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.

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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.

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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!

Busy Fall Days

It’s not quite fall yet, but it certainly is rapidly approaching this year. While most of the world is on fire, underwater, or burning to a crisp, we have had extremely mild weather. It’s been a downright cold summer, filled with 4X’s our average rainfall for this time of year. Given that we get an average of 45 inches of precipitation a year (nearing rainforest levels of rainfall) that’s a lot of rain. It changes our local micro climate and makes things feel cold.

I am bringing in a basket of vegetables every few days now. Massive multi-pound zucchinis (last year’s record was 7lbs 10oz), baskets of tomatoes and green beans, precious few beautiful peppers and basil flowers all adorn my house, scattered about in large numbers. I really must get to canning them but my canner plate has gone missing. This is the little metal plate that goes on the bottom of the canner that keeps the jars from being directly on the bottom where the metal is in contact with the heat, and therefore keeps the jars from becoming damaged or exploding. Greg will be home monday-tuesday (as that’s his weekend) and will be helping me look for it. I even found all the other parts, and replaced the overpressure plug and sealing ring with parts my father got me for winter holidays. Typically I would have Dan help me look. But this weekend he’s fallen ill with some sort of sore-throat-and-sneezing-disease of one kind or another and has been doing naught but sleeping on my couch all weekend.

We did manage to get maintenance done on the bees and purchase feed. Dan rose up from his near-constant napping to help me stand out in the sun in a swarm of fall-enraged honey bees to see what we could do to fix what was happening wrong. You see, the bees refused to build in their lower box, no matter how much we feed them. We’re in the middle of a HEAVY food glut for bees as the asters and goldenrod are blooming all across the state and they STILL won’t build (though they are bringing in TONS of pollen!) so we decided to do something about it. With some patience, a smoker and sugar water (usually we only need the water) we managed to swap a single frame of honey and brood from the top box to the bottom box. Our hope is that this will not only force them to make a new frame and fill it in the top box, but also, that the presence of a frame in the bottom box will encourage them to build.
Also, on the bee front, is the good news that we have learned to manage our ant population. We had a set of larger black ants attempt repeatedly to move into the quiltbox. Apparently this is a common problem for warre hives. After removing the nest twice and pouring boiling water on the ants and their eggs to kill them we found our solution; Cinnamon. We powdered the whole inside of the quiltbox with the stuff, dropped a cinnamon stick in there for good measure, and powdered around the outside of the hive itself. This was met wit great success. We had a few scout ant for the next week, but after that we haven’t seen an ant colony since. It’s especially hard to get rid of ants that are attacking bees sometimes because the two species are so closely related. It can be like trying to kill mice without killing rats. Luckily the quiltbox is physically separate from the main hive so the cinnamon powder is unlikely to effect the bees, but should deter the ants nicely.

And speaking of rats, our rat problem continues. We have been trying to avoid poison but soon it will be cold and the rats will start to move indoors. This is unacceptable. We also need to get our hay brought in without rats nesting in it. We’re running out of time for more natural solutions like physical traps and dogs. They have also taken their toll on the rabbits. We can no longer have litters in the garage. They will get eaten.

Predation has also been very bad this year. We have had a young raccoon trying to devour everything. And he comes in very early in the night indeed.

But it’s not all bad. We have learned to manage. The garden is booming and we have had two litters of kits this week. Outdoors of course. We also purchased some chicks from TSC. Six St Run orpingtons and 3 pullet plymouth rocks. This is very pleasing as they were on sale and the whole lot only cost us $6. We honestly probably should have picked up more. The hope is to have a few replacement pullets for some older birds in our flock that are ready to move on. Splash and a few of the older buffs have nearly stopped laying, even being given consideration for moulting, so it’s time to move in younger birds for the spring. Rocks and orpingtons are all brown egg layers. As I transition part of my flock into purebred chickens, we will no longer be able to keep chickens that lay blue or green eggs that are not wheaten ameraucanas. So these new chicks fit in nicely.

The are living in a bedroom right now in an 80 gallon long aquarium. It’s been wonderful to just sit and watch them romp about. They’re so inquisitive and active. As I write a few of them are having fussy and fuzzy little fights for dominance. I’ve never raised chicks this close to me before, but concerns about rats drove my decision. Greg has always wanted chicks that would come running up to us, eat from our hands, and generally behave friendly towards us. This will be his chance to get that.

And despite not building in the bottom box, the bees are otherwise doing quite well. They have several frames chock full of brood with a fantastic brood pattern. My hope is that they start to pack away frames of nothing but honey soon also. Young bees build wax, so the frames of brood are exactly what we’d like to see in order to build up the hive frames for honey storage. We will have to take the time to feed them lots, but I believe that if they start to build some wax this month and put away honey that they will make it through the winter.

All around it’s been a difficult and busy season, but we are pulling through. Our homestead is coming back into order. And hopefully will be functioning smoothly again before winter.

The Killer

Today I would like to tell you about my beloved monster, a husky named Nukka. Please note that this post contains some graphic imagery in both pictures and words, so carry on only if you are strong of stomach.

This is Nukka. And this is a story of a monster, reformed.

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Back before we lived on this property, Greg and I lived in an apartment. We’d been living together for about a year, and we had two wee little pet rabbits and one big ‘ol dog named Persy. Greg grew up with a Jack Russel as a kid that was a nightmare. It would bite him and literally eat his homework. He did not like dogs, but after a year with Big Dog he had grown quite fond of them, and we decided to get a puppy together.

There was some drama and a falling out with a very negligent veterinarian, but ultimately we ended up with Little Dog. Nukka is a 40lb AKC husky. People are surprised because she seems small for a husky, but she is breed standard. Huskies seem to have one of two personalities. Either they are graceful, serious, intelligent, devoted dogs…. Or they are absolutely nuts, mouthy, wild, neurotic, and not necessarily too bright at all. We were hoping for the first. Nukka was the second. Alas, but her love of live was infectious and we loved and love her anyhow. She was a permanent fixture of our home, from the moment we brought her home.

When we moved to this property, we acquired rabbits and then chickens in somewhat short order. And in somewhat short order Nukka devoted herself to destroying them. She would chase them through the cages and try to bite them. It was a monumental effort to keep her from killing everything in sight. Sometimes we won. Sometimes she did. For a bit, she seemed to be killing every kit that slipped it’s confines. It was a problem. I was heartbroken. How on earth could I keep animals without having her kill them? How could I keep her on a farm at all? No matter how hard you work there will always be something that slips up eventually and something will die for your negligence.

And I speak of this in casual or perhaps inoffensive terms, destroying, chase, bite, kill… But these don’t do justice to describing her shockingly brutal actions. She picks animals up and shakes them with extraordinary violence, snarling, beating them on the ground, biting them over and over again. It happens in seconds. Bones snap, skin tears, a drumming sound as the animal hits the ground while being shook as hard as she can. It’s a terrifying sight and when a rabbit is caught this way it screams. Rabbits scream, and it sounds so horrible and almost human. It’s like it cuts a hole it your soul. It’s heartrending. It’s painful. It must hurt terribly, though in reality it’s over as quickly as it starts and takes no longer than broomsticking or other methods of dispatch. Even large hens don’t stand a chance. Their hollow bones simply shatter and they fall with shocking ease as their rib cage simply collapses in her jaws. I will not shy away from this, it is a disturbing sight.

Over the years, we have kept our monster in check, with ever-increasingly tight fences, cages, leashes and ropes. We have a tie-out in our back lawn wrapped around a central tree that we can hook the dogs to in a pinch. We’ve had to use it on our monster more times than I can count because she could not be trusted to leave the animals, secure in their cages even, alone. We even purchased (though never used) an electric collar. We had to find a way to keep her from eating our animals. We were struggling. We were constantly trying to train her to leave the animals alone.

Then, a breakthrough, two years back. A chicken got out and Nukka charged. “NUKKA NO!” I shouted across the lawn in the most angry voice I could. She stopped. She looked at me. “Nukka! Come here!” I said cheerfully. She turned back to the hen… “NUKKA NO. Leave it. Come here!” This time, she turned around and came back. For the first time in her life she didn’t attack and kill my chickens. Many kisses and treats were given that day.

After that it was like something had clicked in her. To this day the rabbits are still a process, but the transformation was dramatic. Some animals are off limits. No chasing, no killing, no biting. She stops. She leaves it. She comes to me when I call.

She’s still a monster, though. The last year has been a brutal one for local animals. You see, last year we had a problem with a groundhog. Groundhogs are HUGE. They are hulking, massive creatures that you really don’t get an appreciation for until you are staring an angry one down, it’s massive front teeth chattering, both of them yellow and each one as wide as your thumb nail. A bite from those teeth could break small bones and will rend flesh as easily as any dogs. The rabbits have given me a healthy appreciation for teeth like that.

This groundhog slipped into our garage one day and we used a broom to show it the door. We like to be polite to animals who aren’t bothering us. We let the bluejays rip up our trees and pull strings for their nests, and we were happy to let the groundhog leave under the same fence it came in.

But little did we know we’d created a problem for ourselves as the groundhog began eating our garden to the ground. Heavy logs blocking gaps under the fence were insufficient to keep it out. And I watched with sorrow as my cayenne plants and corn were devoured by hungry jaws every morning.

Then, one day, the dogs went out at the same time as the groundhog. And our monster decided she had found her calling. She grabbed the groundhog and to my great distress began an epic war with even Big Dog getting angry and joining in. Together they tried valiantly (and in vain) to dispose of the hulking beast. They’re thick bodied and Nukka is not actually a big dog. No amount of biting or shaking deterred this hog. It kept coming back and the dog’s efforts to remove it got more brutal. At one point the whole chicken fence was torn down on one side as the groundhog broke through it and the dogs followed, straight through the whole flock. Chickens went flying in the air all around Nukka, the monster, the killer of chickens, yet she touched not a feather. She had had her eyes on a different prize, the groundhog pinned in the corner. Another time each dog had half of it and they were biting and pulling but it broke free. Yet another time Nukka flipped it over, dived in and tried to rip it’s stomach apart, earning some small, bleeding bite wounds for her efforts. Somehow the groundhog lived and still walked away. Despite being hurt she tried to dig under the fence to follow it. Groundhogs were now The Enemy. Nothing else mattered. When the dogs were let into the lawn to pee and play, their first order of business was scouting for the groundhog and attempting to kill it. Bathroom breaks only came after their lawn was secure.

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The groundhog ran into the back corner of the pen because it had dug a hole as an escape route. I had blocked the hole with logs and it became trapped. The dogs broke down this fence and another section to get at it.

Nukka’s rage did not stop with the groundhog, though. She also took on predators attacking the birds and simply any wild animal that dared cross our threshold. She dragged possums out from under chicken coops to drop (still very much alive, just playing dead) at my feet, and once I watched with horror from the other side of the lawn as she snuffed the life out of a stray kitten that thought my chicks looked like a snack. (The rest of the kittens got live-trapped and rehomed that month and the mother cat got fixed and returned to keep other strays away. Huge shout-out to the awesome rescue lady who helped with that when other rescuers turned me down.)

These incidents layed the groundwork for her efforts this year. And while part of me is heartbroken by the loss of life, I can’t help but be impressed by her. Her efforts have saved as many lives as they take.

This year, Nukka proved herself to be the most reformed monster of all. She’s killed more animals this year than ever before, yet just today she stood sniffing the ground for rodents while the ENTIRE flock of chickens loosed themselves from their pen not 3 feet away from her. I was terrified for them. I watched her. She saw them, she sniffed them, she knew they were there, and she just didn’t care. She wanted to find a mouse instead. I was so proud (and terrified). I called her away and she came right up to me, her tail brushing the chickens as she ran past. The chickens were put away, the fence repaired, and not a feather was harmed.

But the rest of the animals around the lawn…?

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They have not stood a chance.
My dog is a legend. Many dogs chase squirrels. Nukka catches them. Songbirds too.

And the groundhog saga? It continues as well. And the groundhogs are none too pleased about it.

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That is a groundhog, a baby one. The groundhog from last year was a mama. And she was back. My garden demolished. My peppers (once again) devoured. The dogs remembered, though. And they were angry. Both of them were enraged. I can only assume they remember being bit from last year. They killed two baby groundhogs and beat the mama groundhog up so badly that she hasn’t been back at all since. Even after the baby ones were dead they wouldn’t stop trying to rip it in half. Even Big Dog stood barking at the dead groundhog for minutes. Even after it was buried in the compost pile they did not give up trying to dig it back out to bite it some more. It took them the whole day to calm down. I have never seen them so angry.

And the tiny animals? Have you ever seen a dog throw a live vole eight feet across a lawn just for the joy of it? I have. That vole got away, I heard it squeaking still very much alive afterwards. Some of them have not been so lucky. Baby wild rabbits have also paid dearly for trying to eat our garden this year. Nothing is safe.

And lastly, Nukka has taken on another kind of monster entirely as of late. And she’s been getting better at it.

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We had 16 rabbit kits and 40lbs of wheat berries, until these monsters got to them. Now we have no wheat berries and 4 rabbit kits. We are waging a war, and our monster’s killer instincts have gone from being our greatest source of losses to our best defense against future losses.

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This one was MASSIVE!

So while Nukka is still a killer, a monster in her own right, constantly set on the violent destruction of other species, she has really found a place on the farm. I no longer question her role on the homestead. She truly is reformed, walking right past the farm animals, her brood, her wards, without a care in the world. They’re off limits and she has greater ambitions. Her face says it all. Her eyes filled with excitement, she destroys only the disease-spreaders, the garden-wreckers, the kit-eaters and the chicken killers. She does not even try to eat them. She just kills them quickly, drops them and leaves them for me to dispose of safely. It’s the hunt that she lives for, and loves. And it’s the hunter that we need right now.

She’s still a killer, she will never not be. But I love her deeply. And I couldn’t be prouder of my little monster.

Chilly Summer

Actually, it hasn’t been a particularly cold summer, in truth. June was spot on, but July has been slightly cooler than usual. It’s been very hot on some days, leaving me to drip sweat in the heat, but that is largely from the humidity. The rainfall we have been getting in unusual, however. Last month we had eight-and-a-half inches… Our average is somewhere closer to 3.5. And July has been no different. We’re half-way through the month and our rainfall has been four times what our average rainfall is. I can only imagine that the exceptional amount of rain is what has been keeping us cooler.

Because of the cool weather some plants that should be burning to a crisp right now are doing surprisingly well. The peas and lettuce should be shriveling up in 85-90 degree days, but instead they’re growing and producing surprisingly well. The tomatoes feel almost a bit stunted from the cool, though they’ve begun to produce as well. Soon they will need to be staked up.

Cleaning out the garage to remove the rats continues, albeit slowly. Other things sometimes take priority, such as standing up fallen plants and removing flowers from plants not yet established enough to bloom. Animals must be fed and watered before other tasks are completed. The bees have to be kept in sugar water. Preparations for fall already have to be started. It’s a busy time.

My father went on a trip to Maui recently. That’s one of the smaller Hawaiian islands and is where one of my sisters lives. He brought me back a rather unflattering t-shirt in a vibrant blue color. “Look!” he proclaimed proudly, “It has a chicken on it!”. It does, indeed, have a rather stunning graphic of a rooster on the back of it. But the cut is so unflattering and the shirt so large that I wouldn’t feel very comfortable wearing it out. But what can you expect from a 73 year old guy? I thanked him and told him I’d wear it while working and doing livestock presentations. It seems appropriate enough for that and he looked happy. I can always use more work clothes and it looks like it’ll be a very good shirt for that.

I have too many tomato plants right now. I have experienced another epic saga of tomatoes this year. Tomatoes always seem to be a source of drama in my garden. There are two kinds of tomato plants; determinate and indeterminate. Determinate varieties grow in bushes a few feet tall then they stop and they set their fruits all at once. Indeterminate varieties just keep growing until they can’t any more, and they set their tomatoes in random batches.

Last year I grew indeterminates (san marzino) and the tomatoes became such a jungle that I could hardly walk through my garden paths that run between the beds. I quickly lost control of the plants, they become overgrown and collapsed. The tomatoes set seemingly at random, growing a few here and a few there, never enough to can. Tomatoes lay rotting on the ground everywhere. Blossom end rot became overwhelming and blight started consuming the lower branches leaving foot-high tunnels under the collapsed plants. The groundhog who regularly raided my lawn for the tomatoes ran rampant in that clear undergrowth into which I could not reach. There were so many tomatoes that not even my dogs could overcome the groundhogs temptations. Ultimately, while I grew a lot of tomatoes I didn’t harvest many tomatoes. I ended up with just a few jars of tomato sauce for my efforts. It was just too much.

This year I decided no more to indeterminate tomatoes. I ordered Bellstar tomatoes and planted 61 seeds with the hope of getting 40 plants. While around 50 or so germinated, they began to develop problems of their own. Leaves started yellowing, drooping and falling off. Whole swathes of plants began to die. I learned, eventually, that this was likely wilt, a fungus that is almost impossible to treat and control. I ended up with about 8 or 9 plants, all infected with this disease so I could not put them in my gardens. I was heartbroken.

Then one day I was out in early summer, weeding the garden to put in some late seeds when I went to pull a plant that looked awfully familiar. While I’m used to getting the occasional volunteer squash plant, I’m not used to other volunteers. The first few I ripped out without a thought until I realized that this strange plant was everywhere across my beds. Dozens. Maybe even hundreds?

They were tomato plants. Dozens of tomato plants all over the place from the rotten, consumed, dead tomatoes that fell unharvested from our plants last year. They were in every inch of the garden bed… Which actually makes sense because I spread and till the top of my soil each year. There were more than I could imagine when I finally started to notice them.

I now have dozens (50 or so?) planted in my tomato patch for the year and dozens more that I’ve found homes for in gardens of friends and family. Still more have simply been pulled and removed as weeds, and I have others that need to be removed even though they are huge and beautiful. I just have nowhere for them to go and they are in the middle of places like my watermelon patch. That’s unacceptable and they must go.

Some of them will be filling my sister’s garden bed (the one who lives a few blocks away), and some I just don’t know where they will go. And to think… I thought I had too many last year! This year I will find a way to manage them better. They will get posts put in the ground near every single one and they will be tied to them with twine to manage their growth. Anything less and they will overwhelm my garden again!

But it seems that fate has determined that I am to grow THESE tomatoes specifically, and not any others. They’ve gotten a late start but are just starting to set fruit. Hopefully, through careful management, they will not be quite so overwhelming this year. Fingers crossed. Our tomato saga will continue.

Composition is Hard

I have a lot of things throughout the week I find myself wanting to write about but I never get around to doing so. Almost always this is because while I want to make updates and express my thoughts, the act of composing them into coherent posts is something I find challenging. I’m much more of a do-er and a talk-er than a writer. I always have this desire to bring my jumbled thoughts together into cohesive dissertations and highlight my life with lovely pictures at just the right times to emphasize what’s been happening in my days on my little farmy.

I wonder if I can just get away from that sometimes. I wonder if people would care or if it would motivate me to update things more frequently. I am considering a more regular format for my blog to simplify things. A format where I talk about my farmy, the progress and challenges of a short time period, and then put more personal notes and ponderings at the bottom. Then, once a month, I upload and post picture to the blog without any words at all.

This month has been tricky. We have managed to deter the garden pests only to be encountering the livestock ones. We lost a few birds to a metal grate that fell off of a window, some insufficiently secure broody pens, and some night-time marauders. But those issues were easily resolved and the birds replaced. A bigger problem is the rats.

Our garage has slowly devolved into severe disrepair over the years. Spiders have taken up every inch of it (and are now trying to spread into our house). A friend once brought me a small truckload of crumpled horse feed bags after I mentioned I was considering making feed bag totes, not realizing he’d brought me nothing but a cartload of trash that he expected me to store for future use. Cardboard boxes and packing materials of all kind just did not get taken care of and would be deposited into the garage unceremoniously, not even broken down. If it was my “farming stuff” and there was no immediately obvious location for it, people would just throw it into the garage without caring where it ended up (and I would wonder where it went!). Scrap wood, some with nails still sticking out, would fall from it’s location propped up against walls and take up residence on the floor behind cages where they were out-of-sight out-of-mind. And the hay bales have not been being used very quickly this year… I have a paranoia about how much I should/shouldn’t be using. I am not using nearly enough. Next year I need a stricter budget and schedule for hay use as I should be out right now (ordering fresh) and instead I have another 8 bales left. And as a result of the general neglect, the feed bags, the tall weeds we love to see the flowers on that feed local bees, the poorly maintained log piles, etc. we have developed a rat problem. A rat problem that turned 16 rabbit kits into 5 in two days without a shred of evidence and ate through 30lbs of wheat over 2-3 months, and may have nibbled holes into some parts of our garage and house. I do not feel like spending an extra $100 to feed that rats each year and need to cease the rampant destruction of my property.

So we are on a full offensive to destroy the rats. We tried traps for some time to no avail. We cannot poison them… It could kill our dogs or our chickens if either were to find a dead rat that was poisoned. But we have the dogs involved now. Remember waaay back when I was having a lot of trouble with Nukka¬†as she did her best to destroy every animal on the farm? That attitude has not gone away over the years, though it is now tempered greatly towards the chickens and rabbits. She now has a job, an important one on the homestead, a role I always hoped she’s someday grow into, as protector of the homestead. She’s been focusing on garden pests (specifically, baby groundhogs lately) but now she has a more important job; protecting the livestock.
Armed with vaccines, flea meds, sharp noses and sharper teeth, our hope is to drive the rats into the open where the dogs (ok, really, just Nukka) will ultimately kill them. We’ve been cleaning the garage for several hours every week, filling the trash and recycling bins with feed bags that became nesting material, and random farm things I’m uncovering that the rats have ripped apart. (All the while saying to myself “How did THAT get out here!? I know *I* didn’t throw these out here!”)

After driving them from the wood pile by tidying that location, we are now trying to drive them from the garage by tidying it as well. It’s much slower going. We’re only permitted so much trash space by our city in any given week. Right now we’re borrowing space in the garbage cans from next week to take care of this week’s cleaning. This is years of random buildup of stuff that just never gotten taken care of. The differences have been astonishing so far.

And so progress is being made. But it does seem sometimes that right as I get on-top of one problem, another one surfaces.

But at least the bees are doing well. We are feeding them and they are enjoying it. I hope the hive continues to grow. They’ll need all the workers they can get for when the Asters start to bloom and our lawns start to become covered in all kinds of bees for the fall nectar flows. They are the most docile bees I have ever met. I can handle the hive without gear if I take care and don’t do too much. I hope that doesn’t bode ill for their livability. Good luck, little bees! Keep on truckin’!

A quick update

Spring has been extremely busy for me, so I haven’t been able to update much. But I thought I’d stop and leave a quick update on how things are on the homestead.

We finally got our wood chips in. It only took nearly three months! The chickens will be glad. We will be moving the bulk of them this weekend. We have a group of friends and family coming in to help us move them. We will be feeding them with an excess of delicious food in exchange for their labor. It looks like most of the woodchips are fir, cherry and maple. They smell lovely!

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The woodchip pile!

The garden itself is doing well. We completed the beds in time for everything to have a very late planting. As such things are a little behind, but the direct-sown seeds are growing strong! We’ve begun to harvest our lettuces, rashes and kale. The peas should be starting to pod soon and the summer plants will be going into the ground as soon as they finish hardening off.

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A blurry shot of our first french breakfast radishes

The worst problem is the tomatoes. The lights I had on them were just too close to the crowded plants in their seed cups and something started to go wrong. The huge root systems they’d developed started to fail and break near the stem, the plants started to collapse and had no room to grow into the lights and leaves began to die rapidly. I just wasn’t doing enough for them.

The majority of them have no been repotted and a few of them have been cloned by planting trimmed branches, but a lot of them have died as well. Some of them are just about recovering… But they really should have gone into the ground ages ago. Now they need to time to recover from my mistakes. Next year I will start them two weeks later. Lesson learned.

I also purchased and tried to hatch out some new wheaten Ameraucana eggs but only ended up with one chick due to various mishaps including poor shipping and a thermometer I was not used to using. A lone chick doesn’t do so well, so we got some pheasant chicks to keep it company while we wait to see if it’s a boy or a girl. They’ve been getting along great in the brooder thus far. The plan is to raise them out for holiday dinners.

And that’s a summation of the homestead right now. We’re trying to get the plants in the ground for the summer now and get the potato towers up and running. Hopefully we’ll have great harvests this year!