Working the Fall Schedule

There is a misconception that anyone who works in a farm-like environment simply takes a vacation once the crops are in (no matter what those crops might be). It’s true that I’m slightly less frantic now than during the summer months when I need to be doing three things (or more) at once. However, the work continues throughout the fall and winter. The fall period begins after the garden is cleaned up, tilled, and planted with winter rye. Our winter rye is just showing above the ground at this point. It’ll stay that way until spring, when it’ll take a growth spurt. The winter rye roots will keep our precious soil in place and also provide “green manure” in the spring when we till it under.

A lot of people are surprised to see the two buckets of what appear to be shriveled bean pods in our basement, alongside the potatoes and squash. They actually are dried green beans, which might seem like a less than helpful use for them. However, the beans you buy for soup in the store come from this source. When we’re done canning green beans for winter, we let the remaining beans dry on the vines. We then pick them off, shell them, and use them in soups or for baked beans. In fact, anywhere you’d normally use dried beans you can use the dried green beans from your garden. Our dried beans are a beautiful shade of brown this year. We’ve had speckled beans, solid black beans, and a number of other colors, all of which contribute to a colorful soup, even if they taste mostly the same. You simply remove the pod by shelling the dried green bean and you end up with handfuls of beans you can store without much fuss at all. In short, green beans are an extremely efficient way to produce food—you can eat them green or dried and they require no special storage when dried (an airtight container is helpful).

Of course, this is also the time of year that I start getting into the woods to cut wood for winter. I’m actually bringing down wood that I cut and stacked last year (or two years ago in some cases). It won’t be quite enough for the entire winter, but it’s a good start. I’ll look for dead, dry trees to cut up to complete our wood supply for the winter, and then begin on next year’s wood. Rebecca helps by carrying wood from the cart, wood pile, or from the edge of the woods and throwing it into the basementsaving me a ton of time. Some of the wood has to be split, a good job for my maul on days when it’s too windy to cut wood.

Self-sufficiency relies on a lot of equipment as well. During the summer months there is little time to maintain it. Yes, if something breaks, you have to take time out to fix it, but that’s not the same as maintaining it. During the fall and winter months, I’ll sharpen shovels and spades, repair equipment, change the oil, and tune everything up. These maintenance actions are essential if you want to have a good summer. Nothing is worse than trying to dig with a dull spade. Anything I can do to make our hand, electric-powered, and gas-powered equipment work better is money in my pocket and time to do something else. So these winter months are an essential time for me.

This is also the time I’ll be working on new projects. For one thing, Rebecca needs a bit more storage and better lighting in the larder. I’ve been wanting some shelving for my equipment for quite some time now and I may get to it this winter. The chicks need something better than a refrigerator boxI’m planning to build a box that we can use as a combination of brooder (to keep young chicks warm) and rabbit house (during the summer months after the chicks are put outside).

Still, nothing beats sitting by the wood stove after a day of cutting wood and feeling it’s warmth hit tired muscles. I’ll break out my Knifty Knitter to make some hats, scarves, blankets, and socks (you can see some of the things I’ve made in my Knitting for the Gentleman Farmer post). I may even engage in some latch hook this winter to make a rug or wall hanging. Winter is a time of crafting too! So, how do you enjoy the fall and winter? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Nature at Rest

The job is done,
summer is gone,
nature decides to rest.

Off comes the green garb of work,
displaying raiment of yellow and orange and red,
as nature presides over play.

Deer frolic in woods,
birds flutter in sky,
it’s time for a moment of joy.

As each bows its head,
sleep comes stealthily by,
nature succumbs to the calls of fall.

Winter comes soon,
some think doom,
but nature knows far better.

The promise of spring,
wells up within,
when nature will begin anew.

Copyright 2011, John Paul Mueller

The Wonders of Queen Anne’s Lace

Sometimes, the best herb or edible plant is the one you didn’t plant. Nature provides a number of edible plants that grow naturally where you live. I’ve shared about the berries that grow in our woods before. There are blackcaps, blackberries, gooseberries, wild grapes, wild plums, and choke cherries available to anyone who wants to pick them in the woods. You can also find any number of usable mushrooms and other useful plants out there. However, the wild grass area also has abundance to offer. One of the most useful plants is Queen Anne’s Lace, also known as wild carrot.

QueenAnnesLace01

It’s quite possible that you’ve passed this plant by in the past because it normally grows in with the rest of the weeds. The large taproot is edible. However, you don’t want to dig it up mid-summer. It’s better to dig up a second year plant early in the spring or a first year plant late in the fall. Wait until the plant is dormant or you’ll end up with something that’s akin to shoe leather without much value. Older plants develop a woody interior (xylem) that’s most definitely unpalatable.

Some people actually use a tea made from the root for a number of medicinal purposes. When the root is used for medicinal reasons, the common wisdom is to dig it up in July, which is the same time the plant flowers in profusion.

Wild carrot is an ancestor of the modern cultivated carrot, but they’re different plants. In other words, it would require a lot of work to change Queen Anne’s Lace into anything resembling a domesticated plant and you should focus on the usefulness of the wild plant instead.

One of the most delightful uses of Queen Anne’s Lace is to make jelly from the flowers. You must pick a lot of fresh flowersthe more the better. I normally provide Rebecca with at least two shopping bags full of flowers to make jelly and it takes quite a while to obtain that many flowers, but the effort is most definitely worth it. The Queen Anne’s Lace flower looks like this.

QueenAnnesLace02

In some cases, the center of the flower will contain a purple floret, but I’ve found that the purple floret is somewhat rare. Before you go out and pick a bunch of flowers that look just like this one though, be aware that many flowers have precisely the same coloration and similar appearance. For example, the hemlock flower and fool’s parsley are easy to confuse with this flower. Fortunately, it’s easy to avoid the mistake. Hemlock and fool’s parsley both tend to grow in wetter areas, while Queen Anne’s Lace prefers a drier spot to grow. In addition, Queen Anne’s Lace has a distinctive carrot leaf like the one shown here (the photograph is courtesy of my friend William Bridges):

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

When picking Queen Anne’s Lace, look for the flower in July, check the flowers carefully, and verify that the leaves are correct. If necessarily dig a plant up to ensure you’re getting the right one. The root will have a distinctive carrot aroma. If you take these four precautions, you won’t ever have any trouble.

There is conflicting information about the use of the leaves. I’ve never personally eaten the leaves and based on the conflicting information, I’d recommend not eating them. Here’s the Queen Anne’s Lace jelly recipe (courtesy of Rebecca).

Queen Anne’s Lace Jelly

2 qts Flower Heads, Rinsed
  Boiling Water to Cover
2 Lemons, Juiced
2 packets Certo
6 cups Sugar
Dash Cinnamon or Nutmeg

Infuse flowers in boiling water for 4 to 5 hours. Strain the result to obtain 5 cups of liquid. Add lemon juice, sugar, and spices. Bring the mixture to a boil. Add Certo. Bring to a full boil for 1 minute. Prepare the jelly according to the instructions on the Certo package. Can using a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

The jelly has a subtle taste. It really is hard to describe, but think of something with an almost honey-like taste, but a bit of spiciness too. Add some tea and an English muffin, and you have a wonderful breakfast. The jelly ends up with a wonderful amber appearance.

QueenAnnesLace04

So, what are your favorite wild plants? Do you use them regularly? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

Easter Bunnies (Part 2)

You may remember my previous post about Easter Bunnies. At that point, they were hairless and barely recognizable as rabbits. Since that time, our Easter bunnies have continued to grow. After about three weeks the little rabbits will begin jumping out of the nest box. We call them “poppers” at that point. From that point on, the babies begin eating food on their own. It takes between 1 and 1½ months for the doe to ween the babies. At that point, the babies are more or less independent, but still spend plenty of time with mom (who continues to groom them).

The babies are a little over 2 months old now. Mom will remain with the babies for another week or so, and then we’ll remove her. We’ll keep the babies together because they’re used to being together. Keeping the babies together for now will reduce stress. Here’s how the babies look now:

Rabbits01

Yes, it’s pretty amazing to see how fast they grow. There are six babies in here. We’ll separate them according to sex once they get a little bigger and put them in separate cages.

Some people wonder why we use such heavy cages. The rabbits are kept outside so they get fresh air and sunshine. (The nest box in the back of the cage is big enough to accommodate all of them in bad weather.) Because the rabbits are outside to be in a healthy environment, they’re at risk from predators. The other day we came home to find two dogs after the rabbits. So, the heavy cages aren’t there to keep the rabbits in, but to keep the predators out. You don’t want you bunnies eaten by any of the huge number of predators that feast on them, so it’s important to build sturdy cages well off the ground.

I’ve had a few people ask what we feed our rabbits. They do get rabbit pellets as one of their main dietary items. However, in addition to the rabbit pellets, we feed them garden scraps, grass hay (grass that we’ve let grow a little long and then raked up), corn (to help them keep their teeth ground down and to provide needed fat), oats (to provide needed fiber), and sticks from our apple and pear trees (a treat that also helps keep their teeth ground down). Each of the cages also has a salt block with minerals (the red blocksnot the solid white ones). We make sure that the rabbits also have clean water (they tend to dirty it by sitting in it at times).

The picture doesn’t show it, but bottom of the cage uses a much smaller mesh (½” × ½”). Otherwise, the rabbits would quickly become footsore and could get infections from cuts. The mesh allows fecal matter to pass through. We wash the cages regularly to keep them clean.

 

Berries in the Woods

Many people see a woods and think about the trees. In fact, that’s all they think about. However, a healthy woods is more than just the trees. A healthy woods has a significant biodiversity of all sorts of plants and shrubs that rely on the woods for cover and environment. Along the ground you’ll see interesting plants such as the bloodroot shown here:

BloodRoot

There are a number of sources that tell you what a useful plant bloodroot is. Of course, the woods are also the source of foods such as the morel mushroomnot that I was particularly successful in finding any this year. When I do find them, they cook up nicely in a stew or simply sauteed in a bit of butter. The woods provides this amazing bounty without any effort on my part, except in preservation efforts I take on the wood’s behalf.

Keeping the woods happy is incredibly important. One food source (and the reason for today’s post) is the humble berry. My woods is simply packed with berry brambles. A personal favorite is the gooseberry shown here:

Gooseberry

The gooseberries have already blossomed and set fruit. I won’t pick them though until mid-summer. I prefer a mix of dark black and green gooseberries for use in preserves (jam) or pie. We have both European and American gooseberries. Even though the European gooseberry is larger, the American gooseberry doesn’t suffer from mildew problems and produces more fruit per bush. I’ve found that the American gooseberries are a bit more tart than the European variety and that they’re better a bit on the green side. Mixed, the two kinds of gooseberry produce a delectable treat you won’t find in your local store (at least, not without a lot of looking). Gooseberries are terribly hard to pickthe long thorns will rip up your arms, even with long sleeves. Gingerly picking up the individual canes and picking the berries underneath works best.

A berry that ripens earlier is the blackcap (also known as a black raspberry). They also flowered and set fruit quite some time ago. I keep a watch on them because they tend to ripen quickly and don’t last particularly long on the bushes. Blackcaps are the easiest berries to pick and have an amazing flavor that differs from their red raspberry counterpart. They’re a bit smaller than red raspberries. We have a few red raspberry canes in the woods, but not enough to do much, so we mix them with the blackcaps. Because we don’t have a lot of blackcaps, we tend to use them for preserves.

The last berry of the season is the blackberry. It’s larger than the other berries. In fact, in a good year, a blackberry will be about the diameter of my thumb and about half as long. The blackberries are still in bloom and won’t set fruit for another week or two as shown here:

Blackberries

In a good year it’s nothing for me to fill two or three gallon buckets with blackberries in an early morning picking session. We’ll use them for pie, preserves, wine, and just eating. The thorns of the blackberry are a bit longer than those of the blackcap. The longer canes make it harder to maneuver amongst the plants. In addition, our blackberries tend to grow on the sides of the hills, making them a little inaccessible at times. Of course, the taste is worth all of the effort.

I’ve only touched on a few highlights of the woods in this post. The biggest reason to maintain a healthy woods is that the majority of our pollinators live them. Every spring I count the number of different pollinators that visit our fruit trees. This year I counted eleven. Some I knew, such as the bumblebee, mason bee, black bee, and sweat bee. There were also a number of wasps and a few other varieties of pollinator that I haven’t researched as of yet. The point is, the majority of these pollinators come from our woods, so a healthy woods is essential to our health. Interestingly enough, the berry brambles in the woods are an important food source for pollinators in the early spring, so my delicacy is their delicacy too. What sorts of berries do you like? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Dealing with Digital Addiction

It may sound odd coming from a guy who has written 87 computer books and over 300 articles, but I think the world has a severe technology addiction that’s going to cause us significant woe at some point (assuming it hasn’t already). Obesity, people who think cable television is a basic necessity, the need to have a cell phone constantly attached to one’s ear, and all of the other negatives commonly associated with a digital addiction today are only the beginningthings will get worse. Don’t get me wrong, technology definitely has positive aspects and it has a role to fulfill in the modern world, but I think we’ve gone way too far (and I’m sure we’ll go further).

One of the best ways in which technology can help is to level the playing field for those with special needs. In fact, anyone who knows me knows that I have a very special place in my heart for those who have special needs and can be helped by technology used in a positive way. However, it’s often the technology developed for people with special needs that seems to hurt us the worst (think of the television remoteit mainly started as an accessibility aid).

I read a PC Magazine commentary by Lance Ulanoff this morning about digital addiction and a book that will help you with it. Most people don’t need a bookthey need a reason and a plan. You can’t combat anything that you’re not convinced you need to combat. Some people are incredibly happy being addicted to technologyI feel sad for them because they’re missing out. If you make your entire world revolve around technology, you’re likely missing out on real friends and relationships with family. You’re also missing out on a vast range of experiences that have nothing to do with technology. However, unless you see that you’re missing out on these things, nothing that I or anyone else says will convince you of anything. So, you need a reason to deal with a digital addition.

If you finally do come up with a good reason, you need a plan. When I gave up smoking years ago, I had to find a way to fill the vacuum. My way of dealing with the addiction is probably uniqueI bought some running clothes and a new pair of shoes. Every time I wanted a cigarette, I went for a run instead. For about a month, I actually ended up sleeping on the couch in my running clothes because it was easier than having to get dressed to address an urge in the middle of the night. After about six months I found I had lost 20 pounds and that I felt extremely good. So, something positive came out of getting rid of those cigarettes.

My own technology addiction came sometime after I left the Navy. It seemed as if my wife couldn’t pry me out of my office under any circumstance and that I couldn’t enjoy any activity that didn’t somehow involve my computer. I was constantly worried about missing somethingthat some event would happen and I wouldn’t be available to deal with it. (If this sounds at all familiar, you likely have a digital addiction too.) I’m not quite sure when it snuck up on me, but it did. As with my cigarette addiction, once I realized I had a problem (my weight skyrocketed and I felt terrible), I came up with a plan to deal with it. I started including daily walks in my regimen, spent time with my wife playing board games, going to shows instead of watching television, went on picnics, started working with wood, and took time to enjoy events at the park. My mother-in-law helped by getting us an annual pass to the zoo. All of these things are part of the plan that fills the void so technology doesn’t rule my life.

The battle to contribute in a positive way to the world and yet not let technology rule my life is ongoing. You’ve seen my posts on self-sufficiencythat’s part of the plan. I don’t carry a cell phone, don’t worry about the messages in my inbox or on my answering machine, and think about things other than writing. Twice a year I shut everything offthe computer doesn’t exist for that time intervalmy wife and I get reacquainted. As a result, I’m happier and healthier than I have been in many years. If you find that you can’t leave the technology at home, unplug, and not feel any remorse about doing it, then you have a digital addiction and I encourage you to find both a reason and a plan for dealing with it. Let me know your thoughts about digital addiction at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Easter Bunnies

Spring heralds many things at our homestead. Of course, you’ve already seen the flowers, Early Spring – The Garden and Orchard, and budding trees. Today’s post is about our Easter bunnies. Because they require so little space, we raise rabbits. Each spring the does are bred and usually have their babies around spring. The gestation period for a rabbit is between 28 and 35 days, with 31 days being the average. We’ve found that our rabbits will often time the birth for a warmer dayjust how they know is a mystery to us, but the weatherman could probably take a few clues from them. The first clue we have that the does are about to have babies is that the does start pulling hair and fluffing it up in their nest box like this:

Rabbit01

The doe usually has her babies within 24 hours of pulling her hair, but I’ve seen it take a little longer. We normally watch the nest box carefully after the hair pulling to try to determine when the babies are born. We’re extremely careful not to disturb the babies at all for several days after the birth. After that, we gently pull away a little of the hair using a stick (human scent will keep the mother from taking care of her babies). Here are the two day old babies of Rocky Raccoon (she has raccoon markings on her face):

Rabbit02

These babies were quite active and healthy, so they were a little hard to catch with the camera, but you can see them under all that hair. We were quite careful not to touch them or anything in the nest box. Afterward, we carefully covered them back up because they can take a chill pretty easily at this point.

Whether we get a look at all depends on mother bunny. If she looks at all concerned, we leave the babies completely alone. Some mothers will thump to show their displeasure at our peeping. Normally, they’ll let us take a look a bit later, usually within a few days. Happy Easter from the farm!

 

More Spring Weather

Our weatherman predicted rain with a slight chance of snow this Saturday, with an emphasis on slight. So it was without any hesitation whatsoever that I planned to be snowed in the next day. Fortunately, it wasn’t as bad as all that. I think we ended up with about an inch or two that quickly melted as shown here:

Snow02

However, I do start to get worried about foul weather this time of year. Of course, there are my flowers to consider, but usually they hold up well. Even though my spring flowers look a bit crunched here, they sprang back up later:

FlowersinSnow

More important are the fruit trees. Fortunately, none of them were blossoming yet this weekend. In years past, I’ve had the blossoms get damaged by late spring frostsreducing my harvest later. Of course, the same thing can happen when snow or other weather elements keeps the pollinators inside and not out pollinating my trees. I hope that we don’t get more weather of this sort now that my trees are in the bud swell stage. All this led me to think of a haiku:

Crystal form that shows
Winter has not flown away
Spring is on the way!

 

Early Spring – The Flowers (Part 3)

Spring continues with its illustrious array of floral finery. The crocus have unfortunately croaked for the most part, but new flowers take their place. In fact, my spring bed is starting to look quite pretty with the introduction of hyacinth:

Hyacinth

The daffodils have also made an appearance and are looking quite nice now:

Daffodil

The tulips aren’t quite in bloom yet, but it won’t be long now. They’re actually the last of my flowers to make an appearance in most years. Even so, you can see here that the wait won’t be much longer to enjoy their beauty:

Tulip

Here’s hoping that your spring blooms are looking nice as well! Feel free to share your thoughts at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

Weather Forecaster’s April Fool’s Joke

Normally I won’t post twice in one day unless something really exciting happens. However, I just couldn’t let this event go by without comment. The radio announcers were all laughing heartily this morning about the supposed near miss of snow in the Madison area as they talked with the weather forecaster. Little did they know that the promise of rain, rather than snow, was just a huge April fool’s joke on everyone. Naturally, everyone learned about the joke not long after. Here’s the view outside my window:

Snow

Yep, that looks like rain all right . Those really big lumpy bits of something isn’t dust on the camera lens either; it’s really big snow flakes. I’m sure the snow won’t stick around all that long this time of year and you’ll notice that it’s barely sticking to the pavement (so I won’t have to shovel), still, we made sure to call the radio station and let them know, “’tain’t funny McGee!”

As one woman at the local coffee shop stated, “It’s Wisconsin, what do you expect?” I guess that sums things up nicely. Whether you’re knee deep in snow or enjoying spring flowers, have a great day .