Sunday, May 31, 2015

What It's Like Here

As I'm discovering, this "job" of growing food and maintaining a large piece of property is pretty hard on one's body. It's dangerous, too. Chainsaw cuts, bad scratches from thorned plants, and insect and snake bites are all issues. A week or two ago, I killed a 21" Copperhead on the driveway. I saw it slither away, I poked it with my walking pole, and it turned and reared at the stick. Fat little jaws and a flat little head. I should have seen that first. There are many other species of snakes on the property, all of them non-poisonous. It's not uncommon to be able to catch and hold one. I've done it a number of times.

Add to that the simple physicality of day-to-day duties, for instance, lifting 40 lb water pails into and out of the trailer or using a tiller or using the unwieldy Gravely mower. Plus a chain saw to keep our view across the valley and for firewood (we heat primarily with wood during the winter, when we're here), a 3/4 ton pickup truck to wrestle with (esp. putting on chains in winter), and 20 hp brush mower that I tow behind my ATV. Plus various tools such as weed eaters, double-bladed hedge clippers, a log splitter, circular and cross-cut saws, and I recently made extensive use of a router and a pneumatic staple-gun reconstructing our Martin house. There isn't a single one of these jobs that I'm complaining about, but there some that I strongly dislike, like hauling water to the garden. There simply isn't any choice; the jobs must be done, no questions asked.

The biggest benefit of doing these jobs and operating this equipment is that I am outside and active for a good part of the day. It is not seasonal, either. We spend part of late fall and early winter cutting down fairly large trees, some well over 100' tall, a very physical job. We also make it a point, perhaps not frequently enough, to take walks around the property. We have walked all three property lines (the fourth is the road), and marked trees and fence posts with red paint or red blazes. We make our own maple syrup, which can keep one busy hauling buckets of sap in late winter and early spring when the sugar maples start to run. I love being outdoors in all four seasons.

The result of all this? We have a garden that is spectacular. The soil pH is correct, the levels of NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium) are optimal, and the soil has lots of organic matter and healthy microorganisms. Weeds are under control for the first time, and all the transplanted starts are doing well. Nearly 100% of the seed potatoes sprouted and the plants are healthy and green, the rhubarb is fabulous, the beet crop looks better that ever because we used a biodegradable paper weed barrier for the transplants, the raspberry bushes are loaded with green berries after a beautiful flowering, and we finally have some fruit on our trees, particularly the two oldest cherry trees. I think we put them in six years ago after planting our eight-tree apple orchard in 2008. There will be a few apples off of two trees if we can keep the birds and insects off of them. Same for the cherries. We will have to put bird netting around all trees with fruit. Most of the remaining apple trees, the two pear trees, and the three plum trees have yet to produce fruit.

All the Brassica and related plants look really good, including Brussels sprouts, black and curly kales, four varieties of cabbage, and Swiss chard, which may not be a Brassica. The Roma tomatoes are coming along decently, and we had a good crop of asparagus this year, although we missed the majority of it. The bush beans and soybeans have just come up, the peas are flowering, we're growing fava beans this year, and we recently transplanted six varieties of peppers and two varieties of cucumbers. We now have two raised beds by the house, one planted with arugula, herbs, carrots, and baby juniper trees, and another newly planted with strawberries. We also have half a dozen blueberry bushes, which we unfortunately tend to neglect.

In addition, the property around the house and garden looks civilized. The 1.5 acre clearing in which our house sits is regularly mowed and is full of wild grasses. We have plenty of storage buildings to store things like ATVs or mowers, and even the 50 year old Gravely walk-behind mower started right up after the winter. The addition to our house was finished over the winter, but the outside still needs to be stained. It's steadily becoming a homestead.

We had an issue with Starlings in our Martin house, and I managed to kill a couple of birds with a .22 rifle and eventually chase them off. However, in doing so I put more than a couple of holes in the Martin house. These have been repaired and the nest doors have been reconstructed to be Starling resistant. Luckily, we haven't been plagued with raccoons this year, and our bird feeders have remained unmolested. We have a pair of Tree Swallows nesting in a house by the barn, and who are a delight to watch, but our bluebird family disappeared suddenly, the result of some sort of predator. Unfortunately, the Oriole family that nested in one of our apple trees didn't come back this year, but we do have a large flock of turkeys down in the western hollows, and I've seen the gobbler in the clearing by the house several times. There is a cute little pair of red squirrels that often visit the bird feeder, but who are too small to eat much food. We also have a number of Pileated Woodpeckers in the area, making a racket defending each of their territories. Other woodpeckers are common at the feeders (Downy, Hairy, and Red bellied). We haven't seen a bear this year, so far, and the dogs seem to keep the deer away from the house, which is good as they eat things I don't want them to eat. I suppose if the deer start to become a problem, there is always the venison solution to population control.

At this point in the growing season, all appears well. After a brief drought in the middle and end of May, we've had 0.84" of rain over two days and everything is green. From this point on, it's weed management, pest control, and harvesting everything we have planted. I am going to pick rhubarb, Swiss chard, and broccoli raab tomorrow, and it won't be long before the peas will be ready.

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