Fröhliche Fruhling Zeit! Happy Spring! Joyeux Printemps!

Taters, Precious

The Ruby Throated Hummingbirds are back, from their winter vacation. Though we will probably have one of our notorious late frosts, I’m prepared for it. Floating row covers are arriving today.

Our dilapidated, abandoned, old garden is suddenly back to life. It still looks like a landfill, with my cardboard box mulch, but we have had two things–enough rain, and endless amounts of chicken manure. Add those two together, and you end up with taters like those in the above picture. They are now on a diet of fish emulsion fertilizer.

Pasta Time

Forty something garlic plants should do us for a while. And then there is their cousin.

Elephant Garlic

This is not really a garlic, but the bulb just tastes like one. It is a sub-species of the garden leek, and grows like mad. Many of these were volunteer plants. Now for something completely different.

Asparagus Galore

Fifty something shoots of asparagus from about as many crowns. I know there are more coming. If they freeze to the ground, they will just re-sprout. It has happened before.

Almost eighty degrees today, and freezing temps forecast for Thursday night. Over eleven inches of rain so far this month, with more coming tomorrow. Just another typical Appalachian Spring.

In Praise of Gas Stoves

Bertha!

I fell in love with gas stoves with our first one, which we named “Bertha,” because of the fact that she was probably too big to be moved out of the house we bought. This was in the wild lands of southern Alabama, in Pike county, which had a total population of 14,000 people (many of them students at the University where I worked,) and a literacy rate of fifty percent. In a county like that, cooking ranked as the top form of entertainment.

This stove was made by Home Comfort, and it had two ovens, and a warming chamber. One oven was propane, the other wood fired–not a combo we wanted. Therefore, cogito ergo sum, we never used the wood fired oven. The stove itself sucked down propane like nobody’s business. We had to order propane right after we moved in, and the propane delivery guy was a typical character who could have come out of a Walker Percy novel. He handed us his business card, and his professional name was–Slim Dicks.

Recently, having been rusticated for a year now, my chief form of entertainment has been reading the cooking “experts” on the interwebs. Their latest talking point is about how bad gas stoves are for the environment, and that we should all switch to sweet thing electric stoves. We learned in Physic 102 that the least efficient thing you could do with electricity was generate heat. Then there is this, from al.com:

“Alabama Power’s James H. Miller Jr. plant in Jefferson County is once again the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the country, according to an environmental policy non-profit organization.

According to the report, the Miller plant produced nearly 19 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 – equivalent to more than half of the electricity generated by all of the power plants in California.”

Have a nice warm summer. Welcome to the real coal burning world.

Bertha up Close

Our current gas stove, strangely enough, was made in a Unionized factory right across the river from where Bertha was made. It’s a Premier Pro, and we bought it for two reasons: It was Union made, and most importantly, can run completely without electricity. Not only does Alabama Power pollute like nobody’s business, they also can’t be relied on to keep the lights on.

Bertha Jr, with the same Tea Kettle as Bertha Sr

This is a fine piece of equipment–A simmering burner, and three flame throwers. The oven will hit almost 600 degrees–I burned out the clock above the top on it, experimenting. We have used the cooktop so much we burned out three of the four piezo lighters. Melanie Jane found the following ingenious gadget on the interwebs. I think I like it more than the piezo lighters.

Come on Baby, Light my Fire

That’s an Arc lighter, that works off of a USB charged battery, so I can recharge it with one of my solar generators. Alabama Power charges a fee to people who admit to having solar panels attached to their house (seriously), so I have this to say about that–my panels are not attached to my house. However, the top question on Amazon about this arc lighter is–can I light a bowl with this?

Young people these days. You light a bowl with a Zippo lighter. Everybody knows that. While I don’t smoke, I inhaled enough second hand Cannabis smoke at the honors dorm at UA to give me lung cancer. Which brings me to the best prank I have ever witnessed.

My best friend was 100% Hungarian, as his parents were both born in Hungary, in Budapest. I asked George if they were born in Buda or Pest, and he was amazed that I knew it was originally two cities, separated by the blue Danube. I told him I just knew stuff.

At any rate, George’s problem was that he was 6′ 7″ tall, and our dorm had been a women’s dorm, and the doorways were only 6′ 6″ tall. It was a problem for his forehead.

George could pull some pranks off with perfection. He showed up one day with a huge bag of seeds, which he claimed he found in his dorm room closet. Not likely, as it was all cannabis seeds.

He had a plan–we were right behind the President’s mansion, which was one of the I think four structures that survived the Civil War (UA is almost as old as UVA, the first US public University). The rest of the campus was burned down by Union troops, who started by burning the Library. That’s always the best way to restore trust in Democracy, with a good book burning.

At any rate, he decided to sow all the weed seed around the President’s mansion, and our President happened to have been a member of Tricky Dick’s presidential cabinet. I offered to help, but he insisted that it was a one man op.

A month later, the largest group of gardeners I had ever seen came in for a massive weeding job. It took them days to get rid of all the weed plants. We laughed the whole time.

George went on to Columbia Law, and became editor of their Law Review. I went to Illinois, and both my schools have a chance at the NCAA basketball title this year. Fight, Illini, and Roll, Tide, Roll! Hopefully, we will meet in the title game.

Catfish Skinner

You Think You have Problems?

I probably gained my PhD by telling a story about catfish. This is a little convoluted, but it involves an organic farmer, an Auburn student, my dissertation director, who had not allowed any of her students to graduate in 23 years, and a galvanized tub full of catfish. I really like a good fried catfish.

So we found ourselves in central Illinois, at the beautiful University of Illinois, where we were surrounded by literally hundreds of thousands of acres of some of the finest farmland in the world. It really is farm heaven. UI paid me ten grand to go there, with a University fellowship, so there is that also. When MJ went to the financial aid office, they looked at her transcript, and said, “How many scholarships do you want?” She graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

My fellow grad students thought I was insane when I said I was asking Dean —- to be my Dissertation director. She was infamous for her denying student’s dissertations, and degrees. I just said that nothing can stop a charming Southern farm boy. It didn’t hurt that she was the general editor of The Norton Anthology of American Literature, which is something of a good thing to have on your CV..

At any rate, there was a good deal of tension between us, as I am something of a stubborn farm boy as well. I strategically decided to let her make all the big decisions about my dissertation, while I insisted on making the ones that actually mattered. Then I met the organic farmer, an old hippy, at the Urbana Farmer’s Market.

He was the coolest dude I had ever seen. He had the good fortune to inherit an enormous farm right out side of Urbana, and chose to turn the whole thing organic. His vegetables were some of the best I had ever eaten. We became friends as soon as he found out I had grown up on a farm. Then his brother came back for the summer, from Auburn U. in Alabama. Enter the catfish.

I asked the old hippy why his brother had gone to Auburn, instead of UI or Cornell, which are probably the best Ag schools in the country, and he said that he had gone there to study aquaculture. He wanted to introduce catfish farming to Illinois. I did my best to not laugh.

I didn’t know that the joke was going to be on me. One Saturday, right after the brother came back from Auburn, I found that they had a giant galvanized tub full of catfish–live catfish. Once again, I tried not to laugh, but the old hippy said he and his brother had to go do something, and left me to run the booth, and deal with the locals, as I had sold produce since the age of six. He told me to push the catfish.

The punters were fascinated by the tub of catfish, but none were ever going to buy any. One finally asked me:

Punter: “What are those?”

Me: “Catfish”

Punter: “What do you do with them?”

Me: “You could make them pets, but most people fry them and eat them.”

Punter: “How do you do that? Do you fry them whole?”

Me: “Well, you normally clean them, and then fry them.”

By now a crowd had assembled, to hear this combination interrogation/ lecture.

Punter: “How do you clean them?”

Me: “The best way is to cut through their spine right behind the head, and kill them. Then you nail them to a wall, like a barn wall, through the head, and skin them. You don’t scale them, you skin them with a pair of pliers. Don’t forget to take out the guts first.” The whole crowd went “ewwwww.”

Punter: “Can you just nail them to the barn while they are still alive?”

Me: “You can, but they’ll grunt at you while you’re doing it.” The crowd thought that was really funny.

We all had a good laugh, and as expected, nobody bought a live catfish.

Then I turned around, and there was my Dissertation Director, in her PJ’s, robe. and fuzzy slippers. She lived across the street from the farmer’s market. She had obviously heard my entire lecture, as she had an abject look of horror in her eyes. She had to be thinking, what kind of barbarian have they sent me? A guy who nails fish to a wall?

I just smiled at her, and kept selling veg.

After that, things were different. She took my side during the preliminary exams, after one of the members turned out to be a total hole. She also took my side during my dissertation defense after another prof questioned my main tenet. So after 25 years, she finally allowed someone to graduate.

Thank you, catfish.

In Praise of Danner Boots–Made in the US (sort of)

A Rogue’s Gallery

I will have to begin with a somewhat humorous story, about the time I walked two agents of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission into the ground, after I discovered a previously unknown population of wild brook trout. We were ready for a six mile hike, but as this was on the NC-TN state line, the Forest Service had randomly decided to lock off the access road on the top of a really big mountain into the Citico Creek Wilderness trailhead in the National Forest. Now we had to walk about thirteen miles.

The desk jockeys did not look pleased. I had various secret weapons–a one ounce fly rod, and two pairs of Danner USA union made boots. The ones on the left, which have been re-soled multiple times, and the wading boots with carbide spiked soles, on the right, were both there. I knew they were in for a world of hurt.

I caught them their trout, which increased the known wild brook trout territory in TN by more than one percent. Then we had to walk back up the mountain. I busted their butts, but had a reward waiting–a cooler full of really cold beer.

It was like Lazarus returning from the dead. They both snorted down a beer, and congratulated me on my discovery. All I did was go fly fishing, and have a really pleasant walk.

Danner Boot Company is based in Portland, and is famous for its quality. With one exception these are all US made boots. The second pair from the left is MJ’s hiking boots. The ones in the middle are my new Mountain Lights, a replacement for the ones on the far left. The next pair were called Rainer, but made in Italy, apparently by the Fabiano boot company. Fabio himself was not involved.

I accidentally started the best gripe session I have ever heard. I went to the outdoor retailer show in Salt Lake, wearing my Danner Boots, of course, and the Danner booth was almost all women. Union women rock. They saw my boots, and said, right, on.

Here was my mistake: I asked them if I could get some women’s Danner wading boots for MJ. I laughed for ten minutes as they launched into the finest tirade I have ever heard, about how all their workers were women who fly fished, and male management refused to let them make women’s wading boots. It was epic.

Danner is now making wading boots for the Patagonia company! Still no women’s shoes, but they are making much smaller sizes. Go figure on that one as well.

Hardy Cyclamen

Goodbye, Winter

Temps in the sixties for most of next week, but the hardy Cyclamen are like Honey Badgers–they just don’t care. This has been blooming for the entire month of February, and it is the species coum. It is not as vigorous as the next one, which is in the process of spreading over our entire five acres.

Cyclamen hederifolium

That is one or two twenty year old tubers, and if you look closely enough, there are tiny seedlings all in amongst the leaves. It is fall blooming, and usually pink, though there are white varieties. It has spread up some concrete stairs, and across a concrete patio. Ants are suspected agents of the dissemination.

White Cloud

This is a fancy variety known as “White Cloud,” which is white flowered, and was developed in the UK, the country of “gardeners and shop keepers,” as Napoleon said. Too bad they kicked his butt.

Vols

Volunteer seedlings will come up anywhere, including in cracks of rocks. The white cloud seedlings will have some crazy leaf shapes. Go figure.

A gardening “expert” on the interwebs said these things could not stand hot summers. BWAHAHAHAHA. These species come from the Middle East and the Mediterranean. I hear it gets kinda hot there, as well as here. We just happen to be at almost the same latitude as Tripoli, Libya, and Beirut, Lebanon. Geography is a terrible thing to waste.

Snow!

Snow Birds

We hardly ever get snow, or temps in the teens, and today we have–BOTH. I saw this coming, so yesterday I bought 110 pounds of bird food. Half was for the wild birds, and half for the chicks. Birds don’t even care about how cold it is, except for how hungry it makes them.

Today we have been invaded by the biggest flocks of finches and sparrows that we have ever seen. Our three feeders, two tube feeders with squirrel guards, and a wooden feeder that I repaired after it was squashed by a tree during a tornado, will have to be refilled a couple of times.

We have, in addition to the resident cardinals, flocks of gold finches and purple finches. They can seriously knock down some sunflower seed. The chipping sparrow flock is probably the lergest of all, and they prefer smaller seeds. Good thing I bought both.

The living part of the chicken coop is completely frozen shut, and it will take a lever of some kind to get it open. We did get them out into the pen, but it will be screwdriver time to get the small coop doors open.

It’s still snowing, and it is a regular Hitchcock film just outside my window.

The Birds!

Four layers of Patagonia expedition weight fleece kept me quite warm, however, when I went to gather eggs. Having been in the outdoor industry has its perks.

Feeding the Asparagus

Feed the Veg

MJ thinks my cardboard mulch is tacky, but after I read a “gardening expert” on the interwebs who said that cardboard is impermeable to water, which is hilariously stupid, I had to try it. It killed all the weeds around our Asparagus bed.

So I planted my thirty new Asparagus crowns, and decided to give the whole bed a banquet of Chicken manure–composted, of course. You have to feed the veg if you want the veg to feed you.

The next layer was composted crushed egg shells–aka, calcium. The chickens just keep on giving.

Last of all was something that I actually had to purchase–pelletized lime. The good news is that it goes for about ten cents a pound.

Spargelzeit (Asparagus time) cannot get here fast enough.

Country Winter in the South

Snowed Under–Not

Today is my birthday, and its (irony alert) a frigid seventy degrees F here. So some landscape shots for you, from our little Appalachian river valley. That’s Garden City Mountain, on the other side of the river.

A River Runs Through It

Our little river can be seen upon close examination. According to popular myth, fishing becomes spectacular when the dogwoods bloom. Go trees!

Shirley the Sheep, Australian Shepherd Version

A Comfy Spot–Leaves on Concrete

Emma the Aussie is a big dog. She spends her days sleeping in the sun, and her nights on the dog bed. At 70+ pounds, she is far past the size of a registered Aussie. Think Shirley the Sheep from the great show Shaun the Sheep, who was three times larger than the rest of the flock.

Her sleeping habits surprised us the other day. She came to snooze on our couch downstairs, and to have me scratch her back at the same time. As soon as I started, a worm looking creature came crawling out of her fur. I grabbed it, yelled, and threw it on the floor.

The ever logical MJ inspected it, as it was sine curving it’s way across the floor, and said, “It’s a salamander.” That is the signature amphibian of the southern Appalachians, and I have seen tiny ones, up to ones more than two feet long (re: Hellbender.) I liberated it back outdoors.

I created a limerick to celebrate this episode:

There once was dog name of Emma,

Who found herself in a dilemma.

She had no tale to tell,

About her lack of a tail,

Although she was quite a femina.

Isn’t this called Dog-gerel verse?

2021–In Praise of Chicken Excrement

Black Gold

When you get up early on New Year’s Day to feed the chickens, and the low temp is 67 F, something is seriously wrong. That something is Anthropogenic Climate Disturbance, aka Global Warming. It’s fine now, but the summer will be when the bill comes due.

There is one constant, however–the wonders of chicken excrement. Americans in general treat chickens like a protein machine, caged, abused, and thrown away and eaten at a very early age. Our flock of eight ramble around all day, eat greens and high protein food, and we get eggs by the dozen. Better, possibly is the giant piles of excrement, which I compost. I am just beginning to use it as fertilizer. It could be the GOAT (greatest of all time.)

Chicken excrement and I go way back. When I grew up on the old farm, that was our main fertilizer, and sometimes the only one. As it turns out, industrial scale chicken production produces industrial scale chicken stuff. We had tons of this stuff at a time, which means we had tons of vegetables, and pounds and pounds of beef–we fertilized the pastures with chicken stuff, and even had to buy a giant stuff spreader to be able to do it.

So the moral for this new year is, what goes around, comes around. I have been fertilizing my mustard greens with chicken stuff, and feed the greens to the chicks, and the egg quality just gets better. I composted my garlic plants (forty in total,) and they took off like weeds. I just layered my young asparagus patch with several inches of compost. I better get the asparagus steamer ready for spring.

Film at eleven.