Tag Archive | country life

Common Ground Fair


On the train to the Fair!

Every year for the last forty years the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Assoc. (MOFGA) has held the Common Ground Country Fair.  It occurs on the third weekend after Labor Day in Unity, Maine. I have attended several times, most recently with my daughter and two grandchildren.

This fair attracts over 20,000 people per day on its three-day, long weekend run.  The place can get quite crowded, especially the food areas at lunchtime.  Organic growers from all over the state attend to compete, display and sell their produce, livestock and wares.DSC08724.JPG

Compared to most fairs, the Common Ground is more like a very old-time agricultural fair.  There are no loud rides, carnies, sideshows, horse races, professional tractor or horse pulling competitions and NO cotton candy (sigh.)  The trash is guarded by garbage police and separated into cans for regular waste, composting and recycling.  There is no litter.

Arriving at the fair is an adventure in itself, as you may take an old-fashioned train with brightly painted cars to reach the fairground.  The train runs regularly all day, shuttling people back and forth from parking areas to the fair.  Even with the train service, the road leading to the fair is backed up for miles in traffic jams.  The crowd seems to take the highway authorities by surprise every year, leading to very slow going if you try to travel anywhere near the fair.dsc08713

You can find wonderful displays of organically grown vegetables and fruit in the competition barn, several sheds of draft horses, oxen, dairy cattle and goats, pigs, sheep, llamas and alpacas.  The draft animals do compete in amateur pulling contests.  One barn is devoted to rabbits and another to poultry.  The fiber people have a tent full of their produce arrayed for the salivating droves of spinners and weavers moving through.  There is always a woman demonstrating the use of a spinning wheel by taking the fiber directly from an angora rabbit resting in her lap.DSC08736.JPG

Other large sales tents house arts and crafts with basket weavers, jewelers, wood, glass, stone and metal workers, paper making and hand-operated printing presses, cloth and clothing making, beading, leather work, etc, etc.  Several tents are dedicated to fresh produce and seeds, and several more to representatives from various political factions, movements and technology companies important to organic farmers.  A few tents are set aside for daily talks put on by authorities on the many facets of organic living and farming.  There is even a display of working equipment operated with direct solar power to cook food.dsc08747

The aspects that stand out most for me are the general quiet atmosphere, the wide, grassy spaces that are available for people to use, and the sorts of people who attend.  Dozens of fair-goers sprawl on lawns and in open areas, eating, drinking, talking, listening to speakers and even playing musical instruments and singing.  Some of these people are barefoot or clothed in brightly colored wraps of cloth and other bohemian outfits and hairstyles.  Amish people mingle with the crowd, denizens of the large Amish community that has sprung up around the Unity area in the last decade or so.DSC08735.JPG

The grounds are furnished with several permanent gardens to display organic farming methods.  You can walk through small fields of corn, squash, beans, root vegetables, cruciferous and leaf crops and herb and flower gardens.  On one side of the fairgrounds is a large amphitheater for live music and performances with high earthen sides for seating.  Dozens of children grab pieces of discarded cardboard boxes from vendors and slide down the steep slopes.dsc08741

The attractions are eclectic.  One may take a walk through a quiet forest into a glade set aside for poetry reading by Maine’s poet laureate.  Farther into the woods, children who are members of a local wilderness group display their resourcefulness with outdoor skills, camping and fire-starting for any to watch.  Near the amphitheater is an old-fashioned strength competition using a heavy hammer to try and ring the bell at the top of a pole.

Unusual foods are vended.  Offerings such as lamb, falafal, curries, tofu just-about-anything-you-can-imagine, vegetarian foods, whole wheat pizza, teas, hot cider, pie cones, and fresh seafood bring lines of diners.  Not the usual fair fare!  There is a bow to regular American tastes with stands serving hamburgers and fries, popcorn, Italian sausage and ice cream.  The longest line was at the fresh roast coffee vendor’s stand.

Many love the sheep dog demonstrations.  Several dogs perform their tasks using a small flock of sheep and even a gaggle of geese, to the delight of a large audience.  The children are drawn to the livestock pens because most farms in attendance allow people to talk to and pet the animals.dsc08730dsc08725

The young ones also have a large area all to themselves filled with delightful activities.  Twice a day any child may don a costume and participate in the Children’s Parade around the fairgrounds.  In addition to children, the parade features Morris dancers, stilt-walkers and mummers wearing large papier-mache animal head masks.dsc08718

The day always flies by with so much to see and do.  Soon it is time to rush and catch the train for the ride back to the car.  With any luck the shuttle is running close to schedule.  Everyone leaves tired but happy.  This year’s fair hosted over 60,000 visitors in one long weekend.  I hope this extravaganza of folk and country fun continues for many years to come.


Fourth of July Garden Visit

Tomato jungle

Tomato jungle

Between the cloud bursts this Fourth of July, I took a quick trip to the garden to record the height of the corn and finish the first thinning of the carrots. The weeds are having a festival due to a week of high temperatures and humidity that kept me in the house. In a couple days I’ll put an end to the party with my Mantis tiller.

The tomatoes have grown into a veritable jungle. Last week I mulched around all the plants with a layer of seed-free new growth grass.  The mulch preserves moisture and discourages weeds right around the plant.  It’s time to remove the sucker growth that sprouts up in the angle of the tomato branches. If left on the plant, the suckers would form more flowers and fruit, but they are not necessary. The main branches are loaded with so many flowers and tiny tomatoes that the plants will need the rest of the summer to ripen what they have formed. Removing the suckers gives the plants more energy for this task.

The corn is waist high, mostly.  a2There are some shorter stragglers.  This corn crop promises to be very good. Let’s hope we don’t get any hail.  One quick thunderstorm with hail will destroy a garden.

a3Finally, beans!  Lots of nice plants sprouted and we can look forward to a good harvest and plenty of canned beans to go through the winter.  Beans from our garden are much more tasty than the store-bought variety.  A big bowl of fresh beans with a little butter and salt make a meal.

a1The last week of sun, 90 degree temperatures and high humidity gave all the plants a boost.  Most of the radishes are trying to bolt and flower.  I’ve harvested several nice servings of mild radishes.  Now, with a couple days of rain thrown at us by Hurricane Arthur as it passes nearby out at sea, the garden will take off.

The bachelor buttons have buds and will bloom soon.  I can hardly wait to fill a vase with their flowers!

Harvesting Catnip


Years ago I bought a packet of catnip seeds and started a small patch of cat mint for my kitties. Since then, I’ve not had to buy any more.  Catnip produces copious seeds that sprout up everywhere.  The plant is a perennial of short life, surviving a couple winters before disappearing. Meanwhile, it makes seedlings.  A nice selection of organic catnip spreads around the rock gardens in my front yard.


Toby and Molly enjoying fresh catnip

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a member of the cat mint genus, and the only species favored by cats.  The scent of fresh or dried leaves drives my cats a little looney.  They eat the fresh leaves.  I sprinkle dried, crushed leaves on the scratching post, which then becomes the magic place for a few hours.  You have to watch out for cats on catnip, they can become unpredictable and even aggressive.  Mostly catnip makes my cats excessively loving.

I started growing catnip because it is expensive to buy and the quality of commercial catnip is lacking.  All the stems, flower buds and coarse pieces are mostly filler.  The finest part of the catnip is the leaves.  The aromatic oils favored by cats, and people who enjoy catnip tea, are concentrated in the leaves.  If the plant is kept pinched back, it will not bloom and all the energy goes into producing large, highly scented leaves.

About every other week, in the morning right after the dew has dried, I gather catnip.  I use a thumbnail to pinch off the tender new growth, usually six to eight leaves, taking a long stalk with the leaves.  cat2Left on the plant is a branching joint with tiny leaves just starting.  In a couple weeks those leaves will have formed a new stalk ready to harvest.  I gather the herb throughout summer until August.  Then I give the plant a chance to flower so new seed will be spread.

After flowering, the plant will start leafy growth again. Autumn catnip is the most potent.  The leaves are thicker and often have a purplish tint.  The scent is so strong in freshly harvested autumn catnip that it can aggravate my asthma.  The photo at the top is of fresh autumn catnip.


Properly dried catnip

The fresh herb is bunched, four or five stalks together, and held with a small rubber band.  The bunches are hung to dry upside down in a dark, well ventilated area.  One of the secrets to preserving the full potency of an herb is to dry it quickly, upside down and out of the light.  The leaves can not be allowed to mold or leak their juices.  Light will fade the color of the leaves and cause oils to evaporate.

Since good catnip is hard to buy, I decided to offer some of my highest quality for sale in my online stores.  This offering is very limited and usually sells out fast.  I sell dried, whole leaf catnip with the coarse stalks removed.  Preserved as whole leaf, the dried mint retains more of the aromatic oil cats love.  I make sure the leaves are well dried then seal the catnip in plastic so the oils will not evaporate.  People rave over how well their cats respond to my catnip compared to what else is available on the market.  I’m glad to make so many cats happy.cat4

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.


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

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

First Snowstorm


The first major snow fall of the winter came overnight with about 8″ of soft coating.  The flakes are just tapering off at mid-morning.  This storm took the weather people by surprise.  The predictions were for rain or just a dusting of whiteness. a4

Every fence post wears a pointed pure white cap.  The softwood boughs dip beneath the weight before a breeze stirs to send cascades of icy powder to the forest floor.  Hungry birds flit about the feeders, snatching one seed at a time to eat in safety from a protected branch.  This is snow dog weather.


chickadee at the feeder


Holly in the snow

Horseback Riding



After the hay is cut, the large, open field is irresistible to rider and horse alike. My 24 year old mare, Vista, loves to race around, wind in her face, no fences in the way. Holly always joins us. This particular afternoon’s impromptu ride is without helmet, the first time I’ve forgotten my riding helmet in over two decades. Not sure what happened.
I ride my horses bitless, with Dr. Cook bridles. They both love the bridle and respond well. No more head tossing from Vista, as she did with all the various bits I tried, even the hackamore. My younger mare, Maddie, has never felt a bit. Usually, I take Vista out bareback. She is a calm, predictable animal, trained by me since she was 10 months old. I don’t worry about being unseated. Her old back appreciates not having to carry the weight of a saddle.
This day as we played on the second crop grass, my husband crept up and took a few shots before we spotted him. Then we posed. Vista is still beautiful, 3/4 Saddlebred, with the most comfortable riding gaits. We have had many great years together.a4

The Horses


At Phoenix Farm there are two horses, Vista and Maddy. Vista is 24 years old and Maddie is 6 years. Both came to the farm when they were under one year old. Vista is sorrel, the darker red horse with red mane and tail. Maddie is a shade of chocolate palomino and has blond mane and tail.

vistavista2 Vista is three-quarters Saddlebred and a very kind, gentle, fun to ride horse. She loves to go and will try to do anything the rider asks of her.  Although she is getting older, Vista sometimes gallops around like a filly, kicking up her heels and rearing in the pasture at play.  On trail rides she will happily go all day.

Her full, registered name is Ace’s Special Vista, she is in the Half-Saddlebred registry.  I’m fairly sure her mother was half Quarter Horse.  Vista’s gaits are so smooth and comfortable, her ride is like being in a big old Cadillac.  An excellent mother who raised one son, Vista considers any young horse or even ponies that come in her pasture to be her foals and cares for them.

Maddie’s full name is Platinum Madrigal, she is half-Saddlebred.  Her mother was a small brown paint Saddlebred and her father was a full Paint Horse.  She came out an unusual shade of light brown with cream that is considered chocolate palomino.  I have always wanted a palomino horse so was thrilled to find her when she was nearly one year old.  Maddie has many Arab-like characteristics with a small, dished face, lovely arched neck and an extended trot that looks almost like she’s flying.  She carries her tail high like an Arabian when she moves.  This young mare is very canny, almost too smart for her own good.  She is a quick learner and is doing well under saddle.  When Vista retires Maddie will be my riding horse.


Vegetable Garden


As summer draws to a close, the vegetable garden burgeons with produce.  Otto, the German Shepherd, is eager to greet visitors to the garden.  A fence of plastic lattice half-sheets lashed to pressure-treated deck stair balusters keeps dogs, chickens and strays of all sorts from the garden.

The indian corn grows to heights of eight feet or more.  Each stalk produces at least two large, colorful, decorative ears.  This high starch corn can be hung to brighten a doorway, ground into meal, popped into flavorful kernels, even fed to livestock.  The stalks are bundled for autumn décor.

garden2 garden4

My garden always overflows with various squashes.  Summer eating squash have tender skins and are consumed raw or cooked and are kept cold until they are eaten.  This year I grew Sunburst summer squash, a bush variety having yellow fruit with green end decoration.  They are very yummy!  The flowers can also be eaten raw or coated with batter and deep fried.garden8

I grow tiny, Jack-Be-Little miniature pumpkins for decorations. These may be eaten and are quite sweet and fine textured.garden9  Mini pumpkins like to climb the garden fence.

Also, there are pie pumpkins, especially sweet and tender fleshed without a lot of heavy stranding, just what you need to make the perfect pie.garden5

The garden giants, the carving pumpkins for Halloween jack-o-lanterns, are still green, but will soon turn deep orange.  Carving pumpkins are called field pumpkins and can reach sizes of 40 pounds or more.


The squash compliment is not full without the winter variety. These are Carnival acorn squash and have beautiful white and orange stripes. They make lovely fall ornaments, but really are for eating. Their tough outer shell will allow these squash to be stored for use during the long winter. I like to cook these whole in the oven or microwave, then scrape out the seeds and flesh. The seeds can be roasted with a little salt for a fiber-rich snack. I use winter squash to make nourishing soups and hearty vegetable side dishes.garden7

For the rabbit and horse friends on the farm as well as for our winter supply, I grow several rows of carrots. These are near harvest, and some of the stalks are beginning to die back. The carrots are between 4″-8″ long when I pull them. I like to get them before they grow too large and develop a woody texture.


Most years I have yellow, wax string beans and I can 20 pints or more for winter eating.  This year the crop failed, even after two re-plantings.  The weather was too wet and cool for the beans to grow well.  Any plants that did sprout quickly shriveled and died.  That’s part of farming life, sometimes you lose the crop.

In the past I also grew tomatoes, but have stopped.  The neighbors always give me more than I can use.  Tomatoes seem to draw small rodents to the garden.  Once they’ve eaten the tomatoes, the mice and voles chew pumpkins and carrots (right in the ground!) so by removing the enticement of tomatoes, perhaps the rodents will be less of a problem.

This year there is a new addition to the garden.  It is a perennial and has a whole corner dedicated to its growth.  Jerusalem artichokes, or sunchokes, are actually a member of the sunflower family.  They produce a plethora of showy yellow blooms and their tuberous root is edible.  It has a taste that reminds me of sunflower seeds and can be eaten raw or cooked just like potatoes.garden10

The garden also has decorative sunflowers, one can be seen towering on the right side of the top photo.  These produce masses of small, fragrant flowers and black oil seeds the birds devour.  The plants can reach heights of 10 feet or more and are susceptible to the violent winds that come with the early fall tropical storms.

The leaves of the trees are beginning to show a hint of fall color beneath their green.  Soon frosts will arrive, light at first, then deep and killing.  By the end of October the garden will be completely harvested and resting in anticipation of next year’s abundance.