Good to Know

The Saturday after Thanksgiving, and Vermont and got its first foot of snow for the season.

Skiers were giddy. The woodstove was roaring, and, almost five years to the weekend after we got back on the grid, the power was out (again).

I’d gotten up at 5a.m. on to get the apple cinnamon oatmeal slow cooking on the back of wood cookstove. While the apples melted into the oatmeal, the Big Guy and I went out to dig out one of the cars so Thing2 could get to work.

Wet snow had bent dozens of trees down to our driveway, collapsing the canopy layers of lace curtains and cutting us off from the little bit of civilization that starts 1000 feet up our road. The Big Guy and I laughed as we shook branch after snow-laden branch, shrieking as the snow exploded off the loosened limbs, onto our heads and down our shirts.

We’ve talked about leaving this place in a few years to be closer to better healthcare options and to wherever the kids end up. Part of me won’t miss the digging and lighting of candles, watching the batteries to make sure the fridge and the well pump hold out until the power company has cleared the lines.

The other part of me knows that there is magic in the snow covered branches. There’s something else — not quite magical but almost as good – about all the work. As we pull out water jugs from our emergency supply and check the wood bin, I realize that, if ever we leave this place, the one part of these challenges I will miss is having the regular reminder that it’s good to know that we can get through them.

Garden Surprise

One of things I love about having two kids who are getting older (one is almost 20 the other is almost 14) is that, as their different strengths emerge, I am ending up with two very different and wonderful partners in crime.

Thing1 one is my builder. I contract more and more construction projects out to him these days.

Thing2 is my idea man, my co-dreamer. When I have an idea for a backyard project that might make Thing1 or the Big Guy gasp in horror, Thing2 is ready to hop on that flight of ideas with me which that’s how I ended up with today’s menu specialty, Garden Surprise.

Last summer the two of us were shopping and stopped at the food court for mango smoothies. We both decided they were so good we had to have seconds, and just before total brain freeze started to take hold we uttered, at the same time, “we should get a blender so we can make our own.”

Now I know what you’re thinking. There should’ve been a responsible adult there to put the kibosh on this idea, but five minutes later we were headed over to the kitchen store to pick out a blender. We bought a bunch of frozen fruit at the grocery store and did a little experimenting. Almost as soon as we stocked the freezer and perfected a few blends, however, cold weather set in, and the blender didn’t see much action for the next nine months.

We’ve had a few barnburners recently, and the frozen fruit and blender have re-emerged but with a twist this year. The last few days, as the garden really starts to produce, I’ve developed a new recipe, Garden Surprise, which consists of water, protein powder, a little bit of frozen fruit or banana, and anything that happens to be ready to pick. It’s yielding wildly different drinks from day to day–today included kale and cilantro and peas, but, just as i’ve learned from my two very different boys, sometimes the things that take you most by surprise also offer the most joy.

The Chickens and The Eggs

By the time I got back from the garden with my daily blueberry harvest, something had discovered the wild black raspberries by the woodshed, stripping the lower canes of every last bit of treasure. I picked the last half cup of berries by the shed and then did a quick lap around the yard for an informal inventory. At every point, the lower canes had been henpecked out of their bounty. I had almost completed the lap when I bumped int the culprits and an age old question – which comes first, the chickens or the eggs?

We don’t cultivate black raspberries or blackberries. They cultivate themselves — usually in the most invconvenient spots – but we do try to harvest enough for a small batch of jam or berry pancakes each year. They’re one of a few crops we don’t have to work for.

Eggs are the other crop we do very little to nurture. New chicks get a starter feed and, as soon as they’re old enough, a coop on the range. Advocates of letting chickens be chickens, we’ve been letting the Ladies of the Coop dictate what they want to eat, and, until the berries ripened, that worked out pretty well. They seemed to go mostly for bugs and weeds and, aside from “aerating” the carrot bed a little too enthusiastically, left most of the garden plants alone.

Letting chicks be chicks has, historically, given us delicious eggs with rich dark yolks. Blackberries are just starting to form and ripen. I suspect the Ladies of the Coop will be aiming for that crop as well. Part of me wants to try to fence off the canes to save it for the humans. The other part of me is coming to terms with the fact that getting great eggs may mean letting the chickens come first. 

Garden Journal – Straw Bale Update

When we moved to Vermont, our ZIP Code sat in a solid zone four. Now it is comfortably into zone five, and we set out seedlings a week earlier on Memorial Day weekend. Our day and nighttime temps can still be a bit bipolar, so when it looks like the nighttime lows will be below 40, I cover the tender annuals. Yesterday morning, however, I learned that, with straw bale gardening, less protection can be more.

The straw bale method involves conditioning the bales with plant food and water almost two weeks ahead of planting. This causes the straw to break down, and you are, essentially, planting your veggies in a compost heap. Like most compost heaps, the decomposing bales Start to “cook”. This means if you cover your tender annuals, like I did with the cukes pictured below, you need to make sure that they are uncovered as soon as the sun hits your garden. As you can see, I slept in a bit yesterday, and at least one of my little cukes got fried.

It’s still early enough in the season and hot enough outside that I can direct seed it to replenish, but I hate to sacrifice a soldier that was trying to serve me well.

By contrast, I did not cover the summer and winter squash or the tomatoes. Those plants were slightly bigger, and I had only so much material for protection. It was down in the low 40s on Saturday night and Sunday night, and I knew I was gambling.

When I walked out to the garden in the morning, however, this was the sunshine that greeted me:

I took a little trip to the back of the garden to check on the tomatoes, and every single one of them was getting ready to salute the sun:

The tomatoes do have weed block around them, but the real heat is coming from the bales.

Later in the day I went back to visit the garden –– I visit to talk to the plants and the bees in the nearby apple trees a few times a day – and while I highly recommend talking to plants and bees regularly for your mental well-being, my straw bales blessed me at the end of the day with a little botanical happy pill in the form of newly sprouted bush beans that I had direct seeded less than 48 hours earlier.

If I were to do the straw bale garden over again, I might set some of the seedlings out earlier and cover them for the first couple of weeks. The one caveat I have for other would-be straw bale gardeners is that, while the claim that you can’t overwater them appears to be true, the reverse is also seems to hold. You do need to check the moisture around your plants as you do with any gardening method.

So far, however, my plants seem to be loving the heat and the decomposing bales, and, as mentioned previous post, you can still sit to do your gardening.

Katie’s Chicks

Katie settles in from a comfortable distance to watch the chicks. She makes a practice of checking on them whenever they move from their indoor house to the outdoor home. She lolls in the grass as Jim tries and talk the chickens into squeezing through the holes in the wire.

The chicks love to visit with Jim, chirping that they’d be only too happy to show him their feathers up close if only they could get through. Visibly cursing the physics of chicken wire, Jim pretends to be distracted by a chipmunk under the car and left.

Jane watches for a while and then decides it’s time for the pro from Dover to put the fear of the Warrior Princess into the chicks. This is when, Katie, recognizing a true huntress, gets to her feet, shadowing her Royal Highness before she gets within 6 feet of the coop.

Karie takes a fair amount of teasing for being a bit of a wimp. It’s safe to say chicks are usually less afraid of the cats than the she is. Ultimately, though, she lives by one overriding philosophy of ”Don’t mess with my chicks.”

I can sympathize.

Everybody’s All Americauna

The chicks are really starting to feather out, but there’s still enough fluff that we only let them outside when the sun is strong enough to counteract any cold.  Yesterday, we let them play outside while their enclosure was cleaned, and they cavorted and experimented with running up the gangway and then jumping off. Katie sat nearby, whimpering when she thought they were going too high. I was sitting by them most of the time, but they were far more interested Katie and even the cats.

There don’t seem to be any mean girls in the group, and I wondered if they just get along because they don’t know any other clique.

We started with a dozen and then, knowing our coop isn’t big enough for all of them, the Big Guy took a few over to a neighbor in exchange for some eggs from her grown birds.  The neighbor was happy to have the new little ones and assured the Big Guy they would fit right in. At first I was thinking she must not have any mean girls either, but then I remember the one thing I’ve always loved about chickens.

It’s that, for the ladies anyway (not so much for the roosters), it doesn’t matter if you’re a Rhode Island Red, a Barred Rock, an Americauna, a newcomer or hatched in the same bath, or even an over-protective dog. If you’re willing to hang out for a game of ‘how high can you fly,’  you’re part of their flock.

Are You Our Mama?

It was almost uncomfortably warm on Saturday so we let the chicks into the chicken tractor to play while they’re current enclosure was cleaned. It was a good chance for them to really meet Jim, Princess Jane, and Katie.

Jane and Jim inspected the chirping babies and, discovering that the tractor was secured by wiremesh at all sides, spent most of the day feigning interest in a chipmunk hunt.

I sat with the chicks for a while, cleaning some garden implements and getting them used to the idea of me as Mother Hen. Eternally loyal, Katie sat with me. As she moved, the chicks often moved with her. She would sniff at them and wag her tail a little as they chirped at her.

The chicks came out of their eggs at the feed store, so the only “mamas“ they’ve ever known are a heat lamp and the changing hands that feed them. Katie was abandoned to a kill shelter as a puppy, and I doubt she had much contact with her mama.

Something in her past or her nature, however, made her loyal and gentle, more than a little bit of a pushover, and, when she has to be, brave. It seemed fitting that, for the moment, they saw her as the “Mother Hen.“

Peas and Carrots

Peas and carrots are coming up in our straw bale garden. Carrots always seem to take a little while to germinate and don’t try my patience, but I confess, it never seems like spring until the first pea shoots appear.

This is the first year I’ve tried Strawbale Garden. Devised by a garden writer by the name of Joel Karsten, and it involves buying and arranging bales of, you guessed it, straw. You “condition” the bales by watering and feeding with organic fertilizer for a couple weeks before planting. then plant right in the bells, sometimes adding growing mix depending on the type of plant.

Health issues this year limited how much lifting and digging I had energy for, so ordering and arranging the straw bales was easy (especially with Thing1 doing most of the arranging). I’m always a little gun shy about ordering straw; you never know if you’ll get hay and weed seeds in there.

But this year, I’m game for an experiment.

I recycled weed barrier from the paths to cover the entire garden before bringing in bales. It’ll give it the summer to smother any weeds. We’ve gone scorched earth on the raspberry canes that were invading the area, and I’m planning to mulch the heck out of the space in the summer.

The appearance of peas and carrots in two of the bales gives me some hope. We’re putting in other greens today, the first truly warm day of spring. Peppers and tomatoes and other warm season vegetables are still under the lights in my office, And I feel like somebody just yelled, “Ladies, start your engines!“

The Song Can’t Remain the Same

I expected some savings during the quarantine from not driving, going out to restaurants or ordering takeout. I expected an equally big bump in our grocery bill when Thing1 returned to the nest, but, even with two giants to feed (13-year-old Thing2 hit the six foot mark this week), thrift, apparently, is part of our new normal. It’s one of the few welcome surprises this month.

I thought about it as I came across a video about propagating root vegetables from cuttings from store-bought veggies. Always a sucker for a recycling project, I knew I’d need a place to keep my cuttings safe from cats looking to knock things over. Before the pandemic I might’ve stopped at the garden center on my way home from work. With every project and new recipe lately, however, I find myself going shopping in my attic or the recycle bin with an eye on repurposing items that might’ve been forgotten or even tossed.

Last year I, along with a plethora of other Americans got swept up in decluttering — removing things from the house that didn’t spark joy. I quit when I got to the book stage (might as well declutter cats or kids), but I was already fumbling during the closet clean-out. I was never going to get that perfect pink size 6 dress on again, and I’m sure it found a better home with a more dedicated dieter. There were plenty of items, however, that went to donation bins whose goals of redistributing old clothing, I later learned, may be doing more harm than good.

For environmental and economic reasons, we were off grid for over a decade. We obsessed over every watt we consumed, but this sparkling solitude has made me question my own material consumption.

A few days ago I stumbled on a wonderful movie on Netflix called “The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind“. I highly recommend for anyone with kids — I even ordered bought the book for my middle schoolers for fall. The story takes place just at the time of the 9-11 attacks and follows a high schooler in Malawi named William along with his family as they endure flooding, drought and subsequent crop failures. The change in family fortunes force them to count every grain in every meal. For William, a born tinkerer who loves fixing things, the changes mean the end of school, but, consumed with a vision of wind-powered irrigation for the village, he sneaks into the library to conduct research on his own.

There are so many powerful themes throughout the movie — strength, family in all its complexity, perseverance, and the power of education – but, as I watched William rummage through the village landfill for scrap metal and used electronics to build his turbine, another, smaller, theme emerged. Education, not merely necessity, was the mother of William’s inspiration, but it was thrift and ingenuity that helped him use whatever was on hand to bring together his turbine and save the village.

Now, a year after my failed purges, I am rethinking every purchase and every creation in terms of its embodied energy and its impact on our budget. The purge got me thinking about what happens to those things when we’re ‘done’ with them. Watching a determined teenager cobble together a life-saving machine with recycled parts, however, provided a sober — and inspiring – new perspective that will make me consider much more carefully exactly when I’m ‘done’ with something and when it still has another life left in it.

Make Do

I’ve been making out my list of grocery items to order from the local country store to last the next few weeks and noticing the dwindling availability of of luxury, prepackaged foods like microwave popcorn and cake mixes, as well as staples like rice or pasta. The recognition that this pandemic could lead to shortages of some food as well as higher prices is changing my list but not necessarily for the worse.

When we first moved to the country, I wanted to learn how to do everything. I wanted to make a quilt from scratch. I wanted to make our own bread. I want to grow all our own food.

I worked full-time and, eventually, learned to pick the battles that mattered for our little homestead. I learned how to make a garden. We learned how to raise chickens. The Big Guy makes a mean sandwich bread. The quilting supplies and a pair of half-finished quilted are still in the linen closet, waiting for backings.

Now, some of those skills are getting a revisit. As grocery stores empty their supplies of spaghetti, I begin thinking about how we could make our own pasta again (some thing we did when we were first married). We know we can get flour from the country store, eggs from the neighbors and soon from our yard. We’re taking a look at what vegetables we can grow and, especially, what we should preserve in the fall.

Instead of thinking about where to buy things or how things are made, we’re thinking about how we can make them.

I’ve seen a meme circulating recently suggesting that, when all of “this“ is over, we consider to which parts of normal we want to return. Like so many people, I’m sitting on the sidelines right now, wondering when that will be. Whether that new normal is a time of scarcity or plenty, I do know that, when it arrives, I want to preserve those old-fashioned, farmed-out maker and saver skills that are going to get us through the spring and summer.

And I never want to take anything for granted again.

Faking It

I am able to walk an extra lap around the house or drag a few branches out of the garden these days, but my real skill these days is corralling the boys into believing that all of the work they’re doing to get our house ready for summer is fun.

This morning I got Thing2 to believe planting 125 seeds was fun. Later, after catching up on some homework, I got him to believe that seeing the weed pile slowly vanish was a good reason for a high five. And when Thing1 came out to try out the new blade on the trimmer and clear away some stubborn raspberry canes, the Big Guy and I swore we heard him say, “This is a good way to spend the day.”

Score one for the parents.