Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Shear Independence

When the grass hasn't been mowed, greedy bugs are eating the shrubs, and the weeds are taking over the garden, it's important to only focus on the sunflowers, right?  They turn their faces east, toward the morning sun, so they greet me as I pull into my driveway.  Such cheerful faces are nice to come home to!  

We are having a cool spell right now, which is more than welcome, because I was starting to get that overwhelmed feeling that comes every year around this time.  All that warm, green, lushness, and all those buzzing arthropods friends that I've been appreciating all spring and early summer, have now been around long enough that they aren't so new, and their numbers have multiplied to the point where the weeds are defeating me and I get chased out of my own garden by the evening mosquitoes.    

It's time to get serious and fight back the insect sheltering jungle that is my garden, and this year, I have a brand new weapon - garden shears.  Friends of mine moved from their country house back to the city, and they allowed me to pilfer their tool shed after they took what they need.  One of the treasures I found are these garden shears.  I love them.  With these shears comes a feeling of independence.  No longer am I bound to that noisy weed eater.  Hooray!  I have such a hard time getting the weed eater to work, that I always let Brandon do the trimming.  These days, his to-do list is so long that I hesitate to encourage time spent trimming (notice I said encourage, not nag!), which means everything is getting shaggy.  With my trusty shears, at least I can cut back the important parts all on my own.  I just have to be careful not to snip off any chicken parts while I'm working!  

I've found the key to using the garden shears is to limit myself to small jobs, otherwise my back and arms start to feel like they are getting exercise.  Fortunately, these shears come with a built in break reminder - the left handle pops off about every tenth snip.  This means I must straighten my back, re-attach the handle, and tell myself to slow down.  It's ingenious.  

Ah... Helen, what are you doing to Mrs. Hall?!

During one of my frequent breaks, I took some photos of my newly trimmed garden bed and then noticed that I caught the chickens in an embarrassing moment.  Can you ladies pick each others butt feathers somewhere else?!    I guess it's kind of sweet, isn't it?  Only best of friends would stand head to tail and groom each others hard to reach spots.  It's just a shame that have to use their beaks!

I know this is going to sound like an excuse, but whenever I try to weed the garden, things die.  I get lost in thought, and they next thing I know I went from pulling weeds from the carrots to pulling carrots, or I'm hoeing between rows, lose my place, and hoe down the beans.  I try to squeeze in between the onions to pull a weed and step on the pumpkin vine.  While I had the garden shears in play, I thought I would get fancy and snip the yellow and spotty leaves from the bottom of the tomato plants.  Well, it wasn't long before I snipped a green tomato right off the vine.  Doh!  

After cutting the weeds back and snipping off dead leaves, I utilized my collection of twisty ties, to tie up some of the low hanging tomato branches.  I used seven ties, so see, Brandon, I am not a hoarder!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Attack of the Dogwood Sawflies

Look at them, trying to fool me into thinking they are innocent bird droppings!  I'm on to them now, so there's no point in them burying their heads in their bellies and acting innocent.  These are some greedy, greedy bugs.  

Periodically this summer I noticed chewed leaves on my silky dogwood shrubs, but I wasn't really worried about it because one of the perks of having native landscaping his having lots of insects to enjoy, and native plants are tough, and I have a lot.  But yesterday, as I stopped to admire the dogwood fruits, which are a pretty dark blue, I really looked at the shrubs and realized that I don't just have just a few chewed up leaves anymore, I have a full on invasion!  Something is eating them, and it's eating them down to the stems! 

It didn't take much sleuthing to identify the problem.  Can you see the white caterpillar with yellow legs munching a leaf, and the bits of white debris hanging from the leaves?  I have dogwood sawflies, probably Macremphytus tarsatus, if my hasty internet bug identification skills are in working order.  

I think all these little white cases hanging on the stems and leaves are the shed skins as they pupate.  So not only are these greedy bugs, they are messy bugs too, and leave their old clothes laying around.  Dogwood sawflies are native to this area, which doesn't really make me feel any better about the destruction of my dogwoods.  And the adults aren't even pretty butterflies, but instead look like a small brown wasp with white tips on the antenna.  At least they don't sting.  

The frilly looking row of shrubs along the fence behind Mrs. Hall is all silky dogwood.  They aren't supposed to be frilly, and normally they are a dense green wall that blocks all light from my blackberry plants in the evenings.  And just think, I was just complaining about the poor performance of the blackberries and blaming the shade.  Now I have junk blackberries, and the sawflies are eating my shade!  

Helen and Mrs. Hall commiserated with me as I examined the extent of the damage.  We went to the back fence, behind the tangle of garden to see how the little shrub that volunteered all on it's own, from the buried dogwood stems I used in the garden, was doing.  All that's left is a stick with few branches!  Mrs. Hall was very upset, but Helen was just plain mad.  They tried to tell me that it may be time to do something to fight back.  I'm taking this advise into consideration.  

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Flowers or Weeds? and Ceiling Progress

When we arrived at the farm for a workday on Saturday, the first thing I noticed was how the recent rain added a foggy haze to objects in the distance, and the droplets on the petals made the blue of the chicory flowers stand out against the mist.  Chicory is lovely.  

As we were exiting our truck, and Brandon began to load himself with tools and materials he brought to work with, I pointed out the blue chicory and white queen Anne's lace blooms around the outhouse.  Aren't they pretty?  Brandon glanced over and asked "you mean all those weeds?".  

I'm pretty sure Brandon doesn't even know that both of these plants are from Europe, so they are in fact weeds in the truest sense.  Not only didn't we plant them, they aren't even native to our county.  But still, if we are going to be invaded by nonnative weeds, at least we can enjoy the flowers, right?  If we wanted, we could eat them.  Chicory leaves are supposed to have lots of vitamins, and queen Anne's lace is wild carrot.  

I guess these flowers are too common this time of year to get much appreciation from Brandon.  After he's spent hours mowing acres of them down, he probably doesn't view them as anything special.  Queen Anne's lace also happens to bloom around the same time chiggers become more prevalent, so we tend to associate it with the time of year when being in the weeds means being itchy.  

We didn't have to worry about chiggers though, because we spent the whole day working inside the house. One of the walls upstairs is mostly insulated, and over half has drywall.  Progress!  

The hardest and messiest job we did on Saturday was to put fiberglass insulation in one half of the upstairs ceiling.  Who needs chiggers when we can get plenty itchy with fiberglass!  Before we added the insulation, we stapled up these foam pieces that are supposed to direct any moisture that builds up between the insulation and roof, due to temperature change, toward the eaves.  We read different reviews and some people said they worked, and others said they were a waste.  It cost a dollar to do each space between the boards, which is just cheap enough that we decided to do it, but if it had been the least bit more expensive we probably would have skipped it since we aren't convinced it does anything.  

In the photo above, which I took while standing near the top of the staircase, you can see the insulation along the slanted roof, that will now be our ceiling.  The horizontal boards that span the room below the insulation is what the drywall used to be attached to to create the ceiling of the room.  This resulted in a ceiling that was so low, Brandon's head nearly touched, and we thought it felt quite oppressive.  The benefit of the low ceiling would be energy efficiency, but hopefully by insulating the walls and the new high ceiling we haven't sacrificed efficiency.  

By Sunday evening, this is the progress we made on adding the boards to the ceiling over the insulation.  We spent quite a bit of time debating our approach, and working on the best way to handle the ceiling boards in relation to the now exposed horizontal boards, but I think in the end, it's going to be visually interesting architecture, having the boards exposed and the ceiling above them.   I least I hope so, because this is definitely not the easiest or least expensive approach.  

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Blogging Luddite

Having a garden hose bath on a hot day isn't so bad!
I'm never one of the first people to embrace a new technology. In the past, I've been so resistant to all these new-fangled gizmos that when my work gave me a cell phone and requested that I keep it with me in the field in case of emergencies, I felt like I was being forced to wear a radio collar. How do you escape to the field if they can just call you whenever they need something?!   And this wasn't back in the dark ages when cell phones were brand new, I'm talking about relatively recently, probably around 2005.  Everybody else already had one, and I was being stubborn.  I was the same way with using my phone for texting.  I didn't have it, didn't think I would need it, and obviously didn't understand it, until my work started paying for it.  Now I can't even remember what life was like before it.    

Do you see two frogs? 
I never investigated Myspace, or Facebook, and I'm probably missing out on a whole unexplored work of tweets and whatever the new thing is the kids are doing these days (see what I mean, I don't even know what it's called!).  I even refused to learn typing in high school because I wanted to insure that I would never find myself seated behind a computer.  Ha!  My first student job in the biology department when I got to college required data entry skills, and I finally had to admit that avoiding computers was not going to improve my long-term job prospects.  Determined to right a wrong I inflicted on myself, I signed up for a college typing course, and let me tell you, that lady was one tough teacher!  I thought it would be a breeze, and took twenty-one credit hours that semester, thinking typing wouldn't really count, nor would the weekend kiln building class I wanted to take.  Remember, a normal semester is twelve to fifteen hours.  Needless to say, that semester was a busy one, and I had typing homework nearly every night.  But it was worth it,  because I can type.  I can type letters, emails, texts, reports for work, and even my very own blog!  

My blackberries are finally getting ripe!
I followed several blogs for years before I started my own, and then it was even more years before I actually wrote anything on this blog.  It took me a while because writing a blog seems so... I don't know, self- indulgent, or ubber yuppie, or ...embarrassing.  And there's a little twinge of guilt too.  I think one of my biggest hang-ups was the reaction I had to a friends website, years ago.  It was probably around 2000, when spending much time on the internet was still fairly new to a Luddite like me, and I had never heard of a blog, when a friend of mine moved out of state and became really involved with her work.  We didn't get to see each other anymore, and I would email her occasionally in an attempt to stay in touch.  We were both busy so we didn't do a very good job at staying in contact, but she did send me a link to her website, which she created herself.  

The perfect blackberry.  Yum.
She didn't call it a blog, but that's basically what it was, minus the option to submit comments.  It was updates on the things she was doing, with pictures.  I remember having a snarky thought like "oh, you don't have time to send me an email, or call, but you make time to put together this elaborate website where you're bragging about all the cool concerts you went to.  Hmph".  This in an unfair thought, I know, but I had it just the same.  When I thought about creating this blog, I remembered my reaction to her website, and sometimes have a twinge of guilt when that little internal voice says "oh, I can find time to write about silly chicken antics, but I don't make more time for friends and family (or time for work, or housework, or exercise, or any of the other things that I think I should be doing) ".   

Do you ever just want to dive into your food face first like this bug? 
I appreciate the people who share their stories with me on their blogs, so I try to think of the blog as generous instead of self indulgent.  Not just because I like to share my pictures and words with you (Hi Mom!), but also that some forms of self indulgence aren't bad.  Spending time writing and dwelling on the things I enjoy is a fun hobby that allows me to organize my photos and my thoughts, and exercise creative writing skills that don't get much use when writing technical reports for work.  And here, I can use as many commas as I want!

Brandon's Saturday morning breakfasts are becoming photo worthy.  Thanks to my blackberries, right?
I'm not as shy as I used to be about being someone with a blog.  After all, I read that over six million people do it, so I'm not the only one who enjoys it!  Probably, if I hadn't been so late to adopt social media I wouldn't even question it.  

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Bean Tepee Aesthetics

Beet splash!  If you've ever tried to simultaneously hold a beet, direct a garden hose spray onto a beet, and take a photo of the resulting beet splash, you know how much excitement I have for this photo.  Go ahead, click the image and zoom in on all those pretty water droplets.  Not a bad beet splash photo, eh? 

I'm happy to say, that after planting my cool heirloom beans no less than three times, I finally have bean plants.  Only the one that sprouted from the first planting is big enough to begin climbing the bean tepee, but hopefully the others will soon catch up.  

I found out that the beans my friend gave me were from some that he pulled off the plants this spring, which meant they had been out in the weather all winter.  Well, no wonder only one sprouted!  I planted beans twice before I mentioned to him that I wasn't having any luck, and that's when he told me about my bad beans, and then gave me some good ones that spent the winter indoors.  As I was planting the beans for the third time, I was a little frustrated with the bean tepee.  Because of my not so brilliant idea to fill the inside of the tepee with sticks from tree trimming, not only did I have to work around and under the tepee legs, I also had to trip and struggle to work around all the sticks.  Ugh.  Of course, I never expected to have to plant beans under it three times, but still, it was kind of pain in my neck.  And my back.   

But, now that I'm done planting seeds, I remember why I like the bean tepee, even without beans.  I think it looks cool.  It's tall, and a unique shape in the garden.  

The tepee is big enough that no matter where I go to examine my vegetables, it's always there, providing an interesting background element.  

I caught Helen and Mrs. Hall in the act of eating the cabbage!  I think they felt justified since I've been letting the bugs have their share, so they helped themselves to a cabbage feast.  

Can you see how they ate the top off of the little cabbage that was forming in the center of the plant?  I put up some fencing to keep them out, but I don't know if this one will recover.  Thankfully they only ate one.  Stupid chickens!

They haven't bothered the little broccoli yet.  A few of them have already started to bloom, so I really need to harvest them even though they are small.  

A bonus pumpkin!  This plant volunteered from the compost pile, and I let it grow to see what it would be.  I love pie plants.  

This year's star performer is the Swiss chard.  From two short rows, we have plenty of leaves for smoothies and juices almost everyday.  I like to add a few baby carrots, and several carrot top leaves, parsley leaves, and a beet leaves too.  It seems like the chard can send up leaves as fast as I pluck them off.  And so far, the chickens have shown no interest in it.  

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Bugs on the Trees and Bugs in the Grass

On Sunday, while we were taking a break from working on the house at the little farm, and enjoying the breeze and a visit with Brandon's mom, I spied something green on the trunk of the pear tree.  That's one big bug!  I should have put something in the photo to show the scale so you can appreciate how big this cicada is.  His body is several inches, and his pretty emerald and lacy wings extend beyond his body.  

Also on the trunk of the tree, a few feet below the cicada, was his recently abandoned exoskeleton.  It still has dirt on it from where he crawled from the ground as a nymph.  I read that they can live underground from depths of nearly a foot to over eight feet.  There's a whole other world under there!

The nymphs use their powerful front legs to dig, and they eat by sucking sap from tree roots.  Comparing the exoskeleton to the adult cicada, I thought the most obvious difference, other than wings, is that the adult cicada has much more delicate front legs, and the nymph has a more prominent mouth/face area.  I imagine shedding an exoskeleton feels awesome, like taking off a too tight pair of jeans.  Ahhhh...

Check out these funky caterpillars.  How long does it take these guys to fix their hair in the morning?!  I think these are milkweed tussock moths (Euchaetes egle).  They weren't eating a common milkweed though, they were eating a sandvine (Ampelamus albidus), which was climbing a blackberry plant.  At first, I thought the vine they were eating was a type of bindweed (Convolvulus sp).  I HATE bindweed when it's in my garden,  which it always is because I can't get rid of it, so I was excited and ready to pack these guys up and carry them home to the garden.  But, sadly, it turns out they aren't the solution to my ongoing struggle with bindweed after all.  If I ever get invaded by sandvine though, I'll know who to call.  

Lately, Brandon has been spending some time each workday, in the evening, playing with his tractor, er...I mean, mowing.  We have many discussions about mowing these days.  I want to leave things un-mowed, because I like the habitat it creates for insects and wildlife, but Brandon worries that we aren't caring for our future pastures without mowing the weeds and letting the grass grow in thick.  He also argues that with our miniature and antique equipment, letting things grow into young forests before mowing isn't a good idea.  As a compromise, we waited until the beginning of July, so the baby birds have fledged, and he only mows one field at a time, in a staggered pattern, to give everybody a chance to scoot over.  I also designated some areas as no-mow zones, to protect the milkweed plants.  It helps that his mower deck is small and he's a sloppy mower, so there are still patches of tall vegetation throughout the fields.  

In the photo above, I'm standing near the northwest corner of our property looking south.  That's our little house and barns to the left.  We really need a cow!  

Someone stopped by recently and offered to cut our fields in exchange for the hay, thus saving us the effort of cutting it.  I'm pretty sure that's how our fields have been managed in the recent past.  We didn't take this offer because I would like to return all the organic matter and nutrition back to the soil, which hopefully will make stronger pastures for the future.  

As Brandon cuts the grass, grasshoppers and other insects jump out of the way.  This creates a feeding frenzy with the barn swallows, as you can see in the video above.  You may want to watch as a full screen as the birds are fast and small and my video skills are weak.  They remind me of gulls following a shrimp boat.  They must hear the tractor from a distance and know to come over to eat, because they just appear and then disappear again once he's finished.   

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The First Tomato and Scrambled Egg Pizza

Here it is, in all it's tiny glory - the first tomato from the garden.  Sigh (of contentment)... 

Maybe a ripe cherry tomato isn't as grand as other year's firsts, but for this year, when my gardening efforts have been scaled back to accommodate weekends working on the house project, instead of puttering in the garden, my expectations have also been scaled back, and I'm satisfied with my tiny tomato.  

Actually, I was more than satisfied, I was excited, and posed my tomato bounty on the swing so I could photograph it's perfect roundness and lovely mottled color once again, before I savored it's perfect tomato flavor.  I didn't even plant this tomato plant, it volunteered in the garden where last year I had Chocolate Cherry tomatoes growing, and all I did was not pull it up.  It really was the perfect tomato.  

After admiring my tiny tomato, and savoring my one exquisite bite, I entertained myself by picking some of the pea pods that dried on the vine, and shelling the peas.  

Aren't they a pretty color?  From just a few handfuls of pods, I got enough peas to replant the pea bed, if I want.  I can't remember if the peas I planted were hybrids, but it may be worth planting them just for the fun of seeing if I can grow a fall pea crop.  Or maybe I should make a half cup of pea soup?

I kept Mrs. Hall distracted while I shelled peas by letting her finish off my water melon rinds.  Watching a chicken eat watermelon is more entertaining than you think it would be.  Not as much fun as watching a pony get all slobbery over watermelon rinds, which is a fun childhood memory, but still a good time.  I guess the lack of chicken lips prevents working up a good slobber.  Instead of drooling, chickens sling their heads back and forth real fast to sling off the extra juice that gets in their nostrils.   Silly chickens!  

I didn't check the nest box for a few days and found a bounty of eggs.  Have you ever tried putting scrambled eggs, almond basil pesto, and slices of Swiss cheese on a pizza crust and baking it in an iron skillet?  I recommend it!  Despite his doubts, Brandon agreed with me that it was good, like a quiche, only easier.  
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