Author: Peter

Darn moles and voles? Darn helpful, actually.

In all seriousness, we don’t begrudge the little fellas the occasional onion or beet; they contribute far more to the garden than they take. Howzat?

Bear with me a moment and I’ll get to it.

Before industrial agriculture and forestry came around, the ground here was thickly covered in rich, fluffy duff. You can still go into the few remaining scraps of old growth forest and easily push your hand a foot or more into the ground to see what it’s like. If it wasn’t so scarce I’d harvest some as the world’s best potting soil, but it’s mostly been destroyed and takes centuries to recover, so I don’t.

After a clearcut:

…much of the fungal and microbial life that contributes to building this amazing soil is killed off by the sunlight, and fertility is rapidly lost to the dry winds in summer (several months of no rain) and erosion in the winter (~8 months of constant rain). Eventually, what’s left is orange clay that can support only the most persistent “weeds” and deep-rooted trees. Eventually, the hardy, brushy plants will build a new soil layer, but people don’t live that long.

It’s not that bad on our little patch, because the land has been allowed to recover to some extent, but several inches beneath the surface it’s pretty much pure pottery. This is where the voles and other tunneling creatures are indispensable – their tunnels help the rainwater get down to the river without taking everything else along with it, and they break up the hard clay, mixing in the soil that they move around and of course leaving “fertilizer” in their wake.

So they’re quite welcome to a certain share of our harvest; they help us produce it!

Lammas 2011: harvesting alliums and hoping for exotic tomatoes

It’s Lammas, traditionally a time to celebrate the first harvests of the year, and despite the seemingly endless coldwetwinterspring weather, we’re actually starting to have something to harvest.

Bees are enjoying the onions that have been allowed to go to flower:

I wonder what the honey will taste like?

It’s a great year for some things, like our tart state plant, the Oregon Grape:

It’s not actually in the grape family, but it makes a really delicious dry fruit wine.

Some year soon, we’re going to have to do a huge field of black oil sunflowers, which are a staple item for our goats and chickens. This is a volunteer, and a spectacular example; I lost count at 27 flowers on this one 6′ tall plant:

Most of the remaining garlic and onions were pulled this morning and now hang from the rafters in the living room:

I am not recommending this as an air freshener. Especially on a hot day when the windows are closed to hold in the cool nighttime air.

Tomato plants are finally setting fruit, and are overflowing the former garlic and onion beds:

We planted about 7 different varieties of tomato this year, purchased as small starts from Boondockers Farm, a great place for heirloom seeds and starts near Eugene.

Boondockers have been working with several obscure (to me, at least) tomatoes, fusing their goals of preserving heirloom DNA and finding varieties that thrive in our particular climate.

Evan, who owns the farm with his partner Rachel, was kind enough to spend an inordinate amount of time educating someone (me) who was only buying one tray of discounted starts. Several of the ones I chose from their almost overwhelming selection are of Eastern European origin, with names like De Barrao Black Ukrainian, Kosovo, and Malakhitovaya Shkatulka. The ones with less exotic names sound no less enticing – Chocolate Cherry, Black Zebra, Chocolate Stripes.

I carefully placed little tags next to each start so I could assess the varieties for future planting, but now there are a few mystery plants…the sometimes frustratingly persistent ink of a Sharpie marker has no UV resistance whatsoever =\

I also don’t know what variety of tomato these are; they popped up voluntarily in a compost bin:

The first round of potatoes is in, and the yield is not overwhelming but better than my previous efforts.

I did not know this before, but “potatoes,” like most of our roots and tubers, are things we plant and care for in order to keep the tunneling moles well nourished. Kidding, but not entirely; I’ll explain in the next post.

Heeler dog: possibly the most important animal on a small farm

Red Heeler mixA hawk just killed one of our Welsummer chicks, but Daks, our Red Heeler mix, got there in time to prevent the hawk from getting a meal out of it, so it won’t start to see our field as the Easy Chicken Place.

When Teri found the dead bird, Daks was lying next to her, guarding. Then we had to find the other chickens, who had scattered to hiding places and would be vulnerable when they came out alone looking for their flock.

Daks came through again; he knows what “Where’s the chicken?” means, and guides us to their hiding places so they can be herded back to the relative safety of their group.

The amazing thing about all the stuff he does to help us – watching the sky for hawks and driving them off (usually before they do any harm), finding lost birds, etc. – is that we haven’t overtly trained him to do these things; he figures out what we’re trying to accomplish and jumps in to help.

For instance, watching for hawks – Daks noticed that Teri and I would run out clapping our hands and shouting whenever a hawk circled the field, and he just took over, and now works hard all day long to keep everyone safe. A few weeks ago he treed a big tomcat who was prowling around near the chicken coop, and once he came charging up barking and snarling at just the right moment to drastically change the dynamic when an Up To No Good (semi)human trespasser was starting to get aggressive with me after I foolishly confronted him unarmed.

Daks was rewarded with chicken feet (crunchy dog delicacy!) and entrails for his good work today.

But it’s still sad dressing out a beautiful little 1-lb chicken who would have grown up to lay big, chocolate-brown eggs…especially when it happens before breakfast!

Mixing up the chicken genetics

Got some new babies today, an experiment with full-size chickens. Two Welsummers (patterned ones) and three Turkens (aka Naked Necks). With any luck, tonight I will slip these under the broody hen whose eggs were all duds, and she will accept and raise them. Without luck, we’ll have chickens in the living room for the next month or two.

The “Turkens” are not actually turkey-chicken crosses, they’re just called that because their naturally bare necks, which tend to turn red as they age, make them look a bit like turkeys.

Website makeover!

We’ve finally brought our website into the 21st century, with an updated design and some new features!

One of the reasons we have this blog is to share what we learn with others who are choosing a “simpler” life, just as we’re constantly learning from other homesteaders’ blogs. With that in mind, we’ve changed a few things around to make it easier to find what you’re looking for – while keeping the blog format so people making similar journeys can go chronologically through our doings, which places the whole thing in context.

If that’s not enough for ya, I can probably put a button on the site which when clicked will launch a random slideshow of cute livestock photos =)

Please let us know if anything about the new look & layout is/isn’t working well for you!


Citrus of the North, ale, and pretty mushrooms

The latest batch of beer is a light one, made with amber malt and the pale, growing tips of Douglas fir trees in place of hops. It felt like a dice roll, but turned out to be one of the nicest brews we’ve made yet; light, citrusy (fir even contains vitamin c!), perfect for summer days. After several hours of fencing work today, I drank one and it passed that important test with flying colors.

Here’s the delicious secret ingredient:

Another citrusy plant we’re blessed with an abundant supply of is wood sorrel. A little mouth-puckering to just eat a handful, but delightful in salads, especially ones that also feature the bitterish flavors of dandelion and the like:

and of course, we’re surrounded by vast hordes of mushrooms, almost all of which resist my attempts at identification, but are still fun to look at: