Country Living Series

Saturday, July 21, 2018

The little thief

In a seldom-used side yard, we have a tangle of weeds.

A couple weeks ago I happened to notice a clutch of eggs among the vegetation -- the latest "hot spot" for hens to lay. I gathered up the eggs and tested them for freshness, and thereafter kept an eye on the weed patch in case more eggs appeared.

A few days ago I happened to hear a characteristic noise as I was near the weed patch -- the "braaaaack" of a hen who is setting on eggs. I parted the vegetation and spotted a hen so thoroughly bedded down amidst the weeds as to be totally invisible. I went into the house and told Don, "I think we have a hen setting in the weed patch." Beyond that, we didn't give it much thought.

Yesterday I took it into my head to lift the hen off her nest and count how many eggs she was setting on. I waded to where she had her nest, but the spot was deserted. Instead the hen was a couple feet away, invisible in the weeds, clucking and making a fuss. Three eggs were visible in the old nest amidst a mess of smashed eggshells. "Oh well, something ate the eggs," I concluded, and turned to leave.

But the hen's agitated clucks were interspersed with -- peeps. Lots of peeps. I chuckled and went to get Don. "The little thief stole a nest," I told him. "Can you help me gather up the chicks?"

We found an empty bucket and carefully -- lest we step on any stray babies -- waded into the weed patch. Don put on gloves and pulled out some of the more obstructive plants while I picked up the squawking and protesting hen and put her in the coop. By the time I returned, Don had seven chicks in the bucket, and I found one more.

We tucked the new family into an inner cage in the chicken coop, where one of our Buff Orpintons is also setting on a mess of eggs. (We tucked the three unhatched eggs from the outdoor nest under the Buff, just in case, though they're probably duds.) Here's the Buff:

It's kind of dark in the coop so these photos didn't turn out terribly well, even with a flash. Here the mother hen is settling into a corner and gathering her chicks under her feathers.

Here the mother hen and her chicks are right by the edge of the cage, while two other hens stare through the mesh at the chicks. "Hey, I want some of those too!"

Aww, there aren't many things cuter than baby chicks.

A funny little incident: one of the newborn chick wandered too close to the Buff hen, who promptly started pecking the chick. I opened the cage door, ready to rescue the chick, but by the time I got inside it had -- disappeared. I lifted the squawking Buff off her eggs and, sure enough, found the chick under her feathers. They may protest, but setting hens adopt strange chicks at the drop of a hat -- in this case, in about five seconds. Still, I put the chick back with its mother.

Eight chicks. And another setting hen as well. Gonna be a crowded coop this winter.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Dehydrating raspberries

If there's one dependable crop we get year after year, it's raspberries.

Raspberries are Younger Daughter's favorite fruit, and in years past picking them was more or less her province. In her absence this summer, the task has fallen to Don and me. And since it's been blazing hot in the daytime and there are too many mosquitoes in the late evening when it's cooler, I've been going out around 5:30 a.m. to pick berries.

This early in the morning the raspberry bed is still in the shade, and the chore is pleasant rather than something to dread.

I pick every other day and usually get about three half-bowls of fruit (I don't like to pile the berries too deep lest they get crushed under their own weight).

I decided not to make jam (we're not big jam eaters) or freeze them this year. Instead, I'm dehydrating them.

I pick through the fruit and lay them on the mesh screens over each tray. The berries shouldn't touch. Online sources for dehydrating raspberries always recommend washing them and laying them hole side down to drain. However this assumes the berries are purchased and passed through numerous hands before they reached your kitchen. Since our berries are fresh off the bushes and since I water them every day (which washes dust off), I just pick over the berries dry and lay them hole-side-down on the trays.

I set the dehydrator at 135F for 18 hours and leave it alone. When the time is done, the upper trays often have a few berries that are still a bit squishy, so I rotate the trays and put the heat on for another 4 hours.

Unlike something like red bell peppers, which shrink down in the dehydrator to a remarkable degree, raspberries maintain both their size and shape once they're dried. They're brittle and bursting with concentrated flavor. Frankly they look and feel freeze-dried. Way cool.

Dehydrating doesn't seem to be a popular preservation option for raspberries, which seems a shame. Besides being easy to store, dried berries are versatile. They can be used to make tea, they can be reconstituted and used to flavor yogurt, they can be reconstituted and made into fruit salads or desserts -- in short, they have many uses.

If freezer space is at a premium and, like us, you're not big on jams, then dehydrating raspberries is a wonderful and easy option.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Garden update

Sorry for the blog silence -- it's been something of a loopy week! Plus July heat is now upon us, which takes some adjustment after the lovely cool June we had.

But at least the garden is enjoying the heat. Let me take you on a tour to show the good, bad, and ugly of this year's garden.

Corn. Unlike years past where I grew our faithful Yukon Chief corn, this year I did something different. I planted popcorn.

I'd wanted to try popcorn for a long time but it's hard to grow in our short seasons. However I finally found a short-season heirloom popcorn and purchased some seed.

I planted it May 21 and it's doing splendidly. The old adage goes, "Knee high by the 4th of July," and it surpassed that, so it's on target to harvest before the frost. I hope.

Here's the corn on July 4:

And here it is early this morning, July 14:

I'm growing seed poppies again this year. I adore poppy seeds (the girls always teased me how I would literally blacken my English muffins with poppy seeds) and it's fun to be able to grow our own.

Here are some of the seed pods. These are green, but when they dry and go brown, the seeds will be ready.

Peas. I don't know what it is about peas, but I think they're one of the loveliest of garden plants.

The pods are plumping nicely and should be ready to pick in a week, maybe two.

Cayenne peppers.

Carrots. I have three beds and should probably have planted more. I love canned carrots.

Onions. I grew four beds of onions from sets, three beds of yellow onions and one bed of red onions.

Potatoes. I have five beds, four of russet and one of red potatoes.

Here are the herbs. Sage:


Parsley. I have a plant that overwintered and is now going to seed, which will be nice for starting next year's plants.

Thyme. I have a small tire of thyme that's overgrown with grass, and I want to get rid of it (it will require a tractor to lift it, so I haven't gotten around to it yet). But last year it seeded itself into the adjacent box where we're growing grapes, so suddenly I have this beautiful bed of thyme growing around the grapes.

Spearmint. This started as one little plant I purchased a few years ago, and goodness it has spread. This underscores one of the benefits of planting in tires -- I can plant spread-y stuff like mint and not worry it will take over the whole garden. It's a funny relationship I have with this spearmint. I'm not overly crazy about the taste, but the smell is divine -- to die for -- almost perfume-y in quality. I just love it for its smell.

(Not pictured: oregano and basil.)

Broccoli, my all-time hands-down favorite vegetable. In years past I consistently lost all the broccoli to aphids. But this year? Success!

Why the difference this year? It's because I prophylactically sprayed the leaves with neem oil, an organic biopesticide. I sprayed the leaves every few days ever since transplanting, and the aphids never even stood a chance because they didn't have the opportunity to get established. Neem oil concentrate is now part of my prepper supplies. Losing garden plants to aphids is not something you want to happen if you're depending on a garden for survival.

Raspberries. They're just starting to peak.

We've been picking and dehydrating them.

Grapes. I'm so tickled by the grapes!

Last year they did well but we didn't get any fruit because the chickens ate everything. This year the chickens are strictly banned from the garden and so far so good in watching the baby fruit grow and swell.

Garlic. Ah, love the garlic.

It's time to trim the scapes. Don is going to try pickling them this year.

Watermelon. I planted four tires of watermelon, each tire with four plants. Not all the plants grew, but enough (hopefully) to have some late-summer snacks. These are Cream of Saskatchewan watermelons, a short-season heirloom variety. Last year the chickens ate every watermelon as it developed, though I was able to rescue a couple for seed.

Cantaloupe. These won't grow as big as the ones available in grocery stores, but they are so so so sweet.

Tomatoes. This year I planted 14 tires of a hybrid variety. Yes, hybrid. Just for kicks.

Blueberries. These are the mature plants (no photos of the younger plants, sorry).

Most of the berries are still green, but a few are ripening. Last year I didn't get one single blueberry thanks to the chickens. Ah, it's so nice to have the chickens excluded from the garden. They did a lot of damage last year.

Orchard. Don just mowed and weed-whacked around the tires, and I weeded inside the tires around the trees.

Discovered two yellow-jacket nests inside tires, and two in the ground. It's a stinkin' miracle neither of us were stung. I've got the ground nests marked with sticks pointing at them, and one day soon I'll wait until dark, suit up, and go spray the durn things.

Here's one of the nests in a tree tire:

The ground nests were harder to photograph (obviously I'm standing a distance away and zooming in) -- you can see a blurry unfocused yellow jacket just emerging from the hole at top center of the picture.

The trees are all healthy and strong (except one apple that died when the wind blew it over -- we'll replace it), but the only fruit I'm getting this year is apples. No plums, peaches, or hazelnuts. I'm not terribly fussed by this -- the trees are still in their infancy and becoming established.

That's the skinny on the garden. Thanks for coming with me!