Back on the trail

IMG_1147It’s good to be hiking again. There’s nothing like being surrounded by God’s stunning creation to clear my mind and improve how I feel physically. Even when we’re not hiking up mountains, it’s a definite high. So after way too long without consistently being out on the trails, this year our goal is to hike somewhere every week. It’s not always an epic adventure. Last week friends and I went to Memorial Falls, which was probably only a half mile round trip to the lower falls, but longer, more challenging terrain is definitely in the future.IMG_1167

We started off the season with a group of us hiking – 15 kids ranging from 2 to 16 years old and 3 adults – to Sulphur Springs (also called Sacajawea Springs). According to the history, when the Lewis and Clark Expedition came through this area Sacajawea was terribly ill, and the water from these springs helped heal her (and I’m sure the heavy doses of opiates took the edge off of her discomfort). The trail starts at the Morony Dam trailhead, and travels 1.6 miles (one way) through the prairie to the springs. There are a few little hills, and a spot close to the river where, of course, the kids had to toss in a few dozen rocks. When we arrived at the springs we ate lunch, caught caterpillars and other insects, and played in the water. It was the trek home that got interesting.  There was a small rattlesnake in the trail. I’m so grateful the kids in the lead saw or heard it in time because the snakes blend incredibly well into our landscape. It’s spooky. We all stood and waited for a time to see if it would mosey down the trail. It didn’t. We decided to go around it single file with the oldest guy keeping an eye on it. Thankfully, we managed to scoot past it without incident, but I think everyone kept a keen eye on the trail the rest of the way out.

IMG_1289The next little outing with Grant and the boys was along the Rainbow Dam trail. It was just a few miles down and back, but we managed to find a geocache on the way out, as well as locating a second one on our way home. Geocaching is one of our newest endeavors. It’s great practice to hone those hide and seek skills, and I’m really impressed with the creativity going into hiding some of these caches. Plus, it’s good practice for me to become more familiar with using a GPS unit, something I’ve resisted for years, but realize I seriously need to step up and learn.

Last week, Julie and I took the kids to Memorial Falls, then went to Showdown Ski area to see if we could figure out where we could hike some more. We couldn’t. So we went to Silvercrest, an area that’s excellent for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.  The trails are all marked, but it was terribly unnerving to be in a lodgepole pine maze. (And, no, I didn’t have the GPS unit. At my current knowledge level, it wouldn’t have done any good.) The neat thing about that day was we saw a black bear on the drive home. He crossed the road, and was munching on grass as we slowed down near him. When we slowed, he turned tail and hauled it back to the tree line. The boys were pretty tickled to finally see one in person. IMG_1424

IMG_1519Saturday Grant and I joined a group with the Montana Wilderness Association on a hike to the North Fork of Dupuyer Creek. It was a rainy morning that continued to drizzle, but I didn’t care. The wildflowers were amazing! Our first leg was a nature trail on the Boone and Crockett Ranch, and as soon as we stepped out of the car there were flowers galore. Dave Shea, a retired naturalist from Glacier National Park, led the hike. He’s immensely knowledgeable. I wanted to pull out my little note pad, but I was too busy taking photos. The second part we crossed three streams. I was glad Grant drove because I probably would’ve gunned it going across, and tore something off the bottom of the car. We hiked up a section of the Old North Trail, the path Native Americans used for thousands of years where evidence of travois tracks still remains, and found an ancient tepee ring. The wildflowers were equally stunning, and Grant spotted two different groups of elk as well as an extremely pretty striped orchid. This is also prime grizzly country; although we didn’t see any bears, we found some older tracks. Overall it was an amazing day.IMG_1506

Julie and I planned to take the kids to Two Medicine in Glacier National Park this week, but the weather changed those plans. They’re forecasting rain for us over the next 3 or 4 days with snow warnings (10-20 inches)  in the mountains. Since we really want to keep the hikes comfortable and fun for the kids, we’ll just push back our hike until the weather moderates. (If the hike is too long or too hard, it quickly becomes the Bataan Death March. And since we don’t want the kids to mutiny on us, particularly this early in the season, we want them to look forward to going.)

There’s a lot more on the horizon, and as we successfully complete them I’ll include details on my new website Family Hikes of Montana. One of my biggest challenges in this endeavor is discovering hikes that all of us can do, and I know there are a lot of other families in the same situation. It’s bound to be a summer of adventures and memories!

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Assessing winter clean up

IMG_0024I do love the New Year. Even though we still have months of winter weather ahead of us, there’s hope. Winter solstice is behind us, and the days are ever-so-gradually growing longer. It’s time to make plans, although, I must admit, I am stepping into the season with a little trepidation. Last year the gardening season was bookended by surgeries that sidelined me for months on either end. My grand plans for low tunnels, no till garden creation, new fruit tree guilds and a bountiful harvest fell apart in short order. But, since gardeners are optimistic creatures, I now stroll through the gardens deciding what I need to do and what I should plant once spring finally arrives.

As you can see from the photos, the first thing I need to finish is taking down the sunflower forest. The cute little plants grew out of control, and unfortunately, they didn’t even provide much food very long into the season as the birds cleaned them out before the cold weather hit. I’ll try to take them down sometime during the winter, and if it’s calm, the boys and I will burn the stalks. Anything with fire is certainly on the list of fun projects to finish. Actually, I need to add the raspberry beds to the whack and burn clean up list. We grow the fall-bearing ‘Polana’ variety that is a terrific producer, as well as super easy to prune since I’m not worried about first or second year canes. Cutting everything to the ground is my way to garden so we’ll cut and burn the canes, too.IMG_0026

After we can walk around the gardens, I have the unpleasant task of cleaning up the dog doo. Luna has been making a beeline to the beds all winter. To remedy the situation, I have to clean it up and fence it off with a couple of strands of electric fencing. I don’t look forward to this project because I know it’s going to be a royal pain to work around the electric, and I’m not a fan of a surprise shock.  I’ll have to do this unpleasant project (at least the clean up aspect) as soon as possible in order to give plenty of time between the presence of poo and planting. That’s definitely not the kind of manure I want to use in the garden.

As the weather improves, I’ll try to plant a fast growing cover crops in some of the new gardens (maybe buckwheat), and will turn under the section of garden I tried to build use a sod-buster cover crop mix last spring. The various plants in the mix grew well, but when it was time to cut the plants and possibly plant in the improved soil, I was healing from the first surgery. It went wild so I’ll see if I can turn it under, and do something with it this summer. It’s not my ideal in a no-till experiment, but it’ll do for this spring. I’ll try another section to see how it works.

From there I need to start penciling out where I need to plant things. Last year, the bulk of the planting was literally throwing seeds or plants in the ground wherever I could find space. It showed. This year will be better.


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It’s ‘punkin’ picking time

IMG_9343Between deer who love to chomp on squash and people who steal from the community garden, it was time to bring in the pumpkins for the season. IMG_9331

A handful of the wonderful Master Gardeners planted a pumpkin patch at the Park Place Health Care Center community garden, and the boys were invited to pick a couple last week. They were ecstatic. You can never have enough pumpkins at this time of the year. Sam barely made it inside the vines when he spotted one that he one. John was a little more discerning, and passed by a couple before choosing his first one. They each picked a couple, and helped Phyllis (as much as they could) load them in the wheel barrow. Phyllis added a few more to our bounty so we were blessed to go home with a nice selection of pumpkins.

When you’re cutting pumpkins, it’s best to set them in a garage or shed for a couple of weeks to allow the rinds to cure. They’ll last longer for you. If we carved these right away, even with the cold weather, they’re rot in short order. Hopefully, curing them a bit (and waiting closer to Halloween) will leave us with longer lasting jack-o-lanterns.

IMG_9372The last pumpkin we picked was at home. Our friend Joey gave the boys each a plant for giant pumpkins. It was a rough start in the spring with cold conditions, but it didn’t take them long to take off. Sam called dibs on the first big one. There was another one that was a respectable size for John, but the stinking deer came in one night and ate most of it. We put a cage around Sam’s because unless there’s another pumpkin hiding in the vines it’s the only good-sized one. (And that might happen. We were surprised to find a nice one last year after the frost knocked back the plants.)

So the boys have their pumpkins waiting in the garage until it’s time to carve them. We should have a pretty festive display!

Categories: Montana's Bounty, Playing in the Dirt | 1 Comment

Directing the harvest

It’s been one of those years. I started out with surgery in May, which knocked me out of planting for many, many weeks. Nearly 2 weeks ago I ended up back under the knife to correct the umbilical hernia, which was a result of the spring surgery. Now I can’t harvest. Thankfully, my mom came out to cook, clean, wrangle the boys and help keep things moving forward. Plus, the boys can do a fair amount, particularly when it comes to picking, but it’s still bumming me out big time.

IMG_9300With an impending frost (seriously, we’re on borrowed time), we’re starting to haul in the produce. The other day Mom cut half of the celery patch, and we blanched and  froze it. She and the boys are also picking tomatoes as they ripen, and I’m guessing by the middle of the week they’ll have to pull off all of the green ones. Mom just throws them in a freezer bags for me, and I’ll make sauce later in the season.

Today we picked a few more of ‘Carmen’ peppers. Some aren’t fully red, but I can’t be too picky at this point in the game. They certainly have been good this year. I must say, that is the one crop that did exceptionally well regardless of the drought conditions. IMG_9306

The cabbage, kale and broccoli plants arrived in the mail the other day. Normally, I prefer to start the seeds in June/July, but not doing so is indicative of how things worked out this season. So I ordered plants. Of course, this is a tad late to put them in the ground in Montana, so I’m going to plant them in the greenhouse and the cold frame. Of course, the greenhouse is still quite full with the herbs (including lemon verbena that’s nearly 4-ft tall), sweet potatoes, peppers, tomatoes and basil; plus there are plenty of plants still in the cold frame. Mom and John dug the sweet potatoes in the cold frame. Talk about anti-climatic. The vines were gorgeous. The sweet potatoes… let’s just say we didn’t even have enough for fingerling sweet potatoes. I’m a little frustrated, but I’ll figure out a way to grow sweet potatoes around here. IMG_9320

So this will be the last hurrah for the warm weather crops. The potatoes and carrots will be fine in the garden, and even the winter squash will weather a light frost. At this point, I’m ready to hit reset and just look ahead to next year.



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Working on the hugelkultur beds

Last year I started a hugelkultur bed with decent success. Pumpkins, dill, beets and all sorts of veggies thrived on top of the pile made of old wood and sunflower stalks. This spring I built another using primarily sunflower stalks and other organic debris as its base. The beauty of permaculture is utilizing what’s here, so that’s what I did. Now there are pumpkins, onions, tomatoes, broccoli, cucumbers and rhubarb growing on it. It should be gorgeous by the end of the summer, and I’m really looking forward to what it looks like next year.IMG_7054

I wrote a piece, The Garden that Waters, for “A Garden Life,” a great app for gardeners and homeowners. It’s a primer for those wishing to test out the hugelkultur waters. The neat part of writing it was I “met” another gardener in the Flathead who had great success with it last year, particularly since they had a terribly wet spring. While many of us wish to utilize the hugelkultur beds in order to retain water, hers did a good job of shedding it so her plants didn’t drown. Genius!

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Camping at the King’s Hill Cabin

IMG_7413For years I’ve known about the incredible opportunity we have to rent Forest Service cabins, but have never done it.  So a few months ago I reserved a night at the King’s Hill cabin with the hope that we could explore nearby trails as part of my research in a big project of mine. The surgery waylaid that plan, although we still managed to see some new parts (to me) of the area.

But back to the cabin. It was a great time. This particular cabin was built in the 1930s, and while the roof appeared new (which only makes sense in this harsh environment) you can tell the rest of it had some history behind it. It was nice and clean inside with smooth wood floors and decent cupboards. There’s no running water, but there is electricity and even a stove. Pots, pans, dishes and utensils are all there. A small wood stove is the heat source, and I was tickled to find a pile of split wood ready to go. It was nice. And I was relieved to find no evidence of mice even though there were signs all over about hantavirus. (I almost brought along a spray bottle of bleach water, but refrained.)IMG_7411

This is a two room cabin with 2 sets of bunk beds, one of which is a double bed, so it sleeps six easily. The main area was the kitchen, wood burner and dining table. There was also a big woodshed, outside fire ring, and a nice pit toilet (I’ve been to some where it’s a rickety old thing where you think you’re going to fall in, so I appreciate a solid seat!)

I was a little rusty in my packing. I forgot the ketchup and mustard, as well as butter and cream for breakfast and my coffee. Frankly, more food would’ve been good, too. I also wanted to bring wool blankets for the boys. Next time I’ll definitely bring more water. We only had 3 gallons, but I had to be very conservative with it, particularly with washing dishes, so we wouldn’t run out. And I definitely will include a smoke detector to whatever cabin we rent. I was surprised there wasn’t one in the cabin. It appears there was at one point, but no longer. With the wood stove (where I could see the fire because the seal was missing) you could see the fire, and I could just picture a spark flying out and hitting the box of paper. (Yes, this is how my mind works.) And, of course, my nose was all off because we all smelled like smoke.

IMG_7428The boys loved it from the beginning. Of course, it was even more special because their big brother, Blaine, joined us for the trip. They hadn’t seen him since around Christmas so they were pretty excited. They loved the beds, the fire, roasting hot dogs, marshmallows… the whole thing. John thought we should just stay there forever. He calls it “Our Cabin.” They had a great time with Blaine, too, as they hunkered around the outdoor fire, or tossed baseballs. This is something they’re going to remember forever.

We went for a little walk up Deadman Trail until we could see the slopes of Showdown Ski Area. I IMG_7444definitely felt the difference. I noticed I couldn’t breathe as deeply as I normally could. I guess it hasn’t been a month, yet, since the surgery so I shouldn’t be terrible surprised. Terribly frustrated, but not surprised. Then we decided to drive to the top. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but as we gained elevation the road seemed to narrow and the slope steepened. There are no photos from this jaunt, not because Grant wasn’t kind enough to offer to stop so I could take photos, but because I was clinging onto the car like a cat perched above the bathtub, I urged him to continue moving. (I will tell you the shooting star flowers were lovely, but I didn’t take a picture of them.) On top it opens up and is beautiful.

IMG_7464After a few games of Scrabble and Bible trivia, Sam and John couldn’t wait to go to bed. So I got them dressed, and squared around where each of them slept. That last for 10 minutes. Originally Sam wanted me to sleep with him in the bottom double bunk, and John as going to sleep by himself on the bottom single. Then they were both in the bottom bed chatting away.

Grant, Blaine and I played a couple of games of Yahtzee before decided to retire. I got to sleep between Sam and John in the space where the 2 twin mattresses meet. Comfy. I had a blinding headache, so I lay in bed for 2 hours before giving in and getting up. I read all of the entries in the journals there, recognizing a few of the people. I spent a lot of time feeding and tending to the fire because I was concerned the boys would be cold. I even started a letter to a friend I haven’t written in years. Finally, around 2 a.m. I decided to take Ibuprofen for the headache. Thankfully, once that started working I felt sleepy so I went to bed. Of course, both boys were completely out of their sleeping bags. I scootched them back inside and crawled in my own bag between them. I slept for probably 3 hours before I heard Grant get up and stoke up the fire. So, even though I slept very little, it never became terribly cold in the cabin.

For breakfast I made egg and cheese burritos. Grant chopped more wood to replace what we used, and then I cleaned up the cabin and we headed home. It was a short trip, but a lot of fun. I highly recommend renting one of these cabins to anyone, and really want to try more so we can see great new places in Montana.IMG_7470

Categories: Outdoor Adventures, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

I’m hanging with the Montana Mountain Mamas

I think those of us who raise our families in Montana are blessed with unique opportunities. A simple hike in the woods is an adventure, there are always mountains to climb, and every season brings a changing palette of colors, textures and wildlife. Even in the backyard it’s not out of the ordinary to see antelope, fox, eagles, hawks and enough birds to make an rookie birder happy. Of course, the occasional rattlesnake might be a bit more than some of us like, but they’re part of the picture, too.

SIMG_6612o you can imagine my delight when a new website, Montana Mountain Mamas, came online a few months ago. It’s wonderful to find like-minded ladies who take advantage of everything our beautiful state has to offer, and to see what they’re doing throughout the area.  From mountain biking, hiking or playing in that nasty stuff called snow, these women and their families live life to the fullest. So you can imagine how honored I was when they asked me to join the ranks of the Montana Mountain Mamas to add my experiences in gardening and eating real food in Big Sky country! IMG_6974

My first post, A Lesson for the Not-So-Patient Gardener, deals with a recent setback that put a significant dent in my gardening schedule. I consider myself someone who is pretty ready for most bumps along the way, but I must admit that this was never on the radar. As always, it proves to be a learning experience.

Categories: Gardening Basics, Outdoor Adventures, Playing in the Dirt, Uncategorized | Tags: , | 1 Comment

The start of spring planting

April was rough. It started out with a brief warm spell that lifted the hopes of a productive spring; those feelings were quickly dashed with bouts of snow and cold. But this past weekend was warm, albeit very windy, and it was time to catch up on spring chores.

I finished adding dirt to my second hugelkultur garden, and finally knocked down the rest of the dirt pile from last year. I still don’t have enough to cover all of the areas I want to turn into gardens, but it’ll be fine for now. Once the general garden footprint was done, I actually took out paper and a pen to sketch them out and create somewhat of a plan. I’m not good about putting together a precise map because, in my experience, it never works. But I need to have a general idea of where I’m going to plant everything on my extensive list. I still don’t know if it’s all going to fit, but we’ll give it a try.

Since the soil temperature was over 50 degrees F it was time to plant potatoes and a few other veggies. I planted potatoes at my Electric City Conservatory community garden plot, plus added a couple of rows here at home. The few extra potatoes I had went into the hugelkultur beds. It’s good to mix the varieties on the bed to have a true polyculture environment. It’ll also be a good experiment.

IMG_6917I planted the broccoli and 3 of the ‘Kaitlin’ cabbage plants (these are a type used for sauerkraut), and then covered them with the floating row cover. Cabbage and broccoli are both pretty hardy and will withstand below freezing temperatures, but the row cover protects them from the wind as much as anything. Little seedlings take a beating when the wind is howling around 45 mph.(And it looks like our cat Josephus appreciates the protection, too.) IMG_6915IMG_6874

We ran out of onions last year, so I’m determined to plant more. My favorite variety is ‘Copra.’ It’s a yellow onion that reaches 3-4 inches in diameter, and is a champion when it comes to long term storage. During normal years, we’re still eating last year’s onions in May. I started the ‘Copra’ seed in February and early March, and the boys helped me plant a bed with roughly 160 plants. I would’ve liked to cover this bed, too, but didn’t have enough floating row cover because the mice chewed them to pieces in the garden shed.  I wasn’t happy. (The other pieces are being used in the greenhouse.) The row cover also helps retain moisture since the wind sucks every bit of moisture out of the soil. Once more arrives, I’ll cut off a piece and pull it over the onions to give the poor things a little protection.

The boys planted a few things in their garden beds. They used the beet seed tape my friend Nancy sent to us, and thought that was pretty neat. They also planted the ‘Ogalla’ strawberries I purchased from Bundi Gardens. It’s a Zone 3 strawberry so I want to give it a try. Sam seeded ‘New Red Fire’ lettuce, ‘Yaya’ carrots and ‘Neon’ Swiss chard from Renee’s Garden Seeds. John put in ‘Yellowstone’ carrots, watermelon radishes and buttercrunch lettuce. Once again, the wind proves to be a challenge because it dries out the seed bed badly, but they should do okay. IMG_6872

There’s a whole lot we need to do as the days grow more mild, but it was good to start the season by putting a few things in the ground this weekend.

Categories: Playing in the Dirt | 3 Comments

Serious case of spring fever

The winter wasn’t horrible, but it always is much too long. After months of being cooped up indoors, it’s nice to bask in the warm weather. Over the past week we’ve cut down the raspberries; the boys torn down the sunflowers; created a few new gardens; weeded and cleaned up the flower beds; continued to dig a big hole in the backyard in order to skim off enough soil to cover the hugelkultur pile (and it’s where I’ll mine the clay dirt for the cob projects I have in mind); burned a fair amount of the garden debris. Yes, I could bury the garden stuff in another hugelkultur pile, but you know what? I’m a pyro when it comes to spring burning. I love it. Most springs I’m bummed out because it’s much too windy to burn anything without fear of torching the entire neighborhood. Even so, I always keep the hose close at hand since I really, really don’t want to end up on the nightly news because of stupidity. IMG_6573IMG_6569

I need to look back at pictures, but I’m kind of surprised the golden currants and lilacs are starting to bud out. The currants typically bloom by the first part of May, although if the weather continues like this I bet it will be by the end of the month. Crocus are blooming. And the daffodils and tulips are about 4 inches high. The alliums have reseeded all over the place, which is fine because I can share them with friends. It does look like spring is here to stay! (Although I hate to say it out loud.)

IMG_6578This morning was fairly calm so we cleaned up a few more of the raspberry cane and sunflower piles. Afterwards, I transplanted several flats of basil and peppers, then grafted a few more tomatoes. Sam came out and decided to practice his violin in the greenhouse. He definitely appreciates the warm weather as much as I do. And it was very nice to do our daily reading outside on the blanket. Please, please let this weather stay!


Categories: Gardening Basics, Home education, Playing in the Dirt | 5 Comments

Cleaning containers for spring planting

IMG_6492I found the recipe for keeping the boys happy: A bathtub full of plant containers that need washed and the promise of cash when it’s done.  I hate washing the containers before planting, yet it needs to be done to avoid nasty pathogens that can kill my little seedlings. It’s no fun to have them growing, full of promise, then have them succumb to damping off or another fungus. If I was on the ball I would’ve done them in the fall before I chucked them into the garden shed for the winter. But, we all know that’s not the case! Now they need to be done as I need them, which is happening at a rather fast pace. So I got the idea that it would be a win-win if I asked the boys to do them.

They were thrilled. Play in the water and earn a dollar? Genius. I filled the tub with warm water, added a bit of Dawn dishwashing detergent and a healthy dose of white vinegar. Then the went at it with their rags cleaning out the potting soil still clinging to some of them, and finally rinsing them out. I can’t say they were neat about the whole thing, but that doesn’t matter as long as they were enjoying it, not killing each other and cleaning those containers for me. If they keep up doing such a good job they’re going to be flush in cash, and I’ll be happy not to have to wash them as I need them.

Categories: Gardening Basics, Uncategorized | 1 Comment