Country Living Series

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Tips for older homesteaders

As Don and I get older – and as we lose the critical help of our farmhands, otherwise known as our daughters – we need to make sure we can still run the farm safely and efficiently without hurting ourselves.

The single-most useful tool we’ve acquired in the 25 years we’ve been homesteading is the tractor. Having a force-multiplier has been immeasurably important. All the heavy lifting, all the rototilling, all the shoving stuff around – we can let the tractor do it.

But the tractor can’t do it all. To this end, we’re looking at ways to work smarter, not harder. Many of these problem-solving techniques spring from Don’s amazing and creative brain. He’s been looking at what causes us the most frustration and difficulty, and/or what has the most potential for injury, and coming up with ways to change things.

One thing Don built was an auger stand. The spiral-shaped auger is used to drill holes. I can’t even begin to describe how many holes must be drilled on a homestead, usually for installing fences and gates, but also to plant trees, construct outbuildings, or even (sigh) to bury a pet. But the auger weighs a zillion pounds and has arms like an octopus. Trying to get a zillion-pound octopus installed on the tractor was a difficult and frustrating two-person job.

The auger stand has made all the difference in the world. Now Don simply backs the tractor up to it and either drops the auger into place, or hitches the auger up. It’s a simple one-person job, and we haven’t bruised a shin or pinched a finger since he built it.

Another huge source of frustration was cutting out cows whenever we needed to isolate them for whatever reason (usually butchering). Cows, as you know, are herd animals, and move together with a herd’s mentality. Separating cows was always an all-hands-on-deck occasion with 10-foot lengths of PVC as push poles and a lot of swearing as the animals dashed madly wherever they wanted to go.

Without the girls, moving cattle became virtually impossible with just the two of us, so we had to find another way. Don noted that if we installed gates at critical pinch-points on the property, we could create multiple temporary corrals which would allow us to shunt animals a few at a time without having to deal with the entire herd at once.

Another “smarter, not harder” thing Don built is the calf cage. Since calves are ALWAYS born at the farthest corner of the property, it became too difficult to carry a wiggling newborn a quarter-mile back to the house for either castrating or dehorning.

To understand why, try this exercise: Hold out your arms in a wide circle, like you’re embracing something. Then have someone put a 35-pound weight in your hands. Still holding your arms out, carry that weight for a quarter-mile. And no matter what, you can’t put it down. Now have that weight struggle and wiggle and try to get away. Now have a hormonally deranged mother cow bellowing in alarm and dogging your heels. For additional fun, throw in another 10 or 20 animals, many with horns, who are excited and milling about, as you stagger that quarter-mile toward the barn with your arms outstretched around a 35-pound wiggling weight.

Now do you understand the difficulty? Unsurprisingly, we’re finding the older we get, the more difficult it is to carry newborns calves out of the pasture.

The calf cage changed all that. We strap it to the tines of the tractor and go fetch the calf. Tractors don’t bother cows, so we can get close to the calf, lay it gently in the cage (padded with an old horse blanket), and slowly drive back to the house with the mother either following behind, or easily shooed into the barn behind the calf. What a difference.

Anyway, I was discussing with an online homesteading friend (who lives in Maine) about what changes we’re making as we get older. My friend wrote: “The cons were starting to outweigh the pros of goats. My hands are starting with arthritis and I have some carpel tunnel issues so milking was a problem. I really don’t want surgery to fix the carpel tunnel as I see tons of surgeries gone bad. Rich and I aren’t getting any younger and last winter really beat the heck out of us. We have other friends our age and the big discussion is how to start doing things the easy way. We are seriously looking at what and how we are doing stuff and figuring out if there is a better, easier way.”

My friend suggested I put up a blog post seeking input from readers about what tips and tricks they’ve found to help ease the homesteading workload, especially with older people.

So I’m opening up the platform, folks. Give us your best ideas, suggestions, projects, and hacks that work. You’ll be doing everyone a favor in passing around the tricks of the trade.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Garden update

Thank you all from the bottom of my heart for your condolences regarding Lydia's unexpected passing. It's funny how the loss of a pet can send a family reeling.

Because my mind is still regaining equilibrium and I'm not up to writing anything coherent, I though I'd give you a quick tour around our garden since I haven't showed it yet this season.

We haven't added anything new to the garden this year. Partly it's because we had the killdeer nest in the way, and partly because we're waiting for a replacement cylinder for the tractor which precludes using it for any heavy lifting (such as installing more tires for additional growing beds).

However I do want to point out one lovely project Don just completed, which is a gate through the grape arbor.

Don built the arbor last year when we planted the grapes. Up to this point it's just been blocked off by a cattle panel, but he's always wanted to install a more decorative gate.

He has the amazing ability to visualize a completed project and then mentally back-track to how to build it.

One side finished...

...and both sides finished. Beautiful, n'est-ce pas?

So here's what's going on in the garden.

Last fall I planted potatoes in eight tires as part of an experiment; to wit: is planting in the fall better than planting in the early spring? Would fall-planted potatoes do well?

As spring progressed and I saw no signs of growth, I got nervous. This past winter was very harsh and perhaps the fall-planted potatoes didn't make it? Not wanting to miss the window of opportunity, I hastily planted additional potatoes in four of the beds on May 21 (and onion sets in the remaining four beds).

Of course, you can guess what happened. The potatoes I planted last fall grew vigorously. So did the potatoes I planted in May. So four of the beds are double-planted with taters, and four of the beds have both potatoes and onions.

Lots of potatoes in this planter, and you can see the onions in the one behind.

Here is one of the two ever-bearing strawberry beds.

We've been picking heavily off of them.

The peas, which I planted on May 2, are going absolute gangbusters.

There's just something so pretty about peapods.

This is one of our two mature pear trees. Earlier this spring I trimmed a couple of low-hanging branches that required propping up as the season progressed, and I think the tree looks better for it.

This is our other pear tree. It's the same age as the bigger tree, but this one nearly died several years ago and managed to recover. It's smaller but bearing prolifically.

Lots and lots of young pears among the branches.

These are the rest of our strawberry beds. An ever-bearing rectangular bed is in the lower left, and all the June-bearing beds are in the circular tires on the upper left and on the right. After last year's massive crop, the June-bearers seem to be taking a breather this year -- which, to be honest, is something of a relief. We got kinda overwhelmed with fruit last year.

These are the corn tires. This year they're the corn-and-beans tires.

In these tires I planted calypso beans, an heirloom dry bush bean. (I can't grow pole beans among the corn because the variety of corn I grow, Yukon Chief, is too short to support pole beans.) In some beds the beans are predominant, largely due to the influence of chickens scratching up the corn seed.

In other beds, the corn took off.

Here are the rows of smaller tires I use for viney plants such as melons or pumpkins. This year I have watermelon, cantaloupe, and tomatoes planted in these tires.

Some of the watermelon:

Some of the tomatoes:

The baby orchard we planted last year is doing splendidly. (The bushy stuff in the tires with the trees are wildflowers we grow for the bees.)

We have two Stanley plum trees. They are producing prolifically this year.

We have four types of apples: Braeburn, Gala, Snow Sweet, and Honecrisp. While all four varieties are producing fruit, the Snow Sweet seems to be setting the earliest and largest fruit.

And the peaches are producing! I'm most excited about the peaches, which are hands-down my all-time favorite fruit. I've never even picked my own peaches before, so this is a thrill for me.

Here's our garlic boat. If there's one thing that grows heartily in our area, it's garlic. We have a bumper crop this year.

Our mature blueberries were problematic this year. You might recall I transplanted these bushes from a weed-infested spot several years ago (in 2011). Unfortunately, in an effort to keep as much soil around the roots as possible, I also transplanted some stubborn unrelenting grasses. As a result, the blueberry bed regularly gets overwhelmed with weeds.

This year they were so bad I almost threw up my hands and abandoned it. Instead I buckled down and yanked. These tough grasses can't be pulled up (unlike most weeds) since their root system is so deep and they spread vegetatively. But I could, at the very least, yank out what I could and give the poor blueberries some breathing room. It's the best I'll ever be able to do in this bed.

It took three days, but the result was better than I expected.

Now the bushes are ripening their crop. I'll be picking within two weeks.

The younger Hardyblue blueberries, the ones we planted in 2015, are doing well though still quite small. The berries are smaller than the berries on my original bushes, but much sweeter. (A few random ones have already ripened for a taste test.)

By default in the rest of the garden, whenever I had a spare tire, I planted bush beans (Jacob's cattle beans in this case) and carrots. The carrot seed is from the seed I harvested last summer, and let me tell you carrots produce a LOT of seed. As a result I broadcast carrot seeds heavily and will need to go through and thin them shortly. I have many tires of this beans/carrots combo.

I planted two tires of potato onions last fall, and mulched them with pine needles.

I have a lot of volunteer potatoes growing in various beds. Here are some among the Brussels sprouts -- which, incidentally, I'm watching like a hawk for aphids. So far so good.

More volunteer potatoes, and the corn you see growing among them is an experiment: Popcorn. I started just a few seedlings in the house in the spring, and transplanted them to see what would happen. Popcorn takes a fairly long growing season, so frost may hit before I get anything, but what the heck, it's an experiment.

As another experiment, I planted three beds of red lentils. The result so far is "meh." Lentils are clearly a field crop for a reason. No bang for the buck. I won't plant them again.

I planted a few cayenne peppers in one of the lentil beds.

Here's just one bed of Walla Walla sweet onions planted from sets. I'm not a huge fan of sweets (I like onions with a bite) but they're not bad.

Here's another experiment: breadseed poppies. I ordered these seeds something like ten years ago and forgot all about them. I decided to broadcast them to see what happens (poppy seeds need light to germinate, so they shouldn't be buried but instead just broadcast on the surface). Only a few grew, so I planted beans in the rest of the bed to fill it in.

Here are the buds, getting close to flowering.

I love poppy seeds -- the girls always teased me for blackening my English muffins with poppy seeds before toasting -- so if this works, I'll always have a bed or two of poppies sown from now on.

Some lettuce. I haven't planted this in years -- it just re-seeds itself from season to season -- but it's always fun to pick a salad. I'll let the rest of this bed go to seed for next summer's salads. There's also some basil planted in there, and a lonely little petunia Younger Daughter bought.

Horseradish. Unlike years past, so far no flea beetles have attacked it.

Spearmint. I picked up a tiny plant two years ago on a whim, and my goodness it's grown. (One of the advantages of tire gardening is invasive plants can't spread vegetatively beyond where you plant them.) Oddly enough I don't care for mint tea so I never really use the spearmint; but my goodness it smells absolutely divine.

Oregano. This stuff would take over the garden (by seed) if I let it. It grows, literally, like a weed.

Rosemary, one of two pre-grown herbs I bought this year. Rosemary is a perennial but it can't survive our winters. A neighbor has some in his greenhouse and it's enormous. I may pot one of the plants this fall and bring it into the house and re-plant it next spring.

Parsley, the other herb I purchased pre-grown. Just didn't get around to starting it indoors in time.

English thyme. This is growing in one of my old herb tires from five years ago, and it's fairly choked with weeds (mostly grasses). It's my intention to dump this tire and grow some fresh thyme in another larger tire.

So it's very convenient that last year, the thyme seeded itself in the adjacent grape bed. I'm keeping the bed weeded and eventually I'll transplant this baby thyme into a new tire.

The grapes are producing a few nascent clusters, which disproportionately pleases me. I've never grown grapes before, so this is something of a thrill. Someday I'm hoping the whole trellis will be overgrown with grapevines, and we can walk underneath plucking low-hanging fruit.

The raspberries are peaking right, and we've been picking and freezing the fruit.

We're not the only ones enjoying the raspberries.

Thanks for touring the garden with me.