I have been keeping a close watch for blackberry patches on the property. Scanning the edges where the pasture meets the woods. It is on those edges that you find abundance. I have been keeping track of the berries as they ripen. Waiting. Eager.
It is officially blackberry season on Fiat Farm.
There is something peaceful and satisfying in a berry hunt. It is simple and basic. Both challenging and rewarding. We have a small window each year to partake of this bounty. Now is the time to dive in.
Actually, there is no diving. Any blackberry picker knows that caution is required. Those bushes have thorns. The fruits are not easily won.
Caution is necessary. Once the fruit is spied you plan the best angle of attack. The arm reaches carefully, but still you know that it is likely blood will be shed. The prick of the thorn. A sharp piercing. A drop of blood. Sacrifice.
But the reward is sweet. The fruits are abundant. The pain is short-lived.
One can better face this thorny challenge by wearing long sleeves and pants. An armor of sorts against the thorns. This armor does not eliminate the thorns but makes them bearable as we reach for the fruit.
With work and sacrifice a reward is achieved. Abundance is harvested.
And we can begin to create blackberry cobbler and jam and syrup. Yum.
I am at war. My opponent is legion. I may conquer my foe in one corner only to turn and find countless others amassing behind me. The battle is endless and requires constant attendance and meticulous attention.
If my enemy is beaten back, my labor will bear fruit. If allowed to flourish my seeds will be stifled.
I am at war with weeds.
The struggle is real.
But I am determined.
I face my garden each day. Hope. Satisfaction. Despair. Loss.
I look closely. Observe. Distinguish between fruitful plant and destructive weed. I dig out the weed while protecting my plants. I strive to create an environment where my plants will thrive, while suppressing the weeds and stifling their progress.
When the weeds are clear, the plants have access to the sun. The sun providing the energy on which we all depend.
Work each day to clear those weeds. Nourish the soil. Advantage that which bears fruit.
I need to remind myself of this.
These thoughts float through my mind as I tackle the weeds and tend my garden.
My three approaches to growing tomatoes this year.
In my eagerness, I started my tomatoes entirely too early. I sacrificed a dozen or so to below freezing temperatures in the hoop house, but still had over fifty plants (of several varieties) to plant in the garden.
I started these plants months ago. I watered them, nurtured them, and set them outside on sunny days.
I weeded their soil, enriched it with amendments, and made trellises to support them in the future.
When the weather was just right, I planted them in the ground with companion plants to attract pollinators and deter pest.
After planting over 50 plants this way, I still had six leggy, but healthy starts to deal with. Hmmm.
I decided to experiment and see what happens when I don’t pay any attention to them. I dug a trench for each tomato in an overgrown space behind the hoop house that I will leave wild this year. It is filled with weeds but gets plenty of sun. I just stuck them in the ground, and I will see how they do. If they thrive, I will have an abundance of tomatoes. If they don’t, it will be no loss.
Ironically, after all this work and planning, I walk back to the house and find several volunteer tomatoes in a bed outside my back door. These guys are thriving on their own. The seeds stayed dormant until the time was right and germinated without any help from me. I believe this variety is called Tommy Toes – a hearty, productive heirloom cherry tomato that lasts all summer. We snacked on them when we moved to Fiat Farm last November. When I cleaned out this bed last fall, I intentionally left some tomatoes to see if they would come up on their own. They did.
I look forward to seeing the results of these different strategies. Will the pruning and attention I give the trellised tomatoes produce more than the ones I ignore and let grow wild? Will the tomatoes outside my door thrive without any help from me?
or, why I suddenly had to have a raised bed for asparagus and strawberries.
If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, by Laura Numeroff, was a common bedtime story in our home when my boys were toddlers. It tells of a mouse who, when given a cookie, then asks for milk, a straw, and a series of other actions by his boy. In a similar way, a gifted rhubarb plant set off a chain of events on Fiat Farm.
If you give a friend a rhubarb plant, she will want a permanent garden bed to grow it in.
When she decides to build a garden bed, she just has to grow asparagus in it.
Then she goes to buy asparagus online and sees that bare-root strawberries are on sale and needs to buy some of those as well.
Waiting for the plants to arrive, she puts her husband and son to work building the raised bed and filling it with compost.
Seeing how easy that was, she decides to add more raised beds to her garden.
And isn’t that exactly how so many projects start.
I am grateful for the rhubarb and also the prompting to add asparagus. Both are perennial vegetables that are ready to harvest in early spring. As a perennial plant they will produce year after year with a little love and attention on my part.
Like most perennials they will take a few years to establish. I look forward to this reward.
Strawberries are good companion plants for asparagus and are also one of the first plants to bear fruit in the spring.
I placed my raised bed close to the house at the top of a slope, because our winter rains showed me that my summer garden space gets flooded and muddy in the winter.
Plan for the future. Observe your space. Keep busy.
Chicken tractor on what? Steroids. Yep. That’s right.
This system takes all the composting power of chickens and multiplies it.
Let’s back up a bit.
A chicken tractor is basically a mobile chicken coop that can be moved around your yard keeping the chickens safe and contained while giving them fresh grass and fertilizing the soil.
Karl Hammer of Vermont Compost Company developed a system to feed over 600 chickens with food waste collected from local businesses. The chickens live off this waste, fertilize it, and break it down into a rich compost that gets sold to local gardeners. (This video shows how he does it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IWChH9MHkHg)
Permaculture expert Geoff Lawton combined these two concepts to create the chicken tractor on steroids. For us it is a system that supplements our chicken’s food while providing us with compost.
Let’s take a look:
This mobile coop can hold up to 35 chickens. It provides a safe spot to sleep at night, shade and protection underneath during the day, and has 4 nesting boxes for laying hens. The large wheels and handlebar make it movable over uneven terrain. We got plans for this tractor (aka Chickshaw) from Justin Rhodes at Abundant Permaculture.
Like any compost pile you need to add carbon and nitrogen. We used chicken bedding, straw from the pig pen, leaves, cow manure, and grass clippings. These elements are contained in a ring made of hardware cloth. We put the chicken’s food on top of the compost pile. The chickens eat their food, scratch at the compost and add their own manure.
When the ring of compost is full you start a new ring and turn the original compost. The original compost has begun to break down and is filled with microbial life that supplements the feed we give the chickens. The piles are turned weekly (or bi-weekly like we did) and in about a month become compost that can be added to the garden.
My original pile has given me four wheelbarrows of compost with several more to rake up. Working with the chickens this way will give us a continuous supply of compost from the waste generated on our property. This system really works!
Well, actually, Mr. J tilled my soil; but the deed was still done.
I know. I know. I said I wouldn’t.
I have pontificated time and again on how no-till is the method to use. How tilling kills all the beneficial life in the soil. I have said that I would use a no-dig approach to my garden.
Then I ran out of time.
I spent the past two weeks weeding, spading, and raking by hand. I have planted my seedlings along the way. But this made a very small dent in the seedlings that needed planting and the soil that needed preparing. I looked at the amount of over-grown garden remaining, mentally listed all the plants and seeds left to be planted and concluded there was no way I could get it all done in time.
NOW is the time to plant all the things. The only way to get it all done is to till. And so, I tilled.
There. I said it. Now you know.
I am quickly learning that I can have all these grand ideas and ideals, but I am often short on the time and resources necessary to make them happen. I must adapt. Roll with the punches and move on.
But can I tell you how nice it is to till? The soil preparation that would have taken several days took just a few hours. I was able to get over 20 tomatoes and 16 tomatillos in the ground in no time. I am amending with kelp, rock phosphate, and pelleted chicken manure. I will add compost as I am able. I will build the soil with organic matter so that next year I won’t have to till.
Unless I do. And then I will.
There are blessing in all things.
I borrowed the tiller from a church friend. When I picked it up, she asked if I needed garlic.
“Yes, I would love some garlic!”
How about mint, do you like this Amish mint?
“Yes, I would love some mint!”
Do you like rhubarb?
“I don’t know, but I can learn to cook with rhubarb.”
All the while she was breaking off fresh asparagus for me to munch on. This is what I want to be when I grow up. Homestead goals.
Do you have enough eggs?
Yes, we have enough eggs.”
Here, take two dozen home with you.
I dream of have such established abundance that I can share with a new farmer to her get started.
Until then, I am off to plant seeds in my freshly tilled soil.
It was time to move the pigs. There was much planning. Discussions of how, when, and where. Sketches on a notepad. And waiting for some reinforcements. It felt a bit like a military operation. Moving the pigs is a process.
We forage our pigs and during the winter we would bring them back to the stall at night, making it easy to move the electric fencing to new areas. But the stall needed to be cleaned out, the weather was warming up, and it was time to begin keeping our Large Blacks out in the woods.
Keeping them in the woods makes our day a little easier but makes moving their fence a challenge. How do we keep them contained and occupied while we shift the fence to a new area? We had been working on this for the past week. Firstly, food is involved. The plan was to keep them occupied with breakfast in one spot while we moved the fence around them. A good plan until one of the big girls snuck outside the fencing and went back to their stall. Not ideal, but it could be worse. We locked her in the stall and brought back extra food to keep the remaining three occupied. When the fence was set up, we brought our escapee back and gave still more food to everyone.
After three days of pig camping, it was time to move them again. We decided to bring them back to the stall, feed them there, move the fence while they were secure, and then bring them back to their campsite. This worked perfectly but was not ideal because we wanted to use the stall for other animals and keep the pigs in the field full-time. Additionally, we were relocating them half-way across the property to an area we need cleared for a new fence line. This would involve a pig procession.
We needed a plan.
After some complex communication, Mr. J and I had a clear-cut plan. We set up an extra length of fence in the new area, making an enclosed paddock. The pigs would be moved and kept there (with food, naturally) while the rest of the fencing was shifted from the old location to the new one. We waited for our oldest son and daughter-in-law to return from a visit with grandpa. This was all-hands on deck. The “kids” arrived, we laid out the plan, and got to work. The girls walk the pigs across the pasture while the guys move the fencing and water.
Ready, set, go.
It was quite the parade. Two girls shaking containers of cracked corn calling “pig, pig” followed by four pigs wondering when they would get their treat. At times, the pigs are like cats crisscrossing in front of you and you have to keep a close eye on everyone all at once. But we plodded along and made it successfully to their new paddock. Meanwhile, the guys worked quickly to move the remaining fence and set up their portable shelter.
Walking those pigs across that field makes me ridiculously happy. I have them trained; I know that we are giving them the best life. And it worked without a hitch! I love it when a plan comes together. Especially, when we often find ourselves saying, “well, that wasn’t the plan.”
My potatoes are going gangbusters. And this makes me ridiculously happy.
I wrote earlier about my foray into potato growing. (You can read about it here) I had no idea if my little experiment would work. In my enthusiasm I planted them entirely too early. With the snow and freezes that followed my initial planting I feared that they would just rot in place, and I would have a potato farming failure.
Then I saw them popping through their mulch of aged horse manure and straw. I covered them with more manure and straw. It rained. They popped through again. Now every time I am in the garden, I look at the potato patch and am amazed by its growth. All I am doing is covering with aged compost and they continue to thrive. I LOVE this. I am a simple woman, and stuff like this makes me ridiculously happy.
Living life on the edge, some hope, and lots of work
In my eagerness and optimism, I started my tomato seeds entirely too early. Currently they are long, leggy and ready to bust out of their Solo cups.
I have been checking our weather forecasts frequently. Trying to navigate our final frost. There is rain heading our way and I want to plant before it hits.
Feeling optimistic (and having a plan to cover my tomatoes on chilly nights) I decided to get some plants in the ground today.
If only it were as simple as digging a whole. There is much more involved with this previously tilled garden and clay soil.
Preparing the Soil
I loosened the clay with a pitchfork, pulling weeds along the way. Then I raked in kelp meal, rock phosphate, and pelleted chicken manure. This will add minerals and nutrients to the soil.
I added an aspirin and some Epsom salts to each tomato hole. You can read more about the benefits of these HERE and HERE.
The soil is depleted so I am doing all I can to give my plants and strong start.
It felt good to work in the ground and get started with this growing season.
My oldest son was helping me in the garden and asked where I planted my 25lbs of potatoes. I walked him over to the spot and discovered potato plants popping up.
It worked! They are growing. Now I will need to add more aged straw with horse manure later this week to cover these sprouts. I will also need to keep the weeds at bay, so they don’t overtake my potato plants. But these green leaves have given me some hope.
More Work to Do
And then I turn around and see all the weeds that will need to be addressed before the rest of the garden gets put in.
I could use a tiller, but I am aiming for the least disturbance of the soil that I can manage. Whenever I have pulled weeds, I have found tons of worms and I would hate to lose them to some aggressive tilling.
A garden is hope and promise and lots of hard work. It is worth it.
We have a goal of raising as much of our food as possible. Being responsible for that food from start to finish. That means providing our animals with the healthiest life possible, and the most respectful death we can give them.
We have purchased dozens of chicks to raise for meat and eggs. I acquired all the tools necessary for butchering in anticipation of that day.
The day came sooner than expected with a sickly hen that was not getting better. Today was the day. We decided to use this hen as a practice and added an extra rooster to the process.
Our original plan for the day was to take down some old fencing, but this sickly chicken became the priority, and all resources were directed towards the effort.
Mr. J unboxed and assembled the chicken plucker. Our middle son nailed the kill cone to the tree and set up our workspace. I cleaned containers, heated water for scalding, and provided ice water for rinsing. I also collected the chickens.
I must say, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. I had mentally prepared myself for this day. And it certainly helped that I started roasting whole chickens several years ago. There was a time when I was squeamish around a chicken carcass from the store. Not anymore.
We will make use of every part of those chickens. Nothing will go to waste. The sickly chicken (probably injured, not diseased) ended up in the compost pile We did not want to risk making any other animal sick. The rooster was butchered. The dogs will get the carcass, feet, and organs. The pigs will be offered the intestines and other bits. The water we used to rinse and clean was poured on the plants in the hoop house. The feathers have been tossed in the pig pen. If the pigs don’t eat them, they will end up in the compost.
We need to work on technique. But this is a start. You have to start somewhere.
If you want to grow your own food, you need to do the work. From start to finish. Life to death.
Our mornings start with a sprint as we take care of the animals and end with a whimper as we make our way upstairs to sleep. With the arrival of spring there is so much to be done. The days are longer, the weather is more enjoyable, and the time to plant looms.
Establishing the garden
The challenge of a new garden is real. I have to learn the seasons of this new home. I have to prepare my beds – weeding and planning for little seedlings and tiny seeds. Where should each main crop go and what companion plants should I plant nearby. Putting up a fence to keep the livestock and dogs out. Creating something from nothing. I am overwhelmed with the barren aspect of this space but look forward to creating a place of abundance.
All this takes time
When I began to garden years ago, I learned quickly that most plants need at least two months before you can harvest any food. That is assuming your crop survives storms, drought, bugs, and other creatures that want to partake of your hard work. This is not an easy feat and any harvest at all should be celebrated.
This is important because if you think you may want to grow your own food in the future you need to start NOW. You need to practice. You need to fail. You need to learn what works. What you love to eat now and what you can preserve for the future.
I feel compelled to grow as much food as possible. For our table, for our health, and to bless others.
I feel compelled to suggest that you grow as much food as you can this summer. Maybe it is a tomato plant in a pot on your patio. Some green beans against the side of your house. Or filling those raised beds you haven’t found time for in previous years.
Grow something. Practice. Fail. Learn. And celebrate your harvest. Bless others with your abundance.