A bit about us...

We are a modern family of three, living on less than two acres with a 3,000 square foot garden that meets our produce needs and allows us to share with friends and neighbors. Our laying flock of chickens seems to expand each year as we raise chicks each Spring to replace older hens. This blog is more of a journal, if you will, for us to chronicle and share our experiences in the yard, garden and kitchen. It is our hope that along the way a few folks might learn something, be entertained, or simply enjoy sharing in our stories and the lessons we learn on a daily basis. I named the blog after the times when I am the happiest, when I am elbow deep in earth.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Side effects can be distressing

Everyone has experienced the negative side effects of medication at some point in their lives. Nausea, weight gain, headaches, the list is endless.   We come to expect some side effects to simply be a consequence of the need for medication.

The same can be said for some aspects of life.  For instance, living outside the confines of the city, what some would call "the country," has it's own set of side effects.  On remote and some not-so-remote roads, people dump trash and televisions and the like along side the road.  I simply can't imagine where they think the stuff is going to go, it certainly won't biodegrade and it isn't going to be picked up by the junk fairy.  Nevertheless, people don't think, and they dump things along side the road anyway.

Since living in my house (off and on for the last 8 years or so), I had not encountered the side effect that has begun plaguing me until recently.

"The Beav" napping, days after he adopted us - MAY
One evening in May, I was headed out to put the chickens to bed when a cat scooted out from under the rabbit hutches and ran a short way. I clapped my hands and tried to shoo him away.  Instead, he ran under the wheel barrow and cried at me as though I had scared him.  He followed me around and refused to leave, spending evenings crying on my porch.  I took him to the vet, only to find that he had been neutered and released in my area with FIV.  FIV is the feline AIDS virus.  He CANNOT come in contact with my healthy house cats, or he could infect them.  The vet wanted to put him down immediately, but I protested.  I took him to the humane society, hoping they could help him find a forever home.  They informed me that they would not adopt him out, but they would not put him down either.  Essentially, they would treat him medically, vaccinate him, and release him back in the "area in which he was found" (at my house).  I resigned myself to this fact and made him a home in a separate part of my house, where my house cats are not permitted.  He lives happily here and has put on weight, grown his fur back and become a playful and loving kitty.  Cats can live relatively long and happy lives with FIV, although often shorter lives that healthy cats.  Secondary infections are the main cause of death in these cats.  So, as long as we can keep him healthy and happy, he can have a good life.

Rain eating one of his first meals - JUNE
In June, another cat showed up... this one very vocal and a little more shy.  Like the first, it was thin, and was apparently blind in one eye, but not unfriendly or mean.  I was certain it was a girl, until the vet told me otherwise.  It spent several days watching me from a distance before deciding to follow me everywhere I went in the yard, including the chicken coop.  We decided to let him audition as a mouser in the coop, since the chickens didn't seem to mind him and he paid them no attention as well.  We had been telling him to "go away" without results, so Lexi decided we should name him "Rain" as in "Rain, Rain, go away...."  She is such a doll!  I loved the name, so it stuck.

I went to a different vet with this cat, as I was VERY unhappy with the way my previous vet had handled the situation with the last stray.  This time, the vet diagnosed the stray with Feline Leukemia.  Contrary to my previous experience, the new vet spent time telling  me about how cats with Leukemia can live a long happy life with proper care.  It was settled, Rain is our mouser.  He seems to really be happy with that...as he spends lots of time in the coop and never asks to come indoors.

Copy Cat - JULY
We shut him in the coop every night, feeding him then, for his own safety.  Raccoons are vicious and we don't want him fighting them, other cats or anything else.  In July, Rain didn't come home for dinner in the evening.  I called and called, but he did not come.  I worried all night.  The next day, I saw him wandering around by the raspberries at the bottom of our yard.  I called and called but he didn't respond.  Something seemed strange about him.  I walked down to make sure he was okay, when I discovered the cat I was calling to was NOT Rain.  We dubbed this one Copy Cat, since he looked SO much like Rain.  He didn't stick around, and Rain returned, thankfully.

I call him YoCinnamon Sam, S calls him Apple. :-) - OCTOBER
Here we are, in October, and another cat has been dumped. I was sitting outside this weekend, manning our garage sale and petting Rain, who was curled up in my lap. A simply gorgeous, smokey cinnamon colored cat wandered around the corner of the garage and right toward me.  I held Rain tightly, so as not to allow him to defend his yard.  I shut him in the coop and worked at trying to get near the stray.  I have been keeping Rain contained and working to build trust with the new one. I really want to get him into a travel kennel and get him to some medical help.  When he showed up, he had a wound on his left temple and appeared to have been neutered VERY recently, as in, maybe that Sunday.  His ear was freshly clipped and still bleeding from it.

I am just furious that someone would treat an animal this way, and release them in an unfamiliar area like this, to potentially starve to death or meet some horrible end by tangling with another animal.  I know that there is at least one, maybe several, groups participating in Trap, Neuter and Release programs, but they are not supposed to dump animals.  They are supposed to release them where they were captured.  What they are doing to these animals is inhumane.  I suspect ALL of the cats that we have seen were dumped in this manner.  Nearly all have been friendly, leading me to believe these are NOT feral cats, but were at one time house cats.  I also suspect, that maybe most of them have FIV or Leukemia and have been judged "unadoptable."  This may be why they are dumping them.  Whatever the circumstances, I find the whole thing distressing and disgusting.  Humanely releasing animals and dumping them are two different things entirely.

This is one side effect of living "in the country" that I find disheartening, distressing and disgusting.  I will do everything I can to find out who is behind this and put a stop to it.  These animals deserve a chance at life... not to be dumped hungry and alone, fresh after surgery into an unfamiliar place with no real shelter available.  If they believe what they are doing is the humane way of treating animals, they are dead wrong.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Zilke Vegetable Farm Stand

It is no secret that I love hanging out with the Zilke's and spending time shopping their farmstand.  Over Labor Day weekend, I had the privilege of helping them out at the stand on my two days off (Friday and Monday) in order to give them a little freedom on those days.  It was a welcome respite for me as well. I got to spend the days surrounded by gorgeous produce and in the company of some truly superb folks.  
Friday was a very hot day.  Nearly 100 degrees Farenheit, it was sweltering when there was no breeze. I can't say that I minded it in the least.  The customers were wonderful and gobbling up the corn as fast as we could stock it on the shelf.  It was interesting to watch folks choose what they wanted fresh for their holiday get-togethers.  Helping them find the right, fresh, delicious produce to make their meals special was a ton of fun and immensely rewarding.  

Chestnuts roasting over.... um... aluminum foil?

Forgive me for the lack of timeliness of this post.  We picked up the chestnuts a couple weeks ago, but I have been a bit under the weather as of late and not up to writing.  As I am finally beginning to feel better, I am going to work on catching up on what we have been up to lately!

Ok, so the best way to roast chestnuts really is over an open fire, but I didn't have that option. SO, I did it in my home oven.  Results - very good!

Recently, we stopped by Zilke's Farm Stand to say hello and see what was new.  There was something truly new arriving as we walked up - freshly harvested LOCALLY grown chestnuts.  The bonus - they are grown with out the use of chemicals and pesticides. They were just being delivered and could not have been more temptingly beautiful.  We waited patiently while they were weighed and packaged and took home a gorgeous pound of them to try.  I don't believe I have ever had chestnuts before, so I was excited to try them.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Canning fail... Can I get a Mulligan?

Home preservation isn't always successful.  Things happen.  Jellies don't set, jars don't seal, headspace is misjudged, ingredients get forgotten, recipes gets scorched... the possible fails go on and on.

I have been doing a tremendous amount of canning as of late and was bound to have a bad day eventually.  I decided to take care of two ingredients that were at risk of going bad one evening last week (Friday, if I remember correctly).  The green beans were overflowing and had more than filled a crisper drawer in the refrigerator.  They needed canned or would soon turn limp and mushy and not be suitable to eat.  I could not let the labor involved in growing and picking them be for naught, so I passed on dinner with friends to take care of them.  Mom, S and I prepped nearly ten pounds of beans and I got to work getting them in jars.  In my zeal to get them in the canner, I forgot to add the salt.  I immediately panicked, as I had never forgotten an ingredient like that and I am always a nervous mess anyway when I am using the pressure canner.  I posted on my canning mentor's facebook page, and later received reassurance that the beans would be fine, that they should simply be labelled as no salt.  Apparently in this case, the salt is just for flavor.  Anyone who knows me well, knows I do not like making mistakes.  Even small ones like this, I take rather personally.

While I was working on the beans, we were also scalding the most ripe peaches from a bushel I "accidentally" came home with.  I intended to pick up less than a peck, but when the orchard informed me that they had 4 pecks of seconds available, I could not help myself.  The ripest ones needed dealt with that day, so we prepped them for pie filling.  I have never made peach pie filling for canning before, so it was new to me.  Additionally, I had never worked with Clear Jel, so I was really setting myself up for trouble.  As the recipe went together, it seemed as though the Clear Jel was not working until, WHAM!, it set up like glue in the pot.  However, instead of looking like the beautiful pie filling in the pictures I had seen, it looked like a big pot of snot with some peaches in it.  Not only had it set up strongly in the pot, there were not nearly enough peaches in it.  I measured based on weight, according to the directions, but I see now that I need to make sure I have more peaches available while I work in case it doesn't seem like enough when it comes time to mix the fruit in.

As it hit its "WHAM" set up moment, it began bubbling violently in the pot.   I was stirring and trying to bump the heat back down when a big, thick, boiling glob flew up and hit my hand, burning me bad enough to blister.  There I stood, running cold water over a fried hand, thinking about my saltless beans in the canner (worried still as I had not yet been answered), and looking back toward the stove at pie filling that looked more like mucous than food.  It very much felt like a failed evening of canning.

The bright side is, the blisters weren't so bad from the burns, the beans will be fine and the pie filling clarified while processing, so it at least looks nice in the jars.  I will just add additional canned peaches when I make a pie with that filling.  It was a good lesson in canning for me.  I have had a fair amount of successes and needed a bit of humbling it would seem.  The wonderful thing about having trouble with canning is that you can always try again!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Canning Marathon #2

As I said in My First True Marathon, I seem to just have an ingrained need to can.  Each time, I forget the pain I will feel in my feet from standing for 12 hours at a time and the pruney fingers I will have from washing and preparing the harvest for preservation.  I lose sight of the potential for steam burns and the frustration from jam or jelly that just won't set.  Even if the memories are fresh, they take a back seat to the complete joy I feel seeing the colorful jars cooling on the counter and hearing the "plink" of metal lids sealing against their glass vessels.  It all fades away as I get into another weekend, packed with canning.

I had a very ambitious weekend the first time around, finishing 77 jars of tasty delights to add to the pantry.  I really never thought I would can more than that in a similar amount of time.  Much to my surprise, this weekend proved otherwise.  We canned a total of 89 jars in two days. Even more remarkable was that 74 of those were done on Sunday alone.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Kitchen science experiment

I read about it on Lou's Penny Pinchers Pantry Blog; making Sauerkraut at home.  It seemed easy enough and I thought it worth a try.  Since my cabbage never made it in the garden this year, I picked up a nice head from my favorite local produce stand.  Mom and I attempted to use my little mandolin to shred it, to no avail.  The enormous head of cabbage we chose just would not fit on the blade neatly.  As always, my ever helpful prep artist, Mom finely chopped that whole head of cabbage by hand.  I can see now why people invest in (or rig at home) full sized slaw slicers.

Monday, August 29, 2011

I planted garlic and got onions... What?!

I know that garlic is supposed to be planted in the fall.  I know that.  Unfortunately, I did not get any in the ground last fall.  I have had some luck planting it in the spring. The result is typically much smaller cloves, but they are tasty just the same.  I hoped for the same result this year.  I decided that I could accept smaller cloves if I could store some homegrown garlic for use as the weather gets colder.  When the leaves began to fall over and die on my garlic, I took my cue to dig up the precious little bulbs to investigate my bounty.  They nearly all looked uniform in size and beautifully round.  I was excited.  I cleaned them up, dried them out a bit and brought them in the house to use and store in my cool cellar.  I began peeling one to use when I discovered a couple of fairly major differences about my cloves.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Perfect? Please! Pshh....not so much

Most recipes and canning guides tell you to use ripe, firm fruit, cautioning that it not be too ripe, not under ripe, etc.  It seems like a tremendous amount of pressure for fruit perfection.  I cannot say that I have ever harvested a mess of perfect anything.  My beans, tomatoes, onions, berries, and the like are always less than perfect.  That is largely due to our refusal to use chemicals on our garden.  Consequently, we "share" with the common garden pests, leaving less than perfect produce.  The upside is that ours taste even better and the harvest is always chemical free.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Which Nightshade should I eat?

As is evidenced by my ramblings in Family Resemblance, I am a bit of nerd when it comes the garden, plants and preserving things.  When I see something I don't know about, I photograph it and/or research it until my heart is content with gobs of information swimming in my brain.

Poison Berry Blossoms
Plants of the "nightshade" family range from edible to extremely poisonous. They include plants such as potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos, eggplant, tobacco, petunias, datura and many more.  The botanical family name is Solanaceae, with the most common garden varieties falling into two genus's: Solanum and Physalis.  I was inspired to learn more about these plants as I noticed the similarities in blossoms during yet another walk through my garden and surrounding property.  I have a plant growing in the compost (needing to be pulled) and near the creek that my grandmother always referred to as "Deadly Nightshade."  In looking into the science side of this interesting family of plants, I discovered that this is not the accepted (although commonly used) name of the particular plant that grows in  my yard.  In fact, it is actually called poisonberry, bittersweet (much to my surprise), felonwood, and a host of other common names.  Its scientific name is Solanum dulcamara.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Family resemblance

In most families, you can see a resemblance from family member to family member. Pictures of me when I was little look shockingly similar those of my maternal grandmother when she was a similar age.

The same is true in the animal world, when it comes to similar species.  This concept carries over into the plant world as well.  The family Malvaceae is one that members of my family have long loved and didn't even know it!  My Grandma H. had a tropical hibiscus that she loved and tended to for years.  We used to think her silly, laughing at how she wrote down the date of each and every blossom, often noting the size of the bloom.  I now know it was with love and a sincere appreciation for each gift of beauty that she did so.  I am certain she never knew the family it belonged to, let alone all the beautiful cousins it had!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Babies having babies

It's proud moment for any parent when their offspring begin having babies (provided they wait until the right time in their lives).  :-)  Knowing the babies that you lovingly tended and cared for for so long have begun reproducing and bringing their babies to you... it's deeply rewarding.  I grew a number of plants from seed this year and they have finally begun making babies for me!  I guess you could say I am a proud "Gardenparent."

My once little cucumber seedlings are making pickling cukes for me, my yellow squash are bearing their fruit almost faster than we can pick and use it, and the tomatoes are finally getting ripe!  I have Athena Cantaloupe that will soon be ripe and ready and even my Orange Giant Amaranth is getting its plumes to make a delicious crop of grain for us.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

My first true marathon

In my recent internet travels, I happened upon a paragraph that really resonated with me. When it comes to the love of canning and preserving the harvest, I could not have said it better myself.  
From www.lifeinrecipes.com:

"I think for some of us there is an ingrained need, an inherited proclivity, to put food by. Not so much out of physical necessity or fear of running short of foodstores come winter, but because we have a genetic predisposition to do so. Whether it’s because we want to ensure the ability to eat local produce year-round, or because we are control freaks who need to know exactly what ingredients go into every little thing that we eat, when we see mounds of fruits and vegetables we immediately get excited at the prospect of standing over a hot stove in the high heat of August so that we can load our pantry shelves with gleaming glass jars of jams, jellies, tomatoes and other assorted foodstuffs. It may be hot, hard work, but for us the reward is far greater than the effort needed to achieve it."

This has to be the best explanation of the drive to preserve I have ever seen. I have tried and tried to explain it to folks, but have never been able to capture it quite like that! Now, this is important, as it explains my behavior this weekend. S and L were gone to visit his mother and that left me alone to play in the kitchen. I invited Mom up to have at it with me. We took a trip to the Saline Farmer's Market (as we do as a family every Saturday), and then headed toward Ann Arbor to the rather large Kerrytown Farmer's Market. On the way there, we thought better of dealing with the crazy crowds and decided to head back to the Saline Market for the ingredients we would need to do some canning. We picked up onions and bell peppers of a couple colors and made our way home.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Waste Not, Want Not: Part 2

"Waste Not, Want Not," was the motto of a very smart and practical generation (not my generation, unfortunately, and certainly not today's kids).  I am doing my part to adhere to this way of life, in small steps.  As I am learning to preserve my harvest, I am also looking for ways to make it go further yet, as I did with the cherry stones I wrote about last time.  One of the other by products of my jam/jelly spree was vanilla bean pods.  When I made the Rhubarb Cherry Vanilla Jam (hands down, my best jam ever - a very special thank you to www.sbcanning.com for such a treasure trove of outstanding recipes!), I used an actual vanilla bean, split down the middle.  The recipe calls for half a bean, but since I doubled the batch, I had a whole bean, cut in half, then split lengthwise and scooped out (for its delicious vanilla insides).  I could not bear to throw away the pod, so I filled a pint jar with sugar and slid the pod halves into it.  The result, a fragrant and flavorful jar of sugar.  When I am satisfied with this jar's intensity, I will likely put the pods into another jar until there is no more use for the pod. I might then feel compelled to slip the sugar coated, spent vanilla pod directly into my steaming coffee some morning, just in case there is any flavor left to be had!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Waste not, Want not: Part 1

I just can't bear to throw some things away, especially if it seems as though there is a perfectly good use for it.  My grandparents were aces at not wasting. They saved everything and made the most of it.  I aspire to their ingenuity in that regard. The difference is, I don't want to save everything, just what I can really use.  They had accumulated a lot of stuff that was apparently useless.  Here are a few examples of my more practical frugality in action.

When Mom was finished pitting the sweet cherries, there was a bounty of beautiful pits with bits of cherry flesh clinging to them. The bowl of pits smelled so delicious, with a solid note of almond.  I was inspired, thinking to myself that there must be a lot of flavor in those bits of fruit and pits.  What could I do with them?

Well, I have read that pits and seeds often contain a lot of pectin and that cherries canned with the pits take on a nutty flavor, so it seemed logical that I could boil the bits and pits to create a flavorful juice infusion for making jelly!  I looked online for a cherry stone/pit jelly recipe and was without luck. So, I made one up myself.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Gooseberries and black currants

Oops.  I went back to Wasem's.  The temptation was too much for me. It was my day off, it was supposed to rain most of the day and the orchard posted something on Facebook about opening new rows for U-Pick Currants and Gooseberries.  If I could just get out there between rain storms, it would be a good day to work in the kitchen with my loot when I got home!  It was hot, so I figured a little light rain would feel good anyway while I picked.  I just couldn't resist checking them out.  I looked at the radar and waited for what I perceived to be the right time between rain and...      I was off!

When I arrived at Wasem's, the woman pointed me in the direction of the new rows and gave me instructions on what to look for to get the best quality fruit.  I picked, it rained a while, it quit, it rained harder, I picked longer, this time under an umbrella I found in the car.  I don't recall the weight of the berries I picked, but it seemed like a nice amount to do something delicious with.  So, what to do with the spoils of my efforts?  I turned to the  magic of the internet for my answers.  Black currants are not as favored in the United States as red currants are, so I found the recipes significantly more limited.  The general consensus seemed that I either needed to make some type of scone-thing with them, or produce a sweet liquor.  Hmmmm.... We have a WINNER! :)  Liquor it is!

A day in the country for a couple of city folks

Last weekend we had the pleasure of hosting some friends, Z and N,  in our home for the better part of a day.  They are both from the city.  Originally from London and Los Angeles, let's just say they are not super familiar with a country lifestyle. :-) The thing I looked forward to the most was cooking for them.  We had gone to visit with them in the last couple months and they treated us to a traditional English Lamb Roast and accompanying delights such as Yorkshire pudding.  The meal was amazing!

It was very important to me, when they came to see us, to share with them a simple country meal to show them our "traditions."  Our intended menu included grilled chicken, beans and carrots fresh from the garden (also grilled), and maybe a cherry pie made with the tart cherries we just picked.  We also thought about fried zucchini cakes with feta cheese and maybe some potatoes.  An early morning trip to the farmer's market finalized the menu and we were off to a great start.  The four of us drove around the area, along the way sharing with them fields of wheat just being combined, others being baled.  The soy beans are struggling in many fields this year, but we introduced our friends to those as well as field corn (and what it looks like when it has been terribly dry).  Our drive passed by farms of varying sizes and functions (grain, cattle, etc.)  When we returned home we, of course, showed them the garden (weeds and all) :) and the laying flock.

While we were out on our tour of the area, Z mentioned that he would like to try venison some time.  PLAN CHANGE! :-)  As soon as we arrived home, I got started on dinner, thawing some venison backstrap to fry up for sampling.  It was such a hit, we decided to cook up rest of the backstrap and have it as a main course instead.    While it was thawing, we had a lovely chat and the guys started talking about the lawn.  Z had never ridden a lawnmower, so Shane, with his new found mastery of the mower, took Z out to the back yard to teach him how.  It was FANTASTIC!  He looked as delighted as Shane was the first time he rode it.

Our country meal came together nicely, consisting of venison, rosemary roasted potatoes, mixed fresh veggies from the garden, zucchini cakes and cherry cobbler.  I had hoped to have time to make a pie, but the cobbler was simpler and tasted amazing.  After dinner we taught them to play euchre (a card game most commonly played in the Midwest) and we thoroughly enjoyed a couple games.  It was an absolute pleasure to share our slower lifestyle with some city folks.  It was obvious that the way we live is very different from the pace and style of their city lives.  Whenever we have the opportunity to share our life and learn about the lives of others, we jump at the chance.  In this case, we were especially grateful to have the opportunity since these dear friends will soon be moving out of state with the ARMY and will not have the opportunity to visit often.  I must say, we are blessed to have such awesome friends.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Preserving the cherries and currants

Okay, so maybe it wasn't my NEXT entry, but here it is...

With close to 30 pounds of fruit ripe and ready to preserve, I needed to act quickly. As I said before, I immediately began freezing cherries as Mom pitted them.  I am not one to rely solely on freezing for preservation for several reasons.  First, if we lose electricity for an extended period, I will have a tremendous amount of food to eat very quickly, or I will lose it, if my harvest is primarily frozen.  Second, the life of frozen food is significantly shorter and less predictable than that of canned goods.  Third, frozen food continues to cost me money to keep it frozen.  Last, one only has a finite amount of freezer space and I try to reserve it for the food I HAVE to freeze such as surplus meat or produce I can not preserve in other ways, or  fast enough (like tomatoes when they ALL ripen at the same time).

I decided to try canning the cherries that were left after a large portion were frozen.  They look just beautiful in the jars, and I am hopeful they will be tasty when we need them. I used a light syrup (sugar water mixture) and canned them in quart jars.  They floated a little, which is to be expected since I raw packed them.  This means that I did not heat them before adding them to the jars, which would have released some air from them before canning.  Nevertheless, I am very happy with the results.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


I have picked my fair share of berries this season already, some might say.  Others would know it has just been the beginning.  I picked strawberries as they ripened in the yard, tart cherries, sweet cherries, red currants, black currants and gooseberries from the orchard, and tonight, I picked a nice mess of teaserberries.  I even have the scratches and "war wounds" from the canes to prove it.

These are, perhaps, my favorite berries of the whole summer.  Their season is short, opportunity is slim, and there are only a handful available when they ripen.  On top of that, they are most often hidden in the centers and at the bottoms of their thorny canes, making them a dangerous challenge to get to.  Are they worth it?  Good grief, YES! They are so sweet and delicious.  This season, they are even more plump and rosey than normal.  My hope is that the rest of the berries this season are as nice.

Now to decide what to do with them.  I could make teaserberry jam or jelly, but I think I have plenty of those made and in the works.  Teaserberry cobbler might be good, but I am not sure I have enough....  I suppose I will just pop them in the fridge and take them to work tomorrow to eat fresh and share with my coworkers.  I wonder if any of them has ever taken the time to pick teaserberries themselves.  I bet some of them have, they just call them by another name, the first raspberries of the season!  :-)

These are the early berries that ripen on the youngest canes.  The regular crop on mature canes will be ready in a month or so....  Until then, I will hunt and risk injury in search of the few, sweet, ripe teaserberries that lurk about beneath the already towering canes.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Tart (sour) cherries are in Season!

After sweet cherries, the next to be ready in the orchards are tart cherries.  Kapnick Orchards doesn't offer u-pick tart cherries, but thankfully, our more local favorite, Wasem's does!  We go to Wasem's every year for apple picking and I always think I will come back earlier in the season for their other treasures, but I never seem to make the time.  Not this year.  Tart cherries, gooseberries and currants all come into season quite close to one another, so it was time to make a visit. I had to work on the day picking opened, so I headed out with Mom to see what we could come up with on the second day.  We gathered up containers to pick into and arrived just after lunch.  At Wasem's, they have pre-weighed containers (buckets of all sizes) for picking, so we left ours in the car.  We selected two large buckets to collect our haul in, and two smaller buckets that would be easier for picking. (They also seemed logically sized for picking currants and gooseberries after the cherries.)

The first trees we came to were taller and more mature than the ones further into the orchard.  We guessed that the best production would be on the older trees, so I climbed a provided orchard ladder and set to work.  I was immediately disappointed at the over ripeness and poor condition of the cherries.  It was  going to take forever to pick at this rate!  A kind gentleman stopped his minivan long enough to let us know we were really picking in the wrong spot.  He approached us, saying something in his native language, presumably one of some Slavic decent.  When I responded, "Pardon me?" he laughed at himself for speaking in his native tongue and repeated himself in English, telling us that there were loads of trees just further down the lane with much better and easier picking to be had.  We didn't have to be told twice!  I climbed off the ladder and we headed for the other trees.  He wasn't joking!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

My mission, gladly accepted

As it is with most folks, money is tight in our house this year.  I have made it my mission to preserve as much of the harvest as possible so that we may eat "fresh" year 'round.  This means I am canning and freezing more this year than ever before.  I will also be dehydrating what I am able and getting creative with what I keep and put up.  I made the decision to take full advantage of the local orchards and u-pick places in addition to our own growing capabilities.  There simply is nothing like have peaches in the middle of winter that taste fresh off the tree because they were canned at the peak of ripeness at home.  Our strawberries did not produce like they have in the past because we relocated them.  They gave a nice crop just sufficient enough for fresh eating, but none extra for storage.  SO, I turned my attention to the next crop available for picking and preserving, CHERRIES! The first to come into season were the Sweet Cherries.  We went to a local favorite, Kapnick Orchards, to pick them ourselves.

Once we learned when the opening day was, we decided to get ahead of the crowd and pick then.  When we arrived, there was no one else in the orchard.  The clerk weighed our containers and we set to work.  With us, we took our little step ladder from the house, thinking that should be sufficient to reach the trees.  On the contrary, most of the cherries were high up in the trees that were easily near twenty feet in the air.  Oops.  Consequently, it took us longer than we hoped to pick our share.  We moved the ladder a lot and worked for our 16+ pounds of black sweet cherry goodness.  It was worth it! They were absolutely divine eating out of hand and we have put up a fair amount in various forms as well.  

Mom pitted the vast majority of the haul, with Shane finishing them off at the end.  A word to the wise, be very careful where you pit your cherries, the juice leaves the area looking like a crime scene!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Motivation, Elusive

The weather this spring has been difficult and frustrating, at best. Summer began officially a couple weeks ago and it just has not felt like it.  We have had huge swings in temperatures and long periods of rain followed by dry times.  There has been no balance and no proper seasonal transition.  The consequences for the garden have been grave.  Much of what I managed to get into the ground rotted before it came up as a result of a wet spell.  Some of what I intended to plant has yet to make it into the ground due to a lack of good weather days when I am not working.  The weeds and grass have virtually consumed large portions of the garden and my young seedlings.  I have replanted some things, such as beans, hoping they will try again, only to be foiled by another wet spell.  Nothing is growing and thriving like it should be at this point in the season.  In fact, many of the local farmers will likely be filing claims on their crop insurance as they have also been unable to work their fields.  It is often said to me that I tend to focus too much on what is not working, not done or what is left to do, rather than focusing on accomplishments and successes attained.  This is true.  I am wallowing in self pity for the lack of garden so far this year.  I find it very hard to spend time in the garden, even on sunny days, given that  much of what I have done has been for naught and the things I continue to do may well also be.  It is simply too late to plant some of my desired fare and I have used all the seeds/plants I had trying the first time or two already this season.  So, rather than continue to ponder what is making me so unmotivated, I will share with you the successes we are seeing, and try to focus on and celebrate the good.
I am conducting an experiment in the garden this year.  Well, truthfully, there are several, but the one to which I am referring is my potatoes in straw.  I have read about potato boxes, growing them in tires stacked and full of soil, and growing them in piles of straw.

The theory is that when the potatoes are ready, you rake away the straw and clean potatoes just fall all over for harvest.  We shall see.  The plants have gotten quite tall and seem to be doing well in their straw home, so time will tell how they produce.  I remain optimistic thus far.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Ahhhh...the smell of mulch, wet with morning dew

This weekend was full of lots of hard work and a great deal of satisfaction.  As always, things did not get done in the order they were planned, but it was lovely nevertheless.  I have been holding off getting mulch in order to save the money.  However, I got tired of waiting to get all these beds and new areas mulched, so I went ahead and ordered it to be delivered Saturday morning.  I ordered conservatively (cutting my order to 2/3 what I intended to order) for the sake of expense.  Not long after I returned from the farmer's market, the big truck arrived and dropped my mulch next to, and in, the driveway.  Ten cubic yards.  That is WHOLE LOT of mulch.  I usually go get it myself, but I knew I wanted a large amount, so I decided to have it delivered instead of making ten trips myself.  I am certain I would have paid more for gas to make the trips than the 30 dollar delivery fee they charged.  The time they saved me was also priceless.

We have already begun chipping away at the pile (pardon the unintentional pun).  The bed between the house and the sidewalk has been a real problem since I removed the bushes a few years back.  When I took out the old juniper bushes, I also removed a fair amount of soil at the same time.  It looked silly mounded toward the house,so I took care to level it out as I worked.  This, however, was a mistake.  I have had trouble with water in the basement ever since.  What I did was, in effect, create a lovely place for water to pool and then run into my basement.  SO, this weekend, we placed soil (top soil purchased in bags - deliberately - from the local ACE hardware) along the foundation wall and sloped it toward the sidewalk.  I laid the bags in place, then sliced three sides of the upfacing surface to create a flap of plastic.  I laid that forward and graded the soil toward the cement, covering the plastic.   This served two purposes.  First, I have very little planted in this bed and plan to keep it that way, so this formed a nice barrier between my new top soil and the oxalis and other assorted weeds that have been plaguing me for sometime.  Second, it also will hopefully serve as a rain water barrier, directing the water away from the house.  As soon as I got a section sloped to my liking, S came along with our new mulch and finished the job.  We have just four blueberry bushes planted out there, acting as shrubs, that also give us sweet, delicious berries.  We carefully mulched around them and then added some Lobularia 'Snow Princess' in between for a sprinkling of white.  There are a perfect compliment to the dark hardwood mulch and the spritely green leaves of the blueberry bushes.  We finished this bed together, then S completed mulching and edging a number of other areas as well while I worked to get some of the garden planted.

He cleared, mulched and edged all the way from the front steps around to the end of the house, redefining the contour of the bed as he went.  Then he moved out behind the house, mulching a new area along side the shed (that also houses the hens), and along the west side of their run.  He laid out the outline and began filling in the new area that includes the propane tank, the big maple tree and the cozy swing from which we overlook the yard and garden.  That area has never been mulched and is a significantly larger project.  He will return to that project when he next works outdoors.  We worked with the mulch from sometime yesterday afternoon, until late in the evening when the rain chased us indoors.  A failed attempt at a bonfire completed our Saturday (rain again).

This morning, we woke, dressed, ate a quick bite and headed outside.  Right away we set about moving as much mulch and planting as much as possible, working until dinner time.  The hardwood chippings we bought are finely ground and a fantastic consistency for decorative flowerbeds and pathways.  The downside to it being so finely ground is that it is already "working," or decomposing a bit.  This means it smells, well, unpleasant.  This wears off fairly quickly and the color will lighten as it dries while the sun bleaches it a bit.  However, first thing in the morning, with the dew wet, temperatures warm, and the air still, the smell is strong.  Somehow, though, I did not find the smell so unpleasant.  Although there is no manner of pleasantness about the actual scent, what it represented to me was invigorating.  We have spent time getting the beds and areas ready for the mulch; having the mulch here, finally, means we are well on our way to finishing the yard projects and perhaps enjoying some lazy Sundays before the main harvest begins.  The greatest joy of a neatly landscaped yard is being able to sit and enjoy it.  I am heartily looking forward to that!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Snow in May? COME ON!

It has been rainy for what feels like forever.  We had a couple warm days and we worked hard those days.   Adding to the lack of productivity due to rain, it has been cold as well. Today was my first opportunity to mow in more than a week and with all the moisture, the grass needed cut a week ago.  (S cut it a week and 2 days ago...)  I bundled up and headed outdoors to take on the lawn today as I had noticed a break in the rain.  It looked like today would be my only dry chance until next weekend.  I put some gas in the mower and got to work.  Just a few passes around the outer edge of the yard and I began mowing the middle.  All of a sudden I was surrounded by SNOW!  Blowing all around me, swirling in the wind and blowing with the grass shooting out from under the lawnmower.   There I was, in the middle of May, mowing the grass in a snowstorm.  No, wait, those were dandelion seeds!  Everywhere I looked.  The darn things had grown so fast since the last mowing, they had already gone to seed and I was doing them a favor by spreading them all over the yard.  Not so awesome.

I am a bit fussy about the lawn, as in, I don't like grass lying on the lawn in unsightly rows or piles.  Unfortunately, I am going to have to grin and bear the lawn until we can cut it again.  Right now, it looks a bit like I could pull a baler around and have some lovely hay bales.  This is disappointing, but temporary.  Since I am not willing to treat my lawn chemically to rid it of weeds, I will continue to coexist with the dandelions.  The pokey thistles get removed manually though.  They are a problem for a running child in the summer.... The upside to all this rain is that everything that we spent time moving to new locations has been amply watered in and is looking good!  My hope is this:  all this rain and cold is not a precursor to a super dry, hot summer.  As most things in life, moderation is best.  Time will tell and we will deal with it as it comes!

Life rarely goes as planned

As always, life has a way of not moving along as we anticipate it will.  Raising chicks this Spring has been a lesson in exactly that.  A few weeks ago, I brought home six chicks to add to the flock.  My hens are aging and I am worried for egg production.  I decided to add six pullets to the mix so that by next Spring, I will have lots of birds ready to lay eggs for me regularly. (They will begin laying late summer and into autumn, but will slow for the winter and not really come into full lay for me until the weather warms next year.)

We went to our local farm supply store and purchased 6 Isa Brown Pullets.  They were labelled as pullets and I consequently paid more for them.  Isa Browns are super reliable layers, generally putting out an egg a day when they are in lay.  In fact, they are the bird commercial egg producers use for the brown eggs you see in the grocery store.  They were not my first choice in breeds though, but as the store informed me that this was the last shipment they were to receive this season, I decided to go ahead and get them since I would likely not have a chance at any other breeds.  Given that they were already sexed (I knew they were all female, as opposed to buying chicks from a "straight run" that could be male or female), I felt it was a good idea to pick up six.  We raised them for a few weeks and started to notice significant differences in their coloring.  Isa Browns can range a bit in color so I didn't think much of it.  I simply enjoyed having my babies to look after and watching them grow was fun! Looking at this picture (above) from the day I brought them home, I see the color variations, but I attributed it then to the variation found in Isas.

I popped into another location of the very same farm supply store to pick up feed for my adult hens last week and, lo and behold, they had pullets from the breed I was looking for.  I asked the man for three of those and headed home with them.  The public is not allowed to select the birds or handle them anymore, as we used to be able to do, since folks haven't been smart enough to wash their hands after handling the chicks and some have gotten sick as a result.  It isn't super common, but chicks can pass salmonella along, so it is a good idea to AT LEAST use hand sanitizer after handling the babies.

Consequently, I was not really able to choose my chicks as I would have liked to.  In the past, I was allowed to pick up the birds, to evaluate them by feel and appearance for health and vigor before taking them home.  This is no longer the case, as there is a new policy in place from their corporate office, so I hoped for the best.  I purchased three of what were labelled as Black Sex Link Pullets.  As you can see, one is not like the others.

When I brought the new babies home, I took a look into the brooder with the first batch of chicks and noticed something startling.  A Cockerel!  That's right, a young rooster staring back at me.  I have apparently been in such a rush, primarily checking food and water and overall health when I look in on the babies, I hadn't noticed one of my "pullets" developing a comb and waddle.  This is a problem, as I am not allowed to have a rooster where I live.  Secondly, I paid more to get sexed females.

As I have been watching them feather out, I have also noticed that I was not sold 6 Isa Browns.  Rather, it appears that I have 3 Isa Brown Pullets, 2 Buff Orpington Pullets and 1 Buff Orpington Cockerel. Looking at my new babies, it appears I have 2 Black Sexlinks and perhaps either 1 Araucana or 1 Black Star.  Black Stars are, I believe, a sex linked breed, so that isn't too far off.  Sex linked breeds are those that gender can be determined at hatching based on the color of the chick.  Cockerels are one color, pullets another.  It makes sexing very simple.  SO!  The chick plan is not happening as originally intended.  To be truthful, it seems to be working out for the best though.  I was a little stressed about adding 6 birds to the flock that looked the same as many of my other hens.  This way, I am adding 3 Isas, 2 Buffs and 3 dark birds.  This will make for a much more diverse flock and that makes me very happy.  I just love the look of a really mixed and colorful flock scratching around.  (It also really helps in telling them apart) :-)

That brings me back to Houston (as in "Houston, we have a problem).  Mom dubbed him with this moniker and I agree with it.  I can  not keep a rooster.  The township is very fussy about me keeping birds in the first place.  There is a minimum requirement of five acres of land to have any animals considered to be livestock.  Shockingly, this even includes rabbits.  Since I do not have five acres, I have an exception to have my flock. Given that the township supervisor lives directly across the street from me, I choose not to rock the boat with a rooster.  He could complain and revoke my right to have the girls.  That would be cause for me to move, likely.  I would not stand for that.  So, what to do with Houston?  When I ended up with Sterling, my rooster from last year, I knew someone who could and would take him.  Houston, however, is not so lucky.  Do we grow him out and have him in a stew when he gets to be of age? No.  Of course not.  Mom has been kicking around the idea of having a small flock of chickens or guineas for some time now.  This has given her the motivation to get looking for a suitable coop.  She will likely then acquire a couple pullets for him to grow up with and keep as his own.  She grew up on a farm and has, for some time, had a longing to keep a few birds of her own.

As I said, no part of this has gone as planned, but it really seems to be working out for the best.  I will continue to watch my babies speed along through their development and enjoy having them small and cuddly while it lasts.  Then they will move to their new coop area and learn the adult ways of chickenhood from the rest of the flock.  Before I know it, they will be repaying me with nutritious and delicious eggs!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Spring is FINALLY here!

The leaves are appearing on the trees, the dandelions have returned, the lilacs and apples are budded (finally) and other sure signs of Spring have begun showing themselves. The soil has dried enough to be worked and we were eager to get at it.

On a side note, it was relieving to see the tractors and farm implements on the road this weekend.  I have been much concerned for the farmers that have not been able to enter their fields at all, let alone plant, due to the cold temperatures and standing water.  It would appear that they were busy this weekend also!

I am excited and proud to say that we spent a beautiful weekend working outdoors and it was divine!  We moved the strawberries to their new bed, moved the blackberries to their new space, and transplanted the asparagus, rhubarb and horseradish as well.

We laid heavy straw paths between these new perennial garden areas to prevent the need for wasting time weeding walk paths. S and I moved some salvaged perennials to a new bed and he got the ENTIRE garden tilled and ready to plant!  He even tilled around the raspberry patch so we can lay mulch there as well.

Of course, S mowed again.  With all the rain we have had, the grass was much taller than we would have liked between cuttings.  It was so lovely to be outside all day soaking up the sunshine while accomplishing so many spring chores at the same time. S even got one of the arches up that will support pole beans before we ran out of energy (more on these arches in a later post).

A stroll around the yard led me to that of my neighbors.  Mr. and Mrs. N keep the loveliest yard you can imagine. They tend it carefully every day and treat it much as they do other aspects of their lives, with love and care.  I am lucky to live next to such thoughtful folks.  Each time I walk about their yard and garden(s), both vegetable and floral, I am enamored by something new.  Mrs. N has a gorgeous magnolia that makes me want one every spring as it ushers in the warm weather with its blooms.  This weekend,  I noticed her Candytuft in full bloom.  It is a charming little low-growing bloomer that is in its glory right now.  Although the origin of its name has nothing to do with Candy, it has a sugary sweet appearance about it that makes the name stick in one's mind.  Her Grape Hyacinths are neatly swept back into their drifting row surrounding a lush hosta garden each year after they bloom.  They like to spread and overcrowd, so she takes great care to thin and relocate them as needed.   Living next to them gives me something to aspire to in my gardening.  They keep me motivated and inspired to learn more and grow more.

The picture doesn't do them justice, but I want to mention that my peas are coming up in the experimental straw bale gardens!  They are in part shade, which I am hoping serves them well as the weather warms.  Peas  tend to struggle in the heat, so my hope is that the large maple that shades them does not interfere with their growth, but protects them from the harsh heat that will likely soon be upon us. Spring has finally arrived, but Summer is right around the corner!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

I am so behind! (Or am I?)

I have been feeling like the garden is never going to get planted lately.  I get this sense of urgency every year, each time feeling as though I will fail to get crops in the ground in time to make anything of them.  It isn't just a feeling this year though, the weather truly has been slow to warm.

Mother Nature has been cruel this spring, presenting us with a warm day followed by a reminder that spring has not yet taken hold.  Either a cold spell, lots of rain, or snowfall reminds us we are not in control.   This is clearly evidenced by the trees and bushes.  My blueberries are JUST beginning to leaf out and the trees have yet to start.  As I walked around the yard yesterday, I noticed that the lilacs are budded with leaves, but nothing more.  Mother's Day is in two short weeks.  In most years, the lilacs are in full bloom and nearly spent by the time Mother's Day rolls around.  They appear easily two weeks or more behind schedule.

We have yet to be able to till anything due to the extremely wet soil from all the rain we have received.  We were contemplating expanding the raspberries (which was in the plan last year but never came to fruition), and the garden has not been worked even once.  There are plants that must be moved before they get too far into the growing season (strawberries, blackberries, horseradish, and rhubarb), and we have not been able to dig around them.  Walking through the garden to assess the situation yielded only disappointment and mud caked shoes.  It has rained nearly every day for what seems like weeks.  The cool weather and all this moisture have made for poor gardening conditions.

We have, however, made progress in a couple areas.  First, Shane was able to mow the yard Saturday (4/23)  for the first time.  We had one sunny, warm day and we took advantage of it!  It took some prep work though, as one tire on the mower was flat, it was nearly out of gas and mice nested in the seat over the winter, so some clean up was necessary.
There was a terrible mess of seat cushion shredded below the seat.  Thankfully, they went in through the bottom, so you can't really tell from looking at it normally.

Second, I began my straw bale garden experiment. I have read about gardening in straw bales, and decided to try it since we have several lying around already soaked and beginning to break down that were used to shelter a bit of the chicken yard for the flock over the winter.

They have been set upright (cut straw ends up) and I added some potting soil to the top.  I won't use new soil for this experiment (as I am trying to be as resourceful and frugal as possible) so I used old soil from pots that I dumped and refreshed in years past.  I typically save this soil and mix fresh soil with it to fill new containers each year.

I watered the soil in to allow it to settle a little, then planted some pole sugar snap peas, some shelling sweet peas and spinach in the bales.  They are situated next to the chicken yard, so the plants can climb the fence as their trellis/support and will be out of reach of the snacking hens.  Additionally, the bales are serving to cover a couple areas where the fence (purchased used) is bent up and/or pulling away from the frame (creating small openings along the ground).  Multi-purposing is always great!

We have done a fair amount of clean up as well.  This weekend, we worked to get some junk that was sitting around organized and rearranged so that it isn't so ugly out next to the garage and near the shed.  Two weeks ago, we took advantage of another odd warm day and cleaned up flower beds, fallen limbs and even moved a few plants so we can eliminate former beds and reclaim lawn.

The third item of business we took care of this weekend was adding to the laying flock.  I have been debating about doing so, as I do not want to draw the wrath of my township (there are extreme restrictions on the number of animals we may have AND I live across the street from the township supervisor). However, my flock is aging fast, and having lost another hen this week, we were down to 14 hens.  Adding to that, we are only getting 4-6 eggs a day.  When I discovered I had reached the last week I could pick up chicks at the farm supply store, I pulled the trigger on the idea and brought home 6 Isa Brown pullets.  They are a few days old and just adorable.  It will be months before they begin to lay, and I expect to lose more hens when the weather gets hot.  Some of my oldest hens are more than 4 years old.  Replacing them with laying birds is important to me in order to continue the supply of healthy, fresh eggs we have become accustomed to.  I believed that I was much later in picking up chicks that last year, until I looked back at old blog posts and discovered that I purchased them on precisely the same date, 4/23.  I guess I am right on schedule with them after all!

Even though the weather is making it nearly impossible to imagine getting the garden in on time, as we assess how much we have accomplished thus far this season (especially considering how few work days we have had) we are actually in pretty good shape.  Most of our clean up is finished, the chicken yard has tripled in size, the garden just needs tilled to be planted and the animals are ready for the season.  Now, if Mother Nature would catch up with her end of the work, we would be ready to kick off another awesome season playing in the dirt!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Who doesn't need to save some money?

Having been out of a job for just under 4 months, saving money has become not just a necessity, but an obsession for me.  I grow as much of my own food as possible and then can, freeze and dehydrate all I can.  This is a constant.  This year, I am taking that a step further and starting many of my garden plants from seed.  For the cost of just one to four plants (depending on variety and how they are sold), I get enough seeds to start anywhere from 20 to 100 plants.  My largest cost is time spent caring for the seedlings.  Of course, electricity to power their lights and under tray heat is an expense as well, but I regard this as nominal.  I thoroughly enjoy watching them grow and tending to them.

The added bonus is that I have a small stand I set out near the road.  Any extra seedlings that I do not use or share with others will find their way out to that stand and hopefully pay for the seed packet.  Incidentally, it is a rare occasion when I plant ALL the seeds in the packet in one season, thus my seeds last for several seasons.  I order heirloom varieties whenever possible as well.  What this means is that I know the seeds will be true to the plant I harvest them from, so I can save seed and no longer have a need to buy more.  This is not the case with hybrid seeds that have been crossed and are not likely to produce "true" seed.

Additionally, whenever possible, I choose organic seed over conventional.  This, too, gives me an advantage.  Since I sow them in organic seed starter soil, these seedlings will be truly organic and can then be sold and distributed as such.  It also clears my conscience with regard to the quality and health of the produce.  SO!  Growing my own produce from plants I start myself makes my grocery bill MUCH smaller year round.

Along with produce, I also began growing my own herbs.  Last year we planted a multi level container full of assorted herbs and were thrilled with the results. (Incidentally, I picked up this container from where it was being stored for the winter- my mother's pole barn - to discover that the rosemary had survived the winter, as had the thyme and, evidently, the parsley.  BONUS!)   I am starting a number of herbs from seed this year, but I have also recently learned to take cuttings to further augment my harvest and available plant surplus.  I read a blog about multiplying your herb harvest a couple weeks ago and became rather inspired.  Many herbs respond well to rooting in water from cuttings, while others root well in soil with the application of a touch of rooting hormone dust.  As I read the article, I remembered having some leftover organic mint in the refrigerator that I had picked up on clearance at Kroger for making mojitos with. Out of curiosity, I retrieved it and stripped the lower leaves.  I set the little pieces in a little bottle on the windowsill and in just days, tiny white roots were apparent.  EVERY cutting rooted.

I picked up the mint on clearance for 99 cents.  I used some for mojitos and will now have 7 or 8 mint plants happily growing.  Don't I feel clever!?  I must confess, I enjoyed this so much, I recently returned to Kroger and snatched up another clearance priced organic mint pack.  (They mark them down when they get close to their freshness date.)

I have made a habit recently of picking up another often marked down item at Kroger.  They regularly mark down floral bouquets.  Every time I stop in, I look to see what is marked down. I always limit my self to less than 3 dollars and am never disappointed.  Here is what I put together this last week.

I bought three carnation bouquets priced at $0.63 each and used what was left (mostly daisies and mums) from the bouquets from the previous week.  I love spending less than two or three dollars a week to have fresh cut flowers in the house during the winter months.  It is a small price for the bright spot they create in my day during the dreary days between Christmas and gardening season!  Saving money at that same time is hard to argue with....

Monday, March 14, 2011

The cycle of life

As I let the hens out of the coop for the day, I noticed one of my girls, Goldie Hahn (Hahn is German for rooster), was lying under the nest boxes in the straw on her side.  She has been my sweetest, most friendly bird and one of my prettiest (an Aracauna that once laid green eggs).  Her legs outstretched, she wasn't willing to stand.  I quickly readied an isolation cage and scooped her up.  I know her end is near.  She isn't opening her eyes all the way and her breathing is irregular.  I carried her to the garage and opened the door so she could lie in the warm sun of this spring day in peace and pass without hassle from the rest of the flock.  She made a mess of my clothes as I carried her and I can tell she is in some sort of pain.  It is heart wrenching.

Goldie had trouble last fall.  She was egg bound (had one stuck) and was very lethargic.  I brought her into the house to hold her while I waited for my mom to bring me a cage to isolate her in.  The dog, Bitsy, laid beside me while I held her, as did Maggie, one of my two cats. Neither bothered her, as if they knew she wasn't well.  Animals can be so intuitive.  After some snuggle time being kept warm in the house, she let her egg go and rejoined the flock after a day or two of isolation and rest.

I know that as my flock ages, I will lose them one by one.  Somehow, it never gets easier.  I lost Donna earlier this winter.  She was a nice hen as well, although rough looking.  She came from a farm that had a rooster and had been picked mostly bald by him, as she was one of his favorite ladies.  She was in lay so long that she never really put any energy into refeathering.  Last summer, she molted, but not entirely.  She got some new feathers, although as they came in, they curled.  It was like her new feathers had a perm in them.  She never did completely feather out and the feathers she got did not lay right against her body. I worried for her over the winter as I knew they would not insulate her properly.  She had survived previous winters with less feathers however.  One morning when I went to let the girls out to play and scratch, she was gone, also lying near the nest boxes in the bedding.

I understand that this is the way things happen.  Old birds die and eventually must be replaced with young birds to keep the flock laying.  I enjoy raising the chicks (I had my first 6 last spring) and admit that it would be nice to have more this year.  I can not yet justify adding to the flock as I already have too many birds for the space they have in the coop.

Today, as I am losing a sweet hen, I am also looking forward to the new families of wild birds that will be raised in the yard this summer.  I cleaned out old nests and put out suet cages filled with nesting materials for the birds as they scout locations for their nests and begin gathering the materials they will need to construct them.

The robins are a perennial favorite of mine.  Our state bird, they are a joy to watch as they rear their young.  They gather worms diligently in the yard and protect their nests fiercely.  I usually have a nest on the electric meter box each year and one over at least one outdoor light fixture.  I used to try to fight the nests and prevent them.  I have learned that the robins are more determined than I am and I now embrace their presence.  I clean their nests out about every other year to promote cleaner nests (free from parasites) and because I thoroughly enjoy watching them build them.  I have a barn wood bird feeder that has an overhang and I am really hoping if I hang it on the barn that houses the hens, the robins will use it as a nesting platform instead.

And so goes the cycle of life.  As older birds take their leave of this world, younger ones are preparing to expand their families.  Spring is full of reminders of the renewal of our planet.  Some plants made it through the winter and will soon be bursting forth with life and new growth, others will need replanting.  Some animals made it though the winter, others did not, and still others are preparing to bring more life into the world.

UPDATE:  Goldie pulled through yet again!  I really didn't think she would this time.... If I hadn't found her when I did, I am certain she would have passed in the coop.  She was again egg bound and with some forced water and then food, she relaxed, laid her egg and recovered.  I let her rest in isolation for a few days to allow her to recouperate and to make sure I was confident that she was indeed on her way to wellness.  My little miracle bird, again!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Continuing education for the gardener in me

I have been focusing a lot of my attention on watching my seedlings grow (many I will need to pay extra attention to later as I started them a bit early in my zeal for spring to arrive), but I have also been reading more about the pests that affect my garden each year.  I want to learn more about which bug is which and how to combat and prevent some of the damage without using chemicals in the garden.  Learning to identify the good guys from the bad guys is the first battle.

I never knew what these ugly brown fellas were until recently.  I had seen them randomly around the garden (thankfully never in large numbers in one place or doing significant damage).  They are known as squash bugs.

Squash bugs, flea beetles, cucumber beetles, vine borers, aphids, tomato horn worms, Japanese beetles, the list of pests goes on and on.

My approach is largely a very passive one to controlling these critters.  First, I will try not to plant the same plants in the same space each year (crop rotation), making it harder for overwintering bugs in the soil to simply crawl up my young plants and begin feasting. This also helps combat diseases that can be spread in the soil. Second, careful observation is my best defense.  I watch my plants carefully, taking a stroll through the entire garden at least once every day to keep an eye on new growth, damage, and insect populations.  I use a strong stream of water to dislodge bugs, hand picking, and I do what I can to attract and maintain beneficial insects.  For example, planting sweet allysum, among other plants, can help to attract the beneficial parasitic (non-stinging) wasps that  feed on and destroy tomato worms.

If I were lucky enough to find a worm looking like this, I would leave him to munch on my tomatoes as he would soon meet his demise and is providing life to LOTS of those little worm attacking wasps. What some people are unaware of is this...these worms like peppers too.  If you are experiencing damage on your pepper plants, look for horn worms there as well!

I haven't used chemicals in my garden for some time now and have not noticed a significant decrease in yields.  However, I do have a marked increase in confidence that my produce is grown in the most healthy way I possibly can.  The bugs that do get to my produce don't eat a lot and I usually just cut out any affected areas and use the remaining fruit.  Much of what I harvest gets processed in some way and it is not important how pretty each piece is as it gets mashed for jelly or salsa.  I keep the best specimens to put on the produce stand, eat fresh or share with my loved ones.  My chickens are treated to overly damaged items (composting them and eliminating the bugs that are present as well).

I make my own compost and work lots of organic matter into the soil whenever I can.  Having a laying flock means a steady supply of compost material for aging and working into the garden.

Many gardeners recommend using something called Bt in the garden to control hornworms, cabbage "moth" caterpillars and the like.  It is a natural bacteria called Bacillus Thuringiensis that targets only caterpillars, leaving all other insects safe.  I do not choose to use it.  It will not harm the pollinators, but there are myriad of  caterpillars that I would like in my garden and it is simply not selective.  For example, I plant extra parsley and dill each year in the hopes that swallowtail butterflies will find them attractive to lay their eggs on.

As an appreciator of butterflies, I will not apply something to the garden that would kill their caterpillars.  This means I  have the opportunity to select and remove the insects that are the most harmful and preserve the ones I am willing to share some garden space with for the benefit of having the adult form present.  Many hours have been spent identifying caterpillars to determine if they are a keeper or need to be destroyed.

In my garden, patience, attentiveness and diligence are my greatest weapons.  As long as I am watching carefully and addressing problems as I see them, I can stay ahead of most issues.  As I continue to research common garden pests I continue to learn.  This year, I intend to carefully log in my garden journal which pests bother which plants/varieties so I can better plan and prepare for next year's garden.  In previous years, I logged information only on performance of varieties based on yield.  Thus, in the past, I have only captured a very small portion of the full picture in my journal.  Successful gardening is more than just stuffing seeds in the soil and waiting to harvest a bounty of fresh food.  There is a great deal of planning to be done before the soil can even be worked.  Then the real work begins.  I can't wait!