Monday, July 27, 2009

Flora and Fauna

It's been awhile since we've had rain, so I watered the garden Friday afternoon. I was very careful not to water the tops of my Brussels Sprouts, so as not to wash off the Bt spray that is controlling my cabbage worms. Some of the potatoes are still flowering, pretty white star-shaped flowers with yellow centers. Eventually these will turn into seed pods holding potato seeds. I've always wanted to try to grow a potato plant from seed.

A small garter snake became trapped at the bottom of our slide. Graham and Benjamin were very interested. I picked the snake up and held it out to them. Graham reached out to stroke the smooth scaley skin, whereas Benjamin decided he would rather just look. Graham asked to hold it and I said no, believing that it was in the snake's best interest not to be handled by an exhuberant five-year-old. It would have been great for Graham, but not so good for the snake. Maybe I made the wrong decision.

The currants came out of the dehydrator Saturday night (okay, they were scraped out with fingers and forks). Five cups of currants made three cups of dried fruit. I look forward to experimenting with them.

The dehydrator is going again. Last night I brought up the rest of the 2008 garlic, just starting to soften and sprout. I peeled the cloves and hubby helped to cut off the ends, halve them and take out the green shoots. This morning I put the garlic into the dehydrator, and hopefully sometime this evening they will be dry enough to grind into powder (via food processor or blender, we'll see what works best). Homemade garlic powder! Of course, after all this work we'll probably only end up with a tablespoon full. But, like many things I find myself doing these days, it is an experiment.

Freya kept us company while we were working with the garlic. The paper bag that I used to carry the garlic up from the basement was on the table, and she discovered the leftover braids and leaves inside. The bag became her cave, and the braids became her toys. If you're one of those people that freak whenever a cat jumps up onto a table, well then, don't ever come over to my house. We don't encourage it, but we don't freak either.

I like the idea of my children building healthy, resistant immune systems early in life, and I certainly believe that there are lots of beneficial bacteria inside and outside of our bodies. The less I do to upset the balance of organisms in my body, the better. I make it a point to avoid anything 'anti-bacterial.' Just plain soap and water will do the trick. I don't know much about probiotics, but it's on my 'Learn More About This' list.

I read an article last year about work being done to restore people's natural intestinal flora and fauna. If poop stories gross you out, don't read it.

Once you get past the initial 'ew, gross' reaction, it really is interesting.

And on that note, it's time for brunch!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Garden Promise

I am somewhat giddy. Oh, I know something could happen -- hail, disease, pest invasion, etc. But at this point things are growing well. Blossoms are appearing on my green beans, the sweet corn is four feet tall, we have green tomatoes by the dozens, my brussels sprouts are showing new healthy growth, my rutabagas are about three inches in diameter, and I've seen a few small peppers growing on our jalapeno pepper plants. If this all keeps up, in another few weeks I will be swamped with garden goodies.

This is where I hesitate -- things are going too well. My giddiness is tempered by my scandinavian skepticism. Just when things seem to be going gangbusters, the order of the universe restores itself and disaster strikes. I can't decide whether to be an optimist and risk heartbreak when/if it does, or be a pessimist and be pleasantly surprised when/if it doesn't.

Sometimes I think too much.

Base line, things look promising. I pulled some weeds out of my garlic/onion bed the other day, and decided to pull up a garlic bulb to see how they were faring.

Isn't it beautiful? I can't help smiling when I see this lovely thing hanging over my kitchen sink. (Doesn't everyone dry/cure bulbs and herbs from their kitchen ceiling?) I just wish that more of the cloves I planted last fall had 'germinated.' Only about 1/3 of the 80 cloves I planted actually grew. Bad stock, I guess.

I accidentally pulled a few onion tops off while I was weeding (the weeds are thick, as I said earlier). The tops had flowered, so I brought them in and put them in some water. They are very pretty.

We've also got some green pumpkins growing. This one is the largest, about ten inches long. I put a square of folded cardboard underneath to raise it off the damp soil. I can already taste the pumpkin pie.

I have woefully neglected my few perennial flowers (daisies, mums, poppies) this year while focusing on the vegetables. The only flowers that did well on their own were the clematis and this hollyhock. The hollyhock was here when we moved in -- I've done nothing to it, but it still keeps blooming every year. This year's plant must have set from a previous year's seed, because the purple color is much lighter than the blooms in the past. I don't think hollyhocks live more than a few years, anyway.

I read an article this morning about alternate forage crops for livestock. It's kinda part of my ongoing research into Peak Oil and the way our civilization may be changing over the next ten years or so. I do know that the price of chicken feed has grown by 50% since I first started keeping chickens, just five years ago. The time may come (if it's not already here) when the cost of buying livestock feed will become prohibitive for the small farmer. Maybe I should start experimenting now with raising some of my own forage. Hmmm. It's something to think about, at least.

Friday, July 24, 2009


I was going to weed the garden Wednesday afternoon, really I was. But when I walked over to the chicken coop to feed and water the chickens, what did I see?

Currants! Lovely red ripe currants. Dripping from the branches. The birds had already gotten some, but there were tons left. We planted these eight currant bushes six years ago when we first moved out here. This is the first sizeable harvest we've had. Like with the black raspberries, I am usually too early or too late to pick them ripe.

I only had time to pick a gallon before heading off to work. Last night I put 1/3 of them in a dehydrator, hoping for some dried currants to add to scones or tea. This morning when I checked the dehydrator, most of them had dried but a good portion (about 1/4) were still plump and juicy.

This proves problematic, for if I keep dehydrating, the already dried ones will turn to tiny little rocks. Yet picking out the dried ones and leaving the plump ones would take about three hours to do. Plus the dried ones are sticking to the drying pan.

I decided to leave the dehydrator on until this evening. Then there will be less plump ones to sort out. I'll have to live with the rock hard ones, and soak them in water a bit before I use them in baking. I think the problem lies in the fact that some of the currants are big and some are small. Some have broken skins and some have not. The bigger, unbroken-skinned ones are taking longer to dry.

I hope the currant jam is more successful. If so, that will make six different kinds of jams I've made this summer. Totalling about fifty half-pint jars. And we haven't even hit the wild plums or apples yet. Guess what I'm giving out for Christmas this year!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

With silver bells and cockle shells

The garden is growing by leaps and bounds. And the summer is going by so fast. It's hard to believe it is nearly the end of July. Where has the time gone?

Well, I know it's not all that exciting for you, but I wanted to post pictures of my garden again, just to show you how lush and green everything is (including the weeds). It's been three weeks since my last garden picture post, and boy what a difference three weeks can make.

The weather has been so lovely. Just the right amount of sun and rain, and no blistering hot days. When looking at these pictures, please realize that I haven't weeded in a reeaaalllly loooong time. That's on tomorrow's 'to do' list.

Here are my ten heirloom tomato plants, some of those that I started in my basement. They were the ones struck down by the strange fungus. They've done pretty well, despite their set-back. Lots of green tomatoes growing.

Here are the twelve nursery-bought tomatoes, much larger than my heirloom plants. I don't see any crumpled leaves anymore on my heirlooms, but I think their overall vitality has been affected. No red tomatoes yet on any plants. Tomatoes like hot days to ripen, and so far we haven't had any hot days this summer.

Here is my green bean patch. The plants themselves look lovely, but I haven't seen many blossoms yet. I wonder if that has to do with the chicken litter in the soil. Or maybe it's just because I planted them so late. Time will tell.

Okay, this picture looks like just a big mass of green, but the trained eye will be able to distinguish the large patch of potatoes in the middle. The green beans are beyond the potatoes. I haven't dug up any potatoes yet, I'm not big on new (young) potatoes. I'd rather leave them in the ground til they get good and gargantuan, especially since I'll be storing most of them in the root cellar this fall.

My Bt spray arrived late last week, and I rushed right out to spray my brussels sprouts. Days later, I am happy to report a distinct lack of cabbage worms on my plants. But they did manage a lot of damage before I sprayed, and I wonder if the sprouts will recover enough for a harvest. Again, time will tell. I'll have to continue spraying the plants after every rain, otherwise the cabbage worms will come back.

Here is my small sweet corn patch, growing well despite the understory of crab grass. Also growing well, though with no photographic proof, are my squash and rutabagas. The carrots and onions were first to fall to my weeding triage, so I'm not expecting a large harvest from them. I'm not too upset about the onions, but I was hoping to store a bunch of carrots in my root cellar. There's got to be an easier way to grow carrots, cuz the way I'm doing it is just way too labor intensive. That's why they're usually the first to be sacrificed.

In another week or two I'll pull the garlic out of the ground, and I'll likely pull my snap peas up as well. The pea plants are fading and yellowed, and the pods that I left on them for seed are pretty large. I'll hang the plants in the garage until the seed is ready to harvest. That will leave me with a few empty patches in the garden. Empty and waiting -- for a few broccoli seedlings? Lettuce seeds? Spinach? I've never planted for a fall cool-season crop, but I am tempted to try. If I have time.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Blood, sweat and jam

Sick of hearing about jam yet? Too bad!

Two old geezers came into the park last week and told me the black raspberries were ripe. Not just two ordinary old geezers, but two very particular old geezers -- known locally as 'the jelly guys.' These two old guys devote most of their free time in the summer to making jelly. They know the local hot spots, checking them throughout the season for readiness. They aren't in it for the money; they don't sell any of it. They give it away. The first year I met them they gave me a jar of chokecherry jelly. That was some dang good stuff.

So when these two old geezers told me the black raspberries were ripe, I knew I had to act fast. I had a pretty good idea of where to find them in the park, thanks to a trail-building excursion a few years ago. I've never picked them before, mainly because whenever I've thought of it, it was either too early or too late in the season. Raspberries don't last long, at least not out here.

So Sunday afternoon after work, I took a hike through the woods with a bucket in my hands. I found the raspberry patch, and lo and behind, the old geezers were right. The black raspberries were ripe. I started picking, carefully winding my way through the bramble patch, my clothes and hair catching on the thorns, my hands and arms getting scratched to pieces. When I looked at my forearms I couldn't tell the difference between squished berry bits and coagulated blood. I'd scratch at the dark red blob, and if it came off easy it was berry juice. If not, it was blood.

It was muggy out in the bramble patch. Hardly a breath of wind. Temps in the low eighties, mosquitoes in the low thousands. Sweat trickled down my back. The only sounds I heard were the buzz of mosquitoes and the distant roar of a power boat cruising down the lake. After two hours of picking I had about two quarts of berries. Not a lot, but enough for a batch of jam.

Sunday night I made five half-pints of black raspberry jam, and six half-pints of blueberry jam from blueberries I bought at the farmers market. The black raspberry jam turned out wonderful, with a strong berry flavor. The blueberry jam was much more bland, with hardly any taste of blueberry in it. Just a mundane berriness about it, unidentifiable and nondescript.

I guess that's the difference between wild and cultivated berries. Wild berries are much more flavorful than their domesticated, pampered cousins. Or maybe I just think the wild berries taste better, since I work a lot harder for them. Two hours picking berries on a hot afternoon, vs. one minute buying berries at the market. Blood and sweat add something to the flavor, in my mind if not on my tongue. Food is more than just taste on the tongue, though. Food is an experience -- the growing of it, the harvesting, the preparing and the eating.

I want to label my jam accordingly. I want to write out 'Farmers Market Blueberry Jam,' and also 'Black Raspberries picked on a muggy afternoon in the woods surrounded by sun and mosquitoes and bramble thorns Jam.' Food is always better when it tells a story.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

He's getting better

Benjamin stole the camera again today. He took one picture of the floor, and then this one:

You gotta admit, he is getting better.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Great Escape

Yesterday after lunch I got into my car to drive to work. I turned my head to look behind me as I began to back up, and saw a flash of big, white and fuzzy. I thought, 'Great. Those two chicken-killing Pyrenese dogs have returned to our farm.' I jumped out of the car, fully prepared to begin a tirade of canine tongue-lashing, and came face-to-face with two big, white and fuzzy -- goats.

The goats are out!! The goats are out!!

Any beginner farmer/rancher can tell you about the initial wave of panic that surges through you when you realize your animals are loose. The panic is immediate followed by a frantic 'what the $%#$ do I do?' I have no ATV, no ropes or lassos, no crew of cowboys (or girls) at my beckon call. What's stopping these crazy high-strung beasts from simply tearing out of the yard and high-tailing it for the next township?

I managed to stifle this initial wave of panic and did some quick assessing. The goats were just ambling around the yard, almost as surprised as I by their new-found freedom. They didn't look like they were going anywhere fast. Actually, they paused and looked at me like, 'Well, we're out. What are we supposed to do now?'

I turned and calmly walked toward the barn. I thought, if I can only get them into the barn, then I can shut the barn doors and they'll be trapped. Yes, they'll be able to cavort and jump around on all the hay, feed bins, lumber and tools, but at least they'll be contained. As I walked I looked behind me. The goats, curious, started to follow. Either their herd-instinct (with me as part of the herd) or their grain-instinct (with me as the bringer of the grain) was kicking in. Probably the latter.

I walked to the outer door of the barn and opened it. I walked inside and left the door open. A few seconds later Eve runs inside and begins playing mountain goat with our stack of hay. Dawn walks up to the door, hesitant. I can see she is suspicious.

I open the grain bin and reach inside with the empty coffee can. I grab an empty bucket and scoop in some grain. I hold the bucket to Dawn, shaking it, letting her hear the rattle of corn and oats. Eve is not shy -- she jumps down from the stack of hay and buries her face in the bucket of grain. Dawn, realizing she is missing out, finally walks inside the barn and nudges aside Eve's head to get her share.

I carefully walk around the goats and close the barn door. A wave of relief washes over me. Disaster averted.

When I got home from work last night Simon did some quick repair work on the fence. Tonight when I get home we'll do a final fence check and then let the goats out of the barn. Just one of the joys of having livestock. Especially goats, which are notorious for fence fiascoes.

After fixing the fence we all packed into the car and went to the circus. A travelling circus show was in town for one night only, and we figured we could splurge and take the family out for some fun. Owen and Graham loved the clowns. They were giggling so much the people sitting near us were looking around at them and smiling.

When it came time for the high-wire act, Benjamin became very worried. He yelled out to them, 'get down! get down!' Then he buried his head in my lap and put my hands over his ears. After a few minutes of hiding he came back up, and decided it was too scary for me to watch, and put his hands over my eyes. All in all, it was a fun show.

I wondered if I could interest the circus people in my goats, if I advertised them as escape artists. The Great Houdini Goat Act. Hmmm. Needs a bit more work, I think.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Purple fingers

Mmmm. Mulberries. Great-thing-about-living-in-the-country #28: wild berries. My favorite are the mulberries. We've got several really good mulberry trees at the park. I don't know if they are native to the area or if they were planted by the early homesteaders, but whatever the case they are big and lovely and bursting with berries.

We all went down to pick mulberries yesterday afternoon. Owen got bored with picking pretty quickly and decided to climb trees instead. Graham wasn't interested in picking until he realized how good they tasted. Then he picked a lot, only somehow none of them ended up in the buckets. Benjamin stole berries from our buckets for awhile and then went off exploring the woods with his brothers.

Mulberries taste something between a red grape and a raspberry. Only sweeter. And they are packed with juice. Dark, purple juice.

I made the boys pose with their purple fingers. Fortunately it doesn't stain. We picked about five quarts of berries, which made eleven half-pints of mulberry jam. This is my favoritest of jams, and although I often give a jar of jam as a small gift at housewarmings or holidays, I rarely part with one of these. Remember how Golem cherished and protected his 'precious' in Tolkien's books? Imagine me instead, with my jars of mulberry jam and you may begin to understand the dynamics involved.

Mmmmmmm. Mulberries.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

County fair

We visited the county fair this past weekend. We told the kids they had to pay their 'Mom dues' (visiting the booths and animals) first. When that was finished Owen told us we had to pay the 'kid dues' now. So we bought some tickets and the kids had a bit of fun.

Our kitty is adapting to the household. She tries desperately to play with our two fat older cats, who will have none of it. They tolerate her as best they can. She leaps upon their backs and they scurry away, swatting her with their paws. She regroups and prepares for another attack. Every once in awhile, very rarely, she settles down for a nap.

I spent a few hours weeding the garden yesterday. I finished the corn, beans, late potatoes and pumpkins. My peppers are struggling to thrive. I've never done well with peppers, or cucumbers for that matter. The snap peas are fading and I am leaving the rest of the pods alone to ripen for seed. I now have several green tomatoes, but nothing ripe yet.

And I am mourning my brussels sprouts, which have indeed become infested with cabbage worms, despite my efforts with the floating row cover. I squished over sixty of the little green buggers from just one plant, and decided my time was better spent elsewhere. I've decided to order some Bt (a 'natural' pest control) but it may already be too late. I need to devise a floating row cover that will allow for the tall growth of brussels sprouts. Either that, or build a greenhouse ...

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Day's rest

I took a walk this evening after putting the boys to bed. We had a nice rain this afternoon, leaving everything glistening and alive. I looked around me and realized I was living in a work of art.

It was cool and quiet as I walked along the road. I love the quiet that surrounds me at dusk. I think it's my favorite part of the day. I love the way the colors change when the sun is setting, the green turning to emerald and the yellow turning to gold. I love the sounds of birds settling in for the night, the smell of the dark warm earth, the feeling of rest after a long day that descends over the prairie.

Sunday, July 5, 2009


The chicks have been moved. This is their new home, the minicoop that is placed inside the regular coop. Yeah, the coop's kinda dirty. But not really dirty. That's normal for coops.

That's also normal for us. Cleanliness is next to impossible in our house. Heaven forbid someone should show up at our doorstep unexpectedly and ask to come in. When I see the UPS guy come up the driveway, I usually put on my shoes and meet him on the deck. I've told my family to give us at least two days notice before arrival, so we have a chance to complete a whirlwind of cleaning beforehand. Otherwise they run the risk of stepping on marbles, sitting on matchbox cars and sleeping in a bed covered in legos.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

To market, to market

The chicks have grown exponentially. That's what chicks do. They are a month old now, getting too big for the kiddie pool we have them in. Tonight or tomorrow night I will transport them (via cat carrier) outside to the coop. We have a mini-coop set up inside the larger coop building. The mini-coop is about four feet wide by eight feet long by two feet tall. It is made of 2x4s and enclosed with welded wire fencing.

The chicks will go inside the min-coop for several days until the older chickens (the four that remain) get used to having a bunch of crazy youngsters nearby. Then we'll let the young mix with the old and after a period of frantic adjustment, eventually come up with one big happy chicken family.

That is, until the new roosters get old enough to challenge our old rooster. Then the fighting over who gets to be head-honcho will start. I anticipate our old rooster will lose, given the fact that most of his toes are broken (from chick-hood), and hence has an awkward limp to his gait. We plan to butcher most of the young roosters when they reach five or six months old. We have utility-strain chickens, so they take longer to mature than hybrid broilers.

If I had ordered broilers, or Cornish Cross chickens, I could have butchered at two months old. Those grow amazingly fast. They grow so fast that if you don't butcher them at two or three months, the meat gets too heavy on their bones and they can't walk anymore. Either that, or their breast meat gets too large and crushes their lungs. They need special feed and special care. Some people call them Frankenchickens.

Utility chickens (those that are good for meat and eggs) grow slower, don't need special feed, and act like normal chickens do. They don't have as much breast meat but they do have more dark meat on their thighs and legs. Since they take a lot longer to mature, they cost more to feed. That's why I like to have mine free-range around the yard, eating bugs and grass, to supplement what I feed them. I'm hoping the chicken-killing raccoon is gone by then. We haven't seen or heard it recently, ever since we've been keeping our chickens locked up. Fingers crossed.

I went to the farmers market before work this morning. We've got a pretty good market, for a small town. We've got two vegetable vendors and two bakers right now. I saw radishes, lettuces, beets, broccoli, cauliflower, snap peas, zucchini, cucumbers, cabbages, kohlrabi, asparagus, strawberries, new potatoes, sourdough white and wheat breads, yeast breads and buns, quick breads, jellies, cookies and bars. A huge variety of good things to eat. Last week I bought sourdough bread and chocolate chip pan cookies. The cookies were calling to me: I couldn't resist. This time I exerted tremendous willpower and held myself to a pound of asparagus.

In a week or two we'll get a few more vege vendors at the market, and then later this summer we'll have someone selling squash and pumpkins, and someone else selling apples. We'll have turkeys and turkey pies for sale from the local turkey farm. We might even get a mushroom grower, if he can get his production in line.

I love farmers markets, and anything I can do to support them, I'll do. If that includes buying and eating a lot of yummy veges, bread and chocolate chip cookies, well then that's a sacrifice I'll just have to make.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Our Walk: A Garden Diversion

After visiting our next door neighbor, we headed back home. Half way home Benjamin's abundant energy failed him and our pace slowed to a lazy meander. At the end of the driveway we turned toward the house, and I remembered that I wanted to pick some snap peas for our stir fry dinner. Since I had the camera with me, I felt obligated to take some pictures of the garden. Please excuse the weeds.

The pumpkins are growing magnificently.

Tasty, tasty snap peas. One for the stir fry, one for me. One for the stir fry, one for me.

Green beans to the left, potatoes to the right.

Sweet corn at the back, sprouts in the middle, a pepper and a pumpkin (and a marigold) at the bottom.

Our first green tomato!!!

The currents are starting to turn red. Maybe I'll actually beat the birds and get a worthwhile harvest this year. Tomorrow morning we are going back to the strawberry patch to pick more berries. Perhaps I'll try a strawberry current jam? Hmm... So much jam, so little time.

Our Walk: Next Door Neighbor

We walked about a mile north and turned into the driveway of our closest neighbor. I use the word 'neighbor' loosely -- no one lives at this farmstead, not for the last five or six years.

The property was up for sale a few years ago, and taken off the market when no one showed an interest. Eleven acres, fixer-upper house with numerous outbuildings. And great neighbors. At the time they were asking $50,000. I tried to convince my family members to buy it. But it's hard for folks to give up their urban vices. Then there's that whole 'getting a job' issue. I told them they could sell their suburban homes for $300,000, buy this farmstead and live off the remainder for at least five years. Sounds pretty appealing to me.

And I discovered another great thing about this property: three beautiful, mature crabapple trees. Loaded with crabapples. I must remember to contact the landowner and ask permission to pick the fruit. I've never made crabapple jelly before.