Archive | June 2014

Peony In Bloom


The sun is blazing down, the temperature and humidity are at 90, thunderstorms threaten, perfect conditions for peonies.  My peony plant has rewarded me with seven lovely blooms this year.  I set this plant out in the fall several years ago.  At first it struggled.  The next spring it had one flower. Then nothing for two years.  It almost died one winter.

b2Then it perked up.  Every year the blossom count has increased, from four to five to now, seven.  There is even a stalk with two flowers.  I couldn’t be happier.  The scent and beauty of peonies, to me, is unmatched in the flower world.  I picked one bloom that was nearly touching the ground due to its weight.  One flower fragrances the whole area around the dining table.  The bloom measures six inches across and is still not fully open.

I did find a few ants crawling around the table.  It appears I didn’t shake the flower long enough before bringing it in the house.  Ants love the sweet secretions of the buds and the flower nectar and flock to them. The presence of ants is not a problem for the plant and the insects should be allowed to remain on the outdoor flowers.  They are not necessary for the opening of the flowers as far as humans can determine, but one can never be sure of the relationship between certain plants and insects.

Another way to get rid of the ants is to dunk the cut flowers in cold water (in a bucket outdoors) for a while.  Drain them well before arranging them in a vase.  Peony blooms are long lasting and will survive in a vase for a good week.  When the peonies fade, I know the height of summer has passed, as well.



Teaching Chicks to Roost


Ameraucana chicks from first hatch 5/7/2014

Ameraucana chickens rarely become broody.  That means the hens do not often act like they want to set on a nest of eggs and hatch them.  Some breeds of chickens are prone to broodiness, not Ameraucanas.  These hens would rather lay their eggs every day then spend the rest of the time in carefree pursuit of bugs and seeds, or dusting under the hedge.  Setting on a clutch of eggs is hard work.


First hatch chicks

Twenty-one days of patient incubation are required to hatch a chicken egg.  An incubating hen leaves the nest only for a quick drink and bite of food.  She turns the eggs daily, talks to the embryos in the eggs and assures the proper temperature and humidity are maintained on the nest at all times.  Only one of my Ameraucana hens ever successfully hatched babies. Most get bored after a week and abandon the nest for more fun activities.


Ameraucana chicks from the second hatch 6/3/2014

To have new generations of Ameraucanas, I use an incubator with a fan and automatic egg turner.  As the babies grow in the eggs, I talk to them like a mother hen, using the same sounds I’ve heard hens use.  When the chicks are hatching, I encourage them with excited clucks and chirps.  The first face the babies see and the first voice they hear is mine.  I use the ‘time to eat” call to show the babies their first bites of chick mash.  All my chickens think I’m their mother hen.  Being mother to so many babies carries responsibilities.  One of my jobs is to teach chicks how to roost, just as a hen would do with her chicks.


Second hatch huddling together, getting ready for a nap

Roosting is done at night.  Adult chickens sleep well above the ground on a limb or other handy perch, safe from most night-time predators.  Baby chickens sleep in a huddled mass on the ground.  If they had a real mother, they would sleep under her, protected by her body and wings.  Alas, I can’t spend the nights in the barn sheltering chicks.  As soon as the babies get a good covering of body feathers so they don’t have to huddle together for warmth, I teach them how to roost.


Fifteen chicks in the second hatch, all roosting successfully

You would think roosting comes natural to chickens.  During the day it does.  The babies fly up and rest on any convenient surface all day long. Yet, when dark falls, they want to mass together on the floor. Without light, chicks often stay frozen in one place. This works to my advantage.  In the dark, I scoop up the chicks and place them, one or two at a time, on the perch.  At first they tend to squawk and drop back off.  But, with persistence, all the babies will stay on a roost.  This is hot, dusty, sweaty work in the dark with a small flashlight clenched in my teeth.  My upper thighs get sore from all the crouching to pick up chicks.  The life of a mother hen is not easy.


First hatch getting the idea of roosting

The first three to five nights are for training.  I must go out in the barn after dark and put chicks on roosts. Every night is a little easier.  More have flown up to the new sleeping spot on their own.  The stubborn ones on the floor stay put on the roost after one or two tries. Finally, all are where they belong, safe above the rats and other undesirables roaming the barn in the dark. When the babies make their special trilling noise that means ‘let’s go to sleep,’ I know the training is over for the night.

This year I am training both my first and second hatch to roost at the same time.  The younger ones are learning faster than the older babies.  Perhaps the older ones have been sleeping on the floor longer and the habit is more ingrained.  This evening will be the third night of roosting lessons.  I am hoping a few hop up on the perches by themselves.  Once one or two birds go up on their own, the rest of the clutch will follow within a few days.


Second hatch in background, older chicks in front


Sixteen chicks in the first hatch

The two hatches share space for eating and drinking, but are wary of each other. They have separate perches for roosting.  As they grow and get closer in size, the younger chicks will begin to sleep with the first hatch.  Right now the little ones are half the size of the bigger babies.  The first hatch stands about 7″-8″ at the shoulder and the second hatch, about 4″.  The small ones are nimble and scurry under their older siblings, usually before they receive a warning peck for getting too close.  These are free-range chicks.  They spend the day in outside adventures, detouring into the barn for food at regular intervals.  At dusk, all the babies return to the barn to sleep.


Of Invasive Weeds: Crown Vetch and Yellow Rattle


Crown vetch


Yellow rattle

Two obnoxious weeds are trying to take over our farm. Crown vetch and yellow rattle were both accidentally introduced to our land several years ago.

Crown vetch (Securigera varia) is a perennial legume native to Africa, Asia and Europe that was brought to the US in the 1950s for erosion control.  Since then it has shouldered its way into most of the nation, pushing out native flora and making a general pest of itself.

The weed is toxic to horses and most know better than to eat it.  There are no natural predators of crown vetch here.  It can grow unmolested in prolific abundance.  The only ways to eliminate it are hand pulling of the tough underground rhizomes, assiduous mowing several times per year, or poisoning with weed killer.

The State of Maine Department of Transportation introduced crown vetch to our land when they reconstructed the road and seeded the sides.  This occurred twenty-six years ago.  Most of those years, the vetch behaved itself and stayed by the road.  Then a few tractor breakdowns and late mowings allowed the weed to spread, sending rhizomes and seeds into our orchard.  Once seeds are dropped by this weed, they are viable for years in the environment.  Since we have an organic farm, I won’t use chemical weed killer.  The vetch invaded about a half-acre of orchard, too much to hand-pull.

Luckily, this year we have a brand new weapon, a 2013 New Holland Workmaster 55 four-wheel drive tractor that starts and runs when you need it. b1Unlike our last tractor.  The lethal Woods Rotary Mowing Machine, with a six-foot cutting swath, attaches neatly to the three-point hitch on the back of the tractor. At 2540 rpm, nothing argues with the spinning blades of the mower.b6

I mowed the crown vetch in the orchard, getting accustomed to my new rig, and discovering that any serious orchard mowing will require removal of the bucket assembly.  Luckily, the vetch grows mostly in open areas where I don’t have to do fancy maneuvering between the apple trees.

This nasty weed must be cut, at the least, in June and August, and also probably in July and September, killing it before it can bloom.  The invasive plant experts say that after several years of dedicated mowing, crown vetch can be controlled.  Fingers crossed.  If the vetch continues to march down the hill and takes root in my pasture, disaster.  It kills all other plants and forms a mono-culture.  Horses won’t eat it, so my animals would not be able to graze their pasture if crown vetch took over.

Yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) is a native annual plant, a relative of snapdragon, that prefers open, sunny locations such as my hayfield.  There was no rattle in my field for most of my life.  Then, a few years ago, I found a clump growing near the entrance to the field.  Seeds probably fell from the haying equipment of the farmer who cuts our field.  Unfortunately, I didn’t grasp the danger of those few little yellow-flowered weeds and let them stay.

Yellow rattle forms seeds in each of the large, round, flatish pods below the flower.  When the seeds mature, they rattle in their pods, hence the name.  b5Cute and kind of fun to shake, until the full extent of the catastrophe becomes obvious.  As it did a few days ago. I took a tour of my growing hayfield and discovered yellow rattle had taken over at least three-quarters of the area.  The weed discourages grass growth by sending parasitic roots into grass roots and stealing nutrients.  Where the hay should be tall and ready to bloom, rattle bloomed instead, in yellow excess.

The first crop of hay is ruined.  Since yellow rattle is an annual, stopping it from seeding should kill it.  The seed can remain viable for at least three years.  The weed was able to spread because my field isn’t hayed until July or later, after the rattle blooms. Haying only spread the seeds far over the area.

I spent most of this week destroying my first crop of hay.  Making repeated passes with the mowing machine nearly dragging on the ground to cut every last one of the dirty little rattles.  I am hoping for a strong second crop of hay so I don’t have to buy all my horse fodder this year.  Usually we make the hay the horses need from that field.  Since we have no haying equipment, we depend on another farmer’s schedule for hay cutting.  I can only rotary mow, which destroys the hay.  The destruction of the first crop will likely need to continue for the next two years to eliminate the rattle.

As I mowed the hayfield, I discovered a pair of bobolinks nesting.  Bobolinks prefer grassland and build their nests low, on the ground.  The poor birds were having a fit as the tractor neared their area.  I was having a fit, as well, because I needed to mow all the yellow rattle, yet I certainly didn’t want to destroy the birds’ nest.  Bobolinks are beautiful, with a lovely song, and their numbers are declining.  I stopped mowing where they were and hoped I hadn’t already gotten the nest.  As luck would have it, the location the birds chose was one of the few spots with no rattle.  I was able to leave two large plots of standing grasses for bobolink habitat.  The birds are still there two days after the mowing, so I must have avoided the nest.  I shudder to think of all the bird nests that are destroyed this time of year as farmers hay their fields.

So now we shall see if my efforts of the past week are successful.  I have learned a hard lesson, especially about yellow rattle.  When something new appears in the landscape, learn about it.  Early knowledge can prevent much later misery.


Wild Strawberries


Wild strawberry time!  This appears to be a bountiful berry year.  The plants prefer poorer, more acidic soil in the wild fields where there is less competition from grasses.  Conditions for growing strawberries have been excellent this year with plenty of early rain, then a nice spell of warm, sunny and humid.  a3The wild berries are very large, the biggest I’ve seen them.  And delicious.

When I was a child, I spent many patient hours in the hot sun, with deer flies and mosquitoes for company, picking wild strawberries for jam.  It takes two quarts of berries for the recipe.  That’s eight cups of tiny berries!  My hands would be red by the time the bowl was full.  Then all those berries had to be hulled, another tedious job.  The end results were worth the effort.  Wild strawberry jam is the best!  Such a blending of piquant, rich, sweet flavors is not present in the more bland cultivated berries.a2

Strawberries are not really berries.  The tasty red part is the enlarged center of the flower.  The seed-like bits on the outside are the actual fruit.  Wild strawberry, Fragaria virginiana, is a member of the Rose family and is native to North America.  It grows in sun to partial shade, in dry, open areas.  Strawberries tolerate mildly acidic soil.

The early settlers and pioneers of the plains encountered such a plethora of wild strawberries that the wheels of their wagons became stained red.  I saw an original Conestoga wagon on display in a museum in Cooperstown, NY, with berry-stained wheels.  The pioneer children would gather wild strawberries to add to the breakfast (and supper) griddle cakes.

Wild strawberries grow close to the ground, at a height of eight inches or less.  Their fibrous perennial root systems send out long, tough, above-ground shoots called runners that take root on the far end and create new plants.  A sizable patch of strawberries can form in this manner.  There are areas in my fields covered with wild strawberries.  Maybe I’ll relive a childhood experience and pick enough to make jam.  Or not.a4

How My Garden Grows

gard1It’s been five days since I took garden photos, the rapid growth is evident.  Warm, sunny weather has spurred the plants on.  The corn is already knee-high, well before the 4th of July.  gar3The center of my knee is about 18″ from the ground, so that’s how tall the biggest plants are today.  We are supposed to get some rain this evening, then more sun to follow, cornscateous weather.  (That means hot, humid conditions, perfect weather for growing corn.)


Six bean sprouts in a row!

Finally, more wax beans have sprouted!  The second planting is coming up nicely.  At least a dozen seeds sprouted so far, hopefully more to follow.  The next few days will be the dangerous time for baby beans, when they are most vulnerable to cutworm attacks and damping off.  Once they have a few leaves, most bean plants can’t be held back.


Baby carrots

gar6Time to weed and thin the carrots.  Carrot seed is planted thickly to ensure enough sprout to fill out a row.  The extra are thinned and fed to the bunnies.  gar7When planting carrots, I use a hand-held device called a “Minisem,” designed to evenly distribute very fine seed.  The seeds go inside the round part, then an opening above the spout can be adjusted to allow the desired amount of seed to pass.  It’s much easier to control the flow of the seeds with this tool.  Trying to seed from the hand or the seed packet always produces uneven results.


Bachelor button seedlings

The bachelor buttons are growing fast.  This is the first time I’ve tried these flowers and I look forward to seeing how they do.  The seedlings are supposed to be thinned but it breaks my heart to remove more than half of these babies. They do not transplant well so any removed will die.

Cornscateous weather is also great for tomatoes. gar5 Most of the plants are flowering now.  I can hardly wait for those first juicy tomatoes from my own garden.  Even the farmer’s market ones aren’t as good.

I’ve harvested about a pint of fresh radishes.  They’re nice and mild, the way I like them.

I often neglect to wear gloves when I work in the garden.  After a few hours of weeding and hand pruning, my hands get quite dirty.  The plant juices and soil are ground into the skin.  Minuscule bits of rock in the soil cause microscopic cuts to the skin, allowing stains to get deep and also roughening the skin.  I make gardener’s hand soap just for me.

soapWith a goat milk base and finely ground pumice, the soap cleans dirt and stains, smooths the skin by polishing away the microscopic cuts and moisturizes with natural emollients.  I wouldn’t want to garden without my soap.  I made a batch scented with cucumber and sage, smells great.  And the sheep shape is really cute.

I gave a bar of my gardener’s soap to a friend once.  She left it with her other soaps and her husband grabbed it for the shower.  He said, “Boy, that’s some rugged soap!”  Poor man.  The pumice isn’t meant for tender parts of the body!  I bet he was extra clean.


In The Garden


Got out my trusty little Mantis tiller and ran it through the vegetable garden to kill the first crop of weeds.  The Mantis came from a local auction for a very good price and it’s perfect for my needs.  In less than a half hour I can weed an area that would take several hours by hand.a2  With a bit of practice, the tiller can be driven very close to the garden plants with no danger.


Radishes and six surviving bean plants

All the vegetables I planted are growing nicely with the exception of the wax beans.  Just as last year, the first planting failed.  It rained too much and the seed likely rotted in the ground.  Six bean plants survived from the first seeding.  I’ve replanted, there is still plenty of time for bush beans to mature.  Hopefully they will grow better this time around.

A free package of radishes was included with something I ordered this spring so I threw them in the garden and have already harvested some nice little radishes.  I plant early crops, like radishes and bush beans, in areas that will later be covered by pumpkin runners.  By the time the pumpkins are that large, the early crop will be harvested.


Brandywine tomato


Tomato planting




The tomatoes are looking great. There are six Early Girl plants and five Brandywine plants.  Early Girl has always been a star performer for me, maturing very early, sometimes yielding fruit by mid-July.  This variety has medium sized, very tasty, red fruit.  Brandywine is a first time plant for me this year.  An old variety now considered heirloom, this tomato produces large, somewhat irregular purple-red fruit that has an unbelievably delicious, sweet flavor.  Whenever I find Brandywine tomatoes in the market, I snap them up.  It will be fun to have some of my own.  This is a late maturing variety, requiring nearly three months.  I planted them the third week of May so I should get some fruit before frost.

The Indian corn is coming along very well.  It should be more than knee-high for the Fourth of July, knock on wood.  This starchy corn is not for fresh eating, but is beautiful for fall decoration and can be used as animal feed, ground into cornmeal, or even popped.a9  I like to place a cob in the microwave to pop then eat the popcorn right off the cob, yummy!

The pumpkins and squash took a while to sprout due to the extensive rain, but they are all growing nicely now.  I have field pumpkins for jack-o-lanterns, mini pumpkins for fall decorating, and acorn squash, a storage squash for winter eating.  a10I also planted a packet of gourd seeds on the horse manure pile and several of those have sprouted and are getting big. The largest threat to young cucurbits is insects, especially cucumber beetles and squash bugs.  They can quickly suck the life out of a young squash plant.  At the first sign of these bugs, I apply organic insecticide, or kill by hand any that I find.


Bachelor Button


Jerusalem artichoke

For some color and fun, I planted bachelor buttons.  These members of the carnation family make great cut flowers. The mix I planted has several different colors.  A bunch of seedlings have sprouted so I should have some nice flowers in a month or so.  The Jerusalem artichoke has emerged, stronger and more numerous that last year, their first year.  Members of the sunflower family, the sunchokes produce an edible tuber and lovely, yellow flowers that are great for cutting.

I also have several decorative sunflower plants sprouted.  These fast growing plants provide quantities of burgundy, orange and yellow flowers on tall stalks right through first frost.  The seeds are black oil type sought by song birds putting on energy for the long flight south in the fall.

The Siberian iris is coming into full bloom, with the purple slightly in advance of the yellow flowering plants.  The last few days, many yellow swallow-tail butterflies have been visiting the irises.  There must have been a hatch.a14a12a13

Baby Rabbits Five Weeks Old


The baby rabbits born May 7 are now nearly six weeks old.  All seven are fine and healthy.  Mama bunny does an excellent job caring for them.  There are five white albino, one agouti and one chinchilla coated.  Agouti is the wild color of rabbits.  The chinchilla is more silvery colored with the yellow in the coat diluted to nearly white.a4  All the babies are very sweet and friendly.a2 Here they are romping in the outdoor pen with their mother, who is full angora.  The babies are half Rex.

The little ones have voracious appetites, consuming the contents of the large hopper feeder overnight.  They also drink a lot, rapidly emptying two bottle waterers I keep on the cage.  All rabbits, babies included, love to eat the fresh lawn grasses.

In a couple weeks they will need to be separated by sexes, as by eight weeks of age, little rabbits can possibly mate.  I will place all the males in a separate cage and keep the females with their mother.a3  At that time, they will be weaned and old enough to go to new homes.  It is difficult to tell at this point if any will be long-coated. Baby angoras start with short coats.  All the babies will be sold as pets since they are not purebred angoras.


Blue-eyed Grass


Summer has finally arrived for me when I spot the first tiny blooms of the Blue-eyed Grass sprinkled among the taller grasses of the hayfield.  Diminutive members of the iris family, Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium) flowers at the same time as its garden relative.  This species is widespread across North America, with several subspecies or varieties occurring, each in a different region.  Most have blue or purple flowers, though some are white and in California there is a Golden-Eyed Grass with sunny yellow petals.


Blue-eyed grass bloom being visited by a miniature bee

The plant grows from a rhizome.  It spreads with the copious seeds produced, a favorite food of birds who distribute the seeds far and wide.  Blue-eyed grass forms clumps, like garden iris, and is usually a hardy perennial.c  The seeds or rhizomes can be planted in a rock garden or used as a low border.

The sepals are wider than the petals, creating a distinctive wide-narrow pattern to the bloom.  Blue-eyed Grass creates a lovely color show this time of year that can last a month or more.  There is a variety named Lucerne, discovered in Switzerland, that has a deep purple flower and is sold commercially.

Blue-eyed grass is named for the long, grass-like leaves.  Yet, if you imagine this plant as large as a garden iris, you can tell the leaves are from the same family.  The flowers close at night and open with the sun.  Sometimes I like to pull a few flower shafts, sliding the full length of the stalk out of the stem base, and bring the blooms in the house.  They last several days in a vase set in a sunny window.

Tiny wild bees favor the flowers.  You have to look very closely to see these insects at work.


Bearded Irises


The irises are blooming, one of my favorite times!  We have bearded iris plantings in several areas of the yard.  The name bearded refers to the fuzzy, beard-like patch on the three main petals.

Most of our irises are two-toned purple with a wonderful grape-like scent.  a2These thrive in our gardens with very little care.  Every other year I have to divide the plants and find new spots for them so the beds don’t become too crowded.

Irises grow from a long rhizome at or just beneath the soil surface. In late summer, new rhizomes can be cut and removed, with the roots and a trimmed leaf fan attached, for replanting elsewhere.

a3With a little attention, such as occasional dividing, weeding, mulching and fertilizing, irises will reward the gardener with a multitude of large, fragrant blooms. They also make great cut flowers.  I gather the ones that bend over from rain and fill vases in the house.

Two years ago I planted a new variety called Hemstitched and the plants are blooming for the first time this year.  The flowers are very large, white laced with purple and with a heavy, grape fragrance.a5a4

A little later in the season, the Siberian irises will open. Siberian irises are not bearded, and resemble the wild blue flag iris.  We have plantings in purple and yellow. The yellow Siberian irises are particularly vigorous and need frequent dividing.



Little Visitor–Painted Turtle


Every spring for several years, right about this time, a painted turtle wanders through the yard.  The turtle is likely a female searching for a spot to lay her eggs.  She comes from our farm pond, home to a healthy population of turtles.  The painted turtle (Chrysemys picta) is the most common turtle in North America and the picta picta subspecies is the Eastern painted turtle.  a6a7They are named for the bright colors along the edges of the carapace (upper shell,) the plastron (lower shell,) and the neck and legs.  Painted turtles are really quite pretty.  Fancy for creatures that inhabit muddy ponds and slow moving streams, eating aquatic plants and animals.


The pond in June

We often spot the turtles when we walk by the pond, they like to bask on the banks.  At the first sign of encroachers, they slip quietly into the water and watch with just their eyes above the surface. Once, in early winter, we were skating and the ice had frozen clear as glass.  We watched a turtle walking along the bottom of the pond.  Probably getting ready to dig down into the mud to hibernate for the winter.

The female turtles lay eggs this time of year, and can travel long distances from their home to find a good nest spot.  These turtles sometimes cross roads in search of nesting areas and are at risk of being flattened.  I have helped several turtles across the road over the years. a5a3 The species lay up to eleven eggs at once, but nests average five to six eggs.  The eggs incubate for about two-and-a-half months.  Temperatures determine the sexes of the babies with cooler temperatures favoring males and warmer for females.  Sometimes a turtle will have two clutches of eggs in a year.  The later babies winter over in the nest, emerging in the spring.

It is hard to tell if this turtle is the same one that has visited in other years.  I like to imagine she is.  I set her down near a sandy spot and went away for a few minutes.  When I returned, she had disappeared.  Painted turtles can move fast when they want to.  I hope she finds an adequate place to nest and that she didn’t try to cross our busy road.  Something must be going right for these turtles because the pond is full of them.a1