Ruffled Feathers and Spilled Milk

Farming with ducks and dairy goats, chickens and children.

Truth in Tomatoes.

Posted on | October 9, 2015 | No Comments

The various tomato seeds I bought in February in a fit of winter doldrums (well played, seed catalog, well played) have shown themselves.  This summer the tomatoes exploded and, in an amazing triumph, the plant labels were still intact.  So I actually knew which variety was which and how it performed.  Oh, there were struggles in the beginning.  When the fruit first set, I found an assortment of the usual problems—-bacterial speck, blossom end rot, and early blight.

I even had some leaf roll in the newest tomato bed which I attribute to the manure being too hot or too much nitrogen from the shredded leaf debris that made up the base of the bed.

But I pruned the plants heavily this year.  Very heavily—all the stems were pinched off below the first blossoms, leaving the bottoms bare, and the foliage was trimmed so sunlight came through easily.

I immediately picked off green tomatoes with any signs of disease and cut away any branches with speckles or spots of any kind.  The plants got some doses of raw milk at the roots and a couple sprays of epsom salt on the foliage.  The results were impressive.

I have no idea if pruning increases or decreases the output of tomatoes.  Apparently this is a hot topic of debate among tomato enthusiasts, but in order to answer that question I’d need control plants and pruned plants and proper record-keeping and blah, blah, blah, don’t the ag scientists get paid for that?  That sort of gardening is not suitable for people who start pruning plants while in their pajamas after putting a kid on the bus in the morning.  But I do know that pruning stops blight in its tracks.  The only plants that showed signs of blight after the first couple weeks were the determinate varieties that I had not pruned.  So I pruned them, too.  Because I planted 42 tomato plants this year.  If the 6 determinate varieties didn’t produce every tomato they were capable of producing because I pruned them, that’s OK.

During the first part of the summer we struggled with cracking.  We tended to have heavy rainfall every 3 or 4 days, which saved us from irrigating.  But it also meant I had to harvest as many almost-ripe tomatoes as possible right before the rain arrived.  If I didn’t get them in time, they were swollen and cracked after the flooding ceased.

We placed almost-ripe tomatoes on the window sill to gather a couple more days of sun and set a bunch of rue in the middle to keep the fruit flies at bay.

I’ve had rue in the herb garden for years and never used it for anything.  But this summer we kept entire flats of tomatoes on the counter before distributing them and a small cup of rue in the middle kept fruit flies out of the crop.  Amazing.  Better than any half effective vinegar/dish soap combination we’ve tried in the past.  I’ll be using it next summer in the scrap bowl, too.

Several tomato varieties turned out perfect round and red tomatoes, including Big Boy

Early Girl


and Rutgers.

Grandma’s Pick had a wonderful shape—almost like a pumpkin.

Although the shape made it awkward for cutting into slices and better for chunks of tomatoes in salads or other dishes.

Mortgage Lifter had the same appealing shape but stayed more blush than red when ripe.

Out of the large varieties, Country Taste was as huge and juicy as predicted.

But, although Goliath was big, it almost always split at the shoulders.

And Dinner Plate was delicious but wasn’t any bigger than a Beefsteak.

My Celebrity tomatoes always had these gray lines around the shoulders. And never really turned bright red.

But despite their less-than-perfect appearance they were some of the best tasting slicing tomatoes in the garden.  That’s how Mother Nature fools the supermarkets and rewards the home farmer.

Health Kick was a huge surprise as it produced so many tomatoes that the branches kept threatening to snap off.

The tomatoes were super red and perfect for salads and pasta as they held their shape and their juice, even when sliced.  No sloppiness at all.

The only other variety that gave them a run for the money was Fourth of July.  True to its name, the first tomatoes were ripe and ready on the 4th.  And it continued to produce a stream of juicy, red, fit-perfect-in-the-palm-of-your-hand tomatoes.

On an odd note, a friend told me that he also raised Fourth of July tomatoes and his also were always ripe on the 4th, too.  Which was almost kind of creepy.  How is it possible that a tomato raised under an unending variable of conditions is always ready on the same week?  That seems less like crop science and more like voodoo.

The colored varieties were a 50/50 split.  Carbon and Pink Berkeley Tie Dye were utter flops.  Didn’t even produce tomatoes worth photographing—-just measly little stubs of tomatoes that turned brown and fell off the vine.  But Lemon Boy was a beautiful ray of sunshine.

And Oxheart was pretty and prolific.

The yellow and orange varieties were supposed to have less acid than red tomatoes.  They tasted exactly the same as red tomatoes to us.  But they did add great color to everything from salads to chilis to sauces.  Plus, the plants were vigorous and healthy so we’ll definitely grow Lemon Boy and Oxheart next year.

The Indigo Blueberry cherry tomatoes were disappointing.  It was hard to tell when they were ripe and they were very small.

But the Purple Bumblebee cherry tomatoes were adorable.  They looked more like mini-watermelons than purple but they were sweet and juicy and a bit bigger than most cherry varieties.  Perfect for snacking!

By September the tomatoes had overgrown their trellis, were terribly leggy, and blight was creeping up the stems again.

So I gave them one last heavy pruning.  And I was surprised at how many tomatoes were remaining on the vines.  A whole crop hanging in there until frost.

Or so I thought.  Then we had 2 weeks of heavy rain. Which showed us every spiderweb tucked among the tomatoes.

But when the showers ended, they left a whole lot of tomatoes on the ground.

So the crop might be finished even before the frost arrives.  Just making a simple batch of summer succotash required using the dregs off the vines.  The kinds of tomatoes that would have gone to the pigs or the chickens just a few weeks ago.

And even after a bumper crop of all those tomatoes, I never canned a single batch of salsa, or pasta sauce, or anything.  Instead, the majority of them went to the slew of tomato sandwiches I consumed for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  Because they were just too beautiful to resist slicing and nibbling any time of the day.

Oh, well.  The lack of canned tomatoes in the pantry will just make next year’s Fourth of July tomatoes taste that much sweeter when they come in.  And I still have a nice selection of my favorite seeds left over for spring planting next year.

So I won’t get sucked into the catalog frenzy this winter.  Unless….

Wait a minute…..

Oh, my….

Someone stop me.  Please.

Winner! Winner! Peppers for Dinner!

Posted on | October 6, 2015 | No Comments

The peppers were getting out of hand.  We had to switch from roasting them over the burner to putting entire cookie sheets of peppers under the broiler.

After they were scorched on top, we sealed them up in the tin foil and let them steam for 10-15 minutes until we could easily peel off the skins.  Some of them went into the freezer. But we made a lovely batch of roasted jalapeno guacamole that I served with grilled eggplant and zucchini, as well as salsa from the garden, all tucked together on hamburger buns with a slice of provolone cheese.  I called these “veggie burgers,” for which I received a lot of kickback.  Pretty explained that veggies burgers were vegetables all smushed together on a bun.  I glanced at the cut up eggplant and zucchini smushed onto a bun and covered with salsa, guacamole, and cheese.  Um,…OK, not a veggie burger?  At least the guac didn’t receive any complaint.  And veggies always go down good wrapped in bread.  With cheese.

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Peppers for Dummies.

Posted on | October 3, 2015 | No Comments

The peppers got a new raised bed this year and it didn’t go well.  About 1/3 of the bell pepper plants got green and glossy and then wilted.

Generally, wilted peppers are a sign of fungal disease.  But since my peppers started out as lush plants, I suspected excessive nitrogen.  The raised bed was layers of manure and mulched leaf debris and it only sat for about 4 months before planting.  Which might not have been enough time for everything to break down and balance out.  At least I hoped it was a nitrogen problem.  The excessive nitrogen will fix itself over time.  The fungus will require crop rotations or new soil.  Of course, this was going on, too.

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Throw Back Thursday: Wings.

Posted on | September 16, 2015 | 7 Comments

I tasted it for the first time last summer.  It had been a long time since I traveled up north with the kids.  The last time I loaded them up in the car and drove them to see my aunts and uncles and their great-grandmother, we all looked like this:

You might notice that 1 of the kids wasn’t even born yet.  Little is missing from that picture.  But driving that far with 3 kids was enough to convince me that I never, ever, ever wanted to do it with 4.  Until last summer. Read more

Patience and Hope.

Posted on | September 11, 2015 | No Comments

Several years ago we bought some pathetic root-bound peach and pear trees from a nursery closing down for the approaching winter.  They were only $5 each and came without any guarantees.  Which was fine because we lacked any open sunny places to plant them.  $5 was all we wanted to spend for trees that we were going to plant in a section of ground that received only filtered sunlight until about 1pm and then scorching heat until sundown.  Since the area also bordered the road, the trees would have to survive exhaust, the reckless mowing of DOT crews in the right-of-way, and the onslaught of any deer that happened to amble by.  The only encouraging sign that a tree might survive under those conditions was that grass grew fairly well in that location.

The peaches folded in the first season.  We cleared around their desolate corpses, brown sticks wrapped with flagging tape, for 3 years.  Because patience and hope are free and, sometimes, surprisingly effective on a farm.  But last summer I finally lifted the dry stalks out of the ground and tossed them into the surrounding woods.  I figured it was a lost cause and, besides, the pear trees were finally warranting some attention.

Both trees leafed out in the first year, but were brutally eaten back by the deer.  The smaller tree still sports angled branches from where the deer snapped them in their feast.

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Throw Back Thursday: Wedding Blues.

Posted on | September 10, 2015 | 2 Comments

Most of my writing-time was replaced with kid-time over the summer.  Also, weeding-the-garden-time.  And the always enjoyable mowing-the-yard-again-time.  But I did take some pictures and I did have some thoughts.  They were random thoughts then and are mostly irrelevant thoughts now, but isn’t the entire point of a blog to force other people to read your random, irrelevant thoughts??  Suckers.

Assume this random irrelevant-ness happened sometime over the summer.  And I just didn’t have time to write about it while doing otherwise important tasks like screaming at the kids to feed the dogs, empty the dishwasher, and go the heck outside already.

Wedding Blues

While checking the fence line for breaks, I discovered a profusion of wildflowers tangled in and around the chicken wire.  I wasn’t surprised that they were flourishing in a spot where the lawn mower and the ruminants couldn’t reach them.  But it did seem noteworthy that so many of them were shades of blue and purple.

Oh, there were these guys, of course.

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Appreciation Days.

Posted on | September 6, 2015 | 2 Comments

This is how we are, people.  It’s true.  We want, but we don’t appreciate.  We waste, and then act surprised when it’s gone.   The first squash of the season was a delectable thrill.  The blinding yellow of the crookneck and sunburst, the pure white scallop, the endless shades of green and grey.  The first taste of summer’s upcoming bounty.

We started with sautés and then moved into our tried and true favorites—grilled and drizzled with olive oil, roasted with butter and garlic, zucchini bread, squash casserole, fritters.  We fought valiantly with squash bugs and picked early and often to ensure a prolific crop.  When the harvest was sufficiently established, we began to share with friends and family.  When it was abundant, we carried the extra to neighbors and co-workers.  When it became overwhelming, no one was allowed to leave the property without an armload of squash.

Eventually we were simply picking squash for the goats, pigs, and chickens.  Because no one else would eat it.  We stopped spraying for pests and considered the plants to be a trap crop—-keeping squash bugs safely away from the rest of the burgeoning garden produce.  When the plants withered and died in the middle of July it was like a reprieve.

Until it wasn’t. Read more

Pictures? Really?

Posted on | August 24, 2015 | 3 Comments

I was going to make a post about how I am still alive.  Because people have been asking.  But the kids were out of school, which meant I spent my time alternating between dragging kids off their laptops, iPads, and Kindles and forcing them outside and driving them to their jobs, activities, and friends’ houses.  Whenever I put my foot down and demanded a day of “rest” (meaning a day spent working in the barn or garden), the punks would call up their friends, shamelessly invite themselves over, and trick some other poor parent into picking them up.  I’m not exactly sure if that skill translates into politics or pharmaceutical sales in their future, but it was alarming.

Occasionally a child would be carried off to my parents’ house to “help out” (meaning short bursts of chore-like activity interspersed with lunch and shopping) which meant we were at least down a player or two.  And Little often disappeared on sleepovers that lasted 2 or 3 days.  I’m sure the parents wondered why I never called to see when he was coming home.  But, honestly, I often forgot when a kid was somewhere else and when he or she was just hiding somewhere out of sight to play on electronics.  Plus, sometimes the noise level around here made me think they were all at home anyway. Read more

Field Day.

Posted on | July 20, 2015 | 3 Comments

For years we’ve had a “pasture” that ran under the telephone lines and beside the driveway.  It was only loosely called a pasture because it didn’t grow any grass.  Mostly it was leaf debris, weeds, scrub, and large bare patches.

But it was useful in a pinch as a breeding pen or quarantine area for new animals.  And because it had a fence around it we didn’t have to mow it or landscape the area.  The fence made it a “pasture.”  You don’t landscape a pasture, people.  That’s craziness.

Of course, every year the brush eventually grew to intolerable heights and, worse, vines started growing on the fence line.  Since the entire point of the pasture was to make it a low maintenance space, we just put the goats on it and they always munched it back into submission.  But this year, The Other Half was determined to convert the land into a real pasture.  With grass.  Grass to cut the feed bills for the sheep and the fat pony.  I was all for this development.  Until he started it in May. Read more

Two-fer Garden.

Posted on | July 17, 2015 | No Comments

Everybody loves a two-for-one deal.  Sometimes it’s uses are questionable…..

but it’s perfect for the garden chores.  With summer in full swing, the garden takes up the bulk of my outside time.  And whenever I can knock out two jobs with the effort of only one, it makes me happy.  The whole process starts with the watering hose.  The tomatoes have to be watered at the base of the plants so I dig the nozzle into the mulch by the stem of the plant and let it sit for 45 seconds to a minute before I move it to the next plant.  While the hose slowly saturates the soil a minute at a time, I spend the wait staking the plants and pruning away spare leaves.

This lets me stay on top of the pruning, leaving the base of the plants clear to the ground and the clumps of green tomatoes sheltered under upper branches.  See, two for one.

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