Weekly Homestead Report 8: October 3, 2016

Dreary skies have made it difficult to appreciate the vibrant colors of the leaves, but they’re real nice. Today the sky finally cleared for a few hours, and then a huge dark cloud blew over and dumped a bunch of rain on us in the late afternoon.

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The tomato vines are starting to look a bit brown, but we’re still overrun by tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and tomatillos. We just made some eggplant Parmesan to keep things under control. My food preservation efforts are starting to feel a lot less fun. For inspiration, I called up Jeannie Seabrook, a good friend who owns the Glass Rooster Cannery. She gave me a bunch of new recipes, so hopefully the next round will be more interesting.

We’re trying to grow every edible plant we can think of, including some that prefer conditions other than those we can offer. Cranberries fall into this category, since they thrive in bogs. This year one of our two cranberry plants fruited, and the berries are nearly ripe!

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One of our hens laid a rubbery egg without a proper shell. We ate it anyway.

The monarch caterpillars continue to grow. One was missing yesterday (Sunday) and today I couldn’t find any of them. I suspect they went looking for a suitable place to pupate.

The asters are so striking that I couldn’t help but include them here, though I’ve already written about both smooth and New England asters.

Weekly Homestead Report 7: September 26, 2016

This was a very full week, with little time or energy for the garden or woods; however, as there was some chance of a frost Sunday night, Charley and I harvested all the ripe squash, tomatoes, and a lot of other veggies this weekend. We picked 19 butternut squash, about a dozen acorn squash, seven pie pumpkins, six spaghetti squash, and about 25 pounds of tomatoes, as well as a large quantity of ground cherries and a few pounds of tomatillos. We harvested all of the dry lima beans, and enough green ones for a meal. I also picked a bunch of herbs to dry or freeze. We’re still getting a few strawberries, as well as red and yellow raspberries.

 

Earlier in the week, we picked 13 pounds of grapes (a mix of our cultivated Concord grapes and wild fox grapes). We simmered, smashed, and strained them, but the juice is waiting in the refrigerator for me to have a couple of hours to make it into jelly!

I have been featuring a different aster each week. Over the weekend, I noticed that the New England Aster, Symphyotrichum novae-angliae, had begun to bloom. This particular plant is glorious, over five feet tall, has dark purple flowers with orange centers, and is loaded with buds. According to the excellent website GoBotany, New England asters are distinctive because they have “more ray flowers than other American-asters (45-100 per flower head).” They are also the deepest purple of the asters in our yard.

The monarch caterpillars we’ve been watching disappeared from the plants they’ve been feeding on early last week. However, we found three previously unnoticed caterpillars on a patch of milkweed on the other side of the garden this past weekend. They seem to be at a similar stage of development, almost two inches long, so we’ll follow these guys now. Mysteriously, the smallest of the three was resting on an ash leaf as if it were about to pupate.

Weekly Homestead Report 5: Sept 12, 2016

This week Hurricane (then Tropical Storm) Hermine  made its way up the coast. In Northfield, it manifested as two days of misty rain, high humidity, and relatively cool weather. I jumped on the opportunity to divide perennials and fill in the new flower beds by the driveway.  We got almost 3/4 of an inch of rain on Friday, and another half inch (along with serious wind and a little thunder) on Sunday, all of which should help the plants survive the uprooting.

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This is the season of being overwhelmed by the garden’s productivity, so I’ve been busy preserving it. I canned another batch of tomato sauce, a big batch of salsa verde (tomatillo base), and a ridiculous quantity of hot pepper jelly. Tomatoes are ripening faster than I can keep up with them, so we’ve been trying to give away a lot, too. We’re getting lots of cucumbers, ground cherries, tomatillos, peppers, squash, and eggplant. We picked another outstanding watermelon, and made our first pumpkin pie of the season. I’ve been collecting dry legume seeds; we’ll plant the peas in the hoop house this winter to eat the greens, and the black beans are just plain food. Charley brought the first bunch of delicious fox grapes home from work on Friday. A few more beach plums were ripe (one bush makes orange ones instead of purple, we learned yesterday), and we’re still getting strawberries. The raspberries are going strong.

Last week (Wed, Aug 31st), I saw a monarch lay her eggs on a milkweed plant, and posted Charley’s photo. Nine days later (Friday, Sept 9th) the eggs hatched into these tiny caterpillars! On the third day, one of them had molted into its second instar.

Eager to get things going in the hoop house, I started building the raised beds. This one bed will have the highest quality compost, since we have only produced a limited supply and need to use some of it in other parts of the garden.

Our soil is dramatically different across our property. This is well demonstrated by the size and vigor of kale planted on the same day in the “upper” and “lower” gardens, but perhaps best seen by comparing these sunflowers. They range from about three inches to eight feet tall, with flowers of less than an inch to over a foot in diameter.

Having a “wild” yard means we get to see wildlife. On Friday a big flock of turkeys wandered through, eating grass seed and insects. I really enjoy their dinosaur-esq appearance, and I’m glad they’re not as damaging to the landscape as chickens (which seem to prefer bare dirt, and scratch the vegetation to death if allowed enough time). In the interest of full disclosure, this photo is from last year.

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I’ve been mentioning different asters blooming in each post; this week belongs to the Smooth Aster (Symphyotrichum laeve). This particular plant seeded itself in right by the corner of our driveway turn-around. It’s over four feet tall, although someone drove over it in June and many of the stems were broken off. It has re-sprouted, but the flowers on those younger stems aren’t yet open.

Several of the perennials that I grew from seed this spring started blooming. The verbena started almost a month ago, but the hyssop and balloon flower just opened up this morning! Some kind of hypenoptera (a cuckoo bee, I think) was sleeping in the hyssop when I went out to photograph it.

Weekly Homestead Report 3: Aug 29, 2016

There are two bits of exciting news this week: we found that our rock garden isn’t a complete failure, and we started construction of a hoop house!

When we dug up parts of the lawn for our vegetable garden about two and a half years ago, you could see the four rock piles on satellite imagery (just below the rectangular beds, from Google Maps).

After using some of the rocks for the floor of an outdoor shower, to level off the road edge by the mailbox, as steps down from the driveway to the “lower garden,” and other projects, there were still lots of rocks left. We decided to spread them out and fill in the spaces with dirt and sand, and then sprinkle in some seeds we collected from open sandy habitats. Crickets quickly moved in and made homes in the miniature caves. This spring, we neglected the rock garden and it became covered with cinquefoil, horseweed, and milkweed.

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On Tuesday when I was weeding the cucumbers just on the other side of the fence from the rock garden, I discovered a funny-looking plant, something I was pretty sure was a sandplain specialist. Sure enough, Charley identified it as orange-grass St. John’s-wort, or Hypericum gentianoides, a plant of rocky ridges and grasslands, especially disturbed habitats like the sand pit created by four-wheelers where we’d collected the seeds. The plant has tiny (practically nonexistent) upright leaves, small yellow flowers, and orange-red fruits.

When Charley came out to see the St. John’s-wort, he looked over the fence at the rock garden and spotted what I had somehow missed—blooming bluecurls! Forked bluecurls, or Trichostema dichotomum, is appropriately named, as it is blueish-purple with two long curved (curled) stamens that would clearly get pollen all over the back of a bee. Like the St.John’s-wort, this is a grassland plant that readily colonizes disturbed places. I had never seen the flowers before, but the dried stems and seedpods were charming when we collected them last fall. Each plant is about one foot tall with dozens of flowers that open each morning and wilt by mid-afternoon.

I decided to pull out the cinquefoil and horseweed to see if any of the other rock/ sand specialists had sprouted. I got about 3/4 done when a couple of irritated paper wasps came over to let me know that I was disturbing their nest. I left. Lucky for me, we’ve had a few skunks hanging around. We’ve seen them in the driveway at night, and gotten a few photos on the wildlife camera. Skunks really like munching grubs, and don’t seem to mind a few stings if that’s what it takes. Two days after I abandoned the weeding project, a skunk (I presume) had pulled a few rocks out of the way and ripped the nest out, devouring the grubs, and digging out some of the dirt. There are still a few unhappy adults around, but now that the nest is gone, I can probably get on with weeding without getting stung.

There is purple-stemmed aster (Symphyotrichum puniceum) growing out of the pavers in our patio under the deck. It started blooming this week. That makes aster #3, after the white wood aster and calico aster.

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In our woods  blooming plants include: virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana), monkeyflower (Mimulus ringens), meadowsweet (Spiraea alba), Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), Indian tobacco (Lobelia inflata),  jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), willow-herb (Epilobium), and white turtlehead (Chelone glabra). Our cultivated pink turtlehead just started blooming by the driveway, too.  Additionally, in the powerline cut behind our woods, we found blooming joe-pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum), purple milkwort (Polygala sanguinea), gerardia (Agalinis), rattlesnake root (Prenanthes trifoliata), and flat-topped aster (Doellingeria umbellata).

I find it fascinating to watch bumble bees collecting pollen from the turtlehead. They pry open the lips of the flower, squeeze inside, back out after about 5 seconds of buzzing, and briefly attend to collecting the pollen from their furry parts and transferring it into the pollen baskets on their hind legs before heading to the next one.

We’re pretty much eating the same things as last week. This is the time when the garden swamps us with its abundance. There are so many tomatoes!  I picked 32 pounds on Friday and made 12 pints of tomato sauce, and that’s in addition to dehydrating all the ripe cherry tomatoes on Tuesday (now they fit into a one quart bag).

And now, the hoop house! My parents are visiting from Ohio. My dad is a remodeling contractor and someone who doesn’t relax much. My mom is an avid gardener and food preservationist. They recently built a hoop house using hog panels (4′ by 16′ stiff welded wire fence), and had such a great time eating salad all winter that I wanted one too… So before they came, I measured my space and gathered up materials. Because of the way it is constructed, with the 16′ hog panels creating the arc, it can only be about 7-8 feet wide if you want to be able to stand up inside. We decided to use 6 panels for a 25 foot length. I also bought six long 2 x 8s for the box at the bottom, some 5/4 decking material to build the ends, and some hardware. I’m sorry I didn’t take a photo of the little-Honda-Civic-that-could hauling everything from the lumberyard, because it was impressive! This is a great experimental greenhouse, because the materials cost just $426, and two of us built the entire frame in less than 6 hours yesterday. Today we built and hung the doors and put plastic on the two ends. Tomorrow we’ll “skin” the main part.

The hoop house is currently oriented with the long sides oriented east-west, mostly because our corn patch is in the way of where we wanted to put it, oriented with a long side facing south… BUT, according to the New Mexico Extension website: “For maximum passive warming in the winter months, consider orienting your hoop house so the long side runs east/west.” Okay, done! I think leaving it where it is sounds much better.