Archive for June, 2012

Saturday, June 30:

Two-tenths of an inch of rain last night laid the dust temporarily and cancelled our church league softball game.  We sat on the edge of the porch and let the drizzle damp our hair, watching the air currents, never straightforward in our little hollow, tie the treetops in knots.

Belatedly we remembered that we had not given the corn its second hilling; the late planting, in fact, hadn’t been hilled at all.  We hoped the wind wouldn’t knock it over and lodge it; just such a storm last summer had laid out all but the youngest corn in an almost totally supine position.  Not people to know when we are beat, we actually – we blush to admit it – spent all of a very hot morning crawling around in the dirt raising the corn up again and tying it – yes, tying it, every last stalk in about three hundred row-feet of corn – to temporary wire fence we stretched between the rows.  Good heavens, what an expenditure of energy on a very long shot.   Yes, we got corn out of that patch that we probably wouldn’t have gotten otherwise, but it was a lot of work for only a very little gain; half the stalks bore little or nothing.  We could instead have fed the lodged corn to the pigs and cows and replanted with something else.  It was only July; fall came late that year and some short-season hybrid corn would have had time to make before frost.

We made two five-pound Paysanos last week, but we will not be making more until the hot weather breaks.  A cheese fresh out of the press has to dry at room temperature, usually for several days, and at the present room temperature a new cheese doesn’t dry; it weeps like a mother-of-the-bride.  If allowed to welter in its own whey it will rapidly develop a case of mold spot-measles.  We turn it often and keep a fan on it, but experience tells us that when a biological operation of this sort gets too complicated it is probably best to suspend operations until conditions are more favorable.

We paid the price last week of not having perimeter fence at the monastery in a hot calf-hunt through the high grass and into the steep wooded coulees.  Something, deer probably, had charged through the polywire fence around the steers’ paddock, leaving them at sweet liberty, and by the time we discovered the damage they had disappeared without a trace.  Almost an hour’s searching high and low finally turned them out barely a hundred yards from their starting point, dodging and grazing among the cane brakes behind the big garden.  We are making their paddocks smaller now, to give the deer a smaller target; the price is that we have to move the paddocks more often.

Our experience in the world of business is that many problems are may be susceptible of a single solution – one size fits all – and we have had to adjust our minds to the fact that animals and plants and weather have a way of springing something new on us every time.  Realizing this fact has lowered our tension level a notch or two; now we don’t feel like failures every time we have to alter the management practices around here.

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Thursday, June 28:

Still hot (ninety-nine degrees).  Still dry (an inch of rain in two months).   Grass almost gone.

The experienced farmers assure us this has been before.  They promise it will rain again.  We aren’t sure.  Maybe the Gubment should do something;  just leaving the question to Time and Nature seems so inadequate.

While we wait for God and the Gubment to solve the water issues, we go on getting up before the sun to milk the cows, doing something or other all day long with only brief pauses for meals and unavoidable necessity, and falling into bed at least thirty minutes later than would really make for a good night’s sleep.

We water squash and pick off the bugs.

We put away all the things in the barnyard that have somehow migrated there from where they really belong, as:  stock panels for making sliding broiler pens, railroad ties for keeping stock panels off the ground, large rocks for holding back the dirt on the side of the barn, tangles of baling twine, buckets that came down full of pig swill and didn’t get taken back up the hill again, a plastic bottle to fill with water for priming the jet pump, a shovel for scooping straw out of the pigs’ trough and for batting them on the head when they get in the way of the shovel, etc.

Two vehicles are being rebuilt in the garage and barn, ever a source of activity.

We bake.  And make cheese.  And cook breakfast, and lunch, and dinner.  We wash mounds of stinky jeans.  We mow the high grass for the sisters at the monastery.

We chase escaped steers across half creation because there is no perimeter fence at the monastery.

We dig compost and prep the gardens for the next planting of beans, or squash, or lettuce, yes, lettuce, because in the shade gardens it will still sprout so long as we water it, just a little, every day.

And we drive an hour north for the fun social event of the month, our Grazing Council pasture walk, two hours of standing out in a hot pasture with the sun in our eyes watching the flies on a cow’s back and hearing words of wisdom on grass, and rain, and forage, and fertility, stock minerals and water and fence and fescue and the danged seismic sensors the fracking people have draped all over God’s creation to trip people, tangle in rotary mowers, and poison inquisitive calves who will suck on anything.  Two hours to listen to people smarter than we are and feel good that we understand what they have to say better than we did three years ago.  Two hours to see where theory meets practice and learn that where a man puts his mind and his muscle he doesn’t necessarily have to put so much of his money.

And an hour at the end to drink a beer, eat a beef sandwich and an out-of-this-world raisin walnut bar, and forget our troubles in the joy of contemplating our neighbors’.

We are having a great time, but tomorrow we will still be half an hour short on sleep.

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Wednesday, June 27:


We are awake at seventeen minutes past midnight.

We are up keeping a close eye on a kiln we started at just before noon; we will probably be up until at least four in the morning.  When you are pushing something to 2,300 degrees you can’t just go to bed and forget about it.  This kiln has a lot of market pottery in it, and some bowls we made to pay our friend Dan of Windsong Farm for coming out and telling us how to set up the power to run the kiln, and we are anxious that the work should be a success.

No rain.  The pastures are going dormant, the cool-season grasses and warm season alike turning brown and ceasing to grow.  There are about six more paddocks we can make before we have to put the animals in the barnyard and give them hay, keeping them off the forage which their overgrazing would set back.  They will not like to be shut up, even as poor as the forage is at present, but taking care of our pasture now will mean the best chance for it to make up when the rain does come.  The second cutting hay in the meadows is coming on, and although it is still short its quality looks pretty good, so we still hope to have enough for winter without buying any in.

The two remaining pigs on milk are getting very large and will be ready to go to the butcher almost immediately.  This leaves us with a problem to solve:  we have to have a new set of piglets ready as soon as we truck these off, to utilize all our extra milk, buttermilk, and whey.  Our usual provider of feeder pigs will be at the farmers’ market tomorrow, and we will ask him if he has any young pigs coming on.  In addition, we are sending out letters of inquiry to all heritage pig breeders we can locate within a couple-three hours of us.  The Tamworth breed looks like a good homestead pig, and we need a sow and a boar from different bloodlines.  This is liable to run into some money, even buying young animals, as we must. Still, the next step to food security, it seems to us, is to raise our own animals from birth.  The feeder piglets will go in the pen in the big barn, while the breeding stock can have its own quarters in the calf barn, to avoid any unnecessary sharing of germs among them.

The girls took four chicks from under the latest broody hen; a rat got two others, and one more had an incompletely-absorbed yolk sac and only lived a couple of days.  Some tears; mortality is a regular event on the farm, but always pathetic when it is small and fluffy.  Small people want to know if animals go to Heaven, and why God makes them if they don’t.  We hug the small person and assure him that since God is Love, and we love the animals, there must be in them something of God which is immortal.

Hope that’s not heresy, but to tell a child that his love is gone forever is to tell him the Universe is a place of hopeless sorrow.  Better to tell him of the love of God and straighten out fine points of theology when he is older . . . the perfectibility of Man is tied up with the fate of the Universe.

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Saturday, June 23:

Still no rain.  We have had one or two light showers which refreshed us but had little or no effect on the gardens and pastures and barely registered in the rain gauge.  The temperature has been in the nineties, which to our Texas-bred minds is moderate, but our Ohio-acclimated bodies find the weather almost oppressive.  The windows are wide open to catch any breeze, and we sweat standing still.

Still, there is a great deal to be done at this time of the year.  Garden maintenance is constant.  It is like housework; no matter how often you cook, or wash dishes, or fold laundry, the next day it will have to be done again.  The hot dry weather, stunting to some garden plants, is like a tonic to the tomatoes, squash and corn, and the weeds – especially the weeds.  We have lost track of how many times we have tied up the tomatoes, pinching out the suckers at the same time, and pulling weeds as we go.  The six-foot stakes we tie them to are beginning to look too short.

Every day or so we paw through the squash plants searching for the grey, diamond-shaped bodies of squash bugs, which we drop into a jar of soapy water or just smash.  They must be related to stink bugs because they look so like, and when you smash them they smell like those aggressive anise-scented air-fresheners that overwhelm you when you step into a gas station restroom.  The smell, in addition to discouraging any predator less determined than a gardener, must serve as a warning signal to other squash bugs:   during our last summer’s war on squash bugs when we torched every foot of the pumpkin patch in a final effort to make some dent in the bug population, the air was so syrupy with their smell you didn’t want to open your mouth to breathe, and the ground was grey with tens of thousands of bugs flowing out of the garden like a tide, trying to make it to the safety of the high grass.  There was trouble in the air and they knew it, even before the demented woman started shoveling them into the fire.

At first hand-picking squash bugs makes you think life is too short to spend any of it this way, but diligent attention from the time the plants leaf out does diminish the numbers.  We are placing all our hope for a squash crop on Mr. Eliot Coleman, whose assertion that really healthy plants aren’t bothered very much by bugs reassures us despite our own experience.  We’ll coddle these plants all we can, and what is perhaps better, we are making successive plantings of the short-season summer squashes and if the bugs get ahead of us in one place, we’ll tear those plants out and hope that by the time the next planting is maturing the bugs will have gone dormant or something.  Stay tuned.

Potato bugs are another scourge, fat, shiny orange grubs that eat the leaves of the potato plants down to bare ribs, and although one doesn’t eat potato leaves and is therefore not in direct competition with the bugs, the plants need leaves in order to grow potatoes.  Twice-a-week visits to the potato patch, or even more often, give us a chance to skim down the rows looking for bugs.  When we find an area that is infested we – that is, they, not I – smash the little boogers in their bare fingers by the dozen.  The more squeamish collect them in a can of soapy water, or brush them onto the dry, cracked ground and step on them.  It is our own experience that this method of control is very successful, and not really time-consuming if you don’t have to do the whole potato patch by yourself.

Japanese beetles make good targets for young people with badminton rackets, and if hit hard enough they disintegrate on impact.

News flash:  hallelujah and glory be.  Sixteen years we’ve been in this house, is it?  Sixteen years gardening in the same places, and this year, only this year, we discover that, despite what our eyes assure us, the big garden (as opposed to the really big garden) is downhill from the culvert on North creek.  This is earth-shaking news, because it means that when we drop a half-barrel under the culvert with a fitting plumbed into the side to take a garden hose, we have running water in the garden seventy-five yards away.  Not just some water, as we have had – and grateful for it! – from the rainwater reservoir next to the barn, which catches almost three hundred gallons when it rains enough and has watered many young fruit trees and tender seedlings which might otherwise have died, but which has to be husbanded carefully in dry weather – but unlimited water, a full hose running constantly which can be dropped into a trench and allowed to soak whole areas of thirsty garden.  This is an especially grateful discovery this dry, dry summer, and was made because the stock spring has run dry – or as near as makes no difference – and we had to fill the tank from the creek.  Heretofore we have done this with the aid of a small electric submersible pump and a bucket set in the creek bed; slow, somewhat troublesome, and requiring electrical power.  Now we drop a hose from the culvert into the three-hundred gallon tank and it is full in two hours.  It takes four or five hoses to carry the water as far as the barn, but as our hoses are all salvaged from the trash pickup the system is effectively free.

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Tuesday, June 12:

Of the thousand pounds of potatoes we grew last summer only two crates remain.  Some went to the monastery on the grounds of which we have our biggest garden, our acres being so largely vertical.  The monastery doesn’t store potatoes but uses them when they are first harvested, thin-skinned and sweet.  Our household eats potatoes twice a day, year in, year out; fried with onions and ham at breakfast, other ways at dinner.  About one hundred and fifty pounds of potatoes are set aside at harvest and stored at the back of the root cellar; these are the seed potatoes of the next year.

There are two schools of thought here about seed potatoes.  One school holds that you should save the best potatoes for seed because they have the best genetics and should be propagated.  There is much sound reasoning in this argument and it is the standard line of thought in seed saving.  However our experience, limited maybe but our own, has been that small whole potatoes when used as seed are less likely to rot in the ground than cut potatoes, whether these have been cured before planting or not.  Under perfect conditions potatoes sprout right up, and in this case seem to do fine, but should the weather turn wet or cold just after potato planting there is a good chance your cut potatoes will rot where they are planted.  Whole potatoes, on the other hand, have pretty good holding power, as you may see by the volunteer potatoes that come up in your last year’s potato patch.  To be on the safe side, we plant both kinds.

Our root cellar is rather more humid than the ideal, but the potatoes do very well there, and we see very little rot, almost none in fact.  Pontiacs, round, red, thin-skinned potatoes, bear profusely, and we get more of these; but the Yukon Golds store longer, and we save them to eat when the Pontiacs are gone.  Somehow, though, a crate of Pontiacs was overlooked and we are eating them now before the new potatoes begin.  These last potatoes have sprouted twice – and twice had the sprouts rubbed off — and are withered but sound.  A visitor to the farm was surprised to learn that in this condition they are still edible; Americans don’t like to eat things that don’t look new from the factory, even when we know better.  Actually you won’t know the difference when they are cooked, unless maybe they are a little gummy when mashed.

It is curious; crated potatoes sprouting will sometimes send a root right through a neighboring potato with no harm to it.  You can eat it just the same after you cut the root out.

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Monday, June 11:

   An evening running errands is far more tiring than the same period of time spent chopping weeds in the pasture, watering the dry gardens, or folding laundry.  Staying home is so comfortable.  But there were errands to be run, to the thrift store for jeans, to the hardware store for, well, hardware, and a scavenging stop at a site where a new copper roof was being put on a building.  The crates in which the roofing was shipped were heavy things cobbled out of many two-by-fours, and we obtained permission last week to take as many as we liked.  Only thing, we weren’t the only people who got that permission, and it was first come, first served.  Or maybe finders keepers.  So we have to show up often in our F-250 to be there when the crates are empty.  Tonight was a good haul, and we brought home almost enough lumber to make all the studs for one of our present projects.

So the time in town was probably well spent, but it was still tiring.  Give me good straightforward manual labor over shopping anytime.

Growing summer lettuce is always a challenge, when the heat makes even Black Seeded Simpson bolt like a startled horse.  Always looking for new tactics, we have cleared and composted the herb bed behind the greenhouse, empty now of everything except chives and some volunteer strawberries.  This bed spends most of the day in shade, but in late afternoon the sun breaks past the big maple by the woodshed and pours down on the now bare earth, heating the soil so that lettuce, if it germinated at all, would grow bitter and bolt young.  To counteract the harsh sun, we put hoops over this bed and clipped on wide panels of row cover to shade the ground and keep it cool.  We dug and raked the bed and soaked it in late evening to give it the best possible chance to cool down before we planted it to spinach and lettuce.   This morning we sowed two rows of greens, watered them, scattered straw lightly over the newly-seeded areas, and lay panels of old hog wire and chicken wire over them to make them less attractive to cats and invading chickens.  The idea is to see if we can keep it cool enough there to grow good lettuce.  We’ll keep you informed.

The spring lettuce is bolting faster than we can eat it.  When I go down to move the cow’s paddock I pull six or seven overgrown stalks like highrise apartments for earwigs and take them down as a treat for the pigs.

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Thursday, June 7:

Dinner:  eight handfuls of raw sugar snap peas, four bites of cold pork roast, and a hunk of cheese.  Also an iced coffee.

We are busy around here.

Topic:  weed invasions in your pasture

When your pasture is the size of a pocket handkerchief, you really must do something about this if you can.  Two people with eye-hoes and an hour to spare can make a very big dent in the ironweed, curly dock, and wooly yarrow in a small pasture.  Our present definition of an evening out is sixty minutes on the hillside chopping weeds.

Don’t laugh.  Beth’s mom is a retired health professional in the state of Texas who found her retirement interrupted by a call to patriotic duty.  Now she’s an independent contractor working for the Lone Star state, monitoring renal facilities which have been found not in compliance with state standards.  She spends half her week travelling to far-flung cities and standing over cringing or otherwise dialysis clinicians, saying in effect, “my way or the highway.”  She holds all the cards, and the clinics have to clean up according to her specs or be shut down.  No court of appeals.

She says it’s very refreshing.  After an unmentionable number of decades doing a great many things including raising five children, it is a pleasant change to do a job where you can really see the results.

Kind of like chopping weeds in the pasture.

The first planting of corn will soon be knee high, but the second and third plantings are germinating sporadically.  Ditto the okra.  The girls went down this afternoon and put in more okra seed, but we will give the corn a couple more days before we look at replanting the empty hills.  The tomatoes are well over two feet tall, but the peppers are sort of dinky, and we hope they catch up, because ninety quarts of salsa takes a lot of peppers.

The little bulls have been switched to buckets for their twice-daily feedings; buckets are much easier to wash than bottles.  For the first ten days or so, we add a raw egg to the milk for each bought-in calf.  We don’t know if it really does anything – our vet says not – but the theory is that the albumin in the egg slows the passage of milk through the calf.  All we know is that our score with dairy bull calves, not very impressive in the beginning, is now something close to one hundred percent.  Something must have changed.  If it’s not the egg, maybe it’s the pectin (think:  Surejel) we give them in dilute milk when they scour (think:  diarrhea), or maybe it’s that we keep them scrupulously separated when they are small to prevent them sucking one another’s ears and – things – and passing germs around.  Maybe it’s the thick straw we provide for their beds, and the nice stalls we built to keep them warm.  Maybe it’s the egg.

We still need rain.

Someone tell me what to do with garlic scapes, because we have a big bag of them.  The garlic plants will have more energy to put into bulbing out with their flower buds removed.  Two hundred row feet of garlic makes a lot of scapes, but when we sautéed them they were a little on the chewy side.  Tasted great, though.

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