27 February 2010

Independence Days update

It’s been awhile, so here we are with another update on the Independence Days project. :)

Planted: At long last, it is time to start the planting! I have done a lot of work planning and preparing for planting season, and I’ve finally got a few things started. A few tomatoes are in (and sprouted!), the one lonely garlic clove I had that was growing a green tip got put in dirt and it has grown beautifully, several cabbage plants were started in newspaper pots and just yesterday I noticed one had come up. There’s also a couple of Italian sweet peppers poking heads above the soil, and the catnip and lemon basil finally sprouted. I also have an experiment with some tea plant seeds (yes, the shrub that black and green tea grows on): they can be grown as house plants here, so I’m giving that a try. Oh, there are also apple seeds in dirt in the freezer, stratifying.

Harvested: Eggs! Finally, we have eggs again. That is all for harvesting, unless you count the 1 cm leaf of garlic greens that fell off the plant and I nibbled. (It is delicious!)

Preserved: Nothing at present to preserve. Oh, I did dry some orange peel for Gram when we had a pile of oranges on the counter awhile back. That counts.

Waste Not: The dried greens from last summer have been brought inside and we’re feeding them to the bunnies, and crumbling some for the chickens as well. Leftovers are being fed to humans or animals, as usual, nothing particularly exciting on this front.

Want Not (Preparations): We have eggs in the incubator preparing to hatch (it’s always good to be able to ‘grown your own’ of anything!), and I think the documentation I’ve been doing for the garden journal probably falls in this category as well (having the information you need in analog form is a good idea in case of extended internet outage, for instance).

Community Food Systems: The Boy worked at the WECAN food distribution centre last month, and is volunteering again next month. While he was there, he told some of the other volunteers about our meat and had some potentially interested customers. :) We continue to have interest in lamb meat sales, and are finally able to sell eggs again.

Eat the Food: Eggs, of course, we managed to get through the ‘egg strike’ without purchasing store eggs at all. I have realized that next fall I need to freeze a few eggs to get through the dark days of winter, as I really don’t want to have to buy store eggs at all! We’ve been using up our squash (which has stored beautifully) in soup, we made salad from our WECAN food basket lettuce and carrots, and a pureed vegetable soup from potatoes, carrots and celery (also from the WECAN purchase). Gram’s cranberry-crabapple jelly is a standard feature of my oatmeal breakfasts (a spoonful of jelly added to quick oats and hot water is a great way to start the day).

20 February 2010

Counting chickens before they hatch

Well, we aren’t actually counting the chickens … just candling eggs to make sure the ones in the incubator are viable – having rotten eggs explode at 100 degrees Fahrenheit is really, really smelly.

The Reluctant Farmer received a Hovabator for his birthday, and we gathered up some eggs to put in for a ‘first run test’, now that the hens are once again laying eggs. The eggs have been in the incubator for a week now, and the Hovabator is wonderfully stable – it’s much easier to keep the temperature right at 100 F than it was in the home made Eggabator (although it did work, to TRF’s credit), and the mesh wire floor over the water reservoir is easy to work with. We did run a piece of tubing through one of the holes in the lid so that we can fill the water reservoir through the tube, rather than opening the lid, as it takes a while to warm back up once you take the lid off. We also roll the eggs around by tilting the entire incubator gently, rather than precisely turning each egg by hand. Yes, we risk a few cracks, but so far, it’s working. (I’m quite certain the automatic egg turner add-on is on The Reluctant Farmer’s wish list for future gift-giving occasions.)

Today the eggs have been incubating for a week, so I got out the flashlight (cowled with a rubber band for a better seal against the egg), found a dark corner, and checked the eggs. About half were duds, which wasn’t really a surprise – we used some eggs that had been stored in the fridge, which usually bodes ill for hatching, and we only have 2 roosters right now for quite a lot of hens.

However, candling showed quite clearly the eggs that were empty, one that was filled with some really unpleasant looking splotches (that one takes my vote for “most likely to erupt in a sulfurous mess”, so I’m glad to have found it), and one with the telltale red ring indicating an infection in the chick (something I didn’t know about until I read this wonderful posting). The coolest thing, though, was seeing the little unhatched chicks moving around on their own inside the eggs! I had no idea they did that – although it makes perfect sense. It’s neat to watch.

So, we have 7 eggs with confirmed chicks inside, and 2 more that were too hard to see, so we left them in and will check again later.

16 February 2010

A garden journal

I love my piles of gardening books. I have a wide variety of references, and I mix and match strategies to suit what I’m growing and where. Given our steady supply of composted manure and ready access to waste straw, hay and wool for mulch, we are fortunate to have the full set of gardening strategies available to us – we aren’t reliant on chemical fertilizers to keep our garden beds in good shape, we just add manure every year, and we have plenty of it. It’s taken quite awhile to get the entire garden area ready to come under cultivation, but I think, finally, this year we are there.

I use Mel Bartholemew’s Square Foot Gardening for most of my root vegetables, and I do love planting my carrots and beets in little squares inside the big one foot squares marked off by yarn in my wood-sided raised beds. However, I also follow the advice of Steve Solomon’s Gardening When it Counts, which is pretty much the antithesis of the intensive strategies of the square foot method, for other things. Solomon’s strategies work really well for larger plants like potatoes, corn, and tomatoes, and this year I’ll be attempting the wide short row strategy he recommends for some of my other plants. I also hope to incorporate some of the season extension strategies described by Eliot Coleman in the Four Season Harvest, a lovely gift from Theresa at Pondering the Myriad Things. In addition to these major resources are the books on the medicinal uses of herbs, books on natural plant dyes, and assorted general garden reference books.

Trying to find the information I need among all these amazing resources can be a real challenge sometimes, so I decided to create my very own garden journal, combining all the key points I needed in one spot.

I sat down at the kitchen table with my piles of books and a new, untouched journal (a gift from my wonderful husband a few years back, which I’d been saving for something special: this is it). I also dug up a calendar (this one is the STARS fundraising calendar – The Reluctant Farmer has helped load people into the STARS rescue helicopter more than once in his role as volunteer firefighter), and my stash of seeds.

First, let’s talk about the seed stash. Normally, the seeds live in a lovely binder that The Boy got me from Lee Valley (where else?) that protects the seeds from moisture and keeps them nicely organized. However, come planting time, I need them out where I can quickly rifle through them to get to the ones I am after – so, I took a regular cardboard box, chopped off the lid flaps, and sliced them so that they fit into one another to divide the interior into seed-packet-sized sections. The seeds are sorted into the sections based on when I need to deal with them – the ones that are going to need stratification and indoor starting are in the first sections, those that need to go out early (as soon as the soil can be worked) are up next, and the sensitive ones that need the frost well behind us are at the very back.

This also got me started on the journal itself.

Each plant is listed at the top of a page, which is cross-referenced on a table of contents at the beginning. The herbs are all at the beginning of the journal, vegetables and fruit plants are at the back. All plants have information about where and how they need to be planted, if they need stratification and indoor starting or if they go straight outside, what kind of watering requirements they have, how much sun they want, and so forth. Then, herbs have additional information about their medicinal properties and which parts are harvested, and any plant that is useful as a dye plant has the colours and any instructions for use listed as well. The information is gathered from all the relevant sources – so, if this is a plant I put in square foot blocks, I wrote down the density per block, if it’s one that I plan to follow Solomon’s spacing guidelines, I wrote those in. I make a note in the margin to indicate which book the information came from, so I can go there for more detail if I wish.

The journal still isn’t quite complete, but I have basic information for just about every seed I have in the collection, plus the few I have still coming on order. As time passes, I can update it with specifics about what works well here, in our specific microclimate, which is why it is called the Apple Jack Creek Garden Journal. It’s specific to here. There’s no need for me to write down that carrots can be stored in the ground over the winter if you mulch well with straw … that is true in some places, I am sure, but not here, not by a long shot (even under a layer of straw, the ground is quite thoroughly frozen all winter: you’d be chipping out frozen carrots with a pick-axe if you tried that here). Most of the information about “a second planting for a fall harvest” is not relevant either – our growing season is too short. however, that might change, with climate change and season extension, so I’ll leave some blank space and add to the book as I learn.

The calendar is the piece that is most specific to this year’s plans. The ‘official last frost date’ is marked, as is the date we actually had our last frost last year (which I know because I wrote it on my garden calendar from last year, and it was a whole month after we thought we were in the clear … not a good spring, 2009). Using those dates (and the dates of the full and new moon) I work backwards to figure out when things need to be started indoors, or when we should be planting things outside. Family tradition says you don’t plant outside until the first full moon after the May long weekend, and this year, for the tender plants, I’m extending the target to the first new moon after the first full moon in May – we’ll see how that goes, and if it works, it may be incorporated into the family lore.

As each seed is documented and it’s needs are determined, that information goes onto the calendar. Several of the herbs, for instance, require stratification, some for six weeks, some for four, some for one or two. The calendar makes it easy to determine when I want to have “seed starting day for herbs” – knowing that they take about 2 weeks to poke their heads out of the dirt and need a few weeks indoors to grow and turn into actual plants before being set outside. Given a starting date for seeds, it’s a simple matter to work backwards to list which varieties need to go into the freezer when. I wrote that detail on the seed packets, too, for those that didn’t mention it, as well as making sure it’s in the journal.

The calendar is the best way to track what really happened, which will, of course, help for next year. For instance, I remember that last year that late frost killed a whole lot of things I’d put out too early (all my tomatoes, for instance) although I wasn’t careful about documenting when each thing was planted, and I want to do that this year. I also remember that I had too many seedlings indoors for too long – I started them too early, and they outgrew their little pots before I could get them in the ground – so this year, I’m trying to time things a little better. I do still have the ‘optimistic planting’ dates marked – hey, you can put a few seeds in early, and if they grow, well, awesome, and if not, well, not a huge loss. Same for the started plants – I finally put a few tomato seedlings in dirt yesterday, because I just couldn’t stand the wait any longer, but the bulk of the tomato plants won’t be started for several more weeks.

Planning the garden is a great thing to do in late winter – it makes you feel like spring really is coming, and it saves a lot of headache later on if you take the time to do the research before hand (I now know why a bunch of my herbs didn’t do anything last year – that whole stratification thing matters!)

Maybe a garden journal is just what you need, too.

15 February 2010

Pizza from the pantry

We couldn’t quite decide what to have for dinner tonight, but we all wanted something easy, simple, and familiar. Pizza fit the criteria.

Okay, the next question was whether or not we had the ingredients:

Mozza – yup, in the fridge. Pizza sauce – yup, leftover spaghetti sauce and leftover tomato paste mixed together would do. Mushrooms – yup, canned, in the pantry. Green and red peppers – yup, dehydrated, also in the pantry. Just soak in water while the dough rises, and they’re good to go. Sausage – yup, in the freezer. Pizza dough – easy.

Wait – pizza dough is easy? You bet.

I use the breadmaker all the time to mix up bread dough – I can do it by hand, but I like using the machine when I’m busy doing other things, which is always. All you need to do is make regular bread dough, with a more generous-than-usual shot of olive oil, and add some spices. Our bread recipe looks like this:

  • 1 cup of water
  • 3 cups of flour
  • a shot of sugar
  • a few sprinkles of salt
  • half a lidful of yeast (trial and error has shown this to be the correct measurement – and using the lid from the yeast jar to measure with is terrifically convenient)
  • a generous shot of olive oil (round and round the breadmaker container about 3 or 4 times)

That’s it. Put it on the dough setting and let it do it’s thing. If you forget it in there (yeah, it happens) and it’s too puffy when you finally do remember, just restart the dough cycle and let the machine knead it just a wee bit more before you take it out.

For pizza dough, we added Greek seasoning, garlic powder and oregano.

Once the dough cycle is done, take the ball of dough out and cut it in half. Use the rolling pin to shape the dough to fit your pan (we use a rectangular pan, so we make rectangular pizza), top with tomato sauce and your toppings. Shape the remaining half into bread sticks and pop the two pans into the oven at 500 degrees for about 12 minutes.

Voila – dinner!

11 February 2010

Okay, THAT was a surprise!

I got a message on MSN this morning from The Boy.



Ewen  (the calf) is in with the sheep, and the wether is in with the cow, and Jaws has a lamb.

A lamb???

We didn’t even think Jaws was pregnant, never mind due!

As for the rest, well, Ewen does jump the fence to visit the sheep sometimes. We get him out of there, so that nobody gets hurt, but he was not fussing and he jumped back into his own pasture as soon as The Boy went outside. The wether was encouraged to return where he belonged, and once outside, The Boy discovered that Jaws not only had one lamb, she had twin boys!

He got them into the barn, fed their mama, got her some water, and trimmed up her (really awful) shearing job so that the lambs could locate their milk. I called to see how things were going and heard “Mom, this sheep has no udder. I can’t even FIND it!” Jaws does have a rather oddly shaped udder, the teats are farther to the side than on most sheep, so he had a bit of work to get the wool tags cleared out so that he (and the lambs) could find the business end of things, but all is well and the babies are happy and nursing well. He’s calling them Fred and Frank (this is an F year at our house – I know, we’re not in line with the ‘official naming alphabet’, but it works for us.)

I was met by a grinning Boy when I got home. “We have three lambs now!” Who else? Cherub, of course! The only 2 non-seasonal breeders we have here both had their lambs today, thankfully a very warm and reasonably dry February day (for Alberta, anyhow) and my amazing kid just calmly took care of all the details and got everyone where they needed to be. Cherub wasn’t doing a good job of cleaning off her lamb, so he handed the lamb to Bob the dog who took care of that task. Bob is now snoozing in the barn, just outside the pens where the sheep are. Bob loves lambing season.

Sheep are great.

We *should* have peace and quiet on the lambing front until Easter now – the Icelandics are strongly seasonal breeders and lamb much later in the spring, and based on what we saw in the pasture last fall, we are expecting more surprises nearer to April.

Then again, sheep like to surprise you, so I guess we’ll just keep checking out the window and see what happens!

07 February 2010

Life’s too short to spin nasty wool

I am ruthlessly sorting the wool in the fibre room.

Good bits are pulled off for washing, yukky bits are sent to the compost pile with no regrets. I used to try to wring every bit into something functional, but you know what? There’s plenty more wool where this stuff came from, and if I’m gonna spin, I’m gonna enjoy it.

It’d be different if I paid for the stuff, if there was a limited supply of fibre, or if every bit of wool was destined to clothe my family or something. However, given that none of those are true … only the best stuff gets to stay. Everything else goes outside!

06 February 2010

Washing Fleece

I recently got Alden Amos’ Big Book of Handspinning from the library: it has great writing style, lots of information, and I am most definitely inspired.

See, it has finally occurred to me that I can store fleeces after they are washed, but not necessarily carded. Don’t ask me why this never made it into my thoughts before – I mean, there’s certainly no reason you have to card the stuff immediately after it dries, but I always thought of the two tasks being done together and if I wasn’t ready to do the whole job, I just didn’t do any of it. The result is that I have piles of dirty fleeces sitting in my fibre room, when it would be ever so much better to have piles of washed fleeces sitting in my fibre room.

The Big Book of Handspinning book actually recommends storing fleece in fabric bags hung from the ceiling, wrapped tightly at the top to keep bugs out and labeled with a tag – I’m thinking pillowcases from the thrift store would work perfectly. I’m really liking that idea, as it improves the accessibility of the fibre and keeps things up off the floor. I suspect a trip to the thrift store is in order, to acquire more pillow cases. :)

Now, I don’t wash Icelandic fleece. I tried to, really I did, but I ended up with lumpy piles of felt every single time. There is so little lanolin in it anyway that it’s really not difficult to work with in the unwashed state. I like to prepare it for spinning with combs, rather than carders, and since combs aren’t bothered by lanolin the way carders are, I have no reason to struggle with the esoteric art of washing Icelandic fleece.  Also, since we don’t use pour-on medications for the sheep, I know that the worst of what’s in their wool is at least non-toxic, although it is definitely dirty and germ-laden. I can deal with dirt and germs: I do live on a farm, after all.

However …

I have piles of non-Icelandic fleeces here. They have been sitting for awhile and if that goes on too much longer, the lanolin in them is going to turn into solid guck, which will make them even worse to clean when I finally get around to it. So, inspired by the book, I have started sorting and washing the fleece. It isn’t a complicated process: just put very hot water in buckets with some washing soda and dish detergent (the book recommends natural soap, but we have very hard water, so detergent is a better choice for us), add the fleece without agitating it at all, let it soak in the soapy water for a bit, then get it out without scalding your hands or squishing the wool (scooping it with a colander works fairly well). Let the worst of the wash water drain off, then gently transfer to a clean bucket of equally hot water, and let it soak there for a bit. Scoop it out again, then lay it out to dry. I have wool spread out on the older (somewhat rickety) drying rack, with fabric spread across the racks to keep the wool bits from falling through. It’ll dry in the next couple of days, and humidify the house nicely at the same time. :)

I think I’ll go see if I can find room to spread out one more fleece  … I’ve got lots to do, and I might as well do it while the humidity is low and I’m in the zone!

02 February 2010

Farewell Duggan

I got an email today from Duggan’s new family … his kidneys finally failed, and they made the hard decision to let him go to sleep for the last time.

He had a good life, really, and a fairly long one for a beagle – he was ten years old. He came to live with us when The Boy was just in kindergarten, and Duggan was a year old then … he was a good companion when you needed a friend who loved you no matter what. He wasn’t really sure about the whole farm life thing – but after awhile, he got used to being here and spent his days snoozing in the sun with the cats curled up next to him (The Reluctant Farmer used to make fun of him for consorting with cats, no self-respecting dog would do that!). One day, he answered a call only he could hear, and wandered off west where he found Miss Ruby, who needed him so badly. After Miss Ruby’s passing, he found his retirement home where he was cared for and loved through his last illness, and today, our kind and gentle vet helped him into his final rest.

I miss his soft ears, and his happy wagging tail. He was a good dog, and I’m sure he has found Miss Ruby in heaven. No doubt she’s happy to see him.

01 February 2010

Planning the garden

Oh my, I have a lot of seeds. And I’ve ordered more. And I don’t think my garden is quite big enough. :)

This is a good problem to have, really.

The past two years have seen the garden space slowly expanding … well, the fences haven’t moved, but the area within the fences has been gradually brought into shape for planting. The original two 16x4 foot raised beds are still there and serving well, and the strawberry bed that was added last year will hopefully start producing this summer. This past fall, the sheep were sent in to eat down the remaining grass (which grew to knee height over the summer), so with luck, the almost indestructible pasture grasses will finally be in a state that they can be controlled.

This spring, more compost will be hauled in, rows for planting peas and corn and beans and tomatoes will be marked out and piled high with fresh soil, and walkways will be mulched with straw. Three  new herb beds will be laid out (maybe with wooden borders, maybe with rocks, maybe just with marked off boundaries), and a grape arbour will be constructed (yes, I found  a grape that is supposed to be cold hardy … I just had to try it!). There is a spot set aside for the new raspberry bushes, and squash plants will be put in all around the border. Peas will be planted with sunflowers so that their supports grow along side the vines, and if I get really organized, some flowers might even get planted out by the driveway. The garden calendar has all the dates for putting seeds that need stratification into the freezer, when to start the various indoor seedlings, when the last frost date is supposed to be (and when it actually was last year, which was a whole month later than the schedule called for!), and a variety of possible planting dates, all, of course, subject to the weather.

It’s good to think about gardens when winter starts to get really long. It makes spring seem closer. :)