Chick Update and life in February

IMG_3815The weather has been teasing us with a few warm(ish) and sunny days – all of which seem to be weekdays – and the trees are starting to bud. I even came home to surprise daffodils (well, I knew they were coming but as this is our first spring on the homestead I wasn’t aware of their presence until they started popping up from the ground a few weeks ago – this week they bloomed) which made me very happy!

The chicks have been growing insanely fast, last weekend (at 2 weeks old) they had pretty much outgrown their brooder so I moved them to their next phase which is where they’ll stay until it’s warm enough to move them to the shed. It is an XL dog crate which I wrapped in chicken wire to keep them from trying to squeeze through the bars. I’m not sure they could have (they definitely can’t now) but it wasn’t worth the risk; good fences make good neighbors when it comes to our dog and chickens. They are thriving and eating and drinking a ton! They are, of course, still leery of me but if I sit on the floor in front of the open door they will come right into my open hands. Their curiosity out weighs there fear, i suppose.

The black ones (3 Australorps and a black Silkie) are very hard to photograph well; the Buff Orpingtons also just seem a little more friendly and curious. Their feathers come in a little more everyday – we can’t put them outside until they are fully feathered, so we still have several more weeks before that day. They should have enough room in these accommodations – let’s hope!

Seeds were started and some things have actually gone into the garden already. I started snap and snow peas in gutters (I’ll post about that separately) so the first batch have already been transplanted and are doing well. Since we didn’t move in until nearly November and the garden was just a plan on paper at that time, the garlic just went in about a month ago, they won’t be as large as we are used to (since we didn’t get them in in October) but they will still be yummy, I’m sure! Tomatoes and peppers were started on heat mats under lights and are just starting to break through the dirt, they will stay inside until about May 1st, depending on weather.  IMG_3812

The days have been noticeably longer and that has really helped our ability to get things done. Pretty much since we’ve been here the only daylight I saw on the farm was on weekends. So happy to have about an hour or two in the evenings to enjoy this beautiful place. I am feeling so lucky to be here and so excited about the months to come.

 

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Baby Chicks!

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Fuzzy picture, fuzzy subject

I mean, seriously, is there anything cuter than baby farm animals? So the three ladies of leisure in the chicken yard seemed to get the memo that it was time to start laying some eggs again, maybe they heard us talking about bringing in chicks and got a little worried. For whatever reason, all three of them started laying again in the last 2 weeks – which is amazing! Even the super expensive, pastured raised eggs at the market just couldn’t come close to the incredible, rich, orange yolked eggs that my girls had been laying pretty regularly up until October of last year. In case you didn’t know, chickens don’t lay much during the winter; it has to do with the amount of daylight they get. We made the decision early on not to supplement their light in the winter (a common trick to keep them laying year round) and to instead allow nature’s schedule to dictate their laying habits. This has, however, been the first winter where NO eggs happened. Well, I’m happy to say we made it through, even though we had to purchase eggs elsewhere for a few months.

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Farm dog Jak in the background hoping I will drop an egg!

The egg-citing (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) part is that we went ahead and got a new batch of baby chicks last weekend so that we can ensure our egg supply will continue for the years to come. We have found (in our limited experience of chicken keeping the last 4 years) that the hens we had that were raised from day olds are far more friendly and trusting than those we purchased as “teenagers” – we love watching their antics and it’s so much more enjoyable when they don’t run away from you when you come close! So, chicks. I put together a chick brooder from a 106 gallon storage tote (there are loads of tutorials all over the web about how to do this) and worried a great deal about using a heat lamp (although this is what we used last time we raised chicks, it’s really quite scary to have one of those in your house!) so I bit the bullet and purchased a Brinsea Ecoglow 20, knowing that it will likely pay for itself eventually (it uses a fraction of the electricity that a heat lamp does). The Ecoglow mimics the warmth of the mama hen by giving the chicks a nice warm “mama” to cuddle up under and keeps them safe (and the house) by only giving off the warmth needed to maintain their heat needs. Honestly, you can touch the heat source, it’s very warm but certainly not hot enough to burn or ignite the wood shavings. The chicks have LOVED it! Another pleasant side effect I’ve read from other’s experiences is that the chicks get very used to the rhythms of natural daylight so they sleep under the Ecoglow all night and are active in the brooder the majority of the day. I have found this to be true, as well.

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8 baby chicks under the Ecoglow.

So, anyway, back to the chicks! We came home with them on Saturday of last weekend – I believe they were 2 days old at that point. Here were are, 8 days later, and I swear they have doubled in size! We’ll be moving them out of the brooder probably next weekend to our secondary set up which is basically an extra large dog kennel that we have reinforced with hardwire cloth (since they would be able to fit in between the bars). But really, I’m sure all you care about is seeing how adorable they are so…. here you go!!!

They are just so darn cute! But loud and they make a huge mess. But it will all be worth it later 🙂

 

Getting the garden started

I have been making use of any non-rainy hour over the weekends this month putting in new garden beds. We had wooden raised  beds at the old house and after a few years they were getting to a point where the wood was going to need replacing. We would like to avoid that here; everything we are doing we are trying to think about the future (ie, old age!). We needed to get beds in quickly as I’ll need to start planting things like potatoes, snap and snow peas, kale, cabbage, etc pretty soon. I’ll be starting those all inside under grow lights this week.

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future garden area in front and hay field (high tunnels are on neighboring property)

I did quite a bit of research about the best way to tackle the beds – should we just till up the earth and call it a day? Should we use the “Lasagna” bed, or “no till”, that seems to be pretty popular? I’m drawn to the lasagna bed method as it will require less watering and weeding – however we moved in at the end of October so we had no mulch, compost, grass clippings, etc with which to get started. I decided to do a variation on the lasagna method that I’m hoping will give me the same long term benefits.

I started out by mowing the grass short in the area where the beds were going in; then I measured out 4×8 foot beds and marked them out with stakes. From there I put down cardboard, and lots of it, to act as a weed barrier. Ideally, you want to soak the cardboard to make it stay in place, but our weather has been so wet I figured it would be soaked in a matter of hours anyway! I decided to have 5 yards of high quality, organic, compost/top soil mixture delivered; yes, we have 10 acres of dirt, but when you get to be a certain age, it just makes more sense to make the investment and have the good stuff delivered and dropped within feet of where the beds are being constructed.

Each bed got several cart loads of dirt (being careful with the first one not to move the cardboard out of place) leveled out to create a raised bed of sorts, without anything framing them; I’d say they are about 6 inches deep after settling for a few weeks. I tried to make the sides as straight as possible and even left the edges raised a bit to try to minimize eroding.

We’ve put in 15 beds at this time; we’ll be putting in at least 5 more soon but this was enough to get started. I’m happy to report that there has been very little eroding, no weeds have poke through, and they look great! We may still add some barrier to the south facing side of each bed as the ground is slightly sloped so I don’t want to see the dirt wash away, but for now it’s been staying in place for several weeks. The next step will be adding mulch to the top to hold in the moisture and cut down on the weeds. We are only in the last day of January so I still have at least a month before I will be planting anything out there – but I can’t wait to see how this experiment pans out!

Our seed order has been placed – grow light brought out of storage – I’m ready for spring!

The birth of Monkey Hill Farm

Starting a blog is a very strange thing. You are putting words on a page and posting it to the Internet where everyone, or no one, will see it. I haven’t posted in a while because life has been uncharacteristically crazy. You see, we made good on our, well my, lifelong dream of living on a real farm. After searching for about a year and a half we found an almost perfect place – a little more than we wanted to spend, a little more land than we wanted, but a cute old farm house that needed work but wasn’t falling down and the perfect location (you’ve heard about the three “L”s of real estate, no?). We jumped on it. We’ve been here just about 2 months now and have been focusing on the house while we are experiencing the wettest month on record (and when you live just outside of Portland this is no small amount of rain – like, every single day rain) so plans for the land are all but halted. Mr. Green, the stoic outdoorsman that he is, has been going out everyday and battling groundhogs, rabbits, and blackberries. I have been focused on a kitchen face-lift, cleaning, and painting. This will be our first Christmas of many on our new farm and I’m definitely feeling the desire to send words out into the world via the World Wide Web where everyone, or no one, can see. So, dear reader, if you are out there – thank you for reading. If you have an interest in gardening, livestock, real food cooking, and renovating an old farmhouse – stay tuned. There will be loads to come – and hopefully some baby goats in spring!

 

Happy Holidays to you and yours!

 

Some pictures of Monkey Hill Farm

Goodbye, Pippa.

The Pipster

The Pipster

We lost a chicken today. To be perfectly honest, she wasn’t my favorite but she was a good girl. She was a solid layer until recently when chicken menopause struck and she became a lady of leisure.  I have already become comfortable with the fact that I could not cull these first birds; the ones that I raised from day old chicks (well, truthfully, Pippa came a few weeks later as a 3 month old and for that reason never quite warmed up to being held), the ones I named and watched grow. They would have a place in our little urban farm until they went peacefully (hopefully); this is dumb in a town where I am only permitted to have 5 chickens at a time, but truthfully, it is part of the commitment I made to these girls. Someday, when we have enough land to actually have a large number of chickens, I will not name them. Hopefully, when the time comes, I will be gritty enough to cull the herd as necessary. But that day is not today.

Today, Pippa died peacefully. My husband buried her in the backyard with the others that have gone before her. We are down to three chickens for the time being and I think it will stay that way for a bit. It’s always sad to lose an animal; and you will always wonder if there was something you could have done.

There is only one left from those original day old birds; the first girls. The ones that made us feel like real farmers. She is my favorite and still comes running towards me whenever she sees me coming. Believe it or not she still lays almost everyday (well, in the Summer at least). The chickens crack me up with their antics, and anyone who has ever had chickens knows they are better than TV. So, right now, I think I’m going to go hug a chicken.

Perfect hard eggs

Anyone with chickens knows that it’s feast or famine (literally!) when it comes to eggs. The egg laying frequency seems to be tied to day length; meaning right now when it is light before I wake up at 5:15 and it’s still light when I go to bed at 9:30 – we have eggs coming out of our ears. A great way to use up some of the extras is to have plenty of hard cooked eggs on hand for an easy snack or a yummy egg salad sandwich. Thank you, girls!

Fresh eggs tend not to peel well once hard cooked, however at this point I defintely have a dozen or so that have been in the fridge for a few weeks. Pick your older eggs to hard cook and you’ll have no problem peeling them.

I tend to like mine still a bit creamy in the center – solid but without the yucky green tinge to them! The perfect way to achieve the perfect cooked egg is to bring your water to a hard boil, carefully put your eggs in the water (I use a slotted spoon to lower the eggs into the water), cover the pot and boil for about a minute or so. Then turn off the heat and let the eggs sit in the water (covered) for approximately 12 minutes (more if you want the centers harder). Dump the water and fill the pot with cold to let them cool down.

Once cool you can peel your eggs and enjoy a healthy snack. I mean seriously, look at those gorgeous orange yolks! My girls are earning their keep this summer!

Garlic Harvest

We’ve had an unseasonably hot and dry spring here in the PNW; something we are not accustomed to. The garden is like a full time job now, to be started when I get home from my other full time job! Each year the garden has been the subject of a different experiment; and each year I learn from what went well or what I would do differently and squirrel it away in my garden notebook SWEARING that next summer’s garden will be perfect! Well, I’m still waiting for that perfect garden BUT this year we decided to focus on things that grow well with little maintenance, produce a large amount of food per square foot, and stored or preserved well. To that end we have loads of berries, grapes, potatoes, tomatoes, beans, sunflowers, onions, and garlic (among many other things).

Although it’s earlier than normal, the garlic was showing signs of needing to come out. Sadly, there is a fairly small window of opportunity to harvest your garlic if you want a large, tight bulb that will store well.

I only grow hard neck varieties because only hard necks will produce a scape – and I LOVE scapes! – but sadly, they don’t store quite as long. However, I do find that if I store them in a mesh bag in the crisper drawer of the fridge after curing for a few weeks in my garden shed that they do stay fresh for about 5+ months. Once the heads look like they are starting to dry out I peel them and keep them in a jar of vinegar in my fridge – they will stay like this for the next 6 months or so until my next harvest! I’m also planning on dehydrating some for home grown garlic powder this year. I did, after all, plant about 85 heads of garlic (maybe i was a little overzealous).Garlic Head d Before Curing

The garlic will tell you when it’s time; each leaf on your garlic plant is a layer of wrapping around your cloves. These wrappers will protect your hard work and allow you to store the cloves longer. Once the leaves start to die back (from the bottom up) you’ll want to keep a close eye. I find that once the bottom 3-4 leaves are dead it’s a good time to check. Loosen the soil with your fingers and see how big the bulb is. If you are happy with the size and the head looks nice and tight (no cracks or separating) then stop watering your patch for at least a week to dry it out – you want your heads to be nice and dry before curing and the soil will be looser, allowing for easier head removal. I like to dig up my heads with a gardening spade and my dirty hands. Loosen the dirt around the head and get your spade under the base of the head. Loosen the head with your hand while prying the head upwards with the spade  you’ll feel the roots come loose and the head pop free (this all sounds very graphic, doesn’t it? Eww!).

Let the curing begin!Once all your heads are up, move them to a dry place with good ventilation for 3ish weeks to cure (don’t bother cleaning the dirt off, you don’t want to risk damaging the protective wrapping) – I put mine in a garden shed resting on top of a length of galvanized mesh fencing so there is plenty of room for air to move around the heads. Once they are nice and dry you can brush off the loose dirt (gently, you want to keep the wrappers in tact) and cut off the stalks and put in a mesh bag – ideally these would be stored in a root cellar. I don’t have one but have found that if I keep them in my refrigerator crisper drawer they keep pretty well and last a good, long time.

Oh, and don’t forget to pick the largest heads for replanting next year! I pick the 8 largest heads and keep them separately in my pantry – these will go in the ground in October for next years harvest.

One thing I did do differently this year was that I cut the scapes earlier than I had in years passed. The last few years I waited until  scapes made a complete circle before cutting, this year I cut them while they were a bit small and just curled downward. The idea behind this is that removing the scape tells the plant to send all of it’s energy into growing large heads instead of worrying about reproducing. I do think my heads were larger this year (although, truthfully, not by much) but my scape harvest was smaller. I suppose I will have to consider which is more important to me next summer.

Off to make a yummy dinner of crusty, rustic bread and roasted garlic. The smell of roasted garlic is killing me!

I’m all about the scapes…

the young garlic scape in their natural habitat

Probably my favorite thing about the garden in June is the emergence of the garlic scape! The scape is the flower stalk that forms about a month before the garlic is ready to be harvested; it grows from the top of the garlic plant and curves in a graceful coil and has a flower bud at the tip. There is some varying information out there on the interwebs about the best time to harvest; the conventional wisdom states that if you cut the scape it tells the plant to focus all of its energy into the bulbs resulting in larger garlic heads. The confusion comes when trying to decide when to cut. In years passed I have waited until the scape coils in a full circle before cutting; this results in more scape, certainly, but some say this is already too late. So this year I decided to experiment and cut them pretty early (I only noticed them about a week ago and they are just slightly curved now and very thin) to see if it results in larger garlic heads. I’ll have to get back to you on the verdict in about 4-6 weeks!

But I digress… The real reason I get excited to see the scapes is not the impending bounty of my hard labor last October (ok, it wasn’t that hard) but the scapes themselves. While they are delicious grilled and pickled, my favorite thing to do with them is to make a huge batch of garlic scape pesto. I freeze in small batches and enjoy for months to come. We generally run out around the Holidays and I literally dream about the stuff until the next June rolls around and I am in garlic scape heaven all over.

imageIt’s really very easy, all you need is a good sized food processor and the ingredients. If you are not growing garlic you can find scapes in June at farmer’s markets and in CSA boxes; mainstream grocery chains have been slower to jump onto the scape bandwagon. So, let’s get started!

Rinse your scapes and count them (or don’t, I’m kind of a geek that way). Mine are small since I cut the early but I counted approximately 70. Cut them into approximately 1 inch pieces and measure. Mine came to about 4 cups – this is a lot and will make a lot of pesto but the recipe can easily be cut in half.

about 4 cups

about 4 cups

Put into you food processor and run until all have been finely “chopped”. Next, measure about 2 cups of almonds (I use dry roasted salted because that’s what we tend to have around for snacking) and add to the processor and blend. At this point you should have a crumbly texture.

Now I add about 3 cups of basil, 3 cups of spinach, 1.5 cups of olive oil and blend. Next up is the Parmesan cheese – I use about 3 cups because I like it kind of cheesy but you can certainly use less if you prefer. Once this is processed as well I add about 1/2-1 cup of water while blending until I get to a creamy consistency (similar to humus – which, by the way, is delicious with this pesto as well!) and that’s it! Simple, huh?

I freeze in individual portions so that i can just grab a baggie when I need it. I put about 3 heaping spoonfuls (totally not helpful, I know) into  snack sized zip seal baggie. I don’t bother with freezer baggies at this point because all the baggies will then go into a gallon sized freezer safe zip bag.

This recipe will yield about 13 baggies (don’t count them, there are only 12 – guess what we had for dinner?) and that is the perfect size to dress about a pound of pasta, to use as sauce on a pizza, etc. When I need one for dinner I just grab a baggie and put it in some warm water, before long it is perfectly thawed and ready to go!

Garlic Scape Pesto

This recipe will make around 10ish cups but can easily be cut in half

4 cups of chopped garlic scapes (approx 70 small scapes)

2 cups almonds (if using unsalted you may need to add salt to your pesto)

3 cups Basil

3 cups Spinach

1.5 cups Olive Oil

2-3 cups of grated Parmesan cheese

1/2-1 cups water

In a large food processor blend the scapes until they are in small bits

In a large food processor blend the scapes until they are in small bits

add the almonds and blend until crumbly

add the almonds and blend until crumbly

add the rest of the ingredients and blend some more!

add the rest of the ingredients and blend some more!

bag into individual baggies - approx 1/2 cup each

bag into individual baggies – approx 1/2-3/4 cup each

put the baggies into a freezer zip lock bag and freeze for yummy, garlicky goodness whenever your little heart desires it!

put the baggies into a freezer zip lock bag and freeze for yummy, garlicky goodness whenever your little heart desires it!

Gettin’ my onion on!

sad but hopeful

sad but hopeful

The garden isn’t so pretty in early spring; but it’s positively bursting with promise! Each year I get to the end of the growing season with a little sadness and even a little regret. There is always something I could have done to have made the garden more productive. A few years ago we decided that it made sense, for us, to focus on growing a lot of the items we really liked that stored or preserved well. This year we expanded our 1/2 bed of strawberries to two full beds. Likewise we currently have two full beds of potatoes going and we added some varieties that store better than the fingerlings which were the only variety we grew last year (another experiment). I also have an entire 4×8 bed dedicated to Turkish Giant garlic (the seeds from my harvest last year). As you can imagine, with these plots already dedicated, the garden is largely spoken for. There is still a large area that borders the beds that will hold my tomato plants (2 each of Sun Gold, Chocolate Cherry, and Black Krim that are under grow lights in my studio) and the pepper plants (I’m only doing sweet peppers for now; I still have frozen Padrons from 2 years ago – they were extremely prolific!) and whatever else I decide to add. Once the snap and snow peas are spent I will pull them and the kale out of the bed they are in now to plant the corn.

FullSizeRenderBut today was about the onions. Onions are fairly inexpensive to purchase organically; but those store bought onions just cannot compare to the sweet springy flavor of a Walla Walla plucked from the earth moments before cooking. I do grow a yellow storage variety as well – but even those don’t hold the same appeal to me. The Walla Walla onions were started from seed back in February. They seem to take quite a while to get large enough to transplant. As the greens get very long you will need to give them a trim several times so that they stand at attention and continue to reach for the lights. Once the bases are a decent thickness and the weather is consistently out of the danger of frost (I usually wait until the days are in the 60s and nights 40s) then I get them in the ground. I will be planting one bed (4×8) will Walla Walla sweet onions for fresh eating (sadly, they don’t store well) and Yellow Globe storage onions for, well, storage.

Ok, busted. I didn't take pic before adding the troughs.

Ok, busted. I didn’t take pic before adding the troughs.

I’ve prepared the bed by weeding and using a gardening fork to turn the dirt. This particular bed is where I put all the garden refuse at the end of the harvest in fall to compost. Then the chickens have access to it to scratch, weed, and clear of bugs all winter! I block their access a a few months before planting to allow the chicken manure to mellow so as not to “burn” my plants! After clearing out any larger pieces that didn’t fully break down (mostly some corn stalks – they went into the other compost area) I rake the bed out flat.

Flat of onion starts

Flat of onion starts

The hardest part is untangling the roots without damaging them. Onions are generally started together in a flat and gently separated when the time comes (not in individual pots). Gently loosen the soil around the tendrils and it will fall away. With a bit a pressure pull them apart. Then I use my fingers to make a trough and hold (gently again!) the seedling in place while my other hand fills the soil in around them. I plant the first few rows of Walla Wallas pretty close together. I start using them once they are about an inch in width and continue using them for fresh  cooking all summer. The storage onions are planted with the same technique but farther apart as I want those to get much larger.

Digging a trough

Digging a trough

untangled

untangled

Voila!

Voila!

The storage onions will be ready to pull out of the ground when the tops have died back and are laying on the ground. The nice part, is that you can pretty much leave them where they are until the weather gets chilly and there is a worry of frost at night. Then they should be pulled from the earth and allowed to lay out in a dry area (garage or shed works perfectly) for a few weeks. This allows the exterior layers to dry out which is what protects the onion while in storage. Once they are dried you can cut off the tops and store in a cool dark place like your pantry or garage. They will be good for months!

garlic in spring

garlic in spring

Onions are about as low maintenance as you can get (along with garlic, although that needs to go in in October) – they are naturally pest resistant and even grow in some not-so-great soil. Just beware not to plant them near peas. It really will stunt the growth of your pea plants (that’s a mistake you only make once!).

Hobby ADD

Once Spring arrives and the days grow longer my frenzied hobby ADD comes out in full force. All I want to do is garden, cook, brew, sew, draw, write, bake, read…. Pretty much anything other than go to work. I am lucky to have a job that I like but when the creative juices get flowing it’s just so hard to focus! I’ve been trying to focus on the garden as this time is so crucial but the weather has taken a cold and wet turn so it’s just not been as enjoyable to be out there.

In an effort to stay warm and dry I’ve been reading quite a bit. Since my greatest desire is to have a small farm I like to read books on that subject. It’s also given me a more realistic view of the life I want to live so badly; and it makes me wonder if I’m crazy. All that work, all the life and death, so much money! But yes, the answer is still yes. YES!

I mean, seriously, what’s better than baby goats?

So we’ll see if cooler heads prevail. There’s time…