I heard the sound again and this time we ran out to record it. It was further away and it sounded a little different from last time – less catlike – but though the “words” are different, the voice seems the same (to the one in my memory). In any case, if you can tell us what it is, if not a fisher cat, let us know!


Riot for Austerity fist with Thermometer

Last year’s averages (calculated here) are mentioned as a baseline. I use this calculator.

Gasoline. I can’t wait for the temperatures to go up and the rains to stop so I can bike Amie to school.

9.96 gallons per person (pp) in cars + 10 miles pp on public transport

24 % of the US National Average

(Last year’s yearly average: 24.8%)

Electricity. This went up a lot because of the growing lights and heat mat. I’ll measure how much is consumed by the full setup of eight lights, heat mat and fan.

539 KWH (all wind) = 15 % of the US National Average

(Last year’s early average: 18.2% – we only switched to wind in the middle of the year)

Heating Oil and Warm Water. I’m relieved to say this number is finally going down. It’s warming up and we had some good thaw days. We still heat to 58F at night and most of the day. The wood stove goes on around 6 pm and goes till when we go to bed, heating the house to around 64F. I’ll count the second cord of wood we started once it’s finished. Also our warm water is heated with this oil.

50.15 gallons = 81 % of the US National Average

(Last year’s yearly average: 77%)

Trash. We did even better here. I reuse most unrecyclable containers for the seedlings. 90% of our trash is plastic food wrapping, so I watch the packaging of the food we buy, and try to buy mostly in bulk anyway.

3 lbs pp = 2 % of the US National Average

(Last year’s yearly average: 7.3%)

Water. This again crept up. We had four guests over for the holiday week and I also did a lot of washing and rinsing of last year’s plant and seedlings pots. Those seeds and seedlings also need a lot of water…  The lower one’s water consumption, the more these little bits count and jump into the eye. I’ll be happy to see the rain barrels back in use.

494 gallons of water pp = 16 % of the US National Average

(Last year’s yearly average: 16.5%)

Consumer Goods. Most of our purchases were towards the garden this month, so I won’t count them. For the rest we did well again, only splurged a bit at the MFA ($20 for a book and some small toys) and bought two magazine subscriptions.

$60 = 7 % of the US National Average

(Last year’s yearly average: 27.2%)


Over five hours of fairly uninterrupted work I planted:

  1. Anise Hyssop (mint!)
  2. Aster: September Ruby NE
  3. Broccoli Blend 09
  4. Broccoli: Waltham
  5. Brussels Sprouts: Roodnerf
  6. Cabbage: Charming Snow
  7. Cabbage: Earliana
  8. cabbage: red express
  9. Catnip
  10. Chard: Bright Lights
  11. Chard: Fordhook Giant
  12. Charming snow cauliflower
  13. chives: Purlie
  14. Collards: Evenstar
  15. Cornflower: Bachelot Button
  16. eggplant: Applegreen
  17. eggplant: diamond
  18. Hyssop
  19. kale: White Russian
  20. kale: Winterbor
  21. Lavender
  22. leek: King Richard
  23. leek: King Sieg 09
  24. Lemon Balm
  25. Lobelia: Crystal Palace
  26. Lovage
  27. Maltese Cross
  28. Mustard: Early Mizuna Japan 09
  29. Mustard: Mild Kingdom 09
  30. Onion: Clear Dawn
  31. parsley: Gigante d’Italia 09
  32. pepper: hot: Czech Black
  33. pepper: hot: Habanero
  34. pepper: sweet: New Ace (hybrid)
  35. pepper: sweet: peacework
  36. pepper: sweet: purple beauty
  37. pepper: sweet:Valencia Orange 09
  38. Rosemary
  39. sage: Broadleaf
  40. spinach: Giant Winter
  41. Spinach: Longstanding Bloomsdale
  42. spinach: Space
  43. tomato, cherry: Sungold
  44. tomato, cherry:Be my baby
  45. tomato: cherry: husk cherry
  46. tomato: paste Heinz
  47. tomato: slicing: cherokee purple
  48. tomato: slicing: Ida gold
  49. tomato: slicing: pink brandywine
  50. tomato:slicing: Glacier
  51. Wormwood

Of course I am absolutely certain that I caught all the mice in my house and that not one will ever dare to come in for ever here-on-after.

Having that heat mat (for four flats) on that bottom shelf is so handy! I now have room for four more flats, on one shelf. There are a couple of seeds that escaped my attention today (the lettuces!), so probably that shelf will be filled up tomorrow.

We went to our Garden Center’s Winter Fair and of course bought more seeds. This time DH was in on it too (Habanero), as well as Amie. It’s good to spread the guilt obsession pleasure! Amie chose two annual flowers and one packet of Three Sisters seeds – she was very taken by the name, so that’s what she got. She also got to pot up a Marigold seedling and pet a parrot.

Well, the hoophouse almost kicked the bucket, again. Yesterday night we experienced 50 miles per hour gusts of wind that got through every crack and gap in the hoop house and almost lifted it up off the ground. Almost. When I woke up this morning after a pretty fitful sleep it was still there, but only just.

Our hoophouse skeleton is made entirely of flexible pvs pipes and rigid pvc connectors, and it is covered with 6 mil landscape fabric, attached to the ribs by pvc clips. It is anchored to the ground by sideways (squeezing) pressure on its base, through galvanized stakes hammered in the ground on one side and the two wooden boxes of the garden beds on the other.  There is one small cable inside that is mainly for correcting the top from leaning over too much, because the whole thing sits on slightly sloping ground.

Our initial door design very quickly proved a bust, and we never even  installed it, so now the entrance is simply a flap of plastic that we clip and unclip as we go in. This is a major gap in the structure. There are also big holes along the covering of the side walls.

When I walked out this morning to set things aright before the big snowstorm – we know how the house, even in its better days, performs under snow loads! – I found that it had jumped all of the anchors but one. It had jumped over all of the stakes and even one garden bed (a foot high!). Only the corner of the other garden bed and the tight  (now too tight) plastic covering held it in shape and in place.

In short, in a place where it gets windy and snowy, I would not recommend going with this simple design, or even this choice of materials. It is simply underbuilt.

We decided to add wooden frames on its short sides. In one of those we can place a more convenient and air tight wooden door, and in the other we can stick a window that can open for cross-ventilation.  We’re also contemplating a low wooden wall all around its base for the now sliding off. We’ll replace the ripped and punctured cover with a more transparent and durable one.

We’ll rebuild it in the Spring, before we move it to its Summer position. The idea is still to have it be mobile, but instead of picking it up in one piece, we’ll make it modular.

That said, I am glad we made this house. It got us going, we’ll be able to use most of its materials, and it taught us a lot about good (and bad) design.  Also, all the plants inside survived the calamities so far, and I think it won’t be long before we can harvest some lettuce and mache and replace them with new seedlings growing in the basement as we speak.


Caught two more mice. Bought more covers in case there are more mice. Gearing up to do a huge planting over the weekend. Got more seeds too, mostly chard and spinach. How could I possibly have enough of those!


You guessed it: it’s time for another episode in the Calcium in the Soil and Plant series! Take heart: we’re getting close to the end (maybe only one more part to go?). Actually, it took me so long to post on this again because this one took me a long time to figure out. If you want to brush up on the previous parts, check out this page.


Part 8. Selective Nutrient (and Water) Uptake by Roots

Nutrients arrive at the root surface in three ways:

  1. The first of these is root interception. As roots grow, they make direct contact with nutrients. This mechanism is less important because roots come into direct contact with only 1-3 percent of the soil volume exploited by the root mass. Mycorrhizae – fungi that form a symbiotic association with plant roots – can increase the surface area that roots can extract nutrients from. Calcium and magnesium, because they are so abundant, are often intercepted by root contact.
  2. The second mechanism is mass flow, wherein plants, sucking up water (through the various pumps and pulls discussed in the previous part), also move the nutrients that are dissolved in it. Especially mobile (free) nutrients are “attracted” in this manner: nitrate-nitrogen, chloride and sulfur, which are never absorbed by the colloid and thus always exist in solution, and calcium and magnesium, which are held only loosely to the colloid. The drier the soil, the less mass flow.
  3. The third mechanism is diffusion, by which ions in the soil spontaneously move from a point of higher concentration to a point of lower concentration (like in osmosis). Diffusion happens in the soil because the immediate root area, once it is depleted, has a lower concentration of the nutrient ions. Immobile nutrients like phosphorus and potassium, which have a low solubility, are strongly held by the colloid, and are only present in small concentrations, reach the root through this mechanism. The soil porosity is important here: smaller pores will block diffusion.

The last two mechanisms are the more significant mechanisms of nutrient uptake. Which one is predominant depends on the nutrients, the amount of water in the soil and the physical conditions (e.g., crumb structure) of the soil which dictates the movement of water through it.

Nutrients (especially immobile ones) then need to be wrested from the colloid by an ion exchange – the cation exchange capacity (CEC) talked about on a soil test. As we saw, the positively charged nutrient cations are held to the negatively charged colloid by a small electro-magnetic bond. When the root hairs release hydrogen ions (H+) and these come into contact with the colloid, they take their places on the colloid, breaking or weakening the colloidal-nutrient bond. The nutrients are knocked free and this makes them more available to be taken up by the root hairs.

Once the nutrient has arrived at the plant root surface and has been made available, the root needs to take it in: the nutrient-ion needs to travel from the root’s exterior to its interior.

As we saw in Part 7, the membranes of the cells making up the epidermis and the endodermis of roots are semi-permeable. This means several things. First, roots allow movement in, but not out, which allows osmosis to take place, by which water is taken up by the plant roots (cf. Part 7). Second, they allow only small solutes in, so they are impermeable to the large molecules of organic solutes (more about that in the next part). Third, some small solutes are allowed in, but others are not: plant roots are selective about their food.

It is the last aspect that interests us here. The uptake of the nutrients (as well as sugars and amino acids) by the roots is selective because of two main features:

  1. First, the root membrane has channels that are ion-selective: one type of channel will let through only phosophorus ions, another fits only calcium ions, or potassium or nitrate, etc. Think of the toddler’s toy: the box with the star and pentagon and circular shaped holes into which only the star and pentagon and circular blocks fit. The root too is constructed like that.
  2. The actual ferrying through these channels is done by ion-selective carriers: so-called coupling proteins that are embedded in the membrane of the root cells and that only react with specific ions, passing them on. Different plants require different amounts of nutrients, and so they will have different types and densities of ion carriers on the surface of their cells. These ion carriers are also most numerous on the surface of root hairs and root tips, which shows that roots are the main conduit for nutrient uptake in plants.

That explains the root’s selection of particular nutrients. Now, how does it select their quantity? How does it say, that’s enough?

As for water, its protein carrier is the aquaporin. Aquaporins are embedded in the cell membrane, forming transmembrane pores that conduct just water molecules. They prevent the passage of ions and other solutes by a filter (the ar/R filter) of amino acids that bind only water molecules and let them in (single file), while excluding all other molecules. When there is a lack or an excess of water, a gating mechanism changes the shape of the aquaporin so that it blocks the pore and stops the water flow. These gates can fail and an excessive amount of water can break the gates, as it were, and “drown” a plant.

Nutrients like calcium ions are taken up by different transmembrane protein carriers, which actively transport them, that is, they require energy to do so, because they have to pull in ions against their concentration gradient. For instance, there’s a good chance the root cells already have a higher concentration of calcium than the soil in the root area, but it might still need more. The energy required comes from a part of the cell (called the ATP, a nucleotide). If the plant has enough of a nutrient, it can simply stop drawing on the energy source. Also this mechanism can fail, and an excess of nutrients can lead to a toxic overdose and kill the plant.

So, however well-equipped roots are to select what the plant is in need of, it is still up to us, gardeners, to know how much of what a certain plant in our care needs and how much of it is present in our soil.


Next up, nutrients not in mineral but in organic form, and how those can make it into the plants. Yes, the egg shells. Finally!


Yesterday evening we had our second beekeeping class, after a two week hiatus due to bad weather predictions (you can parse that either way) and school vacation. Rick brought in a full hive and guided us through the components, discussing their uses, alternatives, advantages and disadvantages, and some beginners’ pitfalls.

The magical moment, for me, was when he pulled a frame out of one of the brood chambers (the boxes at the bottom, where the queen lays her eggs and the hive resides). That frame had on it worker cells, drone cells, and queen cells.

It was passed around and suddenly the bees were in the room with us. Not pictures of them, or stories or scientific theory about them, or the invaluable evidence of Rick’s experience with them. But their actual home.

Up until that point I had been hesitating: should we do it this Spring / should we wait until next Spring? The pressure was on: there are only two to three weeks left of decision time: after that, there will be no more bee packages for sale. But when that frame came out, I knew I could, I should do it.

After seeing all that equipment, I also concluded that I would start out with what is commercially available: plastic frames pre-coated with wax, pre-made hive boxes, purchased bee packages, and conventional medications like mite-treatments and antibiotics.

But I intend, as I go along, to learn the carpentry to put the equipment together myself and to investigate how you propagate queens and nucs in case a hive is lost and bee packages are not available online. The medications will be the most challenging, but I’m keen on learning more natural ways of keeping bees healthy and treating them if they’re sick. All of that is for later… but not too late!

Right now my concern is with the many, many Mountain Laurels (kalmia latifolia) that are on our and our neighbor’s property. That’s a picture of their flower on top. Oh, and not to mention the acre of Rhododendron next door. Both plants (as well as Azaleas) are toxic (though not to bees) and honey made from their flower nectar “has been known” to be poisonous to humans.

I doubt my neighbor would allow me to remove them so I can keep bees! Rick is asking around what I can do about this, if anything. Keep your fingers crossed!


And I caught another mouse, but not before it mowed down all my celery seedlings, the only flat not under a dome, because the plants were already quite large. It’s not a good start to the season!


This time of year I get that lump in my throat. I see my seedlings come up in the basement. I do the rounds of blogs – mostly gardeners, homesteaders – and see their seedlings come up as well. It touches me deeply. It is a reawakening of a childlike feeling of wonder, that, with only the addition of water and light, life comes out of such a tiny seed.

But hold on. Maybe children, I assume, have that feeling of wonder and it comes naturally to them. It fits them. I see that in Amie sometimes. ‘Wo-ow!’ she says, and moves on. For me it is less wonder than awe. There is something menacing in it, something too big. Hence the lump in my throat and sometimes – I admit it – a tear in my eye, at the sight of a seedling. Has my soul shrunk, in adulthood, so it can no longer hold that great capacity of wonder?

If so, I am flexing its boundaries!

I am so lucky to have the opportunity to live here, where I can grow food from the miraculous seed, and watch the awesome wildlife, and feel the great mycorrhizal colony underneath my feet, and untie- undo – my soul.

Amie and I spent the whole day at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. They had special kids’ activities – crafting, a scavenger hunt, a Chinese lion dance demonstration – for the holiday week. We took our time, sauntering from one activity to the other, taking frequent snack breaks, only stopping at those art works that caught her eye.

Here Amie is sketching a ceramic horse. She was very careful about the knees – one of which had to be lengthened so the horse could “nibble at it” as in the original. I love the way she drew the saddle.


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Here we plonked down in front of one of the Melendez still lives. We first looked at all of them and she chose the cauliflower. We discussed the painting, how one thing is in front of the other, but when she started drawing she started left to right, the metal flask first (notice the line of light), then the pewter bowl. Then she found she had too little room for the cauliflower, but that was okay since she doesn’t like cauliflower anyway. The large brown blotch on top is actually the background, which she says she’ll fill in “later” (not going to happen).


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One of the tasks in the scavenger hunt was sketching this Babylonian lion with the help of a grid. That grid really threw her off.

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In the same room we found the oldest art work in the museum: a vessel in the shape of a hare from neolithic times. She was intrigued by its age and insisted on drawing it and annotating the drawing. For its age, I asked to write 8 first, then add a 0, another one, and another one. “It is so old it is very delicate and you can’t reach through the glass to reach it” (sigh of relief from Mama here) “and because it is so old it is also very tired.”

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We kept the Create a Creature with clay for last. I’m afraid Mama had to get her hands dirty as well: she had to make that turtle.

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