Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Our Walk: Panorama

At one point in our walk I stopped and took a picture in all four directions.




I can't say the landscape is dramatic. You can't see any mountains or canyons, any oceans or rivers, any forests or grand vistas. But after you live here for a few years, you learn to retrain your eye. You learn to see a mountain in a gentle rise of the land. An acre of wetland becomes an ocean, a farmstead grove becomes a forest. It's just a question of scale.

And I'll take the view of the prairie from my living room window over any other vista on earth.

Our Walk: Things We Saw

Late this afternoon Benjamin and I took a walk. At the end of the driveway I asked him, left or right? He said 'right!' So we turned right on the county road, heading north. Benjamin was full of energy and led the way at a brisk pace.

It was a beautiful day for a walk. We made many discoveries along the way, including a robin's egg, several ant hills and many pretty rocks. I must remember to empty his shorts pockets before they go into the washing machine.

The crops are growing well, thanks to some well-timed rains this month. Our local paper always (and I mean ALWAYS) does a front page feature about how high the corn is at the beginning of July. The editor is fixated with the phrase 'knee-high by the fourth of July.' He'll be happy this summer, since the corn is well above knee height.

We saw lots of flowers blooming along the roadside. Purple alfalfa, yellow sweet clover and light pink roses. Since I started working in natural resources, I have become jaundiced regarding wild plants -- I can't look at a field of wildflowers and grasses without taking inventory of the native vs. non-native varieties. I wish I could go back to when I was able to look at a field of flowers and marvel at their beauty alone.

We passed the slough just to the north of our property. In case you've never seen a 'slough' before, this is what one looks like. They are an oasis for wildlife in a desert of agriculture.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Let the harvest begin!

I harvested the first things from my garden today -- a couple pounds of snap peas and pea pods. I was pretty surprised to see them, actually. Pleasantly surprised. We had some of them with dinner tonight in a garlic pasta dish alongside broccoli and zucchini. They were very yummy. The rest of them are laying on a cookie sheet in the freezer. Tomorrow I will transfer them to freezer containers and pack them away.

We also went strawberry picking this morning. I should say rather, we all went to the strawberry patch but hubby was the only one picking. I was busy entertaining our three-year-old. Numbers One and Two sons are spending the week at Grandma's house, so it's just Number Three at home with us. It makes me remember all the free time we had when we just had one kid. All the one-on-one time we had with him. I wish I had that much time with all of them.

It was just nine years ago that we were sans kids. I can't even remember what that was like. What did we do all day?

Tonight I made strawberry jam, strawberry rhubarb jam and strawberry syrup. After all of that we still have two gallons of berries left. I'll probably put them in the freezer, and hopefully not forget about them. A week ago I was rooting through the basement freezer and found a bag of berries I had frozen from last summer. Oops.

I spent some time weeding the garden today. It came to an abrupt end when I accidentally sat down (I prefer to sit, rather than stand or kneel while weeding) on a bunch of dead, dried thistle leaves. The sharp prickles went right through my jeans. Ouch. If I had had more guts, I might have dropped my drawers right out in the garden. But the garden faces the road, and we do get the occasional passer-by. I chose the more painful, yet slightly less embarrassing option: walking funny all the way back to the house.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Mistress Mary quite contrary

How does my garden grow? I'm glad you asked. You did ask, right?

We planted a 35'x35' garden this year. It is surrounded by welded wire fence, to keep out the deer, rabbits and chickens. A couple of pocket gophers made a few mounds inside earlier this spring, but they didn't seem to do much damage, and were gone after a few days.

I took these photos last Tuesday after a frenzy of weeding, so the ground is covered with wilting weeds (mainly Canada thistle). You can see my two pathway experiments: cardboard covered with straw and steel sheeting. I prefer the steel already. Might get a little hot to sit on later this summer, but we'll see how it goes.

In the photo above, in the lane to the left you can see some of our sugar pie pumpkins. Above those are our sugar snap peas. On the right side in the middle is our carrot/rutabaga patch. It's full of weeds because the carrots are still tiny and it's hard to weed in there until they get bigger. That's my excuse, anyway. Above the carrot patch is a tomato patch with twelve plants. Against the far fence are the potatoes I saved for planting from last year's crop, garlic and onions. The yellow flowers on the far top right are the rutabagas going to seed their second year.

In this picture you can see my carrot/rutabaga patch again on the lower left. The patch in the lower center has jalapeno peppers, one extra pumpkin plant, and my brussels sprouts covered (mostly) with the row cover. I'm going to have to take that cover off this week -- the sprouts are getting too big underneath.

The upper half of the pic is dominated by my potatoes. I bought a 50 lb bag of Kennebec seed potatoes this spring for $15 at the local feed store. I planted about 30 lbs of them and gave the rest to a friend. Obviously, they are growing well. The chicken litter potatoes are on the left, and the non-litter potatoes are on the right. Just beyond the potato patch is my green bean patch, which you can't really see here. I got the beans in pretty late this spring so they are just now popping out of the dirt, about 3" tall. But that patch is all chicken litter, so I am expecting a bumper crop of beans this summer.

There's another patch of sweet corn and tomatoes that didn't make it into a photo. But so far, everything is doing very well. I am cautiously optimistic, as long as I stay on top of the weeding and no evil bugs attack us. The main bug problem I have are cabbage worms, and I hope the row covers have helped with those.

I planned this garden in conjunction with the CSA share I talked about in the last post. The weekly vege box is more for fresh eating, while my garden is more for preserving. I'll store the carrots, potatoes, rutabagas, onions, garlic and squash in our root cellar (when it's finished this summer--cross fingers). If I get enough of them, I'll turn the tomatoes into spaghetti sauce and canned tomatoes. Some of them will also be mixed with the onions and jalapeno peppers to make salsa. The snap peas (the ones we don't eat fresh) will go into the freezer for future stir fries. The brussels sprouts will be frozen as well as the sweet corn. The green beans will be canned. If I find some extra time, I might also dehydrate some potatoes, tomatoes and garlic -- we'll see how it goes. Which means I probably won't.

One last picture, this one of our new kitten. She is very playful. And bitey. When we let her run loose in the kitchen (she can't mingle with our existing cats until her vaccinations next week) she attacks our ankles, tiny sharp pinpricks sinking into our skin. The boys love playing with her, giggling at her antics. We have to keep a very watchful eye with them and her, otherwise she would be the unfortunate recipient of fierce bear hugs and forceful kisses. Sometimes the boys are unable to curb their enthusiasm and we make them sit on their hands while the kitty plays with them, nibbling on their kneecaps and climbing up their shirts to reach a tasty ear. This puts the giggling into high gear.

Friday, June 19, 2009

No room in the fridge

Thursdays are vege box days during the summer. Our family is a member of a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm. This means that we have bought a share of a farm for the summer -- and in return for our money, we get a big box full of fresh, organically-grown local fruits and vegetables every week. The boxes began the first week in June, and this is what was in our first box:

Starting from the top left: spring onions, chives, radishes, asparagus, mesclun. From the bottom left: two heads of leaf lettuce, a collection of onions stored from last fall's harvest, a bag of black beans from last fall, and a large bag of spinach leaves. The rhubarb had already made it's way into the freezer, and the dried basil was already in the herb cupboard.

Opening up the box every week is like opening a treasure chest. This week's box we had strawberries, lettuce, mesclun, spinach, cilantro, asparagus, kohlrabi, radishes and bok choy. It's almost more than we can eat. We have a salad with dinner nearly every night these days, and with the arrival of kohlrabi and bok choy, stir fries will be popping up on the weekly menu pretty regularly from now on.

But these boxes of lovely, delicious veges do present us with a problem: refrigerator space. Every Thursday I have a heck of time trying to cram everything in there. And on days when I pick up our five gallons of fresh milk from the farm, it becomes even more difficult. Bag of carrots? They can stay on the counter for a few days. Bottle of juice? Better drink that up this afternoon. Pickles and relish? Again, the countertop.

My husband says we should get a bigger fridge. I say we'd just fill that one up too. I'd get eight gallons of milk at a time and make more cheese. We'd have six dozen eggs in there instead of just three. Kinda like moving into a bigger home, it doesn't take long before you've filled up all the new space.

But this problem of space is a small price to pay for the extraordinary fresh, healthy, tasty food we are able to eat. My mother has a old, framed cross stitch sampler hanging above her kitchen door that reads 'May we always be blessed with plenty.' Well, we are verily blessed. In more ways than we can count.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

I almost died today

No, really, I almost did. It's a long story, kinda hard to explain. But I'll try.

I was at a basic chainsaw training class with a few other people, out in the woods practicing our wedge cuts and back cuts and bucking and limbing. One guy was cutting down a tree, and I was kneeling, cutting through a stump about fifteen feet away from him. The guy was supposed to fell the tree in the other direction, only he made a mistake and lost control of the tree, which fell toward me.

I was concentrating on my stump, and barely heard the instructor yell at me to get out of the way. He grabbed my shoulder at about the same time I realized something was wrong, and I sprawled to the side a second before the tree came crashing down in the spot where I had been kneeling.

Actually, it seems a bit unreal now. Like it didn't really happen. I wasn't hurt, no harm was done. The other guy was really, really sorry. So was the instructor. He kept asking me if I was okay, saying he should have been paying more attention. No problem, I said, I'm fine. Let's just move on. A good learning experience.

In my car on the way home, I kept rolling it around in my head. One more second and that tree would have fallen on my hard-hat-covered-head. Hard hats are great for stopping branches from poking you in the scalp. Not so great for stopping your neck from snapping under the falling weight of a five hundred pound log.

Everything is fine, but I can't stop thinking about it. This was important -- this could have been the last day of my life. If I think too much about it, I get freaked out, so I stop short of thinking about my boys without a mom.

Oddly enough, I can't help but think about another time something important happened to me, something scary yet surreal, something blurry and hazy against the sharp day-to-day routine of my life. In the winter of 2005 I had a miscarriage. Just a few days after I knew I was pregnant, I started to bleed heavily, and I knew something was wrong. Just a few days of that secret, happy, crazy head-filled-with-baby-thoughts before things went blurry. A visit to the doctor confirmed it. There was nothing that could be done. There was nothing that I could do.

I felt completely and utterly powerless. All I could do was think about what was happening, wonder at it, stand helpless in the fog that had suddenly enveloped me.

That tree almost falling on me, that was kinda like that as well. Something happened, something important, something I had absolutely no control over. I had a death grip on my own chainsaw, I was concentrating so hard on not killing myself with it. I was doing pretty well at not killing myself with it. But I couldn't control what someone else was doing with their saw.

I guess I just need to remind myself that although the control freak in me likes to keep a hold of the reins, sometimes the horses are just going to run wild and things are going to happen. Heart-breaking, sad things. Heart-pounding, scary things.

Important things.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Catch Up Part Four

Ok, last post. It's 1:30 am and I'm running on fumes.

Here's a picture of the goats. Nothing new to report with them, same old goats. Eve seems a bit camera shy, however. They are doing a good job keeping down the weeds in their pen, as you can see. All except the Stinging Nettle. Guess I can't blame them for that. Obviously, we never got the kid we planned for this spring. I have to contact the breeder and let him know his buck didn't do his job. Hopefully we'll get another free try this fall.

Number One Son got his green belt for Tae Kwon Do in May. The picture is kinda green, since it was taken indoors in an auditorium. He did really well at his testing, didn't make any mistakes on his routine and only took about six kicks to break his board.

Numbers Two and Three Sons are fine as well, behaving as usual five- and three-year-olds do. Which means they are up to all sorts of mischief. I can't tell if that's a hug in the picture above or a head-lock. Could go either way with them.

And lastly (finally!), our kitten endeavors. The raccoon that was eating our chickens was also feasting on kitten kabobs. The three litters of kitties that we had in our yard, totaling eleven kittens, was trimmed down to just three by the end of May. I made a rash decision and grabbed the final kittens and brought them into the house. They are between five and six weeks old -- old enough to be separated from their moms, but too young to figure out how to run away from humans.

We've decided to keep one of them as an indoor cat. We're keeping the pretty calico in the foreground of the photo above. The other two have already made their way to a very nice humane society in Brookings, SD, thanks to help from my brother and sister-in-law. No more kitty kabobs for the raccoon.

I'd write more about the kitten, about how cute she is and how she scampers about the kitchen floor and how Eddy (our orange cat) hates her and how Oliver (our grey cat) is mildly interested in her, but my eyeballs are about to pop out of their sockets and go find a dark corner somewhere to get some rest. So, that is some of what's been keeping me from posting recently, and I don't know when I'll post next because it's a busy time of year. I didn't even tell you about the quilt show I had at our work -- some other time. Take care.

Catch Up Part Three

Chickens. Ah, where to begin. We've been having problems with our chickens recently. I went out of town for five days at the end of May, and when I got back I had six chickens (out of sixteen) left. I had gotten a little lax about shutting the hens in at night (stupid me, yes, all my fault and I know it), and never asked Simon to do it while I was away.

So, when I realized what happened, I sorta freaked and locked the chickens in the coop, intending to keep them locked in until we can get rid of whatever is eating them. Whatever it is is leaving bits of chicken spread all around our yard -- a tuft of feathers here, a wing there, a head there. Not particularly pleasant. Especially for the chicken.

The next day I go outside and walk toward the coop to let the chickens out into their fenced-in run for the day (the gate to which I kept open during the night, not thinking that I would need to lock it, since the coop door was shut). And I see the hen door wide open. And I have a sinking feeling in my gut. I walk inside and see the scattered feathers of my last barred Holland hen all over the floor. I now have five chickens left.

The thing is a raccoon. Smart enough to open a latch. I heard it purring in the upper level of our granary/garage one day last week. I think it's got kits. The picture below shows the hen door, with the old non-raccoon-proof latch in the center, and the new hope-to-god-it's-raccoon-proof latch on the right. If the little $^%@-er figures out how to work a carabiner, we'll try a combination lock. Maybe a thumb-print ID panel. Or a retinal eye scan.

So now we have one Delaware hen and one California White hen (first picture), a Welsummer hen (second picture), and a Ameracauna hen and rooster (third picture). We're getting about one egg a day, since two of the hens are three years old and not laying so much anymore. That, and probably the trauma of seeing their chicken friends get et by a marauding night fiend has probably scared the eggs right out of them.

Fortunately, we have reinforcements. On Monday I picked up a box with thirty-five baby chicks at the Post Office. A quick trip to the fleet store on Tuesday brought in ten more. So now we have forty-five peeping fuzzballs in a kiddy-pool in our basement. It's amazing how fast chicks grow. In two weeks I'll have to set up a cage for them outside in the coop, and by the time they are two months old they will be big enough to mingle with the old timers. Five months from now we will (hopefully) be inundated with eggs from the new hens. And ready to butcher a bunch of the roosters for the freezer. But that's a whole other story, one I'll save for later this summer.

Catch Up Part Two

I planted lotsa potatoes this year, with the intention of finally finishing the root celler in my basement. I've canned potatoes before, but stored ones are much better. The potato patch is pretty wide, and part of it covers the area where we spread chicken litter from last fall's coop clean-out. The photo above shows the non-litter part, and the photo below shows potatoes growing in the litter.

The potatoes growing in the litter are twice as big as the others. Gotta love poop for growin' big healthy veges. Although I've been told too much nitrogen will make a plants tops grow, but not a plants roots. We'll see how the potato harvest turns out this fall.

I let a few of my rutabagas over-winter in my garden, for seed-collecting this summer. Rutabagas are biennial, which means they flower and set seed their second year. It's easy to do with root crops like rutabagas and carrots. Harder to do with non-root biennials like Brussels Sprouts, especially in Minnesota where the winters are so long and cold.

And speaking of Brussels Sprouts, look here at mine! You can't see them, because they are safely tucked away under a floating row cover. I decided to try the covers out this year, since my brassicas (Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, etc.) always get eaten up by cabbage worms. Floating row covers (supposedly) protect the plant from these critters. And I must say, so far the covers are working like a charm. My sprouts have never looked so good. Too bad you can't see them underneath their gauzy blanket -- I'm sure you would be dutifully impressed.

Catch Up Part One

Good gravy, it's been awhile since I posted. Sorry, hope you haven't given up on me altogether. It's 12:30 am and I would really like to get to bed before sunrise, so I'll try to make this quick. Here's what's been keeping me from posting more regularly.

This time of year is very busy in the garden. Tilling, planting, weeding, weeding, and more weeding. The picture above shows some of my tomato plants, getting acclimated to the outside. My started-at-home tomato seedlings got that weird fungus again this year -- I got it two years ago and it wiped out my plants. This year it hasn't wiped them out, not yet. I put ten of the best looking ones out in the garden, but bought another twelve from a friend, so at least I will have some tomatoes this summer, if not enough to can.

I'm not sure where the fungus came from -- it started with my Wapsicon Peach heirlooms, so maybe it was in the seed I ordered from Seed Savers. But then my tomato friend told me she got a fungus when she re-used unwashed pots from one year to the next, which is something I did this year. Guess I'll have to sanitize my pots over the winter. A good soak in a bleach solution should hopefully do the job. Live and learn.

Here are some of my sugar snap peas, doing very well. Just saw my first pea blossom today.

My pumpkin (sugar pie) seedlings are doing well too. I planted eight of them. I'll get a lot more squash from the three sisters garden I planted at work.

I spent six hours in the garden today, planting tomatoes and beans. And weeding. And weeding. And then some more weeding. Did I ever tell you how much I hate Canada Thistle? I really really hate Canada Thistle. It spreads via seed and via rhizomes, which are roots that run a few inches under the surface of the soil, resprouting in likely places along the way. Today, I actually pulled a Canada Thistle shoot out of the top of a bale of straw in my garden. The stupid thing had grown up through the bale -- through fifteen inches of compacted straw to reach the surface. This tells me that mulch is worthless against thistle. I'm liking my steel sheeting mulch idea more and more. Although I wouldn't be completely surprised if I saw a thistle shoot breaking through the steel later this summer. I hate thistle.