The caterpillars are building their own tiny houses. In about 10 days, we should see them emerge as butterflies. I think we'll have one more generation born before they head south for Mexico. But...we need more milkweed! They've eaten almost all the leaves.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar
by Eric Carle
In the light of the moon a little egg lay on a leaf.
One Sunday morning the warm sun came up and - pop! - out of the egg came a tiny and very hungry caterpillar.
He started to look for some food . I’m so HUNGRY!
And so the story goes...
I'm happy to report there are dozens of very hungry caterpillars who have popped out of their eggs to feast on our milkweed plants, which are literally crawling with them.
Plant it and they will come. I knew we were likely to attract monarchs with all the milkweed we've planted, but seeing is believing. I've taken to standing out beside the pollinator garden to watch them eat. (Yes, I need a life.) This is just one of the rewards of planting native specimens.
My big decision now is deciding if I leave them to fend on their own—or bring some of the caterpillars inside to boost their chances of avoiding death by ant, wasp or spider. Right now, with so many of them looking fat and happy, I'm leaning towards letting nature take its course.
Why fret over an insect? Sure, monarchs and other butterflies are pretty—but they're also functional. While feeding on nectar, they pollinate flowers. The Department of U.S. Fish and Wildlife began issuing warnings years ago, when it concluded that the number of monarchs had dropped from 1 billion to 33 million. The primary cause? Habitat loss.
The moral of this story?
Plant some milkweed. The butterflies will thank you.
The subject came up recently: chores. Those things you need to do to keep a household running.
We used to procrastinate housecleaning in our big, suburban houses until we couldn't stand the state of affairs. Procrastinating only meant the mess would be harder to clean down the road. It also meant magnifying our so-called "suffering": We were worrying about it before we did the work; we were annoyed by the magnitude of the mess by the time we got around to doing something; and, instead of feeling satisfied with any chores completed, we found ourselves dreading the next time we'd have to do them.
When we sold our last "big" house, many of the chores disappeared or at least shrunk. We tried out a succession of smaller living spaces and found the time required to get through everything was abbreviated simply because there weren't as many rooms. Now, in our smallest living space to date, the time has shrunk proportionally again. In 15 minutes, one of us can do a moderate clean (vacuuming, wiping down windowsills and baseboards, wiping out the sinks, picking up and putting away stray items...).
It's not a big time or energy commitment, and, as a result, we clean more often. We have a lightweight, cordless vacuum that I can honestly say I enjoy pushing around the place just about every day. (We track in a lot of dirt here.) We wander around happily picking up sticks, because we know that chore promises a warm blaze in the house, a meal cooked on the grill or a campfire under the stars. We take turns watering the herbs on the deck, because we both enjoy tending to them.
Before enlightenment chop wood, carry water.
After enlightenment chop wood, carry water.
The Zen wisdom comes to mind. Because I no longer watch the clock like I used to and because I no longer spend my days wishing I were somewhere else, I am more present in my own life. I get satisfaction from some of the same chores I used to procrastinate. Plus, I have new chores in this new way of living—but I don't resent them, either. Rather than putting it off, I like the trip down to dump food scraps in the compost pile; I get a minute to look around the garden and see if any butterflies have found the milkweed. When I walk up a path through the woods to empty the composting toilet bucket, I look for animal tracks, I pull an invasive plant or two, I listen to birds.
Sure, it helps (a lot) that there's less housecleaning to do in a tiny house and that we have more time to do it. But there are less chores and more time because we've chosen to live this way. Clarifying how we want to live helps everyday chores take on meaning. They are part of this new life we're living intentionally.
I literally stumbled across composting.
I was wandering in a Philadelphia park one day, years ago when I lived in the city, and a woman stopped me to ask if I was looking for "the workshop." I told her I was just walking but asked what the workshop was about. "Composting," she told me. Serendipity had struck. I told her I had recently planted a garden and wanted to learn more about composting, something I'd read about but never tried.
"We have an open spot in the workshop," she told me. "Someone just dropped out. Want to join us?"
So, I stayed for the talk about composting. Which was more than just a talk. At the end of the event, each participant received a composter, courtesy of the city. I had a ream of instructions on balancing, aerating and watering my "greens and browns" and a big, black plastic dome, designed to make composting clean and contained in an urban setting like ours. That was my instant entry into the world of composting.
Then we sold the house in Philly. The new owners were happy to hear that our composter and pile of "black gold" conveyed. We were in the middle of a downsizing saga and lived in apartments for the next couple years and never found it convenient to stash a pile of rotting food scraps. It wasn't until we got here to the mountain where we had the space and incentive to compost again. With two open-air compost piles and four barrels of "humanure" in various stages of decomposition, we have a full-on compost enterprise.
Why compost? Less "waste" goes to the landfill. Because of this, less fossil fuels are consumed, and fewer greenhouse gas are released. Human waste doesn't get flushed away in gallons of drinking water. Nutrients go into gardens, and, as a result, less commercial fertilizers are needed, reducing even more energy and resource consumption. Soil composition is improved. And we get a little exercise. It's a win any way you look at it. Plus, it's not hard. Or messy. Or smelly.
My "recipe" for easy composting: Mix the "greens and browns," but don't worry about a perfect ratio. Green, or nitrogen-rich materials, means food scraps, fresh lawn waste, human feces. Brown, or carbon-rich items, means dead leaves, wood shavings from our toilet, torn newspapers. Keep things moist (an occasional spray from the hose does the trick) and aerated. In the open-air bins, aerating means turning things over with the pitchfork. In the "humanure" barrels, aeration means using our corkscrew compost turner. Toss in a little native soil now and then to introduce local microorganisms to the feast.
Composting is still magic to me. I understand only the basics: I'm fostering and feeding gazillion microorganisms who, in turn, convert my raw materials into nutrient-rich humus. A simple way to know if things are going well is to sink my hand into the middle of a compost pile. If it's hot, things are humming.
Now, there are a few more complications, to be certain. The barrels that get filled with waste and cover from our composting toilet will sit and decompose for at least a year to be certain the resulting humus has no pathogens. Even then, we won't use it on our vegetable garden. That's why we keep separate piles. Lawn waste and food scraps feed the pile that will go to the veggie garden. The toilet-generated compost will go on trees and ornamentals.
We could have been composting all along. Even in those apartments. Years and years of would-be organic fertilizer got transported to and wasted in the landfill. We just didn't know.
Now we do.
I've been that person who worries about every aphid on a tomato plant and yellowed leaf on a vining cucumber, taking personally the death of every plant as an indictment of my soul. As a result, I've also been that person who has planted far more hardy perennial ornamentals than tender, seasonal vegetables over the years. My forays into farming have been modest and sporadic. But moving here to the mountain, with open space and sunlight aplenty, one of our goals was to learn to grow some of our own food. What was a skittish farmer to do?
Last year, we built our first deer fence and planted a few beds. Cucumber beetles eventually killed off the cucumber plant. Blight started killing the tomatoes from the ground up. But not before we had days of cucumber in our salad of homegrown greens, thickly sliced tomatoes on our lunchtime burgers and zuchinni and peppers sautéed for pasta sauces. Our carrots, on the other hand, were sadly stunted, the radishes bitter and chewy, and, by the time I got around to trying my hand at canning, I had only enough tomatoes for three jars. Year one's garden was both discouraging and encouraging.
Then Bill read to me from an article that asserted it can take ten seasons to learn how to farm sustainably. That resonated with me. Across those years, you have time to learn your growing conditions and improve your soil. You figure out a watering system and a plan to keep varmints out of your beds. You learn to recognize pests before they take out a plant and experiment with organic solutions to the problems. You keep track of what grows well and what you like to eat.
I began to see the garden not as a plant-by-plant test of will and a season-by-season project, but as a longer-term, educational practice. I approached this year feeling more relaxed and slightly more confident. We built more beds and got our farmlet underway. Naturally we still had problems and I still did my share of freaking out, but I also took action. When tomatoes leaves started curling, I still despaired, but I also studied them closely and found the aphids responsible, spraying them with insecticidal soap. When blotches appeared on the leaves of the pumpkin and squash, I knew to go after the powderly mildew right away with neem oil.
Pictured above are the veggies I picked today. An armful of fresh, beautiful food. It still amazes me that the seeds we scattered and the little, tender plants we nestled into the soil have grown to spill out of their beds and produce more food than we can eat in a day. As a result, one of this year's challenges has been to get more inventive about making certain all our produce turns into meals. We give some away. We eat a lot of salad and stir-fry. But I also made refrigerator pickles when six cucumbers came in the same day; the fresh cukes would last about a week, the pickles six weeks. I shredded some of our excess zucchini and froze it for bread and pasta sauces down the road. I made a big batch of hummus, seasoned with our homegrown garlic and now-fading cilantro, and froze portions of it. Next up: canning. (Note to self: get those lids!)
I'm going to declare year two of the vegetable garden a success already. Not because of the armloads of harvest (peppers, radishes, tomatoes, peppers, squash, green beans, garlic, onion, cucumbers, chard, arugula, lettuce, carrots), but because I've learned so much. I've learned more about making compost to enrich our soil, learned about recognizing pests before they take out a crop and, most importantly, learned that this is all (the harvest and the pests, the food and the work to produce it) an ongoing experiment as I learn to live more in sync with the world around me.
Looking back over a list of goals I jotted down a year ago about living more sustainably, I see that I wrote: "Grow some of our food" and "Learn to can." We took a few baby steps toward those two goals this year. Our modest-scale garden yielded tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, peppers and herbs. As for canning: the three pint jars you see pictured here are the sum total of our canning initiative.
Lesson learned #1: The vegetables won't wait for me to be ready, I need to be ready for the vegetables when they come in. By the time I had my stock pot, canning rack, bands and seals and lid magnet on hand, the zucchini had stopped producing, the cucumber plants had succumbed to beetles and the tomatoes had peaked.
That said, I learned a lot filling those three mason jars. I researched methods and read about canning safety. I bumbled awkwardly through preparing my jars and lids, skinning my tomatoes and getting them into jars. In the process, I figured out how I'll set things up differently next time, what order I'll do things, and how much room and time are required. I'm not offering a how-to on canning here, because I'm a novice with a lot more to learn. I know how much I don't know about canning.
But I also know I want to can more than three jars next year. Why? Because I like the idea of knowing what's in my food—no unnecessary and potentially harmful additives, no preservatives, no BPA, no excess sodium. And because I like the idea of reusing the same jars and not tossing excess packaging and perfectly good bottles and jars in the recycling bin. Because I like reducing food waste; when there's a bumper crop, I can save the excess for consumption later. Because I like eating food I grow as well as food local farmers grow.
Next year's goals: Learn to make jam and learn to make pickles. Put up more than three pints of tomatoes.
I stood yesterday in the middle of my tiny vegetable garden and turned slowly to take it all in. Pea pods emerging from spent blossoms. Green tomatoes shining in the sun. Perfectly shaped, miniature green bell peppers clinging to their stems. Feather-like carrot tops bending in the breeze. I completely forgot about the nasty virus I carried back from our visit to Seattle. I was entranced.
This is not the first vegetable garden I have tended, but it is the most intentional. There was a time I would buy pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers without a thought about unintended consequences. Without a concern for the long-term effects and the wider-world implications of my mindless, grow-the-most-as-fast-as-possible approach to gardening.
Now I think about the health of pollinators. The composition of soil. The long-term benefits of composting. Companion plants. Plant diversity. Water conservation. The consequences of over-fertilization and run-off. Early this spring, before we had even built the first raised bed, I felt overwhelmed by the concept of creating a more sustainable garden .
But with each action--building the beds, spreading the compost, erecting a fence, sowing seeds, getting dirt under my fingernails as I planted--my anxiety dissipated, step-by-step. A lot can still go wrong. Aphids are likely to attack my tomato plants. Days of rain may encourage fungal growth. The hard reality is that things will go wrong in the garden. But that doesn't diminish the wonder of watching seed, soil, sun and water work together to send green pea tendrils twining around their trellis, or squash blossoms from popping open in a golden burst, or radishes from doubling in size almost overnight.
I feel more connected with the earth when I sink my finger into soil to probe for moisture. I feel more humble, more grateful, when I understand intimately how the food I consume is produced. I feel more hopeful about the future when I see what can be created from a handful of seeds.
What grows in my garden? Me.
These last few months, I've been obsessing over the issue of consumption. Reading about the energy requirements of refrigerators and lightbulbs and hot water heaters. Watching videos about installing solar panels and setting up battery banks. Vowing to cut back on the energy we consume—needlessly and thoughtlessly—every day.
And then there's my consumer consumption. Did I need to buy a new pair of boots last month? No. But I bought them anyway. I saw them; I liked them; I bought them. Ditto for a couple new shirts. Had I looked thoughtfully through my closet before my impulse buys I wouldn't have brought them home. Now, I'm giving more thought to what I wear and what I already have hanging in my closet. I plan to be more intentional about the clothes—and boots—I purchase. I don't want to spend our financial resources on clothing I don't need and I don't want to contribute to the over-consumption of natural resources required to make them.
Looking at the clothes I wear and don't wear has also called my attention to another "consumption" with even greater, more immediate consequences. I have a pair of black jeans I used to love that now sit idly on a shelf. I would love them still—and wear them—if only they weren't so tight that walking is painful. I've been eating and drinking my way through this winter. Literally over-consuming to the point I'm facing a choice: either change my ways or head back to the store for a new wardrobe. It's gotten me thinking about ethical eating in a new light.
I already don't eat meat, and I've made baby steps toward eating more organic and locally sourced food. We have plans to get a vegetable garden going this spring. But I haven't given much thought up to this point about the ethics of over-eating. When I consume more calories than my body requires, I'm not only wasting money (more groceries; bigger-sized clothes; additional trips to the store), I'm wasting away my health. I strain my already-arthritic joints and damaged disks. I nudge myself in the direction of Type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, hypertension, high cholesterol...
So, I'm trying to be more intentional about what I put in mouth. I've gone back to an app I used when I decided to lose weight a couple years ago: MyFitnessPal. I'm walking every day and tracking my miles using another app: MapMyFitness. The apps "talk" to eat other, so the miles I walk get converted into calories I can responsibly consume. Knowing how many calories I need each day and trying to stay within that count isn't terribly fun, but it's good to know how much is enough.
As I pay more attention to the food we're buying and eating, I've also become more aware of the food we waste. Not knowing what's in the fridge and on the pantry shelf makes it likely I'll buy things we already have on hand. Yesterday, I threw a package of 4 cucumbers on the compost pile because I'd forgotten we'd bought them. I'm not alone when it comes to wasting food: I just read it's estimated that 40 percent of the food available in the United States gets thrown away each year.
I want to stop consuming more than I need--and stop buying more than I consume.
My love of rocks goes back as far as I can remember. I'm no geologist and I plead ignorance when it comes to just about anything scientific. I just like to climb on rocks, look at rocks, stack rocks, smuggle rocks home from trips...
I like the coolness of a smooth river stone in my palm. I like thinking about how very, very long the rocks I'm hiking beside have been here. I find myself stopping to gaze with wonder at a well-built stone wall. I go out of my way to hop from stone to stone and cross a creek.
And now I find myself living in a place sprinkled with rocks and stones and boulders and pebbles. In the breaks between building projects, I rearrange the rocks.
After we cleaned out the poison ivy and brambles outside the Tree House (new name given to the screen house by Kelly), we looked out on a slope of bare dirt stretching down to our tiny creek. Since then, I've created a few paths, planting areas and "scuptures" with the abundance of grey granite all around me.
Ode to the blueberry:
You ward off unwanted belly fat.
You take cancer to the mat.
You give me many an antioxidant,
and of your urinary health benefits I am confident.
Enough bad verse. Suffice to say, the blueberry earns its rep as a "power food." Memory assistance? Check. Nerves? You're covered. Diabetes? Help is here. Cardio woes? Blue equals heart smart.
Among the many benefits of being invited to this patch of land are the blueberry bushes that grace one slope near our friend's 100-year-old house. Susan, our host-friend, moved to Loudoun as a baby years ago; the blueberry bushes precede her arrival. Her mother Betty tended the bushes and baked reknowned pies for almost half a century. This year, in Betty's honor, we've been giving the bushes some T.L.C.
First, came the pruning. We cut out the dead wood, and removed the oldest, thickest canes. Next came mulching with pine needles and coffee grounds—a yet unfinished job—to lower pH and help with moisture retention over the summer. But then insidious tent caterpillars took up residence and demanded our attention. Early spring 2015 will bring some fertilizer (bone meal?) and more pruning.
Already we're reaping the rewards: a dramatic increase in berry production. For the past couple weeks, we've pulled down branches to twist the deep blue fruit off their stems. The other day, Susan and I thought we would only harvest enough berries to fill a small bowl. We ended up swapping the bowl for a larger one—twice. These days we are snacking on handfuls of berries, topping yogurt with berries, freezing berries for future pies...
It is simply a blueberry blessing to live here.