Red-Bellied Snake

While moving some stone and bricks around back of the house, I found a snake. Not an uncommon find but always a favorite. It was a small snake, maybe ten inches long and about as fat around as my little finger.

Seems like every small snake gets called a Garter Snake. Which isn’t surprising since there are about a bazillion different varieties and it’s most widely-distributed snake in North America. But this was actually a Red-Bellied Snake. It took a little digging to identify correctly but the differences are interesting. And pretty obvious when you know what to pay attention to.

A great little snake to have around.

A great little snake to have around.

* Red-Bellied Snakes are typically 8 to 16 inches long, making them smaller than Garter Snakes which run 18 to 50 inches. This also means a Red-Bellied has fewer rows of scales along its body than a Garter.

* Red-Bellied Snakes tend to be plain brown, gray or black with – yes – a bright red belly. Or orange or yellow, sometimes black. Red-bellies also have faint stripes running along the ridge of their backs, with three light-colored spots on their collars. Color can vary so greatly in Garters that I won’t even try to sum it up. Ask Google, look at photos, much better.

* A Red-Belly’s head is more blunt and rounded. A Garter’s head tends to be a little more arrowhead-like.

* A Red-Bellied Snake has eyes that look like copper rivets whereas the round pupil and iris are obvious in the Garter’s eye.

And now for a fun Herpetology Geek Fact: Both snakes have keeled scales. Look really, really closely and you’ll see that most of their scales have a little ridge running up the middle. This gives both the Red-Bellied and the Garter a rougher look and feel than snakes with smooth scales.

Keeled scales

Keeled scales

I fully understand that many folks get the same visceral skeeved out feeling with snakes that I get with spiders. But both are great creatures to have around because they eat the critters that can cause damage and need to be kept in check. The Red-Bellied Snake in particular eats worms, insects, and slugs.

Which is excellent because the little bastard gastropods have been doing a number on my recently transplanted Lacinato kale. Not cool.

Additional Info:
National Audubon Society, Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians

UMass Extension, Snakes of Massachusetts: Scales, retrieved from

Categories: garden, Living Closer, wildlife | Leave a comment

Why the Fly

Flies: the swarming associates of death, decay, and stinking piles of poo.

The Lord in His wisdom made the fly,
And then forgot to tell us why.
~ Ogden Nash

And yet we’ve decided to purchase 5,000 Bluebottle flies for the farm.

The isolation cage

The isolation cage

We just recently set up an isolation cage: a large metal frame covered by very fine mesh. The cage covers carrots and some other crops to prevent undesirable cross-pollination from pollinating insects. Why? Because carrots can easily cross with Queen Anne’s Lace – a wild carrot – and produce seeds that will grow into who-knows-what when planted in the future. Not cool. And the same is true for the other crops: they could cross in ways that would make their seed unreliable.

But carrots – and the other crops – still need to cross-pollinate with each other to produce seed. And they rely on insects to accomplish this. If we want to get any seed at all, we have to fill the cage with insects that will get the work done.

Hence the 5,000 Bluebottle flies.

Flies are incidental pollinators: they just like to sit on stuff and, as they buzz about sitting on different plants, they transfer pollen. Bees, on the other hand, are intentional pollinators: they’re actually moving from flower to flower looking for pollen. Why flies and not bees in the cage? Flies are way easier to manage.

I don’t know if this is what God had in mind when he made the fly. But it works for us.

Categories: Finding Fruition, garden, insects, Living Closer, seed, wildlife | Leave a comment

Wolf Spider

Matt Kelly,

Wolf Spider

This week I started pulling back the leaf mulch from the raised beds to prep them for another season of tomatoes. And out from beneath the leaves scurried a Wolf Spider. Not a big one – maybe an inch in total length – and tan.

Most of those giant spiders in the movies that creep out of the darkness to nab people and hobbits are based on Wolf Spiders, both in general appearance and behavior.

Egg sack

Egg sack

Wolf Spiders burrow into earth or garden detritus – like leaves – and wait to ambush passing insects. They’ll also lay their eggs in these burrows. Wolf Spiders don’t spin a web to capture prey but they do make a web sphere around their eggs. Some spiders of this variety even carry the sphere on their abdomens until their young hatch; the little spiders then ride on the mother’s back until they are mature enough to scurry off on their own

This is what I found while working in the high tunnel at the farm. I was relaying row fabric when a Wolf Spider – a big, honkin’ one – scurried out from underneath. Total length was about three inches. Dark brown and mottled. Yeeesh.

It doesn’t matter how big or small a spider is – or that I could crush it in a single blow – I always get this visceral skeeved-out feeling when one surprises me. Their motions and appearance are so different from bigger creatures.

But I’m happy to have them in any growing space I’m working. There are plenty of leaf-chewing, sap-sucking, stem-boring pests they can take care of.

Big, honkin' Wolf Spider

Big, honkin’ Wolf Spider

Categories: garden, insects, Living Closer, wildlife | 2 Comments

Living Closer

Common house spider

Common house spider

Since moving to this little piece of earth, I’ve come to appreciate what it means to live closer to this world we’re part of. But this season is bringing me even closer. Expanding food production at home and working another season at the farm is putting me elbow-deep in the soil on a constant basis and nose-to-nose with all kinds of organisms from the family Tibi Sensus Reptationis: insects and spiders, worms and snails.

Pollinators like bees and butterflies get all the glory, and rightfully so. Worms also get their due recognition. But any healthy growing space is teeming with countless other forms of creeping, crawling life. What about them?

The best thing has been to let her be.

The best thing has been to let her be.

There’s this little bit of Western hubris that has a tendency to get us into trouble: we seem to believe – both collectively and individually – that if we don’t like something, we can just get rid of it. Squish it, stomp it, pick it up and toss it out. As long as the thing we don’t like is gone, everything’s okay. In some cases, this is true and exactly what you should do. But in other cases, it’s complete wrong. How do you decide what’s the best? With a genuine understanding of what these creatures are and what they do? Or by “eew, gross”?

In a corner of my bathroom window is a little brown common house spider. She’s lived there all winter long, through the fierce cold and brutish winds that hammered that side of the house. As far as I can tell, she’s lived her whole life between the double panes. Her web, her paper-like egg sacks, and the detritus of her prey fill this small corner. Eew, gross. Not a pretty sight at all.

But take time to look past the gut reaction and you’ll notice something: this spot is clearly an entry point for insects. The various shells of the spider’s kills are evidence of that. These insects would be an annoyance at the very least, genuine and destructive pests at their worse.

What seems to have worked out best for both of us is simply to let her be.

Categories: garden, insects, Living Closer, wildlife | Leave a comment


Matt Kelly,

Biennials are crops that take two years to reproduce.

Which means you need to exercise a bit of fore-thought and planning when it comes to growing your own seeds for things like cabbage, carrots, and onions.

Biennial crops grow vegetatively during their first season. They store lots of carbohydrates in their leaves, roots, or bulbs respectively. Which is why these parts of the plants taste so good. Of course, if our plates don’t get in the way, these stores of carbohydrates will be used as food for seed in the second season. The plants want to produce as much seed as possible, as quickly as possible.

The key to seed production in the second year is vernalization: a period of cold temperatures that will prompt flower development. In the natural cycle of things, this period of cold is technically called Winter. In the more contrived process of a seed farm, the period is called a walk-in cooler.

Calibos cabbage

Calibos cabbage

At the end of last season, we harvested Calibos cabbage, Dragon carrots, and Rossa di Milano onions with our friends and collaborators at Blue Heron Farm. We packed the vegetables securely in clean sawdust and over-wintered them in the cooler at Blue Heron. Harvesting and storing the crops – instead of just leaving them in the ground – serves two important purposes.

First, we can be certain that the crops will be safe and secure for the second season. Leave them in the ground as Nature would do it and you run the risk of loosing your crops to rot, rodents, or other uncontrollable factors.

In the ground and ready for their second season.

In the ground and ready for their second season.

Second, pulling these vegetables out of the ground let us make an initial round of selections for color, shape, and size. There’s absolutely no reason to put time or energy into saving vegetables we don’t want to reproduce the following season.

When we pulled the crops out of the cooler early this spring, there was a second round of selection. The only crops going into the ground are those in excellent condition. How the cabbage, carrots, and onions looked on the outside was important: good color and no rot. But looking inside was important too, so we cut open the onions and carrots. We were looking for onions with only a single growing point and carrots with the most robust color of orange. Cutting open the carrot also let us do the all-important taste test.

Admittedly, it feels weird to cut open plants that you plan to put in the soil. But there are some counter intuitive benefits. Cutting away the leaves of the cabbage make it easier for the apical bud to emerge and grow. The same is true for cutting an onion in half and planting the round bottom portion. Cutting the tip off a carrot at a diagonal allows for better contact with the soil. And one more taste test before planting.

Biennials are crops that take two years to reproduce. Which means we’re only half way to our intended goal. But so far, so good.

We’ll see what these particular vegetables still have to teach us this season.

Matt Kelly,

Categories: Finding Fruition, food, garden, seed | Leave a comment

Last Loaf

Flour, corn meal, salt, and black pepper.

Flour, corn meal, salt, and black pepper.

Today was my last day in training as an intern with the Bredi Masters over at Small World. A good day to make one final round of bread, to see what I’ve learned. Let’s make a loaf of sour dough.

“The starter will need to rise for about twelve hours,” says Rachel. “Overnight.”

Crap. So let’s make a loaf of… something else.

“I’ve been wanting to retest the recipe for our farmhouse maize,” says Nathan.

An excellent choice. A hearty bread made with cornmeal, black pepper and pickled garlic scapes. Let’s do it. But looking at the formula sheet, the farmhouse needs an overnight start too.

“It’s just yeast,” says Rachel. We can increase the quantity to do a same-day start. Drop in a little sugar, too, to feed the yeast and give it a boost. “I’d use maple syrup.”


The formula sheet only gives quantities for one loaf or dozens of loaves. We want just “a few”; there’s some number jiggering that needs to happen. And the real question is how much yeast to use.

“More,” says Rachel.

Yeah, I got that. What kind of more are we talking about?

Turbo-charged yeast.

Turbo-charged yeast.

There’s a thoughtful pause. Rachel is focused on the numbers. I’m thinking we should double the total amount but Rachel says, “5 grams instead of 4 grams.”

Done: yeast, water and maple syrup mixed and set aside while the rest of the ingredients are measured out. White flour, corn meal, salt and pepper in one bowl. Oil and water in another. The scapes sit in a little cup of their own.

“This seems like a really wet mixture,” says Rachel, looking at the formula sheet again. Specifically, looking at the percentage of water in comparison to the other ingredients. And again, a thoughtful pause. “Well, it’s easier to add flour than water. Put it all in and see what happens.”

Fifteen minutes later, the yeast mixture has risen into a bubbly dome.

“Oh yeah,” says Rachel when I show her. “That’s sponging up nice.”

Getting mixed.

Getting mixed.

All the ingredients go into the small mixer and the kneeding begins. Dry ingredients, the yeast, the liquids, the scapes.

And after a good mixing, it looks like bad, dry dirt. Chunky, dusty

“You should add more water,” says Rachel, passing by.

Yeah, I got that.

“This is why I wanted to test the recipe,” says Nathan.

“I told you our flour is really thirsty stuff,” says Rachel to both of us.

Adding more water means keeping track of exactly how much the more is. So I weigh out an additional bowl of water, keep adding a little until the dough turns to the right consistency. Then it’s a matter of backwards math by measuring the remaining water in the bowl.

Kneeding by hand goes well. The dough window-panes very nicely.

“You got a tear there,” says Rachel, pointing to spot on the ball of dough. The gluten strands are clearly stressed. “Let it sit and rest for half and hour.”

Which just means flipping the mixing bowl on top and walking away.

Folded gently.

Folded gently.

Thirty minutes later, the dough looks better; the tear has healed. I gently fold the dough on itself a few times. It goes back in the mixing bowl and is covered for the rise. Which takes two uneventful hours. Shaping the dough and proofing the loaves go smoothly as well. Even scoring goes quick and looks slick.

But then it’s time to put the loaves in the oven.

We use the smaller conventional oven when it’s only three trial loaves like this. And the regular baking trays don’t fit in. Which I discover as I’m ready to put the bread in. After quickly sizing up the different pans in our kitchen menagerie, the best solution is just to throw the sil-pads straight on the racks and bake.

325° F for thirty minutes, right?

Nathan stops working on his laptop, looks over the screen at me; he responds with calm patience and subtle guidance. “You know, if everything was right and good in the universe, people would start their bread at 400° F for the first ten minutes and then take it down to 300° F for the rest of the bake.”

Thank you, Master. This padawan appreciates the reminder.

Loaves, ready to go in.

Loaves, ready to go in.

In goes the bread, stepping through the temperatures and times as suggested. Less than half an hour later, the timer beeps as a reminder to take it back out. But the internal temperature of the bread itself will have final say on whether or not it’s done.

The thermometer has been stuck on Celsius for about a month. Our solution has been a little mental math and a lot of googling the conversion. But we should be able to get this cheap Chinese-made widget to do what we want it to. I mean, there’s only two buttons on the thing, and one’s for turning it on and off. How hard could it be?

Apparently hard enough keep us using math tricks and the interweb for a month. But the immediate pressure of my last loaves rapidly cooling on the counter are what gets us over the hump. I figure out the correct sequence of button pushing and stick the probe in a loaf.

195° F, on the low end of the ideal temperature range, but I’ll take it. The crust of the bread is looking perfectly golden. Not really feeling the need to push it to burn for the sake of five more degrees.

After cooling on the rack for a bit, the loaves are ready to test. To eat.

“Let’s do it.” Nathan jumps up from his computer, mid keystroke.

The farmhouse maize slices well. It’s hearty and thick. You can taste the cornmeal and pepper and scapes. Excellent.

“It’s got great consistency. It held together really well,” says Nathan. Which was the problem with previous runs of this bread: the dough just didn’t hold its shape when formed or baked. Nathan grabs a third slice and heads back to his computer.

As great as these loaves turned out, this bread shows the same odd feature that’s shown up in every loaf I’ve baked so far: when sliced, the texture and cells at the very bottom are flat. They’re not robust and fluffy like the rest of the rest of the loaf.

This padawan still has some work to do.

“So what have you learned about bread in your time here?” asks Rachel as we each clean up from our projects for the day.

Baking bread is never a mindless routine. And it never should be mindless, not if you want to get something more than just a Participation Award. As humans, we’re fans of certainty; we’ve evolved to minimize chaos through routine and formula. But bread is never certain: the flour, the water, the temperature, any number of a dozen factors can deflect the results from what you’re aiming for. Standardization makes things efficient but it can undermine effectiveness; it can be a crutch that weakens instead of making us stronger.

Bread – and food – should always be a thoughtful endeavor. No matter how much you think you’ve learned.

May the Loaf be with you.

Matt Kelly,

Categories: baking, bread, food, Getting Breaducated | 1 Comment

Stupid bread

Even stupid bread requires being smart.

Even stupid bread requires being smart.

Rachel has ideas. New things to make and bake and create. Like bialys.

A flat breakfast roll that has a depressed center and is usually covered with onion flakes. Yiddish, short for bialystoker, from bialystoker of the city Bialystok in Poland. First known use: 1965.
~ Mirriam-Webster

It’s a simple bread to make.

“It’s a stupid bread to make,” she says, gathering the ingredients. “There’s no sourdough, there’s no overnight soaker, there’s no long rise and proof. There’s nothing about this bread that’s exciting in character.”

Which is why Rachel makes a daring decision.

“I’m going to add rye flour to this recipe.”

Bold. Very bold.

“I love the flavor and texture of rye.”

But rye can do weird things to a recipe. Rye flour seems to hold a lot of moisture; loaves get really dense. It always leaves you wondering if the bread is completely done. And this isn’t what Rachel wants for her bialys.

“I want them to be light and flakey.”

Here’s another thing about rye flour: it has way less potential for gluten development than wheat flour. And gluten is the key to baking some great bread.

“There is actually no gluten in flour,” says Rachel, working the small mixer. “There are the proteins glutenin and gliadin, which – when hydrated and mashed up in dough – become the gluten strands.”

Gluten strands are what allow the bread to rise; they’re what allow bialys to be light and flakey. The yeast in a bread recipe consumes sugar and produces carbon dioxide. It’s this gas that makes the dough get puffy and airy. But only if the gluten strands are strong and stretchy like a balloon; they trap the gas in the dough. Kneading is the key to producing strong strands of gluten; the longer you knead, the better the strand develop. If you pay attention, you can actually see them form as you work the dough.

“Unless you build enough gluten in the dough another way, rye can get in the way of all of that.”

Rachel is focused on her experiment: mixing, testing, taking notes, and mixing some more. What’s the best ratio of rye to wheat flour? How much water is ideal? How long should she knead the dough?

Even stupid bread can require a fair bit of smarts.

Categories: baking, bread, food, Getting Breaducated | Leave a comment

Back at it

Lacinato kale

Lacinato kale

First day back at the farm. First day back in the soil.

It was a full day in the hoop house. Spinach and kale have been growing all winter, becoming bigger, bolder and more lush than we anticipated. But so had the weeds.

So we spent the day working the scuffle hoe along the hilled sides of beds, up and down along the paths between them. We spent the day on hands and knees, scuffling the triangular blade of a hand hoe around the plants. Driving fingers into the soil to grasp and pull the roots of stubborn weeds.

Then we moved on to thinning and rogueing. The greens haven’t suffered much attrition from the cold and remain packed almost as tight as they were sown. But there are signs of rot. The greens need space for air to move, for moisture to evaporate, for the strong to expand. We pull plants with damage; we remove plants that aren’t showing the traits we want. We pull perfectly good plants just to create breathing space where necessary.

Everything is tossed into a yellow bin. To be tossed into salads and scrambled eggs and other savory dishes at some later time. These plants still have purpose.

In the middle of summer, this kind of work will be met with groans. It will feel like punishment. But right now, as we all strain to make it through these last waning days of winter, any reason to be down close to the bare, warm earth with hands deep is absolutely welcome.

It is the perfect task.

Matt Kelly,

Categories: Finding Fruition, food, garden, seed | Leave a comment

Sauerkraut: round one

Not impressed with the first batch.

Not impressed with the first batch.

I started my first batch of sauerkraut six weeks ago.

A brand new three-gallon crock. Three large heads of Copenhagen cabbage, chopped roughly in a food processor. Two percent the weight in salt, added as each clump of cabbage was layered into the crock. All of it mashed down with a fist, held down and sealed from the outside world with a trash bag of water.

Fermenting in the corner of a back room. A cold room because of this burst of bitter winter weather we’ve had. I kept a space heater running next to the crock to mitigate the cold for both me and the kraut. I checked it weekly, looking at the color and tasting little bits I pinched off the top. The change was obvious.

And this week I dug out the first kraut to put in a jar in the fridge. To eat.

But the taste is less than stellar. The kraut is sour but not kick-ass tangy. There’s something off about the flavor. And the kraut is dry. No juice or brine. This first round just isn’t what I expected. Or want.

So I brought some for Nathan to try. Get his opinion.

“Haven’t you been fermenting this for like seven weeks?”

Six, man. Just try it.

More. Still fermenting.

More. Still fermenting.

Nathan opened the jar and pinched off a bit from the top. He chewed on the kraut, thoughtful and attentive. He scooped out more, chewed it.

“I think it tastes okay.”


“It’s kind of lemony.” I guess that’s one way to describe the off-flavor. “It tastes alright.”

But not great.

So what’s the problem? Was it the type of cabbage I used? Was the cabbage too dry, not fresh enough? Should I have topped it with water in the crock to make sure it was really briney? Should I have used more salt? Did the cold room or variation in temperatures affect something?

“Maybe just chalk it up to the magic that is fermentation.”

Maybe. But I really don’t like mysterious food.

Categories: fermenting, food, food storage, Getting Breaducated | 2 Comments

Important reminders

The beating heart of life.

The beating heart of life.

Sleep. Eat. Poop. Repeat.

This is what life is like for the chickens during these cold, dark winter months. Not much to report at all.

Not many eggs to gather either. Which is disappointing in both the kitchen and the wallet: investing time, energy, and money into the birds and getting only empty egg cartons in return.

But this is just the way things are. Food is seasonal. It comes and goes in cycles.

Back in the fall the chickens started to molt and the egg slowdown began. Compounded with shorter days and colder temps, their productivity naturally slowed to just a handful of eggs a week. On a good week.

But over the past month, things have changed. Two eggs a day have been appearing in the coop, sometimes three. I’ve even started hearing the familiar bawking of birds as they lay.

I keep myself cautiously optimistic. Could we be returning to the season of eggs? Who knows? Many things have started to change over these past few weeks.

Daylight coming earlier in the morning and staying later in the evening. It’s made caring for the birds, moving wood for the stove, and clearing snow much more convenient. No headlamp required. But the coldest temps of the winter have set in, the wind has been more pissed off. The last cans of tomatoes and peaches have disappeared from the pantry. And the frozen peppers and strawberries are down to the last few bags.

None of this good nor bad. Just reminders of the passage of time.

Small reminders. Things that can seem inconsequential when you live constantly surrounded by light and heat and abundance, disconnected from the natural rhythms of the world around us. The rhythms that our bodies intuitively know and crave.

But these are, in fact, the most meaningful reminders and changes. Together they are more than the sum of their individual selves. They are the beating heart of life, just like swaying trees and swirling snow are the wind.

Food is seasonal, it comes and goes. This is what life is like. And eggs are on their way back.

Categories: chickens, food, food storage, garden, waxing philosophic | Leave a comment

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