Saturday, September 17, 2011

Construction for critters and keepers

It isn't quite square, and it wouldn't pass any building code inspections...but here is our bunny hutch, for nighttime use. Daytime, they romp around a fenced-in area of the basement; today we found Cecil in the dollhouse, watching TV in the living room. They don't like being caught in the evening, so I might have to cut off the legs, but I like the fact that I can sweep under it as it is. Emily and I built this together in the days right after we got back from seeing bunnies at the State Fair. (I don't know why the photo below keeps turning sideways for me, but here it is, anyway).

While we were making rabbitat, the days got shorter. The chickens have stopped laying, started a moult (feathers everywhere!), and are making more frequent visits to the front door. Are they jealous of the indoor animals? Or do they just sense that the people and food are all inside?Brian, meanwhile, has been working on human habitat outdoors - patio and back deck repairs. His work, considerably neater than ours, is worthy of showing off. As a reward, we got him a gas grill for his birthday.

I wonder if it is possible, with all of our animal poo, to bottle enough methane to cook dinner? Roast chicken, anyone? (Kidding!)

Friday, August 26, 2011

Animals indoors and out

My intentions with our daughters are always to get them outside, more. I don't always get out as much as I should, but I am *always* happier when I do. This summer I went to morning swim practice, and returned to spend days gardening, helping Brian rebuild our deck, mow, manage rainwater, and tend critters.

But Tiggy, our kitty, always liked being with us for these activities. So, despite me knowing full well what all the rescue organizations and many responsible cat owners say, we let Tiggy out with us. She would follow me to the back of the yard, and wait while I swam, and walk back up the yard with me afterward. While we worked on the deck, she would lay nearby. When we went out, she would meet us by the front door upon our return, and she always came inside with us when we came indoors. Until early July, when she went missing. Nearly two weeks later, Brian found her a couple of blocks away, addled, blind (we soon discovered), and not herself. She's back to about 95% of her former self, but now, an indoor cat, no longer our companion in the garden.

The chickens, of course, continue to be outdoor animals - albeit mostly cooped. Again, though, we have tended to let them out of the coop to explore the plants and bugs in the yard, while we're home gardening and working. And again, they have always enjoyed it, producing bright-yellow omega-3 rich eggs from their varied outdoor diet. They haven't gotten lost, at least not yet. However, the chickens have developed a couple of bad habits - one, working their way into the garden and pecking at our heirloom tomatoes (as Brian noted, we both like homegrown tomatoes more than we like eggs), and digging up the soil in our newly planted raingardens. Lately, they're losing their freedom, not only because school is starting and I can't be home to chickensit them in their wanderings, but because I can't trust them to keep to the mulched beds and pine needles and lawn. A pen is clearly a necessity, but in the meanwhile, I'm realizing freshly that free-range chickens in the suburbs just don't really work that well (at least, not as free-range).

Finally, the latest critter in the mix - bunnies. After years (decades?) of wanting a bunny, I have finally got a bunny - two, even! - to cuddle, at least when Emily and Hazel let me get a hand on them. Though we drooled at the Kentucky State Fair, we succumbed at the Animal Rescue League, where Cecil and Gigi came neutered, healthy, cuddly, and ethically (it's like an animal thrift store! what's not to love? recycling *and* lifesaving, all in one). I've met many rabbits in my life, 98% outdoors - wild, in hutches, or loose at the University of Victoria. But as I learned in the adoption process, an indoor rabbit does not a good outdoor rabbit make. The hutch Emily and I built is now indoors, with a pen in front for exercise, and a lot of unwanted garden turnips making themselves useful as rabbit forage. They'll live a good life, and we'll enjoy them - but once again, they won't be our companions outdoors.

I'm typing this in the playroom with Bella, crazy kitten, playing nearby with a marble. The hamster is running her wheel. The bunnies are downstairs in their pen while Hazel and a friend play dollhouse nearby. Tiggy is upstairs with Brian and Emily, laying nearby while they read or play computer games. The chickens are roosting for the night. The garden is outdoors, waiting for tomorrow, but meanwhile we are now a household where nature is both outdoors and in. Animal husbandry may not be farm-style around here; between nearly losing Tiggy and really losing chickens to a fox back in 2008, we've had enough lessons about nature being red in tooth and claw. Instead, we're learning about responsibility, the inevitable conflicts between love and freedom. We're learning about lots of different kinds of poop. And I sleep a lot better knowing all the furry critters are safe, as long as I don't go all Lenny on them and pet them too much.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Rotational intensive badminton

Last fall, I was lucky enough to find an intact, well supplied badminton set at a thrift store, and was able to initiate the girls into one of my favorite sports from my high school days. (My friend Conley and I played many hours of badminton in gym, demolishing the birdie with whatever clique or boyfriend-related aggressions needed outlet at the moment.) For the winter, the set simply sat in the yard, tolerating the snow and waiting for better days ahead. The lawn was none the worse for it.

This spring, we've come to rely on this $6 find for entertainment much more than I would have guessed. It turns out to be good for all the ages in our household, good for short or long moments outside, good for relaxation or, as I found in high school gym class, for peacefully working out more - shall we say - intense emotions. We're wearing out the rackets and the birdies both, and I think replacements will be in our future before long.

What I didn't anticipate - but should have - was wearing out the turf. This is a subject I think about by day (teaching in sustainable agriculture class about rotational intensive grazing or talking with local field managers about complaints over soccer field rest periods), and a subject I thought about occasionally as a child (our front lawn sported two matching bare spots where I caught or batted while Dad pitched). I've sometimes heard myself telling the girls to switch spots for their soccer goalie practice, so as not to compact the soil - poor children! But I'd never really thought about it much.

Brian and I both see that the ground is too wet for the turf to handle this kind of abuse. We've moved the net a couple of times (note the matching worn spots a few feet apart in the photo above). We've tried to put it in the least-soppy areas - a challenging task in a relentlessly wet spring. We both try not to stand in the same spot all the time, though the reality is that setting up in a central part of the court is critical to badminton success. In our own rather vague way, we're still trying to rescue the poor grass from its doom.

If I were a real scientist, perhaps I would take this as a learning opportunity. I could try to experiment, to find out how many hours of play and how much recovery time is necessary to maintain healthy turf under badminton pressure. I could do treatments to see whether aeration or modified mowing treatments helped abate the damage done by our competitive feet. But really - it's a *backyard*, and the whole reason I wanted one of these silly grassy spaces was for the kids to *play*. They're doing it. I really can't complain.

Because in reality, we're having a great time. It's a lot of fun to play. The game is compact enough (unlike tennis) that you can still talk (without shouting) while lobbing the birdie back and forth. It works for the beginning player (Hazel, who does a charming lift of her opposite foot each time she swings) and the take-no-prisoners grouchy spouse or moody 11 year old. At the same time, badminton is hard to take too seriously, and there's nothing quite so humorous or humbling as a noisy, swishing whiff followed by a birdie hitting the ground, unhit, at my feet.

So we have some bare patches, and some very mortally wounded grass in our backyard. Big deal. It's less to mow, and represents a lot of fun in progress. It's just irritating enough to make me wish for a really compaction tolerant weed to come in and make itself a home there. At least that way I won't get muddy when I slip and fall while trying to whack a line drive at some poor member of my family.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Mind games with trees

Since we have moved to this house, we've been proud of ourselves for keeping up a regular pattern of tree plantings. We've planted at least three oaks, an ash, a maple, three red buds, a couple of spruces (one died, though), a tulip poplar, and two sycamores. Also, Brian has germinated some burr oaks, none of which are big enough to call trees yet, but they're thriving young saplings in the mulch next to our swing set. We're on track for roughly two trees per year in the suburbs, and we certainly plan to keep it up.

Lately, though, I've started wondering if our tree planting - and the idea of tree planting, for Earth Day or carbon credits or self-congratulation - isn't a bit of a self-delusion. We buy the trees from the garden center or nursery, but meanwhile, we keep mowing the lawn, we keep weeding the garden, and each action prevents a number of willing young volunteer trees from reaching their full potential. We have ash trees volunteering beneath our pines; I have oaks volunteering in my snap peas; each will be trimmed, or pulled, or otherwise cut short in their efforts to repopulate Pennsylvania's forest primeval.

I'm treating these trees as weeds. And while that seems eminently justifiable for Ailanthus, or Norway maples, it seems strange for natives like ash (threatened by emerald ash borer - could one of our seedlings be resistant to the pest?) or the hard-wooded oak, shade tree extraordinaire.

Back in our little woodland, volunteer trees get a better welcome. We celebrate that a volunteer oak has finally stretched its buds above deer browsing height, the improving architecture of a wild-sown crabapple, and we watch with interest to see whether any young sassafras will take hold among the jewelweed, pokeweed, goldenrod, and dock within the understory. I've been tolerating Virginia creeper and training some wild grapevines onto our dying ash trees, as we're afraid to cut them down outright, and risk the black cherry or mature sassafras trees in their midst.

Taking credit for planting trees is further complicated by the question of provenance. If we buy a 5' sapling from a nursery, do we get to take credit for tree growth, or does the nursery? If we plant one tree, while weed-whacking down dozens of volunteer seedlings, have we done a net harm, or a net good? Does pruning branches occupy a separate moral sphere from cutting a tree at its base, and if so does size matter for each? Does it matter whether the wood goes in our brushpile to rot slowly, or whether it goes in our copper-pot grill to help set the mood for a backyard campout?

The whole situation reminds me of the difference between midwifery and obstetrics. My cousin Brigid, a midwife, refers to her task as "catching babies", while obstetricians usually refer to "delivering babies". The midwife's catch is a more passive action, a response to a projection performed by another person's muscles, while the obstetrician's delivery (falsely, in my opinion) implies that the transport from the womb is instigated by the medical professional (whose contractions were those again?). Similarly, I have a beekeeper friend who also encourages wild, native bees to live on her property, a process she calls "hosting" rather than "beekeeping". The language is carefully chosen, reflecting her welcoming passivity in the process of providing habitat for the wild fliers.

In our suburban treetending, we're both midwives and parents, keepers and hosts. We welcome some wild-sown trees, relocate a few, and pull others. We purchase, we foster, we germinate, we trim. We pat ourselves on the back. In any case, a little more humility is unquestionably in order for us. The trees, after all, are doing the largest share of the work. We're just the ones with shovels and saws in hand, ready to take whatever credit we can.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Weedy Outsider

Early next week, I'll travel by train to Middletown, CT, where I'll visit with a college friend and speak about the wonders of weedy lawns at the Jonah Center for Earth and Art. I'm halfway packed for it already, and really psyched to go, in part because of the train ride (rarely all that convenient from here) and visiting with my good friend (who I've known longer than my spouse), but also because I'm reaching a new career milestone there: the outside expert.

Here in Pittsburgh, we have experts in most any area of environmental study - not many marine biologists, perhaps (besides Rachel Carson, who left our city before fully developing her expertise in that field) - but solar energy specialists, wind energy pioneers, urban forestry experts, scientists of Marcellus Shale, founders of the field of environmental oncology, the original citizen's air quality group, dozens of environmental engineers and consultants, a topnotch university sustainability coordinator, and lots of darned good environmental educators. But we have a running common complaint: when someone wants a speaker for a big event, they usually invite the Outside Expert.

At her worst, the Outside Expert assumes that she has been brought in because no locals know half as much as she about the topic of interest. S/he takes the podium, and tells us how the brilliant, faraway people of California or New York solved the same problem (which we also have our own solutions for), and that with inspiration from her/him, we can finally rise out of ignorance and learn to solve our own problems just like they do in her/his perfect city. (Meanwhile, local experts sit seething, imagining what they could have accomplished with half the money it took to fly, pay carbon credits, and compensate the know-it-all on the podium.) The Outside Expert is standard fare among invited speakers, and I suppose the only justice is when the local expert gets to become the Outside Expert for some other city.

The folks at Jonah Center are no strangers to environmental lawn care. My friend, who has done work on prairie restoration, knows far more about ecology than I do, and is certainly capable of saying all of what I'm going to say. Further, others in her community definitely know the benefits of a biodiverse lawn - Kim O'Rourke, especially, who has helped lead Project Green Lawn, has already written about how tolerating weeds is an important step in creating healthy pesticide-free lawns.

So it is an open question whether anyone in the audience next Tuesday will learn anything they haven't heard before: I'll certainly give them my best shot. In any case, I get a lovely train ride and a good visit with a friend, I get to show off a display of Sheila Rodgers' beautiful weed photos, and I'll hopefully reduce the overstock book population of my office by a bit. I get to be the Outside Expert for the first time, kindof a fun milestone for someone a few weeks into age 40.

Maybe, if I play my cards right, I'll also gain some really awesome new friends and colleagues in the process. And then, when I need to invite an Outside Expert to Pittsburgh someday, I'll know exactly who to call from Middletown.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Weedy wheat overtakes suburban lawn

Last fall, Brian and I did some re-landscaping of the backyard, leveling a bit of space behind the house so we might be able, one day, to put out a table and eat dinner with the chickens for company. The process involved a truckload of topsoil, moved via wheelbarrow, then topped with grass, clover, and wildflower seed mix...and covered with straw.

Straw, in the classic sense, is grass stems, the part left over after the seed has been harvested. If it has seed in it, that's a bit of a shame, because that seed isn't needed for the function of straw. Straw is horse bedding, to be used and pooped on and mucked out. But for whatever reason, the straw we used had a fair number of heads still on it, with live seeds.

I watched the wheat seeds germinate, beneath the straw covering we so lovingly provided. I watered them, hoping to just get some ground cover before winter hit. Since we did the landscaping fairly late in the summer, we probably even followed the wheat planting guidelines, which is to plant the crop after the passing of the Hessian fly free date, meaning that our wheat crop shouldn't have any infestations of a fairly brutal insect pest. The wheat - and the lawn grass and clover - grew well, and through this winter we seem to have lost very little of all that soil we brought in. We definitely succeeded in establishing this new bit of lawn.

But the wheat is an odd sort of problem. It's winter wheat, now ready to grow like - well, a weed - to set seed and harden up, oh, about midsummer. And though I have my vegetable garden nearby, this spot wasn't intended to be food, it was intended to be lawn - just more exercise for me and my reel mower. Instead, I have this food crop, growing not only in the back of the house, but near the boundary between us and the next door neighbors (not the nice ones, either), and at the end of the driveway. I've mowed it twice so far, reluctantly, feeling vaguely that it must be some sort of sin to mow a food crop when plenty of hungry people don't have enough to grow wheat on purpose, much less enough land to try to grow decorative grasses for leisure.

This week it is rainy. Perhaps it will keep raining (climate change models do predict increased rain for this area), and perhaps I won't be able to get out and mow again, to do my suburban duty on time. Perhaps I'll be forced to watch the wheat grow until it is too tall for us to tackle, and we'll get a citation from the zoning board for our overgrown lawn.

I would be forced, then, to testify in court one of two absurd positions: 1) the wheat, one of the staple crops of world agriculture, is a weed, and I was negligent in allowing it to exceed the legal 8" height for lawn weeds, or 2) the wheat is not a weed, and I had the audacity to grow a grain crop in my front lawn. Either way, the legal implications of prosecuting me are fascinating; the story could be front page world news of the weird, either way, about the craziness of the U.S. and our insane culture of lawns and food.

It's rather fun thinking about it while I watch the spring rains outside.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Crazy Weed Lady Walks the Neighborhood...

Weather lately is a bit crazy, and I have never been a fan of mud (my definition of bad weed: a plant which leaves me with mud). Today it is warm and lovely, interspersed with thunderstorms and wind. I donned raincoat, and headed out for a walk.

First stop: the Community Center, to adjust my kids' days to match their friends'. While there, I talked to two friends who work there; one offered me a book she'd just finished, which I left at the desk so I could pick it up on my way back.

Next: Down the road for my walk. En route, I took a couple of side streets, looking for spring beauties for Sheila to photograph (that's her wild garlic, above). Passed an abandoned gray Abercrombie sweater on the roadside, and left it while I walked, but picked it up on the way back. Picking up litter, or stealing? Does it matter how many times it had been run over? Looped through a couple of favorite neighborhood streets, turned around, and walked back. Picked up the sweater en route (if you know the owner, I'm glad to return it, washed gently...). Stopped back by the community center, now feeling a bit odd, carrying sweater, book, and watching the clouds threatening.

But one more important stop called, one I'd been meaning to make for at least a couple of years: the bulb garden, which we planted for Emily's birthday back in 2005. Some of the bulbs are thriving, others not, but more importantly, I needed some wild garlic.

This weekend, our friends S & R had us over for dinner, and served leek and potato soup. It was amazing. I was inspired. So this afternoon, I gathered handfuls of wild garlic at the community center. I didn't get the roots - whether I was saving some wild garlic for the next person, or failing to complete a job of weeding, well, you be the judge. Feeling raindrops (it is now thundering, 30 minutes later, while I type), I scurried back around the pool fence to home.

I've never made this soup before. I've got out Laurel's Kitchen to the page with potato-cheese soup, but have already started diverging from it, using milk, vegetable broth, and parsnips, in addition to potatoes. The handfuls of wild garlic are draining in the sink while I type. Hopefully it will end up tasting good.

I do like thinking of myself as the neighborhood eccentric, the chicken lady who writes weed books. Today, I was a bit more so, heading out for a walk (that, eccentric enough by local standards, even in dry weather), and returning with a roadworn sweater, a book about hedgehogs, and a large handful of weeds for dinner. The only thing I was missing was Birkenstocks.