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!

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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.

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!

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.

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!

Inspiration

Farming and homesteading is inspiring to me. I get so much joy at looking at things running smoothly and properly. I draw a lot of motivation from looking at other people’s goals, aspirations, and the extremely cool things that they do.

Sometimes down the line I loose track of that joy. I loose track of it amidst things like trying to manage animal pedigrees and planting row crops and producing enough to justify that I am a “real” farmer and balancing budgets. It can be easy to loose some of my inspiration in among all of the red tape.

So here’s a little compilation of some nifty things I plan to do this year that are inspiring for me!

Vertical Gardening and Plant Towers

I really like the idea of growing up instead of out. While some vertical gardening (such as hydroponics in a warehouse) strikes me as wildly impractical, a lot of vertical growing can be done in a back yard and drastically increase your growing space. Hanging pots, PVC planters, trellises and the like all make for an increase in growing space without an increase in growing ground. And this year, I intend to do more of that. As the strawberry plants recover, I will thin them and put the new plants in hanging pots. I will also be trying to get some herbs running in a hanging planter made out of re purposed two liters that will hang near my awning at the back of my garage. This year I will be growing UP!

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PVC strawberry planter Photo credit: goodhomedesign

Natural Beekeeping and Honey

This is happening and it’s great! I have my bees on order and my hive is in the basement, just waiting to be assembled! We are going to be keeping bees in a Warre hive. This is a smaller beehive that’s designed with topbars and minimal inspection. Unlike the Langstroth, whose design is based around what bees will tolerate, the Warre hive is based around what bees make when left to their own devices. The size of the boxes are smaller, the empty boxes load onto the bottom of the hive, they build their own comb for the frames, there’s a lot more airflow as well. It mimics a hollow tree more effectively than a Langstroth but gives much lower yields. My hope is that the bees thrive in it!

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Warre bee hive Photo Credit – Thebeespace

Pollinator and Bee Gardening

Pollinators are extremely important to our environment, growing crops, and plant life everywhere. If I’m going to have bees, I better be more aware about providing for these ever important critters. So I will be building bigger, better bee gardens this year with lots of flowers! The goal is going to be to trim up the Magnolia and put some flowers around it out front, as well as re-do some of the landscaping around the house and plant as may bee-friendly and pollinator friendly plants as possible in the next couple of years. It will even include safe water sources for local bees, one of the things they lack (and need) the most. The hope is to provide a pesticide-free buffet for all the local critters who will desperately need it in the coming months and years.

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A bee garden! Photo Credit – helpabee

Purebred Wheaten Ameraucanas

This year, we are going to begin moving out of Easter Eggers and into a purebred flock. Our rooster is a purebred Wheaten Ameraucana and I now have a dozen hatching eggs of the same kind on order. Later in the year (possibly early next year) we will be ordering a dozen more and hatching some of our own. At that point, by next spring we will be running a flock of purebred blue egg laying chickens (possibly with a couple Australorps or Marans for eating-eggs and fun mixes). It will be exciting to finally have purebred birds!

 

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Wheaten Ameraucana Hen (and rooster) Photo Credit – Paradisepoultryandwaterfowl

 

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Quarteracrehome’s “Will” Wheaten Ameraucana rooster

Fully Pedigreed Rex Rabbits

Early this year we invested in a new buck to replace Cassanova, as we have kept two of his daughters (Lady and Sage) and would like to start filling out our pedigrees. So we now have a new buck that came to us through happenstance that is actually Bean’s grandson! We have nicknamed him Porter (as in a Porterhouse steak) and he will be our new herdsire for our rex rabbits, lending his lineage and traceable pedigree to our operation.

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SkinnyAcres Rabitry’s Porter, our new Rex buck

Companion Planting and Interplanting

This year our garden has been planned, planned again, and then planned some more. We are going to have both companion planting and interplanting on the homestead this year. Companion planting is when you plant two plants next to each other (or in alternating rows) that compliment eachother’s growth or deter pests from one another. Interplanting is related and means to grow two plants in the same space that don’t interfere with one-another’s growth. An example of this is growing beans and corn in the same space. The beans fix nitrogen for the corn, and the corn stalk allows the beans to trellis up them. One example that will be in our garden this year is growing radishes pretty much anywhere a slow-growing plant is seeded. Since radishes grow so fast, they can be harvested before they start to compete with their too-close neighbors. We will be growing as many plants this way as possible this year. Gardening is still somewhat a struggle for us, but we’re always trying to get better at it!

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Crops interplanted Photo Credit thrivefarms

And lastly;

Growing Trees!

Quarteracrehome is going to be working with Western Reserve Eco Network (a local grassroots environmental group seeking to promote sustainability, which I happen to be a part of) to grow a whole bunch of trees in empty lots in the city. These will all be either native northeast Ohio trees to help restore native forestland or fruit/nut trees to help feed the low-income urban communities around Cleveland. Some of those trees fruit trees may come tagging along back to the quarter acre. Additionally, I have several branches from my father’s Queen Anne cherry tree attempting to root in my living room. Not to mention that two of the plants that have been on this property for ages are also fruit trees and I just had no idea. So I am excited to be “branch”ing out this year! Ahahah, tree puns.

And that’s about it. Things that are inspiring me to do new stuff this year, and things I’ll be trying out. Fingers crossed that it all works out!