Tuesday, March 31, 2009

So Long High Tunnels

We got the high tunnels down this weekend in between rain storms, and I have the plastic drying on the driveway as I type. As you'll see, we didn't get it down soon enough to avoid the bok choi or the tatsoi bolting, but everything else seems to be doing well. The February planting of turnips, radishes, kale and beets are doing well, and everything else is green and growing.

Early spring here in Maryland is a tricky season. We can be 70° F one day and 42° the next with night time temps still dipping into the 20s° occasionally. Cold season crops don't like high tunnels in hot weather, and that's one of the drawbacks of our homemade tunnels: the sides don't roll up, and the end venting is inadequate at best on warm, sunny days. (I need to get me one of those cool thermometers that El has.)

You can see the tunnel skeletons in the background of the picture above, but that's our neighbor's house in the photo, not ours. This is our house, looking pretty barren at the moment. It sits directly in front of the barn, and it's a nice, short walk out there for winter chores. Soon, we'll be moving all the animals back out onto our rotational pastures.

You can see the tunnel frames in the foreground. These lean against the side of the barn until they're needed again. The advantage to taking the plastic down, besides prolonging its life just a bit is that it helps prevent salt build up in the soil by allowing the natural rains to thoroughly flush it. Our tunnels are up between November and March. Plus, our summers get so hot that without being able to roll up the sides, we'd be hard pressed to grow much of anything in there. I'll be using the new tunnel again with shade cloth to try to grow lettuces through the summer.

My plan with the tunnel to the right, our first one, is to plant a buckwheat cover crop, till it in, solarize the soil, and have it ready for planting late fall/ winter crops by August. I've been dealing with some pest and lettuce disease issues in parts of it, so I'm hoping this will eliminate much of that non-chemically while also improving the soil. I'll till in the buckwheat, and the solarizing will help break down the organic matter, making its nutrients more available for the plants. Buckwheat is a fast growing crop, so it suits my needs particularly well here, in addition to being good at taking up phosphorous in the soil, one of the problems with Maryland soil in general, and mine in particular. So, it'll satisfy those fellas in charge of nutrient management planning.

I thought I'd post a photo of our set up for folks to see. If you click on the photo, you'll be able to see the captions I photoshopped in:

Our lot is shaped like a giant L: you're looking at the short part of the L and the long part extends out to the left past the market garden. I would guesstimate that the house, barn, and two winter pastures take up about 1.75- 2 acres; the rest we use for the market garden and summer rotations. Here's a picture of the kids and the dogs running through those pastures back in December:

That's the mobile chicken coop off to the right side looking like a solar panel.

And here are some parting shots of the tunnel plantings:

Monday, March 23, 2009

Independence Days Update

Okay, it's been so long since I posted on my independence-oriented doings that I've forgotten the categories and what week we're on at this point. Maybe we could now call it the sporadic independence days, or SID for short? This covers the last month or so...

A quick confession: I haven't been posting as much in part because work has stepped up, but also because I lost my camera battery charger and am at a loss without photos. *sigh* I kept hoping it would turn up, but nothing. I guess I'll have to suck it up and buy a new charger. In the meantime, I'll try to get Jim to take some photos for me and upload them later.

Update: My honey's so sweet. He read my blog post at work and sent me some photos already!


First sowing of radishes, beets, turnips and kale is already up and growing nicely in the high tunnels, which will be coming down in the next few weeks.

Seed trays have germinated and live in my mobile greenhouse, allowing me to roll them into the garage on cold nights to protect against frost. Don't worry, it's anchored to the truck this year and performing beautifully. I don't want to jinx myself, but I ought to actually know which tomato and pepper plants are which this year. Imagine that! I have two varieties of broccoli, several lettuces, cabbages, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and Julia's seedlings out there now, all doing well.

This past week, I began direct seeding the market garden, which Jim tilled for me with his new tiller, making for some lovely garden soil. While I hope someday to get away from tilling, breaking new garden out of weedy old pasture can be back-breaking work, and right now, I welcome the tiller. The kids and I laid the drip tape irrigation this past week, and yesterday I began laying some polymulch for designated working paths.

I've seeded 2 varieties of carrots, several varieties of onions, second sowing of turnips and radishes, 3 varieties of kale, spinach, peas, beets, lettuces, and 2 varieties broccoli raab. Jim and Julia got 4 rows of Russian banana fingerling potatoes in yesterday.


We've been harvesting all winter out of the high tunnels, which are just the most amazing things. Everyone should have a small one in their backyard. Really.

Right now, we have all of the following available for harvest: spinach, kale, swiss chard, carrots, arugula, lettuces, 2 varieties of endive, escarole, turnip greens, thyme, citrus thyme, sage, rosemary, chives, salad burnet, parsley, oregano, tarragon, rosemary, sorrel, cilantro. The bok choi and tasoi have long since bolted, and the beet leaves are just too tough now, but Bella and the chickens appreciate them. Outside the tunnel, the kales are coming back, as are some of the napa and savoy cabbages and green onions and volunteer spinach. We'll see on the overwintered beets and carrots.


Still working on that country ham cure from December; it should be finished this week and ready to hang and age. I also preserved several half gallons of Bella's colostrum in the freezer for emergencies. Other than that, I'm working on using up my stores to make room for a new year.


Jim pulled a new fenceline at the top of our property, and he bought a pull behind tiller for the tractor, which will make life much easier for both of us. He also put a load of Delaware eggs in the incubator, so we'll see what comes of that. It's a home-made incubator, and so works questionably at best. We have a new heat regulator, so maybe that will make a difference. Last year we had no luck with the Ameraucana eggs we put in there, but they could have been sterile.

On the safe side, I placed my poultry orders, and I'll be adding Bourbon Reds to our heritage turkey line up. I also ordered more Ameraucanas because everyone loves the colored eggs and some Buff Cochins, who are supposed to be good broody hens, since I've had no luck getting any of my existing hens to go broody.

I also ordered three new packages of bees and picked up some new wooden ware that I need to start assembling. Unfortunately, both my hives were deadouts due to low numbers. They starved with plenty of honey just inches away. Very sad. If I'd combined the two hives at the end of the season, I think they would've made it through. My bee inspector came out to inspect the hives and declared them free of any disease or problems, so I'll be able to use all those frames of honey to help establish the new bees without artificial feeds, I hope.


We're starting to get everyone off the barnyard and out onto pasture. This weekend, Jim divided the turkey shelter (which they never use, but roost on top of) into 3 parts, making a nesting space for each hen. At this point, they're still not laying, but they should start soon.

This week, I separated Maya from her two remaining piglets, who are more than thriving—they are fat little snausages. I'm working on reconditioning her, as three litters in a year took too much. She's in heat again and spending lots of time right next to the fence, but we're planning on keeping her separate from Big Boy until mid-summer for a fall litter. Two litters is plenty per year... if we could just get the pigs on board with that, we'd be good to go.

We've also had two out of three of our sheep give birth, and we have 4 little boy lambs. They're all just about ready to move back out on pasture in another week or so. Right now, they're up in the barn safe and snug. It'll soon be time to think about shearing.

And speaking of births, Bella's calf Daisy is doing beautifully, so we'll be looking for a home for her soon and trying to plan next year's calving. I've been watching Bella closely, trying to detect her heat cycles, made all the more difficult because she's a lone family cow. I'm planning to AI, but I still need to figure out all the logistics of that one. She's coming back into condition nicely, especially now that I have her salt levels worked out, and once the spring grass comes in, she'll be good to go. Of course, she's shedding that winter coat like crazy and looking kind of spotty, but still much sleeker than she was.


While I'd really like to work on cooking new things, sometimes that's just beyond what I'm capable of in a week, especially busy weeks. Heck, I feel good just getting dinner on the table most nights! So, I'm turning this category into a zero mile meal challenge, and this week's props go to Jim who made a delicious chicken giambatto last night and actually got photos. It featured our chicken, sausage, onions, some of the last of our yukon gold potatoes, and garlic. I made some Southern-style turnip greens cooked in our salt pork to go with the meal and, of course, homemade artisan bread with Bella's butter. Yum!


CSA started back up the first week of March, and I've been pleased so far with what we've had to offer folks for so early in the season. This past week we distributed eggs, spinach/ kale mix, swiss chard, spring greens, arugula, carrots, tarragon, thyme, and oregano.

I'm still trying to find a food pantry that accepts fresh foods, and I'll be stepping up those efforts now that the season is picking up.


Well, I'm still learning lots of things, but this week I'll be working on organic fruit management. I have everything in place, have pruned and cleaned the beds, and now need to figure out the spraying schedule for the Surround kaolin clay. So, that's what I'll be focused on for the next week or so.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Lamb Watch

Well, today was our first official day of lamb watch, and yet again before I have a chance to post, there are babies! There was sweet little furry head out there to greet me this morning when I went to milk Bella. I fed and watered everyone as usual, milked, and went back inside to process the milk and tell the kids.

While I was back out giving Bella's calf, Daisy, her morning bottle, Jules came out and exclaimed that Faith had twins. No, there was only one when I looked. But Jules was sure that she saw two fluffy white heads, and she was right. Faith gave birth to the second little boy while I was giving Daisy her bottle!

We went out together, and Jules helped me to dip the navels in a gentle iodine to help prevent infection called navel ill/ joint ill, which is just nasty and not worth dealing with when it can be prevented with good hygiene. One of the umbilici was too long, so I shortened it a little bit by teasing it off jagged like with my nail before dipping, which is supposed to be better than cutting to prevent bleeding. All went well; though Faith is still very skittish and uncooperative, she let me handle the lambs.

Jules and I went to collect siblings and Sam's lasso to bring them all up to the barn where it's clean and dry. At first, I tried just picking up the little boys, hoping Faith would just follow, but of course that would've been too easy. It took me about 5-6 tries with the lasso before I got her, and she fought me the whole way up to the barn. Sam held the lasso while I push/ dragged Faith, and the girls brought up the rear with the babies. Whew! Next year I'll need to figure out some system for all the births.

Mama and babies are doing well. Faith passed the placenta and has nibbled a bit. Both boys have nursed multiple times, and seem nice and strong, though we'll be keeping a close eye on them for the next few weeks.

Friday, March 13, 2009

A Trip Through Time

We spent the first half of this week in Williamsburg, playing at Great Wolf Lodge, an indoor water park, and exploring Jamestown Settlement and Colonial Williamsburg. A rare getaway as a family, we really enjoyed our time down there and felt lucky to get such a great rate through a local homeschooling group. Usually, one of us needs to stay home to take care of the farm, but we're lucky enough to have a really reliable farmsitter (who didn't organize this particular group trip!) that lets us get away for short periods of time every once in a while.

The highlights of the trip for me were the time spent poking around in the colonial garden in Williamsburg and talking with a food historian in one of the colonial kitchens. Unfortunately, my favorite place of all, Great Hopes Plantation, was closed for the season, but I still found ways to nourish my own love for all things homesteading. Knowing that I won't likely get back down there this season has made me more determined to seek out some of the historical homesteads closer to my neck o' the woods, and I'll definitely be heading down to Monticello at some point during this growing season.

Here you can see all the cloches out to protect the plants at night; during the day they are set aside:

They had row covers made from saplings and cuttings and canvas tarps. You can see the tarps thrown aside in the above photo on the potting benches behind me. They also had some permanent row cover frames built that could be lifted on and off the rows of plants. These were constructed of solid framing wood and tar paper, though Jim didn't get a photo of them for me.

Here are some of the standard cold frames for starting plants:

And here, you can see the very clever straw insulation design:

The food historians were cooking over an open fire and had just finished spit roasting a piece of beef and making mashed potatoes, which Emily sorely wished she could taste. One was making some lemon custard tarts in a dutch oven near the fire, and he said it only took a ship about 6 days to bring citrus up from the Caribbean, which made sense once he said it. Nutmeg was also a plentiful spice.

I asked if he thought the food tasted better cooked with wood fire, to which he responded that the meat definitely did, but mostly the food tasted better simply because it was fresh. He continued to say that people now don't know what fresh ingredients taste like, and the girls had to say, "Well we do!" The historian protested, beginning a spiel about how grocery food isn't really fresh in the same way. My girls indignantly said, "we don't go to the grocery store!" *laughing* I told him that we raised our own food, that I went out and milked our cow, etc. and we talked a little bit about the different breeds we raised and those that were raised at Colonial Williamsburg. The piece of beef was from one of their Devons.

Overall, we had a lovely time, but it is good to be back home. I'll leave you with a few more garden images, while I go get to work on mine!