All Aboard the Broody Train

IMG_20170716_082003413Our three hens are three years old. They are also our first pet flock. My husband has a lot of experience with these birds, me — I’m learning a long the way. When we made the decision to raise our own birds we wanted dual purpose birds and chose Plymouth Barred Rocks. Everything I’ve read about the birds hasn’t proven true in our experience.

Hardy? In the sense that they have survived for three years, yes. But we’ve had upper respiratory infections, a spate of parasites–internal and external–difficult summers and hard winters (they do great in the cold weather), and bumble foot pops up in one bird in particular every year. And finally, broodiness. Despite everything we researched before settling on this breed, every single one of these hens inevitable succumbs to broodiness this time every year.

Now, if we were in the business of raising babies, sure this would be a blessing. But we’re not, so it becomes a battle of who is more stubborn. Usually, I win. However, Pearl–our smallest and lowest in the pecking order hen–is persistent.

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Pearl

My husband says she’s the most persistent because she is the lowest in the pecking order. Busy Body Pearl, the only chicken I’ve ever seen with green eyes, is so tiny because she literally runs everywhere. The girls have about 1/3 of an acre just to themselves that is fenced in and secured and there’s lots of exciting places to explore. She fights for a place in the dust baths, she’s persistent about getting a place at the trough to eat, and she’s stubborn about her nesting box. She refuses to be chased from the perch even if her poor little comb gets nibbled at by the mean old bigger girls.

And she refuses to break her broodiness.

Pearl will steal the other girls’ eggs–and the oak balls that fall from the tree–and sit on them for her own. She will huff, puff, and shriek at anyone who comes her or her pseudobabies. She would make a fantastic mother–so much so we’ve contemplated letting her raise chicks. Only, we worry about how the bigger, meaner girls would be about that whole situation. Introducing and integrating new birds (even with these three who needed to be reintegrated after an illness) doesn’t go well with these three.

Every one of the girls have had their ride on the broody train this year. First it was Helga, who is very bonded to me because of our nursing her back to health by hand after a fledgling bout of upper respiratory infection, tried it first but was easily coerced to focus on hunting for grasshoppers in the lawn. She never looked back.

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Mildred and the blocked off nesting boxes

Then there was Mildred–the queen of the trio. She is the biggest (seriously, she is twice the size of the others) and it was her first time. I was most worried about her because she is big and heavy and really mean. She tries to bully me in the yard and put me in place on her pecking order. But, strangely, she was really docile and sweet while broody and let me handle her in ways she never let me before. After a week, she finally gave up by me blocking off the nesting boxes (what I’ve done every year to discourage broodiness).

But Pearl? She has broken skin by snapping at my gloved hands to get away from her in the nesting box. Usually my blocking off the nesting boxes works. However, this year she has decided she will just camp out next to or on top of the blocked off  box she thinks contains her eggs. It doesn’t help that we work full time and are unable to further discourage her sitting on the eggs by collecting them as soon as the other girls lay them. Even if we did, she just may find something else and designate it as an egg and sit on that (twigs, rocks, oakballs, a piece of grass–weirdo).

So, nature is just going to have to take its course for Pearl. I refuse to resort to drastic measures such as broody breaking boxes and other separation methods. We’ve read so many articles and posts waxing apocalyptic about the perils of allowing hens to be broody, but we’re also the frame of mind that we can’t make an animal do something it doesn’t want to do. When we come home late afternoon, we now close the coop entirely (the others have finished their laying and the coop is only for nesting and roosting) so that it forces Pearl so socialize, exercise, scratch, hunt, eat and drink, bathe, and all the other fun chicken things she needs to do (which is for about four or five hours before bedtime).

What are your broody stories? Any words of advice out there? Is it really a bad thing to let her just go through this?

Potato Tower

DSCN3320This heat, right? I’m over it.

Red falling leaves, crisp air, rain swollen gutters. Please, hurry Autumn. Only…three ish more months to go.

Thick, hardy, aromatic stews, spicy mochas, and misty mornings. Pulling plump, bright carrots out of the ground, head-sized cabbage unfurling from their leaves, braiding onions to cure for onion soup. And of course, dusting off purple, gold, and red potatoes like little earth jewels.

To be able to make such fall and summer meals–we have to start planning now. In the past, I’ve grown potatoes in rows. Like any vegetable, it’s work to maintain, and I’ve also felt underwhelmed with the yields. Postive I’ve been doing something wrong all along, the potatoes were my soul obsession to try to figure out how to produce higher yields.

When researching the best way to grow potatoes I stumbled across the potato tower.

Growing  vertically allows the plant to propogate much more prolifically than sprawling out. Inspired, I mixed our blend of compost with top soil and buried some beautiful seed potatoes from the store. It sprung up quickly!

DSCN3408To build the tower, layer potatoes with a solid one inch of soil between the seed potatoes with eyes pointing up. Bury a span of chicken wire around the inner circumference of the barrel and line with about an inch of straw. As the potato plant grows up, continue to bury it with soil, watering regularly. It will grow out the sides as well and that’s great. No need to worry about tucking it in to bury those. Continue building up–it helps to think ahead and make sure the length of chicken wire (or whatever barricade you use to build up the walls) is tall enough to support how much you want to grow.

In my previous experience growing potatoes in the ground, the plant blossomed and then the vines died which told me it was time to harvest.

I planted the potatoes mid-Spring and by late Spring, needed to move the tower. It was a little top heavy and unfortunately toppled over in doing so. After much screaming and frantically trying to save thick green branches that had snapped in the fall, desperately shoving dirt back into the tower and unsuccesfully trying to lift it myself, I saw them.

IMG_20170603_092942553Beautiful deep purple, rich red, and gorgeous gold potatoes–huge. Loose. Dozens ready to harvest!

The tower was a total loss, but the experiment a success! After harvesting those, and unsuccessfully duplicating it again in the summer heat, we’ve now started growing sweet potatoes who seem to love the hot weather. As soon as Autumn is around the tower will be erected once more for our winter potatoes.

 

Tomato week & heat wave

tomato, grown your ownIt is so hot. Regular temps should be around 93° to 97° F here at this time of year. It is 109°.

Instead of wrapping up tomato week yesterday, we spent the evening making sure the animals had enough shade and cool treats and ice in their water. I even dunked the chickens in a kiddie pool. They seemed to enjoy it, standing and chatting in amongst themselves for a good twenty minutes with their feet on the cool brick that lined the tub’s bottom before realizing they were wet and jumped out.

So, tomatoes are ripening with the heat-yay! We’ve harvested even the tomatoes that weren’t ripe because the birds are coming to feed on them as well. While we don’t mind sharing, they can decimate a harvest in a day.  We’ve already let them have the cherry tree’s top cherries and the berry vine’s top berries.

The nesting boxes for the chickens can get a little toasty, so to keep them cool we put “chicken chillers” in first thing in the morning – frozen water bottles. When they go in to lay eggs, they push those bottles under their bosoms and drink the condensation.

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I read an article yesterday about how back to basic, simple living (which, as I’ve said is anything but simple) is not meant to enslave. Usually we let things and nature take its course here, but yesterday was an exception. Any kind of extreme weather or extreme situation (and fire watch) is an exception that responsible stewards do what it takes to drop what they’d rather do, and do what must be done.

Yesterday was exhausting–today won’t be much more relief. How our south west counterparts raise their livestock in 120° summer heat–hat’s off to you, saints. It’s hard work, but so worth it.

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100% raised by us. Tomatoes, sausage and egg mix

Tomato week!

tomato, grow your own, blossom end rotAnother problem we’ve had here is blossom end rot. This only seems to happen when we grow our tomato plants in containers, like we’ve done this year.  I have heard of friends experience this, however, even when they’ve grown their plants in the ground so this may be a coincidence.  Blossom end rot is a symptom to an issue that is causing the tomato plant to struggle. Rodale’s Vegetable Garden Problem Solver (our garden bible, FYI) book states the following causes for blossom end rot in tomatoes:

  • Too much water
  • Rough cultivation or root distress
  • Cold soil
  • Soil pH imbalance
  • Calcium issues (if the rot is dry)

There were two plants in our containers that we noticed had been watered so aggressively their roots were exposed. So, problem number one. Second, we watered daily (something not usually necessary for tomatoes but it was stressful weather), but during the time that we experienced a lot of blossom end rot, the plants were exposed to soaring high temps (111 degrees F) and cooler overnight lows than normal. This stressed the plants’ water usage. Third, I tried an unfamiliar organic liquid fertilizer and burned the plants, disrupting the soil balance. It was a perfect storm. To help the plants maintain even soil temps and moisture, we mulched the containers with straw from our cows’ feed.

We don’t have to water as often and the plants seem to be doing better maintaining through the hot summer days. Nothing is more disappointing than going to pick a luscious red tomato only to turn it over and have a horrible black spot puckering its bottom. If your blossom end rot persists, I’ve heard of an old southern trick. I haven’t used to confirm if it works, or not but it can’t hurt if you’re about to lose your mind over a stubborn issue. If cutting back your watering isn’t working—try pushing some Tums or Rolaids around the root base of the plant. Water every other day or every two to three days if possible.

IMG_20170702_143047339_HDROther watering issues can lead to splitting of the fruit. Letting the soil dry out too much and then flooding the plant with water can contribute to fruit splitting. Maintaining soil moisture is key here. We had those super hot days and hadn’t mulched the container yet—which is likely why our fruit was so stressed.  We’ve learned that it’s okay to pick fruit that’s not yet ripe. Since tomatoes ripen from the inside out, it’s okay to pick them when they’re a little pink and let them ripen on the kitchen counter (away from sunlight). These tomatoes are still edible. If rot hasn’t begun, cut out the unappettizing part and eat the rest. We have so many tomatoes already these were shared with the chickens.

Happy tomato growing!

Homemade Ice Cream

Interrupting Tomato Week to share with you a recipe that’s the sparkler of any summer barbeque!

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Chocolate malt and blackberry ice cream

Like the millions of Americans yesterday celebrating Independence Day, we barbequed with some dear friends who also happen to be our neighbors.  We have an abundance of berry vines and fruit trees and in the summer we usually make our own ice cream—and bring to said barbeques!

Our ice cream is no cook and no egg.  So, the downside to this is it won’t last long. If it’s put into the freezer it will turn into a hard, freezer-fuzzed rock overnight. For us, this usually isn’t a problem because it’s made in small batches and rarely does this ice cream survive the night.

It is always a hit, and it always requested!  The beautiful thing about this ice cream is you can customize it any way you want.  The basics:

Ingredients

4:1 ratio half and half to whole milk (we have not experimented with anything other than cow’s milk). Depending on how big of a batch you’d like to make, this could be anywhere between 1 cup (at least and 4 cups (big batch for big bbq!). For this batch in the picture, 4 cups of half and half to 1 cup whole milk.

½ to 1 cup sugar, depending on the flavor (if using fresh, ripe fruit, or a flavor that has sugar added, you may want to reduce the sugar content—FYI sugar helps in setting up the ice cream)

Flavor: anything your heart desires. Extract syrups, pie filling, fresh fruit (we’ve even put in garlic before—YUM!)

Our ice cream mixer is a dual flavor (again, small batch) so one side was blackberry (fresh from our vines) and the other flavor is regular Ovaltine chocolate malt. This is SO good—6 scoops of powder.

Prepare

If you have an ice cream mixer, you’ll need ice cream salt (rock salt that helps keep the tins chilled while they churn, setting the ice cream into ice cream texture.

IMG_20170704_172646766If using fresh fruit, we generally puree it ahead of time. Take your liquids and sugar and hand mix for five minutes with a hand mixer until you don’t feel the gritty sugar on the bottom of the bowl.

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Put in the ice cream mixer and turn on. You could throw the flavor in there too, but we let the ice cream build its base before introducing flavor. It seems to be more flavorful by adding this step.

Let the ice cream churn until right before it looks like it might set.  Put in your flavoring and turn back on. Be sure to check frequently and add more ice and salt to the bin. This will ensure a cold churn and a quick set.

When you see the ice cream starting to climb up the paddle the texture will change from a liquid to more of a solid. You’ll see that ice cream texture and you’re done!

We usually bring the entire contraption and ingredients and start to make this right before dinner is served so that by the time everyone’s ready for desert, it’s just finished.

Enjoy!

Tomato week resumes tomorrow!

Tomato week!

This week I’m sharing our common tomato troubles and what we’ve done to combat the issues for a healthy growing season. We live in northern California, Zone 9. Weather is mild and pests are few, but we still have struggles with some common issues.

Because of a wonky season or two, we struggled with bolted tomato seedlings. These tomato plants were exposed  to consistent high temps after they were planted in the ground and took off like a rocket. They became leggy and produced very small fruit. Similarly, purchased tomato seedlings from a local organic nursey, we noticed that while the plants hadn’t sky rocketed, and they flowered and produced prolifically, the fruit was smaller than desired. There are a few things going on here.

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  • If you’re not in the business of growing foliage–pinch the suckers. This will allow the plant to direct nutrients to growing fruit instead of branches. It will also help the plant bush out instead of becoming leggy.
  • Fertilize at the right time. Tomatoes are different than most fruit bearing plants in that bee pollination isn’t necessary—wind and air movement, however is. It’s our instinct to dump fertilizer on something that’s not performing to our expectations, however fertilizing at a flowering time may make the plant think it needs to grow foliage rather than focus on fruit. This means wait until the fruit is set—growing before fertilizing.
  • Fertilize with the right stuff. Okay, this is a pet peeve of mine. Using chemical fertilizers, while convenient are quick energy for the plant and it will grow with this sudden juice in its system. It’s like an energy drink for the plant. The problem is the plant becomes more prone to disease and pests due to the thinning of the cell walls with its rapid growth spurt. It will need regular doses of this to maintain performance and health. If you plan on one harvest and done with the plant—this is a perfectly fine and economical route to take, but if you are seeking something a little more long term and prolific, choose a balanced organic fertilizer. It will be slower growth, but the plant will be stronger and healthier in the long run.  Balanced fertilizer matters. Meaning those three numbers on the bottle or the bag should all be close to one another and I recommend in the single digits. In my experience, anything greater than an “8” burned my plants. Compost tea is a great home-made organic fertilizer. I’ll save that for another post!
  • Soil can make all the difference. This is kind of a hindsight step in tomato plant health as you want to be as proactive as possible and manage your soil before planting. However if you suspect your soil is the culprit of poor plant health it’s even more important to use organic fertilizers. I like to re-use our soil for the next year and amend in autumn with compost. Using chemical fertilizers could upset the health of the dirt.
  • Thin the herd. Happy tomato plants are prolific tomato plants and while it may seem like a crime to pluck off perfectly healthy tomatoes so that other set fruit can grow bigger, this is necessary. Do you want ten large healthy tomatoes or 40 small tomatoes? Maybe you want the numbers, and if so—let them be. If not, thin the tomato fruit that is farthest from the stalk or stem of the plant. The plant is stronger at the crotch of stems and of course, stronger at the stalk to support heavy fruit. We pluck the tomatoes that are furthest from these areas.

A best practice–if you have a compost bin and plan to mix that into your soil, make sure you have healthy soil. A little bit of mold and mildew on the dirt or on decomposing organic matter is fine, but if your soil is dank and smells like it’s moldy this can impact the health of your plants–and not just tomatoes. Compost should smell! It’s decomposing matter, but white powdery mildew found through out, in my experience, has contributed to unhealthy plants. When we found in our compost soil,  we didn’t throw it out– we put it back to the hot pile and broke down the matter even more until it was no longer problem.

Tomatoes are the easiest of nightshades to grow, in my opinion, for an edible yield. Check back tomorrow for blight issues and troubleshooting common but frustrating unhappy tomato symptoms!

Happy Fourth of July! Come back tomorrow for home made ice cream recipes. Tomato week will resume on Thursday! Be safe and have a great holiday!

Tomato week!

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It’s tomato week! This week look for a series of posts about troubleshooting tomato problems.

We’re pretty lucky here because it is so easy to grow tomatoes. Our seasons are perfect for starting tomatoes successfully as seedlings. Like with most things we grow, the feeling of glee and pride as those little green fruits grow into big, juicy, shiny red ornaments heralding summer is one that fills me with pride and hunger.  Tomato garden salsa, roasted garlic tomato sauce, and tomato steaks with cottage cheese are staples on our summer menu.

When growing your own food, it’s common to run into problems. Some problems are purely cosmetic, and some are serious symptoms to larger issues that require swift and immediate intervention. For us, the most common issues are pest control, high yield of smaller than average fruit, blossom end rot, and splitting.

A little background about our area: we are in northern California, zone 9. Our summer starts around May and doesn’t end until early October. The lowest winter temps we get are between 20 – 37 degrees Farenheit and that’s usually in November. December can be dry but cold, and depending on the weather systems, early spring, late winter can be rainy. Our summer temps range anywhere between high 80s, with a smattering of 111 degree but general stick around the 90s. It’s very sunny in the summer here with low-ish humidity.

The biggest pest we deal with here is the tomato hornworm (pic courtesy tomatocasual.com). These large, green caterpillars are the larvae to the hawk moth. I had no idea until one of those things flew at my face one night like an open palm of winged death.  They are huge. So the caterpillar gets huge too.

The first symptom you have one of these camping out on your tomato plant is the sudden absence of leaves. One day, upon inspection, your plant will look like a naked tree in the middle of winter. It’s hard to find these guys unless they are huge because they blend in perfectly with the tomato plant.  Sometimes if they’ve over eaten they’ll park on a stem to rub their fat bellies and you’ll find them because of a large pile of poop that’s collected on leaves below.

Here’s how to combat them:

  • Awareness is key: Again, small operation, backyard farming doesn’t need to be bolstered with commercial pesticide.
  • Don’t reach for the pesticide (or herbicide, or chemical fertilizer either). There are studies that using chemical pesticide, herbicides, and fertilizer actually contribute to pest populations because of how pesticide (any “cide”) disrupts biodiversity.
  • Pluck them off. We have chickens, so when they see us start to pick at the leaves of our plants they come running and patiently wait for a wriggling treat. If you don’t have chickens, discard of the worms humanely.
  • Companion planting can also help deter pests. Planting flowering herbs or annuals alongside the tomatoes help. We use marigolds and borage.

In our area the hornworm is the extent of the pests we’ve dealt with—broccoli and cabbage is a story for another day.

Come back tomorrow for a post about what to do with high yield, small fruit on your tomato plants!

 

Summer Snacking Salsa

homestead, backyard farming, garden salsaSummer is for growing things. We’ve had some amazing weather that has been, by turns, delightful, and dreadful. Lots of rain–delightful! Lots of heat–dreadful! It’s July and there’s still snow in the mountains about two hours from us. With the weird weather patterns, our vegetables and fruits haven’t really known what to do. Do I grow? Do I stall? Do I wither and die, or do I make more food than anyone knows what to do with?

The garden is all over the place. The peppers are a little behind our tomatoes so with the over abundance of tomatoes and the skimpy peppers, I made some garden salsa. First, let me be clear: I never measure anything. I firmly believe food tastes better when you make it the flavor you want at that moment so, taste a long the way. Any recipe I share will be “approximate” measurements!

My mother turned me on to these sweet snacking peppers. They are the peppers that doesn’t know if it should grow or stall, or what with the sometimes cool, sometimes blazing hot weather we’ve had over the last month.

summer salsa

These sweet little snacking peppers taste like a sugary bell pepper. One of my husband’s family friends stopped by last night, a southern gentleman, and a man of many wisdoms. We offered one of these to him and after a bite he said, “that’ll make you slap your momma!” I’m told this is a compliment.

Our beefsteak, early girl, Mr. Stripey, and better boy tomatoes are abundant, so I took a bowl of those, and all the peppers from our yard like the yellow snacking peppers, Fresno chilis, and pepperoncinis (jalapenos would be so good in this but we don’t have any growing at the moment), an onion, and added himilayan salt, garlic powder, and ground pepper. These spices? I have to tell you about Mountain Rose Herbs.

salsa 3Mountain Rose Herbs has just about anything you could ever want organic. They’re located right here in the Pacific Northwest in Eugene, Oregon. I’ve never been disappointed with their goodies.

Okay, so garden salsa. Like I said, nothing is ever measured and this was thrown together after a hot sticky afternoon in the garden.

Ingredients

Three or four firm tomatoes
Half of a white onion
Handful of peppers of your choice or as many as you like
Pink salt
Ground pepper
Ground chipotle
Garlic powder
Onion powder

Prepare

Finely chop everything. I choose to remove the pepper seeds, but your call. Three good twists of the salt (or about a tsp and a half), half a tsp of chipotle (or a pinch if you don’t want back of the throat heat), tsp of garlic and onion powders. Mix it all up and let it mingle and chill for an hour. Bust out your favorite pita or tortilla chips and viola! A dash of margarita to drink with it doesn’t hurt.

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Fernweh & Suadade

cats, dogs, chickens, fernweh, homesteading

Fernweh is a trendy word right now. Kind of like hygge was last winter. This German word that roughly translates to wanderlust. There is another word, the Portuguese word suadade that translates roughly to missingness.

Leading a simpler life bucks many social and economic systems. There is a community in this lifestyle choice, but there is also a divide. Rifts are apparent when we explain what we do. Oh, the judgment I see sliding over people’s faces. “Do you eat your pigs?” It can be alienating. It’s difficult for us to get up and go on long vacations because this kind of living requires daily care and attention. We have other lives depending on us. Thank goodness, we are homebodies.

Suadade, fernweh, homesickness for a place we’ve never been (or a different time), or general wanderlust is actually one of the reasons for our choice to experiment and learn as much as possible about lost skills and the dying arts of sustainability. Keeping alive old traditions of food raising and preservation helps us maintain our focus for the life we’re striving for later on down the road. That place we’ve yet to find that feels like home. When we find it, we’ll be ready to hit the ground and thrive.

 

It started with soap & candles

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I think, at least. It’s hard to say exactly what started our journey. I’m sure the reasons are far more entertaining and meaningful to us than anyone else. We discovered something right away embarking on a simpler, back to basics lifestyle.

Simple is hard.

We learned quickly the biggest, most difficult resource to achieve our home-made life was time.

Back to basics involves a lot of planning, a lot of patience, oodles of nurturing, and truck loads of time. We aren’t “off the grid”, nor are we completely self-reliant. To do so would require quitting our full time jobs to make that work–again, time. So, we are part-time backyard homesteaders. And honestly, calling what we do backyard farming, urban homesteading–whatever you want to call it–gives us far more credit than those two professions–farming and homesteading–allow.

Whatever personal decisions that bring someone to make their own soap, bake their own bread, raise their own food, and learn other lost-art skills it is a journey. There is no destination; only a path of learning about stewardship, your own limitations, and a whole new outlook on what one finds rewarding.

You’ll find many things here — recipes, funny stories, craft ideas, animal best practices and practical ways of tackling troubling things. This blog is a journal and a place to share.