Sunday, December 7, 2008


Who would have thought that I'd be doing any gardening on a day like this? We have over a foot and a half of fresh snow on the ground, the winds are gusting to 30 mph, and the lake effect snow just keeps coming. As of right now we've had 62 inches of snow at the house this season. I know we live in one of the snowiest places in the East, but for the past few years, the snowfall before Christmas has been nominal. Barely memorable. I figured this year would be similar.

So, I left a couple rows of carrots in the garden through the Fall. I read somewhere a description by a gardener of "the sweetest carrots we'd ever eaten." I wanted that. She had planted carrots late, insulated them with straw, and then harvested them throughout the winter. I decided to plant some late summer carrots that would mature just before the frosts came. I insulated them and figured that I would visit the garden whenever I needed a few, probably up until Christmas.

I didn't think much of it when it snowed October 29th. Two weeks later we had a foot of heavy snow, and in the commotion of getting the snowblower running and clearing the driveway, I forgot all about the carrots. They were buried. I knew, at least, they wouldn't freeze. I got a little complacent waiting for the next big meltdown that would clear the snow. Around mid-November there seemed to be a trend to this snowfall. I figured I'd better get out there and rescue the carrots. We had a few warmer days last week and only about half of the ground was snow-covered. I meant to get out there and dig before these latest 2 feet fell. But I didn't.

This morning, I followed the deer tracks out to the garden with my pitch fork and snow shovel in hand. I also carried a bucket to put the carrots in when I found them. I started digging around the dried-up dill skeleton, and I reached the floating row cover that was no longer floating. When I pulled up the cloth I discovered tiny radish sprouts (my optimistic attempt at late season veggies). Dang. The carrots were here somewhere... right?

I eventually moved enough snow to get my bearings. I pulled up the cloth and found the carrots. It was a little disorienting to smell the soil and the sharp carrot scent. I had planned on finding 20 or so carrots, but instead discovered over 12 pounds of them. My bucket filled up quickly and I had to pile the rest in the snow shovel. After I was confident I'd gotten them all, I pulled the snow back down onto the soil. I'd upturned some worms and other fragile, freezable things. I went inside and washed them all in the kitchen sink.

They are, in fact, quite good. Probably the best carrots I've eaten. I brought in the rest of the potatoes from the garage, too, and made a big pot of chicken vegetable soup.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Garden Underground

So I woke up at 2:30 a.m. on Monday morning with way too much on my mind. During my first year of teaching, I instituted a personal sleep hygiene policy for whenever I wake up at 2:30 in the morning with way too much on my mind. The rule has since been that I have two choices: get up and do something about whatever is on my mind, or vow to tackle the problem at the appropriate time (tomorrow!) and let myself fall back asleep. There is no lying there worrying myself into a stress-hormone overdose. Well, Monday morning a litany of house projects, specifically, refinishing the cabinets before we show the house to prospective buyers was on my mind. I tossed and turned for another 30 minutes, and then I got up and started sanding. So, with towels draped across the gas stove, a damp bandana wrapped bank-robber style around my face, and the BBC Health Report blaring, I enforced my sleep hygiene policy.

I’m stressed. No doubt about it. I’m manic and whiney and willing to spill my cortisol-logged guts out to anyone within earshot about how much I have to do. But the fact is there is no emergency. It will all get done. It doesn’t all have to get done today. I realized this today when I went to find my brain and it was out to lunch. Or perhaps more accurately, I should say it was out in the garden. Instead of focusing on the planning and grading and phone calls I need to take care of, I’m staring out the window. I’m talking to myself about my life and my plans and all of the things I’m going to miss when I go; and I seem to have no brain cells left for progress amongst all this worry static.

It was time to break and dig the sweet potatoes. I wasn’t sure what I was going to find. Sweet potatoes are supposed to love super warm weather. This summer was not a friend to the sweet potato. There was barely a day this summer that was warm enough for the beach! However, as I am wont to do, I pampered my little vegetables just a bit. Just a bit. I draped floating row covers over the vines for most of the summer to create a sultry microclimate in the sweet potato patch. Now, I must mention that these morning glory cousins did not have it easy this growing season. I acquired them from Chris’s mother (who can actually bring plants back from the dead; I’ve seen it with my own eyes) in late April. She brought it to Hopkinton, MA in a kitty litter bucket when she met us there to cheer us on in the Boston Marathon. It was a gorgeous organism that seemed to glow, exuding life and vegetable potential. I knew it was nothing short of a garden miracle that I now possessed. I got it home and planted it, sure that it would have a perfect early start and maybe some robust tubers to harvest in the fall. Then came the hard freezes of May 28 and 29. Everything in the garden died except the peas. (The carrots were under a mini-green house and were okay, and the lettuce made a quick recovery, but potatoes, herbs, beans, and squash were toast.) I was sure my little sweet potato miracle had been squashed like a black fly.

The rest of the summer was cool. The deer had snacked on sweet potato leaves so many times that I was planning violent midnight encounters between their necks and my hands. In the morning, I’d run at them, yelling, waving my arms, and ka-thunking along in my mud boots whenever they appeared near the garden. So, when I went out to dig up the harvest, I wasn’t sure I’d even need a container to carry the loot back up to the house. But I started on the perimeter of the patch and dug my way in. Skinny little pink ropes wound through the soil. They tangled with each other and among the rocks. Eventually I reached into the cold, dark earth and pulled out a handful of actual sweet potatoes, regulation size. I kept on digging. I dug up 15 pounds of the bonus tubers. I hadn’t expected anything. But there I was, harvesting a respectable pile of starchy root vegetables and getting face cramps from the perpetual smile. It was another success I hadn’t counted on. Actually, there had been early summer moments I’d thought about digging up the little vines to make room for more predictable vegetables. There was a bit of faith involved here. The kind of faith I’m getting more and more familiar with. Plant the seeds, amend the soil, feed the chickens, clear the weeds and wait. Sometimes there’s just nothing more you can do to control a situation. It’s just time to wait and have faith in the work you’ve done up to that point.

I screamed like a girl when I upturned a slumbering toad the size of a tennis ball. Its white round belly horrified me for a second. I was sure I’d gored or decapitated an innocent garden gnome. Or a smurf. After considering walking to the neighbors’ house to reassure them that I had not fallen off the roof or clothes lined myself somehow, I squatted down to consider this very rotund toad. (I’d very much like to read his account of the event as I’m sure his perspective was a bit different.) I took a break and gave him the chance to make his escape and went over to the huge sunflower head on which chickadees were landing and feeding on seeds. My camera was nearby and I set a goal of capturing the natural bird feeder being patronized. As I sat there in the October sun, the leaves ablaze all around me, I unwound. I realized how precious that time was. I was doing what recharges me most: following the unfolding story of the garden for as long as it takes. The one early sunflower that I’d let go to seed had sucked up all the plant’s energy and was now a big bird food factory, instead of a fleeting cut flower on my dining room table. The chickadees had set up camp in the shrubs bordering the garden, swooping back and forth between the sunflower and the shelter of the blueberry bush. The sun was low but warm in the crystal blue sky. The toad was warming up and, I imagine, making new winter hibernation plans. Three turkey vultures soared high above, making a b-line south. I was grateful that I’d caught a glimpse of the latest developments in the garden story plot.

I never cease to be amazed by underground vegetables. You don’t get to watch them grow. There’s no solid reassurance that they’re actually doing what they’re supposed to. You just have to wait. Maybe I let fear creep in too much. I consider all of the things that could go wrong. I feel the need to peek and guess and predict. No matter how many times I do it, I’m always surprised by the leap of faith it requires. I needed to stop and listen to that story just then.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Chicken Update

The injured layer is getting better every day. She's walking with less of a limp each day. I hope to release her in just 1 or 2 more days of rest and recooperation in the cozy, warm pen. When she's well enough to roost with the others, she'll stay warm enough up high in the coop next to her fellow layers. She's walking even better now than she was in this video. In this video she's grazing and then kicks her oatmeal. Exciting stuff.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Last Saturday we were busy doing work around the house, when our neighbors ran into our yard after their "foster dog." It looks as if a stray dog was dumped near our house, and the neighbors have taken it in. It's a cute dog. It's nice. But on Sunday I was painting the window trim in the back yard when I heard two unfamiliar voices. It was our neighbors again. (We've seem them 3 times since we've lived here, and two of those times were last weekend.) They were carrying one of our hens over from their yard. I knew right away that their dog had gotten ahold of the hen. This group of hens doesn't leave our yard. They rarely even go out of our sight. They're really tame little girls. The hen was limping and the others immediately attacked her with pecking. I scooped her up and examined her. There wasn't any blood, just a lot of slimy dog saliva. There was an obvious puncture on her back. Many of her newly molted feathers had been torn off. I went through the usual, "Is this a mortal wound?" routine and decided I'd give her a few minutes to rest before I made any rash decisions. I hate to see chickens suffering, mostly because they're so tricky to treat. I was really disappointed that we'd managed to keep our chickens safe for 3 years by providing them with roosts and cooping them up at night. And now, someone's loose dog was about to cost us a layer.

Well, we've kept her separated for a week. She's had a heat lamp, because it seems she might have a fever and be fighting off some infection. She's had antibiotics and oatmeal. She's eating and drinking. She even gets up and walks around a little bit. That reminds me, I've got to move her little coop tonight when I get home. She might make it. These layers are so much more resilient than meat birds.

I can't wait to see her running around with the others soon.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

I went down to the coop to find almost 2 dozen eggs. I couldn't say which day I was down there last to collect eggs. It's been a busy month with packing, getting the house ready to sell, and coaching cross country. The chickens have been on their own lately. I leave the coop open all the time. They go in at night and roost up high so they're safe. They roam the yard all day, grazing for goodies. Their pelleted feed is moving much more slowly now that they're free-ranging so much. It takes the pressure off me. They're basically self-sufficient.

The only drawback is the crop of free-range poops all over the yard. Now it's mandatory to take your shoes off at our door. Who knows what you stepped in on your way here?

Chris trained the chickens to be little tame pets. Before, they weren't really interested in people. After feeding them treats and rounding them up like the Pied Piper, Chris trained them to come when called. It's fun to see them running expectantly, full tilt in your direction.

They have a new home in their future. I wish I could haul them to Michigan. (Maybe I haven't fully considered my options.) For now, there's a family that wants some layers for their little farm. I plan to transplant them there sometime in the next few weeks. It's hard to imagine being in the yard without little chicken-foot-stomp-through-leaf noises. It's hard to imagine life without farm chores, as minute as this 'farm' is. It's been a pretty simple equation the last few years: care for the chickens = eggs to eat. Buying them at the store seems so foreign and illogical. Raising chickens was novel three years ago. Now it's routine.

I love eggs. I take them for granted and I savor taking them for granted. (Is that possible?) We have what seem like limitless supplies of egg salad, fritatas for dinner, biscotti, and chocolate chip cookies. I seek out recipes that call for 6 or 12 eggs just to use them up. Fast food means fried egg sandwhiches for dinner. It's not that each egg isn't a little treasure, or that I ever waste our eggs. It's just that there's an abundance of them. And there is an abundance of eggs partly because of the care and effort we put into the hens.

There is a fine line. This summer, one of the hens got sick. Because chickens are chickens, it's tough to know what's ailing them, or to perform necessary procedures once you know what the problem is. So this chicken was weak, absent of appetite, squirting liquid green diarrhea, and generally droopy. I was nervous, and I didn't want to see it suffer. I was prepared to euthanize. I decided to give it a week of isolation, special food, and antibiotics. I agonized quite a bit, imagining that it was egg-bound and suffering from horrible pain. But it kept eating, so I kept feeding it. It kept drinking. After 8 or 9 days, it was looking really good. I eventually released it back into the flock and it's been fine ever since. I might have been less patient, and thus needlessly slaughtered a hen, but I gambled and I waited and the hen survived. It turned out to be worth it.

I can't exactly tell the chickens apart, but I do recognize different characteristics, as if they're all one organism. I know that one of the hens has short tail feathers because she got too close to the heat lamp last winter. I know two of them have worn wing feathers on their shoulders from when we used to have a rooster. I know one of them has a really floppy comb. One of them is smarter than all the rest: she seems to learn faster and change her behavior based on observations. If it weren't for the eggs, I wouldn't have chickens. They're not really the best pets, in my opinion. I prefer snuggly dogs. If they weren't laying eggs, I'd think of them as free-loaders, sucking up more than their fair share of crickets, worms and snakes. It's their eggs and manure that pay their rent here. But I have to admit that their enthusiastic little waddle run and friendly flocking has been nice ever since Chris, the chicken-whisperer, got ahold of them.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Thinking Like a Carrot

Hans Jenny is credited with the statement that there is often more life below and within the soil than there is above it, including Homo sapiens. Soil is the medium of the art of growing vegetables. As I reflect on the three growing seasons I've spent on my little half-acre, I recall the first swing I took of my pulaski into the rocky soil I would make my garden. It was frightening. I've long been aware of the value of good soil, composting and maintaining a balance of organisms and nutrients in the soil. I knew this ground was going to take some work. It was gravelly and rocky at the same time. I had to remove piles of vegetation that prefer poor, acid soils. It was wet or dry, with not much spongy organic matter to hold moisture at an ideal level.

Elliot Coleman, one of America's authorities on organic farming, emphasizes soil fertility as any wise grower does. But he also emphasizes using resources within a farm rather than importing them. This principle appeals to me because of its efficiency. Spending money on rotting organic waste seems counter-intuitive, especially when most rural homes are surrounded by one such renewable resource: lawn. We have at least 3 acres of mowed lawn. (We reduced our lawn by more than half when we moved in.) I put a bag on the back of the push mower to collect the leaf and grass clippings. Sometimes the harvest I will get from mowing the lawn is the only thing that gets me out there to fire up the Husky mower. The grass clippings serve as mulch and compost. The leaves add fabulous organic matter to the mix. Of course, the chicken manure and bedding play an important role in soil fertility, but it does need a bit of time to compost. It's very rich and some plants don't like that. So, I tend to grow heavy feeders like squash in a bed to which composted chicken bedding has been added. Then, of course, there are all of the weeds we pull and food scraps to add to the compost.

I have imported some fertility. We lucked out and got a load of rich, black soil from a friend. I also loaded up the truck with alpaca poop last year after a neighbor offered. But I really don't need to do much of that.

After 3 years, the soil here is amazing. I'm still learning a few things: don't put the compost pile too close to the garden if you want to reduce potato beetle attacks. Some harmful fungi can thrive in a slow compost pile. In the future, the compost pile will not be right next door to the vegetables. I'll haul it in to reduce some of the pest attacks I experienced this year. And, I still need to solve the disgusting problem of root maggots. I have learned to rotate crops and it seems to be giving the plants a boost when I do it right.

As I take a break from gardening, I'll do my own knowledge composting by reading some material on soil fertility and pest management.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Like the late afternoon summer sun. Like the shocking red fire of autumn leaves. Like the daily rhythms of friendships.
Each season holds a promise, something to look forward to. But every year at this time, I swear this is my favorite season. What I love about late summer and early fall is the feeling of swimming in a sea of abundance. There are too many vegetables to eat, so much green everywhere, and as much daylight as you need. It's when dinner is fresh from the garden. It's when you can eat all the sweet, crisp apples you want. It's when it gets cool enough to enjoy baking again. The goldenrod and joe pye weed paint the fields in rich color. I have to pinch myself out of a reverie of, "I love everything, I love everything!"

The sunflowers are blooming. The third wave of carrots are ready. The potatoes are pushing themselves out of their dark dugouts. If I'd had grown corn, it would be high. (Thank you, Mr. Pig-face Raccoon for eating all of it last year the night before I planned to harvest.) It all makes me feel like dancing. Or saying prayers of thanks. Or rolling around in a fit of childish, overwhelming joy.

But we're moving. Just as I start, it ends. Suddenly, I'd give anything to have to dig out another Madagascar-sized boulder from the soil to create a new bed. Suddenly, the black fly bites are worth it. And I crave another early April sunburn got by slushing around in the last few inches of icy snow to plant peas and spinach. I realize: This gardening project hasn't really been about feeding myself. It's been about a connection to place. It's been about learning the rhythms of the land and seasons. It includes hauling in wood, usually through a couple feet of snow, after a long day at school. Spending an entire humid afternoon picking blueberries in the sun. Seeing deer and turkeys move through the front yard. Watching birds arrive at the feeders, migrating south or raising young. Listening to the chorus of birdsong, cicadas, and crickets change throughout the year. It's a slow symphony, and I'm grateful just to have had the opportunity to listen. But it's been more than that. I've been drenched during a downpour as I mended a busted chicken coop so the birds would stay dry. I've hauled water, and crossed my fingers, as rain refused to fall for 2 months and our well threatened to run dry. I've waited and worried and planned and sweated. I've loved every minute of it.

Chris got a job in central Michigan. It's a good move for him. It's more than a little rough for me. We have about 2 months left at this house. I'll continue the garden plans and chicken chores. But I'll be looking for homes for the layers and storing the lettuce and carrot seeds in the fridge instead of planting them for a late fall harvest. I'll be saying goodbye to the rocky soil and the bird chorus in the garden. The Rock Garden Project will come to an end in late October.

But it will change into something else, I'm sure. Gardening is in my veins. I'll get my hands on some seeds and some soil somehow, somewhere. I intend to record the late summer and early fall happenings in the rock garden. There's so much left to do! Chicken harvest. Potato harvest. Hop harvest. Carrots, sunflowers, melons, tomatoes...

There is a time for everything, according to Ecclesiastes. It's not that simple, though. As I harvest, I sow. As I rest, I plan. As I tear down, I build. As I mourn, I dance.

"I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless...
A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work."

This is the conclusion: I have gained much because I have loved much and learned much. Everything else is meaningless. But not the love, not the wisdom.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Raising Chickens

We're raising 10 chickens for meat this summer. I say "we" because it's truly been a team effort this year, with Chris picking them up at the post office when they were just one day old and caring for them for 2 weeks while I was away finishing a masters degree, and Sarah foster-parenting them any time that Chris and I are away. Last year we raised 5, kind of as a warm-up. The meat and broth we get from the chickens will supplement the venison and other wild game that Chris hunts throughout the year. We won't buy much other meat. However, we are currently in the habit of buying turkey pepperoni from the grocery store and chicken wings from a restaurant in town. It's important to state that I'm not strict about any of my food choices. If someone prepares me dinner, I'll eat it. I'm grateful for the gift. And, like everything else in my life, I tend not to be dogmatic about any principle. It seems there are always exceptions to any rule and occasionally circumstances that push the ideal across the line of realistic.
We order the chickens with some friends and split the order (10 for us, 50 or so for them). For the first couple of weeks the chickens stay inside under a heat lamp in a warm, dry garage on wood-chip bedding. As soon as possible, I put them out on the grass so they get acquainted with grass nibbling and cricket crunching. If they learn to forage, they'll need a little less feed and, I've heard, may have a bit more omega 3 fatty acids in their tissues. Plus, the cricket-chasing gives them something fun to do. After they have enough feathers, they stay outside in a sheltered, moveable coop. I just move the coop once or twice a day so they have fresh grass (food AND bedding!). Our yard isn't the sort that needs to be pretty. The chickens trim the grass and fertilize it at the same time. I think it's beautiful.
The chickens are a Cornish X, bred for "efficient feed conversion." They get really big, really fast. Last week, during one of our recent deluges, I was moving the coop and noticed that one bird wasn't moving with the coop. I had to pick him up, move the coop, and then set him back inside. I didn't notice any injuries. The next day, I moved the chicken to a smaller coop by itself to let it rest. An online search for advice provided me with two lessons: this breed is notorious for a variety of leg problems, and I should give it a week to rest and see if it gets better. So, I did. It didn't, and now the chicken is marinating in the fridge. It was a relief to kill the chicken yesterday. It couldn't walk. It ate and drank just fine, and until the last day or two, didn't seem to be in much pain at all. But the chicken never should have had the problem in the first place. In the future I plan on finding a different breed that isn't as prone to disturbing leg disorders. Part of the cause is the rapid growth of the chickens. All of the other 14 chickens we've raised have been just fine, but I don't want to raise such rapidly growing chickens again.
If we harvest the chickens when they are about 9 weeks old, the meat will cost us about $.80 a pound (plus the carcasses will provide broth). I haven't checked the grocery store, but I'm assuming this is a great deal compared to anything found there. So far this is the best deal that I can find for chicken. I know that the chickens have been treated well, fed well, and are free of chemicals. I also know they won't be contaminated with salmonella or any other bacteria from handling or processing. I know this because I do the work.
If I didn't raise chickens, I'd probably go backpacking more. I might play more guitar. But I still get to do these things. And having a like-minded and willing friend like Sarah, lightens the load. Having invested all of the time and energy into these chickens makes the meals we'll eat later so much more precious. You tend not to waste anything. You tend not to take it for granted.
So, we have 9 chickens now. They are happy and growing fast. I watched them hunt big fat crickets as I filled up their water tonight. Tomorrow we'll eat spicy Thai grilled chicken dinner. Life is good.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Building an Obsession

Following are just a few thoughts about how I got to this point. (This point being one in which I am ecstatic when I dig a new potato or eat a sugar snap pea from the garden.) When I worked at Cornell Cooperative Extension for the school and community gardens program, I spent one cool October evening gleaning vegetables from a community garden. It wasn't just me. I was with my co-worker, Vicky, and a young neighbor. This 6 year old squealed with delight every time he discovered a handful of neglected carrots. They were buried treasure. Vicky and I laughed and lived vicariously through his youthful perspective. It reminded me of the first carrots I dug up with my mom in our little garden when I was very young. Throughout my childhood I pulled up Queen Anne's lace in search of more bright orange prizes. This 6 year old in the community garden reminded me of the power of that early experience.
I've had a conflicted relationship with food throughout my life. At times I've done whatever I could to avoid it. I've been on diets. I've been off of diets. All of that seems like so long ago. Now I love good food, especially if it has a good story.
I don't have to grow everything we eat. I can go down the road to the Amish farm stand. I can go to the local farmers' market. I can go to the grocery store in an emergency. I'd just rather know the story of my food. I prefer the connection built by sweat equity. Even when life gets busy, I find some small thing to help keep me aware of the bounds of my food shed: a few dried tomatoes thrown into dinner or savoring some fruit preserves from a friend.
I worked on a small organic farm in Fortville, IN. The Sharritts grew vegetables, flowers, chickens, turkeys, and cows for market. I learned a lot working there. That's where I abandoned my vegetarianism. After a day of chicken slaughter, Roger offered me a chicken to take home. It was the best chicken I'd ever eaten in my life. I think it was in part because of the story behind it. I also knew that the animal had had a pleasant life on the farm, and the meat was free of antibiotics.
As I sit here, the story of my food continues. It's difficult to dwell too long on the past in the midst of it.
There's a conversation going on about food. "Locally grown" and "organic" are loaded words in some circles. I realize that, generally, food is an emotionally charged subject. I'm keeping track of how much money and time I spend on feeding myself, because sometimes I question my assumptions about why I put so much emphasis on local and organic food. Is it cheaper? Is it better for the environment? Is it more sustainable for local economies? Is local food a more secure option? A large part of my motivation to raise and grow my own food is simply because it brings me joy.
I'll use this space to tell some of the stories behind the raising and growing of my food.