Archive | May 2014

This is my life now

As many of you may have guessed, I did not grow up on a farm. Until I was about 10, I lived in the honest to goodness suburbs, then moved to a housing development in what was at the time still a very rural area. After we moved the thing I wanted most in the world was to ride a horse, so I took riding lessons until I started high school. It sounds silly, but I assumed at the time that that would be the end of it. I was heartbroken when I had to stop riding, but young and naive as I was, I thought it meant that I had to “grow up” and leave the frivolous fantasy of that kind of life behind me. The pastoral bliss of watching my own horses or even livestock grazing in the fields outside my window was beyond my imagining. I couldn’t fathom that it was possible to go from the outside of that life to the inside. I still don’t have endless acres dotted with my extensive flocks and herds. I do have a plan with a timeline, and a burning drive to achieve it, and a lot of support as I take one step at a time towards that farm. And in the meantime, I have 8 acres and a life that 14-year-old me would never in a million years believe is ours. Here’s a day in it.

It’s hard to tell what wakes me up first: the alarm going off, or the cat stepping on my face. I get dressed and pull on my boots to head out to the barn while my husband feeds the dogs and cats. I make sure the chickens and ducks have food and fresh water. I check on Mama Duck and her ducklings, and the chicks, who will be striking out away from their mamas pretty soon. Mama Duck has started taking her babies to experience the great outdoors, which they greatly enjoy!

IMG_20140528_112722_121Then I check on Bacon and Pork Chops, where I discover they have made great strides in their efforts to turn the center of their pen into a mud wallow. I don’t mind, since it will help to keep them cool as the days get hotter. They haven’t been out on grass before, and are having a ball rooting up all of the grass and clover. I make sure they have plenty of feed and give them a treat of whole corn and potatoes. They are still fairly nervous when I am working around the pen, so I bring them something nice to eat every time I come see them. I give them plenty of fresh water too. They are so darn smart. I have a hog nipple style waterer made from a 15-gallon plastic barrel, but they had always been used to drinking water from a trough. I asked the woman who sold them to me what I should do to train them on it. The internet recommends sticking a marshmallow or a smear of peanut butter on it, would that work? She just gave me a little bit of a funny look and said, “Pigs are curious. You don’t need to do anything, they’ll figure it out.” Lo and behold, she was absolutely right – within 15 minutes of getting them home, they had already discovered how to work the waterer!

With everybody fed and watered, I head back up to the house to grab a quick breakfast, then change into my riding boots and toss my tack box and helmet into the back of the Jeep. I drive about 10 minutes to the farm where I’ve been riding for about 3 years now, for a ride with my horse mentor. She had a new horse there for me to take out, a sweet chestnut OTTB (that’s off-track Thoroughbred, pretty common around here) gelding who is now learning to be a trail horse and jumper. We tacked up and went for a leisurely ride over the neighboring farms. There is no better therapy in the world than a horse, for my money. I love my dogs, and I love my cats too, for all their differences, but if you told me I could have only one animal companion, a horse is the one I’ve discovered I simply cannot live without. After we got back and got the horses rubbed down and turned out in the field, I headed home completely reinvigorated.

For lunch I grabbed some chicken salad made of home-grown chicken, which even after several years of raising my own chickens still gives me a thrill. The clouds started to roll in, so I went to check on Bacon and Pork Chops and make sure they had dry bedding and their feed pan was under cover. As quickly as they picked up the waterer, they haven’t yet mastered the self-feeder, probably because there’s so much rooting to do that they haven’t gotten too curious about it so far. Once I was sure everyone was ready for the rain, I headed back inside to start some laundry, then settle down with a movie and cast on a baby blanket for a friend. There’s nothing like a rainy afternoon for knitting progress!

It’s now one blog post later, and I’m about to go have a dinner of venison and noodles, one of the last meals from our share of the deer my father-in-law got last fall. After supper I’ll collect eggs from the poultry and put together several cartons of eggs – both duck and chicken – to take to my coworkers. Tomorrow I work, but I should still have plenty of daylight when I get home to work in the garden and move my mobile chicken ark to a new empty garden bed. Then I’ll get out my seed catalogs and plan my pre-order of fall garlic, one of the only things I’ve grown successfully apart from herbs.

We’ve come a long way, haven’t we?

Hogs Ahoy!

Ladies and gentlemen, I am proud to announce my first foray into the world of home raised pork. Meet Bacon and Pork Chops!

IMG_4269These two beauties are the latest additions to our little homestead. They are Hampshire barrows – that is, castrated young males – and in late October they will supply our freezer with roasts, chops, hams, sausage, and bacon. Getting a couple of feeder pigs has been a goal of mine for some time.  A homestead just doesn’t feel right without a couple of pigs, just like I couldn’t imagine one without at least a few chickens strutting around. It’s not just because of the delicious meat they’ll provide. These little guys will earn their keep by producing manure to be composted for the garden, and by disposing of any and all food scraps we supply them: potatoes that are getting soft, the dregs of milk in the bottom of a cereal bowl, fat trimmings from a roast of beef (but not pork, of course!), stale bread or crackers, slightly burnt baking experiments (I have had an embarrassing number of these), you name it!

Once I’ve been through the process of raising hogs and know what to expect, I also look forward to using future swine for labor in clearing or tilling vegetable plots, removing stumps, and other similar chores around the farm, but I want to get my feet under me first. There is seizing life by the horns, and then there’s biting off more than you can chew! For the next several months, my goal will be to learn as much as I possibly can from Bacon and Pork Chops as they grow big, strong, and delicious. Let the adventure begin!

Under Invasion

Invasive species are a problem everywhere, and one I don’t think we talk about enough. Recently I’ve been seeing one old nemesis crop up, and I thought I’d share. The more people are aware of the problems invasive species can cause, the more people can help to limit their spread as much as possible.

Let’s start by making one thing perfectly clear: in a well-balanced ecosystem, everything has its place, no matter how annoying it may be. Things that are invasive in the Northeastern United States have a place of origin where they make a valuable contribution to the overall balance of life. The key word there is balance. Nature generally has checks and balances to keep everything in harmony. Herbivores feed on plant species so they don’t overgrow. Predators keep the herbivore populations from getting out of hand. When a plant or animal is moved from its native area to a new place, the new environment doesn’t have any checks and balances to control it. The new species can badly upset the established harmony.

Today’s example is a plant known as garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata). This herb is native to Europe and parts of Asia, and is first recorded in North America in 1868 on Long Island. Now, it is found in various areas of the northeast and midwest. It was most likely introduced for its culinary and medicinal uses. It is often found in forest understories, particularly along trails and forest edges, or along roadsides, and it can form dense stands. It is a biennial, and spends its first year as a small rosette of toothed green leaves. In its more recognizable second-year form, it is a tall plant, standing as much as 2-3 feet high and fairly straight, with clusters of small white flowers.

A stand of garlic mustard

A stand of garlic mustard

So, what’s the problem? At first glance it may seem that garlic mustard is just another wildflower, and an edible one at that. In fact, it looks an awful lot like some of our native understory plants, like toothwort, early saxifrage, and sweet cicely. But because it is not a native plant, there are some important differences. Firstly, garlic mustard is able to out-compete the comparable native plants listed above, in part because the major native herbivores like deer don’t feed on it. They will preferentially pick out and eat the others instead. As garlic mustard becomes over-represented in the understory, other imbalances arise. For example, several species of native butterfly typically lay their eggs on plants like toothwort. When toothwort is less available, they lay those eggs on garlic mustard instead. The oils in the leaves of the garlic mustard can interfere with the eggs and keep them from hatching, or be unhealthy to caterpillars trying to eat them. One of these butterflies is the endangered West Virginia white butterfly.

Did you know that plants engage in chemical warfare? It’s true: plants give off chemicals that help them compete with other nearby plants for territory and nutrients. When this back-and-forth of chemical exchanges evolves over long periods, it is just another set of steps in the elaborate dance of the ecosystem. When an imported plant is dropped in the middle of this dance, however, the chemicals it exudes that were perfectly in step with its normal habitat cause havoc instead. Garlic mustard interferes with the beneficial fungi that are important for native tree seedling growth.

What can you do to keep your forest ecosystem healthy? Eradicating garlic mustard is a big job, but every little bit helps. Start by being certain you’ve identified garlic mustard correctly. It’s pretty distinctive, but make sure not to confuse it with the similar native plants mentioned above. The leaves have a heart shape and are toothed around the edges, and are generally pointed at the tips. The first-year rosettes have similar leaves, but more kidney-shaped.

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The flowers grow in clusters, usually with an iconic cluster at the top of the plant. Each small blossom will have 4 white petals oriented in the shape of a cross. (The clusters can have more flowers than this, but the specimens around my yard are a little light right now). The long, four-sided seed pods will also start to appear around this time of year.

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If in doubt, pluck a few leaves and crush them in your fingers. They should give off a garlic or onion-like smell. This will tell you you’ve got the right plant! Once you’ve identified it, you’ll want to grasp near the root and simply pull it out of the ground. This is easier when the soil is damp. Try to get as much of the root as possible, or it can regrow. Do this every year! Seeds can grow after even as long as five years in the soil. Once the plant is pulled, you need to make sure the seeds don’t go back into the soil. Put it in a burn barrel if you have one, or bag it securely and put it in the garbage. Feel free to use the leaves as a culinary herb, if you know they haven’t been sprayed.

More questions? Want to check out the sources I used to investigate garlic mustard? I first learned about garlic mustard from the Brandywine Conservancy, a local conservation group. Then I did some more research here:

http://www.columbia.edu/itc/cerc/danoff-burg/invasion_bio/inv_spp_summ/Alliaria_petiolata.html

http://www.nyis.info/index.php?action=invasive_detail&id=25

http://www.nps.gov/plants/alien/pubs/midatlantic/alpe.htm

(Egg) Breaking News!

We interrupt your regularly scheduled blog post to bring you this breaking news! WE HAVE DUCKLINGS! That’s right, the Muscovy duck mama’s eggs have hatched! They weren’t there on Thursday night, but by Friday morning they were waiting for me in the barn! We have either 14 or 15 baby Muscovies, but we’re pretty sure it’s 15. Because we let the girls set up their own nest, we’re not 100% sure how many eggs were under her, but it looks like she hatched every last one of them! We’re just thrilled. Mom is doing a great job, teaching them to eat and drink and generally be ducks. She does not want to let us have anything to do with them, so getting good photos (or an accurate count) has been challenging, but here’s a shot of the family together!

IMG_4258As you can see, we have a mix of mostly-yellow and mostly-black babies. I’m pretty certain, based on the research I’ve been doing about Muscovy duck color genetics, that this means both my males are fertile! My white drake should only be able to father white ducklings on the two females we had at the time this clutch started incubating. So in order to get non-white babies, that means my black male should also be fertile. The reason I spent so much time thinking about this is because we had suspected there was a chance the black drake could be a Muscovy cross. Muscovy and mallard-stock ducks can interbreed, but their offspring are mules, unable to reproduce. But it seems like he is a Muscovy after all!

This group will have a space to themselves for a week or so, then we’ll open the door and let mama integrate them with the rest of the flock!

Video Killed the Blog Post

I have a blog post all written and ready to post, except I need to go take some photos for it. Unfortunately finding time to go get the pictures that I need during the hours where there’s good light is proving to be a challenge, even with as long as the days are now. Look for a new post on Saturday evening, most likely! In the meantime, here is a picture of a duck.

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Livestock season is here!

Beltane is just behind us, and while we have no cattle to drive to summer pastures, livestock season is definitely here! Our chicks hatched last Friday, seemingly in honor of the holiday, and are enjoying learning their way around the world. We had two hens setting, and when the babies hatched they didn’t bother to keep them separate. As a result, rather than two hens with broods of 7-8 chicks each, we simply have 15 chicks with two mommies. Predictably, no one in the barnyard thinks twice about this arrangement. Everyone is happy as can be! Both moms are busy shepherding the babies around and teaching them how to eat, drink, and generally be chickens.

IMG_4144Mama #1 is a Welsummer, and Mama #2 is a Speckled Sussex. The eggs were collected from our wide assortment of hens. There were two roosters in the flock, a Speckled Sussex and a Barred Rock/Maran cross. As a result, the chicks are going to be a grand assortment of mutts, but that is part of the fun. Someday I would like to keep a few pure flocks to preserve some of my favorite heritage breeds, but for the time being, we will take what we get! The purpose of this mini-farm is to be a learning experience and trial ground for different things, after all.

I also was finally able to plant my herbs and move the bay tree outside for the season! I can’t believe how much it’s grown. Take a look!

bay tree year 1

March 2013

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May 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This winter I lost everything else I was trying to keep alive, even the rosemary that survived last winter. So, we started from scratch with parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil, mint, and lavender. I still need to pick up some chives, since we use a lot of that as well, but this will get us started at least. I love how accomplished I feel once the herb garden is started. Despite the rough winter, it is still one of my few mostly successful gardening endeavors.

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Stay tuned for more exciting undertakings in the coming weeks! There is still a lot of news pending!