Friday, March 30, 2012

This moment

Independence Days Challenge Update

So yes we bought a Mega-Millions lottery ticket. Yup. The odds are stacked against us. But in the end someone picks the winning number. Could be us.

In the meanwhile we daydream about what we would do if we had half a billion dollars. There are some pretty big dreams. I would love to open a whole foods restaurant. Mark would like to start a premier entertainment venue here in the foothills that would be small and intimate but would attract some big names. In terms of the way we live; well it would be nice to have the money to take care of that big to-do list. Build a good barn, build a greenhouse, get off grid. Maybe some travel. And we would take care of our friends and family. I would love to create a fund that would make sure that low-income folks have warm homes in the winter by improving efficiency and subsidizing some heating costs. There are several good community gardens I would like to help.

In the meanwhile we tend our own garden.

Plant: Gosh there are a lot of seed pots sitting under lights and hanging out in windows. I hope I can remember them all. 2 kinds of peppers. One of them is from seed saved from a really cool looking organic sweet pepper I found at the local health food store. Brussel sprouts, motherwort, stinging nettle,broccoli cabbage, kale spinach in the cold frame, lettuce, nasturtium,hollyhock. A friend who is new to gardening gave me a bunch of strawberry daughters. I put them in the ground last week. Hope they make it.

Harvest: nope not yet. But I did notice some new sprouts on the french sorrel. OOOhhh I can't wait. If you ever have the chance to grow this perennial green I highly recommend it. It makes a lovely quiche.

Preserve: the final tally on Maple sugaring was 10 quarts and 1 pint. Just over 2 and1/2 gallons. We will have to be frugal in our syrup use this year.

Local Food: Just the usual but we did find a local CSA called the Pickup that is a farmer's market over in Skowhegan. The weekly pickup includes goods from several farms and includes eggs, meat, milk, veggies, some prepared food, locally roasted coffee, maple syrup and honey. We are thinking about it. It might just be the perfect supplement to our diet and help to reduce the amount of money we spend at the grocery store. We are still trying to balance how much food we can afford that is local with what our actual bottom line is.

Eat the food: We are still eating a lot of winter salad. Egg meals are more common as the price of local eggs drops a bit as supply increases. We have one chicken left in the freezer from the roasters we tried last fall. Not a bad result since we harvested them last November.

Waste not: We have a children's clothing swap in town. I took a bag of outgrown clothes there and found some f shorts, hats and mittens. I also sent a quite a few bags to the thrift store. I rescued some cardboard boxes from a neighbor's recycling. I use these for sheet mulching in the garden. I gave my cold room a really good cleaning and found a I had some extra canning jars to give to my friend who is just learning how to learn to can.

Want not: Kid's clothing swap and strawberries from my friend.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Evan's new Sweater

I just finished Evan's new Sweater. We call it sleepy forest after the name he has given our home in the woods of Maine. He might actually get some use out of it this year. That is a fresh snow fall from last night.

Crazy. It was over 80 degrees one week ago!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

A rainy day in the orchard

The rain did not keep us indoors today. The weather is damp but not torrential. The light is bright for a rainy day. So we donned our mud boots and raincoats and headed outside to putter. Last weekend we were simply excited to hang our laundry outside instead of indoors. One week later we have had summer temperatures. The snow has completely melted from the garden. Some of those leafy herbs; catnip, horehound, mint, have started showing new spring green.

I have discovered that I have matured as a gardener. I poked my trowel in the soil of the cold frame, moved a little soil around and tossed a few spinach seeds in there. Otherwise I have resisted the very great temptation to do too much else in the veggie patch. I know that although the earth is waking up from her long winter's sleep, she may decide to go back to bed for a little while longer.

I've had my nose buried in garden books this weekend. I've been excited to start planting guilds under the fruit trees this year. I began with planning last fall by transplanting a couple of volunteer comfrey plants under a granny smith. I mulched a ring around the tree's drip line, the furthest point where the rain drips off the tree. My plan was to plant bulbs along this line. But I have a good amount of bunching onions seedlings started, so I think I will start with those instead. Around the base of the tree I will plant nasturtiums. This will help deter borer's.

So we headed out to putter in the rain. I started picking up the branches we trimmed from pruning the apple trees this past month. Mark and Evan were picking up brush from other areas. Evan was mostly playing in the mud.

I looked out into the orchard and noticed that it could also use a good raking. A clean orchard is a happy orchard. So I started raking up the leaves and laying down mulch and some defrosted compost to continue my work in the guild. I will not till the soil when I plant the guild so having some killed sod will make the ground nice and soft for planting. I read in Gaia's Garden, by Toby Hemenway that placing a few small piles of stones around the guilds is also good for attracting snakes and frogs.

While toiling away in a happy frame of mind my thoughts wandered to the trouble spot behind me. It will be a challenge. There is a forsythia planted too closely to another granny smith tree. Mark cut down some overgrown chokecherry bushes there. The whole area is crowded by wild blackberry bushes. I love picking wild berries but I also know that paper wasps like to build their nests in overgrown patches like this. The patch is just on the other side of veggie garden fence. There are some big boulders buried in there. There is another very interesting looking chokecherry tree that will stay. My long term plan is to build a small bench for this area and perhaps plant a few shrubs for attracting beneficial insects. Butterfly bushes, maximillion sunflowers. I will plant everbearing raspberries from Fedco this year so the berries will be replaced.

As I ponder all this stuff I look up at the apple tree I have been working under. There is a small bud of white. At first I thought it was just the rain dripping off the limb. A trick of the light. But no. It is an apple blossom breaking free from its winter coat. I know something this tender bud does not. I know that night time temperature will reach the low teens in a couple of days. I know that apple trees should not be blooming this time of the spring. I walk around to check on the other trees. The green varieties are starting to bloom. The reds are still nestled deep in their coats. This is not good. It could mean that if those blooms have been coaxed open by some warmer temperatures that those trees will not bear much fruit this year.

This is what I know, we had a warm winter, and an extraordinary stretch of summer weather; which started before spring had even arrived according to the calendar, that shattered all sorts of records for temperatures for this time of year in Maine. This is just weather. But when we think of climate change we have to pay attention to the variability in the weather. Climate change can be seen in the extremes in weather we have been experiencing. This has all sorts of consequences. For our small homestead it has meant that this warm weather slowed and then stopped the flow of maple sap so that we did not get as much as we did last year. If the apple blossoms come early, before the pollinators, and then get zapped by a hard freeze we won't have many, if any, apples to put up next fall. For farmer's this can have harder consequences. They grow the food that we eat.

I know that every gardening season is a bit of a gamble. Sometimes you get a good tomato year, sometimes you don't. Sometimes you get a lot of rain, sometimes it is dry. But what happens when all those interconnected species of flora and fauna are thrown askew. Pollinators need the food they need when they wake up, migratory birds need the food they need when they arrive. It really is an interconnected web. When one piece of the web missing it has a cascading effect.

In my way of adapting to the changes we are experiencing I will probably try to make some more fruit syrups to replace the maple syrups. I will probably buy some maple syrup or honey to supplement our shortage this year. If we do not get many apples here, perhaps we will find an commercial orchard that will might have a colder micro-climate. I will hope that other crops will have bumper years to balance out what we have already lost this year.

In the meanwhile, I will continue to work on that apple tree guild. I know that my work this year will benefit my garden for years to come. Even if we do not get apples this year.

I place my hope in those little bunching onions.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Maple Season 2012

The snow crunched under our snow shoes. Mark broke trail and carried the drill and hammer. I carried the buckets and taps. We wandered around the sugar bush looking for the tell-tale holes in the trees from last year's maple season to be assured that we were tapping maples and not an ash by mistake. After so many years of tapping maples you would think that we would know a maple in winter, undressed of leaves we have to know them by their bark. We were 29 for 29 taps!

The start of the season was slow. From conversations we've had, we missed a run at the beginning of February. We tapped 2 weeks early because the season seemed like it would be early. At this time we tapped 15 trees. After a week or so the trails were well trodden. But my bucket remained empty while I walked from tree to tree. We tapped 10 more trees. We tapped 4 more trees a week later. The sap started to flow and by the following weekend we were boiling sap down.

This process has evolved over the years we have been making syrup. The first year we just used the stove in the kitchen and a big stock pot. It was great humidity for my skin and hair ( wild Irish hair) but terrible for a process that is essentially a free food source. We used gallon milk jugs on the trees. Inevitably a new spring chore would be to find the jugs that blew off the trees and around the yard in one of those March winds. The next year we boiled it down in our big stock pot and an old pressure canner on an old wood cook stove outdoors. The following year we repeated this process. Those three years we tapped about 20 trees and got about 2 gallons of syrup which would last until September.

When we moved to our current country eden we decided to try and perfect our set up. Ideally it would be great to have an evaporator pan. But those are pretty pricey for our small operation. Our outdoor arrangement has become an old woodstove that was in a shed on the property. We created a small channel of cinder blocks that comes out from the stove. We saved all the brush that remains after cutting trees for firewood for the winter and used this to fuel the fire. Mark found a pretty awesome chaffing pan at cooking supply store that sells second hand and vintage kitchen ware.

Our sap boiler sorta looks like this one now; only ours only has one pan.

Four weeks after we tapped the trees our season is over. A bit disappointing. Last year we got 4 gallons of sap. This year, when all is said and done, we will probably get 2 and 1/2 gallons. We put out 29 taps all together. The last two weeks the nights were cold enough and the days were a warm enough. I could walk in the sugar bush and hear the plink of sap filling the metal buckets, that we use now instead of milk jug. But now it is too warm. Even if the night were to get cold again the trees have probably shut down for the season. So now I walk from bucket to bucket; my boots crinkle old leaves or make smucking sound in the mud. Spring is here and other seasonal work awaits...

Sunday, March 18, 2012

March this moment...

The temperature is 78 degrees! In just a day the snow has retreated from vast portions of the garden. There are day lily sprouts along the foundation of the house. Red buds of rhubarb are poking out of the ground, pushing its way past last years detritus. John Denver is singing in his lovely tenor,"Sunshine on My Shoulders."

Evan is sporting a new pair of cutoffs. Sap fire is burning. Just as I thought we are getting a good run of sap today. So we will be boiling down for the next few days.

It is time to plant in the cold frame. But for today my chores are nearly done. Upstairs entryway is tidied. The Bread is on its second rise. Pepper and hollyhock seeds are started. After Mark returns from his run, I will go for a long walk and then I take my turn at the sap fire for a bit...maybe with some knitting needles.

Yay, spring!

Spring Cleaning

Yesterday was a throw the windows open sorta day. It was sunny and warm. A little guy in our home spent most of the day outside building gnome homes, playing in the mud and aspiring to make progress with his scooter on the still soggy ground. At one point he had short sleeves on. His cheeks revealed a bit of pink left over from all that sunshine.

Mark started his day by hanging up a new clothesline for me. The old one fell victim to snow fallen off our roof this past winter. He then hung up the two loads of laundry. How great is it to have your laundry dry so quickly, in a day; instead of over several days , as it is done in the winter? Pretty awesome.

The sap was running yesterday. We may get another run today. It was pretty crispy last night on this little hill we have here. This has saved us. Because of the warm weather we have had this past month or so the sap has been slow to run. So far we have put up just over a gallon. Last year we put up 4 gallons. Mark and Tristan spent a better part of the day boiling sap down. We got over 30 gallons collected late yesterday so hopefully we'll get close to 3 gallons when all is said and done.

What did I do? Spring cleaning. Seems a bit contrary to clean house when it is mud season. I am not usually one to do spring cleaning. I save the big cleaning for winter but we have been painting Evan's room and the house has been discombobulated. After we put Evan's room back in order there was a leftover piece of furniture that I had planned to put in the cold room. Isn't it always the way ? Like dominoes one project leads to another until all all the pieces lay down in a nice neat line. Anyway, the cold room got a really good clean out. There were boxes and boxes of canning jars. They have been rinsed out and put on the shelves in the empty spaces. All ready for canning season. Mark brews his own beer. He had too many beer bottles stashed away for the eventual day when he might fill them all up. We negotiated an amount that would work for both of us without being left on the floor. There were a couple of science experiments in there that have met the compost pile. Lets just say this was my room of shame. Now it is efficient, spacious and shameless. Nothing like a clean conscience.

Meanwhile, there is still that piece of furniture still looking for a home. It might just have to find a home in someone else's home. Today I plan to tackle the upstairs entryway. It is where all the winter gear is kept. With all the mud I do not think we will be using the snowshoes and cross country skis again this year. Our home is small and cozy and anything that is not being used can not sit around.

For now I will take this sunny warm weather and work indoors. Soon enough the garden will beckon me and any cleaning indoors will be simple; with a broom and mop. I have until the snow melts off the garden. Better get crackin'.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Independence Days Challenge Update

We had some very spring-like weather this year. It was wonderful to walk outside with just a sweater on. Evan spent most of the day playing outside, in the snow and mud! Perfect boy weather. I spent the day procrastinating on indoor projects and often just found myself standing on the front stoop soaking in the warmth and sun, breathing in the fresh air and enjoying the change in light.

We've lost another ewe this past week. They are old girls. Twelve years old. At one time we had 8 sheep and one goat. Now we have 1 sheep and one goat. We sold Rama-a-lama a couple of weeks ago to a farm where he will be able to frolic with some young beauties. This is sort of a cross roads for us. Should we accept that this is the end of our ovine adventures or adapt our plans? I think we have settled on finding a couple more ewes. The sheep are an integral part of our homestead. They are important to our orchard management plan. They keep the grass cut for us. They feed the trees with their manure. They eat the windfall. Mark freshens up his shearing skills on our sheep before he starts shearing for other folks. We have arranged and barter with a local alpaca/hay farmer to help with haying in exchange for hay for next winter. This should defray the cost of keeping them.

Lots of other things are taking place on our homestead as well.

Plant: kale, motherwort, cabbage, stinging nettle

Harvest: maple sap

Preserves: It has been a slow sugaring season. I do not think we will get the volume of syrup that we got last year. Last year we got 4 gallons. We have only put up 1 quart and 1 pint. We will be boiling again this weekend.

Local food: Tristan has been helping a local farmer and has come home with some very yummy spinach from a greenhouse.

Eat the food: We have been eating lots of things with spinach. Green pie, salads ( SO GOOD!)

Want not: I shoveled off the snow from the cold frame. I hope to get some of my own spinach planted in it this week. I picked up some yellow clips for our solar electric fence. These are going up on the pasture fence this weekend. Mr. Leroy Brown Goat has been flaunting the weakness in our pasture fence. This is okay for now because the snow has been keeping him away from garden and orchard. But he needs to stay behind his fence.

Waste not: I have been purging and getting into spring cleaning mode.

Friday, March 9, 2012

This day...

With this warm weather I feel like those small leek sprouts stretching out of soil reaching for the sun. I am in the middle of a change in my own seasons and can really appreciate the stops and starts that an inevitable change requires. My colors tend toward autumn. But I will embrace the colors of spring.

I wax philosophical these day, I am in the throws of the change of life. Such a nice term for a settling out out of all that I have lived so far. I struggle with the fact that in actuality I am a bit young for this change. But I really have no control over this and must accept that this is upon me. Like winter to autumn I watch as some changes mean I release old habits from the past.I am a brown leaf letting go of its tree.

But this is the cusp of spring and I look towards new beginnings as well. There is a promise of renewal. When all is settled the distraction of cyclic swings will be gone and I will be distilled into my essence. Unlike the the vagaries of weather to the growing season, I will have a choice how my garden grows. This seems more sure than a crop of tomatoes around these parts.

The mystery is what excites me....

Thursday, March 1, 2012


So I have a bit of a dilemma, that I thought you wise folks could help me out with.

We are in the midst of a redo on some parts of our home right now. I am painting Evan's room this week. It is a nice bright color. It is great to see a room change and also fulfill the vision you had for it. When it is done I will share some photos. But I am daydreaming about other rooms in the house right now.

So back to the dilemma.

My grandmother past away in 2004. My grandmother was a solid presence in my life as a child. My parents divorced when I was very young. My mom became bittered and hardened by the divorce. My grandmother was nurturing and a constant when I was growing up. My mom worked weekends and my brother and I would spend weekends with my grandparents. It was at her house that I learned to eat carrots out of the garden, pick the dead heads of the small row of marigolds that grew outside her door. I learned to push a push mower. She taught me to embroider, quilt, sew and crochet. She tried to teach me knitting but this skill wouldn't come to me until later in life. I remember standing at the counter as she made biscuits. I remember the smell of spaghetti sauce slow cooking on the stove for a Saturday night pasta feast.

She made me dolls. Raggedy Ann, Mary Poppins, and small sock dolls that still come out at Christmastime. She made me sweaters and mittens and hats. My home is graced with her essence; teacups, doilies crocheted by her, her teapot, pot holders, she is part of my home. I have a beautifully embroidered table cloth that she made that covers my table at the holidays. I have her cedar chest that she left to me; a nice piece of furniture. She told me that when I was young I would trace the lines in the wood with my fingers. I also have her dishes. A delicate china.

And thus my dilemma. In the process of my redo I am excited to brighten my kitchen with some paint. It is tongue and groove knotty pine. Some of it is water stained. I plan to paint it a very pale yellow with white trim. We have long term plans for the kitchen but for now this is what we plan to do.

My everyday dishes area a very sad assortment of mismatched bowls and plates. Their number has dwindled considerably since we've lived here. We have concrete floors and a slate sink and they are not kind to any thing that should fall on their surface. Can I tell you how many canning jars have met their demise to the sink? Many. Oh and I live with three people of the male persuasions who do not place the same value or care to the odd piece of pottery.

So my grandmother's dishes are brought out for special occasions, like the holidays, or entertaining. So this is what I am wondering...should I bring my grandmother's dishes out for every day or should I piece together a funky assortment of "vintage" dishes?

It is the nature of glass to break, this I know...So I could use your help...