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The skies above Listening Stones Farm have been filled with murmurations of blackbirds and cries of waterfowl on the wing. The cacophony in the slough just east of us is louder than a Friday night frat party, though it starts before dawn instead of finishing just then. Every so often amidst the hundreds of geese honking their hearts out comes the cartoonish quacking of one indignant duck.

Winter “as we know it” did in fact end on March 6th, as Paul Huttner bravely predicted. What has come between then and now wavers between something approaching summer (75 degrees a week ago) and an unwelcome flashback (high of 34 today, with s-n-o-w predicted for late afternoon). I put peas in the ground March 16th, but I doubt they’ll poke their tender tendrils into the open before the end of the month.

All this seasonal ping-pong has led to constant task-switching around the farm, as we attempt to match up what needs to get done with what the weather is doing, and is projected to do in the next few hours and days. Onions, leeks and celery are up and growing in the house, and peppers and eggplant are seeded in their germination flat, warm and cozy on top of a heat mat. I’ll check through the seed supply for something more to start today (not tomatoes…not yet).

We spent Friday morning, which dawned clear, calm, and slighty moist, pulling and burning brush on the south lawn as fast as we could, knowing the wind would come up in the early afternoon hours. We stopped adding branches at noon, but I still had to douse, and douse, and douse again to get the pile safely under control as the breezes started to build an hour later. It made the low 60’s early that afternoon, but the wind that came up soon swung around to the north, and before nightfall it was back down into the 30’s. Cue unhooking and draining of all the hose I’d used earlier, so it wouldn’t freeze in the night.

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Calm weather and close containment are key when you’re burning in an open area.

Last weekend, on a gorgeous 65-degree Saturday, John and I cleaned out the extremely deep litter of the chicken coop. I’d assembled a 5x5x5 bin the night before, using scavenged u-posts and woven wire from around the farm, and by the time the coop was empty, the bin was full to mounding and overflowing, and we were both exhausted. The next morning I moistened the whole thing, inserting a watering wand with the rose taken off into the center of the pile.

By Sunday night, it was steaming like crazy, and it was still steaming (though more subtly) this morning–almost a full week later. I added another wheelbarrow-full of rakings from the ground around the bin, and even with that, the level has sunk down below the top of the wire enclosure. I would love to stick my 18″ probe compost thermometer in there if I could find it, but I did find a bunch of other stuff I’d lost while looking for it!

Vega inspects the coop compost

Vega inspects the coop compost

Along with finding things I wasn’t looking for, the other thing weather ping-pong does is kick my farm-induced ADD into high gear. I don’t know if it’s a diagnosable illness, but it can work to advantage if you let it. There is just so much to be done that it’s hard to waste a day even if you only accomplish part of each of the fifteen tasks that you had on your list.

That was yesterday, when I hauled the tractor battery out of the basement where it has lived since the night of our first snowstorm last November. I opened the goat barn (a process in itself, as the doors are rickety), opened the tractor hood, and connected it. No luck. So, I pulled the battery, hauled it back to the mudroom, and hooked it up to the charger. Ten percent. OK, I’ve got time to run eggs to the co-op and take the dogs for a walk. Twenty-seven percent. Well, I can finish pruning the apple trees, and while I’m at it, that branch on the black walnut tree that snatches off my hat every time I walk under it. Forty-one percent. Huh, I can pick eggs and move that pile of rotten wood and branches by the chicken coop. Sixty percent. Hmm. I’ll re-walk the areas I intend to mow and look for potential obstacles.

Seventy-two percent! I’m going for it! I pulled the battery off the charger, hauled it back to the barn, wired it up, and backed right out–knocking over an enormous pile of bamboo stakes in the process. Ahh, well. I’ll pick those up later. Off we go, down the yard to mow that snarly old raspberry patch! And now to the sunflower and broom corn stalks in the lower…uh-oh, too wet! Almost stuck! Back up to high ground to tackle the tall grass by the crab apple trees!

I was making good progress when the Very Bad Sound came. The Very Bad Sound is known to anyone who owns an old farmstead with lots of tall grass and grove areas in which one hundred years of previous owners have tossed various things they had no use for. Or, maybe they just set the thing there fifty years ago and wandered off in a fit of farm-induced ADD, and they forgot about it, or they couldn’t find it (kind of like my compost thermometer). By the time I got the PTO switch flipped and the tractor shut down, I had a long section of heavy-gauge wire wrapped around two out of three of the mower blades. I should add it was the two out of three mower blades that were hardest to reach.

So! Guess I’ll let that sit until John gets home and tells me where the jack is hiding! Off to turn under the winter rye cover crop in the raised beds!

Joe Pye chews on a raspberry stalk while I turn the winter rye cover crop.

Joe Pye chews on a chunk of raspberry cane while I turn the winter rye cover crop.

I eventually got impatient with waiting for John, and propped up the mower deck with broken pieces of pavers in order to reach underneath. Another half an hour rolling around on the ground on alternating sides of the tractor and the wire was out (I made a special trip to stow it where it can do no more harm) and I was back mowing stalks in a small area where the grove meets the prairie, and which has a particularly nice stand of nettles. They’re already poking up, so now it’ll be easier to get back in there and harvest wild spring greens.

But today…well, spring greens harvesting is not in the cards Mother Nature is dealing. After a morning where the skies did not seem big enough to contain the geese in them–a morning of stowing tools, tarping equipment and re-securing the barn doors–we’ve ping-ponged back into winter with the swirl of airborne waterfowl replaced by swirling snowflakes.


Time to settle my farm-induced ADD inside for the afternoon. I might try looking again for that compost thermometer. Who knows what I’ll find instead!


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…


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!