Signs of Spring

The Earth begins to emerge

The Earth begins to emerge

Only two days til Spring, and it is a relief at last to see the tell-tale signs that yes, even after a Winter long and brutal as this, Vernal blessings will arrive.  With the high volume of snowfall we’ve seen this year, we are fortunate to be experiencing a slow and gradual meltdown.  We have experienced no flooding, not much water in the basement at all.  The sodden, frozen earth is just emerging from it’s blanket of snow, I can just begin to see the gardens left from last year, and it’s fun to stroll about them and dream of what to plant in each bed for this season.

The birds have really come alive!  I have been enjoying the sight of Robins for a couple weeks now, the starlings have already begun scratching at the house and I’ve seen large trains of Canada geese heading back North.  I hear new calls and see new flashes of color every few days now.  Friends report additional sightings at various ends of the county.  My Midget White turkeys are all strutting about, entertaining passers-by.

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Seeds have been ordered and are arriving, and the long-season crops like onions, leeks and celeriac are already being sown. We also have spouted arugula, mizuna and kale to plant in the high tunnel for an early jump on the season.  We’ll start peppers, eggplants and herbs next.  And I’m sure a flower or two.

Mizuna seedlings

Mizuna seedlings

The Venal Equinox is two days away on March 20th.  From then on, the days will be longer than the nights.  I join in the excitement as the Earth once again begins to stir.

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The Warmth of Winter

Spectacular Winter sunrise

Spectacular Winter sunrise

This Winter seems relentless.  With the frigid temperatures and endless snowstorms, it can become challenging to keep everyone in good spirits.  I have found that pulling out some old-fashioned tricks has helped tremendously.

First of all, don’t forget to stop and look around.  Winter is beautiful, especially with lots of snow.  Some of the most amazing sunrises can be seen now, and grumpy tired children are instantly warmed and wakened with a view of the colors.  The heavy snows transform the landscape, rounding and hunching the evergreens and creating vast palettes with which the wind can toss and brush, revealing amazing patterns and textures on the surface of the snow.  wpid-IMG_20140206_104959_756_wm.jpg

When the weekend comes and boredom threatens to set in, bundle the kids up and go for a stroll outside.  One needn’t venture far, sometimes the most amazing things can be spotted right off the house or garage.

Icicles dancing

Icicles dancing

Cool icicles and frost patterns on windows are fascinating, and kids of all ages love to pluck down an icicle for themselves, as big a treat as a lollipop!

A small oak leaf left from Autumn, trimmed with frost

A small oak leaf left from Autumn, trimmed with frost

It is very helpful to connect with Nature to find the beauty and inner joy of this time of year.  Like the nighttime of every day, Winter is a time to rest and rejuvenate, to heal, to reflect in quiet time, to dream up hopes and aspirations anew for the coming Spring and Summer.  Take the time to notice the low and distant angle of the sunlight unique only to this time of year, to appreciate the crisp colors of the cold daylight sky, and the extra vividness of the starry  night sky.  Savor the absolute brilliance of the Full Moon illuminating a snow-covered landscape, as bright as daylight itself.  Stop and listen to the soft stillness of Winter, every sound muted by the soft blanket of snow surrounding us.  All this beauty is more than worth braving the cold to witness.

Our creek completely iced-over, a rare sight

Our creek completely iced-over, a rare sight

Common-place things become extraordinary in the winter landscape.  We live on the East Branch of Nanticoke Creek, a year-round stream.  Only in extremely cold winters such as this does it ice-over.  This year there is even a collection of 6-inch thick cakes of ice on the banks, jammed and piled together creating a mini arctic landscape.

Common things become extraordinary in the winter landscape.

Common things become extraordinary in the winter landscape.

The snow tells tale of an animal crossing, amazing that life continues even in the bitter cold

The snow tells tale of an animal crossing, amazing that life continues even in the bitter cold

It’s fun to spot and identify the different animal tracks in the snow.  It’s amazing that so many little creatures are able to endure the bitter cold temperatures, and we can appreciate our ability to seek shelter in the warmth of our homes.

When you do get back inside, you’ll find otherwise restless children calmed, refreshed, ready to enjoy the warmth of the home.  Now is definitely the time to break into the stash of all the goodies that have been put up for Winter use!  Canned salsas, chutneys and relished can come out with crackers to chips to create a quick snack, apples from the root cellar can be made into sauce or canned applesauce is warmed and enjoyed with cinnamon.

Finished sauce ready to eat

Finished sauce ready to eat

Frozen berries are made into syrup to jazz up pancakes or waffles, or baked into muffins and quick breads.  Extra milk from the cow?  Time for hot cocoa and homemade pudding!

Pancakes with blueberry syrup

Pancakes with blueberry syrup

These comforting activities in the kitchen add warmth and spirit to these cold days, as well as creating priceless memories for the children to pass on to the next generation.

Winter is cold, but it is also beautiful.  Without these colder days we might forget to appreciate the warmer days ahead.  Rather than feeling gloomy during these days, remember to find the fun parts of a snowy landscape, whether inside or out.

What are some of your favorite Wintertime activities?

Yards of Poultry

It is mid-July and the days are sweltering.  Farming is in full swing, and the days can be long and tiring.  But the farm also offers much inspiration to keep motivated.  Lawns and pastures are a vibrant green, colorful flowers abound, and all the glorious fauna have swapped their Winter shagg for sleek Summer threads.  Everything looks alive, I am surrounded by the beauty of rural life.

One of the standard images of the idyllic country life is that of chickens lazily scratching and pecking about the yard.  And, indeed, when I decided to move back to the farm, I, too, had this image in my mind.  But anybody who has ever raised chickens and let them have the run of the place has soon discovered that freely ranging chickens are messy and destructive– leaving smelly poop everywhere, scratching up flowerbeds, and invading vegetable gardens.  And any chicks that these ranging chickens set and hatch will be feral, thus embodying all above mentioned annoyances times two.

white rock hens

white rock hens

Don’t get me wrong:  Free range chickens are healthier, control insect populations, lay more eggs, and cost less to feed in the Summer.  And customers at market prefer eggs from ranging birds.  So various compromises have been devised, from fencing acres of pasture for the birds to forage on to confining them to coops for the first half of the day, then letting them range in the afternoon and evening, keeping them more intent on feeding and less likely to wander out of the barnyard.

But I still would enjoy seeing birds adorning the lawns.  I have found solution with some of my other poultry I keep.  Turkeys, geese, and peacocks are also beautiful to see, while I have found them to far less destructive and littersome.

One of my favorite joys each morning is stepping out onto my front porch to sip my coffee and being greeted by the sight of my Midget White turkey hen and her poults.  I raise other poults in the barnyard, but these the hen hatched herself and I am letting her range with them.  She takes then round the lawns everyday, showing them how to forage for themselves.  She does not scratch, so my flowers have been safe.  I find very little poop.  Passers-by have commented on how nice the turkeys are to see in the front yard.  (They, in fact, later ended up in the local newspaper, a passer-by having taken a picture of them from across the road)

Midget White Turkey Hen and Poults

Midget White Turkey Hen and Poults

In the side yard, there are geese.  White and grey Embden and Chinese.  They seem to like the area between the barn and greenhouse, which is good, because they do leave droppings with gusto.  But they are vegetarian so it quickly dries to compost.  They graze the lawn each morning and evening.  They are funny to watch and quite noisy if insulted.  But they are by far mostly quiet.

Geese in the side yard

Geese in the side yard

In the back yard, there are peacocks.  I have been raising a mating pair for two years now.  I bought them in so they are skittish and likely to fly off if set free.

Cobalt and Stella

Cobalt and Stella

Last year they hatched and now I have a pair of yearling males I am allowing to range.

My goal is to have the peafowl ranging on the lawns.

So far, the two are doing well, and I have even witnessed them practicing. wpid-IMG_20130628_192356_344.jpgOf all the birds, they have the greatest sense of humor and are hilarious to watch.

I look forward to next year when they have their trains to display.

So I have found a way to have the best of both worlds, while helping to support and preserve heritage breeds and allow natural behaviors.  Raising these birds provides beauty and adornment to my farm, with the added bonus of diversity to my family’s diet and to my market offerings.

Even Farm Animals Like Recycling!

Springtime has come early to Sunny Hill Farm in the high tunnel.  When the weather is sunny, the tunnel is usually 10-15 degrees warmer than outside, especially when it’s windy.  The green things have already begun growing for the season and the smell is wonderfully warm and verdant.  My daughter likes to go in there and take off her shoes, enjoying the feel of grass between her toes a few weeks early.

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Spinach, arugula and mustard in the tunnel first week of March, 2012

Spinach, arugula, mustard and lettuces are waking up and growing again from last Fall’s sowing.  Other green things are growing in there, too:  clover, purslane and especially chickweed.  These weeds need to be removed before we plant the space anew for the Summer season.  I know that many of the plants we consider “weeds” are actually perfectly edible, nutritious, and quite yummy.  Back in the past, many of these cold-hardy greens were a welcome addition to the diet in the earliest days of Spring, when folks were living off their winter store of starchy roots and rich meats and were ready for a fresh change.  Chickweed, in particular, is especially sweet and nutritious, and it grows abundantly in a low spreading carpet.

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Chickweed entangled with lettuces.

Even though discarded weeds are composted to return their nutrients to the soil, I still look for ways to capture even more of the nutrition and resources available on-farm, to minimize our off-farm inputs, reduce costs, and keep our ecosystem as healthy and diverse as possible.  One way we do this is to harvest plants such as grasses and weeds to feed to our animals, especially those who cannot always be out on pasture.  Feeding the animals grasses and weeds is closer to their natural diet than grain, and provides the myriad of vitamins and minerals often needed to be supplemented else-wise.

So my daughter and I have been going out to the high tunnel daily and harvesting this abundant chickweed to feed to our pigs and poultry.  I was unable to find definitive evidence that it was suitable daily for our other animals, so I only feed it to them, not the sheep, cows or horse.  Many of these weeds are good for one species of animal but not others, so always do your homework and check first, being sure you have a positive identification.  In order to keep the horse from getting jealous, we also grab a few handfuls of clover to give to her, too.

This time together is very enjoyable for my Gwee and me, and we are doing two jobs at once, weeding in preparation for this coming season, and giving our animals a little nutrition boost.  Fun, easy, and cost-effective recycling!

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