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The search for the perfect climate. June 27, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. You could say that my comfort zone is more like a stripe. I can’t endure heat or humidity, much less heat and humidity. And I hate frigid, snow- and ice-bound conditions as well. My comfort stripe falls in the pleasantly cool to pleasantly warm range, say, 60 to 75 degrees F., and I’d like it to stay there around the year. (Well, maybe one snowstorm on Christmas Eve so we could have a white Christmas, but then snow begone ’til next year.)

But where, oh where, does such a place exist?! I left my native Nashville because I couldn’t endure the hot, humid summers, and moved up north to our present home in scenic Pennsylvania. When I moved, summer temps in our area seldom rose above the low 80s, and the humidity was bearable. Now, it routinely hits the 90s (and above) for days or weeks on end, with the hot-washrag cloak of humidity plastering the heat to your body. Gack!

Every summer, I tell our friend Ben that it’s time to pack up and head to Nova Scotia. Mind you, I’ve been to Minneapolis and Montreal in the summer, and they’re not just delightful cities, but the climate—at least back when I went—was deliciously pleasant. However, I still remember seeing the glassed-in walkways high above the streets in Minneapolis and asking my friend Cole, who then lived there, why they were there.

Yikes! I can’t recall glass enclosures like that in Montreal, but the thought of temperatures so low and snow and ice so high for months on end curdles my blood. Where, oh where, are the temperatures moderate all year long?

This morning, after weeks in the high 80s and now high 90s, I suggested to our friend Ben that, given global warming, perhaps we should move to Iceland. But OFB, who not only studied the old Icelandic sagas in grad school but has a far greater knowledge of world geography than yours truly, pointed out that Iceland is home to several active and dangerous volcanoes. So much for that. I’d rather die from heat stroke than from a Pompeii-style live burial.

I’m not too fond of hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis or tornadoes, either. I’d like a tranquil, temperate place with lots of (calm) water. Anybody have a recommendation?

If not, and if global warming continues at this pace, perhaps one day you’ll read a post from me or OFB from our comfy new home in the Arctic Circle.

‘Til next time,



A flower for Valentine’s Day. February 15, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. On Valentine’s Day, I was walking our beloved black German shepherd Shiloh in the backyard for a much-needed bathroom break when I saw a flash of yellow. OMG! It was a winter aconite bloom. Winter aconites grow low to the ground, where their golden, buttercup-yellow flowers bloom amid palmlike foliage. But why was it blooming in February?

Winter aconites, with snowdrops and hellebores, are the first flowers of spring here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and I share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. But as with flowers enthusiastically described as blue or black that are actually purple, winter aconites are early spring, not winter, bloomers misnamed by overeager gardeners or marketers. However, this is February. We still have snow on the ground. And here was this bright gold aconite flower, truly living up to its name!

Much as I fear the effects of global warming, my own heart was warmed by this one. It seemed like a Valentine’s Day present to me, to OFB, to Shiloh, and to our home. I hope all of you had surprising and wonderful Valentine’s gifts as well!

‘Til next time,


The call of the wild. September 20, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben always knows that fall has truly arrived, whatever the calendar says, when I hear the geese calling overhead as they head South. I was sitting at the computer this morning and heard the cries, the most primitive, the most rousing sound I know. The geese are here! The geese are passing overhead!

We seem to be living in such bizarre climatic times. After an unbearably hot spring and summer, it’s really cold here in my part of scenic PA, even though it’s just September. Yet the great Arctic ice caps are melting at unprecedented rates and Greenland’s ice is breaking up. Drought has ravaged most of our country this year; I read just yesterday that India will be facing a desperate water shortage in the near future. The oceans are warming and rising, threatening to swamp our coasts and turn us into the Panem of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games.

The sound of the geese so early in the year makes me wonder what lies ahead for us this winter. And what, if anything, we can do about it.

The ethanol issue. August 11, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben just finished reading an essay in The Wall Street Journal blasting the EPA for maintaining its ethanol-in-gasoline regulation in the face of the horrific heat and drought pummeling the corn belt this summer. The article predicted that food prices would rise worldwide as a result, since the corn crop’s been decimated, the U.S. exports 60% of the world’s corn, and corn is used to feed animals as well as people.

According to the article, organizations from the U.N. to the World Bank to the American hunger-relief organization ActionAid have called for the repeal or at least suspension of the regulation as a global form of disaster relief. But Washington, in the grip of the ethanol lobby, has turned a deaf ear to their pleas. (To read the article in full, look for “Ethanol vs. the World” at www.wsj.com; there’s a related article, “Prices Surge as Drought Stunts Corn Crop,” in the same issue.)

Our friend Ben is all for alternative energy. Biofuels made from used cooking oil that are refined to power cars sound like the ultimate recycling to me. I’d love to build a wind-powered well here at Hawk’s Haven and set up a solar array. It would be fantastic if some forward-looking scientists could figure out a way to convert our collective body heat into usable energy instead of global warming. But I have to wonder if insisting on the ethanol provision in the face of global shortages is in humanity’s best interest. It sounds more like elitism to me.

Dealing with the dark. August 1, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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The news that half of India’s 1.2 billion people have lost their electrical power in the worst power outage the world has ever known should be sobering to us all. It’s sickeningly hot, and the drought that’s hammering us here in the States has pounded so hard on India that the government has set up rescue stations so people can bring in their livestock and try to save them. Now on top of that half the nation has no power.

Even here, pundits are threatening soaring grocery prices in the face of a poor crop, thanks to unprecedented heat and drought. (Thank you, global warming!) But what happens in a society where the crops and livestock die off and the people can’t afford to pay more? We read the death toll with horror when the power fails in some city or other here and the elderly pass out and die in their apartments or tenements. Imagine half a nation in horrific heat and drought conditions losing power and having no backup!

Imagine it happening here, in some future nightmare scenario. What would you and your family do if the temperatures were in the high 90s, it hadn’t rained in weeks, and the power shut off? What would you do if it was the middle of winter and freezing and the power just stopped? Now is the time to think this through and get the generator and other supplies you’d need to bring your family through a crisis like that. Now is the time to connect with your neighbors and set up some support systems that will help not just you but your community if there’s some kind of breakdown. Don’t wait for it to happen here. Because when it does, it will be too late.

Get up and grow! March 18, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading.
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With gorgeous sunny blue skies and daytime temps edging into the 70s, you can bet our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have been outside getting our gardens ready to grow. We’ve been weeding our raised veggie beds and amending them with our own rich compost and composted cow manure from one of our favorite nurseries, James Weaver’s Meadowview Farm in nearby Bowers, PA. We’ve been cleaning out the greenhouse in anticipation of moving the endless container plants that spend each winter there onto our deck for the season. And of course, we’ve been checking our stash of seeds and planning what we’ll plant in each bed.

Mind you, there’s plenty already going on in our two perennial vegetable and herb beds. In the allium/herb bed, the walking onions, garlic, garlic chives, chives and shallots (all perennial crops with us) are coming on strong, along with thyme, peppermint and cilantro. We’ll be adding more herbs once we feel we can trust the weather to stay mild. (Usually we wait until May, but given our mild winter, we’re very tempted to move that up to mid-April. We shall see.)

Horseradish, rhubarb and comfrey are breaking ground in our perennial vegetable bed; no sign of the asparagus yet, but we’re watching. And Silence is planning to add Jerusalem artichokes to the bed this year, maybe even today; she has some nice, fat organic tubers. (Jerusalem artichokes are in the sunflower family and produce cheerful sunflowers, but it’s their tubers that are harvested for eating raw in salads or cooked.) This is also our catnip bed; we hope the minty catnip repels (or at least confuses) pests, and even if it doesn’t, we have three cats and they thank us.

Rain has been surprisingly scarce the past two weeks, but is predicted for tomorrow, so Silence is eager to sow cold-hardy greens and the like in our biggest bed this afternoon. Because this bed is now shaded by two of our apple trees, which turned out not to be nearly as “super dwarf” as their labels claimed and somebody’s (not, of course, to mention Silence by name) optimism warranted, we’ve devoted it to the production of shade-tolerant greens, plus early-spring salad crops like radishes, bunching onions, and snow and snap peas. We love greens raw and cooked, and usually include them in at least two meals a day (in soup and/or a sandwich for lunch, and as a cooked side and a salad at supper). And many are cold-tolerant, a definite bonus when trying one’s luck by seeding them in early spring.

Before moving on to what we’ll be sowing in the shaded bed, our friend Ben would like to point up an aspect of climate change, global warming, and weather in general that is really disturbing. It also shows us that the interactions in our gardens are far from simple, and could go some way toward explaining why simplistic “solutions” to garden problems often don’t work, backfire, or work less well than expected.

So, for a minute, let’s get back to those apple trees—and our pear trees, peach tree, pluot, elderberries, blueberries, strawberries, grapes and other fruits whose buds are now swelling in preparation to bloom. Orchardists hate early bloom, since the flowers and developing fruit are subject to late frosts. If a frost hits while flowers are open, the result is frozen flowers and no fruit. If a frost hits the developing fruit, the result is usually dead fruit. And since fruit trees flower only once a year, if the flowers or fruit are killed, the whole year’s crop is lost.

This would be depressing enough for backyard gardeners like us. But what about orchardists who make their living growing fruit? Unlike vegetable gardeners, who can simply replant, the fruit grower’s harvest and income is lost for the year. (Yet another argument for diversification.) This may result in an even more horrific situation: orchards being sold off to make yet more McMansion-packed “house farms.”

And there’s another factor to consider: pollination. Unlike nuts, which are wind-pollinated, fruits are bee-pollinated. Honeybees, our chief pollinators, are already under attack from parasites and fungal disease, and their numbers have dropped dramatically. But what if unusually warm winters and springs wake up the plants before the bees?

Certainly, Silence and I haven’t seen any bees buzzing around here, yet our fruit trees are in bud and their flowers will open within a week or two. If they bloom before the bees emerge, we won’t get fruit; and if the bees emerge after bloom, they won’t get food. And what if the warmer weather favors the proliferation of the mites and fungi that attack bee colonies? This is a lose-lose situation for all concerned. Much as we love a mild winter and early spring, it’s not worth losing our bees, fruit, and many of our bee-pollinated vegetable crops. 

But let’s get back to seed-sowing. Silence and I believe in patronizing as many seed companies and local seed-selling businesses as possible, since our goal is to keep local businesses carrying seed and as many seed companies as possible in business. This particular batch, for example, includes seed packs from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed, Rohrer Seeds, Renee’s Garden, The Cook’s Garden, Burpee, The Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Botanical Interests, Seeds of Change, Agway, Shepherd’s Garden Seeds, and Happy Cat Farm.

Our technique is simply to scatter the seeds randomly over the bed, with the exception of the snow and sugar snap peas, which we plant in a row along a trellis we push into the soil along one end and part of the back of the bed. Then we drag the back of a raking fork over the bed to lightly cover the seeds with soil and to make sure they’re in good contact with the soil so they don’t try to root into thin air. When the seeds come up, since all the greens are edible—even the pea shoots—if some are too close, as they inevitably will be, we thin them and use the thinnings as microgreens and, later, mesclun mix in our salads. We’ll also transplant as needed to fill any bare spots.

Ready for our seed list? It’s pretty sizeable, but remember, we’re talking about a 4-by-16-foot bed. And we do eat a lot of greens! Here you go: ‘Ruby Streaks’ mustard greens, ‘Mizuna’ mustard greens, ‘Southern Giant Curled’ mustard greens, ‘Buttercrunch’ lettuce, ‘Grand Rapids’ lettuce, ‘Royal Oak Leaf’ lettuce, ‘Salad Bowl’ lettuce, ‘Red Salad Bowl’ lettuce, ‘Ruby’ lettuce, ‘Black Seeded Simpson’ lettuce, ‘Lollo Rossa’ lettuce, ‘Troutback’ lettuce, ‘Blush Butter Cox’ lettuce, ‘Red Ruffled Oak’ lettuce, ‘Red Devil’s Tongue’ lettuce, ‘Sucrine’ lettuce,  ‘Mammoth Melting Sugar’ snow peas, ‘Super Snappy’ sugar snap peas, curly endive, arugula, wild arugula (roquette), corn salad (mache), French sorrel, ‘Merlo Nero’ spinach,’Long Standing Bloomsdale’ spinach, ‘Rossi di Verona a Palla’ (‘Dragon’) radicchio, ‘Red Verona’ radicchio, ‘Komatsuma Tendergreen’ oriental greens, ‘Tatsoi’ oriental greens, ‘China Rose’ winter radish, ‘White Icicle’ radish, ‘Cherry Belle’ radish,  ‘Crimson Forest’ bunching onion, and ‘Tokyo Long White’ bunching onion.

Wow! Our friend Ben hopes that reading that list didn’t wear you out. It’s only the beginning of our vegetable-gardening adventures this season, and, we hope, of yours! Tomorrow, we’ll share a few fun garden-resource sites we’ve found this season.

Global what? February 19, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, back today to talk about the weather. February was always the coldest month in this part of Pennsylvania–bitter winds, high snows, iced-over windshields, highs in the teens (if you were lucky). But the past few years, Februaries have been milder. And this year, it hardly seems like February at all. Yesterday’s highs were in the 60s, and I was running errands outside in a tee shirt.

I know a British physicist who maintains that global warming is an illusion, that we’re simply in the warming cycle that also occurred from about 800 to 1400, enabling the flowering of the Middle Ages, followed by the little ice age that caused famine, disease and depopulation and culminated in the French Revolution. Well, fine. But when the weather is palpably warmer from year to year, it doesn’t seem like a natural cycle, which I’d think would be more gradual. In fact, it doesn’t seem natural at all. I’d say we’re holding Mother Nature’s toes to the fire, and I’ll bet she doesn’t like it one bit.

As for people like our friend Ben who hate dealing with snow and ice and feel like cheering for global warming every winter, let me just say that cold is good. It’s good for our plants, ensuring that they stay safely dormant instead of breaking dormancy too early, then being killed or damaged by a late frost, or being heaved out of the ground by repeated thawing and freezing. And it’s good for us, as well as our plants and animals, because cold weather kills insect pests and diseases. Mild winters tend to mean a lot more illness going around. Our ancestors were also aware of this. Back in the day, they had a saying we’d do well to remember, especially in these days of antibiotic-resistant strains: Warm winter, fat graveyard.

One more thing about warmer winters: If the winters are getting warmer, it follows that the summers are getting hotter. If this keeps up, North Dakota may be the Pennsylvania of tomorrow…