9.8.2012 Fall’s Here! Corn Smut and Hedgerows

This evening God drew a line across the sky – an ominous gray line.  East of that line, it was a hot, humid and windy summer day.  West of that line, it was a humid but deliciously cool fall evening.  Directly below the line, it was still and spooky.  I didn’t have my camera with me.  The line was moving so quickly that it had passed and left a perfect rainbow arcing over the crossroads before I could get back to the house to grab a one. Sorry I missed the picture.  It’s not every day you see the seasons change in less than five minutes or you can so clearly see the boundary.

Anyway, I took this picture last weekend when I picked the corn we had on apple picking day.

Truffles anyone?

We did not eat this particular ear of corn, but as it turned out, we should have.  This is called corn smut and the USDA has been trying to eradicate it for years.  In Mexico, it is called huitlacoche and this black fungus is deliberately introduced into corn crops and eaten as a delicacy.  American chefs have tried to get Americans to eat it too.  They call it the Mexican truffle and it’s supposed to taste like mushrooms.  I composted it because it looked pretty darn disgusting to me.  So I guess this makes my compost pile a subversive gourmand.

Now about hedgerows:  A couple months ago, I ordered a bunch of trees from ArborDay.org.  When they finally arrive, they’ll be wee little things, but they are very inexpensive and the Arbor Day Foundation is very generous and includes quite a few free trees and shrubs with your order.  Sometime in November, I will be getting 20 new trees and shrubs.  Michael and I spent some time last week deciding where we wanted to plant them.  The 10 free Norway Spruce will go into a line along the road with the primary purpose of blocking the lights from the church across the street.  The lights really mess your vision at night when you are trying to hunt dragons in the dark.

Planting trees, especially big, long-lived trees, isn’t something I take lightly.  Planting such trees really puts you in touch with your own mortality.  Aside from my children, the trees I plant are likely to be the only readily noticeable legacy I will leave behind.   Do I really want that legacy to be a yet another line of Norway Spruce?  Most people around here use Arborvitae or Leyland Cypress for privacy screening and while they grow quickly and serve their purpose admirably, you end up with something that looks like an abandoned Christmas tree farm.

I already have a row of Italian Stone Pines lining one side of the driveway.  If they survive the climate here, they will one day open up like umbrellas, arching over the driveway.  I put them there, in a row, deliberately, for a couple of reasons.  First and foremost, it’s about pesto – gotta have pine nuts to make pesto.  Secondly, I wanted this partial roof over the driveway as friendly gesture like an arm around your shoulder letting you know you are welcome here and here you will be safe.  And lastly, my favorite book when I was learning to read was Go, Dog. Go! by Dr. Seuss.  I wanted a Party Tree. (Incidentally, Go, Dog. Go! was my youngest son’s favorite too.)

Across the front yard from the Stone Pines, I have another line of trees.  These are cedars and they divide the farm in half, running from the road all the way back to the chicken coop, where the red maples take over division duties. I didn’t plant these, and I suspect no one else did either.  Cedars are everywhere in Virginia.  You frequently see them in fence rows simply because they can’t be reached by heavy mowing equipment and therefore be cut down as seedlings.  I have several that have sprung up in other fencerows during the last three summers. As pretty and as useful as they are, I would eventually like to replace that line of cedars with something that doesn’t harbor the cedar-apple rust galls.

So, do I really need another monotonous row of trees?  Or should I intersperse other evergreens amongst the Norway Spruces?  Maybe some Colorado Blues, Frasier Firs and Loblolly Pines (I could really use those long pine needles for mulch.  Dawn Redwood is another possibility, though not an evergreen, it would add an interesting element of color in the fall, and even though it is related to the cedars and cypress trees I am trying to avoid, as far as I can determine, they don’t seem to harbor the rust galls.  I still have a few months to decide.

But I also have tulip poplars, lindens, sourwoods, sasafrass, redbuds, red maples and sugar maples to find homes for, along with witch hazel, forsythia, rosa rugosa, and a few other shrubs.  Many of these are going to form the bones of a new hedgerow dividing the two pastures on the west side of the farm.  It will take the place of the fence I recently took down.  Eventually.  It is not intended as a proper English hedgerow that will hold livestock without any other sort of fencing.  We’d have to plant a line of hawthorns or something spiney and then in a few years go through a process called “laying the hedge.”

No, the purpose of this hedgerow is primarily to feed the bees as close to year round as possible.  The second objective the hedgerow is to absorb the water that comes rolling down the big field.  So for the next couple of months, I will be improving the soil at the individual planting sites as well as digging some swales and burying logs to provide water retention that should help the plants through drought conditions.

So there’s all this planning going on in my head and on paper, all this research on bee fodder plants and the various problems of conifers and today I read an article about a guy who just set aside a 20 foot strip in his yard and simply didn’t mow it for 25 years.  He did plant a few trees in the strip, but mostly, everything volunteered.  For free!  We may try that in the hayfield on the east side of the farm.  The only thing this would require from us would be some temporary fencing to keep the horses from grazing the area and some selective plant culling, because those evil cedars are certain to volunteer, along with wild blackberries which never seem to produce anything edible.  The primary objectives of this hedgerow would be ground water capture and shade for the grazing animals.

The only reservation I have about these hedgerows is rodents.  Mature hedgerows harbor all sorts of wildlife.  I presently have very few squirrels to steal my tomatoes simply because they have to cross so much open ground.  I have lots of field mice out in the pastures, and when I am foolish enough to purchase mass quantities of feed, I have them in the barn as well.  More rodent habitat means more pressure on my feed supplies and more snakes.  Snakes eat baby chicks and eggs as readily as they eat rabbits, voles and mice. More hawks and owls will come too, to feast on the menu of rodents and chickens. The upside to a hedgerow is the birds that will come to eat the insects that presently devour my garden, though I suspect there isn’t a bird out there that prefers to dine on stink bugs.

However, since my long term objective here is orchard and bees and not necessarily chickens, then the water retention, wind break and weather moderation services provided by hedgerows seems to make sense.

For me planting trees really is a lot more than just digging a hole in the ground and right now I am stressing over it big time.  Maybe if I had eaten that huitlacoche I’d feel better about the whole process, but nah.  I don’t think it’s that kind of mushroom.


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