Live Well with Nature

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Given the chance, ground covers and other unplanned plants popped up in the author’s landscape.

Photo by John Catenacci

Living Well with Nature 

My wife, Dianna, and I moved into our newly constructed lake home in late 1995. The land was a blank slate of muddy clay. I loved writing on it. I designed the entire landscape for our yard, first on paper, and then, with plenty of sweat, in the earth.

I built sandstone walls to break up the steep slope of the property, tossed in a few rock piles here and there, and added seven trembling aspen to the south side of the house for shade in summer. I also added a variety of evergreens on the north side to block the arctic winter winds. I created lots of islands for plants, along with a 20-by-40-foot vegetable garden. I planted all of it myself.

Dianna’s idea of a perfect landscape was every plant in its own place, with lots of space around each one, which equals lots of mulch — up to 150 bags or more every other year. Still, we spent many summer hours in the yard pulling “weeds,” which, of course, always came right back.

Fortunately, I realized right away we didn’t need a sprinkler system — even though everyone else on the block had one — because the ground was 100 percent clay. The grass was happy if I cut it high, and, once established, it didn’t need water, fertilizer, or herbicides. In the 25 years I’ve lived here, the grass has gone brown (dormant) a couple of times, but always comes back as good as ever.

I planted our vegetable garden each year. We harvested much more than we needed, so our neighbors received plenty of asparagus, squash, tomatoes, beans, and more.

Dianna passed away from breast cancer in 2008 after a 17-year struggle. Brokenhearted, I tumbled into a pool of grief. A couple of years later, I emerged into the light, partly by writing a memoir about my life with her, titled Dianna’s Way. Oddly, I noticed my solitude was blessed with a quiet sense of appreciation, gratitude, and joy. In fits and starts, I began to see my internal and external landscape with new eyes. I began to question my relationship with the plants surrounding me. All those years, I’d been competing with nature. I began to wonder if there was a way for me to cooperate with her instead.

It finally dawned on me: Nature loves diversity and abhors empty spaces. It defines nothing as a weed; only we do. We say it’s a weed if we didn’t put it there or we don’t want it there. Plants are either attractive or undesirable simply because we say so.

I began to experiment with my new mentality and sensibility. I started letting mystery plants grow wherever they showed up, whether I’d planted them there or not. I practiced patience, waiting to see how they turned out. I let them invade the mulched areas, wanting to see what happened next.

I vaguely wondered what the neighbors would think, but in the end, my guess is that they gave my yard no thought at all. In fact, when an abundance of tall purple phlox showed up uninvited, my neighbors asked if they could use them as a backdrop for wedding pictures.

Several kinds of beautiful variegated ground covers began spreading across the open areas. I have no idea what they were or where they came from. I watched “weeds” pop up, recognizing them because I used to routinely yank them out of the ground. To my surprise and delight, almost all of them eventually flowered, many showing off with tiny, white daisy-like petals.

Living alone now, I no longer need a large vegetable garden. I converted the space to a wildflower garden, shifting to grow boxes on my deck to meet my own needs. Each year, the garden inexplicably surprises me with a different mix of flowers than the year before. Once, a neighbor picked a bouquet and brought it to me, delighted.

The mulched areas gradually filled in with life. These days, I might occasionally spread a few bags of mulch here and there, but I’m working toward not using it at all. I still do a bit of weeding to encourage this or discourage that, covering the entire yard in less than an hour with an electric weed wacker two or three times a year. I don’t use herbicides, insecticides, or fertilizer at all. I contribute zero toxic runoff to the lake, and there are many more and different insects now. I had no idea bees came in so many different shapes and sizes.

It takes a lot of work to control Mother Nature, and almost none to cooperate with her. It’s the difference between playing win-lose and win-win. In return, she rewards me with abundance. Not just plants, but also a greater variety of everything else I love: birds, bees, butterflies, rabbits, chipmunks, voles, and surely a wide variety of insects I simply fail to notice.

One day, I was standing outside admiring the day. The water was smooth as glass, and I spotted a heron near the shore. The profusion of color was all around me. I couldn’t help but smile inside. My yard has found its own best way of living!

I wrote about my experience in a book titled 11 Life Practices: An Old Man’s Stories of Light, Love, Joy.

John Catenacci

Via email


Cultivar Considerations

The topic of “nativars” is certainly interesting and worth discussion. But the article in your April/May 2021 issue “Challenges with Cultivars” failed to explain a component of native cultivar selection: Plants have a certain natural variability in their form, flower color, leaf shape, etc. These aren’t natural hybrids, but rather a natural expression of the plant’s possibilities. I’ve seen populations of a single native species in the wild with a wide range of flower colors, for example. Vegetative propagation of these plants could be presented as named varieties and fall within the definition of a “cultivar.” They’re not hybrids. Further, a species can be fairly widespread geographically. Some cultivars are given the name of a geographical location where a plant has been collected from the wild and become a cultivar, though the plant is a wild selection.

What becomes important, then, is carefully documenting the origins of cultivars to fully explain their context. Consumers would then be able to build a better understanding of botany and horticulture, and, in turn, make the best choices for themselves and their gardens.

John Wickham

Los Angeles, California


 
A downed tree found new life in the authors’ living room as a custom wall covering.
Photo by Darla and Shannon Warlin

Photo by Darla and Shannon Warlin

Repurposed Walls

First, we want you to know that we love Mother Earth News. About four years ago, a huge pine tree fell on our house. We had someone bring over a portable sawmill and saw it into boards. We then put the boards on our living room walls, and we love the results. It just goes to show that Mother Nature is powerful and can do a lot of damage, but she’s also very beautiful, and our hard work and effort displays that on our walls! Thank you for your awesome, down-to-earth magazine.

Darla and Shannon Warlin

Republic, Michigan


Beyond Home Births

I was so happy to see the article in the December 2020/January 2021 issue about home births (“Give Birth on Your Own Turf”)! I would also like to add that there’s often an in-between option: a birth center. We had our first child in one of the birthing suites at our local birth center, and our second child in the front seat of our car on the way to the birth center! Our midwife met us for immediate postpartum care, and then followed us home for the remaining care. We teased her that we needed to come in and lounge in one of the birthing suite tubs to make up for not having our son at the center. Birth centers are a wonderful option for people who don’t want a hospital birth, but aren’t quite ready to give birth at home.

Jessica Martinkosky

Via email


 

Photo by Frank Curry

Seed Storage Solution

After winnowing my saved seeds, I place them in a Mason jar, add a porous rock to absorb any humidity, and then cover it with a piece of cheesecloth held on with a band.

Frank Curry

Austin, Texas


Farm Transfers and Land Matches 

Thank you so much for “America’s Diverse Family Farms Report” in the April/May/2021 issue (Green Gazette). I’ve always wondered what happens to incredible family farms that don’t have a successor. I live in Aurora, Colorado. I’ve been scouring our area for several years, and I’m drawn to the amazing edge of suburbia; I enjoy driving past the many small farms. Although some are for sale and most often out of my price range, I suspect several are in foreclosure or relegated to the state for tax — either is heartbreaking. I wonder, is there a community-oriented group that assists farmers in transitioning their farms to someone, whether by purchase or arrangement to remain living on their beloved farm? Is there some way to contact people who are interested, but not necessarily sell it to them outright?

Thank you again for the article; it does provide some hope for us dreamers. Keep up the great work!

Nancy Farrell

Aurora, Colorado

The Center for Rural Affairs (CFRA) is a great resource for farmers looking to transfer their farm or transition onto a farm. The CFRA website (www.CFRA.org) contains detailed information on navigating land transfers, which occur when a farm operation is transferred to a new owner, be they family or otherwise. The CFRA also has helpful information on land-matching programs, which connect landowners with farmers seeking land. The CFRA maintains a list of programs across the country that help facilitate land-matching connections. — Mother


Back to Chickens

I’ve been a subscriber to Mother Earth News on and off for many, many years. Back in the ’70s, I’d read my sister Jackie’s copy! My child lost her job in Atlanta because of the pandemic, so she moved back to the family farm. She asked to raise chickens again. She used to help with the chickens when she was a preteen and teen. She earned her spending money, and bought expensive riding boots by selling eggs. Here we are on our birthdays (she was born on my birthday 29 years ago), and we’re running wire and securing the chicken coop and courtyard. Our lovely hens are just beginning to lay, and we hope for a prosperous future.

Nea Permenter

Via email


Canning Lid Conundrum

I’ve been trying to get canning jar lids since last June. The local hardware stores tell me they’ve been on order for at least that long, with no lids showing up. Fortunately, I had a few left over from previous years, but I’ll be in trouble next summer if someone doesn’t start shipping them soon. Any thoughts on where to locate some lids?

Margaret Smith

Via email

Unfortunately, canning lids might be hard to find again this year. You can check grocery stores and farm supply stores, or check with friends and neighbors to see if they have any extra. Local garage sales and online swap-sell sites, such as Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace, are also possible sources; just make sure you inspect all lids before using them. Alternatively, consider preserving produce with other methods, such as freezing, pickling, dehydrating, and fermenting. We’ve compiled a variety of food preservation articles to help gardeners preserve their bounty in various ways. Visit www.MotherEarthNews.com and search for “Home Food Preservation Headquarters.” — Mother


An Appreciation for Hornets

I appreciated Heather MacDonald’s report on hornets (“Helpful Hornets,” Dear Mother, December 2020/January 2021). For many years, I had a paper wasp happily building her nest and reproducing under my eaves. She appeared only when I gave a barbecue, attracted by the aroma. I would always cut a piece of meat for her and place it on the far end of the table, distant from the other guests. She’d come, cut off a little, and return to her nest. Otherwise, she paid no attention to me. Alas, when I had my house repainted, her house was knocked down. She never returned.

Jeffrey Dickemann

Richmond, California


Success with Sprouts

Thank you for your sprouts article (“Grow Sprouts for Year-Round Freshness,” April/May 2021). I’ve been growing sprouts for 40 years to eat (lentils are my No. 1 choice) using the same two 24-ounce Mason jars and a tablespoon of seed. I store them next to my kitchen sink, and add the sprouts to my morning scrambled eggs.

H.T. Adams

Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia


Small-Scale Growing  

I’ve been reading Mother Earth News for years now. I used your publication as my gardening know-how primer in my early gardening years, and I relish it now. Spring 2020 produced a bumper crop in our containers and small-space garden plot here in the humid South, helped by five honeybee colonies that swarmed five times. We harvested over a bushel of corn; canned cases of tomatoes, sauce, and beans; froze squash casseroles and eggplant meatballs; and put aside squash and seeds for next year’s crop. We ate from January through summer. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, Mother Earth News readers are turning to you for that same how-to knowledge again and again, many as first-time gardeners. And many of these gardeners are growing crops in small spaces and containers. I’m an avid gardener who teaches container gardening, composting, and seed-starting classes at Ever’man Cooperative Grocery & Cafe in Pensacola, Florida. I’ve been gardening for over 40 years now, mostly in containers.

Paul A. Flores

Pensacola, Florida


Disc Deterrents

In the February/March 2021 issue, JoAnne wrote about putting deer netting over blueberries to keep birds off the plants (“Snake-Safe Plant Guards,” Dear Mother). What works for me is to hang CDs on my cherry trees to keep birds away. Don’t put them on too early, or the birds may get used to them. I hope this helps someone.

Delaine Bleich

Roberts, Illinois


Yogurt Tip

Thanks for the article about making homemade yogurt in the August/September 2020 issue (“Make Fresh, Healthy Yogurt Right at Home”). Rather than buying a dedicated yogurt-maker, you can use the yogurt setting on an Instant Pot and similar pressure cookers, if you have one. Thanks for all you do!

Bill Davidson

Via email


Uncovered Treasure

While going through boxes in my garage, I came across a treasure. One magazine holder has 12 issues of Mother Earth News, including Volume 1, No. 1, dated January 1970! The rest are Volumes 2 through 12. I haven’t looked at the other box yet. I wanted to let you know how special this is. I subscribed for many years. I lost some issues when a tornado took out my storage building, but I still have a lot. I’ve used many ideas from your magazine, and I still recommend it to people.

Kathy Lutter

Via email


Send Us Your Photos!

Thanks for celebrating the magazine’s 50th anniversary with us in 2020. Our anniversary year may be over, but we still want to read your stories and see photos of your efforts to live simply.

Started in 1970 to raise awareness of environmental concerns and to provide information and support for a simpler lifestyle, Mother Earth News has made it this far because of continuous interest from you, the readers. Your dedication to living more sustainable lives has kept this magazine afloat through five decades and an increasingly digital world. Send photos of your farm, your garden, and any projects you’ve undertaken over the past five decades to Letters@MotherEarthNews.com.