Sunday, April 22, 2018

Family visit fun, chicks and chicks and more chicks...

Can we have too many chicks? Or too many chick pictures? I think not! But the one mama hen might be wondering as she is currently entrusted with the care of 71 fuzz balls! Yep, I have those numbers in the right order. We have a heat lamp and brooder helping her out with keeping them all warm. Another mama has 29, another less than a dozen and then at least 3 more hens are sitting on eggs currently. Yep, it's hatching season!! Here's some cuteness in action (my youtube settings have changed and I can't figure out how to do anything handier than a link so here goes):
In other news, our kids have enjoyed lots of fun times recently and have been putting in some seriously good play times. Sometimes with each other and sometimes getting in a groove alone. I love when Terah gets in a coloring mood and just zones out with her markers and paper. I caught her at it the other day!
And we all benefited recently from a birthday coupon Kali gave to Alida - to let Alida pick the menu and cook with her AND to only do the things she liked as part of the meal. They made black bean and butternut burritos AND fried onion grass. Does it sound bad? Well it was really tasty - complete with lots of cinnamon!
The most recent fun was a whole weekend with new friends. It was such a treat to have my nephew and his family from PA visit us for a few days! We had five girls ready to have fun under our roof and fun they had! Kali's bed was a big hit and on Saturday they got to join us for the girls' double header soccer games. It was fun to have extra people in our cheering squad and company on the sidelines! Saturday evening we were joined by my sister and parents and enjoyed yummy food, good conversations, game playing, ping pong and soccer, chick adoring time, taking care of baby dolls and playing house, lots of giggling and playing doctor, and by bedtime the kids had worn each other out. No one took long to fall asleep that evening! We look forward to more fun times in the future.
Now it's back to just the Tangly Woods crew - complete with my parents upstairs for the next two weeks. YAY! Having our place on AirBnB is going fine - we are learning some things and enjoying having folks get to savor a place we think pretty highly of! That said, one of the things I'm learning is that I love having Mom and Dad upstairs the very best of all (well, it is really hardly a comparison). So we all are happy to have them back in their space for awhile. This evening the girls and I went out to join Jason to work in the gardens for a bit. Terah was walking up towards the spice garden and my dad came out on the deck. She looked up, saw him and with the sweetest happiest voice said, "Hi Grandpa." It was as if she was overcome with delight to see one of her favorite people there before her eyes!!

Terah is full of silliness these days, when she isn't trying to get a rise out of her big sister (the one next in line). She loves to hide from me and say, "Say, 'Where's my girl?' " Then I say it and out she pops. Earlier this evening she was helping to set the table and got something out of the cupboard in the dining room. The next thing I knew she was trying very hard to get her whole self in it to hide!
So the bath water is probably getting cold here and it's time to get these gals out of the tub and get me a shower. A new week is on the horizon. Two weeks until graduation and they will be full but I feel as ready as I'm going to get! Just one final note to end on. The other day a neighbor helped us load up a whole bunch of logs that we plan to get milled up. They have been laying around for a long time as we figured out how to get them from point a to b to c. Well, with the right machine going from point a to b happened in less than 1/2 hour. They are now loaded on a trailer to go to point c this week. When a big machine is needed, it sure does come in handy. 
That said, I love that most of the time the tools we use are quiet, they are safe to have kids around while we work, and this is the kind of scene I walk out to work in. Eager for my next stint of weeding to come around! The weather couldn't be more perfect for it!

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Dumb Luck—Two Kinds (by Jason)

We located our “Root Patch,” as we call it, in a location on our place that has some of the least suitable soil for growing tubers.  Partly this was dumb luck of the unfortunate sort, in the sense that we made the decision to develop ground for tuber growing based on topography (the least sloped soil on our place…less erosion after digging disturbs soil profoundly), convenience (not as close to the house as spices, but not so far as to be laborious to haul in the crop), and possibility (hey, you have to work with what’s available, and that was one of the few places not covered with woods or Autumn Olive scrub).  After these factors combined to make the location obvious, we set about the development of the soil for the purpose.  What does that imply?

Well, first we had to transition the soil from grass and scrub land to agricultural soil.  Having already learned how vulnerable this soil is to compaction after tillage, (and having this bent anyway) we opted for hand tool work.  That is more or less as arduous as it sounds.  After hacking grooves among the roots, rocks, and grass clumps to receive our potato chunks, we then had only to dislodge the rest of the turf and cut through more roots to get enough loose material for hilling once the sprouts emerged.  At every stage we hauled out as many rocks as we had time for.  I am convinced that we harvested more calories each year than we expended…but not by a whole lot!  After four years of this, we had converted four 12 foot by 100 foot areas to what might pass for agricultural soil, and we then could ascertain what kind of condition it was in for growing potatoes once every four years (we selected a four-year crop rotation scheme for that system).

The answer is that it kind of stinks.  Sometimes literally, because water does not drain out of some of the soil very readily, it turns out, rendering conditions anaerobic (lacking oxygen).  Microbes that operate in anaerobic conditions tend to produce compounds humans find obnoxious.  Think drain pipes, the bottom of your compost pail after it’s sat for a week, water from a vase with an old bouquet of daisies in it…you get the picture.

Plant roots generally don’t fare well in anaerobic conditions, with the exception of species adapted for swamps.  Many tubers are especially sensitive to this, since their high energy content make them likely targets for fungal and bacterial invaders anyway, and when anaerobia stresses them further they are very likely to succumb.  So our potatoes tended to set their tubers near the soil surface in our hilled rows, because that’s the only place the roots weren’t getting too soggy.  Yields were mediocre, many tubers were greened by the sunlight because of that crowding to the surface.  Not to mention rocks.  Lots and lots of rocks.  Bleh.

But I have a stubborn streak, we are committed to providing our food needs from this land (and we like potatoes), we had gotten this far, there was no guarantee we’d find better soil elsewhere (much of our soil is undergirded by naturally compacted layers), and for the aforementioned reasons it was still the right place.  So the point was not to put up with mediocre results, nor was it to throw up our hands; it was to transform the soil from crummy potato ground to excellent potato ground.

My first idea was that the soil just needed time to get organic matter deeper into its strata.  We’d work with cover crops, compost, and mulches and assume some physical mixing of soil to incorporate the residues of these materials despite our minimum-tillage approach because you can’t dig potatoes without some soil mixing.  But I noticed that some areas were worse than others.  I realized after a heavy rain when I looked at the puddling patterns that my rows were not uniformly just-barely-off-contour as I had intended because of topographic variation.  Never one to shrink from the heavy work when it comes to establishing a long-term food production system, I gamely excavated soil from between the rows in the worst of the patches, checking soil levels and slope to ensure adequate surface drainage.  In some areas I had to remove almost 8 inches of soil!

And that is when I first found it.  Clay.  Dense, yellowish clay, down about 6 inches from the surface, nearly free of large rocks, smelling mildly anaerobic.  It was so dense it almost squeaked when I plunged in the mattock, and it came out in hunks that refused to crumble.  It could be wadded and molded at will, and had few roots in it.  This was profoundly different from any other place I had dug on our farm, and struck me as unusual for the Shenandoah Valley in general, which usually has orange or red clay (and plenty of it…our flinty chert-based soils are an oddity in the area and no one seems jealous).  I stuck some in a Ziploc and took it show my neighbor Samuel (now deceased), who had lived here over thirty years and knows more geology than I.  He was not terribly impressed, so I didn’t do anything more with it, but I kept wondering.

Then this winter we installed a new garden fence, which implied fence posts, which implied holes in the ground.  The fence’s path took me near that same area, and—sure enough—up out of those holes came wads of that dense, yellowish-tan clay—smooth and relatively pure.  Tamping the soil around those posts, my tamper slapped and smacked and smooshed, leaving neat impressions of itself in the surface, as if I were in some avant-guarde (sp?) ceramics studio discovering new techniques.  Yes, pottery was on my mind.

I’ve had interest and some limited experience in pottery/ceramics in my past, and never did get enough of it.  One of my recurring fantasies has been to discover a good clay dig on our place and find we could make pots from it.  Could there be a more fitting cottage industry for folks who endeavor to grow their life from the soil?  But as I was installing the fence I didn’t save aside any more hunks, I just tamped it back in place around the posts.  However, I often took notice of those yellowish clods of soil remaining on the surface, and I kept wondering.

This spring I finally got a trellis installed for the new row of Triple Crown blackberries that bisects two of the root patch sections.  More posts, and more clay than ever.  This time I was impressed that I couldn’t even chunk it up in the hole to extract it; I had to plunge with the post spade all around the perimeter of the next layer I wanted to remove, then pry it loose en masse, such that when I lifted the results I had relatively neat pucks of clay six inches across, three inches thick, and just as heavy as you could want.  This time I couldn’t resist.  I pulled six of the cleanest ones aside, bagging four in Ziplocs to stash with the old pottery stuff in the garage.  Two I brought down to the work room.  I had an idea.

Mondays are home school days, sort of.  We practice Unschooling, so education happens all the time for us, but when we have a special project or just as way of making time for the workbooks or whatever, Mondays are a good excuse to concentrate or “waste time” on something not obviously productive.  I thought the girls might like to help me explore this clay a little.

We processed the two hunks two different ways.  One of them we chunked up and kneaded water into, picking out the few stones, aiming for a moldable clay.  It got wetter than we meant, because it was too hard to mix by hand until we’d added that much.  So we got out the old plaster bowls from the pottery stuff and let the sticky mass sit in one to wick out moisture.

While waiting, we cut up the other one that had been soaking in water into small pieces, then added enough water to make a slurry.  We mixed and mixed and mixed this one with our hands until it was smooth.  Then we forced the slurry through a canning sieve, which netted us a small handful of sharp little stones and some organic debris in the sieve, and a beautiful mass of “slip” (very wet clay gel).  The slip we deposited in another of the plaster bowls for drying, sliding it up around the sides to coat then plaster and take advantage of the larger surface area, then recoating every time it got to looking dry enough.

By evening the first batch was dry enough to work with, so while Janelle took a little time to herself upstairs (much needed), the girls and I set up a table in the work room and went at it, rolling out snakes and molding figures.  I made a coil jar that I liked well enough to set out to dry.  We found the clay smooth and workable at the studio level, and I thought it resembled the stoneware clays I’ve worked with in the past, though I don’t know whether clay can be judged by feel.

The older two girls and I came up with things we wanted to keep around for the time being, but now we had the puzzle to figure out:  Will it fire?  We have no idea what temperature it would require to vitrify or if it ever could.  Would it be a low grade terra cotta or a high-fire stoneware suitable for water-tight vessels or even wood firing?
That’s our next step.  We must know.  We’ve got a little crafter’s kiln in the garage that would be perfectly suitable for testing it out, and I think I get the idea of the method.  We just need to find and buy a missing part, pick up some indicator cones of various temperatures, and we’re in business.

Or, rather, we have one more piece of information to tell us whether there is any kind of chance that we’re in business.

Of course we still would not have dealt with the fact that most of the clay is probably under our potato patch.

P.S.  I think we’ve figured out the how to grow good potatoes in that soil, but that’s a story for another day.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Mid-April is here - we are surviving, even thriving sometimes!

This blog post will be dedicated to our most faithful blog reader/responder: my mom! She just emailed that she was feeling it was about time for a blog post, so here I am! I was starting to feel the same way, and having just downloaded photos I concur that we have generated enough material for one - there were over 125 photos!! That said, the timing for me sitting down to start this is not ideal: almost 9:45 p.m. and Terah and Alida are not exactly getting along very well currently. It's been a big day for all of us, and I should not complain as they just (mostly) did well in a bath together for about an hour. Alida will not make it through much James Herriot reading tonight!

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Here's a few things that some might be interested in knowing about. Hopefully Jason will do a guest blog post before too long, but in case that never ends up happening here's the news: he thinks he may have found pottery clay on our place. To say that he feels pretty excited about that would be an understatement! On a recent office day for me, he and the girls worked some of it up and then while I had some precious alone time in the evening, they made some pottery creations. We'll have to fix our little test kiln in order for him to fire it, but it's a very exciting prospect. I've pictured Jason's little pot below, and will highlight the many blocks of cheddar cheese in the background (I'm happy to note that I finally was brave enough to try a new kind of cheddar that will age 2-6 months - talk about delayed gratification!).
Right now you don't have to dig below the surface to find a lot of exciting things around here. It feels like Christmas every day when we go out and find "new presents sprouting." I munched my first Variegated Great Solomon's Seal sprout the other day, had the first tiny asparagus shoot this evening and the peas are up! There is lettuce sprouting, our cabbage froze, the redbuds are just about to burst open, most of Kali's collards froze, the rhubarb will be ready for picking soon, there are nettles galore, raspberries are sprouting, and there are abundant weeds for the pigs. Have I mentioned how much we love pigs? And how much we love weeding when we have pigs? I am looking for any available pockets of times when I can go load up a basket of weeds to take to our most grateful recipients. Terah is finally not very scared of them anymore - so now I have to be more concerned about her and the electric fence as she is excited about feeding them treats!
There are lots of garlic and onion chives, wintercress broccoli heads and lots of perennial onion seed heads to be using. But it's hard to want to stay inside to cook when the outdoors is beckoning! The other day, however, I did decide to make nettle garlic biscuits and that was a very smart move! YUM!
It's not just plants that are growing. We are enjoying peeking in on the mama hen who is very capably caring for 29 chicks. She is a great mama and I love peeking in and seeing them all around her and sometimes under her with chicks peeking out from under various wings. They are cute and so clearly in tune with where she is and what she is doing. There are four more broody hens sittings on eggs currently.
In contrast to the chicks, the baby ducklings at the arboretum Thursday evening were not quite as in tune with their mama! For our April family night, Kali chose that we pick up burritos at Chipotle and enjoy a picnic and some fun at the Arboretum. We all loved that plan and it was a perfect evening to be outside. We were hoping maybe there would be ducklings, so were very excited to see a mama with 11 small ducklings in the pond. They put on quite a show. They were busy, busy, busy making their rounds. And they are clearly not shy of people. They would come up on the shore and come very close to us. I felt very sorry for the mama as it seemed she was VERY busy trying to keep track of 11 very fast moving curious fuzz balls! As we were leaving around dusk they finally seemed interested in being very close to their mama as we heard loud peeping that sounded very much like "Mama, it's getting dark. Where are you?" Terah was not at all ready to leave as she LOVED the swinging bridge and we all enjoyed walking the labyrinth. The spring flowers were in their prime!
I was proud of us for sticking to our April family night when we had not gotten the potatoes in yet. I think it was very good for us to get to a stopping place, take a break (especially for Jason who has been working so hard in the gardens!) and come back to it fresh the next day. And when we did come back to it we were quite the team! When we are all enjoying working/playing in the gardens together, there is not much in the world I'd rather be doing. Potato planting is a lot about the prep at this point: weeding the area, trenching, adding biochar, adding soil, and then planting potatoes and covering them. They are all in which feels great! And we had more than enough seed potatoes, so I was able to come in from planting and make some potato crusted quiches for our lunch. We have just enough potatoes for another menu or two before having to eagerly wait for this year's crop!
It was good to get the potatoes in the ground because today was not a full Saturday workday. It was the first day of soccer games. Last week's games were cancelled due to the cold and possible snow and this week it was in the mid-upper 70's. Quite the contrast. Kali has games every Saturday at 10:15 and Alida at 1, so we get to go home in between for about 45 minutes. The girls love it and that makes it completely worth it - but it's also exhausting. Terah had no trouble going down for her nap at 2:30! This is Kali's first season on a co-ed team (which is basically mostly a boys' team with her and two other girls). Half of Alida's team are girls she got to know on her team last season and we are again the hub for a group of parent coaches. After a bit of a rocky start, I think we are off to a good start to the season! 
I'll close by noting what a lovely little picnic we had outside this evening together before Jason and I did a walk around and spring tasks list generation (it's rather extensive!). Everyone was so happy to be outside and be together. I felt full and alive and so grateful! I really love this group of humans. As I took things back up to the house, Terah took over photographing the evening. I continue to enjoy seeing the world from her vantage point. I'll include one of her pictures as the last one here. Not bad! Now let's try to get this family bedded down for the night!