The Best Donut

The best donut is a mulch donut. Its the only kind that burns calories instead of making your waist line bigger.

The best filling for the best donut is something native, something edible, or something native and edible.

Aronia melanocarpa, the aronia berry, is perfect. This native shrub is great for native bees, has beautiful white flowers in the spring, attractive red leaves in the fall, and the berries…are edible.

They are incredibly nutritious, very low in sugar and exceptionally astringent. Which makes them a berry with a striking and flavorful first impression, but not necessarily a tasty one. If you can’t get over the mouth-pucker they cause, try baking them in a low sugar oatmeal cookie or throw them in a smoothie with kale and an apple.

What’s Going in the Ground at Sugar Grove

Your garden at home may be on a similar trajectory as The $64 Tomato, or it may be the sort of garden in which you watch in curious amazement to see what fruit is growing from the compost pile. You may have already purchased canning jars, visited the Ely Seed Lending Library, or you may still be thumbing through the catalogs to see what new varieties of pea sound tasty.

At Sugar Grove Farm, as at most businesses, there is another layer of questions we have to ask. Will we have the labor to successfully plant, weed, and harvest the crop? Are the seeds we are purchasing organic? Do we have buyers for the crops?

Even the cover crops are organic. This clover, planted last fall, will be tilled in to add nutrients to the soil before planting. We till shallow, and only where we will be planting. The rest of the field will stay in cover crop, to hold the soil and increase the organic material in the soil.

Every year, as we become more familiar with the site and the time involved in crop management, as the soil becomes richer through cover crops and certified organic amendments, and as we have improved infrastructure (such as driplines for irrigation), we should be able to expand our offerings. 

Stop by the Creekside Shop during harvest time if you want to experience these tasty and unique fruits and vegetables. All will be certified organic.

It can be challenging to find organic seeds of the varieties you want, and even more challenging the longer you delay placing your order. I really appreciate Wood Prairie Family Farm, Seed Savers Exchange, and High Mowing Organic Seeds for helping me out.

This year, we plan to grow: 

Keuka Gold potatoes (sourced from Wood Prairie Family Farm)

Parade cucumbers (sourced from Seed Savers Exchange)

Waltham butternut squash(sourced from Seed Savers Exchange)

Sweet Pea Currant tomato (sourced from Seed Savers Exchange)

Moon and Stars (Cherokee) watermelon (sourced from Seed Savers Exchange)

Cream of Saskatchewan watermelon (sourced from Seed Savers Exchange)

Chinese Miniature gourd (sourced from Seed Savers Exchange)

Miniature Yellow Bell pepper (sourced from Seed Savers Exchange)

Long Island Cheese Pumpkin (sourced from Seed Savers Exchange)

Red Carpet F1 onion (sourced from High Mowing Organic Seeds)

Cortland F1 onion (sourced from High Mowing Organic Seeds)

PMR Delicious 51 cantaloupe (sourced from High Mowing Organic Seeds)

True Love F1 cantaloupe (sourced from High Mowing Organic Seeds)

Sweet Gem Snap pea (sourced from High Mowing Organic Seeds)

Sugar Ann Snap pea (sourced from High Mowing Organic Seeds)

Creating the Compost Habit

I love the idea of compost. When I first started, years ago, it instantly reduced my trash output by 50 percent. Just like that, you can make great strides towards a zero-waste lifestyle. It also instantly creates healthy, rich soil in which to garden. I have two copies of the pamphlet, “…Make Compost in 14 Days,” on my bookshelf. Because that is knowledge too important to lose.

But…compost is smelly. It creates flies, gnats, and a host of flying insects I cannot begin to name. You have to trudge to the garden through the rain, and the snow, and the mud, and the mosquitoes. It takes time. Not a lot of time, but time all the same. You have to do it daily, or the flying insects and the smells begin to lose that indoor/outdoor boundary.

My garden, wedged in a narrow patch of sunlight among oak trees, was designed for growing veggies, not an ever-expanding pile of rotting veggies, so there were some boundary issues. There is nothing healthy about trying to find a fresh strawberry under an avocado husk. I quickly matured into a fair-weather composter when I felt inspired.

When the pandemic started two years ago, I lost access to basic services including trash, recycling and compost pickup, and suddenly composting became very high on my priority list. Why? There are only so many times you can beg your friends to let you put things in their trash, and only so much trash you feel like dragging around town to the houses of friends. Friends you aren’t supposed to be visiting because its a pandemic. “Um, hi. I didn’t come to visit you, just your trash can.” The friends I have are really, really good people.

A friend set me up with a two bin tumbler system, and that was awesome. It kept the scraps contained and kept the yard tidy. I used one bin primarily for high acidity things, including coffee grounds and lemons. This was for the blueberry bushes. I used the other bin for most everything else. While it still had to be done every day, the alternative idea of living amid ever increasing piles of waste is not a healthy way to even contemplate living.

Most bins and tumblers on the market don’t create enough heat to break down some things, like weed seeds. For compost to generate enough heat to start breaking things like that down with heat, it needs to be a 3’x3’x3′ pile. Since we all know piles are unstable as cubes, that’s actually a big pile. Huge. Compost shrinks as it composts, which means that’s a lot of compost. More than I can generate.

My solution: don’t put weeds that have seeded out in the compost bin. Throw them in the yard, where they will at least be mowed down after germination. A better solution would be to weed before the weeds set seed, but I am not always that sort of gardener. Mostly, I am the sort of gardener that solves the problem of not knowing what to do with pulled weeds by simply not weeding at all.

Eventually, my trash, recycling, and compost service resumed. Interestingly enough, I have kept composting, at least March-December. Keeping non-essential paths clear during the ice and snow of January and February are beyond my physical capacity.

Sap, a mideason report

When does spring start? Does it start when the chickadees change their call? Does it start when the red-winged blackbirds return to the Lynch Wetland? Or does it start with the first harvest of the year?

A small snap of warm weather this year in mid February, combined with the enthusiasm of my colleagues Gabe and Syd, sent us into the forest. Vecny Woods has a ravine full of old sugar maples.

The blue tape on the drill bit takes the guesswork out of drilling to the right depth.

The sap started flowing immediately, which is both tasty and rewarding.

The sap from a sugar maple is usually 2%-3% percent sugar, and we set 26 taps in the Vecny Woods sugar maples. We will also be tapping silver maples in the floodplain (77) and box elders (a handful) in the former barnyard of the Penningroth Barn. While all three types of maple trees provide good sap, the silver maple sap has a sugar content of 1.5%-1.75% and the box elders have 1% sugar content. That sap requires longer boiling time, which in turn makes a darker syrup with a more robust flavor.

Reducing that sap to syrup requires a lot of firewood, a lot of boiling, and a lot of steam. It also requires a lot of patience. While the sap was flowing on February 11, our night time temperatures have been hovering around freezing, and the days have been cloudy. Those are not conducive to sap flow, and the trees have just been trickling. We might have enough to make three gallons of syrup. Fortunately, sap season has only just started, leaving us with a good month left for the weather to start cooperating. Next week is looking promising.

Creative Gardening

I am under siege. The beautiful seed catalogs, glossy pages full of plump, brightly colored fruits and deep green vegetables, are in my mailbox. Burpee’s, Johnny’s, Gurney’s are the latest three. I want to eat those fruits. I want to grow those fruits. With everything around me brown, grey, and white, I want to impulse buy fresh flavorful colorful tasty beauty sooo badly.

This is a full color photo from February 23. This is Iowa right now. Beautiful, but needs some color.

Really, if impulse buying a three dollar seed packet is the worst of my vices, I am probably doing OK.

A red okra in full bloom from last summer. I used to not be a fan of okra, until I tried it fresh, straight off the plant. Delicious.

But last fall, when I was climbing 15 feet in the air to harvest cherry tomatoes, and I was getting scratched up trying to find sweet peppers that were totally hidden under a mass of invasive hops, I came up with a plan. I would not succumb to the assault of the seed catalogs. I would buy in the early fall, before the watermelon harvest. Before fresh became a thing of the past season.

Small heirloom watermelons, well mulched with straw to keep the weeds at bay.

I already focus my gardens on perennials. Blueberries and honeyberries are growing next to the kiwis. A goji bush accompanies the horseradish and the asparagus. If I am going to add an annual, it is going to be something that either 1) I can’t easily find in the grocery store, or 2) it is a leafy green that I eat in such quantity that it doesn’t make economic sense to buy it in the grocery store. Mostly, I buy from Seed Savers Exchange, which I respect for being local, sustainable, and not cutting a tree to send me a catalog I may or may not want.

What did I end up with for my 2022 annual vegetables? Red Burgundy okra, Red Kalibos cabbage, Backlund Bly Orach, Copenhagen Market Cabbage, Mammoth Sandwich Island Salsify, Premier Kale, Fordhook Giant Swiss Chard. In hindsight, I definitely don’t need two different kinds of cabbage…But if they give me the strength to ignore the seed catalogs, I am OK with that.

Spring in the aviary

The flock spent most of the winter being angry with me. They appreciate neither the cold nor the snow. I had to carry one Sapphire Gem hen back to the aviary after dusk; she was too cold and tired after spending a day in the orchard to make it back on her own. The guineas spent a night outside in the orchard after a bad storm, not wanting to sink into the snow even to go home. Fortunately, the fox also spent the night hunkered down, not wanting to sink into the snow. A chicken hawk took out a guinea nine feet away from the aviary, nine feet away from safety.

Cluck Cluck the rooster prefers hanging out with the guineas instead of with his hens.

Cluck Cluck spent more than one afternoon standing in the heated water of the bird bath; his toes, mangled by a raccoon when he was young, are probably hurting. When I let the water run dry, a fox curled up in the same bird bath at dusk, absorbing its warmth and making me moderately nervous.

Enjoying the first dustbath of the year.

With the marginally and intermittently warmer weather, the guineas have been boiling out of the aviary every morning with Cluck Cluck. Sometimes the hens join them, sometimes they don’t. Laying has picked up with the longer days. I am getting an egg or two every day from the hens, and I usually manage to snag the eggs before they crack from the subzero temperatures. If I don’t, I set them out for the fox. Everyone needs to eat.

Composting plastic magic

My first smart phone lived in a protector-series Otterbox. I could drop it in the river, drop it on the fire line, or run over it with the car, and it was fine. When I got my new phone, I was in the midst of my zero-waste obsession, and I ordered a Pela from Canada.

The Otter Box I got in the store when I got my phone. The Pela? I had to order. It took so long to come, I joked that they had to grow the flax to make the case (I suspect, as they have gotten bigger, they have been able to ramp up their production significantly).

The Pela is not an Otterbox. It has protected my phone from an occasional spill on concrete, but…recognizing that the Pela may not offer the protection I am used to, I have become more conscientious about maintaining my phone in a safe environment.

Here’s why I don’t regret my decision.

Pela offers a lot of great information about recycling and composting on their website. Their phone (or any other tech product you may want to protect) case is 100 percent compostable.

Pela cases are beautiful. Mine is grey with a penguin, but you can get clear, honeybees, sea turtles, or just about anything else you want that expresses your personality, beyond the obvious facts that you are classy and care about the world around you.

Pela cases are slim enough that my phone fits in my pocket or my handbag. The Otterbox couldn’t.

Pela is creating the the future I want to live in. By supporting them, I am helping create that world.

Picking Chicks

The flock of roosters was initially unintentional. I thought they would all be in the stew pot by autumn. I was wrong. I have the setup, the routine, and lonely birds. It is time to add some ladies, and I spent a lot of time at the Hoover’s Hatchery website and the Murray McMurray Hatchery website. The new additions need to be the right birds.

The black star roosters don’t like the snow, but they do like to be outside.

The flock free ranges. No fence in sight. Except for the garden fence, which they go over, under and around freely. They established their own range and stay within 130 feet of the chicken house. That range overlaps with predators: the dog, the cats, the racoons, the mink, the fox, and yes, the hawks. I need birds that forage well, are rugged, friendly and independent. Just like me.

My current flock makes me smile, and any additions need to be just as eye-catching. The Sapphire Gems are a gorgeous blue-grey and lay 290 large brown eggs a year. That makes them one of the top layers on the market. They are also a bit on the big side, weighing in at 6 pounds, and that makes me nervous.

When guineas get scared, mad, or excited, they go…up. Which is great when they are being chased by a dog. Less great when it is dusk and time to go in the aviary, but the other birds are blocking the door.

Guineas are small, weighing about 3 pounds. That means my guineas could easily end up at the bottom of the pecking order. When guineas end up at the bottom of the pecking order, they end up in the tops of trees. I am trying two of the Sapphire Gems, which a neighbor will take if they become too dominate in the aviary. I am getting five Blue Andalusians. The heirloom Andalusians are smaller, and each feather is a dark laced grey, which means they will be exquisite looking birds. The Andalusians lay 280 medium eggs a year, so the production is significantly less than that of the Sapphire Gems.

Charles and Bess sitting in the dead oak tree, protesting snow.

If two of the seven hens survive to maturity in my yard, which is statistically what will happen, they will still produce more eggs than I can eat in a year. The trade off of smaller birds, smaller eggs and fewer eggs is worth it to me if it keeps my mixed flock content.

When the Trees are gone, part 1

Pale Purple Coneflowers (Echinacea pallida)

A pollinator patch, or garden, would look beautiful in that spot in the yard where the hostas are now sunscorched, right? Right. Absolutely. From monarchs to bumblebees, lack of habitat continues to cause pollinator population declines. You may as well enjoy some beauty, while making the world a better place, while you wait for your new oak tree to mature into a shady canopy tree.

Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly (Battus philenor). To help identify the butterflies you see, visit https://www.butterflyidentification.org/

The ecological benefits of a pollinator patch are tremendous, and the maintenance goes down after the first few years. A pollinator patch creates an expanding positive impact on the environment, an oasis in a monoculture of lawns and pavement. Plant the plants, and the insects will come. The rabbits will come to feed on the plants. Owls will come to feed on the rabbits. Songbirds will come to feed on the insects. The hawks will come to feed on the birds. Native plants will create a dynamic array of life and beauty. A few thoughts to get you started:

1. Most native flowers are perennials. After the first few years, the plants won’t require watering. Buy a hose splitter and a soaker hose to minimize the time spent watering. You can get both locally for less than $20 to make those first few years easy.

2. Prairie plants evolved in an environment rich in limestone and poor in organic material. A plant that typically grows two feet high in a competitive prairie environment may grow five feet high in a weeded, composted garden bed. Keep the taller plants in the middle of your planting, or be prepared to fence them.

Close up of the prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya) flower spike.

3. Leave the stems and pods up for the winter, as insects will be overwintering in the stalks and birds will be feeding on the seeds. Instead, cut them back as late in the spring as possible.

4. Weeds will be need to be controlled, just like they do in an an ordinary flower or vegetable garden. Consider weed control fabric, mulch, or pea gravel to minimize the time you need to spend weeding.

5. Add a bird bath. It will be used by the birds, but also by the chipmunks and butterflies.

6. Order your plants…soon. Most dealers don’t sell native plants during the growing season, because they have low survivability. Many do take orders throughout the year, and ship in the spring and fall. If you wait until you want to plant, you may find yourself waiting until the next season. If you live in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, consider Indian Creek Nature Center’s Spring Plant and Art Sale as your source for plants.

For its plantings, Indian Creek Nature Center often orders seeds and plants from Prairie Nursery, Prairie Moon Nursery, IonExchange, and Linn County Soil and Water Conservation District. All of them provide good stock and excellent customer service.