The wonderful thing about keeping bees is there are always surprises. Just when you think you’ve learned what there is to know in one area of beekeeping or another the bees do something entirely unexpected and delightful.
I was reminded of this a few days back when we pulled off the spring honey for processing. We were later than usual with this task — the bees are now well into making the summer’s sourwood honey — but other duties had intervened until suddenly and inexplicably it was July.
I slept downstairs on a futon last night, trying to escape some of the intense heat that, chimney-like, turned the upstairs of the cabin I live in into a furnace. Even so I lay in bed sweating and dozing fitfully.
Heat like this demands adjustments. Sleeping downstairs instead of upstairs. And taking care of all outside chores in the morning — it is simply too hot in the afternoon.
For many years I was a dedicated runner. These days I’m much more likely to choose to walk, both for exercise and pleasure.
I enjoyed running, particularly trail running. There was a sense of freedom and power about running through the woods that I sometimes remember with longing. But you miss a lot when you run. There are all these goals involved: Improve your time, or run a certain distance, or something along those lines. By comparison walking seems pressure free. There are no particular goals, or at least I don’t set goals for walking. I tend to amble along enjoying what there is to see. Henry David Thoreau put it best when he noted “it is a great art to saunter.” It is indeed.
This is a special time of the year for beekeepers in Western North Carolina. It is the time they prepare for the sourwood honey flow.
Beekeepers in this area collect two types of honey from their charges: a spring wildflower mix made up of nectar sources such as locust, blackberry, poplar, apple trees and more, and then the summer’s sourwood.
Sourwood comes from the sourwood tree, or Oxydendrum arboreum. This tree, in my opinion, is underutilized in landscapes. During the summer it has a lovely white bloom, followed in the autumn by flaming brick red or scarlet leaves, making it a very choice ornamental indeed. Besides, what could be better than planting a native tree that helps feed our honeybees?
Some time back I wrote that at a future date I’d print seed-starting dates for the remainder of the growing year. I’ve had a couple people ask about that, so I thought now would be as good a time as any to fulfill that promise.
I put together this calendar while farming for a living. Gardening is an inexact science, but I found that as a general rule these dates worked out more often than not. Having a list or calendar at least provides a reminder and guide to get things in that otherwise might be forgotten.
One important note: if you live at elevations higher than 3,000 to 4,000 feet then you might want to add two or so weeks to these suggested planting dates.
• Plant leek transplants.
• Direct seed okra.
• Direct seed basil, can plant later as well to have with tomatoes.
• Succession soybeans, beets, onion sets, radish, podding radish.
• Direct seed summer squash, cucumbers, cantaloupe, watermelon, pumpkin.
• Transplant tomatoes, eggplants and peppers as weather permits.
• Direct seed beans.
• Direct seed winter squash, spaghetti and butternut (don’t hurry, remember these are for storage).
• Under row cover, grow succession plantings of summer ‘lettuce’ mix: suggest, mizuna, kale, collards, tatsoi, red giant mustard, arugula. Use as cut-and-come again, harvest immature for raw salads. Replant short row every two weeks or so for summer use.
• Plant sweet potato slips.
• Plant chard, if haven’t already, also Malabar spinach, dill.
• Start Brussels sprouts for fall transplants in shade or in shaded greenhouse.
• Succession soybeans, beets, onion sets, podding radish, summer lettuce mix.
• Plant more sweet corn, can keep planting up to July 4 and will make. Also, true for cucumbers, soybeans, summer squash.
• Sow in greenhouse or other shaded spot, broccoli and cabbage for fall planting.
• Direct seed rutabaga and beets in garden.
• Start fall lettuces for transplants.
• Transplant Brussels sprouts when ready to garden.
• Transplant broccoli and cabbage when ready to garden.
• Direct seed kale, collards.
• Direct seed turnips for roots, turnips for tops, rape, mustards.
• Direct seed black Spanish radish, daikon, Chinese cabbage, scallions, mizuna, tatsoi, beet (for tops), chard, spinach, arugula.
• Seed more lettuce for transplants, start in cool place.
• Direct seed regular radishes, carrots, transplant first round lettuces to garden.
• Plant mache, claytonia, minutina. Replant tatsoi, mizuna, etc. for cut-and-come again. Transplant lettuces to garden under row cover.
• Plant garlic bulbs. Keep planting Asian greens as spaces open.
• Plant Asian greens. Carrots. Spinach. Let-tuce transplants.
• First round cabbage, broccoli
• Second round cabbage, broccoli (can continue planting in greenhouse through Febru-ary as needed).
• Peppers (can continue into February as needed, helps germination to start on a heating mat. Must be transplanted into continually bigger containers in greenhouse).
• Head lettuces such as Buttercrunch, Tom Thumb.
• Chives, thyme, other herbs (continue planting through February, March as needed).
In garden toward end of February, first week March weather permitting. Be prepared to cover transplants when temps threaten to drop below 20 degrees.
• Transplant lettuce, broccoli and cabbage into garden.
• Direct seed leaf lettuce, snow peas, English peas, carrots, boc choi, onion sets, spinach, radishes, beets.
• Start tomatoes in greenhouse or house (must be transplanted into continually bigger containers).
• Start eggplant (in moist paper towels tucked into ventilated plastic sandwich bag in warm place in house, when germinated plant as usual in greenhouse or house).
• Plant potatoes in garden (these are for new potatoes).
• Direct seed kohlrabi.
• Succession plant beets, onion sets (for green onions), radishes, podding radish.
• Direct seed cilantro, pole or bush beans, first planting of soybeans for edamame, sweet corn when soil warms (old-timers planted early corn when the dogwood blooms).
Every small town needs a street festival, and what better excuse for one could there be than goats?
This past weekend a friend and I went to the Spindale Goat Festival, where all things dairy goat took center stage. The festival is now in its third year and attracts thousands, including a multitude of dairy goats and their owners.
The festival had its start as sort of a joke, Shirley McKenzie, association manager for the American Dairy Goat Association, told me.
Spindale, you might not realize, is the home of the American Dairy Goat Association. That was apparently a question asked on the game show Jeopardy one time. I’m told the contestant actually answered the question correctly.
“Someone said, ‘We ought to have a goat parade,’” McKenzie explained.
From a tiny acorn grows the mighty oak … and three years later, the goat parade has morphed into a complete festival. There is music, food and entertainment, carnival rides for kids and lots of goat-themed booths and yes, regular festival-type booths, too.
But let’s back the story up a little and answer that question now burning inside of you: And how exactly did Spindale become home to the American Dairy Goat Association?
McKenzie said that the association was organized in 1904 to collect, record and preserve the pedigrees of dairy goats and to provide genetic, management and related services to dairy goat breeders.
The first office was located in Elyria, Ohio. In 1959, the secretary-treasurer was one Robert W. Soens. A time came when his health required that he move to a milder climate. Soens chose to move to Bostic, N.C., and the American Dairy Goat Association moved with him. As the association’s goat registry grew, it required more space, and so an office was acquired in Spindale in 1963. Today, the group has eight fulltime employees and an annual budget of about $1.3 million.
According to a fact sheet, the American Dairy Goat Association is now third in total dairy animals registered annually in the U.S., following the Holstein and Jersey cow organizations. The group has more than 14,000 members and annually registers more than 37,000 animals. Since it started, the American Dairy Goat Association has registered or recorded more than a million animals.
A few more gee-wiz facts: the American Dairy Goat Association sanctions more than 1,100 shows annually throughout the U.S., with each show routinely averaging more than 1,500 entries. In other words, this is big-time organization in the agricultural arena.
It seems that for many years, however, the American Dairy Goat Association kept a fairly low profile in Spindale. That’s all changed with the advent of the goat festival.
“The goat festival has kind of put us and them on the map,” Spindale Mayor Mickey Bland told me in between greeting festival-goers in his small town. “And I’ve certainly learned a lot about goats.”
Bland asked me if I realized how many different varieties of dairy goats there are. I knew there were several, but it turns out that the American Dairy Goat Association recognizes eight: Alpine, LaMancha, Nubian, Oberhasli, Saanen, Sable, Toggenburg and Nigerian Dwarf.
“This has been entertaining,” Bland said of the three-year old festival.
And it has been an economic boon of sorts for Spindale, which has suffered hard economic times with the collapse of the textile industry.
Frankly many of the folks attending the festival probably couldn’t give a hoot about goats. But goats were ever present anyway, from booths selling goat soap to the goat shows that were taking place. More than 200 goats were participating in the shows, and there were two judges each working separate contestant rings.
Paige Leitman and Ben Heisler made the trip from Atlanta to enjoy the shows. The couple currently lives in a condominium in the big city.
“We love goats,” Leitman told me. “But our homeowners’ association would have a fit if we got them.”
Leitman and Heisler dream one day of owning a small farm complete, of course, with goats.
They learned about the Spindale Goat Festival via Facebook. They’d gotten in on Friday and enjoyed the goat parade, which included a “billy dancing” group of belly dancers and goats.
“It was fabulous,” Leitman said. “Now that is quality entertainment.”
So this time next year when you’re looking for something a bit offbeat to do, I suggest that you consider taking in the Spindale Goat Festival.
With our average last frost date of May 10 or so it’s time to start planting the main garden. Corn and beans can go in, and over the next few weeks, so can summer staples such as tomatoes, squash and okra.
I would not rush to plant these latter plants — wait until the soil is good and warm. The tomatoes will sit and sulk otherwise, plus you’ll get poor germination of seeds planted too early.
One item that is plentiful in my garden now but will soon be a sweet spring memory is lettuce. As soon as the weather consistently grows warm lettuce will grow bitter and then bolt. There are things you can do to tide yourself over until cooler, lettuce-growing weather arrives again, however:
• You can place shade cloth over the lettuce bed, keep the lettuce cut back to prevent bolting and water two or three times a day. Field studies have shown that it’s not just heat that causes bolting — cumulative light levels and low moisture contribute as well.
This seems as good a place as any to define what I mean by bolting. This is simply a natural process of a plant going to bloom in an effort to produce seed to propagate itself. Lettuce, and spinach for that matter, is notorious for prematurely bolting. Lettuce has compounds that cause that distinctive and unpleasant bitter taste via substances called sesquiterpene lactones. The bitterness becomes increasingly pronounced during the growing season. You can minimize the taste by washing the lettuce in warm water.
• You can plant a lettuce selected for slow bolting qualities. My favorite is a loose leaf aptly named Slobolt. Some gardeners enjoy a French Batavian called Sierra, also genetically selected for being slow to bolt. You can find these varieties easily through various seed catalogue companies.
• You can plant a hot-weather “lettuce” mix. When I was a market gardener, I grew a mix that sold like gangbusters once the main lettuce crops had bolted. These I grew as cut-and-come-again crops. I’d seed heavily and then use scissors to shear the plants when they reached several inches in height. The plants would re-grow and I’d repeat the process. You might consider placing an insect barrier over the beds as well; this will eliminate the need to spray. What I mean by an insect barrier is that you use a manufactured lightweight fabric, also available from numerous seed catalogue companies, over your crops. Insect barrier is light enough that it can rest directly on the plants, but if you prefer you can use metal hoops to keep them up and off of them. I use 11-guage lengths of wire available from the fencing section of local feed and seed stores and cut them into four-foot hoops.
My beds were about 30-inches wide and seeded with a generous hand as noted already. The 30-inch width worked well because I could easily straddle the beds and harvest.
The mixes you can plant vary widely. I generally used baby collards, arugula, baby chard, baby kale and beet greens. I’d replant a new bed every three weeks or so trying to keep ahead of the competition from weeds. Other people also have grown kommatsuna (an Asian green), vitamin green, Tokyo bekana, cutting celery and tetragonia.
Do not make the mistake I made one year and seed them all together. My thought was to mix in the field so I would not have to mix later, but this didn’t work well because the plants grow at wildly different rates. Arugula, for instance, grows very fast indeed whereas the beets grow more slowly. It’s nice to keep them separate so you can harvest according to the growth rate of a given plant.
One nifty idea that I read online in a gardening forum which I might get around to doing this year: A fellow who was selling a variation of this mix (which can be cooked or eaten raw) grew his on salad “tables” made of rows of side-by-side hay bales with three inches of mushroom compost piled on top. The tables are weed free and, over time, compost themselves and can be used to regenerate the garden. He noted that it’s important to use hay bales that are bound with synthetic twine to keep them from breaking apart prematurely. For those of us without a lot of space, or who don’t want to engage in a losing battle with weeds, this sounds like a terrific way to grow plenty of green stuff.
This being a Sunday, the day on which I generally take care of household chores that have gone unheeded during the hurly-burly and rushed pace of the workweek, I was dusting the combination living room and kitchen in the cabin where I live. It seemed to me every surface was covered not so much with dust as with a motley collection of dime-store eyeglasses. I must have moved a dozen to swab surfaces with my dust cloth.
A need for eyeglasses is a new development in my life. So new there is no single place in the cabin for me to deposit them, meaning they are dropped willy-nilly about when the immediate pressing requirement for them is done.
I noticed about half a year ago that I was getting more headaches than usual on press days at work. These are headache-inducing days at the best of times, making it difficult to distinguish the regular headache of getting a newspaper out the door from the headache of dwindling eyesight — a headache by any name still being a headache, as it were.
On press days, however, and almost overnight it seemed, the print size of the dummy pages seemed to have been reduced. I squinted accordingly and by the end of each workday I found myself with rip-roaring headaches to nurse. I finally distinguished these new headaches from regular layout-day headaches by the sheer frequency and viciousness with which they occurred.
I resisted eyeglasses until the weekly dose of pain overcame my vanity and I trotted down to the nearest drugstore. Looking around to ensure that no one I knew was also in the store, I stood in front of the eyeglass section with the magnification chart that assists aging men and women self-fit themselves in glasses. This chart helped me determine I needed 1.5- to 2-magnification. Now I own a variety of glasses in various shapes and colors. The only commonality among them is that they each were cheaply purchased and I can never find a pair when I need them.
My surprise at needing reading glasses was surpassed by my shock at turning gray. In theory I knew that these things would happen, that I would age and that parts of me increasingly would change or malfunction, but frankly each shift or mechanical failure comes as a surprise.
I found my first gray hair in my early 20s while looking in the mirror in the bathroom of the veterinary clinic where I worked for a couple summers. I immediately plucked it out. Now if I plucked out my gray hairs I would shortly be bald — I’d do better to pull out the ones that remain brown.
I was recently reading a magazine about writing, Poets & Writers, and one of the authors was writing about finding space for inspiration. He quoted psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on creativity. Csikszentmihalyi wrote the book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. The magazine writer noted that Csikszentmihalyi lays out the five stages of creativity: preparation, incubation, insight, evaluation and elaboration.
Equally interesting to me is that Csikszentmihalyi also identifies four obstacles to creativity: psychic exhaustion, easy distraction, inability to protect/channel creative energy and not knowing what to do with that energy.
Being a professional writer means that I write whether I feel creative or not. In many ways that’s a good thing — necessity is the mother of invention and all that. I’ve often discovered that meeting a deadline forces me out of the creative doldrums. Sometimes, however, I’m just out of the groove. I’d equate that feeling to Csikszentmihalyi’s psychic exhaustion.
Other writers are generally sympathetic to the creative doldrums. I’ve heard fellow newspaper writers, too, walk into the newsroom and complain that they just can’t seem to write on that particular day. Problem is, once everyone has grunted understandingly, the newspaper still has to get out the door. So you dig deep and force it out no matter how unappetizing the final product seems to be. As I also read recently, you can’t fix a blank page. If a writer can just get something out there’s always room to pretty it up before the big performance.
So why am I sharing all of this writerly angst? Well, sometimes I just have to fake it until I make it. I suspect psychic exhaustion, my new favorite catchphrase, is currently at play.
I was fortunate enough this past weekend to be present when a mother goat gave birth to two babies, and even to assist her some, though truthfully I think she’d have performed just fine without me.
My friend and I had been to the farmers market earlier that day. The 40 or so hens are all laying and that makes for a lot of eggs to sell, hence the farmers market on Saturday mornings in downtown Sylva. We were returning after having unloaded a dozen or so eggs when we decided to stop at the barn to check on a very pregnant goat. We arrived to find one small hoof protruding in a very uncomfortable-looking manner from said goat’s backend.
My friend gave a tug or two but the baby wasn’t having any part of leaving that warm cocoon-like place for a brave and cold new world. I found some antiseptic lube, lathered up, and went fishing inside for the other hoof. Once I found it and had both hooves in my right hand, I grabbed hold of momma goat’s tail with my left hand. Then I gave a good strong tug while my friend hung on to the front of the now vastly unhappy goat. The poor momma was bleating in pain but she did finally manage to give a good hard push, squirting the baby out. Once the baby was on the ground we saw immediately what the problem had been with the birthing. It wasn’t complicated: This was simply a big baby goat, probably eight pounds compared to the usually six or so at birth, and the mother goat isn’t particularly large. The next baby came fairly quickly. It was, if anything, even slightly bigger than her sister.
This is the third nanny to birth here at Haven Hollow Farm this spring. And based on a swelling midsection it looks like another goat, one that we didn’t plan on having kids, is nearing a possible due date, too.
Meanwhile, the billy responsible for all this mayhem and gamboling about of baby goats is lounging his time away in the barnyard. He saunters around lackadaisically until feeding time, when he turns into demon goat and bullies the others and eats all their food. In this case it truly is good to be the king: all pleasure and absolutely no pain.
The birthing of goats are a rite of spring. It’s something I’ve grown comfortable with these last couple of years and the delight of newborn babies never wanes. What’s also fun each spring is showing off the goat babies to others.
Kelly and Anna, two young friends, came to visit a week or so ago. They were appropriately taken with the baby goats, as anyone should and would be, given that these little tykes are adorably all legs and fuzz.
We admired the babies for a while. Then I noticed the girls kept disappearing inside the main chicken pen. It turns out they were looking for eggs, which because of a wide assortment of hen types, come in a variety of colors: white, blue-green, brown and chocolate brown. Kelly and Anna’s mother later told me that the girls did like the goat babies but they most enjoyed collecting the hen eggs. It’s sort of like a treasure hunt, I suppose, in that you can never be quite sure what color you are going to find next.
While waiting for Kelly and Anna that day I planted three long rows of potatoes in my garden. This past weekend, in the other sections that are potato free, I applied generous amounts of lime to the soil.
Gardening, like seeing the goat babies being born, is an important part of spring to me. I’ve mentioned previously in this space that I had every intention of not gardening this year. I thought that I wanted to devote more time to other labors. But I realized that I simply can’t imagine going through a year without tending to a garden — at the risk of sounding flaky, gardening, tending animals and other farm chores grounds me. Whatever time farming takes is generally returned to me in terms of a freer spirit and more peaceful mind.
Firmly resolute in my desire to set aside more time for my writing I decided not to have a garden this year. Typical of my fickle ways, I now have my largest garden plot ever. I’m terrible with guessing dimensions accurately, but I’d roughly estimate this new garden space is approaching a half-acre in size.
There is something intimidating about such a large blank canvas. I tremble much as Michelangelo must have when he first viewed the huge expanse of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. I am paralyzed by indecision about what to plant first. It is late in the season to be starting. Should I simply focus on traditional summer garden fare or try to sneak in some spring crops such as lettuce and peas?
This deer-in-headlights reaction to emptiness, newness and expectations freeze me as a writer and person, too. As a general rule I have a terrible time starting new work and making beginnings. I have an equally difficult time letting go and moving on. I tend to overwork things, whether it is a column, story or garden. And I never say goodbye easily.
But returning to beginnings:
If I could view a blank page or an empty garden as wonderful promises instead of dreadful challenges things might go more easily in my life. But all the little self-pep talks in the world won’t budge the reality of my reactions when faced with an empty expanse. It shuts me down until I finally make a start and get going with the task at hand.
I suspect I’ll need to do in this garden what I’m forced to do as a writer: I simply sit at the keyboard and begin. I would guess that more than half the time I have no idea what I’m going to write before I start. It’s not “free” writing in the sense that I let my feelings flow onto the page. Somewhere in my head I suspect there are some ideas about what I want to communicate; I do usually have a rough idea of the topics I want to cover. For instance, with this column I knew I wanted to write about my new garden and that I wanted to discuss the irony of my plans not to garden at all this year. But even knowing what I wanted to discuss didn’t make starting a jot less painful or laborious.
Once I’ve finally gotten something on the page it’s generally reworked and changed multiple times. Sometimes my changes are for the better and sometimes not. Often I will expend much time tweaking and tweaking only to find myself, in the end, more or less where I began.
The garden will probably prove no different. I suspect I’ll just have to go to the garden with a hoe and a bunch of seeds and commence to planting and growing, guided by some inner part of myself that is always there and available once tapped. Otherwise winter will find me still leaning on a metaphorical and literal fence staring at this vast garden, uncertain of what to plant first, trapped again at the beginning of a beginning.
One big motivator is that I actually do have a couple of peach baskets filled with seed just begging to be planted. These are leftovers from when I farmed for a living a few years back. Seed well cared for is like money in the bank, it really doesn’t ever go bad: the best place to keep seed is in a freezer. This seed, however, is a little more hit and miss than that. It’s been in and out of various storage areas in a mirror of the vagaries of my life these past couple of years. I’ll probably have to conduct rough germination tests to see what’s viable and what’s not. Or, more likely, I’ll just seed extra thickly in the garden and figure that I’ll get good germination that way, or good enough germination that way, anyhow.
That’s similar to how I write columns, stories and poems.
Jackson Pollock dripped or poured paint onto the canvas in a style of action painting; I throw a bunch of words at the blank screen and then try to swirl them around to create a form. This is a process similar to a kid spelling words in a bowl of alphabet soup. I find the process a bit demented, and frankly would prefer a more crafted approach, but I’m beginning after so many years to despair that I’ll ever make meaningful changes to my writing, gardening and life processes.
Sometimes you have to just accept who you are; beginnings, I know very well indeed, are difficult places for me. But to get anywhere you have to make a start: somehow you do have to begin.