Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Dirt Under My Nails

I love long weekends, almost as much as I love weeks off or summer break. I particularly love long weekends in the springtime, when I can go outside and be outside for as much of the day as possible. This past weekend was fan-tab-u-luss. Not only does the front of the house look good, but I cleaned out the south garden and planted my tomatoes and pepper plants and about a million basil plants. I think come mid-June I am going to have pesto coming out my ears...
I even managed to head out back to the big garden and clean up three of the four remaining garden beds yesterday evening, and planted my forlorn brocolli. I am impressed that it lived so long, since I only started it in March and it has been pining for dirt for about a month now. I think we may finally have warm weather, and if not, well, brocolli likes the cold right? I had just enough to fill the three little beds. Now, I don't know what I am going to do with Bed #4. I don't really have anything to plant back there, so part of me thinks: Ahhh, just leave it to the weeds! The crazed gardener in me says, no no you must dig it out and find something to plant back there! There's a plant swap coming up this Saturday, so I think I may see what shows up at that and come home with some treasure. Or not. It wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to have a bed o' weeds would it?
In chicken- and rabbit-related news, the chicks are feathering out nicely and learning to fly in little short bursts. I turned off their heat lamp today and they seemed pretty happy with the slightly cooler temps (it was still about 90 degrees in the brooder shed). The rabbits are doing well, the only catastrophe is the young male likes to hop around so much that he knocks his cage off the temporary stand. So, now he is on a stack of folded sawhorses to keep him out of the dirt. He doesn't seem to be able to knock himself off entirely, but whenever I wander out there he's managed to slide into a new position. What a nut. I'm hopeful that the bunny barn will start construction sometime next week, and then they will all be in a nice cosy new home, with stands that won't let them slide off no matter how much they hop! (I am also really excited about the small animal swap coming up on June 11th! One more doe and a big boy buck, and let the rabbit relations begin.)

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Garden: Under Construction

For the past week, I've been working off & on to build a raised bed garden at the front of the house. I think there was once a large concrete and gravel parking pad there, but the concrete has long since broken to bits and all that grows is weeds (of course). It's always struck me as "wasted space": No grass to look pretty, waaaaaaay too much parking for what I need, and it gets full sun from sunrise until about 6 PM in summer. Perfect for a garden, but there was no way to make an in-ground garden with all that rock and concrete.

So, a few trips to Menard's and Fleet Farm, and there you have it: My new raised bed garden! For the beds, I used 1 x 6 pine boards and painted them my signature color. ( I love Valspar's Phlox.) When I went to build the boxes, I discovered that I was out of deck screws, so I banged them together with some spare nails. Yes, they won't last forever, but I don't care. They should be functional for at least a few seasons! To fill them, I used one 2.2. cubic foot bag of peat moss, two 1 cubic foot bag of composted manure, one bag each of topsoil, organic garden soil, and a different brand of garden soil. After mixing it all together, it filled my 4 x 4 boxes to the brim and once it settles overnight, will become a great growing medium for assorted sunflowers, beans, and squashes.

I built the arched trellis out of a hog panel and four T-posts pounded into the ground. Between pounding the posts and forcing a stiff 16 foot reinforced steel wire panel to bend in half, I got quite the whole body workout. Once wedged into place, it seems happy enough to stay put, but I used a bunch of industrial strength zip-ties to hold'er in place.

After filling my beds and making the trellis, I decided the garden needed a little more beautifying. So I headed into town again, and loaded the car up with bags and bags of mulch. Sure, it would cheaper to get a load, but I don't have a pickup or trailer and this is the easiest way to get a load of mulch home. (They were on sale, too, for the holiday weekend.) I couldn't resist a fused glass bird bath, so that came home too. My mom had given me the St. Francis statue for my birthday, and he finally came out of the box and made it into the garden.

More pictures will come soon, once things start growing. I think it looks pretty good so far, don't you?

Friday, May 27, 2011

Dandelion, Dandelion. Everywhere a Dandelion...

Or so it seems in my little yard. Every spring, there comes a time when suddenly, dandelions crop up everywhere. Its amazing, where have the little boogers been hiding? Well, in my yard, probably underneath all the quack grass.

I'm pondering becoming more of a forager, and have been checking out all sorts of blogs on the subject. One had a link to Prairieland Herbs (www.prairielandherbs.com/dandelionjelly.htm) for something called Dandelion Jelly. A few comments were posted, with exclamations like "tastes fantastic", "family ate the whole batch in one day!", and "just like honey".

Being a girl who happens to like honey like nobody's business, and having a bumper crop of dandelions on hand, I knew I had to give this a try. It is a very easy jelly to make, sets up almost instantly when you add the liquid pectin, and yes, it really does taste quite a bit like honey. If you, like me, allow your weeds to live unmedicated (I attack mine with trowels, boiling water, and the handy-dandy weed whipper), you need to give this a try.

Dandelion Jelly

You'll need the following:

2 heaping cups of fresh dandelion petals (pick about 4 cups of whole flowers)

2 cups boiling water

1/4 cup lemon or lime juice

4 cups sugar

1- 3 ounce packet of liquid pectin (I recommend Certo brand)

yellow or green food coloring.

Step 1: Make sure you pick fully opened dandelion flowers. If you pick just after mid-day, the flowers will be open completely. Don't pick any that have been treated with herbicide or fertilizer, and don't pick where the dogs or other livestock have been.

Step 2: Rinse your flowers, to take out any "tourists"

Step 3: Using kitchen scissors, cut off all the yellow petals into a nice sized bowl. You might get a little green, but try to just keep your concoction to the yellow petals. Yes, your fingers will turn yellow.

Step 4: Pour boiling water over the petals. Allow to steep for 30 minutes to 2 hours (I did about two hours). This is a step called "infusing", and you're making an "infusion". Doesn't this make you feel like you are some kind of wise woman herbalist??

Step 5: Strain your infusion through a very fine sieve (I used my handy jelly bag, but I have that kind of thing lounging around waiting for just this kind of event.) You can either cover this now and refrigerate it for up to 24 hours, or proceed with the making of the jelly.

Step 6: Before you start cooking your jelly, you need to get your jars ready. Use your favored jar sterilization method; I prefer to wash my jars well, rinse them well, and then place them on a paper towel lined cookie sheet, open end up. This I place into a 325 degree oven for at least 10 minutes. The heat kills any critters on the jars, and then I put the jar lids (not the rings) into a small pan of water and leave it to boil on the back of the stove. It's easy, and works great when (like me) you only have so many burners on your stovetop.

Step 7: Stir lemon juice, and sugar into your infusion in a good sized stainless steel sauce pan. All in all, you're going to have about 3 cups or so of hot liquid, which boils up pretty high. So a deeper rather than wider pan is recommended.

Step 8: Over medium heat, bring to a rolling boil (the boil that keeps going even when you stir). Stir your concoction, or it will start to burn on the bottom of the pan.

Step 9: When you are at a good rolling boil, add your liquid pectin and stir it very well. Reduce heat a little, and boil hard (like, madly bubbling) for two minutes. Use your timer, this is important! Skim off any white foam with a spoon, and reduce your heat to keep the jelly warm.

Step 10: Add your food coloring. This is optional, but your jelly color will be a rather unappetizing brown without it. I added 20 drops of yellow food coloring to get my lovely warm hue. You can do green if you'd rather.

Step 11: Take your hot jars out of the oven, or wherever you've kept them. Using a ladle, fill one jar, slap on a lid, and tighten it on VERY TIGHTLY with a band.

Step 12: Take your filled jar to the counter, and flip it upside down onto a tea towel. Let it stay lid-side-down for about 5 minutes, then flip over and wait for the "ping" of the sealing lid to happen. It is important to have a tight lid, or you'll have a flood of lava-like jelly all over. Remember to do this on a towel, it's easier to clean up any mess.

Step 13: Repeat steps 11 and 12 for each jar. Your jelly jars should seal within 24 hours. If they don't, you can then water bath seal them (see the Ball Canning website for details) or put the unsealed jars in the fridge.

Step 14: Sealed jars should be kept in a cool, dark place (like your pantry) and will keep for at least one year. Unsealed jars kept in the fridge will keep about three weeks, if the jelly lasts that long.

Makes about four or five half-pint jars. I used 1/4 pint jars, which make a nice little amount of jelly to have at breakfast.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Babies are in the Shed

And I am a nervous wreck. Well, I am trying to hide it....but I am. Not that they will get too cold (They are under a 250 heat lamp and in a brooder made of a plastic exer-circle gizmo draped with old quilts, with a thick quilt chucked over the top to keep the heat in. With the new floor and a thick layer of shavings, they are warm as toast), but that there is some evil bacteria just lurking to get them. Now, if there WAS bacteria, they would have gotten it by now as my boots and gear have trekked through the porch a million times, and you know poo--it spreads around. And there is a new floor, a good four inches above the old one, and I doused the whole damn shed with about 10 gallons of 6.5% dairy grade industrial bleach mixed at 50% greater than recommended solution. Couldn't go in there for two days, the fumes were so bad...and while there is STILL poo residue on the original floor, it can't be alive anymore. At least, no bacteria can be alive in it. Can it? See, that is what I am worrying about. But, the move had to be done. When I came home this afternoon, the stench on the closed up sun porch was strong enough to fell an ox. And it wasn't cat box or residue from over-wintered bunny, folks, it was 40 little chicks who at two weeks old have discovered the joys of eating and pooping (they do both simultaneously and continuously). While I theoretically have faith that the bad bacteria are d-e-a-d, I am keeping my spare tetramycin powder close. Oh babies...be strong, babies! Be strong!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Update and A Video

Well, the baby rabbits didn't survive the day. ((sigh)) But, the mama rabbit seems to be taking it in stride, so in a few weeks I'll see what I can do to arrange for a new pregnancy to happen for her. This time, it will be MARKED ON THE CALENDAR, so I'll be sure to have nest box on hand.
My new batch of chicks is doing very well--only lost three so far, and the rest seem to be very healthy and happy. As you can see on the video, they are liking their teal rubbermaid tub digs. After running the meat birds up to be processed today, I spent the rest of the morning cleaning out the shed and dumping about 20 gallons of bleach-in-water solution all over the lower walls and floor. Hopefully I can round up my handyman to put in a new floor (the old one is crappy and falling through, and a new stable one is needed badly) which will help the de-germy-ness as well. I don't plan on putting these itty bitties out for a couple of weeks, I want them to be "big" before I park them in the shed. It sure is clean in there, though!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Miracle of the Hot Water Bottle

Yesterday, I went to the small animal swap in Spring Valley. It was a muddy cow pasture, made worse by the rain that kept falling. It was, aside from being cold and wet, a really interesting experience. People had goats and geese and LOTS of chickens and rabbits and chinchillas and a pig was there and parakeets and doves and something that looked like an overlarge weasel and I heard someone had had a trailer load of sheep but they went right away at 5 AM (I got there at 6:40). It was barnyard overload and I have never been so happy to only have $40 in my back pocket.
After some negotiation with the cutest eight-year-old in the world and a more bedraggled and grumpy mid-thirty year old (sorry, but it really isn't good business practice to complain that what I am paying you for your rabbit won't even cover the gas it cost you to come, while you are snatching up my $10), I came home with a New Zealand doe who may have been bred that morning by accidental close relations with the buck for sale, and a Flemish Giant-Californian cross, which was my best guess after being told she was a "scruffy mixed doe from an Amish guy". I came home with two new livestock members before 8 AM. The rest of my day was a whirlwind: build two cages, borrow car & trailer from friends, go to Boyceville to fetch a rototiller, go to Amery to buy chick starter after an out-of-the-blue call from the USPS dispatch center in Eau Claire telling me my chicks (expected on Tuesday) arrived at 10 Am and did I want to pick them up, go to Clear Lake to pick up crates to transport meat birds for processing on Monday morning, back home to drop off crates, food, check on rabbits, back to friends' to drop off car & trailer, back home to release dogs & feed them & the chickens & collect eggs, back in the car to pick up other friend who I coerced into coming with me to Eau Claire, get lost in Hallie, finally find dispatch center, pick up box o' chicks and take-out from Culvers, drive home, show other friend how to settle a new box of chicks for the night, spend 40 minutes fussing with quilt tent to cover chicks for the night, let out dogs, and then go to bed.
So this morning, I am moving slowly. Too slowly for the puppy, who pees all over the floor by the back door because he can't hold it any more. Well, a mop up job for later...and then I am out the door in sweats, dealing with chickens and rabbits. What do I find? SEVEN NEW KITS, all on the ground under the "she may be pregnant" doe's cage. All were cold, covered in crud, and I thought they were dead on arrival. I felt horrible. I didn't even have a damn nest box, and here I was confronted with the knowledge that I needed one, like, yesterday. I thought about burying them. I thought about going inside for coffee and a nap. What I did was, gather them up, rush them into the house, wrap them in a towel and park them on top of a hot water bottle, and go about the rest of my chores thinking, well I can bury them later, poor things. Imagine my surprise when I came in and peeked under the towel and discovered FOUR were alive. I felt like Dr. Frankenstein, shrieking "It's ALIVE! It's A-LIVE!"
Three of the four are back out with mama rabbit, in a temporary cardboard box-nest box. Baby bunny #4 is still warming, he/she was really chilly and rather small. Now I need to get off the computer, get dressed and go into town (oh joy of joys, just where I wanna go today), and buy a proper nest box for these unexpected but welcome new arrivals.
There you have it: The Miracle of the Hot Water Bottle. I think I should call the Pope.

Friday, May 13, 2011

It's Almost Butchering Time!

The chicks have grown in to fat, white beasts of chickens. They aren't as large as some chickens I have raised in past years, but as these poor guys have been plagued with chilly spring weather and illnesses, I figure I am going to call it good and be happy with smaller fryers. Given that I am keeping these for my personal use (a grand total of 38 made it to butchering time), I don't particularly have need of giant chickens. It is a big relief to know that we've made it to the bitter end--I wasn't so sure we were going to. (I think the chickens were beginning to wonder themselves.) This afternoon, I am heading over to the processing plant in Clear Lake, WI, to gather up some crates. On Monday morning, bright and early, I will be heading back with full crates of clucking chickens--and a couple of hours later, gathering up packages wrapped in cellophane. It's not a bad system--fresh chicken for the freezer without having to deal with the feathers and guts. My other project for Monday? Cleaning out the brooder shed within an inch of its' life to prepare for the new chicks arriving next week. This time, layers!
Tomorrow morning, I am heading to a local animal swap in Spring Valley. I hear tell that there will be an assortment of rabbits to choose from. Who knows, maybe I will find one (or all three!) of my desired does for my meat operation. Now, to set up the bunny barn....

Monday, May 9, 2011

Blustery, Busy Day

This morning started off with a crackle, flash and boom. I love thunderstorms, but not so much when I have to dash for the car, get a bit drenched, and then need to drive to work. The plants loved it, though, and by the time I made it home in the afternoon, my plum trees are leafing out and the box elders are definitely sporting teeny leaflettes. It was rumbly and blustery, so after I tended to the chickens (four eggs, one dying chick, everyone else ravenous and thirsty and seem happy), I puttered around in the car hut and put together a rabbit cage. I found an ad on craigslist.com for RABBITS! and called. Tomorrow at lunch, I am picking up an eight-week old white New Zealand buck for $10. I am happy to report that he does have a home to come to, complete with water bottle and feeding dish. Calling it a job well done, I am sitting here waiting for dinner to finish (toasted open face meatball sandwich) and listening to the dogs crunch their kibble. I dodged some raindrops and harvested my first home-grown salad of the season: a mix of beet greens and baby lettuces, grown in my new cold frame. It doesn't get much better than this, my friends.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

I don't want to jinx it....

but I think it may just be, spring? It is a lovely day out there, and warming up nicely after a frosty start. The chicks are holding their own, lost another one yesterday and I am not sure why. But, they don't seem sick so I am thinking, maybe it was just a random death. I buried the body under the box elder, so I can't be accused of poisoning the little bird to death. I also buried a rabbit that the dogs caught and partially ate in the backyard. No, it was NOT a domesticated rabbit. For some reason, the wild rabbits like to come into the dog yard and hide out under the deck. It seems so stupid to me! Can't they smell the dogs everywhere? Honestly. Anyway, I think their death-wish antics of frantically running away from the dogs when I release the hounds came to the inevitable end, and I got to play gravekeeper. This body, I buried under the pine tree in back.

My peas have sprouted, with the Champion of England seeds triumphing over the Oregon Sugar Pea seeds in the race to break ground. No beets yet, and I am afraid to uncover my onions and potatoes--I don't want them to not get recovered and freeze to death. Last evening, aside from burying dead animals, I planted my new Whitney crab apple tree and 14 highbush cranberry plants. I am hoping that the cranberries take off and start forming a nice hedgerow around the new bunny yard. It'll be a really nice windbreak for the house, too--maybe it will keep the porch a little warmer? Anyway, I figured it would at least be a nice extra bit of wind shelter around the rabbit barn. The dogs are going crazy trying to figure out how to rip those little sticks out of the ground and eat them up, but can't get them through the new fence. Bwah hah hah hah! They should stick to wild rabbits.