Thursday, March 28, 2013

What a Difference A Day (or a Week) Makes!

Garden, Vernal Equinox 2013
 We know that the first day of spring here in Maine seldom looks very spring like. In fact this year we had recently had a significant snowfall, as you can see in the picture of the garden on the first official day of spring this year.

Garden, March 26, 2013.
A week later, though the overnight temperatures have been freezing that there have been only a few days of partial sun, the daytime temperatures have been beginning to have a decided effect on the snow covered garden. Though the ground is still frozen (you can see areas of standing water amidst the remaining snow) a glimmer of "mud season" is beginning to show.
Garden, March 27, 2013
Now, one sunny day later, there is a big difference to be seen! No real mud season yet, the ground was frozen mid-morning when I went to hand wash today, but we have had rain - not snow -- so we know the real beginning of spring, Mud Season, is on its way!
Celery seedlings and a few flowers are ready for "potting up."
The growing racks are getting crowded, and will be much more so before the first seedlings can start going outside. I really need to get the little greenhouse, which we bought as unassembled parts last year, up and running! And figure how to keep the chickens off the porch, where I will "harden off" the seedlings as soon as practical.

Brassicas, including two varieties of kale, and three varieties of lettuce seedlings under the lights.
I had better get busy making 2" soil blocks. Many of these seedlings need to be potted up to have more space for proper early growth.
"Savory Peeps" a friend dubbed these deviled eggs, made for a full moon potluck yesterday The hens and ducks know its spring and are giving us up to 6 eggs a day (not bad for 4 chicken hens and an equal number of she ducks.)
All work and no play is not good for anyone! In between painting hex signs ( just sent a small one off to a writer as a trade for an e-book for my Kindle and have another waiting for the primer to dry so I can draw the design) and plotting garden plans, I took time to let my inner Martha Stewart out to play and made these little deviled "chicks."
Moonset, the morning before she was full.
We did not get to see the full moon this cycle, but made do with this wonderful view of the setting moon on Tuesday morning about 4 Eastern Standard time, as I was leaving for work.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Celebrating Vernal Equinox 2012

Garden. Vernal Equinox 2013
 Earlier in the week, you honestly could tell there was a garden plot here. The bare, muddy earth was devoid of snow, though it had not yet begun to thaw.

Yesterday afternoon, however, an equinoctial storm began which over the course of the night and early morning deposited a good foot of snow across our part of central Maine. I parked the car at the road end of the driveway yesterday, expecting more than the Subaru could easily handle and knowing that I needed to be in town at 6 AM. I should have grabbed my snowshoes before taking flashlight in hand to begin my commute! We got a good foot of snow and some drifting. The town plow and filled the 5' deep area between the car and the road full up to the poor thing's "eyeballs." My tiny toy shovel that I had carried down with me threatened to break, but carefully and quickly I shoveled out the majority of the plow pile, taking tiny "bites" with the shovel at the pace of a crazed gerbil shredding paper. I was almost done when a neighbor on his way to work honked to alert me, put down the plow on the front of his pickup and swerved in to take one quick pass, clearing the remainder of the drive.  After that, the rest of the commute was a breeze.

While we don't have plants awakening for spring in the great outdoors, the forsythia that I brought in a couple of weeks ago chose today to begin opening their buds! So, on my altar at least, spring has sprung!

Giving new meaning to "kitchen garden..."
For our supper, in celebration of the turning of the wheel of the year, I prepared a chef's salad, including "baby greens" from the first bit of lettuce which I seeded in the planter the first of February. These lettuces will get seriously thinned and continue to grow  indoors. I have started the first batch of lettuce starts for the garden and will begin another round the end of the month. Lettuces are a plant that can stand a bit of frost, and I have even had 4" tall lettuce plants poking their heads out of a 3" late spring snowfall in Colorado. Neighbors commiserated with me, so they thought, over the "loss of my lettuce crop" (perhaps inwardly gloating, as  they had looked askance at my early planting date) only to be first surprised at my lack of concern and the by the lettuce continuing to thrive.

I toasted the change of the season with a glass of mead and tomorrow will seed cabbages and their kin. Spring IS on its way! Here in our part of Maine, our AVERAGE frost free date is May 15; snow in April is not uncommon, though it never sticks around long. Weather records indicate that we have had snow in mid-May. One must always stay in tune with the actual climate and weather conditions, and not forget the meaning of the word "average."

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Words for Snow

Sugar Snow, Corn snow, powder... no, not the %#$*&%$ that it seem most folks think when the forecast calls for solid white precipitation on the day before Vernal Equinox.

A bit ago, I wrote about how much I love the late winter snows. Yes, I also like the early spring ones, though we won't be there until tomorrow. I haven't had a chance to chat with my maple syrup making friends, but my guess is that this is what the old timers called the "sugar snow." Not that it looks or feels like either the granulated white, or fluffy powdered, sweetness on the grocers' shelves... no, it was named by those who tapped the trees to collect the sap that was a main source of sweet in the early days in the Northlands. After the sap starts to rise (and flow out the holes made through the tree bark, through the spigot securely embedded in each hole and drip down into the collection bucket for later boiling down into syrup or boiling farther into maple sugar) there is a limited window of time to collect sap. Once the tree is again filled with its life blood and ready to leaf and grow for another season, the flow stops. The cold weather accompanying a maple syrup season snowfall, sends the tree into reverse gear, I guess. "Gee, snow! Not time to grow yet" I guess it would be thinking, if trees thought as we do. Then, temperatures warm again and the flow begins again. The snow has lengthened the season, allowing for more sap to be collected, more syrup (and in these days, profit) for the farmer.

Corn snow, on another hand, does nothing to help nor hinder the growth of maize, which will not be planted for many weeks after the last snow has left and not until the ground is thoroughly warm. Corn snow is called for its texture; little pellets, resembling miniature Styrofoam beads comprise this snow. Not as wet as sleet, as solid and hard as hail, I think they may have been named for the smaller grains of other cereal crops in England rather than the larger grains of US corn. We often see it as the first flurry in the fall and a bit fell at the beginning of this equinoctial storm. It is caused by the snow melting and refreezing as it falls.

Powder snow, much beloved by skiers, I have not seen much of here in Maine, though I am quite familiar with the stuff from living on the Western Slope of Colorado. This light, fluffy snow one could almost call "dry." If the power was out and you needed to melt snow on the wood stove for its water, THIS would not be the snow you were wishing for! I have hung more than one load of wash on the line during a powder snowfall and the clothing easily got dry before enough snow fell on it to give it the least bit of dampness.

I also want to touch on the concept of equinoctial storms.  Equinoctial storms are storms popularly supposed to occur at the time of the spring and fall equinoxes. The manor snowfall happening today in Maine definitely
counts, though weather records show that storms are not more frequent or severe around the Vernal or Autumnal equinoxes than on other periods. The notion about equinoctial storms in one form or other dates back at least to 1748 and probably originated among seafaring people.

 I know, looking at weather records, that it is not at all unusual to have small accumulations of snow fall, in my area, through the middle of April. Our average frost free date is mid-May, but the data shows me that, in the past, we have had snowfall as much as 4" almost on that date! It surely makes farming fun, trying to out-guess the elements, doesn't it! So while some of us may feel that winter has gone on far too long, here in my neighborhood I know it can take a long time to wind down.

"Live each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and revel in the influences of each." So I enjoy this sugar snow, plan to contact a fellow farmer for a bit of syrup from his trees, and parked the car at the end of the drive when I came home from work this noon. My shovel and I will make short work of the berm the town plow throws in front of my wheels and we'll be off to work as usual tomorrow before dawn.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Great Cradle Caper

This is gonna be a tale, so grab yourself a cuppa coffee, or a glass of wine, sit down (by the fire, if you are up here in the Northlands with me, or in your most comfy slippers where ever) and make yourself comfortable.

Long ago, in a universe far from now in time and space, there was a girl who loved working with wood. She was, as she would come to say in later years "her father's only son." In truth, she was an only child, much loved by both father and mother and both of whom she delighted in following about and helping with their daily chores. Mom had been a nurse, but when she finally had a baby, she put career aside to nurse her family. Dad taught wood shop and drafting in high school and coached a variety of sports. The little girl had  been born with a serious defect in her heart, so she was not allowed to run or participate in the sports her father loved, but nothing prevented her from spending many hours with him in his shop, fetching tools, handing him nails and holding boards in position.

Eventually she became old enough to use power tools with his supervision and would accompany him to the shop at the school where he taught, which had a very well equipped wood shop. She had a bit of an artistic bent, loved books and wanted to make a book case of her very own. Her dad thought this would be a good first project and allowed her to draw the design herself. When it was done, he helped her select a proper quantity of wonderful birds eye maple. This was not exactly the typical material for a first project, even if it was a major one, but nothing was too good for his girl.

Soon the bookcase was built and finished; dad supervised and instructed but it was his daughter's plan and work. The structure had deeper shelves at the bottom for larger, heavier hard back books and more narrow and slightly more closely spaced shelves at the top to hold her large library of paperbacks. Each shelf extended a bit beyond the vertical side of the structure, with a rounded protrusion that she intended to use to display bric-a-brac, such as her small collection of china tea cups and saucers and china figurines.

She used the book case for year after year;. Though she had built it as a young teen, her father's suggestion of material and construction advise had helped her make something that was extremely strong and durable. It was, however, not pretty. As time wore on, in fact, she began to think of it as ugly. And it was ungainly, taking up far too much space; with it's bric-a-brac "wings" it was a dusting nightmare and eventually she decided it's days were done.

Never ones to be wastey, she gave the case to her father, with her blessing to reuse the wood as he saw fit.
I'm not at all sure where this all fits on a mundane time line, as it did happen, as I said early on, in a universe far away in time and space. But suffice it to say, her dad held onto that wood. Birdseye maple, as with many of the fine woods, was becoming far too costly to use on just ordinary projects.

In the summer of 1975, a wonderful thing happened! The girl -- who had become a woman quite a few years earlier -- became with child! As she was planning and plotting and preparing for the arrival of her first baby she decided that she needed a cradle, not a crib. This idea of putting a baby in a bed that resembled a cage just didn't feel right. She was planning to nurse her young one, and figured that it would likely be in bed with her and its dad quite often, but the thought of rocking it to sleep had its own appeal. Little did she know, at that time, that much of that rocking would be done with baby in her arms, at the breast, as she sat in her trusty rocking chair! She also wanted something much larger than the typical baby cradle. She wanted something that Baby could sleep in for a year or two, something low to the ground and safe, so that s/he could, when older, crawl safely in or out of bed without the danger inherent in trying to scale the high sides of a typical crib.So she asked her dad, Baby's grandpa-to-be, to design and build something suitable.

And he did. He built a low, long cradle, using the maple from the World's Ugliest Bookcase. He made the center part of the rockers round, so that it had a nice rock-a-bye and the ends of the rockers which protruded past the side of the cradle the grandfather-to-be made completely flat. When the cradle was tilted to the side, like a toddler might do to climb out, it was completely stable and would not tip over! (The mother-to-be proved this to herself after the birth by balancing on the side of the cradle, barefoot, with it rocked onto the rocker, while she installed a lightbulb in a ceiling fixture overhead!)

There was not enough wood to make the sides, though and Grandma-to-be said that using wooden dowels for the sides would not be safe because Baby could get a hand or foot caught. The cradle had to be finished and so he used Masonite (not the prettiest of materials) to complete the sides. The size of the cradle required a custom made mattress so Grandma got busy with a piece of foam rubber, waterproof fabric and her trusty Singer sewing machine. She hemmed flannel for sheets and they delivered the cradle to their delighted daughter.

Good Fortune, Earthly Blessings
Now, daughter had been taught the traditional art of the Pennsylvania Dutch hexeri by her grandmother and she knew that the baby needed to be surrounded by blessings. So she set to work, painting a traditional blessing design on both the foot and head boards of the cradle. On the foot she painted the basic hex rosette, a blessing of good fortune, but instead of the usual 6 petals, she used eight, to ground the blessing on the earthly plane.

The, on the inside of the head board, she painted the traditional "Benevolent Protection for All Things Great and Small.She painted the date 3/3/1976 next to the sign on the foot board only 2 weeks before Baby was born.

The cradle happily held baby Trina, who was followed in turn by m'Elaine, Talitha, Amanda Rose and Halley Amor each about 2 and a half years after the previous sister.

During these years the cradle moved from the farm in Colorado to town in Wisconsin to an intentional community in Washington state. It held dolls for a while, after Halley out grew it as a bed and then was relegated to storage. It did its time in damp root cellars, dark storage units, and standing on end in a garage.  Oregon, Texas, North Carolina, Maine ... the cradle waited patiently though time took its toll and the mattress passed into the realm of "things whose time has passed.". The "babies" who had laid within its embrace grew to young women and became mothers of their own, with their own homes, families and styles. The cradle was big, didn't fit into the homes or plans.

The girl, then Mom, now Grandmother became known far and wide for her hex painting art work. Now and then -- often when trying to make space in the crowded garage -- she would consider what to do about the cradle. It was made (mostly) of excellent wood, embellished with her art and she wondered if selling it on her web site or Ebay would be appropriate. The answer always came back NO, so it got moved into another place in the garage, set on wood to protect the foot board and the cavity filled with a different assortment of storage boxes.

Then, as often does in life, change came to the daughter who inspired the cradle's creation. A new husband and -- surprise -- a 4th baby on the way! The girl-turned-grandmother was sad that she had not been able to attend the wedding of most of her girls, nor see their babies or the babies-who-are-not-babies-now. There was work, poverty, health... life ... getting in the way as it does when families spread over wide distances sometimes. Something nudged... intuition, or inspiration, or maybe desperation to clean up the garage... and the girl-turned-grandmother offered the cradle again to her daughter and to her delight and surprise Daughter said YES!

However, there was the matter of a mattress... sheets... and most difficult of all, getting the cradle from Maine to Utah when there was not time, money nor a vehicle suitable for the trip. The cradle would have to be shipped, but shipper after shipper said it was too big or quoted prices higher than a month's mortgage payment! Eventually someone suggested FedEx and, surprisingly, they offered a quote that, although high, was within reach. They would not ship something an antique though, nor an heirloom they said. Nothing irreplaceable. The cradle would need a secure crate to protect the not-antique-heirloom in transit, but would not cost too much to build and add too much cost to the project.

Foam was acquired; mattress cover fabric that had been bought years before was brought out of storage and assembled. A trip to the fabric store for flannel brought the delightful surprise of a 60% off sale! And even the 2x3s for the bones of the crate were not too costly. There were two sheets of wimpy, warped plywood in the garage that would skin the crate. And so the cradle was measured and construction began two days ago.

Day 1 - Measurement of the cradle and construction of the crate bottom.
 Day 2 - construction of the sides - not shown
Day 3 - First attach sides attach to bottom...
Day 3 - sides attach to bottom part 2

Day 3 - Insert cradle and close in!

I painted the address on the crate.
 I addressed the crate to Baby in care of Mom and Dad and added a piece of paper inside, just in case there were issues, with the address as well as cell phone numbers for Mom and Dad.
Loaded in Artie for the trip to FedEx, late afternoon.

The way it fits in that crate, it probably won't matter if they turn it on its side or even upside down, but it will be easier for them to get it open and out if they start with the cradle sitting on its rockers! The entire thing is screwed (NOT scewed-and-glued!) together and I'll send instructions with suggestions as to which screws to remove first.

That is one solid crate and I am halfway wishing that I had a "bounceback" spell to put on it! I can think of tons of uses for it on the farm! I am hoping that the Utah crew will either find a use for it, or at least find a use for the lumber and hardware.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Spring Planting... sort of...

Today was the date for my second scheduled round of seed starting. On the list to be seeded were lettuces, but I didn't check my planting schedule first and my intuition has been saying "time to seed brassica" for a few days, so I mixed up enough potting medium for three trays of 3/4" soil blocks and figured that would be a good start.

PHOTO 1 - compressing potting mix
into the block maker.
This is the under side of the block
maker, filled with potting mix.
Let me digress for a moment, though, from the thoughts of planting to share a realization that came to me as I was popping out blocks for the second tray. "This is NOT hard work!" If you have never made soil blocks, this is not going to mean much to you. This is a simple little device that you push down into a container of rather soggy planting mix, compressing the mix solidly into the block maker, like so (photo 1)

PHOTO 2: Squeeze the handle
and lift gently; the blocks
stay behind in the tray.
Squeezing the handle pushes the little blocks of soil out, into place in the tray (photo 2).  Repeat 20 times or so to fill a tray.

This is my third planting season using the block maker. Last year, though, my only thoughts while doing this was "drudgery, damn... hard.... why did I ever try this idea!" At this time last year, though, I apparently was still full in the effect of a nearly fatal bout of anemia. It was being treated and I thought, at times, that I was regaining my strength and gumption, but apparently those who wrote that it takes a year to recover from this condition were right. This year the process was effortless, muddy and fun!

Transferring the most tiny seeds is
best done with a damp toothpick.
After making the blocks, of course they need to be planted. It is optimal to have only one plant... or possibly in the case of slow growing herbs, a couple, in each little cube. Most seeds I pick up, one at a time, with my trusty pointy-end tweezers. The baby block makes puts out 20 little cubes, so I plant 20 seeds of each variety. The very tiny ones (celery counted in this category when I planted them last month, and chamomile and snapdragons for sure this time around) are best planted by dampening the end of a toothpick and touching that to a few of the tiny seeds. Rubbing the pick gently on the soil block will transfer the seeds. The only hard part, when the seeds are small and dark, is remembering which cubes are done and which are not!

Herb seeds have just started to grow!
I really like plating this way, and transferring my started seedlings to the garden rather than direct seeding for many of the crops that will tolerate such handling for several reasons. I am a bit of a control freak, and that figures in, but mostly it's because I hate to waste seed... thinning crops before they can be eaten HURTS, even in the thinnings are choice morsels for the  bunnies and fowl. Each one of those baby plants is alive and as a witch, I see all life as sacred. I would also much rather keep the weeds from growing with mulch than have to hoe or pull them!

Today I seeded 20 each of the following:
Black Seeded Simpson
cardinale batvian
Green Ice Leaf
heirloom cutting mix baby
Parris Is Cos
Red Salad Bowl
Royal Oak Leaf
Salad Bowl
Sea of Red
Speckled Amish Bibb
Summertime Iceberg
Summer Mix
Waldmann's Dark Green
Webb's Wonderful head
Wild Garden
Wild Garden
 Rubine Brussels Sprouts
 Calabrese sprouting
Broccoli de rapa
Hybrid Broccoli Blend
Martha Stewart Calabrese sprouting
Danish Ballhead
Golden Acre
Quick Start Cabbage
Red Express
Early Snowball
Snow Crown
Candid Charm

kohlrabi Early White 55

Cool colors zinnia
red scarlet zinnia
tetra ruffled snapdragon
calendula alpha
calendula resina
bodegold chamomile
sweet marjoram
giant of Italy parsley

Saturday, March 2, 2013

I'll Take It!

THIS is what my soul says winter is supposed to be like. Snow, gently falling for days on end, wet enough to cling to trees and bushes but not so heavy as to break the limbs before the tree can shed the load, throwing snowballs on passers-by. Temperatures cold, but not so frigid as to make one expect to have to thaw the fire out before starting it in the morning. Wind, mild to none so the snow stays put where it wanted to land, giving a soft blanket to the earth.

So what if it comes in March. March, this part and the majority of the month at least, still lies within the natural bounds of winter. It will be nearly three weeks yet until the equinox tips the scale of the seasons toward the warm, and light, part of the year. This winter has been strange, with wild fluctuation of bitter cold and unseasonable warmth, heavy blowing snows that left large bare patches on the fields and rain... yes rain, in winter, in Maine. Mother seems to be having symptoms of menopause. And until this recent bit of weather, I have felt unsatisfied and "off." Even the blizzard/nor'easter didn't really help much. But this... these days of overcast with snow falling then pausing briefly before retuning once again... well, I can say now that when the season turns, the mud comes to stay, and the sap rises (perhaps this stirring of change has already begun?)and the buds swell, I will welcome spring from a happy place.

Meanwhile, here on the farm, the first seedlings are germinating and the early spring lettuce, which will grow to eating size under the lights, is beginning to show its proper form.

I'll be starting the cabbages and their kin soon, and the first lettuces for transplanting outside once the soil has dried a bit and warmed above freezing.

In the hex world, there is a Natural Balance 3' sign ready to ship and I shall soon begin work on a Nordic Blessed Year, offered in trade to an author who shared the Kindle version of his book with me. I have several custom signs in the works and hope to complete a rework of the web site this month, Gods willing.