Friday, September 27, 2013

Random Updates 9/27/13

"I'm fixing a hole, where the rain gets in.  And stops my mind from wandering....."

     We started a little project back in the beginning of July, replacing two failing cinder block foundation walls on the house.  Ahhh... the joys of owning a 161 year old house.  Every project turns out to be about 10 times more difficult than I anticipate.

The funny part here is that the original field stone walls are still ok.  It is the addition, which I'm guessing is between 50 and 100 years old, that is failing.  It's been a difficult couple of months.  Right after work I meet up with the mason; who is a friend of a friend and also happens to be a great guy and a master of his trade.  The two of us have been working on the wall most evenings from 4:30 till dark, as Nikki works her two jobs.  Meanwhile the gardens and chickens only get a basic level of maintenance and we are living with giant dirt piles, and a lawn reduced to mud as our household gradually descends into a state of chaos.  

     I wish we could have come up with a more environmentally and energy responsible solution than concrete block, but economics and local building codes don't leave us with a lot of choices, so I take some comfort in the idea that we are rescuing a very old house from despair.  At least that's what I tell myself while laying in bed listening to the mice in the walls.  Still, rehabbing this old place was the way we could get out in the county, where we have space for chickens and gardens.  As I look out at the sunrise in the morning, or when the humming birds come up to my face and say hi while I'm strolling through the gardens munching on berries and fresh greens, I know that it is worth the constant effort to live here.

Despite the numerous challenges we have encountered, I have to say that I am very happy with the results so far.  It is wonderful to see our creepy, dungeon like, basement slowly transformed into a livable space.  

Now that I can see some light at the end of the tunnel, I am finally ready to say "Thank you Brian".  Thank you for talking me into this insanity.  Thank you for bringing your expertise and heavy equipment as well as all the hours spent digging a giant hole in heavy clay.  I also want to extend a special thanks to my brother in law, Randy.  Thank you for bringing some muscle to the job just when I need it the most, and for hauling away all that waste concrete.  It's times like these that the importance of community really shows itself 

     As far as the rest of the homestead is going, I have about a dozen things a day that I wish I had the time and energy to record here.  Some surprising successes and plenty of failures to discuss, just never enough time in the day.  I have been taking pics when I get the chance, so I will try to do some reflective articles over winter, when I have a little more time on my hands.  

     The whole chicken paddock/forest garden concept has been stuck on hold for a while now.  The birds are still in the second paddock location, where they have been living since early June.  This is way longer than I intended for the grass kill phase, but I have yet to even finalize the layout of this section, so I can't really plant it or do earthworks yet.  We have been able to add enough high carbon material (mostly straw) to keep things reasonably healthy and smelling nice.  However, the chickens have gradually lost respect for the short (still not electrified) fence and are getting more and more out of control.  When we can't manage to keep them entertained with fresh loads of compost or enough fresh treats, they simply hop the fence and go off to forage.  This isn't a huge problem for the number of birds we have, but I know that being able to control them will be very important for forage and manure management for what we are trying to do here.

     Of the leghorn chicks that we got from a grade school teacher this Spring, 11 turned out to be cockerels.  We separated them out when they started getting aggressive and kept them in the mobile hoop coop on pasture until they were big enough to harvest.  Without any hens to fight over, they seemed to get along well enough.  Keeping them confined in a smaller area helps prevent the meat from becoming tough and stringy.  

     Harvest day went a lot smoother than last time we tried it.  Largely due to the home made killing cone we constructed out of some old traffic cones that we found on the property.  An idea we got from reading the Walden effect blog.  Nikki has processed a lot more birds than I have, but with the wonderful step by step pictures and instructions found in Harvey Ussery's book, The Small-Scale Poultry Flock, I managed to help her get the job done.  

     I don't know if it was having a little more experience with such things now, or the fact that we froze the birds instead of cooking them the same day, but there was a profound difference in how much I enjoyed eating the meat.  The first time around I felt a little queasy about the whole affair and ate very little.  When Nikki cooked one of these on our little rotisserie the other day, I have to say it was the most delicious chicken I have ever eaten.  That first bite was a neat moment when I finally felt like I understand what people are talking about when they ramble on about being connected to the source of their food.      Baby steps...

     One exciting development this year is the hatching out of 6 baby chicks, three each from two broody hens.  We are keeping them in the first paddock, which has been seeded with some success and is starting to fill in with various plants.  The mom of the older three birds has lost interest and rejoined the larger flock.  Her babies moved in with the other mom and the seven of them sleep in an old dog kennel with a tarp over it that they seem to really prefer over the fancy brooder that I built for them. 

A variety of different plants have germinated, and the chickens nibble at many of them in between scratching for bugs.  They love to hang out in or under the pear tree.  The tree produced a rediculus number of delicious pears this year, but we haven't managed to harvest very many of them.  The chickens are certainly enjoying them, along with the insects they attract.  

     I am not totally happy with our management of this system so far, but it is working out for the most part.  I am looking forward to having enough established paddocks to allow a better recovery of both plants and insects between visits from the chickens.  But considering how busy we have been this summer, I am mostly just happy that it is working at all.

     In spite of our near total neglect of the gardens this Summer, we did surprisingly well on some things, along with a few notable failures.  Despite the presence of blossom end rot, early blight, and horn worms we harvested a pretty respectable number of perfect Amish Paste tomatoes.  Even though our rogue chickens ate more than 1/2 of them, we still had plenty to give away over the last moth or so.  The biggest and most perfect were set aside for seed saving.

The orange bell peppers that were inter planted between the tomatoes, on the other hand, were stunted for some reason.  The few peppers we picked tasted good, but were tiny little things on tiny little plants.  Not at all sure why, maybe just the weird wet, cool, start to Summer we had this year.  Overall, though, the zone 1 kitchen garden area performed pretty well for first year hugel mounds.  We even got to try our first goji berries.

     The lasagna beds in the back are suffering a bit more.  The chickens have done considerable damage.  I am not too concerned, as that area will eventually be incorporated as part of the forest garden / chicken paddocks.  The fact that we are getting anything at all back there, in spite of not watering at all after initial planting, I think is a testament to how effective sheet mulching is at producing great soil conditions.  We have harvested numerous cucumbers and garlic.  The tomatoes and ground cherries are doing great.  The raspberries even produced a second flush of giant sweet berries, even better than the ones we harvested back in June.  They have never done that before!

    There is much more to say, but I should probably wrap this up now.  As nice as it has been to take a morning off work and give myself a break from the grind to ruminate on gardens and such, I still have to cut the grass before the mason comes this afternoon to set some more block.  The fun never stops, I tell ya.