Friday, April 11, 2008

The march of the toads, again

Picture this--

It's just after dark, That period where the sun has gone down and the after glow of the day has now disappeared from the sky. It is dark out.

We are in our front yard. On three sides are fields. Empty fields. The fourth side is our house. It's to our back.

Coming from the direction of the mountain straight out from our house is the driveway.

But in the dark it doesn't matter. You can't see it.

Out there you know, in our yard, is a gold fish pond. A rectangle. Something like 25 feet long by 5 feet wide. Swimming in the water are a couple dozen goldfish and a half dozen koi of various colors and sizes.

For this -- that's the center of attraction. The gold fish pond and its year round pool of water.

Now look out in the fields.

You can hear them coming. There must be hundreds of them.



One hop at a time. Each jump a few inches closer to the pond.

Who knows where they came from. When it was daylight they weren't there. You could have walked through all of the fields without seeing a single one.

But not now, if you go out there in the dark. Go out with a flashlight and look at the ground, its difficult not to step on one.

But why tonight. Why not last night? There weren't any toads last night. Or how about tomorrow night? Why now? Why here? Who decided?

Who put out the word? Tonight is the night. Over there.

Here they come. They're all coming, hoping, marching, if you will, toward the front yard. Toward the goldfish pond.

In fact if you look in several dozen have already arrived. They are in the water swimming. On the rocks around the edge, croaking.

It's that time of year. This happens every year. Time for the annual toad party and mating event. It's going to go on all night, just like it does every year this time. Just as the last frost has come and gone, its more regular than the calendar.

This year it was Wednesday night around ten, just before the wind brought in all of that cold air. It was still nice, still close to being 70 degrees out and everywhere you went, there were the toads.

Dozens. Dozens of dozens. Hundreds.


Hopping in the same direction. All of them heading toward the one destination.

Other news?

Well, if you haven't sent in your check you need to do it right now. Either that or e-mail me with a plan. By the end of next week if I haven't received a check or a payment plan from those who signed up over a month ago, I will start giving those shares to the people on the waiting list.

Then, Of course, there are the eggs. The hens are now laying almost 8 dozen a day. That's around 60 a week. Again, if you want a free dozen come on out Saturday between 11 and 1 pm. I've been giving a lot away over the week but I still have 20 dozen in the barn and I haven't collected todays and, of course there will be tomorrows. (no egg pick up on Sunday, I won't be around).

Onion seedlings are supposed to arrive Monday and we will get busy planting shortly after. Ten cases of onions. Red, Yellow, and White onions. And three cases of leeks. A case contains 30 bunches and a bunch holds 60 plants. 18,000 onions to plant with about 5400 leeks. Let's hope all goes well.

And then the week after that, after I hope the last frost has finally come and gone, we start planting seedlings. We'll start with the broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower. We have about 4000 of each in the greenhouse and we'll plant a thousand of each every week, hopefully giving you enough for the first month.

Then comes the pac choi. Followed by other plants that like the cool. sorrel, various flowers (I bought a thousand glad bulbs not for the shares but for the vases in the house. If I succession plant them just right the house should be full of glads all summer long.

But back to the vegetables. After that, I imagine will come a few thousand basil (we are growing as much Italian as we usually do, enough for all you can eat almost every week). A little lemon basil, Enough Thai basil and this year something I swore off half a dozen years ago, a purple basil.

Besides thinking about planting, we have also been tilling the fields. Most of the fields have now been turned over a second time. We're trying to destroy many of the potential weeds. I also looked out where I had planted those peas back in February and decided they wouldn't be ripe anytime soon (I had hoped they would start off immediately growing when we planted them, it having been so warm, but they didn't. They were still a number of weeks away from fruit and we needed the room, so we will not be having pick your own peas this year).

Pick your own asparagus looks like a possibility. Hopefully we will have enough asparagus up and ready to pick that I can ask people out in a week to pick their own. We'll see. Some of the asparagus in our yard is up an inch or two.

The picture that I said I would post last week, the suspected coyote, go to 'the bear and the damage done'. It got put in that folder.

Leigh Hauter

male grouse, blue birds and other dumb behavior

Outside my window I see our car parked under the pear tree. And there’s a blue bird on a lower limb of the tree.

A male blue bird with its bright shiny blue and rusty red feathers.

And every few minutes, there he goes, up in the air, hovers outside the car window. And then...

He attacks.

Attacking what? I don't know. I'm not a bird, not a male bluebird. I can only make a human guess.

Maybe that bluebird reflection in the window?

All's I can say is, with any confidence, he's nuts,

Male bird nuts.

But then, that's nothing new. this is the season, the time of year for nutty bird behavior.

Back several decades ago, when I was teaching at a local high school, most days I would have to leave the farm around seven in the morning. except though for the nutty bird time of year.

Then, I would have to account for the grouse delay.

Have you ever seen the local grouse? I think it’s called a ruffed grouse (though we always called it a wood grouse). Usually not a very descript bird. (because usually you don’t see it for more than a second or two after you have stumbled across one out in the woods and it has decided to take off, running and flying, just as fast as it can).

From my memory kind of a round bird maybe a foot or two high with whitish specks on his mostly brown feathers.

But it’s a completely different bird I would see on the driveway. This would be a male ruffed grouse in mating season. And a male grouse in mating season, is like our bluebird or for that matter most male birds in mating season.

They have no sense.

Instead of worrying about personal survival they are doing what we always hear big named politicians are worried about. They are thinking about posterity.

So, here I am, late as usual (well I can make it over to the high school on time if I catch all the lights just right and remember, this was before the area’s perpetual gridlock) and as I turn the corner, right where that old maple tree is, right out in front of me is this dumber than dumb bird.

The 'male ruffed grouse in mating season'.

Standing right in the middle of the driveway.

But he doesn’t looked like your usual grouse. This one is beautiful..

He has this large red tail all fanned out.

The feathers around his neck puff up,

for some reason he looks larger and more beautiful than any grouse I have ever seen. His feathers just glistened, his posture was immaculate.

And he’s doing a dance.

Right there in the driveway.

I stopped the truck five feet, maybe ten feet away and he doesn’t see I’m there (back then I was driving one of those little toyota four wheel drives).

Something that should make a wild bird get out of the driveway.

Instead, he doesn't seem to know I'm there. Instead he’s doing, what looks like, an elaborate dance step. Two steps forward, one to the left, two to the right, turn and repeat yourself (or something like that).

He would dip and bow but he wouldn’t get out of the road.

I sat there in the truck watching. This is something to see. But at the same time I need to get to work. It’s time for him to get out of the road.

I honk the horn.

No movement.

The dance continues.

Now, I’m thinking, he’s not doing all this for himself, is he? I mean, there must be an audience.

So I look around. Let’s say this is Monday.

I don’t’ see anything.

Finally, I get out of the truck and walk up to him, forcing him to move off of the dance floor and back into the woods.


Only the next day as I’m rushing to school again. I was on time the day before. (I’m always on time, even if I cut it short) and there again is the grouse. Looking just as beautiful, if not more so, than the day before.

He’s doing the same steps, in the same place at the same time. (heck, maybe the dance steps are more complicated than the day before. I'm no judge of that sort of thing).

And there’s still no audience that I can see.

I get out and run him off.

And the next day. Only this time when I get out of the truck I see something, someone off in the woods. I think its another grouse, only not like the beautiful male. This one is plain like the ones you see out hiking.

It’s a female and she’s apparently watching this dance from 20 some yards away.

But I only get a glimpse of her before she disappears.

And while I do hate to interrupt true love, my principal comes from the city and wouldn’t understand this as an excuse for being late. I scoot the grouse out of the road and leave.

The next day I leave earlier, this time just for the show, and not only is he doing his dance but she has come to the edge of the woods to watch. She is right there. Not taking part at all but apparently being entertained.

And he’s doing his steps, back and forth, back and forth, turning a circle, dipping standing up tall. And his audience, I think, took a couple steps closer and just as she does, the dancer stops dancing and in a flash is was over and he took off running toward her

And she...

The best I could figure out was she wasn’t ready for the dance to be over yet, or maybe, which is more likely, I don’t understand birds, because she turned and ran. In fact they both took off running, him right behind her, off into the woods.

And was it last year that we were harvesting the garlic and one of the guys picked up four baby grouse and put them in a bucket?

When I saw I tried to let them go. Putting them back out in the garlic, but they were still there the next day. Apparently the mother had deserted them.

We raised them first in a box in the back room and then out with the chickens. Two of them grew up to be almost adult size and then one day, without notice, they were gone. No longer in the chicken yard.

I wonder what happened? Was there some call, sort of like the spring male bird notice, that told them it was time to go off, make a home in the woods? or what?

Anyway, here on the farm its’ that time of year. Work has suddenly blossomed. We could now work 24/7 only for most of this week the ground was too wet to do anything.

We couldn’t even go out and plow.

Finally yesterday one of the fields was dry enough to drive the small tractor over it so we started planting onions. Can you imagine what it is like to put 20,000 spring onions in the ground one at a time? Well, that’s sort of what we are doing, only the onion seedlings are much smaller than the spring onions you’ll find in the store.

And while once we planted them by by hand, first digging a little trench by hand, then placing each seedling in the ground, by hand, one after the other after the other. Then taking a hoe and covering the roots one after the other. and then going back with a hose and watering each one.

We now have a piece of equipment that is pulled behind the tractor. And one part digs a trench, then there is a wheel with a dozen clamps that open and close. Two guys sit on the back of the machine taking the seedlings, one at a time, putting them in the clamps.

The wheel turns and the seedlings are put down in the trench.

On the equipment there is a tank for water and under the tank is a hose that drips water in the trench, watering the seedlings.

And at the end there is another blade that fills in the trench leaving the onions standing tall and proud. Their roots in the soil, water on their roots, and the hole they were planted in all filled in.

In other words, its still a lot of work, but instead of making four passes like we did before. Now with the seeder (I think it originally costs $5000) we do the same thing, only better, and in only one pass. Which I guess means doing it better and four times faster.

But even if its faster it still takes an awfully long time. We worked for 8 hours planting onions yesterday and only planted 40% of them. Right after lunch, and as soon as I get this newsletter finished. We’ll spend another 5 hours planting.

This morning we were hooking up the irrigation system for the onions. Drip tape. Which puts the water right on the onions and not on the weeds growing between the rows.

We also have been planting several hundred rosemary, lavender and French tarragon seedlings that we bought from a plant grower. I never have luck starting rosemary from seed and the plants I do start usually don’t over winter. This year should be different.

And while we have Russian Tarragon, which we start from a seed, French Tarragon must be started from a plant. This will be relatively new for us. We haven’t had Rosemarie or French Tarragon since our old herb garden which was destroyed by construction trucks about half a dozen years ago when we started rebuilding the house.

Eggs? Please come out. (Saturday 11-1 or by arrangement). I think the chickens are up to ten dozen a day.

Asparagus? Not ready. Asparagus, I’ve observed, really hates cold damp soil and just doesn’t come up until the grounds at least dried up some. We moved the geese off the asparagus bed earlier this week and cultivated but there was not a sign of a spear in the large asparagus bed yet.

Payments and waiting list? It looks to me like there might be three dozen openings. Probably I will have time this weekend to go through my database and look to see who hasn’t paid, compare that with who has worked out a payment plan and then I will send out a notice (no one will be dropped just because they spaced it out). So, the people on the waiting list, I will get back to you by the middle of next week telling you if there is an opening or not. And everyone that’s a 2008 shareholder, there is no problem with your share unless I send you a notice this coming week.

I usually start putting seedlings in the ground on April 15th. That’s what I’ve come to think of as the ‘last frost of the season’ Looking at the weather forecast that looks close. They are forecasting a low of 34 degrees Monday and Tuesday nights. That’s a little too close to freezing for comfort.

Which means next week we’ll probably start planting on Wednesday.

And now, let me run out and start planting onions.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

coyotes, fires and the state of the vegetables

What should we talk about this week?

1, The mysterious animal that was photographed on two different days sneaking down the driveway at 3 in the morning?

2. The forest fire?

3. Payments for the shares coming due the first week of April?

4. Farm visits and free eggs?

5. Or the state of your vegetables?

Well, let’s deal with them in order starting with the unnamed animal caught by one of our wildlife cameras. What is it? (the picture is up on our website in the same folder with the bear picture) .

I have been telling everyone that it’s a coyote. But then Liz, our amateur animal sleuth says there’s no way to tell. “It’s too dark to make a call,’ ’ she says.

Her husband, though, is pretty sure it’s a bobcat. “just look at it?”

And Wenonah doesn’t know either. It could be a fox. She says. A large gray fox. “I just don’t want it to be a coyote. Coyotes eat cats, and that means we’ll have to keep the cat door closed all the time so ours don’t get eaten.”

Which brings us to the fire and the fire truck that came storming down our road earlier this week. I only heard the siren. My neighbor called to ask if the fire was over this way.

He said two trucks came full blast down the driveway past his house. Stayed for half an hour and then came blasting back with their sirens still blaring.”

And that’s all we heard until yesterday morning when I got another call saying they heard the fire was up on top of the mountain.

(which to me meant right up above our farm, fields and home).

I put on my boots right then. My boots and my rain jacket. It was raining.

A fire? Up on top of the mountain? Right above us on top of the mountain? Maybe half a mile from our greenhouse, where all are seedlings, our plants for the year were growing? (more on that later. You might as well know, though, the seedlings are doing just fine).

I finished with my boots and started up the trail to the mountain top.

For those of you who have gone up with us, we have two trails cut through the woods. One along the water line to the upper spring and then weaving through the forest until we reach the cliffs.

That's the one I took up. There wasn't a sign of anything on the way up and on top, it was quiet.

No people. no noise, no smoke and none of the sound of a raging fire.

Up there there was no sign of anything. Not even a vehicle.

I might as well tell you there’s a jeep trail up on top. I'm not very happy with this jeep trail. It's been the source of a lot of four wheelers and motorcycles over the year. Campfires and trash. (which brand of beer do beer can litters prefer to drink? one brand of beer more often finds its cans thrown out in the woods than any other. Why?)

The jeep trail was made by a bulldozer something like fifteen years ago.

This, also, was the last time there was a fire up on the mountain.

That fire was in August. What used to be thunderstorm season around here.

The time of the fire I remember it hadn’t rained all month. There had been lightning storms but no rain. I remember the storm three days before the fire well. I had stood out in the field in front of the house watching it. Quite a show!

Lightning came in bolts all the way to the ground maybe a dozen times. Moving up and down the ridge. Back and forth. Before the storm finally decided to move over the mountain and down in the valley toward us.

I deserted the field then, and ran into the house for shelter.

After the lightning, there was only a few trickles, hardly enough to dampen the soil. I remembered moving a couple of sprinklers to new locations.

And then about three days later there was smoke. Someone on the other side of the mountain, on the cliff side, saw smoke rising up over the cliffs. I got a call asking it it was down here.

“Nothing down here, but I’ll climb up and take a look.” The fire wasn’t on our side of the mountain at all. It was down below the cliffs..

The precipice of High Point is lined with pine trees. Pine trees and then a rock precipice dropping straight down for several hundred feet. and on the bottom boulders and rock crevices and caves. The caves Wenonah when she was a girl used to climb up and explore. The same shallow caves our goats, the wild ones on the herd, would climb in and hide.

And this entire area would be covered with pine needles. Dry, oily pine needless sometimes several feet thick.

And that’s where the lightning had struck. Where the fire had started. Where the smoke and flames were rising.

Back then the fire was fought by hand.

Volunteer fire departments from far and wide came. Men and what mostly seemed like high school kids carrying packs with containers holding five gallons of water on their backs would climbed up the same trail I had gone up.

They walked up the mountain with their load of water and poured it on the fire. one after another after another.

Five gallons at a time.

They did that for three days until the fire was out.

And that’s when the bulldozer arrived.

Someone working at Vint Hill volunteered a military unit with a bulldozer and it started three miles away over by the mill. Started widening what had been a foot trail making it wide enough to drive vehicles down

Three miles of foot trail from the mill to the top of the mountain widened into a road for jeeps and trucks.

And the bulldozer completed its road to the top of the mountain just as the fire was put out.

That’s where I was standing yesterday morning. Where the bulldozed road ends near the cliffs.

No one was there yesterday and as I stood in the rain looking out off the cliffs. there wasn’t a fire either.

Not on top of the mountain. But I could smell smoke. Wet, distant smoke so I looked around, walked back and forth along the cliffs for an hour. Peered down off the cliff into the crevices with their new layer of pine needles.

Looked down at the remains of the plane wreck. Where a little two passenger plane crashed twenty years ago and where one of the wings still sits and then finally turned around and returned home on another trail I had cut through the woods.

(It turns out the fire was the forest three miles away, right where Thoroughfare Gap cuts through the Bull Run Mountains. Where, now, Interstate 66 does through the mountains. It burned along the ridge and this time, instead of hundreds of young men, and a few woman, each carrying five gallons of water, one person at a time, a helicopter flew over the fire and dumped hundreds of gallons at a shot.

Putting out the fire.

And which brings us around to eggs and farm visits.

The chickens are now laying almost 5 dozen a day (by the beginning of vegetable season they will be up to nine or ten dozen a day).

If you are a shareholder and want free eggs come on out this Saturday between 11 and one pm. If you want to visit at other times you should e-mail first. Often we’ll be out working or, on the weekend, taking some time off.

Which brings us around to the vegetables.

Our greenhouse is now full. That means about 70,000 seedlings. Things are looking good.

We’ve started turning over the fields and have been spreading compost and where it needs it, lime.

We’ve spend a number of hours fixing our anti-deer fence. Besides the usual tree damage and just the normal flukes of nature a couple places have suffered human damage. Someone, for some unknown reason has cut large holes in the plastic anti-deer fence. I can’t figure that one out, but we’ve repaired it and moved on.

We’ve moved the chicken tractor again. it’s getting close to its summer resting place down along the field in front of the house.

We actually did spend most of a day picking up rocks (and had, much to my surprise) some volunteers come out to help.

One of our tractors is at the shop (a tree feel on it) as is one of our walk behind tractor/tillers.

And bees. A friend, a beekeeper called and asked if I wanted to buy a dozen 3 pound packages of bees which I did. These are Italians and I set them up near the herb garden

I’ll have another dozen packages, this time Buckfast out of Texas, arrive in a week.

And that’s about the time our onion and leek seedlings come. Hopefully this will be a good year. I’ve bought something like 20,000.

And that’s it.

Leigh Hauter