One More Tomato

I never want to see another tomato.

By never, of course, I mean not until next July, when I’ll be sneaking down to the garden several times a day to check on ripening progress of my early varieties. But next July is a long, long way off when you’re looking square in the face of a Minnesota winter.

Still more tomatoes in the back entryway-- I think I'll start using the other door.

Still more tomatoes in the back entryway– I think I’ll start using the other door.

It is my fault for having planted 75 plants of 26 varieties. I’ve culled a few seed packs of types that did not meet my particular standards, so I’m down to twenty-two or twenty-three already. That’d be a start if it wasn’t for my notorious lack of restraint when the seed catalogs come out, and the succulent varietal descriptions cause me to abandon all good sense.

With all the abundance in the tomato patch (and elsewhere in the gardens), we’ve had to get creative, and this year our creativity paid off with a new recipe we’ll be returning to season after season.

Makin' it smooooth with the food mill

Makin’ it smooooth with the food mill

I came home from the Big Stone Lake Farmers Market one Saturday a few weeks ago with fifty or sixty pounds of tomatoes and an equally ridiculous amount of eggplant—some from the market, and some I’d left behind as too ugly to go to town (I know: not a very nice thing to say about a vegetable I raised up from seed). I’d already roasted a few trays of eggplant for the freezer, and I was thinking I’d do the same with these (and then figure out something else with all those !@#$% tomatoes) when I remembered seeing a jar of tomato-based “smoky eggplant pasta sauce” at that upscale kitchen store outside of Waite Park. Hmmm.

John loves smoking meat. Why not try smoking some eggplant? He fired up his contraption, and I prepped the fruits—removing stems and ends and slicing them in half lengthwise, brushing them with just a hint of olive oil to prevent sticking. I pick eggplant when they are still young and tender, so there was no need to peel them.

While the eggplant hung out in the smoker, I processed the tomatoes into sauce and started cooking it down. Added a few onions and some garlic, and then the chopped, smoked eggplant when it was ready. Puréed the whole thing together, added some spices, and hurrah! A smooth, smoky, tomato-y deliciousness we couldn’t wait to eat on just about everything.

 

Simmer down...

Simmer down…

Here’s the recipe:
6-8 quarts tomato purée (already reduced by half or more)
3-4 cups chopped smoked eggplant
1 cup chopped onion
2-3 cloves crushed garlic
1-2 small hot peppers (seeds and all) minced

Simmer these ingredients together until all the vegetables are very soft. Then purée them all together in a blender or food processor (or put them through a food mill). Put them back on the stove to simmer some more (you want this sauce to end up thick and smooth).

Then add the following:
Bay leaf
¼-1/2 cup sugar (your taste)
1 TB salt
¼ tsp black pepper
1 TB cumin seed
1 tsp oregano leaf
½ tsp ground cinnamon
*optional—add one or two 6oz. cans of tomato paste if the sauce is too smoky and not enough “tomato forward.”

Simmer this (stirring often) until it reaches a lovely, smooth thickness (not paste–but definitely not watery), then taste to correct the seasonings. If it’s a little grainy-looking, you can purée again or use an immersion blender. Voila! You’re done (uh…well, except for processing or freezing).

 

Freeze or pressure process!

Freeze or pressure process!

The eggplant in our first batch sat in the smoker for a few hours, and it almost completely overpowered the sauce, so adding tomato paste worked well to bring the tomato flavor forward a bit. The second batch (where the eggplant was in the smoker for less than an hour) didn’t need the tomato paste. Obviously, the tomato flavor will be more pronounced if you cook your initial purée down more. I reduced the first batch of plain tomato sauce by about half before adding any other ingredients—the second batch was reduced even more—slow-simmering overnight in the roaster.

Once the sauce is done, you can either freeze it or process it in a pressure canner (take the bay leaf out). Please do not use a boiling water bath method for canning this recipe—there are too many low acid ingredients to make BWB method safe. If you don’t have a pressure canner (or are uncomfortable with using the one you have–you know who you are!), then tuck it in the freezer.

I processed pint jars for 30 minutes at 10lbs. pressure (that is, I processed as if it were plain eggplant), leaving ½” headroom in the jars. If you want to can in quarts, give it a bit more headroom (¾-1”) and process for 40 minutes at 10lbs pressure.

If you don’t have a smoker, you could try grilling the eggplant over low heat to get some of that good smoky flavor into the flesh–and into the sauce. Either way, smoky eggplant tomato sauce is something new (and awesome) to add to your “I never want to see another tomato” repertoire!

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Readying

For the past several weeks, it seems that we have at all times been in preparation for one event or another–meetings, political gatherings, dinners, and the biggie–the Upper Minnesota River Art Crawl. It’s amazing how many times the house can be cleaned and somehow need cleaning again. Even between days of the arts Meander last weekend the breakfast or supper dishes needed clearing and the table repeatedly re-purposed as our checkout stand; the first floor bathroom transformed from resident showering facility to public restroom.

The artist at rest in our dining roo...er...gallery

The artist at rest in our dining room…art gallery

Yesterday, it was back to work for me while John took part of the morning to rest and recuperate. We’d already re-claimed a living room out of the art gallery it had become, and soon the rest of the display pieces made their way from dining room to back deck en route to the barn. We ate lunch almost normally with the table placed in its usual spot, though still piled in all the places our soup bowls were not were boxes of cards, calendars, and miscellaneous Meander gear.

While lunch was heating, I went out to pick the lower branches of Honey Gold apples. The Haralsons were picked a couple of weeks ago to limit the depredations of the squirrels, who were making steady work of stripping the dwarf tree, then racing across the lawn, apple in teeth, to the safety of a higher-limbed ash. We’d find the half-eaten cores at the base along with the cobs and husks of Roy’s Calais Flint corn they made off with earlier in the season. With the Haralsons gone, they were starting on the much larger Honey Golds: I’d already surprised a few into dropping their unwieldy prizes as they fled, and I tossed the tooth-marked apples to the chickens.

The lower branches picked, I decided against an attempt at the upper branches with a ladder–the wind came up so hard that rolling clouds of dust engulfed the front yard every time a grain truck passed, and a storm window on the sun porch came unmoored and flapped against its frame.

Grain trucks kicked up rolling clouds of dust in the northwest wind

Grain trucks kicked up rolling clouds of dust in the northwest wind

The work day done, I helped John maneuver the canoe trailer into position by the barn and transport a couple of unwieldy display pieces inside for storage. He turned to me and said, “I thought I was just cleaning things up, but I think what we’re really doing is getting ready for winter!”

Funny how a seemingly innocent observation can suddenly change the whole character of the tasks at hand. I went back down to the garden and pulled frost-crisped okra stalks and a few sullen basil plants. The wind died a little, and I set up the ladder to finish picking the Honey Golds–for winter storage this time, and not as much against the squirrels. I set a small pile of damaged fruits by the edge of the grove (I am not entirely opposed to sharing) and brought the rest of the bruised and banged lot to the chicken pen.

The upper gardens in autumn

The upper gardens in autumn

I stood at the gate watching the girls happily pecking away, thinking about winter readiness, when another sign of the impending season-change came with a warning squawk from the roosters, causing the hens to run for cover under the currant bushes. Looking up, the silhouette of our winter resident drifted overhead, glinting white on head and tail. A Bald Eagle, who spends summers fishing by the lake, has returned to the highlands after the weekend’s soybean harvest bared the land of cover for his prey.

Butchering Days

The Friday before last marked ten weeks since we’d gotten a straight run batch of fifty Red Ranger broilers, with the goal of raising high-quality meat for our freezer.

A couple of raccoon incursions brought us down to something like 45 or 46. Have YOU tried counting dozens of active birds and felt entirely confident about your result? In truth, the last time I felt completely sure about our count was when we put them out in the retrofitted dog kennel in the barn. I picked up every single one and transferred them individually to a plastic tub for transport, and there were actually fifty-one.

We didn’t lose any to illness–these Red Rangers are super healthy birds. They do what their name implies, and so in addition to the mostly organic and transitional feed they mobbed over morning and night, they also spent a lot of time roaming around the pen, feasting on whatever happened to present itself as a tasty morsel–bugs, weeds–maybe even the occasional small rodent.

Granted a stay: a few of the remaining Red Rangers

A few of the Red Rangers granted a stay in the week between the first and second processing sessions.

In between lugging fifty pound bags of feed and forty pound buckets of water (my shoulders are beginning to resemble a football player’s), they gave us a lot of joy and laughs with their chicken-y antics. Opening the kennel gate in the morning was like watching the opening of a football game, when a team’s players bust through a banner and come charging out onto the field—a river of red feathers and energy. The cockerels would raise their hackles and face off, then go racing off in another direction to do the same with another young rooster. The hens followed me to the far reaches of the pen, expecting me to lead them to some rare and exotic tidbit they’d overlooked.

But after ten weeks (and 2 ½ bags of feed a week!), with half the flock (that is, about twenty-five roosters) raising their voices at dawn in a chorus sounding like party favor noisemakers left overnight in a puddle of spilt vodka lemonade, it was time to put meat in the freezer.

John spent a lot of time thinking about our system, and how we’d set it up for maximum efficiency. We ordered a kit including a drill attachment for de-feathering, a medium “killing cone,” and a small, sharp knife (of course we have plenty of knives, but this turned out to be a really nice tool), set up buckets and tubs to hold blood, feathers, and innards, a table for processing and hangers for plucking, and picked up some ice to chill the processed birds before their ascent to the basement freezer.

We also ordered in a couple of large killing cones, and were glad we did—the “medium,” which looked like a reasonable size, wasn’t large enough for our not-super-large birds, and the “large,” which looked ridiculously big coming out of the box, were a perfect fit to slide the whole bird in snugly and still be able to slip a hand in beneath to coax the head out the bottom. John mounted those side by side on a board attached to the chicken pen fence, with the propane turkey cooker set up adjacently for heating water to scald the birds before plucking. Most all of the supplies we purchased will be useful for years to come, so the investment will pay off over the long run.

The first Saturday, we butchered about twenty-six birds between 7am and 1pm. We were incredibly grateful to have help in the form of a couple of experienced farmer friends–Sean Hyatt (and cousin Callan), who operates a diversified farm near Milbank, and Terry VanDerPol, who grazes beef cattle near Granite Falls. I had only butchered chickens once before, as part of a Dakota Rural Action skill session at Glacial Lakes Permaculture in Estelline, SD. Permaculturist Karl Schmidt was gracious enough to allow a bunch of greenhorns to assist in the processing of part of his flock.

However, being a participant in a group session is not the same as doing a flock yourself, and it had been several years since John had processed birds, too. The help and “skill-refreshers” we got that first day (as well as how far we got in the project) meant that yesterday’s completion went even more smoothly—John and I started at 6:30am and processed the remaining seventeen birds by ourselves in a little less than four hours.

If you’re keeping track of numbers, you’ll see that the number of birds I mentioned ending up with after the raccoons were done and the number we butchered are not the same. That’s not because my count was wrong to begin with; it’s because I read that Red Rangers make decent laying hens, so I moved a couple of the smallest pullets to the laying flock before our first butchering session. The morning of the butchering, I also added to the broiler flock the “surprise” Americana rooster I got in a supposedly straight run of pullets from the farm store this spring. Stiltz was quite the troublemaker, so I wasn’t sad to see him go. But, he won’t be a “company chicken”—I know now why the hatcheries tout the desirability of yellow skin in fowl destined for the table—under all that pretty plumage his was an unappetizing dingy grey.

RIP Stiltz. The farmyard sure is quieter without you!

RIP Stiltz. The farmyard sure is quieter without you!

I was the main “grabber and sticker” that first butchering day, and my eyes kept landing on a pretty, plump pullet with tones of slate blue in her plumage. I avoided taking her to the cones, and that night, I moved her over with the laying flock as well. She didn’t “take” as well as the other two did—the next morning, she was back in the broiler pen. During yesterday’s processing, I left her in the kennel until last, then moved her again, thinking she might not be as likely to hop the fence if the rest of the broilers were gone.

John and I headed out to dinner last night (our first anniversary is today!), and returned just at dark. As I feared, she was nowhere to be found in the henhouse, so we went out with flashlights and found her settled down for the night under a cattle panel leaning against the broiler pen fence. In my party dress and muddy shoes, I fished her out, carried her back into the coop, and set her on the lower roost. This morning, she was back in her old stomping grounds, and I caught her again (fishing net this time), brought her into the coop, and set her right in front of the feeder. I just took a break from writing and went out to check, and you’ll never guess where she is, again. This might be a lengthy training process…

A few of the Red Ranger pullets are now members of the laying flock.

A couple of the Red Ranger pullets are now members of the laying flock.

Eventually, I’ll open the gate between the pens and give the hens and their two roosters full range of both spaces, but it’s probably best to give it a week or so until everybody is clear about where they’re supposed to sleep at night.

We toyed briefly with the idea of getting another batch of Red Rangers for fall. After all, it might be nice to process (not to mention haul feed and water) when the weather is cooler. But after looking at available freezer space (not much) and realizing that we probably don’t need to eat a whole chicken every single week of the year (there’s always leftovers and stock!), not to mention the imminent arrival of canning season and all the projects that entails, we’re pretty sure we’re done with meat birds for this year.

The freezer's getting full!

The freezer’s getting full!

Now, I suppose it’s time to head back out and re-re-re-locate that pretty blue-grey pullet.

 

 

Salad Days

June has sprung, and with it the gardens are growing like mad–right alongside the weeds.

Since the tomato garden is a newly cultivated spot that last year sprouted an impressive selection of summer weeds, the seedbank for pigweed and lamb’s quarter is well-stocked. After a weekend’s worth of rain, a second hoeing was in order to take out the germinating pigweed at the white thread stage.

photo 2(2)

Pretty much the entire sixteen hundred square feet of the garden looked like this, and with the forecasted rain Friday night and Saturday, these weeds had to go before they could get another drink and start creating a more complex (and difficult to kill) root system.

The tomatoes in their raked-up raised beds needed mulching, too–keeping the root systems a little more cool, suppressing the next flush of weeds, and preventing soil erosion from heavy rains. It took pretty much all day to finish the one garden, with chunks of time for breaks and other work. John pitched in at the end, helping rake the hoed soil back up onto the mounds while I laid straw.

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So, things are starting to look a little more put-together in the gardens, and the deer have been fairly moderate in their incursions (Plantskydd helps). The raised beds are sprouting a few new crops since I went willy-nilly out into the rain last weekend and thumbed-in summer squash, cucumbers, flint corn, and okra. I took the early spinach and arugula out from either side of the peas a few days ago, and yesterday I pulled the last of the bolting bok choy, radishes, and sad-looking broccoli raab and rolled up the row cover.

photo 3

In the early brassica bed, that left a big, open space next to the Hakurei turnips. Thought about planting some fall carrots in there, but those beds are the original ones we inherited with the farm, and they’ve been gardened pretty intensively over the last few years. There’s really not much for organic matter in there, and I happened to have a big bag of my favorite summer soil-building cover crop: buckwheat. So, instead of a crop to feed us, I planted a crop to feed the soil–and the pollinators, too, when it flowers.

Speaking of pollinators, I finally saw the first bumblebee of the season!

photo 4

Bumbles love onion flowers, and they always seem especially drawn to these perennial Evergreen Hardy White green onions. They aren’t as refined as some varieties, but they are a great, sturdy, never-say-die crop. These are the descendants of the ones I started from seed back in 2005–they always get divided and tucked in the corners of beds and other odd spots, and I always let them bloom because then I know whether the bumblebees are surviving or not–if there are bumblebees anywhere near, you’ll see them on the onions.

Back to the soil organic matter issue–I took a few images yesterday of what it looks like when you have plenty of it and what it looks like when your soil is depleted of it.

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The first image, which is the bed where I cultivated and sowed buckwheat yesterday, looks nice, doesn’t it? All smooth and dark-colored and pretty. It is depleted of organic matter, but looks better than the bed next to it because it had floating row cover on it, which helps absorb the impact of raindrops (and watering), plus it had had a nice leaf canopy from the spent greens I’d just removed. Still, the soil was compacted underneath, and the cool-loving greens that came up early and fast ended up going to seed faster than I’d anticipated–probably due to how warm this dark, bare soil gets when the sun hits it and their inability to sink their roots deeper and tap into moisture reserves.

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But if you look at this second image of the bed next door, where the row cover and spent greens were removed a week ago, you can see that the lovely dark soil is crusting and cracking. Not a good sign. It’s hard for new seedlings to break through the surface, and once this soil is cultivated, the fine particles can easily blow in the wind or wash with heavy rain–the same thing that happens on a massive scale in all our clean-cultivated farm fields and leads to soil and nutrients clogging our rivers and streams. This bed will get a fall cover crop–maybe winter wheat–that will be incorporated into the soil in spring. Right now there’s flint corn planted on either side of the peas, and when that’s up enough, I’ll throw down some straw mulch to cover the soil.

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The last image is of a bed that got a liberal dressing of composted goat manure and bedding last fall before I planted garlic. I’ve got a couple of summer squash seeded in the middle, and a few other herbs along the outside. Watering this bed is like watering a big sponge. There’s no puddling, no washing–it just all soaks right in and stays there. The plants in it have no trouble breaking through the surface, and are well fed from the decomposed organic matter. Turning a fork-full of this bed reveals lots of worms, whereas the “clean” looking beds devoid of organic matter are mostly absent of these great garden helpers–it’s too hot in there, and there isn’t anything to eat!

But it hasn’t been all soil-building and weed control around here lately. We’ve been dining on asparagus snapped from the many little patches spread around the farmyard and tender salad turnips from our patch and that of a friend with whom we shared the seed. The spent greens gave us some nice meals, and there is more spinach and lettuce ready for the plucking. John even made a rhubarb pie–his very first from scratch with local lard we rendered last winter for the crust.

The guys went fishing a couple of mornings ago and brought home some nice catfish filets. On the way back, they stopped at a pizza place for lunch, and John was telling me about their surprisingly good salad bar. Harrumph, says I, and headed out to the garden to create some supper salads to put that chain place to shame with fresh multi-colored lettuce and spinach, baby dill snippings, chive blossoms, and the last of the early radishes.

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Beat that, Pizza Ranch!

And, John spirited us away one evening last week to a secret spot in the river valley. While Martin wasn’t too excited for a car trip to see flowers? Really? Flowers of all things?–the lady slippers were in bloom–literally hundreds of them along a boggy woodland edge in a magical display. Lucky us!

A pair of slippers ready for their lady

A pair of slippers ready for their lady

Pecking Order

If you ever want to see how apt a metaphor, “pecking order” is for hierarchical office politics, feed your laying flock an hour late.

I slept in this morning, and I usually wait about an hour after letting the chickens out to give them their daily (in the Drummies’ case, twice daily) ration. That gives them time to stretch their legs and forage for weed and bug appetizers before they’re sated with grain. So, it was 8:30 by the time I got out to fill the feeders.

Do not question my authority!

Do not question my authority!

The Barred Rocks, Ruby and Bea, are the unquestioned queens of the flock, along with Lacey, the Silver Lace Wyandotte. Lacey Does. Not. Allow. any younger or smaller hen anywhere near the feeder–they don’t belong there until she is finished, and she’s not sure they belong there at all. Ruby and Bea are a little more mellow so long as any interlopers don’t interfere with their right to eat from any and every part of the feeder they want. Insubordination is met with a harsh verbal and physical reprimand.

Spurz, our little Jungle Fowl rooster, is also at the top–the bigger ladies may not respect him in other ways, but they don’t chase him from the feeder. The second-tier hens are also fully mature from last year’s starter flock–they’re just smaller than the others (though as big as, or bigger than Spurz), so they have to wait their turn.

If they don't find you handy, they should at least find you handsome.

If they don’t find you handy, they should at least find you handsome.

While the Americanas (Gilda and Frannie) respectfully wait to eat until the big girls are getting full, the Silkies are always jockeying for position. Robeson especially likes to sneak in and grab a beak-full of grain with the big hens, then run back out when she’s pecked–proceeding to give as much and more grief to the younger pullets flocking around the periphery. Robeson’s broody mates, Fog and Micheaux, take turns running out of their corner to steal some grain, careful to keep their prize egg hidden from view and squawking loud warnings when the pullets come too close. Talk about micro-managers!

And the poor pullets? Well, the six I’ve collectively nicknamed “juvenile delinquents” are now as big as Spurz-the-rooster, and bigger than the Silkies. But it’s not size that matters at this point–it’s sheer meanness! One of the new-crop Americanas is almost as big now as Gilda and Frannie, and she lords it over her brooder-mates. But when it comes feeding time, she hasn’t yet developed the “pluck” to challenge the higher-ups–and especially the middle management Silkies.

Last on the pecking order are the youngest–the nine Buff Orps and Black Australorps that are catching up to the “delinquents” in size, but who know better than to venture into the henhouse when the big girls are eating. Well, all except for this one rogue Orpington, who starts to peek in the door once the big girls have gone out and the second-tiers are getting at the “goods.” I think she’s the same one who gives us such grief every evening when it’s time to go in–breaking off from the flock and dodging out of the run to hide back under the currant bushes. I don’t know if it’s cleverness or sheer obstinance, but I do know she’s careful to remain out of range of the Silkies’ cruel beaks.

Rouge in disguise.

Rogue in disguise.

There’s a lot less strife when it comes time for the two batches of this year’s pullets to eat. There are more of them, but they fit better around the feeder, and I think the fact that they’re merging in size and that they spent a few weeks in the brooder together makes them a little less likely to jockey for position.

While there’s plenty of politics in the henhouse during a late feeding, I haven’t noticed anything like it with the “Drummies.” Sure the Red Rangers are constantly challenging each other out in the run–standing up tall and facing off (I swear they’d beat their breasts with tiny fists if they had them) before forgetting what the big deal was and running off in different directions–but feeding time is something altogether different.

Hey buddy, what're you lookin' at? I outweigh you by an ounce!

What’re you lookin’ at? I outweigh you by an ounce!

They’re all the same age, they’re all close in size, and they’re all going all-out for the same three feeders without the comprehension that there’s plenty for everyone. When I put the first feeder down, they climb all over each other to get at it before a few of them realize there’s another fully-stocked feeder three feet away. Eventually, they all disperse at the different stations and realize they aren’t going to starve if they just calm down, look around, and leave the greedy scrum for a more convivial “table.”

Maybe a better metaphor here is the 99%?

Most of the time they’re running in all different directions satisfying each individual’s chicken-y desires and getting a little peevish if anyone or anything gets in their way. But occasionally, like when I open the kennel and they taste the freedom of the morning, or when a shadow or loud noise threatens the flock, they all move together with a whooshing of wing feathers and a collective purpose that’s beautiful, powerful, and incredibly fun to watch.

 

 

Hoe, Hoe, Weed & Mow

The onset of summer-like weather has jump-started the growing season–and the weeds. Last weekend, John, Martin, and I put in the tomatoes, peppers, and most of the rest of the onions and leeks.

This morning, before the real heat set in (I think it might’ve hit 90!) I hoed that whole new tomato garden to wipe out the first post-planting flush of weeds. They never look very menacing at that tiny “white thread” stage (named for their single thin taproot), but they are a lot easier to take out at that stage and in this hot weather, when any little soil disturbance makes them wither and die.

The Red Ranger broiler chickens are growing like the weeds, too. John took to calling them the “Drumsticks,” so I’m now referring to them as “Drummies.” They’re only three weeks old now, but I swear some of their legs are as thick as a full-grown laying hen.

I grabbed one up particularly recalcitrant one up in my hands this evening as I was trying to herd them into their kennel, and was amazed at how “meaty” it felt. Just solid and pulsing with heat and energy. I’ve never raised the typical Cornish Cross broilers, which some farmers I know are repulsed by for their tendency to do nothing but sit by the feeder and eat ’til their legs give out, but I’m impressed by the zip of these Rangers.

In the morning when I release them from their secure quarters, they all race out into the grass pen, flapping their wings and checking out anything that might’ve changed in the night. That’s not to say they don’t like their ration: I’ve taken to calling feeder-filling time, the “Drummie Scrum,” and I’ve also taken to filling a third feeder because fifty rapidly growing chickens at two feeders got to be a little too crazy for me to find amusing anymore.

The guys headed off to camp tonight, and I hope they have good weather for it (or at least that Martin is not scared, and the tent doesn’t leak–in that order). We have seen dark clouds roll through a few times today, and now there is lightning flashing in a few different directions. I got the raised bed garden watered early this morning, but I didn’t have time to water the tomato garden before work–I did water it yesterday, so it should be fine.

Instead of watering this evening, I stayed out ’til 9:30 or so weeding garden beds and cleaning things up with the gas trimmer–taking the cages off the rugosa roses and serviceberry and hazelnuts and trimming around them and the edges of border beds and around the buffalo berry bushes. We’ve got a couple of cattle panels leaning up against our power poles, and I pulled those out and trimmed underneath them, too. I think grass loves cattle panels more than anything–if you leave one sitting along a fenceline or in the yard for any length of time, it becomes a real project to pull it out.

I also took a hint from my friend and colleague Robin Moore, who is this amazing blacksmithing, flower-growing, skill-having woman I’m blessed to know. We were at a Women Caring for the Land gathering that Land Stewardship Project hosts in Glenwood, and she started talking about this guy who buys up all the old seed from garden centers and where-have-you and plants it all together in a big, crazy mix.

I got to thinking about all the one or two year-old flower and herb seed I have just sitting around, waiting for the perfect place to put it. Except there is no perfect place, and there is no time to individually plant every last thing I want to grow (or even that I have seed for). But what I did have is this kind of bare, ugly place along the west side of the goat barn that used to have a big pile of goat manure on it, and was sprouting a bunch of weeds.

There were plans for that spot–I was going to transplant the “secret stash” of hollyhocks that John has so far managed not to mow (my dear husband is a hollyhock-hater, but I will let him tell that story!), but with the weather so hot and the spot so remote from my normal watering route, that probably would’ve just led to more hollyhock demise. So instead I mixed up a great, big batch of flower and herb seed–from amaranth to cilantro to Thai basil to zinnias and everything in between–and I hoed up the area, kicked some soil over it, and we’ll see what grows. Oh, and dare I say the mix contains my mother’s special “no-mow” hollyhocks? Shhhhh!

Then I cracked a cold beer and sat on the corner of a garden bed in the deepening dusk–when all the bird calls sound as if they’re coming from far away, watching lightning play across the southern sky and the rain clouds curtain around the farm. The breeze was light, the mosquitoes were somehow absent, and I spent some well-earned time just enjoying the view of the work we’ve accomplished.

 

Pushing Too Hard

It has been a long while since there’s been a “She Said” post. Trust me, there are a few drafts in the queue, but this is the season of all-out work. Last Spring, “He Said” and I were still living in my house in Clinton and the focus was almost entirely on getting the house buttoned back up, so we could move in and ultimately have a lovely summer wedding on the farm.

We accomplished all that and more, but the gardens and grounds got short shrift, and there was a pile a mile wide of tasks that got shoved from summer to fall to this spring–which ended up coming cooler and later than any of us would have wished. I keep reminding myself that the place I moved here from was the “banana belt” of South Dakota, and up here we’re about two weeks behind and ten degrees cooler than what I might’ve expected there–if expectations count for anything in our changing climate. From what my former farming partner has said, I got out of there just in time.

Of course, if you read on to learn the true nature of my personality when it comes to gardens, you’ll see that perhaps the “getting out just in time” comment wasn’t related to the global climate weirding at all. I am glad to see that others have taken over the garden space that once was Flying Tomato Farms–and less glad, though perhaps satisfied in some evil way that others are cursing that gumbo area along the western edge of the gardens that I cursed roundly on more than one occasion.

Listening Stones Farm lost three hens to Marek’s disease earlier this Spring, but it seems like everything has stabilized out in the coop now that the weather has somewhat stabilized. I’m down to eight hens a’ laying, but there are fourteen more pullets plus a young Black Australorp cockerel who’ve taken up residence in the hen house, and we’re getting about half dozen eggs a day–more than we can eat by a good measure, and eventually we’ll be offering eggs for sale rather than simply foisting a dozen upon every unsuspecting visitor.

A little over a week ago we picked up 50 Red Ranger broilers to fatten up over the next couple of months–part of a bulk order with a few friends over on the eastern edge of South Dakota. They (the chickens) are now out in their very own semi-secure quarters in the goat barn, awaiting the time they can set out within the grassy fenced pen to do what their name suggests (range, that is, not practice communism–we haven’t held a HUAC hearing as yet to know their political leanings, but rest assured, we are watching them very, very closely).

Communists? We are watching...

Communists? We are watching…

On an evening earlier this week, when Mr. White was getting ready for his MN Master Naturalist conference this weekend, I started getting anxious about a place to put the tomatoes. I knew where I wanted them, thanks to a brush-and-stump burning project down below the existing raised bed garden that left a small section of the prairie scraped and blackened.

I expressed my anxiety to the Mr., who was attempting to rest in order to get better from our latest plague (this winter and spring have been atrocious), and then I headed outside to pick eggs and survey my intended new garden spot. Heard a machine start, and here he came on the maiden Listening Stones Farm voyage of the 1979 JD 317 garden tractor that a friend recently gifted to us.

He did a couple of passes with me standing by a little disgruntled (My tractor! My garden! Waaah!) before he saw my tractor-tantrum coming on and willingly gave over the seat and went back inside to more fully recuperate. If you have somehow heard that I’m a saint for putting up with Mr. White, you have it exactly wrong. I am a serious pain in the arse when it comes to anything garden related (we can quibble over the other stuff, but in this arena, I humbly acquiesce).

Spent the next hour (or was it two?) cultivating my new garden space, and thinking very seriously that I should have bundled up better. But, you know, how can a gal leave her willing little tractor when it’s doing such a splendid job? Yup. And that’s how JGW got better enough to go on his splendid weekend adventure with the MN Master Naturalists, and I got what I deserved for not taking better care of myself.

I think I’m going to name the tractor Eunice. Or maybe Viola.

At any rate, I’ve been feeling rugged this weekend, though with the weather so perfect and no husband to remind me that resting on occasion and eating regular meals are reasonable things to do, it’s probably a good thing that my body is reining me in a little.

Puttered around with mowing on Friday evening–especially the goat pen where it was getting long (nope, we don’t have goats–the former owners built the pen and barn named for the beasts and we’ve stuck with it), but I avoided a big triangle of dandelions in full bloom and buzzing with early-emerging pollinators.

All at once I saw a crowd, a host of golden dandelions!

All at once I saw a crowd, a host of golden dandelions!

Saturday I felt the worst and only puttered slowly with broad-forking a bed running parallel to the road and planting with a buffer strip of sunflowers, amaranth, cosmos, zinnias, and broom corn to hopefully shield the tomato garden from spray drift from fields across the road (tomatoes are especially susceptible to herbicides). Moved a few finer-leafed daylilies from the raised bed in which they overwintered to a bed along the sun porch. They, along with several other perennials I’m still trying to figure out a place for, were gifted from Earth-Be-Glad Farm near Lewiston, MN.

Today…more small puttering repotting a bay tree and separating our tomato plants from the ones I’m offering for sale, plus a small amount of mowing that once again confirmed I am a total weenie when it comes to driving a riding mower over uneven ground. I remain convinced that I will tip over and kill myself on every bumpy patch–and we have quite a few of them even after I dumped several wheelbarrows full of sand into the foot-deep ruts where the septic pumper truck got stuck earlier in the week (a kindly neighbor came with his large tractor to pull the guy out).

Houseplants become deck plants in the summer.

Houseplants become deck plants in the summer.

It’s hard to slow down even being ill when it’s spring and you can finally get going on the pile a mile wide of projects. T.S. Eliot said that April is the cruellest month, but really it’s May–the month that everyone up here is really yearning for in the depths of winter…when it’s really and truly spring and the weather is so fine and suddenly all the projects of the past six months are falling upon your shoulders if only you were well enough and there were enough sunny days to accomplish them….

There aren’t enough sunny days or hours within all the days of the month, even if they were sunny, to accomplish all one dreams about doing in the first deliriously warm weeks of the spring. Best to just recognize the limitations of one’s capacity and also the importance of taking time for pure enjoyment–of listening to the birds, dozing with the windows wide, and spending time with loved ones over a glass of wine in the gilded evening light.

 

 

 

 

Temperance

Ever notice how the words temperate and temperamental come from the same Latin root? That root is temperare, which relates to moderation.

In Minnesota, we claim to love our temperate climate—and its clear differentiation between the seasons, but in our waxing poetic about the changes once they’ve happened (the intense greens and blues of summer foliage, sky, and water; the rich, ripe colors and scents of autumn; the balmy caress of spring’s warm breezes; the moon on the breast of new-fallen snow, etc.) we sometimes forget until we’re suffering from the effects of the temperamental side of our supposedly ideal seasonality that temperate climates can also suffer from the full-blown temper tantrums of one season not wanting to share the landscape with the next.

Maybe we should temper our disgust with winter’s apparent unwillingness to play nicely with spring: that same root word that gives us temperate climates also gives us both foul and even tempers, as well as Volstead’s act of temperance (a.k.a. Prohibition), a way to harden steel, and tasty little veggies dipped in batter and deep-fried (OK, I’m kidding about that last one).

Out on the farm, the weather isn’t the only thing that’s been temperamental in the past week. Our health, for one thing, has been compromised by a particularly vigorous strain of viral bronchitis that is making the rounds of Western Minnesota and Eastern South Dakota (we suspect it was brought to us from a certain public school in the eastern Dakotas via a very sweet little boy who hasn’t perfected the “cover your cough” rule). He, of course, got over it in a matter of two or three days thanks to mom’s vigorous ministrations, but not before passing it along to both sets of parents.

About six days later, John and I started developing the symptoms. We hosted a couple of friends for dinner Friday, as we were not yet aware we were carriers of this plague, and one of our guests that night notified me in a quite graphic detail this morning that she’s now down with it in all its glory. We’ve self-quarantined since Monday, but I fear for our house guest of two weeks, a former exchange student of John’s who on Monday (just before the most recent winter tantrum) set off on a round-the-Americas trip.

Dear readers, please forgive us, for it appears we may have unwittingly started a pandemic. Kevin seemed healthy as a horse when he left (as evidenced by his vigorous workouts and enormous appetite for eggs, which put off my scheme of making vast quantities of pasta with the excess), but the six-or-seven day incubation period for this illness means our last, best hope is for the less-temperamental climes of Mexico or Cuba to quell any potential outbreak.

In the hen house, the on-again off-again spring has put my girls in a “fowl” mood. Now that they’ve tasted green grass, it peeves them greatly to be confined–if only by their reluctance to set foot in the snow, being that their ramp has remained open during the daylight hours. The Silkies have gone off laying for a week now in protest of my obvious attempt to murder them all in the process of dusting them for mites, though the heavier breeds thankfully tend to ignore the dire warnings of those silly, poofy-headed things that don’t know any better than to “roost” on the floor. The big girls can see very well that the sky isn’t falling, except for when it is—with that damnable white stuff that blankets their favorite scratching ground.

Out on the sun porch, feathers are mostly unruffled among the younger birds except for when my murderous intentions are revealed through the process of—gasp! Cluck!—providing fresh bedding, water, and food every couple of days. Of course, nine of the fifteen birds in the brooder don’t have any feathers yet to ruffle, but their adolescent sisters are teaching the young ones how to adequately express their displeasure once they do.

I’d worried about potential bullying of the chicks by those in their “awkward phase” of feathering out, but if anything it’s the little ones throwing their weight around (figuratively speaking, of course). Not only are the bigger birds outnumbered, but their legs are the perfect length for little ones to squeeze under, and their emerging tail feathers provide a perfect “apron string” to tug on—leading to hysteria in the big sister and hilarity for spectators as the bigger bird runs squawking down the length of the brooder with puffball in tow.

A moment of peace in the brooder.

A moment of peace in the brooder.

I’d feel badly for the older pullets if they weren’t perfectly capable of escaping, as they often do, by fluttering up to the top of the fountain and perching there, peering in the office window as if to say, “Mom! She’s doing it again!” and then getting knocked off by a peer in a poultry version of “King of the Mountain” (or, to pull in the gossipy hen metaphor, “Queen of the Water Cooler”).

By far the biggest inconvenience of this temperamental weather has been the temperamental nature of our internet service the last couple of days. Thanks to Monday night’s snow-sleet-ice storm (with simultaneous blizzard and tornado warnings an hour south of us), we’ve had about two total hours of service since early Tuesday morning. We’ve taken to wearing our cell phones on our persons, so that the sudden buzzing of the updating devices signals us to quick!—run and check e-mail and hopefully fire off a response with the unknowable amount of time we’ve got to do so. Could be five minutes; could be forty-five. Who knows?

As you might imagine, being both self-quarantined due to illness and cut off from communication (and work when we feel well enough to do so) has caused tempers to flare, and random grumblings about being way out on the “howling edge of civilization, isolated from the world.” OK, maybe the quote wasn’t that elegant, but I try to keep this blog rated PG.

The sad fact is that our internet service sucks out in western Big Stone County. Not “sucks” as in how pretty much everybody who has internet service complains about it at some point or other, but “sucks” in both all the normal ways (slow, unreliable) and some uniquely bizarre ways (bills never arriving, no way to know what’s going on when there’s an outage or when we might expect it to be repaired, if—yes, really–ever).

There are only two reasonably-priced options for internet out here in the western part of the county, and they are both managed by individual (male) proprietors who never answer their phones and whose moms (yes, in both cases) are the main point of contact for setting up service or for any problem that arises. If there’s a big problem, mom usually doesn’t answer her phone either. The way you determine if the problem is widespread is if, on the second day, mom’s voicemail box is full and no longer receiving messages.

I can’t help but feel like a jerk in pointing out how crappy the service is because God bless ‘em (as they say in rural Minnesota), these guys are providing a service that no one else is out here. It might take a month and a half to get set up (three weeks wondering if they received your call, and three weeks feeling as though you shouldn’t leave the house in case today is the day they magically appear), but at least you can get some kind of connection that doesn’t cost more per month than filling the propane tank in deep winter. And they’re really nice people when you do finally meet them.

But the fact is, no professional person in their right mind would move to western Big Stone County—even along our lovely lake–with the poor quality of internet service here (detractors fully granted permission to chortle over my admission of insanity). Sure, you can get passable service in the towns—I had decent connections in both Ortonville and Clinton when I lived there—and on the eastern edge there’s the enviable service provide by FedTel Co-op. But in the rest of the county it’s as if we’re still waiting for the latter half of the twentieth century to arrive.

My tales of service strangeness might seem amusingly bucolic to some, but the lack of fast, reliable internet is a major economic catastrophe-in-the-making in our rural areas. There are a lot of goods and services that urban- and suburbanites are willing to give up regular access to in order to get a big ol’ slice of the good life out on the prairie (don’t believe me? Consult your Ben Winchester), but the ability to stay connected to the world (and to the goods and services not available here) is by-and-large NOT one of them. We bemoan the fact that our young people leave and don’t come back—that our towns are dying and our lovely countryside is almost empty of people–the pretty old farmsteads burned, buried, and converted to industrial ag wastelands, but we’ve yet to move forward on a major initiative that could help stem that tide.

While correlation is not causation, the lack of technological infrastructure—specifically high-speed internet–is certainly a factor in our dire economic circumstances and our inability to attract people and entrepreneurs to an otherwise incredibly attractive place. Furthermore, these dire economic circumstances create a climate in which further degradation and destruction of the natural resources that make this place so attractive (including the idiotic decision to annex township land and quarry our county’s namesake rocks in the City of Ortonville) seem like our only options. To quote, once again, one of Ortonville’s illustrious planning and zoning officials, “People who aren’t from here might not understand this, but all we have is our rock.”

Come to think of it, it might be better that we’re cut off from the outside world. We wouldn’t want sales pitches like that to be broadcast too widely.

The clouds are starting to roll back in, and the last weather reports received looked like we might be in for yet another of winter’s temper tantrums. Visibility is dropping, and the feeling of isolation increases, though it’s not entirely unpleasant when the house is warm and the kettle hot. Hundreds of geese roil above the sloughs, and the songbirds are rapidly depleting the feeders we filled yesterday. Despite some discontented clucking in the coop, I decided to close them in for the day, rather than waiting to flounder out there with my stuffy head and drippy nose in the midst of a full-on snowstorm.

It’s almost two in the afternoon on Wednesday, and we haven’t had internet access pop up (according to the last update of my inbox) since 6:45am. Still, we hold out the dim hope of reconnection while we settle in for some reading and the 147th round of tea—a jar of mentholated rub and a box of tissues between us.

Before I get too comfortable out on this lovely, maddening, howling edge of civilization, I’d better slip on something with pockets, so I can feel the buzz of my phone telling me it’s time to talk to the world again.

[Our internet service was finally restored on Saturday.]

Spring Gleanings

I’ll admit it hasn’t been much of a joint blog lately, and I see the “He Said” column is growing long against my less-then-a-handful of posts under “She Said.” So, here’s what I’ve been up to…

photo(3)

Seed starting has commenced, and the onions are up and growing nicely. I’ve got three varieties this year: Long Red Florence for the tasty fresh-eating and kabob onions of summer, as well as my standby Talon F1 yellow storage onion (which I’ve gotten from Territorial Seed for a few years, but now I see High Mowing has it, too). A new yellow storage onion for this year is the open pollinated Dakota Tears, developed by Prairie Road Organic Seed. They are looking really fine.

Blue Solaise leeks are another old favorite–germination is a little thin this year as the seed is getting old. Last year I planted 80 row feet of them, but between flood, drought, and weeds, they only ever managed to get to pencil size–not their usual stout, blue flag-waving grandeur that can last through the winter if the deer don’t get desperate. Started some Mars Celeriac (and with fresh seed, too), but even on a heat mat their germination has been disappointing. We’ll end up with a few for our table, at least.

Yesterday the peppers went in 4-packs on the heat mat–ten varieties with six of them sweet and the rest some shade of smoky. A few new ones this year including Three-Sided From Syria (a last-minute curiosity), Aconcagua (intriguing for years–finally taking the plunge), and a mini belle pepper blend to satisfy my curiosity about that recipe for little peppers stuffed with cabbage and pickled whole. The only new hot one is Martin’s Carrot, which came as a bonus for re-upping my Seed Savers Exchange membership–so why the heck not?

I won’t start tomatoes for a couple of weeks, but the situation is starting to get a little desperate as far as varieties. My December seed inventory lists 13 varieties, which is fairly respectable, but somewhere along the seed-ordering way I’ve ended up with 21 kinds, and then a discussion with a fellow gardener about good little yellow tomatoes landed me on High Mowing’s website adding Yellow Perfection back into my mix–along with two MORE varieties that sort of slipped into my cart unnoticed.

How does that happen? At this rate, I’ll be up the thirty by the time I actually put seeds into medium, and being as I’d like to get them going in the one 20-channel flat I have left…well, I’d better stay away from seed company catalogs and sites for awhile. Though, as any gardener with gardening friends knows, that isn’t always a guarantee. You run into someone, you get to talking tomatoes, and suddenly there’s another packet or two in your purse. Going into hiding might be the only option.

I’m sad to report that we lost a hen last week. She was an Araucana-Jungle Fowl cross, and she’d been listing around for a few days. The others weren’t picking on her, and she was able to get to food and water (and was consuming both), so I didn’t worry too much about it. She wasn’t roosting at night, but she did find comfort with the broody Silkies that hang out on the floor. Still, when I went to shut the coop on Wednesday night, she was keeled over in the run. Bummer.

Despite a few glorious days of temps in the forties and fifties (yeah, we have a lower bar for “glorious” after this winter), the majority of days have been chilly, though bright. I’ve got the whole set-up ready for brooding about a dozen more pullets for the laying flock (and then fifty broilers and a few turkeys and guinea keets after that), but out on the porch it’s hard to keep their pen warm enough except for directly under the heat lamp. I’m getting to the point of setting up an insulated pen-within-the-pen because I want those pullets feathered and ready for the coop before the broiler madness starts.

Meanwhile, we are getting about seven eggs a day from the existing small flock, and the yolks are starting to regain that intense golden color that signifies they’ve been out on grass. Other than giving a few away until there’s enough production to merit selling, my egg utilization strategy combines browbeating family members about consuming their daily ration and ordering in a few pounds of semolina flour to make fresh pasta. Lucky for the family–we have a young man visiting from Germany (a former exchange student of John’s) who is capable of eating an entire day’s production in one sitting (willingly, too–it’s not a force-feeding hostage situation, I swear!).

With the ground bare but still frozen, the only serious outdoor activity I’ve engaged in lately is the endless hauling of buckets-full of trash from the grove. The area nearest the house is getting less junky, but barefoot-ready it’ll never be. Still, aside from the endless piles of rusted-out cans, broken glass, and car parts, there are some cool old intact bottles to be found in the deeper recesses. Making it out as a treasure hunt rather than a years-long chore seems like a better way to attract helpers. C’mon out and join the fun!

Confessions of a Seed Order Procrastinator

I haven’t yet purchased my seeds.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about it, studying catalogs, even filling out forms. In fact, I’ve already ordered hundreds of packets of seeds, but those were the result of a selection process by members of our local food co-op for seed rack sales. They arrived at the store a couple of days ago.

But for my own garden? I’m almost through the process of figuring out which varieties I’ll get from which company–either because one variety I really like is only available in one place, or because the number of seeds in the packet is different depending on the source. After all, 30 seeds of any one squash variety is far more than I have use for.

So, I was approaching readiness with Johnny’s, Pine Tree, Territorial, and Seed Savers (and taking into account the High Mowing and Prairie Road Organic Seed I’ve picked up at conferences), when a disruptive well-meaning friend dropped off her Baker Creek catalog, which I’d not gotten this year. Shockingly, I had not planned on trying any new tomatoes this year–as a result of the disaster that was my 2013 town house garden, leaving some of last year’s new varieties still new-to-me.

Now? Now I’ve got eight or nine more new-to-me heirlooms on the docket. So many tomato varieties, so few years to garden in a lifetime.

Not my best garden ever.

Not my best garden ever.

I’ve since sold the Clinton house, so this year all the gardens will be on the farm. Over the years of market gardening, CSA, and home gardens, I’ve learned that living in the same place you plant is the ideal situation if you can get it–though looking back it’s surprising how much I produced without that being the case.

Mixed tomatoes 2

Cherry tomatoes 2009

tomato basket 2

In 2005, when I started CSA sales down in Southeastern South Dakota, I’d planned on renting the same plots I’d been using for market gardening out on the western edge of town. Several people had signed up (and paid) for their shares, and I was at a farming conference when I got the call from the owner of that land, saying he’d sold it for housing development.

Cue: a mad scramble for suitable garden space. I ended up in two places a few miles apart north of town (one of which was split between three other gardeners), and tried to grow every vegetable under the sun. It was a steep learning curve that first year, but I managed to fill the bags every week for 26 weeks, and the next year I dumped the one place (susceptible to both flooding and herbicide drift) and displaced the other gardeners on the second. My friend H gamely expanded the usable area every year after that, so ultimately it was divided into five gardens of varying sizes for a good rotation.

early spring garden

Spring at Flying Tomato Farms, circa 2007

I am considering getting back into market gardening this year after a few year’s hiatus, but I can’t imagine going at it like I did back then. The farmers market (and the population) here isn’t anywhere near the size of Vermillion’s (though, to be fair–Ortonville’s market is bigger now than Vermillion’s was when I started), and I’m wondering how many years it might take for me to sell a single daikon radish (there, it took 3 or 4).

Of course, back in 2005, I didn’t imagine the scale I’d be at when I left in 2010, or how game people would be to try new things. Stinging nettle, anyone? No, really, they’re delicious! And there is a lot of room out on our farm….

But first, I’d better order my seeds.