Sunday, July 29, 2018

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Glory in velvet

A few days ago, I was out watering the garden in the very early morning (to escape the heat) when I noticed a commotion among the trees on an adjacent parcel of land. Soon three deer emerged -- two bucks and a doe.

I had to position myself to take photos from that distance, and by the time I focused correctly, both bucks had jumped the fence into our field.

A close-up of both animals revealed their glorious racks were still in velvet.

That means it's too early for breeding season. Nonetheless, both seemed very interested in this lady.

I'm pretty sure this is the same doe that's been hanging around the neighborhood with her twin fawns. Sadly, no one has seen the fawns lately, which makes me think she lost them both to predators.

The bucks soon ran away and disappeared from sight.

One paused near a fence line before jumping it. I was just able to squeeze in one last photo.

This encounter made me glad it wasn't hunting season.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Advice for building a tire garden

This year our tire garden is doing absolutely splendidly. I can't believe the difference it's made in terms of productivity over planting directly in the ground.

Recently a couple of readers expressed an interest in putting in their own tire gardens, so I thought now might be a good opportunity to relate what we've learned over the years so others can profit from our mistakes.

To recap: We spent nine years trying to coax fruits and vegetables from the ground. We live on the prairie, and trying to claim a garden from prairie sod is a long and frustrating process. Our biggest issues were:

• Hard clay soil that turned into a gooey pudding in rainy weather (no drainage) and baked to rock-hard conditions in dry weather.

(Yes, that's my boot sinking in.

• Voles, darling little mouse-like creatures that burrow up from beneath and chew roots, strip bark, and cause untold havoc.

• Weeds. Oh heavens, the weeds. They are tough, indestructible, and endless.

(Here's the garlic boat, before weed-whacking)

(Here's the garlic boat, after weed-whacking. These photos were taken in 2012.)

It didn't help that we didn't have a tractor during those nine years. As a force-multiplier, a tractor is essential to move heavy loads and lift heavy things. When the need for a tractor reared its head, we borrowed a machine from kind neighbors.

Possibly -- not sure -- if we'd had a tractor of our own from the beginning, we might have had better luck getting a garden established in the ground. We could have plowed. We could have rototilled. We could have moved manure. We could have done a lot of things that were very difficult or outright impossible using just hand tools and our backs.

So we had to look outside the box -- entirely outside the box -- to find an answer to our gardening woes.

We had some huge beams left over from an old barn we dismantled for someone in our church years ago, and we used the biggest beams to make raised beds for small fruits (blueberries, strawberries, raspberries). Before planting, we put down thick layers of newspapers and hardware cloth to discourage weeds and voles.

These beds were a splendid success -- but we had no more beams. We needed a solution that was cheap and easy. What to do?

It was Don who came up with the idea of planting in tires. It was one of those head-clunk obvious answers we wished we'd thought of earlier. Immediately we started collecting car and truck tires from every obliging source.

Fired with enthusiasm, we borrowed a tractor, plowed the garden space, laid out tires in neat rows, and started planting.

It was an utter failure. By themselves, even filled with good soil, the tires were useless for weed control -- the weeds just grew straight up through the tires and choked out the vegetables. They also took over the paths between the tires until we needed a machete and pith helmet to walk through.

Sigh. Back to the drawing board.

What we needed was a permanent method of weed control. The only way to control weeds on the massive scale we needed for a garden was blockage. Eventually we settled on using billboard tarps anchored with gravel. Originally the gravel was merely to anchor the tarps (and cover the colorful pictures), but as a happy secondary benefit, the gravel provided superb drainage for tires.

By this point we had transitioned away from smaller car/truck tires toward large tractor tires -- and some of these were already in place. When we started laying down tarps, we didn't remove the tractor tires but just cut holes and fitted the tarps around the existing tires. This proved to be a mistake. Since the tires were just on bare ground, they've continued to be plagued with weed issues. Over the years those issues have lessened since I'm ruthless in eradicating whatever weeds grow up through the tires, but I could have saved myself a lot of trouble if we'd just laid the tires on top the tarp/gravel to begin with.

This might be a good time to distinguish between raised beds and raised containers. Raised beds are open to the ground. Raised containers have closed bottoms (though still permitting drainage). Technically our tire garden is a raised container garden.

There remains, also, the myth that planting in tires will result in poisoned plants. Please read this post to set your mind at rest.

So if anyone is interested in started a tire garden, profit from our mistakes over the years and start with some way to block weeds on a permanent basis while still providing drainage for the tires. Our solution was tarps/gravel. We know some people who are using sheets of corrugated tin. Whatever solution you choose, the combination of weed control and drainage is critical. In other words, don't put tires directly on the ground or you'll never be able to control the weeds.

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!