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."