Category Archives: nature

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 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 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 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!

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 teeth of time

The title of this post is a knockoff of a chapter title of a wonderful book I read last year.  2011 was, if nothing else, a great year for books.

I appear to be blocked!  My last whine about 2011 pertains to the kitchen sink plumbing.  Ask any architect and she’ll tell you that in her house 5% goes un-built, unfinished; in my case, it’s the sorry state of the kitchen (and its illegal drainage system).  So yes, left to right, draining dishes, nasty sink, draining sprouts and overflowing compost bucket…a normal day here.  2012 means the sink is now draining.

Ah, a new year, a blank slate; a new year, new plans.  The last year stunk on so many levels that I cringe on remembering.  Too much death, too much illness, too cold in the gardens for much bounty.  We even bookended the year with another week-long trip in the hospital with our daughter (she’s okay now; I thanked her, though, for getting ill before the new year’s high health deductible kicked in).

Flowering rosemary in the snow-covered greenhouse makes me happy

I am not one for resolutions and never have been.  Too much road-to-wellville; too much revisionism:  I suppose I am either entirely too pleased with myself as a package to change anything, or else I am too aware of the futility of such an effort…I leave you to judge which is closer to the truth.  However.  There appears to be one lingua franca, one currency, habitually common to women of my age, social status and education, and that is bitching about things, especially one’s life.  I understand the reason behind it:  sharing one’s gripes forms a (bizarre) kind of community.  How tiresome this is.  It’s wearying on so many levels I cannot begin to list them all.  Even if I am reluctant to make personal resolutions, I will resolve to not join in the whinge daisy chain.  How bad do we really have it?  Not bad at all, not bad at all.

Can’t we flip it and share what we’re happy about?

Fuzzy goats likewise make me happy

I am happy, frankly, that we’ll be putting in a new greenhouse this year.  I am on the fence about upping the CSA membership from six members to eight; we’ll see how it goes (membership typically starts in May, with all the new garden goodies), but I am so pleased to be sharing my food with people I care deeply about.  I am so glad to have my job and to have chosen a profession that I love and that is so very rarely boring.

And, of course, I am so happy to share our garden virtually with so many of you.  Happy 2012, all.

On mudbugs

I am of course a “if you want it so badly, you get to do the work yourself” kind of parent:  2 lb lobster dives into the boiling pot

My husband was away last week (he had a teaching gig) and my daughter and I reveled in the culinary freedom that his absence gave us.  He’s a picky eater, see; fortunately for my garden, he likes vegetables, but all fish and all cheese are just plain not eaten by the guy.  While the seafood thing isn’t such a hardship for us, we do have a home dairy and…I do make a lot of cheese.  His loss.

So, we had a fish and cheese vacation ourselves.  The kid loves lobster so I figured it was time to teach her how to cook, pull apart and eat one…and those red shells make a fine stock for some of the week’s fishy dishes.  We did the usual biology quiz too (crusacea, exoskeleton, decapods, 10 legs, etc.) and I reminded her again about our yard crayfish, the land lobster.

Timing it, watching its color change

You see, crayfish (crawdads, etc.) don’t just live in streams.  Some species find the clay soil of our land quite hospitable, land that is hundreds of feet from any standing or running body of water.  These are the digging crayfish.  They reside in burrows, never actually needing a stream or a pond.

  Child’s size 12 boot for scale

This of course got her wheels turning.  “Can we bait a hook and catch them?  Can we dig them up?  Can I put some food out and catch them with my butterfly net?”  I said they didn’t come out during the day, but she was welcome to feed them, so we found the two known burrows and left some fish skin at the mouths of the holes.  It was gone the next day.  She now has visions of feeding them so they’ll breed  more and we can then harvest them.

I suppose this isn’t so far-fetched.  It’s her daily experience that our land feeds us, with our help (fruit, veg, eggs, poultry, milk…and foraged items like bolete and morel mushrooms, rose hips, elderflowers and berries, sassafras, sumac and maple syrup) so why not add mudbugs to the list?

On negatives being positive

Uh oh:  chicken tractor and lawn furniture scattered hither and yon

My husband continuously says I am a glass-half-empty person.  He says it often enough that it makes me suspicious:  does he want me to believe this?  Tomayto tomahto I say.  Frankly, I think we could all use a dose of half-emptyness, at least some of the time.  If it does nothing else it lets you accept that Stuff Happens, and it prepares you for it, for sometimes Stuff will happen to You.

Stuff Happens, so pick up the pieces and move on.  We had a hellacious windstorm on Thursday night, preceded by a hailstorm of long length.  The hail was kind of cool to watch, and thankfully wasn’t so bad as to shed greenhouse plastic and/or leafy plants.  But that windstorm!  Wow.  Friday morning was a bit of a blur:  tree-sized branches everywhere, and the chicken tractor thrice tumbled, meat birds scattered.

Lucky Lucy, wondering where her siblings might be.  Every year our daughter commutes the sentence of one female meat bird.

So yeah, lots of damage.  We lost two chickens (gone with the wind?).  This  morning fortunately was the appointment with the butcher, so I gathered the remaining 25 Freedom Ranger birds and drove them over, avoiding fallen limbs and debris along the way.  And then, well, then I carried on.

Old greenhouse, 4 Oct 11:  Left photo shows the lone tomatoes in the front and on back wall, with green tomatoes ripening on a screen; right shows rosemary, sage, and artichoke in the foreground and the zany fig tree at the right.  All empty-looking beds have been planted with winter-hardy lettuces and greens (mizuna, arugula, kales, chickories).

Control what you can:  I cleaned the summer crops out of the old greenhouse on Saturday.  I was too depressed to do outdoor garden work, so instead I prepared the old greenhouse for winter.

But it’s still summer in the new greenhouse  where it’s tomato city, with peppers…but seedling beds are full too.  Those are some late sweet potatoes on the screen, dried beans on the chair at the right.  Lots of work to be done here too, toward the end of the month.

The next cleanup project:  re-erecting the trellis.  Those are my hops on the ground.

So indeed:  bit by bit, pick up the pieces.  I suppose I should be thankful this storm occurred toward the end of the growing season…it would’ve been more discouraging earlier in the summer.  As it is now, well…things had begun to be harvested, picked, prepared for winter before this storm.  The trellises and broken-up beds aren’t “needed” except maybe by my aesthetic sense of wholeness.  Which is motivation enough, actually, to get me moving.  Half full indeed!

On(ward) autumn

stomp stomp stomp

It is fully fall.  I cannot quite tell, though, whether this will be a stellar leaf-color year or not.  Surely the traditional heralds, the low sumac and high tree-climbing Virginia creeper and poison ivy, say this year will be gorgeous, but they’re always untrustworthy in their carnival colors.  You’d think, though, that with a bizarre weather year like this one, they’d flame out in riotous color.  So I keep watching.

Watching, and harvesting.  Apparently I am not the only one to do so:  the voles (field mice) have had family reunion-sized feasts in my sweet potato and winter squash patches.  Now, I don’t normally mind sharing a bite or two with the local beasts.  When they get half the butternut squash, though, I guess I get a little tetchy.  My loss, their gain.  But partially I blame myself for being so busy, for not watching the crops’ turning.

And yes, they turned for me in the vineyard.  Though a productive year, the grapes never reached a high level of sugars…and I kept waiting, thinking this last weekend would be the peak.  And I missed it, being blessed instead with vines full of raisins.

Not all raisins, though:  I am able to fill a 5-gallon carboy with what I hope turns out to be great homemade wine, complete with child labor!

Twelve gallon crock, 45 pound child, 7 gallons grapes

On bad eggs

Years ago my chef/farmer friend Catharine taught me to crack each egg individually into a bowl before sending it off to its final culinary destination.  “You never know,” she said, “and egg surprises really suck.”  So I have a small metal bowl handy for just this purpose.  When you eat maybe 18-24 eggs a week as a household like we do it’s best to be safe.

Phyllis, you sneak!  Darned bird:  lying amongst the angelica, these eggs just rot.

Not that my egg-managing skillz aren’t superlative (they are).  But chickens, especially bantams, can be really sneaky in their ovarian habits.  I swear there are a few birds who purposefully cycle themselves so that they can lay their eggs far, far away during their daily release from confinement (AKA Happy Hour).  And I will find their caches, eventually, squirreled away under the shrubbery, well beyond the Eat By date.  (I have learned to gingerly retrieve these eggs, placing them into a bucket half-filled with water…explosions do happen, especially with the weather this hot.  Best it happen under water and thus contain the pain.)

And it has been hot, hasn’t it?  I have been going to great lengths to keep the house cool and avoiding the stove (it’s electric: lots of ill-managed, escaping BTUs).  Yesterday was just such a day.  I cooked a 3-lb. chuck roast in a crock pot on the back porch all afternoon (larded with persillade and poached in tomato chutney, with the day’s volunteer All-Blue potatoes , red onions, and some carrots for color).  Crock pots, how 70s, how…redolent of my childhood; I had avoided them myself until my mom got me one (of course) a year or so ago.  Useful things, I suppose, and they can’t on their own heat up the house like the oven or stove…plus they do a mean turn on tough cuts of meat like this chuck steak.

So I sat in my garden habit, sipping a cold glass of post-garden-rewarding Traminette, flipping through a stack of cookbooks for some inspiration.  Slow-cooked meats yield lots of good juice and good juice needs something to sop it all up, doesn’t that follow?  And no heavy bread, thanks.  SO I picked up a handy Richard Olney tome and beheld Batter Noodles (Nouilles a la Poche).  (Re:  the late Mr Olney:  Iowa has never, before or since, produced such a snippy pretentious bit of bombast in human form.  *Love* that guy.)  “Treated as a gratin, these rich, round, tender eggy noodles are quite astonishing–simply drowned in cream and sprinkled with grated cheese (or liberally sprinkled with meat or poultry roasting juices and cheese…).” (Simple French Food, NY:  Wiley, 1974)

Four eggs, salt, a tablespoon of olive oil, and 1-1/3 cups of flour?  Sold!  You pipe it into gently simmering, salted water from a cone of parchment paper.  I may have to turn on the stove to boil a pot of water for this, but…it’ll be worth it, I thought.

And then the second egg exploded as I cracked it, sending its contents onto me, the counter edge, and the floor.  Yeesh.  But the noodles were quite good!  I had, you see, cracked that befouled egg into that handy little metal bowl.  Better safe than sorry.  Such an annoying truism.

On chemical warfare in the garden

Slippery slope time:  I have a gardening secret, one whose use still causes me some great shame.  Like all secret shames, though, there’s a sweet upside to it.

My secret?  Bt.  Bacillus thuringiensis, technically.  This naturally-occurring soil bacterium has a sharp, crystalline structure that when ingested by caterpillars is quite lethal.  My aim is one particular caterpillar: those of the dreaded cabbage moth.  Those bloody things make any and all of my brassicas poop-covered, leafless stems if I gave them a chance.  Hah!  No chance, no quarter.

Yes, kitchen tools in the garden too!  I am shaking the powder upon pre-wetted red cabbage and Russian kale:  somehow, a butterfly got in there under the rowcover and laid her eggs.

You must understand that using this stuff is an absolute last stop with me.  All other insect and bug pests get squished between my fingers during my twice-daily trips to the garden.  With the exception of tomato hornworms (too big to squish and too valuable as chicken food) the swarms of Colorado potato beetles, squash bugs and bean beetles all meet the wrath of my finger and thumb.  It’s no wonder I always wear garden gloves, and even then that’s not a guarantee I won’t get grossed out…should I describe the arc that potato nymph guts will take?  Toward one’s eye, always.  Perhaps a face mask is recommended.

Anyway, back to the powder.  I go to great lengths otherwise to avoid the cabbage moth butterfly.  All (and I do mean all) of my cabbage family crops (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale, kohlrabi, rutabaga, turnip, and the zany Asian voodoo mashup veg of which I am so fond) grow under row covers in the warm months and are behind butterfly-proof screen within the greenhouses during the cold months.  This means about a third of my outdoor garden beds are covered with white cloth…not exactly pretty or natural, but, hey, I’ve gone on about the barrier method before.

The folks at the Fruit Exchange laughed at me, though, when I put the bag on the counter.  They know I grow organic.  And they know that I think this bag of stuff is really straddling a fence…it’s natural, but it’s far from its natural form.  “Things that bad, eh?” said the big guy in the overalls who always helps me.  “You know, I’ve got stronger stuff if you need it,” pointing to the odoriferous poison aisle.  (This is the same guy who, the last time I saw him, said “How many bales can you get in that thing,” he asked, pointing at my ancient VW Golf.  “Five, if I use the front seat,” I replied.  “Well, Jeff Foxworthy says you know you’re a redneck when you know how many haybales fit in your car,” yeah, lots o yuks.)

So I use the stuff only sparingly and in a reactive way:  only AFTER I see them does the powder come out.  It takes a day for the f*ckers to eat sh*t and die, but…all I need to do is hose the food off and it’s edible.  I still keep the covers on so no other creature from the order Lepidoptera gets affected.  And yes, it’s easier than squishing…and just as sickly satisfying, come to think of it.

On barnyard sexual politics

Jellybean, Number 2 Rooster (with turkey poult and Ruby in background)

My garden lacks any shade at all.  This is not a bad thing, unless I wish to do a little pleasant sit-down hand task like I wished to do on this sunny, hot, breeze-less evening after work.  So, I made like any sensible animal would do and took my task (cleaning 50 heads of softneck garlic) to the shade found on the back deck.  And being a civilized social animal, I filled a small tumbler full of rosé and sat down.

Number 2 Rooster Jellybean espied me as my butt hit the chair and came sauntering down the walk in his mincing, pigeontoed, not-quite-cock-of-the-walk way.  Eyeballing any and all situations IS the Number 2 Rooster’s job, after all, and he was sizing me up to his advantage.  Because it was after 5:00 and Chicken Happy Hour was in full swing (i.e., all poultry out and about) I watched to see what he would do.  His thoughts were eminently transparent to me.

Some say it is wrong, verging on dangerous, to anthropomorphize one’s pets or farmyard creatures or, hell, the actions of any (other) creature living on earth.  Dangerous to whom, I always wondered:  even as a small child, I knew humans were animals…how we could ever think otherwise was a fight I fought until I won it (in my own head, anyway).  Let’s just say this:  it’s dangerous to NOT think that animals act as humans can.  Whether it’s dissing the animals or not to put the anthro- in front of the word  is the argument we should all have.

And so we have not-so-little Jellybean eying me from the side of the deck.  “Both big humans provide food, but this one provides food 99% of the time if she’s got a bowl in her hands, as she does right now.  Perhaps what she has is food,” is the way his thoughts turned, “and I will check,” thus taking a few pecks at the dessicated garlic leaves hanging over the edge of the deck, “and it is inedible, but the fact remains this human has a bowl in her hands,” and thus he began to do the call that mother hens and roosters do to let their charges know they have found food, please come running NOW.

And the nearby hens did.  Notice the further-away hens did not:  they can differentiate Jellybean’s from Number 1 Rooster Absolute Backyard God Mary Ellen’s calls.  When Mary Ellen calls, the goods are usually there.  When Jellybean calls, well.  Dried husks is the perfect example.  Those hens are not at all stupid.  And sure enough:  Jellybean jumped one of the chickens in range and whose back was turned.  As Number 2 Rooster, the only option he has is crass subterfuge and then blindsiding a hen.

Ah, yes.  Every time I look at the stats of how people find this site, it’s not at all surprising how often “barnyard sex” is a key search term.  And indeed chicken romance isn’t candlelight suppers and (more) glasses of rosé .  Almost all the hens rebuff Jellybean, even take him on in a fight, but if you’re jumped you’re jumped and the smarter hens just endure it with a ruffled resignation as they know it will be over soon.  In this instance though Jellybean has climbed atop Emilie, a not particularly retiring doormat-ty kind of hen.  So she squawks and Mary Ellen flies in to her aid.

So here we are.  What I have just relayed in 500-odd words has taken place within 3 minutes or less.  And in those 500 words and three actual minutes I think we can all see how I smirk at poor Jellybean as the beta male:  in all honesty though he’s doing what he can.  If things get too ugly, indeed, he’ll be dinner, but he’s wily enough not to piss off Mary Ellen too often, and so, he remains in the tribe.  But yes, his stress hormones are almost always sky-high, and you gotta wonder what it does to him, much less for the general temperament of the rest of the flock.

Number 1 Rooster, lord of the flock, Mary Ellen.

And it’s my job as chickenherd to do just that:  gauge the temperament and well-being of the flock.  We have two full-sized roosters for a reason, and that reason is because we want farm babies.  (And no, you don’t need roosters for eggs, just chicks.)  The flock’s too large for Mary Ellen to mate with all the hens on his own, though I suppose he tries.  He’s got a great easy-going temperament with both people and his charges, magnanimous even, and I always wonder if it was because he was alone to develop it, not having to battle someone for everything, during his formative year.  If Jellybean ruled the roost, would he remain the furtive little bastard he is now?

A little social psy in any situation can’t hurt, you know, and it might even teach you something.  It’s fun at least.

On death and…poop

There’s a lot of life, too, including new life.

Thursday was a gray morning with me stepping into my boots, trying to keep my second cup of coffee from spilling, when the phone started ringing.  It was our next-door neighbor, asking, nicely, if I could come over, which, being neighborly, I said sure, of course.  Coffee down, hastily-kicked-off boots back on, I was over there in a flash.

Life on the farm has put me in contact with two expected but not necessarily always welcome things:  Poop and death.

Poop is mostly welcome, though I admit there is that maddening period of time wherein the snow has retreated yet the hose remains frozen:  poop, courtesy of free ranging chickens and turkeys, is everywhere on the walk and the deck.   (The hose has remained unfrozen for a couple of weeks now, yay!)  I am an inveterate harvester of poop and bedding, and goodness poop is what makes a farm productive so…as long as it stays out of the house, poop’s not a bad thing in its ubiquity.

Death, though, is also everywhere.  I found it ironic that this morning my neighbor happened to call when I had already killed or found dead five things (three trapped mice, one cabbage butterfly and one egg-stealing raccoon) and they were asking me to help with a sixth:  their fourteen-year-old Golden retriever had died in the night.  Their 120-pound dog.  Yes.  Who’re you gonna call but the feedsack-slinging, haybale-hauling, ditch-digging, raccoon-shooting neighbor, heck, SHE can lift old Annie into the trunk.

And I did.  Then I went back, got my now-cold cuppa, and had a sit in the old greenhouse, musing about my lot.  There’s turkey poop on my boots, I notice, and that first greenhouse bed needs more compost.  More poop, more death, to bring more life.

Sometimes, you feel small.


On the outdoor classroom

Yesterday was a conference day at our daughter’s school so she got to spend the day at home with her dad.  It was a self-described Nature Day.

Armed with a magnifying glass, they went to watch the ant colony at the Old Sitting Stump.

Tom kicked over part of the stump to better see more of the carpenter ants, and disturbed a nest of voles*.They’re very tiny as you can see.  And our daughter told me they were especially fun to see under a magnifying glass.So they put them in a jar to better watch them.  And, while they were at it, they found some wild asparagus.And later in the day, Little Edie the fearless feline flushed out a baby wild bunny.  We tried to find its burrow but failed.  Poor little thing.  The little dot on its head says it’s still a nursling.

*Voles are my greenhouse nemesis as they loves themselves some seedings.  They also are incredibly prolific.  Sure, these little ones probably won’t make it but their mother will go on to have as many as 7 more litters in 2010.

Happy Mother’s Day

Last year, Mama Ruby the Turkey surprised us by hatching out one turkey poult and one gosling on Mother’s Day.

This year,  we were surprised by how many: seventeen!

They all hatched on Thursday.  This poult is still wet from the egg.

Happy Mother’s Day to all…it’s hard work!

On direct seeding

It’s a hard world for little things.

The green you see is garlic flanking the row

Do you see my brassica family seedlings in this row?  Neither do I.  After a week of not showing up (normally they’re enthusiastic sprouters) I realized I had some problems with my greenhouse-seeding plans.  The problems?  Slugs and pillbugs.

Sigh.  Plan B (planting them indoors) does not mean I will be a week or two behind.  Nah.  It just means I am annoyed.  Planting in the greenhouse between existing garlic rows and then further transplanting the seedlings to their final destinations (outdoors or into other people’s gardens) is generally the easiest way for me to do things.  And I am all about “easy,” especially in springtime.  But with warm spring weather comes warm evenings inside the greenhouses:  prime munching time for the resident mollusks and armadillidiiae.

My lesson for you here?  Do not think “I can’t plant things in greenhouses as they’ll get munched,” instead “I need to watch to see when its okay to plant seeds in my greenhouse (or outside, or wherever).”  Had I planted them a month earlier, they’d have been fine; a month later, I could’ve planted them outside.  In other words, there are windows of opportunity wherever you plant.  The greenhouse offers a lot more windows…but occasionally it doesn’t.

So I will plant all the brassicas someplace bug-free and warm.  Someplace, therefore, where these small things can experience a softer world.

On messing with seed-starting

So.  Every year, in the broad quest to simplify (HAH!) my life, I try to jigger the seed-starting routine.  I abhor planting things under lights indoors; it makes me tense!  It needs to be done, though…but if I could shorten the season, it would stand to reason it would shorten my stress level.  To wit, Exhibit One:

Onion seedlings sprouting in the greenhouse!   These were planted on Feb. 22nd, so…the germination rate I have found is both better and about the same, speed-wise.  These guys are interplanting a garlic bed.  The whole 3’x6′ bed is full of little sprouts from the onion family.

So now I am asking myself:  how important is it I have my first tomato in mid-July?  Because if I can direct-seed them…

Oh: and here’s a friend I found today amongst a weedy carrot bed:All Hail Bufo Americanus

On spring cleaning

We had an internet- and television-free weekend this weekend, intentionally.  This was the first warm weekend so there was plenty of spring cleaning to tackle, including cleaning out the bunny hutch.

You remember the bunnies, right?  Two BOY bunnies?  So yeah, rabbits to me are either salad-poaching varmints or, well, dinner.  So it was with some shock that Tom pounded on the back door with a “geddout here you HAVE to see this,” cupping a squirming little black thing in his hand.  “I thought it was a mouse!”  Five squirmy bundles later, and here we are.  Six little kits.  (Unfortunately, Tom had completely pulled out their nest in his rush to clean.  He had wondered why the rabbits hadn’t been peeing in their nest box.)

I am glad our daughter was with her Grandma and thus missed me cursing a blue streak.

One breeder, one vet  (and three vet techs), one middleman seller, and one “Oh I know rabbits, and yeah, these are both boys” friend later, but…DumDum knew all along that Wrinkles was a she.

(Incidentally, these bunnies won’t be dinner.)

On turkey hormones

I knew this would happen.

Our turkeys are fighting.


Baby stands tall in the back

Granted, Thanksgiving Dinner (a/k/a Baby) was never destined to be a long-term resident around here, but…we had such peace until early this week.  It’s in the nature of things, I suppose, this desire to be “top dog,” but it’s disturbing nonetheless, this bloodlust: even the mother hen Ruby is in on it.  “What’s going on with the turkeys?” asked our daughter.  I asked her if she remembered when Mel, our mellow gander, turned mean, and she said “yeah, didn’t he have a poison in him?”  I had forgotten that I had told her he had “testosterone poisoning.”  That led me to give a lengthy explanation of hormones and how they act as chemical regulators in our bodies, “and you have a tiny bit of testosterone in you, too, girl.”

“I know, and it hurts right here,” she said, pointing to her heart.

Baby is something of a miracle baby, after all.  Ruby, his mom, sat on 9 eggs until she got attacked by a raccoon (the bastard got into her gated, latched pen) who ate all her eggs, and messed her up a bit.  I knew the instinct to sit was still with her, so I went on a wild egg hunt, grabbing what I could around the house/yard…tough going considering I had just sold the eggs for the week.  So, in a newly reinforced enclosure, Ruby got to sit on one fake egg from our daughter’s toy kitchen, two fertile goose eggs, seven infertile chicken/guinea eggs, and one lonely week-old turkey egg from the refrigerator.

On Mother’s Day, out hatched Baby and Jeffrey the gosling.

They’ve had a grand time ever since.  Ruby is a fabulous mother, and Earl is a fabulous though goofy father.  They’ve been a garrulous threesome ever since, following us around, making threats at the dog, in general, being rather gorgeous traffic-stopping yard statuary (“Are those turkeys?” from passing motorists).  But now Baby is in exile in the chicken pen, and sleeps by himself on the porch roof or back deck.  He’s bigger than his father, which surprises me.

P1010831Like father, like son

On losing the island, gaining the continent

P1010876Showing his niece the well-prepared garden beds

This weekend, for the first time in a long time, I got to spend a lot of time with my brother, all by ourselves.

Life intervenes and sometimes it will be a long time before adult siblings do things with “just” themselves, no spouses or parental units or children around.  He and I had a great time.  This wasn’t always the case when we were children in the same house, certainly, but we both really looked forward to his spending the weekend on the farm, and we both thoroughly enjoyed the visit.

It is with much happiness that I recently read that the DSM-VI, due to come out in 2012, will focus on the Autism Spectrum Disorders as just that:  a disorder that has a wide spectrum.  The world of shrinkdom and the general medical, educational and, indeed, American people will then just concentrate on this one thing.  Autism.  It’s a big flipping tent, people, with a strong emphasis on “spectrum.”  Gone will be the categories of Asperger’s and P.D.D.-N.O.S., little islands in the field, one stating a putative intellectual superiority, the other a not-quite-square-peg-but-close-enough nondiagnosis.

You see, my brother is autistic.  Not Asperger’s, not P.D.D.-N.O.S., not retarded, not a savant, but autistic.

One of the things that has irked me terribly is that most discussions of autism have tended to focus almost entirely on the cute, young, odd, mostly male children affected by it.  It’s a communication disorder, and I find it entirely ironic that it has been communicated to be a developmental disorder solely found in very young children.  My brother is in his early 40s, folks; though it showed up when he was a toddler, it’s still here!   Thank goodness for Rain Man, is all I can say, as people might never know that autism affects adults as well.

What is entirely interesting to me, in watching my brother, is that the disorder has ebbs and flows itself:  it, indeed, also follows a spectrum along any individual’s life.  Many of his autistic peculiarities have receded with time, residuals of a different way of being.  Gone is the hyper-number thing he had, gone is the full knowledge of the commuter train schedule, gone are many of the odd other parlor tricks he could pull.  What remains is an encyclopedic knowledge of certain events in his life (e.g., “Sister, on May 11, 1975, you said this to me,” etc.) and a somewhat odd ability to be able to tell you what day of the week anything happened.  This latter remains in parlor-trick status, as his one icebreaker is “What’s your birthday, and the year,” and he’ll spit out that you were born on a Wednesday.

P1010838Some aftermath

He’s still the best help I could ever have around here.  Uncomplainingly, he helped me winnow over 50 pounds of beans, and move about 70 wheelbarrowloads of mulch about the garden.  He’s shelling Christmas Limas with his niece as I type this, while I’m in a kitchen redolent of dehydrating cherries and roasting chicken and bread.

He’s no island-dweller.  He’s just who he is, and he lives under the big tent that is Life On This Planet, with all its wonderful, wildly varied human forms.  And I am so glad he’s in my life.

On other animal harvests

P1010565Bug-eyed deer mouse (top) and sneaky little house mouse (bottom)

One of the seasonal routines that gets fired up here in the fall is the Rodent Harvest.

Yes, admittedly, this is a gross topic, but…one we’re all probably familiar with:  mice do outnumber us, greatly, and once it becomes cold, they like to come inside, too.  The greenhouses are especially plagued, and overnight I will notice that one of the 6 precious Delicata squash, while curing, has been entirely EATEN, blossom to stem, by obviously more than one gnawing creature.  GRR.  War!

We (my daughter and I) bait regular old mousetraps with a solitary sunflower seed (in the shell).  It’s highly effective because the mice really like sunflower seeds, and try very hard to get the seed out of the trap with a satisfyingly predictable result.

Now, mice like squash but usually leave my lettuces alone.  They like to chew the exposed tops of my carrots, and will climb a tomato plant for the fruit.  The voles, my lettuce-eating nemeses, are fairly resistant to sunflower seed bait.  They are, however, fairly stupid, so if I put mousetraps, unbaited, around the inside of the lettuce beds, they’ll run across them and inadvertently get trapped.

All this, incidentally, makes working around the greenhouses a fairly fraught affair…SNAP!

On compost hubris

P1010217Land mine

In the category of Things I Will Not Repeat, I will give you a lesson in compost humility.

Before I left on our little vacation, I threw down some compost, about 3″ thick, on top of the two greenhouse beds where I had pulled up the resident tomato plants.  I didn’t dig it in; I was in a bit of a rush (as ever).  Well, a sick and sleeping child gave me the opportunity to get some gardening done when we returned from our trip so…I went after that compost, digging it in with my trusty wobbly three-tined cultivator.

I uncovered an egg in the compost.

“This must be old,” I told myself, as whole eggs next to never come out of the compost process whole, or if they do, they’re dried out, their contents a flaky memory on the insides of their shells.

I hit it with that trusty three-tined fork, and it exploded, KAPOW!  Quite a huge pop!  Kind of cool in a way.  And I didn’t realize it at the time but a blob of sulfurous rotten egg came flying and landed on my head.  The top of my head.

I thought rotten potatoes were gross.  And boy, am I glad I always have a large jug of thinned vinegar in the bathroom!  Half a gallon later, I was fresh as a daisy.

But yes:  I learned my lesson.  All eggs are potential stinkbombs.  Do not poke!

On squash vine borers

P1000544Uh oh!  Trouble in squash paradise!  Amish Pie Pumpkin looking peaked

If your squash plants appear perkily green one day and wilted and yellow the next, a squash vine borer might just be your nemesis.  This year has been a productive one for squash vine borers in my garden, so I thought I would show you the signs–and maybe cures–to slow down this pest’s rampages.

The adult moth, which looks something like a red-legged wasp, lays its eggs on either the base of a leaf or the base of the plant’s stem.  The larvae, then, either chew their way through the leaf stem and down to the base of the plant or they just have a prime banquet at the base.  So, one way to prevent the moths from laying is to cover the plants until they start blooming (most squash plants rely on insect pollination and need to be uncovered).  This works fine for small summer squash, but for me, well, my 30′ long pumpkin vines are really not going to be covered in row cover any time soon.


Crap!  Frass!  (But frass IS crap…) Plus, the stem is no longer green; all bad signs

So, I remain vigilant, checking the stems (right about where they go into the ground) for frass (the chewed pulp of the stem:  it looks like sawdust) and for squishy spots.  Out comes my utility knife and a piece of wire.  I cut the plant where I find the hole or the soft spot, and I excise the larva, hopefully whole for the chickens, or squished up with the wire if it’s in an impossible spot.  I make sure to run the long way with my cut (that is, in the direction the plant is growing:  like a tree, most of the moisture flows around the outer diameter of the stem) so I make sure my cuts are vertical, not girding it at all.  After surgery, I bury the whole area where the stem was cut, add more compost to the roots, and water the plant well.

P1000551Little white grubby-looking larva:  this stem was a veritable nursery school of them.  I don’t know if it will recover.

Another thing I do is to make sure the vining plant has more than one rooting spot, so I bury the growing canes anywhere they hit the dirt:  the plant won’t die this way if it is really struck hard by the borer.  Most vines will do this by themselves, incidentally, but it’s nice to help them out.  Another trick I have heard about but not practiced is to wrap the base of the plant in tinfoil to discourage the wasp from laying.  I am not sure this would work, so my roll of tinfoil remains in the pantry.

The one bad thing about my method is it’s not exactly proactive, it’s reactive.  With the exception of burying the branching vines, it’s a daily diligence to verify the borer’s presence.  Another thing on the task list, that is.  But that’s okay.  It’s gainful, rather gross employment!

On garden pests

I thank my lucky stars, such as they are, that we’ve not been hit by late blight this year, and my heart and stomach go out to all of you disappointed East Coast gardeners.  It has been wacky weather all around, hasn’t it?  Our spring and summer have been cool and very, very dry.  While this means I simply water more than usual, and things are slower, it also means we have a lot less to worry about as far as insect pests in the garden.  So…there’s an upside after all!

Normally by mid- to late July we’re battling air squadrons of Japanese beetles, but it’s an off year for them.  I’ve picked a few off the grapes and our one wisteria tree looks like Spring Break, it’s so covered with the things, but honestly there’ve been too few of them to really call them “pests.”  (The wisteria disagrees.)  Bean beetles and potato bugs are likewise no-shows.

This is not the case for all insects, however.  It’s been a banner year for tomato hornworms.

P1000480Small bowl of yum!

Luckily, I have a skilled hunter to help find them, and hungry chickens to help eat them.

On lettuce-free salads

P1000309Purslane, lamb’s quarters, some stray oakleaf lettuce, arugula, green onion and celery…with a few borage flowers

‘Tis the time of year our lettuce goes dormant.  (Actually, that is an untrue statement:  some of it is still there but is impossibly bitter as it has shot to seed and is now being harvested for goose food.)  Yet, we salad-lovers persevere!  Until the middle of August, our salads are usually made with weeds and flowers, or are some variation of slaw.

P1000249Purslane, in situ.  Our daughter can’t eat enough of this stuff.

Purslane is a happy weed found everywhere in my garden at this time of the year.  High in omega 3 fatty acids, its texture is reason enough to allow it to grow.  It’s succulently green, and my child can’t eat enough of it.  Likewise, the young shoots of lamb’s quarters are a great spinach substitute.  Watch the texture of its fuzzy leaves, though; for some, this is a turn-off. So, steam or braise it like spinach. And flowers:  borage, calendula, nasturtium, the blossoms of any herb, they’re all fair game for my weed salads.

And slaw.  Do you have a favorite dressing for slaw?  Don’t stop at cabbage, as any brassica can work, as can carrots, sweet peas, radicchio, etc.  Shredded kohlrabi or stems of broccoli, turnips, chopped celery:  all are fair game, all make wonderful slaw-y salads.

UPDATE, Tuesday evening at 5!  Oh my pounding heart:  from the girl:  “Mama, can I help you weed the garden?  I want more of that salad tonight for dinner.”

On “not enough”

P1000253Only one lousy 4×16 bed of onions.  Normally, we have two such beds.

So I might be waxing poetic about my garlic harvest, but it has been a dud year for onions.

Onions are very important.  Yes, they’re an inexpensive, readily available crop to buy, and those who are space-crunched in their vegetable gardens do very well sticking them in the “why bother” category.  But I am not space crunched, and I am a tightwad, therefore, I grow my own.  And this year has not been kind to my onions.

Granted, I have plenty of onion-y alternatives around here, so our food won’t be achingly bland.  But a combination of factors out of my control means it’s very much an Onions = Gold year.  No pickled red onions, no splurging with the caramelized yellow ones on the bean dishes and pizza…just the “usual” use of them.  And that is okay.

You know, when you do grow your own stuff, you have a different relationship with your food.  I won’t say it’s all gold, but it is all precious. If you’re the gardener as well as the cook, you remember pulling that onion you’re eating:  you may not remember planting the seed or transferring the seedling into the ground but you do remember watching it fill out, thinking, “that’s a fine looking bulb.”  I will say we have very little wasted food around here, somewhat by design but mostly by the fact that all produce is precious.  I cannot say this was the case when we bought all our food, and that astounds me:  we paid good money for that stuff!  Now, what little money we spend is offset by a different kind of investment:  the investment of time, of concern for our patch of earth.  And the victuals finally rendered onto our plates are very dear.

So yes, those few onions, they’re gold to me.

One fell swoop


The turkey family loves the new driveway ornament too

I would like to thank the tree gods for:

  1. one-stop shopping for this year’s tomato supports for me
  2. a neat and convenient place to practice one’s tree-climbing skills for my daughter
  3. a ready source of firewood for my husband

but:  did that huge branch need to be so close to the house, AND did it have to happen when I was home alone in the kitchen a mere 15′ from where it fell?  Not that I am truly ungrateful, I’m just saying.

On hedgerow foraging


Hedgerows:  doesn’t that sound so very…English?  I confess to a certain admiration for the long gardening tradition of the British isles, and I readily admit having a huge crush on Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.  But hedgerows.  I can’t claim to have hedgerows here in Michigan.  For one, our property lines only go back about 100 years (not nearly long enough for a proper hedge) and two, ours are poison ivy- and bramble-filled ditches, not something as tempting a foraging target as some misty Cotswold or Yorkshire hedgerow.

But it is the season for elderflowers, the pretty creamy-white blossoms of the black elderberry.  And–wonder of wonders–I have elderberry bushes in the hedges ditches around my property.  So!  Time to get out the scissors and the wading boots (all the better to fend off the poison ivy tendrils) and get snipping.

In honor of another Dorset bloke who’s a champion hedgerow forager, I made some of Hedgewizard’s elderflower champagne this week, as well as elderflower crepes.  It will be a while before the fizzy, nonalcoholic champagne can be sipped and enjoyed, but boy did those crepes get eaten quickly!  Our gooseberries are near ripening, too, so it’s time to try Hugh’s Elderflower/Gooseberry fool.

It is quite fun harvesting food from the farm I had no hand in growing, you know?  Just watch the poison ivy, which, alas, is not edible.

On green views

_DSC3724Blueberry blossom cluster

These spring days are long, but short as far as crossing off items on the daily task list.  I wonder, quite frankly, if this is the reason that spring isn’t my favorite time of year.  It used to be, when I lived in Minnesota.  I loved–and lived for–the first loud blooms of the season: I’d take a pair of garden clippers with me when walking the dog at night to “liberate” some neighbor’s blossoms of the alley-overhanging shrubs and trees.  So many unappreciated blossoms!  And every morning, that pilfered  bouquet would shed onto the top of the polished dining room table, clouding the finish with that pollen, those petals.  Cleaning up after them was one of the only things I had to do.

And maybe that’s it:  the hurry-blurry life of spring on a farm:  so much happening, so much needing immediate attention, so much yet to be done.  It’s an effort to slow down and appreciate how quickly the world is changing around us.  Looking north from the kitchen window just this morning, I marveled at the sheer number of shades of green I could see.  This view looks toward the wooded end of the property.  I was slightly envious of the insects and other animals who can see more of the color spectrum than we can:  all I saw was lots of lime greens and chartreuses of new deciduous leaves, new coniferous growth, new meadow.  New.  And very variegatedly green.

It helps to slow down and look.  Soon enough, that view will melt into the dark green of summer.