Archive for June, 2011


The Squash Garden is in.

The Tomato Garden is in.

The Sheep Garden, where we sadly grow no sheep but instead miscellaneous vegetables, is in.

The Main Garden, that most drily named, is in.

In a fight whose intensity kept up till the bitter end, the most evil of all grasses–with roots that stretch clear to China–was slain, eviscerated, and laid out to die a horrible death. This, after careful placement of some spinach seeds, completed the last row of the last garden. As gory as that sounds, it was all too kind, given the agenda of the grass to spread its menace over THE ENTIRE WORLD.  It took all I had and then some to wrench it from its ironclad hold in the earth.  Sonofa.  It was the kind of triumph that demanded some expletives to mark the victory and reflect on the magnitude of the battle. Sonofa.

There’s a lot more left to do, of course.  There’s mulching and weeding and a lot of other things I’ll tuck in here or there.  Oh, and there’s this wee little raised bed I decided to put in for all of my dye plants.  Being a ‘bed’ and not a ‘garden,’ my opening declaration holds.

Now please excuse me while I go lay down and die.

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A Four Generation Field Trip to Growing Power

We had the pleasure of touring Will Allen’s  Growing Power facility in Milwaukee a couple of weeks ago.

Before I start, can we just take a moment to appreciate the enormity of this pile of compost?  Oh, what a thing of beauty, towering over us, smelling sweet and earthy.  If you twisted my arm and had me choose my favorite part of the tour, it would be hard to narrow down to just one thing, but this sky-scraping compost would definitely be in the running.

Do you know about Growing Power?  (if so, meditate on this compost while I bring everyone else up to speed)

You might know that Will Allen was a basketball player?  More importantly, he was the son of farmers, sharecroppers.  After leaving basketball, he settled with his wife on her turf, just outside of Milwaukee.  He took a job as a working stiff, which put him on the road driving past this vacant property stacked with greenhouses, day after day.  As the tour guide tells it, it was the proximity to the city’s largest low-income housing project combined with the lack of a grocery store within any reasonable distance, combined with his own farming roots that fueled the initiative to start providing good, fresh, clean food to the people in his neighborhood.  He purchased the property, the last city tract to bear Agricultural zoning, and soon opened up a farm stand for the folks in his new neighborhood. The facility has since become a paradigm for urban agriculture, putting into practice revolutionary models for growing clean, nutritious, real food anywhere, everywhere.

The very morning after the last day of school found the kids and I packed into the car for a short road trip to Milwaukee, where we were to meet my mom and grandma.  It was cool and grey that day, and we tried to blow off some pent-up travel energy at the playground with the little bit of time we had before the tour started.  Cold and wet and approaching naptime, I braced myself for the worst – being stuck in a guided tour with two cold, wet, cranky kids.  Minutes before the tour started, we joined up with Mom and Grandma and from that moment on, the energy shifted to a more positive note.

There was so much to see.  The first part of the tour featured the insightful aquaponics system that is setting a new standard in agriculture.  Water + fish (tilapia) swimming about inside a greenhouse = our full attention.  We were going to be fine, I quickly realized –  the fast pace of the tour was nicely fitted to the fast-paced nature of those little attention spans.  Next we got to pass around a container of velvety soft compost.  You had us at water and fish, Mr. Allen, but digging our hands into a bucket of dirt (good dirt!) sealed the deal.  Next were the worms.  You may not know it, but we have worms too – a mostly forgotten colony of red wigglers cheerfully composting small amounts of kitchen waste in our basement.  Somehow this didn’t diminish the excitement of seeing vast bins of worms hard at work.  We lifted the damp burlap covering the bins and gently poked around till we could spot them.

So to this point, we’d seen fish in water, played with dirt, and played hide & seek with worms.  Heading outside, we were greeted by the massive pile of compost and the Alpine dairy goats.  Can you see how this is going, how each of us was nearly floating on a euphoric cloud?  Watching The Boy commune in his intuitive way with the goats – I could watch him interact with animals all day long – witnessing The Girl pluck broken leaves off the greenhouse floor and discovering Arugula!, watching how engrossed they both were in the laying flock of chickens…

…it was such an affirmation for me.  That they were so excited to see the chickens was a shock.  There’s no shortage of hens at home and I’d thought this would diminish the excitement of seeing them on the tour, but in fact I think it helped them to relate to the farm more personally.  Same with the worms, the bees, the seedlings, and the compost.  Not one of us was bored or anything less than excited about any of these things, despite them being familiar and part of our own everyday.  I was so struck by this, so wholly surprised.  The more I think about it now, the more I begin to wonder if our pure, visceral enjoyment that day came from the connection we felt as budding farmers to the bigger community before us.  A kinship, I think, to the farm that shared so many of our own closely-held ideals.

Wow.  I had expected to be mildly inspired.  Expected to learn some new things, hoped the kids wouldn’t implode.  Hoped to spend some nice time with Mom and Grandma in a mutually-interesting setting.  What I got instead, what we all got, blew these tepid expectations right out of the water–right out of the giant rainwater catchment tank that housed hungry bluegills and perch fingerlings.

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Father’s Day Feast

In a celebratory Father’s Day breakfast fit for a Captain, (a Captain Daddio) the very last of the season’s asparagus was bid adieu.

For its final act, it was dressed in prosciutto and surrounded by some of its very best friends:  poached eggs, Bearnaise sauce (which seems to me to be like a Hollandaise but with vinegar and lots of tarragon) and fancy-cut toast.  Sometimes the most important part of meal prep around here is careful attention to marketing.  For this meal, bread was elevated to the status of “butterfly toast” simply by arranging the diagonally-cut quarters carefully on each plate. Bullseye.  Who can resist a special butterfly breakfast?

Not this guy.  Isadora declared it “the best breakfast I ever had,” though she frequently speaks in the superlative when rating meals.  It was a meal that featured both a delicious sauce AND visually-stunning, luminous cured meat that melts on the tongue, so you can bet that I loved it.  And Daddio, the Star of the Day?  He stopped just short of licking the plate.

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Shearing Day Relief

Thursday night was Spa Night for the ungulates of Five Green Acres.  Boy, were they overdue for haircuts!   A pedicure and Botox injection wouldn’t hurt either.  This is Gloria, up first and ready to shed her winter coat.  She’s shown here as she waffles back and forth between nail polish choices.

I have been waiting for the shearer to fit me into his schedule for a couple of months now.  Missed opportunities had come and gone, 98 degrees had come and gone, and there they all stood in the pasture, still outfitted in a heavy coat of wool, wool that I was dying to start processing.  On Wednesday of this week, I called it.  I said, “Enough. If the shearer hasn’t arrived by Saturday, I’m shearing that damn wool myself.”  We have a hand shears.  I had that round of practice with IreneShe did it.  Just watch me.  (I said in a huff)

But I slowly, sheepishly, crawled down off that ledge and relented when the shearer called yesterday and said he could fit us in.  Ok, fine. (again, said in a huff)

And when I say that much relief was felt, I am mostly speaking of my own.  Shearing is hard work.  My hands got tired just using the hoof trimmers to trim away gargantuan toenails; I shuddered to think how exhausting using a hand shears on four sheep would have been, not to mention the skills I don’t yet have in handling and maneuvering the sheep.  It looks a bit like magic to me, that easy way a skilled sheep handler like the shearer deftly moves them about, shifting them so easily onto their butts, knowing just how to put them at ease.  He’s gentle yet firm.  And quick.  Those poor things would have been at the “spa” for hours at my hands.  And the results would likely have been like those I received as a young girl, leaving the beauty school’s salon with a student-executed perm of questionable quality.  (But what a bargain those perms were, right?)  Yeah, like that, but I would have been trained far less even than the student who, unbeknownst to me, walked out of school forever and left me sitting in the barber chair waiting, perm rods cutting off the circulation on only half my head; the other half yet to be rolled up, waiting with dumb blind faith that when she said she’d “be right back” she would.  And for these sheep, there would be no swarm of instructors to notice the poor, pathetic customer sitting there, unattended for a good quarter of an hour or more.  For the sheep, there would be no instructors to swoop in and fix the gigantic mess left behind by the flighty student.  They’d be stuck with only me and my hack job.

So it’s good that the shearer did come yesterday.  We’re all happier for it.  He was in and out in about a half hour; it took Andrew and I the rest of the evening and then some to provide the other spa services:  worming, injections (booster shot, not Botox after all), hoof trimming, itchy lice/misc. crawly mitigation with disgust-o insecticide dust.  We also closed the all-you-can-drink milk buffet and had to separate the lambs from their milk-bag mommas.  I had hoped the moms would facilitate this on their own terms, being the big nursing advocate that I am, but they hadn’t and were starting to look rather haggard and nutrition-deprived.  (Ultimately, a well-cared-for Momma is a well-cared-for Baby, right? ) A special Pajama Supper was called and we all fell into our beds far later than desired.  But the sleep, it turned out, was far from restful, as there was a constant call-and-response between the estranged lambs and their mommas all through the night.  I can’t blame them, of course.  But I did have to shut the bedroom windows and today I hope the neighbors don’t run us out of town for all the barnyard racket.

Mark my words (and your calendars).  Next year, with some sheep-shearing-school skills under our belts, Daddio and I plan on tackling the herd ourselves.  On our own schedule, on our own terms. Probably over a period of several days.  Mark my words.

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We are short one kindergartener.

Last week we walked our kindergartener up the driveway for her last bus ride.

We met her again later in the morning and before our very eyes, she disappeared.

In her spot a first grader appeared.  The changes between the two were undetectable to the naked eye, but a subtle change in confidence and poise could be felt on a subconscious level.

It was the first kindergarten graduation any of us had ever attended.  (there was no such thing when we were that age)  As we sat and waited for the graduates to take their seats, I scanned the crowd of excited parents and grandparents and thought about how we would be bound together through this class for the next 12 years.  Which of these families would we get to know well throughout those years?  Which of the dimpled little guys would someday pin a corsage to Isadora’s dress before a big dance?  It’s the kind of stuff that will set your mind reeling out of control if you’ll let it.  My psyche was already a bit shaken, trying to figure out where the year went.  Trying to figure out where my kindergartener went.

Lucky for me, thoughts like that are quickly banished with celebratory cupcakes.

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You might want to make your own rose water.

If you could capture the magnificent essence of roses and put it in a bottle, would you?

I would.  Even if the gardens weren’t yet all in, even if you couldn’t get in or out of the front door, for the pile of dirty laundry waiting to be walked to the washer.  The roses are ready and are fleeting.

With my trusty enamel pot in hand, I visited the rose bush out back and carefully plucked her petals.  She was ready to let them go; she’s been sprinkling the earth below with a gentle shower of those petals for a few days now.

Find yourself a helper if you can; tasks like these are best shared.

Go ahead.  Bury your face in there so you can really smell them.  Drink it in.

Nestle an upturned glass into the center of the pot.  Fill with cold water to just above the level of the petals.  Revel in how lovely it is to try plunging them under, how lovely it is to pull your hands out of the water, covered in rose petals.

Place a dish for collecting the rose water on top of the upturned glass.  Don’t kid yourself – it need not be big.  This custard dish fit the task perfectly.

Place the lid on, upside down.  Be sure that the center of the upturned lid is centered above the collecting dish, but not touching.  When the water is boiling, fill the lid with ice cubes.  This causes the rose-infused water vapor to condense on the lid, follow the curve downward, and run right into the collecting dish.  Be careful not to boil too long or the delicate essence will become over-cooked.  I would recommend not doing this while waiting for the school bus to arrive.  You should really give it your full attention.  (take note, Self.)

This is the rose water I collected.  It’s scant and precious, indeed.

I poured it into the jar immediately, while still hot.  Essential oils are volatile and will drift away just as easily from your rose water as they did from the petals you collected.

So you’ve made some rose water.  Hooray.  Now what?

Bake with it.

Ice cream, anyone?

Beauty cream.

Or put it on a cool, dark shelf somewhere safe and consider yourself rich.

You get the idea.

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Got chickens? Get garlic!

I’d like to pass on to you the very best advice I ever received regarding chickens.  Garlic.  Fresh garlic chopped finely and steeped in apple cider vinegar, when added to the chickens’ drinking water, can cure many a poultry woe.  It’s a real and accessible answer to the panic that sets in when a chicken is down.  And boy, do I know that panic well, having traversed a significant incline of the Chicken Learning Curve not that long ago.  Here’s how it played out.

Got chickens.  Yay!  Got eggs.  Yay!  All is well. Then a hen tips over dead in the night.  Horror!  Then another hen is observed wheezing.  What do you do with a sick chicken??!?  First, check the chicken bible.  Helpful, but not definitive.  Chicken still wheezing.  Then dead.  Horror!  What to do? Hurry! Is there a vet around that treats chickens?  There very well may be, but simple math answers the question pretty quickly.  Chickens, unless they are a very special family pet, are really only worth a few bucks.  Vet bills?  Significantly more than a few bucks.  It would take many, many, many eggs to see the return on that investment.  Vet = not an option.  Online forums!  Some research there led me to this book – The Chicken Health Handbook.  Perfect!  So I order it, skim it frantically, and then come to this realization:  what am I supposed to do with this information?  Once I determine the problem/disease is x, then what?  Do I track down antibiotics?  Where?  (back to the vet dead-end)  Then I was presented with the golden nugget of advice that I’m now giving to you.  Garlic.  It doesn’t matter what the specific illness is.  If a chicken is down (ailing, that is, not dead) garlic can come to the rescue by supporting the immune system so the quite capable chicken body can go about healing itself.  Yes.  That’s more like it.

Doris is a big fan. Two chicken fingers up for garlic! She had a run-in just yesterday with an errant neighbor dog.  I’d say she won. While she did sustain a pretty bad bite on her hindquarters, she’s on the mend now and up and about gossiping with her girls in the coop.  The dog, on the other hand, spent all of the afternoon tied to a tree in our yard, enduring repeated “Bad dog!” and “Quiet!” admonitions from us all (the most adamant and morale-busting surely came from that 2-yr-old mouth) while we tried to connect with his owners.  Doris, however, spent the afternoon convalescing in a spa-like setting.  I had made up a quick poultice of herbs, carefully washed and dressed the wound, and let her rest on my lap while the herbs went to work.  This, I might add, was after a nice relaxing rest on Daddio’s lap.  After rinsing, a covering of Blu-Kote was applied.  It’s an antiseptic cobalt-blue spray that both treats the wound and covers up the irresistible redness that would provoke the other birds to pecking the wound.  After all of this fussing, she was in good enough shape to return to her cronies in the coop.  The last step in treating her was to add a couple of tablespoons of the cider vinegar and garlic bits that had been steeping for the past half hour to the coop’s water fount.

I’ve used the garlic to treat all manner of illness and injury to both of my flocks – avian and ruminant.  Garlic is reputed to be a champion antibiotic, antifungal, vermifuge (anti-worm/parasite) and all-around immune support herb.  The most dramatic success I’ve had was a recent case of pecking in a couple of our pastured broiler chickens.  There were a few management issues early on, which led to a bad case of pecking. (canabalism)  The chickens were stressed – overcrowded, too hot or cold, or just plain bored and started pecking at a few of the weaker birds.  They peck relentlessly, obsessively, to the victim’s death if not caught in time.  After losing a few birds this way, I intercepted two who had been pecked in the cheek.  One of them had already started swelling up – the whole side of his face was distorted and puffed out.  I put them into a separate pen, added copious amounts of garlic to the water, sprayed the wounds with Blu-Kote, and hoped for the best.  They’ve now completely recovered and are quite happily employed as tractor-operators in the garden.

Some points of clarification:

+  I don’t at all mean to diminish the usefulness of any of the above-referenced books.  It is important to know how to treat various ailments and these books are rich with that information.  Especially helpful is the distinction of contagious afflictions.  There’s a big difference between losing a single bird or two versus a whole flock; that’s an important consideration to make when formulating a treatment plan.  I like the option of garlic as an alternative, in mild cases, or as additional support in more serious cases.

+  I’ve read somewhere that garlic and onions may lend their flavor to eggs if fed to the hens.  I’ve not noticed this myself, nor have any of our egg customers, to my knowledge. It seems a small price to pay, though I don’t believe that the hens are even laying any eggs while sick. Might be a moot point.

+  Vinegar is not recommended for use with galvanized or metal water founts.  Ours is heavy-duty plastic, which I upgraded to for this very reason.  I found it here, and like how it still works with the heated base in the winter.

+  It might be noted that garlic is useful at each stage of chicken development – from newly-hatched to roast chicken.  I’m never without it.

To recap:

Got chickens?  Get garlic.  Chop it finely, steep it in apple cider vinegar.  Do it now.  Tuck it into a cool, dry, dark cupboard until you need it.  It’ll keep.  When needed, add a few tablespoons to the drinking water.  Pat yourself on the back for being so proactive.  I wouldn’t worry too much about the qty – I doubt they would/could get too much garlic.  Some of my hens will even eat the chopped garlic straight up, which makes me so pleased.

You should also have a can of Blu-Kote or equivalent on hand.  Careful when you spray it – it stains!  We use this more than we’d like but are always glad it’s there.

This concludes the Public Service Announcement.  Carry on.

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things I just found outside

This one gets filed under NEAT!  Looks like a black walnut, sprouted into a little tree with big ideas.  I was struck when looking at this, how nature really does repeat the same forms throughout her designs.

And this gets filed in a brand-new category, one I’ll call What the..?.  It’s a tail.  I found it on the front lawn.  There was nothing else attached to it, but here are some possibly-related facts.  The Cats have been running with a shady host of characters these days.  The following “artifacts” have been found in or around the cat area and may be clues:

1. A dead hummingbird, no doubt the one I was enjoying for 3 straight days a few weeks ago.  Jerks!

2. The bottom half of a frog.  Wait – isn’t that the good part of a frog?  Why would you only eat the top?  Stupid.

3.  A shrieking grey squirrel, seen in and around the mouths of said cats.  It was smallish for a grey squirrel, but still.  They caught a squirrel.  It was left for dead on the lawn after the two tired of playing with it.  Again, jerks!

So the origins of the tail remain a mystery, but I’ll bet it has something to do with a Mr. Cat Stevens and a Ms. Ruby Annabel B.

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We have to talk about the Market.

I think it’s been four weeks now that I’ve been setting up my little tables at the Poynette Farmer’s Market. Each week I find myself a little more put-together.  That first week, I had only 1 table and a meager selection of unusual, not-incredibly-robust seedlings.  My expectations were pretty low – it’s a small, casual market in a small, casual town, which is precisely why it is such a good market for me to start with, to get my feet wet.  A small, casual market, however, is not exactly the best place to expect to sell many obscure medicinal herbs or lesser-known heirloom varieties.  It sure as hell is not the place one would expect to be able to sell bunches of stinging nettles – well known in these parts as a bane to gardeners and hikers alike.  But I did.

Oh, I’ve spoken before of my love for nettles and the goldmine of nutrients they impart.  This wasn’t some random grasping at straws, trying-to-fill-up-a-table move; it’s more of a personal mission.  Still, my personal enthusiasm aside, the abrasive nature of Sister Nettle is quite a hurdle to overcome when trying to distill her finer qualities into a bite-size onslaught of (enthusiastic!) information in the seconds it takes for a market-goer to pass by my table.  That I would show up at market trying to sell this noxious weed was utterly ridiculous, at least in these parts, and I declared it so to my fellow market sellers as I was setting up, poking fun at my own naivete.  But I have free samples! I said.  Of delicious soup!  And that is how I lured them in.  A good friend recently shared a wonderful nettle soup recipe with me, so with her blessings, I made up a batch, printed up a bazillion copies of the recipe, and one by one, began winning over the doubtful but adventurous marketers.  Of course there were those that wouldn’t come within 5 feet of my table upon seeing the nettles, or nearly took off running when I offered the soup samples.  “I have a very sensitive stomach,” I was told by one.  And when I handled the bunches of washed, mostly sting-free nettles with carefree ease, there were eyeballs that nearly popped out of their sockets.

What a rush, this market business!  I was quite unprepared for how much I love doing it.  It’s far surpassed my meager expectations, most definitely so, but more importantly, it’s become something I look forward to doing every single week.  Meeting the people in my community, selling something I raised from seed, cultivating a reputation as a quirky, what-will-she-pull-out-of-her-hat-next kind of girl…all of it is so, so satisfying. Last week I declared that my booth would be different every single week.  It’s an evolving process, and I’m finding it the ability to tweak it from week to week so liberating.  What a welcome, refreshing change from my last experiences with setting up a booth (a lifetime ago) on the craft fair circuit, where it was a one-shot, wish I had time to do x deal.

And I sold nettles.  It’s a lesson – free samples and a heap o’ enthusiasm go a long, long way.  I sort-of feel like I can do anything now.

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Did I tell you we have lots of tractors?

We have three gardens.  By gardens, I mean big rectangular-ish spaces protected with a fence to keep deer, pugs, and chickens out, spaces that were for the most part cultivated at some time in the past, but not necessarily during our tenure.   I suppose the new squash bed qualifies too – it’s big and fenced in, but hasn’t to my knowledge been cultivated before.  Let’s up it to four.  We have four gardens.  Holy crap.

Four gardens means I have no business sitting here writing about them – I should be out there planting.  A quick running of some numbers on the calculator says I have about 37% of the gardens planted.  Isn’t that handy – to have a calculator nearby?  Not really.  I already know that there is A LOT yet to be done; I can feel the weight of it all pressing down on me.

Good thing I have these tractors.

This here is the 7 S.P. model, which we’ve found to be great for making the first pass through an overgrown area we’d like to cultivate.  It’s an old-fashioned tractor, moving slow and easy, needing lots of breaks for a quick milk snack or to just stop and ruminate a bit.  I’ve found that running this tractor for about a day or two is about right.

The finer tilling and weed-pulverization is done with this:  it’s a 8 C.P. tractor just built by The Mister, who’s quickly gaining a reputation around these parts as Someone Who Can Build Things Well.  And it’s a fine tractor, no?  Both top panels flip up on hinges, allowing us easy access to refuel or lubricate the moving parts.  It moves along easily, a day at a time.  We’re not going to win any speed awards with either of these tractors, to be sure.

The goal here is to not have to till two of the gardens.  Not because I’m lazy, though I don’t mind having the livestock doing all this weed-clearing for me, but because I believe those things I’ve read that point to no-till as being better for the soil and ultimately better for weed suppression.  I see it (in theory) as lots of work up front, hauling in mulch but less weeding work later.  And that’s the goal here – to beat the weeds to submission by chomping them down to the ground and then suffocating them under heaps of mulch and compost.  Herein lies the strategies to Gardens 2 and 3 – mulch the bejeezes out of them.  Then dig a little hole through the mulch, plop in the tomatoes and the peppers grown so fine, tuck them in, water them with the drip lines when needed, and then tap my toe while I wait with my buckets to harvest.

Sounds like a plan.  I’ll report back on how it all actually works.

Credit due: my AHA! moment with trying to figure out how to do this no-till method here came from this post by Farmama.

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