Ruffled Feathers and Spilled Milk

Farming with ducks and dairy goats, chickens and children.

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.

“Nope, no way,”  I told him.  “You can’t grow grass in May.”

I typically handle the raking, seeding, and fertilizing of the pathetic “lawns” in the shady front and back yard.  I’ve learned the hard way that the only chance at growing grass in the south is planting in the fall and then overseeding it in March.  Even then the timing can be tricky.  If the grass isn’t fully established before the leaf drop you risk either pulling out tender starts with the rake or the new grass getting smothered by the leaf debris.  Planting winter rye after the leaves are raked and gone doesn’t resolve the issue because if there are heavy winter rains the seed will get washed off our hillside long before it sprouts.  And some springs it gets so hot and dry so fast that any grass that grows withers and dies anyway.  I’ve reseeded after rain more times than I care to remember and spent too many Aprils frantically watering new grass when heat arrives early.

But The Other Half persevered.  He leveled the hillside with the tractor and moved topsoil into place.  Which, for the record, is cheating.  Then after seeding the space, he covered it with straw to hold it in place and conserve water.  Which, for the record, is showing off.

But still I shook my head sadly.

“No way that’s gonna survive.  It’s May.  Better roll a hose along the driveway.  You’re gonna need it.”

Then we had a lovely spring of 80 degree days interspersed with gentle rain showers for several weeks.  Which was exactly what it took to grow a pasture.

Too bad the country frowns upon grass.  The country hates grass.  The country says, “This ain’t the suburbs, you yuppie.”  So after a few weeks of beautiful grass, we had this:

Which upon closer inspection,  is this:

and this:

and a whole lot of this:

So before the sheep and fat pony were put out to graze, the bucks were called into action.  The bucks are normally confined to a wooded section of land in the back corner of the property.  Boring.

I knew they’d enjoy a chance to browse down the weeds, leaving the grass intact.  The only problem was that putting the bucks in the new pasture required a quick inspection of the fence line.

“Make sure you don’t wear flip flops when you’re walking that fence line,”  instructed The Other Half before leaving for work.

Please.

As soon as I finished the morning milking, completed the barn chores, and fed the pigs, I tossed a spare water trough into the pasture and used the garden hose to let it fill.  I scanned the fence that ran along the driveway and then paused at the start of the woods where the fence ran along the property line.  I thought about going back up the driveway and into the house for my boots.  But I decided walking slowly and carefully in flip flops was just as safe as wearing boots.  Probably.  Maybe.  Eh.  What were the odds that I wouldn’t see a copperhead on this ground before he saw me?

I moved cautiously into the woods, watching my feet.  I immediately realized my first mistake as a spiderweb spread across my face, probably releasing its spider into my ear to lay eggs and cause spider babies to come out my tear ducts in a couple weeks.  I wanted to run but I couldn’t run because I had on flip flops and I couldn’t check for snakes and run at the same time.  I settled for waving my arms frantically around my face to clear the spiderweb while making scared grunting noises.    When I peeled the last strand of web off my hair, I waited to catch my breath and congratulated myself on not panicking and rushing into a snakebite.  Although, on second thought, the furious arm-waving was a bit risky, too.  There have been several large yellow jacket nests in these woods and I certainly didn’t want to risk pissing off a nest of bees by flailing around.

I slowly and carefully removed a branch from the ground to use as a web catcher and, holding it in front of my face, continued to advance to where I could see the fence in the tree line.  I kept one eye on the ground for snakes and one eye on the branch for any angry spiders.  Which didn’t leave a lot of vision left for checking the fence.  Checking the fence in the woods is more complicated than most people expect.

I arrived at a pile of leftover topsoil The Other Half had pushed into the edge of the woods that was blocking my path.  It was filled with lots of suspicious holes.

Snakes like holes in soft dirt.  Yellow jackets like holes in soft dirt.  I skirted the very edge of the pile and carefully climbed along the ridge where I could still see the fence line.  I had just survived the alarming sinking of my flip flops into the the top inch of soil when a loud buzzing began around my head.

“No!”  I yelled, waving my branch.  “No!  You can’t scare me.  I know the sound of a horsefly when I hear one.  You’re not a yellow jacket.  Beat it!”  I caught a flash of his green eyes in my peripheral vision.  “Scram!”  I yelled, taking a vigorous swing in his direction.  Which is when something bit me on the back of the knee.

A part of my brain told me that was a little too high for snake bite.  Another part of my brain mentioned the fact that since I felt the bite through the material of my old maternity leggings used for barn chores it was probably more serious than just the bite of a horsefly.  A third particularly annoying part of my brain recalled that time I pounded a T-post into an underground yellow jackets nest and I had to rip off my shirt and throw it aside as I raced up the driveway because the bees got under my clothes.  Regardless, all 3 parts were left behind to discuss it amongst themselves as I charged screaming through the woods, dropping my branch, my flip flops kicking through leaf piles, and spiderwebs building up in my contact lenses as a fourth part of my brain sighed in disappointment and said, “So much for watching for copperheads.”

I might have made it out of the woods and into safety.  Maybe.  Probably.  But I was stopped cold at the Rock Wall O’ Hidden Danger.  There have been many occasions when The Other Half had a tractor to work on some heavy chores and offered to dig out a section of large old boulders nestled in the woods.  But I’ve always told him to leave them alone.  Because they’re “pretty” and “natural” and “they add winter interest when the leaves are down.”

I’ve regretted it every time I have to scout the fence line and climb over a bunch of slippery-slided rocks with their bases hidden in leaves and fallen tree limbs.  Regardless, no matter how much of my frontal lobe I left on that dirt pile, my reptilian brain slammed on the brakes at the sight of that death trap.

I stood there, trying to listen for buzzing over my pounding heart rate while the rest of my brain caught up and analyzed the situation.  Yep, the buzzing was gone.  The webs draped over my face and in my hair did not appear to contain any murderous spiders.  My feet were, miraculously, unharmed.  BUT.  Whatever bit me was still lodged against the back of my knee.  And it was inside my clothing.  While I was still flooded with enough adrenaline to manage it, I slapped my hand against the intruder, pinning it to my leg in an attempt to squash it before it struck again.

It didn’t squash but it didn’t bite me again either.  Through the fabric of my old maternity leggings I could feel a hard shield-shaped shell.  I pinched it between my fingers to keep it off my skin and kill it, but it still wouldn’t squash.

“A beetle!”  determined my brain.  “There’s a freakin’ beetle in my pants!”

And my brain went into Google Panic.  Which is like Google except there are no reassuring answers, just scary questions.  Like:

And:

And:

And:

With no other options, I kept the beetle pinned with one hand while I used the other hand to slide my leggings up to my knee.  I slowly and carefully lifted the cotton fabric over my pinched fingers, then dropped the beetle to the ground and quickly took a few steps away.  It fell to the ground and didn’t move.  I leaned over and peered closer.

It was tiny chunk of dog biscuit.

There’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for that.

See, every morning when I do the barn chores, I bring the Great Pyrs, Bella and Bruno, a dog biscuit from the box in the kitchen pantry.  I don’t give them the biscuit until after they’ve eaten their dog food.  I just put the biscuits in my pants pocket for later and usually, while I’m milking, Bella and Bruno finish eating and line up at the milk gate for their treat.  Then I hand them each a biscuit and thank them for taking care of the critters overnight.  When I wear my old maternity leggings (which don’t have pockets) I just stick the biscuits under the elastic waist band.  A biscuit crumb must have been left under the waistband after I passed out dog biscuits that morning.  The vigorous branch-waving at the horsefly must have dislodged it, causing it to fall down to the back of my knee, where it got stuck again.  And in my hyper-excitable fence-checking state it felt like it “bit” me.

As to why I’m still wearing old maternity leggings when my youngest child is ten years old, there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for that, too.

Um……, actually, no.  Nope. Got nothing.  Eh.

Relieved it was just a piece of biscuit, I climbed over the rocks and completed my fence inspection.  Turned out there was just one spot where I had to dislodge a tree branch and use some baling twine to tie the field fencing back to the T-post.  And bringing the bucks over wasn’t too difficult.  Since Oliver was the first one, he had to be dragged over.  Goats are herd animals and even a nice fresh pasture isn’t appealing if you’re the only goat in it.  But T.S. and Merlin trotted easily beside me when I went back to the barn to get them.  They could hear Oliver bellowing and were greatly concerned.  Or else they were pissed because he got a new pasture and they didn’t and that situation needed to be remedied immediately.  Hard to tell with bucks.  Either way, moving the bucks to the field was done in a few minutes and the bucks got to work quickly.

T.S. went straight to the offensive honeysuckle on the fence.

Merlin started on the wild muscadine.

And Oliver munched on lespedeza.

I leaned on the fence and watched the bucks enjoy the new space for a long time.

They were having a field day.

And even though it feels good to check off the many important aspects of animal care on a farm—-feed and vitamins, shelter, vaccinations, hoof trims, etc—-it feels really, really good to provide something new and exciting for the critters that spend most of their time in the same humdrum location.  Listening to them munching peacefully and watching them explore the pasture was good for the heart.  And getting the pasture cleared of weeds while giving the bucks a good time was an awesome farm two-fer.

While I was standing there I noticed that behind me the pigs had found even another use for the weeds we threw in their pen a few days ago.  Once all the yummy parts were chewed off they had pushed the remains into a nice pile for lounging.

Which turned my gardening grand slam into a successful 5 star event.  Really, who knew what kind of unlimited goodness would come of putting the bucks in the pasture?  All the spiderwebs knocked down by their meandering.  That pile of dirt butted down.  The rock wall cleared of brush.  What a wonderful thought.  Almost as good as the thought of maternity leggings with pockets. Imagine that.


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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You Need Some Of These.

Posted on | June 10, 2015 | 3 Comments

Onion rings get a bad rap.  Something about fat, grease, blah, blah, blah.  I think that’s forgetting the important fact that onions are vegetables, people, vegetables.  Regardless, once you’ve received a large pallet of free onions for the pigs, there’s nothing to do except make onion rings.  Pigs don’t really eat onions.  Neither do goats, sheep, chickens, or ducks.  Not even the fat pony.

Now before you get all excited about that fatty greasy vegetable goodness, realize that onion rings take a lot of work.  There’s batter to mix.  Plus a separate bowl of flour for dipping.  And pot of oil to heat, which only hold 4 or 5 onion rings at a time.  Never mind all that turning of the onions rings.  And waiting for each side to finish.  Before putting 4 or 5 more in the pan.  Consider that you have 6 people to feed (that’s a lot of onion rings) and that’s a lot of steps.  And a lot of waiting.  Too much work, right?

Wrong.

Because while you’re waiting for each ring to develop to fatty greasy crunchy vegetable perfection, you can accomplish an entire To Do list without breaking a sweat.  Now I realize the brain scientists have proven there is no such thing as multitasking.  Apparently your brain is simply quickly switching activities, not really handling more than one at a time.  Sure.  Fine.  I won’t mention that while the brain scientists were busy at work proving there’s no such thing as multitasking, their spouses were at home vacuuming up the toddler’s cheerios while rocking a colicky baby under their arm while using their foot to wipe up dog vomit with a paper towel.  Oh, wait.  I did mention it.  Whoops.

Anyway.

Thanks to all that research, the proper scientific term now for “getting a lot of sh*t done at once” is  serial tasking. Which makes it sound like you’re going after the To Do list with an axe and this face:

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It’s What’s For Dinner.

Posted on | June 5, 2015 | No Comments

You know when you’re weeding in the garden and you start thinking to yourself, “What am I making for dinner?”

And then the kids come down from the backyard and ask, “What’s for dinner?”

And you stroll through the garden rows and find this:

So you carry it up to the house and ask Google, “What can I make for dinner with fresh zucchini, squash, onions, and chives?”

And Google says, ” You can make zucchini hash, of course.”

Zucchini Hash

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Timing.

Posted on | June 3, 2015 | 1 Comment

Gardening is all about the long run.  The last 2 years we’ve had the best gardens we’ve ever had.  Which is not surprising.  10 years of building the soil plus 10 years of experience along the way eventually starts to pay off.  We finally realized it takes an entire row of snap peas to produce enough peas for a family of 6.  This is the first year we’ve had enough peas to share instead of the kids gobbling up the entire crop in one handful.  It’s only the second year we’ve produced straight carrots, thanks to finally growing them in containers instead of in the ground.  The third year we’ve grown everything for the summer garden from the greenhouse. (Well, almost everything.  Stupid eggplants.)  The fourth year we’ve successfully grown potatoes in straw, both spring and fall.  The fifth year we’ve had crops all year long using row covers and frost cloth.  But sometimes it’s the little accomplishments that are the most enjoyable.

For years I’ve planted cleome in empty tires at the edge of the raised veggie beds.  I spotted a large bed of these flowers when visiting Old Sturbridge one summer and I was trying to recreate the effect.  But every year the flowers struggled.  They had a poor germination rate and the plants that did grow were weak and spindly and only threw up a few flower heads in early fall.  It didn’t make any sense.  How was it warm enough in a colonial village in Massachsuetts but not the right temperature here?  I also had to hunt down the seeds in the store every spring because mine never self-sowed while most gardeners considered them almost invasive.

And then it happened.  Inexplicably, little cleome sprouts were evident in the tires by early May.  There were actually little patches all over the garden.

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The Horror.

Posted on | May 29, 2015 | 2 Comments

It was a scary day in the garden.  After a couple days of heat and thunderstorms I knew some of the tomatoes would need more support stakes.  The wind and sideways rain were sure to have toppled the spindly ones.  While I was down there I decided to put in the last of the squash and cucumbers.  By staggering the planting and placing them in a different section of the garden I hoped to throw off the squash bugs that were beginning to arrive.  I also removed the straw covering the raised bed adjacent to the bean trellis and sowed a fresh crop of lettuce and spinach seeds.  I hoped the quickly growing green beans would provide enough shade to keep them cool.  I put more mulch on the onions, weeded the asparagus, and picked a basket full of snap peas for the third day in a row.  All of that was normal.  No problems.

But the storm also caused the winter kale to keel over.  I left it to bolt—-serving as a trap crop for cabbage worms and also providing some flowers for early pollinators.  Now the blossoms on their lanky stalks were all knocked down into the rows, sprawled onto the potatoes and peppers.  Since the spring kale was already established I knew it was time for the old stuff to be ripped up.  Which is when I ran into trouble.  I had a sinking feeling when I spotted some fluff on the greens.

No, you didn’t, I thought.  No.  You.  Didn’t. Read more

Fancy.

Posted on | May 28, 2015 | 2 Comments

There were some things I never thought I’d see.  Oh, I knew other people had them.  I just figured they weren’t for regular ol’ me.  When we finally got one of those fridges with water and ice in the door I was thrilled.  It was a used fridge and by that time everyone else had moved on to fancy water filters right on their taps, but still.  It was high end for those of us used to hand-me-down appliances, furniture, and clothing.  And it freed up the ice cube trays for making and freezing pesto.   Because, back then, pesto was the new pizza sauce for fancy people with fancy fridges.  Also, you know, this Basil Monster in the garden:

However, when we were packing for our Mother’s Day trip to the beach this year and discovered the hot water heater was broken (Yeah! Happy Mother’s Day!  Cold showers for everyone!), I figured we’d settle for hauling it out and replacing it with more of the same.  I thought I could angle for turning up the temperature a bit or maybe a tank that held a few more gallons.  But I was still resigned to at least 5 more years of laying exhausted and dirty on the couch at night, waiting for the hot water to recover after the bathing of 4 children before I could scrub off my own barn grime.  Which sucked but didn’t suck as bad as when I got in the shower and had to turn the water on and off between soaking, soaping, and rinsing in order to preserve the little bit of warmth remaining in the pipes.  I’m not fancy enough for Misogi, people.  Not even close. Read more

When A Friday Stroll Becomes A Monday Workout.

Posted on | May 22, 2015 | 1 Comment

The garden needed to be mowed and weeded.  The tomatoes needed to be pruned and staked.  The peas needed to be harvested.  But after heavy thunderstorms yesterday, everything needed to dry out.  So I leashed up the dogs to enjoy a stroll with morning temperatures in the 60’s.

“Isn’t a beautiful day?”  I asked the dogs as we cruised, windows down, to the mountain trail.

“So nice and cool!”  I exclaimed to them as we meandered through the deserted first loop of the trail, rolling Piedmont forest and gentle slopes.

We passed a lone fisherman at the pond.  He smiled and touched his cap.

“Sure is a shame everyone else’s gotta work, huh?”  he smirked.

“I know, right,” I grinned.

The dogs and I rounded the corner and headed up the backside of the mountain.  That’s when it happened.

Right on the steep part of the trail. Read more

Work Zone.

Posted on | May 14, 2015 | No Comments

The honeymoon stage in the garden was short-lived this year.  Usually the cool weather keeps the spring crops enjoyably free of bug bites.  But the slugs appeared in the lettuce and radish as soon the plants began to flourish.  And, since I planted late this year, the summer crops were already under attack.  I put my greenhouse transplants into the ground the first week of May.  So far weeding and watering were my only concerns.  But this week I dragged my arsenal of supplies out of the shed and started the real work of the season.

I noticed ants in 2 of the garden beds when I first put in the watermelons and the tomatoes.  The red ants announced themselves to my ankles immediately upon my turning the soil with the trowel.  Their tunnels were obvious and, not surprisingly, located close to the empty tires I use for sunflowers and zinnias.  The black ants appeared as singletons as I planted, no signs of frantic retreat, attack, or egg carrying.  I hoped cultivating the soil was enough to cause the red ants to relocate and that the paucity of the black ants meant they weren’t firmly established.  Hah!  The watermelon plants were nibbled to bits by black ants in the first week and caging the tomatoes was only accomplished in spurts between slapping red ants off my feet and calves.

So that end of the garden got a nice dusting of DE.  Will these melons survive after being eaten from vigorous transplants into just a few leaves with a withered stem?

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The Mathematics of Pigs.

Posted on | May 11, 2015 | 4 Comments

Some things defy the general rules of mathematics.  Two plus two doesn’t always equal four.  Takes pigs, for example.  Pigs are evidence that some things are not linear but, instead, add up exponentially.  When we had one pig, Papa Noel, he was just one more animal added to the barn yard.  He hung out with the other animals, inside the same fencing, and shared the automatic waterer.  He made one wallow, we bought one hog feeder and picked up one extra bag of grain while we were buying the rest of our farm feed, and we went about our business.  We were as happy as he was.

The following year we got two pigs, Penny and Pushy.  It quickly became clear that two pigs were too many to run around loose in the barnyard.  They outgrew the kidding barn where we kept Papa as a piglet within just a couple weeks and needed to go to the garden to turn over the grass and root out the wild blackberry while we set up some other fencing.  I used to scoop Papa up under one arm and carry him from place to place as a piglet.  Which I couldn’t do with two pigs.  I also used the feed bucket to tempt Papa in the direction I wanted him to go so I figured I’d do that to move Penny and Pushy.  Which was when I discovered that two pigs were more than twice the work of one.  Just because one pig is following the feed bucket doesn’t mean the other one isn’t dashing around the woods, rooting under fallen logs and scarfing up acorns.  In addition, it’s impossible to keep one pig corralled while simultaneously chasing down the other one.  Moving two pigs out of the barn yard, down the driveway, and into the garden wasn’t a smooth operation.  That’s all I care to remember about that.

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