Archive | March 2014

Thoughts on Firewood at the End of March

Winter WoodpileOur stores of firewood are dwindling.  We burn about six cords of hardwood every winter to heat our home.  The wood is usually cut two years earlier to allow for good drying.  The temperatures have been colder than usual this winter, and maybe we didn’t put up as much firewood as usual.

We have gone through all the supply stacked for this winter and are into the wood for next winter. There is still a good month of heating ahead.  Next winter’s wood is not fully dry.  The logs hiss as the excess moisture is steamed from the wood.  The fire created from incompletely seasoned wood is not as hot and does not burn as well.  Still, better than being cold.

Depending almost entirely on wood for heat helps develop a keen interest in various tree species and the combustion qualities of the wood. We normally use predominantly white ash, which burns hot even when it is green and freshly cut.  For this reason white ash is the caviar of firewood.  It will hiss, but the fire will get hot.

Unfortunately, next year’s firewood is composed largely of maple and cherry.  Over a year ago we cut a huge old sugar maple at the edge of the hay field that was dying.  There were several small pin cherry trees nearby.  Pin cherries grow like weeds around here.  We cut any near the fields so they don’t spread into the hay and grazing land.  The wood is a pretty reddish color and it burns well when dry.  But, neither maple nor cherry combust well green and it takes a full two summers to season such wood.  Luckily, there is some paper birch mixed in.  Paper birch dries quickly and burns hot and fast.  We’ve been adding a little birch in the stove with the wet wood to raise the temperature of the fire.

Here in Maine, with out abundance of trees, half of households supplement with firewood and 14% use wood as the primary heating fuel.  Due to the high cost of heating oil, more homes are switching to wood heat.  Our house has a supplemental electric heating system that is too expensive to use except on the coldest nights or when we leave the house for long periods in winter.  Our wood stove is a high efficiency, low emission model with a catalytic combuster.  The combuster superheats and burns noxious gases mixed with particulates in the smoke before they can go up the chimney.  The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) is developing new rules requiring that all residential wood burners sold in the US meet certain air quality standards.  This will be good for the environment and those of us who breathe air outdoors, but would add as much as 25% to the cost of wood burning heaters and heating systems.

Since a new wood stove already costs over $1000, adding to the expense will only encourage more homeowners to buy older, polluting secondhand stoves.  As part of the rule change, the government should set up a fund to provide grants and low interest loans to people purchasing new wood burners.  That would be an intelligent use of taxpayer funds, so it’s unlikely to occur.

Here is a link to a story about the proposed changes to rules regarding wood heaters: http://www.pressherald.com/politics/Dan_Demeritt__EPA_s_proposed_wood-heater_rules_a_hot_issue_for_Maine_.html?pagenum=full

 

 

Tapping the Maples

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Maples in our sugar bush

The temperatures are finally above freezing.  Sap is running in the maples.  Time to tap the trees and make syrup.  On the farm we have a maple orchard, also called a sugar bush.  The area is thinned to mostly sugar maple trees.  We tap, or drill small holes, to extract sap from trees at least 1.5 feet in diameter.  Our operation is low tech and much the same as was done a hundred or more years ago. We bore the holes by hand with an antique brace and bit drill, collect the sap in buckets hung on the trees, carry sap in five gallon buckets by hand to the boiler and boil down the sap outside over a wood fire.

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Drilling a hole

bucketThe ideal temperatures for collecting sap are when days are in the 40s F and nights in the 20s. Once the night temperatures go above freezing, the trees begin to bud their flowers and leaves.  When the trees bud, sap season is over.  The sap gets dark and strong tasting.  Due to the vagaries of the weather, the syruping season is late and we will be lucky to get one good week of sap collecting this year. Some years the sap will run well from February until April.

Today the weather is glorious, sunny, mid-forties with a slight breeze.  The snow is almost three feet deep, so it’s slow going in the maple orchard.  We set all twenty-five of our taps and the sap is running fast.  A good tap hole drips more than once per second.

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Hand drilling with an antique drill

First we drill holes of a particular diameter to fit the metal spouts, called spiels, that go in the trees to direct the sap into the buckets.  The holes are drilled in a couple of inches to where the sap flows inside the trunk of the tree.  The secret to a good, non-leaky hole is using the right sized drill bit and keeping the drill steady as it goes in, with no wobble.  After drilling, the hole is cleaned to remove any cast off drilled wood.

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Cleaning wood bits from the drilled hole

The spiel is tapped in just enough to hold it, too much and the living wood can split around the hole. Splits can severely damage the tree, even ruining a whole side of the trunk.

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Tapping in the spiel with a hammer

Galvanized buckets with lids are hung from the spiels. These collect the sap.  Large buckets hold 2.5 gallons. On a good sap run day, a tree will fill a large bucket. Older, wider trees can have two or more taps.  To get a gallon of maple syrup, approximately forty gallons of sap are required.  The sugar content varies between trees, we think our trees are pretty sweet! Our boiler holds fifty gallons and we can make about 1.5 gallons of syrup from a full boiler.  Our trees are very healthy, with an ideal location that is well drained, protected from wind and sunny.

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Hanging the bucket to collect the sap

Once all the holes are drilled and the buckets secured, we are on the way to collecting enough sap for our first boil. Depending on the weather, this can take two or three days. In my next maple syrup post, I’ll explain the boiling process.sugar bush1

Amaryllis Through the Years

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One of my beautiful amaryllis plants is in full bloom, bringing some cheer to this slow spring.  Amaryllis flowers occur in bright red, yellows, white, or my favorite, striped pink.  Most flowers have no scent, except the pink ones have a very light, lily fragrance when fully opened.am9

Amaryllis are the ubiquitous bulb in a box, just add water, that are sold in a wide range of stores from before Christmas through the spring.  Once the magic of the fast growing stalk and massive display of blossoms fades, most amaryllis are tossed in the trash.  A sad end to a plant that can thrive for years.  A little care will bring any bulb into bloom over and over.

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large, healthy bulb, at least five years old

The large bulb of the amaryllis is packed with nutrients, helping the flower stalk to reach such heights and fill with blooms as wide as a salad plate.  After blossoming, the nutrients must be renewed for the bulb to grow again.

To save the bulb, remove each flower as it wilts, right where the stem of the flower meets the main stalk.  Allow the stalk to wilt and shrivel before removing it so the plant can reclaim nutrients.  Cut the stalk near the top of the bulb, but do not damage the leaves.

Feed the bulb with it’s long, bright green leaves, regular houseplant fertilizer and keep the soil evenly moist.  Give fertilizer regularly, the bulb must store plenty of energy for the next flowers.  The bulb in its pot can even be moved outside in the summer and grown in a partly shaded area.  I keep mine inside to prevent any insect invasions.

Use regular houseplant potting soil with a little peat mixed in.  The pot should be just large enough to contain the roots without too much room, or the bulb will try to divide and form two or more plants. Dividing is fine if you want lots of amaryllis, but it uses energy and the bulbs won’t bloom the next year.

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New growth from a bulb that was mostly resting

As the bulb has stored the energy it requires to bloom again, the leaves will turn yellow.  Remove each leaf as it dies.  When all the leaves are gone, place the bulb in its pot in a dark, dry, cool place to rest.  Water sparingly, just enough to keep the bulb from withering. After about two months, the bulb will start to send up the pointy tips of new flower stalk and leaf growth. Move the pot out into full light, water well and stand back.  In no time, if the bulb has been well fed, the glorious blooms will show again.
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To prolong the life of each flower, remove the anthers as soon as they are visible, before they open and produce pollen.

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The flowering stalk on this plant is 22″ tall.  The first three flowers opened within two days.  The fourth bud is waiting, biding its time until the others are faded and it can have all the attention.

Sometimes, a young or underfed bulb will only produce two or three flowers on a stalk, or will sprout leaves and no flower.  Just feed it better, let it grow and try again next time.

If necessary, repot the bulb after the leaves have died, before placing in darkness.  The pot should have drainage holes, the roots like to be uniformly moist while actively growing, but not drowned. Should the bulb divide, put the second bulb in another pot and consider yourself lucky to have doubled your flowering potential.

Mist the leaves during the growing season to dust.  The papery covering of the bulb can be removed as it sheds.  Watch for tiny burrowing insects that might try to make the bulb their home and use any insecticide, commerical or organic, to remove them.  Most bulbs kept entirely inside have no insect problems.

With minimal effort, amaryllis bulbs will flourish for years, providing a brilliant show in the cold months when it is most appreciated.

Spinning Angora Rabbit Fiber

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As I said in an earlier post about spinning, winter is when I spin my angora rabbit fiber into yarn so I can use it to knit.  I have a traditional Saxony single drive spinning wheel, acquired second hand years ago, along with my first two angora rabbits.  The wheel was once used to spin sheep wool and still has some areas of lanolin slick on it.  Angora rabbit fiber does not contain lanolin, a greasy substance secreted by sheep to waterproof the hair.

Angora rabbit fiber is soft and fluffy and not at all oily.  I take great care to produce clean fiber with no vegetative matter, soiling or matting.  When I remove the fiber from the rabbit, I place it all oriented in one direction with tips and ends going the same way.  Because angora is spun tip first, it helps to arrange the fiber this way.

Since the fiber is already clean, loose, and matt-free, it does not require carding to prepare it for spinning.  I simply spin the fiber exactly as it has been removed from the rabbit.  I hand pull the fiber from the animal, to preserve the full length, or staple, of the hair.  Hand pulling does not hurt the rabbit.  Only the loose fiber that is ready to fall out is removed.  Here are a couple samples of fiber, fawn agouti and plain fawn colors, and a fawn rabbit–Gem, a doe. In the photos that follow, I am spinning fawn fiber.

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Gem, angora doe

fawn agouti

fawn agouti fiber

fawn fiber

fawn fiber

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have several colors of angoras in my rabbitry: albino (white,) sable (gray/black,) fawn (reddish,) and chocolate torte (reddish and light brown.) In the past I’ve had chocolate, a pretty brown color.  Agouti is the wild color of rabbits, each hair is banded with three or more colors.  I have had agouti in the past, as well.

spinning

I like to spin in a well-lit area and usually work bare-footed, I find it more comfortable.  Spinning the fibers involves developing a twist along the length of a small amount of hair and then adding more hair to it to produce a type of thick thread.  This process is called joining.  The fiber it fed with the tip toward the wheel.  The foot pedal turns the wheel which turns the spindle with the strand attached, producing the twist.  New swatches of fiber easily catch onto the twist to quickly form a long strand that is wrapped around the bobbin.

forming twist

joining the fiber

The skill of spinning incorporates keeping the wheel turning at the proper speed with the foot pedal, holding the right tension on the fiber you are joining and feeding the appropriate amount of fiber as it is needed.  Angora fiber is usually spun into a fairly thin strand, especially if it is used pure and not blended with another fiber like silk or baby alpaca. This is because angora fiber is expensive and also very warm.  A little angora goes a long way.

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bobbin showing guide hooks

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the foot pedal

 

The strand of joined fiber runs through the center of the spindle then through the guide hooks and onto the bobbin.  The strand can be placed on different hooks to fill the bobbin smoothly.  To start the strand through the spindle and onto the bobbin, a special hook is used.  The hook is inserted through the spinning end to catch and pull the strand of yarn through.  Occasionally the strand will break during spinning, if the tension is too tight or the strand is too thin.  Then the hook must be used to re-thread the strand.  The tension is maintained with a knob mechanism attached to a spring by heavy monofilament.  At the right tension the strand goes smoothly onto the bobbin.

feeding the yarn

catching the strand with the hook

 

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pulling the strand through the hole in the spindle

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tensioner mechanism

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After two bobbins are filled with a single strand, usually the same color, the strands are plied together to form two ply yarn. Sometimes three or more strands are plied together, but mostly I make two ply for my knitting projects. The bobbins are placed on a Lazy Kate and the strands are fed back through the spindle hole and onto a third bobbin. The wheel is then turned in the opposite direction from the direction the strands were spun. This joins the two strands together smoothly without placing more twist on the yarn.

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Lazy Kate

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Two strands running from the Lazy Kate back onto the spindle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here are some bobbins filled with single strands of fiber and a small amount of two ply yarn.

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sable fiber

choc yarn

chocolate fiber

2 ply yarn

sable two ply yarn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For most of my spinning, one ounce of fiber will make about 50 yards of two ply yarn. When I have enough yarn made, I knit up a project in pure angora fiber. Most knit items are made in open, airy patterns to conserve the expensive fiber and make the most of the great insulating qualities of angora. The ends of the fiber often open away from the yarn to form the characteristic “halo” effect of angora. This halo adds to the garment’s warmth.

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sable angora hat

scarf

albino angora scarf

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sable angora stole

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I made a very luxurious stole from a thicker yarn spun from Jet, a beautiful sable angora. The stole is closely knit, full and heavy with a big halo. When I’m in need of comfort, perhaps suffering from a sore throat or chill, I wrap my angora stole around my neck. Just like snuggling a bunny!

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Enough With the Snow, Already!

tim snow mtWith over three feet of snow on the ground, we’ve got plenty, thanks!  Here’s my husband, Tim, on top of one of the mountainous snow piles in our yard.  Holly and Otto, the German shepherds, are always ready to play.  Since this photo was taken, the pile has gotten higher.  I topped it off yesterday with the snow that came off the lower roof of the house.  Here’s what the front of the house looked like before I cleared the debris.

front of houseOur new tractor with the bucket loader is earning its keep, for sure.  I would have left this snow piled up to the windows except another monster storm is forecast for Wednesday.  A nor-easter with up to 2 feet more white stuff is bearing down on us.  Oh, joy.  Not sure where I’ll put any new snow.  Running out of room.  Luckily, the forecast after Wednesday is for temps in the high 30s and into the 40s for the foreseeable future.  Finally, maple syrup season will arrive!  It’s about a month late this year.  The weather is mostly sunny, but too cold for sap to run.

Here are some of the eleven wild turkeys that have been visiting the area beneath the bird feeders on a regular basis.  Poor things must be very hungry.  Spring, please hurry!

11 turkeys

 

 

Medronho

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Fallen in love with a brandy liqueur I discovered in the Algarve.  Medronho is wonderful!  The liqueur or in Portuguese, licor, is made from the fruit of the medronheiro (medronho) or strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo,) that grows wild in the arid, rocky parts of Portugal.  The brandy smells and tastes delightful, fruity, sweet and flowery. The distinct overtones of honey are from honey added to create liqueur with up to approximately 30% alcohol content.

This stuff is delicious!  It is called firewater by the locals because it warms as it flows down your throat.  Medronho is a truly native spirit.  The strawberry trees are not farmed, but grow wild. Farmers pick the fruit from their trees to make preserves and jams and to ferment for the alcoholic drink.  Because it is made in small batches by local farmers, there is never a big supply of medronho and the price reflects that.  Luckily, since it is taken in small shots, or as I like it, over ice, a little medronho goes a long way.

There are different varieties of the brandy made from strawberry tree fruit.  Some is just plain, straight aguardente de medronhos with as much as 48% alcohol content, some is sweetened with honey to make the licor and some is special, aged medronho. The licor is a lovely golden color from the honey.  It is my favorite.

I purchased this little bottle for 4 euro in a gift shop at The End of the World, Cape Sao Vicente, the most southwesterly point in Europe.  The bottle only held 2 oz, one shot, but I could feel the effects. It is very warming, even at the 17% alcohol content of this particular brand.a2

I brought one small bottle home with me from my recent trip to Portugal, to share with my husband.  Last night we had it and now all that is left is the forlorn glass remains.  I put it in the window with some of the unprecedented three-plus feet of snow we have as background.

The rain running down the window could represent my tears at the empty bottle.  Sure wish I’d loaded my luggage down with medronho, although I may not have gotten so much past customs.  The brandy is not available in America except via airmail from Portugal.  Guess I’ll just have to go back to the Algarve!

Here are links to a blog site about the medronheiro tree, its fruit and alcohol.

http://www.saomarcosdaserra.com/blog/medronho-much-more-than-a-drink

http://www.saomarcosdaserra.com/a-way-of-life.php

Woodpeckers At The Feeder

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Downy woodpecker

During the winter months, the woodpeckers do not fly south.  They stay with us in the frigid cold, eking out a rough living.  Their main diet is the larva of insects they work from the trunks of trees with their long, chisel beaks.  In the winter larval activity is minimal, so I’m not sure what these birds do for food besides suet feeders provided by some bird lovers.

We usually get half a beef critter for the freezer and ask the butcher to save the suet for us.  The suet is for the birds.  Chickadees and even blue jays will eat suet, but it is mostly meant for the woodpeckers.  I place a half-pound block of raw suet in the sort of mesh bag that comes with onions and hang it on a protected branch of the blue spruce in the front yard.  The cold keeps the fat frozen and prevents rancidity.

The woodpeckers must have some sort of birdy telegraph system because they show up to eat within a day of the first placement of the suet.  Then every day, several woodpeckers take turns at the bag.  They cling to the mesh, balancing with their tails, swinging and turning with the wind, to work bits of cow fat through the holes of the mesh.

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Hairy woodpecker and chickadee

The two main visitors are the hairy and, the slightly smaller, downy woodpecker.  These are the common woodpeckers for our area.  The very large pileated is around and can be seen and heard all winter, but never frequents the feeder.  Too wary.

Hairy wood peckers, being larger, are dominant. The downys always wait their turn and fly to a safe branch if a hairy wants to eat.  Chickadees don’t care. They will horn in on anybody and happily share the suet feeder.

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Hairy woodpecker with chickadee and blue jay

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Hairy woodpecker, chickadees and blue jay

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Downy woodpecker

 

 

 

 

 

Keeping the suet bag full is important if you value your surrounding trees.  When there is no suet to eat, the woodpeckers start ripping bark off nearby trunks and drilling small holes in decorative trees.  The birds will even light on the window sill and knock for your attention.  For these hungry birds, a half-pound of suet lasts about two weeks.  I try not to let it run out.

We very much enjoy the visits from the woodpeckers.  Over the winter they become quite tame and can be closely approached without their leaving the suet.  Once spring arrives with the flush of insect activity in tree trunks, woodpeckers stop visiting the feeder.