Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Year of Opening Gifts

Ethan Book is a southern Iowa farmer/podcaster ( who reflected, this Christmas week, on the top five failures and successes of his 2015 farming year.  I like the concept, which prodded a bit of reflection on our own experiences this year at Taproot Garden.  I do, however, want to change the vocabulary a bit -- partly because I am yet too much of a novice to speak with any credibility about successes and failures, and partly because on this Christmas Eve I rather have gifts on my mind.  

So, with apologies to the casual reader more accustomed to stories and the occasional poignant thought than this reflective accounting, and who have my honest permission to stop reading now and return again next week for a more usual blog, here are the top five gifts I have received from the farmstead this year.  

1. The Chickens survived the winter.  That may not sound like much, but last winter was our first in the company of these beautiful ladies, and I was none too confident.  I have observed that many chicken keepers manage their flocks spring through autumn, and then butcher them for meat as winter settles in, starting over again with a new flock in the spring.  I completely understand the motivation. Chicken keeping in the winter is not for the faint of heart, adding as it does an extra layer of hassle to the care, beginning with the simple maintenance of food and water in frigid temperatures. I came to the conclusion last winter that work gloves simply aren't made that are warm enough to keep fingers functional while hauling, filling and gathering in the grimmer days of winter.  And then, when snow falls, accumulations must be shoveled and straw spread so that the girls have some space to move about and get a modicum of fresh air sans frostbite.  All that said, we survived -- the chickens, and me.  In fact, the flock continued to grow with the addition of a second, albeit slightly smaller, coop from Murray's Hen Hoops in Missouri that now, as this present winter descends, itself has reached capacity.  Along the way, we have developed a nice little clientele for the eggs which helps keep the girls in premium organic feed to which they have grown accustomed.  And I am not only relieved; I am grateful.

2. We completed one year of “Organic Ministry: Cultivating Soil and Soul.”
A couple of years ago a friend forwarded to me information about a farm-based clergy renewal program developed by a Lutheran pastor in Indiana in partnership with a local counseling center.  Captivated by what I subsequently learned about the program, I queried the possible interest of the local counseling center on whose Board I once served.  They shared my interest, and after a period of development, refinement and recruitment, we launched the program in March with 8 clergy from around the state.  On the first Monday of each month, the group gathered at Taproot Garden for breakfast, worship, light farm work, lunch, personal retreat and facilitated discussion of ministry and reading assignments through the lenses of metaphors inspired by our setting and the husbandry it involves.  It remains to be seen whether there will be adequate registrations to support a second class, but this first one was a nourishing and satisfying joy -- at least for me, but I sensed for all those participating as well.

3. The Solar system was completed and is generating.
Prompted by a wild imagination and the persistent desire to be kinder to and more sustainable for the planet, we began the installation of a photo-voltaic solar system just after Thanksgiving 2014.  Holiday travels and some shipping delays pushed completion of the project back to February 2015.  Since then, our ground-mounted 26 panels have been drinking in the sunlight -- some days more than others, but generally enough to supply our household needs. One of our favorite moments each month is opening our electric bill and seeing a balance due of $8.50 -- essentially the cost of the meter and taxes.  

4. Greenhouse seeding was a larger success.  Each year since moving to the farm, we have nestled seeds into seed cell trays in late winter and nurtured them under lights in the greenhouse -- with acceptable but hardly celebratory results.  This year we adopted a couple of changes we hoped would be improvements.  Instead of using those typical cell trays, we bought a special tool and made our own soil blocks from the compost/potting soil we purchase from Wisconsin.  The result is a 2-inch cube that rather looks like a soil brownie.  With the help of the Organic Ministry participants, we made close to 2000 of these blocks that were nestled together into trays, each hosting one or another variety of seed.  Additionally, having learned that soil temperature is a more critical factor than air temperature in the germination of seeds, I added warming cables beneath the seed trays.  Equipped with their own thermostat, the cables warm up anytime the soil temperature drops below a certain level.  The result of these two innovations was that virtually every seed sprouted -- an efficacy rate more than tripling previous results.  In fact, we had so many tomato plants beyond the 130 or so that we planted in our own garden that we donated almost as many to a nonprofit community garden for refugees in Des Moines.

5. The harvest was a bounty.  Development of seedlings, of course, is hardly the objective.  It is merely the first in a series of means headed toward a desired end.  The end, in this case, is harvest.  Did we actually produce anything of value?  Moreso than ever before, the answer is a surprising “yes”.  To be sure, the mild temperatures and the seemingly scheduled rain showers helped.  I choose to believe the soil development practices we have put in place have contributed as well.  Certainly the extra hand power contributed by the Organic Ministry group didn't hurt either.  In the end, even after sharing the fruits with the class members and neighbors; even after canning and fermenting and dehydrating various parts, we still ended up buying an additional freezer to preserve the abundance.  Meanwhile, all of this was accomplished under the newly acquired umbrella of being “Certified Naturally Grown” covering both the garden produce and the eggs.

All of which is to say that it has been a good year on the farm.  Whatever gifts we have given, we have received beyond even our most outlandish imagination.  We are humbled, but now that the tools are put away (except those necessary for tending the chickens through this winter) more than anything we are grateful.  

Grateful, and of course hopeful. Who knows what 2016 might have in store?

Monday, December 21, 2015

Memories, with the Hope of Happy Tomorrows

The new girls have officially joined the neighborhood.  Since arriving in early October at the ripe old age of 10 weeks, the two Lavender Orpingtons and two Splash Marans have spent their days and nights in quarantine -- in the coop and enclosure we affectionately refer to as “The Annex”, separated from the main community by some 20 feet.  As I've written before, this segregation is initially a precaution against importing diseases into the larger flock, but over the protracted weeks it becomes, as well, a protective growth sanctuary for the smaller birds.  There, secured by both a chicken wire and an electric mesh fence along with an overhung net, they eat and drink and exercise their way into near-adulthood. 

It's no Utopia.  The enclosed space is adequate, but limited.  The coop itself is...shall we say “modest” -- a minimalist shanty compared with the upscale accommodations that await them across the yard, though like children of the Depression they are surely unaware of their privation.  It simply is all that they know.  The greatest shortcoming of the Annex, I’ve come to realize, is not its minimalist construction but it's orientation.  I situated it poorly. A heavy wooden construction, our primary concern when we transported it home was getting it off the truck in one piece.  That mission was accomplished with the help of friends, stationing it on the 4 X 4’s I had laid down to rest it slightly off the ground.  But we should have rotated it clockwise 45-degrees.  As it is, the hatch faces due north -- a Grinch-like aperture for frigid winter winds.  I close it up at night, of course, but during the day “in” is as “out.”  It's cold.

But the girls, for the most part, have managed it.  They are, after all, hardy breeds.  And though it won't benefit these winter veterans, somehow this summer I will get the Annex situated more advantageously.  As for these girls, they are ready for life on different terms. So it was that last night, along with Mike who had stopped by to help, they made the great migration.  This is the second time we have accomplished such a move under cover of darkness.  Docile and drowsy, they hardly notice my nervous hands surrounding their feathery warmth, thieving them one-by-one from their humble but familiar environs, shuttling them across the way into the main yard and re-settling them among the older girls who are, themselves, already cuddled in for the night.  It is a simple transfer.  No chasing. No squawking.  No feather rattling and trespassing protestations.  Old and new simply spend the night together and wake the next morning as curious but benign neighbors. 

At least that's the idea.  Morning brings its own realities as I learn anew this awakening dawn.  Once I lower the ramp and raise the hatch, the coop disgorges its contents in single file.  Cautiously, tentatively at the rear of the line, the new girls emerge.  There is some jostling at the bottom of the ramp -- a little pecking, a little chest bumping just to insure that the young ones keep in mind their “place” at the “peon” end of the order.  But with the help of a few culinary distractions I toss around the yard, the older girls leave the younger ones alone to explore their new neighborhood; and the new day, the new world, has begun.

It's not easy moving in.  While the little girls don't have boxes to unpack and furniture to arrange, they do have relationships to forge, social orders to interrupt and rearrange, food and water to locate, and that latent sense of disorientation to overcome.  That, and that wistfully lingering memory of home as it use to be... fade.

Good luck girls.  I’ll be watching, and pulling for you.  For the most part, however -- like it is for all of us -- the hard part will be up to you.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

To Everything There is A Season -- Even Eggs

If I didn't know better I would think the girls were holding back -- or holding out... if they were pouting, or exacting retribution for some free-ranged offense.  Egg production has dropped so precipitously that it's hardly worth the afternoon trip out to the coops to check.  With 23 hens of laying age, in recent weeks I have been lucky to find two eggs a day -- three if the Egg Angels are smiling fondly in my favor.

No, the colder temperatures are not to blame.  These are cold-hardy birds that come with their own down jackets.  With all that plumage they prefer the cold over the heat.  And no, I haven't reduced their rations, grounded them, scolded them or taken away their cell phones.  The problem is the light.

Chickens need 14 hours of light per day for routine egg production -- a natural resource in abbreviated supply this time of year.  It's difficult to log that many hours when the sun rises at 7 a.m. And sets by 5 p.m.  Even my limited math skills can add that up.  Compounding the problem is the fact that several of the girls have shifted their attentions to molting in preparation for deeper winter and have understandably diverted their energies and biological resources away from egg production to feather replacement.

It's possible, of course, to fool Mother Nature with artificial light -- a light bulb on a timer can replace those lost hours of sunlight.  The big egg houses do it routinely, as do plenty of backyard flocksters.  I did it last year, feeling greedy.  It's hardly cruel and unusual punishment.  But it turns out that chickens only have so many eggs to lay in the course of their lifetime.  You can spread that number out over a greater number of years by allowing the girls their natural winter rest, or you can run them full-tilt until they are empty and then figure out what to do with your menopausal friends.

Here is where metaphors become important.  If the hens are machines -- production facilities on a clock -- then turn on the lights. “We've got cartons to fill.  When these birds are spent there are more where they came from.”  If, on the other hand they are co-residents of the farm along with the two of us and the two dogs, then the longer view makes better sense.  It's not hard to guess which metaphor we've adopted, and therefore which course of action we've chosen.  We've got lots invested in them after all -- money, to be sure, which isn't insignificant; but who can calculate the time and emotional energy spent caring, tending and protecting?  I'm not in a hurry to replace them.  They have become, in a feathery sort of way, like family.  Plus, I have my own experience with forced production, and have come to value more natural rhythms.  That, plus the realization that my gratitude for what I find in the laying boxes tends to run in inverse proportion to my expectation.

And so despite the dimmer prospects in these wintry days, when the clock strikes 4 p.m. I steadfastly slip into my coat and boots, arm myself with the collection basket, and make my way through the gate for the treasure hunting ritual. 

It's still a thrill, a surprise, and a deep indebtedness, even with the meager returns. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Already the Interior Season

Rain is falling.  I don't really mind, since by this point in the season precipitation could just as likely be the snow that is, indeed, forecast for later this week.  We watered young trees and shrubs reasonably well last week with the accumulated rain as we were storing the rain barrels for winter, but they can only be helped by an additional soaking.  Outdoor work is essentially complete -- a feat of forethought we have not so well accomplished in prior years.  Tools are stowed.  Produce is processed.  The chickens have sense enough to remain dry and under cover -- or, if venturing out, do so in response to their own recreational need.  

All is quiet.  Even the 8-point buck that breakfasted earlier in the prairie near the garden fence has moved back into the woods.  Wet oak leaves -- among the last of those still clothing the trees -- shiver in the November wind; red berries shimmer on the shrubs.  I have had some office work that had been calling for attention, but I have answered it.  Breakfast is passed and lunch remains a distant anticipation.  There will be afternoon errands, but they, too, are hours away.  My eyes have tired of reading.  Even the lone bird perched atop the bare branch at the edge of the woods seems at a loss for how to spend his time.

It's not even winter and already I am restless.

Perhaps like the seasonal wardrobe I've begun switching out in the closet and drawers there is a seasonal imagination that needs switching out as well -- ways to be and be occupied creatively and meaningfully in these gray and chilly months indoors when the field of endeavor is interior to the soul and the seeds nurtured are of a profoundly different sort.

The truth is I rather look forward to these flanneled and afghan-draped days nestled in front of the fire --

--As soon as I manage to shift gears and settle into them.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Readying for Winter's Work

The garlic is in the ground, the pepper plants have been stripped and removed with the fruits of the former in the freezer and the detritus of the latter in the compost pile.  I had help -- the same extra hands that sowed the winter wheat last month that is well on its way these several weeks later.  In some ways this has become a "community garden" in ways I hadn't anticipated.  They dug, they plowed, they planted, they picked; in the end they carted and carried and, above all, encouraged.

   Even with all their help they did not exhaust the need.  There are still plenty of braising greens to harvest our way through, and there are enough stalks remaining from this and that, plenty of rows to clean out and plenty of manure to spread to still leave plenty yet to do before we can call the garden "winterized."  More than a few hours and sunny days will be needed to finally put it all to bed, but if the weather cooperates I am determined to get it done -- a first, if it happens, in the four years we have been here.  Planting in the spring turns out to be sexier work than cleaning out in autumn.

But the chicken coops are ready for colder weather -- repositioned, straw bales stacked to deflect wind and snow, power cords readied to supply the water warmers and interior lights.  The changes have created some confusion among the girls, but they will thank me for the adjustments eventually.  When the mercury plummets and dances on either side of zero they will be thrilled to sip water instead of pecking it; they will be thrilled to have some place to walk that isn't dusted in white.  In the next week or so I'll need to decide if the grass needs one more trimming or if the mower deck on the tractor can let go and give way to the snow blower taking its place. 

Autumn, which only yesterday seemed to color the leaves, is already stretching out its arm to pass the baton to winter.  Leaves carpet the ground beneath naked branches.  I am pulling on a jacket when only days ago a sweater sufficed.

Each season, of course, has its own important work to accomplish -- though winter's, for a farmstead, are subtler than the others.  To be sure, there are seed catalogs to dog ear, selections to make and orders to place.  Eventually, on the far edge of the season, we'll be straightening and filling up the greenhouse and whispering kind and beckoning words over seedlings.  But surely there is more to do than these.  In the soil, winter is the season of deeper things.  The cold is needed for over-wintering seeds to crack open in readiness for spring; soil and its multi-form lives, rest and renew as though taking a deep breath.  Sugars concentrate.  Some lives hibernate while others incubate; minerals and fungi, trace elements and organic matter integrate while worms and microbes aerate -- all completely out of view.


Deep inside the soil.

My guess is that there are analogs of the spirit that require their own winter workings -- renewals that will translate into a fertility of being for the growing space that is myself...

...if I can be quiet enough, mindful enough, to give them the space and the depth to happen.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Welcomed to be Herself

It's tempting to think of her as a replacement. And it's true that the only reason we have her is the loss of an earlier arrival.  Exactly one week ago we answered the call from the Post Office and brought home the box containing four 10-week old hens -- four little puff balls barely the size of a softball -- shipped from southern Illinois.  

Their route to our house had been a laborious trip -- first to St. Louis, then on to St. Paul, then across town in St. Paul and then back across town, eventually to Des Moines and finally Norwalk.  I tracked them.  Monday afternoon to Thursday morning, never mind the 2-day Express guarantee. If you are shaking your head, know only that I agree with you.  It's a baffling route for anything, but especially for four little hens nestled on a scattering of wood chips and sustained by a wedge of cucumber.  All that said, they did arrive and were finally liberated from their shipping box into the annex coop where they joined the other one already in residence.  

But one of them didn't seem right.  She stood around, lethargically; she kept her eyes closed, and only trotted around under duress.  At night I had to help her navigate the few inch jump up into the coop for bed time.  By Saturday morning she was still -- a feathered wisp where life had been but moved on.  

I had kept in contact with the breeder -- following her counsel about diagnosis and care -- and when she heard the news she promised to ship another one out.  Yes, if you are wondering, such things are guaranteed.  And today, a fraction more expeditiously if no less circuitously, the new little girl arrived.  She seems healthy and spry.  The other girls seem to have given her welcome.  I have every reason to believe she’ll thrive.

And I know she is “only a chicken”.  I don't mean to make of this more than is merited.  She is, on paper at least, a “replacement.”  But I refuse to view any life as merely generic -- as though one were as good as another.  As though we were all interchangeable. It is, I suspect, a distinctly human arrogance to view our own as the only distinguishable and appreciable pulses, and even we don't finally believe it.  Experience decries it as nonsense. Lori and I may have acquired another dog just weeks after the death of our first, but if we were ever tempted to see in his similar gender and breed and coloring a cipher, a fill-in, a mere replacement for the one we had lost, he was quick to disavow us of that fiction.  He would put forward his own personality, asserting his own peculiar mark.  We may have wanted him to simply play the prior part, but he insisted on writing his own script; starring the individual that he is.

As, I am certain, will this new little hen.  We didn't have her predecessor long enough to know her, but I am convinced enough about living, breathing creatures to believe that this new one will not walk or peck or cluck in her shadow.  She will cast her own.  

It will be my challenge -- me, the big, all-knowing, all-powerful Oz of a flockmaster -- to trust enough in the wonder of creation to let her.

Friday, October 23, 2015

A Beautiful, Serendipitous Mistake

Yesterday the sorghum came down.  By successive whacks of the corn knife the seven-foot stalks were relieved of their seed heads and then, with the loosening help of the broad fork, were uprooted and stacked.  It has been a small stand -- less than half of a long row on the east side of the garden -- but it's outsized height flanked the garden shoulder with Beefeater stateliness.

And it had all been a serendipitous mistake.

The plan for sorghum had revolved around making our own syrup -- that molasses-like nectar favored in certain parts of the country for drizzling over hot biscuits.  With only the thinnest background on the subject, I knew only enough to seek out seeds for the sweet variety rather than that destined for animal feed.  I planted in the spring, waited, watched and industriously weeded.  I was some distance down the row one early day in June before I realized that the encroaching grass I was meticulously pulling up was in fact the first expression of the very sorghum I had planted.  Thankfully, my “meticulous” is not ultimately that thorough.  Enough survived to lead to my next misunderstanding.

By August the stalks were towering over the other crops, crowned by seed heads like finials on a flag pole.  With anticipatory foretastes of sweetened biscuits playing over my tastebuds, I thought to start reading up on how to convert those bronze grains into syrup.  That's when I realized I should have started reading months earlier. It isn't, it turns out, the grains that are ground or cooked or fermented into goodness; it's the stalks that are pressed -- squeezed -- like sugar cane to extract the resident liquid. 

“Idiot,” I thought to myself.  “Now what am I going to do with this stuff?”

In dutiful due diligence I researched presses, only to confirm my guess that we would not be interested in making that level of investment. Meanwhile, we had secured a bag of hard red winter wheat seeds that we planned to sow in late September for harvest in early summer with an aspiration to grind our own flour for bread.  I'm embarrassed to admit how long it took me to break out of my compartmentalized myopia and make the tentative connection, but finally the cylinders clicked.

“I wonder if there is such a thing as sorghum flour?”

To abbreviate the story I’ll just say that the answer is an ancient “yes” with multiple nutritional and culinary assets to its credit.  Having already figured out the end-game of grinding, my next step is seeing what I can learn about those other ancient practices of “threshing” and “winnowing” this beautiful grain I now have in hand.

All that, and then inviting my taste buds down a completely different trail of anticipation -- no longer of a drizzled ambrosia from a jar, but a bready aroma of heaven wafting from the oven.

There is a country song I love that pays grateful tribute to "the trains I missed."  Standing here looking over my sackful of misbegotten sorghum, I'm thinking this looks like a pretty appealing platform at which to be left standing.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Every reference I have ever consulted on caring for chickens warns that carnage is a question of “when” not “if.”  “Chickens,” they say, “are the snack food of the animal kingdom.”  That concern helps explain the electric fence around our chicken yard and our vigilance about securing the girls each night.  I don't have much emotional capacity for carnage.  We do all we can to keep them safe.  

Nonetheless, on Monday evening as I was gathering eggs I grew concerned that one was missing – one of the Iowa Blues that I had had such difficulty acquiring, and that had gone broody over the past few weeks.  That's how I missed her.  I had grown accustomed to finding one or both sequestered in a nesting box, trying valiantly but vainly to hatch one of these unfertilized eggs.  On this particular evening, the box was empty; one was scratching around the yard but her sister was nowhere to be seen.  We searched – underneath, around, behind – but nothing.  As darkness descended we shone flash lights into thickets and behind trees in the surrounding area, but nothing.  The next day, outside the fence, I noticed an abundant  clutter of feathers.  

I don't know what happened.  My guess is that, always an adventuresome sort,  she had fluttered over the fence in pursuit of greener grass and met a malevolent and hungry stranger.  

I will readily admit to grief.  Suspecting that her own initiative brought about her demise in no way salves the sadness.  Reaching under a brooding chicken to retrieve an egg develops a certain intimacy only deepened by the punctuating pecks, as counter-intuitive as that sounds; and I miss her.  Our  happy 23 has been reduced to a soberer 22.

I prefer to think of it as prudent protectiveness rather than vengeful bloodlust that led me last night to bait and reset the traps.  And I have no way of knowing if the raccoon I found this morning contained in one of them was the culpable party or not.  Regardless, I can definitively say this evening that he no longer poses any threat.  “An eye for an eye…”

Meanwhile, bright and early this morning the Post Office called to let me know that a box had arrived with my name on it.  With live birds.  Two 10-week old Lavender Orpingtons I had ordered from a hatchery in Southern Illinois.  A new breed for me, softly beautiful in their grey-lavender sheen.  Released into the Annex for a couple months of quarantine and bulking, they leaned first into the feeder after their 3-day journey, and then the water.  Only then did they explore their new territory before settling in for a nap.  

So, “sunrise, sunset.”  One step back and two steps forward.  Death and life in maddeningly familiar juxtaposition.  “Rest in peace, sweet Blue.”  “Welcome home Lavender beauties.”

And so it is that almost without blinking our sober 22 becomes a promising 24.

And seeds are sprouting in the greenhouse in the very days that tomato vines in the garden are getting pulled and composted.  

All of which counsels me to believe that life has more curve than trajectory --  more circle than line.  

And at least for the moment, soft and chirping with adolescent vigor.

But just in case, the traps are baited and set.  

Thursday, October 1, 2015

A Satisfyingly Confirmed Transition

It's evidence enough, I suppose, of a confirmed transition.  

Taproot Garden has been our home now for 4 full years – “full” in more ways than one.  Some superficial remodeling, followed by unloading and unpacking, decorating and exploring and more than a little disbelieving.  All that, and that completely undefinable, indescribable process of “settling” – settling in, settling down; finding “home” within this house situated on these ten acres of ground five miles out of town. In subsequent months we tilled, planted, fenced and watered, weeded and fertilized, and eventually harvested.  Trees we planted are far enough along in their adolescence to begin to bear fruit.  Along the way we have fired up the water bath canner, blanched and frozen and dehydrated and picked and fermented.  Solar panels now keep the rain barrels company in our continuing pursuit of sustainability, and our ”livestock” holdings have broadened beyond our Corgis to include an  expanding flock of heritage breed laying hens.   It is consuming, it is satisfying and rewarding, but it can also be exhausting.  And we have kept our fingers in the work for which we have been trained – substituting, credentialing, reading, keeping abreast of current professional events.  We are, after all, city kids with exactly zero prior knowledge just sort of  “play acting” with this farm business.  Aren't we?

Despite our investment, despite the increasing depth of our rootage, I’ve not quite been able to scratch this itching sense of pretense.  

Until just this moment, sitting on a plane in seat 15C, heading home.  How do I know this?

We have just completed the most magical week of our life together this far.  Some might find that assessment hyperbole – we have, after all, been blessed with numerous magical weeks since marrying almost exactly 18 years.  We have traveled to exotic places, immersed ourselves in stretching and enlivening experiences.  Life, by any definition, has been extraordinarily good to us and most of the time we pass our hours in a stupor of gratitude.  But this week…  Wow.  I won't go into detail.  No one would really believe the facts even if I enumerated them; or believing them could not possibly assemble them into the glory they have actually been.  Simply said, the days have involved food, a wedding of friends, music, new and unimagined friendships, nostalgia, learning, and natural beauty.  Expansive welcome and hospitality; extravagant generosity; compounding depth and delight.  It has been like the grand finale of a 4th of July fireworks display that has lasted 7 days.  

And now it's over.  We have driven to the airport, returned our rental car, checked our bags, navigated security, shown our boarding passes and settled into our seats for the first of two flights home.  And that, I can affectionately attest, is the word I would choose.  

By all rights we should be melancholy at best for this trip to be ending.  If that has been the case at the conclusion of virtually every other trip of my life, how much moreso should it be true as increasingly we speak of this one in the past tense?  And yet as good and exhilarating, as memorable and benchmarking as this trip has been, we have smiled with the anticipation of driving up our driveway and, with the accompanying barks of the dogs and contented squawks of the chickens, being…

…home.  In our four-year-old life:  home.  
Which is to say, in other words, “Yes, I think we have finally made the transition.”

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Delicious Convergence of Time

I suppose it is premature to start imagining the scent of fresh bread in the oven, baking the flour we have ground from our own wheat from the garden; but one can always hope.  This week, with the help of friends, sections 1 and 4 of the garden were cleared, forked, and replanted with winter wheat.  “Hard Red” winter wheat to be exact.  If the cultivation goes as planned, the broadcasted seeds will germinate in the next few weeks, get established through the fall, go dormant through the winter while serving as a beneficial cover crop, revive and flourish through the spring until ready to harvest in early June.  And then find its way into a few loaves of homemade bread. 

We hope. 
As I say, that's the working premise. 

So, we ordered the organic regional seeds, waited around until the season moved past the garlic, then the corn and finally the potatoes, making available those planting areas for next use, then turned the trenches around.   Focusing the wheat in sections 1 and 4 will leave 2 and 3 free for vegetable planting in mid-May.  Once the wheat is out in early summer we can follow up in those areas with more vegetables.  You know, “staging.” 

We hope.
At the risk of sounding repetitive, that's the idea.

There still remains some tidying up and final sowing in this grand and grainy experiment.  Section 1 continues to cradle two partial rows of sweet potatoes, and section 4 has unfinished business with two rows of okra and one divided between peppers and sorghum; all of which should have finished their runs by the middle of October – barely inside the closing window of wheat planting opportunity, but hopefully time enough to recycle those emptied rows into grain.  And then we cross our fingers and wait.

Meanwhile, a half-inch of rain fell this morning which should jump-start the seeds into germination, and the greenhouse surprised me this morning with sprouting in the containers from the cold-weather lettuce seeds planted earlier this week with winter salads in mind.  

And so it is that we find ourselves looking ahead -- to fresh greens in early winter and fresh bread in early summer, with seed catalogs, soil blocking, and transplanting in between.  

I confess to some awkwardness regarding this business of living so much in the future.  Every religious tradition, after all, places an encouraging premium on mindfulness -- paying full attention to life in the present moment.  And I understand that one can expend so much consciousness on yesterday and tomorrow that today simply implodes for lack of air.  There are, to be sure, tomatoes still on the vine that I refuse to squander; peppers to pick before they turn to squish and okra to pull before they turn to wood.  The present, indeed, makes demands of its own.

But the schoolhouse of this gardening business has taught me that if I have any hope of picking something today I better have thought about it long enough some weeks or months ago to have sown the seeds and pulled the weeds.  Which is to say that the garden seems to be that mystical place where the past and the present and the future join hands in wondrous celebration.  

And we are ones who get to sing along as we pull up a chair to the table, lift a fork and, with a satisfied, anticipatory smile...

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Shredding Our Way Into the Deeper Recesses of Preservation

Yesterday was sauerkraut day -- our very first attempt.  Last year we had bought a crock at the local farm store, but the cabbage harvest was...well, let's just say "inadequate."  The one small head we actually redeemed from the garden was more than adequately utilized via other culinary techniques.  But this year!  Wow!  Who knows, maybe global warming finally nudged our latitude/longitude into the good cabbage zone.  Or perhaps this year's harvest represents nature's pity before global warming ratchets us completely out of cabbage cultivation.  Or maybe it was simply dumb luck.  Regardless, this year we have the heads.  Dozens of them -- light green, dark green, and purple.

And so we dusted off the crock.

It's too early to comment about our particular efforts.  One has to wait a month or so before the microbial machinations have worked their magic.  But the process seems ridiculously easy.  Cut up the cabbage, massage it with salt, stuff it into a container, cover and wait.  Given the more common precursors to preservation we have been undertaking related to freezing and canning, this seems like a snap.

I will say that the history of the stuff fascinates me.  It turns out that the name doesn't refer to a mad German like I always supposed.  The literal translation is simply "sour cabbage."  Nothing original there.   And Germans don't own the copyright.  The same stuff is found in various cultures -- like in the Netherlands, where it is known as zuurkool, a much hipper sounding word even if it does probably translate the same.  But who was the first to try it -- and why? 

Beginnings like this have always fascinated me.  Who, for example, was the first guy who thought it would be a good idea to crush up a bunch of leaves, wrap them in paper, set it on fire and suck on it - as in a cigarette?  Or what possessed someone to break some eggs into flour, add a bunch of other things, pour it in a pan and stick in the fire, thereby baking the first cake?  I just can't fathom the initiating impulses.  With sauerkraut I can only think it an accident.  In the depths of some long ago frozen northern European winter someone found a bucket in the back of the root cellar that contained the last of the cabbages now gone terribly bad.  Desperate with hunger, starvation knocking at the door, they decided they had nothing left to lose and ate the smelly stuff and, "Voila", a condiment was born.

Now, mind you, I find no such account recorded in any history of the stuff -- although Ghengis Khan seems to play a leading role in the introduction of the stuff which certainly lends credibility to the idea of torturous hardship.  That, and as Chef Dan Barber notes, every true cuisine is born out of the hardship of necessity -- as in "what are we going to do with this stuff?" or "I wonder how we might make this stuff last longer?"  Regardless, the bubbling, gurgling transformation proved a success; the process of fermentation seems to elevate the lowly cabbage into the realm of the especially healthy and nutritious -- chocked full of vitamins B, C and K, rich in enzymes and teeming with good bacteria and probiotics, all with a poverty of calories.  Certain folk cultures have prized sauerkraut as a remedy for canker sores, but I'd rather not explore that application intellectually or pragmatically.  Most of us just put it on sausages, pork chops or Reuben sandwiches -- which pretty well aligns with my plan of consumption.

But not for awhile.  For the next several weeks we will be relegated to waiting, wondering what's going on with all that hidden bubbling, and occasionally skimming off the frothy scum.  And then, on that magical day in early October, looking at each other to see who dares to try it first.

Ghengis Khan, here we come.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Like Squirrels Storing Nuts For the Winter

The new freezer was delivered on Thursday.  No, it isn't a replacement; it's an addition.  Our existing capacities were exhausted but the garden is still producing.  What's to become of all the greens yet to be cut, all the tomatoes still to be pulled, all the peppers not yet mature?  There is always the canner, but we have pickled and preserved about all we can.  I like salsa better than most, but there is a limit to how much we need on the shelves.  We have made enough ketchup to last us into the next century, and that is still assuming that we give much of it away. 

And we aren't willing to waste the harvest.

Though we regularly have to remember and clarify it for ourselves, we didn't move out here to start a produce business.  We nested ourselves on this small farmstead to work our way into the circle of knowledge of how to grow food.  And we are learning.  And though it continues to catch me unprepared, with learning comes a harvest -- especially in the case of this year, a large one.  Undoubtedly those who actually know what they are doing with seed and soil and comparable space could grow considerably more, but we have surprised ourselves this year.  Or maybe I should say that the plants have borne the surprise.  Having emerged from seed, they have reached and stretched and brought forth fruit.  We have dug potatoes and carrots and garlic and beets; pulled up radishes and onions and pulled off cucumbers, squash and corn and beans.  We have snipped asparagus and rhubarb and lettuce and kale, cut cabbage and okra and broccoli and herbs.  And, as I mentioned, one or two tomatoes.  Or three.

But the learning incurs an obligation.  The point of growing it is eating it.  This isn't, in other words, a purely academic endeavor.  At least implicit in this life-altering undertaking was an unspoken resolve to shoulder responsibility for feeding ourselves -- not just for the season, but through the year. 

And as you may have noticed, food isn't generally willing to just sit around waiting for its menu to come.  That puddle on the counter -- that odor in the air -- is plant-speak for "missed opportunity."  Hence, the dehydrator; hence, the canning -- the jars, the lids, the boiling water, the shelves -- and hence, the new freezer which joins our "old" new freezer already filled.  The Twin Towers of gastronomic potential, just like the squirrels outside hording nuts we are two steps closer to preparedness for the winter. 

Just don't let the power go out.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

A Vegetative Bullet of Life

Everybody's favorite vegetable:  okra. 
Right.  I hear you sneering and rolling your eyes.  Seldom has there been a more maligned gift of nature.

I once heard preaching icon Fred Craddock compare something or other to a "cold, boiled okra sandwich" and the whole room groaned in knowing understanding.  It wasn't an appealing thought.  Suffice it to say that okra is preceded by a challenging reputation.

I, on the other hand -- along with armies of those of a southern persuasion -- happen to like the curious little spike, whether it's fried, gumboed, tomatoed or pickled.  I would, however, agree with Dr. Craddock:  boiling it is a frighteningly snotty mistake. 

Of North-East African origin bearing the technical name"Abelmoschus esculentus", its more common name is "Lady's Finger," though female phalanges rise up in offended protest at the comparison.  I rather think of it as the love child of a green bean and a shotgun shell.  In truth, if you turn your back on one for more than a few moments, the mild-mannered Bruce Banner vegetable morphs into a woody, elongated Hulk of a protrudence amply hard and dangerous enough to actually serve as a battlefield munition. 

Picked in its prime, however -- tender and young -- it can be a gastronomic treasure.  Healthy, too.  A veritable super food, okra has very few calories, is high in vitamins A, C, K and B-Complex vitamins, rich in iron, calcium, manganese and magnesium, high in fiber, and as shouldn't surprise anyone who has actually eaten it, is a rich source of a mucilage substance that helps ease constipation. 

What's not to like?

So this year I planted three varieties in what now occupy two 60-foot rows:  Clemson Spineless, Star of David, and Red Burgundy.  120-feet of okra.  And it's flourishing.  With the harvest in full swing, let's just say we will have plenty -- in fact, plenty to share if your oil is hot or your shrimp is peeled, or if you are suffering from that occasional bloated feeling.  It could be just what you need.

As for me, I am feeling healthier already. 
And hungry.
Happy harvesting.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Change is Hard -- At Least For Those of Us Watching

Last night the great migration was successfully accomplished.  Of course, as with so much in life, confirmation took some time.  It wasn't until tonight that we could assert the premise with any degree of confidence. 

Earlier I called attention to the two adolescent Buff Brahma hens that have been living sequestered since arriving at Taproot Garden June 22.  The separation is intended to prevent new arrivals from introducing diseases to the resident flock and, in this case, to allow the then-6-week-old chicks to gain enough girth to hold their own among the older/larger girls.  Determining that both objectives had been satisfied, and blessed with the fortuitous visit of my brother-in-law who is generally game for any adventure, I divined that last night would be the night the new girls became full members of the sorority.

“Night” I say because there is more than one way to join a flock.  I read about these things and the strategies are many -- from the callous to the careful.  Having no strong conviction on the subject -- I've accomplished the move several different ways in my short history of flock keeping -- I was drawn this time to a nocturnal approach. Here is the general idea:  since pecking order can be a sometimes violent hurdle to overcome, and since the girls become quite docile at night, take hold of the sleepy girls and manually insert them into their new destination while the already-resident girls are similarly tranquil.  When the sun comes up, the older girls supposedly look over at the new arrivals and conclude, “I don't really recognize you, but you slept here so you must belong.”

I don't know if anyone has actually interviewed chickens and transcribed this  morning-after conclusion, but that is the general psychology. 

So, under cover of darkness we made our move.  After securing the other chickens, Steve and I laid down a section of the fence for easy passage.  Following now well-established and previously reported protocols I approached the young girls who were perched outside their coop on top of the wire run.  One at a time I gently picked them up; but instead of settling them inside the Annex hatch I walked them the short distance to their new home and reached them through the door that Steve was holding open, and placed them next to their sleepy new neighbors.

And then, closing the door and resetting the fence, went to bed for an anxiously restless night’s sleep of our own.

Morning welcomed a scene of benign domesticity.  The relocated pair were fine if a little disoriented, while the four seasoned residents seemed nonplussed by the new arrivals.  The big girls from the neighboring coop all trundled over and inside to check out the new arrivals, but they were ladylike in their curiosity, cordial while maintaining respectful space; introducing themselves as it were and then quickly losing interest.  It took a few hours before the younger girls mustered their courage to descend the ramp and explore this vast new world, but they stuck together, bolstered one another's courage, and generally kept out of harm’s way.  We checked in on them from time to time, but we needn't have worried.  Chickens, after all, have been doing this sort of thing for millennia.

But as night approached I wondered about this next phase of the transition.  Would they look for some outside perch as they have every night for the past few weeks, or would they get in line like the other girls and troop up the ramp to bed?

Grabbing my shoes and flashlight after dinner for the usual bedtime rituals, I headed out back to secure first the Varsity coop and then the JV.  Approaching at last the latter I shined the beam around the perimeter, the wide area of the run at the foot of the ramp, and finally the space below the coop. 


Latching the front door and the hatch and raising the ramp, I made my way around to the back door and peeked inside.

And smiled with delight and relief.

And then made my own way to bed -- contentedly, as had they.

Welcome home girls. 
Feel free to unpack.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Sweet Dreams -- Once Safely Inside

The rule in the chicken yard is much the same as was the rule in the front yard when I was a young child:  when it gets dark, go inside.  Routinely the chickens comply, as did I despite occasional protestations.  As daylight wanes the chickens' circle of ranging gets tighter and tighter, eventually confining themselves within the bounds of the wire enclosure of the run; and ultimately, as the sun dips below the western horizon, up the ramp and inside the coop.  All that's left for me is closing and latching the doors to insure their nocturnal safety. 

That's pretty much the only rule:  when it's dark, climb up inside and go to bed.  And with the residents of the two main coops it happens nightly like clockwork.  Dark?  Dormant and done.  I am officially off duty.  Twenty-one laying hens safely in for the night.  But things are never really that simple.  A close reader of these pages might recall that we have twenty-three hens in all.  There are, in other words, these other two.

Just for review, our poultry real estate is made up of one large, quarter-acre chicken yard with two main coops, plus a separate enclosure, much smaller, where the "annex" houses new arrivals until they can safely be added to the larger flock.  This sequestration is partly to prevent the introduction of diseases to the flock that might inadvertently be brought in by the new girls, and partly to allow the younger ones to gain enough body size to hold their own with the big girls.  Depending on the age of the new arrivals, the annex might be home for as little as a month for quarantining, or several months for maturation.  The current residents -- two Buff Brahmas we brought home in June at six-weeks of age -- are perhaps a week or two away from the big transition into the larger neighborhood. 

In the meantime, however, they have developed a bad habit. They don't go to bed.  Well, maybe that's not technically true.  They settle down and nestle close to each other as though for the night, but not inside.  Within the fence but just outside the coop door is a wire-enclosed run on top of which these two adolescents have taken to roosting.  Every evening for the past few weeks, as dusk begins to settle, the two hop up onto the corner of the run as though to enjoy the colors of the setting sun. 

And then just remain there. 

When I come out after dark to close everyone in for the night I make my way through the main yard, lowering hatches, raising ramps, latching doors.  And then I cross over to the annex.  Sure enough, there they are:  perched on the corner of the run, waiting for me to tuck them in.  If during the day they are skittish, averse to human presence, at night they willingly allow me to pick them up and place them inside the coop whose door I gently lower before returning inside.  "Willingly," I stated, but I daresay they like it.  Like toddlers who have squawked all day, resisting your every impulse and instruction only to fall limply and contentedly asleep on your shoulder at night, these two seem to have fallen into the habit of a bedtime story and a goodnight prayer and hug. 

They are breaking all the rules, of course, and I scold them for their flagrant breech of conduct and willfully putting themselves at risk.  Who knows how they will behave when they join the rest of the flock later this month?  I suspect they will learn from their neighbors and dutifully get in line. 

But in the meantime I notice that I am smiling as I make my way back inside, the tactile memory of the soft, warm feathers fresh in my fingers.  And I suspect I will come to miss this annoyingly tender "extra step," their willing submission, and their simple trust that I will come.

Good night girls.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

One Step Closer

Of course we are about a month late.  That observation could be made about virtually everything we are doing these days.   Hurrying to catch up while feeling perpetually behind.  In this particular case it has to do with mowing the 3 acres of prairie we began to restore almost a year and a half ago -- a massive job for two feet trailing a walk-behind brush mower with a 36" cutting width.  The same is true with planting vegetable seeds for a fall harvest -- which we just started getting into the ground on Monday but won't be completed until tomorrow.
And ancillary brush trimming.
And chipping branches.
And moving the chicken coops.
And weeding.

We are doing a better job this year of gathering and processing the harvest, though we can hardly see each other over the Mt. Everest of pots and pans left in the wake of canning and cooking and blanching and freezing.  The promissory notes of planting seem to all come due at once despite our best efforts at staggering and staging their maturity.  The refrigerators (yes, that's plural) are completely full and Lori announced yesterday that the freezers (yes, that's plural) are similarly so.  Meanwhile the tomato season is not yet in full swing, the braising greens are still flourishing, and the cabbages are just maturing.  There is neither space nor time to catch our breath, let alone "catch up."

I'll blame some of the tardiness on forces beyond our control.  Consistent rains have certainly been a blessing, but their pricetag is muddy fields and prolific weeds.  "When I have the time" hasn't always aligned with "when the circumstances are suitable."  Nature has delayed us on more than one occasion, which just exacerbates the problems when it finally gets out of the way.  And by that time something else has likely moved into the "urgent" category.  Which is another lesson this work has rather ruthlessly enjoyed teaching me:  triage -- the prioritizing of work to be done -- is a rolling regimen that ultimately just makes the Muses laugh.  John Lennon is credited with the observation that "life is what happens while you are making other plans."  If that whole music business hadn't worked out, he apparently could have been a farmer.  "To-Do" lists, I have learned the hard way, can only be written in pencil.

But at least the first of the fall seeds have been planted, and now we just wait to see if the weather will be kind or if an early frost comes along before they fully mature and bites the whole undertaking in the...leaves.

And the prairie is finally mowed.  It looks so scraggly now after its beautiful splash of summer color.  But I'm taught that long term resilience in the prairie demands aggressive measures in the short term.  as the original recommendations from the DNR explained, "mowing the seeding allows for enhanced light and water penetration, enhancing prairie establishment."   It's the act of beating back the stuff you don't want so as to improve the chances of what you DO want.  As in so many areas of life, the easy way is rarely the best way.

As I followed the mower through its paces I kept picturing the grasses, the wildflowers, and the bees, and allowed an anticipatory smile to emerge through the perspiration.

One of these days.

But for now, at least I am one step closer to "caught up."


Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Nature's Capricious Kiss

Farming, I have concluded, is intrinsically a treasure hunt.  There are buried things already present there -- minerals, trace minerals, fungi, worms, bacteria and all manner of other life forms -- joined at some point by the seeds and transplants that you add to the mix.  With any luck -- and some careful tending -- it all translates into a totally new kind of treasure, buried or out there in full view that both nourishes and delights.

And this is the pirate season -- passing among the rows, pilfering the wealth that you may have nudged along but did not create.  The leaves and fruits are wondrous enough, and we have been consumed with pickling spices, brines, sterilizing, chopping, slicing, stewing, blanching, canning and freezing.  But recent days have literally taken us subterranean.  Yellowing foliage signaled an invitation to dig garlic -- all 120 feet of it.  We dug and pulled and gathered and ultimately arranged the stalks on tables in the barn in the drying breeze of two fans.  And then yesterday, before the rains commenced, a similar clue was offered among the potato rows.

There are eight rows of potatoes -- each about 15 feet long.  Unlike the garlic which, though indeed beneath the surface and out of sight, is nonetheless flagged by a stalk in a one-to-one ratio, potatoes are a true treasure hunt.  A single seed potato might produce a dozen potatoes.  Or not.  It isn't known until it's dug.  In years past I could have competed for the State Fair's "smallest potato" blue  ribbon.  Pea sized, a few marble sized and an ever so rare "real potato" the size of a golf ball, it was more the curiosity animated by sheer determination that intrigued me rather than the elusive harvest.  But I have kept trying -- better preparing the soil to nourish and loosen so that the tubers stood a better chance.  Yesterday was my first chance to see if gold was literally buried there.  Yukon Gold to be precise, and Red Thumb that had been planted in the last third of the row.  Stabbing a spade along the side of the row to break up the cover, I pulled faded stalks and ran fingers beneath the clods; exploring.

And struck it rich.  A five-gallon bucket filled with the Golds and half a bucket with the Reds now, like the garlic, spread before the fans to dry and cure a bit before sampling.  In the coming weeks we will see what might be excavated from the remaining rows, but just this one was satisfying delight.

And then, making one more pass among the tomato vines as the sky darkened and the drops began to fall, I found one more surprise -- a tomato anomaly; a mutant, I suppose, or a twin...or a heart shaped delight -- dangling there to impress upon me yet again that harvest is not a mechanized manufacture -- a designed and endlessly duplicated widget repetitively spit out of a machine -- but nature's whimsically capricious kiss.  And the best fruit of all... the smile on my face as I lug the baskets and the buckets back to the kitchen.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Burden of Honoring the Treasure That It Is

It was our first act of "saving the season".  Lori this morning made pickles.  I'm not sure of the quantity -- I was busy weeding among the okra plants -- but based on the number of cucumbers we've stuffed into the refrigerator in recent days a safe estimation would be "lots".  Confessionally speaking, we don't really eat that many pickles, and these are the quick refrigerator pickles that have a chilled shelf life of six weeks.  But what else are you going to do?  We have all this harvest -- the fruit of careful seed selection, sore muscles and hours of attention -- and we are headed out of town for a few days, every passing one of which degrades the value of what we've picked.  And while they are crazy about the occasional cucumber treat, the chickens don't need a steady diet of them.  Maybe it is "kicking the can down the road," but this morning's pickles buy us a little time.

We have yet to come up with concomitant plans for the squash, the kale, the collards and the chard.

All of which reveals the tertiary challenge of gardening.  First there is the locational challenge -- choosing a site and preparing the soil.  Fast on the heals of location comes the environmental challenge -- making sure the plants have adequate water, ample sunlight, protection from insects and disease and encroaching weeds.  And then there is the harvest challenge:  what's the plan for all this stuff that grows?

One can, to borrow an economic example, employ the cash flow model -- simply eating the harvest as it comes in -- and in the early weeks of summer this is an exhilarating strategy.  Pick it, cook it; simple as that.  But unless you garden in a wheelbarrow, it isn't long before the abundance begins to bury you.  Yesterday alone I brought in a dozen large squashes, and a like number of cucumbers.  Similarly, the day before.  And we have been eating our weight in kale.  But there is a limit, and we are only two, plus as much company as we can invite over.  Some savings plan becomes a priority.

Hence, the pickles.
And the blanched chard stowed in the freezer.
And, when they ripen, pounds of tomatoes converted into salsa, ketchup, tomato paste and marinara cooked, canned or frozen.

The old books speak of it as "putting food by" and at the very least exemplifies the Aesopian ant's wisdom of planning for the future so as not to go hungry when the pickings are more bare.  It is, indeed, prudence, and winter surely is coming -- never mind this morning's sweat-soaked shirt and regardless of what the meteorologists are forecasting for the next 7 days.  But I suggest the more descriptive and relevant virtue of this discipline is stewardship. 

Our culture doesn't have a lot to show in this regard.  We manufacture cheaply, assuming we'll soon throw whatever it is away.  We buy huge jugs of milk because it's cheaper that way, but let it sour in the refrigerator door from disuse.  By the time we've pared off the skins and blemishes and ends and stalks of the vegetables in our recipes our trashcans contain more than our skillets.  We live amidst great abundance, but the curse of surplus is the absence of any real compulsion to squeeze the most out of what we have.  Even our pioneering forebears who, it must be said, certainly didn't have a lot, cultivated a field until they used it up and then abandoned it and moved a little further west because the one abundance around was land.  Municipalities invest precious resources into roads sidewalks and bridges and sewers and then fail to set aside the funds to maintain them.  A careful and critical walk around most church buildings -- liturgical gold spun from offertory straw -- will have little difficulty noticing stained ceilings, crumbling plaster, frayed carpet and worn floors.  As stewards -- those who take responsible care of what we have -- we have more to learn than to teach.

And the garden, right now, is ringing the school bell.  "What," it is asking me, "will you do with all I am giving you?" 

The ant, I suppose, would have thought this through in the spring when the seeds were first in the ground.  But I still have time to think my way through the possibilities -- but only a little.  Today it's the cucumbers and the squash and the greens, but it won't be long before those okra plants I weeded around this morning start calling my name with an urgent note in their voice...

...and the beets and the peppers and the cabbage and the potatoes and the tomatoes and...

Because it only starts with the planting and the growing.  The deliciously burdensome and exciting but also sacred work settles in with the harvest.

Putting food by. 

Honoring the treasure that it is.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Choosing the Space At Hand

It's a weed, really, sprung up between the greenhouse and the barn.  We've tried to keep such areas trimmed and cleared through the months, but recent weeks have narrowed the focus of our extrications to cultivated rows.  It's summer, and the garden is a pretty busy place.  In fact, if you turn your ear just right and listen very carefully you can hear the weeds growing through the garden rows, overtaking like some scary science fiction thriller.  We don't use chemicals to suppress the invasion, so hoes and hands in liberal amounts are required to give the seeds and stems we've actually planted a fighting chance.

A couple of days ago, however, we needed a diversion and focused on a different part of the property -- planting several frilly and flowering trees and shrubs in a corner we are just developing for looking, this time, rather than eating.  Afterwards, but in that same spirit of beautification, indulging a fit of horticultural bloodlust, Lori was in the midst of whacking down some unsightly encroachments when something caught her attention in this particular head-high weed and stilled her loppers.  A closer look revealed a nest.
Nestled in this weed.
Populated with hungry and gaping mouths.

Let me review the relevant data:  a 5-foot weed, having sprouted in the 2-foot gap between the greenhouse and the barn, hosting a nest that cradled newly hatched birds. 

A few years ago we spent a week in a cooking school in a small Italian town, taught each day by the women of that ancient Tuscan village.  Their kitchen equipment reflected the same philosophy as their recipes:  "Use what you have."  Utterly foreign was the thought of cluttering up the kitchen countertops and cabinets with single-use gewgaws -- as foreign, we would learn, as narrowly insisting on a specific set of ingredients for a recipe, or throwing away leftovers.  "Use what you have," we heard time and time again -- or at least that's the way the translator rendered it.

Which makes me think our birds must be Italian.  Americans are far too picky and we waste almost as much as we use.  Our burdening questions center on what we want, not what we have; on what would be fun, not on what would be most functional.  We pick our nesting places carefully and jealously, with eyes for glitter and rooms with a view.  Not so, this mother bird.  To my way of thinking she had alternative options.  There are, after all, plenty of trees from which to choose -- short ones, tall ones, fruited ones, thorned ones.  But for whatever reason the mother chose this weed in which to build a nest and lay her eggs -- sturdy enough, I suppose, and somewhat protected from wind and mischief but hardly high or failsafe.  But that little corridor, and that tall green intruder was not only what she had but what she chose to use.

I suspect I'll think of that nest, those hungry and parted beaks, and that mother's ingenuity the next time some garden gadget starts calling my name, or the need to have it all "just right."  Wedged into that cluttered space, that weed was the cradle of life.  It may not have been scenic; it offered precious little view, but it sufficed.  It was safe, secluded and accessible, and it was enough. 

Which, of course -- as it turns out to be in most things -- makes it perfect. 

Grow strong little peeps.  May you grow up to be as wise as your mother.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Early Gleanings from Sweat-Watered Seeds

We've been cutting lettuce for awhile now – a salad smattering of eight different varieties we planted in large fabric containers on the deck; lettuce, and the trio of radish varieties. Together, as spring’s early arrivals,  they have been functional foretastes of the summertime feast to come.  Jazzed with the miscellaneous herbs sharing the morning sun on the deck we have savored the tender reward for enduring the grocery store winter.  The kale has likewise been a welcomed addition to the stovetop, both the two varieties planted in mid-spring and the row from last fall that resurrected after winter.

In recent days, however, the harvest has kicked it up a notch – a few cucumbers among the three varieties climbing their trellises; squash of four varieties; and cherry tomatoes. Their larger counterparts are swelling and hanging alluringly on the plants, but are yet too green to even consider frying.  We've learned to wait.  The blackberries are ripening, and surely the peppers won't be too far behind, along with the okra and eventually the potatoes, though it remains an enduring mystery what will – or won't – become of the brassicas. 

Just commencing, I realize with a smile, are the weeks that validate all the planning, all the ordering, all the seeding and babying and digging and hoeing:  countertops covered with the morning’s offering; magical lunches and dinners, and eventually steam rattling the lid of the canning pot when the ingathering overwhelms us, and later, that magical “pop” of the lids securing their contents. 

Just now giddily underway, the season of harvest.

It feels a bit that way about our life here on the farm.  Four years ago we left our lovely town home perched on a hill in the city and moved to these acres we christened “Taproot Garden.”  Moving anywhere from anywhere is, I'm convinced, the hardest work in the world, and so our initial endeavors focused largely on homemaking – unpacking, hanging pictures, rearranging, walking around, exploring, living; the usual nesting investments necessary for transforming a living space into a home.  Eventually we expanded our interventions – trimming branches here, removing a tree there; assembling a greenhouse, accumulating some tools and equipment, and finally sowing a few seeds.  In subsequent years we have reached out a little further and dug down a little deeper into this ongoing education; adding, subtracting, experimenting,partnering, reading – always reading something else to learn something more about what we are doing or to explore an idea for we are considering undertaking. 

And it feels like the harvest is beginning. Some of those early seeds are finally fruiting.  Others look promising.  Scattered on the countertops of our souls is a nice and nourishing collection of early pickings.  And it feels good.

None of which, of course, offers any permission to sit back and wait for the ripening.  I, who yet knows almost nothing about what we are doing out here, have already learned that much.  Incalculable hours of weeding are out there in front of us, along with an eye to the sky and a readiness for compensatory watering; that, plus vigilant anticipation of and preparations for  the bugs that are surely on their way.   

We, and the garden, are really just getting started.  Summer, in more ways than one, is still young.

That said, it's nice to start seeing how our sweat has watered the seeds, and to start eating a few of the things we've planted.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Treasuring the Wonder of Us All

“How many do you intend to get?” I'm often asked by those surprised to learn we are still acquiring chickens.   An honest answer would presuppose an actual plan…which we have never had.  There are space limitations, of course  – our coops do have a maximum capacity which we are rapidly bumping into – but there is no plan.  The truth is that we discover yet another stunningly beautiful breed and order a couple.  OK, to be more confessionally honest, “I order a couple.”  Lori, who has settled into a kind of acquiescent poultrified numbness on the subject, should not be held accountable for our growing population.

But seriously,  what is a novice flockster to do?  I had no idea there was such a stunning variety. It's common, I know, to pick a breed and go with it, but if I settled on the Ameraucanas how could I do without the Silver Laced Wyandottes?  If I focused in on the loveable Buff Orpingtons I would completely miss out on the brush-stroked grandeur of the Buff Brahmas that arrived just this week.  I have the same problem thumbing through chicken catalogues as I do with seed catalogues when browsing for the garden.  Everything is irresistible.  I want a little of it all. 

It's easily managed in the chicken yard.  The 11 or so breeds sharing  that space co-mingle perfectly well – far better, in fact, than most neighborhoods I've lived in.  They are all different colors and sizes, laying brown eggs and blue eggs and speckled eggs, but they share the same feeders and waterers and nesting boxes, and sleep happily side-by-side. 

The garden is a little more complicated. I've planted close to 100 different varieties – from asparagus to zebra tomatoes, with all manner of alliums, brassicas, squashes and beans in between.  And I am fully aware that it's madness.  Each of those vegetable families has unique growing requirements – pH levels, moisture and nutrition requirements, and soil type preferences to name but a few – and there is no way my little quarter acre plot, coupled with my inexperience, can satisfy them all. 

But I want them all, and I give each of them a try.  With your eyes closed you may not be able to taste the difference between a Watermelon Radish and an Easter Egg Radish, but open your eyes and the world begins to dance.

The problem is neither gluttony nor greed.  The problem is appreciative awe.  The diversity is simply too beautiful to abbreviate or edit. 

There was a time at the church I used to serve when the building was animated by an African congregation worshipping on the fifth floor, English language classes serving diverse refugees on the third floor, a congregation on the second floor whose members had been so socially bludgeoned and ostracized by churches in the past because of their sexual orientation that years went by before they would speak when passing in the halls, a Mennonite congregation in another part of the building, and our own mostly white, middle-class congregation.  I always felt like the elevator lobbies were the most interesting places in the building – those small holding spaces where we all, a cacophony of diversity, intersected.

I just can't muster any interest in, or appreciation for, mono-crops, whether they are in the chicken yard, the garden, or the church.  Which I suppose accounts for the bewildered sadness and dismay I feel at yet another mass killing by yet another anxious soul disquieted by the need for homogeneity.  Left to his narrowing ambitions the beautiful complexity and diversity of the world would eventually be edited down to a stultifying sameness – a monocrop of humanity as monotonous and prone to devastation as the vast fields of corn blanketing the state; as odiferous as the giant hog confinements fouling the countryside. 

We often verbally wonder if we will ever learn to live with one another.  I'm more haunted by the opposite question:  How could we possibly live without each other?

The farms and their fence-rows to fence-rows of sameness might be silent on the subject, but if we had a mind to listen, our gardens could teach us some things about diversity. 

The gardens and, of course, the chickens.