Friday, July 15, 2011

Fast forward to July...

Life got awfully complicated this summer, with my parents having some significant health problems that required everybody to drop everything and help out. Neither the garden nor the blog has been well attended-to, but we're starting to develop some sort of equilibrium now, so there will be pictures on here again soon!

State of the garden: Most of my plantings have perished in the weeds/rabbits/woodchucks/deer/neglect. What has made it? The sweet corn, the tomatoes, the broomcorn, the popcorn, the pumpkins, the long island cheese squash, either the potimarron or the sunshine squash (I'm not sure at the moment - I'll tell you in a few months!), the hops, and the flax. In fact, the flax is thriving, and will be ready to harvest in a few short weeks.

In preparation for the flax harvest, we've built a flax break - I'll post pictures soon. Actually, I'll post pics of a lot of things.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Best website ever?

Ok, I know I'm late to the party here, but I just found, and it might be the best website ever. My husband and I are already planning lots of furniture for when we someday move into the farmhouse... these are projects I can totally tackle!

Saturday, May 14, 2011


The hops are up! All 6 have leaves poking out of the ground, which is about the most exciting thing ever. Now it's a race for the sky!

The garden's all planted, as of this weekend. I thought for a little bit about taking pictures, but at this stage it's just a large rectangle of dirt - not much to see there. The planting took two Saturdays, and ended up being more of a "put everything in the ground" than a well-planned planting session. Next year, there will be a plan of attack. And twine.

So, today we planted:
"Titan" sunflowers
"Elegance" mixed greens
"Jade" mache
"Spargo" spinach
"Deertongue" lettuce
"Focea" lettuce
"Bright Lights" swiss chard
"Red Ace" beets
"Nabechan" bunching onions
"Vermont Cranberry" beans
"Kenearly Yellow Eye" beans
"Lemon" cucumbers
"Genuine" cucumbers
"Caveman's Club" gourds (These have really neat-looking seeds! They're still obvious cucurbit seeds, but all angular and weird - I'd never seen them before.)
"Spaghetti Squash" squash
"Potimarron" squash
"Honey Orange" melon
"Long Island Cheese" pumpkins/squash
"Sunshine" squash
"Tom Fox" pumpkins
"Diablo" brussel sprouts (replaced some that were eaten)

Last week (5/7) we planted:
"Hermes" flax
"Miniature Colored Popcorn" corn
"Red broomcorn" broomcorn
"Cream of Saskatchewan" watermelon
zucchini (a nondescript transplant from Lowe's, and they've ALREADY been eaten)
"Vision" sweet corn
brussel sprouts (a nondescript transplant from Lowe's)
"Walla Walla" onions
tomatoes (a mix of transplants - "Black from Tula", which I grew, and which have been eaten; one "Early Girl" from Lowe's, which has suffered heavily from frost; and two "Black Krim" from Lowe's that are faring better.)

I may yet replant some Black from Tula - perhaps next week? I know there's an ice cube's chance they'll make it by frost, but somewhere in my heart I'm still hoping for a "Black from Tula" this year. I've also got some really late-season crops and some "replant every 2 weeks" crops waiting in the wings (parsnips, more beets)... but at this point, it's really: cross my fingers, pray for just-enough rain, and hope for the best. Next Saturday maybe it will be photo-ready.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Bike, Scarecrow, Hops... oh my!

A weekend of firsts:

A sixth (!!) birthday meant a first bike, and first bike-riding lessons, on a gloriously sunny Saturday over at the farm. He was so excited, and he had a phenomenally good time.

Pre-flight systems check

"Mommy, I did it all by myself and Daddy!!"

What are you looking at??
He and I also made our first scarecrow together, which ended up being a fierce viking to overlook the garden plot. The scarecrow's made of old clothing, an old pillow, yarn for hair, an old plastic viking hat, and a patriotic pinwheel to add motion and reflective light-play. I sewed in a hanger when I put him together, so  hanging him up was easy - we put a nail in a big stick, put the big stick in the ground, and then hung him off the nail. A length of yarn through his belt loops runs around the stick to keep him from flying away in a strong wind. We doused him with some stinky perfume and put a bar of Irish Spring in his back pocket to make him smell more "human", since deer are my main problem.
Admiring a job well done.
(For reference, the real one here is a solid 4' tall!)


Grrr... What are you looking at?
We also got our very first "farm" crop ever into the ground! We've gotten a late start with the snowing and the raining and the flooding, but we put 6 "Cascade" rhizomes into the ground (from Thyme Garden, cost about $35 with shipping and handling). Later - next week? - we'll put up a PVC tepee trellis system to support the hops as they grow.

Hop rhizomes, after soaking
Rhizome in prepared hole
The circle of  planted hops, marked with flagging tape
Clarification of where the hops are: 7' radius circle, with rhizomes equally spaced at 6 locations around it.
Later, in the center, we'll place a 15-20' pole, with twine secured to the top.
Hop bines will later run up the twine, and it will be awesome.

Assuming that we didn't plant the hops way too late - I don't think we did - I believe we can hope for a hop harvest in October. It probably won't be a super-impressive harvest, as in the first year hops are mostly establishing their root systems and don't produce as much as they would otherwise. I'm very eager to see how much I get from these, though, as this is something of a feasibility study for further hop growth. I'm absurdly excited to be growing these, though, and I hope they do well. I'm already wondering if the guys are interested in Fuggle or Nugget for more variety next year. :-)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Second Day

Tomorrow is Easter, the most joy-filled and holy day in the Christian calendar; yesterday was Good Friday, the most sorrowful day in the Christian calendar... today is Holy Saturday, or  Liminal Saturday, and it's an odd time. I'm thinking about it a great deal, as I dye eggs with my son. It feels like I've been living a lot in Liminal Saturday, with its awareness of everything that has been lost, and everything that has not yet been gained. It's a time of waiting, and worrying, grieving, and trying to keep faith. I feel a great kinship this year with apostles in their locked room, not daring to go out, and with the Marys in the garden, mourning their hopes and trying to understand. From my post 2000 years in the future, though, I can clearly see something the Marys couldn't -  in the morning, hope will dawn brighter and clearer than ever before. This dark, uncertain time always leads to the joy and victory of Easter.

I wish you and yours a wonderful Easter. May the hope, peace, and joy of the season fill your house tomorrow, and all year long!

Sunday, April 17, 2011


Totally on a whim, I made my own butter this week; and I seriously may never eat any store-bought butter ever again in my life. This stuff is phenomenal.

I started Tuesday with 2 quarts of delicious cream from the Evans Farm Creamery in Norwich. It's the first place I found that had low-temperature pasteurized, nothing-added cream - and this stuff was phenomenally rich and delicious. I don't know what the Evanses are doing, but their cows clearly are liking it.

.....never mind, let's just make whipped cream!

For culture, I put in about 1/3 cup of active culture, whole milk yogurt - again no additives.

I stirred these together, warmed the mixture up slightly on the stove (low heat, stirring frequently) to make sure the culture took, and then covered it with tin foil and let it sit almost 24 hours. It thickened up pretty nicely, and smelled just the faintest bit tangy.

Mixing in yogurt culture

Clabbered and ready to churn!

Lacking a churn, I decided my mixer would do just fine. I wasn't sure about splatter, so I only put about half the thickened cream in the mixer at a time (in retrospect, I probably could have fit it all ok). I put the mixer on the second slowest speed, and let it do its thing. In a few minutes it had thickened noticeably. About that point, I turned the mixer to the slowest speed.  The cream became yellow (why yellow?) and granular, and a little buttermilk became visible. Then - all of a sudden - the mixer was sloshing large grains of butter in a sea of buttermilk. It was really pretty neat.

Beginning to churn the clabbered cream.


Grains of butter start to appear...

Things happen pretty fast at this point.


Butter/buttermilk break closeup
I strained the buttermilk out and transferred the butter to a bowl, then started washing the butter. To wash the butter, you add water to the butter bowl, and work the glob of butter in the water for a bit, then drain it. I repeated it a second time, and seemed to get all the buttermilk out (buttermilk left in is supposed to turn the butter rancid faster). After I drained the wash water, I worked the glob a bit more to press out water that was still mixed it. Then I added salt, at the terribly scientific rate of 1/8 teaspoon per perceived "1/4 lb stick volume equivalent". The salt was my standard iodized table salt. I worked it all through the butter, then portioned it out, wrapped it in plastic wrap, and put most of it in the freezer.

Unwashed butter

Washed butter, working in the salt
I don't have a scale handy, but it ended up to be a fair bit of butter. I do know that I ended up with 3 cups of the most delicious buttermilk, which my husband turned into delicious buttermilk pancakes this weekend. And, while super-fresh, the butter was practically world-changing. In preparation for this we splurged on two "fancy" loaves of bread from Wegman's, and the cultured butter on a slice of sourdough is practically a meal unto itself -I've never craved bread and butter before.
A diet of bread and butter never looked so good! (Even wrapped in plastic)
I did put most of the butter in the freezer for storage, though, and apparently that was a mistake. The cultured flavor intensified somewhat, which I like less well (still good, just a little bit too cheesy to be called "world-changing" butter). Next time, I'll make less and plan to keep it in the fridge and use it all within probably a month or so. I may also try a more "formal" culture next time - I found that Nancy's was a little sharp for my taste (as yogurt), and a more controlled inoculant might be the way to go. Also, next time I might do some sweet cream butter at the same time, because I'm not yet prepared for cultured butter with my maple syrup on my pancakes... on sourdough, though, this stuff still rocks.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Chicken Math

One of the things my husband and I have been looking forward to when we move up to the farmhouse is having a small flock of chickens for our own use. We may also sell some eggs to friends and family, but this isn't intended as a money-making venture so much as a cost-reducing venture. Also, I have to admit I prefer the taste of a really fresh egg, and I like knowing what went into my food - these are all reasons that I'd like to farm, in general, so a small flock makes sense and helps diversify our "portfolio".

A note here - I firmly believe, after all my research, that the ability to diversify and add value is what will make this farm work. Too many farms in this neck of the woods are dairy, period, and so they're all tied to the ever-falling profit from dairy, and they can't easily regear. I plan to sell cashmere, wool, possibly angora (both handspun and ready-to-spin), but I also plan to sell breeding stock and freezer meat. A few highland cattle will help protect my smaller animals, cut down on parasites in the pasture, yield some tasty and potentially valuable beef, and possibly even give me an unusual yarn to market. I'm hoping to have linen to sell, which should make me stand out more in the market, but if I'm trying hops and brooms this year as well to see what production would look like there. Once I'm up at the farm I'm planning on adding two beehives to see about small-scale honey production, but the threat of bears means I'm waiting until the place reeks of humans. I also fondly remember raising geese as a child, and as an adult have realized they command an impressive per unit price - based largely on rarity and tastiness. Altogether, this somewhat schizophrenic homestead should be light on its feet and able to navigate constantly-changing economic paradigms without too much damage. Or, at least that's the plan.

At any rate, the chickens-
Between my husband and I, we seem to have settled on three breeds that catch our fancy: Wyandottes, Marans, and Welsumers.

Wyandottes are the all-purpose chicken of 1880s New York - really, quite appropriate to our historic farmstead! They're cold-hardy; generally considered winter layers; good layers of larger, tinted eggs; good meat birds; broody hens are excellent mothers; not particularly aggressive. They come in a number of attractive colorations, and have a beautifully proportional look to them - curvy and balanced.

Marans are a early 20th century French breed, very "au courant" at the moment, and known far and wide for their dark "chocolate-colored" eggs. They come in a couple colorations - I like Black Copper. They should be moderately hardy, respectable layers of large, dark eggs; but by all accounts they've suffered somewhat from their popularity, and the selection for hardiness, productivity, egg color/size, etc., have fallen off in favor of producing more birds faster. Hatchery Marans in particular seem to be suspect, with some owners talking about having hens that are indistinguishable from, say, a Barred Rock. They seem a bit risky to me, and very... fashionable, in a bad way (for instance, Martha Stewart has Marans), but the eggs do have a definite wow-factor and I'm willing to give them a shot. My husband's already decided the putative Marans rooster will be "Cadbury", and I can't argue with that. ;)

Welsumers (or Welsummers - I'm still not sure which spelling is "right") are a 20th century dual-purpose Dutch breed that lays large, dark brown eggs (not quite as dark as Marans eggs, but close!). Being dual-purpose, they're also good tasty meat chickens. They're quite hardy, but not winter layers like the Wyandottes. In general they're supposed to be reasonably docile but able to fend for themselves. They seem to only come in one color - known to chicken people as Red Partridge - but I find it appealing.

(Henderson's Chicken Chart has pretty much everything you might want to know about the not-bizarrely-rare breeds of chickens in a convenient comparative format. Bookmark it - it's nearly perfect.)

One of the difficulties, though, is where to get these future chickens from... They're not your run-of-the mill hatchery sex-link hybrids, or your standard egg productions breeds, or (heaven forbid!) the ubiquitous Cornish Cross that is so ill-suited to a homestead-type operation. I could maybe get them from breeders, but the thought of $7-9/chick, with a minimum order of 12 or 15 chicks, and $30 shipping on top of that (so, $120-$160 for 12-15 chicks, assuming I can get all three breeds from the same breeder... yow. Plus, they're sold straight run, so no assurances on sex ratios.) I could try and buy started pairs, but they're harder to come by and not cheap, either (I just saw a started pair of Black Copper Marans go for $80 at auction). Hatcheries are easy to come by and order from, but generally have a 25 chick minimum order, and are apparently kind of unreliable with the "specialty" breeds. Sand Hill Preservation Center gets some pretty good reviews from chicken people, and seems to be in it for the preservation of the breeds - there are maximum orders on the chickens, as well as minimums. There's a 25-chick minimum, and the breeds I want are $4 or $5, shipping is $35.... so $143 for 25 chicks?

This article suggest the way to house chickens is in deep litter on an earthen floor, which appeals to me greatly. I think they make some fantastic points - very convincing! (You should also read their article on bringing back the broody. Awesome.) The most salient point is, for the deep litter to work I'm going to need 5 sqft/chicken. If I'm ordering 25 chickens, straight run, I need to plan on 13 cockerels (possibly more, possibly less, but a reasonable estimate). I'll probably want to keep one rooster per breed, so that means I need to plan on putting 10 cockerels in the freezer and housing 15 adult chickens (requiring 75 sqft). It would be prudent to design a coop that allows for expansion - if I make the coop 1/3 bigger, it would be 100sqft (conveniently 10ft*10ft), and hold up to 20 chickens.

Obviously, if I do the deep litter/earthen floor idea, I can't do one of my favorite coop plans, the miniature gypsy caravan. But I think I can still do a charming and functional coop, perhaps one more in line with the rest of the farm buildings.

Expect plans here in the coming months.