Nesting Instinct

The days bend shorter, the dahlias put on a show (my friend Barbara and I make a pilgrimage to the Dahlia Festival each September, just to fill ourselves with the glory of the changing season),(my fingers just typed “flory,” and I almost left it there as a happy portmanteau word for the glory of flowers each autumn),

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The flory of the Swan Island Dahlia Festival

and it’s this time of year again when vegetables are rolling in from the garden at a pace faster than they can be consumed. The canners are boiling in the kitchen where the temperature is around 100 degrees, and something inside a woman wants to start putting things by for winter.

It’s apple-picking and saucing time:

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It’s pickling time, too, and we have

Dilly Beans on their shelf,

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Bread and Butter Pickles,

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Mexican style hot carrot pickles,

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and pickled eggs in a giant bottle.16aug_eggs2_cr_sm

The tomatoes in excess of any possible fresh

consumption are jarred and stored in their ranks,

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and there are still more to be eaten, so many we have tomato sores in our mouths, but we keep on adding them to salads and plates, and making tomato sandwiches and tomato gravy and fried tomatoes. And there are peppers, too, waiting for their pickling piper to show up.

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These are a pretty little pepper called Biquinho, from Brazil, and just coming ripe now. They are intended for pickling, to be used in salads. We first found them at a Brazilian restaurant in Portland where they are part of the “market table” salad bar. Pretty soon we will have to bring them into the greenhouse if they are to finish their season.

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Deeper in the garden, the frost isn’t yet on the pumpkins, but they are ready for it. Ours are Rouge vif d’Etampes. It’s a beautiful French heirloom, once common in the markets there. It deserves to be kept in gardens. It grows easily and large, is sweet inside and beautiful outside.

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I can’t stop taking pictures of them!

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The summer squash are at last beginning to fail while the winter ones are ready for taking. The one below is Thelma Sanders’ Sweet Potato Acorn squash. It’s much like the more familiar dark-skinned acorns (we called those Danish Squash in our house when we were kids). As we know to be the case in other things, the skin color makes no difference. The meat inside is golden and sweet.

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The hay is in the barn, so that culinary detail is taken care of.

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Pears are still hanging on, waiting for their moment. These are Comice:

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Oh, and…

murder1_cr_sm there was an unfortunate day for some chickens. They are now resting peacefully in the freezer. They are not fryers but stewing hens waiting for their day in the winter pot. Chicken butchering day is also custard dessert day for us. Old hens still have a supply of egg yolks inside, and it would be a terrible thing to waste them.

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Having a satisfied feeling about the larder now, I feel it’s time to settle in for an evening of knitting, and to finish up a nice sweater project.

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The nest is feathered and it’s time to sigh and be content.

 

 

 

 

Published in: on September 26, 2016 at 7:51 am  Comments (6)  

In Which We Update Many Unrelated Things

This post is a miscellany. And how time does fly! I promised to be more diligent here, and haven’t lived up to my word.

Blowin' in the wind

Hay is just in. We admire the loft and barn floor full of bales, but in the run-up to the job, frankly, I always feel a little nauseated. Every time, it’s a juggling act for the date as you watch for weather and wait for the call from the baling man. And then begins my major sustained physical effort of the year. It is to be expected that when the call comes, the weather will be hot. It had better be, since the hay would spoil in the field if it weren’t good haying weather, but the tax on the aging body is increased by some predictable ratio of effort to temperature.

There are pleasures in haying: the world smells wonderful. The scene is beautiful with either flowing windrows of raked grass or beaded lines of finished bales strewn across the fields. The afternoon or morning sun casts patterns of shadow over the landscape. The sound of field machinery is on the air, intermittent as tractors run over a hill and out of range, and then back again, or a baler stops for adjustment, or the crew just stops, for water or lunch. Hawks balance on the wing over shorn fields, looking for that now-exposed rodent who only yesterday sheltered in the stems. Crows stalk back and forth across the acres, picking at whatever can be found in the newly revealed world of cuttings. Haying time is beautiful.

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Haying time is filled with challenges, too. Last year our clutch failed as we labored uphill in the evening with our trailer load of bales. This year, we suffered a flat tire on the trailer when it was loaded with two tons of hay. This year we found the trailer wiring ripped apart in crossing a field, and made repairs before hitting the road for home. This year the pulley belt on the hay elevator required loving attention before it consented to drive the chain and raise the bales. This year we mired the pick-up in the mud where a spring rises in the pasture, and spent 45 minutes or so digging it out and shoving boards beneath the wheels. It seems it’s the normal thing in farm work, to lose time to trips for parts or tools, to break-downs, and repairs. The halt to the music of work and progress is always anticipated, though unknown until its moment.

But we got it in. It’s like appreciating a pantry full of jars of peaches, when we look at the barn loft full of sweet-smelling, square-baled grass. And I admit to some self admiration when I reflect: One more year. I can still do it.

This year, last spring, we rolled out the old potato barrel from storage. I’m not sure why we put it away. It’s given us loads of potatoes in the past. Here it is on planting day, back in April:

The potato barrel

This is a food-grade barrel. You don’t want to do this with a chemical barrel, so shop well. Sometimes you can get such things from bakeries or food-preparation companies, or restaurants. Or you can find them at container re-sale outfits.

We put in a good bed of rotting hay and manure from the sheep pens. See the worm? Earthworms are good news!

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… and then a layer of seed potatoes:

Seed spuds going in

to be lovingly covered with more good compost. “Compost” of course is the polite word for rotted barnyard manures and bedding, as well as household scraps and garden waste. If you don’t have a ready source of sheep bedding and rabbit pellets, you can make excellent compost from your kitchen. As the potato plants grow, we add more bedding material, carefully arranging it among the emerging stems and leaves, as if we were heaping soil along the rows in a conventional potato bed. We keep doing that until the barrel is heavy with soils and growing plants. I like to use small, whole potatoes with several eyes for seed instead of cutting up larger ones. It saves having to treat the cut surfaces against rots and infections. The skins of the little potatoes do a good job all by themselves. And, since you buy seed potatoes by weight, it’s my theory that you get more eyes (sprouts) for the weight this way.

In time, the growing potatoes push themselves out through the holes in the barrel, and set flowers…

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and eventually, when the plants die back, we will tip the barrel over and retrieve our potatoes. We’re not quite there yet. Here is the barrel last week:

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It seems to be doing well. Anybody with space for a 55-gallon barrel can grow a long row of potatoes this way.

Look who stopped by for a look-see while I was out feeding one morning:

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We each stood still and looked at the other for quite a while. Then the little cottontail decided that if she couldn’t see me, I couldn’t see her, either.

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Last fall I put in bulbs of the beautiful Angelique tulips. I had quite a drift of them years ago when we lived in Portland. Last fall I saw some in the bulbs bins and suddenly remembered how much I had enjoyed them. Seems I am not alone. Look at this stunning pale green spider making a home in the bloom. We chased each other around and around a few times before I could get a good photo; the spider must have been wondering what that lumbering giant had in mind with its one eye flashing a red light every now and then.

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By now, of course, in July, the tulips have passed on. The seed pod of the Angelique is beautiful all on its own, though:

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One of the hens has gone broody. All she wants to do is sit on the nest. So I’ve marked the eggs she’s collecting and will let her have her little family if she wishes. You can see these are not all the eggs of one hen. As the offspring of tulip seeds, these chicks will be a mix of the characteristics of their parents. The likely father of this brood is a Maran rooster. In the nest I see Maran eggs, Americana eggs, and Barred Plymouth Rock eggs. Chickens are without prejudice. She will accept any chick that emerges as her own.  How much easier to let her bring them up than to raise a batch of chicks under lights in the attic, move them out to the barn when they grow too big and stinky for indoors, and then grow them to a suitable age and finally let them loose with the rest of the flock. After all, chickens know how to raise chicks!

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July is seeping into August now. It’s dry here, and hot. I remember when summers lasted forever, and the hot days were of no real bother. I remember when the chief concern of summer was skinned knees. Just now I look down at the scab on a shin I barked against a gate yesterday, and I think, very little changes as the seasons unroll in order. Very little changes, but it’s all new again every time.

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Published in: on July 28, 2013 at 12:11 pm  Comments (4)  

It’s Here

It cannot be denied. The calendar and the farm are in accord here: it is spring.

The really cheap narcissus bulbs I bought last November, late in the season when everything is marked down and the 75-bulbs-in-a-bag mix is available for $10 in the left-over bin, those bulbs have burst out in the most heroic display of aroma and nodding heads.

As I have been restricted to The Construction Garden the last two years,

A Construction Garden in Bloom

most all of those bulbs are in pots. But they seem happy enough there, and it’s nice to be able to move the garden bloom around at will. Still nicer, however, will be the day I can have my real garden back. As spring is formally advancing now, I worry we’ll be into full summer before I can contemplate the landscape, and that will be the worst time to be setting plants out.

In the meanwhile, there is the vegetable patch to be attended. Here am I, Farmer Me, on my way to do battle with the winter’s growth of weeds and

the spring flush of new young slugs.

Ew.

It was cold that morning as I ventured out. Sun was shining, but the air was chill, as you may tell by my odd combination of layers and sun hat. I dress as the need advises. Note the final comment below.

Starting last spring, and continuing in this one, I am converting our old tilled vegetable ground into raised beds. There is real labor in this, more than seems required when I look down upon a completed day’s work. But the payback is substantial. I believe the yield in the raised beds is easily twice that in the native soil. Once they’re constructed, the beds are easy to turn and to manure. And heaven knows, we have plenty of nicely composted manure here. The raised soil dries out much earlier in the spring and allows me to plant long before I could even till in previous years. But there is this matter of getting the work done.

We tried the method of humping earth into long ridges as raised beds. The soil had a tendency to escape from its intended location, and irrigation water ran down the edges. Not all crops are suited to growing in excavated bowls in the earth, and, after all, what is the point of raising the bed only to then dig down into it to hold water in place? In past gardens, I have used wooden frames to contain the piled-up soil. They worked well, but wood in contact with earth lasts only a few years, and I shudder at the thought of using treated lumber in my vegetable garden. This time I am bringing in 6″ by 8″ by 16″ inch cinder blocks.

It turns out they have unexpected advantages. They are ample to stand on, and they can be anchored into the earth with rebar stakes.

So I labored myself into a near collapse on Saturday, chopping out weeds and digging down to set the blocks in something like a level arrangement (be kind: I am a gardener, not a mason). Already my peas are up, lettuce is up, and radishes are up. Parsnips and broad beans are sown.

Not much can beat a day that ends with this:

or, apparently, this:

Yellowcat at work

Other signs of spring on the place:

Chicks have arrived. These are day-old Rhode Island Reds. They’ll join the working girls in the hen yard when they grow up a little.

The rabbits are bred:

This is a Champagne d’Argent doe. These large, silvery rabbits are a quite old breed, raised for meat in France as long ago as… long ago. I am told the breed was known in the 17th Century, but I haven’t been able to find references that do not quote one another. Still, it’s a breed with a long history, a breed known to give large offspring that mature well and swiftly, with good-sized loins and pleasing flavor.  Growing rabbits is a return for us, to a practice from the olden days when we lived in the city.

It’s an odd thing, the rarity of rabbit in the meat markets. Rabbit meat is low in cholesterol, high in protein, and economical to produce. This is a kind of French cuisine everyone should be able to afford. And yet, if you ask your market butcher for rabbit, he will shake his head and tell you he can’t bring it in because no one will buy it. He will tell you it costs too much.

How can this be? Beef costs too much! Rabbits on the same alfalfa and the same weight of water, will out-produce a cow 6-to-1. Consider the 2 acres it takes to raise about 1400 pounds of beef to the square yard that can house a breeding doe rabbit. In a commercial setting (not ours, where we are less intense about breeding schedules), a doe can kindle 8 litters per year of, on average, 8 kits per litter. Allowing for some losses, suppose you get 6 marketable fryers from each litter. That’s 48 more or less 5-pound fryers a year from each doe (a doe rabbit and a buck might cost about $15 apiece), on a square yard of housing; the breeding stock will eat about 5.5 ounces of feed each, per day. I am at a loss to understand why we, as a nation, do not embrace this wholesome, economical food source.

Ah, but, in any case, birds are tweeting, the orchard is blooming, lambs are growing in their mothers’ tummies, and spring is in the air.

And it snowed last night. It snowed lightly, but nevertheless, it is a principle of the seasons that it should not snow when the peas are up in the garden. That’s my opinion.

Published in: on March 31, 2010 at 1:21 pm  Comments (6)  

The Season Turns Seasonal

When we were small, our mother would very occasionally wake us on a winter morning with the words, “Look outside.” Oh, special! We wiped moisture off the window and our eyes fell on fresh winter snow.

It’s that day here.

Up in the hills where we live now we get more frequent snowfalls than we did in Town, but they still bring magic. I took a walk into the woods this afternoon. The first snow is unlike any other.

Snowshrooms in the woods

Here is where someone has been nibbling a mushroom. Deer? Rabbit?  They must have come before the snowfall, and left no tracks.

The henyard was a little startled.

Snowhens in their yard.

These girls haven’t seen snow before. I wonder if, when they woke up to it, they invited each other to look outside?

It’s unusual for temperatures here to drop right into the F20s from the mid-40s. It’s done that today, and the forecast promises to deliver mercury in the mid-teens. The sheep have each other to warm them inside their shed, and the llamas seem to make their own decisions about whether to shelter in their barn or to linger in the woods, but I put up a warming light for the hens. They’re not ready to face this without some aid.

Now comes the matter of human comfort. We’ve learned to be easy with the interior at F65. That’s not so hard; you make the adjustment fairly quickly. But this is going to be a winter we remember, I think. Those of you who have been following along will remember that we’re camping out, more or less, because the house is under construction. The studio workshop, where we’re sheltering during this, is uninsulated. It’s not uninsulated by design, just on account of the construction schedule on the house. We had to make the shift, and this is where we are. So: our woodstove will put about a 30-degree rise on the temperature outside. F25 outside: F55 inside. Next week: F18 outside. I’m not sure I want to think about this. But we have lots of clothing, lots of blankets, and lots of good tea. And we like each other, so, let’s see, if we huddle to share body warmth… 98.6 +98.6 = 197.2. That’s pretty warm. And I’m bound to put on a hotflash now and then and offer more than my share of BTUs.

Chances are we’ll lose our Kiwifruit crop in this freeze. The fruits are nearing maturity just now — still a bit hard and sour for use, but so close I’ve been sampling regularly, expecting that day of readiness. When the ice comes out of the air after this snap, I’ll find them thawed from the freeze, too soft, not at all what we hope for.

Kiwifruit on the vine

Still and all, it’s awfully pretty out.

Published in: on December 14, 2008 at 5:53 pm  Comments (2)  

Murder Most Fowl, and Other Miscellaneous Fall Events

The Cook in the Barnyard with the KnifeVegetarians and tender souls, avert your eyes.

Sometimes, when you live on a farm, you become an angel of mercy.

Friends of ours, who also have a small acreage, are far too sympathetic to the members of their chicken flock to dispatch them when they are in need of it. A couple of times now we’ve had to respond to emergency medical matters by delivering the coup de grâce for them. This afternoon we had a distressed phone call. Would we take their fine, though obnoxious, Wyandotte cock, and kill him? He’d been found flopping about in the morning with a broken leg.

Naturally, we are only too happy to help out. Though Richard usually ends up doing the killing around here, even I can put down an animal in distress. In this case, the lovely 7-month bird was also to be ours to keep for the table. He arrived nicely settled into grass in a ventilated box. We visited briefly with his parents, and then excused ourselves to take him away to the back of behind. The stroke was swift. Since we’d had advance notice of his arrival, a pot of hot water was ready for his dunking. He plucked beautifully and very shortly was ready to be cleaned inside.

Picked clean

Now he looks less like a bird to engage your heart and more like what comes from the market. He had a very good life, however, unlike the chickens wrapped and displayed in that supermarket cooler, and he’ll make a far healthier several dinners for us, too.  We’ll let him rest for a couple of days in the refrigerator, “hanging” used to be term for it, and then we’ll bring him in for preparation.

The gift rooster was the wrap-up of a fine weekend. The weather has been autumnally gorgeous: sunshine, mild air, foliage in color. I drove off across the valley with a friend on Saturday and came home with another beautiful Jacob sheep for the flock. This is Bide a Wee Ida:

Bide a Wee Ida

Ida is a yearling ewe, and arrived just in time to step into the breeding paddock with Eldon the ram and the other women. Ordinarily I would quarantine a new ewe for a period before introducing her to the flock. But Ida has effectively been in quarantine at Bide a Wee Farm since the Oregon Flock and Fiber Festival in September, so I wasn’t concerned about her.

Eldon seemed quite pleased to make her acquaintance, and Ida, too, appeared receptive to the matter. A ram follows an interesting ewe closely, sniffs her personal cologne at intervals, and curls his lips in delight. He licks his nose, and advances for another whiff. He bumps her hips lightly, and speaks, I am quite sure, French into her ear: You are so beautiful, my sweet. I do very much adore you. Your scent causes me rapture. Come close again, don’t go, my dear. Am I not handsome to you? Meanwhile, the ewe plays a coy game. If she is not in the mood yet (meaning, not ready to breed), she trots ahead of him, turns irritably away, and keeps him running along behind. If she is open to the moment, however, she will pause now and then to let him come close. She’ll squat ahead of him, and maybe pee a little. He raises his front leg and rests his chin on her rump. Oh, dear, she thinks, and sets off again for another pass around the paddock, but not so fast he might lose interest. This little dance goes on for a while, until they come to an agreement about one another. Then he steps up to the job, commits the act in a trice, and walks off to investigate some other woman in sight. To judge from the indications given last night, Ida was no longer a virgin by dawn.

Ida had an adventure in arriving here.  When I brought Jenna home in the back of the car last December I was a little unnerved by the clacking of her horns against the windows. So this time we thought about the matter a little, and decided that, since you hood a hawk to calm it, and blinder a horse, why not cover the eyes of a sheep to keep her from trying to get out the windows? We took along a pillowcase and, once Ida was loaded into the car, slipped it over her head. We cut a corner off the case to make a breathing hole. Ida seemed to be all OK with the matter. She stood quietly all the way down the hills from the farm, through Newberg (where we stopped for coffee at a little coffee shack and amazed the server who looked in the window and asked if we wanted a dog biscuit. “I think she’d love it,” I said, “but it’s a sheep.” “No way!” said the girl. “Way! It is!”, and withdrew the offer of the doggie biscuit), across the valley, and up into the east-side hills to home.  Except for the loss of the dog biscuit, Ida was untroubled. One wonders in passing, did she notice we had a pillowcase over our dog’s head?

Sunday dawned as beautiful as Saturday had. I took advantage of the weather to clean out the chicken nests. This might not sound like a pleasing task, but it doesn’t take long, and doing it in sunshine is so much more pleasant than doing it in the rain, that, yes, I enjoyed it.

I went into the loft and tossed bales of hay to the floor, and watched the bits and flecks of hay dust drift in the sunlight. I tied the ladder to the roof truss, too. Why? Indeed.

Tie your ladderLet me tell a small story. A couple of weeks ago I went up to throw down bales. It was my first trip up the ladder this year. I’ve just now used up the hay stacked on the floor of the barn, and had to move upstairs for more. The first bales to come down are always a little scary to deal with. They’re stacked to the very edge of the loft floor, so must be hooked from the stack by clinging to the ladder and coaxing them out. Then, once a bale-sized rectangle of floor is exposed, I can step off the ladder and, by turning smally in the rectangle, shove the next  bales off into space. The first part of this worked fine. I’ve done it before and have a pretty good method worked out. I didn’t worry too much about the second part. By then I’m standing on the floor. No problem. Except… the second bale down elegantly takes the ladder with it.

I consider the matter. I am upstairs with a lot of hay and not a lot of room to move around. The ladder is downstairs. I try to think like McIver. I have tools. I have: a hay hook. I have: clothes. I have: a very, very small Swiss Army knife with a nail file and a scissors in addition to the manicure-sized blade. I can think of no way to use any of these things to get the ladder back.

So I start tossing bales onto the floor. I’m thinking, if I stack up enough of them down there, I can hop down onto them. The first couple land neatly where I intend. The next few bounce, fly, roll, and cannonball everywhere. They are scattered all over the floor, not even one on top of another very exactly. This is not working. I have more bales on the floor than I really want down there, and I am still up in the loft with no good way to join them. But I do have enough space cleared on the edge of the loft now that I can lie down there. I lean wa-a-ay out with the hay hook, and just snag the top of the aluminum ladder, and pull gratefully on it.

This is an extension ladder. Pulling on the top only makes it longer and longer and doesn’t really put it anywhere I want it. By this time I am sweating as in August, have shucked off my chore coat, am not admiring the motes in the sun anymore, and might even have said the “F” word: “Fooey!

As I am writing this in comfort, and at a computer, you must know I did in the end get out of the loft. I struggled with that ladder for a good 20 minutes, making it “walk” from side to side and trying to find a place among all the shattered bales below to set its feet. I hugged the center post of the barn as I slithered down the wobbly rungs. I stamped about a little, restacked the bales, picked up my coat and hat, and snarled at the sheep who were watching it all in fascination.

Thinking it over

So, y’know, tie your ladder.

The sun was still up, and I needed to make a gathering of greens for holiday wreaths. One of the things about having almost everything in storage is, you can’t easily remember if you were smart enough to save out things like hand nippers and branch loppers. I was, and was able to find them even, so set out to gather some leafy things into buckets. I’ll be making gift wreaths for the next few weekends. I started with one this afternoon, working in the sun on the back steps.

When I came in, Richard took one look and me and said, as he has quite a few times lately, “You really need a new coat.”

What?

I don’t see the problem myself. It’s hardly broken in. It still has two working buttons. What? It’s the coat that held new-born lambs. It goes over fence wires to protect me. It has good pockets for apples and bottles of animal medicines.  It’s softened up. It fits over sweaters. It’s taken me a good 10 years to make this coat what it is. You mean, I have to start again at the beginning?

Well, I’ll give that some thought.

Meanwhile, this is the kind of weekend that makes me love autumn most.

Fencecat

Published in: on November 16, 2008 at 10:48 pm  Comments (2)  

Eggs and Eggs

First fruits have arrived.

As I have complained already, the vegetable garden is more or less… a failure, this year. The combination of ill weather and the new septic system have conspired against the whole idea of production. Down in the garden, we have a couple of hard, green Early Girl tomatoes on the vine, about 3 infant zucchini (imagine if you can, a summer when the zucchini are scarce!), and the stubs of bean plants left behind by the rabbits. It’s not looking good for subsistence gardening. It’s fortunate we have markets.

But, unexpectedly, my stop-gap garden, the one in pots at the studio door, is doing quite well.

The cucumbers are looking good, the Swiss chard is coming on, we’ve had lettuce and radishes, and here are the eggplants. Eggplants have to be one of the loveliest of vegetable garden plants. They’re fit to be ornamentals.

Even in the best of seasons, it’s a challenge to mature full-sized eggplants here. But we can grow the smaller, short-season variety Ichiban,

and we had our first rewards this week. If we want a Moussaka, I go to the market for big, black-skinned eggplants. The little Ichibans are terrific for stir-fry dinners, though. Never mind all that business about peeling, salting to leach the bitterness, rinsing, squeezing out, and patting dry. Just slice these little guys into dollars (well, quarter-dollars maybe, given their size), and toss them into the mix. You want them to be thoroughly cooked, but they really require nothing more special than the other ingredients in the pan.

Now, isn’t that pretty? It was nice on the palate, too!

But wait! There’s more!

We have new eggs, too. Real eggs, not vegetable ones. The young Barred Plymouth Rock hens have started to lay. (The Ameraucanas seem to be a little slower to mature.)

When a hen first lays eggs, they come out quite small, as befits her young anatomy.

Soon enough, they will size up.

…That may be a small exaggeration of scale.

The view below shows a first egg and one from a hen who has been laying for merely a week.

Thank you, ladies.

So, odd season that it is, we won’t go hungry out here. But it looks like slim pickin’s overall. This is the kind of year in which, in earlier times, farmers starved.

Published in: on August 10, 2008 at 11:41 am  Comments (8)  

Barcodes and Anarchists, or, Knowing About Chickens

I will be the first to stand up and say I don’t know much about the finer points of poultry breeding. I know the value of a backyard flock of hens, a value that seems to have slipped away much in recent years. When we lived in town and had a little flock of layers out in the back garden, we were exceptional in the neighborhood. It was an old neighborhood, and you just know those little houses built in the 1920s all had chickens in their yards once. It seemed too bad, to know that a practice so wholesome and easy as keeping your own hens had become something to remark upon. We brought our hens with us when we moved out to the hills, and though those birds have passed on several times by now, we continue to keep a mixed flock of egg layers. They are a diverse group of ladies, and the occasional gentleman, who qualify as “multi-purpose birds.” They must grow well, lay well, eat well, and weigh in at a satisfying 6 or 7 pounds when they are culled as stewing hens later in life.

I fear, however, I am only carelessly aware of the points poultry breeders would consider when evaluating hens. I can shop for a sheep, all right. Chickens, I buy them by the carton more or less and must trust the breeder to deliver to me what I have ordered. Give me a dozen Barred Plymouth Rocks. Barcodes we call them around here, for the obvious reason.

A group of young Plymouth Barred Rocks partying with a canteloupe.

A group of young Barred Plymouth Rocks partying with a cantaloupe.

I love their fancy skirts and old-lady roundness.

Another year, give me a dozen Hampshire Reds. They’re a smaller hen, more urgent somehow, but with a nice temperament, and they lay lovely warm pale brown eggs like the Barcodes do.

Give me robust, healthy chickens that make a nice chuckling sound in the barnyard and lay a pretty carton of eggs. Our customers are not looking for uniformly sized, white-shelled, graded and labeled eggs. They come to us because the eggs they buy here are as fresh as ever an egg was. When you break that egg into a pan, its yolk will stand up half an inch from the sizzle, and it will be as yellow as a summer dawn sun. And that box of eggs, when opened, is a treat to the eye. The dozen eggs is made up of variations of color from palest brown to darker brown to freckled brown.

One year someone gave us some young hens that had lost their charm as a diversion for the children. Among them were a couple of Easter Egg layers, unidentified chickens who gave pale blue-green eggs. My customers were delighted with the addition of green eggs to the boxes of brown so, next time I was ordering chicks, I looked out for some to increase the color flock.

And here is where I became confused.

Aracaunas are what you want,” wrote one friend. “Araucanas,” advised another, modifying the spelling. “No,” said someone else, “they are Americanas.” And then once more: Ameraucana. “Easter Egg Chickens!” I was told then. Tomato, tomahto, potato, potahto… Richard solved the whole thing by calling them Anarchists and suggesting we just get some.

I ordered what the hatchery listed as “Araucanas (Ameraucanas), the “Easter Egg” chicken.” That figured to take care of it.

But I really did want to know, you know? Because, it seems I am not the only one confused about this, and it does seem a person should know what kind of birds are running in the flock.

The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy is my first line of inquiry on livestock breeds. I was surprised, when I looked up Araucana in their list, to see a bird that did not look much like the hens growing up in my flock. And, further, it is listed under the “study” heading which, in ALBC talk means “Breeds that are of interest but either lack definition or lack genetic or historical documentation.” And more, “Note 1: Araucanas and Ameraucanas are often confused […yes…] with each other, and may be sold interchangeably.

So I clicked on over to Wikipedia, my next source of quickly found information:

The Araucana, also known as a South American Rumpless, is a breed of chicken originating in Chile. The Araucana is often confused with other fowl, especially the Ameraucana and Easter Egger chickens, but has several unusual characteristics which distinguish it. They lay blue eggs, have feather tufts near their ears, and are rumpless.

There’s that confusion again. But ear tufts and rumplessness are two things my hens do not have.

Here is the Araucana Club of America logo, showing the rumpless condition of Araucanas.

and here’s a Wikipedia photo of a white Araucana with ear tufts:

Then further, I read:

When the Araucana was first introduced to breeders worldwide, in the mid-20th century, it was quickly realized that the genetics that produced tufts also caused chick mortality.[note] As it turns out, two copies of the gene causes nearly 100% mortality shortly before hatching. One copy causes about 20% mortality. The tufted gene is dominant however. Because no living araucana possesses two copies of the tufted gene, breeding any two tufted birds leads to half of the resulting brood being tufted with one copy of the gene, a quarter being clean faced with no copy of the gene, and a quarter of the brood dead in the shell having received two copies of the gene.

This sounds very difficult to me. I do not wish to offend breeders or denigrate the Araucana chicken. But the kind of breeding care required to produce a stable henyard of natural Araucanas is something I can only admire from a distance. It’s completely beyond me to attempt this kind of record-keeping and control of matings. No matter how much I loved a breed, I would learn to un-love it for being impossible.

So, I moved on, and consulted the Ameraucana Breeders Club. Here at last I see photos of hens that look like mine (that is, to my unrefined eye, they look like mine), and here I read:

“Ameraucanas” are first and foremost BLUE EGG layers. They MUST have “pea combs”, and be bearded and muffed and tailed, and CANNOT have any tufts. They also MUST have slate blue legs, and red ear lobes (females pale). There has been a definite relationship established between the “Pea Comb” gene and the “Blue Egg” gene. Both these genes have been shown to be carried on the same chromosome, and thus closely related.

The site contains a long piece on the history of Ameraucanas and Araucanas, (as long, almost, as this post is becoming) and I’ll let you all go there if you want more detailed information.

Regarding tufts versus muffs and beards: above you saw ear tufts. And quite decorative they are! Here below is a bearded lady from our flock:

Ameraucana pullet

Bearded Lady: Ameraucana pullet

Click the photo to see it a little larger. Note she has blue-gray legs, a pea-comb (short little thing, not the floppy kind), an upright tail, and a distinct beard. The beard is quite different from the ear tufts of the Araucana hen. This hen is still young. I’m not sure where the beard ends and “muffs” start, but I’m expecting her facial foliage will increase some as she grows up. Someone who knows the breed better than I could clarify the description.

After reading several additional articles and looking at some more photos, I am now clear in my mind that Ameraucanas weren’t bred from Araucanas, nor were Araucanas bred from Ameraucanas. Both are the result of independent breeding from types of blue-egg layers that were at one time non-standardized but have now been accepted by the American Poultry Association as established breeds. The Ameraucana was officially accepted as standard in 1984.

And this brings us back to the Easter Eggers. Returning to Wikipedia:

An Easter Egger or Easter Egg chicken is any chicken that possesses the “blue egg” gene, but doesn’t fully meet any breed description as defined in the American Poultry Association(APA) and/or the American Bantam Association (ABA) standards. Further, even if a bird meets an APA or ABA Standard breed description, but doesn’t meet a variety description or breed true at least 50% of the time it is considered an Easter Egger.

In short:

USA & Canada Araucana – Tufts (lethal allele), rumpless, blue eggs, green legs and yellow skin (with exceptions).

US Ameraucana – Beards and muffs (NO lethal gene), with tail feathers, blue eggs, blue legs and white skin.

Easter Egger – Whatever. Blue-green eggs, though.

Table 1. Araucana versus Ameraucana.
Characteristic Araucana Ameraucana
Tail no yes
Ear-tufts yes no
Beard no yes
Muffs no yes
Blue eggs yes yes

[This table is reproduced courtesy of the University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS), available on the website The Araucana Chicken.]

Heads up! (No, that's a tail.)

Heads up! (No, that's a tail.)

Published in: on July 12, 2008 at 10:39 pm  Comments (6)  

Exploding Vegetables, Canned Sheep, and Rose Petal Delight

This week we have a miscellany of treasures.

I was in North Portland earlier in the week, far from my usual haunts, on a trip to Kaiser Permanente where I am part of a clinical trial. By good luck my appointment fell on Wednesday afternoon and I stopped at the pretty little Farmers’ Market Kaiser sponsors once a week by providing space for vendors and car parkers. It’s part of their “Live Long and Thrive” campaign, and a nod to the growing movement in favor of local produce.

Food at an open-air market almost sells itself. You have to be insensate not to be persuaded by the colors and scents. And, especially, let me share this display:

Carrots!

Carrots!

Why, they are practically erupting, those carrots.

Consider these nestled onions, turnips and beets:

Onions and turnips and beets, oh my!

Onions and turnips and beets, oh my!

See those tiny white turnips over there between the onions and the beets? Pulled from the ground when they are scarcely bigger than radishes, they are the tenderest, sweetest turnips you will ever eat. Cut off the greens but do not throw them away! Slice the turnips, at most in half, and cook them briefly in a skillet with a half inch of water on the boil. I mean briefly! These are babies, and babies cook fast. Pay no attention to how long the cookbook says to cook them. Poke them with a fork and find them still just firm and they are ready. Serve them steaming with some butter. They’ll melt on your tongue. Next to some carrots for color, they will melt your eyeballs, too.

You can prepare the greens as well, and serve them for the next evening’s supper. Again, disregard the Joy of Cooking instruction that would have you cook them 20 minutes (!), pour off the water (!), and cook them another 10 minutes, upon which you will have a pot of green mush appealing only to Popeye. Why do they always tell you to discard the cooking water, laden as it is with color, vitamins and flavor? What better stock for a quick soup than the cooking water from vegetables? Pshaw! Shame! Oh, but I was preparing turnip greens: take up your skillet again, put in a little water and a bit of butter, lay in the washed greens, and cook them almost as your would a stir-fry, except you don’t really need to stir them. That quickly, though. Five minutes. Maybe seven. They are done and tender. Maybe add a sprinkle of sesame seeds on top.

This is fast food, people! It would take you longer to defrost the Skinny Cuisine dinner in a box.

Next, by special request, I’ve retrieved a photo from the farm archives wherein are portrayed the wages of sin.

Perl was one of our first sheep, a small old ewe with what is called a “lilac” fleece, meaning her dark spots were grey not black. Her pale spots faded almost completely in the sun. She was primitive in type, had a quite sparse and greasy fleece, was instinctual in behavior, and was the matron of the flock during her tenure. Covetousness and gluttony were Perl’s faults of nature. One year we housed the young pullets in one of the lambing pens in the sheep shed. It seemed a good way to get the growing young hens out of the basement, along with their dust and smell. We lined the pen with chicken wire to keep them in and the sheep out. It worked for a while. But Perl was a smart sheep. I want no disparaging remarks about the stupidity of sheep. Jacob sheep are not your usual sheep of popular tale. They are wily and intelligent and highly likely to figure out a way to get what they desire.

Perl desired the grain of the young chickens. One day she succeeded in opening the gate to the pen where they were housed, and must have gone right to work on the chicken feeder. But, lacking a beak, she didn’t eat from the bottom of the feeder the way hens do. She ate from the top. She probably lifted the whole feeder with her head then, and the wire carry-handle of the can slipped neatly over her two horns, and she was trapped. In the afternoon I went out to feed sheep, and found the flock standing on one side of the paddock regarding Perl with distant care, and Perl herself:

Perl in a can

Perl in a can

“I don’t want the cheese. I just want out of the trap.”

And last, a nice pleasure of the season: We have an old rambling rose, the best of its kind, which is to say unnamed, unruly, and divinely scented. It grew in the garden of my old house in Portland where it did battle with the fence and, in time, might have won if the new owners of the place had not taken the fence down altogether. I think the rose is gone now, too. But we dug up a goodly chunk of the root back then and brought it with us to the farm. Neither half of the ramble seemed to notice the surgery and the rose now grows right up through the nearby crab apple tree in front of the house here. Early summer brings the best air from this old bloom, and the flowers though they come but once in a season are profuse. I pluck whole fully opened heads willy-nilly as high as I can reach, and set the petals to dry. As the flower diminishes, the perfume remains. One year we made rosary beads from them, a messy but so-aromatic undertaking. We nearly swooned by the time we finished with that one. One year we made scented bath and body oil. It seemed such a simple, ancient thing to do, with a result so lasting and pleasant. This year, dried rose petal sachets, I think. Christmas presents, maybe?

“Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses,” wrote the poet James Oppenheim.

Published in: on July 4, 2008 at 6:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

Coming-out Day

Are you all tired of pictures of fruit trees in bloom? Too bad. It’s spring. That’s what you get. This one is the Gravenstein apple. I do think apple blossoms are my favorites in the orchard. The combination of pink and white just out-dresses any of the others, and the moment before the bloom opens, that swollen pale pink potential embraced by itself, that’s the best part of the display.

Yesterday we had rain and gloom. Today the sun came out, the orchard is in bloom, the bees are flying, and the pullets are ready for their move into outdoor quarters. Remember those fluff-ball chicks from a while back (March 2 post)? They’re adolescents now, and ready to move up in society. Today they graduated from their screened bathtub in the barn to the little chicken tractor in the garden.

First Day Out in the World

The chicken tractor is a pen with no bottom meant to be moved when the girls have used up the good ground beneath them. This should be a huge relief, or a revelation, to the little hens. Truth is, they were completely suspicious of the arrangement when we put them into the pen, and wanted nothing but to tread down the grass and get away from it. They’ll figure it out. Green feed and live bugs will very quickly become their preferred diet.

And besides, they have some work to do. All that grass needs to be worked into garden soil, and I am ever so eager to have someone working on it besides me. We suffer from a heavy soil here (Jory Clay Loam, it’s called), and it holds the winter moisture well into spring. I tried sticking a shovel into it this weekend, and found it still sticking like gumbo. When we lived in town, by this time I had half the garden planted in the hardier coles and lettuces. Out here, we wait. We wait for the one moment between gumbo and adobe when the ground can be tilled. So I say, let those young hens have a go at it. They’ll benefit from the spring grass and I will benefit from having some eager young things to scratch it up and turn it under.

So the day was still shining, and though I smelled like chicken litter (what a good thing to have moved out into the garden that is!), I set to work in the orchard. I had ordered little trees a while back, and they had spent the winter in pots. Three young fruiting quinces and a pie cherry.

The glorious quince

The quinces are not so usual in orchards these days. Time was, not a fruit lot went without a quince tree. The hard golden fruits, when still uncooked, can be anywhere from acrid on the tongue to complexly sweet. They’re mostly used in cooking, as jellies and jams, poached with spices, as sauces, in compotes, as pastes, as ingredients in baked goods. I remember quinces first from the time when I was a young teenager. Mother and I would go to an old farm property, an empty relic with a broken gate and a long driveway overgrown with grass and brambles. The house was falling under the weight of a rampant wisteria. In spring we would find mushrooms under the orchard trees. In fall we would go back and find quinces on the same trees. The apples in the orchard were ancient and bitter. The quince trees, however, continued to bear large yellow fruit, and we brought them home in baskets. Quinces make the loveliest jellies you ever saw.

The pie cherry comes with a legacy, too. For years we benefited from the prodigious yield given by my Aunt’s pie cherry tree. Oh, those sour-sweet jewels, they came off in clusters, like a tree dripping rubies. When my old Aunt passed, the tree passed, too, to new ownership, and our privileges went with it. I have longed for a tree like it since then. So today I put one, just a slight little thing, into the orchard. I’ll be patient. Cherries will come.

Well, but the day still shone, so, with an eye to catching a little bit of early vegetable planting, I set out the red cabbages, not into the garden, but into great big pots. It’s an experiment. In another year I might get an earlier start on the tilling, but for a year like this one, maybe setting the early sets into pots is a solution. We’ll see how they do there.

Red Cabbage

And still that sun was high and bright, so I went to work clearing some brambles from the orchard. It’s needed to be done, and the rain has kept me sulking in the house, so out I went with my loppers and clippers and my assistant cat.

Yellowcat on a spring day

In fact, that bramble was one of her best vole-hunting thickets, and the look she is giving me is not necessarily one of approval. The bramble is much improved now. From my point of view.

At last the sun was sinking wearily behind the hills. We came inside and decided one last gesture in acknowledgment of the weather was in order: Richard opened the grill, cleaned the racks from their winter’s slumber, and we did hamburgers on the barby. A long day, well-used.

I hope the pullets are pleased with their new digs.

Published in: on May 4, 2008 at 11:06 pm  Comments (6)  

Stop! Thief!

If you doubt the season is changing (how it comes all of a sudden!) just look up. The crows have returned in a raucous black cloud. And sure as eggs is eggs, they are out for the main chance.

The Spoils

At morning feeding I found this evidence of thievery. Without wings of its own, there is no way an empty chicken egg can come to the yard in front of the barn.

After the evidence came to light, I watched for a while from the window. Sure enough, here came a crow to sit on the top end of the hay elevator and look things over. Hmm. Nothing more? Nests empty? Too bad.

Egg-suckers.

And yet, there is something about them that makes a person’s imagination run. To watch them harry a hawk in the air is to cheer for them both — the hawk for being picked on, and the crows as protectors of their neighborhood. To hear them arrive all in a flapping murder of self-announcement and settlement into the treetops is to admire their party instinct. To find the remains of their pillage is to, grudgingly, acknowledge an intelligence that challenges our own. We confound them with ravens, who make us shudder just a bit as we whisper in our minds, “Nevermore.” We say “crow’s nest,” and think of pirates on the bounding main. Scarecrow? It doesn’t work, but it brings folklore into the garden, and a slight creeping of the skin.

When I was a child, an old woman down the road had a captive crow. To call it captive really does not describe it, though. The crow had frequent free flights over the garden and the woods behind the house. When we would invade those woods for little girl explorations and imaginations, the crow would circle overhead and announce hoarsely, “Robber! Robber!”

He should talk.

Egg-sucker.

Published in: on April 8, 2008 at 12:38 pm  Leave a Comment