Home-made Holiday Gifts; Wood ornaments

Every year we try to make holiday presents for Yule. This year is no different. This year I borrowed a wood burning kit from my sister to use for making these;

Ornaments.png

These ornaments or keychains (or however you want to use them) are extremely easy to make. You simply use a saw (I used my circular saw) to cut slices of a stick. Then you drill a tiny hole in the top, and burn in your design. When you’re done, slip a ribbon through, add and secure a wood bead (if you like) and tie it closed.

You can see several different designs here. A star and a snowflake are simple and generic but they get more customized than that. One is a paintbrush and pencil crossed for an artist friend. One is a computer screen with YULE written on it in binary code for a friend who is a programmer. A third is an ornate cross and has a crown of thorns on the other side for a friend who is deeply Catholic (but celebrates my heathen holidays with me anyhow). There’ll be many more by the time I’m done. We usually have around 20-25 people over for Yule and each one receives a gift of some sort as a spiritual requirement for the holiday. That adds up, even if you only spend $10 per person. So we try to aim for home-made gifts as a frugal but thoughtful alternative. Plus it’s very in-tune with both the natural focus of the holiday and our desire to re-use and upcycle common items.

Here’s a step by step of how to make these neat little ornaments.

You’ll need…

  • A relatively smooth, straight and evenly round stick or small log of appropriate size
  • A saw of some sort to make clean cuts in the wood
  • A drill with a very small drill bit
  • A pencil
  • A scarp of thin cardboard with a straight edge
  • Sandpaper
  • A wood burning kit (These run from $25-$50 depending on what you get)
  • Ribbon, string or wire for the loops
  • Beads or other stringable decorations (optional)
  • Tung oil or other wood finisher (optional)

First, find a stick that you want to use that’s straight and smooth.

woodcraft1

Some notes about the kind of stick you should use. The wood type isn’t really as relevant as the literal shape of the stick. You want to pick a stick that has a fairly consistent width and is as straight as possible with very few knots and knobs. Make sure it’s long enough to cut enough discs of the sizes you’d like with enough extra to hold safely while you’re cutting. You also need a stick that is VERY dry and has been stored indoors for some months. A wood that’s very dark in color will have less contrast then a wood that’s very light, especially if you choose to oil it.

Next, pick a consistent width for your tokens and mark off one disc of wood. Cut and repeat until you have as many as you want to make. You can wing this but if consistency matters to you it pays to mark and cut carefully.

woodcraft3

Inconsistent cutting because I winged these means wild angles and different widths.

Next, put your drill to work making a small hole in the top of each one. Be careful about your angles. If your drill goes between the wood and the bark, the bark will probably peel away.

woodcraft2

Note the red staining on the lower disc on the right. That came from the blade of the circular saw. It’s just a surface scuff and will be sanded off later.

Bring your discs to a flat work surface and start to sand them. Sand both sides and lightly sand the bark edge as well. This makes the surfaces smooth and clean and nice to handle. it’ll also keep the wood from flaking. If you cut a piece wildly uneven (like I did), you can use the sandpaper to help even those out. Don’t over-sand the bark edges. You’re just trying to rub away some roughness, not take off layers of the bark. The whole piece of wood should feel almost soft.

woodcraft4

Now you’re ready to burn in some patterns. You’ll need a good wood burning kit. Choose a simple round pointed tip and set up your wood burner. I was using a Walnut Hollow kit, but there was a serious problem with it. The cord is extremely short, and it pulled itself off of the table onto the floor. One of the nibs broke and it snapped off inside of it. I have yet to restore the functionality of this wood burner. I had a backup, but in general, be very careful not to make my mistake.

A wood burner is just a hot metal pen, so you can draw anything with it if you’re careful. I did lots of designs, you can get extremely creative. I did a bear, a cat, a fox, a computer, a cross, theater masks, stars, etc. Just draw it out with a pencil first and then burn it in… But right now I will be showing you how to burn in a simple but pretty snowflake.

First, burn the ends of the hole open so they are clean and easy to work with. Then line up your straight bit of cardboard in the middle of the wood disc, across the hole to the bottom. I used a torn off tab from a box of cookies. Anything is fine as long as it’s straight and disposable.

woodcraft5.png

Burn a straight line from top to bottom, then do the same thing at a 90* angle so you have a big cross in the middle. At 45* angles from that, still using your straight edge, burn an X shape that’s about half the length inside it.

Next, you simply start filling it out with the crystal structure. Whatever you do on one long line, do the same thing to all the others. They can be straight lines or at angles pointing outward or even X shapes, so long as they are symmetrical across all the long lines. On this one I went for pointed angles on the long branches, and then pointed angles on the ends of the short branches, with straight lines under it. A good rule of thumb is two branches on each line.

I filled up some of the extra space with a moon and some stars. Stars generally have five points so a simple round, pointed nib can make a fuzzy star shape by simply burning five equally spaced points as tightly together as you can.

woodcraft6.png

At this point, I oiled all of the pieces I was doing. I used some tung oil that I had sitting around and an old scrap of towel to apply it. When you apply an oil like tung oil to the wood, it will dramatically change the base color of the wood. It will make it dark and rich, but it will also reduce the contrast. You may want to go over your wood burn again to make sure it comes out dark enough.

When you are done oiling you may find some of the edges of the wood are a little flaky, especially if you have a large grain sandpaper. That’s OK. Just use the side of your wood burning pen to burn those edges down flat.

woodcraft7.png

You can see what the oil looks like on these various patterns as well, and you may notice some flaking on the edges. Note that the very center of the wood may absorb the oil differently than the rest of the wood disc. If this is very bothersome, gently and quickly burn over just the center to darken it just a bit.

Now I’ll show you how I attached the bead. Start by deciding how low you want the ornament to hang, then double it (because the ribbon will be a loop). Then add an inch or two depending on the size of bead you’re using, and another couple inches for the knot on the top. These were a larger sized set of beads so about 2 inches would be right. I just guessed at a ribbon length, personally. Cut your ribbon and run it through the hole. You may have to fold it or use a needle threader or some such to make it go through if the hole is very small like mine were. String your bead over both ends of the ribbon.

woodcraft8.png

Part the ends of the ribbon down over the top of the bead, then bring them up through the bottom of the bead again one at a time so they form loops on opposite sides. Then simply tighten the loops with the beads close to the wood disc and it will hold very securely. Tie a knot at the top and you’re done!

woodcraftfin3

Let them sit for a time to absorb the oils, but at this point your gift is done. Cute, pretty and simple. Possibly most importantly, nearly free (if you don’t completely break your wood burning tool in the process).

I hope you enjoy crafting these!

 

BUT WAIT!

What if you make a mistake!?

If it’s a deep enough burn, you should probably just start over with a new disc. I mean, these are made out of sticks from your wood pile, after all. But if you have a light burn or don’t want to make a new disc you can actually just sand the burns out. It may take a while to actually get through the burn marks, but any blemishes on the surface of the wood can simply be sanded out with a little elbow grease and then re-oiled.

Happy crafting, friends! Until next time!

Advertisements

My door is open, if you want it to be.

Content warning for conversion therapy, suicide and politics.
Today I read an interesting political article that lifted my spirits a bit. This post has a happy ending if you can make it through, for me at least.

The article talks about a man who is a farmer, protesting a republican political candidate. A good ‘ol boy if I ever saw one. He stood with his preachers, and his community, as they banged on their pulpits, preaching not of love but of how human beings simply existing were perverted and distasteful. They were speaking of gay people in this case, a community I am a part of.

This regular occurrence was common in his home. But one day he found out his daughter, Patti, was gay. A friend of hers told her family, “outing” her. This was a daughter that he loved and cherished. That he’d raised in a church that pounded their pulpit and called his child a pervert. A child who had only ever done good. He devalued her, repeated back what he learned at his church. Hate and anger. He apologized, he regretted what he said, but the damage was done.

Patti came to him crying, asking him to help her get help to stop being gay. Nobody asks to be born a certain way, of course. This was someone in pain, told that who she was was terrible for her difference. She didn’t want to BE different, so she asked her father to get her “help” to fix her. Of course, that’s impossible. It’s like asking for someone to get you help to stop enjoying eating food. Such things can only cause trauma to a person.

The father in question took Patti to see doctors, but these things have been studied again and again. You can never “cure” or even CHANGE being gay, only create trauma around the experience. So they told him what any sane person driven by scientific evidence would do. They told him there was no such thing as a cure, that it was normal, that they couldn’t change who she was. Every medical professional they went to said the same thing. And the reality is, it’s the truth. We have no way to rewire an entire biological system. We have no “cure” for “experiencing the world differently”. Nor do we truly need one. But everyone around her treated people like her as a monster… What other option did she have but to seek a “cure” for being who she was?

Her father found his daughter, Patti, on March 22nd. She had committed suicide. He said that she did it because she was tired of being gay, not because she was tired of loving other girls, but because she was tired of how she was treated. Of being ridiculed and demonized.

When he tried to return to his church, after so much loss and suffering, there was a guest preacher. And after a mere 10 minutes the preacher began to tell the church about how terrible being gay was. There was no sympathy and compassion for his loss, no comfort after the death of his daughter Patti. Only more hatred.

Sometimes, I hear some pretty terrible things from the farming and homesteading communities. I hear questions that stem from ignorance, like “Why do liberals hate farming?” “Why does the left hate Christians or families?” “Why do *insert generalized city/left folks here* hate *insert generalize country/right folks here*?”.
I want you to know that the answer is really simple. We don’t. I know countless city folks who love farming and farms. Many of the people I know have “farmers make food” stickers. They’re interested in how agriculture effects our country. They’re parents with children who love nature. They want to see “flyover” territory be secure and successful. They want to see farmers get fair wages, the want to see red states have wealth. They want people in small towns to have local businesses and for those same people to have equal rights. They care a LOT.

There is an anger there, however. The kind that stems from years of abuse, the kind that admittedly leads to many being abusive right back. The anger isn’t personal towards individual people or specific groups, like farmers or Christians. The anger is towards the anger they’ve experienced from others. They rage at a system that causes a community to demonize differences. They hate teachings that cause other people to live in fear. They hate a hatred that makes a father treat his own daughter with hate. They hate a world that pushes a young girl to commit suicide. They hate the voices that end their lives, and countless others across the world.

This story is tragic. That system, that hatred ingrained in those communities, OUR communities, causes people to die. It causes families to be ripped apart. It caused a father to loose his daughter. I hate that. We hate that. It disgusts us and it should disgust everyone.

This story has a quiet little high note at the end, however.

This father suffered a tremendous loss. But after that day at church he stopped going back to that church. He couldn’t believe that his God would send such a loving child to hell simply for how she was born.

The reason his letter came to my attention was he is now advocating for people like his daughter in his deep-red state. The politician in question referred to members of the queer community as perverts and sinners. The politician in question also has a high profile set of sexual misconduct accusations. And this father sees the hypocrisy in his words. He hopes that people will think twice before voting for a man that calls his daughter a pervert, and emboldens the people that drove her suicide. He regret his past actions deeply and pushes back against anti-gay movements in his own small towns and farming communities. He’s a farmer. He’s one of US, and his suffering deserves to be heard.

Nathan Mathis. You’re a brave soul. There was a point in time when I would have probably been disgusted by who you were. There may be people you’ve hurt who will probably never forgive what you’ve been, a straw on a camels back, a drop in a bucket of anger that can never be forgotten. They’re not obligated to, we’re not obligated to forgive people who have hurt us, and that’s OK. But *I* forgive you. I’ll mourn with you. And I think you’ll find that, in general, we hateful leftist perverts are a pretty forgiving bunch all around. Even the bible says “reform ye, therefore, and turn back, for your sins being blotted out”, by and large, we’ve learned that we live it. We don’t actually WANT to hate anyone, and, indeed, we rarely do wish ill on others. We’re willing to see someone who has changed for the better and care for them again, to embrace them, to love them again. Nathan, you’re welcome in MY house any day, even if your neighbors won’t let me into theirs.

I recently heard somewhere that doing the right thing is a choice, a choice to do the right thing followed by an action doing the right thing. That you can’t do the right thing unless you are consciously trying. People’s mistakes happen in offhand ways, swept up in the moment without consideration or reason, they do bad things. It’s easy to end up on the wrong path, doing things that are wrong, without even realizing it. “Oops! Sorry I hurt you, I didn’t mean to.” By contrast; “I did the right thing without noticing!”, “Why, the next thing I knew, I was doing good things!”, “in a moment of carelessness, I helped someone! Whoops!”. You never hear those things. Goodness cannot exist without the intent to be good. You can’t do good things unless you actively try to.

My door, and countless others, are open to anyone who genuinely wants to be better, to anyone who decides that they want to do good things and who tries to. To anyone who wants to know how they can stop hurting others, to anyone who wants to help others. To anyone who genuinely wants to connect and share compassion. If you want to be good and then you do it, my door is open to you. I believe that Nathan has decided that he wants to do good, and is trying to do it.

And Patti Sue Mathis. I’ll say your name. You’re a victim as much as any other. You didn’t deserve the end you had. I hope your name will be remembered by many people. But I also hope you know that, wherever you are, there’s a little more light in the world because you were in it. Because of your legacy of loss, there’s a few more people who will see love instead of hate. I hope wherever you are, you’re at peace. And I hope you know that you mattered.

Someday, I hope that we have more Nathans. I hope we have more people who decide to do good in the world.

And you don’t have to take my lefty feminist words that it’s a good thing to do. This old man, a farmer, a father, a christian and a republican, is asking you to do good as well. I hope his message spreads, far and wide.

You can read his letter here;
http://www.dothaneagle.com/news/letters_to_editor/letter-soul-baring-thoughts-on-gay-bashing/article_a1a6b423-82df-5bff-92fd-46e1e1a12ece.html

And the article about his protest here;
http://theweek.com/speedreads/742788/alabama-farmer-who-lost-gay-daughter-suicide-speaks-near-roy-moore-rally

Good luck, Nathan. I’m rooting for you.

Yuletide Greetings

Hello! With the advent of December (if you’ll excuse the pun) my mind starts planning out my annual winter celebrations. In our household we celebrate Yule, a pagan and Wiccan tradition and one of about a dozen major religious winter celebrations in the US.

Yule is a really fun holiday, that was subject to heavy Christianization into the celebration we know today as Christmas. Many of the traditions were lost in the process and are hard to understand.  A lot of the history of this celebration has been lost to the ages and is slowly being pieced back together.

Modern celebrations have a few big elements in common with historical accounts of the celebration. The first being the purpose of the Yule celebration. Yule celebrates the spiritual embodiment of the Sun. Yule takes place on the shortest night of the year, and is a celebration designed to be so festive, happy, joyous and bright that it reminds the Sun itself of how wonderful the earth is, and begins the cycle of days getting longer again. This deep connection to the sun is intrinsic to ancient pagan celebrations of Yule, regardless of the specific faith that was celebrating it. In those times, celebrations were shared across cultures and many sects celebrated the same holy days in similar ways, just worshiping different gods. Because of this, nearly every major religion has a winter festival of lights, and it was this celebration that layed the foundation for Christmas as we know it.
The other thing these modern celebrations have in common with ancient ones are many of the broader traditions and symbology for the celebration. Filling the home with lights (in those days, specifically it was candles), and bringing a tree indoors to decorate with candles was meant to make the world bright and inviting and also depict the sun. The exchange of gifts and a grand feast was meant to make the season joyous and festive. Decking halls with boughs of holly, mistletoe and pines were a reminder of the beautiful green growth of spring. Wassailing was singing door to door, which evolved into caroling, but also was an exchange of song and alcohol from the poor for gifts and food from the rich. Usually, the poor also offered blessings to the rich if they received their gifts, and curses if they didn’t. This history lives on in some Christmas carols, such as “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” and it’s references to carolers demanding a figgy pudding.

We celebrate Yule with these traditions in mind, and conveniently that’s pretty easy since most Christmas traditions are based off of old Germanic Yule traditions. We put up an evergreen tree (a fake one from my sister) and decorate it with baubles, ornaments, and lights. We hang wreaths of evergreens (Ok… They’re plastic too) over our bay windows, and put lights on the walls.
We also throw a big party on the 21st. This is my equivalent of Christmas, both eve and day, all wrapped into one. We invite a multitude of friends and family over to celebrate, 20 or so of our closest companions. At dawn I wake up to bless the Yule log (another old tradition we have a variation of) which is a massive chunk of wood. After that I spend the day prepping for the party. We enjoy a huge feast, an exchange of gifts, drinks, and a ceremony where we burn wishes for the new year over the blessed log in our fireplace, asking the spirits of the world to grant them to us.

Because of the nature of the celebration, it requires a lot of advance planning and a lot of resources. Like much of America these days, cash is in shorter supply than time, so we DIY many of our gifts. In the past we have given out trays of home-baked goods, home-made candies (including these really great caramels I made), some mushroom jars I made once, apple butter, etc.

Once again we will be giving out apple butter this year (we ended up making 3 gallons of it this year, after-all), but we’re adding some other home-made gifts to the list as well. This year we managed to make 13 half pints of home-made salsa, much of which will become gifts. There are other gifts we plant on making to give away that I will hopefully be detailing throughout the month.

We are also planning our feast and exploring options for our Yule dinner. This year we have two small(er) chickens we were planning on roasting, a pair of rabbits, and chickpea stuffed portabellas with pecans and carrots (for our vegetarian friends), roast veggies, stuffing, and deserts. But specifics are undetermined yet (beyond the vegetarian meal. We don’t eat holiday-worthy vegetarian meals often, so we pick recipes for that dish from the internet). Over the summer we made a Jamaican jerk chicken that was a big hit… Should we make that again? Should we go for something classic, loaded with sage and onions? Should we do a nice citrus pair of birds? Should the carrots be sweet or savory? The mashed potatoes plain and smooth, or lumpy and garlic filled like 2 Chainz famous mash? (We had those potatoes for Thanksgiving by the way, and they were excellent!)

There’s a lot of options but one things for certain, as the ability to leave the house recedes into freezing temperatures we’ll have more time to make those choices.

Do you have a favorite holiday dish? Share it with me! Yule is primarily about community and joy in literally dark times. I’d love to add a bit of your community and joy into mine!

End of a season; Garden notes from 2017

The growing season is coming to an unseasonable close this year. The pepper plants, inherently loving of warm weather, hung on well into the start of November before our first true freeze wiped them out. The colder-hardy crops continue to grow and thrive. The lettuce which died back in the summer and never quite grew is flourishing. The remaining carrots which grew poorly, the parsley, the kale, the green onions and even the radishes are all quite content in their nearly winter gardens, green and perky. Some of them I may allow to over-winter, but the garden design for next year may not allow it.

Though things are technically still growing I am trying to finish up the growing season. It’s not going well. The days are warm and sunny frequently enough that even the bees are coming out of their hive and collecting pollen a few days a week. I would say that from my childhood it was a 50-50 chance of snow on Halloween and by the time Thanksgiving rolled around we’d have probably had multiple feet. Who knows what normal looks like now. I will likely consider a sturdy hoop cover for next fall to see if I can grow some plants clear through the winter.

Finishing up the growing season means more than just getting your garden beds in order for the winter, old plants removed, fed with compost that’s right on the cusp of being ready, mulched or cover-cropped, etc. It also means taking the observations jotted down and filed away in memory banks and text files from the year and compiling them into something useful for growing in the future. So this post is that compilation for my garden beds, edited and clarified deeply. I hope the lessons I learned this year can prove useful to other people who read this in the future.

2017 Weather and Garden Bed Changes

A general note about the environment my plants were raised in. We’re in USDA zone 6a, though that can vary by one zone if you go a dozen miles in any direction. This year had unusually high rainfall during the summer (nearly twice normal rainfall between may and September). It felt cold but temperatures were fairly normal (slightly above historical averages). The beds got built late and seedlings went into the ground late (mid may).

The garden beds themselves were shifted this year to allow for two large beds, one half bed, and a pair of potato boxes. The front-most bed was brand new this year and the soil was rough and unfinished. The potato boxes were also brand new. (See: This post from last winter showing my garden bed layout for this year and where things were planted, roughly.)

And now into

Plants and their 2017 Notes (in no particular order)

Potatoes

We grew two varieties of potatoes this year; Red Norland and Yukon Golds. Both did sub-par and did not meet expectations due to various factors. The beds they were planted in were brand new 4x4ft beds adjacent to one another and were designed to be vertical potato boxes. They had 1″ mesh plastic green deer fencing around them to hold the dirt in. They were grown by layering hay, compost and dirt vertically for about 2-3′. The Yukon golds had large, robust vines that held up well to the vertical planting style. The red Norland vines rotted away at the base more than the golds, though it was a problem in both varieties. The hypothesis is that the hay matted, molded and rotted more than straw would have with it’s more thorough exchange of air.
Both varieties also suffered from wireworms. The wireworms did significantly more damage to the Yukon Golds, devouring huge amounts of almost every potato. Only a few were uneaten, most were eaten beyond human consumption. The red Norlands had incidental wireworm holes inside but very few potatoes were damaged beyond human consumption. The red Norlands also suffered from minor scabbing from fungus but were generally healthy, robust and crisp potatoes. Though they produced fewer, smaller, potatoes overall, more potatoes were whole and edible. The red Norlands proved they could withstand a heavy wireworm infestation and were firm and delicious. The scabbing seemed to have little effect on the crop. The yellows were soft and mild, the reds were extremely crisp, firmer than a fresh apple and had a strong, almost sharp (for a potato) flavor. Over-all the potatoes produced far less than I expected, but I think the reds will be worth trying again, and replacing hay with straw will improve plant quality.

Onions (bulb)

I can’t recall the variety we grew but we got sets of medium yellow onions from Home Depot. The soil they were planted in was rough and they grew surprisingly well despite that. But they needed MUCH deeper mulching (by about 6″). The stalks fell over and died back very early, long before the roots were done growing. This is our third time growing onions and none have been highly successful. Given how inexpensive onions are to buy and difficult to grow, we will be taking a break from them in 2018 to focus on other plants.

Onions (Green)

I believe we grew Tokyo Long White green onions. They grew extremely well in large bunches and HUGE  plants. They only needed to be spaced further apart and harvested more often. We will be growing these again. They are still alive in our garden right now. A single leaf would frequently grow 1-2 feet tall and 2-3 inches wide.

Wild Garlic

This year we cut back the scapes and harvested bulbs which went very well! Next fall we plan on introducing other heirloom hardneck varieties to our garlic beds.

French Breakfast Radish

These grew extremely well. They were very prolific, and grew into huge radishes. Given the space they would grow to the size of carrots with a 1-2″ diameter and several inches long. They started to loose flavor during flowering, which happened as they aged in the heat. They grew insanely fast, and almost all the seeds sprouted. They were edible within a month and lasted in the ground even through light frosts, growing huge as long as it stayed cold. Wireworms and other insects consumed some of them but there were so many it didn’t matter. They did need more mulch and to be hilled/mulch more dramatically. They grow extremely well inbetween other plants and shade out weeds effectively. They were a huge success and will become a staple vegetable for us now.

Peppers

We grew three varieties of peppers this year; NuMex Joe Anaheims, Early Jalapenos and Black Beauty Bell peppers. They were planted close together in new, rough, soil and all three had similar problems and results. The pepper plants all suffered extreme damage from groundhogs early in the season, having all leaves eaten off repeatedly and stems chewed down until they were just sticks in the ground. Surprisingly, all the varieties recovered from this damage and grew back, but they were stunted and small as a result, only growing about 1′ tall. (The groundhogs suffered dearly for their transgressions at the paws of my husky.)  The Anaheims recovered first, putting out lots of big, long peppers. I should have let them ripen longer as they were quite mild and green. The bells recovered next. These peppers start out surprisingly small and dark, absolutely black. As they reach proper eating size they begin to become more like a purple or brown than an inky black. I didn’t realize this and I was picking most of them too early as well, but they were prolific as a result. The Jalapenos were the surprising under performers this year, recovering last and producing little. Normally they do much better. Because we were able to use most of the peppers in salsa and stir-frys (and they generally did well and produced lots) we will be growing all three again next year but letting them ripen more and protecting them more from marauders in the early season.

Tomatoes

Tomatoes were strange this year as we attempted to grow one variety and ended up with another. We tried to grow Bellstar tomatoes this year, but they were started too early and close together. The result was they got severe wilt, grew poorly and died off faster than I could clone them to stay alive. They were a disaster.
However we had very good luck with the San Marzanos that volunteered all across our garden bed from last year. We lost many tomatoes to the ground (and groundhogs) last year and got hundreds of plants sprouting from the ground in late spring this year as a result. We planted them and they grew prolifically producing enough tomatoes to can regularly. They grow EXTREMELY tall, however, and 4′-6′ stakes are NOT tall enough for them. 8′ stakes may be needed in the future. Staking them up and keeping them pruned back made them more manageable but they still got out of hand with growth. They need to be spaced slightly further apart (1.5ft instead of 1ft), staked up earlier than July and their suckers must be maintained more carefully. They did end up with a bad case of blight toward the end of the season and died back early as a result, but they continued to produce despite the fungus, which may have been worse than most years due to heavy rains. They were planted in an older, well-worked bed. Additional calcium in the soil (about 1/2 cup loosely crushed eggshells under each plant) nearly completely eliminated the blossom end rot we have experienced in previous years.
Because of how consistently prolific they are and how easily they grow in our soil we will be growing the San Marzanos again, but with more intense management to control blight and over-grown plants. These are well producing but high maintenance plants.

Zucchini

We grow Costata Romanesco zucchinis in our garden. This year they were planted in rough, newly dug beds. This year we experienced extremely high levels of blossom end rot and powdery mildew and (like the tomatoes) the plants died back early. This was in part due to high rainfall but I also suspect that the rough, less fertile soil had much to do with it. Despite that we grew several 4+lb zucchini which easily carried us through the whole summer and gave us some extra to freeze. We will be planting our zucchini with a lot of extra calcium next year to combat the issues we had.

Cucumbers

These were volunteers of an unknown variety that did OK after first being transplanted but quickly began to have problems after the first few fruits. Since these were not meant to be grown this year not much effort was made towards them. Being in full sun in the new, rough, soil dried some of them out to the point of no return. Later in the season the powdery mildew killed whole plants, but nothing was done to prevent these things from happening because we didn’t intend to grow cucumbers this year. Still, it’s good to know what went wrong so we can do better in the future.

Winter Squash (Acorn Squash)

We grew Table Queen Acorn Squash this year, interplanted near our corn stalks. Winter squashes have traditionally done well for us but this year they vined out excessively, did not cooperate with the corn well (frequently pushing the plants over instead of helping to hold them up) and only gave us 3 squashes this year despite the massive space they occupied. They also suffered from powdery mildew and blossom end rot. Because of this we have decided to try other varieties of winter squash next year and put the acorn squashes on the backburner for future attempts.

Carrots

We grew Touchon carrots this year and they did surprisingly well. We attempted to do the “four day” tri-planted carrot method with limited success. The seeds actually took nearly a week to germinate, and the mess of what grew where meant that the carrots were hardly tri-planted. Our soil across our whole lot is thick and clay heavy, and despite amending with a lot of sand, wood chips, straw and compost, we’ve never been able to make good carrot soil. Despite these mishaps, we ended up getting 5lbs of carrots (after removing the greens) out of our tiny 10 square feet (ish) of carrots. Most were small and straight but a few were large and some were crazy and lumpy. They were all quite short as our soil is so heavy. They were also delicious. Most fresh produce is good but the difference in flavor for the carrots was dramatic. Next year we will be growing carrots again, but a different variety designed for heavy soils.

Arugula

The arugula we grew this year did great. It grew well, bolted early and produced many seed pods after. It was resistant to animal consumption and vined out a lot. Strong flavor and very spicy. Will grow again in smaller quantities.

Lettuce
The lettuce mix we grew got consumed heavily by animals in the early spring and suffered in the heat of mid-summer as it tried to recover. It came back strong in the fall as the rest of the garden started to die back, but there weren’t many other vegetables to go with it any more. The lettuce varieties were all bitter and really needed a sweet lettuce to go with them.

Peas

We grew Cascadia dwarf snap peas this year. Early in the season they were dug up by squirrels and eaten down by groundhogs. They struggled to recover in time to avoid being shaded out by plants like the kale. The remaining and sad plants did produce peas that were the best peas I have ever tasted, however. They were extremely juicy and sweet. We will be trying them again next year with a little more TLC.

Kale

We grow Red Russian kale every year and it’s always a star in our environment. It got munched by caterpillars a bit in the hot summer months but bounced back. We did not eat enough of it, however, and really need to get more clever about eating our greens.

Broccoli

We grew De Cicco Broccoli this year. They germinated very well but were really leggy seedlings. They were delicious plants but hardly produced a head more than a couple inches across and they never did become less leggy. We ended up just letting them bloom over and over again to feed the bees during times when other blooms were few. They never produced enough heads to be worth eating substantially. Next year we will be trying cauliflower instead.

Beans

KY Wonder Pole Beans are staple on our farm. As usual, they out-performed most of our crops, producing more beans than we could actually harvest and eat reasonably. My friends and family members were fed with those beans. They also suffered a bit from the wet as they also got hit with various fungi and blights. The new trellises worked very well but really need plastic twine to stay in place. Sisal/hemp or other natural rope twines break too easily and the trellises fall over. The beans also could have been trained horizontally more effectively to allow them to take up more surface area on the trellises. We also need to clip the branches above the trellises back more as they tried to grow up into the trees! Saving seeds from these beans is also amazingly simple. This will continue to be a staple crop for years to come.

Corn

We grew Painted Mountain flint corn this year. Most years we have tried to grow Roy Calais flint corn to no avail. This year the corn actually grew and each stalk produced an ear or two despite our very small stand. The ears were not well filled out and frankly, we didn’t get much corn out of it… But that which we did get was beautiful! Coming in several colors, some ears being solid and some mixed, it’s gorgeous to look at. It did fall over easily. The stalks were thin and needed to be hilled more effectively. The radishes that were inter planted with the corn needed to be removed earlier and replaced with large amounts of mulch to support the corn stalks. Next year we will be trying this variety again as we’ve never gotten a corn to grow to fruit before and I think a larger stand may solve the problems we had.

Watermelon

Watermelons have traditionally been hard for us to grow. We planted Blue Ribbon watermelon. This year we got one small watermelon, but it was strong and ripe. They really need more shade during the height of summer and a longer season. Also, they were planted in rough soil and (like all the plants grown in the new bed) suffered from mildew and calcium problems. This is our second failed year in a row trying to grow these. We will be opting for a different fruit species next year.

Herbs; Mammoth Dill

The dill was transplanted from a pot and never bounced back the way I was hoping. It was plated in with our brassicas (kale and broccoli) to keep bugs away, which it did seem to at least a bit. Last year our kale was devoured by aphids. This year it wasn’t. But the dill itself never became a useful size. Direct sowing will probably serve us better next year.

Herbs; Parsley

We grew some sort of standard curly parsley, and it took off! It’s still alive and growing well in our back yard and seems to have done nicely for itself. The flavor is good and it’s extremely prolific. We will be growing it again next year. Germinated very slowly.

Herbs; Oregano

Did not germinate. Again. Maybe next year? Anyone have any tips on how to grow oregano from seed well?

Herbs; Genovese Basil

Germinated extremely slowly and needs to have a LOT of dirt space to grow properly. I have never seen a plant stunt itself so badly from lack of space before. We ended up growing this in both beds and pots and it did extremely well in both! Very prolific once it finally started to grow properly! Had to pinch the blossoms a lot to keep it from going to seed too early. Next year we will grow enough to dehydrate or turn into dairyless pesto for storage!

Herbs; Thyme

Our thyme grew wonderfully but was used minimally. Should be good as an inter planted pest repellent herb for the future, but not as heavy production for consumption. Forgot to dry the leftover herbs this year. Also took a long time to germinate.

Blackberries; This year we started a stand of blackberry canes. Unfortunately, there’s not enough to share with the birds as they ate nearly all of them. Next year we may try bird netting to maintain the stand better.

Strawberries; These had a great early season but as late summer rolled around they became so thick and over grown that the fruits weren’t turning red and were just rotting away on the vines. We will thin them heavily this year, possibly to hanging pots, and maintain them a bit more carefully to allow us to harvest more appropriately.

Management notes for next year;

This year was very wet and saw a lot of problems despite overall success. Management of soil quality in newly dug beds proved problematic. It was extremely difficult to get the beds in this past spring and many of the plants in those beds suffered as a result. Low mineral levels and low fertility in general seemed to effect some of the plants dramatically.
Animals consumed a lot of plants early in the season. Excluding wild animals from our lawn more effectively is going to be a requirement for the future.
Wireworms were a new problem that hit our potatoes particularly hard. They are common in freshly dug beds for up to 5 years because they live in grass roots. We can’t wait 5 years for them to decide to leave so we will be using other management techniques instead. The potato beds will be tilled repeatedly now that it’s fall, and again in the spring, to make the beds cold and drive the wireworms out. They will be treated with coffee grounds to make the soil more acidic than the wireworms prefer. We will also use small amounts of coffee grounds to fertilize our potatoes during growth. We will lastly be applying a small number of beneficial nematodes, which kill wireworms. It’s our hope that with these techniques we’ll be able to prevent them from living in the root vegetable beds and our potatoes will be safer for it.
Fungal blooms were a large problem as nearly all the plants experienced some sort of disease or another from fungus. Better, airier, plant spacing and more pruning will likely improve prevention of fungal diseases. Tilling soil, baking soda sprays, thick mulching and calcium supplements will also be used to help control fungal blooms on the plants including blight and powdery mildew.

The Summary

Despite some serious problems in our garden with fungal blooms, pests, and rough soil conditions, the garden went very well and produced a lot of food for us! It really felt like the garden was worth the work load this year. We learned a lot this year and I think next year is going to be extremely promising. We’re already adjusting our land and practices to compensate for and prevent the problems we had this year from effecting our spring plantings. I’m looking forward to the next growing season!

Rats are a Terror

Content warning; Graphic descriptions, dead animals, trapping rats

I want you to understand something that I didn’t earlier this year. Rats are horrible. Rats are a menace. And rats must be dealt with very strongly the moment you find them or else you may be finding yourself unable to manage them. This was a lesson I had, unfortunately, not learned and so I tried to go half-way with removing them. First it was just the snap traps, then the dogs hunting. Then the baby rabbits disappeared. At first it was just one. Before long, 16 baby rabbits had been reduced to seven. It’s only gotten worse.

We have since learned to keep the baby rabbits outside, in the outside hutches in the upper cages they are raised from the ground, in cages the rats would struggle to reach and enter if they tried. The wire is 1/2″ hardware cloth.

Then, about a month ago, we encountered a strange sort of chicken attack. One of our hens was injured, but they seemed to be superficial head injuries. Skin-deep. We presumed that a raccoon may have grabbed her through a smallish gap. The gaps was closed, and the hen was quarantined. But she seemed to have some sort of balance problem as if she had hit her head. It was a mystery. One that we believe we’ve since solved. Or primary culprit now? The rats.

Since the rats were now A Problem (as opposed to just eating our feed occasionally), we set about cleaning the garage. We bought large metal cans to store feed, we emptied the hay under the awning and covered it with towels and a tarp, we swept and cleaned and busied ourselves with making the garage spotless. Then we moved the animals out for a day and set off bug bombs as the rats had brought fleas with them. We uncovered some spots that they were getting in and out and patched them up with concrete. We had done our jobs, the rats were suddenly excluded from most food sources, and indeed, much of the garage itself. We even set out Rat X, a rat poison that kills through expansion and dehydration that does not harm animals who then eat the dead rats. They refused to eat it.

But we should have just gone all-in the moment we saw even just one. We should have skipped the snap-traps and the dogs and the Rat X and waiting to clean the garage until it got bad. And our animals have paid the price.

Since the raccoon has been such a monster this year, we secured the chicken coop extremely well from large predators. There’s no way it could have been something large.

Two days ago we found one of our rabbits had passed away, we believe from being overweight. We have been over feeding and underbreeding our rabbits lately and they have packed on some pounds. We’ve begun to remedy this. The rabbit in question had recently been showing signs of being unhealthy. An autopsy revealed large fat deposits and some blood clots in the heart. But most disturbing was that it appeared rats had gone into her cage and gnawed at her head post-death. Now I am questioning how post-death that was as several of our adult chickens have suffered a similar fate while still very much alive.

Just like the injured chicken weeks before, these injures are all on the head, mostly on the back of it. I will spare you the pictures. We believe that rats came through and started trying to gnaw on the chicken’s heads. One hen was dead, missing large chunks of flesh from their upper body. Two were injured beyond recovery with exposed skulls and badly damaged spines, yet somehow still alive. It’s amazing that they were even alive that long, their entire heads were nothing but bloody, barely recognizable masses. Both were put down. Rooster is still with us, his head swollen to the size of a golfball, the injures not as severe as the other birds, but still badly injured. There’s no telling whether or not he’ll recover. It seems to be about 50/50 from my standpoint, as he is alert, standing with his wings tight, not panting, and not so badly wounded that I can’t even begin to treat it. No wounds on any bird other than on the head and neck.

The coop is currently well secured against large animals. It would take something the size of a dog and cause damage to the coop for something large to get in. Which means that is likely something small. Which means a rat. Probably many rats. That have just killed all the hens that were in lay and injured my favorite rooster.

They are hungry because we denied them their food sources. And they are aiming for the living animals with few other options available. This means war. And a lesson sorely learned. Rats should mean war the moment you see them.

We will now be keeping the dogs away from the back lawn. And we will be biting the bullet and using high-toxicity rat poison. Likely in bait stations, just in case. If it stops raining, we will be using liquid rat poison in a waterer as well. And we will clean out the garden, cut down the plants, concrete away their burrows, dig out their homes, and generally do all we can to remove them.

I will see that these rats die if it’s the last thing that I do.

My poor rooster.

The garage; A fount of inspiration

It’s slowly getting cleaner. It can be hard to work in. The dust picks up with ease as the old hay gets moved around in the dry air. It gets into your airways and makes your mucus all kinds of interesting colors. Wearing a dust mask makes it hard to breathe while doing hard work and the combination of a mask and this heat can feel overwhelming. It’s a difficult choice to make.

The garage must be cleaned, largely because of the rats. They must, must, MUST be eliminated before winter. We’d prefer to eliminate them without poison but our options have been wearing slim. But we have one last plan for the elimination of the rats without poison. Through simple denial of resources, carefully laid traps, a clean open garage and some carefully timed dog releases we hope to see rapid results. We plan on putting our chicken and rabbit feed into large steel cans with a moisture absorber in the bottom. As the rats have been gnawing through our feed bags, this should keep them hungry. They have been drinking from a water jug that an isolated chicken inside a cage has been using. We will be returning the chicken to the flock shortly and will leave the water jug and even refill it… Surrounded by manual traps. As it goes dark we have learned the rats come out to play. We’ll be closing off the garage and setting the dogs out at night to hunt the rats while they feel safe and in the open. Our hope is to eliminate them swiftly. We have counted at least five. That means there are likely at least a dozen in the garage. We also know there are some nests outside. Those will be dug and removed as well to the best of our ability.

On Friday we will set off the bug bombs, in both the house and the garage, to eliminate the fleas. In addition to fleas we’ve battled several other kinds of bugs in our years here. House moths, biting black flies, cellar spiders, small ants, big ants, house centipedes and fruit flies to name a few. My hope is that by setting off the bug bombs we’ll defeat (or at least drastically reduce) them all with one blow. It seems like a good plan.

So the garage must be cleaned so that the bug bomb can reach everywhere possible. A layer of hay and dirt on the floor that must be cleaned later means a layer of compostable material that would be covered in an insecticide, and a floor that would be totally open for bugs to move across.

To that end I spent a chunk of the morning tidying a bit with Greg. but right as we started to get down to the heavy lifting he had to run to shower and then leave to work at his shop. I felt pretty morose for a while. It can be somewhat lonely feeling trying to homestead sometimes. I’m often left on my own to do things and I frequently just wish I had company.

Today especially I felt down about it. There were haybales that needed to be moved outside and wheelbarrows to cart around. I wanted Greg’s help with it, but to no avail. He had work to attend to and I was on my own. I moped about as I ate lunch. I was hoping one of my boys would be able to carry the heavy haybales outside for me. I felt so strangely sad and incapable of carrying them myself. I’ve been feeling this way a lot lately, as if all of the strength has been sapped out of me when faced with a task. Not just tasks with heavy lifting, something I have always been under confident about, but most any tasks that aren’t strict routine. I suspect it’s just that creeping, lingering depression that sneaks up every once in a while but I still felt pretty miserable as I ate lunch while watching a terrible series of nature documentaries.

After finishing my lunch and realizing how truly terrible the documentary I was watching was I realized that I was fairly unhappy sitting about doing nothing and that forcing myself to do work wasn’t going to make me feel any worse. I also gave myself a bit of mental pep talk. It’s not like I’d never carried a hay bale before. I hauled in 50lb bags of feed every time we went to the feed store and these were 50lb hay bales. It’s not as if I didn’t haul those very same hay bales into the garage myself when they were delivered, stacking them head-high. Of COURSE I was very capable of lifting those hay bales, and I really needed to just dig deep, find the grit in me and do it whether I liked it or not.

So I stepped forlornely into the garage and sized up the first haybale. I found the ropes and gave them a good tug to stand it on end. Then I bent my knees, wrapped my arms around the bale, and lifted. And I suddenly realized that hay bales are a lot lighter that I remembered them being. I got a surge of confidence as I carried out and stacked my last four hay bales outside. I then proceeded to tidy up several wheelbarrows of compostable litter (hay, old cardboard, etc) and remove some trash as well.

Some days I buy far too easily into the idea that I need other people to help me accomplish things, especially the men in my life, extra especially when it comes to laborious tasks. Today was a good day for me to find that grit in me again. Sometimes I need to remind myself that, regardless of the overwhelming message of society, I am hardly a waif just because I’ve got lady parts. I am 5’11” and have always been taller and broader in the shoulders than most of the men in my life. I am the one who started this, hauling buckets, throwing around hay baled, shoveling dirt and poop and slicing open animals. I’ve done every bit of it on my own at one point or another, often all at once. All because of my own convictions. I just need to be reminded sometimes to find those again.

I’m not there yet. This past year has led to some major blows in my sense of security and confidence. I’m not sure I’m secure enough to reach out into the ether and attempt to start fighting the dominant social structures that feed into that lack of confidence again yet. But think I can be secure enough to try to clean up my little corner of the world and make it a better, smoothly functioning place again.

Summer Cold

And no longer the weather kind. Dan has brought the sneezing-coughing sickness to us and though it’s a short illness it’s a bad one to have. I spent a few days with my head feeling like a bowl of soup, heavy and sloshing when I moved. Somehow things got done despite that. Greg and I are now starting to come out the other side of it, though I still have a bit of a cough left and the chores have stacked up in our absence of ability.

Although the summer has been pretty cold and it is now technically fall, it very suddenly heated up. It’s now in the 80’s… Right in time for the fall nectar flow for the bees. I have set out food for them, but they aren’t taking it like they were a month ago. All over the asters are in full bloom and the goldenrod is just on it’s way out. I wish I could have gotten the bees to build more comb before this, but now they are going crazy building hard. I swapped a bar of brood from the top box to the bottom about 10 days ago. They filled out that empty bar and just barely began to build new comb in the bottom box when I went to check on them this week. We swapped over two bars with a lot of brood on them to the bottom box and left the bars that were beginning to be built upon in the bottom box. The brood pattern in the hive is beautiful and the queen seems to be doing a great job, filling in the center of each brood frame in a tight consistent pattern. The top box now has two empty bars in it which I hope they fill rapidly with the good nectar currently available. It’s good because they desperately need the space to store honey. They NEED to put away food for the winter. If they don’t fill up both boxes, they could die. I will be putting in bee candy for the winter as well, but if they do very poorly they could end up needing to be fed next year again as well. I may feed them for 1-2 weeks in the early spring one way or another. While my late summer-fall flowers are well cultivated, my early spring blooms are lacking.

Asters1.png

These are the asters that cover my back lawn in the late summer. They are beautiful and they swarm with pollinators of all sorts. I have counted a dozen different species on them including 2-3 local bee species like small and large carpenter bees and bumble bees. We may also have mason bees, and mining bees. It’s hard to tell. But the plants swarm with them, alongside some species of flies, beetles and the occasional wasp.

Asters like this are native to my area of Ohio and they grow over 6′ tall in some cases. Asters are also one of the few native and heavy food sources for bees in the late summer and fall. Because of their size they are very much in violation of city ordinances. I had a nice talk this summer with one of our potential city council members about changing that but it seems unlikely. City councils, much like HOAs, were not developed to preserve freedom, but to preserve property values and restrict activities. Gotta love those free markets. Mine is the only lawn where they seem to be welcome because I believe firmly that the city ordinances are wrong and so the pollinators are welcome to congregate here. We also have a 6ft fence so our neighbors (mostly) cant see them. Sometimes we get in trouble and have to cut them down. It always makes me sad.

The raccoon continues to be a menace. We are now down to 6 birds in total. It’s been showing up during sundown instead of full dark, trying to pry open doors and nest boxes… Anything it can to get a fresh Chicken snack. We had an injured bird that was recovering, but Dan left the garage door open. Rest in peace little bird. The wildlife this year has been a nightmare everywhere. My sister had a deer break through some fencing in order to eat her tomato plants, my dogs managed to pick up fleas, the rats have been a nightmare, my other sisters tomatoes were equally ravaged, though they were on her front porch and the wildife has been breaking trashcans in the neighborhood. While it’s honestly tolerable as I was going to replace most of my flock this year it’s still a shame.

And the rabbits have been messy as well. We picked up a few rabbits from a lady who gave them away for free. They have been nothing but a disaster thus far. They were raised in wire bottom cages, and when we brought them home to our solid-floor cages the buck immediately had his feet deform. I suspect that the wire floors allowed his toes to grow at odd angles. With nothing but my usual husbandry, even with regular toe nail clipping, his toes turned at all kinds of angles. Within a month he was unable to breed or balance well and had to be culled. Now one of the does has given us a litter of 11, but keeps stepping on them, crushing them, and refusing to nurse them. That litter is down to 5. The other doe gave us a litter of 6, but two were stillborn with open wounds. Perhaps they got stuck during birth? But these unhardy rabbits make me long for Iams and Purina. I miss those bunnies, they were extremely robust. Because of their problems, I can’t in good conscious sell them as breeders. Every one of these bunnies is slated for the stewpot. They will each get one more chance before the does, too, are slated for dinners. Such a shame.

But the garden continues to grow well. We put eight jars of tomato sauce away, beautiful smooth like butter sauce that we sent through an old hand-crank food mill my sister gave me. It’s the best sauce I have ever made and tastes awesome. My hope is with this heat we will be able to put away another 8 jars before winter. Our second crop of radishes is growing extremely well and is coming out as big as my palm. The zucchini are growing huge as always, the winter squash have come in nicely and the beans continue to produce prolifically. Even the peppers have recovered, and are giving us several hot peppers and some small bell peppers each week. The garden is thriving this year like it never has before. I just wish the livestock were doing better as well.

We now have nine chicks who are thriving in my bedroom in an 80 gallon aquarium. They were bought from TSC when we went on a trip for feed. They were on sale and in all we spent $6 on the 9 chicks. Three are barred plymouth rock pullets and six are straight run buff orpingtons. Between these and the new wheaten Ameraucana chicks we are due to be receiving in a month I will have a brand new flock next year.

I also have fodder growing in my basement again. I purchased pet-safe tear-proof plastic window screening from Home Depot to line the bottoms and it’s been working very well indeed. This is for the chickens as they move into winter and lack fresh food options. They’re growing well but mold is still a problem I hope to find a way to resole that some day.

This week we spend cleaning to resolve the rat and flea problems. I can only presume they are interconnected. Hopefully we can get that done before winter and the need to order new hay. Fingers crossed!