Sunday, May 25, 2014

Garden planting (and eating) weekend!

Due to our anniversary weekend getaway (which by the way was luxurious and well worth anticipating for an entire year!) and to last year's late frost, we bumped our main garden planting to this weekend.  And to be honest it is doubtful we would have gotten to it any sooner anyway.  Spring has a way of keeping us on our toes, that's for sure!  This weekend couldn't be more different than last weekend, except for the fact that both have been wonderful.  Last weekend included long naps, lazing in bed reading, playing games, hikes, sleeping in and waking without an alarm, and spending very little time doing anything that might normally be deemed "work."  This weekend has been one of waking early and moving all day long - weeding, mulching, sifting compost, spreading compost, planting, watering, harvesting, washing produce, and keeping lots of hungry mouths fed.  I decided it was worth taking a few moments during Alida's nap to put a short post up since these days and weeks fly by so fast that I often don't take time to step back and reflect at all on them. The thing about the past few days that has been so fulfilling is how much fun it has been to all be outside together - working and playing.  Friday and Saturday we didn't see a whole lot of Kali since she had a sleepover Friday evening with 3 friends and a long playdate last night with another good friend.  So she is out in her garden now trying to prep the ground for her eggplant to be planted.  Alida had a grand time with the big kids the last few days too but she also was my sidekick for a good portion of the garden work I got to take part in.

By far the most fun and rewarding work of this season has been getting compost for the first time out of our composting chicken coop.  I can't remember if I mentioned this before but if I did bear with me as it feels worth repeating.  Jason is a genius at designing systems!  The longer we live here, and the more things get established, the more in awe I am!  As one small example, he built the composting coop with a ramp for the chickens to get out that also serves as a sifter when you put a wheelbarrow under the ramp.  It works great!  So Alida and I have been sifting load after load of compost and spreading it on beds and around plants.  A smattering of what is going in the ground this weekend includes tomatoes, peppers, basil, cucumbers, watermelon, cantaloupe, beans, trombone squash and other squashes.  We also put compost on the rhubarb, raspberries, blackberries, perennial onions, gooseberries and the list could go on but I can't remember it all. While we are still not pleased with the amount of grain our chickens consume and want to keep working at developing a system by which we get help them get more of their nutrition from wild foods, on days like today it certainly feels to me like they are earning their keep.  We have never had this much compost before and the plants just appear so very happy when I ring them with a nice later of the dark fine organic matter.  The only task I think I like more is watering in new plants.  Jason has left a good bit of that for me to do so that is probably where Alida and I will head once she wakes.

Regarding Alida's afternoon nap, it seems like gone are the days of argument-free-nappy-walks.  Jason has been dealing with this for weeks now and I was always able to say, "Hmm, that's odd.  Alida never complains about going on nap walks with me."  I'm no longer special.  As early as when she hears that it is about lunch time she starts noting that she does not want to go on a nappy walk.  Thus far I've been able to make a game out of it, sort of. But I can see that not being a good strategy for much longer.  And maybe that is just as well. I'm not sure I'll be eager to go on runs between 1 and 2 p.m. (also being right after lunch) when the temperatures climb much higher.  So we might soon be wrapping up this phase and it will be a good year later than it was with Kali, as she hardly napped from 2 years old on. But when Alida is not in the jogger for 5 minutes before sacking out, it is hard to take from that that she wasn't tired.

The girls have been our main strawberry pickers so far this year and I have been very grateful for their enthusiasm (and assistance)!  We are not clear yet what the season will be like (as far as having enough to put up for the winter), but we definitely have plenty to enjoy for fresh eating.  They have seemed highly motivated the last two times I asked them to pick - the first time offering to make a strawberry shortcake if they found enough berries and today there was vanilla pudding waiting to be topped with fresh berries.  But even without those offers, they seem happy to head out with their bowls.  I love that they are growing up surrounded by the planting, growing, weeding, watering and harvesting of the food they eat.  While it will be important to me that they understand that the abundance we experience is not shared by all, I hope that savoring the gifts of our land and the food we work hard to produce (and some we don't work at all for) will make them eager to share what we have with others and make it possible for more to enjoy bountiful harvests.  Alida certainly is not yet familiar with strawberry shortages:

I used my solar food dryer for the first time the other day drying a large batch of oregano and trying out drying stinging nettles for the first time.  I don't know yet what I'll use the latter for and I did learn that drying them reduced significantly, but did not eliminate, their sting.  I also dried a large batch of apple mint tea.  It's a good thing all our tea patches look amazing as we are plowing through the stuff. I'm currently making two gallons of tea daily and we are easily keeping up with it!  We continue to enjoy spinach in all its forms - salads, steamed, baked in quiche, in soups, etc...  We are using stinging nettles in bread and lambsquarter in pasta.  And the fridge is loaded with lettuce, spinach, kale, and mustard greens for the coming week.   These things will start to fade here soon but the flowering peas have our mouths watering for what is coming next.

As I'm outside working, what feels so good is how connected the pieces feel.  Sometimes I kind of chuckle because it feels like what we are mostly doing on our little 5 acres is moving stuff around.  We cut autumn olive berry branches for the goats and put them in their pen as part of clearing out the frost pocket below the garden.  Once they have eaten off all the leaves and we have moved their pen on to the next location we pick up the remaining brush and take it up behind the shed.  There we chip and sift it.  The larger twigs are for kindling for our fires this winter.  The smaller stuff is then taken wheelbarrow load at a time to mulch garden paths.  Similar things happen with leaves and soil and rocks.  All of those things feel like precious resources, especially when they are in the right location serving an intended purpose.  They can seem like a nuisance in the wrong spots - like the many rocks we are finding in our garden and slowing dumping bucketful by bucketful on a future parking spot.  The way it all fits together suits me - it feels integrated and interconnected and that has always made my heart sing.  It also serves very well in keeping us in shape without leaving the property - all that moving stuff around!

It's been fun to see the girls enjoying springtime and being outside.  They found this little turtle the other day while I was at work.  By the number of pictures that were on the camera just now when I downloaded them, they were enjoying watching it for quite some time.

 Alida is taking after her Grandma Myers in being our flower bouquet collector (though she could use some lessons!).  She will come in with a handful of "flowers" and ask for a vase, into which she will delicately put a few grasses and then stuff the rest in with her little fist!  There are flowers of all colors in abundance right now.  Jason and I are both taken by the sage in bloom right outside our side door, and the various colors of columbine are a close second for me. To date, I hardly ever feel inclined to bring flowers inside (I do not take after my mother on this one!) since it feels like I could never do justice to their beauty in their natural environment with my flower arranging skills.  It feels like Nora's garden has kind of come into its own this year, hardly requiring any weeding and is just overflowing with color.  Every year it is such a special reminder of the gathering we had on the first anniversary of her death where many friends brought divisions of plants to contribute to a garden in her memory.  We have been so grateful for it, so often!

Well, I better get a few inside tasks done so I can be ready to head out once Alida has fully recharged!  It's hard to feel motivated to do things like laundry and dishes when there is so much fun to be had outside. While I still feel most comfortable and "in my element" in the "inside arena" of our home, I'm enjoying stretching myself in new areas and getting to participate in some of the process of things pre-harvest.  I've got a long ways to go, but I learn so much every time I work outside with Jason and little by little I gain some confidence too.  I even planted parsley all by myself (well, not exactly - Alida helped me) while Jason was at a birthday party recently. Let's hope it does well!

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Flowers, food and family times!

One more quick post before Jason and I unplug for two days!  We both took a little time this past week taking pictures of the many things blooming around our property.  The beauty of the little plot of land on which we live is almost too much to take in right now, but we'll deal with the challenge!  I'm loving getting out to help with harvesting, weeding and mulching.  I'm finding that one of things that is helping me get a lot of garden work done is water - Alida loves to play in it!  So I can turn the hydrant on a slow trickle and she stays occupied watering things.  The other day, the 3+ inches of rain meant that she didn't need any cistern water for her play, she had a mini swimming pool in the fire ring to entertain her.

This past week I got to be involved in another first that I forgot to mention in the last post - we are shoveling out compost from our composting chicken coop for the first time. So amazing - thanks to our chickens we have an abundance of compost for the first time ever.  And thanks to my ingenious husband the process of getting the compost out and sifted was very simple. Of course he designed the composting coop with a ramp for the chickens that was made with wire that could also serve as a sifter for compost and that fits nicely over a wheelbarrow.  So we just open the ramp onto a wheelbarrow, let the chickens out to run, scoop shovels full of compost onto the ramp and sift it, leaving the sticks, stones and large pieces fall off the edge, making a mulch area in front of the compost coop.  Jason's design abilities are incredible!

One of the gifts of this past week was a number of really special times together as a family.  On Mother's Day we hiked to the lake with my parents, sister and sister-in-law.  It was a gorgeous day, perfect picnic weather!  Later the same day, my family gave me the best gift possible - we enjoyed a full three hours or so outside together as a family working in our gardens (with everyone happy the whole time).  And it must not have been a Mother's Day fluke as we have enjoyed a few additional such times in the days following.  It's been really fun, especially to see Kali's growing interest and ability to maintain focus on her garden plot.  The ducks and her chicken enjoyed her work as she shared the rye with the ducks and grubs with Buttercup.

Okay, here's a smattering of pictures in no particular order.  My screen time is just about up!

Makes my mouth water!
One of the many beautiful flowers blooming in Nora's garden!
Spinach, lettuce, mustard greens and peas in the background.
Newly planted three sisters field - flour corn planted under each crate.
Onion field
Comfrey and poppies blooming in Nora's garden - being enjoyed by a carpenter bee.
Columbine blooming in Nora's garden
Black oak with garlic field in the background.
We are counting on not running out of garlic in May next year!  I'm eager for garlic scapes within the month!
Popcorn field - I must admit that it took me a few minutes to get my bearings on this one as I have yet to make it to that corner of our property to see this particular planting!
Kali in her garden.
Magenta lambsquarter
One morning's picking of spinach, asparagus and a minuscule fraction of the tea available.
 Bearded Iris
 wild poppy
 Unknown wild iris (probably the dispersive exotic "Yellow Flag")
These beds will soon be the spot of much activity - tomatoes, peppers, sweet potatoes, etc... will find their homes there soon!

All's well that ends well?

In the last brood of chicks to come out of the incubator, there were a fair number that failed to hatch.  Two of these started hatching, and then the chicks died before emerging.  They seemed to have rotated in their shells (a motion required for successful natural hatching) without having adequately chiseled through the shell as they turned, thereby suffocating against the wet shell membrane.  Hatching, like birth for mammals, is a perilous passage governed by good egg-crafting genes on the hen's part and by a finely-tuned series of instincts on the chick's part.  As tragic as these near-successes always seem to those of us eagerly peering in the top of an incubator to monitor progress, there is no getting around it:  any bird that can't successfully hatch from its egg cannot be considered a successful bird.

Most of the rest contained what appeared to be fully formed chicks without any clues as to why they failed to complete their journey.  It is not unusual to have a few chicks per hatch in this situation, but this was a higher fraction--around a third--than is typical.

The only clue as to what may have gone wrong came from one that successfully hatched.  There was one among the group that managed to emerge from the egg in an entirely unconventional pattern, probably aided by a thinner-than-typical shell thickness.  The wet hatchling struggled to gain its feet, as do all chicks.  But its struggles were accentuated by a peculiar posture.  We were bustling around tidying up for the wedding on that gorgeous, cool and sunny spring day but every time I passed the incubator I looked in on it; I never saw it with its head raised.  It found comfortable positions among the warm unhatched eggs, as new chicks do, but usually ended up with its head positioned downward, often comically out of sight.  When it attempted walking, it would usually topple, stepping on its beak or tripping over its neck.  In general it seemed to have little to envy, but it was preternaturally good at somersaults!

It soon became clear that this was not a problem that was going to go away.  As the chick dried off and joined its broodmates, it never did gain the ability to lift its head, and it seemed unable to open its left eye.  It spent nearly all its time sleeping.  I never saw it eat or drink or join in the group cuddle.  It still couldn't seem to walk where it wanted to go.  This was not going to end well; we all could tell that.

For wild birds, this kind of story finishes simply:  the hen and the rest of the brood must leave the nest and find food.  Chicks like this one can't keep up, or perhaps don't even try, if the impairment is severe.  They soon chill and die, if they aren't found by a lucky predator first.

For this particular chick, I judged that there were two possibilities:  death by deprivation or an intervention for mercy's sake.  So the question became, for me, one of timing.  We had been planning to give it one more night to see if the condition would show signs of clearing up, but when no improvement was evident after a day of waiting, and after we decided to head out last evening for our weekend away rather than this afternoon, the writing was on the wall.


It was raining when I carried the warm, soft chick out into the darkness.  I kept it wrapped in my hand and tucked into my side against the damp chill as I switched on the head lamp and made my way through the night to my garden shed to retrieve a pruner.  There could be a thousand ways to do this, but I prefer to use a tool with which I have long experience:  I need all the confidence I can get.  I have by now killed probably hundreds of chickens; It's not the same to kill a day-old chick.

Maybe it's the inner tension of this kind of thing that pushes me toward making a ceremony of it.  In any case I instinctively wanted to find "the right place" to do it.  I settled on the brush pile up behind the wood shed.  Was it because of brush piles being places where death (in the form of discarded tree parts) breeds life (in the form of fungi, woodchucks, and Carolina wrens)?  With raindrops flashing in and out of the headlamp's beam, still cradling the chick in my hand against the rainy night, I ended its short, unfortunate life.  I laid it on the decaying sticks and waited for the last impulses to fade.  I considered picking up the lifeless chick and tossing it out into the dark woods (no sense spoiling the wedding for some hapless, wandering guest), but found I couldn't.  Instead I discovered that I wanted to cover it.  I found the nearest green vegetation--some garlic mustard, maybe some honeysuckle shoots--and laid a layer of it over the fluffy, still-warm form.  Then I turned and left it to its cooling and its decay, and made my way back into the warm, bright house, and the warm arms of my family.

Firsts and Lasts

This weekend is one of a number of "firsts" and a few "lasts."  I'm writing from West Virginia, where it is a chilly and invigorating 38 degrees this morning.  Love it!  We arrived around 1 a.m., 15 or so hours before our originally planned arrival time.

One of the firsts of this weekend is that a wedding will be happening at Tangly Woods today.  It feels very special that our little homestead holds enough meaning for people other than ourselves that they would wish to hold their wedding on our lawn!  Yesterday the place was buzzing with activity as the dreams and plans for their special day started to take shape around us.  Because of another first of this weekend (to be commented on momentarily), we knew we would not be at the wedding. So when we learned that Kali's soccer game was cancelled for this morning due to the inches of rain we got the night before, it seemed like we might as well clear out early so that the wedding folks could fully take over without us under foot.  And it felt a little more comfortable bustling around, packing the car and helping kiddos transition from home to car when wedding guests weren't arriving.

So what was planned for this weekend that was so important that we passed up attending the first wedding to happen at our home (not to mention Jason's sister's graduation from her PhD program): our long awaited, weekend celebration of our 15th wedding anniversary!  Last year on our 14th anniversary I made cabin reservations for this year and arranged for our girls to spend a fun weekend with my parents - nothing like plenty of time to anticipate a gift.  So tonight will be the first night Alida spends without us, and therefore our first night with no kiddo responsibilities for 3+ years.  Currently everyone is excited about it...

Our 15th anniversary was Thursday the 15th and that evening held another first.  It just happened that our anniversary fell on our regularly scheduled every other Thursday date night where our girls enjoy the evening with Aunt Emily and Uncle Jonas and we enjoy the evening to ourselves.  We invited good friends B & E, who are also great musicians, to accompany us for a song at the Little Grill's open mic night.  What fun!  We sang Gulf Coast Highway and I was kind of sad when it was over.

There were a few other firsts and lasts that I was thinking about yesterday, mostly food related.

Yesterday morning Jason found the first 3 ripe strawberries, and in an act of pure generosity offered them up to the 3 ladies in the house!  Kali since found one more than she and Alida split.  So the strawberry season is upon us. Yay! For the last few weeks we have been eating strawberry jam with no restraint, after realizing it would soon be time to make more. It's amazing how fast a jar of it can disappear when we are not attempting to conserve it - yesterday Alida enjoyed her buckwheat oatmeal buttermilk pancakes with a thick layer of jam (like Jack in a frequently read book, Pancakes Pancakes).

It's nice to have some seasons starting as we clean up the last of other foods.  Yesterday for breakfast I used our very last bulb of garlic, sauteed with fresh asparagus.  That, alongside stinging nettle eggs and the last of a batch of saladkraut, made for a fine breakfast. Jason's was even more decadent (for those that like mushrooms) with some sauteed shiitake.  Then for dinner last evening I used our very last sweet potato in a soup with canned chicken and fresh spinach.  There were no leftovers! We feel so wealthy when we sit down for our meals together.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Don't need computers or TV to have a real good time!

My post from last night was done in a hurry since the bedtime routine was underway, so it's not surprising that there were a few things I wanted to include that I omitted.

We are enjoying another beautiful spring day and I just returned from a long walk with a friend, during which Alida fell sleep and is now sacked out on my lap!  After three solid days of rainy weather, the sun has been so wonderful.  But the rain was nice too and contributed to the fact that it feels like we can almost watch the peas grow. Tuesday was one of the rainy days and Jason picked a huge vat of spinach in the rain and then, since there wasn't much else he could do outside, he joined me inside and processed all the spinach by himself. At one point, Alida and Jason were jamming to a kid's CD in the back kitchen and Kali was deep in a book in the front room and I felt like I was smiling from the inside out with the pleasure of a rainy day all at home together. I took a short video, which Jason has yet to see and didn't know I had taken, and liked the lyrics caught in the video (the title of this post comes from the song).

I also took a little video of the double rainbow mentioned in the last post, since I couldn't fit it all into a picture.  

I couldn't resist taking this picture!  I'm not sure how many egg hunts have taken place in the time surrounding and since Easter, but probably more than I could count on my fingers.  Alida and Kali hide them for each other (full or empty) and really don't seem overly impressed with the things in the eggs anymore.  Alida will empty the contents of an egg out in the morning and it will stay wherever she deposited it all day (unless I get on a straightening binge and put it back into the egg).  It looks like the smarties that I used that remained from last Easter might make it to go into eggs again next Easter. On one of the outdoor hunts, Jason's daily egg hunt coincided with the girls ending theirs.  I'm way more impressed with what is in Jason's basket!  We continue to average 18-19 eggs a day and that doesn't count the 3-4 duck eggs Kali is getting. While it would not meet all our nutritional needs over the long haul, we could subsist on eggs and spinach and stinging nettles for quite awhile with the abundant supply of each of those that we are enjoying, and able to share with others!

Speaking of abundance, I love all the plants that are doing their amazing thing - both inside and out:
Tomatoes, peppers, basil, sweet potato slips...
The strawberry blossoms are making our mouths water!  We've got one bag left in the freezer to enjoy in the coming weeks but there is nothing like fresh sun ripened and warmed berries!
Alida was snacking on one of these on our way to the garden.  She knows a lot more about what plants are edible outside than I did when I was 30!
Lots of new spinach coming on, alongside lettuce and other mixed greens.
And, last but not least, my little helper and chatterbox!  While I picked spinach today she was picking weeds for the chickens, and they were happy for her contributions to their coop.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

And then spring arrived...

Anyone been wondering where we have been?  Not lingering in front of computer screens any more than we need to, that's for sure. Too much wonderful stuff happening in all corners of life - chicks hatching, gardens bursting forth, children growing, hosting large graduation parties and small groups of friends, and soaking in so much beauty around us.  Here are a few visual images of the last number of weeks:
Most recent hatch - they went to their new home last evening (friends are taking a flock of these Shenandoahs to try out one of the breeds Jason is working on developing)
One of several Easter egg hunts!
Always worth carving out time for a hike to the lake...
...and a picnic and time with good friends/housemates!
Not everyone is scurrying around - tough life these kiddos have...
Not a bad spot for checking out one's Easter egg "loot."
Enjoying little friends, who are determined not to stay little!
Will we get any peaches - we used a sprinkler to try to save the blooms on two of our three nights below freezing.
This is what the blooms looked like before the freezes - only time will tell...
Pictures don't do this rainbow justice. It was the first time we could see the entire arch of a double rainbow on the mountain in front of us.  Spectacular!
Alida's cherry trees in full bloom.
Potato planting day - even I got my hands in the dirt and a tool in my hands!
Extending the potato field by an additional 50 feet.
Loving a first (of many we hope) visit from the newest niece in the family.
More chick gazing!
And soccer season is here!
This chick is very likely not as into Alida as Alida is into the chick!