Monday, May 11, 2015

At a Loss for Words

Hi Friends! No, I haven't given up blogging. I started a new job at the beginning of March, and as is usually the case with new-to-me things, I fell down the rabbit hole while I was getting started. I also find that since my job is public facing, I spend almost all day talking to customers... which is completely exhausting to an introvert like myself. I enjoy the work immensely, but by the end of the day I'm tuckered out and can barely put together a sentence when I get home. It's not surprising to me that writing has been equally challenging, as of late. I'm grateful for things like Instagram where I can still post photos about what's going on, but keep the actual words to a minimum!

That being said, it's my goal to get back to posting here on a more regular basis. The posts may not be long, but I need to get back in the habit of putting things out there.

The garden is chugging along nicely this year- the peas are nearly 2 feet tall already! I'll be heading over to my favorite farm store tomorrow to pick up some more veggie starts, and hopefully the majority of my planting will be done for now. I still have succession seeds that will need to go in, but those are pretty much one-offs throughout the season, so it's not a huge undertaking all at once.

How are your gardens coming along? Are you trying any new veggies this year?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Breakfast on the Go

Now that the chickens are in full production mode again, I like to find ways to use up large numbers of eggs at a single time. Hard boiled is definitely a mainstay, but switching it up from time to time is definitely appreciated. Enter the "mini-quiche"- it's a quick way to use up nearly a dozen eggs in one shot, and line up breakfasts ahead of time.

(Now that I think about it, it's probably more accurate to call them mini-frittatas, as there's no cream or milk in the eggs. Call them whatever you want- but definitely give them a shot!)

Here's what you need:

Muffin Pan
10 eggs
3T water
Ricotta cheese
One bag of baby spinach, lightly chopped
8 medium-sized mushrooms, diced
1 large shallot (or small onion), diced
Olive oil or Butter
Salt and Pepper

First, in a large skillet or frying pan, saute your shallot and mushrooms in the fat of your choice.

Once the shallot is translucent, go ahead and add your spinach. Put the lid on the pan for a couple of minutes, to wilt the spinach faster, and then finish the saute. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Get your muffin pan ready. Be sure to grease the cups well, or the eggs will stick. Divide the sauteed veg evenly between the 12 cups. Add a teaspoon-ish sized dollop of ricotta to the center of each cup.

In a large bowl, scramble your 10 eggs along with the 3T of water with a whisk, until the egg mixture is nice and smooth. Pour gently over the veg and cheese, dividing evenly.

Bake in the center of a 300F oven for 20-25 minutes, or until the eggs are set and very lightly browned at the edges.

Let the pan cool completely, and then move them from the muffin tin to a freezer safe dish before storing in the freezer. To serve, I just warm them up in the microwave for about 1 minute or so. You could also reheat them in the oven, if you're not a microwave fan- just thaw them overnight in the fridge, first.

Besides being portable and fast, these little egg cups are easily customized. Bacon and Cheddar? Ham and Swiss? What about some taco meat and beans, for a spicy start to your day? The possibilities are endless! Just remember to cook your "filling" thoroughly first, or you'll need to adjust the baking time/temp.

What's your favorite make-ahead breakfast?

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Finding Bee-Friendly Plants

At the end of last season, our closest local nursery went out of business after over 20 years. Even though their plants were slightly more expensive than the big-box stores, I was able to get a great variety of healthy, pesticide free flowers and veggies. They also had a wonderful selection of trees and shrubs that were well suited to our area.

With their closing, the nearest local nursery is now about 20 miles away from us. For me, it's well worth the extra miles to buy from a reputable grower. Many others, however, aren't going to travel- they're going to head over to the nearest Lowes, Home Depot or Walmart to get their plants. Here's the catch- many of the plants sold at big box retailers are treated with neonicotinoid pesticides long before they arrive at the store. Neonics are the pesticides linked to the bee colony collapse problems, and plants treated with them are not required to be labeled as such.

So what's a responsible gardener to do? Not everything is easy to start from seed, and let's face it, not everyone has the time, either. But, if you can start from seed, I highly recommend it. Here are some other tips:

  • Buddy up. Talk to your gardening friends and neighbors and organize a plant swap. It's much less intimidating starting one or two kinds of seeds, and then trading the starts with your friends.
  • Buy local. Farmer's Markets and Farm Stores often sell plant starts. You can talk to the farmer about their plants, and find out if the starts have been treated with anything.
  • Support your small garden centers. Take a moment and run a quick Google search on nurseries in your area. You might be surprised at how many there are! Once you're there, you can talk with the growers and see what chemicals they do or don't use. 
  • Plant wildflower seeds. Most bee and butterfly mixes require little more than sprinkling the seeds on the ground, raking them in, and watering. The more bee friendly plants we can grow, the better off they'll be. Plus, many wildflowers will attract other pollinators and beneficial bugs to your garden.
  • Vote with your dollars. It's not just about signing petitions and sending letters to corporations. If you don't like what's being sold at the big stores, don't buy it. Every time you do or don't make a purchase, you're telling companies what you want. If we stop buying questionable pesticides and/or plants grown using those products, they will eventually get the message.
  • Check your local extension office or community college for plant sales. Garden clubs also frequently have fund-raiser sales in the spring and summer. Not only will you know what you're getting, but you may also find a group of like-minded folks to connect with.
  • Health food stores and Feed Stores. Our local Co-Op grocery brings in loads of local, organically grown plant starts each year. Same thing goes for my feed store, and yet the prices are comparable to the larger stores. 
What about you? Can you suggest any other ways to bring plants into your garden that you know are safe?

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Apple and Pear Scab

I'm almost to a point where I think that our nice weather is going to stick around for a while. The Old Farmer's Almanac winter forecast for our area has been spot-on, and their long range outlook is equally favorable. My peas are in the ground, and although I haven't seen any sprouts yet, it's still a little bit early for that.

UC IPM Illustration of the scab life cycle.
So now, in addition to getting my seeds organized and started, I need to be mindful of the fruit trees and their needs. The bees are out and about already, and they're absolutely loving our plum tree which is now in full bloom. I don't recall it ever being so fragrant in February before!

One of the problems we have here is scab on our apple and pear trees. It's common everywhere, but our cool, wet springs are absolutely perfect growing conditions for the fungi that cause these ailments. Apple scab is an infection caused by a fungus called Venturia inequalis, whereas the Pear scab is an infection caused by a close relative, V. pirina. The infections, even though they appear symptomatically similar and are also managed in essentially the same ways, are different and cannot spread interchangeably between the two types of trees.

The fungi overwinter on the ground in the leaf and fruit debris from the trees until the following spring rains come and spread the spores. If the temperatures are right (between 55 and 75 degrees F) the spores will germinate quickly in the spring. Cleaning up and removing the fallen leaves and fruit is one of the most important things you can do to manage scab in existing orchards, and in many cases can significantly reduce the severity of an infection, year over year. If you are putting in new trees, planting resistant varieties will also help.

We have a couple of trees this year where there are some dead leaves and fruit are still stubbornly stuck to the branches on which they grew. I'm going to need to figure out a way to knock those down so I can get rid of them before the new leaves start to open. Once an infection takes hold, you cannot get rid of it- you can only do damage control for the rest of the season. It can cause a significant loss of fruit if the infection is severe, so catching it early and being vigilant in your management program is key.

I'm also researching spray options this year, which I don't normally do. Historically, warm and wet conditions here in the Spring means we're going to have all sorts of fungal issues to contend with, so I'm definitely interested in preventing whatever I possibly can.There are a lot of choices out there, from hard-hitting chemical concoctions, to more gentle "home remedies" that may or may not work. Keep an eye out for that, in the next couple of weeks.

What about you? Have you had any experience with apple or pear scab?

Monday, February 2, 2015

Thar She Blows...

If you stopped by the Facebook page or over on Instagram last week, you might have noticed I had a bit of a debacle with the Cider Experiment. I was wrapping up some work in my office when all of a sudden I heard a loud noise, somewhere between a pop and a bang, that seemed to come from our storage room.

When I opened the door, the pleasant yeasty apple smell of hard cider hung in the air. There was a tiny puddle seeping out from one of the cases that we had stored on the floor, and was creeping its way to the floor drain. By some stroke of luck, it happened to be the one case that we'd closed the cardboard lid on. Cautiously, I opened the box, to find that one of the bottles of cider had, in fact, over pressurized and exploded. I chuckled to myself about how lucky I was that it was a self contained mess, snapped a quick picture, and started cleaning up.

I picked up a couple of the intact bottles, and brought them out to our bar area. I knew I needed to get them into colder storage, so I rinsed and dried the bottles and put them in the fridge. When I went back to get more, I thought it was silly to make a bunch of trips back and forth, so I slid the case out of the puddle and picked it up. This, friends, is where everything went wrong.

The soggy cardboard bottom gave out. I could feel it start to happen, but the only thing I could do was squeeze my eyes shut and try to put the box back down. That didn't work. Six more highly pressurized glass bottles hit the concrete floor at my feet. They, too, exploded. This time, however, there was no cardboard to contain anything. Shards of glass flew out in every direction, even bouncing off the wall behind me, some 15 feet away. My shins took a direct hit: pieces of glass went through my pants and actually cut me. Cider went everywhere.

After some much grumbling and cleaning up, all is well. I got the rest of the bottles cleaned off and packed away in the fridge. I also learned the valuable lesson that all of the warnings you see about exploding ferments are quite real. Next year, all of our cider will be packaged in well ventilated boxes with lids while they rest before being refrigerated.

On the plus side, no one was seriously hurt, and that batch of cider is really quite good. Explosions and mess notwithstanding, I'm pleased with how it turned out and am looking forward to making more next year.

Have you ever had a ferment get out of control like this? I've heard from a few folks already who have had similar experiences. What about you?

Monday, January 26, 2015

Unseasonably Warm

So while the Northeast is gearing up for a good old Nor'easter, we're expecting sunshine and near 60 again today once the fog burns off. I don't know what to say about the weather anymore, except that if you haven't noticed that it's changing, then you need to pay closer attention. This time of year we should be somewhere in the high 30s to low 40s and drizzly. There should be snow in the mountains- lots of it. Our snowpack is not where it should be- statewide, we're around 50 percent of where we should be. If we don't get some significant snowfall up there soon, we're likely looking at water shortages this summer here in our area.

The other hazard with nice weather this time of year is that the plants are starting to break dormancy. There are green onions sprouting in the garden, and the rhubarb looks to be waking up from its nap as well. The hazelnuts are starting to flower, about a month early if I recall correctly. We do have a history of random late freezes here, which can spell disaster when it follows a warm stretch like this. For us, it spells trouble when the fruit trees get started too soon: if the flowers open before the pollinators are around, we'll have a reduced crop. Worse yet, if they open and a freeze hits, we can lose all of our fruit for a season.

It's also a challenge to remember where we are in the season when it's like this. With the sun shining it's tempting to head out and start poking around in the garden, but there are 11 weeks remaining until our last frost date, and a lot can happen in between now and then. The ground is still too wet for even the earliest risers, but it sure is hard to resist. My potatoes are even starting to sprout in storage already!

So, I'm going to content myself with a little light weeding out in the garden today, and then I'll sit down in the sun with a cup of tea and my catalogs, to get my list ready so I have seeds here to plant in a couple of weeks.

What about you? Have you noticed that the weather has been shifting where you are too?

Monday, January 19, 2015

Seed Companies

I have a few go-to seed companies that I've mentioned here in the past: Botanical Interests, Territorial, Cooks Garden and Baker Creek, just to name a few. I love getting the catalogs in the mail, they're one of the little signals for me that winter is on the way out and that there are brighter days ahead. Even as a kid, I remember daydreaming about the coming summer, once the Johnny's and Burpee catalogs showed up.

As much as I love perusing the catalogs, I probably only order about a quarter of the seeds I use. With limited exceptions most of these brands are available in my local feed store and unless it's a special variety that isn't stocked locally, I do like to buy local and support my hometown merchants.

This year, I've ordered two new catalogs- High Mowing Seeds and Seed Savers Exchange. Both are excellent sources of heirloom seeds and are going to make excellent additions to my resource library. I can't wait to see them!

What seed catalogs do you like the best? I'd love to compile a list of the top seed sources for future reference. Drop me a note here or over on Facebook and let me know who your go-to seed company is and why!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Project List

Sunnier Days
It seems that the blog world is crammed full of posts on new year's resolutions and lists of accomplishments from last year. I'm not a huge resolution maker, whether that's good, bad or otherwise, I have no idea. But, in keeping with the spirit of the list-making season, I do like to start penciling out ideas that I have for projects, to see which ones may or may not be reasonable for the coming year.

In no particular order, here's what I'm thinking these days:

  • Goats and/or Sheep. I'd really like to start looking seriously at how we could bring in some more animals. We'll have to spend some time looking around the property for a suitable site for a fenced off area and a shelter. Once that's nailed down, we can start thinking about specific breeds- since everyone here has a purpose, these will have to be fiber breeds, to keep my spinning habit supplied. 
  • Bees. I really enjoyed having my neighbor's bees around last summer. It seems that the cold snap we had a few months back killed them off, though. I believe he's looking at getting another hive set up, but I'd also like to have one of our own. The question is, what type of hive do we want to manage? More on that, to come. 
  • Ducks. I've been wanting to add ducks for a number of years, and since we don't need to add any chickens to the flock this spring, I believe it's time to get that ball rolling, so I'll be picking up some duck books on my next trip to the library. 
  • Broiler Chickens. Depending on the work situation, I think this is the year where we'll try our hand at raising broilers. (Heaven knows we have enough beef in the freezer, still.)
  • Rabbits. We need to overhaul the rabbit colony. The gals keep digging out and seem to be going through an excessive amount of food, with their current set up. We're going to have to completely move their enclosure and move a bit of dirt around, in order to fish out the concrete pavers that they managed to squeeze past, and back fill their dens.
  • Chicken Coop. This is going to require a major cleaning in the spring, so while I'm at it, I think I'll move their next boxes and roost bars around. Since the rat issue started, they won't use the next boxes any more, and roost all over the place. So, we need to fix that. I'd love to get rid of the greenhouse coop altogether, but that's probably not in the budget right now. We'll see. 
  • Veggie Garden. Last year was a good year in the garden, but there was room for improvement when it came to the rabbit damage. I'm going to need to either reinforce the perimeter fence with some chicken wire, or set up individual panels for the beds that need them. I'm leaning towards shoring up the perimeter. I'm also in the process of planning what we'll plant and where... but that's a totally stand-alone topic. 
I'm getting tired just thinking about this stuff. What about you? Do you have plans to add any livestock or garden areas this year? Do you have any projects that you want to take on, but aren't sure where to start? I'd love to know!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Tangled Up in Blue

(For the Bob Dylan tune, click here.)

One of the things that I've learned about myself over the years is that when things get rough- really rough- I have to learn something new and creative in order to break myself out of a funk. Interestingly, I seldom pick the thing I learn; rather, it finds its way to me and just works. 

One of my tangle pieces.
My newest favorite, Zentangle, is no exception. I was looking for ideas and inspiration for a tattoo, as a matter of fact, when I stumbled across some images that struck me as absolutely perfect. I set up a board on Pinterest to keep them all in one place, and as my collection grew I started to wonder if this type of art has a name. Fortunately, one of the pins was tagged "Zentangle", so I was able to Google it.

I'm not going to go into too much on the history, but if you're interested in seeing where it all began, click here for the Zentangle official site. The basic gist of it is that the artwork is based on a series of patterns, and the repetitive nature of the pattern puts one into a mindful meditative state. (It's the Zen, in Zentangle.) This type of thing is precisely how I've doodled my entire life, so I thought I'd give it a shot.

I'm hooked! I draw every single day, now. Call it mediation or call it escapism, I don't really care. All I know is that I love it as an outlet, and I really appreciate the fact that it calms me immensely. I highly recommend it if you're looking for a peaceful creative outlet.

If you're interested in learning more about it, here's another site to peek at, called TanglePatterns. It's basically an index of all of the "official" patterns and has links to all sorts of goodies. There are lots of other resources online, including FB and Pinterest...just Google it.

What about you? Do you find that art helps you through tough times?

Monday, January 5, 2015


Templeton the rat, from Charlotte's Web. Click for Source
We've been lucky so far, I suppose. In the four or five years that we've been keeping chickens and rabbits, we haven't had any real rodent issues. We keep our feed in bins, clean up any spills promptly, and in general keep as tidy a chicken coop as is possible (without being OCD about it.)
So, I'm a little surprised and disappointed that we're seeing a bit of a rat problem right now.

At first, I didn't know it was rats. The chickens started acting oddly, roosting as high up off the ground as they could possibly get. This meant off the roost bars and up onto my stacked cubbies, where I store some of my garden supplies and tools. Sleeping up there means poop in places that I can't easily clean up- I really need a dry day to pull everything out of the coop and do a deep clean. Usually I do one in the spring, but they're not leaving me much of a choice.  Egg production got a little off-kilter as well. They refuse to lay inside the coop now, instead preferring to make a nest in Steve's hutch. We've also had some really thin-shelled eggs, which in my experience are a really good indicator of disturbances in the coop.*

Initially, I thought it was a predator issue: we've seen some more coyotes on the game camera, the neighbors have a new dachshund, and I'm still seeing our eagle, hawk and owl on a regular basis.  So, I started paying a little more attention during the day, and that's when I saw it... the rat. Not the biggest one I've ever seen, thankfully, but a rather aggressive one. I watched as it chased more than one squirrel out of the chicken run, nipping at it's heels while it scrambled up a tree to escape. I went out with the pellet gun, but between the fencing, Steve and the girls, a clear shot just wasn't happening.

I don't like traps. I'll just put that out there right now. I got my hand caught in a mousetrap when I was maybe 4 or 5, and I can still picture it, clear as day. OUCH. However, I like poisons even less, so I do think that traps have their place. I went out and picked one up from Lowes; a molded plastic job with teeth and a really heavy spring. The thing gives me the willies just looking at it. I baited it with peanut butter and set it up outside one of their holes, and placed a plastic milk crate, upside down and weighted down with a couple of bricks over the top of it to keep Steve and the chickens out of trouble.

I didn't have to wait long, and we've probably caught one mouse and four rats total, so far. I say total, because we've had a few odds and ends in the trap, which were creepy as well as gross, so I'm not going into too much detail on that. Suffice it to say, I still don't like traps, and I sure as heck don't like rats. Not one bit. (Oddly, pet rats don't bother me. Also, Templeton up there was one of my favorites in Charlotte's Web... but let me see a rat outside and I go into full-blown home defense mode.)

In speaking with some of the other neighbors over the holidays, it seems that everyone on our "block" is seeing rats this year. We have at least two houses that I know of, within a quarter mile of us, that just started keeping chickens and/or other barnyard birds since this past spring, so I suspect that has something to do with it. On one hand, I'm relieved that it's not just my coop that's having problems, but on the other hand, this is a pretty widespread issue and we can't control what happens anywhere but here... so they're going to be tough to get rid of completely.

For now, we'll keep the trap baited and set, until the problem seems to dissipate, but I don't see that happening any time soon. Fortunately, we do have the hawk and owl in residence, who I'm sure will lend their talons to helping us get the problem under control. I'm also keeping an eye on feeders and our grain bins to make sure there aren't any rats getting a free meal.

What about you? Have you experienced rodent issues in your coop or barn? What did you do?

*Thin-shelled eggs are sometimes referred to as "fear eggs". If you feed your birds a well balanced layer feed plus whole grains, and have oyster shell always available for them, and you occasionally see thin shelled eggs, look for something bothering your birds.