On life in the milk lane

P1030148My baby with the one and only bottle baby on the farm, March 2010

Many, many people find my blog because we all share an interest in gardening.  And gardening, particularly of foodstuffs, is wonderful, is fodder here for almost six years of blogging, and is of its very nature sustainable:  if I can continue to put seeds in the ground, those seeds will continue to become sustenance and seeds for next year, so repeat, repeat, repeat.

But:  gardening can be kind of boring.  (Can I admit that and still remain a member of the faith?  I often wonder.)

February has come and gone and it occurred to me that I have been a milkmatron (someone closer to 50 than 40 can hardly be called a milkmaid) for three years now.  Interestingly, I have been matron to one particular animal, one crabby doe whose parturition on 2/27/2010 elevated my status from casual animal owner to active teat-squeezer.  Yes, every day for three years, I have been milking one goat.


Actually that is skirting the issue.  In those three years, I have milked four goats, sometimes all four on the same day, sometimes even twice a day.  Today I am milking “just” two, once a day.  One goat though has been the constant.

It is a bit of luck that has caused me to milk this one animal.  The other three goats could never have been milked this long for various reasons (youth, health, and temperament factor in that calculation) and luckily those other three were not my first goat.  Not being a statistician I cannot begin to tally the hours spent or the gallons produced; all I know is milk is one of the great constants in my own life and that both tallies are “lots.”  Sure, I only go on daytrips now away from the farm.  It is a choice.  It would be an easy choice to have a different life if I had a goat-sitter.  Parents of youngsters often feel the same way, and pay someone for the honor of an evening away.  Me, well, there is nowhere I would rather be than here…though I suppose I wouldn’t turn the services of a goat-sitter away should one appear….

So yes, lots of milk becomes lots of milk products.  At this point I believe I have made 45 or so different cheeses.  I have made kefir, buttermilk, yogurt, cajeta, puddings, fudges.  Milk has found its way into any and all dishes; my very first use of it was crepes with home-grown eggs and home-grown, ground buckwheat.  I have flubbed more than a few gallons of product and somehow I do not feel bad about the time spent because the chickens, turkeys, and dog appreciate errors of this kind.

It is, boringly, a lifestyle.

But it is a good life.  I have given this one animal a good life.  We have established a solid routine, have a solid affection for each other and we do respect each other’s needs.  The other two goats here are also lucky, I think.  I have not established as strong a tie to either of them, so in the shifting sands of farm dynamics, their tenures here are not guaranteed (though I do like them both).  If this were a university, those two others better publish or perish.  Even Michigan’s rejection of collective bargaining is felt here too:  you all stand alone and are to be judged on your production.  It is a hard thing to swallow if you love your animals.  But I am neither wealthy enough nor emotionally crippled enough to become a goat-hoarder:  you must be productive to live here in my barn.

Of course I am gaming the system against the other two because 2013 is the year of No Babies!  Yes, one must need be pregnant and give birth to actually produce milk (something that surprisingly few people fully realize…where to place the blame for that?  our educational system?  or our squeamishness of mammalian processes?) so if I do not load a goat or three into the back of my now-decrepit 20-year-old hatchback, those goats will not become pregnant on their own, so…if I was not milking you constantly you will not magically lactate on your own either.  But I have calculated my needs, and my needs did not include goat kids this year.

I wonder where I will be and what I will be doing in ten years:  will my life include goats?  I read with interest a study that states that we are closer to being the same person within a range of ten years than twenty, and that, indeed, the folly of one’s youth is cringe-inducing.  So sure, twenty years hence I might laugh at the foolishness of my late forties self the way I laugh at the antics of my teen- or twenty-something self:  that person is miles away.  And she owned goats, and foolishly milked them every day.

I do not know.  But:  I know that a goat’s poo and bedding is FABULOUS for my garden.

Rinse and repeat.


On Mud Season

DSCN0420Parsnips are better for the mud and cold

I do love living in one of the temperate stripes of the planet that experiences true seasonality.  Four seasons are the given.  Living here on a farm, however, I count six!  Let us start with spring.  Spring, summer, autumn, mud, winter, then mud.

We are in the second mud season of 2013.  My rubric is a simple one for determining it:  is the ground slippery, do your heels sink in, and are those hoses frozen?  Mud season.  2012’s second mud season began in November! This mud season switches to winter when it finally gets cold enough to hang the windows on the chicken coop.  (No frozen combs on the biddies please.)  It was mid-January when that happened, a final dip in cold accompanied by our usual snow…a never-ending, sometimes-melting, never-warm-enough-to fully-thaw snow which ended (at least I think) this week.

(This year might have the herald of a seventh season.  We tapped our maple trees for the first time on 10 January, for a quart of nice and dark syrup.  An aside.)

Many naturalists divide the seasons up further, looking for signs of things starting or ending (phenological signs) like the return of the whooping cranes and red-winged blackbirds (my own signs of spring) or the juncos (winter).  Gardeners can be even more discriminating:  I live for a first shoot of asparagus, a first ripe tomato, or even the first godawful squash bug.  Gardens have about 25 seasons by my estimation.

But yes, we had an actual winter.  Albeit it was a wee one, lasting maybe 8 weeks, still, it was long enough to keep me out of the gardens proper and fishing for sustenance in the greenhouses and root cellar only.  I have been able to hobble along with the basics for, what, the 5th winter in a row now, not needing to shop for vegetable staples like carrots, celery, broccoli or Asian cabbage; these things, though quite ugly and slug-slime-trailed, were still unequivocally edible in the greenhouses.

The skies were sunny and and it was warm a week ago Sunday, the last scrim of snow sluishing away, and you could find me in my boots with a hoe and a shovel, making dams and channels and trenches to speed the meltwater’s flow hopefully THROUGH said outdoor garden.  (Read about my perimeter garden trenching adventures here.  Yearly I now “only” need to get the garden’s water out and gone.)  Let us just say that clay soil needs help from its gardener, and no raised bed is too high, no path-borne swale too dippy, tripping hazards aside, in my quest for a puddle-free growing area.

There were four chicken backs (am I alone in having bags of these things in her freezer?  My husband always seems to draw the short straw when he goes down to fetch a chicken meal to thaw and almost always grabs a bag of these stock-making backs) bubbling on the stove inside, so I spied the ragged greens of carrots, leeks and turnips poking through the snow, and figured they’d be great to add to the finished stock for soup.

I am always shocked by the starch-to-sugar conversion process a vegetable undergoes after a trip through a deep freeze.  I mean, really.  The same seeds were used for both the indoor greenhouse carrots and the outdoor frozen, snow-covered carrots (and turnips and leeks) and my goodness those outdoor examples are like eating CANDY.  Seriously.  I had to up the acid content of the soup by setting out a shaker bottle of our verjus (green grape vinegar) to bring it back to dinner and not dessert palatability.

It happened again tonight when I found a couple ugly muddy garden kohlrabi:  my secret stir-fry what-is-THIS-morsel sucking up the sauce but imparting some shocking sweetness of its very own.

So though I cannot really abide Mud Season, it does hand us a few edible benefits.

DSCN0434Nix and I stay high and dry in the new greenhouse

On farm still lifes

P1110264Coat, in situ

While emptying the pockets of my barn coat before its regular trip through the wash recently, I thought about what an odd anthropological study its contents would make.  Between all the lint and straw, dirt and crushed bits of eggshell (whoops), what does all this junk say about, well, its owner?

There won’t be any study funded, surely; no penniless grad student shall pick through its contents; and unless Etna were to magically appear nearby, blow its stack and bury me in ash on my way to the goatshed with pockets still full, no future somebody is bound to wonder either.

Its contents:  Tiny box of strike-anywhere matches.  Box cutter.  Pliers.  Right garden glove (left missing).  Various bits of wire, T50 staples, small measuring tape, safety glasses.  About 5 types of screws, a few rusted nails, a large permanent marker, a few pellets for the pellet gun.  The aforementioned dirt and junk.  A penny.  A snack-sized plastic bag.  A twist tie.

(Sheesh, but honestly, no independent study would be needed.  Imagine I allowed ads on this blog:  The sidebar would now be filled with targeted ads of Daisy guns, home supply stores, tool companies, and poultry supplies.  Yep, you are welcome.)

Now, I wash this coat with extreme regularity.  You would too, I would hope:  owning such a cover-up is fairly sensible thing to do if one is often called to pick up something muddy, poopy or bloody.  It is a knockoff of a Carhartt canvas coat, with a zipper, probably three times larger than it needs to be, cloth lined, and it sports a few holes.  And EVERY time I wash it, I find practically the same things burdening its pockets.

What an odd life this coat has.  It never leaves the property, unless it accompanies me on trips to the butcher (poultry often are muddy, poopy AND bloody, poor things).  But it is part of my uniform.  Interestingly, I never leave the property in the uniform, either.  So it’s a secret uniform, wherein I transform from mild-mannered white collar El to Super Farmer El.

Not that I don’t think I look fabulous in such dowdy he-man-wear; I do.  I find it helps to have a bit of an attitude, especially when one is prone to slip in chicken poo, fly dramatically through the air, and land firmly on one’s rear end.  May as well dress the part of a superhero.

On extended absences

P1110221December flowers (calendula, good for hand cream) inside a snow-surrounded greenhouse #2

Ah, wherever have I been?  I have noticed that most blogs which go dark do what I just did:  no warning, just a waning quantity of posts and then poof!  no new posts.  For most bloggers, the end is unintentional.  I am not quite sure if I wish to end FGtW, but I have not been keen to post to it.

To answer the question, I have been where I have always been.  We have added homeschooling to our list of daily tasks, and like most start-ups, it has been overwhelming, mostly because nothing else in our lives has changed and we still have the same holes to dig or get out of every day.  I will say this about choosing to school one’s child fully at home:  It feels complete, full circle.

P1110206Sit and spin a while with us (Daughter’s Lendrum and my Ashford Traddy.  Dyed wool at right above blending hackle…lots of low-tech fun).  The front porch has become a fiber haven.

With the turning of the calendar pages come harvests made and plantings begun.  The garden calendar is as cyclical as all others.  Sometimes I flatter myself because I have been able to eke out larger harvest windows for many things (via season extension or milking through or even leaving a light on in the coop for three extra hours of ovulatory trickery in the egg birds) but most days I understand that these tricks, these hoop-jumps, are less time-saving than lifestyle-making.  I couldn’t HAVE a year-round CSA without the greenhouses, a traditional dairy calendar says I would be done with milking* about now, and no extra light means two eggs a day, and not thrice that.  It is simply a matter of commitment.  I want this so therefore I need to put the work in to make it happen.

P1110217Chickories and lettuce in the newest greenhouse

So when visitors marvel at the amount of labor they perceive is required to keep this place afloat, I kind of snicker inwardly.  I realize that, partially, it is the infrastructure that confounds them.  It sure looks like a lot of gardening, and wow, three goats a-milking?  And I will admit that often I am very tired.  But really, I have a secret.

Truth be told?  Global warming has saved my ass on most harvest windows.  It sickens me, but it is true:  the usual cessation of farm-related tasks that attends winter has simply occurred later and later each year.  We only just harvested our honey** this week:  the kitchen remains quite sticky.  And I finally cleared out the oldest greenhouse on Saturday.  On that fated day, baskets of green and hot peppers were pulled from living plants, forty pounds of sweet potatoes were unearthed under fading vines, and about 250 pounds of curing squash made the wheelbarrow commute from greenhouse to root cellar.  These tasks (honey harvest, pepper/sweet potato harvest and curing squash) should have been completed in October, not mid-December.

P1110209Livvy checks if the fence is live (it is) while T-bell and Cricket look on

So, sure, I have figured out some tricks.  I think most of human innovation involves some risk-taking, be it on a personal scale or a more species-wide one.  I still think high-nutrient food-growing is a terribly important thing, that our current system of growing food is horribly broken, and, if one is willing to risk it, a person who grows food for her own family’s consumption can scale up to year-round, then scale up to growing for others.  It really is not that hard to do once you have mastered the basics.  If I, with my rather limited time, can produce enough food for six other families on top of what I already grow for us…well, you get the picture.  Doing so, however, might not allow for much blogging time.

But I am still here.  And the gardens still grow.

P1110204Yarn fun

*we now have three goats:  T-bell, Cricket and new girl Livvy, a prima donna of a purebred doe.  I have elected to not breed them this fall, and instead continue milking them.  T-bell has been milking continuously since Jan ’10.  Of this writing, I get about 9 pints per milking.

**we have four hives this year.  Of the four, two are healthy and two are not (probably need to be replaced in the spring).  We leave them their honey through the winter, taking the top super off…four supers are about four gallons of honey, in this, an awfully stressful, year.

On seasonal freak-outs

What’s hoppening?  Like everything else, even the heavily-pruned hops vines are frightening in their output at this time of year

It happens every year at about this time.  Despite my best efforts, the garden overwhelms me!  Once the corn begins to tassle, I simply need to put my blinders on and ignore the weeds.

Granted, I am able to keep the beds weed-free.  I just need to find the beds amongst the uninvited foliage.

Dinosaurs in our midst:  juvenile bronze turkeys doing their morning perambulation.  They, and five home-hatched chicks, remain the only baby fowl on the farm

This feeling of being overwhelmed somehow does not stop at the garden gate.  Other cyclical tasks, once eagerly anticipated, are forgotten.  This year it’s the meat chicken order.  (You would think that a woman who is tied to her computer all the work-long day would maybe give the emptying freezer some consideration, but no.)  Granted, this year has been ridiculously hot and dry, so every week I would mentally think “next week shall be cooler (thus I can place the order).”  But weeks continue to go by and I begin to feel like this:

Is it an empty nest if it is just chickens?

On life without rain

Lookee!  Rainbows above #3 AND raindrops on the lens

You know, growing as we do here under clouds for three-quarters of the year, you think would enjoy the sun.  I do!  Those long hours of unimpeded solar rays hitting my garden’s leaves?  Heavenly.

But it’s the Severe Drought I admittedly am not terribly happy about right now.

The skies occluded, darkened and broke on Saturday evening.  I stepped on the back deck, inhaled that still-familiar yet longed-for scent of rain, and surveyed all the rain-sensitive items that I had allowed to accumulate for the month and a half of cloud-free skies.   Hurriedly I retrieved them all, throwing them higgledy-piggledy into any dry space (back porch, garage, tractor shed, goat shed, new greenhouse) and then proceeded to the garden.  I went into the garden IN THE RAIN and  turned on the hose to water the garden as usual.

Yes!  Welcome to El’s Glass Half Empty world in Drought!  Frankly, I did not care what I looked like, slowly getting damp myself while I soaked the ground of the beds.  It stopped raining not a quarter of a turn through the regular watering route.  In other words, I was right to worry.  Though the open land was rung-out-sponge damp, the ground beneath the boughs remained bone-dry and cracked.  Regular resumption of hose duties in the garden remains the standing order.  I am thankful for the electric pump, frankly.  (I bow to the pump, low bow, salaam.)

I will not recite the litany of ills that attend a drought.  But I will say it is all very strange.  And…the car is filthy.

On seed production

Copra onion blossom:  this F1 original seed, purchased/planted in 2007, is five generations removed from its hybrid origin.  Does this make it a non-hybrid yet?  It is a great yellow storage onion nonetheless for me.

With all the green pressure of seeding, growing and harvesting one’s own edibles, I will tell you it makes sense to go a step further.  You should harvest your own seed.

Forellenschluss lettuce

My first true (read: overwhelming) harvests of 2012 happen concurrently with the first harvests of next year’s seeds.  I allow, intentionally most of the time, lots of my spring veg to go to seed.  Many are biennials and thus won’t seed until this, their second, spring, but most are simply live-and-die annuals hellbent on reproduction in this, their only, year of life.  So I keep a store of paper lunch sacks handy and I snip off dried seedheads, marking the bags with a permanent marker as to what the heck they are, then I fold these bags to store in the basement for next (or maybe later this) year.  Roots, lettuce, brassicas, spinach, alliums, herbs.  Who needs a seed store when you have your own store?

The above is an example of inadvertent seed saving and seed starting.  About a month ago I deadheaded some Russian kale (the red, toothy kind) and left the seedpod branches on the ground to pick up later.  Well, it looks like I have my fall kale started already!  whoops.

Also, the ridiculously hot temperatures have lifted (joy) but one of the casualties was the artichokes.  The very thought of steaming them steamed me, so I let them flower.  Beautiful relative of the thistle, huh?

My go-to guide for all seed saving adventures is Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth, et.al.  There are other guides out there I am sure but this one is handily grouped by plant families and has relevant information about a plant’s suitability for growth in your particular area of the US.  If you know of others, please leave them in the comments.  Happy harvests!

On home vacations

One of the vacation projects was putting cement board siding on the outside of  Loven.  Ick; that cement board is nasty, but the cladding needs to be fireproof.  Now to paint it all and put the galvanized roof on…maybe I need another vacation?

Ah!  A week off from work.  The place looks really spiffed up (projects begun, projects completed, chaos swept away).  And:  I have bruises in strange places.

About a third of my work as an architect is designing second homes for Chicagoans keen to have a spot on this, the better, side of the lake.  You’ve heard about second homes, right?  They are acquired because the first home is wanting.  But me, I find it hard to ever leave my first home!  And why should I?  I would rather be home than anywhere else.

And it is just as well. There’s plenty to do.

Greenhouse #3 is even big enough to have a place to sit.

The new greenhouse layout is perfect for growing long rows of indeterminate tomatoes.  It is no secret that I abhor staking tomatoes; I have devoted many posts to this dislike, yet I still grow and stake them.  So I tried a new method on Thursday morning, as it was the best time to do it:  cloudy, breezy, and the Supreme Court was due to make its final rulings.  Instead of sitting by the radio being pissed off, I took to the greenhouse to change what I can.

This is 17 gauge fence wiring.  There are many uses for a roll of this stuff; in point of fact, I have never set a current to this wire…and I have gone through an eighth of a mile of it since I bought it.  I stretched the wire between the bows, using self-tapping screws held off from the bow just enough to allow a wrap of the wire.  Then, I stake the tomatoes by tying sisal twine to the base of the plant, stretching the twine up and knotting it over the fence wire, then draping it back down (for when the plant gets taller/more unwieldy).  Pretty simple all around.  I have plenty of screws, plenty of wire…but I ran out of sisal.

I trim to one main stalk, and am maniacal about trimming all future suckers until the plant gets about five feet tall.  Wrapping with the sisal is fairly easy.  Up twisty up, avoiding the fruit branches, loose enough to allow it to grow.  At its biggest point a plant might require up to four strings to hold it aloft but sisal is cheap.  The wire shouldn’t bend much under the weight; between the 4′ span of the bows there are only two, maybe three plants.  And they will all grow to hit the roof sooner than later.

And by the time I finished with this task (yes, doing 76 plants takes a bit of time) I turned on the radio and surprisingly wasn’t angry by the rulings!  Ah, a morning well spent.

On closing the harvest gap

Spanking new potatoes with herbs for tonight’s roast chicken

Well, that’s good:  it was for only six short weeks that potatoes were off the menu here.  These Yukon Golds made a fine accompaniment to the roast chicken we had to celebrate Father’s Day.  Potatoes this early in the season can only mean two things:  one, they had to have been volunteers (indeed), and two, the freak-warm winter had a lot to do with their early maturity.  So into a parchment paper envelope they went with butter and salt and…a stapled edge.

In order for me to repeat this gap between one potato harvest and the next, I just need wacky hot weather and to miss harvesting all of last year’s potatoes.  Uh, no thanks.  Keep the weather; Ill work on my harvest skillz.

But everything’s a mite early.  Cherries, first blueberries:  normally strawberries alone command our fruity attention at this time of year.  Roses come and gone.  First garlic pulled.  Peas done (thankfully:  we harvested 3 gallons (!) of them this weekend).

All this earliness doesn’t mean I am any happier that the new greenhouse remains a month behind my schedule.  But it’s now planted at least.  I suppose I ought to be glad the scalding temperatures of February killed my first tomato, eggplant and pepper seedlings off because it’s the second round of the same that are planted here at what fortuitously was the perfect size for transplanting.  Small mercies.


And yes, it’s only I who could think that 76 tomato, 15 eggplant, and 6 pepper plants (and 6 artichokes, 4 sweet potatoes and dozens of chard and basil plants) mean the new greenhouse is underplanted.  It’s the layout that’s throwing me off.  The other greenhouses are oriented N-S and this new one is E-W but the beds are continuous (and all point E-W in all cases).  These beds are all 4′-0″ wide, running the greenhouse’s 32′ length.  The beds in the other greenhouses are wee 3’x6′ things for the most part with lots of paths between.  I still think the E-W orientation of any bed is best at this latitude; had the other greenhouses been planted like this one there’d be too much shadowing of the crops in the center beds.

Greenhouse building aside, mid-June is actually a not-too-busy time in the gardens (pea picking excepted).  I’m just watering and weeding now; first crops are coming out and new ones follow in the empty spots.  It’s a nice pace, frankly, just standing with the hose in one’s hand, watching things grow.

On looking for shortcuts (and not finding them)

A new garden day dawns over Greenhouse #3.

One of the (perhaps not terribly) surprising things that happens to new gardeners is learning how long it actually takes to accomplish something.  What appears straightforward (harvesting and then shelling fresh peas) is actually a sneaky time-thief that makes a person sigh with exasperation.  A half HOUR to shell two cups of peas?

It sure makes you think about the industrialization of our food system.  Frozen peas, either in baby form or those starchy large ones, are a bit of a modern miracle.  Who are all those people bent over those pea vines?  How DO they do that, if not by hand?  And how in the world do they shell them all?  If you think about the true labor involved if you were to pick and shell them by hand, no child’s plate would ever have uneaten peas.

Lincoln shell pea

But yes, that’s my back bent over the pea patches.  I grow the main 3 types:  shell, snow and sugar.  I would say shell were my favorite…by far, even if they take forever.

Lots of things take forever.  That greenhouse in the foreground of the top photo is a perfect example.  I often find my happiest days generally have me either eight feet up a ladder or on my knees in the dirt somewhere…and it’s a bonus day if I end the day having done both.  But even those days get tiring.  I was on the ladder one 90-degree day recently with the hammer drill setting the wire-lock channel to yet another greenhouse bow and it occurred to me:  is there an app for this?

An app for pea-picking might also be in order.

On small feasts

Five year old greenhouse globe artichokes actually produce flowers of a decent size

Interesting:  I hadn’t intended for two weeks to pass between postings.  Could it be a long weekend, a new greenhouse, the end of school or something else life-changing and/or burdensome that I can blame for the radio silence?  Eh, well, check off “all of the above.”  Ahem.

I am appreciating the garden just now.  Surely, if you home-grow, you work mainly from famine to feast on any one vegetable, and no matter how you try to time it, those famines/feasts between vegetables seem to work in concert with each other.  Everything must somehow ripen jointly.  (Must work on this, says the Machiavelli in me.  Where are my garden puppet strings.)

But the other wonderment that has occurred to me as a gardener is that almost every vegetable can be eaten at any point of its growth.  Why wait for the proper harvest?  My gluttonous binges on perfectly-ripe vegetables are tempered by the not-insignificant fact that I am Impatient.  (Yes, capital-I.)  So when I first see the (first of the garden to ripen) English (or shell) peas, I am eager to pull off a few to eat as mange-touts, or snow peas.  Why not.  My labor, my benefit.

And so it is that these young peas are joined with the everbearing asparagus (maybe a month left to go for my daily raids), some fresh favas (greenhouse-grown, pulled from the spots of the first “done” October-planted lettuces), the newest spring onions, and the current representative of the garlic crop (the scapes).  Everything is really flipping seasonal here.  Why not a pilaf, with some (effing) garden mint and thyme and a pinch of pantry cardamom and cinnamon, thank you Nigel Slater for the inspiration (a pilaf of asparagus, fava beans and mint from his inimitable Tender).

I think often of capturing these meals.  But they are a dime a dozen here, frankly; why brag.  My point in all of it is to get it to be de rigeur for YOU.  (Tell me:  is it working?)

On thankless tasks

Perdita and Puck joined the herd at 8:40 Friday night

They say that 95% of goat births are uneventful.  My percentages stand at 80%…Sabine’s birth was not fun at all.  Less than two weeks after that fraught event, Cricket calmed the waters by delivering these twins.  As a goat midwife, my job should simply be to wipe their faces, dry their bodies, trim their umbilici and back off to let the mother do the work.  And in so doing Friday, we stood witness to the nonevent, the simple wonderment that is animal husbandry.

2012 is the year of the white goat, apparently.  All our other goats are either chamoisee (brown w/ black legs) or sundgau (black with brown legs).

So the weekend may have started with a bang, but the rest of it felt like I was stuck in a thankless-task loop.  Another round of weeding of invasives like bindweed and bamboo grass, another grubbing with the spade to uproot the deep roots of dock, another wheelbarrowload of straw mulch to cover the potatoes and strawberries, and an assortment of other icky tasks left me feeling fairly done in come Sunday night.

I have to tell myself it’s all of a piece.  You may want to compartmentalize, but gardening, like most worthwhile things, has its fun and unfun tasks.  The overall picture is the one you’re aiming for.  A big harvest requires I grub out that bindweed, like having a baby requires I change a diaper or two (or two thousand).

But then I look around and see the fruits of my labors (the full milk pail, the delectable harvests, the funny and accomplished child) and I really don’t mind the thanklessness of it all.

On timing (not) being everything

Sabine is doing well:  the splint (not shown; she wears it at night) has helped straighten her right front leg…this pic was taken last Tuesday.  She and her mom are integrated with the herd now during the day.

I often have believed the world would run more smoothly if it ran on MY schedule.  And on MY schedule, things need to be done sooner than later.

I am not quite sure what happened (motherhood?  the onset of middle age?  moving to the country?) but my usual foot-stomping impatience has waned!  What is it, have my expectations diminished?  Have I just run headlong into that closed door called reality?  Whatever the cause, I have accepted a lot more leeway in my schedule.  “Take a deep breath and get over it” seems to be the new m.0.

The apiary.  First hive has been split; we added two more this spring; and the first hive yielded just shy of 27 pounds of honey from the first harvest

Most of the pressure that I have put on myself revolves around getting food for my CSA people.  It’s been almost two years now since I have transitioned from bartering my extras to running a year-long, once-a-week box scheme for my friends (6 full shares, one partial share).  There have been weeks where I panicked that there wouldn’t be “enough” but I have set up the shares in such a way that flexibility is a key to it all.  Yes, bread-salad-greens-milk product-eggs is standard per week, but weeks like this one (honey, chive-blossom vinegar, fresh sauerkraut, and no eggs) work for both me and for them.

I spent my Mother’s Day morning assembling the greenhouse frame.  Ah, the life of the weekend warrior-farmer.

And that’s a good thing.  I do have a life, after all, and can’t spend all my days puttering around the garden or whipping up bread and cheese in the kitchen….much as I would like to.  Sometimes, work interferes with my farm life (actually, that happens quite often); sometimes, a child must be chauffered to and fro; sometimes, I just want to get away or just sit with my book.  Having some flexibility built into the schedule is key to it all.

And with that flexibility?  I don’t do nearly as much foot-stomping.  I leave that to my crabby goats.

Willow and Sabine.  Willow is a fairly patient mother, all things considered.

On ba(aaa)d births

Welcome, Ms Sabine

To have milk, you need to have babies.  It’s an unavoidable fact.  And this milk year, because I was unable to get our doeling pregnant (our daughter was in the hospital during Ivy’s last heat of the year) we ended up buying a pregnant doeling from a local dairy.  Willow, the pregnant goat, has been an adorable addition to our herd.  It’s too bad the other goats don’t feel the way about Willow that we do, however!

Because Willow is tiny AND bullied, we’ve been having her sleep elsewhere.  Goats hate being separated; they’re herd animals, after all, and in Willow’s mind, she’d much rather be head-butted than be alone, even just at night.  Poor thing.  I took heart in the fact that she could deliver soon, and she’d at least have her kids for company.

Problem was, we didn’t know when she would kid.  Unlike my other does who have driveway dates to get pregnant (thus I hang my hat on a solid due date 155 days after their visit) I just had to wait and watch with Willow.  “Watching” basically means I felt her up and hung over her, daily…and “waiting” means I have been doing it since mid-March.  But on Saturday, all signs pointed to a Cinco de Mayo baby goat or two.

Not two baby kids, though; one kid.  Sabine made her way into the world only with our help. She’s huge; she’s nearly a quarter the size of her mother in length and height but not weight.  And her cramped quarters weren’t helpful; she was born with a badly twisted leg and foot…a splint is helping those flexible young bones to straighten out and develop normally.

The bonus, of course, is that she’s a girl, and she’s a lusty eater.  But poor Willow!

On year-round harvests

salsa fixings, Aug 2011

We ate our last potato last night.

It was a huge Red Norland, a “spooky” potato (according to the eight-year-old) with finger-length sprouts emerging from it; it was added to a soup of leeks, celery, parsley root and cream, blended smooth and served hot with fresh bread and herbed butter.

That last potato got me thinking about staples and seasonality.

After one hangs one’s garden hat on providing a year’s worth of (name your vegetable), there are logical next steps that a gardener usually takes.  What else is out there, what else can I put away?  Are the items destined to be eaten in the same form as they’re harvested, like the potatoes or apples and winter squash, or do they have to be canned or frozen, dehydrated or picked?

And what about the year-round availability that the grocery store provides?  Can I compete with that, ever?

Can I produce FRESH food year-round?  And if so, is it stuff we’ll actually eat?

Those last two items have been THIS gardener’s holy grail.  As time and our tastes have allowed, I have shifted away from preserving my harvests and have instead moved to Fresh Is Best.  The greenhouses have been key to this, of course, but there are other methods out there, like low tunnels or even  basement/cold-storage of items like celery, chard, and chickories.  These items are dug up, roots and all, and potted and placed in one’s dark and cool storage area.  The leaves and stalks, though blanched from lack of light, are eminently edible.

But I am a slacker at heart, so I leave things in the ground year-round and rely on my greenhouses to provide the bounty.  Still, many things, like that potato, have an off-season, that period of time between the last wrinkled sprouty stored spud and the digging of the first thin-skinned earth-warmed baby spud.  The wait makes you want them more…but the more you work at it, the better you are at shortening that off-season.  I expect my first potato harvest in mid-June, in the greenhouses.

Here’s a list of my year-round, same-form items:

  • Leeks, onions, scallions, shallots; kale, mustards, collards, chard, chickories, lettuce, celery, beets, carrots; button mushrooms; parsley, thyme, rosemary, sage, bay, garlic; eggs, chicken, milk and milk products.

Here is a list of almost-year-round goodies:

  • Cabbage, broccoli, parsnips, potatoes, fennel, kohlrabi, celeriac, turnips, rutabaga, daikon radishes, skirret, scorzonera, and

And here’s a partial list of the things that get harvested once, no matter how hard I try:

  • Asparagus, artichoke, cardoon, tomatoes, squash, eggplant, peppers, okra, peas, beans, corn, cantaloupe/melons, cucumbers, tomatillos, brussels sprouts and cauliflower; honey, maple syrup; apples, blueberries and strawberries.

So when people ask me why I wish for another greenhouse, I think of my lists, especially this middle one.  Year-round fennel and kohlrabi would seem to be laudable goals, but year-round potatoes?  Score!  Gotta just dig more dirt to figure out how I can do it.

It keeps me busy.  And the grocery store doesn’t get our money!

On spring progress

Old” greenhouse (built 2007)

I have to laugh though because I felt so proud after a morning’s work in the old greenhouse above.  We cleaned out 2 of 9 beds!  12 bags of salad from 2 beds!  But certainly you can’t tell–at all–in this picture.

I always wonder what I am thinking when I take on a new task.  Is all my sparse free time going to simply reappear when I do something eventually worthwhile like build a third greenhouse on the property?  Is that laundry ever going to get done?

Greenhouse #3–or its beginnings, anyway–is located outside the garden proper.   Sod’s a-busted, base frame set (and dug, which is not terribly obvious by the photo) but not assembled; this one will be 16’x32′.  Those are 2x8x16′ untreated #1 pine boards.  My poor brother gets to pick rocks.  The chickens are pleased with the earth-turning, and I have no idea what Penny is doing:  supervising?  And Ruby the hen turkey is sitting on 14 eggs within the doghouse under the chicken tractor at right.

Actually, I truly enjoy these bouts of frenetic activity.  The winter was mild enough to keep me in fine digging form so I do feel like the other two greenhouses and all the outdoor beds are on schedule, maintenance- and plant-wise.  (The freak-warm weather enabled me to do infrastructure repairs and a bit of ground work much earlier than normal thus I avoided the usual early-spring work overload.)  So technically I can build a new greenhouse and not worry about the rest, right?

Part of this new greenhouse is located atop an old roadway, so my brother’s picking its old stones, lucky guy.  Tom’s on the year’s first Grand Mow beyond, and the chickens help dig.

But then I realize we’re where we should’ve been last week.  Eeps!

On greenhouse #3

These are the steps taken thusfar to have a third greenhouse (hoop house, polytunnel, etc.) on this property:

  • Stake site for the final location and size with husband; argue a lot but eventually get your way confirm that a 16’x32′ model is the best size for the space
  • Order greenhouse
  • Order wood and buy hardware for the base frame, end walls, door, and raised beds from the local lumber yard
  • Mow
  • Till
  • Erect base frame.

A rainy weekend got in the way of accomplishing the last three steps (clay soil should not be tilled wet or you will forever have concrete-hard earth clods).  So we went foraging instead.  (If you want to understand the process of erecting a greenhouse, I did a play-by-play of putting up my mom’s small one here.)

About two miles directly north of us, our friends purchased 10 acres of duneland.  For whatever reason, the trees were never cleared on this or any adjacent property…there are some lovely old-growth monsters (poplar, cherry, white pine, oak) and quite a range of microenvironments (bog, creek, pine warren, dune) so it is a great place to see what one can see.

Small people love small frogs


But our search for the elusive morel was futile.  These came from a friend’s search.

On dogwood season

And it’s North Carolina’s state flower

If you squint, the forests around us trick you into thinking it’s fall and not spring.  The new leaves and buds and pollen anthers and blossoms are all quite colorful (and even if the color is green there are so many different gradients).  It’s the dogwoods that stand out now:  usually they’re understory trees and quite often they’re found at the edge of a stretch of trees.  I like seeing their pillows of white.

It’s spring, though, because my eyes are itchy.

A previous forage

My friends have found plenty of morels, but so far I have come up empty.  Wild asparagus is easily had, and we’re not tired of it yet.

It’s quite a nice time of year to go out for a walk, and even nicer to take a long bike ride (no bugs in the teeth).  Of course I need to make the time to do both, but…riding to go forage fits the bill.  As long as I remember to take my allergy medication first, that is.

(Next up:  Greenhouse #3!)

On hops “asparagus”

Good gardeners actually repeatedly trim the shoots or are otherwise overwhelmed.  Might as well eat the gleanings.

During garden cleanup last weekend, I considered my sprawling hops vines, dried and new.  They sprawl because I have not yet re-erected their trellis after last year’s windstorm.  (It’s on the everlong To Do list.)  And like any curious gardener and hungry person, I plucked and took a nibble of a new shoot.

Not bad, I thought.  Bright, even.  Surprisingly not bitter like its fruit.

And hairy.

Last year I grew them on trellis netting.  Smart people grow them on wires so they can unhinge them from the top and allow the fruit to dry.  This year, I will be a smart hops farmer.

Sure enough, they’re edible, and sure enough, some previous group of hungry gardeners, Europeans mostly, have figured this out…indeed, there’s a market season for the green ones in Italy (bruscandoli), and the Belgians blanch and even pickle them (jets de houblon).  So to tame their sprawl and fill my maw, I brought some in to the kitchen.

Like asparagus, they’re best fresh.  I have seen plenty of recipes for risotto con bruscandoli,  which sounded fine…but risotto’s a dish I make annually with the first big harvest of asparagus so I didn’t wish to upstage that primary vegetable.  I blanched them in a bit of water to knock the hairs off, then sautéed them with young leeks, the first of the green garlic and some olive oil…and then tossed the lot into a waiting dish of hot fresh egg-y pasta, spring herbs and about a teacup’s worth of new ricotta. A dash of chive blossom vinegar and a bit more butter, salt, and pepper…toss…mmm.

A fine quick spring repast.  Shared with a chilled glass of white wine and a large salad, this meal might just be repeated…next year.

Actually, I did repeat an eat:  the next night I braised some with asparagus and green garlic.  We had company for dinner and it was a hit.

On something from (almost) nothing

It must be Monday because my muscles are sore

Ah, Spring!  Newness everywhere:  new buds, new shoots, new babies, new sprouts.  It must be time to crack the spine of…an old book?  Indeed.  Late winter and early spring find the bedside table crowded with well-thumbed gardening books.  This year is no exception, and I have dug up (pun intended) one of my favorites.  It’s called Life in the Soil by James B. Nardi.

Seeds plus light, water, soil equals a July tomato

Every page is a revelation.  I highly recommend it.

Seeds plus compost and a trellis equals a June pea or three

IN the food web of life, I of course find most fascinating the producers:  those organisms that produce their own nutrients from only air, water, minerals and energy…the everyday wonder that is a lettuce seed, say, spouting and heading up for my eventual enjoyment on just the soil, rain and sun that falls upon it?  Awe, inspiring.

On rushed seasons

22 March is shockingly early for the first (measly) asparagus harvest, don’t you think?

The girl barges in through the back door Wednesday afternoon and announces “It sure is quiet out there!”  That morning’s trip with the dogcrate full of roosters guaranteed that the regular sounds of backyard bucolia have returned here.

My call to the butcher’s wife brought the usual guffaw from her.  “SEVEN roosters? You ARE a softie, honey.”

Jellybean and some of his wimmin.  What you can’t see is his torn-up wattle, poor thing.  Now he’s back to being #2 Rooster.

Er, not really.  The seven in question were late-summer chicks too small for the Thanksgiving turkey trip to the butcher in question.  We endured their presence until we just couldn’t (“we” includes the harassed hens and of course the now bloody and pissed-off Mary Ellen and Jellybean) any longer.  And since one guy was keen to “sleep” in the huge blue spruce which shades the henyard…well, let’s just say an early spring’s open windows and one obnoxious night bird are not exactly compatible.  It’ll buy you a trip to freezer camp, dude.

I envy those of you who are actively eating down the contents of your freezers.  I am somehow unable to ever see the bottom of a freezer (understandably, not a bad problem to have), what with the seasonal binges like a rooster harvest.  Things simply get replaced.

The new greenhouse:  I had planned on harvesting these greens by the end of April, not March…

One thing not easily stored is the lettuces.  My best-laid plans of harvesting one  older-lettuce-filled greenhouse and then moving on to the next baby-lettuce-filled greenhouse are crappy plans indeed with daily lows beating average highs here.  Three solid weeks of temperatures in the 70s/80s mean that the 100s experienced in the greenhouses are not good for anything currently in there…including the 100 cells seeded with tomatoes.  Sigh.  Time to reboot, clean out, reseed.  Weather, you know, just happens.  My plans would’ve been perfect in a normal year.

The routine on Sunday and Thursday nights:  gather ye CSA bags as ye may…

But what are we going to eat in May?  I wonder!  Better start seeding lettuce rows for the fickle world outside.

The nightly haul:  leeks, lettuces (Amish Deer Tongue and red romaine), atop bolting collards, asparagus and onions…with herbs. 

Does this weather mean we’ll have a six-month-long summer?

Other indications of spring are spring onions in every possible form.  Here’re regular scallions, chives, and walking onions in a greenhouse bed.  Since they coexist with Egg Season, we’ve been pairing a lot of them lately, because, really, who can resist cong you bing for breakfast?  Not me!

I watched a fingernail moon hurdle the treeline as I was milking this morning.  So strange, this weather…have we skipped a month?  Did I miss it somehow?  How else to explain the scent of hibiscus and daffodils and the sound of the nightjars’ calls. Surely it’s late April, not mid-March.

The kid about to unplant her first spuds last July

Traditionally, however, St. Patrick’s Day is pea- and potato-planting day ’round here.  Many years I haven’t even been able to trench the frozen earth to accept peas (much less potatoes) but this year I wonder if the soil is already too warm for them.  If “regular” weather returns the potatoes, though, can take more than a few frosts, if my consistent missed-spud harvesting every fall is an indication.  Those volunteers are always my first spud harvests.

Fava beans, parsnips, carrots and beets have also been planted outside, some already sprouting.  Baby lettuces transferred around.  Late root crops pulled and eaten.

I am thankful to the slow slide into winter that we had last year:  I was fully able to put the garden beds “to bed” for the winter (out with the old harvests and in with the thick mulch) so this spring’s planting is amazingly easy.

And I also realize that I am somehow always optimistic about the time I will have in the future to take on some project (either maintenance or new hairshirt I mean farm task).  Does this time ever materialize?  Nope, never.  It’s best to do whatever it is (fully dig out a weedy bed, fully repair that fence section) when it needs to be done…trust me here.  Its effects can be cumulative if you put it off.

On plenitude’s upsides

Little leeklets

Whenever I make a post, I tend to walk a line between showing what I am doing and showing you what you might want to do.  It’s only fair, right?  I hope I can, you know, teach something…if by bad example at the very least.

An oddity of this way of life is that I never (and I do mean never) have produce in the refrigerator.  It’s all fresh-picked and home-grown with the exception of lemons, my one nonlocal shame.  The only things that do go into storage now are garlic, onions, shallots and potatoes….and apples.  Everything else is readily gotten out of the greenhouses or garden year-round:  it’s a great way to be, just grabbing a bowl and walking outside for dinner’s celery and carrots, parsley and green onions.  Greens like cabbage, collards, kale, mustards and turnips are available for most of the year.  And salad, all other root veg and all manner of herbs are here year-round.

It’s late winter now, burgeoning spring…thanks to the mild winter, spring is appearing terribly early this year, and who cares what the groundhog and the Farmers’ Almanac have to say.

Migratory birds are my first clue that the season has changed.  I should say “the migratory birds’ effect on my yard birds,” because the turkey vultures, redwing black birds and even the dang Canada geese are freaking out the chickens who understandably think every bird shadow is a hawk on the wing.  The vultures, who fly in family units, haven’t established themselves yet; it takes a bit of time for them to hone in on their territory, though I know they’re around.  The redwings though are very keen to plant their flags on some waterway or another, and the melodious male is back in the yard again…even though our frog pond is embarrassingly tiny.  The frogs (also out and croaking) don’t agree that it’s tiny, though.

I also know it’s late winter because it’s mid-spring in the greenhouses and we’re in a panic to eat everything.  I got a sunburn Saturday (and even took my shirt off, because, really, who can see?) while I was doing work in there.  What’s fine for the plants is actually a bit too hot for its human caretaker.  It did feel nice, being sweaty…considering the maple sap is still dripping and all.

But it is true:  I am in a bit of a panic.  The potatoes will soon sprout, the onions already have, and even the softneck garlic is looking a little green.  Ir is time to transition.  The arugula, mache, mizuna and claytonia (winter’s favorite salad greens) are all madly going to seed and tasting nasty as they do.  My seeds are sprouting well in the greenhouse beds, but so are the weeds.

Of course I wish that every last one of you had chicken coops and greenhouses in your yards.  But I warn you.  Remember that crazy period in summer when you just can’t possibly eat another zucchini, and what are you going to do with all those cucumbers and tomatoes?  Get a greenhouse and this will happen to you four times a year…maybe five.

But if you do you’ll never have produce in your fridge and you can suntan in your underwear in March!

Another year, another round of seed-starting

Little Edie has adaptation skillz at the ready.  Any time there’s a pile of something warm-ish in a greenhouse, she’s sure to land and nest.

We are all born tinkerers.  Tinkering’s a prime adaptive skill, of course, honed over millenia to help us fulfill our needs.  In this age of relatively easy money, though, I think that within the ease at which we exchange money for goods, we’re also exchanging something else.  With every dollar goes a bit of inborn knowledge, some nascent adaptation, a skill…simply because it’s easier to pay for it than to do it yourself.  We’re not so quick to tinker!

I am surely not saying you all should get out a circuit board and some solder and make your own computers.  Hah.  No; rather, this is more a signal to myself that not all my troubles have an easy monetary fix.  Indeed.  Sometimes, life requires a little bit of pain.

Case in point:  I abhor indoor seed starting.  Really.  And every year, I seem to be on a quest, a grand period of Deep Think, to solve this problem.   It’s not an insurmountable problem.  In fact, it’s really not even a problem.  It is just, of all that goes into gardening, seed-starting in trays interests me the least.  Maybe because it’s phony?  Maybe me warming 48-plug trays to start the tomatoes and okra in my basement is somehow cheating the process?  Ah.

Who knew I was such a purist, right?  Well, I have no problem at all planting seeds outside in the ground.  And I do start a fair number of spring/summer veg in rows in the greenhouse beds themselves.  But not all plants find these beds–and their wild temperature swings–to their liking.  Knowing how some seeds require a constant warm-ish soil temperature to germinate, is there a way I can get around this?

Nope.  Not if I expect a harvest.

Shrewd:  When moving them to get at what was under them, I threw the agricultural cloth in a pile over the top of the kale.  Edie took that as an invitation to lie UPON said kale.

Not all early veg are so picky, though.  For the last two years I have experimented with growing the seed-start trays in the greenhouses themselves.  Problem was, the voles (field mice, the scourge of the winter greenhouse) found a few of the seed trays and mowed them down of their particularly delectable victuals, so I needed them off the ground or somehow out of harm’s way.  A makeshift table seemed to work, but it cast shadows…and the warming late-winter greenhouse needs no shadows.

Now this year, on Leap Day, I actually splurged bought my way out of my problem by getting a new wire shelf for the old greenhouse’s back wall.  Wire shelves let the light through, I figure, so I can leave it on the wall all year…and darn it, the vermin can’t jump that high.

Probably the lamest tinker ever, new shelf on back wall.  Mylar blanket wraps about trays of herb, flower and cabbage-family seeds on wire shelf.  Those sticks coming out of the ground?  Attempts at fig propagation.

But damn.  The tomato, celery, okra, tomatillo, and pepper family plants are all testing my patience in the basement.

Here’s a bit more context.  Dang, I try not to show you what a slob I am…sorry.  But do you see Edie?

From sap to syrup part two

There is this general assumption that if you don’t have the right tools, you cannot possibly do x, y or z.  This is complete nonsense.

All my years of cobbled-together DIY projects have taught me two important things.   The first is that I probably already have the tool at hand to do the job.  And two, if I seriously want to increase production, that tool at hand might not suffice.  The lesson I have thus learned is “try it once, and if it mostly works and you like the result, then prepare to shell out some cash for next time.”

Home cheesemaking is the most readily available example of this lesson.   To make, press, age and store the cheese, I get by with items I already have in the house.  This remains the case today with one important exception:  I bought a cheese press.  What a difference.  I also let the goats buy me a cheese press, as in, I made enough money off the sale of their cheese to enable (justify?) the purchase of said press.

So, onward, maple-syrup making.  If you drive around country roads now in my corner of the world, you will see all manner of tree-tapping techniques and implements.  You’ll see the bases of maples cluttered with traditional sap pails, simple plastic gallon-sized buckets, our own sap-collecting bags, or a web of food-grade tubing piped from spiles to an awaiting 5-gallon bucket on the ground.  I’ve even seen half-gallon Mason jars wired to the trees.  The only unusual tool in this whole operation are the spiles themselves:  at $1.50-$4.00 each, they’re a fairly small investment.

If you want to give it a go at your own house, you need only buy the spiles.  You probably already have a stock pot and a roasting pan…and you can even skip the roasting pan if you watch the pot closely.

Bag slowly filling:  it takes about a day or two to get half full

Pouring the sap into the big stockpot:  yes, it’s just sweet-ish water at this point

Who says a watched pot never boils?  Okay, sure, it does take a while to boil all this off.

We finish the sap in roasting pans.  Once the surface sheets over as the temperature gets to be about 215-220*, it’s at the proper sugar ratio

We use my stainless steel milk strainer and high-temperature filter to strain the syrup.  A few layers of cheesecloth or a thin cotton towel, draped in and rubber-banded to the jar’s neck would also have worked.  Just pour very slowly!

So the next time you want to try something new at your own house, ask yourself this important question.  Is the thing you wish to attempt an OLD thing?  As in, what would your great-grandparents have done if they also wished to make it?  Cheesemaking, breadmaking, gardening, charcuterie, maple sugaring:  These things all predate fancy presses, bread machines, gas-powered tillers and aerated compost tea,  pink salt and even our sap bags.  Necessity is indeed the mother of invention.

So have a go!

From sap to syrup part one

Boiling sap indoors means a nice sweet-smelling steambath for the kitchen.  We don’t recommend doing this indoors; we were frankly just anxious to try it…

Longtime readers will notice that all our labors here involve moving things, categorically, from”Get It Elsewhere” to “Make It Here.”  Sure, there have been a few “why did we bother” projects, but most are rewarding.  Most!  This is encouraging, isn’t it?

And when we scraped down our first batch of maple sugar from the bottom of the roasting pan on Thursday night, the three of us, sticky spoons in mouths, mumbled something to the extent of “why didn’t we do this before?”

Okay, okay; sure, the ratio, in gallons, of sap to syrup in most commercial boilings is 43:1.  So who cares that it took us five gallons to get our measly first half pint?  It was seriously the best syrup we’d ever had.  Maple sap is only about 2% sugar, you see; the rest is mostly water.  The bags are filling quickly and normal recommendations are that you empty them every 2 days, especially if the daytime temperatures hit 40 or more.

Propane-fired tabletop burner (attached to tank) with kettle stand in foreground

This is our setup:  In Tom’s garage, we use the metal stand that came with our smoker (to adapt it to being a turkey fryer, so of course it was never used until now) to boil off the sap in a large (3.5 gallon) kettle.  Once it reduces by about 3/4, we pour it into a roasting pan and finish it on this rusty two-burner stove.  OF COURSE I don’t have pictures of the actual operation.  I figured Tom’d never get through those 20 gallons in one day.  (He did.)  Grand total:  about a quart and a half.

I promise to get more pictures.  This is just the tip of the iceberg, sap-wise.

This bag has been hanging for about 6 hours

On sap, and mycelia

Perhaps it’s laziness, but this household’s married couple tends to use Christmas for getting we’d-buy-it-otherwise presents for each other.  This past holiday was no different in that regard, but it had an odd exception:  the favorite household tool (the cordless hammer drill set with a 7/16″ bit) would be put to good use in aiding both of our presents.

2012 has two brand-new projects on the edible agenda,  you see.  We’ll be maple sugaring and cultivating mushrooms.  The drill’s duty?  It gets to tap the the trees for their sap and riddle holes in hardwood logs and pine stumps for the spore-drenched plug spawn.  (The mushrooms will be addressed closer to Fungi Season.)

Tom got a big box of goodies from Sugar Bush, a Michigan syruping supply house.  I am keen to support Michigan companies and these folks were very helpful.

The sugaring has been an interesting prospect in this odd weather year.  We actually did a few cautious taps to our trees in early February, but the ups and downs in temperature have started and stopped the flow accordingly.  Ours are not sugar maples; we have silver and red and both will work for sugaring but aren’t as “easy” (read:  you have to collect and boil more sap) as sugar and black maples.  We use sap collection bags, not the traditional pail, because they clean up and store more readily than do metal pails…and they’re cheaper.  Once we collect enough sap, I’ll show you the boiling-off process.  There is fire involved, heh.

Soule hook

And our daughter reminded us once again of the maple-sugaring passage of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods:  Laura, her sister and cousins got to drizzle their soft-boiled syrup into the snow to make sugar taffy.  Maybe we too will get a sugar snow and can try that ourselves.

Side view of bag hung on hook

There will be blood

There has to be a Murphy’s Law to animal husbandry, though I do not know what it is called.  I may not know its name, but I certainly know what it is.

Let me give you some recent examples.

By this law, one’s first and favorite goat (and best milker) will confound you.  On returning her to her pen this snowy Friday evening–after a day spent away from the farm–you notice that yes, indeed, she is limping.  She is limping because she’s somehow badly gashed her leg (and a quick survey in the gloaming shows a goatshed and yard quite pink with bloody snow) and she’s not telling you how she’s done it.

By this law, the call to your housecall-making vet will come up empty.  By this law, your second call to another vet will land you with an early morning appointment…35 miles south of your own farm, at his office, because he does not make housecalls.  By this law, you know your travels to and from said vet will be during the one and only blizzard of this winter season, and, by a second law called Lake Effect Snow, you will leave from and return to your sunshine-bathed house, where barely a flake has fallen.

It’s no fun milking a three-legged goat, incidentally, especially since we can’t drink her antibiotic-laced milk.  She’s fine, no stitches, lots of treats.

Another example of this law:  After tirelessly monitoring the state of your doeling’s estrus, she will fall into heat (the last heat of the season) on the same day your daughter goes to the hospital for a week.  Therefore, you do not get the doeling bred and she remains the fat if cute hayburner that she was before.

Who’re you calling fat?  Ivy and her mama Cricket (who hopefully is pregnant)

Here’s another:  Only when you have a surfeit of some one animal is the time when said group of animals remains unbothered by either disease or predation.  So when people ask if I have problems with hawks or coyotes eating my free-ranging chickens, I say “no, unfortunately.”

Poor Penny:  green really is not her color

And yet another:  Despite the notches on her belt collar, our fearless farmdog Penny finally met a raccoon who could indeed bite her back.  (The Rodenator as she’s otherwise known has killed at least a dozen raccoons and even more opossums in her years as self-appointed farm protector.   Mice and voles are uncountable.  She’s quite valuable.)  You realize it is thanks to her that you have so many chickens.  She does her job admirably well.

If any of you were to follow me down this path of farm-animal ownership (as many are), my only word of wisdom is to expect that you will not be exempt from this law.  One must simply accept it with a tired smile, and a backup plan.

Oh, and having on hand a full first-aid kit–as well as many vets’ phone numbers–won’t hurt you.

Pauline the coop door bouncer has the last word

On the downsides of a mild winter

Occupational hazard:  a farm girl’s glasses will fog when she goes from 40 outside to 85 in

I don’t know about you, but I have found this mild winter very enjoyable.  Perhaps it’s the memory of those long winters spent in Minnesota.   Every Minnesotan has “I lived through the cold” stories, but I don’t know many people who had to get their car’s manual transmission gear fluid changed:  despite its being garage-kept, I couldn’t get it in reverse or first gear when the cold was in extremis.  So I humbly accept any day the mercury doesn’t go below 30 with gratitude.

This weather has come with unexpected downsides, though.  One, the animals are just messed up.  Chickens want to sit their many eggs.  Earl the tom turkey is feeling love in the air, so Ruby spends her days hiding from him under the back deck’s picnic table.  (Luckily, the hose remains unfrozen so I am able to clean up after her, but I do feel her pain.)  The fuzzy goats are happy to be outside, but that’s mud between their hooves…not pleasant.  And here in the Fruit Belt there is gloomy talk that fruit won’t set without the usual extended hard frosts of normal winter.

It’s also had an unexpected downside for the resident gardener.  That spring panic that normally hits in April?  You know, when you can’t seem to finish any one project because they all beckon?  It’s here now, in February.  Sigh.

Gratuitous photo #1:  new kitten Blossom

Gratuitous photo #2:  Blossom’s sister Scarlett enjoys the front porch’s space heater

Coastline Children’s Film Festival: Feb. 3-12, 2012

PDF download:  CCFF BOOKLET (schedule, films shown, etc.)

This is a shout-out to you locals and near-locals.  The Second Annual Coastline Children’s Film Festival is due to begin on 3 Feb in seven locations in Southwest Michigan (90 minutes from Chicago, 45 from Grand Rapids, 30 from South Bend and Kalamazoo).

The mission of the Coastline Children’s Film Festival is to bring high quality independent films and animation for children and young adults to Berrien County and to present them – on the big screen – as shared theatrical experiences for the whole family and community. Recognizing that film and animation are still among the most accessible and innovative media for the communication of stories and ideas, both historical and contemporary, the CCFF also sees the provision of educational opportunities as central to its mission.  Alongside the screening of animated and live action films, features, shorts and documentaries, our festival participants will have the opportunity to learn about the history of the medium, as well as the craft of filmmaking through hands-on workshops and filmmaker presentations.

And:  all the films are FREE!  Over 50 films (full-length, short, and in-between…animated, documentaries, films) for children aged 2-18…in seven different venues in Berrien County, Michigan:  Benton Harbor:  ARS Gallery and at the Citadel Dance & Music Center;  St. Joseph:  Krasl Art Center and at the Box Factory for the Arts;  Bridgman: Bridgman Public Library;  Three Oaks:  Acorn Theatre; and New Buffalo:  New Buffalo Performing Arts Center.

Two of the films are quite well aligned with what I try to do here on this blog:

There are workshops, too, for older children:  they’ll learn the structure of a story, storyboarding, visual story telling, film vocabulary, writing, directing, cinematography, & editing. They will also learn the vocabulary of each film, as well as different roles in the art of filmmaking, e.g., cast, crew, & director’s roles, etc.

This is all very exciting for us, and for children in general.  I will admit to an aversion to most modern movies aimed at kids:  every single one seems to have the same plot (bunch of mismatched characters on a mission from point A to B) and the same annoying hypertalkative sidekicks.  This film series is a bit of a pushback against the standard fare; perhaps it’s more highbrow, but then again shouldn’t we expect more for our kids?  I know I do.  So come join us if you can.