Monthly Archives: June 2010

Subtleties of the Seasons

Photo by Audreyjm529

Betsy picked a bouquet of wildflowers yesterday on our way to gather the mail .  At least through the warmer months, it seems as if the flowers themselves are God’s calendar.  In spring the landscape is dotted with generous patches of Marsh Marigold, Violets, and Apple blossoms.  Followed by the Wild Roses, Dandelions, Strawberry and Blackberry blossoms.

But here it is the end of June and there are dozens upon dozens of field daisies on the roadsides, and the mower won’t keep ahead of the Daisy Fleabane, the purple Clover and the orange Hawk Weed.  God surely knows what he is doing, for along the roadsides they mix together in a profusion of cheerful color.

Late summer brings Goldenrod and Black-Eyed Susans, more Hawk Weed and Queen Anne’s Lace.

Photo by Fotodawg

But if the summer’s wildflowers announce the time of year, so do the bird and wildlife calls.  Just the other day I heard the first “O Sweet Canada, Canada, Canada” of the White Throated Sparrow.  It’s always a thrill to recognize the spring peepers and the first bird calls of summer – the return of the loon, downy woodpecker, and broad-winged hawk.  Later, the sound of the honking geese making a practice run overhead still raises some sense of alarm and urgency that autumn is coming, but at the same time promises cozy times by a warm fire, soft sweaters, and steamy mugs of cocoa or tea.

Winter, too, has its own signs, though perhaps their timing varies a bit more.  I don’t quite know.  Still, most years the ice is not thick enough to skate on until after Christmas and too soft by late February, though it has long since been abandoned to the repeated snowfall.

For many years I was unaware of each little change the progression of a season brings, noting only the most obvious changes – leafing out in spring and the first time we need our jackets in fall.  Some people see the necessity of being outside frequently to care for our livestock as something to wrinkle their nose at.  Just going outside so often, especially in inclement weather, seems a nuisance.  But living more closely with nature has opened my eyes to a world I didn’t quite see before, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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An Afternoon Tea Party

There is something about an afternoon tea party that holds a positively magical sway over our imaginations.  It gives us an outlet for creative cookery, an escape into imaginary play, and a time of rest, all rolled into one.


At Aspendale Farm, every child participates in a tea party, and sometimes  guests are loaned a hat and invited into our charming world of make-believe.

Often we bake scones, usually almond, for we have a passion for almond scones.  But sometimes it is lemon tea cookies, or something simple like cheese and crackers.  Best yet, someone will try a new recipe to delight the partakers.  And the tea itself must be something fresh and delightful … perhaps jasmine tea or saffron tea, raspberry tea, or maple tea.

Then we dress finely – in ties or the Sherlock Holmes cape and hat for the boys and pretty dresses for the girls and ladies.  Finally we go to the cupboard where we keep our big, fancy hats, and each put one on, stepping into our roles at the same time.  We leave behind our ordinary names and emerge a different person altogether… a caricature of someone we imagine would show up to a real, old-fashioned tea party.  Evalempa, Mrs. Teaberry, Marmalade, Mr. White.

This is Mrs. Teaberry's hat. It suits her well.

It is a time for funny accents and questions that relate in no way to real life.  For sipping daintily with pinky finger tilted up in the air as the drinker tips a tea cup to his or her lips.

The list of things-to-be-done falls away for a time, and we reconnect with each other, and ourselves.  We take time to refresh and rejuvenate our minds and wills.  But after a brief reprieve from daily duties, tea is over and it is time to whisk away plates, cups, saucers, and platters and wipe up spilled drops and crumbs.  Another fine afternoon spent building family memories.

Another tea party lover is Tasha Tudor – one of our favorite artists.  We enjoy hearing – and seeing – her tales of the wonderfully simple (though not easy) life she lived with her children and her Corgis in her red, clapboard New Hampshire farm.


Here is a wonderful excerpt from her work The Butt’ry Shelf Cookbook.  Tasha Tudor writes a preamble to recipes for many wonderful dishes which are likely to appear on an outdoor tea table in summer:

On a sunny summer’s day, the place for an afternoon tea party with friends… is the arbor.  Is is shaded by an ancient grapevine, dripping with fuchias in hanging baskets, and lined with potted geraniums.  The ice-cream table is covered with a gay checked cloth; spoons and tea knives are in a basket.  We fill a cut-glass pitcher with minted iced tea.  A bowl of raspberries or strawberries or blackberries, picked with the hulls left on, is ready for dipping one by one into superfine sugar.  Thin, crisp brownies are fresh from the oven.  Sandwiches are paper-thin, too, delicate to taste and dainty to see.  “Plain Cake,” round and plump, is frosty with powdered sugar and ringed with field daisies.


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Love Affair

Confession time.  I love raspberries.  I mean, I really love raspberries.  In our area there are wild raspberries growing along the two track roads, edging the woods anywhere there is dappled sunlight and room for them to get a foothold.  Blackberries like those road edges, too.  Although the wild strawberries that grow here are incredibly sweet and heavenly, the raspberries and blackberries are a little sour.  A bit of a disappointment for someone who loves raspberries as much as I do.  We eat them just the same.


We do have raspberries at Aspendale, but it’s been a real challenge.  In the first place, with so much forest and so little yard, we really have to prioritize about what we’re going to grow, and work hard to find a spot to fit it in.  After choosing a couple of spots for two raspberry varieties that would produce fruit, one in summer and one in fall, I giddily ordered the raspberry canes and planted them with pride when they arrived.  Oh, how proud I was when they leafed out in spring!  They looked gorgeous!  Then to my dismay they shriveled up and promptly died.

Research told me that since we live in an area where wild raspberries proliferate (and they do – I’m constantly pulling them out of the tomato beds), there’s no point in trying to grow cultivated raspberries.  Wild raspberries are hosts for a deadly disease which cultivated berries are not immune to.  Boy was I disappointed.  “Okay God,” I told Him sadly, “If you don’t want me to plant raspberries here I’ll accept that.  But if there’s a way to do it, please let me know.”

A person might not expect God to be particularly interested in whether or not they can grow cultivated raspberries on their property.  But apparently He was interested enough in me and my raspberries, because right after I breathed my prayer, I had one of my freaky natural-medicine-buff ideas.

We use garlic when we get sick to combat infections.  And I knew that garlic can be beneficial as a companion plant.  Would it work with the raspberries?  If I planted garlic among the raspberries, would it interact with the raspberries and boost their resistance to the disease?  I might lose a few bucks experimenting, but if the idea was successful I’d have my raspberries after all!

This time a friend let me dig up some ever-bearing raspberry shoots from her garden, so I ended up not having to pay for another batch of raspberries that were likely to die anyway.  I transplanted them to the same spot I’d lost the other raspberries in, and interplanted garlic with the raspberries.  Then I waited with baited breath!  The raspberries grew vigorously, and by fall, delightedly, we harvested a handful of berries.  Our first crop!


We left the garlic in place, and last year the raspberries set a good crop of fruit, which never ripened because of our unusually cool summer.  All the fruits and vegetables were set back by the weather.  The plants died with plenty of unripened fruit on the vine when the frosts came.  But last spring we were encouraged by the success of my friend’s berries and planted a second variety of raspberry that would give us a good crop of berries earlier in the summer, in June and July.  We harvested just a few berries last year from those baby plants.  This year the plants are bigger and the crop a little more impressive.  I expect to get a bumper crop next year when the plants have filled in their row better.  And this particular variety is sweet and luscious and everything a raspberry lover could want!

It’s definitely challenging to learn how to manage with the conditions we’re given, and I know each of you has your own unique circumstances you must acclimate to.  But each little step of progress we make here is greatly encouraging.  Many of the original settlers in our area eventually moved further south because of how difficult it was to eke out a living in these conditions.  But it can be done.  There are 50 Amish families and a number of Mennonites in the area who have been successfully making a living off their land year after year, and other English families who have done the same in whole or part.

We’ve been headily enjoying being smack in the middle of strawberry season, with 18 new jars of strawberry jam replenishing our supply for the coming year.  Imagine how chirked up I was to find two pints of raspberries perched proudly at one of the vendor’s stands at the farmer’s market yesterday morning.  It was like my thoughts snapped to attention! I mean, strawberries are great and all, but … raspberries!

Yes, I bought them both – in spite of having a few raspberries beginning to ripen in our own little patch.  After all, is there such a thing as too many raspberries?


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I am honored to be this week’s featured blogger!  Thanks so much for stopping by!  I hope you enjoy spending a little time here, talking ‘farm’ with me.  I love to hear from you!

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This Mess is Driving Me Buggy!

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the myriad of tasks around home, and wonder how, oh how did pioneer women possibly do all the cooking, cleaning, sewing, gardening, laundry, and childcare?  And they didn’t have blenders, washers, vacuums and electric/gas ranges.  I’ve wondered at this myself from time to time.  I figured in some vague way that they’d been doing it since they were knee high to a grasshopper, so it was more of a natural thing, and they must have done it by virtue of working dawn to dusk.

But really, I feel as if most days I am working from dawn to dusk, and my house and garden still don’t look like something out of Better Homes and Gardens.  My kids still go places with major dirt/yuck smudges all over their sometimes holey clothes, and occasionally Mt. Washmore has me begging for mercy in the name of anything remotely clean to wear.


Yesterday I caught a glimpse of what might contribute to our ancestors’ ability to keep up with tasks.  And before we move to that discussion, I’m often reminded of what my Amish neighbors readily admit:  There is always more work to be done.  So we must just enjoy each task as it comes.

But in my preparations for our next year of homeschooling, I’m shoring up my resolve to be more organized this year by reading a book called Homeschooling at the Speed of Life.  The author has promised to help the reader maintain some semblance of balance and order between home-keeping and home-schooling.  (She doesn’t know I am a maniacal, project-loving homesteader in addition to just trying to keep house and teach the children.  Ha!)

I don’t know if she’ll deliver on her promise as I’m only about half-way through the book.  But I’ve gained two helpful insights so far.  1.) Rather than strive for Better Homes and Gardens, strive for “functional neatness” which is neat enough to not be mentally uncomfortable, and messy enough that you don’t drive yourself, your kids and your spouse mad by being a Neatness Nazi.  2.) Don’t beat yourself up that you can’t keep it all running smoothly all the time.  Pioneer women may have had a lot to manage, and may have managed it at least as smoothly as we sometimes do – and without all our modern conveniences.  But something they didn’t have may have contributed greatly to allowing them to accomplish more than many of us:  They didn’t have a car.  They couldn’t run the kids to music lessons or the library.  If they ran out of an ingredient they weren’t likely to run into town just to pick it up.  They didn’t often visit with friends, attend civic meetings, or exercise classes, or any of the myriad other distractions that beset us!

I’ll add my own caveat:  I assume that if they lived in as large a house as I do, they had servants.  And they certainly didn’t have as much material stuff as we do in our modern culture.  More stuff means more maintenance.

Well, I appreciate this little insight.  For today, anyway, it has helped me to both accept my limitations a little easier, and to resolve not to run around quite so much.

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Strawberries and Snap Peas

We’ve been out of state for the better part of the last week.  We had the privilege of spending some time in Tennessee and Mississippi where it was exceedingly hot and muggy, and the area is still recovering from the recent flood of near-biblical proportions.  I appreciated my gardening struggles in exchange for overall cooler weather!

We picked all the ripe strawberries before we left, which amounted to about a cup and a half.  There were still lots of green berries when we left, and I was prepared for an abundant harvest when we returned.  I wasn’t disappointed.  There are loads of luscious strawberries out there.  We have three varieties:  Two June-bearers and one ever-bearing, but they’re all coming in droves at the same time!

There’s something so satisfactory in growing strawberries.  As poor of a garden as we’ve had the last two years, the strawberries have always done well.  This is such a learning experience for us, especially getting used to the growing season and climate which differ so greatly from northwest Ohio.  So having at least one crop we can count on is a relief and a blessing.


In the process of examining the strawberry patch on our return, we saw the adjacent rows of Sugar Ann bush peas were full of plump, ripe pods which we picked to eat raw with our dinner last night.  Such a sweet triumph to have even a little portion of the garden give us an abundant crop!  An improvement over last year’s measly handful, which ripened in twos and threes for a couple of weeks.  This chirks me up to no end!  I see bushels of produce in my future! LOL!

I will have to procure some rhubarb from one of the Amish neighbors to make a strawberry-rhubarb pie.  But for now, I’m looking forward with delighted anticipation to spending tomorrow renewing the homemade strawberry jam supply down cellar!  Such abundance!

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Chicken?

There are certainly disadvantages to embracing the rural lifestyle as an adult.  When you grow up on a farm you gather skills and knowledge over the course of your lifetime, often learning from those who have done the same thing, possibly for generations.  On the other hand, perhaps having to learn as you go may allow you to embrace newer, better ways of doing things.

JJ won the 4-H Poultry Judges Choice Award with his Silver Penciled Rock rooster "Hans."

But in our case, although I’ve lived twice with chickens briefly as a child, now I’ve had to get used to the idea that chickens don’t lay eggs indefinitely.  They’re either pets or they’re part of the profitability of a farm.  It’s a decision you have to make.

Going into the Summer School Chicken Project in 2007, I wasn’t sure we’d want to have chickens indefinitely.  So we chose dual purpose birds. We could raise them for eight weeks for the learning experience of it, then process them and put them in the freezer.  On the other hand, if we really liked having chickens around the place, we would process the cockerels (young roosters) and save the pullets (young hens) for egg-laying.

We all loved the chicken project.  I decided to keep the pullets and process the cockerels, which was laughable.  I was sure that it would be no trick to go out and do like the old farm wives did.  You just grab a chicken, put it under your arm and as you’re walking back to the house to pluck it, you just wring its neck with your free hand.  I picked up my first unsuspecting cockerel and winced as I grabbed his head in my hand and twisted.  He looked up at me and went, “gobble, gobble, gobble?”

I know.  Chickens aren’t supposed to gobble.  They cluck.  But apparently when they’re puzzled they gobble in an inquisitive voice.  At least this one did.  Uhm.  Why was he looking at me?  He was supposed to be dead.  I must have done it wrong.  So hesitantly, I tried again.  No, he just gobbled again and wondered what on earth I had in mind.  Arrgh.  This was not working.

I was going to have to try something a little more gory.  I’d read in one of my chicken books that you can hang them upside down by their feet and they’ll get kind of sleepy and sort of unable to move around a whole lot.  Then you kill them by poking a knife up into the roof of their mouth and twist it to kind of scramble their brains.  Bleh.  Not looking forward to that at all. But wringing his neck hadn’t worked.

I felt sorry for cockerel #1, so I grabbed a different one and tied a string around his feet.  Taking him over to a tree I looped the string around it and stood there with my knife.  Although he occasionally flapped a wing, he really just kind of hung there quietly.  Two or three times I braced myself and pointed my knife at his mouth.  This method might work, but I was beginning to doubt that I was as brave as I’d thought.   I realized there was a better way to do this.

Returning the chicken to his pen, I went in the house and called my farming friend Laura for the phone number of the guy she’d used to process her chickens.  So I paid $2.50 per cockerel and didn’t have to have any more conversations with the chickens about what I was too chicken to do to them.

Violet is a Buff Japanese bantam hen. If you could describe a hen as lady-like, Violet would fit that description!

But now we have a dozen hens of varying ages, including Tookhees, our very favorite hen As a chick, Tookhees would fall asleep while standing up and would slowly bend over until her head rested on the ground, where she would continue to snooze, while all the other chickens would lie down and huddle up together to sleep.

The majority of laying flock owners keep their chickens one year and raise a new batch each year.  Egg production is highest the first year, and you can really make the chickens pay for themselves by selling surplus eggs.  With our dozen hens, we sell enough eggs in the summer to pay for the chicken feed throughout much of the year, plus we have eggs for the family to eat all year long.  But by their second year production starts falling off, and certainly by the third year production is quite a bit less.  Tookhees and Greta are in their third year, and all the other hens are in their second year.

So now the rubber meets the road.  We really enjoy our chickens.  Every one has a name, We knew naming the hens was a dangerous practice.  But we’re getting only enough eggs now to feed the family, and only during the spring and summer months.  The winter was pretty lean.  I bought eggs a few times.  Next winter will only be worse.  So it’s time to replace the flock.

I have promised the children each can keep one hen.  And I enjoy having a variety of breeds, so we will order a new batch of various breeds of chicks that will give us, ultimately, a dozen layers, four of whom will be old and not contribute much but their personalities.

I really love McMurray Hatchery (http://www.mcmurrayhatchery.com).  Their quality and variety are unmatched in my opinion.  The only drawback is that the minimum order is 25 chicks.  That means we either find someone locally to split the order or we make up the balance by getting the remaining chicks as meat birds.  I’ve been intending to raise more meat birds, so I suppose that is the way we will go.   I hope you’ll check out their site.  Even if you’re not in the market for chickens right now, the pictures and information are delightful!

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A River Respite

Yesterday we celebrated Danny’s tenth birthday by taking canoes and kayaks down the Au Sable River.  We live in the Au Sable River basin, just a stone’s throw  from the river itself, though there is no direct path from our farm to the river.

The Au Sable is a premier trout river which runs 129 miles through the Huron National Forest across the northern part of the lower peninsula.  It winds its way from the central part of the state toward the east, where it empties into Lake Huron.  It’s a different sort of river than what I have been used to.  We lived along the wide Maumee in Ohio for much of my life, and along the swift, enormous Ohio river in Cincinnati in early adulthood.  This river is comparatively narrow, clear, cold, and rocky, with dense vegetation growing along the banks.

Yesterday morning was drizzly, cool, and gray.  We wondered if we’d be able to go on the river after all.  So we opened birthday presents first thing, then packed our gear in the truck so we would be ready to leave for a business seminar right after lunch in hopes that the wait would allow the weather to clear.

Eventually the drizzle did stop and we headed to the canoe livery, where owner Barb, our farrier’s aunt, gifted Danny with a complimentary birthday “Au Sable River” tee-shirt and his very first kayak rental.  I mention that Barb is Tucker’s aunt because in our sparsely populated county, we get much amusement that the locals are so intricately interwoven.  Coming from the city, we were much bemused if we ran into a friend or acquaintance at the store or at some event.  But here, you walk into the grocery store and the conversation goes something like this:

“How have you been?  Oooo – hotdogs.  Are you guys having a cookout?” the clerk asks.

“Hi Diane.  Kind of.  The kids like to do hotdogs around the bonfire and I thought that sounded like fun for tonight.”

Behind me, in the checkout line, Miss Amy, the librarian says, “By the way … we got a book in for you today.  Diane, will you tell Jaleesa that we got one in for her Dad, too?”

“Sure,” Diane replies.  “And let Vi know that I’m bringing coleslaw to the church picnic.”

… And on it goes.  Then the UPS guy walks in and knows everyone, of course.  He helps you find a buyer for your used horse trailer, and he hands you your neighbor’s packages and asks you to drop them off at the neighbor’s house on your way home.  But I have digressed.

Back at the river we made our way over to the put-in point with two canoes, a kayak and all the appropriate paraphernalia.  Danny was thrilled.  He’s had one brief encounter with a kayak before, and he is smitten.  He’s been looking forward to this for months.

It was really a beautiful morning.  It was still mostly overcast and occasionally drizzly.  The water was churned up by the wind, and altogether it was an amazing spot of serenity.  God is so good.

As we floated downriver among the trees and rushes, we were joined first by a few Water Thrushes darting from one side of the river to the other, a clacking Kingfisher, several families of Canada Geese with young of varying ages, and perhaps most interesting to me, a male Redhead duck resting on one of a sunken stump.  I’ve never encountered a Redhead before, nor even heard much about them except in passing.  But it turns out that the northeast tip of Michigan’s lower peninsula encompasses part of their breeding ground.  And this particular fellow was very handsome to look at.

Cecily and I were sharing a canoe.  We love to point things out to each other, and guess as to the identifiction of whatever it is we’re looking at.  She pointed out a patch of yellow flags along the northern shore, and many little spots laden with blue forget-me-nots all along the way.  I spotted a small white flower growing in profusion on the banks which we know also grows along our dirt road.  We keep guessing at what it could be … the plant looks like a small mayapple and the flowers like starflowers.  But I’ll bet it’s bloodroot.  We still have to do a little detective work to find out.

Perhaps the most charming diversion along the way were dozens of barnswallows darting here and there, coming out from the rushes, where we presume they have either nests or their pantry, perhaps … full of tasty insects.  I reminded Cecily that some good friends of ours in Ohio own an organic flower farm called “Barnswallow Farm.” She’d forgotten.  She was delighted with the name and I could see the wheels in her mind turning.  She’s determined to have her own working hobby farm when she’s grown, and already she’s picking out every minute detail that goes into making it the ideal spot … including the right name.

All told, in spite of getting lodged on some sunken logs for an alarming, but brief period, and losing Danny when he got stuck in some rushes as the current carried us along out of sight around the bend, it was a wonderful way to spend the morning.  We eventually rejoined the crew and paddled across the backwaters to the takeout.  Danny never tired of paddling himself along, and had gotten a better hang of how to steer and maneuver by the end of the trip, though the gentle lapping of the water and the trill of the birds was occasionally punctuated by a squeaky, ten-year-old cry of  “wait!” whenever he’d get turned around or realize he’d somehow drifted to the back of the pack.

All told, it was a delightful way to celebrate this sweet, happy, mystifying boy who has been part of our lives for more than ten years now.  Happy birthday, my dear Danny Boy.

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