July – New members of the farm family

We’ve added five more members to the farm family. After the problems we have each year when we do this, I’m surprised we both said – Yes, let’s do this insanity again.

We added five chickens to our existing flock of nine. Right now things are peaceful. The new peeps are living in a big crate in the garage. They have their own space, a heat lamp for the cool evenings and they are happy as can be. That’s because they don’t know about the chicken drama that will happen when we introduce them to the older hens. It’s never a good thing.

We added a lot of outdoor chicken run space so there is plenty of room for the 14 of them to spread out. We give them plenty of kitchen scraps, fresh water, cracked corn every afternoon for a treat and a coop full of clean wood shavings every week. You’d think everyone would be happy. But no, hens are never happy when you introduce new peeps into their territory. Maybe there is safety in numbers and having a flock of five newbies might go better than last year when we introduced two new chicks. We’ll wait until these chicks are almost as large as the hens and devise a temporary fence with chicken wire to keep the new chicks separate (and safe) for a couple of weeks until everyone gets to know each other – and then one night after dark, we’ll slip the new chicks in with the old hens in the roost and hope for the best.

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They are so cute when they are little balls of fluff.
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Now they are starting to look like real chickens – I just hope they can hold their own when we put them in with the old hens.

May – Finally!

We had snow flurries two weeks ago. This week it’s 80 degrees. It’s been a rough spring – cold and wet and dreary. It made it hard to get my garden started. Not strong on patience, I jumped the gun, planted some of the things I had raised in the greenhouse too early – and lost them to the early May frost (even though I tucked them in with warm blankets, plastic tarps and up-side down buckets to help them through the cold nights). But…I guess that’s why I “accidentally” grew 248 tomato plants – I had a few extras.

The gardens  look amazing, the weeds have been (temporarily) banished, and there is still space between the rows. In another month it will look like a jungle out there. Let the growing season begin!

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The squash garden with tomato cages for the vines to grow, and a piece of PVC piping to keep them from blowing over in the summer storms.
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Peas, garlic and tomatoes. This year we are trying to grow them on strings – you wrap the plant around the string as it grows taller – especially since I used the tomato cages for the squash!
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A LOT of tomato plants!
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Corn, rhubarb, peas, carrots and spinach.
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1 Potato, 2 Potato, 3 Potato MORE?!
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Garlic, squash, peppers – all conveniently located by the bee hives – so the bees won’t have far to go to pollinate my garden!
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Raspberries and a few flowers on our “pretend door” to nowhere (it hides the heat pumps).
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And Rice! Why not?!  Do you think two buckets of rice plants will give me two buckets full of wild rice this fall?

May – Swarm Frenzy

We have three bee hives. One survived the winter, the other two needed new bees this spring. The one that survived the winter is strong and busy – too busy. They raised a new queen and split. Half of the hive took off looking for a new home. They got as far as a tree about 40 feet from the hive – and 40 feet in the air. So we watched and we waited – for days. They just hung there.

Finally we decided to attempt the impossible. Chris attached a bucket sprayed with sugar water to a really long pole, I grabbed a rake – and we both “suited up” with gloves, a bee veil and in my case – just about all the clothes I own. The first problem was getting to the tree. It’s up a steep hill, overgrown with berry brambles and wild roses (the only thing those wild roses grow is thorns!). Then we had to fight through vines that were climbing the tree. Once we were on the “up-side” of the tree, Chris could reach the swarm with the bucket. But just holding the bucket in place next to the swarm apparently wasn’t enticing enough. I reached up with the rake, snagged some vines and started pulling – hard enough to make the branch shake and the bees to fall into the bucket – except for the ones that didn’t fall into the bucket. Those took flight, and seemed to most enjoy the flight path around my face. Worse yet – there was no easy escape. For as difficult as it was to fight the hill, the brambles and the vines to get in there – it was even harder to get back out with bees flying around your face – yikes!  Oh, and did I mention while doing all of that I was also trying to film it on my phone. I’d share it with you, but most of what you would see is the ground as I was trying to run away – and the audio (I definitely shouldn’t share that).

In the long run – we had success! We captured about 3/4th of the swarm, poured the bees into a small hive, put the lid on – and sighed a big relief. We weren’t really looking to add a fourth bee hive, so this one will stay in the small hive and hopefully live over the winter. That way, if we have a hive that doesn’t survive ’till next spring – we will have replacement bees ready to move into a full-sized bee hive. Here’s hoping!

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Our bees – just hanging out – way up in a tree.
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A five-gallon bucket full of bees – need I say more?
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“Pouring” them into the hive.
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We hope they make this their home and don’t take off on any more adventures!

April – We dug up a barn and planted carrots

Every year when it’s time to start digging in the garden, we hit rocks – more like boulders, and we dig them out. This year was no different – in fact – even worse.

I bought a broad fork – a pitch fork looking contraption with an ergonomic handle that’s made for gently lifting, fluffing, aerating the soil so that you don’t disturb the soil layers and all those earthworms as much as you would with a tiller. That was the plan.

Last weekend I started with just one bed in my vegetable garden – it’s 4′ x 20′. With the first thrust of my broad fork, I hit a rock so I went for my favorite shovel – the pink one that my sister gave me. It’s narrow, pointy and just the right size for me to get some leverage. I dug down and pried and prodded until I got the rock out. Whew. And then it happened again and again and again and again. I don’t know if the broad fork tines are longer than the reach of the tiller, or if the winter weather had heaved the rocks closer to the surface, but I think we dug up the foundation of an old barn. The rocks ran in a straight line – right down the entire length of the bed.

Chris said I was digging too deep – that vegetable roots only go so far, and the vegetable bed would be just fine if we left the rocks there. But I rotate crops in the garden – and this year – carrots need to go in that plot. And carrots won’t grow if they hit a rock. He pulled out his tractor with the front end loader – and as we dug, we filled the bucket – four times!

And then I started on the next bed… and there were more rocks, more tractor loads to haul out, and one rock in particular that won the prize. It was too big to haul out. We worked for about 4 hours and finally got it upright to take up less space, but now it looks like a tombstone in the garden.

The soil is gorgeous now. All the digging and prying and prodding may have disturbed the soil layers, but we mixed in compost and wood ash and planted the carrots. They better appreciate all that hard work and grow like never before!

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Prying up a rock with my favorite shovel.
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I needed help getting some of these out.
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The broad fork just kept finding more and more rocks
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We filled up the front-end bucket 4 times and hauled those rocks out of the garden. They better not be back again next year!
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This rock got the better of us.
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It was bigger than we could haul out.
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These – we hauled out.
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This one is staying put – right smack in the middle of one of my garden beds. It looks like we buried someone there!

March – Are 168 Tomato Plants too many?

I may have started too many tomato plants.

I love this time of year. I get to play in the dirt in the dry and relative warmth of the basement. I work at a folding table with a bucket of potting mix and some little black plastic seed trays. This year I got a little carried away with how much fun I was having.

I have seven varieties of tomato seeds I want to grow – three are paste tomatoes (San Marzano, Amish Paste and Salvaterra), three varieties are for nice big slicing tomatoes (Brandywine Red, Beefsteak and Mortgage Lifter) – and just one cherry tomato variety. That’s not that much – right?  The seeds are so tiny and I thought they might not all germinate, so I put two little tiny seeds into each cell of the six-packs. One six-pack of each variety didn’t look like that much – so I did two six-packs of each. That’s just 14 little six-packs – not that much, until Chris did the math.  Apparently I planted 168 tomato seeds. The garden can only accommodate about 30 tomato plants – if I want to save room to grow the 60 pepper plants I also accidentally started, and the 30 Loofah sponge plants.

I put the trays on the heated mat under the grow light, and guess what? ALL 168 tomatoes came up. I should pluck the weaker of the two sprouts from each cell to allow the stronger plant to flourish; but I can’t just throw out 84 little seedlings. Once they get a little bigger, I’ll be busy transplanting 168 plants into individual pots – and at some point I’ll have to pick my favorite 4 or 5 of each variety and give the rest away.

I’d be tempted to plant them all – but I still need room for beans, cantaloupe, carrots, garlic, onions, potatoes, watermelon and lots of squash. I have seven varieties of squash too. I hope I use more restraint planting those than I did with tomatoes!

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Our neighbors may wonder about the plant light glow that emanates from our basement windows – but it’s only tomatoes, peppers and Loofah sponges.
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Yep – 168 little tomato plants
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I’ll have a lot of transplanting to do – but think of the amazing tomatoes we’ll have.

November – A Chicken Play Pen

We’ve had mesh netting around the chicken coop for a year or so now. It gives “the girls” a safe place to roam during the day when they aren’t on their supervised excursions into the yard-at-large. We always have to be vigilant because the fox and hawks like our chickens as much as we do! Chris decided it is time to build something more substantial so that if we are away for part of the day, we don’t have to be concerned that something can get to them.

It’s been a big project – digging holes to sink the 4”x4” fence posts, building a supporting framework at the top, building a door – and last but not least – getting the fencing around the side and over the top.

But that wasn’t enough – we decided they need to have fresh grass. But anyone who has a pen full of chickens knows you can’t have fresh grass unless you move them every day before they peck, scratch and claw their way to the dirt. Not to be outsmarted by a bunch of chickens, Chris built a raised bed for grass, covered by hardware cloth that they can’t peck through. This way, the grass will grow up and out the top, the girls can keep their lawn “mowed” by chomping away each day, and the underlying grass plants are safe from their voracious appetites.

Now they have a nice, big, safe space – which should soon have green grass.  They should be quite content in their new playpen.

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The mesh fencing worked well for a while, but the girls needed something more permanent.
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And they needed fresh grass – all the time.
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So they got this beautiful, big chicken pen with a grass patio.
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And everyone seems happy with their new chicken yard.

November – What IS this thing?

A cucumber? An out of control zucchini? Actually – it’s a sponge. A loofah sponge; and it’s growing in my garden!

It’s taken a bit of persistence. Loofah’s need a long growing season. I tried growing these last year and I got the tiniest little sponge that I harvested right before our first frost. This year, I started my loofah seeds in February, in the basement, under a grow light. They were soooo slow to germinate, and even slower to grow. I planted them outside in late May and they sat there for months, barely rising above the weeds around the edge of the garden fence. Slowly they started to climb the fence and I kept training their tendrils higher and higher. All of a sudden – they took off climbing over the six foot fence and FINALLY made some tiny loofahs. For as along as it took for the plants to grow, the loofahs seemed to double in size over night.

Our growing season is still barely long enough and frost was approaching; not all of them were ready to harvest. A few had turned yellow, they felt squishy and noticeably lighter than the dark green ones. I chopped them down, peeled one open and there it was – a perfect – sponge! Hopefully the others will dry a bit more so I can harvest a bathtub full of sponges.

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It’s bigger than some of the zucchinis that grow in the garden!
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Slowly it turns yellow and gets squishy-soft.
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I peeled it open – and look! It’s a sponge!

Happy Halloween

I always enjoy this time of the year. The leaves are beautiful, the air is crisp and it’s fun to decorate with all the gourds I grew all summer long. This year, all the decorations were in place – but one extra one showed up – Yikes!  Guess which one isn’t one of my normal fall decorations?!?

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My spooky houses
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The fireplace with pumpkins, gourds and bittersweet.
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Two of the cutest pumpkins around!
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It must be a ghost spider – the picture keeps disappearing off the blog!

September – Tomato Soup

It’s been an okay year for my tomatoes – not great – but okay. We’ve had plenty of fresh Big Beef tomatoes for bacon/tomato sandwiches and enough Amish Paste tomatoes to can enough sauce to get us through the winter. But, with only a few tomatoes each day or so, it makes it hard to get enough at one time for a big batch of canning. The other day I stopped at the local farm for some fresh corn.  Sitting there, right in front of the corn, calling my name – was a 30 pound box of tomatoes – for $3.50. I mean – you just can’t pass that up! I was so excited, I forgot to get the corn.

I hurried home, ran the tomatoes through my strainer contraption and simmered the juice for hours and hours. We ended up with 12 pints of tomato soup and ate one jar that night with grilled cheese sandwiches — because I couldn’t wait to try it. The others got canned for a cold winter’s night. I’m dreading winter – but I’m looking forward to more of that tomato soup.

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A stock pot full of tomato soup!
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Just waiting for the first snow storm.

September – An Unwelcome Home

We took a week of vacation and although we missed the farm and our furry and feathered friends and my gardens – sometimes you just need to get away. It was nice to come home – until we found we had squatters living in our house. Yes, they broke in while we were gone and took up residence. Yellow jackets had taken over our bedroom. Not just one or two – but a lot of dead ones on the window sills where they died in frustration trying to get out the windows, and several more flying frantically around looking for a way out. We do sometimes get the errant wasp that seems to come down from the attic, but I couldn’t figure out how this many yellow jackets were getting into the house. The next day there were more, and the day after – still more.  We checked the windows – the screens all seemed tight. We checked the attic for a lot of buzzing – but it was quiet. I sat quietly and watched the fan vent in the bathroom waiting for a yellow jacket to make it’s entrance – but nothing happened. And then we went to bed. Just as I was dozing off – I got stung, THREE times – on my leg – under the covers. And it HURT!

It was WAR!

In the light of the day I started ripping apart the bedroom – and then I noticed – saw dust, and dead yellow jackets on the roof of the porch – just to the left of  the window on my side of the bed. They definitely had a nest – but we have a stone house. Doesn’t one trump the other? You would think!

These nasty yellow jackets had burrowed into the wooden window sill, through two feet of wood and stone, and made an entrance into the bedroom behind my night stand. I put my ear against the window sill – and it was a-buzzin’!! After several doses of bug spray applied with one of those tiny wands into the entrance holes both in the bedroom and outside the window, all is quiet. Chris shoved some steel wool into the holes so there will be no more yellow jacket traffic in and out of our bedroom.

As for the pictures – when we were in the throes of trying to get rid of these things – I forgot to take pictures. I could show you a picture of my leg with a huge, red welt – but that’s not a good picture either.

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The roof of the porch littered with sawdust, dead bees and a chunk of wood the yellow jackets somehow pulled out of the window ledge.
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The little hole under the window sill where they were making their entrance into the house after eating their way through two feet of wooden window ledge and stone wall. It’s plugged with steel wool. We need to spray a big dose of Great Stuff in there to seal everything up and then patch the hole with some stucco and fresh paint. At least I sleep better now!