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Tackling the Country Life

Wizardry in Everyday Life

A photo of Steve DautLast night I took Sue out for her birthday. The present was a trip to the IMAX movie theatre at Henry Ford museum, to see the latest Harry Potter movie. She started reading the books years ago, but didn’t want to make some kid wait to get theirs, so was always careful not to buy until each book had been out for a month or so. Well, I tried to avoid all the hoopla over these things for a couple of years, but eventually I got started with it and read all the books myself. And we’ve seen all but one of the movies. Here’s the thing that struck me last night as we were waiting in line: the crowd was a typical Saturday night movie mix- some families, some teens, but also a lot of adult couples of every age and stripe.

I think what makes this series so fascinating is that you get caught up in this world where magic and wizardry become commonplace, where moving photographs, 20 foot tall arachnids, love potions and dazzling spells become just part of ordinary but wondrous everyday life. We all need magic.

So I’d like to try out an idea with you. Imagine this amazing witches’ brew that’s full of complicated ingredients, and all you have to do is add one little drop of some special essence to make virtually anything you wanted. If you wanted a ruby red gemstone, you would add a little drop of brown liquid, stir the mixture for a couple of days and the stone would float to the surface. You could grow an umbrella to keep you cool in the long supernatural summer simply by adding a small oblong stone to the mix. You could even make things to eat, or to smell, or items that in turn could be used to make even more magical potions. Does that seem plausible to you?

Well, this is not a vision of some fantasy world. It is our own world, seen through magical eyes. The potion is our garden soil; the drop of essence is a seed. It has been so long since I have had a garden that this year, when I saw the first tomato beginning to grow, it startled me into amazement. How is it possible that all you have to do is add this particular little seed, and the world magically provides sun and rain to make the mixture of seed and soil transform itself into tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, corn, dill, basil, all of these distinct and wonderful things that you can eat? What magic causes a gem-colored flower to grow, or a tree that provides umbrella-like shade?

You can break it down to a purely scientific description of how this happen, which is what Harry and friends study in their book of potions, but these descriptions cannot take the magic out of it. We don’t need a movie to be immersed in a world full of wizardry. All we have to do is look at our own world, our own lives, through eyes that can see the magic.

Pond Maintenance Progress

A photo of Steve DautWell, after much research and gnashing of teeth, I’ve finally settled on a solution that looks like it will bring our pond back from the brink of eutrophication.  It took a fair amount of research, a bit of sweat, and not insignificant amounts of money, but it didn’t break the bank, either. I think I went about it backwards, or at least sideways, buy hey, it’s the results that count, right?

After a couple of false starts with algaecides last year, I realized that those chemicals were just contributing to the problem. Kill the weeds and algae with chemicals, making them die and cloud up the water, depleting the oxygen and causing another cycle of nasty plan growth that further reduces the fish population.

So I went looking for a more ecologically friendly and more effective approach. I found what I was looking for through a company called Airmax. They have a four step process, and being a cheapskate and contrarian, I started with Step 2, a bacterial agent called Pond Clear that is designed to “eat” the nutrients that noxious weeds thrive on and clear up the water. This stuff had an immediate effect, and after cheaping out on a couple of gallons of the liquid, I bought a bucket of packets that should last a full season for my ¼ acre pond. After only a few months of treatments, I’m seeing schools of tiny fish that I don’t think could have survived before. They also offer blue pond dye and something called Nutri-Defense, and “eco-enhancer” as steps 3 and 4. I’ve used the dye a couple of times, but haven’t yet tried step 4. But from the results of Pond Clear, I’ve definitely drunk the, um, pond water.

Pond with bubbler

Well, back to step 1: aeration. I sort of choked at the $1,300-$1,500 price tag for the fancy high high-end aeration systems, and I also wanted to look into solar aeration, so I did a lot of looking. For what I found, I’m not convinced that there is a viable solar system our there at a cost that justifies the cost of electricity. If you can’t get electric out to the pond, that’s another matter, but what I found it that most solar aeration systems are very expensive, underpowered, or cut out some elements (such as a battery) in order to be more affordable. And of course, they need sun to work, so even without the price differential, an equivalent system is going to deliver less constant results.

I opted for an electrical system. The primary criterion for sizing a system seems to be the Cubic Feet Per Minute (CFM) of air it delivers. I’m not an expert on these things, but it seems to me that all of the fancy check valves and aluminum casings and cooling fans just suck more energy and run up the cost. I opted for a system through a website called I got the medium pond system which delivers 8/10 CFM, and it cost less than $300, by far the best price I saw anywhere. It was a bare-bones system with just a small diffuser, some hose, and a pump. I built a pump housing out of a plastic milk case, some plastic foam insulation for soundproofing, some PVC pipe to bury the hose between the pump and the pond and $60 worth of direct burial electrical wire.

The diffuser is a weighted bottom tube, because the oxygen has to get to the bottom to get thermal turnover and to oxygenate the lower parts of the pond. I’m expecting the fish to start jumping up onto shore any minute now, so I have laid out some frying pans at strategic locations around the pond.

Grow, Garden!

A photo of Steve DautWell, after all of the preliminary projects have been completed (tree felling, chipping, composting, tilling, fencing), the garden plot is up and ready for plants.

We found that there were quite a resources available that should be helpful as time goes on. On he USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service website you can find a soil survey application. Using this tool, you can focus in on your property to determine the soil types that have been mapped. I used to do these lookups when I worked for the Iowa Geological Survey way-way before the Internet, and even though I’m pretty tech-savvy, I was amazed at how much easier things are now than they were in the old days (translation: 30 years ago). Using this tool, I determined that my property is split between Houghton Muck soils (the pond and surrounding lawn), and Fox sandy loam (the slopes in and behind the house). The garden is going in the Fox loam.

We had the loam analyzed by the Washtenaw County MSU extension service for a number of soil characteristics:

Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC), which measures the nutrient holding capacity of the soil. With most soils in the range of 1 to 25, our measures 11.8.

The organic matter in our soil measures 1.8 percent, with the ideal for a home garden at 5 percent.

Our soil is slightly on the basic side, with a pH of 8.0.

Based on all of that, we have applied some more acidic compost, muck from the pond, and pine needles. Hopefully, that will bring the soil pH down to the more ideal 7.0. The Extension Service recommended a 4-7-10 fertilizer (meaning it contains 4 percent nitrogen, 7 percent phosphorus, and 10 percent potassium) for our soil.

Next, the deer issue, which means a fence. We also put it close to the house, which should at least give the deer a little initial hesitation to close in on it, although we have no illusions that it will stop them from overcoming any initial caution they may have.

Steve's Garden Plot

The photos show the layout. We figure we have a number of things going for us. First, the proximity to the house. Although we don’t use the mercury vapor light that is mounted on the corner, it’s not disconnected so we’ll plug it in if that will help save the garden. Then, the plot is pretty small so we used 4-foot chicken wire to make it seem pretty enclosed to a deer. We strung a hot wire at the top, which ends up being about 5 ½ feet off the ground – a little above deer nose height, but hopefully close enough to give them a good zap on the ears if they try to stick their heads between the chicken wire and the hot wire. Finally, we put pink flagging all the way around on the hot wire to keep a little movement going. This has the added bonus of reminding us not to touch the wire.

Solar fence unit

We used a solar power unit for the fencing, which should still deliver plenty of zap since it’s such a small area.

The Best Defense Is the Right Fence

A photo of Steve DautThe garden project has moved a couple of steps forward. I worked pond muck, composted wood and leaves into the soil and we have built to first box for the raised beds. Our neighbors think we are nuts to assume that we’re going to keep the deer out. But at the same time, we have no shortage of advice on how to do it. And the solutions range from building a fortress to relying on scent alone.

The first person we talked to insisted that we need welded wire fencing to 4 feet, then 3 strands of electrical wire above, to a total height of 8 feet. He also told us to install 5-post corners. Wait a minute! We’re starting this year with about 600 square feet of garden! If we put in 5-post corners, plus a gate, all of the space would be filled with wire and wood, and that’s not what I was planning to eat this summer.

A friend of ours has a garden every year, and he lives pretty close. The difference in our parcels is that he is surrounded by cornfields and we are in a natural area, so deer already have some pretty good stuff to eat to keep them away from his garden. He just uses regular 5-foot metal posts and a 2-wire electrical fence and it works well for him. Actually, he has another line of defense as well. He lets his garden go “au natural”. I remember him trying to find me a zucchini and he couldn’t even find the plant in the midst of all the weeds, so it’s possible that deer get so tangled in the garden underbrush that they just give up trying to find the vegetables.

I was looking over a farm supply catalogue, and they were advertising the bright orange plastic mesh as deer fencing. Seems to me that if you wanted to protect some trees that this might be a deterrent, but it would surprise me if that would keep out any deer that really wanted to get into a garden. The other thing I’ve heard it if you use high test fishing line, it makes an invisible barrier, and since the deer can't see it but can feel it, it spooks them and they stay away.

Talking about invisible barriers, our neighbor just two lots away claims that all you have to do is mix a couple of eggs in water each week and pour it around the perimeter. According to him, this creates a scent barrier that will keep deer away. All I can say, is that I’ve spent a ton on bloodmeal in the past and it never stopped anything from munching on what was supposed to be the fruits of my labor.

Unless I hear differently from someone else, I’m going with the 2-wire electrical. If I have to let the weeds grow and just stay in my hammock all summer, well, it would be a sacrifice but I’m sure I’d be up to the task.

Rock Stories

A photo of Steve DautI’m a geologist by training. I spent some time in the oil industry until the last bust, then worked in environmental, but I never liked environmental geology all that much. My whole reason for going into geology in the first place was to give me a good excuse to be outside and because I liked rocks. The environmental work I was doing kept me in the office more than the field, and there was nary a decent rock in sight. So I cut loose and got into the nonprofit arena.

But I still like rocks, and our new house has a bunch of really cool big ones. I’m not saying that’s why I wanted to buy the place, although that’s one of the things Sue likes to tell our friends. Well, it’s possible they might have had some influence on me.

I’m not sure if the boulder-sized rocks actually came from the property or if someone brought them in, but a lot of them are boulder-sized (for example, Rock Number 1, below), so it would have taken a pretty hefty piece of equipment to move them.

Rock number 1 is boulder sized

They actually could have come from the property, because we back up to a hill that was probably a medial moraine when this area was glaciated. Glaciers act like big bulldozers, and a medial moraine is basically the pile of rubble that gets left between two of them bulldozing their way along. Because of this dozing action, the rubble can range in size from sand grains to the largest boulders.

What I like about rocks is that they tell stories, revealing something about their history by what you can see. For instance, Rock Number 2 is basalt (the darker part in most of the rock), which was intruded by granite (the light part on the right side).

Rock Number 2 is basalt.

Both of these were molten rock that solidified deep within the earth. But how do I know that the basalt came before the granite? Along the edge of the granite where it touches the basalt, the grains are much finer than the rest of it. That indicates that it cooled quicker, giving the crystalline grains less time to grow because they were being cooled by the already solidified basalt. And because of the materials, it’s probable that it was transported down here form Canada. Observing a series of relationships like these allows geologists to slowly sort out the history of an area.

Rock Number 3 is metamorphic, which mean it was transformed through heat and pressure.

Rock Number 3 is metamorphic.

The fractures and melting that it shows indicate a violent history, and it contains a type of garnet that is only found in relatively high-pressure metamorphic environments. Most likely, the rock was transported here by the glaciers from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where it could have been formed by the same forces that created the rich iron and copper deposits that made mining an economic staple for many years.

Rock Number 4 is a marble.

Rock Number 4 is marble.

Unlike the others, that are relatively round, this rock is angular and fractured. That suggests it wasn’t transported very far, because transportation over long distance tends to round out the rough edges, in the same way that a tumbler rounds out a gemstone. But there really isn’t a place locally where such a rock would be formed so this one was probably picked up somewhere else and added to the “collection.”

OK, OK, so I’m a rock geek. And there ARE really a lot of cool rocks on this property. But that didn’t influence me when it came to buying the place. Really. No, I mean really.

Let the Chips Fall

A photo of Steve DautWe knocked off another one of our pre-garden projects this weekend. Between taking down the tree on the south end of the garden area and cleaning up a bunch of brush in the small woodlot on our property, we had a fair amount of chipping to do. For a few years now, I’ve been trying to talk Sue into buying a chipper even though we lived in town. But she’s pretty frugal, and she always pointed out that chipping up fourteen branches a year hardly justified the cost of buying, or even renting one. She was right of course.

Now I’m not going to claim that I wanted to buy this property as a chipping opportunity, but it’s definitely one of the projects I had in mind when we signed the papers. So I tied a rope around bunches of stuff in the woodlot and dragged it out with a John Deere LA115 lawn tractor, and we carried the rest over to our chipping area to start the project.

Bandit Model 65XP chipper

We used a Bandit Model 65XP chipper, which is a real guy toy. The 35 HP engine is beefy enough to keep going with barely a whimper. We were feeding in whole small trees and brush with root balls as large as 4 inch diameter without a break, and it handled the stuff like it was butter. It got a little indigestion with pine needles and when it got to the tips of shrubs where there were a lot of small branches, but hitting the reverse bar for a second or two cleared those out easily. When it got the occasional chunk that was a bit big for its gears, it broke it up with a hydraulic hammer action. Overall, this is a very impressive piece of equipment.

Probably the best part was that it vindicated my long-standing quest for a chipping session. Sue work right along with me, and before it was over we were competing for the chance to feed yet another big chunk of brush into the thing and watch it reduce to sweet-smelling rubble. Sue used to buy wood chips every spring to mulch the garden, and this place has a lot of flower gardens, not to mention the vegetable garden we’re getting ready to plant. So even she has to admit that at $8 a bag for a couple of cubic feet, we saved a ton of money by making our own wood chips.

I just hope those tree vines were wild grapes like I told her they were. If she comes down with a case a poison ivy every time she works on the garden, I’m going to play dumb.

Solar Aeration and Other Pond Stuff

A photo of Steve DautI need some help. Has anyone out there tried solar pond aerators, and if so, what is your experience?

I’ve been researching this pond clean-up idea since we bought our new place last summer. We limped along last year, trying to control the weeds and algae with chemicals until I could come up with a long term solution, and now that it’s warming up I’m ready to take the next step.

I’m convinced that aeration is an important component of the solution, not only from reading Debbie Nowicki’s pond blog here at GRIT, but also by talking with a friend of mine who sings the praises of aeration. So the way to go, as far as I can tell, is bottom aeration in order to create the best mixing and eliminate the thermocline, which is that magic line that keeps the bottom water at the bottom, creating anoxic conditions which kill fish, generate toxics, and contribute to rampant weed and algae growth.

But I’d prefer to find a unit that is self-contained if possible, but the pond is in the low spot on the property, and because of the layout of our lot I don’t want to build a tower for a wind powered unit, so I set out on a quest for a solar powered unit. I found a solar-powered system sold by Pennington Equipment Company out of Springfield, Illinois. If anyone is familiar with this system, or has come up with any other self-contained system, I’d appreciate hearing about it. If you don’t want to discuss it “in public” on this blog, you can email me at

As for the “other pond stuff,” my problem with tossing chemicals in to control weeds is that it just makes the problem worse. Since bottom muck is a nutrient for plants and herbicides just cause plants to die and sink to the bottom as muck, it just sets up an expensive cycle that get worse and worse with time. Well, after talking with a number of folks and checking out different approaches to the problem, I finally found an outfit that seems to fit the bill. The system is called Airmax® Eco-Systems, Inc., and it includes aeration but instead of chemicals, it uses bacterial agents to actually break down the muck and oxidize nutrients suspended in the water. There is also a binding agent that causes the suspended nutrients to drop to the bottom where the bacteria can eat them. Seems to me, the process is like adding Rid-X® to the septic system – it just makes the natural cleaning processes work better. Another part of the pond system is a blue dye that blocks sunlight and helps keep the weed growth down. Once again, if anyone is familiar with this system, or has anything else that has worked for them, please let me know.

Oh, and I’m not all that afraid of hard work, either, so I got this pond rake where I can drag all the muck and weeds out by hand. I tried it today. It’s a great stress reliever, and it really gets out the weeds and muck from around the shore. It’s also a pretty good way to collect all sorts of bottom-dwelling critters. If I ate crayfish, I would have had a good meal, but I’m sure they do something good so I fished them out of the muck and sent them home. I threw the tadpoles back because Sue will blame me if we don’t have peepers pretty soon, and all the tiny little bass will eventually become lunkers that I can brag about catching. And the muck makes a great addition to the compost pile. We’re going to need plenty of compost for the new garden, but that, as they say, is another story.

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