Despite a few setbacks in the garden this year, we did have a pretty good harvest by the time late summer and fall rolled around. A few crops didn’t do quite as well as last year, and it seems that every year brings a new challenge in terms of insect or rodent pests, but I’m happy with our harvest and the food put away for the winter. Not to mention we’ve enjoyed countless delicious meals made with farm fresh veggies. When I actually start to tally it all up it amounts to quite a lot that I’ve put away to enjoy over the winter – several dozen heads of garlic, 12 pounds of onions, 45 pounds of potatoes, a few dozen spaghetti squash and pie pumpkins, pickles, jam, and honey, plus there’s still a stash of last year’s marinara and applesauce that we haven’t worked our way through yet. In the freezer there are countless quart baggies full of frozen kale and Swiss chard, a dozen quart baggies of roasted tomatoes, several dozen roasted Anaheim chilis, ten pints of pesto, a couple dozen quarts of blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries, more rhubarb than I’ll probably use, and lots of sliced and shredded zucchini for soups and breads. The leeks, Swiss chard, and kale are still going strong in the garden, and I’ll try to harvest and put a bit more of them away up until the first frost.
By this time of year the chickens and turkeys have stopped laying eggs for the winter, and we are working our way through our stash of eggs that I started saving up in early fall. Our daily egg on toast for breakfast has now become every other day egg on toast, with the off days consisting of peanut butter, honey from our bees, and banana toast, which is still quite delicious and just as decadent as an egg in its own way. Every year I try to remember to save some seeds from the garden. Since seeds of many plants last for two or three years, I don’t save seeds every year, although I do try to remember to save some seeds if I have the time. I’ve also been saving flower seeds, and every year I grow a few more late flowering plants such as coneflower and bee balm to expand the number of pollinator plants that are growing around the farm. This year I participated in my first ever seed swap with some new gardening friends I’ve made on Instagram. I sent in 25 packs of veggie and flower seeds, and in return I received 25 packs of seeds with all sorts of fun new veggies and flowers to grow next year. I grew these amazing sunflowers this year, with a beautiful variety of petal colors and some of which grew to about 12 feet tall! I had been planning to save seeds from them since I liked them so much; however, the chipmunks began eating the seeds before they were even developed enough to save for next year. I could not figure out what was devouring the sunflower heads so early in the season until I saw one of these acrobatic little critters climbing up the stalks of the sunflowers on the front porch, but I decided that this was not a battle that was worth fighting. The chipmunks may have claimed victory over the sunflowers, but I still consider it a victory harvest in the garden this year.
I’ve had a few gardening challenges this year, but thankfully garden season is in full swing now and the harvest is looking promising. I started the cool season veggies successfully from seed as usual: lettuce, spinach, kale, broccoli, Swiss chard, leeks, and onions, and these all got off to a good start in the garden. Then the wild rabbits that I once thought were so cute when I would see them at the outskirts of the farm, began appearing in greater numbers than in years past. Whereas we used to see one rabbit or maybe two at a time, now we were seeing three at a time. Their cute nibbles along the edges of the leafy greens from last summer had turned to ravenous destruction this year. We enclosed most of the raised beds with chicken wire around the edge to keep the rabbits out, and that has worked, at least for this year. The plant starts in the smaller raised beds were protected with wire cages that I have used as plant supports in years past, but some of the cages have wider spaces between the wires, and the rabbits would still manage to get at the plants, and when I would go up to water in the morning several starts would have been entirely eaten. I replanted my squash seeds several times, but I finally resorted to buying a few larger starts at the store as it got to be too late for restarting seeds yet again. Even the chives had to be protected from the rabbits, as they seemed to find them especially appealing, and when I would go up to the garden the ground would be littered with chive blossoms.
I had a lot of trouble starting the warm season veggies from seed this year, and I eventually figured out that the 3-way planting mix I bought in bulk from the local bark chip place had too much sand in it and was way too heavy for starting seeds. So I ended up replanting the warm season veggie seeds in different potting soil, but eventually I gave in to temptation and ended up buying tomato, eggplant, and pepper starts because I grew too impatient waiting for my tiny little starts to get big enough to plant!
We have learned that we need to put bird netting over our berries if we want to have any to eat for ourselves, although every year we find ourselves conflicted because we end up having a few bird casualties due to birds getting caught in the net. Also, last year the rabbits chewed holes in the bird netting covering the blueberries, allowing more birds, and chipmunks, to get in before we finally figured out what was happening. So this year we tried something different. For the blueberries, which was the berry the rabbits seemed most interested in, we used chicken wire instead of bird netting over a PVC hoop structure. This has worked great, and we have not had a single bird get inside the blueberry hoop house. For the raspberries, last year we just draped the bird netting over the top of the berries and let the extra netting bunch up on the ground. We had quite a few birds get in under the bottom of the net, but then they couldn’t figure out how to get back out and would get caught in the extra netting. This year the raspberries got a hoop structure as well, and the netting was cut to fit and attached securely at the bottom with zip ties. We have only had one quail and one sparrow find their way under the net, and both of those I was able to free without much too trouble (although I did get quite a few bites from an angry sparrow, lol!)
The rhubarb is putting out a lot of stalks this year, and I have already made jam, rhubarb pickles, and frozen 10 pints of sliced rhubarb for making cobblers this winter. The broccoli grew some giant heads this year, and besides eating it for several dinners already, I’ve blanched and frozen several pounds. The cherry tomatoes will be ripening soon, and my eggplant that I feared was lost after the rabbit attack have rebounded with a ton of new growth. It’s time to rip out the bolted spinach and lettuce and get the basil starts planted. I’m also planning to harvest the garlic this weekend. The potatoes will be ready to harvest in a few weeks. They put out very lush growth this year with more flowers than I’ve ever had so I am hoping for another great harvest this year, and we’ll see if we beat last year’s potato harvest of 70 pounds. It will be time to harvest and can kale as soon as I find time to do it, and in the meantime I know a few feathered ladies who will be more than happy to help me eat it!
At long last, spring is here! It’s time to get my hands in the dirt and fight the good fight against slugs, rodents, cute little wild bunnies, birds, and whatever else tries to get a free meal in the garden this year. Kale, Swiss chard, broccoli, spinach, and lettuce were all started from seed and have been transplanted into the garden. I’ve found the best way to protect my veggie seedlings from slugs is with 2 inch wide copper tape glued around plastic cups or pots with a hole cut in the bottom and placed around each seedling. Plus they have the added benefit of providing a little bit of thermal protection since it’s still getting pretty close to freezing on some of the colder nights. Leeks and potatoes will be planted later this week. Tomato and pepper seeds have been started, and every new seedling that sprouts gives me such a thrill. I save many of my own seeds, so it just makes it that much more satisfying seeing them pop out of the soil.
Our bantam chickens, Millie, Salt-n-Pepa were helping me up in the garden today. And by helping I mean getting in my way when I’m trying to turn the soil as they dash over to the freshly turned earth and gobble up worms by the dozen it seems. Then of course when I get my seedlings planted, they come over to try to take a nibble. Since all it would take is a few pecks to wipe out an entire bed, there comes a point where I have to put an end to the hen party and shoo them over to scratch around in the compost pile.
The garden is starting to sprout back to life again. The raspberries have been pruned and are just starting to leaf out. The chives, garlic, rhubarb, and artichokes are about a foot tall and are looking great. The strawberry bed is also sending up new leaves, and I need to get in there and do some thinning so my asparagus still have some room. I’m hoping that the asparagus do a bit better this year than last year, because without asparagus there’s no sense in putting up my “this is the awning of the cage of asparagus” sign that is on my to do list! I hope you will forgive my extreme garden geekiness, I am just so happy for the return of gardening season.
We had a bumper crop of apples this year, and everyone else we know did too. Of course the peak of the apple harvest was during a hot spell, so luckily I was able to set up my outdoor canning station to make applesauce. I made two huge batches of applesauce, and we now have two dozen jars in the pantry, which is more than I’ve ever made in one year before, but there were just so many apples I didn’t want any to go to waste. Sean was able to use up all of the rest of the apples to make cider using the cider press that he built using a bunch of stuff lying around the garage including an old weightlifting bench, the engine from a broken dishwasher, a car jack, a bunch of re-purposed wood trim, and some designs from the internet. He is always impressing me with his creations, but this may be one of my favorites. He pressed about a gallon and a half of cider, and it was delicious. We drank it all up it was so good, but next year we may make a bit more and try fermenting it. There were lots of small chunks of apples left over as a by-product of the cider pressing which I have been feeding to the chickens and turkeys as treats, so nothing goes to waste.
We’ve also been busy picking more blackberries and freezing them for home-baked desserts this winter, and I did manage to find time to make a blackberry pie. Ironically, I didn’t think to make an apple pie this year, despite the buckets of apples that were sitting around everywhere I looked for several weeks. Sometimes I get so caught up in canning and putting food away for the winter that I forget to enjoy some of the harvest while its fresh and in the moment. Oh well, I still have not gotten around to preserving the piles of pears that are now sitting in the refrigerator waiting to be canned, so there’s still time to make a pear tart to celebrate the bountiful fruit harvest this year.
This weekend was the first big harvest in the garden. I’ve been so busy with my day job and keeping the pastures and gardens watered and taking extra care of the chickens and turkeys during the recent heat wave, that I have not had time to do much harvesting yet. I started with the potatoes. I planted Red Lasoda and Yukon Gold this year. The plants had grown large and lush this spring in their raised bed that was amended with much composted chicken manure. The plants had started dying back a couple of weeks ago, and as the foliage withered away I began to see potatoes revealing themselves at the ground surface. I had high hopes for a good harvest, and I was not disappointed when I started digging up the first potatoes. Clusters of large potatoes revealed themselves as I dug in the location of each of the dried up potato stalks. In years past, the potatoes have ranged in size of course, with most of them being what I would consider medium size. This year however, many of the potatoes were gigantic, weighing in at over a pound each, with the largest potatoes weighing close to a pound and a half! When the harvest was done, I had close to 70 pounds of potatoes. Not too shabby for a 4 foot by 8 foot raised bed.
Next up it was time to harvest the garlic. I planted it in a new spot this year, where it had deeper soils that were better amended, and it did much better than usual. I harvested about 3 dozen heads, most of which were a decent size. The onions are about ready to harvest too, now that their tops are falling over so I will try to get to those in the next couple of weeks. I have been doing a good job of keeping up with eating the chard, zucchini and yellow crookneck squash, and the spaghetti squash are getting close to being ready to harvest. They always do well, and I can already see a couple of dozen big ones on the vines. Our tomatoes are a bit behind schedule this year, and although the plants are huge and covered with tomatoes only the cherry tomatoes are ripening. I started my seeds a bit later than usual this year, and now I am regretting it. Hopefully there will still be enough warm sunny days for us to get a decent harvest. I also need to can the kale soon before the aphids take over, but I will have to save that for another day.
With the veggie garden until control for the time being, it was time to move on to more exciting things. The apples and pears put out a bumper crop this year. There was already a dwarf pear tree here when we bought the farm, and we planted a second dwarf pear tree several years ago. The tree we planted has put out a few pears for the last couple years, but this year it gave us a whopping 15 pounds and it’s barely taller than I am! I picked them all, and as soon as they ripen I am planning to make a big batch of pear butter and maybe some pear-applesauce. We have lots of apples this year on our tree, and friends and neighbors have been giving us their extras too. I picked a big bucket full of blackberries from the blackberry bushes that surround the farm. The one good thing about having huge blackberry thickets in the areas of the farm that we don’t have time to maintain is that I don’t have to go anywhere to pick them. I also picked a bunch of giant rhubarb stalks from the garden and froze it in pre-sliced and pre-measured amounts with the blackberries, ready to be turned into blackberry-rhubarb cobbler at a moments notice in the winter. Well that’s enough garden stories for now, I’ll tell you all about our exciting apple creations in the next blog post.
Every year there is a new battle to be waged in the vegetable garden. A few years ago it was slugs, last year it was flea beetles, but this year’s opponent is small and cute, and I must admit that I let it get the better of me for a while. But once the full force of its ravenous ways became known, I realized that I would have to take action or risk losing a good portion of the veggie garden. We’ve seen the occasional rabbit at the farm the last couple of years, but we would only ever see one rabbit at a time and it was usually at the outskirts of the farm, hopping along the transition between the mowed grass areas and the adjacent blackberry thickets. Last year I suspected a rabbit was taking the occasional nibble on the swiss chard, but no serious damage was done. This year the rabbits are more abundant, and I often see two at a time. They are also spending more time in the garden, and doing some rather serious damage. The irony is that this year I decided to try to do more companion plantings by planting chives and marigolds throughout the garden to protect the veggies from aphids, and the rabbits apparently love both chives and marigolds and they nibbled both of these as well as a couple of dozen leeks nearly down to the ground before I realized that I was going to have to protect them or risk losing these plants. The smaller kale starts were also taking a hit, and the couple dozen oriental lilies and sunflowers that I had planted in the veggie garden had been nibbled down to nothing.
When we first put in the vegetable garden, we knew that we needed to protect it from the deer. We put up an electric fence, which has worked great to keep the deer out, but the rabbits can hop right under it. Rather than adding something like chicken wire around the bottom of the entire garden fence, which would be a pain when it comes to mowing the grass around the garden, I decided to use individual plant cages to protect the smaller plants. This has worked pretty well, although I learned the hard way that the rabbits can stick their heads through the plant cages that are made with wire mesh with larger openings, as they managed to bite off the top two thirds of one of the eggplants despite it having a cage around it. The rabbits also attempted to thwart our efforts to protect the blueberries from the birds. This year we put up a new and improved hoop house-style bird net over the blueberries to make harvesting them easier since I can walk underneath the hoops and net as I harvest berries. It was working great until one day when I went up to the garden to see a blueberry branch moving up and down and a bunny fleeing the scene of the crime. The bunny had nibbled several rabbit sized holes in the blueberry net and was indulging in the berries. A second more durable plastic fence was added around the bottom two feet of the bird netting, which is keeping the rabbits out, although unfortunately a few birds are still managing to find their way into the net. This morning there were four birds flying around under the net, which we freed, and then I spent quite a bit of time crawling around on my hands and knees patching up several other holes that the rabbits must have made in the net before we put up the second fence. I am hoping that we have the rabbit situation under control for this year. I am a bit worried that instead of seeing two cute bunnies hopping around in the backyard next year that there will be vast hordes of bunnies running rampant at the farm. If that is the case we are going to have to seriously step up our game, or perhaps I’ll have to consider adding rabbit stew to the summer menu!
Spring has finally arrived at the farm after several rainy and muddy winter months, and I can’t wait to get back to gardening! I’ve already been doing some garden clean-up, including dragging all of the fir branches that blew down into the garden during the wind storm down to the fire pit. I’ve spread compost in the raised beds and done some weeding and pruning in the veggie garden and flower beds, while my little helpers, Millie, Salt-n-Pepa have been keeping me company. They love to follow me up to the garden, where there is lots of loose dirt and compost to scratch around in looking for bugs, and the kale has sprouted some delicious new leaves for the girls to nibble on. The raspberries and blueberries have been pruned, and I’ve cleaned up the strawberry and asparagus bed. The rhubarb and artichokes have leafed out, the garlic has sprouted, and the veggie garden is starting to look like a veggie garden again.
The cool season veggie seeds have been started in the greenhouse – onions, leeks, spinach, chard, and kale. I’ve also started a flat of perennial flowers that I saved seeds from last year to add to our late summer/fall bee garden – coneflower, calendula, coreopsis, bee balm, gloriosa daisy, and blazing star. The seed potatoes have started to sprout and are almost ready to plant. In a couple of weeks I’ll start the warm season veggie seeds – tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, eggplant, and pumpkins. I have a new pumpkin bed planned for this summer below the greenhouse, which will give the pumpkin vines plenty of room to grow. The bee hives have been active on these warm sunny days, and in a couple of weeks I am planning to split one of the hives and start our third hive. I also want to make some preparations for hatching chicks up in the main coop this year, and potentially setting up a separate pen in the front pasture in case Eleanor or Prudence decide they want to hatch eggs. There is lots on the to do list at this time of year, now let’s just hope we get some sunny days so we can get to it!
I feel like all I ever do is write about vegetables these days, which I suppose is fitting since they have been dominating my time and my dinner plate for the last several months. We’ve been eating zucchini, crookneck, and spaghetti squash for quite a while now, and anyone who has seen me in the last several weeks knows that I have been bringing squash with me wherever I go in the hopes that someone will be gracious enough to take some of it off of my hands. It was finally time to harvest the winter squash, and if the pantry and freezer weren’t already full enough they certainly are now. Butternut, acorn, and delicata squash are in storage for the fall and winter, and there are still a few more that may mature on the vines. With the amount of squash I’ve harvested and put away, I think we will be eating it a couple of times a week through next spring!
I also harvested the last of the potatoes which were volunteers from last years crop that were growing in one of the squash beds. The potatoes had sprouted lots of interesting nubs and smaller potatoes, making them almost too photogenic to eat! If the rain holds off for a few more weeks, there are still several summer veggies producing that I will be able to continue to harvest. Eggplant, anaheim chilies, bell peppers, and still more tomatoes are on the vines. The basil is going strong after being harvested three times already, but I can never have enough pesto in the freezer so I’ll definitely be making more of that. The lemon cucumbers are still producing, so I made another half batch of lemon cucumber dill pickles today, bringing us up to about 18 pint jars. Okay, with that off my chest I promise to write about something else in the next blog. Spoiler alert – with any luck it just may involve some turkey hens!
We’ve been having record setting high temperatures the last couple of weeks, and while its been a bit tough on us and the chickens, it has been great for the garden. It seems like everything in the garden is a few weeks ahead of schedule this year. I tried to rotate the location of most plants in the garden this year, and I think that has also contributed to the success of the garden. I’ve picked lots of strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries, and I think I have about 8 quarts of berries in the freezer set aside for making jam later in the summer. We’ve been eating lots of chard and kale and also have put away several pints of kale for the winter. We’ve harvested the first of the zucchini, and there are tons of blossoms on the plants. The lemon cucumbers and the winter squash plants are all growing by leaps and bounds. The potatoes started off looking great, although they died back a bit in the hot weather, so I’m about to dig up a few and see if they are ready to harvest. At this time last year, I was bemoaning the sad state of my tomatoes, which got off to a slow start due to the cold evening temperatures and then suffered heavy flea beetle damage. This year the tomato plants are large and healthy, have all set fruit, and it looks like a few tomatoes are just starting to ripen.
We’ve had a few garden pests to deal with this year, mainly the birds who love the berries. Normally I wouldn’t consider birds to be a pest, but the first couple of years after I planted the berries we didn’t use any sort of bird protection, and I am not exaggerating when I say that the birds ate all but a handful of the berries. So the last couple of years we have taken measures to protect the berries from the birds. This year we covered the strawberry bed with chicken wire which worked well to keep the birds out but did nothing to keep the rodents from burrowing up into the strawberry bed and indulging in quite a few strawberries. I’m not sure what we will do to prevent this next year. The bird netting over the blueberries works pretty well, although occasionally a bird will figure out how to get under the netting to get to the berries but then can’t figure out how to get out, so I’ve ended up leaving one end of the netting open to give the birds an escape route. We are going to try a different type of netting and a different way of installing it next year to see if we can find a better system that doesn’t pose a risk to the birds.
This year we’ve been seeing rabbits at the farm for the first time. I see them most often at the edge of the grassy areas, within hopping distance of the safety of the blackberry thickets. I have seen a rabbit on the edge of the garden a few times, and it looks like it’s been sampling the chard and broccoli, but thankfully there hasn’t been enough damage to bother doing anything about it. It is fun to see rabbits hopping around the farm now and then, I just hope they continue to behave themselves and not do too much sampling of the garden goods!
I love to garden, and I have grown a vegetable garden almost every year since I was in college. Since moving to the farm, getting a flock of chickens, and two beehives, my philosophy on gardening has changed a bit. I don’t garden just for myself anymore, I garden for all of us. I grow lots of chard and kale, more than we could ever eat ourselves, since the chickens love it, and it makes a great treat for them, especially in the late summer when the grass is turning brown and their access to green stuff is a bit diminished. I always leave a few kale plants in the garden over the winter so that we’ll have kale early in the season when the old stalks resprout in the spring. Typically when I pull up the old kale plants I throw them in the chicken yard for them to devour, but this year when I went up to the garden to pull the old kale and put in the new starts, I found myself unwilling to pull the old kale since it had started to flower and was covered in bees. I decided to leave most of the kale for the bees, although I did cut a few stalks to give to the girls since every time they see me walking toward the house from the garden they come running toward me hoping for a treat, and I do like to indulge them with some fresh greens now and again.
The same thing goes for the leeks. I leave the ones that I don’t get around to harvesting in the fall to overwinter, so that I will have leeks to enjoy throughout winter and into the next season. The leek stalks do get a bit tough after a while, so I eventually pull out the old ones and plant new leeks in late spring. This year when I went to pull out the old leeks, I saw that they were about ready to send up their huge flowering stalks which the bees absolutely love. So I decided to try transplanting a few from the leek bed to other locations around the garden so that the bees can enjoy their flowers, and I can get started planting this year’s garden. The artichokes are another plant that I have left in the garden partially for the bees. The variety that overwinters in our region produces fairly small artichokes that take a lot of work for not much reward in the eating department. But the plants are beautiful, the bees love the flowers, and I love seeing the bees gathering pollen and nectar in the garden, so it’s worth the space they take up to have a few plants that are bee magnets in the garden.
So far this spring I’ve planted the potatoes, kale, chard, broccoli, onions, and leeks. The tomato and pepper starts are in the greenhouse and are about ready to transplant into the garden, and the cucumber and squash seeds have been planted and will be ready to plant out in a few weeks. I am hoping for better luck with the strawberries this year. I had allowed the strawberry bed to turn into a dense jungle of old plants, runners, and offshoots last year, and a rodent of some sort set up camp in the strawberry bed and ate a ton of strawberries before they even had a chance to ripen. The good thing about living on the farm is that I have a large space to garden in and even with all the bugs, slugs, and four-legged critters dining on the garden, we still manage to have more than enough for us. I have started seeing a cute little rabbit hopping through the backyard recently, and it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if it started hopping under the electric deer fence and sampling the garden goods. We also have an adorable family of chipmunks that spends much of the day darting back and forth across the back deck, stopping every once in a while to pose cutely on a piece of garden art. The other day I saw a chipmunk on the back steps munching contentedly on something for quite some time before I realized it was a green strawberry! Oh well, as they say, you can’t fight Mother Nature, and I don’t really want to. Sometimes it’s best to just let it bee.