Sunday, April 26, 2009

One More Time

Rain/thunderstorms, 43 degrees

I had spent a good hour writing a blog about all the work Karen and I put in the yad and garden the other day, and it has disappeared into the ether despite our making sure to save it. So here is my abbreviated redact:

Friday (April 24) was the only day of the week it seemed we'd have decent weather for working in the garden. It had been relatively sunny, and the forecast was for highs around 82(!) and windy. I took a half day off work and was out the door by 8 am with my gloves on.

First I tackled a long awaited and on-going project, filling in and seeding the trench area in the backyard. After the water and electrical lines were dug and laid last Fall, it was backfilled with dirt and packed down. But we needed to wait and see how much it would sink after the frost went out this Spring. Thankfully it didn't sink too far in too many places, but I still had some backfilling to do before I could lay grass seed down. I'd been bringing a few wagon loads of dirt over from behind the pump house as time after work allowed, but the weather didn't cooperate and much of the time my dirt pile was a pile of mud. Finally, Friday morning I was able to load the last of the necessary fill into the area behind the house and start tamping. Then I put up a fence to keep the dogs off of it. This is a long trench, and cuts all the way across the backyard, so I have to do this in sections so the dogs can still access the rest of the yard. I raked it smooth, put down my seed and mulched.

Then I headed up toward the asparagus bed and started digging post holes while Karen hit the big lower garden (formerly the old garden, pig pen, and lawn)and started planting onion sets. These are basically baby onion plants and give us a jump on the growing season. We planted three varieties, a white, a yellow, and a red onion named Red Zeppelin! Hellyeah!

The post hole digging was going very slowly in our heavy soil. Karen asked for my help in the big garden which I was more than happy to provide. We dug, raked, pulled sod clods, smoothed, marked, planted and identified two 30 ft. rows of onions, carrots, beets, lettuce, spinach, and potatoes!

Speaking of potatoes, I have a bit to say about our spuds this year. First, we ordered a few varieties from an outfit back in Maine called Pinetree Garden Seeds. I've dealt with them in the past, and always had good service and results from the seeds I ordered from them. I particularly liked that they sold smaller sized packets than most other places, because who really needs a thousand beet seeds?? I had never ordered potato sets from them, but I didn't think anything of it. We did get all the seed packets we ordered in a very timely fashion, to be put into the laundry room awaiting their time for planting. The spuds hadn't arrived, but we weren't concerned since planting time was many weeks off. However, as of two weeks ago, we still hadn't gotten our potatoes from Pinetree. Karen called and called, finally getting a hold of a live person, and was told
"Oh, you wanted those now?"
Ummm.... were you thinking we wanted them for the fourth of July? In doing some searching, Karen discovered quite a few complaints about Pinetree's customer service and shipping delays. Hmph. The phone call happened two weeks ago, and we still don't have our potatoes from Pinetree! You can bet we won't be ordering any more non-seed items from them. Maybe even not seeds. There are lots of alternatives.

We had picked up one bag of fingerling potatoes locally at Jung's since Pinetree didn't offer that variety. I picked it up several weeks back knowing it may be out of stock if I waited too long. The risk with this was that my storage conditions are less than perfect, and our seed potatoes started sprouting. A little sprouting isn't such a bad thing, but ours sprouted a LOT. Many of the new shoots broke off in trying to prise them out of their net bag. For those who don't know, when planting potatoes, one cuts a spud into sections containing two or three eyes, so you can harvest more from one potato. Also for those who didn't know, and this included me, potato seedlings and sprouts are tasty to Welsh Springer Spaniels. I went into the house to fetch the camera, and by the time I walked back out onto the porch, I caught Dottie munching some of my spuds up. Sigh.

But at least we had this batch, so we dug up long trenches and put them in. It was exhausting work in the heat. Though I'm never a very heat-tolerant variety of human, I especially don't do well on the first 80 degree day of the year after a long cool winter. I need hardening off just like my tomato plants. Luckily for me by this time, it was time for me to get ready to go in to work, so I got to hit the shower.

Karen being the trooper that she is continued working in the garden. Then she went to town and did the shopping, cleaned the house, made dinner and a batch of homemade sourdough bread. By the time I got back home after work, she was back outside finishing up. She's a keeper.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Farm Truck

Finally found a truck we can call ours this week.
Never owned a Dodge before, but this one had the right features at the right price. Got an extended cab for the baby, V-8 for haulin lumber and piggies, 4-wheel for getting in and out of the driveway. It didn't have a trailer hitch, which I took as a good sign. I'd rather put my own hitch on than wonder whether the transmission was abused in the past. So I ordered the hitch and a wiring kit which should arrive next week. Then we can stop hauling with the minivan!

This is Karen posing with the new Dakota. She laughed at me for buying rubber floor mats for the truck. I know what the floors of a farm truck can get to looking like. Think I should ban her from driving it if she's gonna laugh at my detailing choices?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

April 18, 2009
74, cloudy, slight drizzle

Things are moving along around here. After last weeks' tilling up of sod, we let it rest a few days in order to let the exposed grass roots dry out and (hopefully!) die. Today we rented a tiller again in order to go over it all one last time. Now that the root layer of the sod is broken up and beginning to decompose, we can go through and reach deeper. This worked pretty well in most spots, however we did discover a fairly wide swath in our future veggie patch that contained a trove of treasures. Birkleigh has now opened up her own museum from the artifacts we have dug up. Her display includes two forks and a spoon, can lids, pot shards, and other flotsam. We also unearthed half a mile of chain and wire, all previous dog anchors. This place used to be a dog farm. Well, not quite so nice a place as a dog farm, really. it was a place dogs lived on chains, under cars and an old bus. I was actually here once, in a professional capacity.

But that was then, this is the hereafter. Our little piece of the world is now only occupied by very happy and very well trained dogs that choose to ignore their good training on a regular basis. Because we are so gentle and generous, we only laugh merrily at their adorable antics such as jumping up on old people and excavating out all the bulbs I planted 6 months ago just as they are about to bloom.

Back to the garden! We have pried out long lengths of chain, pieces of glass, two basketball sized boulders, enough wire to start a Radio Shack franchise, and the remnants of an old fire pit. It brings up a mixture of surprise, adventure, mystery, and a re-working of our garden layout. Probably not a good idea to put the potatoes where there seems to be an old brickyard 6 inches below the surface, etc., etc. Maybe we should put them closer to the compost pile this year, and put the corn over there. Potatoes can be grown in containers, but we are wanting to grow a whole lot of potatoes. We'd never have enough containers.

Anywho. This was the third tiller we've used in a week, and I can't say I liked any one of them enough to say I'd buy one. After the Italian job, we used a Snapper. That was easy to maneuver and the controls didn't wear one's hands out, but it didn't have the weight to power through thick grass roots without lurching forward. The one today was enormous. Not in the width of the tines, they were maybe 24 inches wide, but it was built heavy It had a huge front end. While the extra weight did help hold the tines in the ground when it came to churning through those sod roots, it made for a very exhausting excursion around the beds. It was tooo heavy to want to have as a member of the Prairie Fire Farm stable.

At the end of the day, the beds were as tilled as they were gonna get, we loaded the tiller back up onto the trailer for the return to town tomorrow. That's a good feeling. The rain is going to start tonight. The next two days, in fact, it's going to rain. I wish we could get at least one more sunny day to rake the beds smooth and get some more planting done.

We did manage to get a raspberry patch started up near the hay field. Took some before and after shots.

Spring is really quite underway. The grass is greening up very nicely, the birds are singing their little heads off, the first flowers are blooming, the buds are just beginning to swell on the apple trees. We've had a few very nice warm and sunny days, and then we slide back down into chilly cold days. Looking forward to going through our first Spring here on the farm!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Sod Bustin

Oy, my hands are sore. Arms and shoulders, too, for that matter. And my elbows...don't even bring them up. These are times when I miss having a bathtub as much as my Piscean partner does. A good long hot soak would sure do me good right now. You see my friends, this weekend was sod busting weekend. When we bought these 8 acres, the area around the house and outbuildings was all grass. I'd guess we had about an acre and a half to two acres of lawn all together. It took me about two hours of solid mowing on a 20 hp 46" cut Cub Cadet, consuming about 2 gallons of gas to cut my grass every week last Summer. I don't mind cutting the grass, really, it gives me some of that zen time I like to think about stuff. And I can't help myself, I really get a great deal of satisfaction in a beautifully mown lawn. To me, it really pops out as a great look. The neighbors all appreciate nicely kept homesteads (as do I).

But I know that lawns are also a waste of good soil sometimes, and they require lots of petro inputs, etc., etc. You won't find me on the short list of people who want to abolish lawns, no way. I love a good lawn. But I approach my lawnphilia with a common sense approach, I hope. One that allows for plenty of weeds. Heck, some years, in some places, if it weren't for the weeds my whole yard would have gone brown from drought. At least it still looked green from the street! Ha.

But this is not really a post about my lawn. It is actually a post about killing my lawn. I have gone and chopped it up into little bits, but it is all for a higher purpose! Karen and I have been merrily plotting and scheming and graphing and collecting bits in order to put in our first 'real' garden this year. So, much of the lawn has been sacrificed. We did manage to hastily dig up a bit of a patch immediately after moving in here this Summer, and we did get a decent crop of lettuce, radishes, beans, carrots, cucumbers and squash. But that little patch needed to be expanded by oh, I don't know, a million-fold or so. Why not?! We've got the land, we've got the willingness, we've got the seeds! We just didn't have a rototiller.

But have not fear, friend Lindsey who is a young farmer into digging veggies and working at the local co-op said she'd loan us her awesome walk-behind machine. Lindsey delivered the blue beast on Saturday. She showed us all of it's amazing features. I noted it was made in Italy. Hmm. The Italians are known to me as being fine cooks, vintners and artists. They can make some world class espresso machines and of course, some really nice slippers. But machinery? Yeah. Well I'm not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, so off she went, and off we roared to the bed in the backyard. 32X32 sq. feet for asparagus, strawberries, onions, and flowers and I don't know what all. Got about two rows done when there started a terrible grinding noise from the gear box. Karen and I banged, pushed, yanked, tightened, oiled guessed and cursed...but the dang thing just got worser and worser. After several hours of physically fighting with this thing we were exhausted and frustrated. Sore muscles, bruised hands, and frustrated. I put the Italian Job in the garage.

Then today we rented a tiller from the local hardware store. Smaller in width, but at least the tin was painted a respectable red color. However, as alluded to in an earlier post, those of us who work in concert with the good earth must deal with her changes. No turning up the heat or flipping on the lights out here. You just get what you get. And of course what I finally wound up with on the last day I had off was a wicked soup of clouds, wild easterly winds, and plummeting temperatures. I pulled the engine to life and threw her into gear, and the red tiller and I attacked my previous lawn with a gnawing, churning vengeance. Sometimes it would hit a dry spot and lurch forward at 50 mph, yanking my shoulders and yes, my elbows out of their sockets. Despite this, it was a kinder, gentler machine to commandeer over my sod. After a couple of hours, I had managed to go over all 3,000 square feet of our future garden patch twice. It had started to drizzle a bit, but that wasn't hitting the ground since the wind was blowing it sideways. When the dirt would periodically clear from my eyes I'd look up and make sure I was traveling in a relatively straight line. This was not always as easy as it may sound, since we had pigs on part of this ground last Fall. Though they were good at tilling up a lot of the grass, they were also very good at building ditches, swales, berms, and gullies. So the tiller and I pitched and rolled along, churning up the dirt into a rough loose soil.

After I finished the 3,000 sq. ft. bed, it was time to move up the hill and break ground on the future melon patch. This one was only 11X25 or so, I don't remember anymore. Why a separate melon patch? Why because we ran out of room in the first patch, that's why. Where else are you going to put all that sweet corn?! And I refuse to go without a fresh melon, besides. Just as I finished up tilling that patch on the hillside, the drizzle turned white and chunky. They had forecast a high of 56 today, and a chance of rain. This was not one of their proudest moments.

Be that as it is, by god, I got the whole damn thing tilled. At least the first round!

In the end, we will have created a win-win: more food for us to eat from our own efforts, and less lawn to mow. More of what we harvest will be powered by human hands, and less will be clipped by me on my Cub Cadet.

I just hope I can get all that thinking done on my smaller lawn.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

It's been a while since I've been able to bring myself to sit down and post, I guess losing Frances sort of put a damper on things. Like Karen said, she really was the best chicken I've ever had. I realize that folks who have never owned chickens will really have no idea how in the world a chicken can be entertaining or endearing, but people who have raised chickens understand. They really are not simply silly, clucking, feather-covered automatrons that lay an egg a day and are otherwise regarded about as friendly or useful as a housefly. They can be real cool. As Birkleigh is discovering, chickens can be as engaging and entertaining as kittens. And I have yet to meet a kitten that would leave me anything I wanted to eat.

We've been staying busy here. I did pick up some cukoo marans chicks at the swap. I was so sruprised to see them there. A rare breed, they are prized for their super dark chocolate eggs. I figured mixing in some dark chocolate eggs with our light brown, white, and olive green eggs would make for some very colorful egg cartons. The marans chicks are doing well and growing fast. We needed to keep a heat lamp on them the first few weeks at night due to the cold temps, but now they have all their feathers and they don't need the extra heat. And yay! says our electric bill! I'm still looking at them with a squint eye and trying to determine if I have 4 hens and one rooster, or 3 hens and two roosters... hm. Either way, it'll be fine.

Our Spring chicks will be arriving in a month! Birkleigh is very excited about baby chicks again.

And we started our tomato and peppers in the house a couple weeks ago. Karen did most all the selection of varities, and she chose some old heirloom tomatoes that sound pretty cool. Some will be for fresh table eating, and some are a bit drier and more suited for canning and making into tomato paste, etc.

We're still in stocking-up and getting equipped mode on this new place. In the last month, we got our meat grinder/sausage stuffer so we can process more of our own meats into sausage. I'm still on the hunt for the right materials to make a good smoker out of. Speaking of smoking...I made some truly fab ribs a few weeks ago, and I had plans to post about it. I took pictures all through the process, so that'll be another post unto itself.

Karen also finally got the grain mill she's been wanting. It attaches onto her Kitchenaid mixer, and it grinds the hard red wheat we get from a neighbor, who grows it organically. It's kind of fun to watch the wheat get turned into flour. And then Karen really goes to work, setting the kitchen apoof with flour and pans and baking stones. She's made some great breads and the best bagels ever! And let me tell you...slathered in the butter we made from the whole milk we get from these same neighbors is heavenly. The cows are grass fed, and you can taste the difference.

Other recent projects include me making Karen an arbor out of an old woooden ladder for her birthday, planing down some barn doors, raking and cleaning up the yard, protecting the bulbs from the dogs' paws, going to auctions, and oh yeah, those taxes.

It's been too wet to till the lawn up into what will be the garden yet, and this situation has made Karen beside herself with anticipation and frustration. She knows it is going to be a great big garden, and take lots of work, and she is as eager as a spaniel at an open pheasant field to get going on this! But the damage that can be done to the soil if it is worked too soon is substantial, and will affect your crops for the rest of the year, so it must be avoided. It's been a mixture of empathy and amusement for me to watch her experience her first real taste of how tied we are to the weather and whims of Mother Nature. We can till when She lets us, and only then. It will be on Her schedule, and not ours. And the right moment will most certainly come at a time when it is impossible for us to comply, such as the middle of a work week, particularly if we will be out of town. Unless of course, it comes on a weekend, which usually means we will be suddenly laid up with a bad back or the car is in the shop and we can't get to the tiller rental center. When we can get there, everyone else will have gotten there first, and the tillers will all be rented out until the next rainy day. I believe this is keeping Karen tossing and turning at night. I, with all my wise and sage farmer experience, instead decide to worry about things I can control, such as the world economy and whether it even makes sense to buy a tractor with an internal combustion engine if we face the end of oil in the next thirty years. We make a great pair!