Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Grand Plans: First Phase


I used to feel that a worthwhile life meant a life of deprivation. Anything enjoyable had to be bad. I felt ashamed of loving pretty things or experiencing pleasure in life. I've been learning a lot about self-nurturing lately and how I am the person most responsible for my own well-being. If I don't care for myself I won't be able to care for anyone else and more importantly, caring for myself is a way to affirm that I have value. I am important. My wellbeing matters.

I've been learning to love who I am and a natural extension of that is finding ways to practice self-care. Something as simple as getting my hair cut when I need it, going to the chiropractor when my back is sore, taking a daily shower. Getting beyond those basics, which I used to neglect frequently, I'm discovering what brings me joy. Delving into creative pursuits has become a part of life again and I've realized that one of the creative avenues I love the most is making my home and farm a place of beauty. I want our home to be a haven and somewhere that we enjoy spending time.

This Sunday we made the most of the lovely weather by spending the afternoon cleaning out the garage and cleaning up the backyard. I began thinking again about my grand plans for our backyard area, dreams of turning the space into a wild English-countryside type garden with herbs intermingled with rowdy blooms and tall grasses and luscious bushes. Greenery and growth exploding everywhere (but without weeds). Stone paths and draped branches. Very Secret Garden-y.

The problem with my dream is that I don't know a lot about ornamental plants, i.e. bushes and flowers and trees that don't produce something edible. I know a lot about edible plants, but not the ones that are there to look pretty. It's going to take a lot of research to figure out exactly how I want to plan out this magical garden retreat and I'm okay with that.

Last year we were gifted this picnic table by my parents. It's a beloved family treasure and has seen about twenty years of family love. All that use had some wear and tear so I spruced it up with fire-engine red paint to keep the wood from any further damage. It's well-worn and just perfect for our outdoor dining space of my dreams.


This is our neighbor's horse, referred to as Black Beauty (I have no idea what her real name is). She's a pretty girl and adds a nice picturesque touch to our country backyard.


Right now the hunt is on for a good lighting solution. I like the classic look of cafe lights strung over the table. There are two serious contenders for the source of these lights that I'm considering. Both have their pros and cons.

1. Target cafe lights

Pros:
-- Pretty
-- Cheap
-- Friends have recommended them
-- I can return them to Target if I don't like them or if they break quickly

Cons:
-- Bulbs are easily broken
-- May burn out if there are multiple strands linked together
-- Would have to run a 50 foot extension cord from the garage and that would be annoying to move every week when the lawn needs to be mowed.






2. IKEA Solvinden solar light strand

Pros:
-- Solar powered, so no need for extension cord
-- Cheap

Cons:
-- I'd have to wait til May to get them from Atlanta. 
-- I can't find any reviews to verify the quality of them.


Other than lights, I've been thinking of other things to add in to this dining area. I like the idea of buntings / pennants interspersed with the lights; something like this:


We've got a campfire area to spruce up as well. I'm excited about this whole project and will keep y'all updated. Any suggestions of additional decor that would help make this outdoor dining space more magical?





Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Backyard Chicken 101


It's that time of year again! CHICKEN TIME!

You can actually order chicks at any time of year, but right now is when Tractor Supply stores and farmers co-ops and feed and seeds have hundreds of adorable peeping day-old chicks for sale.

A friend recently asked for advice on raising backyard chickens and I wanted to share a bit of what we've learned in the last two years of chicken ownership. Let me say right off the bat that there are hundreds of backyard chicken tutorials online. My advice is nothing fancy or especially comprehensive. These are just my top advice points when I'm asked about having chickens.




 1. Chickens are messy and will destroy your yard. 

There's really no way around this. Chickens produce copious amounts of poop. And chicken poop is gross. It is stinky. And yes, it is fertilizer and all that, but still. Stinky.

We utilize the "chicken tractor" method but this method has drawbacks. The first of which is getting a coop that is easily mobilized (ours honestly takes a little grunt work to move, so we move it about once weekly). The second of which is making sure you have the space to use this method effectively. Chickens will tear up everything they can get to. Our five hens have a 6x4 coop and are allowed to free range most days and by the end of the week that their coop has been in the same spot there is nothing but bare dirt and piles of poop left over. Moving our coop around is fine here on the homestead because we have a two-acre pasture to use, so having some bare spots isn't a big deal. If we had a regular sized yard I think I'd reconsider moving the coop around because the yard would be completely destroyed in very little time.

Personally think the best option for a backyard coop is one that is immobile, with cleanliness achieved through using the deep bedding method: keeping a bale of straw handy and using it to cover the ground of the coop / chicken run weekly or as the top layer of straw gets dirty, then doing a deep clean and hauling all the straw out to the compost pile every month or so.


 2. Predators of chickens are abundant and clever.

Raccoons, opossums, coyotes, stray dogs, stray cats, hawks, foxes, weasels, skunks. All these animals love a tasty chicken dinner and some will go to great lengths to get it. Most of these predators are not strictly limited to living in the country. I actually think there tend to be more chicken predators in urban areas than in the country.

In our two years we've lost a chick to our own dog, a hen to a stray dog, and a hen to an unknown predator, probably a possum. All but the first loss were due to lack of security with our coop. In both cases our coop was resting on uneven ground (which we didn't realize) and the predator scooted under and had their way with the hen.

Coops need to be on level ground and be well-reinforced. Just chicken wire may not cut it -- a stray dog or even a determined raccoon can tear through chicken wire. Our coop is reinforced with hardware wire plus chicken wire.

Here's some more great information on preventing loss from predators, with specific information on deterring different types of predators.


3. Hens don't lay forever. 

The hard fact is that a hen will not lay consistently forever. Hens' production gradually drops and each year after the first year they will molt, a period of up to four months where they lose then regrow feathers, during which time they will not lay a single egg but will still eat as much as before. Either plan to have a mostly non-functional animal after a few years (in other words, a pet) or know what you are going to do when your beloved laying hen stops, well, laying.

You can either slaughter and eat your chickens yourself once they're past their prime (stew hen is delicious in dishes such as chicken & dumplings) or it would be easy to find someone else who can do dirty job for you. We took in some roosters a few months ago from folks who knew they'd be slaughtered, but didn't want to eat the birds themselves.

Our plan is to phase out hens at around three years of age, so this year we're getting new chicks to grow up to replace our current hens who are just turning two.


 4. Count the cost.

Folks often dream of raising hens with the benefit of "free" eggs. This is a little bit of a myth, in my experience. Backyard chickens don't necessarily equal massive savings. In fact, your home-raised eggs will likely cost at least as much as standard grocery store eggs (around $2/dozen these days I think?) and may be closer to the cost of farmers market eggs ($4-$5/dozen).

Some of the costs that should be factored into the "price" of your hens' eggs: 

Coop: $50-$300 (or more, like these crazy chicken mansions)
Chicks: $3-5/each
Feeding chicks/pullets until laying age: $10/hen
Waterer: $10-40
Feeder: $5-40
Heat lamp: $10-25

Our total startup cost, including feeding the chicks/pullets until they reached laying age, was about $200 which is actually on the low end of the scale. We only spent $50 on our coop, so that was a major part of our savings. It still takes a lot of eggs to make up that startup cost.

Every month our five hens go through a 45 lb bag of organic feed (which we purchase from Windy Acres in middle-Tennessee, though we are transitioning to our own whole grain feed soon) that costs $25. They lay about 10 dozen eggs a month when they're at the top of their game, so each dozen breaks down to about $2.50 when only factoring feed cost.




With all these things said, we get a lot of enjoyment from having chickens. Their fresh eggs are delicious and usually plentiful. The hens all have funny personalities and are amusing to watch as they roam around taking dust baths and scratching around for bugs. Once the initial work of setting up for chickens is over, they don't take a whole lot of work. We probably spend about 5 minutes a day taking care of the hens -- feeding them, giving them water, and letting them in and out of their coop to free-range during the day.


Friday, March 7, 2014

Why we love American blue rabbits: An excellent homestead rabbit




When we realized that we wanted to add rabbits to our homestead livestock we began the process of debating what breed of rabbits to use. New Zealand Whites and Californians are the most commonly raised breed for meat in the US and we did go see a rabbitry with NZW rabbits that raised their rabbits indoors. We felt hesitant about getting a breed that had been developed specifically for commercial production, with a high-maintenance setup -- indoor rabbit housing, artificial lights, heating and cooling, commercial feed -- that we did not want to replicate on our tiny homestead.

We stumbled upon a breeder of American rabbits on craigslist and were smitten from the first pictures we saw of her rabbit kits. They were beautiful animals and as we began researching the breed more we realized how good of a fit it would be for our farm.





Breed History

The American rabbit breed was developed in the early 20th century by Californian Lewis Salisbury. Blue Americans became a recognized breed in 1917 and the white coloring was added in 1925.

Americans were developed as a dual purpose breed for both meat and fur use. The breed became very popular, but after the 1950s breeding numbers dropped. At one point the breed was close to extinction. In the last few years the breed has made a comeback thanks to a number of dedicated breeders. Americans have been moved from the "Critical" list to "Threatened" by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Americans are still considered one of the rarest breeds in the US.

Americans are making a return for good reason. They have many good qualities and we found them especially well-adapted to homestead use. We use all natural methods for our rabbits -- no indoor cages, no artificial lights to stimulate growth, no commercial feed -- and it has led to a very hearty and healthy group of animals.





Breed Advantages

+ Calm temperament: Before getting our Americans we had heard of rabbits having heart attacks from a dog walking by the cage and pregnant does aborting litters due to stress. Our rabbits have proven to be practically unfazable. They tolerate train whistles (loud ones, from a crossing 200 feet from our house), prowling farm cats, a guardian dog who barks all night long, and a rambunctious six-year-old who likes to run around the yard hollering at the top of her lungs. None of these things seem to bother our rabbits in the least. They are very laid back.

+ Good mothering instincts: We have experienced this trait with our first doe Caroline. When she had her first litter we were so nervous that something would go wrong and were up all night checking on her. Her first litter went smoothly -- she pulled plenty of hair to build a good nest and had her babies in the nest box -- and her second litter was a day early so it surprised us completely! She has needed very little from us in the process of raising her kits.

+ Large litters: Litters of 8-10 kits are average for Americans and can be as large as 14. Our doe has been within this range - her first litter was six kits and her second litter was seven.

+ Excellent meat quality and flavor: This breed is a part of Slow Food USA's Ark of Taste for its high quality of meat. Rabbit meat is comparable to the taste of chicken meat, but is very lean. It is also 100% white meat.

+ High-percentage dress out rate: This means the percentage of bones to meat on the carcass is favorable compared to a breed like the New Zealand. One breeder butchers his kits at 8 weeks of age and a 4 pound kit yields about 2 1/4 pounds of dressed meat.



Our experience

We've got nothing but praise for our Americans. We weren't sure how much work rabbits would be on the farm, but they need very little from us to thrive. We've found them well-adapted to natural feeding methods, which was important to us from the start, and the breeding stock we sell is now third-generation natural feeders. Having this breed has made our transition to being rabbit farmers very easy.


Further resources about the American rabbit breed:

Monday, March 3, 2014

Feeding Rabbits Organically on a Pasture-based System





Since posting our rabbit kits for sale on craigslist I've gotten multiple inquiries about how we feed our rabbits organically. Feeding them 100% organic has been a gradual recent transition, but everyone is doing well and staying healthy and there have been no indicators of tummy trouble in the two months since we began transitioning to organic grain as the primary feed.

I'd like to begin with a disclaimer: just because this has worked for us doesn't mean it will work for everyone. Our rabbits have been given a diversity of feed since birth -- that's why we chose our breeding pair, in fact.  We purchased our breeding doe and buck from Amy of Buckeye Rabbitry who feeds her rabbits a variety of garden forage, fodder (sprouted grains), and organic grains. The rabbit kits we sell are now third-generation "natural feeders" and as result their digestive tracts are pretty well adapted to a wide variety of feed.

If you are switching your rabbits over to natural feed, the key is to make the change very gradually and slowly. Carefully monitor your rabbit's manner (watch for signs of lethargy, not moving around as much as usual) and watch their poop any time you change their diet. Signs of loose stool / diarrhea are not good, signs of no stool or a blockage are even worse.

All this to say -- I am not a rabbit veterinarian and cannot determine how any specific rabbit will handle any specific type of feed. This is simply our experience with our own rabbits.

Our rabbits' feed breaks down into five parts: roughage, grains, fresh foods/forage, fats, and minerals. All of these are in a state of experimentation for us. We're constantly trying new things to save money, use all organic or pesticide-free feed, and keep our rabbits at the top of their game physically. Here's what we're doing at the moment with natural feed.





Roughage

Roughage is a fancy word for the fiber that rabbits need to keep their digestive tract in good working order. The most important aspect of rabbit feed is a steady supply of good-quality hay. We lost a breeding doe when we first got rabbits due to what we think was a digestive blockage -- at that time we were not feeding them any hay. We were ignorant and suffered the consequences. Don't do what we did! Each rabbit usually goes through a good-sized handful of hay daily, depending on the weather and how much they like that particular kind of hay. Give your rabbits an unlimited amount of hay. There are hay racks available for purchase or DIY versions to cut down on wastage, but as long as we don't put hay in the rabbits' potty corner we haven't had any issues with them soiling the hay.

We also like to give our rabbits tree twigs and dried corn stalks to chew on, both for fun and to get a little more roughage into their system. Make sure any tree twigs fed to rabbits are not poisonous. The trees in our yard are mostly maple and sweet gum.



Grains

Up until a few months ago, the staple of our rabbits' diet was standard commercial rabbit pellets, purchased from our local co-op for about $11 per 45 lb bag. Once our doe began producing babies (up until a couple months ago she wasn't breeding age yet) we began the transition to all-organic feed. We are a part of the Azure Standard co-op and got our first batch of organic grains and organic alfalfa pellets from Azure. We slowly transitioned the rabbits to the grain, first mixing 1/4 of grain with 3/4 alfalfa pellets. Right now we've got a tiny bit of alfalfa still in the mix, but the feed is 90% grains.

Our current mix of grains is unhulled oats and rye. It's what was on sale and available through Azure at the time. We plan on getting wheat as well as barley with our next Azure order. We will mix the grains up in equal ratios. The rabbits don't like the rye as much, so we may hold off on that in our next mix.



Forage and fresh foods

This category covers a wide variety of plants. In the summer this will mean a good quantity of grass and whatever else is growing in our pasture, which we hope to eventually amend with high-protein forage plants like timothy and field peas. In the spring this means whatever safe greens we gather from the lawn -- henbit and chickweed are big hits. In the winter this means kitchen scraps, though this is something to be careful about since rabbits may do better with some fruit and veggie scraps than others and quantities should be monitored. Our rabbits love apple cores, butternut squash innards, carrot peelings, broccoli stems, cauliflower leaves, and leftover lettuce or greens.

One cup of fresh foods daily is the recommended amount per rabbit, though when introducing new foods it's best to start small and build up to that amount.

Here's a good list of general things it is safe for a rabbit to eat.



Fats

I usually see black oil sunflower seeds (BOSS) recommended for use in feed but I've had trouble finding an organic source that's reasonably priced. Regular sunflower seeds have what looks to be a similar nutritional profile and are about 1/4 of the price. We're going to do some experimenting with introducing sunflower seeds to our rabbits as a source of healthy fat. For nursing and pregnant does I will mix in a higher percentage of the seeds since they're in greater need of fat.

We are also beginning to feed the rabbits small amounts of flax seeds, also from Azure.



Trace minerals

Right now we are also experimenting with how to balance out minerals and salts. We're trying out some kelp granules that contain trace minerals and have salt, but the rabbits don't seem to love eating it and I worry that the granules will get uneaten and lost in the mix if I mix them up with the feed. Plus, they're kind of expensive.

I think next we'll give a try to Azomite, an all-natural trace mineral additive that is approved for use in organically raised livestock. We will be adding in 1 cup per 33 gallon bucket of feed, of course starting out with even less than that to make sure the rabbits' systems can tolerate the mineral mix. We may also go ahead and get standard rabbit salt licks, though there's some debate on whether or not rabbits need them, since ours don't consume a commercial feed mix (those already have salt added) it won't hurt to give them the option to have salt if they want ti.



Overall feed breakdown:

1 part unhulled oats
1 part wheat
1 part rye or barley
1/2 part fat - either flax seeds, sunflower seeds, or a mix

The ratios, for us, are pretty general. We use what we have and sometimes substitutions are made. This is the ideal feed breakdown as a guideline.

With the current mix, our feed costs approximately $20 per 45 lb bag. That's by no means precise but it is a decent estimate. We have been going through about a bag per month feeding our doe, buck, and three 10-week-old kits. My guess is that overall feed consumption will go down over the summer. We are currently moving our on-ground rabbit pens (I'll post more on our housing setup in a few days) every other day, as there isn't much forage anywhere right now, but as the warm weather and rains approach it will be nice to see the pasture grow more for the rabbits to eat. Pasture growth will lead to yet more experimentation about how much feed to give, what ratios to keep everyone healthy and cut costs.

Fodder is another aspect of natural feeding that we're getting back into -- right now we're just working on figuring out a good method that works for getting fodder going, since it's a fairly time-intensive endeavor. I'll post more about that as we learn, plus there's plenty of great information available online about growing fodder for livestock.




This is our rabbit feed story up to date. We are learning more daily and are always open to trying new things. Thank you for reading about our little rabbitry! I'd be happy to attempt to answer any questions in the comments.




--   --   --   --   --   --   --   --   --   --   --   --   --   --   --   --   --   --


Products from Azure Standard:

Kelp granules
Sunflower seeds
Wheat
Rye berries
Barley
Flax seeds
Unhulled oats
Organic alfalfa pellets (non-GMO is also available at a lower price)

A note about Azure: Prices are often variable -- last month their rye berries were on sale for $17 and they're back up to $23 now. If you keep an eye on items you want you can get some good deals when they drop the price temporarily.


Further resources about natural rabbit feed:

 Joybilee Farm GMO-free Livestock Mix  -- This blog gives EXCELLENT evidence as to why commercial rabbit feed is so dangerous and gives a breakdown of the ratio for their natural rabbit feed mix.

Rise and Shine Rabbitry -- This blog has all kinds of great information about raising rabbits and goes in-depth about natural feeding.

Beyond the Pellet: Feeding Rabbits Naturally -- A fairly new book about natural feeding that I'm actually excited to order for myself!





*this blog contains Amazon Affiliate links. There's no extra cost to you, but if you purchase an item via these links Amazon gives me a few cents. ;)

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Hello, again.

Hello, friends! I'm back from the unplanned sabbatical I took from writing. I've done plenty of waffling back and forth over whether I'm ready to give writing a try again, but it gives me joy and stretches me so here goes.

In short, last summer my life almost splintered into pieces. Our family almost fell apart, I almost fell apart. I realized I had lost my way, possibly never known my way since childhood. It was hard. It was sad. There was grief and anger and loneliness. In all that, the darkest place, we were given friends to come alongside us and offer hope and experience, professionals to get our feet pointing in the right direction, groups that knew our struggle. Slowly the pieces were not only put back together, but were readjusted to be put in the right places. We got healthier.

That is all the detail I will share, for the story of my family is not only mine to tell. The essence of my part of the story is this: in my darkest place I found hope and understanding and my life was transformed. It has been nothing short of flabbergasting, this complete 180 degree turn. Perhaps the most flabbergasting part is how blind I was to see how dim my life was. It took a crisis to see that I was living in darkness. I had no clue of how bad my condition was, yet anxiety weighed heavily daily, I felt I was never enough, and I was unsure how it was that I could be so dissatisfied when I had all I had ever dreamed of -- a loving husband, a beautiful daughter, a thriving farm.

In just eight months, things are different. Drastically. That's not to say that somehow magically now my daughter never pitches an epic fit (hello, yesterday!) or that my farm animals don't ever get sick and die or that I never fight with my husband or that I never feel sad. But I feel a new perspective and most of all a new sense of support. My support system has never been stronger and, most importantly, I now know how to ask for help. I don't ask consistently or every time I'm in trouble, but I know how to do it now. Every time I have asked for help I have received love and understanding as I never imagined.

So here we are -- a new life of joyfulness and gratitude. A daily refrain of love, understanding, empathy, grace, perspective. The new life is not without difficulty, for that is what it means to be human after all, but it holds less isolation and a good deal more hope. My desire here in this blog space is to begin blabbering incessantly again about the microcosm of life that is our little seven-acre homestead and to share our day to day farm life with all of you.

With that, I will leave you with a photo of a morning smoothie made with blueberries that dyed it a gorgeous royal purple. Truly, I don't get excited to drink smoothies, but they make me feel much better than eating a Krispy Kreme donut for breakfast, which I did the other morning and then heartily regretted! So drink them I do, at least occasionally when I talk myself into it. And then Charlie the cat peeks in the window to see exactly what he is missing indoors (we cannot let him in while there is food to be have, since he turns into a ravaging beast and will eat anything he can get to -- including, recently, a 2 pound bag of baking yeast?!).











Monday, August 12, 2013

Roasted Garlic Tomato Sauce



Some nights the most comforting dinner to make is one simple, made with just a handful of fresh ingredients and prepared with a minimum of effort. After all, most of my summer efforts have gone into growing things, though it's hard to tell from all the weeds that have overrun the garden. My plants continue to amaze me with what they produce despite the weed pressure.

This year I planted some Juliet tomato seedlings purchased from the Botanical Garden's annual spring plant sale. They have proven to be massively prolific, with our two plants producing over seven pounds of tomatoes so far and still going strong. I've also had several Sungold cherry tomatoes that sprouted from the spot our chickens' coop occupied last summer, when we fed them lots of tomato leftovers.

At first, the rainy weather this summer was a blessing, but lately the wet weather has not been so great for gardens. My squash and pumpkin plants have suffered and all but died off from bacterial wilt and powdery mildew. My tomato fruits are splitting and cracking due to the heavy and inconsistent moisture levels. Luckily, this sauce recipe is perfect for using tomatoes that are not perfect enough to be eaten raw. Just cutting off any nasty parts is all that is necessary.


What with all the abundance of tomatoes, albeit some split ones, I was hoping to find a simple pasta sauce recipe that didn't require anything crazy like removing skins or straining out seeds and didn't have any strange or complex ingredients.

Let me also say that I do not at all care for the standard marinara sauce that comes in jars in grocery stores and I had no wish to recreate it. To me it tastes heavy and sad and almost always gives me horrendous heartburn. It bears no relation to true, fresh marinara which I love dearly. I think the best marinara sauce I've ever had is served at Marché, where it occasionally graces the top of a stunning savory crepe filled with something miraculous like ricotta and mushrooms.

I began my recipe using this recipe as a baseline. It does take awhile for the recipe to come together, but very little of that time is active cooking time. This recipe is nothing fancy. It is straight up tomatoes without any frills and I love it.


Roasted Garlic Tomato Sauce

2 pounds of grape, cherry, or Roma tomatoes (I've used Juliet and Sungold cherry both with good results)
One head of garlic
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 tablespoon of salt
1 tablespoons each of basil and oregano
1 tablespoon of sugar or honey

Wash, dry, and cut tomatoes in half. Toss them in a bowl with the olive oil and salt. Cut the top off the head of garlic and drizzle with olive oil, then wrap in aluminum foil. Roast tomatoes and garlic at 375°F for about an hour, until the tomatoes are soft and darkened.

Squeeze out garlic from the cloves and dump tomatoes into a food processor or blender. Add in basil, oregano, or any other herbs you'd like. Add in a tablespoon of sugar. Puree until smooth.

Garnish with fresh basil. Serve with the pasta of your choice and fresh veggies on the side.


*If you are feeling feisty, add a few splashes of heavy cream to turn this into a tomato cream sauce, which is what I did the last time I made this sauce.

Homeschool

Over the course of the last school year, which was Maggie's first year of public schooling (kindergarten), Josh and I gradually came to the decision that we wanted to give homeschooling a try. I was hugely encouraged by talking with my dear friend Stacy and my wonderful cousin-in-law Julie, both of whom have homeschooled their kids for years, as well as reading a variety of blogs by homeschooling mamas like OMSH over at The Pioneer Woman, Small Things, and Soule Mama.

As we've shared this news with friends and family, we've been met with a very wide range of responses. Quite a few blank stares on the in-laws side; a bit of stunned silence. A couple of "No! You must be crazy! Don't do it!" responses from friends who knew me when I was floundering as a single mom.

And then some really encouraging responses.

A few friends who I consider well-rounded and socially competent individuals shared that they were homeschooled for years. I had no idea! That was another good confirmation that homeschoolers can be well-adjusted, interesting people. One of my closest friends SarahEmily, who is a successful and talented audio engineer who shares my deep appreciation for fancy cheeses, told me that her homeschool experience was the best gift her parents ever gave her. That honestly blew my mind.

Over the last few months, we've amassed a number of reasons motivating our desire to homeschool Maggie. Her homeschool future is by no means set in stone. Even if this year is successful, that doesn't mean we will do it forever, or even that we will homeschool our future children. Our homeschool method may vary from year to year as Maggie's needs change. I've approached homeschooling with as open of a mind as I can, knowing that much adjustment and flexibility will be necessary - and also knowing that it is very possible that homeschooling may not work for us. For this year, however, it is more than worth a try!


Here's why we are giving homeschool a try:


To live at a slower pace.

A little over a year ago, not long after we moved to our homestead, we decided that it would be best for me to be a full-time homemaker rather than working part-time outside the home. Coordinating different work schedules had been stressful for us. It made much more sense for me to hold down the fort at home daily, especially as we've added on various farm responsibilities.

.Just as we had gotten into a kind of family rhythm, school began. It seems a bit overdramatic to say this, but it was true: from the very first day, the public school schedule was very difficult for our family to adjust to. Maggie was coming home from school every day completely worn out. For the first couple months she had major emotional meltdowns almost daily, mostly from being exhausted from the rigors of school. She eventually adjusted, but the routine of school never stopped feeling hectic. It felt like I barely got to spend any free time with my daughter during the week because our entire day revolved around school -- either preparing her for school, decompressing her from school, or getting ready for school the next morning with homework and projects.

We are excited to slow the pace of life a bit this year. Accomplishing things is great, but we want to take time to enjoy life and not rush through it at a breakneck pace. I hope our family pace will teach Maggie that it can be good to take things slowly and make sure to do them right. A slower pace will leave more time for reflection and growth and hopefully a space to diffuse often-mounting frustrations.


To teach Maggie our beliefs. 

This encompasses not only our faith, but also our views on the environment, on personal character, on creating a peaceful and happy home, on food and health, on building relationships, on contributing to our community. There is no space for most of these things in the public school curriculum (nor would it be appropriate for a stranger to teach my child many of these things), but at home it will be natural to incorporate all these facets of life in with "book learning."


To give Maggie time to be a kid.

During the school week last year, Maggie had so little time to simply play. With homeschool we've got about 1.5 hours of sit-down book work planned for four days a week. The rest of the time is free for art projects, plenty of reading, being outdoors helping with the farm animals and garden, imaginative play time, play dates, trips to the library, and whatever else comes up. The freedom to work at our own pace is liberating!


To allow Maggie the space to excel and to learn at her own pace

Last year during the second school semester Maggie had a really rough time paying attention in class, mostly because she was bored. In a public school setting there is little space for a child to move beyond their grade level in learning -- and also little room for a child to take longer with learning something. Flexibility in both these areas is so important.  Kids learn at different speeds and have aptitudes for different things. I want Maggie to be able to be unhindered in her learning if she gets excited about something. I also want her to not feel pressure if there's something she's having a tough time comprehending.


To grow my relationship with Maggie.

When I sent Maggie off to school last year, I felt our relationship become more distant in a way that made me really sad. It became easy to "check out" mentally as a parent and to gloss over discipline issues that I should have been facing.

Spending most of every day with Maggie will give me the time to build not only her character, but also my own. I'm hoping and praying that God will grow our relationship in a healthy way and teach me how to mirror for her how to live a quiet, prayerful, productive, and joyful life.


--  --  --  --  --  --  --  --  --  --


I made this list of reasons mainly to remind myself of why we are trying out homeschooling. I know some days will be very, very difficult. There are going to be huge bumps in the road. But there will also be a lot of joy -- and this list is a reminder of why the hard times will be worth it. I'm excited to see where this journey will take us!


Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Edamame Hummus with Fresh-Picked Soybeans



This year was my first attempt at growing soybeans and WHOA. They sure did impress me with how quickly they grew and how low maintenance they are. The fabulous thing about any kind of legumes, soybeans included (as well as any kind of bean or pea), is that they thrive in poor soil. They pull nitrogen from the atmosphere to meet their own fertility needs, which means not only do they not require any kind of compost or fertilizer, but they also leave the soil more fertile than they first found it. They're a great crop to grow in a spot where you want to eventually plant something that needs a lot of soil fertility, like tomatoes or corn.

We grew a variety from Johnny's Seeds called Butterbean. Within a month or so, the soybeans quickly grew a dense canopy of leaves that not only shaded out most weeds (hooray!), but also provided our farm cat Charlie with a jungle to fit his tiny stature. He believes he's a mighty prowling jaguar and the bean patch was the perfect place for him to stalk his "prey" -- usually my hand as I pulled stray weeds or picked ripe beans.


We did have some issues with Japanese beetles invading and making sweet love out in the open, on every leaf surface available to them. I had heard in my Master Gardener class that most organic controls of Japanese beetles are pointless, so I let the beetles do their worst. They did eat a lot of the soybean foliage, leaving my plants looking like a finely cured Swiss cheese, but their rampant destruction didn't seem to affect the harvest, which has been prolific.

There have been bean pods on the plants for over a month now, but it wasn't until the last week or so that they really began to look plumply filled out. Last weekend we celebrated Maggie's sixth birthday with a family barbecue featuring Fudge Farm pork and Dove Farm beef. The morning of her birthday, Maggie, Josh, and I all headed out to the bean patch where we harvested approximately one square foot of soybeans. From that small space we reaped a harvest of nearly two pounds of soybeans! That makes me pretty excited because we've got another 11 square feet left to harvest still.


Into the kitchen we headed with our bounty, where I boiled the pods in hot water for a few minutes then drained them to cool. Josh and Maggie set up shop at the kitchen table shelling the beans (a surprisingly fun activity as they shoot out of the pod upon being gently squeezed) while I set up the food processor to turn beans into hummus. That evening we enjoyed the flavorful dip with family.



I based my hummus loosely on this Food Network recipe, making amendments to allow for using fresh soybeans rather than frozen. This was my first time attempting hummus-making in my recently purchased food processor, which has more than earned its keep (I have this inexpensive Black & Decker processor that has worked wonderfully despite its low price tag) and yes, it is much much better than attempting to make hummus in a blender. I cannot recommend that method!

I didn't use lemon zest because I'm lacking a good zester, though I'm sure it would add great flavor. I doubled this recipe since it was just as easy as making a single portion. I do plan to freeze the rest of our harvest for later use as hummus, stir fry ingredients, and simple snack food.


Freshly Picked Edamame Hummus

1 pound fresh edamame (soybean) pods
1/4 cup tahini
1/4 cup water
1/2 tsp freshly grated lemon zest
1 lemon, juiced (about 3 tbsp)
1 clove garlic, smashed
3/4 tsp kosher salt (or 1/4 tsp regular table salt)
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp ground coriander
3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 tbsp freshly chopped parsley


Bring water to boil in a large stockpot and boil the fresh pods for 6-8 minutes, until pods soften and begin to split. Drain and allow to cool before shucking - a gentle squeeze should be enough for the beans to pop right out of the pods.


In a food processor, puree the edamame, tahini, water, lemon zest and juice, garlic, salt, cumin, and coriander until smooth. With the motor running, slowly drizzle in 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and mix until absorbed.

Transfer to a small bowl, stir in or top with the parsley, and drizzle with remaining olive oil.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Summer Garden


Last year my summer garden was just one more thing to make myself feel ashamed about. I was having a hard time dealing with every part of life and my garden reflected that: knee-high weeds as far as the eye could see. To my amazement, we still had a harvest - not anything record-breaking, but a harvest nonetheless! A few watermelons (which were overripe, but the chickens loved them!) that were hidden beneath the weeds, some cheery sunflowers with seeds for the goldfinches to enjoy, and some volunteer lettuce.

When I realized that often my garden will surprise me in just that way, I was able to take some of the performance pressure off myself. My only garden goal this year was this: Have a better garden than last year with less weeds and more harvest. Setting the bar rather low really helped me accomplish more than I thought I could.

A big part of the process of learning to love my garden has been figuring out how to make it work for me. I am not a morning person. Never have been. Likely never will be. Hot summer afternoons are absolutely not the best time to be out in the garden, but I've found that evenings after dinner are just lovely (with a good mosquito repellent... or by coming to terms with being a little itchy). Overcast days like today are also amazing for getting into the garden. I've gotten to the point of enjoying being in my garden and the feeling of productivity it gives me, instead of fretting over the inevitable weeds.

Here's what we have going on in the garden right now.


Tomatoes







My tomato plants are various sizes, with the smallest being only a few inches tall and the tallest reaching six feet at its longest point. Some of the larger plants were long overdue for trellising, which I finally put up this week. I use the Florida Weave method of trellising and it works especially well when begun at the right time. I've tried using tomato cages but didn't like them much because: 1. They tend to rust and then you get scratched up by rusty metal. 2. They take up a lot of storage room during the off season and weeds grow up through them and make them difficult to move. 3. They are on the expensive side. 4. You often still will need to buy rebar t-posts to keep the cages standing up. A single tomato plant gets heavy.

 My plants that are producing right now are ones I bought as seedlings from the Botanical Garden plant sale in the spring. The variety is Juliet, which is a Roma-type tomato, and it's a super lanky plant that has been giving us a whole lot of 3" red tomatoes. I've also got three Sungold tomato plants producing - these plants were "planted" by our chickens. Last fall we put two of our hens in the front garden area to trample down and eat some of the weeds. We fed the chickens some tomato leftovers and these Sungolds are from those seeds!


Pumpkin






This gigantic pumpkin plant has a five foot epicenter and vines shooting out up to 20 feet! This is also something the chickens "planted." I'm not sure the exact variety, but I remember buying the pumpkin last year at the farmers' market. It is some kind of heirloom pumpkin, maturing to about 20 pounds, pale orange in an oblong shape.


Watermelon


Only one of my watermelon plants has thrived, but it seems to be doing decently. This variety is called Sugar Baby and it produces smaller round watermelons. Yum!


Corn



 In May I planted three varieties of sweet corn: Golden Bantam (an heirloom variety), Silver Queen, and Peaches & Cream. I planted them in the backyard near the pasture in hopes that Batman our Great Pyrenees would scare off any marauding possums, raccoons, or squirrels. So far so good! The ears are tasseling and I hope will be ready to harvest in the next few weeks.

I also planted some green Oaxacan dent corn at the beginning of July; it is about knee-high now. If it grows quickly enough for the ears to develop before cold weather arrives, we'll use it as popcorn.


Butternut Squash


Butternut squash risotto, curry, pasta sauce, soup... I love it in all of the ways. And am so excited that it is thriving in my garden! There's just one plant growing, but it is HUGE and has at least six squash growing on it in various stages of ripeness.


Soybeans


 This was my first year growing these and I had no idea how tall the plants would get! They overshadowed the green beans I planted next to them. I've been waiting for the pods to fatten up so I can shell, blanch, and freeze the beans as edamame.)


Shallots


Shallots are another cooking staple that I freak out over. They have the most amazing delicate flavor... but are so pricey at the supermarket. I bought these shallots as sets at Home Depot on clearance and now they are almost ready to be harvested. I'm just waiting for the necks to dry out completely before I pull them up and cure them for storage.



We've also got plenty of dill, which is going to seed but I've been using it in quiche, lemon dill chicken, and potato salad. The sunflowers are at the end of two solid months of beautiful blooms, but the goldfinches are loving the seedheads.

What are you growing right now?


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Garden Basics: Control Weeds & Save Your Sanity

This post is Part Three of my Garden Basics series.





Of all the challenges that gardening presents, weeds are the most difficult to deal with for me personally. Weeds tend to give me a mental meltdown. Particularly in the summertime when hot weather seems to make them grow twelve inches overnight!

Last year, weeds were what made me give up hope on my garden fairly early in the season. I was gone for a week in June and when I came back they had grown so much that I felt overwhelmed. I just plum gave up. Since my main garden is in our front yard, all last summer I'd sit on the couch from the comfort of the air conditioning and glumly look at the giant "garden" of weeds that had all grown waist-high.




I am not joking about those weeds, y'all. There is not one thing besides weeds in this picture.


This year I think I've finally arrived at a healthy understanding of weeds. I no longer see them as my enemy and I work my very hardest to not just look at my weedy garden, throw up my hands, and give up altogether. I've come to terms with the fact that every garden has weeds in it, mine especially. I tackle a little bit at a time with my trusty hoe and try to follow these guidelines and use these weeding techniques a little more with each season.




1. Hoeing 

A good hoe is your best defense against the growth of weeds. Weeding by hand is fine if your garden is 1x1', but with anything larger than that a good hoe will save your back and your hands a whole lot of achiness. I own three different hoes, all of which are great for different kinds of weed elimination. The first two large hoes can be found at your local hardware store for around $20. There are a lot of different shapes and sizes of hoes; find the one that works best for you!

*Amazon affiliate links included


Standard garden hoe. This is my all-time favorite hoe, my very favorite garden tool that I could not do without. It is a great workhorse from getting out everything from baby weeds to weeds with big established roots that are tough to dig out. 



"Triangle" hoe. I have no idea the technical name for this hoe, but it sure is shaped like a triangle so that's what I call it. This guy is great for delicate maneuvering in tight spaces between or next to plants.


Japanese-style hand hoe. I got one of these for my birthday this year and wow, I hadn't known what I was missing before! This hoe is fabulous for using in very tight spaces next to plants. It does require getting down on hands and knees to use but is totally worth it.


2. Mulching

Mulching is a great suppression method for weeds. There are so many forms of mulch available, both natural and manufactured: straw, cardboard, wood chips, plastic, cloth. Using natural mulches is my favorite (we use wood chips, cardboard, and sometimes straw in our garden) for many reasons. I'll devote a separate blog post to mulch tomorrow; there's a lot to say about it!


3. Prevention and Prioritization

Catching weeds early on is key. The longer they have to grow, the tougher they are to get out. It takes 5 minutes to hoe a 50' row that has baby weed seedlings (using a hoe is really that quick when the weeds are small!), but if those baby weeds are left to grow for a couple weeks it will take hours to uproot all the adult weed plants that have firmly established themselves. 

Instead of having the near-impossible goal of always having every weed pulled up all the time, it helps to mentally prioritize what areas are most in need of weeding attention. One part of this is knowing which plants are most harmed by heavy weed growth. Onion plants (and anything in the Allium onion family, like garlic and leeks) are particularly vulnerable to weed pressure, as are other crops like carrots and corn. Squashes, melons, and beans are a little more tolerant of some weed competition around them.

The age of your plants is also important in relation to weed competition. Young plants are less able to withstand weed pressure than mature plants are. Mature plants are able to shade out weeds a bit and have root systems that can compete with the weeds for nutrients and moisture. Young plants are more vulnerable in every way, so keeping their area clear of weeds is most important until they get larger and more well-established.

It is also important, that if weeds do get out of control, you make sure to chop them down before they go to seed and create millions of new weed seeds to disperse into your garden soil like a plague.


4. Be at peace with the weeds.

This seems simple, but it has been so key to my mental well-being when it comes to my garden. Weeds are a natural part of the ecosystem and while they are not something that's beneficial in your garden, they should be seen as just another part of the garden experience. Come to terms with weeds and your gardening time will be much more peaceful.  



A word on tilling:

Tillers are great garden tools and ones that I'd rather not do without (we actually don't own a tiller, but either borrow one or this year we paid a guy to till up all our garden areas with a tractor).  Tilling is, in general, necessary for creating a new garden area. It may also be very helpful when preparing your garden in the spring, or if you have a cover crop that needs to be incorporated into the soil. 

While tillers can be a great tool in the garden, using them should be considered a necessary evil and not a beneficial or routine method of weed control. The fast chopping action of rototillers destroys soil structure, which leads to issues such as soil compaction and poor drainage (which will lead to your plants suffocating and drowning).  

In addition to ruining soil structure, tilling can actually cause more weed problems than it controls, because the churning action brings dormant weed seeds to the soil surface where they can germinate and cause you more headaches.

This is not to say that tillers should never be used, but only that they should be used with proper caution and understanding of their negative impact on soil. Any work you can do in the garden by hand (hoeing, hand weeding), without use of machinery, is going to be most beneficial for your plants and your soil. And even for yourself - there's just something special about sweating for your food that makes it worth it.