The Joy of Beeing

A few years ago, I decided to become a beekeeper. I read every book and article I could find on the topic. I joined a beekeeping club and attended meetings for a full year before purchasing any bees. I attended Indiana Bee School. I made decisions about the type of hive I would use, and how many hives I would start with. I built two top bar hives from scratch. I researched all the kinds of bees (there are several “races” of honeybee within the species Apis mellifera), and studied their characteristics. I still found myself rather unprepared for this undertaking, and I made mistakes. I am sure I will make more mistakes, but I will not make the same mistake twice. That is the learning process.

A couple years ago, my bees absconded (left). I decided not to bring in more bees right away, to focus on other farm projects. At last, it is time for bees again!

Note: You may notice from the pictures that my hives look a little different than the rectangular stacking hive boxes you are accustomed to seeing. I use a type of hive called a Top Bar Hive. It’s a really accessible style of hive that is easy to build and customize, fun to work in, and lends itself well to natural beekeeping practices. I built these hives and all their accessories myself on a small budget. If you’re interested in exploring this style of beekeeping for yourself, I recommend Les Crowder’s book “Top-Bar Beekeeping: Organic Practices for Honeybee Health”.

Soaking top bars in boiling water to clean them

To prepare my old hives for new bees, I cleaned all the hive equipment with boiling water and a scrub brush. Bees are very sensitive to chemicals, so it’s not a good idea to use any cleaning solutions on bee hive equipment, even natural ones. Boiling water is the safest and best option. The hot water removes old wax and propolis very effectively, and provides some degree of sanitation. Bees can get sick just like people do, so it’s nice to offer them a clean home. Plus, people might eat some of the honey they make inside the hive.

After cleaning, I repaired any loose or damaged parts, then gave the exterior of both hives a fresh coat of paint. Paint or other weatherproof coating is needed on the outside of the hive, because those outer surfaces may be exposed to rain, and may rot. It is neither necessary nor recommended to paint the inside of the hive. I also built brand new lids for both hives, since the old ones had fallen into disrepair.

Sugar Board

Once the hives were clean and placed into their permanent location, I filled a homemade sugar board for each hive. This is basically just a giant sugar cube. It’s something I normally place inside the hive for winter, just in case they run out of honey. It’s not usual to offer this to them in the spring, but there were some cold days in the forecast when they would not be able to leave the hive, and I didn’t want them to go hungry. They won’t eat the sugar if they have honey available. Note: it’s not recommended to feed bees honey that they didn’t make, or that didn’t come from your own apiary. Commercial honey could make them sick.

Installing a package of bees into a top bar hive

Bees can come in two different ways: packages and nucs. Nuc is short for nucleus hive, and it consists of a small family of related bees with some comb that they’ve made and some honey and eggs that they’ve stored. I would prefer to purchase nucs instead of packages to start my hives, because there are many more local, small farm businesses who offer their bees that way. However, nucs are always made of rectangular frames that only fit into Langstroth style bee hives (the rectangular box kind). The rectangular frames will not fit into my half-hexagonal shaped hive boxes, so I must always purchase packages. Although they’re not ideal, I’ve had pretty good luck with package bees in the past. You can see the package pictured above, it’s a small wooden box with screens covering the largest sides. Inside the package, there’s a can of sugar syrup for the bees to eat during transport, a tiny box that holds one queen bee, and three pounds of worker bees.

Queen Cage Inside Hive

To transfer the bees into the hive, I partially open the hive for their access by removing three bars (top bar hives have bars instead of frames). I place the queen bee in her little box inside the hive (there’s a tiny cork to remove first, so she can eventually get free), and then set the box upside-down with the opening facing the inside of the hive to encourage the bees to go in after her. Some people shake the box so that the bees fall into the hive, but I don’t like to do this. The bees usually find their own way. If they don’t figure it out, I’ll come back later and shake them into the hive. The hive does need to be closed (with the lid on) in time for sunset or inclement weather, for their safety.

Once bees are in the hive, there’s nothing forcing them to stay. You hope they like the hive you made for them, you hope they like you, and you hope they like their queen. If they don’t like it, they can leave. This is one major lesson of beekeeping: bees are free. Bees choose what’s best for their colony. Bees will live in your hive only if they feel like it’s a good deal for them. That’s one of the reasons why I put so much work into making the hive a welcoming place, nice and clean with good smells and a candy buffet.

Two top bar hives

Once the bees were all in, I closed up the hives and placed the lids on securely. Bees fly in and out freely through the entrance holes even when the hive is “closed” with the lid on top.

sugar syrup

Honeybees need a lot of energy to build wax combs where they can store honey and raise their babies. I’m not a big proponent of feeding my bees sugar, but I do always offer it to them during times of stress, like when they are first moving in or when there aren’t a lot of flowers blooming. Sugar isn’t the healthiest food for them, but it’s better than going hungry. I tried out an herbal bee tea recipe from Mountain Rose Herbs as the base for my sugar syrup. I offered both the herb-infused sugar syrup and plain sugar syrup, and it really seems like the bees prefer the herbal infusion.

After the bees had been in their hive for about a week, I opened the hive to inspect their progress. I’m happy to report that both hives are thriving! They have made very different design decisions. Hive #1 really went wild with the sugar board, and built an amazing amount of wax combs that are all white. They built their combs starting in the back, next to the sugar block. Hive #2 didn’t use much of the sugar, and they have built a smaller but still respectable amount of wax combs that are bright orange and located in the expected place, near the entrance. I look forward to all the lessons these bees will teach me in the days, weeks, months, and hopefully years to come!

bee keeper in bee suit

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10 Essential Winter Chores for the Farmer and Gardener

Winter may be the “off-season”, but I find I’ve been working long hours anyway. Maybe not as many hours as in summer, when every chore seems an urgent matter of pure survival. Winter work has more of a squirrel feeling. It’s a kind of preparation for the busy time when I know I will have no more free minutes to learn new skills, prepare new ground, or build new structures. Winter sculpts the bones for the growing season.

1. Winter is a time for building projects

construction projects

My hens are in desperate need of a new coop. It’s not so much that their current coop is bad, it’s just that it’s in the wrong place and too big to move. The new coop is smaller, more agile, and best of all- built in a nice shady place where the girls can chill out, instead of over the sunniest spot in the garden.

2. Winter is a time for preparing new gardens

new market garden

I’ve been busy preparing a large chunk of my back field for expanded vegetable production. There’s more work yet to do, but the foundation has been laid for a promising harvest.

3. Winter is a time to cut and stack wood

Trees die and they fall down. Limbs break during storms. Sometimes when this happens in the right place, I leave the logs on the ground so they can provide habitat for wild creatures. But all too often they fall on the driveway, on the garden, or another inconvenient place. These logs need to be cut, stacked, and put away to dry. We don’t have a wood stove in our home yet, but we hope to add one in the future. Meanwhile, we enjoy using some of the wood for bonfires and craft projects.

4. Winter is a time to prepare for next year’s market stand.

tomato crates

From the dry and boring work of insurance policy comparison to the more fun and creative design projects, I would never have time to work on these things during market season. I am especially excited about these custom tomato crates that I designed and built for multipurpose use. They’re sturdy enough to take into the field at picking time, shallow enough to hold exactly one layer of tomatoes (no bruising), they stack neatly for easy transport, and they’re pretty enough to use as a part of the display in the booth.

5. Winter is a time to grow.

seedling nursery

I’ll fill and refill this indoor seedling nursery multiple times during the winter, as the earliest crops are planted outside and the later crops begin to grow into their space. I’m growing vegetables for the market garden, new test crops to evaluate for the future, and all kinds of herbs and native plants. This work starts in December or January, when I load up my refrigerator with trays of seeds for cold stratification, and continues until June when the last crops are planted outside.

6. Winter is a time to lay the foundation.

bean trellis

In this new edible landscaping garden, I not only built a strong foundation at the soil level with local compost, reclaimed cardboard (as a biodegradable weed blocker), and free local wood chips. I also built a vertical foundation for vining plants using naturally fallen branches gathered from the tree line. That means less wood for me to chop and stack, more opportunities to grow beautiful food (like scarlet runner beans), and less waste and consumerism all around.

7. Winter is a time for tradition.

three rutgers

My grandpa always grew Rutgers tomatoes in his garden, and these incredibly delicious heirloom tomatoes inspired me to become a gardener myself, and influenced my path as an open pollinated vegetable grower. The Rutgers tomato was introduced in 1934, as a joint effort between Rutgers University and Campbell Soup. It was a favorite tomato variety in victory gardens and large tomato farms alike, and was widely grown for many years. This heirloom variety fell out of favor somewhere along the way, displaced by newer hybrids. Seeds called Rutgers are still available, though they aren’t all the same. I am growing plants from a variety of sources this year, hoping to find some that taste just like my grandpa’s. If nature cooperates with my plans, I hope to grow enough Rutgers tomatoes for the farmer’s market this coming summer.

8. Winter is a time for reflection.

I keep a detailed garden journal where I record my inputs, work efforts, harvests, weather, and observations. Winter is a good time to review what worked and what didn’t, which varieties are worth scaling up for the market, which varieties won’t be planted here again, and which varieties may deserve another try in a different part of the garden. Notes are absolutely essential for a gardener or farmer, especially one with her hand in so many different pies.

9. Winter is a time to learn new skills.

stack of books

I read stacks on stacks of books. Winter is a great time to wrap up in a warm blanket and learn new things. But not all learning comes from books, and it’s important to remember that we can also learn from our friends, neighbors, and relatives by helping each other out. Offer to help a friend inspect a bee hive, work together to can tomatoes, weed the bean patch, or pick walnuts. You’ll learn something local and new while strengthening relationships and building community. I helped a friend with a controlled burn this winter, and it was very educational as well as incandescent fun.

10. Winter is a time to train.

Don’t forget to maintain your physical fitness over winter. Get outside and take a walk as often as you can. Practice yoga, strength training, or your favorite sport. I know from personal experience that if I begin the gardening or farming season out of shape, I’m likely to end it in injury. Taking good care of your mind and body over winter is a sound investment.

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Best / Worst

When I think back over the best experiences of my life, many of them were uncomfortable in the moment. My first backpacking trip in Yosemite National Park for example, during which I saw some of the most awe-inspiring scenery of my life to date and brought home several hundred mosquito bites. Or my first garden, into which I poured my heart, soul, and countless hours of time, yet harvested almost no vegetables (but gained a stronger body, valuable lessons, and enough enthusiasm to try again). Cold and snowy days like today carry the same high/low feeling. It’s uncomfortable to be out in the cold tending my chionophobic chickens (they’re afraid of snow) on days like today. But if I didn’t have anyone counting on me, I might be tempted to stay indoors. If I stayed in, I’d miss the enchantment of the day. Now, as I warm up indoors sipping a hot cup of home-grown tulsi tea and writing this article, I look back over my time in the snow with love and gratitude for another best/worst day.

Snow labyrinth

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January’s Harvest

It may surprise you to learn that the garden is still alive. A selection of cold hardy crops have been riding the weather like waves, wilting during the cold and dry periods only to perk up and shine after each warm rain. I haven’t been able to bring myself to harvest, preferring to savor the visual feast of green vitality deep into winter. But the forecast for tomorrow holds a frigid low of 8° F, and I doubt there will be many plants left standing after that weather passes through. Ah well. I was going to eat them eventually, and a fresh feast is especially welcome on a cold, windy night like tonight.

What’s for dinner? Clockwise from Top-left corner: Parsley, Mixed Salad Greens, Ruby Red Swiss Chard, Chioggia Beet, French Breakfast Radish, Malaga Radish, Dwarf Blue Curled Scotch Kale.

A note about planning for a winter harvest: I did plant a specific fall garden (though I got a late start with it). The radishes and mixed salad greens (mesclun) came from that fall planting. The kale was planted in early spring, the chard followed in early summer. They have produced abundantly across the seasons, harvested carefully using the “cut and come again” method. This means that rather than chopping down the whole plant to harvest, I repeatedly snip off the oldest individual leaves throughout the season, always leaving several healthy young leaves on the plants to keep the plant alive and growing. As for the parsley and beets, they were also spring planted. They became shaded by other plants, which slowed their growth and prevented a summer harvest. Once those taller plants were out of the picture, these little lurkers filled in the newly available space.

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The Promise of the New Year

Last night we bid farewell to 2021. It was an intense year for me, packed tightly with highs and lows. I built a garden, I tried my hand at market growing. I read many books, I studied, I wrote. I re-launched my photography business. I stayed home, I traveled, I met new friends, I reunited with old ones. I lost a loved one to cancer. I’ve lived through days filled with uncontainable joy and gratitude and days that flattened me. I haven’t made as much progress towards my goals as I wanted to make, but I have made significant, measurable progress towards those goals. This morning I woke up with the urge to start the new year with hope, with purpose, and with new life. I spent the day planting seeds.

It’s too early in the season to start most of the garden plants that might readily come to mind. If I started my tomato seeds this early, they’d take over my house by the time the last frost has come and gone. But there are certain kinds of seeds that benefit from an extra early start. Many native plants and medicinal herbs retain their own sense of the seasons, and must experience winter before they will consent to sprout. It’s called cold stratification, and it usually takes about two months. Certain other plants may grow very slowly from seed, even though they don’t need cold stratification. This category includes perennial herbs such as sage. I’m starting those seeds now as well.

Seeds planted in tiny soil blocks.  Twenty individual cubes of soil, each with a single seed resting on top, arranged to form a larger rectangle resembling a baked brownie.

My current preferred method for cold stratification when growing transplants is to plant the seeds that need it in tiny cubes of freestanding compacted potting soil called soil blocks. In this configuration, about 240 seeds can be started in a single growing tray, which I then cover with parchment paper and slide neatly onto a shelf in my refrigerator. There it will chill for about two months, with an occasional re-moistening now and again. In March, I’ll transfer them to my regular grow light setup and finish germinating them alongside the familiar tomatoes and marigolds.

One full tray of planted soil blocks, ready to load into the refrigerator! Note: I’ve labeled these with post-it notes, but only because I couldn’t find my label of choice (sharpie on masking tape). These will be replaced with something more sticky and more water resistant ASAP. There are few things more frustrating for a grower than raising a bunch of beautiful and healthy plants that you can’t identify because the label failed.
a day's work of seed planting
An honest day’s work! That little device in the bottom-left is the soil block making tool.

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Compost Safety and Leguminous Rhythms

It’s November in Indiana, and I’m raising little bean plants in my guest room. They’re not an early start for next spring’s garden, but a test of some new compost. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t make enough compost this year to nourish the major garden expansion I’m working on, so I purchased a truckload of locally made compost from a nearby lawn and garden supply shop to supplement what I did make.

Other people’s compost is a little bit suspect these days due to the emergence of a new class of herbicides which persist in soil, in plant material, and in animal manure for up to five years after application. These herbicides are sometimes used on conventionally grown grain crops and grazing pastures, so they can wind up in your organic garden through compost, straw, hay, grass clippings, or manure.

Not only do I try to avoid ingesting herbicides as a personal health preference, and not only do I endeavor to manage my farm organically for myriad reasons, but the whole point of herbicides is to kill plants, so nobody wants them in their garden harming their flowers and veggies for the next several years.

Since these chemicals have such a long active life, sometimes persistent herbicides can contaminate a batch of compost by accident if somebody fed their horse something that once grew in a field that was once sprayed and then the manure from that horse is composted, or if contaminated straw or hay was added directly to the compost pile. It’s difficult if not impossible to verify all the inputs all the way to their origin if you’re a business or a municipality who takes in other people’s compostables and makes large quantities of black gold for a whole community. The best way I’ve found to make sure that not-homemade compost is safe is to test it before spreading it on the garden.

Ergo, I have six pots of Phaseolus vulgaris in my guest room right now, and we’re learning a lot about each other. Most interestingly, I learned that they “sleep” every night. They actually fold up their leaves into a relaxed-looking posture and spend the night that way before stretching out for the sun again the next morning. This botanical process is called nyctinasty. According to Wikipedia, “Nyctinastic movements are associated with diurnal light and temperature changes and controlled by the circadian clock.” Not all plants have nyctinastic movements, but some plants do, including beans. I plan to research more about nyctinasty, but I couldn’t wait to share these photos and observations with you all. See below for more info.

So far, all my beans look vigorous and healthy, and all signs point to safe, excellent compost. I’ll know for sure in another week, and then I can proceed with my garden expansion at full speed.

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The November Garden

Jack Frost arrived later than usual this year, but he’s been persistently nipping at the garden for about a week now. The green tomatoes that didn’t have time to ripen on the vine are beginning to blush indoors on my window sill. The final pepper harvest is pickled, sauced, and dried for a steady supply of winter warmth, and the last of the tender herbs are hanging to dry on my kitchen herb clothesline. But while the aforementioned warm season plants are giving back to the compost pile, many hardy crops are still alive and thriving in the garden.

I habitually prolong my harvest of spring-planted hardy vegetables like carrots, kale, beets, chard, kohlrabi, and collard greens well into the winter, but this is the first year I specifically planted a fall garden. Although It has been an overall success, I’ve learned a few things that will impact the way I grow next year’s fall garden.

Firstly, I planted it too late. I planted seeds in the second week of August, which according to all the charts should have been about the right time. However, I wish I had planted 2-4 weeks earlier. Many garden plants can survive freezing temperatures, but plants don’t grow very much during these months. Having live plants in the garden at this time of year is more of a way to keep vegetables fresh by staggering the harvest rather than to actively grow new vegetables, so it’s ideal if the plants have already reached a good size before the sun fades and the temperature drops. As you can see in the photo below, my August-planted fall garden crops are still baby sized.

The second lesson I learned about the fall garden is that autumn is called “fall” for a reason. Dry leaves are falling all over everywhere, on everything. It’s tedious to hand-pick the dry tree leaves out of these baby greens in the garden beds. I think next autumn I’ll try covering my pint-sized plants with floating row cover material. In addition to protecting the plants from temperature swings, this should keep the falling leaves out of my salad greens.

What worked well? I have three extra beds full of delicious baby salad greens, herbs, and radishes that I wouldn’t have had otherwise, had I not planted a fall garden. Space wasn’t wasted, because I re-planted these gardens in the same spaces as my summer-harvested potatoes, garlic, and shallots. Soil that would have been bare at this time of year is kept aerated by plant roots and protected from erosion. Although my first try may not have been perfectly executed, this project is still a big win.

Landis Winter Lettuce, baby sized, in the November Garden

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Pawpaw : The Indiana Banana

A pawpaw fruit may not look creamy and tropical from the outside. In fact, it looks more earthy, like a freshly dug potato. The intoxicatingly tropical scent beckons you to look closer, and when you do, you’ll find this fruit filled with rich and creamy mango-banana flavored custard. The experience is uniquely tropical for an Indiana native tree fruit. In fact, the pawpaw is the only member of its plant family to survive this far north. Its true name is Asimina triloba, of the family Annonaceae. Its relatives are all tropical, and include the Custard Apple, Soursop, and Chermioya. The pawpaw itself is native to most of the Eastern United States.

Pawpaw fruits ripen during the month of September. Though I’ve planted over 50 pawpaw trees, only two have begun to fruit. These two trees are grafted with named pawpaw varieties. Grafted trees will grow and bear fruit faster than seed-grown trees, and the fruit is predictable- if you graft your tree with wood from another tree that bears delicious pawpaws, your tree will produce identically delicious fruit. The downside of grafted trees is they reduce genetic diversity. I prefer to keep most of my trees wild on this farm to preserve more genetic diversity, but it is nice to have a few special grafted trees mixed in. I harvested a total of six pawpaws this year from my two grafted trees, though I could swear I had 8 on my trees at one point. Humans aren’t the only pawpaw lovers!

A pawpaw sliced in half, showing the creamy interior flesh and few large seeds

To enjoy the fruits, slice in half lengthwise. Remove the seeds and set them aside. The seeds are very large and easy to remove. Use a spoon to scoop out the creamy flesh. Do not eat the seeds or the skin.

If you’d like to grow a pawpaw tree for yourself, plant the seeds right away and keep them watered until winter. Pawpaw seeds will not germinate if they dry out. They are not extremely flood tolerant, but they do prefer moist soil and they can handle occasional standing water. They may need irrigation while they become established, during their first three years of growth. It is my understanding that they do not need irrigation after they reach 3 years old, except perhaps during times of extreme drought. They grow well in part-shade, but they fruit best with more sun. This is a native wild tree that grows successfully in the woods without human intervention. Beyond a little water and a little sun, this tree doesn’t ask for much. I never spray mine with anything, nor do I apply any special fertilizers. I just top-dress with a little mulch now and then, and the trees are happy.

Enjoy pawpaws as soon as possible after harvest. They will keep in the refrigerator for a few days, but this is not a long-keeping fruit. You may wonder why you never see this local delicacy in grocery stores, and that is why. The fruits are delicate and they do not ship well or keep a long time.

A scoop of pawpaw flesh on a spoon.  Looks like ice cream.

Though this fruit has enormous culinary potential and is delicious in a wide variety of dishes, I personally have not developed any pawpaw recipes yet. I’ve simply never had more pawpaws in my possession than what I could eagerly devour fresh, cold, and straight up, so I’ve never experimented with preserving them or baking them into things. People do freeze the pulp for winter use in a similar manner as with persimmons, so if you have a bounty, you could give that a try. I look forward to the day when my 50+ trees all come into fruit and I can finally experiment with pawpaw recipes galore.

The Ohio Pawpaw Festival is a great place to immerse yourself in pawpaw culture. There I’ve tried pawpaw beer, pawpaw wine, pawpaw salsa, pawpaw burritos, pawpaw cakes, fresh pawpaws, and more. The festival also features an educational component with pawpaw-related lectures and demonstrations.

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Tree Planting Startup Guide

Are you thinking about converting your yard or farm field into a lush forest filled with food-bearing native trees and shrubs? Are you interested in planting a tree and watching it grow? If so, read on. This article contains a distillation of my best tips and advice learned by planting over 2,000 native trees, along with a step-by-step startup guide you can use for your own tree planting project.

Make Your Plan

The very first step before undertaking any gardening, farming, or forestry project is to observe. Permaculture wisdom suggests studying the land for a full year, and taking notes throughout all the seasons. Does it hold water? Do animals use the land? Is it vulnerable to fire, drought, flood, or erosion? Are there any special plants already present on the land that you want to save?

Wendell Berry uses a different phrase, “Consult the genius of the place.” The land has been before you ever were, and will continue to be long after. Try to consider its needs first and foremost, and trust that what’s good for the land will be good for us.

During this observation phase, consult the experts. Call up your county extension office and your local NRCS (Natural Resource Conservation Service) office and ask them for advice and history about your land and your goals for your project. They can help you select tree species that are likely to grow well on your site. Draw on all this wisdom when making your plan.

Purchasing Trees

1,000 Trees In The Back Of A Prius
1,000 DNR Trees Loaded In The Back Of My Prius

The best place I have found to order lots of native trees is the state DNR (Department of Natural Resources). Indiana’s DNR runs two tree nurseries, and many other states do this too. They’re stocked with really high quality trees, and the prices are a steal. You can purchase trees in bareroot bundles of 100 trees for about $30-$45 per bundle. They carry many great varieties, including many that produce food for people. They also sell variety packs for those who don’t want 100 of a single tree species.

The DNR opens for tree orders on October 1st, and they sell out quickly, so mark your calendar. You order in October and you pick up the trees in March. The trees will need to be stored somewhere cool and moist, like a basement, after you pick them up. They’ll keep under those conditions for about two weeks. If you need to store them longer than that, you can dig a big trench and bury the roots on a slant, digging up trees as you have time to plant them. You must irrigate that trench regularly.

If you’re going to be planting by hand as I did, I suggest keeping your order small. I find that I can plant about 30 trees in an average work day, and 200 trees has been a reasonable number for me to plant each spring without stress or the need for trenching. If you have help or lots of free time, then you may be able to plant more. If you are unsure about your physical fitness level, then maybe limit yourself to one bundle of 100 trees your first year to see how it goes. You’ll get strong as you plant them, and perhaps you can plant a larger quantity next year! If you need to plant more trees faster (as I did, because of my grant), plan to dig some nice deep trenches in advance of receiving your trees. Plant your trees temporarily in the trenches. You can plant from March – May, and again from October – December. Don’t bother planting trees in the summer, they probably won’t survive.

Indiana DNR Tree Seedling Ordering Instructions

If you want to grow a named cultivar, an affordable way to do that is to graft a cutting onto your tree a couple years after planting, using the DNR tree as a rootstock.

If you have your heart set on a native tree species that the DNR doesn’t carry, you might find it at Cold Stream Farm nursery. I have ordered some of their trees for my project with mixed success. I find that their small trees are really small compared to the DNR trees, and I have had poor survival rates using that small size. I may order from Cold Stream Farm again, but if so, I’ll spring for a bigger size tree in hopes of better survival rates.

Cold Stream Farm Nursery

For wildflowers and other native herbs, Prairie Moon Nursery is a great resource.

Prairie Moon Nursery

Gathering Supplies

Planting Tools On Garden Cart

To plant the trees, you’ll need a good transplant spade. A spade is a long handled digging tool, kind of like a shovel, but shaped in a way that lets you dig with minimal effort. There are several different kinds of spades, and it’s worth noting that a transplant spade is different from a garden spade. Garden spades are short and wide, and they’re intended for digging shallow holes in soft topsoil. Transplant spades are long and narrow, and they allow you to dig deep holes for tree roots in tougher field soil. I recommend choosing a transplant spade with wide shoulders, so that you can comfortably push it into the ground with your foot. The one I have has narrow shoulders, and sometimes when I step on it, my food slides off the side of the spade. This can be painful when it happens, so it’s best to avoid it if you can. If you can’t get a transplant spade, shovels and garden spades are not workable substitutes, but you can substitute a good digging fork.

How To Choose A Garden Tool That Will Last A Lifetime: The Top 5 Questions to Ask Before Buying

You’ll also need at least one 5 gallon bucket. At the beginning of your work day, you’ll load the bucket with trees for planting, and fill the bucket with water so the roots won’t dry out. My favorite place to get buckets is a fast food restaurant chain called Firehouse Subs. They sell really sturdy buckets for an affordable price. The buckets are used and they smell like pickles (pro or con, depending on perspective, but the trees won’t mind). New pickle-free buckets can be found at hardware stores for a little more money.

Each tree must be well watered immediately after planting. If you have a hose that reaches everywhere you plan to plant, then you’re all set. I have 10 acres and they’re mostly not irrigated, so I fill up a few more 5 gallon buckets to water with. I pull my water buckets and tree soaking buckets with a small hand-pulled garden cart (pictured above). Some people may choose to use a tractor-pulled cart with a 55 gallon drum of water loaded into it. Note that the 55 gallon drum is much too heavy when full to pull with a hand cart. I’ve tried.

One other supply that may come in handy is a 300′ surveyor’s tape. I used one of these to help me lay out straight-ish rows, and maintain a healthy spacing between each tree.

If your land doesn’t flood, you might want to consider mulching around the trees. I wasn’t able to do this with my Flood Plain Food Forest, because the mulch would have all floated away. I plan to try it in my orchard though, which does not flood. As a child, my parents planted 300 White Pines on their land, and they mulched thickly in wide circles around each tree to keep weeds at bay, conserve moisture, and make it easier to mow around each tree. It worked well for us then. When mulching around a tree, leave about an inch around the tree trunk with no mulch to discourage rodent damage and reduce the chances of trunk rot. Wood chip mulch is available for free or almost-free from ChipDrop.

Planting

You’ve observed your site, made your plan, gathered supplies, ordered trees, and now it’s March and you’re ready to plant! Dig a nice big hole for each tree. The hole should be at least a little longer and at least a little wider than the tree’s roots. Place the tree inside the hole, making sure that none of the roots are curling around in circles or hitting the bottom and turning back upwards, and that the soil line meets the tree just at the top of the roots. You don’t want any roots sticking out over the soil surface, or for the trunk of the tree to be buried. The DNR will give you a nice pamphlet with pictures and detailed planting instructions. Follow them to the letter for best results. With your tree in position, gently fill in the soil around the roots, a little at a time, until all the soil is back in the hole. Gently tamp down the disturbed soil, so none of it blows away or floats away, then give your newly planted tree a deep drink of water. Optionally, say a prayer for the tree or offer the tree a blessing or a few words of encouragement. Depending on your goals, you may want to label the tree for easier identification. Now repeat with the next hole!

Ongoing Care

A newly planted American Plum tree

Depending on your site and situation, ongoing care may include annual mulching around trees, monthly mowing around trees, and watering once per week if there hasn’t been any rain. For native trees, once the tree is 2-3 years old, it shouldn’t need watering except perhaps during times of severe drought. As the tree grows, it may benefit from early spring pruning. Depending on your location, the tree trunk may need to be protected from deer antler damage once it reaches a sturdy size.

When planting very young trees such as the ones discussed here, not all the trees will survive. A 50% survival rate is about normal. I’ve had a lower survival rate in my wetland forest, because the conditions are extra harsh there. That’s okay. The trees that survive will be well adapted to your site. Plan to buy a bundle or two every spring for a few years to replace any trees that didn’t make it. Once a tree makes it to three years old, it has a really good chance of continued survival.

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The Herb Clothesline

I grow a lot of herbs in my garden, and one of the ways I preserve them for winter use is by drying. Last summer I dried most of my herbs quickly in an electric dehydrator. While this did work, it wasn’t really necessary. Most herbs (maybe all) will air dry quite nicely without the use of any machinery or electricity.

Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about hanging bundles of drying herbs from the rafters of her home in her book “Braiding Sweetgrass”. I love that image of herbs hanging from the rafters. It feels very beautiful and romantic. For months I daydreamed about how I wish I had rafters in my home, so I could hang herbs from them. I thought about retrofitting some rafters. Then I thought about getting another job so I could afford to retrofit rafters, and then I thought about what would happen to my farm and my quality of life if I did that… no thanks. When the idea finally occurred to me it was painfully simple. Build another clothesline!

Thus the herb clothesline was born, the third in a series of special purpose indoor clotheslines I have built in the past year or so. For the cost of three nails and a few feet of cotton clothesline rope (all of which I had on hand, leftover from other projects) I now have an elegant and energy-free herb drying system.

The Details

I installed this clothesline in the wall studs, but as close to the ceiling as possible. This is so that the herbs will hang high above heads and also above windows, so they’ll be out of direct sunlight. Into three separate studs, I hammered a nail half way in, and knotted the rope onto the protruding part of the nail. A screw would work just as well or better than the nails, but I was out of screws when I made this project. This knot system will allow me to tighten the rope later when it slackens, which I wouldn’t be able to do if I had pierced the rope with the nails.

To hang the herbs, first bundle them together with a rubber band. Then, depending on how careful you want to be, tie them to the clothesline with a piece of string, secure them with a clothespin, or split the bundle and straddle it over the line. My nature is to be careful so I went with string + clothespin.

I think it’s lovely, and my herbs have been drying very well so far.

herb drying clothesline

Just for fun, here are pictures of my other clothesline projects:

This is my patio bistro indoor clothesline. This was the first one I built, and it’s actually for clothes. It doesn’t hold a full load of laundry, but it’s perfect for air drying special delicate clothes or blankets, or for use in combination with a clothes drying rack. I still aspire to building a big outdoor clothesline like my grandma had someday, but this one was much easier and cheaper to construct.
Kitchen Clothesline
This one is my kitchen clothesline. I use this one to hang my reusable freezer bags, regular ziplock bags that I’ve washed for reuse, plastic wrappers washed and destined for ecobricks, nutmilk bags, and cheesecloths. I wrote a whole article about this clothesline if you’re interested in learning more about it.

If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider showing us some love! You can help us and our cause of Earth-positive agriculture by sharing this article with your friends, following us on social media, and interacting with our posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss us a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi. It’s easy to use and processes through PayPal so you don’t have to create a new account.