Taking Care

Engineered Spirits - Wildflower Reserve

Down on the Farm

We were supposed to have started logging operations on the farm after Labor Day. Now we’re into October and the job hasn’t yet started. Time moves slowly on the farm. But eventually it does move forward.

With the help of a great professional forester, I personally selected 200 mature trees on our 114-acre farm for timbering. (It had to be me because everyone knows I’m the tree-hugger around here.) Seventy percent of those I selected are trees over 18 inches in diameter: hickory, oak, ash, maple, basswood and walnut. Some were larger than 30 inches. Wonderful trees, but they had achieved their maximum potential. If we’re going to maintain the health and vitality of our beautiful forest, it’s time to remove a few to make room and light for the younger trees around them, so they can do the same.

Almost a third of the trees I marked were ash trees, many of them on the north-facing slope of the ridge behind the main house. As we watch the emerald ash borer creep closer to our farm, it seems inevitable that these trees will all be standing deadwood in just a few years. For the sake of the forest, and our own safety, it’s best to remove them now, while they still have some timber value. Luckily, the insect only seems to attack mature ash trees. We’re hopeful that removing the bigger ones will enable the young ones to continue growing and thriving, long after the borer has moved on along its devastating path.

There are a few places on the farm, though, that are just too special to touch. We’ve set aside the hollow around the back pond as a wildflower reserve. We won’t be removing any trees there during our timber operation; we’re just going to let Nature take its course. We made that decision in the months before I had discovered the wealth of native wildflowers and fruits that are already growing in this special place, so now I’m really glad we did. 

Since spring, I’ve been adding more native plants to the reserve. For the species we already have there, like the pawpaws, adding more specimens promotes healthy genetic diversity in their population. Pawpaws develop root suckers that grow into additional plants to form a “patch,” or colony. But all the members of a patch are clones that cannot cross-pollinate to produce fruit. So, if we want to keep this delicious native fruit coming, it’s important to introduce new ones near the colonies we already have .

I’m also adding a few additional native species, like wild geranium and woodland phlox, to fill in the blank spots on the canvas. I feel like they could have been growing here previously, but may have gotten trampled out by the cattle who used to visit the pond when part of this area was pasture. Adding new species that are likely to do well here will promote even more species diversity on the land that’s in our care.

I was raised by my father to take care of my tools. My Southern church-going mother taught me to take care of other living things. Both of them taught me that we were put on this earth to care for it and be good stewards of its natural resources. And sometimes that means you have to make hard choices, such as which tree to cut.

I’ve always taken those lessons to heart and I carry them with me every day. But especially, when I spend time in the woods on our farm. That’s when I know, for sure, this is where I was meant to be. And exactly what I was meant to be doing.

Reliving History

Engineered Spirits - Misty Upper Field

Down on the Farm

I’ve been gardening in Tennessee for most of my life now and I am often asked how we grow food and flowers here without pesticides and other chemicals. I’ve been an advocate of organic methods for years and I try to get better at living that way all the time. But one thing that often strikes me about these conversations is that there seems to be a general perception that ideas like companion planting, making compost, collecting rainwater, etc. are new ones. 

Growing up in rural Tennessee in the 70s, we did all those things. They were practices that my mother taught me and her parents had taught her, and their parents had taught them. Even when I was a teenager, our family didn’t have access to bagged potting soil and mulch, power tools, or modern pesticides and fungicides. Those conveniences were just plain expensive. So instead we pushed around our wheelbarrows of aged manure, compost and leaf mould to improve the soil, mulched when we had leaves or straw to use, and hoed the weeds that came up when we didn’t. Most of the time we handpicked any bugs that were eating our vegetables. Sevin dust was available at the co-op, but we avoided using it because we felt it must be bad for the butterflies and bees. We knew we needed those to pollinate our fruit trees. We harvested our produce by hand, cooked it, canned it, or froze it, and then saved the seeds of cherished varieties to keep them going.

It was a lot of work, but I remember it fondly, because time spent shelling peas or shucking corn was also family time. I guess it was not so very different from the techniques people had used for centuries here to grow food to eat and flowers to enjoy, in the years before Home Depot, Walmart or Amazon.

So, what we’re doing at the farm is not so much trying something new, as it is returning to something older. We’re using the resources we have there already, or that we can get locally for free. 

Even though we’ve got a lot to do before the distillery can open its doors, you can already see these ideas slowly taking shape all over the farm. We could have torn down Papa’s old workshop, but instead we’re going to renovate it and use it as our headquarters. The old trench silo will have a new life as our barrel storage house. We’re restoring the spring house to its bygone glory. The trees that have fallen down over the years will now decompose in our permaculture beds, nourishing the farm’s clay soil for our botanicals. To reduce how much we have to mow, we’re planting a wildflower meadow in the orchard. In a few years, we hope we can just mow the paths and leave the rest tall. And so on and so forth. 

We realize we won’t always be able to accomplish everything we want in the way we want to, and many of our projects are going to take even longer to complete than they would if we just did the convenient thing. But these are our guiding principles. And that’s why the projects I mentioned are already underway. Because, when it comes to making a long-term change, there’s no time to start like the present.

We’re mindful of that present and we’re looking forward to the future, but we’re also turning to the past for inspiration and wisdom, when people lived on their own land, within their own means, and bartered or bought the things they couldn’t produce themselves from neighboring farms and craftspeople. No matter how many mistakes our ancestors may have made in life, no matter how many things they got wrong, there are quite a few things they got right. And we’re here to celebrate that.