5 Ways to Love Your Farm

February means you’re over the winter hump and on the downslide into spring. Use this opportunity to reconnect with your farmland before the growing season begins.

by Karen Lanier

5 Ways to Love Your Farm - Photo by iStock/Thinkstock (HobbyFarms.com) #farm #valentinesday

Is your ground frozen? Is your heart cold? Are you going stir-crazy indoors? Valentine’s Day is a great time to renew your vows to love and cherish the land that feeds your body and nourishes your soul. Take time to write it a love letter of its own, so to speak. Get outside, appreciate nature, and feel those warm fuzzies. Yes, I am actually telling you to go hug a tree. And let it hug you back. Here are some ideas to get reconnected with your land this season.

1. Count Your Lucky Stars

If you’re outside of a city’s light pollution, consider yourself among the fortunate few. You might see up to 2,500 stars at night, while city dwellers count around 200 to 300. Astronomer Andrew Fraknoi estimates that 80 percent of the world’s population has never seen the Milky Way—that’s our galaxy, in case you didn’t know. On a clear, crisp winter night, heat up some apple cider and invite your friends over for a star party. See the International Dark-Sky Association’s website for ideas on how to host a stargazing event.

2. Cherish Your Compost

The reasons to compost are as numerous as the stars. Woody debris, branches, leaves, kitchen scraps and grass clippings are not to be wasted. Unlike dirt, healthy soil is teeming with life, and carbon is the limiting factor to biological diversity. By recycling the carbon and nitrogen in plant material, you’ll feed the beneficial creatures that keep harmful plant pests in check. Start an easy, breezy compost bin by lashing four wooden pallets together to make a square cage. Fill it, turn it and keep it moist, and by this time next year, you’ll have a rich and robust soil amendment.

Better yet, compost in place with a hügelkultur mound, and landscape your site to harvest rainwater more efficiently. A hügelkultur pile starts with a woody base: All the biggest logs go on the bottom, followed by the same composting materials you’d put into a normal compost bin. Place finished compost and soil on top, and smash it into gaps in the brush. You can then plant directly into the mound. It’s great for adding a vertical element as well as creating a berm to catch water flowing downhill.

3. Spread the Good Wood

Spread some love to areas of your land that could use some TLC with dormant live cuttings, an easy way to propagate healthy woody plants. Dogwoods and willows are excellent stabilizers in floodplains and along stream banks. They reduce erosion, outcompete invasive plants and provide wildlife habitat. Simply cut a 3-foot-long, 1-inch-diameter stake from a live tree, and soak the cut end in water for at least 24 hours. For extra assurance, add a rooting hormone to the water. Roots will grow from the cut end if buried deep enough—around 2 feet—and have access to water and nutrients. Use rebar and a hammer to drive a pilot hole to make planting easier. Keep them watered, and buds should peek out and start growing this spring. Get creative and form natural windbreaks and hedges made of native willows and redosier, gray or silky dogwoods.

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4. Tap Into a Sweet Treat

Any native maple tree’s sweet sap can be tapped to make your own syrup. Sugar and black maples have a higher sugar content than red or silver maples, and even boxelder trees produce a heavy, sorghum-like syrup. Sap rises in trees when cold nights are followed by warm days, ranging from lows below freezing to highs around 40 degrees F. You can tap a tree anytime after it drops it leaves until just before buds begin to form.

The Ohio State University recommends drilling holes only in trees that are large and healthy enough, around 12 inches or more in diameter. Tap kits can be homemade, purchased online or provided by your local agricultural extension office. After you collect 40 gallons or so, then comes your labor of love: Boil it for 20 hours or so, carefully skimming off foam and making sure it doesn’t scorch. With careful finishing at the perfect temperature, you’ve got a sweet treat from the heart of your trees. Make your sweetheart a Valentine’s Day pancake breakfast topped with homegrown maple syrup!

5. Show ’Em That You Cairn

Winter may bring buried treasures to the surface, such as rocks that get pushed up by frost heaving. Go for a walk and scour your fields for stone. Stack them up to build muscles, garden bed walls, beneficial wildlife habitat and thermal mass. Pile or carefully perch rocks on top of one another to make cairns, landmarks that guide the way to a favorite spot or keep you on the right path, literally or symbolically. Millions of years of geologic forces have shaped your landscape, molded and moved these stones, and ground down the minerals into soil where food and flowers grow. Feel the weight of these rocks and the lightness of your footprint on this place. Don’t take it for granite. (Ha!)

February brings you to the mid-way point between winter and spring, when you begin to come out of your hibernation and reach for the light. Dormant plants, dead and down debris, dark and starry skies, and plain old rocks all offer beauty and functions that are often overlooked and under-appreciated. Remember to celebrate all that nature provides, and your best yield this year may just be the relationship you have with your farm.

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