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.

Friday, August 12

This year looks like a great year for our grapes. They should be turning magenta and violet any day now and I am looking forward to making some grape jam like in years past. Last year the husband thought he would experiment with fermentation and used all the grapes in a wine-scheme-gone-bad.

Not only did the gigantic glass containers take up a great deal of space, the finished product was very pungent and it took days to air out the kitchen. Did I mention it was also very potent? It was. My husband was very happy with this and enjoyed every last drop. This year, it's going to be jam.

The grapes are one of the only things doing well here this season. With this drought, everything has been struggling with the exception of the grapes and the tomatoes. We are still having the water all the trees every three days and I water the vegetable garden daily. I have given up on the flower beds for now as I only have so much time, and so much water. Some of the more drought tolerant flowers are doing well such as the black eyed susan, the queen anne's lace, the bee balm and the butterfly bushes. Surprisingly, my hydrangea bush is flourishing and is still giving beautiful foliage and flowers.

I am ready for this summer to be done. It has been one of the worst as far as weather problems that I can think of since I started gardening and homesteading here. The watering of the orchard alone has taken so much time away from so any other important projects. Keeping the orchard alive is more important that painting the barn or searching for an affordable chipper but it feels as if this summer has been one of limited accomplishments.

Today it was in the 90s with very high humidity. I was hoping this this would spark a pop-up thunderstorm to give the land a little drink but no such luck today. Maybe tomorrow since it is supposed to be hot, humid and just plain horrible for the next 4 days.

I seem to be saying that a lot this summer.

Maybe tomorrow.

Thursday, August 4

As of today, the drainage ditch is officially closed. It has taken almost five months to complete the installation of a drainage ditch in the new orchard which is the most utterly unnecessary drainage system in existence since we are in the middle of a severe drought. Granted, the best time to install a drainage ditch is during dry weather to adequately measure and grade and slope. But the farmer in me is deeply disturbed about the amount of time, effort, money and frustration poured into a project revolving around flooding while we are in the middle of the worst drought in our area since 1965.

The creek is bone dry.
We have been here 11 years and have never seen it dry up like this.
It is usually between 2 - 5 feet deep.

The daylight hours are precious. Keeping the delicate balance between projects lists, budget allowances and those daylight hours is a full time job. Sacrificing so many weekends and late nights on this one project – one item on a long list of “To Do’s” – has caused much aggravation and the use of foul language on occasion.

The setbacks and delays on this project are almost comical to think about:

  • Renting a backhoe to dig the trench on a snowy weekend in April (only time it was available)
  • Having half the trench collapse back in on itself the next week from heavy rain
  • Having to wait for the trench to dry out from all that rain and watching it turn into a gigantic swale
  • Spending months working with the trees and having to constantly 'vault' the trench
  • Waiting those months for the trench to dry and for the 4th-hand tractor with backhoe attachment to be affordable
  • Having to have all the hydraulics repaired on the 4th-hand backhoe, mostly by ourselves
  • Re-digging, re-leveling and re-contouring of the trench with the repaired tractor/backhoe
  • Working around Roy's office schedule since I have no idea how to use the backhoe, nor do I want to try with two little kids on my lap. 

The drainage pipe, wrapped in the fabric in the trench before we covered it all up with gravel,
landscape fabric and lots of dirt.
The process of actually installing the pipe is pretty straight forward. One layer of landscape fabric, one shallow layer of gravel, one drainage pipe wrapped in what is referred to as a "sock", another thicker layer of gravel, another layer of landscape fabric and then the dirt to fill in the trench. It sounds so simple. It wasn't. Temperature and humidity soared, tempers flared but now I can look at the trench - all flattened over with dirt - and wonder if we are ever going to actually need it. It is so dry and hot and everything is just about dead. I don;t know why all those weeds and wildflowers are alive and taking over the orchard since there has been no rain in over a month.

The field that has developed in the orchard due to inability to mow.
We have been watering the trees - all 250 of them - with the bucket and barrel system about every three days. It takes about 4 hours and 4 trips to refill the barrels. I re-watched "The Permaculture Orchard" the other night just to remind myself that all this was really worth it. 

One step to restoring the property here and it sure has been one to test our resolve. More news about other parts of the property soon. The forest is trying to heal itself, we have rabbits where there were none before and the fields are reclaiming their rights after years of mowing and mistreatment. It is amazing to see.

Tuesday, August 2

One Good Thing

One good thing about this serious drought we are experiencing (and probably the ONLY good thing) is that the pea vines have totally dried up and the pea seed saving is easy. They have all dried very quickly on the vine and I managed to save quite a few for next year.

The tall telephone peas were the best producers this year as far as good shelling peas were concerned. I always plant this variety because I know that I will get a ton of peas. As the name suggests, they grow very tall and need to be trellised which makes for some visually appealing shade structures in the garden. The peas from the tall telephone are sweet and they dry and save well.

The other fantastic variety for seed saving is the Alaska. It is a compact pod with smaller peas but they produce a huge amount for the smaller space they take up than other varieties. They still need to be trellised to some extent but they are not a fast growing as other varieties, making it easier to keep up with the vines. The great thing about Alaska peas is that they are fantastic for seed saving. I have never had a problem with them and they dry on the vine very well, even when we are not in the middle of a drought.

I also grew Green Arrow, Little Marvel and British varieties and I was happy with them, but not thrilled. Granted, it was a dry season but they just did not produce as well as I expected. I saved some of the seed for next year, hoping that the weather will be more cooperative.

The one variety that did not do well was the Maxigolt. The vine growth was very poor and I hardly got any peas from them. I did not bother saving any seeds since they don;t seem to do well in my soil and I have plenty of other varieties that I know will do well.

Peas are always the first seed that I save every year, followed shortly by the marigolds, calendula and poppy. The beans will start drying soon since it has been such a horrible season for beans, at least in my garden. One of my favorite things to grow, the beans have been very disappointing this year. In past years I have had more beans than I know what to do with. I do not plant a large amount of seed - the plants have just always given great yields. I have been known to covertly leave baskets of green, yellow and purple pole beans on my neighbors porches.

Not this year. They are producing but not nearly at the levels I am used to. I have let the yellow beans go for seed since I am not getting anything usable. The same with the scarlet runner, Mayflower and the rattlesnake. The blue lake produced two plants after three plantings since nothing was sprouting. I ordered and planted some interesting beans this season and I was looking forward to collecting both the food and the seed. It is a disappointment as far as the food end is concerned, except for the purple pole. They always seem to do well no matter where I plant them or of the weather conditions. I guess I have found the signature bean for my garden.

I am hoping for a better showing on the seed saving end for the beans. A few years ago at Mother Earth News Fair, I met a great lady from Fruition Seeds. She had a wide wooden bowl at her display booth filled with all different types of dry beans. Every color and shape and size - and she had them there so people could just dig their hand in and explore - like a kid in the sandbox. I have wanted to have my own wooden bowl of beans every since and I wanted to grow and save them myself.

I have my bowl, now I just need my beans.

Thursday, July 21

I surprised a mama turkey and her two little babies yesterday while I was taking a walk in the back field by the fledgling orchard. They raced into the tall grass next to the creek bed when they noticed me which is completely dry. Normally flowing at about 4 feet deep in some places, we can now walk on the bottom and it is not even the least bit mucky. 

A slightly rare classification of "severe drought" has been announced for our area and we have not ad a substantial rainfall in almost a month. The passing thunderstorms that rolled through the area a few days ago gave us a very small bit of much needed rain, but it was not nearly enough. We need a day of good, steady, soaking rain but each day I scan the weather websites looking for a big green blob to float over our area of the state, seeing nothing but a radar map void of anything resembling precipitation. Days and days of no rain to come.

We have been watering the fruit trees every other day in hopes of getting them through this drought so they can survive and become productive next season. Such new trees being stressed is not something I like and losing trees is not an option after all the time and money put into this venture. With no running water in the back field and the creek completely dry I decided to put two, 50 gallon plastic barrels on my smaller wooden trailer and install a hose hose attachment with a shut off valve on the bottom of each barrel. I them bought two 25' garden hoses and attached them, knowing that the pressure would not be much, but it would have to do.

I secured the full barrels to the trailer with some tie-down straps and bungee cords and away I went out to the field, towing the trailer with the 4 wheeler. Turns out that it takes upwards of 4 hours to hand water 250 fruit trees and the pumpkins and squash plants between each tree. The four of us, myself and Roy hauling heavy buckets and the kids with their sandbox pails, went through 4 refills of both barrels before we got everything watered sufficiently. We are currently doing this every two to three days after work and chores. 

The embarrassingly weedy center portion of the orchard where the
drainage ditch project has dragged into its 3rd month.

Ironically, the drainage ditch that we have not needed at all this season is still a project that is yet to be completed, and that is turning out to be one of the most annoying homestead projects I have ever done. At this point, we have the trench completely ready for the gravel and pipe. There was a great deal more hand digging with the shovels and pick axe than should have been required given that Roy spent so much time out there with the backhoe. 

My frustration level with this project has almost boiled over in that it is taking so much time away from other projects that need to be completed. This past weekend we managed to put the first layer in the trench - the black landscaping fabric. This sits in the bottom of the trench in a "U" shape with the sides secured temporarily to the sides of the trench. The next step is to shovel in about 2 inches of small gravel and to lay the black drainage pipe, wrapped in a fabric protector sleeve, on top of the gravel. 

The landscape fabric in the trench, "U" shaped to allow both sides to be folded over the top of the pipe
 and gravel before the dirt is piled back on.
hard to see, but the black wrapped pipe is in there with the gravel on the bottom and the top.
This has required hand shoveling of all the gravel and trying to maneuver around tall and prickly weeds which have grown up around the trench. Mowing has been impossible even with the large bush mower since the dirt piled up from the original trench digging has made the ground drastically uneven.

As of this date, we have 100 feet of fabric and pipe installed with the 2" of gravel under the pipe. This weekend will hopefully result in the rest of that 100 feet of pipe being covered with the gravel and the rest of the pipe being put in. This depends on both undependable weather and labor (a 7 year old and a 4 your old).

The never ending list of homestead projects continues......