Category Archives: sweat

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 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 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 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