a city park in the summer but had to get creative about finding safe ways to perform. I was excited when they invited me to help out, and I offered our farm for the horn section to record where the outdoor breezes could blow away any viruses.

We were featured in their weekly YouTube video, so if you’d like to hear it you can click HERE. (Our group comes up about 10 minutes into the video.) Since then, they asked me to record a part in a Sousa march where each band member records themselves individually while listening to the master recording in one ear. Some master editor then puts them all together and decides whose pictures to show at what time. It should be fun to see.

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It’s All in the Perspective

Semi-quarantine is restricting but also is giving everyone more time to look about them and appreciate and/or improve their living space. Of course, on a hobby farm there is a good deal of space to survey and keep up. It can be a nagging chore, a blessed list of choices, or somewhere in the middle. I thought of this as I checked on my pitcher of sun tea. How often do you take time to notice the world upside down in a pitcher of water?

P

Perhaps this is a bit too mindful, and is an indication of my stage of life. I looked out across the field to the woods and noticed some tall pink globes skimming the surface of the “savanna” prairie. We planted a different mix of wildflowers down there because they get more shade from he trees on the border. I don’t remember ever having seen these before, and there were several clumps of them up and down the field.

I took a photo and looked them up in the binder my husband made with pictures of all the flowers and grasses we’d planted. This is “Joe Pye Weed”, standing about five feet tall. They sprouted among the four or five oak trees planted by squirrels over the last decade. One day, our savanna will be dotted with tall oak trees and Joe Pye may be even more plentiful thanks to the dappled sunshine.

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Social-Distanced Partying

This is prime time for summer gatherings but 2020 seems to just not be the year for that. Still, we really wanted to see some friends who were being as careful as we were, so we organized a little picnic at the barn. We thought through every aspect of it, from disposable gloves for each person to dish up food from the barn buffet, to tables more than six feet apart and chairs for individuals. There were two sinks for hand washing, paper towels instead of cloth for drying, and hand sanitizer sitting out handily. And masks for all, of course!

It was still challenging because it is hard to remember what to do when you don’t get much practice. Once we were all settled at a good distance, we took off our masks and chatted as usual. When we walked around the grounds, we kept farther apart than we would normally and I kept wondering if we were doing it right or taking risks?

The infection rates around here aren’t too bad, thanks to our hyper-vigilant governor, so I think we did okay. She sure gets a lot of flack from the legislature from the opposite party, but I am grateful to her for following the science and keeping us safe. We can’t get businesses back to normal if health flare-ups aren’t kept under control. I am mystified at the people fighting for their “independence” over public health concerns.

Mickey the Cat was really happy to have people over to fawn over him. He normally gets only two or three visits a day from me and he is a people-person.

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The Taming of the Lambs

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I brought home two Shetland Lambs in May to fill the hole in my heart from losing my black goat, Ely. I let them out into the pasture on their second day and haven’t been able to touch them ever since. I’ve been on a long, slow, campaign to gain their trust.

My strategy has been to let them passively observe that Eddy, the remaining goat, feels quite safe with me. He is much bigger than either of them and immediately took the dual role of guardian and bully. Eddy is eager to come whenever I enter the barnyard, looking for treats or other attention. My hope was that little Dot and Cookie would catch on to his attitude.

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I am pleased to announce that the lambs are now eating out of my hand! I take out some of the chickens’ scratch grains every evening for a treat and feed Eddy for a few minutes out of my hand and then pour the rest into their two eating troughs. Eddy then gobbles down everything in his trough and runs over to steal whatever the lambs haven’t been able to ingest yet from theirs. If they don’t move over fast enough, he butts them out of the way.

I’ve been offering my hand to the sheep each time and watching them come just a little closer every week, at least until Eddy shoves them out of the way to take it all. Finally, this week Cookie licked up grain from my outstretched hand and a few days later Dot did the same.

I feel like Dr. Doolittle. Today, I was out beyond the far end of their pasture trimming back some brush, and all three of them came trotting out to be near me. It made me feel so special! I want to get the lambs up on the grooming table to check their hooves, but I must hold myself back and not rush it. I’d hate to lose all the progress we’ve made in our relationship by making them feel tricked.

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Playing Arborist

We recently visited a nursery to research what kinds of trees we might plant in the pasture to grow a little shade for the goat and sheep. It has to grow fast and do well in full sun, dry stretches in summer, and cold winds in winter. They pointed out some interesting options, such as a Kentucky Coffee Tree. They also suggested more common Michigan trees such as the Tulip or Catalpa. Either way, it will be a significant expense to buy the trees and have them delivered and planted for us. We said we were just doing preliminary research and they reminded us that it is better wait and to plant trees during the dormant season in late fall or early spring.

Coming home, I began wondering if we could just find little starts of trees around the farm and nurture them along. I had seen a sweet little tulip tree sprouted among our bushes that I hadn’t weeded out yet. Perhaps I could pot it and put it into the pasture in the fall. I walked about the fields this afternoon and came across a good size catalpa that has probably been mowed down each spring and then pops back up when it is safe to reappear.

I dug around the catalpa to see how deep the roots were. The ground was dry as a bone, but the tree was growing vigorously. As I loosened the sandy soil, I found a network of thin horizontal roots about six inches down and quite easy to shake loose. In the center, though, was a big tap root going straight down as far as I was able to dig. I worked on it until I hit what felt like solid rock, about twenty inches farther down. I chopped the end of the root and pulled out the tree, hurrying to the barn to find a pot tall enough to cover both the tap root and the surface roots.

I don’t know if this will work, but if it fails and dies, we are no worse off than when we had to mow it down every spring. If it does survive, I will feel like the savior of a useful tree who found a safe haven after all these years. A win-win.

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