this week in my garden, March 21

2014-03-13 11.07.08 Last week in my garden, March 13.

2014-03-21 21.29.41This week in my garden, March 21.

2014-03-13 11.15.28

2014-03-13 11.10.15

2014-03-21 21.34.08

2014-03-21 21.28.38

2014-03-21 21.32.13

2014-03-21 21.28.15

2014-03-13 11.06.04

2014-03-13 11.06.49

2014-03-21 21.06.35

<<These garden posts are inspired by Soule Mama’s beautiful “this week in my garden” 2013 reflections>>

There’s a lot happening if you take a stroll through our little garden.

We planted entirely from seed 8 weeks ago, at the end of January. The previous owners of our home kept an RV on what is now our little garden plot, had entirely eliminated the top soil, and trucked in heaps of decomposed granite, further compacting our soil.

We prepared our soil for seeds with compost, horse manure, goat manure, and chicken manure, and then planted a mixed cover crop for fertility, allowing it to grow to about six inches or so until we tilled it in before planting day.

Chris set up a maze of drip irrigation with sprinkler attachments to help with seed germination.

We used Elliot Coleman’s garden plan from Four Season Harvest, planting in 30 inch bands with a 12 inch walking path between the rows to decrease soil compaction. We interplanted sweet clover in the walking rows to keep weeds down and eventually add more nutrients to the soil.

Following the seeding, we did little for a month but wait. We were thankful for 4 straight days of rain at the end of February. A little weeding here and there, some Borax for boron lightly sprinkled on the beets, and some vermi-compost-tea brewed for a week used as a foliar spray.

This week (8 weeks later) the garden is coming alive! My time is spent weeding and mulching with hay and wood chips (especially cool season crops like the sweet peas). The orange tree is blooming and the smell of orange blossoms while working in the garden is divine.

The radishes are plump and they are best enjoyed, if you ask me, with butter and sea salt. We have an endless, overwhelming supply of salad greens. I am eating the turnip thinnings in salads with soft boiled eggs and the pac choi is delicious steamed and served over cous cous (but no need to plant an entire row next year). The sugar snap peas are in full bloom and should be ready for harvest in a few days.

We are out of time to build a greenhouse, and I broke down this week and planted our summer seeds (squash, melons, tomatoes, tomatillos, basil) to be kept outside in plastic pots and transplanted later.

My brother Andrew keeps asking if we’ve established a co-mother for our baby on the way. We are still waiting for one of our ladies to go broody. Because, what is spring without baby chicks!

“eloquence in disaster”

“All the accomplished gardeners I know are surprisingly comfortable with failure. They may not be happy about it, but instead of reacting with anger or frustration, they seem fairly intrigued by the peony that, after years of being taken for granted, suddenly fails to bloom. They understand that, in the garden at least, failure speaks louder than success. By that I don’t mean the garden encounters more failure than success (though in some years he will), only that his failures have more to say to him about his soil, the weather, the predilections of local pests, the character of his land. The gardener learns nothing when his carrots thrive, unless that success is won against a background of prior disappointment. Outright success is dumb, disaster frequently eloquent. At least to the gardener who learns how to listen.”

Michael Pollan, Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education

~~~~~

I worked until dark today in our garden, first trellising the already-reaching sweet peas and then weeding. Chris worked alongside me, NPR blaring, crafting another garden bed. We had found our old rhythm again.

I felt as if I had been gone from the garden for a lifetime- a stressful move from the ranch back to the city, house renovations, the holiday flurry, and a miserable first trimester of pregnancy.  I was home again.

While weeding I discovered that nearly all of the seeds we planted have germinated, and seem to be thriving in the home we’ve prepared for them with truckload after truckload of compost and manure from our farm animals. I was overjoyed. Our soil is good and there are no rodents to compete with here.

(In our “spring garden” we are growing arugula, mustard greens, radishes, sweets peas, fava beans, kale, collards, cabbage, spinach, carrots, broccoli, garlic, bok choy, onions, brussels sprouts, leeks, and strawberries, to name a few.)

This past year spent farming at Rancho Vivo we encountered our own fragility, vulnerability, and ignorance. And we learned (I think) to fail well.

It is on the foundation of these failures and disappointments that we once again hope and dream, and plant a spring garden.  Slate wiped clean; a new year, new home, new baby on the way, and another growing season.

Nothing will be taken for granted this year.

the last milking

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Chris was kind enough to join me at the milk stand on the morning of my last milking.  I was determined to have some pictures of me and my Nubian goats before we moved, and the goats were reunited with their herd.

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If you asked me what the hardest part of moving was, every time I’d tell you, “it’s the goats.”

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I will miss the peaceful mornings spent at the milk stand, and the chocolate milk and lattes and fresh cheese.  I will miss their all around cuteness, their uncanny ability to scurry up massive boulders, and the funny way they would climb on our cars, come to the front door, and follow me everywhere.

But we will not miss all the yelling.

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The goats drove away with our neighbor after this morning milking.  And I’d like to believe that they yelled as they drove away for me.

we are moving

Nearly two years ago I called my grandparents to confirm the rumors that yes, we were starting a farm.  My grandmother’s response:

“Now is the time, when you’re young and stupid.”

On March 9, 2012 Chris wrote this as we were in the early days of starting our first urban farm in Lemon Grove, CA:

“There is a reasonably large chance that we will give it everything we’ve got and find out that we haven’t got enough.”

My sister Anna sent me this vintage postcard in the days leading up to our move to our trailer on the ranch.

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A barren field in the background and a man and woman in the foreground, praying (a prayer of gratitude?) over a harvest that was promised, but never came to be.

We had talked about the high likelihood of failure before starting Psalter Farm, tried to prepare for it, chewed on it.  Neither of us had truly failed at anything before.  But then again, we had never taken such a great risk before.

We delivered our last CSA box this past August, ending our season 6 weeks earlier than last year.  The fence we put up in August did nothing to deter the rabbits; they simply squeezed their way through, consuming thousands of starts for our fall CSA that we had cultivated from seeds in our greenhouse.

Our rodent losses prior to that are too large to even count.  Midway through the summer and at the height of San Diego’s summer drought we could grow next to nothing.  The plants the rodents wouldn’t even touch in the spring- onions, pungent herbs, those from the nighthawk family (tomatoes/potatoes/tomatillos), were now choice morsels to the starving.

We tried everything with the exception of poisoning and building expensive 100% enclosed (unnatural) infrastructure, only to find that we can’t grow here.

We are failing farmers and are broke from trying.

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And now that we are here, failure doesn’t taste as bad as we thought it would.

We are buying a two-bedroom house and moving back to the city, near our chosen professions (the hospital for me, the church for Chris).  No more 55-minute gas guzzling commute.  No more ten minutes of driving down a dirt road that is destroying our cars.  No more living far from our community of friends and our church family.

We started two farms in two years.  We downsized and lived in a tiny home powered by solar, wood heat, and well water.  We learned to raise pigs, Nubian milk goats, heritage ducks, and heritage Bourbon Red turkeys, and to grow the majority of our own food…all in less than a year.

We’ve learned how to soil block, start all of our vegetables from seed in a greenhouse, BUILD a greenhouse, and lay drip irrigation.  We’ve eaten pig liver (and rattlesnake), rendered lard, come face to face with coyotes, hatched chicks the natural way, and made soap.  And we lived in a very beautiful place.

We are failing farmers.  But we have no regrets, and we are thankful.

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And one day, God willing, we will farm again.

preserve October

The days are getting shorter, and they will continue to do so until the winter solstice.  The chickens and the ducks make their way into the coop at 6 pm now.  Our evenings are spent curled up by the wood stove with the dogs.  Last week we had the first REAL rain since April.  I love this time of year.

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My efforts turn from growing, to putting food by.  Much has been done but there is a great deal more to do.  I play a game of “pretend.”  As if I can’t drive our car to the closest grocery store all winter.

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We parted with forty more pounds of our pork on Sunday, making room in our freezer for November turkeys.  We have garlic, potatoes, onions, and 13 monster pie pumpkins in our makeshift “root cellar” (someday a root cellar).  We are still hoping for one more good harvest of root crops and brassicas before winter.

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Tomatoes are the queen of our winter meals.  They make an appearance on homemade pizza and spaghetti each at least once a week.  There isn’t much left in our fields now, which have been desecrated by rodents.  I glean all I can from them.  Green tomatoes rest on every available surface waiting their turn in the hot water bath, herbs dry above the woodstove, and the basil is chopped down for one last batch of freezer pesto.

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And the truth of it?  I’m getting tired of putting food up.  Applesauce, apple butter, fermented tomatoes, roasted cherry tomatoes, pesto, relish, plum jam, dill pickles, tomato jam, prunes, sun dried tomatoes, tomatoes in their own juices, dried herbs, rendered lard, shredded zucchini…it’s exhausting.  And the tomatoes just keep coming.

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But this is just a season.  Soon frost will come, fall will make way to winter, and I will wish I could have preserved October for just a little while longer.

a pit stop at home

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Chris and I are starting to get accustomed to going on separate vacations.  No, we aren’t having marital problems, we are just farming.  Last week, somewhere between seeing friends in Indianapolis and Kansas City, I made a quick stop in Green Bay, Wisconsin and spent two nights in my parent’s beautiful 107 year-old home, complete with a cottage garden out back and a weekly (local) milk and egg delivery to the front porch.

We ate my Grandmother’s raspberry pie and homemade pizza from the garden, and talked and knit on the front porch rockers.  The nights were chilly and the leaves were starting to turn.  It felt like fall for the first time.

Like always, it was good to be home.

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life, death, and how to kill a chicken

The night before we harvested our beloved pigs, we watched 3 new baby chicks fight their way into the world.

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Life and death is so raw and in your face on the farm, and we’ve had our share of both. “It’s real life,” as Andrew used to say.

Learning to hatch our own chicks is probably one of the most rewarding things we’ve done so far.  All you need is a rooster, one broody hen, a clutch of eggs, and 21 days.

The mother’s metabolism slows, she nearly stops drinking and eating all together, rarely leaving her nest even to relieve herself.  The eggs should be candled at 12 days.  Sometimes you can even see blood vessels and a pulsating mass.  It’s so fascinating.

I felt like a child the day our first chicks hatched.  I walked to the coop to check on them every 10 minutes.

What is even more incredible is watching a hen mother baby chicks- keeping them warm beneath her feathers, teaching them to scratch and eat and drink, protecting them from the rest of the flock, and leading them out of the coop only when the time is right.

She even knows just the right time to release them from her care.

LIFE.

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A few weeks ago I helped my friend Cary harvest a pen of roosters as practice for our turkeys and Thanksgiving that is just around the corner.

While we worked we talked about the place that death has in farming.  For every farmer the time comes to cull or process an animal.

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In our case, the more chicks you hatch naturally, the more roosters you have running around.  And you only need (and can afford to feed) so many roosters.

I learned a lot from Cary that night (as I always do) and also brought home 3 new Roos, thus sparing their lives and increasing the fertility of our flock.  Blue, Mr. Splash, and Flakes seem to be performing well so far.

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Death on the farm is never a stranger for long.  But then again, neither are baby chicks.

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How to kill a chicken:

  1. Prepare your work area.  You will need:  a sanitized table outdoors, bleach water for all equipment, a bucket filled with bleach water to keep knives and pruners clean, a propane stove to simmer water for de-feathering, clean bucket of cold water for carcasses, and a trashcan.
  2. Obtain a chicken.
  3. Tie it’s feet together (bungee cord works great) and hang somewhere.
  4. Clip spinal cord with pruners located in posterior part of neck; the chicken will be rendered dead instantly.
  5. Step back.
  6. Once flapping has subsided pull down on head and cut off with a knife, allow blood to drain in bucket.  Compost the blood later.
  7. Cut off wings at joints.
  8. Dip in simmering (not boiling) water for 20 seconds.  Too long and the skin will rip, too short of a time and de-feathering will be near impossible.
  9. Remove all feathers.  Difficult pin feathers can be removed later in the kitchen sink.  Keep the chicken moist with water while working.
  10. Cut off the feet.
  11. Remove the oil gland by cutting dorsally at the base of the tail above the bone.
  12. Make a superficial cut from the base of the neck to the top of the neck, just cutting through the skin.
  13. Remove the trachea, esophagus, and crop carefully by cutting away and pulling.
  14. Trim the neck.
  15. Make two cuts between the legs now on the ventral side of the chicken.
  16. Carefully cut out the vent and rectum, discard in trash.
  17. Reach into the body cavity and remove the intestines by pulling, discard.
  18. Remove the gizzard, lungs, liver and gallbladder, heart, and kidneys.
  19. Rinse well.
  20. Put the carcass in a bucket of clean, cold water.
  21. Finish cleaning in the kitchen sink.
  22. Allow the meat to rest in the refrigerator for 2 or so days before freezing.

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30

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“The sun beat down upon them, for it was early summer, and her face was soon dripping with her sweat.  Wang Lung had his coat off and his back bare, but she worked with her thin garment covering her shoulders and it grew wet and clung to her like skin.  Moving together in a perfect rhythm, without a word, hour after hour, he fell into a union with her which took the pain from his labor.  He had no articulate thought of anything; there was only this perfect sympathy of movement, of turning this earth of theirs over and over to the sun, this earth which formed their home and fed their bodies.  The earth lay rich and dark, and fell apart lightly under the points of their hoes.  Sometimes they turned up a bit of brick, a splinter of wood.  It was nothing.  Some time, in some age, bodies of men and women had been buried there, houses had stood there, had fallen, and gone back into the earth.  So would also their house, some time, return into the earth, their bodies also.  Each had his turn at this earth.  They worked on, moving together-together-producing the fruit of this earth-speechless in their movement together.”

~Pearl S. Buck, The Good Earth

 

Happy thirtieth Babe.  I love you.

 

 

 

 

 

Lucille & Ramona

On July 30th we harvested our pigs.

We brought them home in the back of our rusty old pickup truck 22 weeks before that.  Thankfully the pig farmer herself wrangled them for us.  100 bones apiece was her price.

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They were 10-week-old sisters, just weened, timid and skiddish, and reeked of manure. We named them Lucille and Ramona.  Ramona because they came from a farm in Ramona, California.  Lucille because Chris had been on an Arrested Development kick.  I sprayed them down; I was determined our pigs would not smell like “pigs.”  My mother would have been proud.

That first cold February night we checked on them in the barn with flashlights to find them laying side by side, completely buried beneath the hay.

“They are going to be okay,” Chris whispered to me.

The following morning I googled how to make pig slop.

Each day we’d move them to a new location in our field to spend the afternoon in the sunshine, tilling the soil for planting, munching on grass and roots, fertilizing as they went.  At night after a day spent on pasture they smelled sweet, of grass and soil.

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As they grew they became more and more difficult to lift into the back of our pick-up.  Chris built a pig shoot, thrown together cheaply and sloppily like everything we do at the farm, but it was functional.

One afternoon after a long day of field work, we took our trusty pick-up over the hill to the field only to discover that the pigs were grazing alongside of their moveable pen.  This would be the first of many professionally executed escapes; these two were smart.

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When all of our pastured fencing ideas failed, it was about time to finish the pigs.  We changed their feed to a sweeter ration, and then let them out of the barn to wander in the evenings for exercise.

Each morning when we’d arrive with their water and slop they’d greet us with happy grunts.  Lucille would shove Ramona aside and greedily take all of the best for herself (ironically, in the end Ramona weighed in 30-40 pounds heavier).

They became bigger and stronger.  It became a little more intimidating to enter their barn stall for the morning feeding and watering.  Our fearless farm dog, Shep, eventually even cowered away from them.  But these two were never dangerous.  We knew them, had named them, and they knew us.

We had no idea when the time was right.  It was a guess, really.  A lucky one as it turns out.

(Pigs are ready for slaughter anywhere from 6-8 months, 230-300 pounds or so.  Too small and you miss out on the rapid weight and fat gain in the final weeks, too late and your meat will be old and tough.)

The day before harvest day we spoiled them with the leftovers from our church lunch; it was watermelon rinds and chicken bones, their favorite.

The folks from Bob’s Specialty Meat arrived at 8 AM on July 30th, harvest day.   There were two men, one in his seventies wearing blood splattered white socks and tennis shoes (Bob).  He said he’s been doing this since he was a teenager and that they had already done four pigs that morning.  He spoke of his good health in his old age, how he only eats farm raised meat and vegetables from their family garden.  The skinny middle-aged man with the mustache was his assistant.

The old man was the sharpshooter.  They had no idea what was coming; they were not the least bit traumatized.  We know because we watched.  It was as humane and quick of a death as one could have.  A death I’d even wish upon myself.

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Our pigs awoke that fateful day like it was any other.  They did not have to make the stressful trip to a slaughterhouse (stress hormones such as adrenaline negatively impact the flavor and quality of the meat).  They died together, calm and happy in their home.   Prior to that they lived a happy life, had plenty of fresh air and exercise, and ate a diet free from steroids, growth hormones, and antibiotics.

We know the true costs of meat production.  It is very expensive and labor intensive.  And so we will use our meat wisely.  From liver, to lungs, to fat, to heart, to skin, to feet.  Nothing is eaten (or wasted) without an understanding of the sacred life and spirit that created the nourishment.

As we eat we (morbidly maybe) share stories of their lives.  It is by far the best meat we’ve ever had.  We sold a quarter to a cattle farmer from my work and she gave the flavor an A+++++.  There are no words that can do  this meat justice.  You must come visit to see for yourself.

turkeys and tomatoes

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It has been hot here…93 degrees the past few days and even hotter in the tin can where we live (our air conditioner broke).  It’s the kind of heat that melts your flip flops.  But the tomatoes are loving it and the turkeys are doing well too.  It’s amazing how little water they consume!

I am preparing myself for long, hot days spent in our trailer canning tomatoes.  It’s the best part of August and I’ve been looking forward to it since the end of the last canning season.  I’m hoping to have enough to put up ketchup and salsa this year.  In the past I’ve just done spaghetti sauce and quartered/whole tomatoes.

We are growing all indeterminate (vining) heirloom beefsteak tomato varieties:  Gold Medal, Large Red Cherry, Italian Heirloom, and Black Krim.  Our growing method is as follows (It is vague, we are amateur farmers at best, and I am by no means recommending you follow it.  This is more for my own documentation than anything else).

-Start in greenhouse, not too early or else you will waste all your seeds like we did and have to re-order.  The night temps were finally high enough in March were we live.  We did not use a heat mat.

-Transplant outside once it warms up and your starts appear hardy enough.   Side dress with a hefty dose of calcium (oyster shells or egg shells saved all winter) to help with water regulation.

-Water regularly

-Start pruning all suckers and prune to one or two main stems.  Do not wait too long to start pruning or else you will be cutting away all of your plant’s energies.  Remove all flowers until they are too numerous to remove.

-Trellis the main stems up by tying with twine to a 6-foot stake or PVC frame in our case.  Continue wrapping twine around the stems as they grow.

-Continue pruning on a weekly basis or as frequently as possible.

-Do not allow tomatoes to rest on the ground or else they will rot or be eaten by rodents in our case.