Gravel Yard

Sorry we haven’t posted much regarding any actual farming, but the truth is we’re still in the setting-up phase of our new home, and consequently most of what we’ve been doing – and blogging about – has been more along the line of basic new-home stuff. Plus we’ve had some rainy weeks this past month, weather that has pushed our planting date back quite a bit (we’re finally starting this week – more on that later). I mean, there’s no use in sowing all your seeds if the garden is just going to be solid mud for days, is there? As well-tilled as our garden is, we found that repeated rainy days caused the whole thing to look like a scene out of Woodstock ’94. Minus the half-naked, stoned, college kids moshing to Primus, of course…

Ready for planting? Not quite...

Not that we haven’t been busy. There’s mowing the whole property, for example, to be done. That in itself deserves its own blog posting as it involves me, on a tractor, nearly rolling down a hill to my death – but perhaps I’ll write about that another time. Here I think I’ll recount something less edge-of-your-seat, if a little mundane.

When we moved onto the property the house had many of the trappings of your typical rental (which it had been for a couple of years): monochromatic interior painting, wall-to-wall shag carpeting, fist-holes in the dry-wall, the unmistakable smell of urine wafting about the rooms – you know, just like your last rental. Of course, it’s not a rental any more, but with all the things we’ve been doing outside of the house, beautifying the inside hasn’t been a big priority (although we did tear up all that carpet). We were, however, able to devote some time to the back yard. Now, maybe yard isn’t the correct word, since that implies grass; step outside our back door and you’ll find yourself face to face not with the green stuff Walt Whitman used to get so loopy over, but with (again, in accordance with the rules governing rental properties) lots and lots of gravel.

And I hate gravel.

Now admittedly there isn’t a lot of square footage here, but it’s still an area we’d like to utilize. There’s a built-in fire pit at the edge, with plenty of room for a few lawn chairs. We can press our cider there, barbecue with friends, get mauled by bobcats – the possibilities are endless. There’s even a rickety, corrugated awning-thing for shade.

In short, this ugly patch of crud could actually be something. So a couple of weeks ago, while we were waiting for our drip-lines to be installed in the garden-to-be, we had all the gravel shoveled out and dumped in the driveway. Then we hit our local landscape supply store and got to work.

It turns out gravel would be the least of our problems: underneath that was a layer of rust-colored volcanic rock. Of course by that I mean the stuff you can buy at a landscaping store – not, you know, a natural layer of volcanic rock (that probably goes without saying as everyone knows that there is no actual lava along the Central California Coast – just lava lamps). Anyway, we got the volcanic stuff out and underneath that was hard, packed, clay-like dirt. It took a lot of tilling to break that stuff up.

Fortunately Sarah helped out a lot. Why, she, alone, turned this…

Into this:

And it only took her nine straight hours! You can only imagine how long it would have taken her if we had allowed her food and bathroom breaks. Okay – I’m kidding, of course! (It was more like six hours). Anyway…

Once that was done we had to blend in twelve or thirteen cubic feet of topsoil, then set flagstone in sand for a nice path.

We bought a few ferns and several flats of ground cover, and in they went…

I think it looks pretty good now. Once we finish planting the ground cover (there’s still a few flats sitting impatiently by the fire pit) and enough time has passed to allow it all to fill in, it should be a nice little bit of Eden.

That is, if Eden had bobcats…


Bees and Chicks!

We have many, many new animals now, all of a sudden.  The chicks were planned, but the bees were an impulse buy.  Here’s how it happened.  We ordered chicks, they had a ship date, we had some time to wait.  No big deal.  While waiting, I happened to be browsing on the “Farm and Garden” section of Craigslist – okay I’m addicted to the site – and someone was selling his beekeeping setup.  With bees in the hive.

How could I pass that up?

So, knowing ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about beekeeping, we hopped in our pickup truck and got the hive and various boxes and frames and whatever the guy handed us.  He tried to explain what the parts were, but Jason and I just glazed over and smiled and nodded.  No clue.

It was evening, so the bees were asleep, and he trapped them inside, strapped it all together and loaded it on the pickup.  We drove home and unloaded by the light of the headlights.  We were basically trusting the guy that there were bees inside, because even after we unloaded the hive we saw not a one, it being night.  The next day we looked, and there were bees coming out!  Yay!  We decided to feed them (sugar water) since they had been through an ordeal, and since there are only a few flowers in bloom now.

But we had no beekeeping gear at all – how could we safely open the hive?  Then I remembered the mosquito netting I had purchased once upon a time (a misguided purchase as it turned out) that was up in the attic.  A hat for each of us, some long sleeves and gloves, some mosquito netting thrown on top and voila we were beekeepers!

And here is our tiny colony of bees (they are only taking up two frames of the 10 frame box) and their jar of sugar water:

We have since taken a class on beekeeping and found out we were not doing about a million things we should have been doing for the bees and were doing several things wrong.  But at least we have a little more of a clue.

When the shipping date came for the chicks, we were very excited.  We waited and waited, called the post office, and finally called the hatchery.  They sent them, but we didn’t get them.  Days and days went by.  The chicks would not survive all these days without water, food or heat.  We were not happy about the prospect of receiving a late box of dead chicks.  I got my money back and ordered from another company.  The first chicks NEVER came!  We have since concluded they must have been delivered elsewhere.  But no worry, we got our chicks from the other hatchery and they were alive and well – and cost less!

So we now have 41 happy healthy Barred Plymouth Rock chicks, a mixture of male and female, in the coop under the heat lamps.

We visit them several times a day, to adjust their heat lamps and change their water and so Sarah can pick them up and generally bother them:

So, we have our work cut out for us.  The chickens we feel fairly confident about, but the bees are going to have to endure our bumbling – no pun intended.  We won’t have any appreciable amount of honey until a year from September, but we’ll have chicken meat in July (we’ll “process” all the males but one or two) and many eggs starting in August.  Meanwhile, it’s looking a lot more like a farm around here!

– Lizzy

A Quick Summary

A lot has gone on since our last post, but before we can start writing about current events there are still a few things we missed from 2011 that need posting.  Writing about them all individually is starting to take up too much time, so I’m going to toss together some of our past accomplishments in one post, with minimal description.

Here we go. At the end of 2011 we…

…made lots of hard cider…

…learned how to process (read: kill and clean) chickens…

…had the trench filled (and we seeded for erosion control)…

…got our first delivery of hardwood for the wood stove….

…made neat Redwood Christmas tree ornaments…

…got our Christmas tree (which was a little taller than we expected)…

…put up a killer clothes line (yes, those are my boxers Lizzy is peaking out from)…

…had Solar panels installed…

…which are now finished (though not connected yet)…

…and we bought a ton of fencing material to eventually run the length of the property.

To be honest, there’s even more stuff we should have posted, but it’s time to forget the past and start living in the present. Next up: Bees!


A bit of a scare – that ended well

Valentine’s Day was as nice as could be – until after dessert.  We’d had a fine day, Sarah had exchanged valentines at school, and Jason and I exchanged lovely cards.  Sarah even gave her current favorite boy a small bunch of roses (so cute!)  I finished sewing Sarah a dress she had asked me to make her – using the treadle sewing machine given to me by our neighbor.  Jason and I saw a coyote in the back yard, looking at our black cat.  After taking a couple of photos, we made our presence known and it ran away (and the cat ran inside).

We had a delicious osso buco and polenta dinner and for dessert homemade hand-dipped chocolate-covered strawberries.  Yum!

Then the trouble started.  Jason went outside to chop a little wood for the wood stove, and realized a cat was outside – in the dark!  We had forgotten to close the cat door!  So I went outside and wound up chasing our orange cat all the way around the house and finally getting him in.  Whew.  Closed the cat door and took a head count: one orange cat, one black cat, no calico.  Where was Sadie?

What followed was a frantic search both indoors and out for our favorite cat.  She was nowhere.  And this cat always comes when called, always stays near the house, never in a million years would run away or go exploring out of earshot.  We scoured the house, including closets, the attic, under beds, under covers, in the bathtub – everywhere.  Jason called and searched everywhere outside with a flashlight: around the house over and over, down the driveway, and up the hill behind the house where the coyote had been.

Where the coyote had been.

After half an hour, I lost hope.  She wasn’t inside.  If she had been outside while we called, she would have come.  The coyotes must have gotten her, and I felt I needed to get used to that reality.  And I felt I had to get Sarah used to that reality too.  I tearfully explained the situation to Sarah and then just sobbed.  Jason kept looking, outside and in, but I felt it was futile.  “She’s gone,” I told him.

I wasn’t in any shape to put Sarah to bed, so Jason took her up to her room.  Just before tucking her in, he made one last stab at looking for Sadie.  He looked into Sarah’s huge box of stuffed animals.  There she was, fast asleep, buried way underneath the stuffed animals.

What a joyful reunion – with many hugs and kisses for the groggy and confused cat, and tears of joy from me.  Why that cat slept through all our calling I will never know, but I am so relieved and grateful to have her with us, safe and sound.

Not half an hour later we heard the coyotes howl.  They sounded like they were right next to the house.  I double checked: all humans and cats inside, all doors closed and locked.  They got something else – this time.

– Lizzy

Burn Day

Hey guys – I’m back with a few more things that we forgot to post waaaaay back in late 2011.

We spent a couple of back-breaking months late last summer sawing down and dragging out scrub oak (and some mature trees) that made up a dense, impenetrable forest right where we planned to have the chicken yard. This was not fun; climbing up and down the hill in the sun, sawing off trees and branches, and hauling them down the hill by hand was quite a chore. I’m not exaggerating when I say that after only an hour or so of work I was barely able to crawl back to the truck. And this went on for weeks. Anyway, by the end of the summer we had staged enough brush to cover about a quarter acre down by the barn. Brush that, unless acted upon, would just sit there. Forever.

Which meant we were going to have to engage in one of rural America’s most time-honored traditions: Burn Day. I don’t know if you’ve ever done one of these things, but out here it’s a regular occurrence. Evidently no one can get through a year without removing vast patches of shrubbery and brush, piling it up somewhere on the property (preferably away from flammable matter like houses, people, and any trees that were lucky enough to escape the impending holocaust), and then lighting it on fire.

Burn season out here runs from around December to March, so we had a bit of waiting to do. Once the season started we called the Fire Department to confirm the day, settled on a location, grabbed a hose and some gasoline and matches, and got started.

As usual, Lizzy jumped at the opportunity to fire up the Kubota, so we tilled a ring around our carefully chosen spot…

…where we had arranged a modest mound of brush. We’d be feeding this small pile from our much larger brush pile located a couple dozen yards away, as apparently torching the entire thing at once is discouraged.

Once the tilling was completed and a source of water established, it was time to ignite!

I have to admit, though, that starting the damn thing wasn’t as easy as you’d expect. Judging by what I hear on the news I’d assumed that piles of brush go up at the merest suggestion of a spark. Not my pile of brush, though. I must have dropped seven or eight tall stick matches into the thing, along with several shots of gasoline, with barely a sustained flicker emanating from within. Embarrassing, really, when you think about the ease with which I used to light all manner of things on fire back in my youth. I guess that’s yet another skill that fades with age, like remembering the names of things and keeping off weight.

And maybe I don’t know much about this stuff, but pouring straight gasoline on a pile of dry leaves and branches, and then dropping a lit match into the mix, doesn’t seem to me to be what you would call a plan without a flaw.

But eventually we got it to catch without immolating ourselves or the surrounding landscape. After that it wasn’t but a few minutes before we had ourselves a nice blaze. And once that blaze got itself settled in, it wasn’t going anywhere.

We then spent the next eight hours or so tossing brush into the pile, inhaling toxic fumes and struggling to keep our eyeballs from melting from the blistering inferno.

We did this on a weekend, so Sarah was able to hang around and watch the fireworks. We even had a nice little lunch out at the back of the barn.

And of course we couldn’t have a big fire like that without toasting a marshmallow or two. Kill two birds with one stone, I say!

It was a pretty fun day, taken all in all. Still, it wasn’t as if we were able to relax in reclining deck chairs while the thing took care of itself. Having your main brush pile thirty-or-so feet removed from your burn pile may seem the wisest course of action, but it certainly forces you to do more physical labor. Dragging this stuff and tossing it on the pile was almost as exhausting as clearing the brush in the first place.

By the end of the day we had a nice, smoldering circle of charred earth. Sure, our lungs – and the lungs of countless wildlife unlucky enough to reside withing a half-mile radius of our land – may have been filled with enough smoke to equal a carton of unfiltered Camels, but we had no more brush!

At least, that is, until next year…..

Bye bye for now!


Gaining Yardage

Sorry about the bad, football-related pun of a title, but the Super Bowl is only a few days away. Anyway, it’s time for some more catching up, though I have to warn you that, unless you happen to be one of those types who enjoy reading about someone else’s yard, you may find this one to be a bit of a snoozer. It’s not even very homesteady, when you really get down to it. Still, these things need documenting. They can’t all be about outrunning voracious wild animals or barely escaping death at the hands of heavy machinery (I know – machinery doesn’t, strictly speaking, have hands, but you know what I mean).

Still reading? Well good on you!

As you may remember from an earlier post, one of the first things we budgeted for when we moved up here was a new front deck. As useful and enjoyable as a deck is, fun wasn’t the only motivation behind the move. The front yard, as it was, was absolutely unfit for human life. You couldn’t go anywhere near it unless you were wearing knee-high boots and a body suit. It looked as if it hadn’t been maintained for a decade: packed dirt and thick, woody weeds shared space with tufts of painful thistle. Gopher holes were everywhere.  I mean, for God’s sake, a warren of rabbits were living there.

Here’s a pic:

While this may look to the average eye like a photo of a cat frolicking – okay, maybe not frolicking, but you get the point – by some arid patch of weeds by the side of a highway, in truth the terrible blight you see in the foreground is actually what passed for our front yard.

Putting a deck there took care of almost half of the square footage in front. The side, however, was even worse. In addition to the thistle and dirt, the ground here rose steadily to a heap in one corner where an unsightly, straggling Yew bush sat upon a mound of rust-colored volcanic gravel. It was horrible. And then, of course, we had a trench carved through it, which didn’t help.

I took this picture (at left) from the center of the side yard, looking over the ridge to the barn down below. You can’t tell how bad the yard was, because of the trench, but you get the idea. And see that exposed yellow pipe? That’s the gas line. Nice.

Once the deck was finished and the trench was filled (electricity having been run down the hill) we hired a landscaper to tear the whole mess of a yard up, grade it down, and till the thing to within an inch of its life. Add a layer of topsoil, rolls and rolls of gopher wire, a couple thousand square feet of sod and we’ve finally got a lawn!

Here it was post-trench and pre-grading and tilling…

…and now nice and flat…

…all the gopher wire is laid out, and the fence is shaping up…

…and finally, the sod!

Not bad, huh? Once the fence was completely installed we had a pretty nice yard. It’s a bit bare, of course, but we’ll be adding some shrubs and trees in the coming months.

That’s it for now! Well, now that I look at it this post wasn’t so boring after all – there was even mention of some wild animals. Just because they’re the cute, hoppy kind with twitchy noses and cottony tails doesn’t mean they’re any less exciting.

And they did seem voracious. Well, a bit.


Catching Up

Happy New Year, everybody! I know, I know – 2012 has been around for almost a month now. It’s been a while since we’ve posted, what with the holidays and all, so let me start by saying that I promise to update this blog more often. In fact, in the spirit of the New Year, I hereby resolve to not only post more often, but to make my posts consist of shorter, more day-to-day updates rather than the less frequent, wordier, general-state-of-things kind of post.

So I’ve got some catching up to do…

First of all, we finally finished the chicken fencing!

Don’t let the trench distract you – it’s long since been filled, which means that the coop now has electricity. This is important for a number of reasons, not least of which is to power the lamps that will provide controlled warmth to the chicks we’ll be ordering (newly-hatched chicks are unable to maintain their body temperatures and thus need to live in a controlled, warm environment for about seven weeks called a “brooder box”). Another reason is to power the electric fence, which should, in theory, keep the fowl from getting gobbled up prematurely.

I was also thinking I could pop the old Slow-Cooker in there,  just in case one of the little guys feels like hopping in and closing the lid himself. You know – cut out the middle man and all that. (Gotta check with Lizzy on that one…)

It’s a pretty good fence, notwithstanding all the trouble we went through to get it constructed to our liking. We still need to upgrade the electric wiring, though. It seems our verbose, frequently shirtless contractor installed something that produces a laughably benign, intermittent pulse. Now, I don’t know much about these kinds of things, but I expect that an electric fence is supposed to repel, via the infliction of some significant amount of pain, any medium-to-largish beast or bird of prey. Not this one, though. This thing wouldn’t even repel a small, blonde little girl. Trust me – I tried it.

It covers about a half an acre, which is more than enough space for the forty-or-so birds who’ll be interned there. They’ve got some oak and apple trees for cover, fresh grass to snack on, and, I’m sure, plenty of bugs and grubs. We’ve also planted an apricot, cherry, Snow Queen nectarine, and Asian pear tree. A regular Eden, I tell you!

There are three entrances, one of which is wide enough to accommodate our tractor, pickup truck, or me if I keep putting on weight the way I’ve been.

The fence was completed, more or less, before Halloween, which should give you an idea of how behind we are on this blog.

So that’s it for now. I’m afraid this post turned out a little longer than I had planned, but don’t hold it against me. I don’t know how these blogger types do it – being succinct isn’t easy!

I’ll post again later this afternoon or tomorrow. Stay tuned!