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.

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!