Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Getting started

Monday was a fabulous day.  Perfect temps, perfect winds, just perfect for working in the garden.

This year we expanded our garden to nearly twice its previous size.  Hubby did a lot of tilling while I staked and stringed out the new beds. 

This is the other end of the garden.  You can see garlic patch in the center, surrounded by straw.  The brownish color of the foreground soil is due to the chicken litter we spread over it last fall.

I ordered lots of asparagus crowns this year, hoping to get a large bed established. 

After the asparagus was planted, we put in the potatoes.  Number Three Son helped.

After the potatoes we broke for supper.  But right after supper I and the two littlest monkeys went right back out to plant the peas, shell and snap.  The boys liked putting the peas on the soil and pushing them in with their fingers.  They felt unrestricted by bed borders, however, and thus I will have pea shoots growing up everywhere in my garden this spring.  Which is just dandy. 

Tomorrow plans to be another beautiful day.  On top of the garden to-do list: planting the 50 raspberry canes that came in the mail yesterday.  After weeks of cold wet weather, spring has finally arrived.  Temporarily, at least.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Mr. Hairy is a mom

Remember in another post when I said we were getting chicks this summer?  Well, what I should have said was we were getting chicks TODAY!

Several weeks ago my white silkie hen decided that come heck or high water, she was going to sit on a spot on the floor and try to hatch an egg.  Silkies are notorious for their broodiness, and to be honest that was the reason I got her in the first place.  I was thinking at the time (last year) that this spring I might like to try hatching a few eggs.  So, when she went broody last month, I decided to just let her sit there and see what would happen.  In the end she ended up sitting on six eggs, some of them not her own.

Every few days I would lift up her rump to check on the progress.  21 days came and went, and I figured that for whatever reason (probably the cold, damp weather) the eggs weren't going to do anything.  But being the lazy person I am, I just let her keep setting til I figured out what to do.

Then this evening, I lifted her up and saw two little fuzzy black things drop out from under her wings.  Chicks!  Teeny tiny black peeping chicks!

Enter frantic mode.  After a hurried supper, hubby and I set up the big brooder cage inside the coop, layered it with new hay and put in a small feeder and waterer.  We moved the mamma and her babies and the unhatched eggs (just in case) to the new, more protected location.  I wanted to be sure that the barn cats and the rest of the chickens weren't tempted by the new babies.

Of course I have no chick feed, and tomorrow's Easter, so all the stores will be closed.  They will just have to survive on layer feed until then.  I'll have to go to the grocery store and get some more parakeet grit.  And I've just remembered about the danger of chicks drowning in water, so I must find some marbles or rocks to put in the base of the water fount.  So many things to do!

Hunting outdoors

A quick peek at a few things that are trying to make a go of it, in our cold drizzly gray weather.

 Garlic is up!  100% germination.  Hooray!

Plus a few garlic clumps that I missed from last year's harvest.

Self-seeded lettuce from last year's plants.

And regrowth from some Brussel Sprout stumps. Our long, deep snow cover apparently gave the roots enough protection to ride out the winter.  I was tempted to let these grow out and see if I could harvest some seed, but from what I understand about brassicas you need lots of flowering plants to get a good quality seed harvest.  Plus these are probably hybrids, and wouldn't breed true.  At least I know it could be done if I wanted to try.



And an old bed frame!

No, this didn't grow here. We put it out in the front yard late last fall, when we had our attic insulated. At the time I was thinking I could do something really creative with it in the yard or garden. I've seen lots of pictures of 'flower beds' using old bed frames. But looking at the thing now, I am at a loss. Perhaps someone with a lot more imagination than I will come up with something brilliant. If so, please share!

Hunting indoors

We celebrated Easter a week early this year, thanks to the inconvenient timing of this spring's sport fishing opener.  Fishing opener weekend marks the beginning of the park's camping season, and the beginning of my work-every-weekend-til-Labor-Day routine.  I don't mind working weekends in the summer when I can spend time with my kids during the week, but during April and May while the kids are in school it's kind of a bummer.

Family came to visit, and we painted eggs.  Easter is the only time of year that I buy eggs from the grocery store.  The bright colors just don't work on our own brown eggs.  Speaking of eggs, we're getting at least a dozen a day from the ladies now.  My husband rolled his eyes when I told him I had ordered more chicks for this summer.  You can never have too many eggs, right??

In the background of this picture you can see my seedling set-up. I've got two card tables against the wall.  On top of the tables are my potted herbs and a tray of planted seeds.  I've got two fluorescent shop lamps suspended underneath the tables, giving light to my seedlings.  The seedlings themselves are in paper cups, which are crowded into (new and clean!) cat litter boxes.

Space under the lights is at a premium.  I've already moved my cold-tolerant veges (Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, chard and lettuce) to the three-season porch to make room for the peppers, tomatoes and eggplant.  Soon I'll be starting my cukes and squash, which will create even more crowding.  I so need a greenhouse.

We had the egg hunt on Sunday morning.  I was hoping for an outside hunt, but apparently the Easter bunny thought it was too cold and drizzly (which it definitely was).  So we were indoors.  As you can see, the absence of opposable thumbs apparently doesn't hinder the bunny from hiding eggs in screw-top jars.  Also, here is another rare grocery store purchase of mine, a bag of flour.  My 25-lb bag of organic Swany Mills was running dry, and our local co-op had run out.  Next time we drive through Freeport, Minnesota, I'll be sure to buy two big bags of the good stuff.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Hoop Dreams

Last week I went to a workshop on high tunnels, or hoop houses as some folks call them.  It was sponsored by the University of Minnesota and featured several speakers talking about the ins and outs of season extension using this sort of technology.  I use 'technology' loosely, as the ideas behind high tunnels (and low tunnels, for that matter) have been around for decades, if not centuries.

It was a really great workshop, and it got my mind abuzz with all sorts of possibilities.  I'm planning on trying a bit of low tunnel action this spring, in fact I've got all my metal hoops and woven cloth ready to go.  I just need a nice day (when I don't work!) to set it all up, and transplant my lettuce seedlings.  Maybe plant a few radishes and arugula.  And spinach.  And kale.  You get the drift.

After all the speakers were done we took a tour of the university's tunnels, located in Lamberton.

These tunnels have roll-up sides.  Most tunnels are manual roll-ups, but these were thermostatically controlled.  The controls added another $1400 on to the cost of the tunnel, but if it saves a roasted crop due to someone's negligence, it may be worth it.  Temps in these tunnels can spike up to 100 degrees just a few short hours after sunrise, so you really have to be on the ball with the ventilation.

Here's the thermostatic controls (I think).

The inside of the tunnel was lovely.  This one had five rows for veges.  The speakers explained that there are three zones in these tunnels -- the outer cooler zone, the intermediate zone, and the center warm zone.  The cooler zone is along the edges by the vent flaps, and that is where they plant cool season crops.

Like these!  To help protect the plants even further in the cold weather, a low tunnel can be put inside the high tunnel.  In his book 'The Winter Harvest Handbook', Eliot Coleman (regarded as an expert in season extension gardening) highly recommends this method for growing veges during the colder months.

Little lettuces, I think.

All of the speakers said that even though it's not ideal, it's pretty much a necessity to use black plastic mulch to control weeds.  Weed control is a big issue in high tunnels, which makes sense.  What's good for the goose is good for the gander.  If your veges will love living in a high tunnel, imagine how much the weeds will love living in one!

A big benefit to high tunnels is the ability to control irrigation.  Here is the water set-up as it enters the high tunnel.  It gets sent down a main PVC pipe, which is connected to drip tape.

The drip tape is run just on top of, or just buried under the soil along the planting beds.  Beds are either 18 or 24 inches wide.  The pathways in between are usually covered with newspaper and straw.  The drip tape has holes along its length, kinda like a soaker hose, but more flimsy.  Most people don't re-use these tapes.  Rather, they throw them away and buy new every year.  They said that after awhile the holes clog up, either from soil or from water sediment.

They did mention that if you're using hard water from a well, you'll probably want to install an in-line filter somewhere along the line, otherwise these tapes will clog up really fast.  I asked a guy about the water usage involved and whether a home pressure tank could handle the quantity, and he said easy peasy, unless you have a monstrously huge tunnel with lots of tape.

At the ends of the center and intermediate beds were these pipes stuck into the ground.  Another observer and I figured they must be for installing trellises.  The speakers had made a point of telling folks not to use the structure of the high tunnel as an anchor for trellises, as the weight of all the tomato or cucumber vines would quickly collapse the frame.  These pipes make a good anchor for a 4x4 post, which could support a system of trellises along the tunnel's length.

Several of the speakers spoke of their experience with tunnel collapse.  Sturdy construction is key, especially with the end walls.  Timber framed end walls are strongly recommended, as well as a good wind break.  Setting the end posts (if not all the posts) in concrete isn't a bad idea.

There was so much information shared, much too much to relate here.  Season extension shows so much promise for us here in the frosty upper midwest, and could do so much for the local food momentum.  Our state agricultural department even has a cost-share program (called EQIP) to help farmers install high tunnels on their property.

Like I said, my mind is abuzz.  Time to digest these ideas and see what's plausible in the immediate future.  Do I really have the time to manage a high tunnel?  I don't know.  Probably not.  But it would be fun to try.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The recipe

As requested.

Sweet Carrot Muffins
From Williams-Sonoma's book 'Bread'
Makes 14 muffins

Melted butter for greasing
4 large eggs
3/4 cup canola oil
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups flour
1 3/4 cups sugar [I use just 1 cup]
2 tsps ground cinnamon
2 tsps poppy seeds [I've never used these]
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
3 cups shredded carrots
3/4 cup dried cranberries or raisins [I use dried cherries]

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Have ready two 12-cup muffin pans. Grease 14 of the cups and fill any unused cups with water to prevent warping. [I always wonder why they didn't just adjust the recipe to make 12 muffins, rather than the odd number of 14...]

In a large bowl, combine the eggs, oil, and vanilla. Beat vigorously with a whisk [or with an electric mixer] until smooth and slightly thickened, about 1 minute. In another bowl, stir together the flour, sugar, cinnamon, poppy seeds, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Gradually stir the flour mixture into the egg mixture and beat just until smooth, about 20 strokes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Fold in the carrots and fruit just until combined. Spoon the batter into the muffin cups, filling each cup three-fourths full.

Bake until golden, dry and springy to the touch, 20-35 minutes. A tooth-pick inserted into the center of a muffin should come out clean. Let stand for 10 minutes. Using a small knife or spatula, remove each muffin from its cup and place on a rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Make-ahead tip
The muffins may be frozen for up to 2 months. Reheat in a 350 F oven for 8-10 minutes.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The big melt

High temps in the 40s over the last few days have brought a dramatic change to our landscape.  The thick layer of snow blanketing our ground has turned into a mushy soup of water and mud.  Other than a bit more laundry and boot-drying to do, I am a big fan of the mushy soup.  Spring is on the way.

The migrating birds are back in force.  I've seen bald eagles, great blue herons, swans, geese, robins, and blackbirds.  I love the call of the red-winged blackbird, I think it is my favorite bird song.  Our own non-migrating chickens, who hate walking on snow, have finally summoned the bravado to venture outside.  They had a lovely day today scratching in the dirt, gobbling up the errant worm.  I even caught two of them on our deck when I came home from work.

Along with our ham supper, I baked these lovelies. Carrot muffins with dried cherries.  Very yummy.

Tomorrow our high is forecast for 52.  I am looking forward to seeing more dirt.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Seed slob

A very long time ago (okay, maybe only a few months ago) some blogger friends of mine asked folks to describe how they organize and store seeds.  They themselves showed wonderfully neat and detailed binders and notebooks, full of useful information and categorized seed packets.  I looked at that and thought, there's no way I can show what I do!  I'm completely unorganized!  I'm a seed slob!

Well, I finally decided to just do it.  So, here in the picture below is the bulk of my saved and purchased seeds. I have more that I keep in the freezer for long-term storage.  I could probably add more to my freezer, as there's no way I'm gonna use these up in the next five years.

Each of the larger plastic tubs contain multiple packets of seeds, in various categories.  All the bean varieties are in one tub, all the tomatoes in another, etc.  It's a hodgepodge of containers, but they are all labeled and air-tight.  I keep these boxes in a dark spot in my basement.  I used to store them in a small dorm refrigerator, but my stockpile has since outgrown it.

This past winter I did a complete seed inventory on an Excel spreadsheet.  It ended up being four pages long.  Yes, I do have a lot of seeds, but a lot is not enough.  I want more.  I realize that I may be turning into a seed junkie.  I'm okay with that. 

Our local foods group is planning a seed swap this spring.  I think I may be able to supply several folks with numerous years' worth of garden seeds.  Let's hope I can leave the swap with fewer seeds than when I arrive.

Saturday, April 2, 2011


If you happen to find yourself driving through our sleepy little burg sometime this month, and suddenly realize that you're parched from the long drive (it must have been a long drive because our burg is out in the middle of nowhere), stop on by Java Jules for a well-earned latte.  Not only will your taste buds be treated to a tasty treat, your eyes will get to feast on the wonderful display of beautiful artwork by local artists.

I am not at all biased toward the artwork, of course. Certainly not because my son is one of the artists featured in this month's show.  Last Thursday we were invited to the open house for the new display, and Number Two Son got to stand up with several other kids from his class to receive a rousing round of applause from the gracious crowd.  He was so shy!  But I could tell he was pleased.

 A watercolor artist went into his first grade class a few weeks ago and helped the students create their masterpieces, with a springtime theme.  The local arts council helped frame them and hang them at the coffee shop.  We have a really great local arts council.  I used to be fairly active in the group, but a few years ago shifted my volunteer work toward our burgeoning local foods initiative.  Ah, I wish I had more time to do more fun and worthwhile things!

Here he is with his finished art.  I hope we get to keep the frames, but even if we don't I'll still be hanging the picture up in our house.  This would look lovely in our hallway, a colorful reminder of spring all year-round.

Thanks Java Jules and Big Stone Arts Council!