Progress Around Morriston

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We accomplished a lot over the past couple of weeks and I’m finally starting to feel like I don’t have to freak out on a daily basis. The gardens are loaded up and growing – I’m on to doing battle with the rabbits and making sure the chickens can’t help themselves to the plants.

I am grateful for friends and family members who helped me watch the kids, burn up brush and pull out roots in preparation for some raspberries! We managed to plant some cherry trees, and the currant bushes I planted last fall are starting to fill with fruit. I was excited to find a large patch of comfrey growing by the burn pile. Comfrey is an awesome plant to have around a homestead – it has powerful medicinal properties, and is also great for activating your compost. It’s a nitrogen fixer, and I will definitely use it as a chop & drop mulch in the orchard. I’ll talk more about it when I get around to transplanting it.

The chickens are getting big and brave. They’re getting acclimated to their new home and starting to venture out in search of the best weeds and bugs. Rather than cramming themselves into a chicken blob under the nest box shelves, they are beginning to feel safe getting comfortable and falling asleep on their own. Hilariously, Harvey (the dominant rooster) is now trying to crow. I let them out first thing in the morning – he rushes from the coop, bursts forth from the barn ahead of everyone else, musters all his breath, and goes “aaaaa!” Rather uninspiring but incredibly funny. Teenage chickens.

The kittens have reached a size that allows them to escape their box, and wander willy-nilly through the basement. It is therefore time to put them in the barn. I’ve been putting them outside with their food every morning with the chickens, and feeding them dinner/putting them to bed at the same time as well…so they’re plenty used to the outdoors. But last night their bed was in the barn instead of the basement, which they did not appreciate. Bing escaped at some point and waited on the porch for us to wake up, and Toothless is just tuckered right out, but they’ll get used to it. Think yer traumatized now kittens, just wait till you meet the vet!

A good portion of the work around here is not interesting. It’s weeding, mowing, trimming, thinning, weed whacking, cleaning up after animals and kids. It’s masses of excessively dirty laundry, pest control, pruning, tune-ups and sweaty work. We spent the day yesterday just cleaning up around the land. The burn piles had become so large, they couldn’t just be lit, they needed breaking down. Our barn demolition adventures had left our driveway littered with scrap wood and metal, and the newly lovely weather has spurred the growth of weeds.

This coming week, I hope to finish up my rainy day cutting board project, plant my last cherry tree and side dress the fall planted garlic crop. I’m super excited for this garlic because I planted several new varieties last year, which will obviously need taste testing.

The sun is out, the herbs are up, it’s time to make a julep and enjoy the process!

Mint Julep

8-9 fresh mint leaves

+/- 1 tsp simple syrup, agave or honey

5 count (Apx. 2 shots) your favorite bourbon

Crushed ice

I know it’s a pain to bust out your blender, but don’t skip on the crushed ice. It’s really what makes this drink. In a julep cup or rocks glass, bruise your mint. Add your sweetener and bourbon and give it a stir to distribute the sugar. Fill the glass to the top with crushed ice. Enjoy your whiskey slushy!

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The Birds & The Bees

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The birds are getting big. There is one Rhode Island Red who still needs a name that is particularly interested in me. Each morning she reminds me that they are big enough to get out if they try really hard. I change the water, fill up the feeder, climb in the box and give them a treat, then sit next to the brooder with my cup of coffee to observe them for a while. She hops atop the feeder and takes a literal flying leap to perch on the edge of the box beside me. So far she’s happy just to survey the lay of the land in this manner, but I’m taking the hint. They now go through a full trough of food and almost a gallon of water each day with no difficulty whatsoever. The dominant rooster is noticeably larger than the rest, and with the exception of one runtish Cuckoo, they’re approaching the size of softballs. In short, they need to get out of the house.

My friend Rebecca helped me put up a simple run right behind the house – very centrally located so they’re easy to keep an eye on. I then proceeded to corner 27 chickens, one at a time, and transport them by Rubbermaid tote to their outdoor space. This is hilarious! “Hurding cats” is the description. They were utterly mystified at first. Grass. You both step on it and eat it. If you’re a chicken you can step on it, poop on it and then still eat it. Awesome! 15 minutes later, they’re fighting over the only dead leaf on the ground, and rolling in the dust, happy as pigs in you-know-what. I will let them out for a few hours a day for the next week or so, then they can move into their coop. 

The bees. So I know I set up for this big dramatic story of removing the hive from my barn wall, and swarming bees, in only a tiny room, and prying back the walls etc., etc… so believe me, no one is more disappointed than I am in the completely anti-climactic absconding of the bees from their hive the day before we went to remove them. It was equal parts amazement and depression, when we pulled back the walls of the hive to discover that they were all gone! They left behind a section of comb a foot high, 6 feet wide, and 6 inches deep, but no bees. Le sigh.

I took the comb out and drained the honey, then rendered the beeswax. Ugh. So. I went to the bathroom, and in the 2 minutes I was gone the beeswax boiled over. Let me tell you, this was a kitchen fail of epic proportions…epic…rivaled only by the time the lid flew off my blender full of hot Sicilian fish soup. I can be amused now that it’s clean, and I have honey and beeswax to show for it.

Well, I have everything I need except the bees, I’m not giving up now! Vern, my new beekeeper friend, quickly called the place he orders from and snagged me a couple of spare nucs. So once again (like the chicken coop), this was supposed to be my own free bees, but it now cost money. Deep breaths. In this department, for all of my best laid plans, things are happening to me rather than by me. Just go with it Stacie.

In the gardening department, the so-called tomato patch (which is going to fall short of my dreams this year and actually be the everything patch) has been turned over. I ordered a compost mix and managed to spread all 5 yards of dirt by myself in a few hours. My arms were unhappy the next day. A big shout-out to Ariane for her help getting the hot pepper patch expansion onto the herb garden. Looking forward to some hot sauce & pickles!

And lastly, in the department of random and unplanned stuff, a couple of very tiny kittens fell out of the barn roof. They can live with the chickens.

A big “THANK YOU” to the great people who helped me out this week!

Next week: the bees move in to their hives, plants that have survived the wind storms get planted, and kittens learn to eat solid food.

Spring is Finally Springing

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Spring has finally arrived, and it’s gonna go fast. This past week was again frustrating, it snowed again, it poured, the sun came out, rinse and repeat, yay Rochester! I spent most of my free time working on the chicken coop and I’m dying to move on to a new project, but – I am really happy with it. It has roosts, access to the spring water, a way to sweep the litter straight into a compost pile and as soon as I get some milk crates it will have a shelf full of nest boxes.

Good thing too because those chickens are growing fast! I knew they were starting to get crowded. I went out with some friends on Saturday night and received a text from Matt that simply said “they can get out.” Ha! Having severely underestimated the difficulty of acquiring a refrigerator box, I constructed a new brooder downstairs out of several boxes. It’s a little cool down there, but they seem much happier. It won’t be long before they can escape from this one as well, so I’ll have to cover it with some chicken wire soon. Those Rhode Island Reds are sorta camera hogs.

Back in January my lovely in-laws gave me a gift card to a garden store for my birthday. Having learned a lesson last year, I went very early this year and picked out the best cherry trees. I picked them up this week and walked up and down the hillside for the 50th time thinking of where to put them. I’m trying to imagine the overall finished area. When the trees first go in, it may look silly and random. But that is priority number 3, because…

This coming week’s adventures include the tomato patch and the bees. I’ve begun work on the tomato patch and started hardening off my tomato plants, which are huge as a result of the late spring. Usually I’d start putting them out sooner. Oh well. I have next to choose a location for my beehives and level the ground off. They are being extracted from the barn this weekend – I’m excited and nervous about this. I keep imagining being in a swarm of bees and restraining the impulse to swat. Stay tuned for the episode where I take my life in my hands with a beehive in an 80 square foot space.

The daffodils are up, the currants are budding, the fava beans are in the ground, the neighborhood is emerging from hibernation and I’m looking forward to an 80 degree Wednesday tomorrow. Yay, Rochester!

I’m Officially That Crazy Chicken Lady

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The post office called at 5:45am on Friday – yay! Our chicks are here! I loaded up the boys for an early morning drive. Our 25 chicks came in something the size of a box for a pair of heels. Yes, they send day old chicks in the mail. Ours look a couple of days to ship, so they were really about 3 days old when they arrived. We could not wait to get home and open them, and we were instantly in love. 5 days later, this is the story.

I took a recommendation for Welp hatchery. One of the unfortunate things about shopping hatcheries is the shipping costs. Many of them charge so much for shipping it ends up costing as much as the bird themselves. Having a $100 budget for chicks, I wasn’t anxious to spend half of that on transport. Welp rolls the cost of shipping into the cost of the chicks, making them a significantly less expensive option. While I was hoping for something closer, I couldn’t find all of the breeds that I wanted – Welp is in Iowa, but they have parters around the country. I felt bad when I realized that they had farmed out my order to somewhere in New Mexico. Can’t get much farther away from here! That said, I can’t complain about the product at all. They sent two extra chicks, but they all made it, they’re all in great shape, and all active and sparking!

So actually we have 27. I chose Black Australorps and Rhode Island Reds for their production, Silver Laced Wyandottes for their winter hardiness (and because they look cool), and Cuckoo Marans for their extra awesome eggs (pictured below in that order). I ordered all females with the exception of one straight run of 5 of Marans. I want at least one rooster so I can hatch that breed later. Looks like I got 3 boys in that straight run, so now begins the competition of who gets to stay. It’s not looking good for the one with perpetual pasty butt. I’ve had to clean him just about every day since he got here…think we’ll call him Soggy Bottom Boy. He’ll grow out of it, but the name… will stick – aaaaaaaah, haha, so punny. You’re never too old for poop jokes. (Pasty butt is basically what it sounds like. If you don’t keep it clean it pretty much turns into a cork, and you can imagine the rest.) Meryl down there, obviously does not struggle with this.

My brooder set-up includes an old trough I cleaned up and filled with pine shavings. I have a waterer on top of a seedling flat to keep the mess out of the water. My super water has garlic, apple cider vinegar and maple sap. The maple sap has tons of electrolytes, plus it’s organic and free so I’m using that rather than the little packs of powdered chicken Gatorade. They’re getting organic starter crumble food at the moment and occasionally some salad for a treat. I just mince up some lettuce or herbs and watch the tiny chicken riot. A lot of people feed them egg, but I just can’t stop thinking that it’s weird.

The heat source was a whole separate ordeal. I initially bought a regular heat lamp, but I saw so many fire stories that I got scared and bought a heat plate (the yellow thing in the picture). I put one of my seed starting heat mats next to it to expand the sleeping area a little and they seem content with this arrangement. They like the lamp, but this way I can turn it off at night or if we’re not home. I also learned the first night that I have to turn it off as the sun is going down or the sudden darkness scares the crap out of them! Oops… but now that this is the standard operating procedure, they cutely put themselves to bed when the sun goes down.

This morning I cleaned out their brooder (which they hated) and gave them a tiny mirror (which they love). Who knew chickens were so vain?! Also, my mother-in-law gave me chicken sloggers. Hilarious. So far, so good!

Disaster Recovery

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Deep breaths, aaaaaand begin again. I rolled around in my thoughts for a full 24 hours. I was really anxious because this was supposed to be cheap, and now it would cost money. I finally settled on an entirety different approach. I was trying to put something together fast and cheap until I could build the tractor I really want. But I really want to stick to the principle of working with what I already have, so I decided to convert an area in the big barn…which is a mess.

Old cheese boxes, skis, bird nests, homemade creations, giant wooden spools, safety gasses, building materials, farming equipment that hasn’t occurred to you before, owl pellets, soup dispensers, tools, adopted stray cats, and vast quantities of petrified poop. A variable treasure trove of trinkets reflecting life from the very founding of our nation (this home was build by a Revolutionary War veteran) to this day. Fascinating. Now they will hold chickens again.

I chose a stall that was used to hold grain. It is covered in flour. Task number one is to empty the things people have been flinging in it over the years and clean it out. It was one of those jobs that once you complete, you tip toe straight to the laundry room to strip down, throw your clothes directly into the washer, and then march directly to the shower. I strategically completed this during the small one’s nap time, so it was ready for construction the next day.

The plan is to convert the entire north end of the ground level in phases. Phase one:

The construction of a wall with a door to enclose the inner stall

The rehabilitation of an aluminum storm door that was laying around in another barn

The installation of a cheap vinyl floor for easy clean-up

The running of hose through the floor to the spring spout

The construction of a shelf of bucket nest boxes

The installation of roosts

Phase two:

The removal of bees from the wall of the outside stall

The installation of a real window in the barn wall

Second verse same as the first to expand chicken housing down the road

Phase three:

The conversation of the space directly in front of these coops into an organized garden shed. I don’t have steps for this yet.

All I need to start with is phase one. While this will not be done in the leisurely pace I had imagined when I first started throwing the busted up outdoor coop together, I am well on my way to having it completed by the time the chickens are large enough to move out of the brooder. I’m happy with this outcome and even pleased that it’s given me a reason to get started on the large barn and get my gardening tools out of the basement.

I’ve also managed to get some compost bins together this week, which has been bugging me for months. I simply nail several pallets together in a stall formation and rotate their use. This is compost system number one – I’ll get into it more once the big gardens are in.

The only other thing I’ve have time to do this week is get started on the leftover weeds in the tomato patch. This is not an exciting job, but they can’t all be as glamorous as decomposing kitchen waste and cleaning poop out of a barn.

Disaster Strikes

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Continuing on through the week…

On Tuesday I did battle with the gnats. I’ve never had to deal with these before. I don’t know what it is about this place but I can’t get rid of them. Their purpose in life is to drive me bananas, by hiding all year, and then stealthily making their way to the dining room to lay their eggs in my plants. Once their so-called “babies” emerge, they eat the tender roots of my seedlings. Their favorite is apparently onion. Last year they wiped out my entire onion crop before it ever had a chance. So this is a thing. Expecting them this year, I covered my seed cells with a layer of vermiculite, thus making the usually soft inviting seed mix sharpe and uncomfortable. While this didn’t stop the dog from taking a big mouthful, it did hold the bugs off until just now, when suddenly there was a population explosion, and I had to get rid of at least a dozen tomato plants. There is no feeling bad about this considering the number of tomato plants I have, however, they all represent my time and a portion of dirt, fertilizer and space which cannot be ignored. The gnats have to go. I will begin by spraying them with soapy water & need oil. While this is acceptable for organic gardening, it is an indoor solution only for me, as it is dangerous to bees. I’ll have to stop before it’s time to transplant. Any ideas would be greatly appreciated. Heard peroxide worked? I feel like I’m just managing this problem without solving it.

But oh, the gnats are nothing compared to Wednesday’s wind storm. It’s often very windy up on this hill. We jokingly call it Hoth all the time. We’re used to it and we even like it – makes you feel cozy inside the warm house in the winter. But yesterday was I think, the strongest wind we’ve ever had. 40mph the weather channel said, and I have no frame of reference for that other than that it was legitimately difficult to walk ( Kingsley couldn’t manage it at all ).

I witnessed the whole thing from the dining room window. Said gale lifted my chicken coop like the wizard of oz, carried it 20 feet towards the hill and then smashed it into the ground. Like a cartoon. Le sigh. The open frame with a roof, heavy as it was, was picked up like a kite.

The worst part about this, is that it was going to be a free chicken coop. That is no longer the case. Having used every 2×4 left in the barn, the most suitable materials are mainly smashed to tiny bits. This is a significant setback in the egg department as I have mentioned before, making money on organic eggs isn’t really a thing. Additionally, time is now of the essence. With the weather report looking as if this cold won’t really break until the end of next week, it’ll be well into April before much can be accomplished. Which means I’m going to have to haul ass the last couple weeks of April. Oh boy.

In case you were wondering, there is also nothing left of the fava beans. This experiment will have to be re-tried another spring.

On the up side, several buckets have blown into my yard. Buckets are always useful.

Sempre avanti!

This Week on the Homestead

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This cold spring is no fun. The fact that the sun hasn’t been out long enough to dry anything up means I can’t dig my new garden without getting the tractor stuck. There is more cold in the forecast later this week, so I dare not try to pry the wall back on my barn bees. In fact the bee shipment has been delayed due to the cold anyway. I’ve been building a chicken house in one hour increments because that’s how long my fingers can go without gloves on the nicer days. So this week I’m going to try my best not to get depressed, but to focus on parts of my plans that can be accomplished on the edge of spring. So this blog may not be terribly interesting, sorry, it’s more for my own benefit to help keep me motivated.

Side Note on Barn Demolition – over the one nice Saturday we had a barn razing. To the north of the house there is a small barn that actually pre-dates the house. The cool thing is the history of it, the down side is that it’s right in the view. Since the roof of this barn is beyond repair, and over the years other owners have covered it’s sides with sheet metal, and the groundhogs have completely undermined its foundation, we’ve decided to take it down and salvage the nicer wood. The beams are beautiful, and the main sliding door is perfect for a loft apartment somewhere. Most of the siding that hasn’t been destroyed is very thin, too thin to plain. We’ll save what we can for some wood shop projects. More on that later.

So here we go! It’s Monday and it’s freezing, but the sun is out so Im working on the chicken coop. I finished putting the metal on my chicken house roof. Since making money on eggs isn’t really a thing, I’m not investing much in this structure. I’ve spent a little on hardware, but mainly it’s constructed from a hodgepodge of materials the previous homeowner left behind in the barn.

Fava Experiment – at some point over the winter I read someone else’s method of starting fava beans indoors if you weren’t able to sow them direct the season before. I decided that I would give it a try but not take it too seriously. I used some older seeds and sure, they popped up healthy, but even a fava bean won’t like this weather and I left them in the tray longer than I knew to be good for them. They are tall, spindly and root bound, but I’ve hardened them off over the last few days and now the brief reprieve of sunshine gives me the opportunity to put them in the warm-ish ground, stake them up and drape them with a row cover. I’m not expecting much, but I’ll report back on that later.

My cabbages are ready to plant now, but I don’t have a place for them! I had plans to expand my kitchen garden anyway, so I’m going to go ahead and get started on that and use it to save my seedlings instead of waiting to plant herbs in it. The cabbage will be finished early enough to successively put herbs in. I can also use the tomato patch location for this. I’d rather use an alternate tomato location than lose the cabbage. So I’m going to go ahead and start hardening these plants off today. The snow is finally gone, so we can FINALLY start digging out the new garden this week.

Tomorrow, it’s supposed to be 38, rainy and super windy. Yuck. I’ll take care of the seedlings, start a few vines indoors and maybe give the dog a haircut.

Planting Tomatoes – Seed to Garden

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Now that I have more space for gardening, it really isn’t economical to purchase transplants – especially if you enjoy heritage varieties like I do. If you happen to have a tomato obsession, it’s especially costly. I plant a flat of 72 tomatoes for about $20 bucks. You can find ways to make this more expensive obviously, but if I purchased 72 plants from a greenhouse I’d be pushing $250.00 pretty easily, so doing it myself not only makes financial sense, it gives you a little therapeutic boost in the doldrums of February to take care of your baby plants. The only condition I hold myself to is that I wait until after the first week of February. After that, any day I feel crappy could turn into tomato day. If hypothetically, you were more disciplined than I, you might count backwards 5 weeks from your last frost date to schedule step #4, and backwards 5 more weeks to start your seeds.

There is still time to do this here on Hoth, but if you’re going to try, don’t delay any longer, it’s time to get moving. Our last frost date in the Finger Lakes is May 1 – so we aim to have plants mature enough to be set outside by then. People have lots of ideas and preferences when it comes to seed starting, so let me just preface these “instructions” by saying there are many right ways. I’ll tell you what I do, and you can make your own adjustments.

1. What kind of tomatoes? Here are some things so consider:

– Do you mainly put cherry tomatoes on your salad? Like to make sauce? Slice them for sandwiches?

– What zone am I in? Different varieties become ripe at different rates. If you have a long growing season, this is less of an issue. Up here in zone 5, I can grow just about any kind here but it’s nice to have some earlier cool hardy varieties. If you don’t know your zone or last frost date, visit the Old Farmer’s Almanac online, they will hook you up with a quickness.

– How much space? There are determinate and indeterminate tomatoes – determinate, as the name implies, produces all of its fruit at once in a large crop and then dies off. Most are what you’d imagine as average in size. This is great for making tomato sauce, not great if you’re hoping to pop outside and grab a tomato to add to your salad all summer. An indeterminate plant will keep producing fruit all season until it’s finally too cold for it to survive. This means that it will also keep growing all season and some of these plants can become truly massive, so read the descriptions of each type before tossing that packet into your cart. If you have a small garden, consider a dwarf variety, or a variety that can be trellised vertically. This is a large beefsteak type beside a dwarf type.A large beefsteak type beside a dwarf typeThis doesn’t have to be fancy. For example, I like to plant the Italian Tree tomato next to my porch stairs – it needs only a small space to go into the ground but grows to about 10 feet in length by October and I just keep tying it to the railing all summer long. I easily took over 50 tomatoes off of this one plant last year.

– To heirloom or not to heirloom? There’s a lot of hype about heirloom tomatoes these days. I personally prefer them, I find them to be more flavorful, more disease resistant and generally more interesting. I’m not going to take the time here to discuss what makes an heirloom an heirloom because frankly, some of them walk the line. If this is the first time you’re starting seeds, I honestly wouldn’t worry about it much, time is of the essence. But if you are, you must, and you do, these are my favorite places to look for tomato seeds online in order of preference:

http://www.fruitionseeds.com (by far my fav)

http://www.hudsonvalleyseed.com

http://www.rareseeds.com

http://www.wildboarfarms.com

http://www.neseed.com

2. Collect your materials (all are available inexpensively on amazon, slightly more expensively at your local gardening store). You will need:

– A seed starter tray that holds water…I also retire my old cookie sheets to this position.

– Small planting cells of some kind – I use plastic 6 pack cells, but egg cartons or dixy cups work too. I reuse mine and take them from other people who would throw them out but if you do this, please wash them or soak them briefly in a 10:1 bleach solution – mold and fungus off all kinds can live on these for a long time and last year’s mildew or critter eggs can kill this year’s tomato baby.

– Seed starter soil mix of some sort – there are fancy varieties available, but I find that the cheapest kind actually works the best, so I get the organic jiffy seed starter from Lowe’s or Home Depot (it is usually several dollars cheaper at these large stores). I do not use my own garden soil for the same reason that I wash my used cells.

– Pitcher of water

– Something to mix dirt in…a bucket, a large bowl, a storage tote, whatever you think is a convenient size.

– Optional but recommended – Espoma Tomato Tone or Garden Tone. My gardens are organic, so this is what I use. If that is not important to you, many greenhouses use Jacks 20-20-20 to get their seeds started. Both are commonly available at your local gardening store. I have also used nothing, and waited to fertilize my plants until they were large enough for a second pot (more on that later), and although the plants managed, I won’t do this again. I also keep a liquid fertilizer on hand in case there is some sort of emergency in which my plants need help faster than the solid crumble will break down.

– Optional – seed starter heat mat. The application of heat greatly speeds germination in tomatoes (which is useful at this eleventh hour), but if you can’t find one quick or on the cheap, the top of your refrigerator works in a pinch. Avoid any ideas involving your home’s radiators or forced air vents…better to wait longer for your seeds to sprout than cook or dehydrate them.

– Labels! Unless you are growing only a couple of plants, you’d be surprised how easily and at how many different points you have the opportunity to mix them up. Anything – popsicle sticks, masking tape, those white things you get at the garden store. Note that even sharpie will quickly wear off outdoors if you use the white things (I use a label maker).

3. Mix up the dirt (I know, I know, it drives proper gardeners crazy when you don’t say “soil”). I must admit that my method of seed starting fertilization is a less than exact science. Disclaimer – fertilizer companies pretty much never advise using your bare hands to apply their products, organic or not. I will also not advise you to do so. This is what I do:

– For every bag of jiffy, I add what might be considered 1/3 – 1/2 cup of Espoma. I fold that into the jiffy to keep the dust down immediately. I then add water and mix until I’ve got something resembling the saturation of wet sand. This allows you to see the true volume of what you’re working with. Since we’re obviously not using our hands here, a little trowel or even a kitchen spoon is nice to have on hand.

– I fill my cells with this mixture up to about 1/4 inch from the top and then tamp it down without smooshing. I put only one seed in the center of each cell. Many people plant 2 or more and then cut away the least viable seedlings after they emerge. This is not a bad idea if you want to try starting seeds now. In a tray of 72 cells, 5 or 6 won’t germinate – if you’re only trying to grow 3 tomato plants, that’s a tomato roulette. The older the seeds are the less viable they become. In general however, tomato seeds are awesome in that they last several years. I get the most out of my seed packets by planting only one in each, waiting for them to emerge and then immediately replanting in the cells that had a bum seed. When you start your seeds in February, there is time to do this once or even twice. I top the cells off with more dirt, arrange them in the tray and then water again from the bottom (so I don’t displace the tiny seeds) – 1/4 inch will be fine. If you purchased one of those seed trays that has a little greenhouse top, do use it. As a general rule, heat to germinate and light to grow – so if what you have for heat is a refrigerator, no prob, they don’t need light yet, they have no leaves. Check the tray daily to make sure it doesn’t dry out.

– Once they emerge with 2 little leaves the temperature can be reduced and they’ll need a sunny window or a grow light. The roots are very shallow at this point and it’s important to continue to keep the tray moist like that original wet sand mixture. At this point you will see the plant’s seed leaves. These are not “true” tomato plant leaves. Eventually a new set of leaves will emerge that actually have that distinct tomato shape.

4. Transplanting the babies. Around 4-5 weeks, the plants will have developed 4 or 5 true leaves…some of the seed leaves may start to turn brown and fall off. At this time I pull out all of my planting stuff again. These leggy (tall & skinny) little things need a bigger pot to develop their roots. All of the little hairs that line the tomato stem are potential roots. At this point it’s helpful to the plant to mix a little heavier soil than just the fluffy jiffy – I use whatever is around as long as it’s sterile (from a bag at the store) – compost, potting soil, garden soil, a mix, whatever. I add another round of Tomato Tone and water just like the first time, remove the seedlings from their cells as carefully as possible, pinch the seed leaves off if they’re still there, and re-pot them in a larger pot all the way up to the bottom leaves. Again, tamp the soil down without smooshing. Now that the plants are more stable, I water from the top.

– A week later you’ll be saying to yourself “didn’t I bury that whole stem!?” Now I just have to keep them happy for a few more weeks while their roots grow and their stems get stronger.

5. Close to our last frost date, I harden the plants off. This keeps them from becoming damaged by the outdoor conditions they are not used to. All it takes is putting them outside for a few hours each day for a few days to a week. I just keep an eye on them. They can become sunburnt if given too much exposure too fast, or in my case, it’s very windy here and I’m careful to keep them from breaking.

5. Move them to the garden. I shoot to have my tomatoes ready to transplant by the last week in April just in case the weather is especially nice. But it’s important to use your area’s last frost date as your guide and watch the weather report. If it frosts after you plant, it is necessary to go out and put something protective over your plants such as a cardboard box or bushel basket. When I transplant, I use all the same principles as with the transplant. In a full sun location, I add a fertilizer, plant them very deep again and then water heavily (at the base so as not to break the foliage). Then I’m good to go and I can finally reclaim my windowsills.

This is long, I’ll stop there and save staking, pruning and drainage for another time! Thanks for reading, if you have questions I’ll do my best to help. Happy planting!

Spring Fever

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The hibernation is almost over. It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything. When we first moved here, Matt and I agreed that we’d wait a year before doing anything drastic, so I haven’t made many changes besides putting in a small rock garden with a few currant bushes and a kitchen herb garden. Oh, but that year is up and now it’s on.

This house was built in 1803 by a doctor and his sons after serving in the Revolutionary War. He built it to align with the equinox, which makes one terribly conscious of how fast time goes by – now the sun is moving back across the hills, approaching the place where it lines up with my doors. In the morning when it rises, it pours so intensely through the windows that you feel a natural inclination to just walk outside in your pajamas.

I’ve spent my winter studying (or rather, annoying the crap out of Matt) – permaculture design, pastured poultry, groundwater, organic pest control methods, honeybees, hard cider recipes, ways to preserve green beans, composting systems, tomato varieties, oh my word I’m such a dork. But I’m super stoked for this summers to-do list.

First thing is to prepare new gardens. In order to first address my tomato obsession, we last year tilled a separate patch of ground closer to the house. This will become a little tomato wonderland, including other things commonly found with tomatoes such as garlic, basil, and a place to sit with a glass of wine and smell it all while talking with your hands.

There are honeybees in the barn wall. Many of them. So the plan is to get them out of the wall and start 2 hives. One, by taking some of the bees and introducing them to a new queen which I’ve ordered; the other, by either locating the existing queen and putting her in a new hive, or relocating comb with a queen they might be raising to the second hive. This may end in painful stinging tears since the hive is in a small room, but hopefully we’ll get to them before they’re quite active. I may have to actually vlog that one.

The beginnings of an orchard. There are already “antique” apples all over the place. We haven’t decided which to go with next – vote for peaches or cherries in the comments.

Painting the porch, but that’s not interesting.

Chickens! Yay, gotta have chickens, right? Dante has been helping me build a mobile coop a la Joel Saladin but we are going to wait to start any of that until after vacation with the fam. The plan is to begin both broilers and layers this year with the possibility of leaving the layers off until next. I’m finding it difficult to come up with a plan I like for the layers and I don’t want to rush them just to have them. I know that the first thing most people do is get a few laying hens, which does seem less complicated. But when I crunch the numbers, for a place like this, eggs are more for the pleasure of having them than for saving any money.

A project I’m expecting to be a sort of ongoing drama is my wishful irrigation/drainage system from the spring. There is sooooo much water here. Conveniently, the spring pops out at the top of the hill. I plan to direct it down to the tomato patch, then down to the chickens, then over to the gardens and past the raspberries, then away to the creek. In theory this will help reduce some of the spring sop, but still keep the water at hand if it’s dry. Challenge #1 is to create something that doesn’t make getting over it (mower, tractor, atv, electric poultry fence) terribly annoying. Eventually I’ll incorporate some rain barrels. There is a lot of run-off between the house and the barns.

Currently I am ripping the overgrown brush away from an old cattle fence next to my new big garden. This will become something for raspberry bushes to lean on. It is one of the handful of projects I can do while it’s still too wet to keep the tractor from getting stuck.

Whew. Those are the biggies. The seedlings are started, the beekeeping suit is here, the spring fever is in full effect.

Cilantro Lime Chili

3 lbs lean ground beef (do use lean, the bacon has enough fat) 
1 lbs bacon 

28 oz diced tomatoes

14 oz tomato paste

14 oz kidney beans

14 oz black beans

14 oz sweet corn

1 medium onion, diced

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 green bell pepper, diced

1 bunch cilantro, chopped

Fresh lime juice – 1 or 2 limes

1/4 c chili powder

2 tsp coriander

2 tsp cumin 

1 tsp crushed red pepper

Salt & pepper

Bake your bacon while you make the rest of the chili (use cookie sheets and parchment at 400 until crispy) and chop it to make crunchy bacon bits.
In a large dutch oven, brown the ground beef. Add garlic, peppers & onions & sauté until onions are translucent. 


Rinse the beans and drain corn if using canned, then mix in bacon and all remaining ingredients and adjust spices to taste.