Monthly Archives: May 2010

Putting in the Garden

We were supposed to get a load of hay today. I had a trailer and help lined up.  Getting hay is never easy.  I don’t necessarily mean just hauling and stacking hay.  That’s not a walk in the park.  It’s hot, sweaty, itchy work, though it smells fabulous and gives a great sense of accomplishment and security when you’re all done.  But procuring hay is never easy.  The hay farmers I’ve run into are a unique bunch.  Suffice it to say that, though this farmer had talked me into ending our Memorial Day camping trip early, packing up and coming home, and lining up the trailer and some help so I could clear a couple hundred bails of hay out of his barn to make room for the new crop, he changed his mind and decided he’d rather leave it in his barn.  He thinks he wants me to pick up the new crop out of the field so he doesn’t have to stack it in his barn.  Sigh.

It takes patience and a whole different way of looking at things to live in rural America.  At least to live in our slice of heaven.  Time has a whole new dimension outside of metropolitan suburbia, U.S.A.  We’ve learned that nugget one broken promise at a time.  I often feel like we’re living a rerun of that older movie, “The Money Pit” where every time the homeowner asks the contractor how long until they’re finished he says, “Two weeks.”  This goes on for a year.  We really notice when a service provider or contractor shows up when they say they’ll show up.  It’s a nice change of pace around here.

So with the change of plans for this morning, (just relax and go with the flow – life up here forces you to slow your pace and change your expectations), we decided we’d better get the rest of the garden planted.

My tomatoes don’t look so good.  Well, my son’s tomatoes don’t look so good.  Mine are kind of mediocre looking at this point, but his don’t look like they’re all going to make it.  That’s what comes of rushing the hardening off process.  Too many irons in the fire to take proper care.  So the leaves are sunburnt-looking.  It was hot last week and we ended up just leaving them outside too long for several days.

We managed to put the acorn squash and charentais melon transplants in.  Cecily planted pumpkin seeds and the several herbs (parsley, cilantro, and basil) and I put in my tomatoes and hot peppers.  Pretty good.  We realized that, in spite of our vow to have just a small garden this year so we could take good care of it, we still have fifteen different crops, most with multiple beds/multiple varieties.  Hmmm.  Restraint may not be my strong point.

I was really pleased with the lovely job Eddie (our Buff Orpington rooster) did turning and fertilizing my squash bed.  Our chicken tractor is 12×4′ long (see photo in recent post) and fits pretty nicely over several of the beds in the garden.  We have quite an unusual variety of bed sizes, really, but several of them are 4×10, with 2′ aisles in between.  So the tractor hangs over the end a little, but it’s no matter.  Eddie does a great job preparing a bed for me.  I had him in the tractor on the corn bed first, then we moved him over to the squash bed.

I had heard about using a chicken tractor in your garden for the turning/fertilizing from Andy Lee’s book by the same name, but never made it all the way through the book.  I kind of felt like the info was worth an article, but not a whole book and I lost patience so I never read more than a little bit of it.  Still, it’s a good idea when you need somewhere to put a chicken (or chickens) and have a portable tractor.  They eat all the weeds and take care preparing your garden bed.

It just so happens that I needed a place to put Eddie,  and since the hotwire was already around the garden, I put him in there to keep critters away and keep them from digging under his tractor and having him for dinner.  When I saw what a great job he was doing on the bed we put him on, I moved him and let him have at it in another bed.  The soil was light and fluffy, weed-free, and properly fertilized.  All the turning had composted the fertilizer very quickly!  So we’ll see how those squash do, and I’ll have to remember to put him on my beds again in the fall.


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From Garden Farm to Small Home Farm

When Jesse lowered the Boom I took it in stride.  But not without a measure of disappointment.  We’d been planning to move for two years and had been locked in where we were because the faltering housing market kept our house from moving very quickly.  I was thrilled with the work we’d accomplished thus far, the kids and me.  We’d sowed our little vegetable patch, begun caring for the orchard and started a batch of chicks.  Now, he said, we would go ahead and move in spite of not having sold our house.  It was time.  We’d waited long enough.  We would rent out our place and go find a place to buy.  The next morning a couple called us, having seen our house listed with realtor for sale, and asked if we would consider renting our house for a year.  That took care of that.

There was a bit of a descrepency as we looked at houses with our realtor.  I was thinking “farm, farm, farm.”  Jesse was thinking “woods, woods, woods.”  He wanted to be able to hunt his own property and tromp through the woods with the kids.  I wanted horses and cows and pigs and chickens.  Pasture.  Fencing.  Open spaces.  There was one place that fit that description, but the house just wasn’t right.  The place we chose was in the middle of the woods, in the middle of nowhere.  There were many paths cut through our acreage, a big pole barn, and the house was gorgeous, with plenty of bedrooms and space for a home office for Jesse.

To be honest, I was a little miffed.  Disappointed.  The house was in a town I had once sworn I would never go back to.  God has a sense of humor, and He is also very insistent.  He calls the shots, not me.  I’ve learned that when I say, “I will never …” he usually calls me on it and makes it happen.

At any rate, the place fit our needs, although the “pasture, fencing, open spaces” part was definitely not in the mix.  We signed on the dotted line and moved in two weeks later.

I drove four hours north of our old home with a chaotic mix of valuable artwork, chickens, kids and cats in the minivan.  Artwork and chickens don’t mix.  In fact, breathing and chickens don’t go into tight spaces very well together, either.  The last hour of the trip we had to drive with all the windows open as the ammonia built up in the car.  I wouldn’t do it again if I was thinking straight.

We settled in and, this time, instead of getting to work painting and wallpapering and decorating things to within an inch of their lives, we set out clearing out brush and garbage, then tilling and raking a spot for an orchard.

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The Course of Things

As a gal, I naturally have a soft spot in my heart toward animals.  At times I have to choose to harden up a little as we live daily with nature.  Whether it be dying livestock, time to process the homegrown meat, or even just the natural course of things among the wild creatures on our place, there are occasional jolts of unpleasantness in nature’s ways.

This morning I headed down to feed the horses early as usual.  I said hello to them at the gate.  Then my attention was drawn by a loud ruckus in the trees.  I couldn’t make out what was going on, but soon determined it was a throng of robins.  How unusual.  I never see many robins together at once, except perhaps when spread out in the yard looking for tasty morsels.  This was different.

Several second later, amidst the ruckus, emerged a crow carrying a baby chick in its beak.  The robins were crying out in indignation at the cannibal.  He’d been into the nest, stealing one of their babies.  They flew out after him as he flew away, and as he did I couldn’t help wonder if, now that he’d found a nest with easy pickings, he would be back.

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Home Farming

What kind of farm do you have? Is yours an Urban Homestead with a terrace garden, growing in pots?  Maybe some herbs on the windowsill?  Do you primarily shop at the farmer’s markets to get freshly grown farm produce?  Do you live on a Large Home Farm with space for dairy or beef cattle, grain crops, a full orchard or some other income crop?

Or is your homestead a Garden Farm?  Do you live in the suburbs and raise (or aspire to raise) herbs, vegetables, and fruits in your own garden?  Does your landscape include a couple of dwarf fruit trees?  Some beehives?  Perhaps you’re one in the growing movement of “City Chicken” backyard poultry growers, raising a handful of eggs on a small suburban plot.  This is the way we started out.  We actually lived in semi-rural suburbia (if there is such a thing!)  We lived on a state route that wound its way along the Maumee River, only five minutes from the main business area of our small suburban town outside of Toledo.  We had a 1.25 acre plot that sloped noticeably down from the walkout basement at the rear of the house to a picturesque creek (a.k.a. drainage ditch with lush foliage) at the bottom of the hill, beyond our post and rail fence.

This is the creek (a.k.a. drainage ditch) at the bottom of the hill in our backyard. It was really lovely with all the foliage and flowers!

When we moved there eight years ago, there were remains of a vegetable garden, a defunct raspberry patch that produced exactly one raspberry before it finally gave up the ghost, half a dozen or more black walnut trees and a small orchard containing 3-4 full sized apple trees, a peach tree, and a pie cherry tree.  The previous homeowner had loved herb gardening, whereas I knew (and cared) nothing about it.  I felt the landscape was significantly lacking floral beauty, and invested the next five years in introducing a wild profusion of pinks, blues, purples and yellows – along with some lovely suburban bushes – all around the place. And after looking at the leftover garden plot that consisted of very heavy clay soil, promptly sowed the vegetable garden to grass.  The place blossomed while we lived there, in some respects, and faltered in others.  The orchard was in terrible need of renovation.  The peach died at the end of the first summer and the apples were obviously long overdue for pruning to open them up to sunlight.  But I didn’t know that at the time.  I wrote them off as a poor choice in landscaping, because at this time self-sufficiency in any respect wasn’t on my radar screen.

That all changed the winter we lived at Chub Lake.  We had decided it was time to move away from our hometown.  We had always had a bit of wanderlust and realized that neither we nor our children were getting any younger, and if we ever wanted to make a change, it was “now-or-never”.  So having paid off our home mortgage, we were free to rent a cabin on a lake in Northern Michigan for the winter.  We only intended to try out the weather, really.  We thought we’d enjoy cold, snowy winters, and wanted to make sure it was really so before permanently selling out and moving away.

Though it is, altogether, a story for another time, the winter was wonderful.  It was refreshing, rejuvenating … in the rental we had no home maintenance cares at all (which had figured prominently in our lives as homeowners living in a fixer-upper.  It also left us with plenty of time to explore and enjoy not only the great out of doors, but the local library as well.  Granted, I have been a library hound most of my life, but my interests up to this point had mostly been home decorating and flower gardening.  I was avid.  Nothing could excite me like the prospect of another room to paint and decorate, or another sweet, flowery garden spot, and nothing could satisfy me like a project I’d just finished.

My daughter Cecily has always loved to help out with the flower garden and pots.

But interestingly, in this out-of-the-way backwoods town, the library had very little in the way of decorating books, and not as much as I would have liked in the landscape-gardening books, so I meandered just a little ways over on the shelves.  I found myself thumbing through the pages of Jeff Ball’s “Self-Sufficient Suburban Gardener,” which for your who are unfamiliar with this stellar introduction to homesteading small-scale, contains much encouragement toward growing not only fruits and vegetables, but small livestock such as honeybees, poultry, and even fish if you have the room and inclination.  Then I stumbled on a couple books about keeping chickens, including “City Chickens.”  As I read, somewhere inside me this dim little light grew brighter and brighter.  My eyes grew wider and wider.  And my heart started beating a little faster.  Soon I was devouring everything I could about self-sufficiency, homesteading, and gardening.

By the time we returned to Ohio I was on fire and excited about the starting point we already had … an orchard, an old, neglected herb garden that would serve as a fine small vegetable plot, and a yard large enough (not to mention appropriate zoning) to raise a few chickens in a chicken tractor.

This is the chicken tractor the kids and I built, with our first ever batch of chicks inside once they finally got big and hearty enough. We loved this project!

We returned home the last of March and had one month before a planned month-long trip out west in our beater of a motorcoach.  We would be “road schooling” that month … learning on the go (homeschooling is flexible enough to allow for some pretty amazing learning experiences).  But I had decided to raise chickens with the kids for an agricultural/zoological project once we returned home at the end of May.  We would also look at finding alternate sources of water and some solar experiments  – all fun stuff that was also an extension of what I had been learning myself over the winter.

On our return home we spaded the herb garden and planted it to vegetables, and built a chicken tractor for the variety of Rocks (Plymouth, Silver-Penciled, and Partridge Rocks) we had ordered from McMurray Hatcheries.  I found a source of unpasteurized milk on cowshare, a farmer who raised grass-fed beef and pastured poultry for our home consumption and an excellent farmer’s market for fresh produce we wouldn’t raise.  I sprayed the orchard with sulfur spray for scab and something organic I can’t remember for the codling moths on the fruit trees, and we enjoyed an amazing month and a half of homesteading right in suburbia.

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The Call of the Common Loon

One of the reasons we moved to Northern Michigan a few years ago is my love of loons.  Had we moved east or west (we wouldn’t have moved south at the time), we couldn’t have been within six hours of our family in Ohio and still had loons nearby.  Our home search took us to several houses for sale on lakes, in hopes that  loons would become a regular part of our lives.  But a lake house was not to be.

I’ve never seen a farm situated on a lake, though I’ve dreamed about one, until this past weekend.  On McCollum lake there is a big dutch barn and about ten acres situated right on a promontory into the lake.  A small, nondescript, tan cape cod nestles near shore.  Those people have their farm and their loons too.  It’s not a very private place, and if I had my way I would instantly transform the drab earthen hue of the house into a cheerful yellow, splashed liberally with white trimwork.  I am glad the house is plain, for it keeps me from wishing for something I do not have.

But this morning, I woke early once again and headed down to the horse barn to feed the horses before the children awoke.  If I feed them before the children are up, the horses can be finished eating by the time our breakfast is finished and I can work them right away, without pulling them away from their food.  As I was tossing flakes of hay into the end stall, I heard a loon call overhead as he flew past.  I smiled to myself.  We were not able to have land on a lake, but we have loons anyhow.  In the middle of the Northwoods, all summer long, we hear their call as they fly from one lake to another, right past our farm.

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The Natural Horse

Around 5:00 I sauntered down to the barn in my flip-flops and shorts.  I intended only to lean on the stall door and say hello to the horses.  After all, it had been three whole hours since I’d been down there to feed and release Saxton from The Post of Knowledge.  I stuck my head in the middle stall where the two geldings and Spur were congregating, and there was Saxton with his eye swollen and tears streaming down the left side of his face.  Great.  I was in flip-flops for goodness sake.  You can’t go into a stall in flip-flops.  Getting stepped on would be disastrous.

Saxton put his head over by me.  He’s not one to generally invite any petting of the face, so the fact that he really wanted me to rub his eye gave me a clue as to the problem.  Although he gets plaque on his teeth which sometimes causes a gum infection, which then shows up in his eyes as runny eyes, I quickly ruled that out.  What then?  A bit of hay in the eye?  A bee sting?  I looked closer.  Ah yes.  There have been yellow jackets about, bothering us to no end the last week or two.  I looked again.  Yes, I could see the probable pinpoint where he’d been stung.

On a hunch that it really was a sting from the yellow jacket, I took a bottle of Apis Mellifica back down to the barn, after I’d changed into socks and boots, and put my gloves on.  Just in case, I took a bottle of Herbal Eyebright solution as well.  I marched down there, rubbed over his eye some more (he’d been rubbing it on the corner of the feeder and on the wall.)  He was relieved to have me messing with it.  I’m guessing he was just hoping I’d do something to relieve the pain and swelling.

I carefully rolled an Apis pellet out into my gloved hand and opening his lip, slid it into his mouth between tongue and gum.  I rubbed his eye again and grabbed a muck fork and the cargo sled.  I’d just give the Apis a minute to work and I’d do a little cleanup while I waited.  That would tell me what I wanted to know.

There wasn’t a lot of manure, so in less than five minutes I was back in his stall to check.  The swelling was already down and the tears had stopped.  I gave him a second dose and headed back to the house.  We’ll have to find that yellow jacket nest and destroy it, much as I hate to.  Yellow Jackets eat other insects, and goodness knows there are enough gnats and black flies and such that an insect predator would be most welcome.  But not Yellow Jackets.  Not around horses.  Had one of the kids or I been near, or heaven forbid, riding, while a horse got stung, the probable scenario would be ugly at best.

If I’d have thought of it, there was plenty of plantain right outside the stall door.  I could have grabbed a couple leaves, chewed or crushed them up, and rubbed his eye with that.  I seem never to think herbs first, though.  I was introduced seriously to the art of naturopathy via homeopathy as a newlywed, by my midwife mother-in-law.  Granted, I grew up with a mother who believed in nutritional health, and I’d been seeing a naturopathic chiropractor for about six years.  But natural healthcare hadn’t become my own before the introduction to homeopathy.  I think that the simplicity of homeopathy, as well as the dramatic results when you hit the right one, is what keeps me always turning to homeopathy first.

But herbs have their place, and a prominent one, at that.  I just love cooking up some new herbal brew to try on an unsuspecting kid when they get a new ailment or injury.  I’ve made pretty successful herbal goo to slap on poison ivy, and some wicked tasting stuff that effectively keeps the latest circulating germs (and your friends and family) far away from you.  Not a living thing could get close to all the garlic – not to mention the herbs, in my anti-plague.  My Dad calls it “The Black Plague” and he might be right. There have been other concoctions ….

One super benefit of herbs, though, is that you can grow them yourself if you have any sort of green thumb.  Even a slightly green thumb will allow you to grow many of your own.  I’m all for growing your own medicinal herbs, though I’ve only wildcrafted them up to now.  They’re everywhere around you.  Even in your lawn if you haven’t sprayed chemicals all over it.

At some point I guessed that if my family could benefit from the variety of natural remedies, my animals could, too.  I’ve been able since to successfully treat a chicken (broken leg), a cat (injury), a dog (ear infection), and now a horse, using homeopathy. We’ve also successfully used herbs with some of our animals to help with things like PMS (Premenstrual Mare Syndrome – yes, mares can get cranky throughout their cycle) or an injured paw.

We’re still really novices here, and I don’t know that I’ll ever have the time or inclination to become an expert in all things naturopathic.  But herbs and homeopathics are the regular part of our lives that takes a lot of stress out of illess and injury.  Going to the doctor or vet is an emotional and financial stress we would rather save for the things we can’t handle ourselves.  And there’s nothing like the satisfaction of knowing you are learning and becoming more capable of taking care of yourself and your family.

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Ready, Set, Canter!

This morning it was back to work down at the horse barn.  We spent the weekend camping at the McCollum Lake rustic campground.  Wow!  It was a great family getaway.  The kids fished and played with snails and swam, while the adults read and got some summer planning taken care of.  The food was great, it was quiet and largely secluded and a great start to summer.

It’s been hot here the last couple of days.  Dripping wet muggy-hot.  I didn’t really want to work Sophie this morning.  She was great last week when I round-penned her and did some desensitizing with the rope, but she had pushed into me once, and I wasn’t looking forward to getting further into the exercises… but she did great.  I’m really pleased.  Her attitude was really nice today.  I promised myself I’d work her fifteen minutes, but I stayed at it an extra five minutes.  Not long, I know.  But 15-20 minutes three days in a row will make progress, and that’s all I’m after!

It was Saxton I’m really working hard.  He’s been my butt-head.  Sorry.  Not the nicest description, I know.  I really like him a lot.  He’s really smart, gorgeous, and the more I work him, the more I find to like about him.  But he’s a bit of a stinker, too.  He’s thrown me three times, which is what initially got me into horse training.  It was either sell him or change his attitude.  I chose the latter.

Today was a milestone.  I’ve been working with him on one-rein stops, which is your emergency break when your horse starts acting like a fruitcake.  You can just shut off the gas and bring him to a stop and get control before something dangerous happens.  (Oh, had I had that magic button when he started bucking!)

Basically you do it hundreds of times at a standstill in a halter (called flexing to the halter) so they get really light and responsive, then you do it in a bridle, again – hundreds of times.  Finally, you mount your horse (which is no small feat if you’re afraid he’s going to buck you right off) and head him off at the walk, and after about 20 feet you shut him down by flexing his neck to the side and hold it there until he stops and gives (which means he flexes his neck all the way and touches your stirrup or the girth with his nose).  Repeat several hundred times!  Now you repeat the exercise at the trot, which, again, if you’re afraid you’re going to get bucked off, can be terrifying!

But riding the trot at a post is a wonderful exercise to help develop balance and a good seat (which means you can sit deep on your horse and stick with him at any gait, in any direction he goes, even when he side-steps or hops or whatever.)  So after you’ve done this hundreds of times, guess what… you graduate to doing it at the canter.  Now this, folks, is heart-in-your-throat terrifying if … you guessed it … you’re afraid you’re going to get bucked off.

I’ve been doing this at the trot, and really enjoying it, actually.  I like posting to the trot.  I like feeling my balance and seat improve.  It’s a nice feeling of accomplishment.  I’ve been steadily, steadily increasing the challenge to myself and Saxton, and today I felt ready to give cantering a try.  AAAAHHHH!  Okay.  Yes, I get terrified just thinking about it, and I’m done working him for the day!

So we started out with several dozen one-rein stops at the trot.  We worked for an hour and 98% of what we did was: trot, one-rein stop, flex, repeat.  But after half an hour or so I felt brave so I asked Saxton to canter.  Woah!!!  That was scary!  First he cantered off like a nutcase and I shut him down with a one-rein stop immediately!   Repeat.  LOL!  After a couple times, though, and going back to reinforcing doing it correctly at the trot, I got him to canter three times starting off gentle and easy, let him lope two paces, then shut him down.  Not a lot, but an absolute milestone for me!

All in all, a successful, albeit sweaty, morning at the barn!

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