Photo and article by Donna Iverson
When I go to a farmers market, the first vendors I look for are the Amish. These are people who know how to grow healthy food, especially if they advertise themselves as organic farmers.
In late spring, the Amish were missing from my closest farmers market and I missed their produce, their friendly manner and their wit. In one encounter, a young Amish man responded to my comment that I loved beans, with “Love is a pretty strong word for beans.”
So as I meandered down the rows of early spring vegetables, I stopped immediately at a table full of seedlings marked “Amish tomatoes.”
With no Amish produce for purchase, I decided to grow my own.
The small seedlings were transplanted to my community gardening bed in late April. Fellow gardeners told me it was too early and I might lose them. But in April of 2020, I needed to see something growing and especially something Amish. They represented survival, resilience and simple beauty. And lucky for me, they made it,
Once they started growing, I became curious. What made a tomato Amish and what exactly had I purchased?
As a college history major, I first checked their origin. According to Wikipedia, Amish tomatoes originated in the 1870s in the oldest Amish community in Wisconsin. Well, it wasn’t Michigan but it was a close neighbor.
An heirloom variety, Amish tomatoes are acorn shaped and grown for making tomato paste. They are thick of texture and have few seeds with a unique tangy sweet flavor.
Slow to ripen, they need about six hours of sunshine and like many heirlooms, are drought tolerant. Belonging to the indeterminate category, they grow quite tall and need strong support like cages or wooden stakes. Once they start to ripen, you will get a slow steady supply instead of one large harvest.
My first Amish tomato is just starting to ripen, as it has slowly turned from pale orange to a bright red. I am loath to pick it, as I enjoy seeing it beaming out from my garden bed as if greeting me with hope. So I leave it be for now, because hope is no small gift in the summer of 2020.
Article and photo by Donna Iverson
The trend in gardening for decades has favored hybrid plants and vegetables that are bigger, brighter, and more easily transportable. The price for this enhancement is that these hybrids have often lost their flavor and aroma. For example, numerous giant rose varieties have no scent and winter hothouse tomatoes ...no flavor.
As a contrarian, my preference has always been for the smaller, taster, and more fragrant native plants.
So when it comes to strawberries, it’s the wild strawberry that I seek out. Like all native wild plants, it is sweeter and more nutritious. It is also low maintenance requiring less water than cultivated strawberries. In addition, it deters weeds.
Best of all, the taste is superb: pop a miniature red berry into your mouth and savor its strong strawberry sweet tartness.
If you are lucky, you may find wild strawberries growing like a weed near where you live. If not, you can purchase wild strawberries ( Fragaria Vesca), often called alpine strawberries, at local nurseries. It is possible to grow them from seed but not easy. Seeds can be purchased from a few catalog companies like prairiemoon.com
Wild strawberries are a cool season crop producing berries in early summer, from April through June. A local patch near me hasn’t gotten the message about hot weather, and is producing handfuls of berries during July,
Wild strawberries might make a wonderful addition to your yard, perhaps as a ground cover or as edging. It also does well in hanging basket and the transitional strawberry pot on your deck or back step,
To propagate wild strawberry, clip a runner from an existing plant and transfer it to your garden, watering well until it is established. Once it has taken hold, it will likely need watering during hot dry spells like we are having here in West Michigan.
One of the delights of wild strawberries, is that you pretty much have to eat it as soon as you pick it. It doesn’t keep in the refrigerator. Although a friend says she freezes wild strawberries and makes wild strawberry jam.
And for you foragers out there, wild strawberry is one of the sweetest most delectable fruits you will ever come across
Photos and article by Donna Iverson
As the pandemic summer rolls on, I am finding myself drawn to the garden as sanctuary. Instead of focusing on weeds, watering, and insect pests, I look forward to garden visits for its calming effect.
In previous summers, I had a garden “to do” list. But now, my highest priority is to connect with the garden itself as a sort of meditative practice. It has become an escape hatch, a way to disconnect from stress and worry.
In tai chi, you learn to look at the world through “soft eyes.” Instead of narrowly focusing in on garden details like tomato plants, you open your field of vision to as wide a perspective as possible.
Next you engage all your senses. Listening for the breeze in the nearby trees, smelling the green emitting from the plants, touching the soft stem of the cucumber, snipping an arugula leaf to taste its tangy flavor and looking at how the sunshine plays among your plants.
Grounding is also helpful to connect to the garden as sacred space. Again, drawing from tai chi, you feel your feet connect to earth, perhaps imagining roots growing down into the soil.
While this practice can turn your existing garden space into a sanctuary, you can also purposely set out to create a sanctuary garden. What do you need? Not much.
At a most basic level, you could create a sanctuary spot on a deck or patio. First you need a comfortable place to sit. Next add greens, preferably those common in the area you live. Perhaps a small table that holds a cup of tea.
You want to feel enclosed so you have a sense of entering a space separate from your everyday world. A peaceful calming space that might include garden art or wood chimes.
But you could take the opposite approach. And just switch lenses to appreciate the garden you have right now as sacred space. It’s almost a left brain right, brain thing...just tune out your thinking brain and listen for the “music” emanating from your garden plants, from the air around them and the sky above.
Make it a ritual..something you do every day or every week, depending on your schedule. You will begin to look forward to spending time in the garden if you don’t already. Allow the calm it offers to wash over you. When you are at your most stressed, spend time in the garden ...not because of garden chores that need doing, but because it offers a place to recharge, renew and escape the drain that is 2020.
Photo and article by Donna Iverson
It looked like sweet corn but it wasn’t. In fact, it was sorghum. And the person in the adjacent community garden bed was growing it. Like every curious home gardener, I wanted to know more. Why grow sorghum and what were they going to do with it? Nothing like a garden mystery to brighten my day.
So I eventually tracked down the grower, Peter Stoeckle of Muskegon and asked him.
Turns out, he grows something new every summer, something that he has never grown before. And sorghum was his latest experiment. It was definitely healthy and growing well.. over six feet tall and lording it over the surrounding veggie plants.
In fact, Stoeckle is in the vanguard of a new trend..as sorghum is undergoing a revival of sorts. The regenerative farming people are growing sorghum for its ability to thrive in poor soil and drought conditions. In drought conditions it goes dormant until revived by a rainfall. It has been called a “camel” crop ..a tough plant for tough times, according NPR garden commentator Dan Charles.
Growing sorghum in your garden improves the soil ..it is nitrogen fixing. Next year’s veggie plants will benefit from the regenerated soil. It is also a weed suppressor and while sorghum does not produce cobs like corn, it can be made into sweet syrup or a gluten-free grain. Or if nothing else, the kernels can be used to make popcorn.
In the US, sorghum is a major source of feed for livestock like chicken and pigs and is also turned into ethanol. It is the fifth most commonly grown grain after wheat, rice, corn and barley, Sorghum, when turned into grain for human consumption, is gluten free and highly nutritious. It is high in protein, iron, magnesium, copper, calcium, zinc and potassium. It is not genetically modified, although DuPont is working on that. ..sigh.
Backyard gardeners and farmers mostly grow it to make a sweet syrup. To do this, you need at least four 100 foot rows of sorghum. In the fall, you will need to process it. An inexpensive hand-cranked press is available from www.grainmaker.com. Cooking down the syrup can be done over a backyard fire pit. Instructions are at motherearthnews.com/sorghum-production
And what is Stoeckle’s next experimental crop: buckwheat. If he makes sorghum syrup to go with buckwheat pancakes....I’m in.
By Terry Grabill
Photo by Rachel Bosma Kramer
One joy of being a member or administrator of birding groups on social media is the many images captured by experienced, talented photographers. I particularly like the discussions brought on by newer members working to identify birds that are new to them. It makes me happy when more experienced birders help a new guy through the key points of identifying this “new” species. Then…then comes a picture of a smallish black bird with a rich, brown head…the brown-headed cowbird. Seldom have I seen a discussion become heated like those regarding brown-headed cowbirds.
Cowbirds are migratory birds, related to red-winged blackbirds and grackles. They prefer open areas of fields and pastures to forests and marshes. Like many songbirds, the male is more striking in coloration than that drab gray of the female. Cowbirds are also nest parasites. Female cowbirds do not make nests or care for their young. Nesting for cowbirds involves spying on another bird, following it to its nest, waiting until the appropriate opportunity, and then laying an egg in its nest. If things go well for the cowbird parents, the “host” female will incubate the nest and raise the cowbird baby to fledging, when it will begin its life as a cowbird. A real wonder of nature is how it even knows it’s a cowbird and that it should seek out other cowbirds!
It’s this reproductive strategy that raises the ire of many. Humans have the unrealistic expectation that animals in nature exhibit similar values and emotions to ours. By human standards, cowbirds are deadbeat parents. They seem lazy and take advantage of others’ efforts, and we often feel they should take care of their own families and pull their weight in parenting. This tendency to assign human thoughts and values to non-human animals is called anthropomorphism, and we’re very good at it! If we saw our fellow humans behaving as such, we would be appalled and likely have good company in our opinion.
So, why in the world do brown-headed cowbirds do this? And, are they causing any harm to the hosts that they parasitize? To understand this behavior, we must go back in time. Cowbirds adapted to following the vast herds of bison over the North American prairies, feasting on the insects flushed by the roaming beasts. Unlike birds, bison, being mammals, carried their embryos along with them and their pause to give birth was short. Perhaps, in response to the need to move with the herds, cowbirds that were most successful deposited an egg in this nest…and an egg in that nest, leaving the host birds to tend to their babies. The behavior was carried with the species as its range expanded with the opening of the Great Lakes region to farming. So, why don’t they do the proper thing now that they don’t have to follow bison? Again, we assign human values and emotions to non-human animals…it just doesn’t work that way!
Native Great Lakes songbirds seem to do just fine with this parasitism. In spite of the stress on the individual mothers, most species suffer no ill-effect. An exception has been the Kirtland’s warbler, which nests in a VERY restricted area of north-central Michigan. The warblers have been critically endangered, and cowbirds were compounding the endangerment. In warbler habitat, cowbirds were trapped out to ensure the warbler nests were holding only warbler eggs. This practice has since ceased as the warbler’s populations increased.
Adding to their “distasteful” behavior is the act of terror sometimes brought down on hosts that reject the cowbird eggs. It’s sometimes called “mafia” behavior. The cowbird parents monitor the host nest and if their egg comes up missing, the cowbirds may destroy the host nest. It’s a bit reminiscent of an episode of “The Sopranos”!
Important to remember as we consider this marvel of natural adaptation is that, being migratory songbirds, they have complete protection of our federal government under the migratory bird treaty. Their eggs must not be disturbed under penalty of law. While we tend to want to “save” our favorite birds from these bullies, in order to really appreciate nature, we need to let nature take its course.
For BirdGoober, I’m Terry Grabill
Article and photo by Donna Iverson
When it comes to gardens, I prefer the informal over the formal, native plants over hybrids, those that are drought resistant, pollinator friendly, smell sweet, and are easy to grow. If they are edible, that’s a plus too.
Rosa rugosa ticks off all of those boxes except one..native plant. But it is a naturalized rose, arriving in Nantucket from Japan in 1845. During the next fifty years, it spread rapidly all over New England and especially along the coast as it tolerated sandy soil and salty ocean spray.
Today, this shrub rose is naturalized in Michigan and other Great Lake's states where it is especially valued for landscape planting. You would be forgiven for thinking it was a native plant. It tolerates west Michigan’s sandy poor soil, where it helps stabilize dunes along our coast. It can be found in waste places, along roadsides and right-of-ways where birds and animals have dropped their seeds.
Unlike hybridized roses, it still has a strong sweet rose scent with flowers that range in color from pure white to rose-lavender. It grows to about four to eight feet high and four to six feet wide and makes an excellent thorny hedge. It’s deciduous leaves stay green during the winter.
If you don’t deadhead the flowers, bright orange-red hips will appear in the fall and these can be picked and turned into jam or rose hip tea.
Best planted in the spring or fall, it is quick growing and low maintenance and pruning is unnecessary. It prefers full sun but will grow in partial shade in the poorest soil. So if you have always wanted to grow rose plants, Rosa rugosa would be a good place to start as it does not require any special gardening skills.
And of course, it is loved by pollinating insects, birds and butterflies. Rosa rugosa will bloom all summer from June to August and will provide many years of gardening pleasure.
Photos and article by Donna Iverson
This spring, more people are taking to gardening than ever before, ....not since the WWI Victory Gardens of a hundred years ago, which was also during a pandemic. So if you are itching to get your hands in the dirt, where do you start?
1. Grow something you love Before retiring, I worked in a public school elementary school library. My greatest challenge and pleasure was finding a book for a student who didn’t like to read. That book which caught their interest, led to more books often on the same subject or in the same genre. Same principle applies with gardening. What is your favorite vegetable or vegetables?
2. Plant vegetables that are easy to grow. If you are a beginner, four of the easiest vegetables to grow are tomatoes, radishes, lettuce and green beans. The later three vegetables can be grown from seeds, but tomato plants are best purchased at your local garden store or farmers market.
3. Start small. Consider a few pots of tomatoes or a planter of herbs outside your back door, or on your deck or patio. Maybe next year, you can expand your efforts to a raised bed and if you get truly hooked on gardening, digging up part of the backyard for a more traditional garden space.
4. Find a sunny location. Vegetables need a lot of sun, the more the better. Four hours of sun is about the minimum. So maybe you will have to locate those tomato plants by the front door and not the back door. If so, you will be joining a growing trend of turning front lawns into garden space.
5. Soil and water. You will need good soil for healthy growth. A good mix is half dirt from your yard mixed equally with compost bought from the garden center. Eventually, as your gardening skills grow, you can create your own compost pile using grass cuttings, leaves and kitchen scraps. As for watering, let the plants dry out before watering and place your pots or planters near an easy-to-reach water supply. A watering can is always a plus, although an empty milk jug will suffice.
These are the basics ..plants or seeds, soil, sun and water and something to put them in. If you use a container recycled from home, like large empty coffee cans, make sure there are holes in the bottom for drainage.
Finally a word on kits. If all this still sounds intimidating but you want to make a start, consider buying a gardening kit sold at garden centers and even grocery stores. Your purchase comes with containers, soil, and seeds. You plant the seeds, add water and set in a sunny location, even a windowsill. Almost failure proof.
Article and photos by Donna Iverson
As the sheltering in place order continues to take its toll on our collective psyche, feeling a constant urge to go for long walks in Michigan woods ..to search out and identify Spring Wildflowers and say hello to my favorite ferns.
As you probably have read, the Japanese call this "forest bathing," and there is scientific evidence that being in nature and especially around trees and/or water helps calm the soul. Maybe it's all those negative ions.
But with the stay-at-home order in place, I turn to my local environment for signs of woodland plants and flowers. Less than a block from my front door, I stumble upon wildflowers springing up in the cement cracks. Somehow they symbolize trying to maintain functioning under difficult conditions. Wild violets are tough little beings who survive and even thrive no matter where they land....even in the most seemingly hostile of places. A lesson I am learning to emulate.
On one of my daily ambles through the city, I spy Ostrich ferns growing in a contemplative garden alongside the local Jewish synagogue. On closer inspection, discovered they were just past the fiddlehead stage, which was a disappointment as they are an edible delicacy.
Still I was thrilled to see one of my favorite native ferns which is easy to identify especially when it is full grown as it can reach 6 feet. It's only competitor is the Interrupted Fern which can grow equally as tall. By midsummer Interrupted Fern has a brown patch in the center of the stalk ...hence its name and its identifying tell. So you won't mistake it for Ostrich Fern. Both ferns are native to North America.
Ferns make wonderful additions to a home garden whether it be a native plants garden, a woodland garden, a wildlife garden (they provide shelter for many birds), a rain garden, a shade garden or just a shady spot in your yard.
Ferns have a primitive otherworldly look and are perhaps the oldest plants on the planet, dating back to the Neanderthal era. There are many native ferns to choose from that will grow well in Northern Michigan gardens including Maidenhair fern, Lady Fern, Woodland Fern, Christmas Fern (which is evergreen in winter ..hence its name) and of course, the Ostrich Fern. All can be purchased at garden centers and then propagated by division. Be aware that some are aggressively invasive spreading by underground rhizomes ..especially the Ostrich Fern.
So if you want to bring woodland plants to your yard, consider the native ferns ..they require little maintenance and will provide an unique addition to your environment. You might even harvest a few of those Ostrich Fern fiddleheads come early next spring.
By Tina Bury
I have this wool dress that I made 8 years ago from some lovely, purplish, brown herringbone wool I picked up at a yard sale for 5 dollars and a pattern I found online (the Ashland Dress from Sew Liberated).
This was my first really, really well-done dress and a woven dress at that! With finished seams and buttons. A hand-sewn hem. All the thoughtful finishing steps that I, at that time, did not usually have the patience for. And the fit is (well...was) perfect!
The thing is, it's a bit snug now (an accidental trip through the washing machine saw to that...okay, and time), but even before then I only wore this dress a handful of times. Not because it's not comfortable or lovely to me.
But, because there is some unknown, not-quite-right for me element to it that I can't quite place my finger on and I've gotten really clear over the last decade on what I love to wear and what magically makes me feel completely lit up, based on how I feel in my body wearing it.
And I'm unwilling to wear anything that doesn't do that...even if I don't understand why. (Not being able to zip it up also helps!)
But still, I've purged my closet probably a hundred times in the last 8 years and I can never seem to part with this dress.
...and it's taking up valuable real estate and hogging one of my lovely vintage wooden hangers.
I mean, I have other dresses, ones in regular rotation, ones I wear with gusto, who do not even have a hanger.
No, not even a hanger...they are unceremoniously draped over the top of the closet bar. (yes, I know I can buy more hangers, but, see I'm trying to create a self-limiting system!)
Seriously. Why can't I let this dress go?
I've been thinking about that. I think it is the elation that came from making a garment so carefully and intentionally that I love connecting with. I've been holding onto the memory and that's what brings me joy. This dress is a milestone project.
The other day I was rifling through my too-full closet to see what I can pass along, as I am want to do when I'm feeling a little overwhelmed or have an urge to regain control in my life. (an illusion surely, but it feels good...allow me the illusion!)
There's nothing quite like checking in with what you own and deciding if it still brings you joy and whether or not it still deserves space in your life. And then releasing what doesn't.
I know you know what I am talking about, Marie Kondo didn't become a household verb for nothing!
That feeling that comes when you shift the old out and make room for...well maybe, the new, but ideally for me...simply for space.
Space in my cluttered closet and space in my mind.
See, I love the feeling of peace that I get when I have what I need and feel content with what I have. Not too much or too little, but simply enough.
So, this uncharacteristic keeping of this dress has been so interesting to me.
And then, just like that, I'm ready to let it go. hmm. But not, obviously without a last hurray!
To be clear, it would have been perfectly acceptable to continue to let this beloved garment hog it's space....forever if need be, but I'd like some more space please, in every sense of the word, and sometimes that means letting go of good things in favor of a tempered version of what truly matters to me.
So, here's to the things we've made where in the end it was the process and the feeling of empowerment that gave us so much joy! Those milestone projects...fists pumping in the air, smiling from ear-to-ear, projects.
What are you hanging onto because it makes you feel good to see it and touch it, even if you don't or can't use it?
Tell me about a milestone project of yours! It's just me behind the screen and I love to connect!
Tina shares her musing on making in her weekly e-letter and on her blog. Kinshiphandwork.com
By Tina Bury
I find I've been holding my breath; at odd times like when sitting on the couch and expected times like when I go on a grocery run. I imagine you might be too.
Last night in a wise move, I took a long bath after everyone had gone to sleep. I was physically exhausted myself (all that breath-holding after all) but I felt drawn to the water.
AND, here's the clincher, I heeded the call! (yes! Cheers all around.)
With great effort, I set aside my phone and picked up a book. A real, paper and ink, book! (Do you read in the bath too?)
Threads of Life; the history of the world through the eye of a needle by Clare Hunter.
I am thoroughly enjoying it. (I'll be honest here though, I struggled to get into it several months ago when I first picked it up, and last night as a last-ditch effort I jumped ahead a bit and found myself enthralled!)
Did you know that historically embroidery was often added to clothing to protect the wearer? I find the idea of stitches as a way to ward off trouble and protect our loved ones so, so lovely.
from the book...
"Traditionally, in many cultures throughout the world, embroidered textiles were thought to be as efficacious as a shield for protecting human beings in this world and the next. Imbued with the force of nature - the plants from which dyes have been extracted, from which thread has been spun - textiles provided a natural armory to ward off attack. Through needlework, however, greater defenses could be assembled, to ensure human safety.
"Evil could slip and slide into any opening. Clothes therefore were cunningly constructed to withstand danger, especially in areas most vulnerable to entry. The hems, cuffs, and necklines of many traditional garments were densely patterned in an array of different colors. This was no idle fancy for ornamentation, but purposeful safeguarding."
As luck would have it, I had already planned to do some hand-sewn embroidery along the neckline of a recently drafted knit t-shirt dress. (Maybe I need to consider the hem and sleeve opening too!)
I've always felt the "something extra" of a thing made by hand...slowly and intentionally. I'd like to believe that there is a bit of magic, protection perhaps, in the garments that we spend our time and energy in and in which we infuse our love.
I honestly have a very different connection to the garment I distractedly rush to make and the garment I take my time on, mindfully considering all the details and allowing the flow of creation.
And like the author, I've been enthralled with the possibility that plants could infuse their healing properties into the cloth they dye. Isn't it lovely that so many medicinal plants are also fabric dyes?
Like many, I've recently made some face masks for my community and while I've not embroidered them, I have sent my love and prayers for protection into them as I sewed. Perhaps it's the same thing.
And if ever we needed a bit more love and protection, it's now.
So, if you're inclined...dig out that needle and thread, stitch some protection and find some peace in the mindfulness of handwork at the same time. (I love a two-fer!!)
I'll join you, dear one!
In Deep Kinship,
Tina Bury called the Newaygo area home before tramping off to the snowy north where she found herself a mama and a sewing teacher. She hosts sewing retreats and workshops in Michigan for garment sewists who crave connection and finally want to wear and sew clothes they love. Tina also has an online course where you can get mindful and intentional about what you wear and how you show up in the world and give yourself more joy in your craft. She shares her musing on making in her weekly e-letter and on her blog. Kinshiphandwork.com