Risking It

The weather has been so nice lately.

Nice enough to spend the morning outside wandering around the homestead.

Nice enough for the boys spend time digging for worms, playing tag and practicing hockey.

Nice enough for me risk it and start sowing seeds in the garden.

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The last frost dates for Central Illinois is somewhere between the 14th and 21st of April so I probably should have waited.

But the soil is ready!

The worms are squirming!

The birds are chirping!

Since everything else on the homestead is confused by this weather, I’m throwing my hat in the ring and taking a chance.

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I planted cabbage, lettuce and carrots. These are cool weather tolerant, so even if it does freeze again, I’ll be able to take measures to protect them from most of the cold.

I hope.

Warm, sunny, breezy
Birds chirping and worms squirming
Did I hear a frog?

Midwest Winter

The weather is mild
The grass is confused
The birds are returning
The trees aren’t amused

This mild midwest winter
Calls plants to awake
Calls spiders to come out
And frogs to the lake

If this warmth continues
My garden will thrive!
Extending the season
More produce and life!

But if it gets colder
My roses will freeze
My strawberries wither
And what of the trees?

But worries are useless
Concerns do no good
I’ll laugh and enjoy it
As everyone should!

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Leaves are budding on the rose bushes

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New strawberries are peeking up through the mulch.

Stripes

Last year, we slowly moved the chickens from the pasture to the kitchen garden. We started in August and moved them every few days until we were ready for them to do their work.

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At first, we didn’t notice it. The grass had yet to recover from their trampling and tilling. Sometimes we’d left them t0o long in one spot, so it was awhile before the grass grew back.

Then, one day, Ray looked out over the yard and saw it. A green path from the pasture to the kitchen garden. The path the chickens had created. It looked like one big, vibrant green, curving stripe.

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I wish we had taken pictures at the time. It is still visible, although faint in this brown, gray winter grass.

If we didn’t know the effect the chickens had on our soil before, we had concrete proof now.

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Animals, be they chickens, goats, rabbits or cows, are very beneficial to the garden, the homestead and life in general.

We saw a bright green stripe
Winding through the yard
From chicken feet and claws
Scratching without pause

Seed Starting: A Lesson

It’s that time again.

The time we flip through catalogs filled with seeds.

The time we inventory our seeds.

The time we start our seeds.

This year, I decided to turn the process into a lesson for the boys.

They were eager to help.

First, we created our mix. I added some vermiculite to a commercial seed starter to make sure the soil was extra loose.

At this point, I will not put fertilizer in with the seeds. The potting mix is already balanced with nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium so I will wait until we transplant to the garden to add the extra boost to the soil.

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Then we talked about the three main requirements for growing healthy plants.

“What do seeds need boys?”

“Water!” said Jake.

“Sunlight!” said Joe.

“And air!” I added.

Next, we filled our containers with the mix.

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When it came time to put the seeds in, the boys had almost lost interest. It took them quite a bit of time to fill the seed containers with soil, so I really couldn’t blame them. They each plopped a few seeds in and then went to play.

I finished sowing the seeds, watered them and covered the whole container with plastic wrap to keep the moisture and warmth in and encourage germination.

We put the tray in the schoolroom so we can watch them and water them. The windows are south facing and we get a lot of sunlight pouring through so it really is the perfect place.

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Finally, while the boys sat down to watch an episode of Wild Kratts, I grabbed my coffee and started looking through my catalogs once again.

Now that I’ve inventoried what we have, I’ll be ordering what is missing…and what looks good too.

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Starting seeds with kids
Exciting, joyous and fun
Learning for us all

Helping Hands

Although gray, the temperature is pretty mild so the boys and I went outside today to do some chores we’ve, er I’ve, been putting off.

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We moved some straw from the chicken coop to the herb spiral and started to cover the whole with wood chips.

This will keep the soil nice and moist so that, come planting time, it will be loose and easy to work with.

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The cats were a big help.

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The chicken coop was in dire need of a cleaning, so we shut the chickens in their run and got to work.

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While I scraped and pulled all of the dirty bedding out, the boys helped spread it in the spot the chickens had just vacated.

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Once all the hay was spread and the coop cleaned out, I started to lay more cardboard paths.

The cats, always ready to lend a paw, got involved.

They paced back and forth, inspecting my work and occasionally correcting the placement of the straw or attacking a villainous piece of cardboard that had the audacity to move.

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The boys, after spreading the straw bedding so vigorously, wandered off to dig a hole in the yard.

“We are planting an apple tree, Jake,” said Joe.

I watched as Joe directed the dig. They each took turns scooping a shovelful out and Joe encouraged Jake when he did a good job. I heard him explaining that roots would grow down in the ground from the seed they were going to plant.

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“Mom! There are worms hibernating!”

He ran over and showed me his find.

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Once they were satisfied with the depth of the hole, Joe marched inside to get the seeds. He planted two, “in case one didn’t grow”, and put the worm back in the ground “to help the tree grow”.

He then patted the dirt over it, watered it and marked it with a flag.

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I had not planned on turning our chore day into a lesson.

Joe took the initiative and started the project. He worked with the tools he had, taught Jake a few things about roots and praised him when he did a good job.

He was very proud of his work.

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I was too.

Sight Word Towers

Reading is the gateway to independent learning.

“Mom, what does that sign say?” will become “Mom, that sign says ‘Stop!'” when the boys learn to read.

“Mom, what do roly poly bugs eat?” will become  “Mom, I just read what roly poly bugs eat!” when the boys learn to read.

Reading is also a challenging skill to teach. There are so many rules, and teaching the logic behind all these rules to a 6-year-old can be frustrating and tear jerking.

Enter sight words.

Joe gets frustrated when he doesn’t get something right the first time he tries.

When he gets frustrated, he gets angry.

When he gets angry, I get frustrated.

And when we are both angry and frustrated, there are tears…on both sides.

So, in an effort to keep learning as frustration-free as possible, we constantly try learning in different ways.

Joe loves Legos, so I grabbed a bunch of blocks, a fine point Sharpie and a list of Kindergarten sight words.

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I wrote sight words on both sides of the blocks and called Joe over to play a word tower game.

I asked him to pick up a block and read the word. If he got it right, it went on the tower.If he got it wrong, it went back in the bag to be tried again later.

He loved it! He was having a blast building the tallest tower…and then it fell over and crashed.

All. Over. The floor.

His lip trembled and his eyes filled with tears.

And then, suddenly, he smiled.

“I’ll build a town instead!”

He picked up the blocks and started building houses.

We went through over 150 words, most of which he was able to read after one or two tries.

He was excited…and what’s more, he was engaged.

He’d found a whole new way to play the game, and not a single tear fell.

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Joe the Bug Hunter: The Roly Poly

Joe sat in the driveway peering into an old and broken ceramic frog.

“What are you doing buddy?” asked his mom, throwing a bag in the garbage can.

Joe looked up at his mom, a sparkle in his eye and a smile on his face.

“I found a new bug.”

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His mom wandered over and crouched down next to him.

“Ah,” she said. “Roly polys.”

“Roly polys?” Joe asked, raising his eyebrows. “What are roly polys? Why are they rolling into a ball? What do they do?”

His mom smiled. “You should do some research and find out.”

Joe didn’t need any more encouragement. He hopped up and got his bug house from the garage. After popping a few roly polys into the container, he raced inside to research his new find.

***

“They live under rocks and like dark, moist places,” said Joe. “No wonder I found a bunch in the frog.”

“How many did you find?” his mom asked.

“Oh, ten. Maybe 12. But I only brought 6 inside with me.”

His mom glanced up from scrambling eggs.

“They are in your bug house, right?”

“Of course!” he laughed.

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“What else have you learned about them?”

“Let’s see…they live a long time, up to 5 years!”

“Wow, that is a long time for a bug.”

“Not when you think about how long a black garden ant lives,” said Joe as he clicked on a new link. “They can live for 15 years.”

Click, click went the mouse.

“They have a bunch of names,” Joe said. “Pill bug, sow bug, potato bug and doodle bug…wait a minute, it says here that they aren’t bugs at all.”

Joe was getting excited. He eagerly read on.

“Not bugs?” said his mom, puzzled. “Then what are they?”

“Crustaceans!”

“Crustaceans? Like shrimp? On land?”

“Yep! It says here ‘Roly poly bugs might not look like lobsters or crabs, but they are actually land-based crustaceans.'”

Joe’s eyes were wide and gleaming. But…as he read on, the sparkle faded and his smile turned into a scowl.

“What’s wrong?” asked his mom, noticing his expression.

Joe sighed and turned to face his mom.

“They eat dead and decaying plants.”

“Ok, but why so glum? That helps the garden,” she said.

“They also eat live plants–young plants and seedlings. In the garden.”

“Ah.”

“Yes,” Joe said darkly. “But we don’t want to get rid of them completely. They help the worms turn the decaying stuff into soil. They speed up the process.”

“So, what do we do about them?”

Click, click.

“We could use diatomaceous earth, but that will kill all the bugs, even the good ones.”

Click, click.

“Or, we could pull mulch away from the seedlings to keep the moisture away.”

Click, click.

“Or, we could just continue to start all of our seeds inside and transplant them when they’ve grown beyond the seedling stage.”

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“Why don’t we do both?” asked his mom.

“Both?”

“Yes, we could start some indoors and direct sow some. Then, you could compare results,” she added.

“An experiment?” Joe asked.

“Yep. I wanted to do that anyway. The volunteer tomatoes we had last year were stronger than the ones we transpla–“.

“An experiment!” Joe jumped up and grabbed a notebook, a pen and his bug house.

“Thanks Mom!”

With that, he ran downstairs to start his seedlings leaving his mom smiling and shaking her head.

This Year’s Project

Our neighbors…the ones who built the gorgeous greenhouse…moved to Florida last fall.

We were sad to see them go. They had been wonderful neighbors. We helped each other out with the odd project. We went out to dinner a few times. We used their greenhouse to start seeds.

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“Maybe you could advertise that the house comes with a free gardener,” I told them over dinner…only half joking.

Once on the market, the house sold quickly.

“If they don’t want the greenhouse, tell them we’ll take it off their hands,”  I said when they told us. I was completely serious, but I didn’t think that it would actually happen.

Then, one day 6 months after they’d moved in, the new neighbors called us.

They wanted to take the greenhouse out and turn it back into a pool. Were we still interested in it?

“How much do you want for it?” Ray asked.

“If you take it out, you can have it.”

We were filled with joy and, at the same time, dread. This was going to be a big project.

Scratch that. Planting 80 trees  was a big project. This was going to be a huge project. 

The greenhouse, the fan, the pavers, the dirt, the tables….all of it will be ours. All we have to do is figure out how to get it out of there.

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Gulp.

We are going to wait until the weather is a bit warmer before we start. In the meantime, we are making plans.

Where are we going to put it?

What are we going to do to heat it in the cold months?

What are we going to do for the floor? Pavers? Concrete? Or will we leave it open so we can plant directly into the ground?

And, perhaps the most important question?

Can we get it out, rebuilt and ready for planting by the fall?

I sure hope so.

Stay tuned! This is the first in a series of posts about this project. 

The Fedge, the Vineyard and the Swale

It’s not that we neglected the fedge and the fruit trees we planted.

It’s not that we let them fend for themselves.

It’s not that we intentionally meant to let the weeds and grass all but take over.

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We just focused so much of our energy on fighting Japanese beetles.

We were just so excited to harvest all the new fruits that popped up.

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We were just so focused on planting new trees.

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I know, I know. Excuses, excuses.

Yet, in spite of our neglect…the trees survived. The fedge produced. The vineyard thrived.

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This year, we are focusing on maintaining the fedge, pruning the trees and propagating, well, anything we can.

We are also determined to transplant all the seaberry and aronia that ran riot in the fedge. There are at least 8 new seaberry plants and 3 new aronia that raced under the ground and sprang up through a thick layer of mulch as if to say, “Ta-da! Here we are!”

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We will also try to throw down seeds, plant nitrogen rich perennials and overtake the grasses that cover the swales. It will be a race. Survival of the fittest with the advantage given to the plants we want to take over.

Mint? Throw it down.

Seaberries? Plant them everywhere.

Raspberries? Absolutely.

I didn’t sketch anything up. Maybe it’s the wrong method, but rather than plan out exactly where everything will go, I plan to just get in there and plant, plant, plant where I see there is room.

I will be strategic of course. We don’t want to overcrowd the trees or any of the raspberries and comfrey we have already planted. As I plant, I’ll have my clipboard with last year’s final sketch so I can mark what we planted where.

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That’s the plan. Pruning and transplanting happens early to mid March and we’ll start throwing down seeds in mid to late April.

Let’s get seeds and rooting hormone ordered.

Let’s get the pruning shears sharpened.

Let’s get ready.

Finally we’re moving
Ahead and not behind
Finally we’ll get ‘er done
I’m in that frame of mind

We’ll order seeds and hormones
We’ll sharpen all the tools
I’m ready to get started
Let’s go! Let’s bend some rules!

An Opossum Poem

The sound of the door
Sliding’ cross the track
Is soft and just a whisper
But heard by both our cats

A gray streak from the pasture
A dark blur from the yard
Both streaming to the backdoor
Both sprint and run so hard

Sometimes we move too slowly
Both sneaky cats get in
We find them in the basement
Sleeping chin to chin

I let them lounge a little
Especially if it’s cold
I scratch their ears and pet them
A fuzzy cat to hold

They’re great at hunting critters
They’re swell at catching birds
But face them with a ‘possum?
They’re neither seen nor heard

One snuck into the hen house
And filled the girls with dread
The cats were sleeping on the job
All snuggled in their bed

You’d think they would be sorry
You’d think they’d show regret
But they just meow as if to say
“What did you expect?”