What I don’t know about living off the land, in all its variations, fills entire libraries.
During my “due diligence” period prior to buying my mountain property, I wanted to know as much as I could about the land on which I intended to live. What was the history of the place, its stories? Would the parcel yield enough water to live on? Was the soil conducive to holding foundations for dwellings firm? What kinds of beneficial plants were already growing there and could be foraged for food or medicine? If I did grow crops, which ones would grow best?
Lee Barnes, the water dowser had answered my questions about a viable well and provided me with soil surveys specific to the area, as well as some of the lore from its former Cherokee inhabitants. But I wanted to know more, not only about what was already growing but about what I might grow in the future. So I reached out and engaged the experts from the County Cooperative Extension.
Invasive Species in My Mountain Paradise
“You’ve got some miscanthus here,” Ross told me, pointing to a tall, ornamental grass I’ve seen growing everywhere, covering the mountain hillsides. “There’s not much, but it spreads fast, so you might want to dig up what’s growing in the sun,” he suggested.
Ross Young and Elizabeth Ayers from the Madison County Cooperative Extension were all I could have hoped for in guides. Not only were they willing to share their extensive knowledge of the area, they were a joy to spend time with — entertaining storytellers who laughed freely. And it didn’t hurt that they delighted in my Bodhi, who frequently interrupted his own exploring to lean on one or the other of them and get his ears scratched.
As we walked, I learned that the thorny bushes crowding out the native wild berries is multiflora rose. Introduced to the U.S. from Japan as an easy-to-grow alternative to livestock fence, multiflora rose aggressively spreads from seeds, crowns, and tips of branches touching and taking root in the ground. Another invasive from Japan, stilt grass, grows with fervor along the tractor road. “Long ago, it was used as a packing material for imported goods,” Elizabeth explained.
The list of invasives went on. Bittersweet vine, its shiny black berries loved by crafters who use it to make wreaths, spreads from tree to tree in the forest canopy. Mimosa trees, planted as an ornamental for its fern-like leaves and fluffy, aromatic pink flowers, produce hundreds of tiny seeds which can wait, dormant in the soil, for years before sprouting. I silently wondered how I’d ever win a containment battle, much less an eradication war. (I later learned new perspectives about opportunistic abundance as part of the strategy.)
Tree Diseases Reshaping the Forest
Invasive plants aren’t the only issue plaguing the property. As we walked, Ross taught me about an infestation known as HWA, or hemlock woolly adelgid — an insect which, like many of the invasive plants on the property, came from East Asia. While the tall pines on the parcel struggle with the pine beetle rampantly infesting most of the mountain forests, the eastern hemlocks are dying from HWA.
“Hemlock trees are shade-tolerant,” Ross explained. “I can tell your trees are sick because they should have needles even on the lowest branches, and these are bare.”
“Here,” Elizabeth said, holding out a twig from a nearby hemlock sapling. “This is what’s killing your hemlocks.” The signs of the deadly insect are beautiful — a silvery, woolly tuft of fluff excreted by the bugs clings like fairy-cotton between the dark, green needles.
There are a few chemical spot-treatments available, varying in expense and difficulty of application. Because I’d like to eliminate the use of chemicals as much as possible, these treatments aren’t appealing to me. However, in a well-contained area of national forest land, a small lady beetle has been experimentally released to eat the woolly adelgid.
“We’re waiting for the results,” Ross told me. “So far, it looks hopeful, but it won’t be available to land owners for a long time.” It wouldn’t be in time to save my mature trees, but seedlings dot the understory. Their future might be more hopeful. In the meantime, Ross kindly provided me with the Hemlock Restoration Initiative’s contact information so I can further educate myself (and others!) about HWA.
Hidden Treasures and Hopeful Signs
“Ohhh…” Elizabeth smiled and gently grasped a nearby tree branch. “Copper beech. These are one of my favorites. You can tell them apart from birch because their simple veins all align with teeth at the edges of the leaves. See?” She pointed to a leaf on the branch she held and, sure enough, all of the veins followed the mid-rib out to the points on the leaf, with no branching. Elizabeth also told me that the smooth bark of the beech invites carving into it, which earned it the nickname of “message tree.”
Elizabeth and Ross identified poplars, hawthorns, oaks, and hollies. Ross expressed surprise about the biodiversity. The land had listed as “young pine forest,” but didn’t hint at the variety of other trees and shrubs growing on the property. After the disappointing reality of pine beetle and HWA plaguing my trees, that variety was a cause for celebration — the forest would continue to thrive, even if its shape and character changed with the growth of healthier species.
Every so often, the pair paused to point out a new treasure. Tiny orchids, rare medicinals, a variety of ferns. The pretty little ground cover with the bright red berries is partridge berry. The tall stalk with the plump seed pods might be a lady slipper. The stripe-leafed plant is, indeed, a wintergreen. Over there, an orchid called “rattlesnake plantain.”
And, of course, the large patches of slow-growing crowsfoot, leaping and splashing like a bubbling green flood over the gentle contours of the forest floor.
Soil Samples: Science to Grow By
As they prepared to go, Ross and Elizabeth handed me a sheet of paper with Ross’ contact information typed onto it and a stack of flat cardboard boxes. “These are for soil samples,” Ross explained. “Just follow instructions on the sheet and on the boxes, and send them in to this address.” He pointed to a couple of lines in the upper left corner on the front of the paper. “Email me when the report comes in,” he continued, “and Elizabeth or I will be happy to go over the report with you. They can be a little hard to follow.”
I was thrilled at the prospect of learning more about my soil. I knew the acidity would be high because of all the pines, and Ross had pointed out a couple of places where blueberries would thrive. But I’d want to grow more than blueberries, and knowing how to amend the soil on different parts of the property would eliminate a lot of guesswork. I couldn’t wait to get started.
“And one more thing,” Ross paused, smiling at me. “Pay attention to the trees they knock down when they grade your road. You have enough different tree species and shade that mushrooms could be your first cash crop.”
WHAT?! A cash crop? I’d been focused on subsistence, on growing my own food, not on selling crops to anyone else.
“Shiitake mushrooms grow well in oak,” he continued. “But oyster mushrooms like poplar,” he said and pointed to a tree by the side of the tractor road. “That’s a poplar, and it’s ready to come down. You want to try get them while they’re dormant, if you can.”
“The Field and Forest catalog sells mushroom spawn,” Elizabeth told me, grinning at my excitement. “We’ll come back and show you how to inoculate logs when you’re ready. It’ll be something to grow while you’re shaping up the rest of the soil for other crops.”
With final ear rubs for Bodhi and hearty handshakes all around, the two got into Ross’ truck and drove away, leaving me dizzy with new possibility. This adventure of mine wasn’t going to be easy, but something told me it would be worth the effort.
Ross Young is Director of Extension Services for the Madison County Center of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension.
Elizabeth Ayers is an Agriculture Extension Agent (Local Foods) for the Madison County Center of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension.
Together with the rest of their team, they work with small farmers, homesteaders, and gardeners to help them better understand and optimize the land they’re working and the crops they grow.
You can learn more about North Carolina State University’s Cooperative Extension at https://www.ces.ncsu.edu/.
To learn more about chemical approaches to treating HWA, download this PDF from the Hemlock Restoration Initiative of Western North Carolina. Please note that all resources mentioned in the guide are local to that region. HRI General HWA Treatment Info_Nov2016
This post originally appeared on my creative writing blog, Small Conceits. Because my journey to what will become my mountain home involves a different kind of storytelling, I’ve moved these posts here to retain and extend the narrative without muddying the waters on Small Conceits.