Ruffled Feathers and Spilled Milk

Farming with ducks and dairy goats, chickens and children.

Three Sunny Days.

Posted on | January 23, 2015 | 4 Comments

Day One:  Are You Kidding Me?

I was shocked when I saw the sun.

But I wasn’t going to stand around waiting for it to disappear.  As soon as the morning cleaning was done, I hit the garden.  For weeks I haven’t made it to garden before dark.  Instead I show up with a flashlight, rummaging under the frost covers for kale, spinach, green onions, broccoli, or chard.  You know, all the ingredients I meant to pick before the sun set and before I started making dinner, but that I forgot until the olive oil was already sizzling in the pan, the soup was simmering and needed a bit of green to freshen it up, or I needed a side dish that didn’t come out of a box with a packet of powdered cheese.  Blindly cutting greens in the freezing dark is not really so bad.  Touching the slugs that you can’t see in the dark is bad.  Very bad.

But other than knowing that a nice crop of slugs was growing under the frost cover, I really had no idea how the garden was faring this winter.  In the bright sunlight I discovered that the usual suspects were present.  Chickweed.

And Johnson grass.

Some of the beds were protected because I spread a thick layer of manure over them once the summer crops were done.  Some of the beds were given a blanket of leaves after raking the front yard.  Some were just covered with spare tarps or empty feed bags.  Some were completely neglected.  Apparently I got tired of carrying wheelbarrows of manure before I reached this bed.

I managed to get the tomatoes out of these cages but, otherwise, they were still hanging out in last year’s tomato bed.  Call it lazy and unsightly if you want.  I like to call it “winter interest” in the garden.

No one even bothered to pull up the dead tomatoes in this bed.

But it’s all good.  Better than good.  Leaving some fall chores left undone is really a necessary preventative measure.  It prevents the farmer from waking up on a bright January day, feeling the air warm up just enough for flip flops and a T-shirt in the garden, and in a crazed sun-drunk moment, start planting way too early.  Even greens and spring roots crops are doomed if they are planted this soon in the open garden.  I know because I have done it in the past.  And then spent the rest of January and February covering and uncovering weak, wilted, struggling plants.  Plants that would have flourished just fine in March.  So when the sun and a warm breeze made a brief appearance I had plenty of garden work to accomplish without murdering any seeds.  There is a method to my laziness madness.

The fall and winter crops were still holding down 2 beds.

But all the empty beds needed to be turned.  I started with the 2 rows closest to the driveway.  The bed with weeds got turned, then hoed, and then the loose weed clumps left on top were given to the fat pony.  This is called “tilling” in my garden.  The bed with heaped manure just got tossed with the pitchfork and then I used the spade to neaten the edges of the bed.  This is called “so-nice-and-easy-after-tilling.”  You can still tell the difference between the bed that was weedy on the left and the manure bed on the right.

The bed on the left will be used for squash, eggplant, and peas this year so I can just add spots of compost as I plant and then cover with straw.  That will soften the bed and breakdown the soil as the season progresses without any additional hard labor.  The bed on the right is already perfect and will be used for tomatoes since the soil is loose and deep enough to easily bury tomato transplants from the greenhouse.

As a bonus for my efforts I unearthed the last of the potatoes.

An excellent addition to the evening’s bean and bacon soup.  Make this soup, people.  It is rich and creamy and loaded with chopped veggies that the kids don’t even notice because they are bacon-infused.

With two rows under control, I weeded the fruit trees I planted last year.  I considered mulching the trees when I planted them.  But in my experience, mulching is a vicious circle.  Eventually weeds break through the mulch so you have to put on more, and more, and more mulch.  Or you have to weed the mulch which is odd because the mulch was supposed to prevent weeding.  Some people will tell you that if weeds break through, then you didn’t apply the mulch thick enough.  Those are the people that sell mulch.

Once the mulch is down you can’t mow to control weeds without tearing up the mower blades and spitting mulch all over the rest of the garden.  I only use mulch where weeds are already generally thin due to poor soil or lack of sunlight.  Or I settle for the free mulch created by the innumerable trees on our property.  Thick, heavy layers of unchopped leaves will block a lot of creeping weeds and aren’t favorable for weed seeds that land in the pile.  But I wasn’t sure that piling leaves next to the base of fruit tress was a great idea.  Too much nitrogen?  Too encouraging for bugs and pests?

Luckily, mint flourished along the fence line where the trees are planted.  Mint’s mission to conquer the world kept most of the weeds down this past summer.  I settled for hand weeding at the base of the trees, let the mint have free rein, and then mowed over any long stretches between trees that were getting grassy.  It wasn’t pretty but the trees made it through the summer.  Now I was left with a good, hard raking and then took the clippers to any blackberry and honeysuckle sprouts.  Everything nice and clear for spring.

I bought these trees on the cheap from Burgess Seed & Plant Co.  They were small trees, only 12-18″ high, which seems very small.  But I can afford that size and only the larger $30 sizes were available at local nurseries.  Overall, the trees did well and I was particularly happy with growth on the dwarf 5 on 1 apple….

and the dwarf 5 on 1 peach.

But I discovered the Granny Smith apple and Elberta peach didn’t make it.  So I mailed my receipt back to Burgess requesting replacement trees.  They guarantee a replacement if the tree dies within the first year.  No awkward questions asked.  Awkward questions like “Did anyone water the trees when you were on vacation?”, “Did you accidentally mow over any trees?”, “Did you cut through a tree when cutting through the blackberries and honeysuckle?”  I’ll let you know if they deliver on their guarantee.

Since it wasn’t fair for the garden to steal an entire sunny day, I rescued Pretty from The Great Barn Excavation.  The Great Barn Excavation involved The Other Half and the kids clearing away 3 months of winter mud and muck accumulating around the barn.  They shoveled and scraped until the walkway finally emerged.

Then the boys headed to the backyard for a basketball game while Pretty and I took the puppies to the Riverwalk.  The Riverwalk is not particularly strenuous exercise—-neatly paved, gentle hills.  Perhaps not as strenuous as the boys pitted against their 6’4″ dad.  But the puppies got excellent practice at avoiding kids on scooters and not chasing after runners.  Also, access to our favorite coffee shop (which allows dogs!) is at the midway point on the trail.  A perfect end to the day.  There’s nothing better than a little work, a little play, a little bean and bacon soup.  Except for waking up the next day and seeing that the sun came out.  Again.

Day Two:  Again!  Again!

Damn the house cleaning.  A  second day of sunshine cannot be wasted changing all the sheets.  Everyone in my family showers before bedtime so how dirty can the sheets be anyway?  I was determined to get to the garden rows that were still covered with withered tomato plants.  I hauled off all the dead plant debris and, in the process, recovered all my transplanting stakes.

Then I turned over those two beds.  The plant debris actually did a decent job of preventing any weeds from taking over.  I used the shovel to turn the soil and edge the beds, but I didn’t have to hoe or pick out weed clumps.  C.C., the fat pony, was very disappointed at the lack of grassy offerings.  Good thing she still had some peppermint sticks left over from her Christmas stocking.

The beds looked pretty, but I noticed the soil still needed some amending.  The different shades of dirt indicated trouble spots.

There were quite a bit of red clay clumps….

intermingled with the loose black compost areas.

That made the bed perfect for switching over to melons, instead of the tomatoes I grew there last year.  Melons fit in the crop rotation schedule and since they’re heavy feeders that require top-dressing with compost during the season, that additional compost would help fix the trouble spots in the soil.  Working in the garden was the best way to start formulating my summer planting chart.  Planting charts made at the kitchen table look great on paper (minus the coffee cup stains), but they don’t always translate well onto the actual soil conditions in the garden.

With two more beds done, I decided the row of tomato cages had to go.  I worked my way down the cages, cutting them free from support stakes, sorting them by size, and stacking the varieties that would stack.  Garden stakes and rebar were collected and carried to the top of the garden. Then I piled all the cages onto the leaves covering last year’s pumpkin beds.  You can call it ugly if you’d like.  I call it “Monument to Spring.”  Because art is subjective, people.

That left a long, empty row that still needed “tilling.”

But the day was fading and I had promised the puppies another outing.  So I loaded the dogs up, making sure I had them on uneven leashes.  When walking the dogs by myself, one leash must be shorter than the other, allowing Luna to always be 2 steps ahead of Orion.  Luna must lead.  Always.  Even in photos.

I headed to the local mountain trail since the Riverwalk had been so effortless the day before.  The sunlight through the branches was lovely, the breeze was relaxing, the incline was murderous.  For the past couple months I have been trapped inside the gym, burning calories on the elliptical machine set on the “Alpine Trail.”  I’m not sure which Alpine mountain that elliptical setting was based upon, but since the 867 feet elevation of the local trail was heart-pounding, I have my doubts about its authenticity.  Let’s hope the calorie count wasn’t off, too.  What’s the point of going to the gym to burn off 300 calories if you can’t go to the bakery afterwards and eat a 300 calorie chocolate croissant?  Nothing.  Pointless.

On the way home, the radio meteorologist was forecasting heavy rains, headed our way.  The temperature dropped after nightfall and we had to fire up the wood stove again.  It’s true.  The clouds were arriving the next morning when I woke up.  But there was still plenty of sunshine left….

Day Three.  Push Comes to Shove.

Screw the bathrooms.  Those suckers just get dirty as fast as you clean them anyway.  The garden was too close to being done to waste time on anything else.  I worked my way down the last row, “tilling” and running through the planting options in my head as I went.  That soil was tired—-tomatoes really deplete the ground.  I figured half the bed could be used for a spring planting of lettuce and spinach.  The rest could be covered with manure and let sit until time to plant autumn squash.

Once that row was finished I headed to the house for a cool drink and a look in the garden cabinet.  I perused the seeds I had and made a list of what I needed.  I discovered trellis netting I got from the home and garden store for  only 5o cents at the end of the season last year.  I reviewed the good and bad companion planting charts online and the crop rotation schedule in my gardening book.  The trickiest part was figuring out where to plant the spring crops so they wouldn’t interfere with the summer transplants.  Even better, where to put summer climbing crops that could be trellised to provide shade to the spring spinach, lettuce, potatoes, and carrots when the real heat arrived.

Not that it matters.  Insects giggle, blight chuckles, and Mother Nature laughs at the best-laid garden plans.

I returned to the garden with the post hole driver and the zip ties.  T-posts were pulled up and relocated.  Cattle panels were moved, too.  Fencing was rolled up and replaced with netting.  Twine was restrung between stakes.  The entire south side of the garden was cleared and tilled, trellises in place for peas, melons, green beans, and cucumbers.  If you build it, it will grow.  Probably.  Maybe.

With a few phone calls and some quick help from a friend I managed to get two rolls of hay picked up and dropped off in front of the barn to replace the quickly-fading winter supply.  It wasn’t great hay but it was enough hay to get us through to a few dry, sunny days in February.  Probably.  Maybe.

The next day it happened.  The rain arrived.  Bringing the mud and muck with it.

But that’s OK.  Because the garden was ready.  The goats were fed.  And I had an excellent indoor activity.  Yep.  You guessed it.  The garden porn seed catalogs were here.

Shall I try the Carbon….

or the Lemon Boy?

Both, you say?  What an excellent idea!  I’m so glad we’re friends. 🙂


4 Responses to “Three Sunny Days.”

  1. Ellen
    January 24th, 2015 @ 6:41 am

    Wow-I get tired just looked at all the amazing work you do!

    You probably already know this, but a headlamp-type flashlight is great for doing after-dark chores where you need both hands free. I use mine for nighttime trips to the woodpile and compost bins…

  2. annabelle
    January 24th, 2015 @ 11:06 pm

    Have you seen this idea?
    not that I’ve done it myself.. but the minute my son grows out of Pokemon, i’m going to make use of his card holding binder!

  3. admin
    January 26th, 2015 @ 1:59 pm

    I LOVE that idea! And we have 2 of those pokemon folders laying around. Awesome! Thanks!

  4. admin
    January 26th, 2015 @ 2:00 pm

    The kids do have headlamp flashlights. One day I will remember to borrow one before i head down to the garden!

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