Christmas Trees and Worms – A Love Story

Several months ago, I (apparently) filled out a form sent to me by the Arbor Day Foundation.  The Foundation said that, in exchange for filling out their form and sending it back expeditiously, it would send me a tree.

I thought this sounded like a pretty good deal, so I immediately filled out the form and popped it in the mail.  I then forgot about it utterly.

Fast-forward to last week.

I’m working down in Brooklyn and I get a call from Dave who tells me that my tree arrived.

“What tree?”

“I dunno.  There’s a tree here and it’s addressed to you.  Looks like a pine.”

So, the other day, as I unwrapped my tree, Dave remembered the form (I still didn’t) and we looked to see what we’d gotten.

At first glance, it looked like I’d actually gotten TWO trees.  One was clearly a spruce and the other was, according to the literature enclosed, a lilac bush.   Since it had been a couple of days since they’d arrived, we felt we should get them into the ground as soon as possible.  We gathered all the supplies necessary for planting trees (shovels, water, chicken wire, and tin snips) and headed out to settle them in.

As Dave started to dig the first hole, I unwrapped the seedlings to get the roots in water while they waited to be planted.  Unwrapping them revealed that we did not, in fact, receive two trees; we received TWELVE trees!  There were TWO lilac bushes and TEN spruce trees!

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One of the lilac seedlings awaiting root burial in its new hole-home.

While this was totally great and exciting and wonderful news for us, I couldn’t help but think that the Arbor Day Foundation was taking a fairly huge leap of faith in sending us this mini forest.  The assumption that someone would have the space, know-how, and wherewithall to handle a timely and appropriate planting of a dozen trees was fairly epic in proportion.  I couldn’t help but wonder how many times they’d made that decision poorly.

Probably a lot of times.

But this wasn’t one of them.

We immediately shifted gears and started to think about where we could plant what was now going to be our Christmas Tree Farm.

The inception of the Christmas Tree Farm

The inception of the Christmas Tree Farm

Since the Colorado Blue Spruce is a relatively slow-growing conifer (averaging about 12 inches per year in ideal circumstances), we figure we’ve got about five or six years before the Christmas trees are ready for harvesting.

In the meantime, we’ve now got a lovely mini treeline along the road in front of the house which the chickens started to destroy within moments of planting.

We wrapped them with chicken wire as fast as we could and, hopefully, that will protect them enough to give them a shot at success.

A happy by-product of planting trees on a lovely spring afternoon is WORMS.

I’ve been eager to start a worm bin for about a year now and just haven’t taken the time to get one started.  As we dug holes and moved sod and planted trees, we realized the worms were EVERYWHERE.  Enlisting the help of the best worm handlers I know (my kids), we sallied forth, collecting wigglers from the newly-exposed soil and placing them into a largish bin.

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My SUPER FANCY worm bin, made of the world’s most precious materials.

By eating kitchen scraps, worms create castings which provide a valuable soil amendment and plant tonic.  Though castings are often called fertilizer, they’re actually not very high in nitrogen, but they are full of plant-supporting nutrients.

If you sprinkle castings on potted plants and over garden beds, you can make an extra-rich growing medium that is gentle on the roots (due to the low nitrogen content).  Also, a little goes a long way, so even if it doesn’t seem like the worms are providing bucketfulls of castings, that’s totally okay, you don’t need much to promote a healthy soil environment.

While we have a good amount of space, a worm bin is a solid green-waste disposal system for someone with no space at all.  If you live in a one-bedroom apartment and want to grow basil on your windowsill, you can still keep a small worm bin and feed it your day-to-day food waste (think coffee grounds, egg shells, stale bread scraps).  Adding a small amount of castings to the soil will absolutely have a positive impact on container plant growth.

So, now we have trees and bushes and worms and spring is here and I’m back from Brooklyn and all is right with the world.

And I’m looking for some more time-sensitive forms to fill out.

 

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Minding My Own Beeswax

Going into the winter, I had two thriving beehives.  One was a nucleus colony (or nuc… pronounced “nuke”) purchased from a local beekeeper and the other was a package from somewhere not-local.

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The Package of Dubious Origin

The difference between the two is that a nuc is essentially a small hive made up of bees in all stages of development, food in the form of honey frames, a laying queen, and enough workers to cover roughly three to five combs.

Package bees come almost exclusively from the southern states and California, are sold by weight (usually three pounds), and are shipped in screened boxes with a queen in a separate “queen cage.”  The food supplied for the package bees is typically a can of sugar syrup.

For many reasons, I decided to start my first hives with one of each.  The main reason was curiosity.

Obviously, I knew it was far better to get a local nuc than a shipped package, but I felt like I wouldn’t be a real-life, honest-to-god beekeeper if I couldn’t say that I’d done it both ways.  So I did it both ways, fully expecting that the package hive wouldn’t survive the winter.

And I’m here to report that I was not surprised by the way things turned out.

I think it is worth noting that I did not have any ill-will toward the package hive, nor did I treat it any differently than the local nuc; I just didn’t have high expectations for it.  (It is possible that I may have, on occasion, stuck my tongue out at it, but that is speculation and hearsay)

A neighbor of ours keeps bees and admits to purchasing new packages from the south EVERY SPRING.  He doesn’t even seem to feel bad or embarrassed about it.

And why should he?

Well, because the only real reason to keep bees is to try to save our food system which is almost irrevocably broken.  Simply put, honey bees account for about 80 percent of all insect pollination. Without this pollination, agricultural yields would plummet and our food system would never recover.

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Sisyphus pushing not-bees

To ride a Sisyphean cycle of purchasing southern bees, installing them in an area full of unfamiliar flora, and then subjecting them to to the freezing, northern winters just isn’t sustainable.

And you can pretty much forget about honey.

While it’s certainly possible to have a hive produce enough honey to get themselves through the winter, it is rare for them to produce enough in their first year to also share with the beekeeper.  If your goal is pollination AND honey, then the package bees aren’t your best bet.

That being said, package bees are WAY better than NO bees.

NO bees is a terrible amount of bees.

I was very afraid that after this winter’s interminable Siberia impersonation, there would be no bees left in either hive.  I kept waiting for the temperatures to go above 45 degrees so I could open them up to see what was happening.

One sunny day, about two weeks ago, I saw a lot of activity outside my nuc hive and only a few straggling bees around the package hive.  It occurred to me that the nuc hive had undoubtedly survived the winter and perhaps the package had not–that these straggler bees were really just nuc bees robbing the now-abandoned package hive.  And, after today’s investigation, it would appear that that’s in fact what happened.

With temps hovering near 50 degrees, I was able to completely open up both hives and see what there was to see.

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If only I’d knitted tiny bee sweaters…

As expected, the package hive was packed to the rafters with dead bees.  Thousands of them littered every surface and clung to the frames of each super.  There was still some honey in the frames, as well as a bee patty I’d given them a month or so earlier, so starvation didn’t seem to be the problem.  Since there were so many bees, it was certainly not Colony Collapse, and there was no evidence of varroa mites.  That left freezing to death as the only logical explanation.

Despite having topped the hive with a hay-filled super to add insulation and provide protection against excess moisture, the bees simply couldn’t handle the extreme, sustained cold.  It would be like asking my Floridian grandmother to move to the Twin Cities for February; she’d always be cold and there would never be anything good to eat.

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Healthy, thriving bees ready to be split

Happily, the nucleus hive pulled through the freeze-a-thon like a champ.  Having been created from a hive just a few miles away, these bees were ready.  They had the honey they needed and they did what they knew how to do to survive.  When I opened up their hive, they were alive and buzzing and as vibrant as could be.  I gave them a bee patty just for good measure and they seemed pretty grateful for it.

This hive was actually doing SO well, I will need to be able to get in there and make a split before they decide to swarm.

So, now I need to learn how to do that.

 

 

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Makin’ Bacon

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…and they also do other, ummm…things, here

Our breeding sow, Bubble, is now seven months old.  This means she is officially old enough to become pregnant.  Since this is the first pig porkin’ rodeo for any of us, hogs and humans included, we are (as ever) learning what to do and how to do it as we go.

Until today, there wasn’t a lot happening in the ol’ hog shed.  Bubble and Squeak ate and slept and rooted around in the mud, repeating this cycle ad infinitum.

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Decidedly not-milky teats

Hoping that Bubble was, in fact, impregnated, I’d gotten into a pretty creepy habit of checking her teats and girlie bits every time I went out to feed or water them.  Everyday, I was sure her teats looked slightly fuller than the day before and perhaps her girlie bits were a tinge rosier and more plenteous than yesterday.  Each day, I thought maybe she might maybe be possibly pregnant.  Maybe.

I am here to report that it has been made abundantly clear to us that there is ABSOLUTELY no need for guesswork in this arena.  If the pig sheds a-rockin’, don’t bother knockin’.

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Squeak has been wearing this mischievously satsified smile A LOT lately. Now we know why.

When a sow goes into heat, her lady region fairly morphs into a completely other body part.  It ain’t pretty, but it certainly leaves no room for questions.  The change has a profoundly seductive effect on the boar, who obliges in a manner that would have made John Holmes proud.  Dave actually managed to capture the entire affair on video–a cinematic delight I have respectfully chosen to omit from this post.

You are welcome.

Since pig gestation takes three months, three weeks, and three days (give or take), we have calculated that our first litter of piglets should arrive on or around July 17th.  This is really great news because it will allow us time to set up a place for her to farrow out in the woods, separate from Squeak, where she and the piglets will be safe and warm.

And cute. Odds are, they will be pretty darned cute.

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The Mad Rooster Culler

We have some beautiful roosters.

Our main man, Tough Guy, is a Black Copper Marans and he, quite literally, rules the roost.  The hens belong to him and he is strut and swagger from crown to talon.  He’s a truly gorgeous gentleman and his authority has never been in question.

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Hot date spot

Over the past six months, the remaining three roosters (the ones we didn’t previously cull) were allowed to stay and roam and get their kicks where and when they could.  The only rule was that they couldn’t rock the boat: they had to play nice with the other roosters, go easy on the ladies, and do their part in protecting the flock.  Over the past couple of weeks, our two Brahma roosters seem to have forgotten not to be COMPLETE and TOTAL jerks and, as a result, earned themselves a date with the kill cone.

I mentioned previously that I’ve been spending a great deal of time down in Brooklyn lately.  The three-hour each way commute three or so times a week has been starting to wear on me and today was no exception.  Arriving home around 3:00, I was not in the world’s greatest mood.  Hearing panicked squawking from the chicken coop was not the sound I was hoping to come home to and when I checked to see what was the matter, I found the two Brahmas viciously attacking Favorite Hen.

This did not sit well with me.

Normally, when we cull roosters, we wait until they’re settled in for the night on their roosts and gently lift them from their spot.  We transfer them into a crate in the coop for the night and then they are all confined and ready to finish off the next morning.

But this time I was mad.

Instead, I spent the next 20-30 minutes chasing them in and out of the coop, around the fence, past the goats, across the pig sty, back into the coop and out again, until I finally caught one.   Feeling that Karma would have wanted it this way, I decided the time was perfect for dealing with our rooster problem.

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Transitioning to a far more useful and pleasant purpose

Within three minutes, this beautiful jerk was making his transformation from hen bully to future soup.

Oddly enough, his Brahma buddy (the one I didn’t manage to catch during the chicken-chasin’-hijinks) stood about 20 feet away throughout the processing and seemed to be watching the entire affair.  He was there for the bleeding, the hanging, the plucking, and the cleaning.

Because he’d made me so mad, I was making small talk with him as I processed his former partner-in-crime.  As any utterly insane person might have done, I asked him if he SAW what happened and if he now understood that there are consequences to our actions.  At no point did he respond.

This was when Dave stepped in and carefully took the knife away from me.  Fearing for my sanity and, undoubtedly, the well-being of the remaining farm animals, he felt it prudent to disarm me swiftly and quietly.

Dave finished cleaning the bird, preparing it for the pot in his practiced and skillful way.

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The cannibals descend upon the wreckage.

Whenever we clean a rooster, there tends to be a good deal of feathers, skin, and other bits left behind on the ground.  We leave it there for other animals to find so they may eat what they can, rather than us just discarding it.

The trouble with this process is that CHICKENS EAT CHICKEN.

They also eat eggs.

They also are incredibly gross.

So, as soon as we were wrapping up the job, at least half of the flock was on self-appointed clean-up duty.  Shamelessly pecking at the remnants of their former friend, scavenging for the best bits, and even fighting a bit for the ones they might’ve missed.

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Next.

But there was one chicken who was decidedly NOT part of this process.

Guess who?

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Removing That Which is Disagreeable

Although it is, by now, abundantly clear that spring will never, ever arrive in the Northeast of these frost-laden United States, we’ve decided to prune the apple tree anyway.

When we moved onto the farm, we planted five heirloom varietal apple trees along the drive leading up to the house.  These were just wispy saplings when they went into the ground, so it will be another year or two before we expect to see any fruit from them.  There was, however, a fully mature tree out in the back, and it had not been well-maintained.

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Not-sufficiently-pruned apple tree

Early last spring, we got out our loppers, pruning shears, and pruning saw and set to work lovingly sculpting this beautiful tree’s branches into bonzai-worthy patterns.  We tweezed and plucked and trimmed.  We cleared away obvious blemishes such as The Suckers (the spindly, pointless branches that grow straight up from a main branch, sap the nutrients, and produce no fruit), The Twisters (branches winding around other branches), and The Blockers (superfluous branches blocking sunlight and inhibiting fruit growth).

What we didn’t do, however, was prune the tree sufficiently.

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Undoubtedly SOMEONE’S moppy-haired, drug-addled boyfriend in high school

When your tree isn’t properly pruned, it not only looks bad, it actually can do significant damage to the tree.  This is what happened with ours.  As you can see in the above shot of the apple-heavy tree, it needed at least eight feet of height removed, to say nothing of the enormous amount of weight needing to be cut away from the center and sides.  Because it is recommended that only about five or six inches of height be removed at a time, we will have to approach that part incrementally.  The tree in this picture looks WAY more like my moppy-haired, drug-addled high school boyfriend than a successful, fruit-bearing perennial.

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The treated branch wound

When the tree bears too much extra weight, as ours did, the branches will actually break when the heft of the bounty becomes too much.  This autumn’s hefty bounty did the job and we came out one day to find that a fairly large branch had come down overnight.  When this happens, the branch needs to be removed fully and the remaining bits pruned back to the main branch or trunk.

We sealed the resulting wound with an asphalt-based emulsion.  This is a non-toxic dressing made specifically for trees that have suffered due to pruning or other damage.  By dressing the wound, you protect the tree from the decay, fungus, and insects that frequently attack damaged spots on trees.

But that was back in the autumn.

Now, it is allegedly almost spring and we are pruning, pruning, pruning.  We have learned our lesson the hard way (our preferred way of learning lessons, apparently) and are aggressively pruning without fear or, really, a solid understanding of what not to do.  We’re basically using that old expression about sculpting an elephant or a bear, or whatever it was, as our guide and we’re pruning away everything that doesn’t look like a healthy apple tree.

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apple wood fed goats on applewood farm

Since today has been the first reasonable facsimile of spring we’ve seen in quite some time, I let the goats out of their enclosure for a brief explore.  They were quite thrilled to be on this field trip of sorts but ventured only as far as the base of the tree while I pruned overhead.

It was quite a lovely view from up there, among the increasingly thinning branches.  The sun was shining as the goats stood munching on the pile of fallen wood below.

Too bad it’s all about to be covered with icy snow once more.  Le sigh…

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The Occasional Farmer

Over the past week or so, I’ve spent more time down at our Brooklyn restaurant than in the past six months combined.

We’ve had some really wonderful staffing changes, and I’ve been there to manage the transitions.  Being submerged back into the world of the restaurant is an odd experience.  I am simultaneously longing to be back up on the farm and right back into my 12-hour shift, dress-up clothes wearing, workday comfort zone.

In many ways, it’s like I never left the day-to-day of the restaurant.  The same regular customers are coming in and saying their warm “hellos,” the staff (for the most part) has remained the same for the past several years, and the overall consistency of the space has been maintained.  Sure, my kids are grumbling that I’m not around enough now and the laundry is piling up and I haven’t snuggled the goats in days, but we’ve gotta have our priorities, right?

We opened applewood restaurant in September of 2004.  It was, and has remained, a place to enjoy excellent food, wine, and cocktails made with sustainably-sourced ingredients across the board.  Because we sourced the majority of our products from local farmers, we had the opportunity to meet many of them over the years.  Repeatedly meeting the interesting, lovely, and oftentimes completely crazy folks who dedicate their lives to growing good, clean food, is what ultimately persuaded Dave and me to try our own hands at farming (“Hey! We too are interesting, lovely, and completely crazy…this thing might just work!”).

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Highly professional folks being not-remotely gluttonous

So, ten years on, we are still plugging along.  The weekends are incredibly busy, but the weekdays could definitely use a boost in customer visits (read: DINE WITH US ON MONDAY AND TUESDAY, PLEASE).  We have brought in a new manager and sommelier and even a couple new servers and bartenders to give the place the fresh breath of enthusiasm that every restaurant needs from time to time.

I would be remiss not to mention the AMAZING front-of-the-house folks who have kept applewood on track over the years both in my presence and my absence.  Specifically, Matt Frey (who is really a composer) and Geoffrey Young (who is really a novelist), without whom the wheels would have come off this particular bus more than once.  Tip of the hat, gents.

And so, for now, I am only an occasional farmer.  I am, quite literally, traveling from farm to table (and back again) and will continue to do so until further notice.  The deliveries of organic eggs and pork continue, only now I get to stick around and see exactly how they end up on each night’s menu.  And you can too; check it out on our website.

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I’d Like to Tap That

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Hmm… could be anything, really.

Back at the end of September, I wrote about our time spent marking the sugar maples on our property.  It was a stroke of genius on our part, since it is REALLY difficult to determine tree types when they are completely devoid of leaves.

In the spring, identification would be impossible for us, but in the autumn, all we had to do was walk around with some twine and our eyes and look for the telltale sugar maple leaf.

Once located, we would measure the circumfrence of each tree to determine whether it was a candidate for tapping.

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Sinatra-loving timber

We looked for trees that were around 20″ in diameter (preferably larger) that had a well-exposed south-facing spot to hang a bucket.

There are some basic rules of thumb about which trees to use and how large they should be.  These rules vary wildly based on who you ask.  A website dedicated to this process states that the tree MUST have AT LEAST an 18″ diameter.  Some Vermont friends say that the circumfrence isn’t as important as the location and the height at which you tap.  The 85-year old guy up the road who’s been tapping maples since World War II says that the tree needs to lean slightly to the right, have an odd number of branches, and be partial to Frank Sinatra.

Since it seemed obvious to us that the larger trees would be less affected by tapping and would likely offer up the largest yield, we opted for the fattest trees we could find.  Once found, we marked each with a length of twine and waited.

In the meantime, we gathered our supplies.

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spiles and hooks

Tapping doesn’t require much in the way of equipment.  We had a stack of food-grade buckets (that’s important) that we rescued from the back of our local bakery, spiles and hooks that we purchased at our local feed store, a hand drill, a hammer, and some aluminum foil (for covering the buckets – the rescue operation failed to recover lids).

And then we waited for the weather conditions to be just right.

Just-right weather conditions seem to be the one utterly agreed-upon portion of this process no matter who you ask.  The flow of sap won’t start until after a hard freeze (of which we’ve had more than our share this winter) followed by sunny days with temperatures in the 40s.  Because we are going to see low- to mid-40s temperatures all this week, we knew it was imperative to get the taps in immediately.

IMG_2727Since we only had eight buckets and we were much too lazy to seek others elsewhere, we could only tap eight trees.  My guess is that this will be PLENTY for a first-time collection and I will be complaining to anyone who will listen about how tired I am of boiling the sap already.  In the meantime, however, I’m feeling bummed that we have four unused spile sets sitting in the wooden bowl on the counter; taunting me and calling me lazy.

Alas…

IMG_2764At each sugar maple, we measured a spot about three feet from the ground on the south-facing side of the tree.  Charlie the dog helped by repeatedly dropping his frozen tennis ball into the snow and then digging it out.  Sophie the teenager helped by holding the drill and other supplies while Dave sank the spiles and hung the buckets.

The drilled hole needs to be about 1 1/2″ to 2″ deep and at a slight upward angle to help facilitate a gravity-assisted sap flow.  The spile is then tapped into the hole with a hammer and the bucket is then hung from the hook attached to the spile.

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Dog not mandatory

The finished product looks like someone stapled bake sale leftovers to our tree trunks, but that sort of sloppiness is fairly par-for-the-course for us.

Sure, we wanted those lovely metal buckets with the attached lovely lids that hang in a picturesque manner off the trees like something out of a hand-crafted Christmas card, but that shit costs A LOT of money and this set-up was practically free, so bake sale remnants it is.

From the time the flow starts, we’ve got about three or four weeks to collect the sap.  We’ll have to check the buckets daily and empty them as needed.  Sap can be stored for up to a week, but not longer (it is as perishable as milk, after all) by packing it in snow and storing it in the shade.  Unless you have a crazy-big refrigerator with room for nothing but sap, the snow-pack method is an excellent alternative.

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Last year’s sap boiling

Since we don’t have an evaporator, we’ll store the sap in large food-grade buckets, or possibly even a trough, until we are ready to start the boiling process.  Once that starts, we are likely to be tethered to our make-shift sap boiling setup for several weeks.

But there are worse places to be tethered.

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