Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Imperfect Gardening 101: The Plant and Pray Method

Memorial day, has come and gone, and the moment I've awaited has come. It's Finally time to plant here in maine! WICKED good!

Here's the problem... there's no time... because I'm running on "toddler time," here. Meaning, everything that I do, is done super humanly quickly. Like, super-mom style. Okay, it's not that graceful... actually, I'm just sloppily juggling life's demands, and barely getting by.

Quick showers before Barney is over, and the boy figures out how to jump out of his bouncy seat.

Quickly folding the laundry before the whole basket of clean clothes is dumped on the un-vacuumed dog-fur-covered floor as he "helps."

Quickly scurrying to feed the goats as he naps in the car after dropping his sister off at preschool.

Quickly scarfing down any leftover food that he does not consume as I serve him and his big sisters.

You get the point. Toddler time.

It's a good thing he's cute

The biggest challenge that I've met thus far, is figuring out how to farm and garden while chasing around this growing, developing, exploring boy...especially while keeping him safe, and out of the road (and out of the neighbors' yards). We don't live on a big, open farm. The garden area is practically in the road.

A one-and-a-half year old needs to get out in the fresh air and do important things like practice walking up and down hills, and feeding sticks and rocks to goats (which they politely reject). So he's the priority. However, I will continually feel a tangled up ball of anxiety in the pit of my stomach, until those seeds are in the ground. These early spring jitters will not be quelled until beds are planted, and sprouts are appearing.

But there's no time!!!

And I'm sure many of you can relate. Moms, dads, people with big kids, small kids, or no kids. People with jobs in or out of the home, stay-at-home-moms, working moms, homesteaders, and non-homesteaders alike. We're all busy.

And that, my friends, is why I am presenting you with this fast and frugal method for imperfect gardeners everywhere who have no time, and/or limited space. I call it "The Plant-and-Pray Method."

Having a tendency towards perfectionism, I sometimes get so overwhelmed that I don't do things that I would have liked to do. I suspect that a lot of folks are like this, which is why I want to encourage people to Just do it anyway! Gardening doesn't have to be perfect. Seeds and soil microbes are waaaay smarter than we are. They already know what they're doing. the only important requirement, is to just toss 'em in the ground. Sure, you may not have the perfect rate of germination, or the perfect yield of veggies- but some is better than none, right?

The Plant-and-Pray Method

  • Acquire some seeds. Try to select ones for foods that you will actually eat. Don't be afraid to add some herbs and flowers. Many will become great companion plants, even if you don't know what you're doing. Last year, my Nasturtiums totally accidentally saved my Cabbage's life.

  • Do some light research on companion, planting, and scribble it down for reference. Or not. Remember, no one needs to be able to read/understand this other than you, so it need not be legible or fancy. If you have a 6 yr old daughter who happens to remember everything she reads, it will be useful to show her this information.

  • Plot out where you will be planting the seeds, so that you can remember where to place them, and what you want next to them. Or not.

  • Find a spot with soil. Clear out anything that's already there. If you have it, throw on some compost. I had lots of slow-release-fertilizer in the form of bunny and goat poop. If there are lots of weeds, throw down some cardboard or similar light blocking material to smother them until it's time to sow.
Am I the only one who sees potential here?

  • Divide out square foot sections using available materials. I use wooden lathes. And I don't measure. Or you could just skip this part, but I like the visual. 
Imperfections, weeds, and all

  • Use THIS guide to plant the correct number of seeds per square. OR just toss in some seeds, and thin them out as necessary.  Remember that big vegetables start out as tiny seeds, but will need more space. So think, 1 tomato plant per square, but up to 16 radishes or carrots. I tend to use the square foot gardening method as inspiration and a guideline, but really, I like to mix things up a bit more. I like the companions to hang out a little closer, and I totally guess on my numbers.  So herbs, flowers, and veggies alike are side by side. I've seriously considered just mixing up my seeds and throwing them all in together to see what happens. I just don't do rows- I don't have the space, and I like things a bit more... wild. You may be a bit more conservative, or organized.... But I tell you, letting go of perfection will still result in food. It may even result in better food.

  • Now you have seeds in the ground. Or, if you are like me, you only had time to sow some of them and you'll have to sow the rest later. That's fine. If you remember what you planted where, that's great! If not, I'm sure those sprouts will become recognizable eventually. You may or may not find out that you've actually been nurturing a weed for a few weeks, and that's okay. Just pull it up, and move on. 

  • Sow more seeds throughout the season, for successive planting that provides you with food all through the growing season. Relax, and watch them grow. But don't relax too much. And weed every chance you get, but don't weed if you don't feel like it. Because you can't control everything in the ground. Am I contradicting myself here? My point is, pay attention and observe. Meditate even. Use your intuition as you thin out your seedlings, and decide which stay and which go. You can eat those thinnings, you know! Let your garden become your pride and joy, and enjoy the fruits of your labor without the stress of perfectionism. If the weeds are stressing you out, just remember that dandelion leaves are healthy and edible too, so it's okay if they grow amongst your mesclun mix!
Pea shoot

 I hope I've inspired some of you busy perfectionists out there with my messy, ugly gardening style. I promise you, it WILL result in food that is edible. And nature is beautiful, regardless of how we try to control it, so once your imperfect garden recovers from the initial awkward stages, it will look pretty too. Relax, and enjoy (but pay attention)!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Kids Just "Get" it.

They really do.

As adults, we get tend to become more rigid. More stuck in our ways. We develop "tunnel vision" as we go about our daily routines, and we don't think outside the box as often as we did when we were children.

The goal is to be a normal functional responsible adult, and fit in with society. Isn't it?

After all, most of us have had many years of training in our school years, having been taught to follow the rules, and stay in the lines. And never question why...

Granted, rules and regulations have an important role in childhood, and adulthood, and society as a whole. We need some schedules, and structure, right?

Kids seem to all go through the questioning phase at one time or another, asking the whys, and the whats, wheres, whens, and hows. Sometimes we answer them, teach them. Sometimes we tell them to be quiet, and just do what they're told. No blurting. No interrupting. 

I caught onto this very quickly as a child, and became a teacher's dream. Not a good thing. Nowadays, if someone tries to silence me, I might just lose my sh*t.

My oldest daughter is not compliant. She questions the rules, talks out of turn, and *gasp* questions adults! Challenges them, even. Speaks to them as if they are equals, even! She's currently struggling with a teacher in her school (thankfully not her homeroom teacher) who constantly accuses her of having a rude tone. While speaking to her in a rude tone. Do you see the problem here?

She replies that she can't help it. It's in her DNA!

God, I love that kid. SO proud of my spunky, stubborn, outspoken daughter, who has the nerve to think outside the box, even while people are trying to get her to fit back in it. And in awe that somewhere in the DNA of her two soft spoken, mild mannered parents, a powerhouse of a human was created. 

She's been diagnosed with Asperger's, a mild, high functioning form of autism. She's brilliant, and kindhearted. She's the future of our society, our world.

This is the child, who, for months, read my Chicken Encyclopedia every night, to wind down before falling asleep. To this day, she still rattles off chicken facts, and breeds, that she learned. Somewhere in the book, the disturbing practice of beak trimming was mentioned, as well as raising chickens in battery cages. She immediately questioned. As we all should.

As a society, we've tuned out so many things that don't fit into our tunnel vision. We're busy, leading normal lives. We leave the issues to other people. People who advocate for the animals, against factory farming and inhumane practices... then there are the folks who downplay that these issues are a problem, and actually insult the "tree huggers" and the protesters and the crazy activists and rebels. Being in denial seems to be considered normal in our society. There are many kind, well meaning people who remain in denial as well.

But when you know better, you do better. Who said that? Oprah? No, wait... I think Maya Angelou said it first... 

Wise words. We can let go of the guilt we feel when we learn that we have, in a small way, contributed to the demise of society. We can simply strive towards doing the right thing. Sometimes, it's not easy, being creatures of habit and set in our ways, and all. So I'm not judging. And I'm not perfect. And I still eat factory farmed meat, and eggs from battery hens, on occasion, but It's becoming less and less. And I'm trying. 

To get back to the point of this post, I've noticed that my kids just get it. I recently explained the harsh realities of industrial agriculture and factory farming practices (in the most tasteful way possible without sugar coating), to Annabelle. Of course we shouldn't cut the beaks off of chickens! They won't peck one another to death if they are given the space and freedom to simply act like chickens! And if we raise our own chickens humanely, the eggs are healthier, and chickens are happier. And if we grow our own garden, it's not sprayed with yucky pesticides, and the veggies are fresher, and healthier, because we take good care of the soil, and make sure there's lots of worms in it! And support local, small farms to put the factory farms out of business!

It really is that simple.

Why do grown-ups have to complicate everything? I'm consistently amazed at my own ability to over-complicate things, and the blinding brightness of the light bulb that enlightens my brain, when I realize that the solution really is that simple. Why couldn't I see it before? 

I think it's time to un-bury the questioning, free spirited, intuitive children within ourselves, and cultivate our childrens' natural curiosity and wisdom, so they don't lose it as they grow. 

They really are the future.

My son Gavin feeding Miss Red Hen

Bayleigh, my middle child/egg collector

Monday, May 19, 2014

And they called it, Bunny Looooooove...

It was the beginning of May, and spring was in the air. Twinkle, our Angora fiber bunny, was looking lovely as usual, enjoying her spacious hutch. Her beautiful fiber was finally growing back out, after that time she had a false pregnancy and pulled half of it out to make a nest for her invisible babies.... yes, she was vibrant and healthy and receiving many carrots and sprigs of fresh Willow branches.

But something was missing. Can't you tell?


She never quite forgot her empty nest. She had moved on- to a new hutch, even- but nothing could erase the memory of the tiny Angora bunny babies that never came to be. I wanted to give Twinkle a satisfying and fulfilling life.

And I wanted more luxurious, lofty fiber.

But mostly, I longed for my first Angora doe to have that *twinkle* in her eye, that she so deserved.

That is why, when I found the perfect buck for her at a nearby farm, the kids and I hopped into the car, picked him up, and brought him home to carry out his assignment at Weeping Willow Microfarm.

And also because I wanted more fiber to spin. Unbelievably light, fluffy, whiter-than-white, fiber. Like spinning a cloud. And so, this handsome white buck, was dubbed, "Cloudy."

Hey, I let my kids name the animals...

The plan was to let the new boy get settled, lest he be too nervous to "perform" after being smothered loved on by well-intended children. So a few gentle pats it was, then food, water, and relaxation in his new hutch. I would let him relax all day and night before introducing him to Twinkle. He would need to be at his best in order to properly woo her.

Okay, so I've never bred rabbits before. All I knew, was that you must bring the female into the male's hutch, and absolutely not the other way around. Twinkle would be too territorial about her space.

I don't know how it happened, but after only a few minutes of exploring his new hutch, Cloudy had a new friend in his space with him. He wasn't nervous, but he was, in fact, very excited. Very "friendly." He was eternally grateful for the company that was Twinkle, and a successful "date" was had.


And I beamed with pride at becoming a rabbit breeder/ someone-who-puts-a-doe-in-with-a-buck-and-sees-what-happens.

In all seriousness, I do not intend to let this amorous couple breed "like rabbits." Although I'm sure that I can find loving homes for any extra fluffy babies that I cannot hoard keep, I do not intend to contribute to the overpopulation of pet bunnies. I do know, from my experience of perusing Craigslist ads for Angoras, that there are not many available in my area. As with most things microfarming, there is a learning curve, and this is just one experiment that I will try to be as responsible about as possible. "The  Fluff Experiment."

And maybe... just maybe... I will keep a Cloudy/Twinkle baby. For fiber purposes, of course, and not just the cute fluff factor. *Ahem.*

Then with all that fiber, I will need to acquire a spinning wheel, so that I can more efficiently spin up and eventually sell my yarn. How convenient... or inconvenient, depending on how you look at it. Spinning wheels are ridiculously expensive, and it will take a miracle for me to acquire one without selling my soul.

Anyway, I digress... Twinkle and Cloudy had several consecutive "dates" over next few days. The first ones were successful... success being measured by witnessing the buck literally falling off of her onto his side... according to the experts, that is not a bunny seizure, but a sign of completed breeding. The last "date" involved much less interest on Twinkle's behalf- another sign of a doe being bred. The final positive sign that I noticed, was that Twinkle was already gathering nesting materials, and pulling out fur. She's been confused before, though... only time will tell if she's working on some real babies this time. She's stopped with the fur pulling currently, and I'll be observing her in the next 10-12 days to see if she makes a nest and fills it up with pink squirming things.

A rabbit's gestation is about 28-32 days, by the way.

In the meantime, as we wait for the results of "The Fluff Experiment," we've been getting to know our fluffy white Angora cloud a little better. He behaved very well during his first grooming session. It never ceases to amaze me how placid these Angoras become while on the grooming table.

He's due for another grooming session as soon as I find the time, because sampling his fantastic fiber has left me wanting to work with more!

Bowl of fluff

Carding the fiber

Some added sparkle for spinning 
Spun with sparkle

Want to find out what happens next episode of the Bunny Love Saga? Me too! I hope it's a happy ending, but as with all things farming, things do not always go as planned. Litters do not always survive. And sometimes bunnies have invisible babies...

To Be Continued...

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Diary of a Microfarmer: Animals are strange. People are stranger.

There are times when I need to organize my thoughts. This may be a rather public way to do it. There are not many people stumbling upon my blog in the vast expanse of the internet, however, so I'm confident that if my words can help someone else, they will find them. If you'd rather read fluffy posts about fluffy bunnies and ducklings, please stay tuned. I may not be all sunshine and butterflies, but I have my moments (that may or may not be followed by annoyingly happy blog posts of baby animals).

Okay, here. Fluff.

Struggling is something that humans and animals alike must do. Nature is full of struggling. And beauty. And miracles, and harsh realities of survival. Without darkness, there is no light. Without light, there is no darkness. We spend most of our moments living in the fuzzy shades of grey between them. It's pretty comfortable there...

Some of us are more comfortable existing closer to the darkness, as it keeps us more protected, and less shocked when things take a turn for the worse. I'm one of those. Prone to depression, and anxiety, and distrust. It keeps me safe. I'm everyone's friend, and nobody's friend. I refuse to hurt people, and give them all the benefit of the doubt. From a distance, people are beautiful. When they get too close, I see their ugliness. It's the inevitable ugliness of humanity- I'm not sure if anyone is exempt from it. Jealousy, judgement, selfishness... It's there, in even the best of us. It weakens me to witness it, so I keep it away. I keep them away.

You can call it Social anxiety, if you so choose. I call it a hyperawareness.

Anyway, this is a farm blog, so allow me to demonstrate a possibly-somewhat-weakly relative example in the animal world.

Just as they exist in the human race, bullies are present in animal relationships. We've all seen it. The pecking order can be particularly brutal in a flock of chickens, and especially upsetting when it's your favorite chicken (I'm SO sorry, Miss Red Hen). We try to talk sense to them, but it's pointless.

"Come on now, chickens!" "There's enough room on that roost for ALLL of you..... can't you just, scoot over a bit?"

"There, there, chickens- here's a new nesting box, so you can stop kicking the other chickens' eggs out and pecking a hole in them. Just wait your turn! Every chook deserves some privacy when they're laying!"

"Did you really have to run across the coop just so you could peck Miss Red Hen and remind her that you have first dibs on the FULL feeder of layer pellets? There's enough food to go around!"

No, it's futile. And talking to your chickens may just make you look like a crazy chicken lady.

People have pecking orders too, whether or not we want to admit it. Throughout history, it's been there, in different ways. Usually when things get too out of hand and unjust, the goodness of humanity rises up and restores fairness and human rights, but it takes time, and bravery to beat the bullies. And a collective effort of good over evil. Many times, it happens too late.

I think this is what separates us from other animals. We can question the order of things, and question why we respect some people more than others. We can break away from popular opinions and beliefs, use our questions to educate ourselves, and enlighten others, and form a new school of thought that can better humanity.

I don't think chickens in a flock will rise up and take down a bully at the top of the pecking order... then again, I've only been at this for a year, and don't pretend to be an expert. I do know, that the pecking order can change over time, for whatever reasons. Chickens can lose their status, and fall lower on the pecking order, and the weaker ones can move up.

Why Miss Red Hen accepts her status at the bottom of the pecking order is beyond me. She looks pretty tough .

Monsanto is a bully. The poor little farmers getting sued for patent infringement on their GMO seeds  (aka pollen and seeds blowing from GMO crops into the non- Monsanto fields) can't do much to protect themselves from this big bully. Monsanto IS in bed with the government, after all.

It will take a collective effort of enlightened "little people," to take down the Monsanto bully. On a small scale, this means that your average person needs to lessen the demand for GMO foods by buying organic, and locally grown food. This may be hard, since the bullies are fighting so hard against GMO labeling, but thankfully there are many foods labeled as organic, or non-gmo by the NON-GMO project.

Future children of America will, one day, read about Monsanto in their history books, and reflect upon how absolutely insane the notion of putting a patent on life really is. Not to mention how bizarre it was to put a fish gene in tomatoes. Hopefully factory farming and CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) will be in that book too.

Back to the animals...

Goats can be bullies too. I see it every day in my tiny herd. The irony? My mean herd queen, Violet, has no horns because she was disbudded as a kid. Snowdrop, the cutest little white goat ever, has lovely horns. I'm sure to respect them, because they could do some damage if I accidently got my eye too close to them... Violet, does not care that Snowdrop could potentially do major damage to her if she decided to. You see, they came from the same farm. A farm where Violet was, not only the only disbudded goat, but the TOP goat. Her attitude is formidable. She always has first dibs on food and treats. Snowdrop keeps her distance, in fear and respect, and allows Violet to bully her, lest she get rammed against the fence.

Is Violet overcompensating for her lack of horns, as bullies sometimes do? Does Snowdrop realize that she has the capacity to fight back and stop being a victim? Am I anthropomorphizing and over analyzing?
Sweet horned Snowdrop shares with baby Bolt.

I had a bully living next door, growing up. She was older than I was, and one of my very first examples of friendship. She's also one of the reasons it's ingrained in me to not trust people. Anyway, I was the younger one, so I naturally looked up to her. When she treated me like there was something wrong with me, I believed there must be. Guess what? There was something wrong with her, and her situation. Being blinded by the bullying, I couldn't comprehend that, though. I was just a little person. I didn't know that I had "horns."

Bullies are very insecure people. We need to see that, in our personal lives, as well as in our society. Our fear and subordination is their empowerment. Our enlightenment, is our horns.

So yes, to bring my point full circle (wait- what is my point???), people are strange. And you should have the song "People are strange" by The Doors playing in your head as you read this.

I feel closest to calm when working with animals and plants on a daily basis, as opposed to humans, even though plants and animals can be brutal as well. Yes, even plants like Creeping Charlie are only out for their own survival. Survival of the fittest. Selfishness has it's place in the plant and animal world. But humans? We're a strange breed. We have the ability to reach a higher level of consciousness and peaceful co-existence, yet we usually choose not to. We are responsible for protecting the Earth, and it's life, and as a whole, we're just not. But we should.

We need to choose a peaceful co-existence. Be like Milo.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Creeping Charlie: Garden nemesis, or abundant herb?

Creeepiiiing Chaaarrrlliiieee....

Say these words with a growly tone of frustration, while pulling your hair out, and add a few choice expletives, and you'll espouse the tone needed when dealing with this evilly invasive weed. It not only takes over your lawn (which is actually alright with me), but your garden too (not okay).

All the while posing as a cutesy little ground cover with precious purple flowers.

Creeping Charlie flowers and purplish new scalloped leaves emerging in spring.

Sure, this plant would look lovely in a hanging basket, but without being contained, it will TAKE OVER your garden areas.

According to THIS site, it's also commonly known as Ground ivy, with a scientific name of Glechoma hederacea. I call it the bane of my gardening existence.

Since it's early May in Maine, my garden is still pretty barren, aside from some Chives, and some perennial weeds like Dandelion, and- you guessed it- Creeping Charlie. It takes full advantage of any opportunity to invade an area, and on MY lawn, it can be found just about anywhere. Sun, shade, grass, gardens... It knows no bounds.

It's a member of the mint family. Now you get it, right? INVASIVE. It's success is due in part to prostrate, creeping stems which sneak into forbidden areas, and take root at every node. Then, there are the underground rhizomes, which ensure that your futile attempts at hand weeding will fail. And it's final defense- those cute, purple flowers, which will give way to seeds to further promote the plant's survival. Next thing you know, it's EVERYWHERE!

And popping up into your garden at the first sign of spring. Also, mockingly surrounding the edges, just waiting for any opportunity to creep in. Ten foot high raised beds, anyone?

The kids and I did everything we could last summer, to tame this insidious beast. Yes, you may just have to resort to child labor. As we ripped it out of the ground, tossing it into it's own special pile (wouldn't want it to take root in the compost), we exclaimed, "Take THAT Creeping Charlie!" "Never show your leaves around here again!"

It didn't work.

This year, I plan on taking on a new, Zen-like, less controlling, more hippy-ish school of thought about this prolific plant. Will I allow it to take over the garden? Not if I can help it. But I may just think of my weed pulling efforts as more of a harvest, and give the plant the respect that it deserves.

Will my chickens, goats, or rabbits eat it? Will I eat it? Creeping Charlie tea, perhaps?

I think it's worth a try. I vow to research the heck out of this plant. Many sources tout the health benefits of this herb, due to it's high vitamin C content. I'll get back to you with my review.