Monday, March 30, 2009

Seed shuffle

By June

What makes mud season bearable for me is starting the earliest seeds. But, even as the snow retreats to the shady stretch along the tree line, I have to govern my impulse to tear open the little packets and get planting. Last year, I started my seedlings in mid-March and babied them through two family trips to New York: They rode in window-box liners in the backseat. What a leggy bunch they were by our late-May, no-more-frost date.

This year, I’m resolved to start later and to buy more seedlings (oh, the variety!) from the local farmers’ market and from Fedco's public sale on May 9 or 10. Until then, I am soothing my sense of urgency with the annual shuffling of the seed packets into their planting line-up. With Fern and Blossom as my trusty helpers, I spent a morning organizing the seeds by when they will get planted. First up, the heirloom tomatoes who will be our only indoor guests this spring. Then, the hardy little seeds that can take the cold, both posies and vegetables: the poppies, the spinach, the peas and sweet peas, the arugula. The Asian greens took up a lot of space in our seed boxes, as they will in the garden beds. We lined up the bounty with their plant stakes – all the way back to the mache seeds destined to over-winter in our covered bed next year.
This is the most control we’ll ever have, tucking the packets into the box with their stakes at the ready. Once the seeds go into the soil, the growing season will begin with all its surprises: flea beetles and groundhogs and (please, not again) maybe even a hailstorm. We’ll cope and marvel and eat whatever comes of it.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Spring at last (or at least dandelions and earthworms)

by June

For months now, it’s been me by the fire with only the consolation of my favorite garden-erotica, a.k.a. the Fedco seed catalog. No matter how deep the snow is outside, it’s hard to feel too miserable when you’re tucked up with a catalog that replaces colorful photos with colorful writing. For example, see hybrid carrot YaYa’s entry: “You might say we almost got caught with our Nantes down when we lost Nantes Fancy, long one of our five most popular varieties. Instead, we’ve found a new, albeit more expensive, way to get our ya-yas out.”

Now, with spring officially here, my garden is still a foot under snow. But Fedco has come through for me again. My seeds arrived in a hefty little box spilling over with promise. I sat in the sun on the back porch and explored the bounty. Nothing stirs the soul of a winter-sore gardener like shaking a packet and hearing the rattle or shush-shush-shush of seeds: these are the very maracas of spring.

Lucky me, the raised-bed flower garden by the porch was first to emerge from its frozen mantle. It showed all the neglect from last fall when I was busy canning the harvest and let the dandelions run wild. So I levered up long roots and greeted the earthworms returning to the warm surface of the earth. I touched the little frills of delphinium and hairy fans of hollyhocks. This week, I'll scatter some poppy seeds, which can take the spring snow squalls, and soon enough...

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Maple Syr-oops

by Birch

In spite of Fern's and Blossom's charming attempts to persuade me ("You won't have to mow the grass, Daddy!"), I'm goat shy--the twice-a-day milkings, the stockpile of hay to feed her through the winter, and argh, the de-worming! Maybe I feel this way because around here things don't always go exactly to plan.

Witness Exhibit A: the remains of several gallons of sap that went awry. Actually, the chief sap named Birch is to blame. I thought I had the timing down and the heat on the outside burner adjusted just right, and then there was the Netflix on-demand movie the family was gathered together to watch. I caught the burnt cotton-candy smell in the air long before I reached the pot--the syrup was ruined. And so was the pot.

Flash forward to the poor goat waiting for the credits to roll on our Netflix movie. Udders swollen to bursting... It's too awful to even think about. Hey, Fern and Blossom, if we forget to milk the goat, will she explode?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


by Birch

Winters are long in Maine. The ground has been covered with snow from the winter solstice through the spring equinox. Chickens do not like their tender feet to touch the snow, but for relief from that cooped-up feeling, ours do like to sled.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Kindling: HOME, a novel

by June

I love books. My favorite act of anticipation is running my thumb along the rippling texture of the pages all pressed together, waiting. I love smelling new paper and ink; in old books, I love breathing in the smell of time accumulating. I even like watching those tiny cream-colored dots that are some kind of insect who spend their lives in a book. I call them metaphor bugs: how many lives have I lived inside a book? So my new Kindle 2 filled me with ambivalence. I mourned the idea of not having a book on my lap even as I embraced the idea of never again being without a good read.

But would it be a good read?

To be fair to my Kindle on its first outing, I saved back a novel I was wild to read. Marilynne Robinson wrote my favorite contemporary novel, Housekeeping, and I had liked her Gilead. I knew Home: A Novel would be a perfect test of whether I could lose myself in Kindle text as I lose myself in words on a page. I lost myself. At one point, it was way past midnight, tears were running down my face, and I was so present in Gilead, Iowa, that I could smell the chicken and dumplings that Glory was cooking as a balm against all the heartache coursing like a current among her father, her brother and herself. I reached up to turn the page. But there was no page to turn. I had forgotten all about the fancy screen and the buttons that called up the next “page.”

Whether by Kindle or book, Robinson’s latest is a must-read, a literary distillation of what home means. A prodigal son returns to his father's house, where his youngest sister has recently arrived with her own unspoken disappointments. Together, brother and sister attend to the needs – physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual -- of the failing father. The three of them share an effort extreme in its delicacy: how to make acts of kindness turn out to be truly kind but not somehow cruel as well. The invisible layers of meaning upon which families must engineer their inextricably shared lives, this is what Marilynne Robinson explores. To do so, she conjures up small-town America with its weedy patches and thriving gardens, its attics filled with useless remnants too dear to give away, its cow barns turned garages. The past is present in the novel, in the small town of Gilead – an expression of what it is to be a family. Here is the old father, a Presbyterian minister, who has loved his eight children in ways that nurtured them but sometimes tormented them too: “Her father hung his head. ‘All of them call it home, but they never stay.’”

I would have stayed longer in Gilead if I could have. But though I may actually never have
turned the last page, I did, inevitably, come to the end. What I missed most then was looking back through the book for favorite passages. The Kindle provides for this with a book-marking function. Clicking and dragging is not the same as penciling a little asterisk in the margin. I do miss my asterisks and the metaphor bugs and the pages all pressed together and waiting; but I don’t miss them enough to give up the comfort of knowing that the next great book may be a mere sixty seconds from landing in my hands. With a press of a button, I bought Away: A Novelby Amy Bloom.

And Away I went.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Home-made Maple Syrup

by Blossom

We wanted to make our own maple syrup, so we started to look for a tree that had a U-
notch in its leaves instead of a V-notch. We had to dig around in the snow to find old leaves from
last fall. We also looked for light gray bark that had ridges. When we found a tree that had those details, we were really lucky because it grew in a clump with five trunks.

Daddy drilled a hole in three of the trunks and tapped metal spouts through the bark. He bought the spouts at Blue Seal; they cost two 
dollars apiece.

As soon as he got the spouts in, the sap started dripping immediately! It was so clear it looked like water. Fern volunteered to taste it. She said it tasted sweet.

The first day we collected about six gallons. We will need nine gallons of sap to make one pint of syrup. But the sap fills the buckets quickly. When we went out the first morning, some of the sap was frozen. Maple slushie!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Maple-Sugaring Time

by Birch

Maple syrup production is as easy as boiling water—a lot of water. We finally decided to tap the enormous sugar maple in the front yard with the five diverging trunks. Fern and Blossom helped me check it's vitals—leaves collected under the snow at the tree's base had a smooth, five-lobed pattern that matched the photo in the Audubon guide. What if I try to tap an oak or something nuts like that? It was a sugar maple, I was sure. (Well, almost sure.)

Fern and Blossom were encouraging even as they worried that I was drilling holes in their favorite tree. I chose a sunny spot about two feet above the ground and used a cordless drill to make a 3/8-inch hole in the truck. A few turns of the drill through the bark and the sap 

began to flow. Two inches into the trunk was enough to secure the metal taps I had bought from our farm store. I hammered one in the trunk and hung an old pot on built in hook and it began to fill. I drilled anther hole in another trunk and hung another pot on the hook. After two hours the pots were full and I began filling a two-gallon glass container so we could keep the sap cold—they say fresh sap can sour like milk if it's not kept cold. 

We decided to boil the sap outside so as not to fill the house with sticky steam, and filled up our five gallon canning pot and lit the grill's side burner. After a few hours, about two gallons had evaporated and we had more raw syrup to add. We kept up the process, stirring 

the sap and adding more until we had loaded a total of nine gallons. Fourteen hours later, and a whole-lot-of-steam about two cups remained in the pot leaving a syrup that coated the back of a wooded spoon: Maple syrup!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Dipping-sauce Egg-drop Soup

by June

Chinese dumplings, oh how we love them. For quick meals and impromptu celebrations with friends, we keep the freezer stocked with homemade dumplings, as well as our favorite packaged brand from Boston’s Chinatown (Chinese Spaghetti Factory). When we need something easy but crave deep satisfaction as well, we reach for the dumplings, steam jasmine rice and flash-fry some greens. It’s a meal we can't get enough of.

But afterward there is always a smidge (and sometimes more) of left-over dipping sauce. To be at its piquant best with dumplings, the dipping sauce has to be freshly made. I use two parts soy sauce to one part rice vinegar with a healthy lashing of sesame oil, a double pinch of sugar, a pinch of kosher salt, and a sprinkling of scallion rings and minced garlic. It’s simple stuff, sloshed together as the dumplings hit the platter and head for the table.

The fragrant little-bit of leftover sauce means yet another fast meal is on hand: Egg-drop soup.

Whether the chicken broth is homemade (from the freezer) or poured out of a handy box, it is quickly transformed into our most comforting fast soup.

To the broth, I add a quarter-cup of Shao Shing cooking wine, some chopped scallion, and a couple of coins of ginger lightly smashed. When the broth reaches a nice simmer, I throw in whatever scraps of dried pasta we have hanging around. Then in goes the dipping sauce. A tablespoon of cornstarch dissolved in a quarter-cup of cold water brings out a sumptuous silkiness when it is added to the simmering brew. When the heat goes off, I stir the beaten eggs in ever so slowly; the streams of egg bloom into yellow ribbons.

And so the slurping and sighing begins.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Blossom and Fern's Quickie Guide to Keeping Chickens

by Fern and Blossom

On May 11, 2007, we got chickens at Blue Seal. They were only two days old. We got six. They were as fluffy as milkweed puffs. We kept them in a cat carrier, but you could also keep them in a tall cardboard box with straw or pine shavings. Keep the water and food in the box. All of that you should put in a sheltered place, like an attic or a basement or a shed. You should put in a heat lamp. You can turn the light off in the day, but remember to turn it back on at night because they might freeze.

And you should know this too, if you want them to be friendly and safe: You need to be gentle and just let one or two out at a time and don’t squeeze them because their bones are fragile.

Here is the way to take care of the food and water. You can give them regular water. Change it every day. The food is called Chick Starter. It has corn and vitamin D.

It takes eight weeks until you should build a coop. The coop has to be sealed tight so rain or snow can’t get in. Put a lock on the door so raccoons or other predators can’t get in at night. Make a run on the side of the coop. Wrap chicken wire on all sides of it. Staple in all places; you can put wire ties in places where you can’t staple. Cut a hole big enough for a chicken between the coop and the run. In the winter, you should put insulation all around inside the house, but nail boards over it or the chickens will tear it apart. Make a little door into the run. Chickens don’t like the snow, so they won’t come out much in the winter.

We like to let our chickens free range as often as possible. In the summer, they love to fluff in the dirt and peck in the grass. They swallow gravel to help them digest food. They love to catch earthworms; they slurp them like noodles. They also like lizards and mice brains left behind by cats. And they eat toads from little watery places. When they are big enough to free range, they also can start eating kitchen leftovers. Ours especially love picking at cabbage cores, kale stems, and corn cobs.

Don’t leave them out at night because raccoons and foxes and coyotes could eat them. And in the day you should watch them because of hawks and neighborhood dogs.

If you have a rooster, it might jump on one of the hens to try to have a chick.
You should build nesting boxes when they are four months old. Also about then, they should eat a kind of food called Crumbles because it makes their eggshell thicker. When they start to lay their eggs, only one hen might lay every other day. By about six months old, all the hens should be laying almost every day.

They start laying between four and six months. If they don’t start out laying in the nesting boxes, a fake wooden egg might help give them the idea. When they start laying you should let them out more in the afternoon because you don’t want them to be laying places you can’t find the eggs. Don’t bother them when they are trying to lay eggs. Try to get their eggs every day because they might crack.

And you had better put a perch in the coop so they can sleep and keep warm in the winter. If you want your chickens to lay more eggs, you should put a dim light in. If you put a strong light in, our daddy says they might start to pant.

In the winter, they might get all cooped up and start to pick on one of the chickens. One of our hens got pecked on the neck, and we put her in a cat’s carrier and brought her into the basement to heal. Also you could put your chicken in a big box with holes on each side. Get an old bowl and put some food in it. Do the same with the water. In the spring our hen was able to go back to the flock with no trouble. We just waited for the first warm day when they could all free range, and that night, she went home with everyone else.

It might help them not to peck each other, if you hang a cabbage in the coop during the winter. It gives them green food and something to do.

After the first and second year, they might not lay as often. They can live for about eight years.

If they don’t have fourteen hours of light, they don’t lay. So you should put a light in the house in the winter.