Midsummer photo dump

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Queen Annes Lace. (Wild carrot, not to be mistaken for the very scary water hemlock that grows on the other side of the lawn and kills you.)

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Some of the last of the black raspberries ripening. They’re almost all done.

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Butterfly Weed living up to its name and producing lots of flowers. over 6′ tall and the cones of flowers are like 4″-8″.

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Our first bean flower. This one is Dragon Langerie Bush Bean. They’ve been OK, these are our first bush beans ever. The Tavera bush beans weren’t very good as almost none of the seeds came up. Major disappointment.

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Daylillies that grow in our yard and are super pretty. I love the layered look.

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Little baby blue hubbard squash. We have about 10 this size out there. Time will tell if they are pollinated properly or not.

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Radish seed pods. We let a bunch of them go to seed so we can save the seeds from them. Once they’re dry on the plant they get picked, husked, dried a bit more then stored for the future. A lot of our plants are open pollinated so we can do that with them. This is one of our most consistent plants every year. They’re amazing.

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French breakfast radishes, ready to be eaten any time now.

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Fernleaf dill, threatening to flower. Very soft and nice.

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Slicer tomatoes. Still small, about half the size of the pastes. These are even more more expensive than the Plum Regals and only half of them came up. But they have been very disease resistant and positive otherwise.

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Paste tomatoes, for canning and making tomato sauce for pasta and pizza. Coming in strong. This is a new variety for me (Plum Regal) and they’re doing really well. They’re expensive but I’m probably going to do them again in the future. No disease! All my previous paste tomatoes had serious fungal disease problems but these ones are very resistant!

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Cascasdia sugar snap peas. We’re on the last flush of peas but they’re still going fairly well and we’re getting a good number every day. They’re supposed to be a dwarf variety (2-3ft) but they grew to about 4′.

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Skinny cayenne peppers. Almost all our peppers are under ripe still.

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Very productive jalapeno plants, doing really well.

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The squash/beans garden. It consumes all. That’s a 15’x3′ garden bed. The squash has extended its vines WELL past the boundaries on all sides.

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Itty bitty habeneros. The hottest peppers we’re growing.

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Anaheims, a medium hot pepper that grows big.

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The main garden. A little overgrown but doing really well. Things are really starting to explode!

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Brulee butternut squash, an “advanced” variant of honeynut that just isn’t doing very well for me. They’re supposed to be better but I like them less as half as many sprouted and they’re not fruiting as fast. But time will tell if they grow more lbs of food. Both honey nut and brulee are very new squash types.

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Honey nut butter nut squash. These lil squashes are gonna get about 1-2lbs. Personal pan squashes with a really high sugar content. Sweeter than pie pumpkins.

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B I G baby blue hubbard. Just starting to get its blue color but bigger than a coconut already. It’ll be about 5lbs full grown. Which is tiny compared to normal hubbards that get to be like 20lbs.

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The chicks! Only 12 weeks but they’re huge!

 

A Little Behind

Everything has been in a flux this year. Joy and sorrow in close succession. One day things will go very well, the next the dreaded raccoons will return. One day someone will say something monumentally foolish and fill me with dread and the next I will feel a lot of love and gratitude.

One example of flux this year was the weather. This was an extremely cold spring. The reason being the activity of the sun. The suns activity influences weather on earth and we’re in a period of extreme inactivity. In fact, we’ve been in a low point for sun activity for a little while now. Unlike the last time of such extreme sunspot activity, however, our climate is a bit warmer. So snows in late June are unlikely and we’re unlikely to see the famine they saw that year… At least, not until the sun acts back up and we all dry out like a raisin.

As if to prove the point that it’s not all about the sun spots this week has been in the mid 80’s, dry and sunny. This after weeks of rain and even snow might technically balance us out. Average temperatures for the month are supposed to be in the 60’s. The second week of this very month saw three snowfalls. That’s the sixth most snowy may on record ever. (Not as impressive as our near yearly setting of record high months, mind you, but impressive none the less.) I have to keep reminding myself “Getting the garden in two weeks after the last snow fall IS a reasonable time frame!”… But on the calendar of the year this should have been done nearly a month ago.

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We’ve installed new hardware in the chicken coop. A thick wooden post secures the pop door and chains through loops with latches secures the nest boxes. Every time the raccoons come we secure things more, but they’re clever. We’ve lost 3 hens this year.

We’ve also been cleaning animal skulls lately. We’ve had a rabbit who was not a very good mother lose most of her kits. This isn’t uncommon – I know this is something that can happen. So for Yule one of the things I asked for was a dermastid beetle colony. Dermastid – or flesh eating – beetles are used in taxidermy for cleaning bones. I was graciously purchased one by G. I’m lucky to have such an understanding partner and they’ve brought me a lot of excitement and joy. I’ve been raising up this colony out for a couple months now and I recently set them upon the skulls of some of our rabbits, one skull from an 11 week old fryer, and a few from the failing litter.

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Left to right, a 20 week(ish) skull found in the compost last year, an 11 week skull cleaned by beetles, a 10 week(ish) skull found in the compost four years ago fashioned into a charm, two 4 day kit skulls and one two day kit skull. Ruler is in inches on the close side.

Cleaning the skulls so the beetles can work is tricky. You have to remove as much soft tissue as possible before putting it in. The rule of thumb is “If you touch it and it wiggles still, cut it off.” This means everything from the tongue, soft pallet, eyeballs, brain, etc. I’ve been butchering rabbits for years now and have never experienced anything quite as visceral as cleaning a skull for dermastid beetles before. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart. Turns out D is an old hand at this sort of thing though. He did research on rats eyes for diabetes and learned to extract the eyes and later the retinas with a scalpel. Taking that a bit further to other areas of the skull was a simple extension. He does the bulky parts of the cleaning now – skin, eyes, mouth – and then hand the skulls to me where I extract the brain and more delicate soft tissues with a pair of forceps tweezers. On the baby skulls the bone is so delicate it feels thin like paper.

The beetles then did their jobs admirably. I’m glad to have them and equally glad to have G – the sort of partner who is willing to buy his lady flesh eating beetles for the holidays. The goal is to cast these skulls in resin forms or seal them for jewelry. On this homestead we strive to use every part of the animals we raise. Every time we lost a kit it felt like such a failure. At most the best we could do would be throw the bodies to the birds. Most of the time we composted them. Not only was it a loss of life but a pointless one at that. Now we have at least some use for them. We’ll obviously only take the ones that can’t survive. Even these kits were given a fighting chance – days of trying to force nurse them with mom on her back to no avail. The milk just wasn’t coming in. It’s still sad. But this gives them a little more purpose to their short lives than to simply die and not be honored in any way.

So life is trucking along. And I’m excited to finally have plants going into the ground! Maybe later I will be able to share not just the fruits of our.. Well… fruits. But also how some of the casting turns out with the skulls.

Spring pictures

Just a quick picture drop for all of you. Two days ago it was in the 30’s. We have our peas planted but nothing else is outdoors yet.

 

Marigolds are blooming in the basement, baby blue hubbard squash, tomato plants, peppers and kale, our freshly mulched pathway, a baby from a newer litter, a kit who got a new home, and some of our eggs from this year!

 

Quarantine’s been hard, G is considered an essential worker. But we have plants and animals growing, we have 36 eggs in the incubator, and life goes on despite it all.

Hiatus Over

This past year was troublesome.

G got himself a good new job. He now works management at a local high end-grocery though he still does paperwork for the game shop. But the stress of that transition and the strain of our lives in general had reached a breaking point. Myself, G and D were all depressed and floundering. D was overwhelmed with school, his classes growing increasingly more difficult, his normally social lifestyle consumed with daily homework and his tutoring job. During the summer the assistance he’d promised vanished and things rapidly became too much for me to handle alone. On the farm, the rats were flourishing, eating every crop we grew, chewing on walls and insulation, eating baby rabbits and baby chickens. Production was all but impossible and my demands that G call an exterminator were being heard but not acted upon. The dogs were overwhelmed and overjoyed to be hunting but were unable to make a dent, sometimes catching whole litters of rats in a night while hunting in the garage yet never making progress.

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The Killer Husky, just doing her job.

For my part, my estranged father had a stroke. We haven’t been on speaking terms for some time, largely due to him treating my PTSD like a joke and me like second class offspring. There’s only so many callously initiated panic attacks one can go through, even for a parent. When his stroke hit, I was forced to deal with the fallout. Going to his aid meant dealing with casual dismissal of my needs and panic attacks all over again. Not going meant poor treatment by the rest of my family. No choice was going to end well for me. I chose the latter. The strain was less, but very real.

A raccoon took out the entire chicken flock in one night some time ago. It was devastating. The coop was closed but the monster pulled a door away from the wall and got in over night. We woke up to bodies strewn across the lawn. We had to build our flock up again from nothing. We hatched chicks from the remaining eggs but only had three hens. We had to rebuild our whole coop to better secure it from the raccoon that ate everyone. We bought new chicks, “Purebred” Ameraucanas from a breeder registered with an Ameraucana club, only for them to be shipped without notice into a snowstorm by the breeder and ultimately get stuck at the post office. Half of them died on arrival and one of the hens even lays brown eggs. So much for being “purebred”.

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Our new rooster. His colors are lovely but I should have known something was up when his legs were white, not black.

We bought a buck and two doe rabbits only to have two cages left open by G, and the escapee rabbits caught by The Killer Husky. I wasn’t even involved in the incidents, neither in handling the rabbit cages nor taking the dogs out, but the money and resources I spent were still gone. It’s always challenging to travel to get new stock. One of these came from our county fair and the other from nearly another state. The loss of the time and effort was more devastating than the loss of any money spent.

We tried bee keeping – twice! The first time our hive swarmed and left us and the second they just didn’t make it through the winter. We’ve resigned ourselves to have to wait to try again.

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Our small warre hive just never could get established.

I couldn’t garden, though I tried starting seeds that year with G’s misplaced encouragement. They took but it was ultimately moot. The rats were eating everything. I turned to baking to try to find some creative homesteading escape, only to discover the rats had found their way into the house and were eating my cookies and breads.

Everything was deeply, deeply bleak over the last year. I was miserable. The people around me were falling apart and it was making my life fall apart in turn.

Then we saw a few changes. D started utilizing a few free school resources to alleviate his strain and was better at closing cages and other miscellaneous but critical tasks. G started a new medication. Suddenly he was capable of making those critical calls that previously had him paralyzed. Tentatively we brought in bait boxes and tracking powder for the rats. The dogs were kept indoors and the chickens secured in their a newly built coop with tight latches on the doors. We couldn’t garden or bake yet, life was distressing still, but steps were being taken. The snow hit, and things got cold.

 

Soon we pulled half a dozen dead rats out from behind a panel in our basement walls. Food left on the dining room table was no longer at risk. We stopped seeing rats scurrying away at night in the garage. One day I spilled a half cup of chicken feed on the floor of the garage and was too tired to clean it up. It was still there the next day. And the next. And even a week later before it got swept up and put into the compost.

I made pies for Yule, including a rehash of my game pie from the year before, and had a wonderful celebration with my friends and family.

My father recovered without my intervention and the family that was most important to me stuck by my side.

We got a new puppy. We finally found our Aussie, (well, likely a BC/Aussie mix) and he is a rescue. His owners were apartment dwellers with no dog experience and he came to us at 20 weeks isolated, no socializing, scared, and shaking. He’s still easily frightened but he has made big strides and recently gotten fixed.

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The Cowardly Puppy and The Killer Husky are best buddies and play aggressively all the time.

G and I took a weeks vacation out of the country at an eco-resort to celebrate our 10 year anniversary. Ten years! That’s a long time.

Slowly but surely things move forward, hardly being perfect but regularly improving.

We now have baby bunnies again for the first time in nearly a year and a half. The mom was a first timer and most of the litter was lost, but the rest are doing well. They’re growing and distinctly not eaten by rats. We have plants started in the basement, celery and leeks and other slow and long growing seeds.

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All but three of these babies got pulled out of the nest box on a cold day by their mom. The three remaining are still doing well, though!

The weather is shifting too. It’s February but there has been little snow and we can feel the warm sun breaking through the clouds. It’s regularly over 30*F. This isn’t good for the planet… But it does wonders for my seasonal gloom. It feels like spring is right around the corner.

And both metaphorically and literally I finally think it really is.

Summer Solstice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Start your engines….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The spirit of Upcycling (And the best seed pots)

Today I have been exploring the various ways I can apply the spirit of upcycling to my life.

Upcycling (from dictonary.com)

verb (used with object)upcycled, upcycling.
1.

to process (used goods or waste material) so as to produce something that is often better than the original: “I upcycled a stained tablecloth into curtains.”

This week I am sick with a nasty cold. It may be more than that. I went to see a doctor and got some medication that is helping me recover. They actually prescribed me antibiotics for fear that I might be developing pneumonia again. Once you get pneumonia once, it makes the risk for getting future bacterial infections worse.

So lately I have been fairly inactive, relying on my partners to help with most of the critical outdoor chores. But now that I am on the mend I am able to start doing anything again and I am able to upcycle my time stuck semi couch-ridden while also upcycling a pile of newspapers. While I am an getting better I am still a little short of breath when I do simple tasks. So I’m spending my time doing important tasks with my hands instead, upcycling a bad situation into a better and useful one.

Today I am making these seed pots;

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A stack of 40 newspaper seed pots

These are some of the best upcycled seed pots I’ve ever used. They wick water up like a peat pot and are surprisingly sturdy for paper. Unlike a peat pot they actually break down in one season and so don’t restrict root growth as much if you plant the whole pot, plus break apart with some water and a few pokes to free the roots completely for planting. There are some newspaper seed pots that are round and rolled on a can but they come apart easily and the round pots make it harder to conserve space per square foot.

Some time ago I read about someone complaining how millennials don’t listen to people with experience but hypocritically also complained that they refused to do things without trying to research them online first. (The irony of this person demanding millennials learn from their online post was lost on them as well.)
Some places on the internet are garbage, but like all other upcycling, it can be something great instead depending on how you use it! Most millennials (and many others) find the internet to be an incredible resource, and for many of us it’s our only viable resource to learn things. Here’s an idea, upcycle your internet usage. It’s more than OK to learn things online, in fact, it’s awesome! Trade out garbage and depressing websites for productive learning! Not only is it a great resource to learn from people more experienced than you, but it’s also a great resource to learn about how to experiment in ways that more experienced people might not. It’s where I learned to make these, and they are great. You can find the instructions on how to make them here;

 

I get the newspapers from my father, who is in his mid 70’s and appreciates reading the newspaper as a daily lifeline to the world. He often saves them in large quantities for me and brings them to my house in batches of several weeks worth of newspaper at once. Our local newspaper uses soy based inks in their printing so the news pages are safe to use in the garden. (Always check with your newspaper supplier about this, some inks leach toxins into the soil like heavy metals. If you don’t know anyone who has newspapers, consider asking on places like the Craigslist free section or your local freecycle group.)

As I folded up the seed pots I couldn’t help but see the troubles of the world on those pages. Racist rants trying to rephrase a protest of police brutality as disrespect for our military. Sabre rattling between nuclear powers, their egos threatening the lives of millions of people they will never meet. Companies caught in security scandals putting their millions of clients whole financial futures at risk to save a few dollars per person. Painful calls of misogyny from beauty articles demanding women be young, thin and sexy or else they’re worthless. Cries to buy luxury fuel-guzzling vehicles for “low-low prices” of a whole years worth of income that the average person I know can’t possibly afford to give up. Sales of over-priced sick puppy-mill dogs from breeders just looking to make a buck in the classifieds. Countless pages upon pages of obituaries, mostly old but some too-young, each one with a little advertisement at the end that seemed to say: “This dead person’s family used *COMPANY*’s funeral service! If someone you love is dead, you should give them your money while you are grieving too!”.

It gave me plenty of time to notice all this as I folded and folded and folded. I watched TV and chatted with my partners, sometimes playing games or doing other small chores in between folding paper. It was also our weekly cartoon night where we all meet up with some other friends to watch Japanese animation and we all folded papers for a bit. And while I was folding I couldn’t help but reflect on the grander implications of what we were doing.

All that hatred and anger. The egos, the consumption, the greed, the negligence. All the terrible ills and death of the world were getting folded up and put aside. Over the next few months, all of those horrible things will be upcycled and used to grow something beautiful. Something that’s the exact opposite of what’s written on all of those pages. Something that feeds both peoples bodies and souls. Something that brings life and heals the planet.

Those pages will grow food. They will grow peppers and beans. They will grow tomatoes that go into jars and remind us of the rich summer in the middle of a gloomy winter. They will go into gifts for others that bring joy through the year. They will go into growing flowers and feeding bees and rabbits and even grasshoppers and deer. They will break down into the soil and feed the worms and nematodes and grubs in the dirt. They are bits of carbon that will have come out of the air and return to the soil.

No matter how much hatred and anger and pain is printed on them, they can be used to heal.

What a thought provoking day of upcycling.

Ultimately we made 100 seed pots in one day while heavily distracted. Which makes these pots not only great to grow in but fast to produce. If you have some days off that you’re probably just going to be watching TV or something for a good chunk of them anyhow, consider setting yourself down with a flat surface on your lap and folding some seed pots. A 100 pack of 2″ plastic seed cups is nearly $25 on Amazon. I need possibly as many as 400 pots this year, so I will be saving myself $100 by doing this while I’d otherwise just be sick in bed. And in exchange it will nourish my soil, increasing carbon and biomass, and turn something ugly into something wonderful.

Frugal. Ecological. Healing. Nourshing to land, body, soul, and the whole world. Everything gardening, and upcycling, should be. I hope you give these awesome pots a try and do a little upcycling yourself.

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.

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!

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).