Things Have Changed

It has been a while, hasn’t it?  A lot of things have happened in the last few months – some good and some bad.  We’re going to focus mostly on the good stuff, but I do have a bit of sad news to share first.

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We’ll miss you, Dr. Orpheus

My dear, sweet rooster, Dr. Orpheus, was killed in the line of duty recently.  Something was attacking my hens and he ran to the rescue and met his end in the jaws of a coyote.  He performed his primary task, protecting the hens, and we will miss him very much.  He was a beautiful bird, sweet and gentle with the ladies.  He would follow them into the coop when they went in to lay eggs and coo at them – a loving labor coach.  He had several devoted ladies among the flock and I know that they miss him, Miss Digby especially.  He was her lobster.

You do not need a rooster in order to successfully keep chickens, but they do have an important function.  It is not acting as an alarm clock as crowing is a territorial call.  Hens do not need exposure to a rooster in order to lay eggs.  As Dr. Orpheus fatally demonstrated, roosters are there to defend the flock.  They are there to put themselves between the hens and danger.  Luckily, because you really only need one or two roosters per ten to twenty hens, roosters are plentiful and usually free if you go through a site like Craigslist.  So that’s what I did:  I cruised listings until I found a likely candidate.  He was part of a group of five roosters, but he was a loner and had never been housed with hens.  I counted on him being at the bottom of the pecking order.  They tend to be nicer to the hens and usually won’t dream of flogging their keeper.

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Looking a little rough there, Tom.

After much deliberation, and to honor one of our favorite musicians that recently passed away, we named him Tom.  He’s molting right now, which is why he looks rather scruffy, but he shows the potential of being a lovely bird.  The girls aren’t too sure of him yet but they have started sleeping near him on the roosts.  He’s two years old and looks to have suffered some frostbite to his comb, but he is healthy.  We’ll see how he works out.  He failed a major test yesterday, though.

I decided to go down and sit near the run in the late afternoon to socialize with him and the ladies.  He was hanging out in the middle of the yard by himself and I was in the middle of a group consisting of Duck Duck, Goose, and Miss Digby.  They were holding very still, which should have tipped me off, but then Duck Duck growled very, very softly.  I looked at her (I know that sound is a warning) then looked off to my right under the trees and there was a large and rather healthy-looking coyote standing very still, looking right at me.  I pointed at her, saying, “I see you!,” and ran over to where she was standing.  She ran down into the trees, but stopped.  I moved around, trying to see her and encourage her to move further away so I could run and get the treat bowl and my husband.  I managed to get everyone safely back in their runs while my husband walked through to trees to make sure the coyote stayed away while I was securing the birds.  To be fair, the rooster wasn’t in a good position to see the coyote, but he also tends to wander off and leave them by themselves.  So, like I said, we’ll see how it goes.

In other news, the vegetable garden is doing… not great.  I have tomatoes on the vine, but have only harvested three ripe ones so far.  The cherry tomato is growing well and I have managed to harvest quite a few of the tasty little nuggets, but not as many as in years previous.  I have had luck with carrots and beets this year, but the lettuce and radishes never really grew, they just bolted as soon as they were big enough to fill out.  The green beans I planted went gangbusters and soon took over the cucumber trellis (I got no cucumbers at all), then became infested with Japanese beetles.  I got some good harvests from them, and have some stored to eat over the winter.  The peppers grew some tiny little fruits, but nothing worth mentioning.

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Slow as hell tomatoes

Out in the country where I live, terrible people often dump “unwanted” animals.  It is one of the cruelest things we humans do to animals, and if I could only get my hands on these people…  Anyway, some excellent news to end things here: We have been adopted by a gorgeous little kitten that someone obviously dumped.  She isn’t feral – she’s a real sweetheart and loves to cuddle.  She was well-fed, her fur soft and not matted, but she had a terrible injury to her right ear.  We think she took refuge on our porch because it is fenced in and relatively safe from larger animals.  We just opened the door one day and there she was.  I’ve named her Sorcha, and anyone familiar with Outlander will recognize the name.  Essentially it is Gaelic for “light” or “brightness”.  She has the most gorgeous golden eyes, so I named her after Claire in the book series.

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Sorcha with the golden eyes.

She’s a happy girl and relatively healthy aside from ear mites and an ear infection.  She loves to play with a twine and chicken feather toy I made, and the catnip mouse my mom got for her (thanks Grandma!).  I’m teaching her to look where I point with treats, and she gets wet food when she lets me treat her ears.  She helps me garden, too.  Well, mostly she ambushes me, swatting at my hands while I’m weeding and she sleeps in my parsley.  Sorcha is a sweet girl, so thank you to whatever low-life dumped her.  You don’t deserve her.

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Sleeping in the parsley.
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“Helping” in the garden.

 

 

 

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What is Growing Around the Homestead?

It is officially spring and things are… springing.  Herbaceous perennials are bursting through the soil to see the sun and the gardens are changing quickly.  I find myself wandering around, wondering at the little nubs of plants pushing themselves up after their winter slumber.  I should be weeding, but I am easily distracted by the beauty all around me.

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Stonecrop

The tulips and anemones are blooming now.  Most of the tulips I’ve bought lately have come from a coworker’s daughter selling them as a fundraiser, which beats selling cookie dough and wrapping paper if you ask me.  The only thing is that the colors are a mystery when I receive the bulbs.  I have no way of knowing what they’re going to look like, but I have been pleasantly surprised.

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Tulips

 

 

 

A lot of the plants in my garden are mail ordered, and the company I use usually has a free offer.  I was reluctant to try a Fritillaria imperialis, or Crown Imperial, because I have read from other growers that they can have a rather musky or skunky odor.  Maybe I haven’t brushed up against it enough or have been downwind at the appropriate moment, but I haven’t noticed an odor.  It is a gorgeous plant, though.  Since I have never grown this plant, or anything in it’s immediate family, I read as much as I could about its care.  It is very susceptible to rot if planted with the part of the bulb that produces the stem faces straight up.  I planted the thing on its side and asked it to please grow, but buried it last fall without any real hope that it would survive or grow, but here she is:

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I don’t usually make New Years resolutions aside from just to be happy, but this year I promised myself I was going to make more of an effort in the vegetable garden.  My husband helped me clear some of the building materials out from where they were being stored at each end of the garden thereby creating two new, but narrow, beds.  I plan on putting asparagus crowns in the north bed soon, but for now I am going to grow sunflowers and nasturtiums there.  The south bed is for potatoes this year.

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Basically what we did is till the ground to rid it of grass and weeds, then dumped some composted manure on the bed.  The bed itself is probably about eight feet long and three feet deep.  We purchased a variety of seed potatoes and I placed each on directly onto the prepared surface, then I dumped a forty pound bag of composted manure on each seed potato.  I hollowed out the tops so the plants wouldn’t have too far to go and also so water could collect in the top and sink down gently.  Once leaves and stems are poking up through the holes, I will mound the dirt back over them to protect the potatoes growing beneath.  Have you seen green potatoes in the grocery store, or maybe in your own stored spuds?  Do not eat them.  The green is chlorophyll, which isn’t dangerous, but when they start to produce that, they produce the poison solanine.  After I mound up the rest of the dirt, I will cover the whole bit with straw as mulch and additional anti-sun protection.  Between the potatoes and the other beds, I will plant zinnias to help attract pollinators to the garden.

This year we will try to grow strawberries again.  We attempted to do so when we first moved in, but a number of factors led to our failure, mostly lack of air circulation and planting them too closely together.  I took an idea I saw online and am growing them in my raised bed that I recently renovated.  It used to have a simple wooden frame, but that fell apart from years of freezing, heaving, being hit by the mower, etc.  The new bed is lined by cinder blocks and pavers.  I planted ten Ozark Beauty plants in the holes in the cinder blocks.  We’ll see how that works.

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The bed also contains some garlic that volunteered from last year, some peonies, some Coreopsis verticillata (aka threadleaf coreopsis), and Belladonna lilies.  I am also adding a rose.  Strawberries and roses can share diseases, so it’s best if they have separate soil.  The photo above shows the strawberries freshly planted.  As of “press time”, the leaves have opened and they are making themselves quite at home.

The garlic I planted last fall is looking good.  I usually plant my garlic just after the full moon in October or November.  This year I have to varieties in the ground: Inchelium Red and Siberian.  One is a soft neck variety (Inchelium) and the other is a hard neck.  Basically, the hard neck varieties will produce scapes in the spring, or flower stalks.  There has been much debate on whether removing the scapes helps produce larger heads of garlic or not, but if you do remove them, you can make many delicious things with them.  Grind them up to make pesto, chop them small and add them to stir fry or eggs, or just throw them in with your ingredients next time you make stock.  Hard neck varieties tend to grow better in colder climates, and soft necks in warmer.  I’m here in Kansas and so I just grow both.  Soft neck varieties tend to store longer, and Inchelium Red’s flavor becomes more intense with storage.

In order to save some money and use up any and all scraps that don’t go to the chickens, pieces of plants I prune, grass clippings, deadheads, etc, I have started a compost heap.  It started with all the weeds and marigolds from last year’s garden, which I let lay fallow, followed with lots of kitchen scraps (onions and things like that which the chickens can’t eat), and topped with the bedding from the coop.  I have named her Margery: The Almighty Trash Heap.  What?  I grew up on the Muppets.

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The last little bit of growing going on around here.  Last week I could hear a kitten crying.  It was coming from my neighbors house’s direction.  Not wanting to just go poking around their house, I knocked on the front door and asked if they had a cat.  They said yes, that it was safely enjoying the nice weather on their back porch.  I explained about the crying and was given permission to investigate.  In a hole in the retaining wall next to their house, a cat had had her kittens.  I heard a growl, looked down and saw her sea green eyes staring back at me.  I found the kitten that had fallen out of her little den and placed her back inside.  I told my neighbors what I’d found and went back home.  The other day, my husband noticed her walking by carrying a kitten.  She and her little family have taken up residence in my potting shed.  I make her scrambled eggs, because nursing kittens seems like hard work, especially for a homeless single mother.  I hope she stays around because we have pack rats that sometimes live in our garage.

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For the Love of Self-Seeding Annuals

Plant seeds once and enjoy them for years to come.

I have a kind of laissez-faire attitude towards my front flower border.  It started out as all grass when we moved in.  I planted some onions and some johnny jump-ups, but they did not compete well with the grass, and the moles got to the onions.  I used cardboard to help smother the grass and have slowly expanded the border.

Something I learned recently: a flower bed is free standing.  It doesn’t back up to a fence or a house, it has its own edges.  A flower border does edge a house or other such landscape feature.  We all learn new things everyday, don’t we?

The first few years of the border’s existence I planted irises and other bulbs, balsam, cleome, poppies, and various other things that either never came up or didn’t reseed themselves after one season.  I think forget-me-nots and foxgloves were on that list.  One important lesson I learned is that you should not plant cleome near a door or window.  It stinks.  Like a skunk.   It has little thorns and tends to be sticky, too, but it really smells bad.  We thought maybe a skunk lived under the house until we figured it out.  Balsam, a 11698689_10204817162449256_3141802106603781179_ntype of impatiens, doesn’t really have a smell that I noticed, and it is an enthusiastic self-seeder.  It seemed to like my backyard better – it gets more shade.  So, it moved from the front flower border to the back and just took over.  Its alternative name is touch-me-not because the seed pods explode when touched, sending seeds in every direction.

Poppies are my favorite flowers.  I don’t know if it is their shape, the variety of colors and forms they come in, their delicate nature, or their many uses that make me love them, but I do.  I adore 13423937_10206965058425313_946422004371879113_n.jpgthe sunny little California poppy, but I can’t get them to reseed.  I just haven’t found where they like to live yet.  I love the blowsy Papaver somniferum my mother gave me because they look like fluffy pink pompoms and never fail to cheer me up.  They grow next to my hollyhocks and pop up every year next to the porch.  I have other varieties of P. somniferum that come up every year as well.  They are so delicate when in bloom, and their seed heads add structure and texture to the garden when the petals fall away.  I have Oriental poppies in the garden, too, but they tend to keep to themselves.

One spring I noticed a frothy looking patch of greenery growing in the dirt around a newly planted apple tree.  It looked like dill, all feathery, but was low to the ground and didn’t have the right smell to be dill.  I watched it for a few days and it turned out to be 13331167_10206868888581127_750756306046207427_nlove-in-a-mist, or Nigella damascena.  As soon as it set seeds in its interesting, ball-shaped, horned seed pod, I gathered it up and spread it around in the front border.  It appeared again the next spring in the hot, sunny part of the border and provides a nice counterpoint of color next to the orange Oriental poppies nearby.  One of my neighbors must grow these in their garden up the road.  I like to joke that I captured it from the wild.

 

Another, very enthusiastic flower to volunteer in my border is the larkspur.  I’m not sure of the variety because the seeds were gifted to me, but they come in a lovely range of intense pink-purple, lavender, white, and some interesting shades in between.  These also grow in one of the flower beds I have up the hill and fill it to the brim every year and have started escaping down the hill.

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Larkspur

Cosmos tend to do well in this border, but they’ve all moved to the front.  Mine are rather taller than what the seed packet said to expect, sometimes over 6 feet tall!  Last fall, in order to combat them self-seeding at the front of the border, I bent the10464018_10202534664708239_3752092382108543707_n.jpgm all back towards the house so hopefully their tall, feather-leaved beauty grows back there.  I mixed in some Gaillardia, or blanket flower, and some sweet peas with them; marigolds always find a spot to pop up near the front of the border.  I also planted dill once in this border years ago and it reliably comes up every year, much to our delight and to the necessary enjoyment the swallowtail butterfly’s caterpillars.

These are all annuals that I planted on purpose at one point or another in my border.  I have some others that come and go in that border and around the house that some may consider weeds.  I have a particular fondness for Scotland, so whenever a thistle pops up, I keep it.  They smell really nice and I’m sure there are some beneficial insects that like them.  Various types of milkweed come up in the yard, which I also let grow and seed where they wish.  They, of course, are beneficial to butterflies like the Monarch, and with populations of such a beautiful and important insect dwindling, I will do anything I can to help them.  There is also a healthy population of some kind of daisy growing around the house that I let stay.  They’re so beautiful in their simplicity.

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Milkweed

In general, my gardens’ purposes are to provide food or beauty to my family, but anything I can do to help the local insect populations, particularly those of the pollinating insects, I will do.  I do my best to plant natives, especially ones that provide food for the bees and caterpillars.  With increased use of pesticides, especially neonicotinoids, the honey bee population in this country has dramatically decreased.  We need these animals in order to produce food for ourselves, so it is worth our efforts to welcome and feed them in our gardens.  This year I plant on making bee houses for the non-social varieties that live around the house.  We have a few wood bees who have industriously dug their holes into the rafters of the porch, and I hope to attract a few more by placing the bee houses in the gardens.

I do research to figure out which varieties of plants provide the most nectar for my bee and butterfly friends, and which plants their young need for development.  There are many sources for this research and a good place to start is Monarch Watch.  This site will provide information about Monarch migration, foods, tagging, and much more.  You can also buy plants from them that will benefit these pollinators.

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