The garden leftovers

The summer vegs have eked out their last fruits of the season and are now on the quick decline towards brown and dead.

We’ve had a couple of light frosts that are drawing the growing season to a close and I’ve been out in the garden frequently trying to get the last few edibles in. I have the butternuts in, the cucumbers have been done for a couple of weeks, my tomato plants are absolutely loaded with hard, green tomatoes that will never see a rosy blush and the zucchini are still going gangbusters. I have a few cantaloupe and watermelon left but they aren’t quite ready yet. The bell peppers are still producing like mad, but this year the fruit has been odd. Typically I get big peppers begging to be stuffed with a meat and rice mixture and baked until soft. This year, none have been much bigger around than 2″ or 3″ at the widest part and flat as a patty pan squash! Weird. They are fully ripened and absolutely delicious, but there were no stuffing-worthy peppers this year.

And the compost pile grows as I start pulling dying vines and plants from the garden and layering them with egg shells, coffee grounds, kitchen scraps, horse poo, chicken poo, grass clippings, fireplace ashes, etc. etc. Every year I stand staring at the mountain of dead tomato and pepper plants and wonder what the hell I’m going to do with them. Burn them? Compost them? Chuck ’em in the woods and let nature happen? I hate wasting them when they do compost so nicely and give back to the earth they grew from.

But you hear three firmly differing camps on composting the tomato, pepper and eggplant plants to use back in the garden.

One side says never, ever, ever compost them! Blight! Wilt! Rot! Disease! The risks outweigh the benefits, even with healthy plants.

The other side says, sure, go ahead compost away but make sure you are composting healthy plants, never, ever diseased plants because even the heat from a properly cared-for and turned compost pile won’t destroy fungus spores. Which makes sense.

And a third side says burn ’em to crisp and mix the ashes into the garden soil for a worry-free, disease-free soil additive.

Mine aren’t quite ready to burn, and I haven’t decided whether I’ll just knock them down and till them right into the garden or put them on the compost pile. My plants were all healthy this year despite a miserably hot season and very little rainfall.

Oh, decisions, decisions!

Life is Good!

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The season’s first frost cometh

Our first hard freeze is supposed to be here tomorrow night.

Which means I’ve got to get out to the garden and get all those beautiful, buff-colored butternut squash out of the garden and into the basement very, very soon.

Some people wait until after the first frost to harvest their fall squash. The few times I’ve waited until after the first frost to harvest my fall squash they didn’t seem to keep for as long as I expected them to.

That first hard frost of the season also means I need to get my butt in gear and do more winter prep: Get my garden tools cleaned, sharpened and oiled, put the water heaters in the stock tanks, clean out my summer flower beds, clean out the vegetable garden and get a load or two of compost tilled into it and convert the bedding in the hen house and the horse sheds from shavings to straw. Of course, I still have to get more wood cut, but that never seems to get done until I look at the woodpile and realize, “oh crap! I only have ONE LOG LEFT!” Yeah. And the fences. I have to do a fall walk of the fence lines to be sure everything is still up and snug and in good order.

Life is good. Have a beer!

Growing, fertilizing and raising the dreams

It’s amazing how a few acres of your own can inspire all kinds of dreams and fertilize all kinds of plans and ideas.

I grew up country, always lived in the country except for one ill-advised move to the city which did not last long. Once you’re used to the quiet, clean, wide-open spaces of the countryside, it’s very, very difficult to move into a loud, congested, dirty, bright city. Even if that “city” is really a small midwestern town and you’re living on the edge of it. I tried it once and will never, ever do it again.

The dreams get bigger when the dirt you stand on and dig around in is your own. And the funny thing about those dreams, they aren’t static, they constantly change and expand as you slowly make progress on the existing dreams.

It’s taken four years just to get the land into a cleared, more healthy state. It is really starting to thrive now that I’ve removed the “junk” trees and weeds and given the native grasses and wildflowers a chance to flourish. And I’ve done it all by hand. That’s hard, satisfying work right there! But when you sweat and bleed (and sometimes bawl your eyes out) on the land you’re working, it really, truly does become part of who you are.

I have horses, chickens, goats, meat rabbits, dogs and cats right now. The horses were my number one reason for buying my own piece of the dream. I’ve always had horses and always dreamed of being able to have them in my backyard as I did growing up.

So far I’ve raised and butchered two hogs, a couple of turkeys, a few Pekin ducks and a slew of broiler chickens. We have one doe that is hopefully bred so we’ll be adding rabbit to the freezer in a few months. This coming spring I’m going to get more turkeys, more broilers and I’d really like to try a few pheasants to put up in the freezer. Never, never again will I raise ducks. They are nasty little beasts. Did you know ducks poop every 5 to 7 minutes? Nastiness!

One of these years I’ll have bee hives too, to go with the goat milk I don’t have quite yet. I’m planning to breed the girls (Margarita and Willow, both Nubian/Boer crosses) early this winter. And maybe some sheep. Definitely a cow or two and another hog.

I have a very small orchard – cherry, peach and pear – and a garden plot I’d like to nearly double in the spring.

My ultimate goal is to get 90% of the food I feed my family from my own land. There is something incredibly satisfying from making a meal from the things you’ve raised or grown. I love sharing my bounty with friends and co-workers and hearing them exclaim over the bright orangish-yellow yolks from the eggs of my free-range chickens or the vibrant, flavorful taste from warm, garden-fresh tomatoes or canteloupe.

I’ve done some canning in the past so that will be a whole new experience for me when I am faced with bushels of green beans to preserve. I’ve never made goat cheese or yogurt or soap, but I’m eager to try it. I’ve never, ever been around a beehive, much less collected honey, but I’m excited and ready to give it my best shot.

I’ve never butchered an animal entirely by myself (excluding fish, I can clean those all day long). I’ve always had help or shipped the freezer-bound critter to the butcher so they can do the deed. This is a task I need to learn how to do but I’m not terribly excited about doing it.

This is a long-term journey and I’m sure I’ll screw up many, many times along the way. I might even cry.

And there will always be beer..which reminds me, homebrew is on my list of “to-dos” too!

Life is good!

Jenn

Paradise

It’s just 13 acres in the middle of the Midwest: An unremarkable house, a chicken coop, a couple of run-in sheds, a creek and pond, pastures and woods . Nothing spectacular, nothing extraordinary, it’s not even particularly breathtaking, but it is mine.

Five years ago I found a piece of property which, at the time, had been sorely neglected and a bit abused by the previous owners. They were desperate to sell and had obviously never really cared for or tended to the land with any kind of pride. The fields were over my head with weeds: Curly dock, ragweed, goldenrod, wild sunflowers accented by a few patches of sad-looking grass. I found a long-abandoned dump in the woods and as I worked my way through the pastures I found random piles of crap and garbage. The rusty barbed-wire fence was over grown and often entirely hidden by wild roses and brambles. Ironwood trees twined themselves through the wire and seemed to devour the fence. The endless patches of blackberry brambles defied my every effort to trim and tame them into submission as they ripped at my arms and legs and left thorny barbs in my face. I wanted them gone, needed them gone, but at the same time felt all kinds of guilt for destroying plants that produced such delicious berries. I left a few clumps here and there, snuggled up against the woods where they bloom beautiful white flowers that become sweet, juicy berries in mid-summer. If you can beat the birds to them, of course.

It was a hot, sunny, sweltering August day, just a few weeks after I’d moved in and I was again outside battling the brambles. I think best when I’m outside doing hard labor, and sweating profusely. My mind wanders as my body works, a nice disconnect that I find relaxing. I was thinking about my farm, my dream, a home that I had already fallen deeply in love with, flaws, garbage and all.

Farms have names. They have personalities and quirks.  My farm still didn’t have a name and that bothered me. Things you love have to have names, including the land you live on. As I cut and chopped and battled through that patch of brambles, my arms bleeding from the thorns through the long-sleeved shirt, I suddenly knew the name of my farm. I had considered, and rejected, many names as not quite right: Too fluffy, too trite, too common.

But this one fit. It was right and I knew as soon as the name formed in my head that it could have no other.

Bramblewood Acres.

Yeah. That’s it. It’s perfect. Just perfect.

An hour later I quit battling the brambles for the day and hauled a load of thorny canes to the steadily growing burn pile. I peeled out of the torn, bloody, sweat-soaked shirt, pulled on a tank top and cut-offs, popped open a cold beer and sat on my deck.

I looked out over my land, land that still needed a lot of work, a lot of sweat and blood, but land that now had a name and an identity just as I had a vision for what I’d like to see those overgrown, neglected acres to one day become.

My home. My sanctuary. My paradise. Blackberry brambles and all.