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I was reading a story in the New York Times Sunday Magazine recently about turning standing trees into firewood. It was a short, how-to type piece, like something that might appear in Vermont Almanac. But it was written by someone who had clearly never put up much firewood. The tips were banal at best (“Never take down trees when it’s windy”) and troubling at worst, like the idea that “you’ll want to take trees that are already dead,” which sounds eco-friendly to a layperson but is really dangerous advice. If you’re new to felling, never cut a dead tree. They’re unpredictable, and the whole top can crumble out of it and crush you. Not to mention that dead trees are often best left to the myriad creatures who live in and slowly decompose them.

I’m using a story from the New York Times as a strawman because the Times is truly a world-class publication. I’m a regular reader. The point is that no one, no matter how good they are, can write well about things they don’t know intimately. And as the small-town, small-state print publications that intimately document the rural experience disappear, the big urban ones that are left can’t fill that void. I won’t even get into the false choice that is the Internet, where a Google search on tree felling will turn up a bunch of videos by people who are proudly cutting trees for the first time, documenting the experience, and sharing it with the world. (The worse things go, the more popular the video will be.) I’ve known dozens of loggers in my life here in Vermont who are masters with a chainsaw, but I’ve yet to meet one who carried a video camera and filmed himself on the job. 

We created Vermont Almanac because we think rural Vermonters should have a publication that’s resonant and relevant to their lives. And we exist because you saw fit last year to not only prebuy a copy, but to donate something extra to help us get off the ground. We did it together. Now, with Volume II in the works, we’re going to do it again.

The business model that’s supporting this non-profit venture is much like the CSA model that supports small farms in the state. We both need money up front to grow and nurture a product before it exists to sell, so we both depend on people like you who appreciate this reality and who see the value in what we’re doing beyond the commodity that sits on the bookstore or farmstand shelf. 

We are about as lean as a non-profit can be. The money you donate goes directly into the creation of an annual book, and what’s left over supports the writers, editors, photographers, artists who are using their talents to document and celebrate rural lands and rural ways.

Please give what you can to help us create Volume II. And thank you.

Dave Mance III

Turning a Patch of Lawn into a Vegetable Garden, Part 5

There’s an old axiom that to be a good builder you need to learn to think like a drop of water. Farming and home gardening can be similarly reduced to: you need to learn to think like a weed. There’s hundreds of years worth of cultivated plant knowledge at our fingertips, and expert growers who can tell us exactly what each garden plant wants and needs. But unless we’re growing in the controlled conditions of a greenhouse, this knowledge is partial at best. Out in the cruel, bare dirt of our short Vermont summer, the art of eliminating competition is where the garden is going to be made or broken. 

We’re working on a story for Volume II about all this; talking to professionals about their tricks of the weed-killing trade. But in the meantime I thought I’d share some thoughts from my own garden this year in the hopes that they’re useful to other backyard growers who might be new to this. The plot is 1,800 square feet, and this particular garden is two years old. So far I’ve been able to keep on top of the weeds, and to quote the late Kenny Rogers, knowing when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em is probably the biggest reason.

I kept my cards folded all of last year. I broke ground in the spring of 2020, but then cover cropped instead of planting. This plan was based on respect for the established perennial vegetation that was being plowed under, which was going to rise again. It didn’t come to dominate that particular patch of ground by accident. This garden was built on a lawn, so crabgrass was the toughest plant of the bunch. But in a weedy meadow out back, in a different planting I did at the same time, the endemic goldenrods, milkweed, and fern all pushed back in a similar way. Patience was key. Had I tried to grow before the sod had broken down, it would have been a nightmare to fight the crabgrass. By spending a year letting the soil mellow while smothering the weed base, I was able to start the weed fight this year in a position of strength.

This year’s weed control efforts started right away, which is another piece that seems key. If I’d waited until the weeds  looked like garden plants, I’d have lost the edge and it would have become real work. The truism here is that if you’ve got a weed-free garden in July, it’s because you put the time in in April and May. 

Weeding the 1,800 square feet in this garden probably took a couple hours a week in June, but I’m probably down to an hour a week now that the plants have taken off. I do 20 minutes a morning on my way to the chicken house. I don’t squat unless I absolutely have to, and do 95% of the weeding standing upright with this tool. 

I’ve heard them called a bunch of names, including a loop hoe and a push-pull weeder. It’s basically just a two-sided blade that you can work while pushing or pulling. If you hit the crabgrass when it’s this big:

You can kill it with one hand. Those same plants, three weeks from now, would require hand digging.

As I planted, I made sure all the rows were wide enough to accommodate the tool – I use it as a cultivator, too, when the beds are just getting established. I don’t cultivate the paths that are in between the beds deeply – the paths are permanent and I don’t mind soil compaction here. When weeds grow in the paths, I run the loop hoe over lightly so they’re cut near surface level because I don’t want to dig in deeply and aerate the soil and stimulate microbial activity.

Any place in the garden that didn’t get planted this year but might someday got covered. In some beds that meant planting buckwheat or sunflowers, which grow fast and dense – they’re placeholders that bees and birds love. Other areas got covered with old newspapers and then any biomass I had lying around, like old leaves or planer shavings. The point was to eliminate bare dirt as much as possible.

The danger of these kinds of pieces is that the writer can come off as smug – it’s like the way Facebook makes everyone’s life seem more photogenic and perfect than it really is. So let me assure you, this garden has plenty of imperfections. I mulched a bed of peppers with newspaper and planer shavings in late May, and I think I set the plants back at least 2 weeks because the soil temperature couldn’t get warm enough under the mulch. I didn’t look closely at the straw I used last fall to mulch garlic, and the weed seeds in it – weeds I don’t recognize – have been a pain to deal with all summer. That was very much a self-inflicted wound. I could go on. 

Still, I’m happy with how things look, and I hope there’s something helpful here for people who are new to all this.

Turning a Patch of Lawn into a Vegetable Garden, Part 4

I’m working on a piece about soil fertility for Volume II of the Almanac, and part of my background research involves reading a book the late Jack Lazor wrote on grain growing. Lazor broke soil fertility down into three interdependent realms: the chemical, the physical, and the biological. And he made the point that conventional agriculture can be exploitive and short sighted when farmers just focus on the chemical. Through Lazor’s organic lens, soil is an ecosystem where billions of microorganisms “work in conjunction with a soil’s mineral and humus factions to feed themselves and the plants that grow there.” High levels of organic matter mean happy microbes and happy plants, and so growers use compost and cover crops and manures to grow soil before they grow plants. In a conventional system, farmers just add chemical nutrients from a bag, and without mitigation measures, the organic matter in this soil is depleted. 

Farmers transitioned away from organic practices for financial reasons. And in theory, us home gardeners have the luxury of being able to do better because we don’t have a profit motive. And yet it’s so hard, even for us, to escape the chemical mindset; the allure of magic in a bag as opposed to the hard work of incorporating three yards of compost with a shovel and pitchfork. 

I think part of the problem here is that we’ve been conditioned to see fertilization as an act of care. We’re feeding our plants from the bag. And chemical fertilizer works. If you go out and sidedress your plants with some Scott’s 10-10-10 this week, and we get adequate rain, they’re going to pop. Lazor points out that the soil carbon is burned up in the process of converting the fertilizer to Nitrogen, and over time soil is hardened by modern fertilizer. But this is a problem years in the making, as opposed to results that are immediate and easy to see. And if one plant food takes seconds to apply, and the other hours and days, then why not push the easy button? 

I think a better way to get through to home gardeners about the benefits of organic amendments is to highlight the way organic soils hold water. In my experience, water retention, not fertility, is the miracle of compost. That’s the reason to do the hard work. For every one percent increase in organic matter, an acre of soil will retain an additional 160,000 gallons of water. And as the climate changes and weather gets more extreme, home gardeners are going to be dealing with dry conditions more and more. It’s easier to get nitrogen from a bag than from compost, but it’s easier to mix in compost once a year than it is to lug a watering can around to every plant all summer. 

I laid out this garden with a center hallway, then used a broadfork and hand tiller to elevate beds. (Because this was a lawn that’s been mowed for decades with a riding mower, it’s pretty heavily compacted.)  I borrowed a truck trailer and bought 2.8 yards of compost, which I incorporated into the top layer of the beds. That’s all I did to make the beds. I didn’t raise them because I want the plants to be able to work their roots down into the cool reservoir of the earth. As I add compost each year, they will naturally raise themselves. 

So far this year it’s been relatively dry. And I’ve done no supplemental watering. Still, the dirt’s inherent 4.6 percent organic content (this figure from the initial soil test) and the compost I added have allowed the plants to take hold and take off. 

Trout Fishing

My friend Kris and I met in Mrs. Kevorkian’s kindergarten class, which means I’ve been a bad influence on him for three decades now. When I suffer from panic attacks brought on by the realization that another summer’s slipping through my fingers, I often find myself dialing his phone number. “Wrap it up,” I said on a Friday morning, “we’re blowing off work.” About an hour later we had the rods in the back of his Jeep and were pointed up a wood road, climbing into the hills.

As the jeep bumped and bucked over the washed-out macadam we puffed bug-spray cigars and told fish stories: that Boy Scout trip to a remote Vermont pond that may or may not exist anymore, where as a 10-year-old I hooked an 18-inch brookie on the day’s first cast; a sinkhole in New York’s Beaverkill river where monster browns torpedoed from the depths like sharks.

We parked near a small brook and followed a tannin-stained ribbon of water into a birch glade. You hunt trout in water like this. We stalked on tip toes to the head of each pool and made offerings without casting shadows. More often than not the cagy brook trout would scatter with the rods first motion – quicksilver shapes, there then gone – but a few hits set. When hooked these little trout danced across the surface of the water on lean, wild muscles.

Eventually we hit a chain of beaver ponds and fished them, too. Beaver pond trout fishing is ephemeral. If the water is cold enough, and the conditions are right, these ponds can be jewels. But then overnight, maybe the fishing’s gone. Maybe you get a year out of a pond, maybe two, or five. But maybe the conditions will never be right, or never be right again.

We fished three ponds that day, big expansive wetlands that lay sprawled out on a plateau that was about 2,000 feet above sea level. There was no human sound anywhere. Just the whisper of a light, steady wind. Bird song. The whipping sound of the rod as it cut through the air and the occasional click of a turning reel.

We stood on the dam and cast dry flies onto a tea-colored canvas. Fifteen feet from shore a beaver trolled back and forth, his keen black nose trying to make heads or tails of us. In the middle distance, beyond the pear-shaped contour of the pond, the wind pressed its presence into the lime green saw grass: feathered naps and cowlick whorls; look at the hair on your forearm and see the wind blow through this grass.

Rods bent and lines sheared through the tannin-stained depths. Lines sheared.

I found this old essay in a pile of papers while cleaning my office. It was written in July, 2008. Kris and I both have four-year-old daughters now, and those carefree days of being able to blow off and go fishing seem like a lifetime ago. With luck, though, and time invested in passing on our passions, the girls will someday be blowing off work together to find the same ponds we did.

Eyes Wide Open

The idea that chickens and gardens are symbiotic is more than half bunk. They do eat bugs, but both good bugs and bad bugs. If your ratio of bad to good is such that you’re willing to play the odds, consider that they don’t eat many bad bugs when they have a belly full of layer pellets. And if they are hungry, which would be the way to get them to eat your potato beetle larvae, then they’re also going to be hungry for your garden plants. They like the same foods we do, and seem to especially like the same foods we especially like, like berries and heirloom tomatoes. They do cultivate and drip nitrogen, but they’re also destructive. If someone showed up at your doorstep and offered to sell you a bunch of tiny tractors driven by mentally-deficient drivers to turn loose in your summer perennial garden so they could randomly cultivate and spread manure you’d tell them to take their crazy idea and get off your lawn. But we’re suckers for the allure of a good complimentary system – especially natural ones. So it’s easy to put aside our logical minds and convince ourselves that our freeranging chickens must be benefiting us somehow.

To be clear, there are advantages to freeranging your backyard flock. You don’t have to build a run. You get the satisfaction of letting the little dinosaurs live their best lives. You probably save some money on chicken food bills – actually, strike that last one, since the inevitable mortality you’ll eventually suffer will cancel out any food-bill gains over the long haul. So there are two advantages. The point, if you’re considering chickens, is not to suggest you shouldn’t let them freerange. Just don’t get deluded into thinking they’re little garden helpers.

Turning a Patch of Lawn into a Vegetable Garden, Part 3

It’s time to figure out a fence for the garden, and the options seem endless and imperfect. I’m going to want to keep cottontails, woodchucks, deer, and birds out, and so the logical solution is a 2,000-foot cage. Of course I also want an aesthetically pleasing place to be, so right away the practically-perfect is the enemy of the good. 

In past gardens I’ve used single-strand electric fence, three courses high. And it worked well for deer. I’d smear peanut butter on the wire to train them. Each fall the fence came down, and each spring a tractor could till, unimpeded. The downside was that it wasn’t effective for cottontails or woodchucks, who could go right under. And it was a pain to weed-whack, which is important because the grass growing up into it shorts the electricity. And I want to try to not use a tractor anymore, so the fact that I can remove it easily is no longer as big a plus as it was. 

So I decided to go the classic welded 2 x 4 wire route. The pros are that this fence thwarts woodchucks and bunnies. The structure can also be nice, either as a means of growing vertically or as a way to help suspend bird netting over vulnerable crops. The downside, besides the fact that it’s labor intensive to build and maintain, is that it still leaves you with a deer problem. They can jump 8 feet, and so to really keep them out you’d have to run two courses of 4 foot wire and turn the whole plot into a prison cell. 

I’m hoping to get around this by running one 4-foot course of wire, then messing with the deers’ depth perception, an idea codified by UVM’s Leonard Perry in this online article. If I put 45 degree kickers on the corners which will go out and up, away from the fence, I’m hoping that maybe a single strand of wire will leave them hesitant to jump. 

Once the decision on fence style was made, it was time to source posts. Cedar makes good posts. Locust makes good posts. Unfortunately, I have neither of these species growing on the back 40. So I went online and found Ed Fox, a farmer in Pittsford, who was selling freshly cut white cedar posts for $5.50 each. This seemed like a good deal to me. Plus I got to use Vermont wood and put the cash money right in his pocket instead of in a register at a big box store. After loading them on a trailer, he watched with amusement as I tried to tie them down. “If you get pulled over, just say you’re a farmer and you’ve got enough problems,” he said. 

Once home I dug 28 roughly 2-foot-deep holes that were between 6 and 10 feet apart. I backfilled each hole with gravel that I dug out of a sandpit on the property that was originally used by the state to improve Route 7A when it was paved in 1931.  I ran a course of wire down the long side of the rectangle, then I put a 12-16” strip of landscape fabric in between each post and under the wire, which was then covered with gravel. I don’t want to have to fight weeds. 

I bought the welded wire from Poulin’s feed store, which used to be Whitman’s feed store. Art and Kathy Whitman were pillars of the Ag community for many years in Bennington County and were supporters of Volume I of the Almanac. I point out these details because rural economic life is an ecosystem, and if we don’t support each other, we all suffer. 

I reinforced the corner, then stapled the wire onto the first fence post. At the other end, I cut a disposable 4-foot limb, stapled that to the other end of the course of wire, attached the limb to the tractor bucket with a chain, then used the tractor to apply tension to the wire. It worked fine for a home garden. No need for the fancy fence pullers that the professionals use. 

Turning a Patch of Lawn into a Vegetable Garden, Part 2

Year two of the garden project started with a decision: was I going to keep using a tractor to work the earth? 

Like many of you, I grew up thinking that you needed to deeply till the soil to grow things in it. As a boy, I remember being beat up by the family roto-tiller, the thing pitching me around like a bull as I tried to hang on to it. In my twenties I worked on a vegetable farm, and we basically used the same techniques as we used in the home garden, just with better equipment. Every spring, we broke the earth with a three-bottom plow. We then disked, then spread manure, then used a tractor-mounted tiller to make fluffy beds. The soil was so soft and loose when you were done that you wanted to lay down and take a nap in it. 

Of course the downside to soft, loose dirt is that there’s no structure anymore, which leaves the soil vulnerable. Without a plant layer to act as a roof, topsoil can dry out and blow away, rain water gushes in instead of trickling in, ecosystems full of mycorrhizae and microbes and insect life get all smashed up. A no-till farming/gardening advocate would tell you that the plow is a pariah, and best practice involves keeping dirt as green as possible for as long as possible, then work only the top few inches of soil, leaving the subsoil as intact as possible. 

We want to dig deeply into the topic of soil in Volume II of the Almanac, talk to some growers with different perspectives on best practice and report what we hear. My sense is that it’s not a case of right or wrong, it’s a matter of scale, technique, available resources, and what trade-offs you’re prepared to make.  

In the meantime, where it comes to this garden, I decided to pursue a modified no-dig approach. Instead of plowing and disking this year, I simply scratched the soil surface with a York rake to break up the dead buckwheat litter. I blew my budget by investing $100 in a broadfork – basically a pitchfork on steroids that lifts compacted soil. And I borrowed a twist tiller, which is a tool you plunge into the earth and twist to break up a planting bed. If the hand tools work, I’ll be able to recoup much of the cost by selling the old roto-tiller that sits in my garage.

Turning a Patch of Lawn into a Vegetable Garden, Part 1

Like many people, I decided to start a big vegetable garden in the Covid spring of 2020.  The goal was a garden on the cheap – a couple hundred bucks was the rough budget agreement with my partner. 

I went the traditional rectangle-on-the-ground route, as opposed to raised beds, because I didn’t want to have to buy or make lumber and I didn’t want to have to dig and elevate soil.  I’m blessed with a big backyard so space isn’t an issue. I  know the ground is fertile because I had it tested at UVM: here’s the link to follow if you want to do that with your own soil. For $15 they’ll send you back an analysis that tells you what it has and what it needs; for a few dollars more they’ll test for heavy metals. 

To break the earth, I borrowed a tractor and hooked it up to an old trip plow and a set of disks that came out of a hedgerow. I believe the plow was a model called “Little Wonder” that was made by International Harvester in the early part of the 20th century. Hopefully there’s an equipment collector reading this who can correct me if I’m wrong on my ID. 

The old plow was elegant; even after years of rust and disuse it worked like a charm. I plowed with my three-year-old daughter, and as you can see from the picture, it was slow going, since we needed to get off and pull worms out of the furrows with each pass.

The rectangle ended up being about 30 x 70, which seemed right. The thinking here was that if I’m going to go through all the trouble of putting up a deer fence, it may as well fence in a large area. A big footprint will give me the ability to scale up or scale down based on the time and interest available in any given year. And if it turns out to be too big to manage, then I’ll plant some fruit trees within the fence, or keep animals in there. 

If I didn’t have access to heavy equipment, I might have tried weakening the sod with landscape fabric, then smothering it with cardboard and mulch for a year. This fits into the no-dig garden concept that’s all the rage amidst a certain subset of home gardeners. I’m intrigued by no-dig techniques, especially by the idea that you’re not using machines to compact your soil, and you’re not exposing more bare dirt than you need. On a small scale it makes a lot of sense to me. But the logistics of trying to do a 2,000 square foot garden this way were too daunting. Plus we all work with what we have, and in my case it’s easier to borrow a tractor and coax some old machinery to life than it is to try to source industrial rolls of cardboard and gobs of mulch. 

In year 1, after breaking the earth with a plow and disking it, I mostly resisted the temptation to start planting and instead cover cropped for a year. Lawn sod takes a long time to break down. And the soils under lawns are compacted, which plants don’t like. And there are white grubs, and crabgrass, and other garden pests that get stirred up by disturbance but can be blunted with time and technique. 

To cover the exposed soil I planted buckwheat, which is cheap. It took maybe $10 worth of seed to cover the rectangle. Buckwheat grows fast, so it’s a good smother crop which keeps the weeds down. It has deep roots, which helps loosen the compacted soil. It can add phosphorous to the soil, but since I just let it die and fall over, I probably missed this benefit. Still, the dead thatch protected the soil all winter, and in the spring of 2021 I had a nice, loose rectangle of earth to work.

The story continues in Part 2 of the blog . . .

The garden plot in late July, 2020

April, Part 1

In early April,  when the snow recedes, you can finally see the earth, which really only happens for a few weeks each year. You see it through and around the crushed thatch in the meadows. In the forest it exists in halos around tree trunks and as little islands in the deteriorated leaf litter. Buried things – old bottles, plowpoints, license plates – get heaved to the surface, and there’s this brief window where the past reasserts itself. Then the spring rains come, and the first blushes of green start to obscure things. 

The winter snow disappeared in southwestern Vermont in late March, and by mid-April the earth-seeing window had passed. Early April was jarringly hot. There was a 5-day stretch from the 7th through the 11th when highs soared into the 70s each day — about 20 degrees above normal. But then a spring snowstorm on the 16th restored something of a natural order, though it stayed dry.

Dispatch from the Sugarwoods, 2021, Part 7 of 7

There are things that make someone a good sugarmaker, like an understanding of forest health, keen attention to detail, endurance. But at the end of the day, the success of any given season mostly comes down to the weather, which no one has any control over. This season ended up being a perfect case in point. 

It was a cold and snowy February in southern Vermont, so there was no meaningful February sap run. We got a minor run on the first day of March, but then a cold front moved in and it didn’t get above freezing for seven straight days. The trees don’t run when they’re frozen, so this amounted to a lost week. We could have, in theory, made up that lost time in April, but only if it stayed cool and March-like. It did not. Three days into the warmup we had a three-day stretch where the highs reached 60, 66, and 56, temperatures that are really too warm. You can absorb a three-day stretch of this, but the seven-day heat wave that came on March 20 – 26, when temperatures soaring into the mid-70s, was just too much. The warmth changed something in the trees, which changed something in the sap. Last week, the syrup went off-flavor. The sap still came after that, but neither we nor the place where we sold a portion of our sap this year thought it was worth the time and effort to collect and boil it. And so we’re done.

Examining the weather from a different angle, I noted that this March, in our woods, there were 11 days when it was in the 30s or below – a little too cold. And there were 11 days when it was 60 degrees or higher, which is a little too warm. That left just 10 days in the sweet spot. I hauled sap on 22 days this season. Last year, when the weather was more consistent, I hauled sap on 32 days in a season that started on February 24 and ended on April 2. As the days-spent-hauling number would suggest, our yield this year was off by almost a third compared to last. In 2020, our Maple Hill bush averaged 29.5 gallons per tap, this year the average was 20.6. 

But it is what it is. Compared to last year, this season was a disappointment. But one of the good things about getting older is that your perspective broadens. As a young man, I used to be happy with 12 gallons of sap per tap. Middle-aged me is balking that I even wrote that line, thinking that there was a lot less riding on a season when i was 25 years old. But young me is still in there somewhere, and immensely grateful that the trees gave so much. 

Bulk syrup prices have been creeping downward for the last decade as production boomed in the Northeast, and an off year, production-wise, that keeps the packers honest and a little scared about supply probably doesn’t hurt in the grand scheme of things. 

Near the end of the season, I just happened to look closely at the tongue that connects the trailer hitch to the pickup and noticed that it had cracked and was hanging on by a strip of twisted metal. Had the trailer broken free with a load of sap on it, it could have been a disaster. That didn’t happen. 

Near the end of the year I found a spotted salamander trapped in a bulk tank swimming in 1,600 gallons of sap. I pumped it down and climbed in and rescued the silly thing. Later, I told my 4-year-old about it, and the next day, I’m told, it was the talk of Evergreen Preschool. Nobody there would have even comprehended what 20 gallons of sap per tap means, but the fact that I rescued a salamander gave me Ryder-from-Paw-Patrol status. I felt like I earned a bit back in her eyes after being gone so much for the last two months.  

We’ll get through this pandemic and there will be better days ahead. Thanks for reading.