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August Garden Tour

The garden is in full swing and I’m barely keeping ahead of it, especially the wax beans.  The weather has been in the 90sF and 90%+ humidity for days on end.  It is hard for me to work outside in such hot weather due to breathing difficulties with asthma.  The weeds keep right on growing.  After the thunderstorms finish tonight, we are supposed to have at least three days of temps in the 70s-low 80s and much lower humidity.  I’m so looking forward to that!  Hope to get my garden in shape then.

I’ve just managed to stay ahead of the wax string beans.  So far I’ve canned 6 pints with 6 more to do and another big bag to pick tomorrow.  Beans love hot, humid weather.  The only problem is they can’t be harvested if they are wet.  It causes the beans to get rusty marks on them.  Timing bean harvesting between thunderstorms can be tricky.

I like to place my rows of plantings close enough together so that when they are mature they fill the whole area, choking out weeds.  The plants shade the soil and retain moisture without the need to apply mulch.  Above we see pumpkins on the left, beans in the middle and tomatoes on the right.  There are a few weeds in the tomatoes.  I’ll get rid of those this weekend.

The tomatoes have formed a jungle and are producing more fruit than I can eat.  Soon I will be freezing tomatoes for winter soups.  Fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes right from the garden are so much better than the store-bought variety.  Store tomatoes should be sold under a different name, like cardboard tomatoes.

The indian corn started out slowly this year due to a month of drought in June.  The lack of rain was also hard on the grass.  The hay harvest is poor.  The corn looks better.  Rain, mostly from thunderstorms, has help the plants reach for the sky.  They are about six feet tall and busy tasseling and making ears.  I plant pumpkins as companions for the corn.  The vines run around the stalks where they have plenty of space to spread out.  The large squash leaves shade the ground around the corn, discouraging weeds and helping conserve moisture.  Sunflowers like to grow with the pumpkins as well.

In June I went to a clearance sale at a local greenhouse and saved the last two pots of straight-neck summer squash.  They were very unimpressive, root-bound, yellowed pitiful plants.  I figured, give’em a chance and stuck them in where the carrots failed due to the drought.  In no time they had taken over that spot and are now flexing their leaves over my bed of sweet basil.

From struggling seedlings, the plants have grown into squash making machines.  I pick the squash when it’s very small, about the length of my middle finger, to keep ahead of production.  Small squash are tender and delicious.  Any that get away to grow to monster proportions are fed to the chickens.  They love garden extras, especially squash and tomatoes.

Last year I planted sweet basil near the edge of the garden, right beside the fence.  Something ate all my plants and I never got any basil.  This year I made a bed near the center of the garden.  The basil is growing unmolested and I have harvested a bunch already to dry.  The fresh leaves are also yummy tossed in a salad with tomatoes and summer squash.  The new growth is pinched back by about 6″ or so to encourage branching and prevent the plants from going to flower.  I make bundles using four spears of basil then hang them upside down in a dark, airy room to dry.

This year I again planted the crazy tendril peas.  I didn’t give them any support since they are supposed to hold themselves up with the luxuriant over-growth of tendrils.  It works pretty well.  They do lean over a bit, providing perfect cover for a mouse who is stealing pods and eating my peas before I can pick them.  I guess there’s plenty for everyone.  I’m just worried the rodent will move on to the tomatoes when the peas are gone.  Once I harvest the peas, I’m going to replant carrots in that spot and hope for a fall crop.

By planting sweet peppers in the shade thrown by the corn, the plants get protection from strong sun and the extra moisture they need to perform well.  There will be lots of nice peppers this fall if all goes right.  Last time I got a good pepper harvest, I roasted the excess on the grill, sliced and froze them.  When I needed pepper for topping pizza or tossing in pasta, I just chopped some off the frozen block.  That worked very well, so I plan to do it again this year.

When I was a kid, I did not like chard.  Now I love it!  The drought was tough on chard, but I got several plants that I transplanted to fill out a small row.  They seem to be having a competition to see who can produce the largest leaves.  I particularly like rainbow chard, such a pretty mix of colors when it grows.  

Just for fun and a splash of brightness in the veggie patch, I always grow some flowers.  This year bachelor buttons volunteered from seed dropped last year.  The mass of plants has to be tied up to prevent it flopping into the path and all over the neighboring plants.  These make lovely cut flower bouquets for the table that last over a week.

The zinnias have just started to bloom.  I almost got a picture of a hummingbird on the big red zinnia flower, but I wasn’t quite quick enough.  Hummingbirds also like the sunflowers.  Sometimes when I stand in the garden, the aerial hummingbird battles going on around me make me duck.  The tiny birds are very territorial and don’t like sharing even when there are plenty of flowers to go around.

Female ruby-throated hummingbird on the sunflowers, taken in 2017

This year I planted nasturtiums in the garden for the first time. Some didn’t do well, I suspect the drought got them.  A few have thrived and are producing orange, yellow and red flowers. So pretty. The flowers are supposed to be edible, but I probably will leave them in the garden rather than toss them on a salad.

Now we’ve reached the end of the garden tour.  Time to can some beans!

 

 

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Hatching Time and Odd Egg

Here is the first set of Ameraucana eggs for 2018.  They went in the Brinsea Ovation Eco 28 on the 8th and are due to hatch on the 29th.  There are some very nice colored eggs this year.  We’re still waiting for a few of the pullets hatched in September 2017 to start laying, but most of our 15 hens produce regularly.  The main rooster is named RB (Short for Rooster Boy) and he is a very handsome silver Ameraucana.

We have two back-up silver x black roosters and the hens are mostly silver x black.  The hens all have strong silver features.  Fingers are crossed that this next generation will be more of the silver type I’m looking to breed.

Silver Ameraucana hens tend to mature a little slower than other pullets.  They often don’t begin laying until they are seven to nine months old.  Most of mine start around seven months.  The pullets of some breeds commence laying as early as four-and-a-half to six months of age.  What I’ve noticed with early ovulation is the eggs are in the extra small to small range, due to the size of the hens’ bodies.  It takes several weeks for them to have large size eggs.  The silvers may take a little longer to mature, but they start in with a bigger, more usable (salable) egg.  This is a first egg from a seven-month bird that was laid last week.  It is a size large egg.  The deep color is typical for first eggs, although the band of color is somewhat extreme.  It is an odd but beautiful egg.

Joyful Yule!

Joyful Yule to all!  This shortest day of the year finds the farm tucked into an 8″ blanket of snow.  The temperatures struggle to the 20sF during the day and dip toward zero at night.  This morning the sun favors us with a watery, weak glow, halfway to its zenith at 8:30 am.  The light has a yellowish cast due to the angle.

We modern humans understand how the tilt of the Earth determines the seasons, unlike our poor ancestors who huddled in fear through the dark and cold.  What if the sun just kept fading and didn’t return?  No wonder sacrificial rites were performed during the depths of night and celebration ensued when the daylight lengthened.  Today we know spring will return and our fear is more of how warm the world is becoming.

The last couple weeks haven’t felt too warm!  Chickens snuggle on the roosts, sharing body heat, and don’t lay eggs when it is so chilly.  The horses are wrapped in thick winter coats.  They stand in patient reverie awaiting the next feeding as icicles form on their long whiskers.  Angora rabbits are made for cold weather.  Six inches of angora fiber is just the thing to keep a bunny toasty.  The dogs delight in snow.  They would spend hours romping in it if we let them.  The cats pine for their outdoor cage, which must come down in the winter or be destroyed by snow.  They content themselves sitting in the windows and chattering at the multitude of wild birds flocking to the feeders.

The feral pheasant may still be around.  Last week he came into the barn twice to eat scratch grain I left out for him.  Then we got a brutal storm with snow, wind and cruel freezing rain overnight.  The pheasant has not been seen since.  The scratch grain was still disappearing so I figured the bird was coming in to eat.  Then I surprised four bold mourning doves who flew right into the barn to take the offerings.  I moved the scratch into the lower barn where I know the pheasant will look, but the doves won’t dare to venture.  Yesterday the pile of grain was depleted and I thought there were some larger bird footprints in the dust.  So, perhaps the pheasant still holds his own.  I’m rooting for him.

Now there is little for us to do but turn our heads from the wind as we trudge through winter chores, sit by the woodstove and let the heat work into the bones, finally read that book we’ve wanted to get to, catch up on inside work, nap.  And wait for spring.

Baby Bunnies and the Chicks

Moonstone, the new angora rabbit doe I acquired last month, gave birth on 10/13 to a litter of three babies.  They are healthy, well fed little guys.  Mama bunny made a nice warm nest for her fawns with hay and fiber she pulled from her tummy.  I  supplemented the nest with fiber from a supply I keep just for the purpose.

Here is mama bunny Moonstone, shortly after she arrived at the farm.  And below is a shot of the proud father, Marble, my albino angora buck.  I’m not sure why this litter is so small.  Rabbits usually have 5-9 babies at a time.  The doe was maiden and not too thrilled by the mating process.  The pair only mated a few times that I observed, so perhaps that’s why she had only a few fawns.  I’m very happy with what I got!  At least one of the babies is showing signs of developing darker hair than white, so fingers crossed I get a nice sable or chocolate doe to keep.

Proud daddy Marble

In other news, the September hatch of Ameraucana chicks is now four weeks old.  The chicks are well feathered.  The oldest chicks (one day ahead of the youngest) are starting to sprout feathers on their heads.  These babies are very active.  They spend the day alternating between filling up at their feeder and running off to free range in the hedges and over the lawns.  I think they will be well ready to face the cold weather once winter arrives.  To date we have had less than ten frosty nights.  The temperature has not gone below about 30F.  The days and nights continue unseasonably mild.  That’s fine with me and my barn full of babies!

Fall Chicks

Usually people think of chicks hatching in the spring.  There is no reason why chicks can’t be hatched right through September here in Maine.  By the time real cold weather arrives the young ones will be two months old, fully feathered and ready for frost.

I acquired a lovely new silver Ameraucana rooster in August.  There were still eight laying hens active in the coop, so I decided to collect eggs and try to get some offspring as soon as possible.  The babies hatched out yesterday through early this morning.  Seventeen new chicks have arrived here at Phoenix Farm.  They are so cute and very robust birds already.  They do not seem to require as much heat in the brooder as some of my hatches.

Four of the babies are black and the others have the chipmunk markings typical of the silver Ameraucana variety.  Some of the photos have a slightly more yellow tint than real life due to the light bulb in the brooder.  The little ones are mostly fluff at this point.  The thick down helps keep tiny bodies warm.  They typically sleep cuddled up to each other.  If they spread far apart to sleep, they are too warm.  If they try to sleep standing up, the temperature in the brooder is too cool.  The chicks resting in the above photo feel just right.

I have read that it is possible to tell the gender of silver chicks by their markings.  The females are said to have sharp, well defined caps on their heads while the males have more blurred, indistinct marks.  Using this information, in the photo below, the baby in the center on the feeder would be female and the one right behind her would be male.  I’m going to count how many of each I have based on the markings.  It will be interesting to see if this is an accurate method of differentiation.  Right now I can’t reliably tell the sex of a chicken until they are about 2 months old.  At that age the little roosters tend to show larger combs and brighter feather patterns.  Even at two months, I get fooled at least 10% of the time. It would be very convenient if the silver chicks have sexual dimorphism.

In a week the chicks will be old enough to go out in the barn.  I’m hoping the very mild weather we’ve been experiencing for the last few days holds through the end of September.

Baby Eggs

Here are some of the first eggs laid by my silver splash Ameraucana pullets from the Jan hatch.  The baby eggs are always the best color.  Some of the eggs look big, but this is just a trick of the camera.  They are all small to medium grade sized eggs.

I knew the young hens were ready to lay and have been trying to keep them in the pen during the morning to encourage laying in the nest boxes.  So far they have deposited 4 or 5 on the floor.  For the past few days I’ve been placing hens in nest boxes to show them where to lay.  One hen in particular has found a way to escape the pen.  She is always hanging around waiting to be let back in when I go out to do morning chores.  Today I started to get suspicious about her early morning activities.

Sure enough, after a long search through the hedges and bushes, I found her stolen nest.  There were about two dozen baby eggs deposited there.  I suspect she and her sisters have been using the nest.  So today I will put a new net over the chicken pen to stop the birds from flying out and hiding their eggs.  The pullet in the front of the photo below is the main culprit.  Such naughty little birds!  

 

Baby Chicks Learning to Free Range

The baby Ameraucana chicks are three weeks old now.  This past week they have been learning to go out on their own into the big world and free range.  Seeing such small babies on their own can give a mother hen like me heart palpitations, but I can’t hold my little ones back.  They need to understand how to find food, hunt for insects, avoid danger and return to the safety of the shelter at night.  Although they are quite tiny, these chicks are old enough to be on their own.

The babies love freedom.  They run together in a little flock.  All twenty-three of the original hatch are still with us, hale and hearty.  On a sunny spring day they sprawl in the sunshine lighting the barn doorway and spread their wings to collect the warmth.  As a group, they move from place to place finding adventure and keeping in constant contact with a steady stream of peeps and chirps.

Thursday was the first time the little birds ventured from inside the barn out on the grass.  Once this wonder was discovered, there was no stopping those chicks.  They found the grass and greens delicious and also teeming with juicy bugs.  I am teaching them to drink from a pan by sinking their plastic waterer in the center of a rubber dish full of water.  The chicks have quickly caught on.

It is amazing how fast baby chickens grow.  The tiny roosters already test their strength in mock fights.  In no time the birds will be fully feathered and starting to fly.  A baby chicken is actually quite a good flyer because its body is small and light in comparison to the size of the wings.  This tends to give the small birds an advantage against predators.  They are very good at escaping.  Although they appear delicate, millions of years of evolution have made these small creatures tough and capable of caring for themselves.