Monday, January 30

First Seed Order for 2017


I have a stack of seed catalogs on my table and it is time to start planning this years garden. As always, so many plans and ideas, of which some will turn out wonderfully and others with be disastrous failures. However, I will charge in head first just like every season, determined to fill each minute of each day with as many projects as I can dream up.

Last year, a very nice woman at my husbands company gave us a jar of canned hot peppers. It was so pretty with the bright red and the little white bits of garlic floating around, that I set it out on the counter, determined to keep it as a kitchen decoration. Unfortunately, it was opened for Christmas Eve dinner and it was devoured by hungry guests. But it inspired me to grow those peppers and can them for myself,

I had a hard time finding seeds for them, eventually ordering through I had made a little promise to myself that this year I was going to order using the paper forms that come with the catalogs - to fill out each one and send a check in the mail. Sometimes I do strange things like that in this internet age just to feel like I am being different or creative or homestead-like. I could also fill out the forms by lantern light with quill and ink, but I do like my gel pens and solar electricity.

So, my one online order was placed today simply because I could not find these peppers anywhere else. And, of course, I can not justify paying a shipping charge that costs more than 1 packet of seeds, so I picked out a few other things as well.

Large Hot Cherry Pepper - the pepper that I will can and that will look pretty in that can.
Blue Hubbard Squash - I recently saw a video on Shalom Acres about this squash. They were talking about how much can be harvested from just a few plants and I thought it would be a good item to have in the pantry, or possibly to can.
Golden Zucchini - Because I used up all my seeds last year and didn't get a single yellow zucchini to save the seeds from due to the major drought conditions.
Holy Basil - I love tomato and basil soup.
Catnip - To dry and save for my cats enjoyment
Jacob's Ladder - More shade tolerant, this will go in the side garden. I am always looking for something colorful to brighten that area up.
Mullein - Many medicinal uses, plus the bees like the flowers and I think it is a very pretty and unique plant.
Yellow Bedstarw - During the Middle Ages, mattresses were filled with this variety, leaving a nice, pleasant scent. The yellow flowers bloom June thru August, and can be used as a yellow dye. (per heirloomseeds website)

Saturday, January 28

Deer Damage and Gray Areas

My blog posting has been non-existent recently and for that I do apologize. This past summer was one of the hottest and driest in recent memory. We spent all summer just trying to keep our new orchard alive which was a full time chore thanks to our lack of irrigation.

By the time November came, we were using the last nice days before the snow to get half finished projects done. This included finishing the orchard fence, even if it was just to get it fully enclosed and not having a gate until spring.

We wanted to get the trees protected from the deer over the winter.

One of those sunny November days had me inside the orchard fence with Murphy the dog. Hubby and I had just finished hanging that last 250' section of fencing the enclose the orchard, while leaving a loose section to flip open and closed to serve as a make shift door. 

Hubby went back to the barn to see about bringing the tractor over to give us a little more weight and leverage on getting the last bit of 8' fence tightened, leaving Murphy and I to start taking measurements and making calculations on the amount of mulch we would need in the spring.
One of the first sections knocked down 
We heard a big crash and rustling of underbrush coming from outside of the fence and saw a huge buck running through the brush. Murphy was ecstatic and ran up the fence line towards the flap opening we had left. I yelled for him to stop but it was too late and he crashed through the flap, ripping some of the securing nails and causing some of the fence to fall on him. He got a little tangled in the fence and all this commotion made the deer freak out and run straight at the long row of already established fencing. He crashed right into it, taking down two whole 15' sections.

Murphy had extricated himself from the fencing and was now on the outside of the orchard, running back and forth along the outside fence line trying to figure out what this huge brown thing was and what it was doing in the orchard. The deer started running full speed up and down the inside of the orchard fence line while I was standing in the middle of the orchard not knowing what to do.

I didn't want to aggravate the deer any more than it already was since it was pretty much the largest buck I had ever seen or been that close to. He also had a very impressive set of antlers - at least 6 very large points - which I did not want charging full speed in my direction. Murphy had still not figured out how to get back inside the fence which may have been a good thing since I did not want him to be injured by the deer. At the same time, however, I wished that he could have been in there to protect me.

The deer had started throwing itself at the fencing in different areas trying to find a weak spot to escape. Every time he did this, the fence would shake and he made large bent areas in the fencing and bend some of the wooden posts. I was standing there watching so much damage being done to our fence but there was really nothing I could do about it without the risk of being trampled.

Murphy was still running around the outside of the fence, further aggravating the deer and I saw him turn towards me and start running in my direction. I stood still and waited to see what he was do next and I watched him turn around, get a running start, and try to hunch himself over the fence. He did not clear it and came crashing down onto the fence, snapping 2 of the 4x4 posts in the process.

He then got another running start and managed to jump over, completely clearing the 8' fence. he landed on the other side, somewhat gracefully considering his ordeal, and took off at the full sprint towards the woods.

By this time, Murphy was completely out of breath and did not want to pursue the deer. 

I got out of the fence, collected a very out-of-breath dog, and got to the barn where hubby was fiddling with the starter on the blue ford tractor. He asked me what was wrong and I told him to follow me, since I was too out of breath myself at that point to explain.

He followed me to the orchard and saw all the broken posts and fencing, while I had finally caught my breath and explained what happened. He was understandably upset, in that we had just about finished the fencing that morning. 

The damage was going to take a while to repair. We would need a few new posts and we would need to re-stretch a good deal of the fencing. Not all of the areas that were now bent were going to be able to be stretched back into shape so we will have some abnormalities in some of the sections. We managed to get things propped up temporarily since the major repairs was be in the spring. We just did not have the time or the money to spare.

It could have been much worse. Murphy could have been injured, I could have been injured or the deer itself could have sustained injuries that would have made it necessary to put him down. I did not have my phone with me in the field which was a mistake, and I did not have any way to defend myself other than Murphy. Not even my knife.

I learned a few good lessons that day which I will be reminded of every time I see those fence sections with the abnormal bends and the replaced posts. I still don't know why the deer was running through the brush to begin with. He could have been scared by a hunter on an adjacent piece of property and ran onto ours. Or he could have just been startled by something else. I encourage the deer to come to our property and I like seeing them - part of why we bought this property was to give the area wildlife a sort of refuge or buffer to the development that is creeping in around us. The fencing has always been a hard decision for me in that we are taking away part of their natural habitat and putting man made barriers in their living areas. However, in order to pay for this property, we do need to farm small portions of it to pay the bills. Part of creating this semi-permaculture orchard system is to try and restore this area to a thriving, and productive, ecosystem.

If I can find the balance in that - managing to pay the bills while creating an inviting and safe place for wildlife, it will help me be more at ease with the man made intrusions that we do have to put on the property. More and more, as I get my hands dirty on this adventure, I see that there is not a black and white answer to everything. The gray areas, however much they both me, are growing larger.

Thursday, January 26

Last Summer's Tomatoes

This past summer I harvested many pounds of tomatoes. My neighbors and my husbands co-workers were very pleased and I learned a few new things.

I wanted to try a whole bunch of new varieties this past season as a type of experiment. I wanted to see what else would grow, in addition to my every-year varieties. I wanted more colors and sizes and shapes and many an hour was spent agonizing over the pages of the Baker Creek seed catalog.

The Selections:

White Tomesol
Gelbe von Thun
Cherry Roma
Mexico Midget
Red Cherry
Sweet Pea Currant
Yellow Cherry (Sungold)
Black Cherry
Blue Gold

Black Cherry 

Blue Gold, not yet ripe

As always, I planted many more plants than I needed and they took over the space allotted in the garden for tomatoes. The chickens were also beneficiaries of the excess, especially damaged fruit. On an interesting side note, later in the summer I had very hardy tomato plants growing in the chickens area which I take as a testimony as to the power of natural seed.

In short, most types of tomatoes will grow well in good soil. I enjoyed the colors and learning the quirks and benefits of each new variety. The blue golds are my neighbors new favorite. They grow fast and the plants produce a very large number of cherry-size tomatoes. They do take a bit longer to ripen and it was hard to tell at first if they were, in fact, ripe. I had my husband out in the garden with  me, handing him samples to test. We reached a point where they are ripe when the tomato is basically half black, half bright yellow. Also, they are a little difficult to pick. Normally, I would just pick a cherry tomato and it would come right off the green, leaving no stem on the tomato. With the blue golds, if you try to pick like that, the top of the tomato will split and it ends up as a big sticky mess in your picking basket. It is a little more work, but I found the best way to pick these is to leave the stem intact and use a small pair of garden sheers to snip the stem off right above the pointed leaves. It leaves the tomato intact and does not cause the juice get all over the other tomatoes in your basket.

Ripe Blue Gold tomatoes

I also tried a new trellising method for the blue golds. Nothing high-tech, just some wooden stakes with twine woven back and forth between them, and crossed in the middle. The tomatoes seemed to grow very well this way, there was no hard metal edges for the branches to bend against and it kept the plants upright and off the dirt. It might not have been the prettiest tomato trellis system, but it worked and I will be using it again.

Simple wooden stake and twine trellis system.

This works well with more of a non-climbing tomato plant.

This seasons winners were mostly in the 'cherry' category. Sungold, Black Cherry, Red Cherry, Cherry Roma and Blue Gold were all favorites. Most of the others did well, but the cherry varieties won out. I was not a fan of the White Tomesol - they split easily and the plants had a hard time staying upright, even with a lot of support.

The other variety that I am not going to grow again, at least for a few more years, is the Sweet Pea Current. Although it grew very well and produced a lot of fruit, it was difficult to pick in that they are very small. They resemble the growing pattern of the cherry in that the top fruit is red and ready to be picked, then the next is orange, then yellow, and then on to green - not ripe. It was hard to not knock off the unripe ones when picking the ripe.

Sweet Pea Currant tomato

Also, this tomato greatly resembles the nightshade plant which grows in abundance in our area. They are in fact, in the same plant family along with eggplant. I have been teaching the kids about nightshade and to stay away from it even though it has berries. The Sweet Pea Current tomato fruits closely resemble the growing pattern of the nightshade with the colors and size of fruit and at this time they are still too young to totally grasp the concept when the plants are so alike. I am going to err on the side of caution and not plant this variety again for a while.

Monday, January 23

New Additions

This past summer I took in 5 barn cats from an inner city  feral colony. They were trapped, vaccinated, fixed and given a clean bill of health, and they were brought here to live out their days hunting mice and occupying the barns. The chipmunk and mole population went way down, which was a good thing since we had a terrible over population of both.

Two of the five cats were definitely feral and did not want to have any human interaction beside the glares and stares they would give me when I came to fill the food bowl. I was ok with this. I knew they came from a rough place and they had not had the best experiences with humans.

The other three were different. They were a little more trusting and it was not long before I could pet two of them, with the third getting more friendly every day. I debated bring those three in the house and making them permanent indoor cats and I kept that thought in my mind all summer, telling myself that I would make a decision when the cold weather came.

Daddy, playing outside before his injury
This past November I was still on the fence about that decision when I went up to the barn to feed them one morning. I noticed that Daddy, the large orange cat, was limping badly on his front right foot. It was very swollen and he was definitely in pain. I called up the vet and set an appointment for that afternoon.

He had been bitten by something, most likely a raccoon, and he had an infection and fever. A round of antibiotics and some miserable cat glances rounded out our trip to the vet and I brought Daddy into the house that day. I set him up in the laundry room where I could keep an eye on him and where he would have peace and quiet.

He improved over the next week and I decided to bring in the other two cats, Grandma and Sonny, as well. Sonny is Daddy's actual son from one of the litters, so I thought some family might speed the healing along.

Within the next couple of days, Daddy developed a terrible respiratory and eye infection and he was back to the vet. He was given medication and a re-check was scheduled for the next week, He did not improve and when taken back to the vet, they discovered abnormalities in his blood and some small tumors forming behind his eyes. He had also lost 2 pounds in 2 weeks which amounted to 20% of his body weight. We made the decision to put Daddy to sleep that day since he was in so much pain and nothing was helping him. That poor cat had been though so much in his life that I could not stand to put him through any more.
He was such a sweet cat and he will be greatly missed, even though he was not with us for very long.

I watched the other two cats very closely for any sign of illness but nothing presented itself. Sonny, who looks much like Daddy, is still the skittish one. He likes to stay in the laundry room except for the very early hours of the morning when he was venture into the kitchen to explore. He is very affectionate, but only in the laundry room.
Sonny, the shy one

Grandma, the new boss of the house

 And then we have Grandma, one of the older colony cats. She was one of the originals, coming to the colony pregnant. We don't know exactly how old she is but she is small for her approximate age of 5. What she lacks in size, she makes up with in personality. She is now the boss of the house. She goes where she wants and does what she wants. She and Murphy, our dog, are now getting along, but it was not without some confrontation in the beginning.

She is a snuggler, on her own terms however. And her facial markings and eye placement give her the look of being constantly angry, even when I am sure she is a very happy lady.

Good at catching mice and fitting right in......

Monday, August 15

Achocha's and Sunchokes

A few years ago the husband thought it would be a good idea to plant some sunchokes, or Jerusalem artichokes, in the side field near the garden. At the time, I was happy that he was taking an interest in gardening and we put them in and watched them grow. Those things can really grow. And spread. And grow some more. It has turned into quite a large patch that is mostly unconstrained. It borders the small walking path that I mow around the exterior of the garden fence and I have kept it away from the grapes by mowing, also. The rest of it is just growing and spreading into the field and I do not mind very much at all.

They are pretty plants - lots of dense green foliage that does a great job of choking out any competing weed, including the aggressive mint that has found its way onto the property. The flowers resemble small sunflowers or daisy's which the bees love and I would be perfectly happy with a field of Jerusalem artichokes, the foliage being a chop-and-drop at the end of the season and the tubers, which resemble a ginger root, being food. They are also a potential ethanol fuel source which will take some time for us to figure out and decide if it is worth a try. 

The Jerusalem artichokes, or sunchokes, before they flowered this season.

Last fall I orderd some achocha cucumber seeds from one of my favorite new website finds - An American Homestead. I posted about them back in June and they are definately worth a re-mention. They have a fantastic website and an even better Youtube channel with videos on just about everything you can think of related to homesteading and off-grid living. I highly recommend a binge-watch of their three seasons on shows as well as all the how-to videos. They have also recently started a live Saturday night podcast, 10pm EST through their Youtube channel and I never miss an episode.

The cucumber seeds I ordered are doing well despite the drought and the poor performance of my other traditional cucumbers. I have two separtate hills growing on different garden areas and so far they have both sent out a great quantity of climbing vines. I have yet to see any cucumbers, but due to the horrible weather we have had this summer I am surprised I have anything left growing in the garden at all. I'm just watching and waiting for my Achochas.

The Achocha cucumber vines growing alongside my yarrow.
A crop that doesn't seem to mind this heat, aside from the tomatoes and grapes, are my peppers. They plants are all big and healthy even though they got off to a slow start. We have been harvesting peppers for a few weeks now - not a lot - but enough for us.

Temperatures have been in the high 80's and low 90's for most of the month with humidity also in the high range - today it was 96%. It has been a terrible summer, weather-wise, for all of the farmers here and we will see produce prices going up (another reason we grow our own). Our water bill, when it comes, is going to be something I won't want to look at. Watering the garden just about every day has saved the tomatoes and peppers but the beans and cucumbers just couldn't handle it. What survived of teh bean crop are being left to dry on the plant to save for seed. They should be very hardy seeds for planting next year!

Sunday, August 14

Just a few of the blooms we are enjoying around the property....

My first year planting borage 

Sweet peas usually drive me crazy with the massive taking-over they do in the gardens, but this year
I am letting them sprawl. They are one of the only colorful things left with this drought.
A new variety of cosmos that I found this spring.

These just come back bigger and better every year. I love them.

These two have taken over the back field which I love. I am just letting it go and see what comes up
to get a better understanding of our soil and what thrives here.

Saturday, August 13


Murphy, our faithful farm dog, has been benched for 4 weeks. He has been favoring his back right leg for quite a while and since he loves nothing more than a sprint across the field in chase of something always faster than himself, we chalked it up to simple 'over-doing it'.

Last week he just didn't bounce back from it. He would be sore at the end of the day - lots of running around and being my constant yard and farm work companion - and he would be slow in getting up on the couch for his nighttime snuggle. Last week, he was in a great deal more pain so he was off to the vet and diagnosed with a tear in his ACL.

Murphy is a highly energetic dog. He is skin, bones and muscle - not an ounce of fat on him. He never walks anywhere. He has two settings - sleeping and full speed. And he is absolutely miserable right now.

For the next four week he must be walked on his leash or on his cable line. No running, no jumping, no playing fetch, no chasing anything faster than a very slow mowing dog treat. It has been an exercise in patience for both of us.

He is very frustrated with me and thinks he is being punished which makes me launch into a detailed explanation of why he can not run which is met with a blank doggy stare and a refusal to go number 2 while on a leash.

He is still a great homestead guard dog and loyal family member, all be it a miserable and benched one. My little guy is at my side as I write this, snoring and twitching in his sleep, no doubt dreaming about chasing something small and furry through the woods.