Displaying items by tag: quintin ellison

Goats view a gate left open as a passageway to excitement. And it is exciting, too, for the goat keeper, when the entire herd escapes the barnyard. Lesson: When you open a closed gate, shut it behind you. This isn’t an original thought, but that doesn’t make the saying any less true.

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Honeybees are insects. They do not think or act like we do. But they seem to feel fear, or perhaps it’s anger. If you swat at them when they are buzzing around your head, they sting in response. Lesson: Don’t swat at honeybees, you’ll get stung. Retreat is the best course of action.

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Reading books about farming is fun and educational. But it doesn’t get the barnyard mucked, the animals fed or the garden weeded. Lesson: If you want time for lying in bed and reading, have fewer animals and buy your vegetables at the farmers market.

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Only a fool works honeybees without smoke. Honeybees know we are not their friends; we come to them as robbers and intruders. They defend themselves with righteous anger, even when we plan to bother them “only” for a few seconds. Lesson: Use a smoker.

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Only an even bigger fool works honeybees without the protection of a veil or other protective clothing. There is no such being as a “bee whisperer,” though I’ve met a few people new to beekeeping who seem to believe otherwise — for a while. Lesson: Learn from my sister; don’t work bees wearing flip-flops.

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Beware the middleman: If you want to support local farmers, buy directly from the farmer. Lesson: If you want to make money at farming, be the middleman — open a store selling the fruits of others’ labors.

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‘Good fences make good neighbors,’ might be true, but I’m terrible at building fences, and practice is not making perfect. Lesson: stock panels are the greatest invention of modern times. Yes, they are pricey, but what is lost in dollars is saved in time and frustration.

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Building barns and chicken houses and other structures is time consuming and expensive. Lesson: Bend stock panels in half-hoops between T-bars, then put tarps on top, and the result is fast, relatively inexpensive shelters for animals.

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If you do not have pastureland, do not buy animals such as sheep that rely on grass. Lesson One: Impulsive farming and homesteading decisions rarely work out very well. Lesson Two: Feeding sheep hay all summer is hideously expensive.

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Neglecting your honeybees is not organic, natural beekeeping, even if you aren’t using chemicals. It’s just bad husbandry. Lesson: At least be honest with yourself if you aren’t caring properly for your charges. Otherwise, learn and put into practice known, successful methods of natural, chemical-free beekeeping.

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Don’t adopt and bring home a kitten with the expectation it will grow up to only kill voles that are destroying the garden. Lesson: Cats kill whatever the hell they want to, including cute chipmunks, skinks and songbirds, which they dismember into bloody little pieces in the middle of the living-room carpet. And they view newly tilled gardens as convenient toilet areas.   

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Broody chickens don’t lay eggs, and they block the laying boxes so other hens can’t lay eggs. Lesson: Old wives tales often don’t work. Dunking hens in cold water doesn’t make them any less broody; it just leaves them — and you — wet and indignant.

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Using chemicals to kill mites that afflict honeybees does work, at least until the mites get resistant to the chemicals and your honeybees sicken from chemical “cures.” Lesson: Using an insecticide to destroy insects that are residing on insects is crazy; beekeepers themselves are more responsible for the honeybee disappearance than any mite, virus or mysterious plague.

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Letting all the female goats mate with the billy and have babies seems fun until the herd jumps from six to 15. Lesson: That’s way too many goats — don’t ever, ever do that again.

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Having dirt under one’s fingernails from farming doesn’t make a person inherently trustworthy. Lesson: Get to know the person you buy vegetables and other products from at the farmers market. Visit the farmer’s farm; ask about farming practices. If it doesn’t feel right, buy from someone else.

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Farming is physically hard; writing about farming or anything else is mentally hard. There’s nothing about farming, writing, or writing on farming that’s easy. Lesson: Too late now, but maybe you should have remained a classical musician. Oh, right, that was hard, too.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Last night, lying in bed on the screened porch reading before darkness fell, I looked up from my book and noticed a wasp crawling on the inside of a window screen.

I was reading “The Way of the Bodhisattva” by Shantideva, a translation of an ancient Tibetan text on cultivating compassion, generosity and patience. I noted the wasp — it was a small wasp, more black colored than brown, of a type unnoticed by me before — and returned to reading the book.  

“If such a thing as ‘I’ exists indeed,

Then terrors, granted, will torment it.

But since no self or ‘I’ exists at all,

What is there left for fears to terrify?”  

I (or wait a minute, there is no I), or some part of me (if there is really a me) looked from the book and back up at the wasp to check on its progress. The wasp was still crawling about trying to find a way to the light outside.

I wondered: if I ignore the wasp, would it be there in the morning, still trying to find an escape. Or, more likely, would the wasp sting me during the night. Probably on my face, causing my eyes to swell shut for three or more days, which has happened before. Because, when you work with honeybees as I enjoy doing, you inevitably get stung. And, sometimes, you get stung in very tender places indeed — such as when angry honeybees crawl up your pants leg and make a beeline, as it were, for the “straddle area.” This is what a friend of mine used to call that place-he-would-not-name, even under the most dire circumstances, such as when he was dancing wildly about grabbing at himself (as delicately as one can under such circumstances) in the straddle area. One learns to tuck pants legs into boots, or to tape them shut.

It was getting darker outside. I returned to my book.  

“The agent of sensation has no real exis

tence,

Thus sensation, likewise, has no being.

What damage, therefore, can sensation do

to it —

This aggregate deprived of self?”  

Hmm, I thought wisely to myself. So if I do get stung, then who actually got stung? If sensation has no being, what then is a sting?

The problem with thoughts like these is they don’t really go anywhere. Or, at least, they don’t progress to any suitable conclusion when I’m the thinker involved. The truth is if the wasp did sting me, I believe it would hurt. A lot. And it would hurt me — if I really am, and whether I actually exist or not.

Finally, defeated by my own circular illogic, I got up and opened the window screen. Using “The Way of the Bodhisattva,” I shooed the wasp, unharmed, out into the fading light. It flew away without so much as a thank you.

There was a time, maybe even no more than a year ago, when I would have killed the wasp, probably using whatever book or magazine I was reading at the time. With no real malice, you understand, but with no actual thought, either, about the value of a life — even if it’s a wasp that is under consideration, and a particularly small one, at that. But one can’t very well grind the life out of a sentient being using a text that states:  

“With the wish to free all beings

I shall always go for refuge

To the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha,

Until I reach full enlightenment.

Enthused by wisdom and compassion

Today in the Buddha’s presence

I generate the mind for full awakening

For the benefit of all sentient beings.

As long as space remains,

As long as sentient beings remain,

Until then, may I too remain

and dispel the miseries of the world.  

After that, I went to sleep. No wiser about the world or even about my own life, I admit, but free of worry about getting stung during the night. And the wasp lives on, I hope, doing the things that wasps do, whatever those things might be.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

I traveled over the Balsams this past weekend from Sylva to Lake Junaluska for a native plant sale, and I’m very glad that I set time aside to make the trip. Not only were there some nice specimens to be had, I was able to tour the Corneille Bryan Native Garden.

I did know the garden was there, though many folks in the region don’t realize this tiny labor of love exists in Haywood County. I used to run regularly at Lake Junaluska before going to work weekday mornings at a regional office for the Asheville Citizen-Times in Waynesville. I’d sometimes trot through the garden area, dropping off County Road through the garden on my way back to the lake, happy for a bit of trail under my feet instead of pavement. Or, for variety, I’d run up the hill from the lake area to the road, optimistically dubbing my crawling, gasping effort a “hill workout” in my running journal.

No matter how pathetic and slow the actual effort, running through a garden is not a mindful way to enjoy flowers. Most of my attention, frankly, was devoted to not falling flat on my face. So the opportunity to stroll leisurely through was a delight, heightened by chats beforehand with garden director Janet Manning and Linda McFarland. Linda, in 2003, helped Janet Lilley put together a book, “Seasons in a Wildflower Refuge,” on what one can enjoy there. Well-known regional botanist Dan Pitillo, now retired from Western Carolina University, wrote descriptions for the book of the garden’s plants.

The genesis of the garden dates to the summer of 1989, according to a brochure about the Lake Junaluska site. Tuscola Garden Club members had been discussing the need to encourage more native plantings on the Junaluska Assembly grounds. Maxilla Evans (who died in December 2007) expressed a desire for a place where her lifetime collection of wildflowers could be preserved; and the family of Corneille Downer Bryan was looking for a suitable memorial. Bryan was a nature lover, artist and member of the Tuscola Garden Club.

So began the Corneille Bryan Native Garden, now home to about 500 various trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants. These include shortia, which is native to only an extremely limited area, pinkshell azalea, and various trillums. An endowment through the Bryan family helps maintain the garden.

The garden’s “primary function is to serve as a place of respite and renewal for all who draw strength from the beauty and quiet of this place,” the writers of the brochure note.

I believe what interests me most is how well Manning and the others involved are using such limited space — limited in both terms of size and context. The garden, as noted earlier, is on a fairly steep hill in a ravine, with a mix of oaks, black walnut and locust overhead. The area had become a dump for trash before the garden was created, with new steps, paths and bridges built, and a variety of habitats created.

Manning said the group is working to complete a bog section now. This is only one of many habitats featuring a variety of shade-loving and sun-loving native plants. (Much of the ravine is shaded, but a small area (euphemistically dubbed the “sunny meadow”) gets light. There you can find asters, penstemon, columbine and more).

There is much to enjoy and learn from the Corneille Bryan Native Garden. If you take the time to stop and smell the roses, that is, and not run mindlessly through. If there were any roses … but you get the point, I’m sure.  

To get there, go to Lake Junaluska Assembly. You can get to the garden on Stuart Circle from Lakeshore Drive, or by turning off County Road onto Oxford Road or Ivey Lane. Go to www.lakejunaluska.com/facility-maps for even better directions — click on “grounds map.”

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Some years ago, confined to an office through work obligations but dreaming of farming, I spent more time than I should have surfing the Internet in search of agriculture and back-to-the-land related sites.

Amazingly, many of the same ones I visited regularly then are still up and running. Though these days, I find more pleasure in the actual doing than the reading, still sometimes I turn to old favorites for information or to recharge my batteries. Here’s some of the ones I’ve found most useful:

urbanhomestead.org — The Dervaes family lives in a sustainable fashion on a tiny (1/5th of an acre) lot in southern California, where they grow a garden, raise livestock and undertake interesting homesteading projects. The father, his grown son and two daughters (the wife and husband divorced many years ago) have developed a slick Website chronicling their journey. In fact, the site has gotten a little too slick and commercial for my taste, but maybe I’m just jealous of this family’s exceptional marketing abilities and beautiful urban homestead. There is a lot of good information here if you are willing to dig around, and this is a particularly useful site if you don’t have much room to create a sustainable lifestyle, but still are looking for ways to do just that.

www.homesteadingtoday.com — General homesteading forums that, subject wise, ranges far and wide. The forums are moderated, which helps keep people on-topic. Forums include general subjects such as “homesteading questions,” “countryside families” and so on, plus specialized areas on goats, bees, gardening, market gardening, sheep, rabbits, guard animals and more. Also includes a useful “preserving the harvest” forum and a recipes forum (need to know how to cook a possum? These are the folks who will likely know).

www.gardenweb.com — Skip all the junk and go directly to the gardening forums. These are terrific, and you’ll soon find your own favorites if you poke around long enough. Some of mine include “vegetable,” “tomatoes” and “organic gardening.” The search engine for the site is also quite good, allowing you to search within individual forums, so give it a shot next time you have a gardening question.

www.thecontraryfarmer.com — Writer Gene Logsdon’s site. This man writes and writes and writes, and yet still finds time to run an actual farm in Ohio. He has published more than 20 nonfiction titles, including his latest, “Holy Shit, Managing Manure to Save Mankind.” He also writes fiction, and these days, blogs on the Internet. Check him out, he’s funny and knowledgeable and agreeably opinionated (in that I agree with most of his opinions).

www.backwoodshome.com — If you can handle the survivalist paranoia that crops up here, then this is a good general source of homesteading and information on self-sufficiency. I subscribed to the magazine of the same name for a year or so, but didn’t renew because I couldn’t handle the rightwing Republinuts agenda. That said, the basic information offered here is sound, if you skip articles on storing up ammunition and the need to buy gold coins. Unless, of course, those are the sort of topics that interest you.

www.motherearthnews.com — So sad, so bad, but true: Mother Earth News is not what it once was. Still, ignore the yuppie, often shallow content and use the archives online, and you can tap right back into the original and best back-to-the-land magazine.

www.ces.ncsu.edu — At your fingertips, here is all the specialized agriculture-related information on North Carolina you could want. This site serves as a direct line to decades of state-funded research and work. On that same track, check out www.growingsmallfarms.org, a site built and maintained by Debbie Roos, an organic specialist for the state in Chatham County. Here you’ll find very specific information for organic and small farms in North Carolina, from marketing information to specific state regulations and laws.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Just a few minutes into weedeating and I feel lobotomized. Perhaps the heady roar of the little engine that can obliterates my ability to discern what’s being whacked until I’m in full, lethal motion. Maybe it’s the power of wielding a mechanized cutting machine mixed with the angst of an uptight, obsessive personality that does me in.

Be that as it may, once launched with a weedeater in my hands, I sense a strong internal drive to cut everything the same height — somehow blind to the carnage I’m wreaking in my lust for a flawless, perfect, three-inch tall green expanse.

In a different life, I might have been an excellent builder of golf courses. Though in this life, I dislike golf and golf courses (environmentally poisonous cesspools built so a few people can tap little balls into holes using sticks). And I would add a dislike for those who play golf, but that’s not actually true. I don’t dislike people who play golf. But I don’t comprehend the fascination, and I don’t much care for those I inwardly suspect of ulterior motives for playing golf: the modern Silas Laphams of the world and their upwardly mobile climb to the top. (Though having advertised my snobbishness, I’m tempted to add qualifiers about how I know golf is a fun game (though I don’t really believe it’s fun), and how I’m sure people don’t really hit the golf course for networking reasons alone (though I know many, in fact, do just that)).

Whatever … I give up. I’m heading from this self-built sand trap back to safer ground: weedeating.

It seems I always destroy at least one irreplaceable and expensive flower, shrub or tree during a weedeating outing. This weekend, the sacrificial victim was a serviceberry tree. It’s a fact that our forests are filled with serviceberries. So, on first blush, the loss of one, tiny serviceberry doesn’t seem like much. But my friend, a few years ago, had carefully selected this tree from a nursery, ordered the serviceberry sapling and planted it. She had weeded and nurtured the serviceberry, openly admiring her excellent work mere days before I, with a single heedless pass of the weedeater, took said prized serviceberry from a height of three or so feet to a mere three or so inches.

I looked back, oops, too late to prevent the destruction, and there — stark evidence of my recklessness and need for perfection — was a tiny stump, the remnants of her beloved serviceberry tree.

“Well, if you had to cut something down, I’d rather it be that than, say, the plum tree,” my friend said bravely, as if she were in the Strait of Messina choosing between Scylla and Charybdis.

A few years ago, I ordered eight very expensive tea plants from a nursery in Chapel Hill. I planted them. Within a week, I had chopped down two. Innumerable flowers have given way to my weedeating, and even a fair number of vegetable plants — each time I mow the paths in the garden, I take out a broccoli here, a row of carrot tops there.

I’ve long toyed with the possibility of using a scythe rather than a weedeater. My biggest fear isn’t the physical labor involved — a weedeater beats the hell out of you, anyway — it’s sharpening the blade. I’m very bad at sharpening anything. I have ruined many a fine knife by trying to “fix” it, dulling the blades beyond the repair of the most skilled professional knife sharpener. These days, I use a serrated knife that never requires sharpening, and I resolutely squelch desires for chef-quality kitchen equipment. I know I’d just be throwing away my money if I bought nice knives.

This might prove the case with a scythe, too. There is something deeply satisfying, however, about the thought of using this finely crafted tool instead of a machine. No motor, no need to string; more time to think, some protection I hope for the plants. Additionally, my inner peasant finds a certain rustic appeal to the possibility of looking like I stepped out of a Bruegel painting. And that’s a feeling I certainly never get when using a weedeater.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

The next time you are standing about the yard scratching your head in confusion about which tree climber in Jackson County to call because there’s a swarm of bees in the tippy-toppy portion of a tree, let me please recommend David Hatton, a very fine tree climber and a man whose resume now includes experience in the hellish ways of honeybees.

David this week heroically ascended a rather smallish but very tallish white oak at my behest. He cracked jokes about how much he was enjoying being 50 to 60 feet up the tiny tree as it swayed wildly about, rather like a Q-tip might writhe before gale-force winds. He endured four stings in his scalp without (much) complaint — although David did, I noticed, descend the oak tree at an alarmingly rapid pace after announcing: “That’s it” in a calm, but resolute, tone of voice.

David endured all of this only to watch the bees take off for parts unknown, sort of “Westward, Ho!” and down, out of sight they disappeared into the valley below.

And thus this tree climber unwittingly, but gamely, became an initiate into the world of beekeeping. David learned firsthand the great lesson bees are here to teach us: the knowledge that the subject of one’s ardor will, as often as not, receive the attentions lavished upon them ungratefully; and in return for adoration, will visit great pain and, sometimes, absolute rejection upon us.

Does that sound a bit dark, a tad jaded, a wee bit pessimistic? Let me hasten to add that I am wild for swarms, and passionate about honeybees. Something deep inside me thrills when I see that tornadic rotation of thousands of bees launching upwards from a hive, and I hear the astonishingly loud buzzing roar that signals a swarm.

Even if, as so often proves the case, the swarm disappears without so much as a “thanks, dedicated beekeeper, for feeding us all winter.” And this just a couple weeks before, you’ll note, it is time to start collecting honey for said beekeeper. And just one day — one day! — before I planned to split this particular hive to hinder swarming.

I console myself it’s only through my losses, and the losses of other beekeepers, that the forests will be repopulated with honeybees.

(Though, philosophic resignation be damned, I would really like my swarm back. So if someone in the Fairview community spots a large wad of honeybees hanging about, please get in touch with me (unless the bees went into the walls of your home, in which case, that most certainly wasn’t my swarm)).

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This seems like as good a place as any to answer some of the many questions I get about honeybees.

Q: Dear Quintin, I’m really interested in getting into beekeeping. How many hives should I own?

A: Two to start with. More than two is too much work; fewer than two and you don’t have a point of comparison.

Q: Dear Quintin, where can I get bees?

A: It’s really late in the season to be getting bees. Most beekeepers take orders in the fall for the following spring. So think about doing it next year, and in the meantime, join a bee club (call your local N.C. Cooperative Extension Service agent for more information).

Q: Dear Quintin, I have bees, somehow they survived my total neglect and lived through the winter. What should I be doing now?

A: I hope you’ve been feeding them sugar water, or there’s a very good chance your bees starved this spring even after surviving the winter. If they are alive, I for one am strongly considering putting my supers on now — I spotted some locust in bloom, and it looks as if the poplar trees are getting ready to bloom, too. Stop feeding sugar water when you super up. Actually, I quit earlier this month — you don’t want them to store sugar water instead of honey.

Q: Dear Quintin, why not just put the supers on early, say March? Why the what’s-in-bloom-now fixation?

A: Put supers on too early and the bees will use the wax in the frames for other purposes, not necessarily as a place to store honey.

Q: Dear Quintin, what the hell is a super?

A: Supers are boxes that contain frames of foundation, usually made of wax that encourage bees to store honey, which you can later rob from them.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

Tonight’s menu calls for salad from the garden, which reminded me to jot down a method for growing lettuce that, being very lazy busy lately, I’ve grown quite fond of doing.

Lettuce doesn’t need coddling, or careful spacing of the seed, or much of anything at all for that matter. Those expensive bags of mixed salad you buy at the farmers market or in produce sections of grocery stores? You can easily and inexpensively grow the stuff at home.

Here’s how you to grow your own Mesclun mix:

Broadcast lettuce seed thickly over a prepared garden bed. Broadcasting means strewing or scattering. A properly prepared bed is one free of rocks, amended with compost or, short of that, amended with organic fertilizer. The soil should have been limed to sweeten the soil, ideally some four months previously. The state extension service people will fuss at me about this — they do so like to recommend soil testing, probably in part because of the job insurance such testing entails — but don’t wait for results to come back from the laboratory if you haven’t tested and limed yet. I can pretty much guarantee that in Western North Carolina, home to acid soil, you need lime if you haven’t limed before. So get a bag of the stuff and, using a light hand, dust the top of the bed. It won’t hurt the seed, and this way rain will drive the lime down to where it can do the most good.  

Your seed should be leaf lettuce such as Black-Seeded Simpson, not a heading lettuce. Though having said that I hasten to be contradictory by adding Buttercrunch lettuce — which is a Bibb type — works particularly well when broadcasted.

After you’ve gotten the seed down, stir it around a bit using the back of a rake. This presses the seeds into the soil and helps with germination. Don’t try to cover every seed, that’s unnecessary; in fact, some lettuces (the white-seeded types) need light for even germination. By stirring the seed you are simply trying to make some contact between said seed and the soil.

Keep the bed moistened if the weather turns dry. This is very important because, using this method, the seed is more or less on the surface of the ground and subsequently will dry out very quickly. The lettuce generally germinates in about a week this time of year.

One wonderful side benefit to using my method if you, too, are really lazy very busy is that by broadcasting thickly, weeds are crowded out.

When the lettuce leaves have grown a few inches tall, take scissors and whack them off, a couple of inches from the ground: tah dah, you have salad. The lettuce will re-grow; you will take a pair of scissors and whack the leaves off again, fertilizing every couple of weeks (liquid fertilizer, such as compost tea or a fish emulsion). Over and over you cut, shearing the bed, at least you can do this until the weather turns really hot and the lettuce bolts or turns bitter.

You can help slow bolting by putting shade-cloth over top and watering frequently, but don’t bother until temperatures stay consistently in the 80s. Interestingly, once your lettuce starts tasting bitter, try rinsing it in warm water: for some reason, that helps more than cold water.

I’ve also found Slobolt, a leaf lettuce readily available through various seed companies, lives up to its name. I seed Slobolt in late spring to help tide me through the hot summer when Black-Seeded Simpson and Buttercrunch are a distant spring memory. I also have a hot-weather mix that I’ve grown for market I’ll write about another day. It has no actual lettuce (which is a cool-weather crop, and germination rates drop accordingly as temperatures rise), but instead relies on baby kales, collards and so on.

Other items that go into my salad mix this time of year: baby beet leaves, particularly the variety unappetizingly called bull’s blood beets. This type has lovely dark purple leaves and really dresses up a salad, but any young beet leaves will do. I also add claytonia, or Miner’s lettuce, a West Coast native that has a wonderful buttery taste; lamb’s quarters, a pernicious weed in our soil but a nice salad addition; sorrel; Asian greens such as tatsoi and mizuna; and Arugula.

Don’t forget to clip some dill or other herbs into the salad. I also enjoy adding edible flowers, such as violets or nasturtiums, for both beauty and gustatory pleasure.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Raspberries, like any fruit we plant, represent an act of faith.

As others are doing this time of year, this past weekend I dutifully dug little holes, added amendments and planted a long row of sad little sticks, carefully watering them in. Three or so years from now, perhaps sooner, I’m confident that I’ll be harvesting mounds of delicious red raspberries from these sticks.

Now that’s belief in the future, displayed on a dizzying number of levels: I’ll be here, the raspberries will produce, and all the work in between today and then has magically occurred. The garden fairies during the intervening years have been hard at work staking, weedeating, watering, amending, cutting out old canes, perhaps netting the plants from greedy birds, which I’m quite sure were salivating in nearby trees even as I laboriously dug and planted in the field below.

I’m suddenly reminded of one of the many Henry Mitchell writing jewels sprinkled throughout his columns on gardening. “Cats, by the way,” he astutely noticed when discussing raspberries, “are no answer to anybody’s bird problem, since then you would have cats.”

Don’t, please, now fire off a letter to the editor in defense of cats, because this is a sore point with me. I’m currently helping to feed no fewer than five of them — which I’m still at a complete loss to explain how such a feat occurred — because that’s way into creepy cat lady territory, where I swore I’d never go. Only Jack the barn cat, by any stretch of the imagination, can be considered to be earning his way in this world, in that he occasionally awakens from his naps long enough to swat casually at a mouse or two before heading back to slumber in the hay bales. The other four cats exist simply thanks to my largesse, which they’ve yet to show any gratitude or appreciation for, despite great expense and no small expenditure of labor on my part.

In my raspberry fantasies indulged in over the weekend, I envisioned harvests of such abundance I’ll probably be able — no, forced — to open a pick-your-own raspberry farm. Here lies every farmer’s secret fantasy: a farm (and to farm) with no labor.

Hah. Back to reality.

Raspberries, as with all things in life, respond in corresponding measures to the love lavished upon them. They will survive in poor soil, and fight their way through weeds and a dearth of moisture, to spit out a seedy berry or two. But give them lots of attention — rich soil, adequate moisture, plenty of room to grow — and the return is raspberries by the bowls full, nay, by the pails full.

One of the most elaborate raspberry plantings I’ve heard of is recounted in a book titled Ten Acres Enough, first published in 1864, by Edmond Morris. This was a man serious about his raspberries.

Morris was a city slicker who dreamed of the country life. After turning 40, he moved to New Jersey (which isn’t as weird as it sounds, because New Jersey at the time lived up to its moniker, “the garden state,”) with his family, and commenced to farming.

In addition to blackberries and strawberries, Morris planted raspberries, and lots of them — 5,656 plants, or nearly two-acres worth, all within his new peach tree orchard. It took him three days, but he was well satisfied with the results:

“I am sure the growth of my raspberries was owing, in a great degree, to the deep ploughing the land had received. The soil they delight in is one combining richness, depth and moisture. It is only from such that a full crop may be expected every season. The roots must have abundance of elbow-room to run down and suck up moisture from the abundant reservoir which exists below.

“Deep ploughing will save them from the effects of dry weather, which otherwise will blast the grower’s hopes, giving him a small berry, shriveled up from want of moisture, instead of one of ample size, rich, and juicy. Hence irrigation has been known to double the size of raspberries, as well as doubling the growth of the canes in a single season. Mulching also is a capital thing.”

Good advice, then and now.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Maybe I’m just self-absorbed, but I swear that when I’m interested in something, it often seems as if the whole world suddenly has become interested in the very same thing.

Given this, it didn’t seem terribly odd that the husband of a former newspaper colleague of mine has developed an intense passion for sheep, as have I. Steve Tabor and I crossed paths at Cagle’s Animal Auction in Waynesville this past weekend. He was there to sell some goat kids; I was there to pick up some replacement hens after losing eight or nine fine layers to a supposed guard dog.

The guard dog, a 150-pound or so Anatolian/Great Pyrenees cross with an adorable personality but a propensity to play dead with chickens (he plays, they get dead), has found a new home in Barbers Orchard in Haywood County with two children and two adults to dote upon him, and where nary a chicken can be found.

Before the chicken and goat parts of the auction, Steve and I fell into a lengthy conversation about the myriad virtues of sheep.

Not just any sheep, however — Katahdin sheep, an American breeding original. Steve, whose farm straddles the Macon-Swain county lines (I worked years ago with his wife, Teresa, at The Franklin Press), has extensive experience raising Boer meat goats. The ease and hardiness of Katahdins have made a convert of him, however, and he’s increasingly phasing out Boer goats in favor of sheep.

Katahdins, Steve told me, have proven almost unbelievably self-reliant. The ewes will go up on the mountain in January and February and drop a perfectly formed, healthy lamb or two, with no trouble and little fuss, wandering back one fine day with little lamb(s) in tow. Unlike his Boers, Katahdins are proving resistant to parasites and they rarely need their hooves trimmed.  I’ll add they have excellent heat tolerance; the tails don’t need docking and, best of all in these days of low wool prices and widespread lack of general sheep shearing know-how, Katahdins are hair sheep — they never need shearing. Additionally, Katahdins require minimal, or no, shelter.

A fellow in Maine developed the Katahdin breed. In accounts of his work posted on Katahdin Hair Sheep International’s website and the animal science department at Oklahoma State University’s website, the man Steve and I can thank for these wonderful sheep is the late Michael Piel, an amateur geneticist and livestock enthusiast.

Initially, Piel wanted to raise sheep to graze power lines, but developed more expansive ideas about using them for land management. In 1956-1957, he saw photographs in a National Geographic magazine of West African hair sheep, and had some imported to Maine (there’s where the heat tolerance most likely came from — West Africa, that is, not Maine).  

Piel began playing with crosses, using a variety of breed combinations. He selected for hair coat, meat-type conformation, fertility and flocking instinct. Piel picked out the best ewes and named them after Mount Katahdin in Maine. For years, he continued tinkering with his breeding program, improving the size, among other things, by using some sheep from Whales.

A Vermont couple named Paul and Margaret Jepson get an important mention in the story of Katahdins. The Jepsons bought some sheep from Piel in the mid-1970s, adding St. Croix hair sheep into the mix.

As the years passed, Katahdins enjoyed increasing popularity, and are now frequently spotted here in Western North Carolina.

I’m helping tend a few Katahdins in Sylva with dreams of finding some pastureland soon to expand the flock. In my experience (which is limited) and Steve’s (rely on him more on this subject, as his knowledge of Katahdins is more extensive), this breed of sheep is simply terrific on our mountain pastures.

The recommendation I’ve seen, by the way, is three-to-five head per acre. But, if you are willing to feed, you probably could push that recommendation some — though once you feed, if this is a for-profit enterprise, you’re going to start flipping income into outgo pretty quickly.

I give mine a bit of feed, even this time of year, because this serves as an enticement and makes them easier to handle. Because the pasture here is poor, I’m still putting down hay each day. Steve, who has a better setup for sheep, isn’t forced to feed hay now that his pastures have greened up. I think he said he uses a small amount of feed simply to ensure some control.

I also put out a mineral block for the sheep. A note of caution: Make sure, if you have goats, the sheep can’t get to goat-specific minerals — sheep accumulate copper in their livers, which can be toxic for them. On the other hand, if you feed goats sheep-specific minerals only, you set them up, in turn, for possible copper deficiencies.

All aflame now for Katahdins after reading this far, and you want to join in noticing them as you motor about the countryside? Look for sheep that appear kind of patchy, at least this time of year, because the Katahdins are shedding excess hair following the winter.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Friends of mine in the Jackson County farming community have launched a joint CSA, which is short for Community Sustained Agriculture, under the name Living Earth Farm Shares CSA.

Ron and Cathy Arps, Stephen Beltram and Becca Nestler, Laird and Penny O’Neill, and John Beckman teamed up over the winter, envisioned this venture, and are now making it happen. They’ve sold about 20 shares so far to folks in the local community who want organically grown vegetables, Ron told me while dropping off a pack of lettuce seed last week at the office here in Sylva.

The Arps pioneered the CSA concept in this corner of Western North Carolina. They’ve run a successful one for more than a decade, serving a small and select (and lucky) group of people in the Sylva area. A couple of years ago, William Shelton started another CSA down in the Whittier community, and we have at least two more in Jackson County, one by Vera Guise (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) and the other by Curt Collins (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.).

What’s a CSA, you ask? They vary in exact details, but essentially a CSA is simply a buy-in to the farm by customers. In the case of Living Earth Farm Shares CSA, you pay (or split with another family) $500 “per share,” plus give back four hours of farm work. In return, the farmers hand you a box of vegetables each week from May 1 through Sept. 14.

Steven and Becca will be selling shares in meat, too: chickens, pigs and Thanksgiving turkeys.

Ron was frank in our discussion about the challenges of a joint venture such as this — there’s not a clashing of personalities or anything like that, but a variety of timing issues to resolve. Vegetables have to be grown out and harvested on a more-or-less predictable schedule. Since farming is inherently unpredictable, that can create some interesting dilemmas.   

I steered clear of the CSA concept when I farmed for a living because of that very difficulty. I instead sold through farmers markets, or occasionally to a few customers who liked to buy directly at the farm. That’s easier because if you ain’t got it, you ain’t got it — no broken promises, no disappointed customers, no explaining that you simply didn’t get the beets planted in time because of the weather.

CSAs, particularly on this scale (Living Earth Farm Shares CSA is offering up to 72 shares), requires intensive planning, scheduling and communicating amongst the growers involved. I imagine, however, that there is much joy in return. You have the ability to share failures and successes, as well.

If you are interested in a subscription, email Ron at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. William can be reached through www.sheltonfamilyfarm.com.

•••

This seems like an excellent opportunity to clear up a few misconceptions about farming, local farms and farming practices. I don’t know why I feel compelled to venture here, because I’ll surely regret it. Every time I’ve written a version of what follows, it’s as if I took a stick and poked it into one of my beehives. But, being a slow learner, here I go again:  

A CSA (or vendor at a farmers market) isn’t necessarily organic — ask the grower(s) involved what methods they use. This is demonstrated in the two CSAs listed above: Living Earth Farm Shares CSA is selling vegetables grown without the use of synthetic chemicals; William uses chemicals.

This does not make William bad and Living Earth Farm Shares CSA good — in fact, William is one of the most responsible growers I know, and he’s very upfront about his farming practices. I’d eat (and have, in fact) the vegetables William grows any day over those grown by some ostensibly “organic” farmers — the world is made up of good people (such as the people listed in this column) and some others who, unfortunately, are liars and cheats.

Dirt under one’s fingernails from farming does not make a person inherently trustworthy. Ask about growing practices and visit the farms you patronize. The honest farmers will welcome your questions, and respect you for taking time to visit their farms. William and the folks who launched Living Earth Farm Shares CSA can be counted on for honesty, openness and transparency in their growing methods. You should look for those same qualities each time you go to the farmers markets, or buy directly from a farmer.

A quick word, too, about the word “organic.” Technically, if you make above a certain amount ($5,000, I believe), a farmer can’t call herself “organic” unless she is certified — so when I called Living Earth Farm Shares CSA organic, that was my word, not theirs. I have no idea what words they are using, because I didn’t ask. Any others seem so forced and bulky — “naturally grown” isn’t terrible, but it doesn’t really mean anything, either.

“Without the use of synthetic chemicals” is a favorite of mine, but it doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, does it?

You can thank big business for co-opting the word organic and taking it out of the hands of, well, small organic farmers. Soon as there was money in it, “organic” became a brand instead of a method. That’s a load of bull, in my book, and I believe farmers (the organic ones, anyway) ought to push back and reclaim their word. What’s the worst that can happen? A lawsuit? Phooey — none of the organic farmers I know make enough money to be worth suing, frankly.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Page 6 of 9

The Naturalist's Corner

Back Then with George Ellison

  • One of the Smokies’ finest poets
    One of the Smokies’ finest poets Editor’s note: This Back Then column by George Ellison first appeared in the Feb. 15, 2012, edition of The Smoky Mountain News. Olive Tilford Dargan is fairly well known in literary circles as the author of From My Highest Hill (1941), a delightful collection of autobiographical…
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