Country Moon

Fabrics of Our Lives

Country Moon 

Sometimes we take for granted the very things that shape our everyday lives. The other day I noticed an intriguing pattern in a blouse that a friend was wearing. We see patterns in fabric all of the time in the clothes that each of us wear. Many times, those clothes define who we are. As I soon discovered, the simple process of weaving simple threads into fabrics with many variations in patterns is not so simple after all.

Photo by Pixabay/Johnrp

The entire textile industry is based on the conversion of fiber into yarn, yarn into dyed or printed fabric, and then fabric into clothes. It is the most basic of principles, and yet the process can become quite complicated. Whether done small scale at home or in a factory, the weaving process uses a loom, a device that intertwines length threads, called warps, and cross threads, referred to as wefts. The whole process passes back and forth in a shuttle that carries the yarn, which is the fibers that are twisted into threads used in weaving or knitting. Weaving is the oldest method of making yarn into fabric.

On the loom, the warp forms the skeleton of the fabric and requires a higher degree of twist than the filling yarns that are interlaced widthwise. Cloth is formed by the wooden shuttle that moves horizontally back and forth across the loom, interlacing the filling yarn with the horizontal lengthwise warp yarn. Modern mills use shutterless machines, which produce endless varieties of fabric. Some carry filling yarns across the loom as fast as 2,000 meters per minute and is pretty silent in so doing.

Cotton is the most important and most widely used material for fiber. Textile mills purchase cotton and receive bales from cotton warehouses. The factories start with the raw material and process it in stages until it becomes yarn or cloth, which is fabric or material that is constructed from weaving or knitting. Incidentally, there is a distinct difference between woven or knitted fabric. In knitted fabric, one continuous yarn is looped repeatedly to create what looks like tiny rows of braids, whereas in woven fabric, multiple yarns cross each other at right angles to form the grain, much like in a basket.

There are three basic types of weave. In plain weave, thread is alternately passed over one warp yarn and under the next, pretty basic and simple. This method is used for ginghams, percales, chambrays and other similar fabrics. The twill weave interlaces yarns to form diagonal ridges across fabric. This method produces sturdier fabrics like denim, gabardine, herringbone and ticking. The most common of the three weaves is the satin weave. It produces a smooth fabric with high sheen. It has fewer yarn interlacings  and neither the warp or filling yarn dominates the “face” of the cloth. It is used for cotton sateen.

Still, I wondered how the numerous patterns were woven into the fabrics. Basically, color and the different ornamentation is accomplished in woven fabrics by imparting pre-determined placement and interlacing of particular sequences of yarns.

Solid colors are produced by using the same color yarn for the warp and weft. Different colors may be combined to produce either a mixed or intermingled color effect in which the composite hue appears as a solid color.

Figured and patterned material is created by selecting different groups of colored yarns and placing them in certain ways in the warp and weft. In certain patterns, textural effects may be created entirely through the use of different values and closely associated hues of certain colors.

Various fabrics are often defined by thread count, which is a measure of coarseness or fineness of fabric, which is determined by counting the number of threads contained in 1 square inch of fabric and includes the warp and weft threads. Thread count usually refers to sheets and the higher the thread count, the softer the sheet. Thread counts usually range from 200 to 800.

It amazes me that there are such numerous types of fabric and what distinguishes each type is how it is woven or knit and what type of yarn is used. Some of the more basic types are:

  • Barkcloth: This was popular from the 1930s through the 1950s. It was used for interiors fabrics and was characterized by patterns of large vines, leaves and florals.
  • Basket Weave: Like its name, it resembles a basket with fibers common in home décor.
  • Boucle: This type can be either knit or woven with small curls or loops that create a nubby surface. It is mainly used for sweaters, vests and coats.
  • Broadcloth: This is a plain weave, tightly woven fabric, usually made of cotton or cotton blends and used for quilting and shirts.
  • Burlap: This is a plain weave pattern with a rough hand and is loosely constructed and has a heavy weight. Used mostly for draperies, decorations and crafts.
  • Canvas: This is a strong, durable and closely-woven cotton fabric.
  • Chambray: This is a plain woven fabric with a colored warp (usually blue) and white filling yarns. It is made with cotton, silk or manufactured fabrics.
  • Chenille: The name is French meaning “caterpillar.” It is created with fuzzy chenille yarns and is characterized by raised cords and channels.
  • Chantilly Lace: This is a netted background created by embroidery with thread and ribbon to create floral designs.
  • Corduroy: This uses a cut pile weave construction. The number of wales indicates the number of cords in an inch.
  • Denim: A twill weave cotton fabric with different colored yarns in the warp and weft.
  • Eyelet: This fabric has patterned cut-outs with stitching or embroidery around the cutouts for appeal and to minimize fraying.
  • Flannel: Usually made of 100 percent cotton that is brushed on one or both sides for softness.
  • Gabardine: A worsted twill weave that is wrinkle-resistant.
  • Gingham: A plain weave with a plaid or check pattern that is created with dyed yarn.
  • Muslin: A plain weave, low-count cotton sheeting.
  • Nylon: Developed in 1938, nylon was the first completely synthetic fiber developed. It is known for its strength.
  • Satin: Has a lustrous, shiny surface.
  • Terry Cloth: Made of uncycled, looped pile. It is highly absorbent, which makes it the first choice for toweling.
  • Velvet: This is the most luxuriant type of fabric.
Of all the types of fabric, there is one type that is not made in the traditional way. Silk is probably the most natural fabric of all. It is produced by silkworms, which are the offspring of moths. They spew out thread from tiny holes in their jaws which they use to spin into their egg-bearing cocoons. This entire process takes only 72 hours, during which they produce between 500 and 1,200 silken threads. Amazing!

I probably will never look at clothes the same again. Just like most things in the world, the art of creating fabric is an artful, intricate and yet simple process.


Spring Color Starts in the Fall

Photo by Unsplash/Irina Iriser

When spring finally breaks and all the spring flowers pop up, it is such a welcome sign after a long winter. However, all of that color takes a little planning the fall before.

September through mid-October is the optimum time to plant spring-flowering bulbs, other perennials that bloom in the spring and to consider storage for summer planted bulbs.

It’s probably best to get the old out of the way first. By digging bulbs that bloom in the summer before you plant spring blooming bulbs, you ensure that you don’t forget to dig them since out of sight is out of mind. It also makes room to plant other bulbs that need to go in during fall.

Summer bulbs such as gladiolas, tuberous begonias, cannas and dahlias are too tender to bear frost so they need to be dug and stored during winter. Once frost has killed the foliage, dig the bulbs, shake off loose dirt and let them dry a couple days, preferably in the sun. Then store in peat moss or just loose in boxes, not bags since bags attract moisture. Place in a dark storage area that is around 45*F.

If your plants were in pots, cut the foliage off and place the pots in a cool but non-freezing location. Leave until spring and do not water them.

Now, to consider planting the spring bulbs. Before you dive in, consider what look you are going after. Each variety has different bloom times, thus with careful planting, you can have continuous color throughout spring. These bulbs also look great planted “en masse” for large splashes of color in borders, groves and other large areas.

The general rule is to plant bulbs at a depth three times the width of the bulb itself. This is roughly four to six inches deep for small bulbs and eight inches deep for the larger ones. In sandy soil, go a little deeper and a little shallower for clay soil. Fertilize low in nitrogen with a blend of 9-6-6.

Some spring favorites are:

  • Daffodils add cherry splashes of yellow and white in early spring. They are deer and vole resistant.
  • Jonquils have tiny blooms and are great for naturalization. They are among the first to bloom.
  • Crocus are favorites because they are usually the first flowers we see. Known to even push up through the snow, they come in a variety of colors.
  • Snowdrops are aptly named since they appear early in the spring as little white bells.
  • Hyacinths (including grape hyacinths) are small blue clusters of tiny bell-shaped blooms that are great for naturalizing.
  • Tulips are later blooming but come in a large range of colors. These can be planted as late as you can dig in the ground. Squirrels love to eat these bulbs so you may have to put cages of chicken wire up to keep the varmints out.
  • Irises are hardy, reliable and easy to grow. Actually, it’s hard to stop them from spreading. They attract hummingbirds and butterflies and make lovely cut flowers.

Most folks order large quantities of these bulbs to create the effect that they want. So, what happens if winter sneaks in and all the bulbs don’t get planted in the fall? No worries, these bulbs can be forced, which is the process of causing plants to bloom under unnatural conditions or at unusual times.

To accomplish this, bulbs need to be put in pots and forced indoors. Choose pots that have good drainage, with at least one hole in the bottom. They also need to be deep enough for the roots to grow, at least eight inches.

Be sure and select a good quality potting mix. Soilless is a good choice since it lets the bulbs drain freely and not get water-logged while still providing moisture and stability. Fill the container with a couple inches of potting mix, then place the bulbs in and cover with more potting mix, leaving room for watering. Bulbs in pots can be placed closer together than those planted outside.

After potting them, they need to be chilled. Daffodils, tulips and hyacinths especially need extended periods of cold between 35*F and 50*F to initiate shoots and flowers. Any dark space like a basement or root cellar will do as long as it doesn’t get below freezing. Freezing won’t damage the bulbs but may break the pots.

After they have cooled for 14 to 15 weeks, move them to a warm and bright location like a sunny windowsill. This will cause them to grow leaves and push up flower buds. Once the buds start to show color, move them out of direst sunlight to prolong flowering. After they bloom, they can be planted directly in the garden, however they may take a few years to fully recover.

Don’t forget that bulbs aren’t the only flowers that can be planted in fall. Many spring blossoms will bloom earlier, for longer periods and on taller stems if planted in the fall. Some seeds won’t germinate without going through a cold period. Some flowers that do better if planted in the fall are:

  • Geum have dainty, one-inch orange flowers that are happiest in partial shade with well-drained soil. In most climates, they remain evergreen.
  • Brown-eyed Susans will provide a sea of wildflowers which are in sharp contrast to their tame cousins, black-eyed Susans. Planted in full sun, they self-support themselves even though they grow to three feet tall.
  • Anemones are much-loved flowers of early spring and are grown from small tubers. They have black eyes surrounded by paper thin white petals.
  • Foxglove is an old favorite. Most are biennial which means that they flower then set seed the following year. The first-year blooming “Dalmation” series is the exception here. They have bell-shaped flowers on four-foot spikes. Although they tolerate sun, they thrive in partial shade in hotter climates.
  • Coreopsis are great for fall planting.
  • Ranuculus have layers of soft petals that resemble roses. Mid-spring blooming, they are grown form “corms” or small tubers and have longer stems if planted in fall.
  • Annual phlox have pillowy flowers on 18-inch stems. Most varieties are perennials.
  • Columbine is a another old-time favorite but is a short-lived perennial. They sport intricate patterns on the flower heads on two to four-foot stems. They have vibrant color and will give a second show if they are cut back.\
  • Dianthus perform better if planted in the fall and are sweet and spice-scented long-time staples of bouquets.

Planting bulbs and flowers in the fall for spring blooms is a win-win situation. You can take advantage of sun-kissed autumn days by planting for a spring burst of color. What could be better than that!

There's No Shoes Like Snowshoes

Country MoonSnowshoes

I like to walk. This is probably a good thing since my job for the postal service requires me to hoof an average of 8 miles per day. But this is not where my love of walking lies. What I really enjoy is snowshoeing in the winter.

There is nothing more captivating than to strap on a pair of snowshoes on a moonlit winter’s night and feel the crisp snow underfoot, see the starry night above and listen to sounds of wildlife in the distance. If I am real lucky, I may catch a glimpse of a deer, rabbit or other creature out for a moonlight stroll also.

If you think this is a strange passion, consider that snowshoeing has been around for hundreds of years, born first out of necessity and later evolving more into recreation. By definition, snowshoes are footwear for walking over snow. They work by distributing the weight of the person over a large area so a person’s foot does not sink completely in the snow, a quality called “flotation.”

Traditional snowshoes have a hardwood frame with rawhide lacings. They are made of a single strip of some tough wood such as white ash, curved round and fastened together at the ends and supported in the middle by a light cross-bar. The space in the frame is filled with a close webbing of caribou, leaving a small opening just behind the cross-bar for the toe of the moccasined foot. They are fastened to the moccasin by leather thongs or buckles. This type of original snowshoe is still made and sold by native peoples.

There are still a large group of snowshoe enthusiasts who prefer these wooden varieties. Wooden frames do not freeze as readily as the new ones made of aluminum do and the wooden variety tends to be quieter. Even so, many of these wooden shoes have been destined to become decorations, mounted on walls or on mantels in ski lodges.

The “modern” snowshoe known my many today was “born” in 1972 by Gene and Bill Prater while they were experimenting with new designs in Washington’s Cascade Mountains. They began using aluminum tubing and replaced the lace with neoprene and nylon decking.  They developed a hinged binding and added cleats to the bottoms of the shoes to make them easier to use in mountaineering.

The Sherpa Snowshoe company started manufacturing these shoes which became very popular. They were a lighter, more durable version which required little maintenance. The use of solid decking  challenged the belief that lattice was necessary to prevent snow from building up on the shoe. These more athletic designs helped the sport regain its popularity with the number of snowshoers tripling during the 1990’s. Some ski resorts are beginning to offer snowshoe trails to visitors.

There is often the sentiment that if you can walk, you can snowshoe. Mostly this is true, however walking on shoes requires some slight adjustments to regular walking. I know, it sounds strange that you have to tell someone how to walk, but when you first strap a snowshoe on your foot it literally feels like you have strapped “clodhoppers” on because of their sheer size. The best method of walking with these attachments is to lift the shoes slightly and slide the inner edges over each other with an exaggerated stride.

To make matters even more complicated, after you have mastered straightforward snowshoe travel, you have to then master the art of turning. With lots of space, this is simply done by walking in a semicircle. In close quarters or on a slope this method isn’t practical so you must execute a “kick turn” similar to the technique used on skis: lifting one foot high enough to keep the entire snowshoe in the air while keeping the other planted, putting the foot at a right angle to the other then planting it on the snow and quickly repeating the action with the other foot.

One word of caution; whatever you have to do to avoid it, do not (and I repeat) do not fall! I learned the hard way that once you fall with three-foot long showshoes attached to your feet you will not be able to get up. The snowshoes dig into the snow and it was only with some agile maneuvering  that I got myself upright without calling in the troops. My motto when I first started was “If I fall, forget it!”

For this very reason, many snowshoers often use trekking poles as an accessory to help them keep their balance on the snow. These are especially useful for descending a mountain or hill. Cleating and traction improvements to modern snowshoes help climbers get up a slope. Coming down is a whole different scenario. Many snowshoers have found a way to speed up the descent that proves to be fun and rests the leg muscles. This is simply called glissading, or sliding down on their buttocks. Where this method is not practical, they run downhill in exaggerated steps, sliding slightly on the snow as they do. The trekking poles come in real handy here.

In past times snowshoes were essential for anyone who had to get around in deep and frequent snow such as fur traders and trappers. They are still necessary today for forest rangers and others to be able to go where motor vehicles cannot trek.

Besides the necessity for snowshoes in some conditions, some people just enjoy them for the sport of it. Although snowshoe racing has been around for as long as there have been snowshoes, it is relatively new as an organized sport. The United States Snowshoe Association was founded in 1977 to govern competitive snowshoeing. It is headquartered in Corinth, New York which considers itself the “Snowshoe Capital of the World.” These races are part of the Arctic Winter Games and the winter Special Olympics even though they are not yet an Olympic event.

I am definitely not interested in the races. For me, showshoeing is a way to get a little extra leg exercise and enjoy winter nights in the great outdoors. I always come back feeling refreshed and calm.  What more can you ask from a sport.

Cool Art...Literally


Country MoonAmidst the gray skies and gloom that winter days sometimes bring, there is always a bright spot in Shipshewana, IN in late December. Ice chips fly as carvers from all over come to create masterpieces out of frozen water.

This year’s contest, due to weather conditions, was held on December 28 and 29. This time is always a highlight in this quaint rural Hoosier town where visitors come from all over to shop specialty stores that feature handmade items and Amish country cooking. The town also does Christmas right with their holiday lighting all over the small community. Viewing the ice sculptures at night under the lights is even more festive.

Actually, ice sculpting is pretty common in various locations around the country where temperatures permit. The granddaddy of all the ice contests is held in Alaska…go figure! Since 1989, Alaska has hosted the World Ice Art Championship where nearly 100 sculptors come from all over the world to sculpt large blocks of pristine natural ice during the last week of February and the first week of March. The event draws an average of 45,000 spectators and the creations are sometimes referred to as “Arctic Diamonds.”

There are two categories: the single block and multi block and two sub-categories of realistic and abstract. In single block, teams of up to two people work on 3 x 5 x 8-foot blocks of ice weighing around 7800 pounds each. In multi, there can be up to four people on a team and each team gets ten blocks of ice measuring 6 x 4 x 3 feet and weighing 4400 pounds each. Power tools and scaffolding may be used when sculpting. These masterpieces require not only artistic vision, but also knowledge of ice sculpting techniques, strength, endurance and engineering skills. There is even a kids’ section that has ice sleds and ice twirly tops.

This art form takes my breath away. I know from doing my painting, photography and writing that creativity sometimes has its own time frame. However, with ice sculpting, time is of the essence because of the volatility of the ice. Besides that, I would be at a loss as to where to start. Just how do you know how to begin an ice sculpture?

This art is traditionally taught in culinary schools and other small schools that teach ice carving. Initially, sculptors would carve ice blocks “cold turkey” by using chain saws, grinders and chisels. Through the years, the designs have become more intricate and many carvers today use templates and are aided by CNC machines and molding systems.

Besides ice sculpting competitions, more people are probably familiar with smaller versions that are used to enhance the presentation of foods, traditionally seafoods and sorbets. Cruise ships and larger hotel buffets make use of carved ice as do many wedding receptions. Hearts, doves and swans are popular subjects for these smaller sculptures. Swans are supposed to represent monogamy which is why they are popular for wedding carvings. Chef Augustine Escoffier used an ice swan to present the creation of the dish Peach Melba.

Sometimes entire bars are made of ice as are ice houses and ice walls. When making these larger structures, special measures have to be taken so they do not melt so fast. One method is by placing and keeping vertical rods in the ice sculpture along with a type of ice pellets. These pellets are made by combining one part water, three parts ice cubes or crushed ice and one part tiny floating dry ice pellets and churning all of these in a cement mixer. The ice pellets super cools the ice water so that the water acts as a glue to cement or freeze the crushed ice together. Within seconds, after the mixture has stopped moving, it will become solid ice, to be carved into a wall, bar or other structure.

Although some carvers use natural ice blocks from rivers or ponds, many prefer clear ice that has been made mechanically by controlling the freezing process and the circulation of the water in the freezing chamber. Certain machines and processes allow for slow freezing which results in clean ice.

Characteristics of ice change according to its temperature and the surrounding air temperature. Most sculptors want that pure transparency that only comes from ice that has been made from pure and clean water that is free from impurities. If ice is clouded it is because it has finely trapped air molecules that have binded to impurities during the freezing process. In more intricate ice patterns, some sculptors actually want the clouded ice, a combination of cloudy and clear or blocks of ice colored by dyes to achieve the final art form.

There is nothing like watching a sculptor start chipping a form out of a block of ice once he has drawn the pattern on it. It takes multiple cuts to make curves and after a design has been carved, many use a flamer to smooth imperfections and give it a finished look. How amazing to see a 3-D effect of an image come to life from a simple block of ice!

How long these sculptures last depend solely on the temperature. If it is below freezing or if in a controlled environment, they can last for days. However, the life for many is but a few hours. Unlike other art forms, part of the beauty of ice sculptures is that something so perishable is sculpted into a work of art only to be viewed once. Perhaps this is what makes us appreciate this art form.


Photos Courtesy of Getty Images


Country MoonEvery season brings its own blessings, and trials, and winter is no different. Here in Michigan and other parts of the frozen Midwest, being on the ice offers its own share of pleasures…and dangers. So many folks partake in ice fishing, ice skating, etc. without really understanding the basics of being on the ice.

It has been a while since I have played on the ice but, when I was a kid, every winter I was out there with my Dad. He loved to ice fish, and I liked to ice skate…a win-win situation. He liked to go to different lakes so he never bothered with a shanty. If the weather was really bad, we just didn’t go.

All lakes and ponds have a routine, so to speak, on how they freeze. A body of water takes longer to cool down and longer to heat up than land. When an entire lake reaches 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the surface water cools further, dropping below that temperature. This water is less dense than the surrounding water, which stays on top and continues to cool. Once the surface water reaches 32 degrees Fahrenheit, it freezes, and this process keeps spreading downward, thus making the ice thicker and thicker.

So, why doesn’t a whole lake freeze? As ice crystals freeze, they float to the surface and as they become thicker, they act as insulators, preventing the cold air coming above the water from removing heat from the unfrozen water below. Because of this process, a lake never freezes solid from top to bottom. Water is shallower at the lake’s perimeter, thus it freezes faster on the outer edges, and the whole lake freezes from the shore to the center.

Rivers and streams are a whole other story. The energy in flowing water is constantly being converted to heat energy that resists freezing on the molecular level. For this reason, it has to be exceptionally cold for rivers and streams to freeze. Glaciers are prime examples of frozen rivers.

So, what is considered a safe thickness of ice to be on the lake? That depends on how much weight you are planning to take on the ice. The Old Farmer's Almanac recommends 3 inches of ice for a person on foot, 4 inches for a group walking in single file, 7.5 inches for a passenger car with a 2-ton gross and 8 inches for a light truck with a 2 1/2 ton gross. The almanac also stresses that slush ice is only half the strength of regular blue ice, and the strength of river ice is 15% less than lake ice. Also, the thickness of a lake’s ice is different at different points on the lake, so it is recommended that you check it every 150 feet.

How long it takes a lake to make the varying degrees of ice thickness depends on what is known as “freezing degree days.” The formula for this is quite simple. First, take the average temperature over the last 24 hours and subtract that number from the freezing point of 32 degrees. Ice will increase at a rate of 1 inch/15 freezing degree days. For example, if the average temperature over the last 24 hours was 25 degrees, subtract that from 32 degrees which will give you 7. Put 7 over 15 like a fraction, 7/15 equals about a 1/2 inch of ice over a 24-hour period.

Keep in mind that these are only guidelines. This formula is based on having a slight to moderate wind speed, no snow on the ground, and clear skies. These all help to pull heat out of the water and accelerate the growth of ice. Just because the thermometer says 32 degrees, does not always mean that water will freeze. The University of Utah chemistry department shows that water can get to -55 degrees before it must freeze.

Frozen lakes and ponds have some phenomena that they claim for their own when they are frozen over. Perhaps the most frightening for anyone who spends any time on the ice is the cracking noise. My Dad always told me, “It’s just making more ice when you hear that noise.” It never made me feel any better, but it was essentially true. Ice expands or contracts when the temperature changes, thus causing cracks to form in the ice.

This same action of expansion and contraction causes lines on the frozen lake’s surface. We were recently down to our friends who live on Union Lake in Michigan and noticed these lines leading out into the lake, with no particular pattern or reason. They are referred to as pressure ridges. Even when a lake is completely frozen, it is not stagnant; it still expands and contracts as it warms and cools. When it warms during the day, it expands, causing a collision between both sides of a crack and causing the ice to buckle up at that pressure point.

Ice heaves and ridges are caused by the pushing action of a lake’s ice sheet against the shore. When lake ice cracks, water rises into the cracks and freezes, gradually expanding the heave.

Frozen lakes offer opportunities to enjoy our water resources in the winter as well as summer. However, it offers its own set of risks. Besides the thickness of the ice, always be aware of those that have been out before you. Specifically, I am talking about holes that ice fishermen have drilled and abandoned. You can easily step into one of these and trip…and a fall on the ice is a lot harder than on land! These holes also pose risks for ice skaters. I found out the hard way what happens when a skate catches an open hole.

As careful as one can be, ice is unpredictable, and there is always that chance that if you play on a frozen lake, you can find yourself plunged into its icy perils. If the dreaded does happen and you do fall through thin ice, the first thing to remember (and this is easier said than done!) is not to panic. It is true that the physiological response to cold water shock and hypothermia is pretty quick, but, by keeping a level head and knowing what to do, you can save yourself.

Immediately put your arms and legs out to slow your descent. The first reaction is to try to claw your way out but, by doing this, your body weight and wet clothing may pull you back down. Many folks also say they cannot get a deep breath, only because when they panic, they forget to exhale first.

Use your behind to lift your lower body and then bring your legs up and extend behind you. If you have skates, snowshoes, and even in some cases, boots, kick them off to dispose of added weight and anything that might “catch” on the ice when trying to pull yourself out.

Kick your legs softly to launch yourself forward on the ice, then kick hard to propel yourself horizontally out of the water on your stomach. Do not stand, but rather, use your arms to pull yourself across the ice to where it is thick enough to support your weight, then get on all fours and crawl towards shore.

Hopefully, you will never find yourself in this scenario, but it is always good to know what to do, just in case. Lakes in winter offer a beauty and solitude that are not present in the other seasons. You are truly missing out if you don’t grab yourself some “nice ice” time on our lakes and ponds.

Photo by Getty Images/SteveMcsweeny.

Composting 101

Photo by AdobeStock/fotofabrika 

Everyone likes something that is free and we gardeners are no exception. If you are like me, you have heard about composting, sort of know what it is, not real sure how to make it, so probably haven’t tried it. Being in the midst of fall leaves, I decided that this was the year to take advantage of this “free” nutrient for soils.

I think what scared me off before is that compost isn’t just compost. There is hot compost, cold compost and then there is leaf mold. Yea, this all can be a little intimidating.

By definition, composting is the natural process of recycling organic matter like leaves and table scraps into fertilizer. Anything that grows decomposes eventually and composting is a process that speeds it up by providing the ideal environment for bacteria, fungi and other decomposing organisms like worms, sowbugs and nematodes to do their work. The end result is decomposed matter that looks like fertile garden soil.

Compost allows us to divert waste from landfills and turn it into something useful and also helps to minimize methane emissions form landfills. Garden waste and food scraps make up more than 28 percent of what we throw away. At the same time, it improves soil health and lessons erosion. This “black gold,” how famers refer to compost, can be used by agriculture, horticulture and gardeners.

Types of composting

Cold composting, also known as passive composting, breaks down organic matter slowly but also takes the least amount of effort and maintenance. Anything organic decomposes naturally. This method lets Mother Nature do her job with little interference. No need to worry about the ratio of compost ingredients, aerating regularly or checking moisture levels.

Cold compost is mainly broken down by microorganisms that thrive in oxygen-deprived environments. It is the method of choice if you have little to compost, not much time to put into it and are not in a hurry. This method can take between one and two years, depending on the variables. The downside of this way is that it will not reach high enough temperatures to kill off the pathogens. So, there may be lingering weed seeds, bacteria and other undesirable things left in your compost.

Hot composting is faster and requires more intervention. Nitrogen and carbon must be kept at the optimum ratio to decompose the organic waste.  To accomplish this, the right balance of air and water must be maintained to attract the organisms that thrive in an environment rich in oxygen. Under ideal conditions, the compost may be ready anywhere from four weeks to 12 months. The temperature needs to be kept hot enough to destroy weeds, plant diseases, pesticides, herbicides and larvae or eggs.

Compost elements 

The compost pile needs four key elements to survive, nitrogen, carbon, air and water. Successful composting means using the right combination of materials to get the best ratio of carbon to nitrogen and the right amount of air and water.

The ideal carbon to nitrogen ratio is 25 to 30 parts carbon for every part of nitrogen. If there is too much carbon, the end result will be drier and will take longer to break down. Too much nitrogen will make it slimy, wet and smelly. This can easily be remedied by adding carbon-rich or nitrogen-rich nutrients. The key is getting it just right.

Nitrogen is one of the building blocks of life, an essential element of growth and reproduction in both plants and animals. Good sources of nitrogen are grass clippings, food scraps, coffee grounds and egg shells.

Carbon is essential for all life forms. It provides a food source for the decomposing organisms, helping to keep them alive while they break down waste. Dead leaves, branches, twigs and paper all fall into this category. The general rule is two to four parts brown (carbon) for every one part green (nitrogen).

The decomposers need oxygen and water and, you guessed it, also in the right amounts. Layering the brown and green materials, making sure they are in small pieces and turning often helps to achieve this ratio. If food wastes are included, it will likely be wet enough, with the consistency of a wrung-out sponge.

Photo by Pexels/Sippakori Yamski

Temperature is a huge component too, with the optimum temperature ranging from 130*F. to 140*F. This occurs when waste is broken down at a fast rate. Consistent aeration goes right along with temperature to keep the balance of greens, browns, air and water to create ideal conditions for aerobic organisms to survive. Turn the pile once a week during the summer and every three to four weeks during winter.

To maintain moisture, water the pile or add wet material if it gets too dry and add more carbon if it is too wet.

Start composting! 

So, how do you actually start a compost pile? Add alternate layers of browns and greens, ending with a layer of browns in a dry and shady spot. Ideally, a three-foot cube is the right size for a pile. A large amount of waste is needed for a high temperature pile and any pile larger than five cubic feet will not allow enough air flow.

As you layer, wet as needed. Leave it alone for four days for decomposition to begin. After that, turn it regularly.

Anything that comes from the ground can be composted. The list includes cardboard, coffee grounds, fireplace ashes from natural wood, fruits and vegetables, grass clippings, hair and fur, hay and straw, sawdust, tea bags, wood chips and yard trimmings.

It will be “done” when it is dark and rich, a third the size of the original pile, smells like rich earth and is crumbly and smooth.

Trench composting, another variation, is odorless and invisible since the waste is buried underground.  Simply dig a hole, fill it with organic waste and cover with soil. Earthworms and organisms do the rest of the work. This method is suited for a single operation since it is in a single location.

Leaf mold is essentially composted shade tree leaves. Unlike regular compost, leaf mold is produced through a cooler and much slower fungal-driven process. It is much better used as a soil amendment since it doesn’t have many nutrients. However, it increases water retention by 50 percent in soil, which is a good environment for beneficial bacteria and a good habitat for soil life.

To make leaf mold, either pile leaves in a three-foot wide and high heap or put them in a large garbage bag with holes slit in it. Dampen the pile or contents of the bag and let it do its job, checking occasionally on the moisture level. This process takes between six to twelve months. To speed it up, make sure the leaves are mulched into fine pieces, turn every few weeks and cover the pile with a plastic tarp to keep moisture in.

Compost is a rich and valued nutrient source for gardens and other growing areas. The deciding factor on which method to use is how much time and effort you want to put into the project. The only wrong decision in composting is deciding not to compost at all and not taking advantage of something so good that is free!

Happy, Happy, Happy Halloween

Country MoonHalloween is my happy, happy, happy holiday. There are no emotional ties associated with it, it comes at a beautiful time of year when the air is cool and crisp and usually coincides perfectly with harvest.

Perhaps this is why I enjoy the holiday so much, it is a time to get out and have fun with no strings attached. Very rarely do we have this opportunity.

Halloween originated from All Hallows Eve, meaning hallowed evening. Folks would dress up as saints and go door-to-door, thus the forebearers of the modern trick-or-treaters.

Whether you are a fan of the holiday or not, Halloween has become the second largest commercial holiday in the United States, only surpassed by Christmas. This said, it is rather hard to escape Halloween since decorations representing the holiday adorn most all porches, storefronts and yards.

Still, some people refuse to join in the fun because they believe the holiday has its roots in paganism and is evil. Believe it or not, Samhainophobia is the fear of Halloween and originates from the Samhain custom of celebrating summer's end. This probably isn't as strange as festivalisophobia, which is the fear of the whole Christmas thing!

This season is just too vibrant and fun not to enjoy it, even if you are not a big spook fan. There are still so many fun, family-oriented things to help us get outside and enjoy before winter makes many of us shut-ins.

Consider taking in some of these activities:

  • If you are into festivals, the fall season offers a host of them all across the country. In many parts of the country where apples are raised, apple festivals abound. These are good places to pick up some of the fruit for winter, to load up on cider and doughnuts and to check out local crafts and seasonal food.
  • If you are not into festivals and crowds, many apple orchards offer their own activities. In many cases you can pick your own apples and then participate in hayrides, corn mazes and scavenger hunts. Many orchards produce their own cider and invite the public to watch this process, along with samples. Besides just offering apples and apple products, many orchards have farmers' markets, which offer all sorts of fall produce such as winter squash, pumpkins, gourds, potatoes and onions.
  • What a fun season it is to decorate, even if you opt not to do the Halloween thing. Scarecows are always fun to fashion. A few years ago, my grandsons and I had so much fun "stuffing" old bib overalls with straw, adding an old shirt and pumpkin heads. Our "creations" sat on our outside bench way into winter and then we kindly put them out of the weather so they could grace our spring gardens and go to work scaring critters out of our domain. Thrift store finds are great for these kinds of things. Decorating with pumpkins and fall leaves makes any place look festive.
  • Bonfires can please both the Halloween enthusiast and those that are not so keen on the holiday. The bugs of summer are gone (hopefully), the nights are cooler and crisp and a bonfire is a perfect way to casually catch up with family and friends. Some of the best ones that we have had are the last-minute throw-togethers. I'll put a pot of chili and sloppy Joes on the stove, baked beans in the oven and let the rest come together with everyone bringing a passing dish. There is nothing quite like the smoke from a fire, laughter and tall tales from friends and good food. It just doesn't get any better.
  • Autumn brings color to just about any part of the country that you are from, to some degree. Even though each season has its own beauty, fall offers brilliant colors that the others can't match. It's a perfect time to go for a drive, especially if it is in no specific direction. Take some of those backroads, you may find some pleasant surprises along the way.
  • Take a walk. It's a great time to make use of national, state and local parks. Not only the color, but also the scents of the season will lift your spirits. There is no other scent like the earthy smell of autumn, leaves strewn across your path. On your journey, be on the lookout for pinecones, acorns and even the leaves themselves. They all can be used in wreaths and other DIY fall decorations.

I love all of these things. For me, fall can't last long enough. Perhaps that is why it is such a short season; too much of a good thing makes us enjoy it less.

It seems that everyone is in a little better spirits also. A good harvest, for both farmers and gardeners, is enough to lighten any mood. Just like our forefathers, a good bounty in fall makes for a good winter.

The old saying that "I want it all," well, that is me. I enjoy the harvest and I enjoy Halloween. One year I was the prisoner, clad in jailhouse stripes and ball and chain, while Wyatt was the sheriff.

I do enjoy being scared out of my wits in haunted houses; I know it's not real but I still scream. So, for the next few weeks, it is truly happy time, there is the rest of the year to be responsible and to be serious. Go have some frightfully good fun!

Photo by Getty Images/AlexRaths.

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