Now that warmer spring days are finally here, I’ve been spending more time gardening which is one thing that I really miss in the winter. I see my friends on social media who live in warmer climates gardening all through the winter and getting their spring plants in the ground way before I can plant most things in our climate, and by this time of year I can’t wait to get my hands back into the dirt. I transplanted some of the cool season veggies from the greenhouse into the garden a few weeks ago, and they are now at the stage where every day you can almost see them growing. Every weekend I have been planting more of the raised beds, and it’s finally starting to look like a garden again. Most importantly, my absolute favorite thing to grow – the tomatoes – that were transplanted into larger pots while waiting for warmer temperatures are now almost big enough to be planted out into the garden. I planted seeds for the last batch of the warm season veggies last weekend, including some beautiful bean seeds (Jacob’s cattle gold bean and good mother stallard bean) as well as some black corn and popcorn seeds. These are all new things I’m trying this year that I received in seed swaps that I participated in. I also planted several varieties of flower seeds that I received from trading with friends over the last few months that I’m excited to have in the garden this year including zinnia, cosmos, poppies, coral sage, and a milkweed “Hairy Balls” variety that sounds pretty interesting!
Our six baby chicks that we got a couple of months ago are doing well and growing up fast. They are living in a screened off section of the coop that they will eventually share with Millie and Pepa when they get a big enough that they won’t be picked on too much by Pepa. Millie has already fallen in love with the chicks, so she is allowed to spend much of her day in with the chicks. Millie is a silkie breed of chicken, which is known for being excellent mothers and they are often used to hatch eggs laid by other chickens because of their excellent mothering instincts and their desire to go broody and hatch eggs. For a couple of weeks Millie would watch the baby chicks on the other side of the divider we placed in the coop to keep the chicks separate and safe from the larger chickens. Then one day Millie started making all sorts of cute mother hen sounds toward the chicks and acted like she really wanted to get in with the baby chicks. So I let her in under a watchful eye, and she adopted them pretty much instantly. She calls them over for treats and watches over them just as if she had hatched them herself. Pepa on the other hand is more interested in chasing the chicks than befriending them, so for now Pepa has to stay on the other side of the divider while Millie plays momma hen. I was pleasantly surprised that of the three Mille Fleur d’Uccle chicks we got, only one is a boy and two are girls. They are turning out to be beautiful birds with very sweet dispositions. It’s still too early to tell the sex of the silkie chicks, they are notoriously hard to tell the boys from the girls until four to six months old or until they crow so we still have a couple of months to go before we’ll know how many boys and girls we have.
In turkey news, it wasn’t too long ago that I was wishing that one of our turkey hens would go broody so that I could give her some eggs to hatch. Well it seems like I went from having zero broody turkeys to four broody turkeys in a matter of days! Two turkeys went broody in the small vacant coop that we use for hatching turkeys, so that was perfect. I gave them a dozen eggs to hatch, although several have been broken or rejected over the last two weeks, so now they are currently only sitting on seven eggs. This is actually fine because we don’t really NEED any more turkeys, I just love the experience of watching a momma turkey raise her babies so much that I like to do it every year. Almost immediately after the first two broody turkeys took up residence in the small coop, two other turkeys decided to go broody in the spaceship – which is a repurposed stainless steel dishwasher tub that is a very popular egg laying destination for whatever reason. With the spaceship now occupied I decided to add a new wooden nest box right next to it in the hopes that the non-broody turkeys would have another option for laying their eggs, but do you think it’s been used even once? Nope! Such is the way of turkeys, you can never predict what they will like or what they will do. Which of course is one of the reasons that they are so fun to have on the farm. Unfortunately, Eleanor who has hatched eggs for us in the past and is a great momma decided to go broody in the spaceship which is not big enough to hatch chicks safely so I didn’t give her eggs to hatch this year. We’ll have new turkey mommas this year, which hopefully will work out okay. The breed of turkeys we have is also known for being good mothers, so hopefully on May 19 we will have a new little turkey family.
Ahhh spring, it’s finally here! Although we are still having lots of cool, rainy days, there are plenty of things to be excited about at the farm. I started planting seeds in the greenhouse a couple of months ago, and the cool season veggie starts are finally large enough to start planting outside. So far I’ve planted a few peas, kale, broccoli, spinach, and onions. I have potatoes ready to go outside as well as pac choi, Swiss chard, lettuce, and leeks as soon as we get another decent gardening weather day. I participated in a couple of seed swaps in the last several months, and I received a ton of veggie seeds that I’m excited about. Some are different varieties of things that I usually grow like tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers, and some are things that I don’t usually grow but I am going to grow this year since I’ve received so many interesting varieties. Some of the new things I’ll be growing this year include Chinese red meat radish, carrots, cauliflower, several varieties of beans, some new squash varieties, and corn. Of course I’m not sure where I’ll find room to plant everything, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out as I go.
The chicks we got last month are doing well and growing up fast. For the first month they were kept in a brooder in my home office. As they grow up, they start scratching around in the pine shavings more and more, and they kick up a lot of dust. So when I noticed a fine layer of dust suddenly appeared on every surface in the house, and my husband’s asthma started acting up, it was time for the littles to move to the outdoor coop. They made the transition well, and they live in one side of the back deck coop that our grown bantam chickens live in. There is a divider separating the chicks from the grown chickens, so that they can see each other and grow accustomed to each other, but the big chickens cannot pick on the chicks, at least for now. We’ll keep them separated for another month or so until they are close to the same size, and then we will remove the divider and integrate the two age groups.
We had some sad news at the farm a few weeks ago, when we bid farewell to one of the founding members of the 5R Farm flock, my sweet Easter egger Rosie. She would have been eight years old in June. Rosie was shy and sweet, and she always made me smile with her adorable fluffy face. She laid a beautiful green egg that knocked my socks off every time. She had been in a slow decline for several months, and I made the difficult decision to help her cross over to the chicken farm in the sky when I knew in my heart that it was time to let her go. We’ve had a lot of crushing losses over the last several months as our oldest flock members reach the end of a chicken’s natural lifespan. Six to eight years is considered a long life for a chicken, but I’ve had friends with chickens that lived as long as 10 and 14 years. I hope that we will be so lucky with some of our remaining favorite ladies.
The longer days mean that the chickens and turkeys have resumed laying eggs after their winter break from egg laying. It’s so nice to be getting our beautiful mix of light and dark brown and green chicken eggs, and the big beautiful speckled turkey eggs are always especially fun to collect. The turkeys that we hatched last year are now entering their first year of egg laying, and it’s always kind of funny to see where the new layers will lay their eggs. It’s not uncommon to see an egg lying in a random spot on the ground in the turkey yard. One turkey decided to start laying her eggs underneath the chicken coop, and it took me a week or so to spot them. I had to crawl on my belly under the coop and use a hoe to pull them out, but it was worth it for these beautiful eggs. Thankfully, she is not laying regularly under the coop, although I will find an egg under there every once in a while. Collecting turkey eggs can feel like going on a scavenger hunt at times, and I have to look in every possible nook and cranny to be sure I’m finding them all. I’m not sure if my favorite turkey Pumpkin Pie has started laying yet, but if she hasn’t it won’t be long now as I just saw Ringo getting romantic with her a week ago. I can’t believe my little Miss PP is all grown up and is a full grown lady already!
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!