The Winter, It Will Pass

We’re only a calendar month into winter but already we’re enjoying hints of the coming spring. The first hint is that Runnings has their seed display up! There has been moisture in the air, bluebird skies, and the excitement of springtime approaching! It has been a whirlwind of sourdough baking and chickens, puppies and our first two calves, housework and laundry and getting ready to visit my sister in Illinois.

Calving has officially started for us with the excitement (and puzzlement) of our first two calves of the year, beautiful full-term babies in spite of being born a solid month sooner than expected. That’s called a bull with initiative. The first calf showed up on Sunday, and the second one was found Monday. Both pairs are safely settled into the nursery pen on our end of the ranch. What a beautiful sight! Gorgeous, lanky-legged, satin-sleek calves tripping along daintily behind their protective mamas.

Puppies are (literally) underfoot during most of chores and throughout the day, finding everything absolutely fascinating. They watch attentively while chickens get fed, torment the cats, and come running in a black and white wave when they’re called. It takes about ten times longer just to walk up the hill to the house, with half a dozen puppies chasing my feet and scheming to trip me. All our females are spoken for and we are looking for homes for our two boy pups, Max and Teddy. We’re excited to see how they all turn out. They are so smart, it’s a little scary!

The chickens are already going gangbusters (for a flock the size of mine), with fourteen eggs today and a dozen yesterday. They have come through their first cold snaps beautifully with only a couple mild incidents of frostbite on a couple larger-combed hens, have been healthy overall, and I’m excited to embark on my second year of chicken keeping. I have learned so much this year, dealing with coccidiosis in my chicks, bumblefoot in a few hens, a few unfortunate dog attacks and resulting chicken first aid, and dealing with a crossbeak chicken who, after today’s beak work, is able to eat again!I’m very thankful for the customers I have and am looking forward to being able to provide eggs for more people this year! It was satisfying to know that my family always had eggs, even when the stores didn’t! And they’re better eggs anyway.

I hauled a bunch of loose hay up from the stackyard this week to give the chickens something to scratch in when they’re locked up and to help with mud when we get snow. The run looks better and the chickens love it. I’m excited to work on making chicken farming more sustainable this year and to try growing some fodder crops specifically for feeding my flock.

So we are off to a running start this year, excited for calving, excited to get planning my garden, excited to grow my flock, excited for what this year will hold. Spring really is just around the corner. The winter, it will pass.

Yesterwisdom: Poultry and Freedom

This picture has been circulating the internet. What an amazing and simple glimpse into the mindset of our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generations.

“Even the smallest back yard has room for a flock large enough to supply the house with eggs. The cost of maintaining such a flock is small. Table and kitchen waste provide much of the feed for the hens. They require little attention – only a few minutes a day. An interested child, old enough to take a little responsibility, can care for a few fowls as well as a grown person. Every back yard in the United States should contribute its share to a bumper crop of poultry and eggs in 1918. In Time of Peace a Profitable Recreation; In Time of War a Patriotic Duty.”

What a contrast to today. But 80 to 100 years ago, freedom and a free people were really desired, victory over enemies and national flourishing weren’t viewed as ills, and the people in government at least had a better understanding that a free nation is made up of free people who have a level of self sufficiency and aren’t reliant on the government. And just look where we are now.

Food production has become centralized and so many of our foods are imported. Just look at the recent “egg crisis.” When the bulk of the nation’s eggs are produced by a few huge producers, what happens when those producers go under or are struggling with diseased flocks? Or when flock management becomes an issue of governmental concern (i.e. tyranny)? On top of those issues, people have been stripped of their self sufficiency due at least in part to increased urbanized living, and we’ve bred a culture that values cheap plenty (ironically now not so cheap) over quality. But then there is the weird dichotomy where people are willing to pay $5 multiple times per week for a fancy coffee at Starbucks that is consumed in ten minutes, but $5 per dozen for eggs seems like a lot to pay. Or people go to Walmart expecting and willing to pay a given amount for cheap Chinese junk and mass produced food, but go to the farmer’s market and expect to pay less for goods produced by the small grower or local business. Clearly we as a culture need a change in mindset.

So go get your chickens or buy eggs from a small farmer. Grow your garden. Go to the farmer’s market. Make food from scratch. Pick a few things you consume a lot of and figure out how make them yourself. Learn to reuse and repurpose and become less reliant on stores and big businesses. Enjoy the satisfaction of capability. Enjoy the fruit of engaging with your community. Bring industry back to the local sphere.

Ranch Wife Musings: Good Mornings

“Good morning!” There’s a lot tied up in that little greeting, depending on the recipient. My husband gets the first “good morning” of the day, for obvious reasons. After coffee and breakfast, the dogs get a “good morning,” then the cats, the chickens, the horses, and sometimes even the garden. It just depends on how personable I’m feeling.

It’s hard to have a truly bad morning when it starts with coffee and is followed by the cacophony of grateful little noises of a passel of chickens and two-month-old chicks. This little chicken here is Bianca. She loves to be scratched under the chin. As an aside, my husband complains that I have more pictures of my chickens than of him. He is absolutely correct, and I gently remind him that they outnumber him and are uniquely cooperative. I also want to make a disclaimer: I really don’t like selfies, and pretty much the only times I take them are either with a chicken or with abnormally large vegetables.

In spite of some very chilly nights and actually resorting to turning on the furnace this morning for the first time this fall, the garden is as of yet unfrosted! This coneflower has been getting more and more beautiful for about the last week, and if the warmish weather continues, there are a few more buds trying to bloom.

The turnips got thinned this morning and the mature ones planted much earlier this summer got fully harvested. They’ll make a delicious turnip green soup!

Now to put the kitchen to rights after all the canning yesterday, tidying the house, drying herbs, and a long walk. Doesn’t get much better.

I love a good morning.

Fall Days

This time of year, the shortening days fill up swiftly with a never ending list of tasks to be done. They’re the pleasant, busy sort of tasks that can easily occupy a full day, and make a chilly, blustery, foggy day not seem quite so dreary! Much of yesterday and today was spent in a fog bank, making those inside tasks extra appealing. I actually thoroughly enjoy an honest-to-goodness fall day, whether that be sunny and blue skies, or drizzly and foggy, but I have to say I don’t enjoy freezing myself without due cause. So as the outdoor tasks slowly wrap up, the indoor tasks really take off.

The garden has mostly finished producing, so over the last couple of weeks I’ve been slowly clearing it out, putting away the sprinklers and garden hoses, saving and stacking the pots from our trees to grow tomatoes and/or peppers in next year, and sorting through my seed collection. It is a little sad to see the season wrapping up, but it is also exciting, because inevitably I’m already thinking about my garden for next year!

As I’ve cleaned the garden out, I’ve picked winter squashes and pumpkins, a little early, perhaps, after a terrible case of powdery mildew infested the vines. If it isn’t grasshoppers, hail, or an early frost, it’s powdery mildew. Oh, well. It didn’t really affect my squash harvest anyway, so what does it matter? Next year, the squash will get planted with better breathing room, which will help with the mildew issure. My kind husband helped me haul them all inside yesterday, since it sure felt like it could have frosted last night, and the whole corner of our dining room is now covered with Hubbard squash and pumpkins, and a couple of random others, a meat squash and two Lakota squashes. The meat squash seeds were ancient and only gave me one squash, and the Lakota squash just didn’t really do much. The Hubbards, however, did amazingly well, and will definitely be in the garden plans for next year! The largest of my Hubbard squashes weighed in at a wonderful 25 pounds, and I can’t wait to bake it later this fall or in the winter! Each vine isn’t particularly prolific, in general only producing one large squash, but each will produce a few smaller ones that can be picked young, during the summer, and sauteed like zucchini, only better than zucchini.

I’ve baked and pureed a number of the pumpkins to freeze for pies, roasted the seeds, and baked up some delicious chocolate chip pumpkin muffins (here’s the recipe if you’re so inclined). I put up a bunch of zucchini salsa and green tomato zucchini salsa, a great way to use zucchinis (I actually intentionally grow them big just for such a recipe), and have also dehydrated zucchini chips for snacking and shredded a bunch to freeze for zucchini bread and other recipies. We will eat really well this fall and winter!

There are some kale and chard plants that are still producing, and are doing better now that the grasshoppers aren’t destroying them, and I have beets yet to harvest, and turnips and carrots still growing. The zucchini plants have mostly petered out, what the mildew didn’t kill off, but there are still a good half dozen baby zucchini left to harvest, and hopefully we have enough warmth this next week for them to grow a little more. Maybe I’ll do another dehydrator full of zucchini chips!

I picked just about all of the green tomatoes out of the garden and spent today making green tomato salsa verde. Yes, yes, I know green tomatoes can be picked and will ripen over time, but I honestly just wanted to put a wrap on the tomato project for the year and didn’t want a million green tomatoes looking at me every time I opened the door to the spare bedroom, which serves as our pantry and freezer room. And the salsa is delicious. Every single jar pinged the first time, too, so that was extra satisfying. Sixteen pints of salsa verde added to the pantry!

The plum project (finally!) wrapped up last week, as well as the apple project, with pureed plums and chopped apples in the freezer for crisps, cobblers, and pies. Over the last month, I put up several quarts of plum pie filling, several of apple pie filling, several pints of plum jam, and many half pints of plum butter and spicy plum sauce (amazing on crackers with cream cheese…tangy sweet with a spicy kick!), as well as quart bags of dehydrated apples, which Brad and I really enjoy snacking on. With all of that fresh fruit waiting to be processed over the last few weeks, I had gotten spoiled, chopping a couple of the small plums and putting them on my homemade yogurt for breakfast in the mornings. I will miss that, but I tried some of the leftover plum pie filling on my yogurt this morning and, boy, oh, boy, it was delicious. Mm. Wow.

And with all of this harvesting, the chickens have been eating really well. Really really well. Spoiled little things. Pretty much nothing goes to waste! It is fun to watch them pick a pumpkin shell, what’s left after I bake it and scrape it out, down to the very last bit of rind, or devour overly-ripe plums and leave clean-picked plum pits in their feed pans.

These fall days fill up so quickly, and are over in a blur. But it really is just the best time of year.

Favorite Perennials

A well-tended perennial garden has a beauty all its own, and thejoy of it is amplified in that it keeps coming back, and keeps coming back, and keeps coming back! Perennials tend to get ignored in the springtime fury of planting, since most people fall for the immediate gratification of copiously-blooming annuals displayed at the greenhouse. Perennials tend to bloom later and don’t get the showcasing that annuals do….Not until the middle or end of the summer when the annuals have all had their hayday and perennials are still shining or just starting to!

The ease and flexibility of planting annuals in a container is pretty appealing to a lot of folks, especially if they don’t already have a garden bed ready for plants but, if at all possible, perennials are the way to go and, tended well, will come back for years to come. It is really amazing to me that sometimes all that is left of a homestead from the late 1800s or early 1900s is a hedge of roses or a few lilac shrubs, still blooming joyfully 100 years later. In fact, the lilacs Brad and I have outside our house are transplants of some lilacs blooming about a mile and a half away on top of a hill. The lilacs and some irises are all that remain of someone’s life on that little piece of hill country.

I was able to get my perennials in the ground early this summer, shortly after Brad and I got married, and planted a few from seed later in the summer, but fall is actually a great time to plant perennials. So I thought I’d share a little bouquet of my favorites.

Catmint. Not to be confused with catnip, which is a completely different plant, this perennial is one of my favorites in the garden. It is hardy, basically grows without any effort, and is a wonderful filler! Unlike some perennials which bloom and then are done, catmint seems never to stop. It can also be sheared in the middle of the summer after its first bloom if it is starting to look scraggly, and will grow back fuller for a second round of blooming. I bought a few catmints in tiny 2 inch pots back in June and these plants are now generous 18 inch bushes. They tend to get wider than they do tall, so they kind of work just about anywhere in the garden, and as I said above they make a great filler. Absolutely beautiful. A bonus is that the pollinators love these flowers. Another bonus is that, due to their fragrance, deer generally don’t mess with them. (Deer proof plants are a myth. They don’t exist. But there is such a thing as generally deer resistant, and plants with a pungeant aroma are generally less likely to be munched on by deer.)

Salvia. This is another one I just love. The typical shade is kind of a violet blue, but lately growers have developed some really wonderful shades of pink. In general, I’m not a pink person at all, but some of the salvias are just delicious rich berry colors. This plant does best with regular deadheading. Each blossom spike can be snipped back when spent, down to the first pair of new leaves, and this will encourage reblooming. This is another drought-resistant and deer-resistant plant, but is less forgiving than catmint. Salvia doesn’t get hugely tall, so it works well somewhat offset from the edge of the garden, but not too far back.

Yarrow. This is an easily-recognizable flower, if you pay any attention to native wildflowers, and the domestic varities have been bred for some gorgeous colors. Wild yarrow is white with occasional pink, but I was excited to plant one variety that blooms red and fades to yellow, and another variety of more subtle shades of pink and white. This is yet another drought-resistant and hardy perennial, and it blooms forever in the later summer! It has some height to it, so it makes a great middle of the garden flower.

As much as I love the change of seasons, I’m bracing a little bit for that first killing frost we have, since I’m enjoying my garden so much this summer! But it will be just delightful to see how everything comes back in the spring. Gardening is possibly the epitome of hope and optimism!

However Small the Harvest

This hasn’t been an overwhelmingly productive summer, as far as the garden is concerned. Anyone who has gardened for any length of time knows that some years are wonderfully over abundant and other years are woefully under abundant. This has been somewhere in the middle of the two, on the lower end of the productivity spectrum.

The grasshoppers alone have been a menace and wiped out a whole garden I planted in squash, pumpkins, and tomatoes. My efforts in grasshopper management were fruitless there, as those vicious insects chewed through at times three layers of netting at once to get at the seedlings practically as soon as they emerged from the soil. Several attempts at replanting and pest eradication finally resulted in me throwing in the proverbial towel. Sometimes you just have to recognize a loss.

Add to that the excessive heat and the desperate drought and it just hasn’t been a great year for a great garden. And yet there have been some victories and the satisfaction of sitting down to a 100% homegrown meal, eating beef from our ranch and produce from the garden.

I took a loss on the one garden but doubled down on the other. My other garden, planted in and around two large stock tanks close to the house, has produced a wide variety of vegetables, though it had its share of grasshopper damage (they wiped out my green beans and jalapeños, and have intermittently wreaked havoc on various greens and herbs and my zucchini), but it was decently well established by the time the grasshoppers got too bad. I turned the chickens loose in it a couple of times, which definitely helped, although those silly birds are pretty indelicate and enjoy dirt bathing in very inconvenient locations. In spite of everything, that garden has been rewarding!

Last week, I harvested all the onions, replanting their area in carrots and turnips, and cut most of the rest of the rhubarb, putting up enough for a few pies for this fall. My Swiss chard has produced abundantly all summer and we enjoyed a supper of southern style greens last week. We have enjoyed fresh cucumber salads with the occasional tomato (that is another story for another time…) and plenty of dill and arugula, and the beets are finally getting big enough to harvest. I was a little behind the eight ball on getting those in, so the heat probably stunted their growth. Basil and mint were abundant and dehydrated nicely, and I have dill hanging in the yard shed for the seeds.

I have learned that Hubbard squash is delicious harvested young, and cooks up even more deliciously than zucchini. Which is a good thing, considering that my zucchini this year was a bust! The Hubbards are gaining a lot of size and the pumpkins are starting to pick up a tint of orange. It makes me excited for the fall! The sweet corn is tasseled and silked, so hopefully we’ll enjoy some of that in the next month as well.

In spite of the lack of abundance (enough for meals but not enough to put up), it really has been a productive year. I learned that wild predators are the best control for grasshoppers, and have found that hanging a few bird feeders and having water available around the garden are hugely beneficial. I see a noticeable uptick in grasshoppers when I get complacent and let the bird feed run out! I have also gained some knowledge on what grows best here, and what I can grow a lot of in a relatively small amount of space, and those mental notes will turn into a formal garden plan for next year.

So you learn what you can and enjoy the harvest, however small!