Friday, September 14, 2012

Fall Update

The garden has performed amazingly well this year, considering how little time I have been able to dedicate to it. Over a dozen quarts of potatoes are safely put up in mason canning jars, as well as peas, butter beans, tomatoes, salsa  and pickled peppers. September has settled in and I have been harvesting and freezing fresh peas and okra for several weeks now. 

This year one of my main goals was to try several varieties of cow peas to see which one performed the best, and I am very pleased with the results. My fingers hurt from so much shelling, but I have put up many quarts and cooked several meals from the bounty already. Of the several heirloom varieties I tried, three came out the clear winners, and I have collected enough seeds to grow them as main crop rows next year. 

The winning varieties were: Red Zipper, Turkey Craw and the Colossus. 

While these three stood out for different reasons, the choice was based on the following criteria- yield, taste, insect resistance and lastly, ease of shelling and how well mannered the plants were in the garden. Some of the varieties were vine-like, sprawling all over the place making cultivation and garden maintenance difficult. The Holstein produced beautiful and good tasting peas, but precious few of them. The Red Zipper produced lots of long, easy to shell pods over an extended period. The Turkey Craw produced a smaller yield and smaller pea, but with exceptional taste. The Colossus was just a super fat pod that shelled with the greatest of ease and good flavor.

And then there is the okra... 
I have eaten so much fried okra this summer that I feel like I have been in heaven. And I have frozen more quart bags than I can count, all from about 20 plants, which are still producing madly now at over six feet tall.

The peanuts are doing very well and I am excited to see the total yield when I harvest them. Last weekend I planted Mustard Greens, Spinach, Kale, lettuce  and Collards for the fall crop and they are up and growing. Peppers are so abundant that I am giving away about a half bushel per week. 


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A quick update from the farm- 
May has been an extremely busy month for the band, and that has limited my work time on the farm. The garden is planted and doing fairly well, in spite of a late frost that damaged some of my crops. Last Sunday I was able to replant the green beans and some peas which had been wiped out, but there are still some bald patches in the rows that survived. I imagine I will have to replant the corn too, not because of frost damage but it looks like there were issues with my planter. A couple of the rows are thick but most of them are very sporadic. I think the planter just got jammed up and didn't distribute the seeds properly. Everything else I had planted by hand and the density was fine. 

 I was pleased with the result of my efforts at keeping the potato bugs bugs at bay, they are bushy, green and healthy with minimal infestation. In fact, they are blooming and producing little spuds already. I have already harvested potatoes from the tubs I have back in the city and they are quite good. 

I still have to plant the scarlet runner beans and some pole butter beans, but for the most part planting is done. I also planted two long rows of peanuts and hopefully they will come up and produce. I have another plot about 20x70 feet set aside for corn which hopefully I will be able plant sometime in June.

Monday, April 23, 2012

April 23rd

It's April 23rd the weather has turned cool and breezy. Two weeks ago it felt like spring was in full force, and that gave us an opportunity to get some work done at the farm. I planted the bounty of fruit trees purchased a few weeks ago, two more blueberry bushes and a fig tree.

I also finished planting the main garden- peas, beans, corn, okra and potatoes. I set out two dozen tomato plants and about that many pepper plants that I potted up from seedlings. Chris gave me some Peaches and Cream corn and I planted 10 sixty-five foot rows of it. This year I planted the potatoes in blocks instead of rows, thinking that I may have to build a barrier against the potato beetles.

On Sunday, I turned and worked two more patches alongside the main garden. The larger one, about half the rows of the main garden, will be for peanuts. I've never grown peanuts so I don't know what kind of experience this will be. The motivation for trying is my unconditional love of roasted peanuts. Boiled peanuts too, for that matter.

The second plot is for some wheat and my cowpea trials. I have about 20 varieties of heirloom cowpeas that I am going to run and see which one is the best in flavor and vigor.

After this exercise I came to the conclusion that the new barn will have a wide but shallow overhang that I can park my implements side-by-side. The current setup is stacked in one behind the other in a narrow deep overhang, open only on one side. This means I have to spend a lot of time hooking up and moving around plows and tools to get everything out.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Spring Update

This weekend I made an excellent find- fruit trees for $4.00 each.

I know you should be skeptical about buying trees at a flea market, so let me preface by saying that I have purchased from this guy before and had good success. This year, however, he has a much bigger selection, and I was literally like a kid in a candy store with a pocket full of pennies.

So, here's the booty:
2 high bush blueberry bushes
1 Texas EverBearing fig tree
2 Winesap apple trees
1 Granny Smith apple tree (to replace the one I ran over with the tractor)
1 Golden Delicious apple tree
2 Surecrop Nectarine trees
2 Arkansas Black apple trees
1 Ozark plum tree
1 Methly plum tree
1 Moorpark Apricot tree
1 Bing Cherry tree
1 Black Tartarian Cherry tree
5 Stewart Pecan trees (there's a future story in there somewhere)
1 flowering Dogwood tree

Importantly, the Pecans will be the start of the nut trees. I have two black walnut trees over at the barn that produce a small crop already, and I am hoping to add Hazelnut and Almonds to the orchard as soon as I can find a good price on them.

I feel good that I have the basics covered and now I want to concentrate on some the specialty trees that I just want to add to the collection. And then I want to gather my immediate family- our kids and grandkids there in the orchard and have a photo taken. Those trees I have planted in that orchard could live longer than all of us, and forms the perfect backdrop- a common shared event between us and the trees.

Downstairs the greenhouse is flourishing. The seedlings I started a few weeks ago are thriving and things are right on schedule. It's spring and all is well. :o)

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


It's only February but this weekend felt so much like spring that I just had to do some gardening. I have been flipping through the pages of several seed supply house catalogs all winter long awaiting a day such as today. Every year I save and collect seeds, and can hardly pass up on buying some new variety I have never grown before. Last year I grew Calypso and Christmas beans for the first time and it was dismal. I have learned that just because something will grow in my zone, that doesn't mean it will thrive and produce. Armed with this knowledge, I have decided to grow a lot of different things but in small quantity. My freezer is full and I will still grow a few rows of production proven crops like the Mississippi cowpeas and Jackson Wonder butter beans, but all of the experimental stuff will be on a very small scale, perhaps six to twelve plants each. I need to determine what performs best among the dozen varieties of tomatoes, peppers, peas and beans in my seed bank.

To that end, this weekend I started twenty or so different varieties of seeds. It's about eight weeks from the last frost date and this time of year usually finds my basement turned into a seedling greenhouse. Half a dozen Tupperware containers form mini-gardens basking in the warm glow of fluorescent grow lights until the seedlings are strong enough to pot up for later transplant. By the time the weather is warm enough outside they already have a jump start on life. That's the way we did it back in the day when we ran a commercial greenhouse and it works well.

Regarding news from the farm, last weekend I had only two chores to accomplish and yet I got neither of them finished. The first was to install the water heater, which I did, but used the wrong thickness of pipe and it exploded under the pressure. I was going to put off chore number two, which was to replace the radiator in the tractor, in order to complete something and not return home defeated, but it was raining the next morning. Since I couldn't work on the water heater I started the repairs on the tractor, as at least I would be out of the rain.

I quickly found out that 60 year old rusty bolts don't undo easy, and spent most of my morning just getting the old radiator out. But once it was free the new one went in relatively easy, and I was about halfway finished putting everything back together when we had to pack up and head for home to play a show down in Columbus. Hopefully I can finish both tasks this coming weekend. The garden has been too wet to work, but at some point soon I would like to turn under and plow three more new sections- one dedicated for corn, another for peanuts and the last for spring wheat. That will pretty much fill up the acre I have set aside for gardening. By moving the corn out of my regular garden, that will free up space for some experimentation, and I want to grow some watermelon and cantaloupe this year too.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Hillbilly Hippie Fest 2011

It often seems like a never ending challenge to keep up with the chores, goals and tasks associated with building a sustainable homestead. There is always more work needing to be done than there is time to do it, and every trip up to the farm means work. I'm not sure we have ever set foot on the place without leaving utterly exhausted and sore. Yet all work and no play makes for good misery, so it is in this spirit that once a year, in the fall, we pause for celebration. Celebration of life, the harvest and all of our accomplishments over the previous year.

This (our second) annual celebration is not without much work itself, but the work seems easier to shoulder when done in the spirit of thanksgiving and yes, a little sense of pride. Indeed, we have accomplished a lot this past year, and it felt good to take pause and share an evening meal with friends, family and neighbors.

When we started planning this year's event, I knew I wanted to serve old-fashioned pulled pork, ribs and chicken. I fondly remember long nights in the fall with my grandfather cooking in preparation for family night at the Mason's lodge. It was slow and relaxing, not hard work at all really, and the food was simply amazing. There is nothing like the taste and tenderness imparted to meat by a low temperature smoke-filled pit. So a few weeks prior I rounded up some leftover concrete blocks and started working through design layouts to create a functional BBQ pit. After several attempts I finally settled on a layout that seemed to fit the bill, and was actually quite happy with it.

There is more to the story for sure as at least initially, Linda wasn't very agreeable that such lengths were necessary when a single row of blocks and some charcoal would make a suitable grill. At one point, she proceeded to re-arrange my design to demonstrate her idea. It's not that I didn't understand what she was saying, I really just wanted to do it my way. I had, after all, spent many hours thinking and preparing for the challenge.

The thing is, we southerners actually have a very sophisticated palette. We can taste the difference between a bag of charcoal and a stately hickory tree as a fuel source. Not to mention that one of the best, if not the best BBQ shack in the state is right down the road and the owners were expected to come. But sometimes you just have to sit there patiently and let a woman speak her mind and only then can you can go on about your business. So afterwards I re-re-arranged the blocks the way I wanted them and felt the pressure grow as I dismissed her suggestion, fully aware that this could get ugly if I messed it up.

Needless to say, I was completely thrilled when I fired up the pit at 7am on that frosty morning and the temperature slowly rose to 250 degrees and held there. All day long, there was hardly more than a twenty degree swing in temperature, and it worked better than even I expected. It certainly looks like a redneck oven, and there was considerable risk involved, but it cooked like Martha Stewart on steroids.

I usually make the point right up front that I don't consider myself a master of any given trade, and cooking is no exception. But like Henry Ford, I know how to find people who do. Case in point, if you want to know how to cook BBQ, learn from the man who has won more championships than anyone else, ever. Myron Mixon is that man. Although I have never met him, his book "Smokin with Myron" is a worthy investment when it comes to how to prepare and smoke meat. I used both his chicken and pork rub recipe and it was a home run. His method of incorporating apple juice for the last several hours was another great tidbit of information. Truth be told, I have never smoked meat on such a scale, and further truth, I've only smoked meat once before in my life. It took a quite a few favorable comments before I realized the guests weren't just being polite when they said it was good food, it really was good.

Several weeks prior we put up the gazebo, one of Linda's prized embellishments on the farm. She got it a couple years ago and it was quite impressive. Unfortunately a few weeks ago a storm rolled through the valley and we arrived one day to find it a twisted pile of metal and fabric, laying in and around the creek. After realizing it was not repairable, we got another shelter, this time a big strong one that took considerable work to erect. Yet once again, by the end of the day Sunday a strong wind blew it over as we were cleaning up. This time, however, it wasn't destroyed completely, although I'll be searching spare parts catalogs looking for a replacement pipe for one that bent.

We also did another wine tasting this year and brought out samples from the five 2009 series vintage. Admittedly, they are not quite there yet but I see forward momentum in the quality and craftsmanship. The results were close, but the Cab was highly praised, slightly behind the Noire Trilogue, which was the chosen favorite.

I then brought out a few mason jars containing a clear liquid home brew with a little more kick which caused a small line of some very interested locals to form. 'Shine has some very deep roots in this part of the country and I was truly a mortal among giants as experienced old men in overalls sipped, smacked lips and pondered the flavor. None of them said much, and I guess that's the way it is supposed to be, but they each nodded and approved with other forms of non-verbal communication. Finally, the highly respectable local legend uttered the only four words I heard him speak all night and said, "ya done good, boy".

Fireworks are still legal here so we purchased about 48 of those ultra loud, high bursting, colorful ones like you see at major events. This has become somewhat of a tradition on the farm, I think because there are so many fireworks stores on the way here that it is never too far from the back of the mind. We followed this with probably my favorite event of the weekend, the release of sky lanterns. Originally, I thought of attaching candles in white paper bags to helium balloons, but during my research I ran across the sky lanterns and it seemed to me that someone had a better idea than my own so I went with it, and used the bags as ground decoration, which also worked out nicely from a visual standpoint.

Earlier in the day Brian and I had cut down a poplar tree and formed the boundary for a large fire pit, which he now piled on about a truck load of seasoned oak causing a rather large fire. We all sat around that fire until well into the night, and one by one the guests who were camping made their way to their tents. The night air was brisk, but considerably warmer than the night before, yet some still found it too cold and sometime in the middle of the night made their way back over to the still glowing embers. Those same embers provided the heat for bacon, sausage, hash browns and pancakes the next morning.

All in all it was a huge success. Of special note is that we finally found the name for the farm by holding a naming competition around the camp fire. Some of the suggestions were more suitable than others, but in the end it was put to a vote and "Star Valley Farms" was the winner. Quite suitable as the night sky view is one of the most beautiful aspects of the property.

One of the most important things about this lifestyle is knowing that you can't do everything yourself. You need friends and neighbors and you need to fit in. These folk don't want somebody from the city moving in and changing things or being snobs. It's important to show respect and to serve those who can make or break you, and to give back a little when you can. That's what being southern is all about. That's what life is all about.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Last week, Doc came by and installed the new steps and landing which was a welcome addition. We need the landing in order to pass occupancy inspection, and given our past experiences with the county codes and permit office, I would just as soon let somebody else deal with those morons. In fact, the very same morons have stalled the water and electric permits in a never ending battle of incompetence vs wit. It is for this reason that we have decided to sub-contract anything having to do with inspections and permits to the local good-ole-boys that hunt, fish and go to church with the county inspectors. Hopefully, it will prove to be a smart move.

So this weekend the weather turned cooler and made it possible to get some tough work done. On the agenda was putting up the gazebo frame, weed eating around the barn and cutting down two large hickory trees on the hill which were in danger of falling on the cabin. The gazebo went up quickly and Linda did most of the work while I put on my climbing harness, checked the rope and prepared the saw. Once on the ledge, I tied off and cleared the underbrush. Then I sat there for a while, mapping out a strategy and gathering my nerve. These trees were big. Really big. My main concern was placement, as they had to fall in a specific place in order not to hit the cabin or the retaining wall. Indeed, the pressure to perform was on, but in the end, I dropped them almost perfectly.

We spend the rest of the day cutting, splitting and stacking the bounty. My neighbor Chris felt sorry for me and my little Homelite chainsaw so he lent me his 20" Stihl. OMG... this thing was a beast. When it started up, it sounded like a Ferrari on crack. When you are outside on fall days and hear a chainsaw miles in the distance, this is what they are using. It was mean and heavy and it sliced through logs like a razor blade through warm butter. Relatively speaking, if not for a short pee break I might have finished sawing before I even started. On my return Chris pointed out that the tree was covered in poison ivy and indeed, in my rush of excitement, I hadn't noticed. In retrospect, this is the kind of thing that one should realize before going to pee rather than after.

The sun set on another work weekend and I sat for a moment with it, feeling good about what we had accomplished. This week saw the wine bottled, the fields mowed, the hay bailed, the gazebo put up, the landing installed, the trees removed and the firewood stack increased. The corn was happy, swaying in the cool breeze and life was good.