Homestead Update

When I went to Boston a week ago today, I had every intention of continuing to write regular posts, but between a hotel with limited wi-fi access and a weekend of wedding-related activities (and my 30th birthday!), not nearly as much got done on the blog as needed.  This time of year always feels a little breathless, as the first truly hot summer days descend in a haze of weeding, home reorganization and preparation for canning.  Throw in a wedding to prepare for and host, and everything that used to feel normal about my days has pretty much evaporated.  That said, I wouldn’t want anything else at this point.

Always a welcome sight at the end of a long day…

In the garden, things have finally started progressing at a rate that I’m excited to discuss.  This year, we’ve been plagued by a super slow growing season and the fear that not one of

Tomatoes … finally growing!

our seventy-something tomato plants would make it.  Apparently, our problem was soil temperature because as that has climbed over the last nine days, so have our plants!  I think one of the things I struggle most with on this blog is adequately cataloging our failure and my fear of failure, as putting it in words somehow makes it seem that much more eminent.  So in that vein: I’m worried about the peppers, which have been plagued by flea beetles all season.  We’ve been hitting them up regularly with a mixture of garlic, hot sauce, Dr. Bronner’s natural soap and water, and we’re hoping to see some progress, but it has been SLOW.  We’ve also really struggled with flea beetles in our cucumbers and have had to replace some of the plants (a complete repeat of last year).  We’ve planted nasturtiums with them to try to cut back on cucumber beetles, and – cross your fingers – we haven’t seen any yet!  What do you do to protect delicate pepper and cucumber plants, and how do you keep the dreaded flea beetle away?

One Week Old Chicks – Note the Feathers on the Wings!

And in the coop?  Chicks!  Our hatch yielded 21 of the healthiest, most active chicks we’ve ever had.  So healthy, in fact, that after six days in the back bedroom nursery, they had to be moved out to the coop.

Chick-mania!

This year, rather than constructing our modified coop brooder out of cardboard, I used some scrap wood from our earlier coops and the clear panels from an old cold frame that blew apart in a storm last year.  I’ve slowly begun to expose them to a bit more light and sun from outside (keeping a careful eye on drafts).

Abby keeping a watchful eye on her “babies”. Do note that at this stage, she is never left alone with the chicks. In about three weeks, I’ll be less careful about chaperoning her, but the chicks are still way too small to protect themselves, and I’m not sure she realizes they are chickens (and meant to be protected) yet.

Rather than keeping a thermometer in the coop with the little ones, we’ve been monitoring their activity and adjusting accordingly.  Right now, we have one lower and one higher lamp and lots of space for them to move around in, and we’ve only begun to see the first hints of flight!

Flight!

Wedding Planning Wednesday

On Saturday, we’ll be five weeks away from the wedding.  And while most of the big pieces of wedding planning have been delicately tucked out of the way, there are a handful of small tasks that I’ve been fretting about and working on.

The largest small task was the wedding arbor.  We’re planning a  rural backyard wedding.  The dress will be fairly formal but the setting is in a sweeping back field with a great view of the rolling hills on the northern edge of our property.  That said, I was left with the task of trying to find the appropriate arch or arbor that would both blend into our landscape and suit the needs of our wedding.

I did a ton of visual research, most of which you can see over on my Pinterest site, and I had initially envisioned the arch as a surprise for Jason… until I realized that it would probably involve at least the chainsaw, if not several other power tools that we don’t keep in the garage and an extra set of hands.  Abby just wasn’t cutting it.

Last weekend, realizing how quickly my bridal shower and his stag weekend were approaching (next weekend!?!), we decided that it was time to get to work and we came up with this:

Arbor: Phase I

Now, this project is nowhere near completion yet, as it’s still a bit unstable and needs some serious trimming around the edges.  In addition to that, I’m planning on adding some curlier softwood branches to give it a bit more decoration and whimsy.

Interested in making your own?  We started by cutting four relatively similar trees (on our own property!) of about four inches in diameter (I believe we used Beech), then we cut down five trees that were one inch in diameter for bracing.  We chose hardwood because of its distinctive bark, though you could do the same with your tree of choice.

Next we stripped the branches and cut our four posts to a relatively similar 7.5 feet.  We used their natural branching V’s to place the top arbor pieces and then continued piecing with the bracing until the arbor started to come together.

I know we have a long way to go, but I thought I’d at least share this first step!

In other news, we found Jason’s Mom’s mother of the groom dress yesterday.  If your mother or your groom’s mother is still looking, I can’t recommend JC Penny enough — the service was great, the dresses were really reasonable, and she found an adorable little number that makes her feel both comfortable and gorgeous!  I don’t think we could have asked for a better day of shopping!

Planting the Gardens

It’s been a busy week in Northern Maine.  Jason and I are celebrating Memorial Day weekend with graduation at school (me), a great canoe trip (him), a big end of the year gathering at the house (both of us), and putting in our vegetable garden.  I love this time of year in Northern Maine because the sun rises at just after 4:30 a.m., offering me the opportunity to get up early, write and head to the garden, usually before six a.m.  The mornings are crisp and cool and the black flies are usually still cozied up wherever it is that black flies go at night.

Since Jason had Friday off, he spent the day preparing the garden with Abby.  Using my garden plan, he built raised beds by mounding the rototilled soil and hammered in the fence posts for our tomato fences (we had 2.5 row fences and a handful of old tomato cages).  He also planted beans and half of the carrots.

First thing Saturday morning, I was able to get outside early (5 a.m.) and plant 3/4 of our tomatoes before having to shower and dress for graduation.  Luckily, this early planting gave me the opportunity to realize that we had once again expanded our tomato operation and were a row short of tomato staking devices.  We decided that it would be in our best interest to just invest in another tomato fence rather than 10 – 15 more tomato cages.

We choose to fence with welded wire galvanized fencing because it allows us the opportunity to provide the plants with a stronger support system.  I’m hoping to include a tomato-specific post later in the week.

So, on my way to graduation, I swung by Tractor Supply and was able to secure 50′ of fencing (quite a bit more than we needed) and five fence posts for about $60 (just a bit more than what I would have paid for 15 tomato cages & totally reusable!).

We were also lucky to get our window boxes planted earlier this week.  Given that the wedding will be at the house (in six weeks!), I’ve been paying a lot more attention to flowers this year, and I have a great tip!  If you’re still in the market for hanging baskets/bulbs, check out your local box stores this weekend!  I was able to pick up four huge hanging baskets for $40 because they had stocked them for mother’s day, not sold them, and then let them flounder a bit.  Granted, none of them are currently flowering, but once I trimmed back any dead foliage and hit them with fertilizer and water, the transformation was pretty impressive.

I need to get out to my garden, but I’ll try to update this post with a few photographs later this evening.

Have a great day!

This Weekend in the Garden: Flower Beds & Mulch

For the last few weeks, I feel like everything has centered around the house.  We’ve stained the decks and replaced the roof and repainted the foundation and installed window boxes on the back porch where I hope to complete a novel this summer (in my copious spare time).  However, we’re finally at the point where we can look out into the yard and start taking care of the details that will be central to the wedding and people’s first impressions of our home.

This weekend in the garden, I’m hoping to get our flower beds under control.  They need to be weeded, de-burdocked, re-edged and mulched in preparation for a long summer of neglect.  Let’s be honest, as soon as the veggies come in, my time is spent in the larger, vegetable gardens, and I need our perennial beds to be self sufficient with only irregular weeding.

So today, we’re tackling the front garden and the herb bed (which has been left to its own devices way too long this year!).  We’re also hoping to get the blueberry patch weeded and fertilized.  Straw needs to be removed from the strawberry patch, where it has formed a nice frost blanket these last few months.  Finally, I’m hoping to drag down some river rocks to encircle the ranunculus bed that I dug last weekend.

If we have time, Jason’s going to try to get some of the trim painted on the house, but – really – this is a gardening weekend.

What are you hoping to accomplish at home this weekend?

 

Today’s Goals

Because Jason had Friday off, we’re miles ahead of where we would normally be in the garden.  Both the old and new veggie gardens are tilled and ready for crops.  He even took the time to till out a bed for the ranunculus I purchased a few weeks ago in a fit of winter blues.

Today is the day.  I write this while watching the weak spring sunshine pour through our windows in a hazy blue sky.  They’re not predicting rain; they’re not predicting terrible cold.  We can get those earliest and least tender of spring veggies into the garden!

So what are our plans for today?

I NEED to plant ranunculus.  We have several frosty nights that will still spur these puppies into action, so they need to go in.  Today.

Once our ranunculus is safely in the ground, I’ll move onto the veggie patch.

My goal is to do the following:

New Garden:
1. Measure out space for cabbage (which will be started indoors today and transferred later).
2. Erect the bean fence and build raised rows with an old-fashioned hoe and rake (no bridal arm workout for this girl, today).
3. Build the pea fence (just a low row of snap together garden sashing).
4. Note where the pumpkins will grow and avoid that space for now!
5. Plant peas!

Old Garden
1. Measure out carrot and onion rows.  Marvel at how much space that leaves for my army of tomato plants!  Remember that we have many other things to put in the garden.  Panic a little.  Return to carrots and onions.
2. Supply Jason with the requisite carrot planter and bags of seed.  He is so much better with this uber-tedious task than I am!  My fiance, the man who can plant carrots that need not be thinned!
3. Plant onion sets.  I will note that while I was at the feed store a few weeks ago, not only did I get the yellow and red onions we’ve grown for the last few years, I also picked up a parcel of Walla Walla onions.  Because they looked lonely, and I have a serious vegetable problem.

What are you hoping to accomplish in your gardens today?

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes… The May Garden

This week, I walked into the back bedroom and was nearly knocked over by the aroma of tomatoes.  Even though we planted on March 24, a mere five weeks ago… are you ready for the progress?

March 24, 2012

May 3, 2012

About two weeks ago, we transplanted from initial trays to peat pots; however, things had gotten a little out of control while my attention was focused on grading rough drafts.  Since we’re growing four different kinds of tomatoes… some were still sort of okay, while others were sprawling in all manner of directions.  I remembered last year’s staking catastrophe, whereby I just waited FOREVER before staking and ended up with some really oddly-shapen stems.  I also remembered a temporary solution that I had come up with much too late.

I went to the kitchen and came back with a package of 10” bamboo skewers, the type available for about $3 at our grocery store that I use to make kebabs.  And for a mere $3, you can stake 100 tomatoes!  I drove each stake into a peat pot, about 3/4” from the base of the tomato and then used some left over embroidery floss to loosely tether the tomato to the stake, leaving plenty of room for growth!  Do note that over the next few weeks, until these girls go in the garden, we’re going to have to keep a close eye on their tethers and replace them if they get too tight!

Skewered Tomatoes

It also became necessary to separate out the tomatoes, as their previous trays had become way too crowded… so we split two trays off onto my writing desk for the time being (a nice, sunny window) and plan to work a rotation schedule together, so everyone gets a nice mixture of sun exposure and grow light.

The only problem we’ve had with the tomatoes is with the TCG variety (Costoluto Genovese Tomato).  With this variety’s leaves, we’ve noticed some serious curling, discoloration and withering.  I’m trying to keep a closer eye on things this week, but the phenomenon has me concerned.  You can see in the photo below that the leaves do tend toward curling back in on themselves.  I will note that as soon as I see signs of leaf-decay, I usually remove the affected leaves immediately, in the hopes of containing any bacterial/fungal issues, and we haven’t seen any signs of such decay on any of the other plants, so it may just be a problem with this specific tomato variety.

TCG Leaves

This weekend, we’re hoping to start our kale, squashes, cucumbers and other vining veggies indoors (with what little space we have left!).  Yesterday, Jason managed to get our garden rototilled in preparation for outdoor plantings of peas and ranunculus.

I also finished up this little project for my friend Kate’s baby shower!

The pattern came from the lovely little book Quilts, Bibs, Blankies, Oh My! by Kim Schaefer and was super-easy to amend to our particular needs (smaller, with a soft flannel backing).

Enjoy your weekend!

Holding Pattern

I feel like the last week has been marked by waiting: waiting for the incubator to arrive, waiting for it to warm up enough to actually work outside, waiting for the hens to start laying more regularly.  I’m not really sure what’s up with them lately, but I think our crazy, unpredictable weather, in combination with the great flock separation, has upset their laying patterns a bit.  We’re fluctuating between 2 and 6 eggs between eight layers right now.  I’m trying to be patient.

This spring has been a test in patience.  The snow melted uncannily early, but ever since our days fluctuate between the high fifties and high twenties (some of those days being much nicer than others).  And though the roof is done and we managed to re-paint our foundation and rotate our tractor equipment from winter (plow) to summer (finish mower and attachments), I’m eagerly awaiting time when I can start placing things in pots.

The weather hasn’t stopped Abby and I from training for our 5K.  Today, we celebrated week eight with a two mile run!  I can’t wait until we’re heading out in shorts and a tank top instead of two layers of long underwear, ski mittens and a hat.  There’s just something about ski mittens that don’t seem quite as conducive to speed.

The ranunculus bulbs arrived a few weeks ago, and I’m hoping to get them out next weekend, where they will still face nights cold enough to get them going, but hopefully not too many of those cold nights.  In addition to this, we’re also hoping to get some ground tilled under to facilitate early plantings (peas, lettuce and spinach).

Luckily, school has created plenty of distractions in the form of grading and class prep.  I also started a sour dough starter last week that I’m slowly babying along, and we did manage to mow the field where we’ll be married in just over two months, using the finish mower to chop down last year’s previously mowed hay in preparation for soft summer grass!

Holy Ranunculus!

Up until a few months ago, I was blissfully unaware of the ranunculus plant.  I am a vegetable gardener.  I dream of plump eggplants, juicy tomatoes and crisp lettuce; I spend very little time thinking of flowers… or, at least, I spent very little time thinking of flowers.  Then I got engaged.  Then I discovered the billy-ball.  Then I discovered how long it takes to grow them and how finicky they are, and what a short window of time you have if you’re going to grow them yourself (read: they are beyond my capacity as a flower gardener).

And then, then I discovered the ranunculus.  I was okay; I didn’t have to have them myself; I assumed they were difficult to plant and even more difficult to produce.  But Charity over at Spade & Spatula convinced me otherwise, and now, now we might have a problem come spring.

Photo Courtesy of Bulbs Direct (Click on Photo to Link There)

Ranunculus are related to those precious little buttercups that run riot over our fields in the summer; however, they exceed the buttercup in terms of their ability to be cut and placed in bouquets.  I  will note that they are toxic (so we’re going to have to keep the girls away from them!), but given the number of foxes we’ve seen this spring, all free ranging is going to have to be limited to the chicken tractors for the foreseeable future.

After weeks of salivating, I must admit that I did just place an order with Dutch-owned BulbsDirect.  There are 120 ranunculus bulbs in my future… but I warn you, browse at your own risk!  The combination of cabin fever and bright spring flowers is deadly!

Refinishing a Woodstove for Decorative Purposes

I had planned to write today’s post about animal husbandry, or – more accurately – my plan for hatching chicks this spring, which may be a bit unconventional; however, after a long weekend of wedding crafting, I’m too eager to share my latest project, a refinished wood stove.

Since I try to keep Monday’s posts more related to gardening, chickens and general homesteading, this post might feel like a bit of an anomaly; however, all of the steps I followed here could be used in fixing a regular wood stove, with the addition of stove cement, which I elected not to apply, given the age and wear on our parlor stove — making it look safer than it is might, someday, cause someone to try to start a fire in it, when at this point in its life (and given how many scary cracks and ill fitting old parts it has) it is likely better suited as a planter, anyway.

One thing that convinced me that we needed to rescue this lady from the shed (which is now our chicken coop) was all of her wonderful lines and delicate details.

The materials for this project were relatively simple:
*Old Wood Stove in Need of Love
*Wire Welding Brush
*Williams’ Stove Polish
*Rags
*Metallic Paint
*Stove Cement & Sand Paper (if Refinishing a Functional Stove)

And the steps… were, delightfully, even easier

  1. I started by equipping myself for this project.  Given that I was working in our basement and welding brushes carry a warning on them (I assume for lead content), I wore heavy work gloves with leather guards, safety glasses and a dust mask.  For the purpose of full disclosure, I also wore a wool cap, as the basement was a balmy 38 degrees.
  2. Jason & a friend had brought the stove down into our basement about two weeks ago, and it looked rough enough that I deemed early on that I was restoring it for sentimental and ornamental value, not to be used.  I did this for two reasons: the bottom was nearly rusted out and the sides were perilously thin, even in places that had previously been patched.

    Parlor stove prior to restoration & Abby the helping dog. She headed upstairs before the dust got flying.

  3. First, I disassembled the stove, removing parts of the lid and door that were not rusted in place.  During this phase of the restoration was when I also evaluated the stove’s structural integrity, which I found a bit lacking (perhaps from a few too many very hot fires!

    The parlor stove, completely disassembled. Note the wear on the bottom!

  4. Next, I used a welded wire brush to buff out all of the rust spots.  This smoothed the surface of the stove, allowing for easier polishing later on.
  5. It is at this point in the restoration that you would want to patch any holes and reinforce the stove’s seams with stove cement, if you intend to use the stove for fires.  Stove cement, once applied and dried can be smoothed with sandpaper before the next step.
  6. With a soft cloth, apply the stove polish, working it deep into the cast iron.  Once it has dried, polish off any residue with a clean rag.

    This image provides a great before (right) and after (left) of just what the stove polish does!

  7. Finally, touch up any paint that has aged poorly over time.

    I can't wait to get this upstairs, so I can provide you all a better "after" image, but the affect of three hours of work was pretty stunning!

This project took about three hours, and as soon as the boys carry it back upstairs, I’ll have a lovely addition to my kitchen and a fantastic planter to place at the end of my driveway, full of flowers & yesterday’s signs, on my wedding day!

DIY Stenciled Wedding Signs

This weekend, Jason had to go help a friend move, so I was left to my own devices and decided that it was time to get some of these DIY wedding projects on the road.  I have a pretty specific image of what my wedding is going to look like (imagine: wide expanses of open fields, country antiques and bouquets of wildflowers).  I’m even toying with the idea of inviting all of my friends with little girls to dress them in white so they can tumble down the isle as impromptu flower girls (if they are so inclined) ~ nothing expensive or crazy or planned, just a small gaggle of girls (ages 2 – 7) making it down the isle to sit on a blanket and color while the festivities are taking place.

That said, I wanted to start with something easy.  I’ve had an image in my mind for a while.  Since we live in the country, I intend to have our guests park along our dirt road (there’s a half mile of it, uninhabited up past the house and a quarter before you get to the house), so when they approach the house, the driveway is open but for a refinished parlor stove (see Wednesday’s post!), blooming with Million Bells, and a tall sign post directing them to the ceremony, reception, etc…

I looked everywhere at signs (you can evidence of this over on Pinterest), but I finally settled on simple black and white (nature will be providing most of the color).  On Thursday morning, I went to Lowe’s and stocked up on 3/4” x 2”x24” pine craft boards (for under $2 each).  Now, this is a place where you could exercise thrift; however, I really wanted to start these this weekend and I didn’t want to spend hours cleaning up old barn wood.  And while some people make beautiful, rustic barn wood signs for their weddings; I wasn’t really looking for “rustic” in this part of my decor.

If you want to make your own, they are super easy!

Materials:
Large Sheets of Paper for Planning
Pencil
Ruler (I used a quilting ruler from my rotary cutting board)
Wood (cut to desired lengths) – For these signs, I used five pieces of 3/4”x2”x24” Pine
Sandpaper
White, Satin Paint (I used a water-based paint)
Regular, Flat Paintbrush
Letter Stencils
Black Acrylic Paint (For Letters)
Stenciling Brushes (I ended up using the smallest in my package)
Newspaper
Masking Tape

Planning Steps:

  1. Using your paper, letter stencils, ruler and pencil, block out the size of your signs.  Then make templates for the words you would like to use (I used these for orientation on the boards, NOT the actual stenciling).  While, initially, I thought this step was just for practice and something I’d only do for the first word or two – it allowed me to center the words on larger signs and recognize places where I had to be careful with spacing, lest I run out of room on the boards!
  2. Sand off the edges of your boards, rounding them.  For me, this was just a personal preference.  The boards, themselves, looked so sharply square that they lacked a handmade look.  I first used rough sandpaper, then a smoother sandpaper, for a soft, stain-y finish.  Later on, I found Jason’s Dremel tool with sandpaper attachment and sped up the process a bit (honestly, I think this tool might be my best friend during my DIY projects over the next few months!
  3. Next, I painted the boards with a satin white, water-based paint.  I chose to go with satin because I wanted a bit of gloss but not so much to cause glare in the sun.
  4. It took three coats to properly cover the boards, but  I found that the paint dried so quickly that by the time I got to my last piece, I could start on the first piece again (this step took about an hour).

Stenciling the Signs:

  1. In order to get the signs just-so, I drew a thin line with a pencil and my quilting ruler 1/4” up from the bottom of the board, then traced each letter on with pencil.  This gave me an opportunity to see where everything was before I began to work with the paint.  Before I painted, I removed the line underneath the letters with an eraser.
  2. When I finished this step on all five signs, I covered my coffee table in newspaper and laid out each sign.
  3. Since my stencils were of individual letters, and not complete words, I applied the stencils to the signs letter-by-letter, using masking tape to hold them in place and giving each letter  space to dry to ensure that nothing bled over (Imagine the word: LOVE ~ I would place the L & V first, stencil them, let them dry, then place the O & E).  As such, working on five signs at once gave each letter time to dry, since they required at least two coats of paint, applied with proper stenciling technique.  The hearts required four coats of paint and touch-up with a detailing brush because of their size).
  4. Proper stenciling technique requires you to dip your stenciling brush (with its flat, round brush) in the paint, then to scrub most of the paint off onto a  piece of paper or paper towel before applying the almost-dry brush to your stenciling surface, which allows a more uniform coat of paint without the risk of “bleeding” onto your other surface color.  Using an acrylic top color helps because acrylics dry quickly.
  5. Once the signs were dry, I touched up any mis-steps with the white paint.

Voila!  My first five signs!

After finishing these, I decided to add eight more signs (at only the cost of the wood, since I already had the paint.  My total cost per sign came out to about $3, and I’m super excited to someday be able to hang the Jason & Jessica sign above one of our wedding portraits.