Saturday, July 2, 2022

I have a bad habit of collecting fleeces.

 July brings the Tour de France and the Tour de Fleece.  Spinners and other fiber folk have for some time had an event that runs concurrently with the Tour de France bicycle race. Some folks group together in teams and compete with other teams to see how much yarn they can spin in the 3 week event. The spinners are suppose to spin on the days the cyclists ride and rest when they do and usually are on the honor system to report their production, in weight or yardage. Knitters and those who crochet can also set project goals and work along and this year I am joining with a different focus.

I have a bad habit of collecting fleeces. Back before I had sheep, I "cornered the market" in free fleeces. Any time I say mention of someone giving away a sheep fleece, I jumped on it like fleas on a dog and soon had a virtual flock in my back room. Getting them washed, carded and ready to spin mostly did not happen and eventually I hauled many huge bags to a commercial mill near by and got it turned into roving to spin. Which I did, at least some. 

 I was overjoyed when they had been dropped off at the mill. The room was empty! It totally did not track in my brain that, eventually most of it would come back as roving, to haunt me. LOL

L to R Major Tom, Enterprise, Rigby
I spun, shared, sold a bit and in the end, gave it away as I began accumulating fleeces from my Icelandic crew, Rigby, Major Tom and Enterprise. Icelandic sheep are sheared twice a year, in case you did not know. Two fleeces per sheep per year.

Yeah, it addes up. 

I have no idea how many fleeces I have but I have declared my goal for the Tour to be preparing them to take to a wonderful small mill in the western part of the state that I like, Underhill Farm.

Getting fleece ready to be processed into roving -- a  long and narrow bundle of fiber from which one spins -- is not just a matter of giving the sheep a buzz cut (like cutting your hair, it does not harm the sheep) and throwing it in a bag. I suppose one could do that, but most mills these days expect the shepherd to remove anything that we do not want in the yarn. Such foreign matter can include bits of hay (especially in a spring fleece), cocleburrs and other weed seeds (fall fleece after a summer on pasture), and since the whole sheep is sheared, bits of poo. Sometimes the shearer needs to make a "second cut" to get the fleece left on the animal even and chose shorter bits of fleece are not able to be spun and need to be removed, as well as any bit of fleece the the sheep has felted by rubbing up against a feeder or such. This is called "skirting" because much of the less desirable bits are found around the outside of the fleece, when it is intact and nicely laid out.

Wool, you see, tends to hang together, both because of the lanolin in the wool and the nature of the hairs as well. When a sheep is properly sheared, the fleece can be rolled up in one piece and then unrolled to look much like a pelt, minus the hide. So the "skirt" is  around the outside, from the wool underneath the sheep, up around the neck, down under the other side and then back around the tail. You can see where there might be some sheep droppings caught up in a long coat.

So, for my Tour challenge this year, I will be finding and skirting all of the white, brown and black fleeces that are lurking in my back room. Hopefully I can get done in time to grab a friend for a road trip to deliver them to the mill.

...while still tending, weeding, picking and mulching the garden (I brought home 24 bales of straw today, to begin the mulching), sending meat chickens to "freezer camp" two at a time, putting by spinach and -- soon == peas, caring for the critters and getting the second batch of "nuggets" as we call the baby meat chickens, started enough to transition to outside.

Wish me luck!

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Chick, chick, chick

Newly arrived by post, the "Nuggets" spring
crop of Freedom Rangers find the food.

I have never done two flocks of meat chickens in a single year before, but it is happening this year. Our first flock of "Nuggets" as we jokingly call them, arrived the end of April and I expect to begin processing them -- starting with the largest ones and continuing over several weeks -- this coming weekend. This was a cold spring, there were "bird dogs" to deal with and we struggled early on to keep them warm enough. The large plastic dog crate did not lend itself to use of our usual heat lamp set up and the electric heater we bought was woefully inadequate. We lost more chicks that in all previous years put together, leaving barely two dozen in the flock that I had hoped to grow out and process before the bird flu, which we were warned about this year, spread to our area... which was why I started so early.

It worked, I guess, for the survivors, at least. There have been no more deaths since we got the birds set up on the back porch, in two totes, under lights, like we used to do. The electric mesh fence and their tarp-wrapped "tent" of chicken wire on a wood frame has kept any predators at bay while they ranged, during the day, and grew.

Despite the cost of feed, which has increased dramatically like everything else, I would still rather have my own birds in my freezer than trust "the economy" and the supply chain -- though the bird I bought at farmers market to celebrate the solstice was delicious. So I did some budget magic (I will be making sure that the electric payment does not arrive at its intended destination before my next social security payment arrives this weekend) and ordered birds last week, to ship today. They will arrive Thursday morning and I will hit the post office well before they are open to collect the critters. Which reminds me I need to stop by today, pick up mail from the PO box and give them a heads-up. They have not yet got the memo that, since I ordered them and have a tracking number, I KNOW when they will arrive and will be there. The lack of a telephone number still causes them to panic.

I am hoping that the nights, which these days are only dropping to 50 degrees, will not be too cold for the little dudes if I use the plant heat mat under their litter. I am also planning to order a heating pad that does NOT shut off, but it will not arrive until after the long weekend. I am also considering digging out one of the free-standing light sockets that I use under the sink cabinets in the master bath in the winter to help keep the water from freezing, and putting that in their crate as well, to add heat. I have incandescent bulbs, and even a red heat lamp bulb, I think, if it will work in the thing. May use too many watts, though. I will check, as I have a couple of days to get this set up.

Fergie tire for reference
Today, I will focus on a bit of laundry -- including washing two electric heated throws by hand -- and weed. Unless Tractor Guy decides that the ground is solid enough, after our bit of rain yesterday, to begin the process of removing the flat tire from Fergie.These tires are heavy, made especially so by being filled with beet juice (the weight is for extra traction) and we need to get it off the tractor and loaded into Artie for a trip to the tire store. Wish us luck!


Monday, June 27, 2022

...a Little Rain MUST Fall

 "Into each life a little rain must fall." While this line is well known (though often misquoted as I have done) the author, American singer and songwriter Doris Fisher, is almost forgotten now. She wrote and performed in the 1940s. For your musical history moment today, I share this rendition, by the Ink Spots, a popular vocal group of that day.

I am sharing this, this morning, as background to a brief discussion of "unremitting sunshine", the cloudless sky that greeted me upon arising this morning, and my feeling twinges of my old friend, summertime SAD (seasonal affective disorder). While it is culturally, at least here in the USA, a "thing" to joy in day after day of bright, hot sunny quintessential summer weather and to consider rainy days "bad" weather, I -- for one -- am badly affected by this weather. When, after receiving medical treatment, which helped resolve my long term depression as a younger woman, I began noticing that it wanted to return the next year -- for which I was also treated -- and then again after at... at about the same time of year. I had been warned that this was a phenomenon and to seek counseling to help locate and resolve the trigger.

I did not go that route, and when, in the second year, my trial of St. John's Wart tea as a therapeutic tool was successful, I began harvesting, drying and keeping the herb on hand. It did not take too many years for me to make note of the timing of the recurrences. My depression happened every year during the hot, dry month(s) of late summer.

I was aware of the traditional winter SAD, often treated by light therapy and began researching what I considered its flip season kin but at that time the only references I could find were for the winter variety in the southern hemisphere!

My struggles with this issue came to a peak while living Down East, on the coast of North Carolina. One memory, in particular, is literally burned into my psyche.

In that location, even with the "ocean breeze" that supposedly cools things off in the evening, once summer hits, it truly never felt comfortable to me. I live for open windows in the appropriate seasons (which includes summer!) and the gentle movement of air through the house, the sounds of bird song, neighborhood dogs and even passing cars as the "background music" for my day, inside or out. I have not often been one to keep a radio or -- Gods help me, a television -- running for background sound.

The morning I am remembering, I had got up early and made a cup of iced coffee. I was still in the kitchen standing by the kitchen window, as something outside had caught my attention as I sipped my cold brew and enjoyed the relative cool of the early morning. The window looked east and my view, such as it was, was of the community fire station across the street. As I stood there, the sun rose over the fire house and struck my bare arms and upper chest. I literally stepped back, reacting to the the feeling of being attacked by the beams of the rising sun.

I brewed a pot of St. John's Wart tea and immediately began my routine of 3-4 cups spread through the day. If I recall, it took a week or so for me to feel close to normal again. That was my reality for the time I lived in NC, until I moved to Maine.

I have been here since 2008 -- August, to be exact -- and yes, that year I was on my herbal routine. But I have not had to do the whole three times a day herbal treatment since I arrived. I do keep the herb on hand and on occasion brew up a pot or two, but since moving north -- despite the longer days here this time of year (1 hour, 6 minutes, to be exact, at solstice).

So, I think it is not so much day length that triggers my depression, but what I call unremitting sunshine. Sun, un-tempeed by clouds. Unbroken by rainy days. I do not feel quite the same about days with a high overcast -- filtered sunshine -- or those summer days I call "Microsoft skies" -- filled with white, puffy clouds. And the heat does not help either.

How did I get to this train of thought today? I went to bed looking forward to a rainy day! I had been hoping for a good rain, but sadly watched the predicted accumulation drop through the day yesterday. What I DID NOT expect, though, was to wake up to bright sun and not a cloud in sight! That just hit me like a ton of bricks as I walked out to the garden in my robe to move the hose to water the last row in the garden...where I am nursemaiding some perennials for a friend who ran out of time this spring to plant them before they died.

The irrigation is running and now, thankfully, the sky has clouded up. I think it will be a good day.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Not everyone is a fan of summer

 If it was not necessary for growing food, I would gladly consider plots to eliminate summer. I am not a fan. Hot weather and the super long days have vexed me all of my adult life. Thinking back, it is hard to believe that I voluntarily went outside in temperatures up to 114 degrees F while visiting kin in the sand hills of Nebraska as a teen. And no, boys were not the lure. My aunt's house had air conditioning, and even then I did not like it. I still do not like it -- and have never used it in any home of my own, despite being plagued by the heat of summer. In fact, I have had at least one case of heat exhaustion in the last three states where I have lived (TX, NC and, yes, even Maine.)

I moved to Maine "for the climate" I say... imagining summer days eventually warming the lakes sufficiently for those who enjoy such pursuits to swim... maybe in August. Wearing flannels to drink my morning coffee, in June -- like earlier this month -- does not feel out of line.

But then the whammy comes. Is it climate change or simply a misapprehension, as when living in the Pacific northwest, I learned that "it's always damp, cloudy and rainy here" was a myth perpetrated by the locals to keep visitor numbers in check?  We are not even close to leaving June behind and our high temperature reached 91 here on the farm yesterday. TFH and I am thankful that I had planned a "do nothing" (but the ritual dump run) day for my body to recover a bit from the aggressive gardening of the previous two days.

I literally did nothing most of the day, and after returning from the dump, did more nothing, but with fewer clothes on, sitting by a window with the breeze and a fan attempting to work their magic. Typically, once the heat hits, it takes my body weeks for the sweating response to kick in. This odd phenomenon does tend to make me uncomfortable and it is also part of the reason I eschew air conditioning. I NEED to sweat; that is the body's natural cooling method and hiding from the heat only prolongs my misery. I suppose I should be glad that, while doing evening chores -- before the sun had dropped below the western tree line -- I had sweat literally running down my face. One day in to the heat... this is unheard of for me.

I am anxiously waiting and watching for the sun to move back south a bit. This year I want to mark how long it takes, past the solstice, for the setting sun to return to the solid bank of trees to the west. When it sets behind their bulk, I can do evening chores earlier and this means supper, which I start after chores, will be earlier in the evening. As it is now, we often do not finish our evening meal until quite late. Where the sun sets at present is directly behind the sheep area, as seen from the house, and that means that chores start with me walking, squinting, directly toward the setting sun to feed the wooly bullies, bring them in from pasture and turn off the electric fence so I can safely access the Nuggets to feed and water their quickly maturing carcasses.

The real issue is not where the sun sets, though, but the gap in the tree line and the scraggly top of the single conifer behind which it currently attempts to hide. Just a few degrees to the left -- south -- the tree line becomes a solid wall of green, effectively making for a much earlier twilight in the barnyard. Eventually we will get there, and even though that does not have any actual effect on the air temperature, it will feel cooler to my mind.

Strange how bodies work, eh?

Now, for the first time this summer, I am heading out to the garden FIRST. Before jumping most of my medical hoops, before critter chores and definitely before breakfast. I need to move the water hose and get the irrigation going again, but first it will be time to check to potato plants for bugs and, with luck, to do some more weeding, in an attempt to complete weeding of the onion rows, and make the last picking of spinach.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

The Rituals of Daily Life

40 yards of hand spun linen yarn
Yesterday, as I spent time at the spinning wheel, turning two thin bits of linen yarn into this thicker, two-ply version, I sat and meditated with Frigga in my mind's eye. My Lady of Fensalir, Goddess who is said to "spin the battle from afar" was my focus, but the news of the day was on my mind. Among Her many attributes, she is know to "give comfort and solace in childbirth" and she was also known as a goddess of frith, which is a combination of peace and social order. As the wife of Odin (the All-Father), she,, the great Mother, sat in his stead on the high throne of Asgard and fulfilled all of the duties thereof . There are connections here. 

As I spun and talked with Her, I called on Her to lend her attention to here and now, and thanked her for her continued presence as my Patron and for her wisdom, strength and support.

And as I spun... more accurately plyed the yarn previously spun... I thought about the other task still awaiting me: Digging the trench for the replacement potatoes and the planting there of.

Gardening literally grounds me. It always has. And now we read of research showing contact with a kind of benign bacteria in soil improves mood by altering the gut-brain connection. But my rambling thoughts went down another trail, reminding me that even our most mundane tasks -- the (lower case R) rituals of daily life can be transformed into Rituals, with a capital R and power as well, by the conscious addition of true Intent.

Now I go back to the garden, with a mattock (pick axe with wide blade.) I will be making a furrow to plant the replacement potatoes but there will be *intent* in every swing as I "dig up the dirt" and plant anew. The "old ones" (those these particular spuds that did not grow are only stand-ins) are dead and gone. And from the bucket and bags of "yesteryear" (and the work of my own hands last year)_ will come forth a new crop, to feed us here. And with my swinging of one of my favorite garden tools to work off what I am thinking and feeling, and bring forth food to sustain us for the coming year, you can bet your sweet bippy that there will be spell work being done. Again and still, and again and still as needed.

It's how I roll. And today's monthly, waning moon task is another of the household rituals made sacred: the taking out of the trash to the dump. I know there is no real "away" (as in "throw it away") and have been working on trash minimization protocols for years. Part of my process includes considering packaging as equal in importance to the actual product being bought. Less is more. Recycleable is better than not (though these days that is seriously a concern as much of it is NOT being re-used) and where possible, re-used until it is in shreds or more. We take one can a month and it's not the biggest that could be bought and the trash goes into bags that come into the house as packaging. I will not buy plastic bags just to throw things away. Today there will be a bit more, as I have some old wood and metal from around the farm clean up to go away; both those go into different piles at the dump and not into the landfill. Once a month, close before the dark moon is the timing and the Ritual is to clean up and make order to allow for more blessings to flow in, with the turn of the moon. And since we do not want for much, I say it works.

What rituals can become Rituals in your life?

Friday, June 24, 2022

Of Spuds -- Still -- and Fiber (no not the dietary kind)

Seed 'taters, soon to be planted

 It's Friday and the day dawns with loads of meaning for many workers who are looking forward to the next two days off work -- the weekend. The concept has permeated (or infected) our entire culture. Work hours and days truly have never been that uniform, I do not think, though I will say that may just be based in my personal experience. I grew up with a mom who was an RN and a teaching dad and for them, as well as the kids shift-working dad -- and myself also when I was working as a temp == all bets were off. Many factories run two, or even three shifts, day in and day out. Truckers work until their load is delivered. And goodness knows, our desire for immediate gratification cannot abide a day when commerce is not available for our participation.

Here at hex central, under the sign of the Fussing Duck (figuratively at least... I do need to paint such a sign some day, I guess, if I am going to continue to write this) while this day has special meaning, the following two a just ordinary days. Farming -- even when "just" for subsistence and not for profit -- is like that. In my world, Friday is devoted -- or at least should be -- to the Goddess Frigga, my patron (matron?) in the northern pantheon. She who loves spinning and fiber arts, who is friend of the Norns and keeps them close and uses spinning as a way to (or metaphor for) reaching out beyond her immediate presence. But I have been seduced by the needs of the garden of late and have not sat at a wheel, or picked up a spindle, on her day to commune with Her. That needs to change.

I am also being tempted by the call of the Tour de Fleece (a fiber lover's event that runs concurrently with the famed Tour de France bicycle race, which starts next Friday.) I have played in that world in the past, and it is calling me once again. To participate, one sets a goal for the three week period and works toward the goal every day that the cyclists are riding. They -- and we participants -- do get rest days from time to time. In the past I have spun, but I think this year IF I participate, my goal will be to skirt all the fleeces I have on hand and  be prepared, by the last day of the race, to take them to my favorite mill, Underhill Fibers,  to be washed and prepared into roving.

That being laid out in my mind, I still need to think about today. My spud project is not quite complete. I have a single pot full that needs to be processed and frozen. I need to bag up the spud pieces I froze yesterday and I need to plant and water the well started seed 'taters that I separated from the pack, which will require finishing the weeding of the alleged russet row. I have my work there cut out for me!

Two bobbins, partially filled
with linen yarn

 I also intend to spend a little time at the spinning wheel. I have two bits of flax spun and want to ply them together and then (probably) crochet a bit with the final yarn. This project comes about because I will be moving away from the plastic "rooster clips" as I call them that I have been using to contain my hair. The kind I like (small and understated) seem to be no longer made and -- well -- they are, after all, plastic. for years I wore my hair in a twist, held in place by a single large bobby pin or a skewer through a bit of leather, after I found such a thing that fit the amount of hair that I had. Now, there is less volume and I suspect this may be a continuing changing issue, so I am thinking that an oval of crocheted linen yarn would allow me to adjust the stick (a repurposed orange stick from the cosmetic isle works well) as needed. Thinking linen because (a) I have a wee bit that I have managed to spin and I could use it and show it off! LOL and (b) it is much less likely to stretch even as much as cotton might. But I have never piyed with linen. I wonder, do I do it with wet fingers like when spinning the fiber? Time will tell and the barnyard and garden is calling!

Thursday, June 23, 2022

All About the Spuds....

Because you know he's all about the spuds 'Bout the spuds, no trouble
He's all 'bout the spuds, 'bout the spuds, no trouble
He's all 'bout the spuds, 'bout the spuds, no trouble
He's all 'bout the spuds, 'bout the spuds... (to the tune of All About that Bass)

 Those of you following along at home may remember our awesome and overwhelming and still-being-eaten-from-fresh-storage bumper crop of potatoes harvested last fall. And I recently mentioned this year's planting had very poor germination. I did not realize quite how bad the determinate varieties start was. As I was weeding yesterday, I found exactly three plants in nearly 25 feet of row! At this point, with as much row yet to weed, that indicates nearly one forth of the crop will not happen.

I was thinking on this issue while I weeded yesterday and am sad to say it took me nearly all my weeding session to come up with a solution, in the form of some of the already sprouting potatoes in the storage area. They are only now beginning to get soft, so I had them on my mind for an indoor day project -- namely getting a bunch more washed, peeled, diced, blanched and frozen. I was thinking ahead to a lean potato year from what I was seeing, and not seeing, in the garden. And I am going to give them a shot at helping solve the problem in another way, too.

Is it "too late" to plant potatoes here? Honestly, I do not know. I suspect it may be too late for a crop of decent size bakers, but likely some of that will be determined by the weather this fall. Spuds do not like it cold and as our cold spring may have contributed to the failure to germinate, perhaps a long, warm autumn will allow for more growth. But in any case, small 'taters are better than no 'taters -- heck some folks even pay premium prices for them as a gourmet item! A fact that I will try to remember this winter when I am inclined to cuss the extra work of small potatoes, if they happen.

So, I will finish weeding later this afternoon, after Tractor Guy gets back from his good deed trip to town (carrying a neighbor to a doctor's appointment) to ride herd on the dogs, so I can concentrate and loose myself in the weeding  and then planting of the spuds I will prepare this morning.

And I probably will be singing "All about the spuds..." while I work.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

The Solstice Garden - Future Abundance


Young tomato plant, June 21
The garden did not get much work yesterday, on the solstice. Instead, I took myself to a nearby farm, which offers pick your own strawberries, as that season has finally begun. It was more of a challenge than usual to pick a mess of berries for supper with some left to freeze. The late, cold spring has affected much of the spring growth, but here in the Northlands, this holiday always marks only the beginning of the season. The lush drawings and photos that appear in so many greeting memes do not represent our northern reality, only our hope. 

It is almost time to begin tying strings to the tomato trellis, though, to begin my annual session of "tomato bondage" which supports the plants and keeps the fruit off the ground to avoid rot in the late summer and fall harvest time. 

Peas plants find the trellis.

The pea plants that share the trellis area with the tomatoes, have found their hand-knotted bailing twine net and are happily climbing. One variety is just beginning to blossom; the other has yet to start. I have never actively tried to make the local garden goal of "peas by the Fourth of July" and it's a good thing. Otherwise I would face yearly disappointment, often at the hands... er... mouths of the deer. This year, I managed to get the fence up before they found the pea plants. Instead they feasted on my ready-to-harvest big second crop of spinach and tasted the potato plants instead. So there will be peas for supper and to freeze. Just not quite yet. 

There are some spuds in
there somewhere!

And as for those potatoes, I give you, left, a before and after pic of the weeding and mulching in process. Kudos if you can even find the 'tater plants in that right hand row! I assure you that, unfortunately, you are not overlooking much. That is my row of Elba and Caribou Russet that I have yet to weed, mound and mulch and the germination was terrible. In the row that has been mulched, you see Dark Red Norland and Vivaldi, early and mid-season varieties, that are doing much better.

After last year's super abundant bumper crop of spuds -- yes, we are still eating them and I am hoping to get more of them peeled, blanched and frozen before they totally go by -- soon -- to help offset what I fear will be a very poor showing this year. 

Young squash plant

The "vine crops" as I call my array of squash, pumpkin, melon and cucumber plants at the south end of the garden, have been holding their own through these past cold nights. As you can probably see, the entire area (plants are spread about 5-6 feet apart) need a hoe job and hopefully will get one in the next few days. I also have plans to lay down mulch -- probably cardboard covered by mulch hay -- in the next few weeks. I located a decent deal on the hay (and yes, I use hay as straw is much more costly here even in normal times) when I stopped by a large feed supplier yesterday to check for mulch hay, which he did not have. He did offer to sell me feed hay, but I demurred because of the price. Honestly I was not trying to negotiate a better deal, just sitting on a bucket in the shade chatting with the dude and petting the resident dogs, when he offered to drop the price a dollar a bale. It is honestly still too high, but then what isn't these days! But I will get some probably the end of the week.

young watermelon plant
I share these weed garden pix because (a) that IS what my garden actually looks like and (b) to assure everyone that your garden need not look like something out of a magazine to provide you with lots of good food.

Yes, being able to find the vegetables helps, and reducing weed pressure allows the vegetables to claim more sunlight, water and soil nutrients. At the same time, the soil likes to be covered and weeds can help the bugs you don't want by giving them something else to eat and giving cover to the bugs you do want, so they can find and eat the others. However, if your garden weeds get away from you over time, do not just walk away from the garden and consider yourself a failure. One of my first gardens here did just that. I thought it had produced little, but when the frosts came and much of the weed cover died, I was surprised to find -- previously hidden in the solid green weeds, but then showing strongly against the dead grasses and other cover -- a full row of wonderful carrots and another of beets that had been totally hidden a week before.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Welcome, Summer!

Wishing y'all a wonderful summer (or winter, as appropriate) solstice. Some day, I want to celebrate this seasonal marker with a group reading of Midsummer Night's Dream though the day is hardly "mid-summer" at least now, and to be honest I am not sure if the day referenced would be last night ("midsummer" eve) or tonight. 
I had to go hunting for an illustration on the Internet to represent this day, here in the Northlands, as most of the summer solstice photos and drawings so tagged are much more representative of our *next* earth holiday, the cross quarter between solstice and autumn equinox often called Lughnasadh, which I call "first harvest" since i do not walk a Celtic path. In case you are wondering, the common pagan name for today is Litha. Don't ask me why.
Anyway, whatever you call it, while today marks the longest day of the year, it would be hard to argue that it is anywhere near the middle of summer, especially this year. Parts of the state had a frost warning last night and here at the farm, we recorded low temperatures in the mid-40s over the recent nights. The weather, and hence the agricultural seasons, lag behind the astronomical events. Most of the summer solstice images show lots of flowers and abundance, or folks dancing by the ritual fire and while that may be reality for some, as a farmer-witch this day is much more about hope and potential. 
Melon seedling in weedy bed

The plants and seeds have been tucked into the ground and many are showing the beginning of their journey towards abundance. A few, but only a few, are providing for our sustenance: the lettuces and spinach are early season stalwarts and strawberry season is beginning in earnest.

Since I celebrate the quarter and cross-quarter points and tides rather than times, we had our "big meal" on Sunday, with the roasting of a wonderful locally grown chicken. Tonight, some of the remaining meat from that bird will return to the table (I am not yet sure in what form) along with fresh-picked lettuce and spinach and a wonderful desert of strawberries on home made pound cake. My ritual of the day, for the season, will be picking strawberries down the road at a nearby farm and putting them up -- most of them at least -- in the freezer, to spread the early summer blessings through the year. 
May you also help manifest the potential of the earth's abundance from this day forward. Blessed be.


Sunday, June 19, 2022

Summer, Where Art Thou?

 The summer solsticetide is upon us, though here in the Northlands it feels more like autumn in some ways. The days are long and won't even begin to creep, imperceptibly, shorter for a few days. Even this sky-watching farmer won't actually notice shorter days for close to a month. But this year, instead of hurrying to get animal chores done and hit the garden, to weed and pick, before the sun gets too high in the sky and the temperature rises into potential heat exhaustion territory (and yes, even in Maine, it happens. I am, apparently prone to it as I have had significant bouts in the last three places I have lived: Texas, North Carolina and, yes, Maine.) and/or choosing to slather on the bug dope and fight the flying biters for the last usable rays before the sun sinks behind the western tree line, throwing shade on veg and weeds alike... the usual routine which begins before solstice and continues well into the autumn because September IS summer too.... instead of all that, we are having a significant cold snap.

Yesterday the weather turned wet, again (not that we farmers are complaining about that) but the temperature dropped into the low 40s F overnight and looks to stay below 50 degrees F overnight and to revisit those numbers for the next two nights as well. I have not yet been out to give the summer vine crops and the tomatoes and peppers another pep talk, but I shall. There are way too many of them and they are well spread out, so that is the best I can do for them. Were there only a handful -- like in the typical backyard garden -- I would have covered them on general principles. But I do not have that much stuff with which to cover nor the energy to attempt it. I will give them a nice "vitamin rich" side dressing in a day or so and try to convince them that days more to their liking are coming. And I will hope for all I am worth that they are... and that the plants believe me.

So this year our Solstice will be marked with a lot of hope for a good -- or at least a decent -- season. There will be prayers of thanks, for sure. We are still eating potatoes and onions grown last year and stored whole and unprocessed. Last year was the best potato year I have ever seen... so much so that I am struggling to remain thankful for them, in fact. I am pretty sure that will not be an issue this harvest time; the sprouting was the worst I have ever seen. Yeah... balance. I get that. But does it have to be so dramatic?

Our Solstice supper centers on a roast chicken -- one grown by a farmer friend that I bought at farmers market yesterday -- since our meat birds, though right on schedule for growth, are not yet ready to process. Soon, though. I will probably begin with the largest ones around Independence Day. The solstice supper bird is stuffed and trussed up and in the oven as I write. It will come to the table with some of those potatoes, of course, and the stuffing contains some of the onion and our sage as well. We have awesome lettuces that I planted last fall, which maintained themselves through the winter, all on their own, and surprised me this spring with early life. Some will find their way into the salad along with spinach leaves that have grown back after the deer raided the row. A good supper, with thanks and hope. There will be many hours spent tending the veg and fruits, watering when needed and weeding, always, and doing our best to stay flexible enough to be thankful for what our collective efforts yield. May you have the same blessings. Happy Solstice and So Be It.

Friday, February 11, 2022

Those seed starting questions, again!

Seed blocks starting onion seedlings

It's spring, or at least the cross-quarter tide that I call Spring Finding; you probably know it as Groundhog day. This is when I traditionally make my first soil blocks and seed onions to start on my grow rack. And, browsing the Internet, I am once again seeing the beginning of the seasonal “when do I start...” queries. Some are from new gardeners, others from those who were less successful than they would like to be and hope that learning more and perhaps changing the timing will help.

And just to clarify, I will be talking about growing food for your family to eat. I love flowers a lot, but my focus is growing food. Much of what I say and do will also apply to the plants that are "just for pretty.” If that is your jam, use the resources I mention and dig into learning more about your favorite flowers wants and needs.

Unfortunately for the new gardeners, much advise is offered from folks who simply repeat what they have always been told; traditional things that may or may not work in our Maine climate. I will be specifically focused on Maine, but many of these same resources can be personalized to other locations.

One of the most commonly asked questions, which is also one of the most commonly answered with misleading information, is "when do I plant..." Whether direct seeding into the garden, or attempting to grow ones own transplants in the house, timing does matter.

Transplants need to be started early enough to get a good start, and to get “hardened off,” before being transplanted, but not too early, or they may suffer from leggyness (getting too tall/being too weak.) They need sufficient light, water and nutrients -- but not too much. The proverbial sunny window sill probably won't work well alone. Here in the northlands they will need supplemental light. And as they grow larger, they need to be watched closely, watered often, and provided with a breeze or substitute to “fight against” to help strengthen their stems. But exactly WHEN to put those seeds into the potting medium, peat pots or pellets depends on what you are starting, and your optimal planting out date. That date depends on basically two things: your average last frost date and the frost-tolerance of the seedling.

About that last spring frost date – It is an average. Think back to school math days and remember how averages work, to decide how much you want to gamble and to what lengths you will go to protect the seedlings should the frost be on the late side or you decide to “push the season.” Then visit and find your location. Not in Maine? Replace maine in the URL with your state name!

Last frost zone map

A digression about the term ZONE is in order here. This simple word can be quite confusing. In the most common usage, it refers to “hardiness zones” which are a measure of average annual minimum winter temperature. Since the hardiness of a plant is largely measured by how well it can withstand cold winter temperatures, you can see this measurement relates to perennial plants – those that need to live through the winter. This data is not relevant to annual plants, which include most of the things in our food gardens (strawberries and some herbs to the contrary.) There is a 5 degree difference in the average winter low temperature between adjacent hardiness zones and Maine ranges from 3b in The County and mountains through 6a in a few locations on the southern coast.

The frost date maps, for average last spring and first autumn frost, also use the term zone. And coincidentally, there are also 6 spring frost date zones in Maine. Each of the zones spans 10 days and range from frost zone 13 (May 11-20) inland and along the central coast to frost zone 18 (July 1-10) in two areas in the crown of Maine.

Unfortunately, doing a search for “gardening zones” inundates the search feed with references to hardiness zones with no mention of anything relevant to annual crops, which are the most often planted. So no wonder folks are confused!

While my digression, above seems to indicate that the hardiness zones are irrelevant for annual planting, there is some small relevance. These commonly referenced zones also roughly correspond with general climate conditions, day lengths and growing seasons. So, for example, if a seed pack says the plant works for zones in the 7-8 range, chances are it is expecting a much hotter and longer growing season than we get here in the northlands. If you want to try it, be prepared to give it special care, to cater to its needs. There are other, very accurate ways to assess species and variety suitability for our climate. I'll get to that in a bit.

Interactive starting date calculator
Now that you know your average last frost, it's time to make friends with Johnny's Selected Seeds Growers Library. This helpful section on one of my favorite local seed suppliers' web sites is a gold mine of information, Click on the Planning Tools and Calculators link and then scroll down to the section “PLANT”. The first link will help you to learn when to start seeds indoors, transplant those seedlings and seed outside (assuming the soil is ready). Type your average last frost date into the box near the top of the Seed Starting Date Calendar and click ENTER and the spreadsheet will update the timing, below! One click and you have your planting schedule at hand.

You should also check for your average first autumn frost. will give you that data and once again, replacing maine with your state name will give you data if you need other locations. If you are like me and do not have a calendar in front or you, or do not want to count, will tell you the number of days between any two dates. Use it to get a rough idea of your growing season!

Gardening is far from an exact science that you can run by the numbers, though. The “days to harvest” that is commonly noted on seed packs and in those wonderful winter dream books we call seed catalogs does not start the clock until the seeds and germinated at the least; crops that are most

Weeding peas, an early crop
commonly grown from transplants, like tomatoes and peppers, start the count down when they are transplanted! Fact checking this with Google, I first read “The most widely accepted answer is to start the count the day you plant it in the ground.” but the entire first screen of actual entries from garden blogs and other resources had no consensus. One thing I will say is that counting from the day of germination or transplant equals “erring” if this is not correct, on the side of caution, and that is my choice when deciding if a particular variety or plant will give me a crop! And this same assumption will come much closer to giving you a constant harvest of crops that have short enough lives for you to plant more than once during the year.

These resources, when worked with your family's needs and likes in mind, will give you a good start on your garden planning, seedling starting and thinking about the days to come when we will be able to directly seed early crops, like lettuce, spinach and peas into the garden. While it appears that my “brain dump” of ideas is complete for now, I welcome questions about anything I have written here, and any other garden questions as we move forward into our gardening year in the next months. If there is anything else you would like to have me write about, please let me know. Contact is starwalkr (at) (not a link and written funny to avoid spammers).