Saturday, July 21, 2012

Exploring Several Gardens

When she was very tiny, Lightening, the beautiful and playful daughter of Gloria the Glory Goat, had a freak accident and broke a bone in her leg.

For a milk goat, a hind leg is extremely important. A pregnant goat puts much of her weight on her lower back and back limbs.  A full udder can hold a couple of quarts of milk, placing great stress on the hooves and legs.

Adult udder - a burden!
If a break isn't corrected right, it could mean a permanently damaged animal. So the decision whether to repair or euthanize was a serious one.

But she is young, willing to be confined, her bones are still growing and she had the chance to heal just right.
 True to her name, lightening healed swiftly, faster than anyone expected.

Today, on a sunny day in the high seventies - the perfect Seattle day , I let her explore new parts of the farm.

We fence off the vegetable and fruit garden from the goats to protect it. Goats will eat the tips and leaves of all the branches they can reach on a tree, often breaking them in the process, then strip the bark off the lower trunk. But one goatling with a still developing stomach can't do much.

Lightening was content to nibble a few stems of grass growing between the bricks on the path, taste some grape leaves that hung down too far, and explore while staying safely close to her mom and me.

Days like this are few and far between.

It's usually too hot or cold, raining or sticky, I have to go to work, or some chore is waiting to be done. But it's a perfect day, and this little animal is learning and exploring and I'm here in the present for her.

We watch a hen picking the seeds out of a borage plant. She may have been eating whole flowers too. Lightening samples the borage and likes it but doesn't go back for seconds.

A huge onion is ready to harvest. Lightening tries its leaves and decides they're too spicy for her.

The ducks are resting in the grass, three black ovals so motionless they must either be very happy, or dead. As she approaches, I see them moving slowly, trying to decide whether to get up. 

The idea of permaculture is still new to me. As I understand it the goal is to design a so that the animals, the plants and we humans benefit each other in multiple ways without any element having to be pushed too hard. A goat wanders down a path nibbling the trailing parts of vines that grow too low, cleaning up grasses between the cracks and choosing not to eat the vegetables.

A hen gleans the seeds from a nectar plant, and keeps it from over planting itself next year. Some ducks clear out the slug population, eat any leftovers from the other animals' dishes and thus eliminate a food source for pests

A wasp is too busy pollinating a fennel blossom to sting me. Later, she will gather cabbage moth larvae to feed her young.

A lady follows behind taking pictures. I'm in the beginning stages of putting things together in my mind. Seeing things on such a glorious day helps me imagine possibilities. So does seeing what interests - and repels- my little goat.

Pretty soon, the goats got nervous about being separated.

Gloria started baying, and Lightening responded by calling in her shaky, treble baby voice.

The gate suddenly became a barrier, and it was time for her to go back into the more familiar yard.

She doesn't seem too stressed out or tired from her exploration. Soon she'll be back to climbing trees and getting into mischief, and later she will be a strong, healthy mama goat with four good legs.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Barn cleaning

Of all the chores at Several Gardens Farm, barn cleaning has the least glamour. It's also easily put off. A barn that needs cleaning will still need cleaning another day.

Add to that, cleaning a barn on a damp day is an exercise in futility. It never dries properly, and dust, present even in the rains of winter, finds every sticky surface and leaves a layer of new filth over any efforts to clean it.

But if you can smell your barn, the animals smell it too. They have no choice; they can't go into the house because the barn smells bad.

So clean I must.
Of course, animals produce waste. Chickens mostly poop at night. They sleep on roosts, and wake periodically to jettison their droppings onto the bedding below. There are a couple of choices for dealing with this.

Soiled bedding can be removed daily and immediately moved into compost, or it can be deep-litter mulched, adding layers of bedding over the offending material. That's what we do. It means fewer cleaning days per year, but more work when cleaning finally happens. It also means the bedding is rich with nutrients when we finally take it out.

Goats do their business outside, wherever they happen to be. Goat poop is less obnoxious than chicken poop, but they pee a lot and over time their urine soaks into the wood chips near the barn. I am not going to clean those today because I need to order wood chips first.

 Goats and chickens gravitate toward dust for their personal grooming. Both species love to dust bathe, ruffling fine, dry dust through their coats or feathers to the skin, where it removes oils and destroys pests. But alas, it also gets all over fixtures and walls.

There's nothing for it but to sweep smooth surfaces and then scrub them down and hose them. The dirt floor is shoveled and pitchforked free of bedding. Scrubbing a dirt floor won't work. Instead I sprinkle it with lime, which locks up the ammonia and kills odor. My friend Sheila contacted me out of the blue with a new bale of straw, perfect for bedding. Hay, which the goats eat, doesn't work as well. It gets soggy instead of letting moisture escape. Also, when we use it as mulch, it sprouts from the many seeds it shouldn't - but often does- contain.

The compost bin is quickly full of barn cleanings. It never really stood a chance.

Lightly soiled bedding get piled around plants as mulch. It isn't deep enough to kill all weeds below but it sets them back long enough to let the plants I want to grow.

The milking stand is scrubbed often, and sunned whenever possible. Here it is catching rays. I used to think the old farm management books that tell you how good sunshine is for this and that were obsolete. I would think 'yeah, that was before we had bleach and other strong cleaners'.

But then I got an aquarium with a UV sterilizer and started to think of the sun as the biggest ultraviolet radiation source in the solar system. Mine. For free. Now I use it to clean and bleach stuff all the time. Thank you sun.

When our bodies metabolize the nitrogen in proteins,  ammonia is the very toxic byproduct. Fish wash their ammonia out quickly, using copious water. For land animals, water is precious, and we can't waste it cleansing ourselves of ammonia. So we convert the ammonia into the less toxic urea, and birds, reptiles and insects make the even more harmless uric acid - the white substance that makes bird droppings so recognizable.

When I learned about this in college, it was a revelation that kept me excited for days. Up until then, I had absorbed the notion that our bodies were filthy and that waste was a sign of how unpleasant we were. I had also learned to think of my body esthetically - as something that should be beautiful and smell good all the time.

Learning the wonderful chemistry of the urea cycle changed how I thought of the body. The gawkiest, nerdiest, homeliest of us all is still capable of these amazing metabolic feats. The idea that I had been doing this all my life without even knowing it blew me away.

Cleaning the barn gets me very close to this cycle again. The waste from the goats and chickens may smell bad, and my back may hurt. But the barn is clean and the animals are happy. And out in the farm, nitrogen is moving, into the compost pile, into the garden to help the plants grow.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Hiving a Swarm

Just before dinner, David got a call from the Boeing plant in Renton. A swarm of bees was hanging out on one of their signs. Could he come get it?

We are on a swarm list provided by the Puget Sound Beekeepers, We are not only willing but hoping to capture bee swarms. It's a win/win - the caller gets the pesky ball of bees removed, we get another potential hive. By collecting bees from swarms, we hope to capture bees from colonies that have successfully overwintered, and may pass on good survival genes to future hives.

Most people love and respect bees, but there are certainly places where they don't want them living.
They weren't really giant bees, but we loved the illusion in this picture of them roaming over a sign. If they were really that size we would have driven away as soon as we saw them!

A swarm is what a hive does when it is so full of honey, workers and brood that it has no room left to grow. It raises a second queen, and then the old queen takes a band of workers off in search of a new place to live.

When bees swarm, it looks terrifying but is really one of the safer ways to encounter that many bees. The bees are full of honey, and they have the queen with them. They are not looking for a fight, and will avoid stinging at all costs.

 What isn't always safe, though, is the rest of the situation. Bees prefer high places. A keeper who fears heights need not go on swarm calls.

In this case, the sign was only accessible by lift.

David brought along a box with some comb in it, and scooped as much of the swarm as possible into it. The queen is in the densest bunch of bees. Once she's been boxed up, the other bees are attracted to her scent and become easier to capture.

 Sugar syrup is a great beekeeping tool. It is sprayed or drenched over the bees, who pause to clean themselves and are distracted from flying or stinging. It can perk up starving bees, settle down agitated ones, and make swarms more manageable. Here David is sweetening their spirits.

 Soon the majority of the bees were in the box. But in this situation, "most" wasn't good enough. 

Bees produce a chemical called Nasonov Pheromone which is an attractant used to orient other bees. These bees are fanning their abdomens to waft the scent out. This will signal any workers left at the site of the so they can collect into a new, smaller cluster.

David kept collecting, and returned in the evening for any stragglers.

What next? Well, we always have room for a hive of bees. We got our swarm settled into a hive, where it can build itself up before winter. Our Boeing bees are carrying on the tradition of flight, and can now be seen coming in for a landing in their snazzy new Warre hive. Let the bees live long and prosper.

Photo credits: Noah Darwin Feinberg

Thursday, July 5, 2012

A short story about Strawberries

Last Spring I bought twenty five strawberry plants - likely the last I will ever buy in this lifetime. Later I was given a few dozen more. Each plant has been sending out runners, and I have all the plants I will ever want at this point. I thought I would write a short tribute to their fruits.

On June 8, I harvested my first strawberry of the year. I tasted my strawberry and drank sweet wine (cider for the child). I cut it in thirds and we ceremoniously each ate. It was...cardboardy. It was sour without actually having much flavor. Parts of it were watermelon red, other parts were pinky-white. It was days from ripe.

We went out of town that weekend. We came back to find two ripe strawberries. They were a deep red, all the way through. They were almost too flavorful, their sugars densely mingled with essences of rich, mineral laden earth. Their seeds crunched loudly in my teeth.

On the 11th, I picked the dismembered parts of four  strawberries, with gouged out holes where crows had ripped them up. I threw three of them in the compost bucket. I carved up a tiny edible slice of the last one and savored it. It was so dense, the juices had to be coaxed out, tasting like the hot smell of beehives and honey dripping straight from the comb. I covered the bed with chicken wire to keep out further crows.

It rained all night and all the next day. After the rain, I crawled under the chicken wire through the wet dirt and harvested eight soggy strawberries. Two were grey with fungus. I sliced up the other six and sprinkled them with sugar. After an hour their watery juice had made a syrup that, spooned over shortcake, tasted exactly like something you would buy at a diner. Generic, sweet, addictive, but without the passionate terroir of the first few fruits.

The next day there were no ripe berries, and thereafter I followed a pattern of picking every other day. Sixteen berries, each bearing a tiny slug the size of a pencil point, embedded in a scooped out portion of flesh. The rest of the berry was firm, deep red, and tasted punchy and fermented, like werewolf berries bitten by a wild pineapple under a full moon.

Thirty two berries decorated with grass clippings from a mulching lawn mower. Sixty four berries that had gotten slightly over ripe and nearly purple when I missed a harvest due to illness. One hundred twenty eight berries, several of which grew partway through the chicken wire and were girdled so that only part of them ripened. I found myself idly speculating that strawberry plants are like a fruit tree with only the top and bottom and no trunk. I'm not sure what I was thinking about.

I had enough berries. I didn't need to count any more. I took off the wire. I could afford to share with the crows.

I could find the berry patch in darkness by the smell of strawberries, which is slightly heavier than air and hangs in a low cloud over the plants.

 I made strawberry jam. I baked a rich tart shell and filled it with berries. I sugared them and froze them for smoothies. I tic tac toed them into the crevices of waffles. I made a dessert pizza with strawberries and lashings of white chocolate, and then, inspired by my success, I made a dinner pizza with strawberry oregano sauce. It was a failure. I macerated strawberries with lemon basil, I stirred them into yogurt. My back hurt from crouching in the strawberry bed.

I woke up singing "Let me take you down" and not knowing why.

Then one day, instead of 1024 strawberries, I only had 512. The next day, just over two hundred, and pretty soon, I was down to zero. I felt like someone who had run a fever and was convalescing. I had that weak, woozy, happy feeling, but also that sad, back to the daily routine feeling. I miss strawberries.

Eating with the seasons seems to follow the stages of a youthful crush. First there's longing - waiting - hopelessness. Then the first sweet taste of fulfillment, and foreshadows of disappointment.

Then there's the building up toward knowing that it's real. Having enough.

That perfect moment of Rightness, when this is what you want, all that you want, and time is immaterial.
Then the cresting wave, and feeling overwhelmed, swept up, caught up - scared at how intense it is. The rest of your life feels like it's been put on hold to this unrelenting demand.

And then suddenly, the receding rush of it leaving you, over too soon. Maybe it was you (I'm always the one that does the breaking up with zucchini), or maybe it was the produce (the shell peas always leave me before I'm ready to say goodbye).

Then putting back together the other parts of life. Those year-round relationships, the kale, the chickens, are still there, and still need my attention.

The strawberry hulls go in the worm bin. There are bags of sugared berries in the freezer, but not the immediate rush of sunshine and growing things in seasons. Only now the raspberries are starting to ripen.

 Isn't it great that you know you can still get that excited? And that there will be a next time? Another year of strawberries. When one day I'm not there to enjoy it, at least this year was good.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

What they eat

Three ducks, ranging around eating mysterious things
Our three dacks produce about 18 eggs per week; not enough to supply the city of Seattle, nor even Burien. We do supply the handful of very devoted duck egg fans who have found us.

When people buy eggs or honey, or sample goat milk, they often ask if our animals' feed is organic. Since most of our customers visit Several Gardens Farm, I show them where the animals live.

The ducks free range during the day on 1/4 acre of mixed pasture and orchard. I've seen them eating slugs, bugs, lawn clippings, seed heads, undigested grain out of goat poop and unidentified stuff gleaned out of muddy or mulched over parts of the yard. They wash it down with water from a pond, a tub, and several buckets that are filled fresh every morning and turn to mud pits by dusk.
I offer them feed morning and night, and they often ignor it in their quest for foraged foods.

From this varied and a bit unappetizing diet come huge eggs with orange yolks that give us bright yellow cheesecake and omlettes that look like they have cheddar built in.

Wheat stockpiled from the '70's. 
To me their lives are clearly domestic animal heaven, but I can't honestly tell people that everything we feed them is organic.

We do purchase organic feed for all the animals, but they eat so many other things that it's only a small portion of their total diet.

A few months ago, I bought out a ton of old wheat that had been stored by a prepper in case of government collapse or some other disaster.

Stored in metal cans, with oxygen absorbers, it was extremely dry but otherwise in good condition. The seller guessed his mother had stocked it in the 1970's.

I grind it and mix it with alfalfa pellets, sunflower seeds and peas, and offer it to my animals who gobble it up gladly. We are all happy to keep it out of the waste stream and convert it into milk, eggs and compost. I hope to get many such bargains, and have no hesitation to use them, organic or not.
Then there's food scraps. Watermellon from a scout picknick, vegetable trimmings from the fruit stand, whey from making cheese, stale bread left after our volunteer work at Marra farm, pot scrapings from oatmeal or rice that stuck. None of these makes up a balanced diet, but the animals love them as extras.

Cosmo the rooster, would take a bullet for his beloved hens. He normally refuses to eat until they have finished, and calls them over for any foraged treats. But even he hides out when he has watermelon. It's just too good to share.

The goats share, although a bit reluctantly.

Chickens love grass seeds, like those ripening in the foreground here. They will jump up, craning their  necks to pull down a towering stem and strip it of seeds. Any feed that doesn't get eaten is apt to sprout and produce more food later in the season.
The grass stems may be too tough for the goats, or anyone else to digest. Sometimes I like to chew on them. They are mildly sweet but not much to write home about.

The leafy branches behind it, plum and fig, are both occasional treats for the goats. I will prune mid-summer and the goats will devour the leave and bark, leaving a few stemmy twigs behind.

That's our house in the background.

Above are goats eating mustard greens, and a mixed plot of potatoes and kale, food for man and beast. I don't feed raw potatoes to anyone, but when I cook them I almost always make a few extra as snacks for the animals. Goats, ducks and chickens converge on them.

The greens Gloria and her family are eating are mustard plants that have gotten too hot for us, but the goats don't mind. And the flowers (when goat aren't eating them) are a very good nectar source for bees.

Of course, alfalfa, scavenged wheat and produce, tree prunings and garden trimmings are not enough to guarantee a balanced diet. We also offer our animals some commercial diets: Pictured clockwise from the top are beet pulp pellets, oyster shell, which hens and ducks eat for calcium to make egg shells, organic feed, and mineral salt.

The goats also eat hay, which is one food I absolutely insist is either organically grown or at least not sprayed with herbicides. The last thing we want to do is compost the leftover hay and have it kill the  next crop of vegetables. Many gardeners have had that experience when mulching with conventionally grown hay and straw. Buyer beware!

I believe that to have a truly well fed animal means more than just providing the right nutrients in the right proportions. The animals at Several Gardens Farm need to make productive use of their time, just as the people do. Letting them forage for some of their food keeps their brains and bodies active. It gives them something to do other than fight with each other. It also gives me an excuse to let the plants go a little wild, and not to fight to hard at pest control. By not weeding too much, I provide enrichment. A small price to pay for what they ducks, hens, goats and bees provide for us.