Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Yarn along -- baby cardi and a thrift store read

The sun is shining, the thermometer is climbing and I'm itching to seed at least one of the cold frames -- but it's been a quiet day inside. Jack left for school at 8:30 and promptly returned at 9:30 looking greener than my yet-to-be-planted spinach.

He crawled back into bed and fell asleep almost immediately. I could have slipped outside but I had some editing work to do; besides, I wanted to stay close in case he needed me. He woke up a few hours later, said he was feeling much better and even asked whether he was well enough to go to basketball tonight. Then he threw up. A lot.

So while the poor lad is back sleeping, I thought I'd quickly check-in with this week's Yarn Along.

Here's what I'm reading and knitting this week:

I finished that baby cardigan, sort of. I cast off the main body but simply couldn't get myself excited about knitting the arms or collar. (I think it makes a pretty cute vest anyway and it still counts as this month's Year in Colour project, right?)

I'm happy with the pattern but the yarn (Lion Brand Homespun -- homespun my foot) was horrible! I only used it to see if this cardi would make a good quick-knit gift for a yet-to-be-determined expectant mama, but the bother just wasn't worth the savings. I am so done with synthetic yarn.

There you have it: I've officially become a yarn snob.

I think I'm going to begin my recovery by casting on some wholesome worsted-weight Shetland wool or perhaps that special skein of perfectly delicious baby alpaca. Yes, that will make things right in my knitting world again.

The book I'm reading is "Flight from the city: An experiment in creative living on the land" by Ralph Borsodi, which I recently picked up at a thrift store for 25 cents. First published in 1933, the book chronicles one family's move from the city to the country in search of economic and domestic security. It's dated: a decent salary then was $50 a week and their homestead was purchased for $4,000, with $500 down and monthly installments of $50, but it's a fascinating and thought-provoking read.

What I find truly sobering is to think how far society has come since then -- unfortunately, down the wrong garden path. But no rant today. I'm off to check on the bedridden boy and bring him some ginger & honey tea...

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Better than Christmas

My seed order finally arrived*! And with eight weeks left to our last frost day, it couldn't have come at a better time. Phew!

While I have a number of seeds saved from last year, I'm growing some new veggies this year -- good eats such as broccoli, brussell sprouts, leeks and parsnips, plus some more winter squashes.

I decided to change up some of the varieties, too -- Bull Nose peppers instead of, or perhaps in addition to, Jimmy Nardello's; Black Beauty zukes instead of Ronde de Nice; and Danvers 126 carrots instead of (or maybe as well as) Chantenay Red Cored. I'm also broadening last year's varieties and adding Mesclun mix to my leaf lettuce, and growing National Pickling cukes along with Longfellow.

Now I just have to convince the cats to give up their bird watching perch/scratching post, a.k.a. my plant stand.

I don't think this one is going without a fight. Look at her -- she's pulling the 'aren't I cute?' trick!

* I should point out that The Cottage Gardener, a wonderful heirloom seed company that I've written about before, shipped the order out ages ago. It was the post office that held things up.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Madcap Monday -- Cold frame update

Today's outdoor temperature at 12 p.m. : 6 degrees Celsius/42.8 degrees Fahrenheit

Today's temperature inside the new cold frames: 19 degrees Celsius/66.2 degrees Fahrenheit

Bring on the four-season growing! Now if I could only get my compost pile to thaw out...

Ed. update: As of 9:30 p.m., the outside temperature has dropped to minus 2 degrees Celsius, but it's only 1 degree in the cold frames -- a three degree difference, versus today's 13 degree differential. So once the sun sets, it looks like the frames are losing heat like a sieve. Tomorrow I'll try snugging some straw bales around each frame for some external insulation. Stay tuned!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Building our cold frames

When we first moved to our farm, our barn was filled with decades of, ahem, stuff. Much of it was beyond salvage, but we did find many well-seasoned tools that linked us to the hands that once worked our land and treasures from a time when this smallholding provided a livelihood and sustenance for its caretakers.

The farmhouse has been renovated and upgraded over the years, but there are still some relics from an earlier homestead that are tucked into a dark corner of the barn. While I'm grateful for our energy-efficient windows, I knew these old storm windows could once again help shelter our family from the cold.

I was fortunate to attend a conference where I heard Maine farmer Eliot Coleman speak about his ingenious and yet simple strategies for extending the growing season. Much of his knowledge is captured in his inspiring and sensible book, Four-Season Harvest -- a must-read for anyone interested in tending to, and reaping the delights of, a year-round, fresh-food garden.

Coleman got me turned on to the idea of growing, harvesting and eating fresh in every season. While we're still enjoying preserved goods, onions & garlic and root crops from last season, my body is craving greens from the garden. So today, we built our first cold frames.

We originally planned to build the boxes according to Coleman's suggestion for the simplest cold frame: a rectangular wooden box, 8' long and 4' wide with a 12" back wall and an 8" front wall.

But as we were collecting scrap wood from the barn and driveshed, we found these pieces that seemed just right.

We did measuring and some cutting...

... and constructed two small boxes measuring 4-1/2 feet wide and about 2-1/2 feet deep -- much less than Coleman's recommendation for two 4' x 8' cold frames per person.

We mounted the four windows on the top using eight hinges - the only materials we purchased for the project...

... and we set the two frames outside the perimeter of our existing kitchen garden.

Over the next few days, I'll begin to stock them with our first scallion, spinach, leek and lettuce seeds.

These frames are small but to me, they represent another step on our family's path towards self-sufficient living. And I can't wait to taste farm-fresh greens next February!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Foto Friday -- Spring blessings...

... and Nature's miracles.

Wishing you a joy-filled weekend!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A question for you green thumbs -- heat mat or not?

How many of you use heat mats when starting seeds? And how much of a difference do you see with germination rates and overall plant health?

I have a number of heat-sensitive seeds that I want to start this growing season (last year I bought transplants for those 'tricky' varieties) and I'm considering buying a heat mat. I don't relish the idea of relying on supplemental heat (or specifically, plugging something else in) but we keep our house quite cool, and other low-tech options that I've read about, such as placing seeds on top of the refrigerator won't work as we have a high-efficiency fridge that doesn't put off much heat.

I've read about building a simple light box and rigging it with sockets but I am so not an electrician. Case in point: figuring out the relationship between amps, watts and volts gives me a headache.

I've got my light stand in my office, which has a southern facing exposure, so if it's a sunny day, the space does get warm. But given our weather lately that's a big "if". It also gets very cold at night.

If we had our hoophouse up, we could use solar heat, manure hot boxes and/or supplemental heat, but that's been bumped to our fall project list.

The cost isn't the biggest issue: I've found a mat that comes with a 72-cell tray and dome for $35 -- not cheap, but not bank-breaking either. It's whether this comes under the category of "need" or "want."

Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Thank you in advance, oh wise ones!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Yarn along -- Sugar snaps and baby sweaters

I've been so preoccupied with thoughts of baby goats this morning that I totally forgot it was Yarn Along Wednesday.

So here's what I'm reading and knitting this week:

I'm still working on last week's chunky baby cardigan. I'd been looking for a 'stock' baby sweater pattern that would be a good quick-knit gift, so I decided to try this one.

Thing is, I'm liking the pattern but not loving the yarn. It's a Lion Brand Homespun yarn synthetic. I wanted to use something inexpensive as I'm just test driving the pattern but it's just not the same as real wool and real homespun. I also think I'm a bit short in yardage, but we'll see.

But the book I just started reading -- that I'm loving! When the folks at publishing company Thomas Allen & Son asked if I'd be interested in a review copy of Andrea Bellamy's new book "Sugar Snaps and Strawberries", I jumped! She's the green thumb behind the lovely Heavy Petal blog, which is devoted to urban organic gardening.

Featuring beautiful photographs and a stylish design, the book offers advice and information on finding, assessing and using even the smallest of growing spaces. Later chapters cover the nitty-gritty basics on garden planning, soil testing, sowing seeds, garden maintenance, making the most of limited space (think succession planting, interplanting, vertical gardening, and so on) plus harvesting and preparing for next year. She also includes a substantial list of edibles from A to Z.

There are also DIY instructions on how to make seed bombs (or balls) (the activist in me loves this idea!), building a raised bed and preparing a container for planting. She also provides handy quick reference lists on the top power plants (aka dynamic accumulators), top 10 easiest edibles and ornamentals for part shade, just to name a few.

Even though this book is about 'simple solutions for creating your own small-space edible garden' (that's the subtitle), I'm looking forward to learning about some better ways to work with my own garden.

Remember when -- The triplets' birth day

Spring is a time for birth and new beginnings and I've loved reading about the many new arrivals on other farms and homesteads (see here, here and here.) In fact it's inspired me to write about the time we welcomed our own new arrivals.

This is Lucy and her wee one Sammy. We brought them to our farm in November 2008 as our wether, Oscar, was showing signs of stress due to what we thought was loneliness.

We were wrong. Oscar was just nasty and nutty. So Oscar went (into the freezer), and Lucy and Sam stayed.

Sam thrived and grew into a fine wee buck.

Being greenhorn farmers we kept the two together too long and before we knew it he was a virile young buck. Rowangarth Farm was expecting its first babies.

I was really worried about Lucy being rebred by her own offspring, but our vet was quite pragmatic about it; the deed was done and we'd deal with the consequences.

It was hard to tell how far along Lucy was because being a pygmy goat, she resembles a barrel on four legs even when not pregnant. Knowing the gestation period is 145 to 155 days, we did the math and anticipated an August delivery. Early that month, I began looking for the signs -- a hollowing of the flank, a discharge of mucus, bagging up of her udder -- nothing.

Then one night, as I was closing up the barn, I noticed her pawing at the ground like she was making a nest. Having experienced my own nesting instincts when I was pregnant, I decided to move her to the birthing pen, next to the main goat pen, to give her some time to get used to the space.

I said goodnight and flipped off the barn light.

Around 12:30 pm that night, we awoke to the sound of whinnying and thundering hooves. Lucas and I threw on our boots, grabbed our flashlights and trundled out to the barnyard. One of the donkeys had escaped into the hayfield and the horse was flipping out. After much cajoling and carrot waving, we managed to lure her back (yes, it was Cinder... the cheeky one) and secure everyone for the night.

As I walked past the usually quiet barn, I heard Lucy cry out with a pitch and intensity that I'd never heard before. I slide open the barn door, flicked on the light -- and there was Lucy with her three newborn babies: two boys and a girl, two white like dad, and one fawn like mum. They were perfect.

The afterbirth was still hanging from her and the kids were still wet from their watery delivery. I grabbed the birthing kit and pulled from it a pile of flannel receiving blankets that I once wrapped my own babies in.

I helped rub down the tiny kids and dabbed their umbilical cords with iodine. I put down some fresh straw for bedding and gave Lucy a bucket of warm water with a cup of cider vinegar and a handful of raisins for a treat.

Then I sat quietly in the pen, simply watching and reveling in the beauty and wonder of new life. Lucy was an attentive mama and she encouraged all of her babies to suckle, chortling and nickering as she nudged them towards her udder.

One baby was smaller than the others (the white one pictured above), and he couldn't get up off his belly. I'd read about how many farmers who don't want to bother raising buck kids for meat simply drown them at birth. It made economical sense, but I simply couldn't do it. It was the first time I came face-to-face with the realities of rearing livestock; it made me question whether I would ever have the fortitude to make a living doing this or whether the animals will remain a project of my heart. I'm still wrestling with the answer.

I moved slowing and carefully and positioned myself beside the new mama. Her udder was bright pink, silky and warm. I gingerly took a tiny teat in one hand an and sterile shallow cup in the other and I slowly began to draw some of the thick, sticky colostrum from her. I'd read about offering this first milk to kids in a pan, but baby showed no interest at all in feeding. I'd also read about using a stomach tube, but I didn't have one on hand and as it was now 2 a.m., it would be several hours before we could make it to the farm supply store.

What we did have was a large supply of newborn syringes for human babies. I knew there was a danger of discharging nourishment into the kid's lungs and not the stomach, but I felt if I did nothing, he'd certainly die.

So I took the wee runt in my lap, pried open his mouth and gave him his first drops of sustenance. He dribbled some of it on his chin, but I was sure most of it made its way to his tiny belly.

I remember laughing at Sam who kept popping up and looking over at his new brood/siblings. It looks like he's smiling in this photo, doesn't it?

I didn't stay in the pen too long as I didn't want to interrupt this new family's precious bonding time. I tucked the runt back in with mama, closed the pen gate and for the second time that evening, flicked off the barn light.

I dozed for a few hours but by 6:00 a.m., I was headed back out to the barn. I remember feeling nervous -- would I find happiness or heartache?

You be the judge.

We continued to supplement the runt's nursing with a syringe for the next few days but I left most of the mothering to mama.

As Lucy was raising three babies, we didn't think there wasn't much milk left for us. We could have bottle fed all three of them, which would have been the sensible thing to do given that we were interested in using goat's milk, but we didn't.

I was in such awe of Lucy's mothering and the growth and development of her babies, I let nature take its course. She did a beautiful job raising her spirited little ones.

This is the whole family in April 2010 when the kids are 8 months old. We named them Rosie, Billy Nibbles and Archie -- he's the runt, who's grown into the biggest 'kid' of the three.

Sadly, we lost Billy Nibbles this past fall to urolithiasis, a condition whereby urinary calculi form in the urinary tract making it impossible to pee.

While I look forward to welcoming some spring arrivals to our farm again, we don't plan on breeding the girls any time soon. While I'm still interested in milking goats, it's not part of this year's plan. Besides, we may want to consider Nigerian or perhaps Nubian goats, both being higher milk producers than pygmies.

In the meantime, I tell people these are my starter 'herd', to help me learn about the ins and outs of raising goats. Truth be told, they are more pets than livestock now. But they keep the weeds down, the sumac in check and they show us all the weak spots in our fencing. They're also an endless source of amusement and joy and I feel privileged to have shared in their beautiful and wondrous beginnings.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Madcap Monday -- the Spring (?) edition

I heard them before I could see them. And then there they were -- three massive V formations that spanned the width of the bright azure sky. The Canadian geese were back. With a hearty 'whoop' I called out to Ella and we welcomed our friends home. It was a perfect way to usher in the Spring Solstice. That was yesterday.

This is today.

While yesterday the snow seemed to recede before our eyes and the kids played baseball in sneakers and sweaters, today they bundled into their snowsuits before heading down the driveway to catch the bus.

I was feeling discouraged and down by the unexpected snowfall, but then Ella turned to me and said, "Mama, it's so beautiful." Then Jack said, "It's so quiet, too." They were right.

We lifted our heads and caught snowflakes on the tips of our tongues. After the children boarded the bus, I turned and walked towards the barn and I could feel the ground soften and squelch beneath my feet. Now back at my desk, I can hear the birds singing.

The changing of the seasons is an exercise in respect, patience and in letting go. Despite all the control we humans try to exert on her, Mother Nature is a much greater force than any of us. Spring will arrive when she is ready, not according to a date on the calendar.

Spring is a time for new beginnings. For me, that means cultivating a greater sense of acceptance and patience in my everyday.

So on that note, I wish you all a happy (belated) Spring Equinox and a day filled with peace, light and abundance!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A good day

I've been working in the barnyard for the last few hours: today's gorgeous spring-like weather demands it.

I started at the top of my mental to-do list and managed to check a few quick items off it: re-hang the barn eavestrough, measure for new gates into the back paddock, re-wrap the basswood tree to protect it from donkey chew attacks, dig out the seed trays from the potting shed.

I was alone, but not lonely. I worked slowly and with deliberate intention. Despite having an overwhelming list of tasks that need to be done, I kept my attention to the here and now, simply savouring the deliciousness of the moment. Birdsong filled the air, water drip-drip-dripped into puddles and the muddy earth smelled like promise. And manure.

I'd wrestled with a particularly frustrating morning "at the office," but as I moved through my chores I could feel that part of my world dissolve, easing the stress-filled burden from my neck and shoulders like I'd slipped out of a heavy winter coat. I kept filling my lungs with the breath of spring, and felt taller, stronger and fuller for it.

While I'm very, very fortunate to be able to work from home and make money to help support my family, my part-time job revolves around a world that I've tried to leave behind: one of business and finance. There's also always the sense of working for someone else -- another editor, a publisher -- or something else, namely a paycheque.

But this farming work is all for me and my family. While it's easy to drown in the workload, it's also my salvation. Maybe that's why finishing one job is making me hungry for another, whether I'm cleaning the barn, fixing a fence or marking out a future fruit tree. Or maybe I'm just high on all this spring air. All I know is every time I nurture this piece of Earth that we call home, I feel a shift; an opening towards possibility and the future.

That's a good day, indeed.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Yarn Along

Last week I wrote about Ginny over at Small Things, who has a fun way to share two of my favourite indoor winter activities -- reading and knitting. The idea is to take a single photo of what you're reading and/or knitting right now and share it on your blog. At the bottom of her weekly Yarn Along post, there's one of those Mister Linky's Magical Widgets where you can share your blog post.

Here's what I'm up to this week:

We're adding bees to our farm this year (more on that soon) so I've been reading up on beekeeping. This is an older book -- first published in 1977 -- but it's got loads of practical information. Hence the title... duh.

While I'm still working on Jack's second sock, I wanted to cast on this month's Year in Colour project. There's another pattern in Judith Durant's One-Skein Wonders book that I've been wanting to try -- a quick-knit baby sweater that uses chunky wool and 6.5 mm needles.

Everyone relax -- it's for a mama-to-be, not me! More on this project soon, too.

I must dash. The farrier is coming today to trim the equines' feet and I've got to catch them before he gets here. It's astonishing how fast those lugs can move (in the wrong direction, of course) when they see his truck pull up to the barnyard!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Lessons learned -- Wood heating

Blogger Mama Pea recently wrote a post on "Getting in wood", which inspired me to write a (slightly cheeky) update on our own heating adventures.

Back in December 2008 (seems so long ago!) I wrote a post on "Winter prep, homesteading-style." In it, I described how we used a combination of an external wood furnace and a Elmira cookstove to heat our home and garage.

We still do, but we've learned some lessons along the way.

Lesson #1: Deciding you want to harvest wood from your own woodlot is easy. Actually doing it, especially when the primary tree cutter/harvester/splitter is working 60 hour work weeks, is much harder.

Lesson #2: Buying logs is easier, especially when compared to harvesting it yourself. Or chasing down above-mentioned tree cutter/harvester/splitter.

Lesson #3: Cutting, splitting and stacking those logs isn't as easy as buying them.

Lesson #3b: Finding a kind-hearted friend (yes you, Dr. B), especially one with a heavy-duty wood splitter, a fancy tractor equipped with a grapple and a free weekend, to help you mow through your massive woodpile makes life so very much more pleasant. And warmer.

Lesson #4: If you think you have enough wood to last the season, cut and stack more -- especially if you don't have enough seasons under your belt to base your opinion on. We thought that log order would last us two full winters. Evidently, we were wrong.

This is our woodshed. It's only mid-March. Insert panic here.

Lesson #5: Desperate situations call for desperate actions. Translation: When it's January, minus 30 degrees out and you're rationing wood, buying a cord that's already cut and split is super easy.

Lesson #5b: Especially when you have lots of little hands to help unload it.

Lesson #5c: It's also way more expensive. We won't be doing that again. Guess I'll just have to knit more...

Lesson #6: When you compare the dollar cost of buying wood versus an annual gas or oil bill, bought wood still comes out ahead -- but not by as much as I expected.

Lesson 6b: In the long- and short-term, wood has the feel-good factor of being more sustainable than fossil fuels, environmentally and financially. It also provides us with a tremendous sense of independence, despite having to buy 'processed' wood this year. Put differently, when oil hits $200 a barrel, our home -- and our children -- will still be warm.

Lesson 6c: I'm not convinced our external wood furnace is the way to go. It's convenient, but hungry. We're considering our options. That, too, is expensive.

Lesson #7: The biggest and our most underestimated 'cost' of heating with wood is time: you need lots of time to harvest, cut, split and stack it, plus time for seasoning. In a perfect, or maybe just functional, world we'd be putting up wood for the 2012 or even 2013 winter, not scrambling to get through this one. But with Lucas working as much as he has the past 18 months, it's been a challenge to carve out the time needed to get ahead. Challenging, but not impossible; I know we'll get there.

Lesson #8: Despite all the headaches we experienced this past year using wood for fuel, it's one of the things that I'll truly miss when Old Man Winter finally gets to rest.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Madcap Monday -- Adventures with round bales

Since we first brought animals to the farm, we've always fed them with small square bales of hay.

Measuring approximately 3.5 ' wide by 2' by 2' and weighing between 40 to 50 lbs, they're easy to move around and use as we simply break open the bale and peel away the number of flakes needed. We've also found the hay stays fresher longer and there's less waste.

Last fall we thought 215 bales would be enough to get us through the winter, as the equines ate less than that in 2009. What we didn't anticipate was that as we were buying hay this year (versus using our own that we hired a farmer friend to cut and bale for us) the bales themselves would be much, much smaller, or at least less densely packed. And we have equines who love to eat. All the time. Total gluttons.

So there we were, nearing the end of February and rationing the last of the hay. Our hay guy was sold out of small bales for the season. We needed to take drastic action.

We needed to get a 600 lbs round bale.

Yes, we have a tractor now! Meet Rollin, a 1975 135 Massey Ferguson. More on him soon...

Having not experienced a round bale on our farm, the equines weren't sure what to make of it.

When they realized it was food, their instincts kicked in.

Cinder got this crazed look in her eyes and started chewing along the top like it was a cob of corn.

Lee rubbed up his head against the side of the bale while making these deep guttural, ecstasy-induced sounds.

Gall, usually the most respectable one of the bunch, shoved his whole head into it.

But alas, a day after bringing the bale into the barnyard, we discovered there was a big rainstorm coming. We didn't want to leave the bale uncovered as we knew it would get ruined in the rain, especially as it was tipped onto its side.

Lucas moved it into the barn's first run-in, hoping we could salvage most of it. The equines had other plans.

The barn now has a lovely communal bed/snack bar/depository of poop/duck roost.

And I'm shopping for more hay... and a cheap used round bale feeder. Or maybe we'll just go back to small bales.
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