Category Archives: Meanwhile back at the ranch…

Inside my head, our five acres on the Columbia River is a place of of fruitfulness, peace and beauty. A garden brimming with vegetables, chickens contentedly scratching after bugs, the warm hum of a beehive, the contented munching of cattle and other beasts – and all of it without the use of any toxic chemicals. And some of this we have – but the reality also includes weeds, sweat and tears.

Fun on the farm

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I really wish I didn’t suck so much at blogging. I’m constantly noticing, even photographing, things I mean to tell you about, and then I forget or get distracted and don’t write them down. Meanwhile I’ve reached that life stage where you start reconnecting with your old (holy cow, some of them are ooooold) friends from school and university years, and they say, “So what are you doing these days?” and I want to say, “Oh, too much to squeeze into one Facebook comment – but go take a look at my blog!” So this post is for old friends.

Vos rolling

Vos takes a bow on my hugel-mound

Right now it’s about noon on a pleasant summer day – not too hot, a bit windy. Sitting at my computer I can look through my window and see, in the distance, the Columbia River with its fringe of trees … closer in our north pasture with cows lazing about on the green … and, closer still, an expanse of dirt that will, when we get around to planting it, be lawn, because the Hubbit doesn’t share my desire for wild grasses and other native plants and I’m tired of arguing about it. In any case, to be honest, when it comes to gardening I’m better at conceptualizing than doing. Meanwhile, we have a flat expanse of dirt that the horses visit about once a day because they’ve decided it’s the best place to roll. In the middle of the flatness is a mound – dirt piled on compost piled on logs – because I read about hugelkultur and wanted to try it. Vos loves rolling up against this mound, the better to scratch his back, and he really doesn’t care if it gets flat and misshapen in the process.

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I’m quite sure digging the pond had nothing at all to do with a boyish desire to play with a large machine…

I can also see what we call the pond area. When we bought this property the Hubbit took into his head that he wanted a pond. A big pond. I mean, he was talking a quarter acre, and although he didn’t quite manage that he did his best. He spent an entire day digging dirt out of the pond and dumping it in a large pile in the middle of what is now the south pasture, and then we got involved in a whole lot of other things, and there the hole in the ground and its matching heap still sit, waiting for inspiration to strike, energy to surge, and pennies to rain down from heaven. One day we will have a swimming hole, and also a raised up picnic spot. For now, the cattle mosey up to the pond area to get water, hay and attention, and it’s where we keep them in winter.

We have seven cattle at the moment. The three cows are Tumelo (Faith), Tshepo (Hope) and Lerato (Love, who is also Tumelo’s mother). Last year Tshepo and Lerato gave us two heifers, Obie and Kitty-Kat. This year we were expecting three calves, since Tumelo was old enough to be bred, and I was all excited to blog about it, but thought I’d wait until the third one came because I just knew that, sooner or later, I’d get to be up to my armpit in a cow’s vagina – which is exactly the sort of experience one wants to blog about – and I didn’t want to jump the gun.

Jonathan, Pi and Lerato

Our young helper Puck, with Pi and Lerato. Pi is maybe 10 minutes old here, and weighs around 100 lbs.

Well, first Lerato gave us Pi (born March 14, aka Pi Day), and he was huge. It took two of us to pull him out of her, and she’s a big cow. So I was worried sick for the following couple weeks, waiting for Tumelo and Tshepo. It was Tumelo’s first and Tshepo is a small cow, so there was real potential for trouble. Every night we’d go out several times to check on them – and this was in March, in Washington, so we were sliding and crunching through ice and snow. One evening I went out and nothing seemed to be happening, and quite by accident my flashlight illuminated a small black creature who had arrived with no fuss at all. So that was Tumelo’s rent paid; I named her calf Eezee. Two down, Tshepo still to go. Every day I fed her treats to win her trust, so that if she had difficulties she’d let me get close enough to help her. Day after day, her belly got bigger and bigger. And every day nothing happened. Nothing at all. Eventually we realized she was just fat. The bull had stayed only three weeks instead of the usual four – we let him go early because he was bored with so few cows and kept breaking out of their pasture – so evidently he’d missed her Magic Moment.

I was going to tell you more, about chickens and plowing and other fun farmy stuff – but that will have to wait. There is a Smell. On a farm it is not unusual for things to smell, but this is different. This is a Smell riding a Harley. It rumbles. It is going places.

Aaand … here comes the Hubbit to tell me about it.

So apparently the pump in our septic tank has died, and he is going to fix it, which will involve crouching over the open drain with his head inside … and this Smell isn’t merely riding a Harley; it’s wearing a Hell’s Angel jacket and carrying a ball peen hammer. Therefore I have to be there. To fish him out, if he falls in.

This is what happens when you marry Senior MacGyver and then go live on a farm. He can still fix pretty damn near anything, but his knees don’t bend as well as they used to, and sometimes he gets a little unsteady. It’s just as well I still think he’s cute.

 

So what are you doing these days? Have you ever been tempted to give up city life and go live on a farm? If your significant other fell into a septic tank, would you pull them out?

 

The horse in my mud room

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This morning the Hubbit woke me with the news that Pal, my old horse, had pooped all over the clothes dryer. “Oh, that’s wonderful!” I exclaimed, and rushed to put in my contact lenses so I could see for myself.

A little later he (Pal, not the Hubbit) let rip with another explosion of liquid so gloriously voluminous that I think even Donald Trump would have admired it. That one hit the wall. Shortly after that, he started squealing for his buddy Vos, so I piled soft throws onto his body, added a horse blanket, and let him out into the snowy wastes of our backyard. He immediately headed to the corral, where he and Vos had a touching reunion. (Vos is also old – they’re both somewhere north of 25 years – but he didn’t succumb to hypothermia, which is why he got to spend last night in his stall as per normal.)

So I called the vet again to bring him up to speed, and we agreed that he didn’t need to come see it for himself, and then I told the Hubbit that it was no longer urgent, or even necessary, to clear the driveway, but by then he was bundled up and sufficiently pissed off with the weather that he didn’t care what I had to say. He sent the boys off down the driveway with shovels, and carried on trying to get his tractor to start – not an easy task in the kind of cold we’re experiencing.

I came back inside and fed the dogs. (They’re back on a meat diet, to their great, if flatulent, joy. Today they had lungs that were floating around two feet above our pasture just a few weeks ago. Yum!) Then I contemplated the mud room. I thought of taking a picture to share with you, but decided even the Hubbit’s fancy Canon Rebel T3 wouldn’t be able to do it justice, and anyway some sights are better left to the imagination. Instead, here is a snapshot the Hubbit took with his phone last night, after Pal warmed up enough to start showing an interest in things, but before he recovered enough to explode.

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For alternative views of the mud room without a horse in it, go here.

After pondering the mud room for a while, and wincing at the kitchenly chaos next door, and contemplating the muddy footprints and furballs all over the floor in the rest of the house, and musing upon the various increasingly urgent projects piled up next to my computer, I decided that the only rational thing to do was to write my first blog post of the year.

I know it’s been a long time. Shit has been happening, and I’ve been thinking about Stuff, and also working on a new novel series, and I got sucked back into Facebook, and frankly I’d got to wondering whether there was any point in continuing with this blog. I mean, what exactly am I trying to do here? I have lots of thoughts about all sorts of things, but I’ve come to realize that most of them have already been articulated – usually more coherently – by other people. Do I really want to add to the noise in the world? Of course, most of my bloggish writing is random bits and pieces about my life, and I’d been thinking that’s not so special – why would anyone want to read about the daily musings, amusings and doings of some bint on a not-quite-farm just outside Smalltown USA?

This morning I realized that I may be the only person in the world who is happy that a horse shat on her clothes dryer. That has to count for something. So … no promises regarding content or regularity, but I’m back. Happy new year, y’all! It’s shaping up to be interesting!

 

That nip in the air

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I’ve been feeling that jittery itch, that scratching between my shoulder blades and nipping at my nose. Cold weather is on its way. Rain, freeze, maybe snow, definitely slush, all coming. Wind that snatches your breath before you can inhale, yanks your foot before you can step. It makes the horses knock-you-down crazy.

One minute it was August. The next, it’s September – supposed to be a mellow month, but today we woke to unexpected and heavy rain. I’ve spent much of the day fidgeting, making lists. I’m suddenly aware that time is running out, and there is much to do before winter. If we fail to do it, we’ll stumble into spring, crash into summer before we’re ready, and lose yet another year of production, growth and beauty.

We’ve done that too often. This has been a painful year of loss and disruption … Last year was eaten by ill-health  … The year before it was something else; recovery from burnout, I think … Enough.

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Some good things happened this summer. Like, our swallows came back, for the fourth year in a row, and raised two families of five babies each all crammed into their tiny nest. It’s so much fun when the whole flock of them flies around the house, snatching flies out of the air and gobbling them down.

We’ve entrusted our lives to this place – in this small piece of land in the crook of the Columbia River. What we have here we made out of an empty and untidy field, and wishes and dreams. But then we ran aground – we poured ourselves into rescuing dogs (and sometimes people) and the work gulped us right down, along with our wishes and dreams, and the strength of our bodies and determination of our minds.

At the beginning of this year, I named it my Year of Reclamation. (I told you that already, didn’t I?) And quite apart from all the sad and hurtful things that have happened this year, it’s been a year of taking stock. Considering options. Choosing priorities. Making lists.

Now it’s September, and I’m fidgety with the need to Get Things Done, and frustrated by the slow, painful inefficiency of my unwieldy body.

Oh well. I guess that makes my body, yet again, the first priority. After a year of try-fail-try-again I have quit trying to ease gracefully into health and wellness via intelligent eating, and am currently ramming myself into ketosis by means of a three-day fat fast. Oh my word, it’s horrid! Start the day with a gigantic strong bulletproof coffee, listen to my heart race until lunchtime, chow down on cream cheese and just a little salami, remember remember remember to drink plenty water, nibble a few macadamia nuts in the evening. Think about food all damn day. Huddle under a blanket feeling cold and shitty and try to distract self with a book.

That was yesterday and most of today … and then there was this … tremor. My synapses blinked and took a peek at the world. I took a pee, and … yep, that unmistakable ketone smell. (TMI, I know, but it made me so dang happy!) My toes wiggled and demanded a walk, so I took a couple of the lunatics out into a pasture and threw a ball until they lost it.

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Sweet summer days down at the river. Argos has finally learned to swim!

And then I came back inside and … I feel so good! I’m making lists!

Things to do before winter:

  • Finish building the raised beds in the veggie garden, fill them up with horse/cow/chicken poop and weeds and some old tree branches and yes, of course, also some dirt. Snuggle them under a good, thick layer of straw. Yank the weeds out of the existing beds, repair as needed, and give them a nice straw duvet as well.
  • Prune the grape vines and the apricot/plum/nectarine/pear trees – but only after the pears are done. The pear tree is inside the chicken run, and every evening when I put the chickens away I pick up the windfalls they haven’t eaten and throw them over the fence for the horses. Vos eats with calm authority, but Pal gobbles and foams pear-drool in his effort to get his before Vos takes it.
  • Transplant the asparagus, and fill the old asparagus bed up with berry bushes.
  • Clean the hen house and give the girls a nice deep bed of fresh hay.
  • Pick up and burn the pile of trash wood that the Hubbit insisted on keeping “because it’s useful” – only now it isn’t, it’s just nasty, and – happy day – he agrees it’s time to let it go.
  • Clear and plow and seed the front yard. Let there be grass!
  • Plow and seed the six or so acre field our neighbor has offered us for winter pasture. I wish we’d managed to do that earlier in the year – we’d have grass there now and would be able to use it in January. Well, no matter. If we do it now, we’ll be able to use it for a little while in summer, and give our pasture a rest.
  • Put up hot wire to subdivide the north pasture.
  • Protect what’s left of the weeping birch from the cattle.
  • Repair the divider the bull broke in the horse stalls.
  • Cattle-proof the fence around the pond-to-be.

So that’s my list. Most of it I can do alone. Some requires the Hubbit’s help. But less all the time! Yesterday, for instance, he taught me to drive the tractor, thinking to set himself free from plowing. It was so much fun … until I killed it. I have no idea what I did, but I’m sure he’ll figure it out. Poor guy! I’m lucky he’s so forbearing.

Do you get antsy when the seasons change? What’s big on your to-do list right now?

 

 

An unexpected guest

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There are a few pieces of railroad tie, rocks, a straw bale, and a couple other random odds and ends out in the chicken run, and sometimes when I go out there I roll one over. The chickens are immediately alert, waiting, their eyes on me. If I call “Kip kip keee-ipp!” they come running, because they know I’ve uncovered a juicy hoard of bugs.

This evening I rolled over a rock and, sure enough, bugs. So while they were pecking and scratching there, I rolled over a piece of railroad tie and – YIKES!! – I found this!

Gopher snake

Gopher snake

I dropped a small pebble on him to see if he would rattle, but he didn’t, so I just enjoyed him for a bit before the chickens came to see what I’d found. (Yeah, I like snakes – I told you that before!) While I was chasing them off, he disappeared under the straw bale. I don’t think we have gophers in the chicken run, but we definitely have mice. I’m hoping he’s willing to be flexible!

Hey, Steph – isn’t he cool?!?

Springing into action … again

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It’s a little over a year since I published my first post … wasn’t WordPress supposed to send me some sort of YeeHaw about that? Whatever – the point is, I’m kinda back where I started: in the veggie garden. I gave up on it in July when the weeds swallowed my wheelbarrow, but that was a tactical retreat, not an admission of defeat.

His complaints are clearly nonsensical, since it's quite obvious that he's having a blast.

His complaints are clearly nonsensical, since it’s obvious that he’s having a blast. Here, he’s making a big spread-out pile of horse manure, dirt and stable waste into a compact, tall pile, while seated on two very big round things. Every man’s dream, right?

This spring Himself and I have gone in with a unified front and guns blazing. We have experienced some friendly fire (mainly when Himself accuses me of constantly dreaming up projects that are, and I quote, “too damn big”, and then, and I quote further, of “expecting him to do all the damn work”), but no one is actually dead. Yet.

I had to concede some key arguments in order to get him on board … but to be honest, while my ideals are good, they were more than I could accomplish given how unfit I am. I really wanted this garden to be established using a permaculture and no-till approach from the outset, but it simply wasn’t practical. The area we’ve set aside for fruit and veggies (with a corner lopped out of it for the chickens) is pretty big – around 100×80 ft – and it was hillocky and rutted and impossible, especially since I’m hobbling about on a fractured ankle. So I lifted the tractor ban, and the ground is now depressingly compacted, but flat and smooth. As we fill it up with raised beds and plants it will become inaccessible to the tractor, and I’m hopeful that, given time and plenty of tasty composted goodies, the earthworms and other tiny critters will heal the soil.

Himself has had a few concessions to make as well. Being an engineer with (gawd help us) a military school background, he likes things neat, matching, with square corners. Do you have any idea what it would cost to fill 8,000 sq,ft with beautifully crafted raised beds like these? Nor do I, and although he could probably calculate it with ease, it makes no difference: however you add it up, the answer amounts to “a shitload”.

In any case, I find repurposing more satisfying, which is why I was very happy to learn that a local farmer was ripping out hundreds of acres of wine grapes … and replacing them with carrots – can you believe such a thing??? But his bizarre choice was my good fortune, because he advertised 8-ft long, 5-in diameter wood poles, formerly used to hold up the vines, on Craigslist for a little bit of nothing. With only minimal eye-rolling by Himself, we purchased three truckloads. (Reverting to the subject of friendly fire: I helped with the first load and was thereby incapacitated and unable to walk for nearly a week, so Himself and some other sturdy fellow fetched the other two loads. I should get points for wanting to help, right?)

What's left of the pole pile after yesterday's work party.

What’s left of the pole pile after yesterday’s work party, with Argos doing a “stay” to help make the picture pretty.

Then on Saturday we had a work party, involving a couple of young, energetic friends with whom I occasionally trade babysitting for farm labor, and a gang of teenagers in need of pocket money. As it turned out, “8 feet long and 5 inches diameter” was merely an approximate description of the poles … but that just made the design and construction process more interesting. (Or so it seemed to me, after Himself asked me please to be quiet and let him get the job done. One of my Life Rules is, Never argue with an engineer, especially if he’s carrying a hammer, so I sat down on the side of the asparagus bed and let him get on with it. He adapted my original concept design, which necessitated some fixing by me – ha ha! – but I’m happy with the end result.)

The start of my raised bed garden

The start of our raised bed garden. To the left, bordering the Nasty Neighbor, is a bed I built a few weeks ago, using old power poles. It contains an 80-ft row of asparagus. The three raised beds are what we built on Saturday. The Engineer says this looks, and I quote, “scruffy”. I think it looks rustic, and will be charming when full of greenly growing goodness.

If you’re wondering how to build raised beds using somewhat uneven old poles, the way we did it was to lay the bottom ones out. (The poles are used only for the long sides of the bed.) We then hammered sections of rebar into the ground to hold them in place. (In the final step, the rebar needs to be hammered right down such that it doesn’t stick up above the level of the top pole and stab unwary gardeners.) The end pieces, 5-ft sections of 2×6 lumber that Himself had lying around, were nailed to the poles. Then we laid the next layer, nailing it to 2×6 in its turn. My design called for three sections of rebar – two at each end on the outside and one in the middle inside – that essentially brace the poles into place, which minimizes the load on the end pieces. I think this would make them more stable and better suited to being sat on while one is weeding, so will build the remaining beds that way. Some of the poles are bent, creating gaps when they were laid on top of each other, so in a few places we’ve had to block the gaps inside with some old chipboard from one of Himself’s piles of Random Stuff That I May Need One Day. This will probably rot within a year or two, but by then the soil will have stabilized such that it’ll remain in place.

So far this year, I have planted a second plum tree, a peach tree, about 80 asparagus, a rhubarb plant, about 15 strawberries, a gooseberry bush, a horseradish, and about 10 walking onions. I have more berry bushes, another rhubarb plant and some fingerling potatoes waiting to go into the ground. I should have started seedlings in pots weeks ago, but am behind the curve … After last year’s weedy debacle, part of me couldn’t quite believe we’d be able to get our act together this year. But Himself has quit pouring contumely upon my commitment to organic gardening, and I’ve quit being rigid and perfectionist about it, and we’re managing to cooperate … so I guess this week will see me hard at work with seed packets and potting soil. In the fullness of time, maybe there will be crops!

He also sent me this link in case I should feel the need to

He also sent me this link in case I should feel the need to “perform my own calculations”. You’ve just got to love such optimism!

And … I’ve just received an email that reminds me of the many benefits of sharing life’s challenges with an engineer. While I have been writing this, he has been very busy Calculating, and has sent me the following:

I have calculated how much dirt/manure mix we have available in the pile in the front yard.
The pile is between 5-1/2 to 6 ft tall and the radius of the pile at the base is a bit more than 6-1/2 ft.
This calculates out to a pile volume of something between 270-to-295 cubic feet of soil/manure mix.
The volume of a 14 ft long raised bed is 14x4x1.25 = 70 cubic feet
Therefore, there is ample soil/manure in the pile to support filling at least FOUR MORE 14 ft beds.

I am now doubly motivated to build and fill the remaining beds, just to see if he’s right!

Your turn! How does spring affect your behavior? If you’re a gardener, do you try to befriend Mother Nature, or do you believe in better living through chemicals? Have you ever felt the urge to hit someone with a set square if something you build doesn’t line up perfectly?