Rats are a Terror

Content warning; Graphic descriptions, dead animals, trapping rats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My poor rooster.

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Summer Cold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Busy Fall Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Killer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the rest of the animals around the lawn…?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This one was MASSIVE!

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

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

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!

Flowering

Today I went out and got some lovely photos of the early spring blossoms. Warning, this post contains many high-res photos.

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Crocuses of some sort growing alongside our wild garlic

There’s not a whole lot blooming, but there’s some. We’re still a long while away from the violets, dandelions and asters that flood my lawn in late summer and fall.

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One of less than ten dandelions currently in bloom in our lawn

It’s really nice to see all the life starting to creep back into the world, though. And these early flowers can be a lifesaver for bees, especially wild ones.

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Daffodils are considered one of the best early flowers for pollinators.

I even took a few shots of the tree out front of my house. The same one you saw weighed down under snow in my last post. The lovely pink blossoms are just about on their way out. After much digging I have finally identified this mystery tree outside my house as am ornamental plum tree, either a cherry plum or purple leaf plum. Both have edible fruits in the late summer to early fall ideal for making jams. I had NO idea that this was the case, and perhaps I shall have the opportunity to taste them this year. I have my pectin and jelly jars all ready!

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Beautiful pink flowers, already shedding their petals

Also on the list of “things I didn’t know” are these gorgeous pink flowers that produced for me one whole apple last year. I was shocked. When I saw it, I thought it was some sort of bug’s nest hanging on a branch. I have NEVER seen this plant do anything before, but I knew it was in the rose family and given that it never produced a fruit, I assumed it was a rose bush, not a fruit tree. But apparently it’s an APPLE shrub!

apple2Who knew!? Maybe we will get more apples from it some day. I would like to try to graft some branches onto it from other very-early blooming apple trees and see if I can get a real apple crop! I shall be trimming it down aggressively this year, along with the plum tree. They both need a serious pruning.

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Even our Magnolia is in bloom, though it’s flowers aren’t quite so useful. They don’t even feed bees, and the tree is a mess. It’s my least favorite plant on my property.

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It can be hard to photograph in the wind.

Pretty much all of these plants were put in by the people who owned this house before the people who owned this house before us. Apparently they were a couple of old retired ladies who loved to garden. I find myself in need of upping my game. The plants they chose are generally lovely, but I want to grow flowers too! Specifically bee flowers. You may recall some of my previous posts about gardening, especially for bees, wherein I attempted to grow some bee-friendly flowering plants to ultimately end in epic failure as they were dug up by my chickens escaping the confines of their chicken pen.

Well this year, I thought I’d try again. I invested $20 in a mixed shade perennial package from Costco, same as last time. It came with five hostas, five astibles and five crimson star columbines. These are all big bee attractant plants that bloom from early to late summer. And so far, things are going OK.

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My initial investment on day 2

The plants came in plastic bags which I immediately opened, tried to sort them into generally upright positions, and then watered heavily. Recently I repotted them. Since then, the columbines have done squat nothing, they may indeed be dead completely on three of them.

But the astibles and hostas are doing MUCH better!

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The hostas in their new pot this morning

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Two of the astibles, separated and growing nicely.

In addition to these I also purchased a pair of lilac bushes that were similarly sad and pathetic upon arrival. Lilacs are good for butterflies, and sub-par for bees, but they are my favorite flowers, and all pollinators need food, including butterflies.

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Sad lilacs, the day after arrival

They have since perked up significantly and nearly doubled in size.

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Lilacs in their new kitchen-side window home!

And lastly, I also did some homesteading things while I was outside today. I started by pruning and separating some blackberry canes that were starting to overgrow.

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New leaf growth on a blackberry cane

Then I weeded the strawberry bed. The weeds were then tossed right back into the bed, root side up, to produce mulch for the strawberries. It may not look like much but the nine plants we put in last year have multiplied into a couple dozen. Depending on how well they do, some of them might be dug up, washed, and repotted for some vertical gardening I would like to do.

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And with the advent of freshly disturbed mulch, dirt and plant, the chickens attempted to lend a beak to the process.

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Chickens, invading the strawberry bed. The string to designate the area off limits to the dogs means nothing to the chickens.

So they were given a handful of wheat berries that we use to grow fodder on occasion, away from the strawberries, which kept them distracted until nightfall.

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Chickens love snacks

Making today a warm, beautiful, and otherwise rewarding day. I just still wish that the REST of my lawn wasn’t quite a swamp, so I could get right down to gardening. This weather would have been perfect for it!

Seedlings and Frosty Mornings

April 14th is our last average frost date for the year and May 1st our last extreme frost date. The weather has been wacky this year and has lead to several problems. I know that many people who farm tree-based commodities are running on panic mode right now. Our weather has been alternating between extremely warm spells (60’s and 70’s day and night) for two weeks and sudden, aggressive frosts, typically accompanied by several inches of snow. Sap season for maple syrup this year started and ended a month early, and we waved goodbye to most of the US peach crop as they bloomed with the heat and died in the frosts. Bees have been having trouble too. A lot of people are noticing the bees getting very active because of the heat, drawing out comb and eating winter stores to do so, and then when a frost hits they can’t reach their food (or don’t have enough left) and die. It’s a rough sort of spring.

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This was the view outside my bay windows last Thursday. The trees had so much snow on them, they were being pulled to the ground. Normally these flowers are well above the windows. Now it’s in the 70’s.

For me, the effects of the weather have also been substantial. My back lawn is essentially a swamp of sorts. The vast majority of northeast Ohio used to be swampland and wetlands before it was colonized by the English, and the effects of that heavy watershed still holds fast to this area. The alternating weather patterns have also been accompanied by alternating precipitation patterns, and when the water hits the ground in this area, it doesn’t leave until it evaporates into the air. There’s nowhere for it to go. This area is where the water is SUPPOSED to drain off to. As a suburb, we’re trying to get it to drain off even further. It’s not easy.

So preparing the expansion for my garden bed has, all around, been going poorly. Not only is there several inches of mud, but on top of that is inches of standing water. I was trenching (double digging) a new area of my lawn for the garden bed expansion, but I’m afraid that all I did was create a small lagoon in my back yard. I really need to rebuild those irrigation ditches this year to help drain water away.

The massive amount of water, sitting on top of the clay slab that I refer to as my lawn, is a large part of the reason why we garden the way we do. We have to amend the soil if we want to grow our staple diet needs. Clay soil floods, roots have trouble penetrating, and nothing seems to grow well in it at all. The water simply pools and sits on top, and we rely on evaporation not waterflow or absorption to lower our water table. So we build raised beds. Do note, the finished raised bed area from last year (lagoon to the fence) has no standing water. It’s still wet, but not flooded. It works.

(Broccoli and lettuce that should be planted outdoors, but it’s been too wet to
work the soil)

Good soil management plays into this a lot. We rely on fresh/arborists woodchips to play a big part in our gardening. The woodchips serve several purposes. First, they help with water management. They will absorb water when it’s wet, release the water when it’s dry, and also create pathways through the soil for water to travel, unlike the clay which simply stops it. Next, they slowly gather and hold in nitrogen, an essential nutrient for growing plants. At first, fresh wood chips are so busy absorbing nitrogen that they will leech it out of the soil, but in later years they shed the nitrogen in a form that is usable by plants in large quantities. To help mitigate the nitrogen loss, we use the wood chips in our chicken yard first, allowing it to mingle with the nigh-nitrogen content of chicken poop and start to break down. The wood chips also add biomass to the soil, not only through their own organic matter, making the soil looser and more fibrous, but also by feeding tons of microbes, insects, fungi and other things that live in the soil and help plants grow. Using the woodchips in the chicken yard also gives us an extra benefit; our chickens do not smell because their poop is neutralized by the carbon in the wood chips. It’s an extremely natural, effective, and usually inexpensive way of managing an integrated agriculture system.

But this year, the service I used to use to get wood chips delivered ($20 delivery plus $1 a yard) changed hands and is no longer offering that service. so I’ve been struggling with other groups instead. I have tried websites like Chipdrop (which was awful), I have been calling local arborist companies, etc. I have heard a lot of promises that I will get wood chips, but no deliveries yet. It’s been VERY difficult and frustrating.

As a result, it’s frankly too wet to work in my lawn to build the rest of the garden bed. Every step means sinking 2″ into the mud, every push on a wheelbarrow sees it creating ruts 6″ deep, and every shovel full of dirt comes with a flood of water. There have been no woodchips to mitigate the problem and make it manageable. So right now, I’m stuck.

I managed to plant nearly all the seedlings I was planning on for the year, and they’re ready to start hardening off. But I have nowhere to put them yet as I have compost to spread and dirt to dig before they can move into soil.

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My seed starting station in my basement, with tons of green plants, some of which can handle the light frosts outside until may, but not the flooding.

So I wait. And wait. And wait. And maybe someday my wood chips will show up. When they do, there will be a massive party at my house, both figuratively and literally as I invite lots of people over to help move some dozen of yards of wood chips and eat one of the meat chickens and some squash that I raised out last year.

But for now, there’s not much I can do. The wet and unstable weather has me unable to traverse my own lawn, and only time will tell if I get my plants in the ground in a reasonable time frame or not.

Meanwhile… Have some pictures of my chickens, being wonderful and enjoying not being penned in (since we have nothing growing).