Grit Blogs >

Panthers Hollow

Rooting a willow cutting

Jennifer Quinn 

When I bought my home there was a scraggly old willow by the stream in front of the house, which has since died. I wanted to replace it, so in the late fall I took some cuttings from a willow on a neighboring property, following directions in the Rodale Ultimate Encylcopedia of Organic Gardening. I had heard that willows are very easy to root, and according to Rodale all you had to do was leave the cuttings in water for a while. It said to take 4- to 8-inch cuttings from 1-year old wood, a few inches from the terminal bud. I wasn’t sure how to identify 1-year-old wood, but that’s what I tried to do, and took a few in different sizes. I even added some 1-inch pieces of leftover cuttings to one of the containers, since I’d read that pieces of willow can be used to make “willow water” for rooting other kinds of cuttings.

When no roots appeared after about a month I was beginning to lose hope. I consulted a few other sources, which recommended larger cuttings and included other instructions that only confused me. But one source included the words “eventually they will root.” I concluded that “eventually” meant it could take a long time, and that patience was the key. Sure enough, after 56 days I found my largest cutting had grown a nice little root:

willow cutting

Over the next week or so two others began to root. I now have them all in pots with seed-starting mix, and will probably plant them at the edge of the stream whenever there’s a good thaw—maybe this week? And since I wrote this, one that had green buds on it has put out a little root as well. I wonder if a frost would kill the buds at this point?

A Curtain for the Coop

Jennifer Quinn



One of my fall projects that got put off until January was to make a curtain for my new poultry house, to keep out cold drafts, especially when it snows. I know that ventilation is more important for chickens than keeping them warm, but I’ve also read that ideally the coop should be facing south, and should not be drafty. Since mine is up against a north-facing slope and gets almost no sunlight in the winter, I thought it best for the coldest nights to have something covering the large north-facing window, where I had replaced the glass with rat wire. (I was also thinking of my outdoor cat, who spends nights in there. He does have a cubbyhole with a warm blanket in it, but it still gets pretty cold in there.)

So I devised a cover made from an old cloth shower curtain, lined with one of those emergency blankets made of thin metallic foil. I reasoned that the holes in the shower curtain could be used to anchor the bottom with hooks so it wouldn’t blow. I then found a strip of wood around which to wrap the top edge, to hold everything together and to help secure it to the window frame. I also hung ropes over it in two places and secured them with safety pins, so I’d have a way to tie up the curtain when not in use.

Conveniently, the strip of wood I had chosen already had three holes in it, so I figured that would make it easier to screw the whole thing into the window frame. (I had to put pins with colored heads in the holes so I wouldn’t lose track of where they were after it was covered with the fabric). I thought I could drill right through the curtain and into the window frame to make the holes for the screws. Nothing doing! The fabric got all caught up in the drill bit, even after I made holes in it with a roofing nail.

Then I got an idea: Maybe I could just secure it with roofing nails instead? I wasn’t sure the nails would be strong enough, but it worked perfectly! Then, instead of hooks I decided to try three roofing nails for securing the bottom, and that worked fine too. So far, it seems only to keep it a few degrees warmer inside, but at least it will keep out the snow and the north winds. And I can finally cross this off my list and move on to the next challenge: covering the small gap in the door to keep out snakes and weasels!

Shelling Black Walnuts: An Update

Jennifer Quinn 

Recently I posted about the difficulty of shelling black walnuts. Then a reader who’s a more savvy Internet user than I am sent me this link to a Youtube video, How to Harvest and Crack Black Walnuts, which is a lot more helpful than the instructions I got from neighbors:

Unfortunately, it turns out they usually only bear every other year, so I guess I’ll have to wait two years to try again. But I was interested in the author’s method of washing the nuts immediately after hulling them, then hanging them in onion bags to dry—only a few weeks, he says, instead of months! And snipping at the shells with wire cutters is an interesting approach for getting out all the meat. He says you still have to go through them and pick out any shell fragments, but his end results sure look better than mine! And he doesn’t even worry about the hulls having bruises, or having some pulp sticking to the nuts after washing.

A Bigger, Better Hugelkultur Bed

Jennifer Quinn 

I’ve written before about my forays into building raised beds with hugelkultur — using wood, especially rotting wood, as the basis. So far I’ve built three of these: one as a sloped mound, which is the usual form, and two as flat-topped, rectangular beds. The first has now been in service for two seasons, and has produced some decent carrots, green beans, and potatoes, now that it’s mostly broken down into a nice, humusy soil. The second — built in fall 2016 and cover-cropped with rye, then clover, then oats and Austrian winter peas — will be planted with bare root strawberries in the coming season.

The third (the sloped mound,) will be planted this season with a spring crop of spinach on one side, and will hopefully produce some garlic on the other. I planted the garlic in December, but found the mound mostly frozen and full of big holes at the bottom. Plus I had absentmindedly left the garlic sets outside in freezing weather, so that some were visibly rotting, and even the ones I planted didn’t seem in the greatest shape. So I’m a little dubious about the garlic, but I’m hoping there’s enough soil near the surface to grow some spinach.

My latest (and probably last, for now) hugelkultur project is the most promising so far. This involved building up a 4-by-12-feet bed that has always been compacted and prone to water-logging. Here’s the first layer, consisting of old and rotting wood, with a few leaves and greens thrown in:


Hugelkultur is a natural for me, since I live in the woods and even have a pile of rotting lumber on my property. It’s hard to see here with all the leaves, but — trust me — that’s a stack of slowly-rotting wood:


The next step was to add a layer of dead leaves, then a layer of the goose-litter compost that I wrote about earlier [Repurposing an Old Structure]:


Finally, I found a good source of partially-composted horse manure, which was just the thing to top it off, and something my previous projects lacked. Here’s the final product:


I then cover-cropped it with winter rye and fenced it in so the chickens wouldn’t tear it up. After the rye matures I’ll cut it down and sow some kind of legume in it, and in 2019 I’ll look forward to putting it into production — my biggest and best hugel bed ever!

Shelling Black Walnuts — Trickier Than You Might Think!

Jennifer Quinn


Recently I wrote about finding a bumper crop of black walnuts on my property and learning how to remove the hulls and prepare them for shelling [An Overlooked Bounty]. Well, that was only the beginning. Two months or so later, after trying as best I could to get them dried out in front of my garage windows, I decided to tackle the job of shelling them.

The truth is, they really weren’t very dry. But by the time I got them collected and hulled, there wasn’t enough sun in my yard to dry them outside. The garage windows are the sunniest indoor location I have, but by late fall they only get a couple of hours of sunlight, and often very hazy sunlight at that. Not to mention that by late November the temperatures were dropping near freezing in there!

The first problem was that about half of them had gotten moldy. I decided to tackle those first. I was concerned about transferring the mold from the shells to the inside, so I began by scrubbing them with a toothbrush, scraping them with a fork, and rinsing them, then drying them in the oven for about a half hour. After all that, I found that they still had a peculiar odor, which I hoped hadn’t affected the meat inside.

The biggest problem was how to shell them. I had been warned that they were harder to crack than English walnuts. Boy, that was an understatement! The nutcracker did no good at all. Then somebody told me — in fact several people have told me — that you have to hit them with a hammer. (Everyone around here seems to know what to do with black walnuts!)

Well, I tried hitting them with my heaviest hammer, and that didn’t have any effect either. The only thing I found that worked was smashing them with a sledgehammer. First I had to find a large, shallow box, line it with paper, and put it on the concrete outside, since I was reluctant to inflict that kind of stress on my laminate floors, and I wanted to keep the nuts clean.

The trouble with the sledgehammer approach is that you end up with all these tiny shell fragments mixed in with the meat. And if you don’t break the shells in several pieces it’s impossible to dig it all out. I had to go at it with a paring knife, and couldn’t help poking myself with it a couple of times.

When I finally ended up with a couple of cups of shelled walnuts, which I had carefully picked through to remove any shell fragments I could find, I had another problem: The nuts had the same unpleasant smell (and taste) that I noticed before they were shelled. Kind of a fermented odor, I would say. I assumed this was caused by the mold that had grown on the shells.

A few weeks later I got around to tackling some of the non-moldy ones. (Or at least not visibly moldy, though they were thoroughly black on the outside.) Disappointingly, the results were no different from the first time.

Possibly the taste-odor problem is due to my not having thoroughly removed the pulp from the shells and not having dried them quickly enough. I learned along the way that it’s important to collect them promptly, and the earlier batches included some that had probably been lying on the ground for several days and had some brown spots. The fresher ones did come out more cleanly, though they all still had a bit of pulp on them after shucking. Maybe next year if I’m really diligent about collecting and shucking them every day I can avoid this problem, though I’m still not sure where and how I’ll dry them adequately.

The real challenge is the shelling. Despite my best efforts (and a huge amount of tedious, time-consuming work) I still found shell fragments in the finished product. Someone will have to show me how on earth you do this, or else do it for me!

Four New Pullets

Jennifer Quinn 


Here’s a somewhat belated report on the newest additions to my chicken flock. I mentioned back in August that four of my five chicks turned out to be pullets [Rebuilding My Flock]. As for the cockerel, I had planned to cull him, though he looked promising, because I already have a good rooster and don’t need another one yet. Then the guy down the road who sometimes buys chickens from me wanted him, so I arranged to trade him for a young Rhode Island Red, which became my next meat bird.

Meanwhile, the four pullets have been coming along nicely, and a couple have begun laying very small (1 3/8 ounces) eggs every two or three days. Since I haven’t yet caught one laying, I don’t know which ones to thank, but I’m pretty sure I know who one of them is. The rooster had begun mating with her a few weeks before she produced her first egg, and they say roosters only mate with hens that are laying. (Or about to begin laying, I guess.) I wonder how they know?

When the weather gets warmer I’ll have to go in the coop some night after they’re asleep and do an evaluation—distance between keel and vent; distance between pelvic bones; are they pointed and flexible, etc. I wish I had someone to help me with this. At least I have a cap with lights now, but it’s awkward having to hold them with one hand, measure with the other, then try to write down the results before I forget them!

I hope they ramp up production this week with the warmer weather, because my two hens are still molting. One looks to be nearly finished, thank heavens, after more than two months, but my older hen—who I thought was finished after a six-month molt—has again lost some tail feathers and stopped laying. Both hens seem to be growing their new feathers nicely after a week or so on feather-fixer ration. But old Flan’s comb is still very pale, so I’m not expecting anything out of her soon. She’s been such a terrible layer, I would have culled her by now except that she was an excellent mother, raising ten beautiful chicks for me in 2016.

To Mow or not to Mow?

Jennifer Quinn 

Why mow? That is the question I generally ask when I hear homeowners complain about having to mow large lawns, sometimes amounting to several acres. What would be wrong with just having a small area of lawn near the house and letting the rest become a meadow?

For the property owner whose main concern is maintaining the landscape there could be a number of answers and approaches, which I won’t go into here. As for me, with something resembling a lawn surrounding my house, garden and orchard area, it involves a different set of issues. My main motivation for mowing is to have a ready supply of organic matter for use as mulch or to add to my compost. I’ve also read, though, that one way to control fleas and grasshoppers is to keep things mowed, and I’ve had a lot of trouble with fleas and grasshoppers.

My usual approach has been to try to keep the areas near the garden mowed to a height where they’re not going to seed, and only mow the other areas a few times a year, mainly to keep them from becoming a jungle. But some of the weeds and grasses outsmart me by simply going to seed at a shorter height, before I can get to them. I guess they’re on an internal clock that tells them when to set seed, and height doesn’t matter. So I feel I should be mowing more often, though I can’t seem to find the time or energy for it, with all the other tasks demanding my attention during the growing season.

Since it seems like a losing battle, sometimes I wonder if I’m worrying about it too much. But here’s another angle: I’ve noticed that wherever I’ve just been mowing, the chickens and guineas are all over it, pecking away at a great rate. I suspect that cutting it down makes it easier for them to find the bugs and seeds that are in there. Possibly this could be helping with pest control. And if they’re finding more to eat, they must be eating less of the purchased feed I give them. So when I mow, maybe I’m actually saving money on feed!

I’ve also decided that if I just leave the weeds on the ground or pile them up somewhere, the seeds will eventually fall out and either get eaten or germinate right where they are, rather than blowing into the garden. So maybe it is worthwhile to try to keep after it as best I can.