DUCK!

I’ve never been a fan of water birds.

When Dave suggested adding ducks or (gasp!) geese to the flock, I was resolute.  I was adamant that there was NO WAY we’d get birds that are that messy. The sheer volume of poop would be more than I could handle, to say nothing of the mayhem to be unleashed on what small amount of water we actually have on the farm.

Besides, we couldn’t properly care for water birds.  Without a real pond for them to swim in, what would be the point of even trying?  They are water fowl, after all.  Plus, what’s messier than a pair of ducks?  Maybe a pair of teenage boys playing paintball in a port-o-potty.  Otherwise, not much.

So, when my friend cried out for help because her beloved drake was being regularly beaten by one of her roosters, naturally I volunteered to adopt him.

Apparently, I’m inconsistent and unpredictable like that.

Fluffers, the Drake, and his main squeeze, Chatters.

Fluffers, the Drake, and his main squeeze, Chatters.

My only request was that she also throw in a lady duck to make sure he wasn’t lonely {It was a Noah’s Ark kinda thing).  So, she showed up one morning with a pair of ducks who are now calling applewood farm home.

Another friend recommended separating the ducks from the chickens for at least a week.  This is fairly standard protocol for any new birds being introduced to an existing flock.

The new duck turf.

The new duck turf.

Since a good portion of our chickens have taken up residence in the garage/barn, our smaller coop has largely been used for egg laying and not much else.  This gave us a ready-to-inhabit duck abode, complete with fence and door.

All that was missing was somewhere for them to swim.

Enter: the kiddie pool.

And the pool was never clean again...

And the pool was never clean again…

I have to admit, watching these two havoc-wreakers frolick in the pool has brought me around utterly on ducks.

They get in that pool and splash and dunk and play with everything they’ve got and it is crazy adorable.

And while it is true that I’ve changed my mind about these two water birds specifically, I still maintain a firm “hell, no!” when it comes to geese.

I think.

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It’s a Start

Since we skipped spring and went directly to summer, things here at applewood farm have been even less organized than usual.

Typically, there is a period of weeks between the last frost and the incredibly hot Dog Days of summer.

This year, not so much.

We planted seeds back in late March and early April.  These have been germinating and becoming seedlings at varying rates depending upon what was planted and when.

Tomato starts demanding immediate attention.

Tomato starts demanding immediate attention.

The plants that really take off quickly demand transplanting sooner as well.  This means that we have to have our transplant locations (raised beds, gardens, etc.) ready and THIS means that we have to be organized and have more than one hour a day to dedicate to the project.

Lately, time has not been so much on our side.

Between the restaurant, the cheese shop, the farmer’s market, the firehouse, and the pigs/chickens/goats/bees/dogs/cats/children, there hasn’t been a great deal of time for such frivolities as ensuring that our future food is planted in the ground where it can grow.

Something had to give, so the first line of defense was to stop caring for the children.  At 10 and 14, they’ve had a good run and now they’re on their own.

Good luck, kids!

The rest of the creatures still need a little assistance, so Dave graciously cut back on firehouse activities a bit and lo-and-behold! stuff started getting transplanted!

Moving day.

Moving day.

In the past week, we’ve managed to get half the tomato beds planted, a flowerbed started, the back garden filled with squash seedlings of several varieties, the cucumbers and peas in and trellised, the brussels sprouts planted, two raised beds built, five existing raised beds seeded, and all the lettuces and leafy greens started as well.

Plus, I got to mow the lawn for the first time this year and not much makes me happier than that.

Future delicious food.

Future delicious food.

There aren’t a lot of jobs more satisfying than getting the gardens planted.

Hopefully, this year will prove as bountiful as all the ones preceding it.

Hopefully, all these little seedlings will be delicious food before too long.

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The Taming of the Shrub

Part of today was dedicated to checking some jobs off our Get-The-Farm-Ready-For-Summer to-do list.

Now, this list is a lengthy document and is, by no means, for the faint of heart.

It covers everything from turning over both gardens and prepping the raised beds to starting to scrape the old paint off the house to prepare it for being painted.

I like to approach the jobs in order of how realistic it is that they might actually be completed someday.  Scraping and painting the house, for example, would be found WAY down at the very bottom of the list.  Something like pruning the berry bushes, however, would be totally doable and right up at the top.

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Beastly, tangled mess of brambles

So that’s where I started today.

When we planted the berry bushes three years ago, we put in a dozen each of two different types of raspberries.  We let them grow, produce amazingly delicious fruit, and remain unpruned… until today.

These beauties turned into beasts over the last year and some serious grooming was in order.

Left unpruned, red raspberry plants effectively become their own weeds, create an overcrowded living situation, and compete for sunlight with themselves.  When sunlight can’t reach the buds on the bottom of the plant, those buds die, leaving you with a plant that produces an increasingly smaller crop each year.  They also compete with themselves for water and nutrients, leaving the berries that do emerge as smaller and less flavorful.

And no one wants smaller, less flavorful berries.

But what goes and what stays?  Well, that part is actually pretty easy.

Healthy floricans on the left, spent floricans on the right

Healthy floricans on the left, spent floricans on the right

The main thing to do is get rid of what are called “spent floricanes.”  These have a two-year lifespan–in the first year, they are green and fruit-bearing; in the second year, they are woody and fruit-bearing (this is a fairly reckless over-simplification, but that’s okay with me).

After the second year, the floricane has done all it’s gonna do and keeping it around will only create chaos and confusion.  More importantly, cutting these down prevents disease spores from taking up residence over the winter and spreading to new canes in the spring.

You’ll recognize a floricane that is ready for pruning by the tell-tale peeling grey bark.

Don’t get sentimental; cut those suckers right down to the ground.

It’s an insanely satisfying task, both in the process and the end result.

Happy bushes, ready to make delicious fruit.

Happy bushes, ready to make delicious fruit.

Once all the visibly dead bits have been pruned away, it’s also a good idea to remove any branches that have started to come up at a distance from the original rows.  I remove these whether they are spent or healthy in an effort to maintain rows, which makes fruit easier to pick and (apparently) to help prevent disease (but I don’t know how or why).

When all of that was done, the bushes really looked completely different.  They seemed lighter–freer–happier!

And everyone knows that a happy raspberry bush makes more delicious fruit.

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Rat Dogs

Couch posse.

Couch posse.

Having a small posse of dogs on a farm can be a wonderful thing.

Dogs are insanely loving, unwaveringly loyal, occasionally obedient, and generally disgusting (ours relish dining on found chicken and cat poop as a discerning human might enjoy oysters on the half shell or a particularly fine beluga caviar).

Our contingent of canines happen to all be pit bull mixes.

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Pit-Wirehair

Darwin is a pit-wirehair,

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Pit-Hound

Charlie is a pit-hound,

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Pit-Human

and Mickey is a pit-human.

Or, at least he acts like it.

At bedtime, Mickey not only climbs onto the bed, he pulls back the covers and climbs underneath them.  I only hope we aren’t in his way.

The terrier in all of them means that they were bred to hunt and kill small creatures without being directed.

They dig frantically, bark relentlessly, and are oblivious to anyone and anything around them in those moments.

This prey drive is surprisingly strong and proves challenging when you want the dogs to leave things alone.

Like chickens.

And barn cats.

And cars driving toward them.

We have, with great success and not a lot of effort on our part, been able to train the dogs to leave the cats and chickens alone.

It’s really not that difficult a process.

Dogs respond incredibly well to consistency and treats.  The key word in that sentence is “treats.”  Dogs love ’em.  Get a good training treat and you’re more than halfway down the road to success.

Now, to be fair, we can’t seem to train our dogs to stay on our property, fetch a ball, or even respond to their own names from a distance of ten feet, so we’re not honking our own horn TOO very loudly.  But they don’t kill the chickens, they only chase the cats a little, and they don’t pee in the house.  So, we’re all good.

Going ape-shit.

Going ape-shit.

They do, however, go ape-shit over rodents.

And this is absolutely fine by us.

You wouldn’t think so, but they are able to discern between being allowed to chase one type of creature and not another.  They will actually spend a morning “ratting” around the chicken coop and won’t even glance at the chickens.

They are all determination and focus and they are ALL about the rats.

Awful though it may be, the sad truth on this little farm is that springtime is when we start to see evidence of the rats that have burrowed into and around the sheds over the winter.  They have learned that the sheds are relatively warm, have water and food, and are protected from predators.

Until now.

As the rats start to become braver with the warming weather, their burrow holes become more daring and prolific.  Walking into the coop a week or so back, my foot sunk into what HAD been terra firma but was now a fairly thin covering over a rat tunnel.

Gross.

And so, it was time to release the hounds!

Because Mickey is almost ten years old, he stayed inside and surely looked for rodents on the backs of his eyelids from under the covers.

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Tilling the coop

Darwin and Charlie, on the other hand, spent at least an hour doing a better job of turning over the soil on the floor of the chicken coop than any power tiller could have done.

When the day’s ratting was done, they’d only managed to dispense with two.

They were some seriously happy dogs, though.  And I’m sure they made the remaining rodents VERY nervous.

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I Soiled Myself

We are NOT scared to plant!

We are NOT scared to plant!

As we seem to be cautiously dipping our toes into Actual Spring these days, my fear of starting seeds has begun to subside.

So, we started the day by digging out our seed trays and then heading over to the local garden supply store to get as many bags of organic seed-starting soil as we could find.

But, we could find zero.

Sadly, there was no shortage of the commercial, fertilizer-rich stuff.

That stuff was everywhere.

A start.

A start.

They did have organic potting soil and, while this isn’t ideal for starting seeds, it is a good jumping-off point.

We decided to make our own seed-starting soil and considered what we’d need.

Our soil is heavy and clay-rich.  Because of this, we are constantly (by which I mean, yearly) adding infusions of rotted horse manure, home compost, and organic topsoil to slowly change the composition of the soil we need to work.

Adding organic vermiculite to the soil

Adding organic vermiculite to the soil

For seed-starting, however, we needed to mix the potting soil with vermiculite to condition the soil.  This addition helps create air channels which allow the soil mix to breathe.  The air is necessary to allow for healthy root development and expansion, as well as maintaining vigorous plant growth.

This mixture creates a balance between moisture retention and sufficient drainage–the two most important features for seedling success.

If the soil becomes too wet, something called “damping-off” can occur.  This is a fungal disease that ends with the depressing death of the newly-germinated seedlings.

They literally drop dead.

This is not a good way to start a garden.

Our mix.

Our mix.

Just as undesirable is if the soil dries out too quickly.  In this case, the seedlings will simply lose color, shrivel up, and die.

By including organic compost, topsoil, vermiculite, and rotty manure in our mix, we hope we’ve hit a harmonious note that should yield good results for our seeds.

Now, if we could just find a way to convince the stores that organic supplies are worth keeping on their shelves, perhaps more folks would use organically-produced products.

In the meantime, I guess we’ll all just have to soil ourselves.

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Waiter, There’s a Bug in my Sap!

Sallow Moth in a sappy grave

Sallow Moth in a sappy grave

Collecting sap late last night, I was surprised to find sallow moths in nearly every bucket. In some cases, the moths were on the inside wall of the bucket and could be saved, but largely they had met their watery demise in the short-lived bliss of an ill-fated sap bath.

To me, this served as a strong indicator that the sugaring season is starting to wind down. As the insects begin to come out of hibernation, we know that the warmer days are on their way and the freezing overnight temperatures so necessary for sap flow must be coming to an end.

What ALL moths look like to my daughter.

What ALL moths look like to my daughter.

After encountering about two dozen moths at various stages of viability, I was grateful I hadn’t asked my teenage daughter to help carry sap.

She has a totally insane fear of moths.

Her reaction to seeing one would make Janet Leigh seem downright pleased to see Anthony Hopkins open the shower curtain, by comparison.

Checking the buckets again this evening, I expected to encounter another day’s infusion of moths.  But today’s find was even worse.

The final swim.

The final swim.

Bees.

Nothing makes me sadder than when I find honey bees dying.

I realize their life span isn’t particularly long, but as a beekeeper who spends a lot of energy keeping my bees alive, it is heartbreaking to find them meeting an untimely end when they were just looking for something to eat.

This time of year, when warming days are balanced by the occasional cold snap, the bees have mostly used up their stores of honey. Tricked by the sunny, warm days, they venture out in search of flowers which, obviously, they won’t find.  Without supplemental pollen and sugar, they will starve before the first dandelions bloom.

We provide pollen patties to help the bees through this confusing time of year, but the sap in the buckets clearly proves too powerful a draw for those who have ventured far enough from the hive.

RESCUED!

RESCUED!

But sometimes, it’s not too late.

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DIY Easter Egg Dye

Here’s a project for folks who like stuff cheap and easy.

It’s not that I have anything against store-bought egg dye kits, it’s just that I came across some dye recipes and they were crazy easy and we already had almost everything to do it.

Here’s what we used:

  • Shredded beets (about a cup)
  • Purple cabbage (about half a head)
  • Ground Turmeric (two tablespoons)
  • Red Onion Skins (some)
  • Yellow Onion Skins (also, some)

One at a time, we boiled the items in about a quart or so of water.  Once they were boiling, we covered them and let them simmer for about 20 minutes, until the color was really vibrant.

DSC_0005Each color was strained through cheesecloth and cooled.

The eggs were hard-boiled and then cooled to room temperature.

Because some of the colors promised different results on white eggs vs. brown eggs, we tried both in these cases.

DSC_0006The eggs were fully submerged in the dye and then placed into the refrigerator to chill until the color was bright.

This ended up taking about an hour and a half or so (but I’m impatient and they probably should have been left longer for better results).

DSC_0001In the end, we got colors very close to the promised outcomes.

More than anything, it was really nice to do this from scratch.

I doubt we’ll be buying store kits again anytime soon.

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