From Fencing to Fancy: the Hedgerow in your House

What if I said there was a hedgerow in your house?  Okay, there’s not, but it’s likely that you are familiar with the aesthetics born of longstanding cultural interactions with hedgerows and coppice lots.  Hedgerows are not boxy rows of squared off shrubbery; those victims of suburban plant harassment are just plain ol’ hedges.

laying hedgerows

This newly laid hedgerow will be a scruffy abundance in a decade.

Hedgerows are a line (or two) of trees that have been cut not-quite through while young and then bent over, and woven into / tied to their neighbors, a process known as “laying”.  The trees re-sprout, forming a dense network of branches.

Laying a hedgerow is hardly speedy work.  The farmers would spend the winter working on stretches of their fenceline (hedgerow) but would never have gotten to even a 10th of the farm’s hedgerows in a single winter.  After 10-20 years, the hedgerow trees have fully recovered and the fence is quite tall and vigorous but perhaps not as tight as it used to be.  By now the farmer has worked their way around to the starting spot and down goes the hedgerow again.

This is part that garners the most attention, this living line.  It’s what’s cut off, though, that wound up in your kitchen.  Known as “small wood”, what comes off a hedgerow is typically long, thin, straight, and rarely more than a few inches in diameter.

hedgerow small wood craft

Chairs, banisters, balustrades, table legs and braces: all small wood crafts.

Think of all the spindle backed chairs, all the banisters and balusters, the tool handles, window mullions, wooden spoons, wicker furniture…  Actually, I’m not sure about the wicker, but you get the idea.  Hedgerows begat a whole economy and culture.

Why were the effects so pervasive?  Because the hedgerows themselves were so pervasive, and so very much not controlled by any large organized entity.  Small wood based craft houses formed a cottage industry, each acquiring from the farmers the lengths and diameters suited to their particular creations, from picket fences to chair backs to axe handles.  From these craft houses, the hedgerows filtered out and into our homes.

We’ve largely lost the thatched roofs and the technique of bundling very similar diameter sticks into “logs” to produce an even burning cooking fire suitable for baking bread.  Even so, a lot of what Western civilization considers “normal” is influenced by these hedgerows and their brethren, the coppice lots.

Hedgerows gone wild: the Osage Orange

Osage Orange: Maclura pomifera. AKA "brain tree"

Osage Orange: Maclura pomifera.   AKA “brain tree”

Before there was barbed wire, there was Osage orange, a sturdy tree with comical “green brain” fruit and an intriguing orange strip in the furrows of the bark.  And thorns.  Tire flattening, predator thwarting, enthusiastically vicious thorns.  Those thorns helped change the landscape of the tallgrass prairies: before Osage orange became the hedgerow plant of choice, it was difficult to farm in Illinois what with all the livestock running amok.  (I exaggerate.)

With the advent of a self-renewing fence line that was durably “horse high, ox strong, and hog tight”, not only were livestock corralled in (or out) of specific fields, but the steady winds of the region were abated, changing snow drop patterns (it tends to drift into the leeward side of a windblock, meaning more moisture there when it melts) and providing some protection from late spring chills swirling down from the Arctic.

A significant number of these hedgerows died in the spate of unusually harsh winters of the 1880s (many of which still hold “Coldest Year” records).  They were not replaced because barbed wire had been invented (grows faster), thus the former hedgerow tree were demoted to fence posts (so durable it’s joked that the wire wears out first). By then, however, they were seeded into the region and endure today, showing up in wild lots and waysides.

Mulch on the Mind: Responding to “The Holistic Orchard” by Michael Phillips

I’m reading Michael Phillips’ The Holistic Orchard: Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way
right now: great stuff!  He spoke at the MOSES conference a few years back and made it possible to dream again.  I love orchards, I love fruit trees and pruning, I love dappled shade, I love fruit.  I hate chemical sprays, and the abiding mantra out there is that organic apples can’t be done.

Yes they can!  Apparently the trick is to march right on past organic into the realm of holistic. Organic at this point (in the US, where it is a highly regulated word) means “no chemicals.”  It ought to mean respecting the overall system and healing the soil and what not, and for the majority of organic farmers it does, but we can’t seem to get there with the requirements.  Recently I read somebody trying to sell the idea that GMOs would mean fewer chemicals, but I’m not buying that noise, and I’m sure as heck not eating it.

Holistic, on the other hand, says ailments are symptoms and a healthy system can right itself.  It’s all about viewing the farm as an ecology (biodynamics does this nicely, too) and looking for the underlying weakness that needs support.

Favorite tidbit thus far: Ramial Mulch.

ramial mulch and ramial wood chips are the same thing

Didn’t know this was gold, eh?

Ray-whoo? Ray-mee-ell.  These are the skinny bits from the tips of deciduous hardwood trees.  “Skinny” = no more than about 2 ½ inches (6cm) across.

The crucial detail here is the ratio of lignin (the wood that is alive and actively Continue reading

From warming earth to the color of butter: why 40°F is so wonderous

Onion_Grass-by-Max-LeGranAs the snow melts, the soil warms.

As the soil warms, it becomes 40° Fahrenheit (and then warmer).

As the soil hits 40F, the bacteria that convert atmospheric nitrogen to plant soluble nitrogen wake up.

As those bacteria wake up, the soil is suddenly flush with new food for the plants.

As the plants eat, the plants start to green up again.  One of the earliest is grass (right there in the surface of the soil…).

As the plants green up, they become more nutritious and more tasty.

rotational-grazing-we-raise-grassAs the grazing animals (like cows) eat, they aim for the tastiest plants.

As the cows eat the spring grass, they get flush full of fresh nutrients.

As the cows get a healthier diet, they have more ability to produce fatty milk.

As milk gets fattier, it turns a golden hue.  (There’s some variance by breed.  Guernseys have the best reputation.)

The golder the milk, the golder the butter.


In the winter it works in reverse.  Of course, if the cow is not eating green grass, the color of the milk never changes.  Since folks fresh off the farm in the 19th and 20th centuries knew that the brighter butter is better, the industrial scale butter makers (and cheese makers) started adding annatto, a seed, to change the color of butter and cheese.  They got a little carried away and now we all think bright orange cheese is normal.  All because of marketing departments wanting to imitate the color of +40° Fahrenheit.

Crane drain?

sandhill crane migration

Sandhill cranes in hiding.

(Reposted from last year.  I meant to be there this weekend, but alas, snow.)

I had it planned like a cat burglar: where would the Sandhill cranes be? when would they be where? how should I get there? when should I leave the house?  This was overkill.  It was like plotting out where in the city  I might find the rare and exotic pigeon.

I traveled out into the Sandhill crane flyway this week and realized I’d over thought it.  My first clue?  I pulled up at a highway rest stop to use the facilities and gather my bearings, and there were 30 or so in the farm field beside the rest stop.  Another twenty across the highway.

The migration paths of somewhere on the order of 500,000 cranes intersect for about a month every spring along the Platte River in central Nebraska.  The flat farm fields are littered with spilled Continue reading

On Sugar Snows and Mountain Butterfly Populations

lincoln in the snowFirst morning of spring!  I look out the window and … SNOW!  Oh my.   Time to breathe deep and remember how much I like maple syrup.  And butterflies.  And wild flowers.  Okay, that worked: I have gratitude for the snow pack.

Sugar Snows

Late spring snows are often known as sugar snows because they cause fluctuations in the already non-linear rising of the sap in sugar maple trees.  Technically, you can tap a whole host of trees for syrup, including other maples and sycamores, but the sugar maple has the fame and the flavor.

By stalling out the spring “sugaring” season, more sap can be collected and more syrup made.  In my world view, an over abundance of maple syrup isn’t possible.  That’d be like saying you had too many butterflies.

On Snow Packs and Butterfly Populations

Colorado wildflowers and climate change

Colorado wildflowers (from LifeBiteNews)

In the Rocky Mountains, the delay of the spring is also good for butterflies, mostly because it’s good for wildflowers.  The deeper snow pack, the longer it takes to melt.  The longer the snow pack takes to melt, the later the wildflowers underneath start growing and blooming.  If they wait long enough, the season will have progressed enough that all danger of a late frost is past.

Without a late frost, the wildflower populations thrive, blooming intensely all Continue reading

More “Permaculture on the Prairie” thinking…

do wind turbines kill birdsWhen wind power was getting up and running, there was a lot of angst about the number of birds being knocked out the sky by the spinning arms.  That turned out to be a gearing issue- just spin the blades at a different speed.  But even had it been an unsolvable conundrum, would that have been justification for halting wind turbines?  Don’t oil and coal and natural gas kill more birds by far?

Perhaps the interior Plains needs of certain birds can’t be accommodated within a world where humans simply MUST learn to produce their food without so much trauma to the larger environment.  BUT! If we can grow enough food locally, and shift our diets to focus on the perennial crops, then some of the land that is now farmland will be able to return to conservation easements and other “biodiversity sinks”, which would, in turn, create more Prairie Interior.

ReVenture Park conservation easement with the Catawba Lands Conservancy

ReVenture Park attempts eco-industrial medley in NC

Except that conservation easements at this point usually follow “riparian corridors” (rivers and streams), so… edges.  Edge species.  We need a mechanism that facilitates the intentional and intelligent conglomeration of multiple easements into larger, more cohesive tracts.

This notion of clustering the easements circles back to the permaculture possibilities.  If we could take advantage of the community of people who want to grow this way, then a number of us could pitch in and create our collective food forest on one patch and commit a larger space to prairie.  This would require new forms of land rights, based less on the primacy of the individual.

When I lived in a group house in (the People’s Republic of) Takoma Park, Continue reading

Natural dyes for Easter eggs (or Aostara eggs or Passover eggs or “Happy Tuesday, let’s have eggs”…)


Crunchy Domestic Goddess got a better blue than me. Longer soak time.

Natural dyes for eggs are immensely fun: they are not 100% predictable except that the resulting shades will have a harmony with each other than no box of Paz has ever gotten close to.

For each color, I list any vegetables, spices, and teas that I know will dye eggs.  These are all either / or recipes, meaning you don’t need red cabbage AND purple grape juice, you can just use red cabbage or you can just use purple grape juice.  Not that mixing might not be fun. 

The proportions are fairly predictable:

Vegetable and fruit dyes: enough vegetable material for a softball size wad, boiled for 10-15 minutes in 4 – 6 cups of water,

Spices to dye with: about two good spoonfuls of a given spice per cup or so of water, boiled 5 to 10 minutes.

Teas that dye: 4 or 5 tea bags per cup or so of water, steeped for about 10 minutes

DUH: remove any vegetable chunks or tea bags from the cup of dye before you put your eggs in.  Spices, meh, leave’em.  If your eggs are already cooked, how long you leave them in the dye is up to you.  If you are starting with raw eggs, make a bigger batch of dye and and then cook the eggs in it.  About 15 minutes to a hard boiled egg because you probably have several eggs in there at once.

 Don’t Forget Patterns.

You don’t need 12 pots of dye.eggs-from-favecraftsblog

Choose one to three colors, make those, and use patterns to generate stunningly beautiful eggs.  Woven meshes made into baggies and held tight with bread bag ties, rubber bands of various sizes, leaves and flowers held on by (former) pantyhose, wax drops from a candle…  Trust me.  A dozen eggs dyed in these patterns you invent, even if all the same basic color (variable by length of time in dye), will just take your breath away.  You will feel so artistic and competent.


Violet blossoms are fun.  Double fun: the actual blossom, held on inside pantyhose, will leave a (mild) blue purple flower shaped stain, no matter what color you actually dye the egg. Continue reading

Food (non) forests: Permaculture on the Prairie

How do you do a food forest respectfully when you don’t live in a forest? I love permaculture ideas and ethics but, as you may have noticed, I’m wrestling with the practices.  I’m out on the tall grass prairie, far enough west that it’s not much further until the mixed grass prairies kick in.

sunflowers in tall grass prairie

Sunflowers in the prairie, late September.

Of all the ecosystems in the world, the tall grass prairie has lost the greatest percentage of its original acreage.  98% of what used to be tallgrass is now something else- cities or roads or farms or even just heavily over grazed by livestock who nutritionally need grasses in the mix that don’t belong in (and don’t easily co-habitate within) a tallgrass prairie.

Trees here concentrate themselves along the streams and in the bottoms of the sloughs where the rolling terrain will shunt every rain drop possible past their roots.  (You can see the tops of three trees over the crest of the hill to the right in the photo above.) We get ALMOST enough rain for a forest here, but that 27 inch average is just that, an average.  Some years there’s more than enough rain for trees, some years there’s absolutely not enough, at all.   I’m not even getting into the fire issue here.

There are plants here, flowers (forbs) and grasses, and there is a vibrant swath of wildlife, from butterflies to birds, beetles to bison, and more reptiles and amphibians than you could shake a stick at.  (World’s oddest idiom.  If somebody knows the source of this one, do share.) Continue reading

Thinking Through A Knee Jerk Reaction: Thought-Full Permaculture


Dave Jacke permaculture

Dave Jacke, permaculturalist and author

Dave Jacke is teaching a permaculture workshop in Australia next week (as I write this.)  This strikes me as odd.  We talked about it (briefly) and I’ll share that at the end, but here’s my thought process: I like his books (Edible Forest Gardens), and he’s a friend of some friends, so I feel confident that he himself is both well-intentioned and wildly knowledgeable about quite a few topics but what I liked about his Edible Forest Gardens book was its focus on and regional applicability to the forests of the northeastern United States (and probably into Canada’s Maritime provinces.) 

It seemed important to finally be flipping through a resource that had no recommendations whatsoever for where to place your avocado tree.  (Don’t get me wrong there- I’m a huge avocado fan).

So to remove him so far from his context…what’s gained and what’s lost?


Gained is the clarity that there are core principles / ethics / protocols behind permaculture’s activities, and these are universal to the whole world.  Water, sunshine, and good soil.  That basic recipe remains the same everywhere I can get to without a spaceship.

Not gained is a fresh voice in the wilderness.  Australia is not short of permies.  This is where Bill Mollison and David Holmgren codified their observations into ethics that generated patterns of both spatial relations and behaviors, all of which they called permanent agriculture: “permaculture”.


permaculture guilds zone 1

Permaculture zone 1 from Innovation Diaries

Lost is the knowledge base that comes from really knowing a Continue reading