Naturally

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We are well into Spring and all of the usual signs abound: trees blooming, barn swallows mud collecting, carpenter bees hovering, and Buck the bratty mini-horse shedding.  Still, we have some new things to see too, at least new to us.

Our bees from last year seemed to have survived the winter when I checked the hive in mid-March, but it was still a shock to open the hive to see how many died over the winter.  I’ve since learned that an average hive of 60,000 bees sees about 2,000 deaths a day, and about as many births.  Over the winter, those bees die in the hive as opposed to out in the field working, so it’s a mess in the Spring.  Unfortunately, when temps hit 75 degrees in February, all of the brood started to hatch and then it dropped back below freezing.  Those babies never made it; I found many half out of their cells.  I checked again a couple of weeks ago, and the remaining bees had either perished or swarmed and left the hive.

But, they left behind a great deal of honey, so I have harvested about half of it and will harvest the rest soon.  I’ve decided to leave it in the comb, which is the way it is sold in most non-US countries.  In-the-comb honey shows it is pure, has not been heated or treated in any way, and by some accounts, includes more beneficial ingredients.  Usually, nature’s way works better.

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We may have also purchased our last ever birds from a hatchery, because our hens hatched their own, and it’s way the heck easier on us anxious humans.  Birds from a hatchery or Tractor Supply need a heat lamp, bedding, special food, and a basketful of patience.  But in our coop, a Buckeye and a White Chanticleer teamed up to sit diligently on eggs for several weeks, and one morning last week, I heard a new sound in the coop: “peep peep peep!”  A baby chick!  With four to follow the next day.

In the past, we have coddled the new chicks, and cuddled them too, as though they were a perishable as a baby human.  Well, these naturally born chicks were out in the barnyard on day two, pecking around for food, getting inadvertently kicked by their scratching moms, hopping up on bricks, and then scurrying off for a nap under nature’s heat lamp: Mom.  We will just stay out of the way and let them do their thing.

Back in December I wrote about starting a sourdough starter, and my sourdough baking has been going well; the natural starter using wild yeast yields delicious bread that is easily digested since the grains are fermented for over 24 hours.  It’s pretty incredible what just flour, water, salt, and wild yeast can create.

We humans tend to think we have things figured out, or can figure them out, but usually nature already has things well in order.  We tend to intervene and cause more trouble than we need to.  When I first met Chris, she told me “Ninety percent of life’s problems can be solved by minding your own business.”  Turns out that advice from a then-city-girl sure is true of nature in the country.

Starters

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Today I started two things I’ve tried to start a handful of times before: sourdough starter and this blog.

Sourdough starter on Day One doesn’t look like much; it’s only a combination of rye flour, bread flour, and water, after all.  But, with care and feeding, it should develop into a living source of wonderful bread and other carb-laden bites of happiness every week.  It needs feeding every day, for without that, it will fail.

So too with this blog, and my writing in general.  I sporadically have rising attempts to write regularly, then I allow other things to get in the way, and my routine crumbles.  But, if I can feed our animals in sun or sleet, stretch into yoga pretzels every morning while the coffee drips, and shovel through the crust of soil in the spring and snow in the winter, then I should be able to find time to write as well.

Thanks are owed to a friend and former coworker who, when I was in my waning days of my previous too-stressful corporate job, said to me out of the blue, “when you get settled in at your new calmer job, find some time to write again at Copper and Flannel Dreams.”  As a writer, I never assume anyone is reading what I am writing; sure, it’s a hope, but the bottles tossed into the ocean rarely return.  It was a moment of quiet elation for me when someone that I had no idea was reading what I wrote made that warm comment, a comment he had been holding for at least two years since I last posted anything here.  To my friend Bob, thank you.

Here’s to starters that don’t look like much, to regular feeding, to wonderful bread, and to words that float their way to friends near and far.

The Allure of an Open Gate

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Gates.  They are essential on a farm to keep animals where you want them to stay, to move them where you want them to be, and to give them some place to hang out when they want to see you.  At least the latter is true of horses, who will let you know when they think you owe them some food or attention.

Gates can be welcoming, such as when we stop to visit a friend unexpectedly and the garden or driveway gate is swung wide, or forbidding, such as when we arrive at a business closed earlier than expected or an area off-limits to those not in hard hats or wearing the right lanyard.

To a horse, and certainly to our mini-horse Buck, an open gate is also an invitation to brattiness.

This morning I went out to give Buck some hay.  The sun today is bright and welcoming, but the air is cold indeed.  By the time the dogs and I headed back from the barn where the hay sits in a 12 foot high pile, protected from wind and wet, Sammy and Tasha were hobbling due to their freezing feet.  Even normally oblivious Stout ended up needing to do a bit of tai chi in a drift.  I got them in the house with Chris and headed over to give Buck his hay.

Usually I close up the gate to his pasture behind me (see above about brattiness), but he was pretty is usually anxious about hay and I figured he was hungry and would be happy about the snack.  Plus, I had a special treat of apple, which he loves.  So, I opened his gate, walked in, clicked my tongue-to-teeth to call him over, and there he went–right past me out of his open gate.

I’ve learned that for a horse, few feelings are more thrilling than escaping the pasture.  A brief “no way!” pause to get his bearings, and then off at a trot Buck went—right down the driveway, toward the road.  This was not good.  This is one of those moments that is real, so real that you cannot stop to capture it on your phone.  You just have to live it, calmly.

I thought: The apple!  Yes, the apple would be my lure to get Buck from stepping into the road.  But, see above about the thrill of the escape and the brattiness…every step I took closer with my purpling bare hand showing Buck the delicious Brants Jonathan apple, he took two steps toward and soon into the road.

Fortunately, we live on a country road.  Cars and trucks are few.  Unfortunately, we live on a country road.  Cars and trucks go way too fast.  Even in snow.

Luckily, no one was coming speeding toward us, so I could take my time to get Buck to see I had something for him.  These moments always seem to take a lot longer than they actually do–these interactions that are stressful but require calm.  Soon enough, Buck saw that apple sliver and took a munch, long enough of a munch for me to get an arm around his neck and my thigh into his shoulder.  Game mostly over.

Sure, Buck could have easily broken away from me since I had no rope or harness on him.  But, despite his brattiness, he also knows when he is pushing it.  Kind of like a smart kid who will see just how much he can get away with before backing off since he knows you are the only one who can reach the Apple Jacks.

We meandered back to the pasture, I gave him his hay and some more apple, all while he stood at the gate, looking at me like Let’s Do that Again!

Winter Morning Chores

On the farm, there are always chores.  But in the winter, the morning chores become heightened in importance since the winter is all about Keeping the Animals Alive, and mostly that means keeping water unfrozen and food accessible.

I was raised up to get chores and other work done before fun, so in the mornings, I get the chores done before coffee, shower, etc. unless it is super dark when I leave for work (then Chris gets the chores).   The first step is to bundle up: long johns, jeans, hoodie, heavy flannel jacket, hat, mittens with fingerless gloves inside.  Super Cary Grant-ish outfit for sure.

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After that, it is time to let loose the birds.  The chickens dash about and look for food, heading every which way before they realize how freezing cold it is.  The ducks look for water right away.  They can’t eat without water, and they’d spend their whole day taking baths if they could.  Sometime in the next year or two, we will get a pond dug out, which will be good for all of the animals and the garden.  Plus I want to stock it with fish for when I am old and want to catch some bluegills.

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When it is really cold, the ducks will sit down on the ground to keep their feet warm.  We also put a heat lamp in their hut so they can warm up when they need to.  The chickens will hang out in the duck hut too, even staying there overnight for a poultry slumber party.

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Buck the mini-horse doesn’t much mind the cold, other than the wind.  It’s critical to have warm water for him to help him maintain his body temperature, so he has a fancy heated bucket.  He also grew in plenty of shaggy hair to keep him warm.  If it is not too windy, he wanders around his pasture looking for things to nibble on all day.  But when I come out with his sweet feed, he comes a-running up to his shed and munches away on the equivalent of equine Fruit Loops.IMG_2333

Of course, the dogs don’t live outside; these were city dogs before we moved to the farm.  They are soft.  They get to hang out all night in the toasty, windless house.  So, when we do go out, it is play time, especially for Stout.  He loves to chase the soccer ball…over and over and over again.  The thing is, this time of year, it feels like kicking a watermelon since it is frozen.  He doesn’t seem to mind though–he is a bundle of anticipation all day.

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Before I head in for coffee and breakfast, I gather up the eggs–usually about five a day, even in winter.  They are a beautiful gift for the efforts of the winter chores.

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A Remarkable First Year at the Farm

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It’s been a long time since I have posted here.  I’ll try to do better next year.  But hey, we’ve been busy on our first year here at the farm.  But I do have this blog, and I should be writing more.  So, like all blogs, especially at year’s end, I’ll do some navel gazing.

In no particular order, here is who and what mattered this year.  It’s long.  Don’t feel compelled to read it all.

People who shaped our year

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I think I can say that literally every week we made at least one trip to Bridge Street Pizza.  Courtney, Chris, Trevor, Josh, and the whole crew were welcoming, charming, hilarious, and inspiring with their energy and optimism.  Not seeing them each week left a void we just don’t care to have.  Just as often, we went to Briquettes, where Tara, Shane, Andrew, and others we know less well always seemed genuinely happy to see us, would always have Chris’s turkey reuben order memorized, and would add a genuine happiness to our week.  Every visit to Salon 1020 was a warm and candid one, with Yeah Yeah and Shannon seemingly always there and always upbeat and always with the scoop on Bridge St.  The baristas at Harbor Perk were always smiling and serving up the best fresh coffee beans I have ever had.  The crew of servers at Bascule–Molly, Allie, Kylie, Bri–were always funny, focused, and full of stories.  We still miss River’s Edge Diner and Ryan’s masterpiece of a monte cristo and Erin, who made us feel like good friends from the first time we met her.

Friends we had before we moved to Saybrook continued to be remarkable and ever so important to us.  Christy and Chris, who made the long trek out more than once and who inspire us with their positive energy and drive.  Jane and Ray, both with such quick wit and true care in their words.  My manager and mentor Vida, a true inspiration to me in many ways.  My team at work, who made every day fun and important and meaningful.  Valerie and Jamie, ever welcoming and able to pick up a conversation we started months prior.  Rose Ann and Dave–the definition of dear people.

Two friends who inspired me for many years prior, and who passed away this year–my closest friend in adulthood, Bob Lee, and my college mentor and stalwart friend for years, Scott Crom–both shaped who I am and how I view the world.

And our family was remarkably important, as distant as they may be, whether counties or states away.  My many nieces and nephews, some with kids of their own, and some not yet able to say much, continue to be a source of joy and pride and amusement.  My stepdaughter who, as my first ever renter, provided me with so many stories and head-scratches that I was never wont for a tale to tell at work.  My two older sisters and their husbands–though they may not know it since I rarely say much directly–both in what they taught me in the past and in what they show through their actions.  My in-laws, who have been truly welcoming, supportive, kind, and caring.  (And they compliment my garden a lot.) My Grandma Yucus, who taught me so much about hard work and appreciating the little things; I’ve only recently come to realize that when I was born she was 90 (she lived to 108).  And most certainly, my Mom, who speaks to me at key times from the heavens, who taught me my love of gardening, the importance of laughter, and the true healing and hope that only a hug can provide.

And then there are those people we barely know, but they shaped our year too.  The mail lady who always picks up Chris’s packages with a smile.  The farrier, Holly, who takes care of Buck so happily.  The neighbors who loaned me random tools and appreciate us leaving one another alone.  The servers at South River Winery who always remember us and who share our dislike of bridal showers.  The Beckwith family on Twitter and their truly hilarious banter, well beyond any sitcom’s attempts at humor.  A person on Twitter who sent me a jar of homemade salsa.  The residents of Ashtabula who, to a person, do not honk their car or jacked-up truck horns other than to say Hello when driving by.

The Animals and the Vegetables

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A year ago we had three dogs and a cat.  Pokey the cat moved to an old folks home, where he is certainly happier than he was here (the feeling is mutual). We still have the three dogs, though Tasha took a vacation for a few months in Euclid, which was blissful for Sammy and Stout (and us).  We bought six chicks and four ducks when they were two-day-old-fluffballs, all intended to be hens, but we ended up with one rooster and two drakes in the mix.  One Pekin was slaughtered by a raccoon, reminding us that we had to want to protect the birds more than a hungry animal wants to eat them.  We later added four more ducks that needed a home.  The hens have layed very consistently, and we’ve eaten many delicious eggs and have given away at least as many.  In early summer we added Buck the mini-horse, who weighs just about the same as I do, and he is equally stubborn. He and the dogs provide great joy and periodic frustration, but don’t we all.  Next year, we will probably add a feeder pig and a turkey or two.  Everyone wants us to get a goat, but we like kids that visit and then go back home.

The garden was quite something for the first year, ending up yielding about 750 pounds of vegetables.  Putting the garden in the old barn foundation provided a fortuitous choice, as the soil made from years of rotting manure and hay was remarkably fertile.  The sweet potatoes didn’t like it, but everything else did.  And the kitchen garden was also quite productive.  I grew all heirloom varieties and learned that the best tasting tomato Chris and I can recall ever having is one named very close to our street name: Nineveh.  Lessons were learned, and in 2015, the garden will expand, the asparagus will have its second year to grow, and we will add more saplings to our orchard, something we will enjoy in retirement if the deer don’t destroy it in the next decade or so.

Things stored

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A few batches of beer made their way to bottles.  I made my first ever batch of wine: a quickly disappearing 29 bottles of riesling.  I have a merlot ready to bottle in January.  I tried and failed at sauerkraut, but I will try again next year.  I made my first ever cheese, a farmhouse cheddar.  I’ll try some others this coming year.

We canned more tomatillos than we could eat in a lifetime, plenty of tomato sauce, and chicken stock.  We bought a small freezer to hold dozens of bags of tomatoes, beans, and peppers.  We won’t be through them before I am picking fresh ones.

After two months of trying to figure out where to build a cold storage room, I remembered we already had one that the prior owners sealed off.  So, I opened that up and stashed away shallots, garlic, pumpkins, potatoes, onions, and zucchini rampicante (a remarkable squash that is a summer squash unless you let it grow into a winter squash).

Things built

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A coop for the chickens under a soaring stairway by the garage.  A hut for the ducks nestled in a safe spot by the house, much more raccoon-proof than the dog house we first used for them.  A shed for Buck that he never used until the winds got cold and he now naps in every day.

And, though not quite done, a studio birthed from a pavilion, a sanctuary for Chris to create her increasingly epic-sized work.  In a year she has gone from creating art the size of a dinner plate to art the size of a dinner table.  The concrete floor she hired someone to do.  The rest, we have done–sill plates, studs, sheathing, weather barrier, sleepers, underlayment, barn wood floors, stone hearth, pellet stove and chimney, five patio doors for windows.  Soon, it will be a remarkably unique, functional space for a remarkable woman.

Marriage

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And it was, for all intents and purposes, our first year of marriage.  The most remarkable year of my life.  A year in which I was wholly myself for the first time ever, spending every day with my best friend, the love of my life, and my partner in this remarkable adventure of life.

Oh, and the remarkable sunsets

If I had written on this blog all year, you would already know everything above.  Maybe next year.  For now, I leave you with one of the many remarkable, humbling, awe-striking sunsets we experienced this year.  The heavens smiling down on us.

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Chicken Coop Constructed!

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If it ever warms up, the chickens will be heading outside into their new coop as it is now completed!  Other than the steel cloth and screws, every other part of the coop is built from found objects.

The first found object is the location: an unused space under the stairway leading to the loft above the garage.  Given that it had to solid posts to start from, I figured it would work well.

I raised it up off of the ground to allow for easier gathering of the droppings and also to help against predators.  I used cinderblocks to hold in the back posts, both of which were just lying around the farm from prior owners.

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Next I added some old smaller screen doors but mounted them horizontally for ventilation.  In the winter, these will be easy to cover with tarp or plywood.

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An old handrail serves as the roost and the brooder light will serve as warmth since this spring seems less than balmy for some time to come.

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I mounted an old door to the posts for access to the nesting boxes, which are made from and old small shelf.  I needed just one extra board to cover the gap for the door.IMG_1786

Nesting boxes with pine shavings made from an old shelf.  In a few months, there should be eggs here most every day!

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On one side, I shiplapped some old treated boards that were in a pile in the pasture.

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On the other side I used some random scraps of lumber for the wall and an old shelf that I hinged for the entry door for the birds.

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Here’s a view looking from the back of the garage (above) and the entry ramp (below) with beer caps used for traction.

 

Hopefully the girls will like it once we get them out there.  But 40 degrees when you have just your first feathers is too cold!IMG_1787

 

 

More Seeds to Start

 

 

Plenty of planting today in the strong belief Spring will really be arriving eventually.

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I am growing nine kinds of tomatoes.  Nearly all are heirloom.  One variety is supposed to taste like raw lemons…  Another is named nearly the same as our street (Nineveh vs Ninevah, both variants of the same word).  For cherry this year, I am trying a black cherry tomato variety.

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I like yellow tomatoes, so am trying some of them in a very old variety.  I liked the name Bread and Salt for one old Russian variety, and a Thick Skinned Green variety is supposed to be very good for winter storage.

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We are not big cabbage eaters, but I am trying a French heirloom.  And for cauliflower, an Italian purple heirloom.  And for the first time ever, I am trying gooseberries and tomatillos.

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I am trying all of my garden from seed this year–other than garlic, shallots, onions, potatoes, and most berries–so I have a lot to start indoors.  Today I also planted all of the herbs that need some indoor time, such as sage, basil, tarragon, oregano and chives.  I also started some echinacea, bee balm, and heirloom yellow strawberries.

The squash and Roma tomatoes I started several weeks ago are doing very well.  No sign yet of any eggplant sprouting, but nearly all of my peppers and even the celery is growing well.

Some warm, sunny days will really help.  The plants, and me.