This week

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Black Rasperries

These came from some wild canes I have been nurturing in my back lawn. A bit under two years ago my sister asked me if I wanted to dig up some awful thorny berry canes from her back yard where they were growing in deep shade and forest-like conditions. She said she just cut them back every year and hated having to do it and was going to dig them up herself and throw them out if I didn’t. She didn’t want those nasty thorns in her back yard. So I came and dug them up, and planted them along my fence in the perpetual shade line. Last year the canes were pretty useless as well. Birds ate almost every berry before I could get to them, but this year I hung up some netting as the berries started to ripen. Remember how I have been struggling to fill that shade line, since, well, forever ago? Well now I have successfully turned at least part of it into something productive and delicious!

I collected two bowls of these berries this week. And right after I finished picking them I carried one out to my sister to share since she was outside with her kid. She tried some and proceeded to proclaim how great tasting they were. She said they were just like candy and it didn’t take long for us to finish off the whole bowl. The irony of these amazing berries coming from a plant she hated was probably lost on her but I had a good chuckle over it, and I had a whole second bowl of berries waiting for me at home.

I’ve been slowly filling in the shade line with these awesome canes, and I don’t regret it! A small patch appears to be capable of providing me with a fair amount of fruit, which is something our little homestead lacks dramatically. I am expanding the patch with other kinds of berries as well and I’m looking forward to seeing what they look like next year. All around, these berry canes have been a very good experience.

 

We also have some new chicks this morning! Three weeks ago we were nervous – our oldest hen stopped laying suddenly and refused to move from the nest box. I was worried – was she egg bound? Turns out she was just broody. It’s been so long since I’ve had a broody bird that I almost didn’t recognize it!

So we marked some of our eggs, a full dozen, and tucked them under her. There have been some mishaps. An egg getting knocked out of the nest for hours here or there for example, or some of the eggs that were set were a bit older, or unlikely to be fertile on the part of the particular hen that laid them. But so far at least 5 healthy chicks have hatched! Three yellow, one brown and one black.

The garden is starting to fill in as well. We have one wee little evil groundhog left, marauding for kale leaves. Soon it might start targeting other plants and that’s something I will be striving to prevent. Soon we will be harvesting more zucchini than we can eat!

 

Conveniently for my goal of writing less I don’t have many words for my own farming today. My heart is heavy for the families of the hundreds of agricultural workers in my state that have been ripped from their homes and shipped to concentration camps, their children taken with no plan for reunification. The most recent update to this policy is to hold these people in concentration camps indefinitely.
Not only will these people suffer for it, but so will agriculture in the USA as a whole. Our entire food system that feeds america, especially for poor people, relies on imported labor. Half of all seasonal farm jobs, such as picking vegetables, are done by human without a legal status and many aren’t certain if the USA’s agricultural system will hold up to these policies. They even pay taxes without receiving benefits, helping to fund welfare services that help serve senior citizens, our farm bills and even veterans. Without these folks, our nation will not only be literally factually poorer, but have trouble even feeding it’s people.

I think people often forget that the people who supported Japanese internment camps 75 years ago considered themselves to be patriots simply protecting their country from foreigners who threatened it. The children of those families, who grew up seeing the holding of thousands of humans in concentration camps as celebrated patriotism, are very much alive today. They were people with families, who loved each other, who felt proud of their actions, who felt safer for it. But it was terrible and cruel. You don’t have to be a mean person to support horrible things.

We can do better. Much better. And tomorrow I will join thousands of people across the country to ask for the reversal of these inhuman policies that target people based on the color of their skin or the language they speak. There are no white faces in these concentration camps, no blonde haired blue eyed babies are being ripped from their mother’s arms. It’s clear that this has nothing to do with them being foreigners (note that “improper entry” to the USA is a misdemeanor – legally speaking, taking a candy bar from a grocery store is often a more serious offence), especially the raids in my state. We are on the northern border and most of the illegal entry into our state is done by white people from the Canadian border. Yet it’s only people with dark skin being arrested and confined, even in this state. It’s simply racial profiling, an othering tactic of fascism, and my heart aches for the victims of it.

I can only hope that people in the USA can recognize the correlations between these actions and the history of terrible atrocities in the history of the world stand together and unite for these human beings’ rights.

If you’re out there with me tomorrow, good luck and be safe.

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Summer Solstice

Happy summer solstice! As always it’s been far too long since I have written. I truly need to learn that I don’t need to write quite so much when I make a post.

Streamlining my writing is hard. I want to say every little thing, I want to fix every spelling error right as it happens, I want to include only the very best images. But I really need to get past that and learn to just write more regularly.

Today, being the summer solstice, is one of the handful of pagan holidays I celebrate. It’s a tough one – there’s no corresponding holidays on the American calendar. The only corresponding religious holiday is “Midsummer” – or a celebration of the birth of St. John – an obscure and rarely noted celebration that almost nobody knows about let alone celebrates. But in pagan cultures, celebrating the seasons and especially the solstices is a big deal. There’s just no culture available for the summer one in the US. There’s not a single major holiday that makes it easier or is even close to the date. Want to decorate your house in lights, stars, and have a fire for Yule? That’s easy! That’s stuff that got absorbed into Christmas from paganism so it’s available commercially everywhere. Want to have a golden cloth or summer herbs for making an amulet on the summer solstice? Tough out of luck. You’re lucky if garden centers are even still carrying the herbs you need so late in the season.

But pagan celebrations always make me happy. They have such a deep focus on being spiritual, feeling happy about your world, celebrating with people… Not to mention their deep connection to agriculture and the seasons. It always makes me feel a little more at peace to celebrate them, and a little more hyped for homesteading. Being pagan often lends itself to a desire to create and build and maintain with one’s own hands. Fae, deities and spirits generally appreciate things made with old-timey love, rather than a purchase. You can’t exactly give a fairy a gift card to Starbucks. So I find a thread of homesteading and older skillsets tends to run deep through people drawn to pagan faiths and the corresponding celebrations always make me feel a deeper connection to both nature and those old skills passed down for thousands of years. Skills on which our society is built and in which handiwork and love shine.

Today, as I said my prayers at noon (honoring the power of the sun, and welcoming the slow rebirth of winter) I thought a lot about my plants, the lifestyle I want to maintain, and why I want to maintain it. It was a good time to review what I hoped to get out of the year and reflect on my love for this lifestyle.

And speaking of this lifestyle, while we’ve had some setbacks this year I would say that the experience has generally been more positive this year. Of course terrible things still exist in the world, and even in my life… And I likely give a great deal more time and energy to such things than I can easily spare… But the homesteading has been improving over last years struggles. The garden is lush and flourishing. We may have finally resolved our Evil Groundhog problem with the capture and ultimate demise of not just a baby groundhog but the mother as well, leaving our garden in a more peaceful state. Our berry canes are just beginning to reach fruition and the garden is recovering from the attacks by said groundhogs. We’ve even stayed on top of the problems more than usual this year, such as making sure every tomato is staked and tied before they even reached 2′.

The chicken flock is slowly making it’s transition into a breeding flock of wheaten ameraucanas. I continue my search for good stock, but it’s slow going and difficult. The best stock is in Texas – on the other side of the country – and very little is available in this area. Next year I hope to have my own breedings of birds for my flock. Right now, we are still an easter egger flock and I even have a broody hen on some eggs.

And my efforts to gain tri-color rex continue to advance, admittedly slowly but present. Over the next two years we may have rapid turnover in both of our livestock stock. I hope we see real and dramatic results from that!

All around things continue to advance in the deliberate and more positive way. Though some aspects continue to provide difficulty, I hope we see better results this year than ever before!

Suddenly Chicks!

You know what they say about March; In like a lion, middle like a lion, end like a lion. March is just a lion, chewing you up and spitting you out, wet and slobbery. March just isn’t a fun month in general.

March is a month filled with hours of work, and while I like my work, it’s still work. Around this farmy I have already started 90 tomato seedlings and I’m working on my 60 pepper pots across 5 different varieties. Next is the kale and cauliflower, each taking their own several dozen cubic inches of soil. All this while the snows hit the ground; we got several inches over the last 48 hours with more on the way. It will be the weekend after this one before we have weather warm enough to exist outside again… And at that point it will be time to plant cold weather crops. Peas, green onions, spinach and radishes all get planted outside as soon as the snow reliably melts. I am still working to finish setting up the seed shelves and yet they are already shockingly full.

Of course, when the snow melts the city inspections start. And our lawn, with it’s consistently high water levels and frequent foot traffic, tends to look the worst on the block. So we are making some changes this year, ranging from rain gardens to stone pathways and re-seeding much of the lawn and ripping out weeds. All of this will happen in the inches of muck my lawn produces. And the frequent, cold rains will also mean animal bedding will get soiled more easily and cages will need to be cleaned more often. It’s a lot of work for one month.

So what is the best thing to add to that mixture? A sudden shipment of baby chicks, highlighted by everything that could possibly go wrong going wrong! Sounds great, right?

You see, last fall we ordered some expensive chicks from a wonderful show breeder but G never bothered to send the payment when I asked him to. By the time the payment reached the breeder it was too late; they weren’t going to have another hatch for the fall. Instead I would have to wait for spring or cancel. So waiting for spring it was.

Well, “spring” in some places means “The first week of March” and my own chickens were laying, but I hadn’t heard back in a while. I sent an email; ‘Any idea of when I would get my chicks?’ I asked.’Soon!’ I heard back. Then two days later I was told they were already on their way, shipped overnight, right into an incoming blizzard.

So I ran into problem one; I had no notice and therefore no setup for them. I quickly arranged a brooder with a heat lamp, and then plugged in my USPS tracking number. It said they’d be here at 3PM that day. I waited for the phone call but it never came. In fact 3PM came and went, and then 4PM, and then I called the post office.

‘They’re not here. They never made it this far. They got held up over night and will be here on the truck in the morning.’ the post office said. Yikes.

So I set that aside, worrying for my expensive chicks, and set about thinking about how to get chick feed. I didn’t want to have someone drive all the way out to my usual feed store for one bag of feed, so I thought I would go down the street to a local hardware store to pick up a bag of their feed. I don’t normally shop there, having gotten some bad results from a drill G bought there (and returned) a few years back, but they were close so I thought I’d give them a shot. I would go out, grab the chicks, then grab their feed, then go home and set them up. I went to bed anxious but with a plan.

The next day we got the chicks first thing in the morning and 3/10 were dead on arrival. They were packaged with care, in appropriate shipping conditions and with some electrolyte gel in cups glued to the inside so they had something to keep them hydrated. But none of that really does any good when the post office delivers them a day late, and doesn’t heat them over night. And the post office doesn’t offer chick refunds unless they reach their destination later than 72 hours from when they were shipped either. Unfortunately, aside from massively expensive transportation services, USPS is the only way to ship chicks. They’re the only game in town and they know it, so there’s not much I can do. The breeder offered to refund me the chick cost, but of course to order them again would require another $40 in shipping, so refunding the chicks is pointless and expensive and the breeder didn’t do anything but their best to ship them safely.

We got home and set them up, shivering into a warm brooder as fast as we could. Then, after seeing that they were in a warm spot, D and I went to the hardware store to buy their chick starter. A 50lb bag was a bit expensive at $19.50, but we bought it and rushed home.

As I went to open the bag, I was trying to shake the crumbs out of the corners so they didn’t spill on the floor but I was having some trouble, so I just cut it open anyhow. It very suddenly became apparent why they wouldn’t come out of the corners. The whole bag was filled with moth eggs. The crumbs in the corners were stuck to moth webbing. The entire bag smelled funny, who knows how long it was on the shelf.
We immediately went back to the store to return it and they opened the only other bag of chick starter on their shelves; it was also ridden with moths and smelled bad. Upset, I took my refund and left. D told me I was too harsh with my words, but I disagree as I was firm but not abusive. Given that their store chose to sell nearly rancid, old, bug-filled food I think I was within reason to be much worse. It was, frankly, expired. It could have killed my chicks given their extremely fragile state, and it was chick food meant for fragile birds. There’s no excuse for keeping feed bags on your shelf for that long under such poor storage conditions, especially when they are already more expensive then other stores. Someone less observant or experienced might have fed the spoiled feed and lost a lot more than some damaged proteins in their feed, they could have lost whole clutches of chicks. A $20 refund won’t make up for that sort of a loss.

Now I had to find a new source of chick feed, which ultimately meant driving all the way out to one of my usual feed stores. So I gave the chicks some water to drink to get them started and away we went. The stores I usually go to are a 40 minute drive away, but we got there, got the feed and got home as fast as we reasonably could.

Home at last, with the chick feed and several additional bags of our regular animal feed (so as not to waste the long trip) I finally settled down to try to care for these emergency chicks. All but one had perked up quickly with just a bit of water and heat. The one that did not was prone and cold, still, unmoving but alive.

Since then I have spent the last 24 hours nursing this chick and we’ve seen some improvements. It’s opening it’s eyes more often, and preening a bit. It’s standing steadily instead of collapsing at random. When it chooses to make noise, which is rare, it’s voice is loud and clear and robust like the other chicks… Yet it is not properly eating on it’s own yet, and it does it’s best to remain asleep and unmoving whenever possible. We have been feeding it a rich electrolyte mixture to get it going and the improvements have been minuscule yet present. I even managed to get a few bites of chick starter into it. I remain vigilant and hopeful, yet there’s not much I can do if it doesn’t start to eat on it’s own. The other chicks are all thriving, and I can hear them chirping away in my basement, cozy in their brooder box.

And now it’s about time to go give another dose of the nutrient mixture to our unwell chick and hope for the best.

I hope March proves to be a little more gentle, maybe even lamb-like, by the end of it, but I suspect it will continue to be more like the jaws of a lion; challenging, difficult, painful and wet. Time to buckle down and work hard!

Start your engines….

It’s spring again on the homestead. Or, it’s almost spring on the homestead. We’re still getting regular frosts but they’ve been interspersed with beautiful, sunny, 40-6*F days in which I go out and start doing work. Most of February is boring and uneventful… We’ve been folding a lot of seed pots and doing a lot of cleanup, but otherwise not much happens until the end of the month.

Now that we’re getting those few warm and sunny days, the ground can start to be gently worked. Compost can get mixed into beds, chickens begin to lay again, beds can be tilled and mulched to capture the last of the nitrogen from the upcoming snows, cages can be cleaned from their frozen winter layovers. Rabbits can be bred without the fear of cold. Dead weed stalks can be pulled. With the absence of both greenery and snow, lawns can be cleaned of any trash, broken pots, loose bags, small tools etc that were previously covered up, consumed by grass and time or otherwise forgotten about.

We moved a bale of straw out to start rotting for our potato boxes this year (rapid mold growth from lack of previous decomposition was a big problem last year), re-tied the trellises as needed, and plotted out new garden spaces. It’s our hope to dig a rain garden in the back lawn and plant it in such a way that it helps drain water from the rest of our lawn. Despite all of our work, the lawn is frankly lacking in drainage. We are living on former swampland, after all. We’re where the water stops and we have to deal with it. Thirsty plants that need a lot of water in a slight depression in our lawn will have lots of water for a long time. And with their water uptake, storage and filtration, the rest of our lawn might be a little less mucky. We also have plans to put in a more permanent pathway for walking on down the center of the lawn. We’re all sick of our boots sucking into the mud.

For me, all of this happens rapidly. A few days of beautiful sun with no rain, and then back to being bundled up indoors while the ground freezes so hard that it cracks and breaks apart. On these warm days with nothing growing I also allow the chickens to range across the entire lawn. They love the opportunity to eat the bugs out of the garden beds and compost that I till up. When the cold weather and snow sets back in they won’t even want to leave their coop, let alone venture across the entire lawn.

This early spring management is especially important for us this year as last year we had a lot of trouble with some little monsters known as wireworms. They devoured our potato crop and made a small dent in our radishes as well. They’re common in lawns across the US and are the larval stage of the click beetle, a fun little bug enjoyed by children that is fairly harmless but makes a solid snapping sound when threatened, handled, or laid on it’s back. The larvae, however, devour root vegetables at an shocking rate and is a demon to a gardener/farmer like me. My goal is to manage them effectively without pesticides. One way to do that is to till the soil frequently in cold weather as they do not like cold, regularly disturbed dirt. By keeping the soil cool and chilly and mobile, they may migrate out of the beds and into other spaces. We also have a “grub buster” globe filled with beneficial nematodes that might prey on the wireworms as well as the fleas we dealt with over the fall that we fear may return in the spring and the white grubs we sometimes find in our beds. When it warms up and the tilling is no longer beneficial to deter the wireworms, we will spray the nematodes on the beds and across much of the lawn and hope for the best. We don’t have a lot of other spaces in which to plant potatoes.

The rats are also becoming active again with spring. We’ve moved all our feed bags into metal bins, we set out various baits for much of the winter as well, but there’s only so much that can be done to exclude. We’ve never left feed sitting out for the chickens and rabbits either, the rats don’t seem to mess with the compost and we cleared out the majority of their living spaces. Yet there they remain. We are determined to be rid of them.

Fleas, rats and worms. Such is the nitty gritty of farm life.

But at least the sun is absolutely wonderful feeling these days. I will desperately enjoy it until it becomes so hot that I crisp up like a lobster.

Next week it will be cold and snowy and wet again with very little sun to be seen. Then I will be back indoors, starting seeds in pots under lamps in my basement like the grower of illicit goods. Currently I have leeks, basil and thyme sprouted and growing with celery, parsley and oregano planted but not yet germinated. Next it is a massive number of paste tomatoes and several varieties of peppers. Before you know it many of these plants will be going into the ground. Wish me luck!

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.

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!