Tuesday, March 17, 2020

St. Patrick's Day Sneak Peek: Novel excerpt

It seems a bit frivolous, in these difficult times, to wish you a Happy St. Patrick's Day--we're all far more worried about our loved ones' health and our own, and if we have groceries in the cupboard, than the way all the St. Paddy's celebrations have been cancelled.

This week, I'm working on a little gardening book, which, given the potential of food shortages, seems far more important these days, instead of plunking around with my Irish stories. But if you're game for a little distraction of the Irish kind, I offer you a taste of my upcoming novel: part of The Fairy Cottage mini-series, and Book 5 of my Irish Village of Ballydara series.

If the character of Hazel seems familiar, you've probably read my short story The Christmas Visitor. This novel centers on her sister Emma, but Hazel plays starring role--it's a warm and tender story about finding love and home and family in the most unlikely of places.
Part of my Fairy Cottage mini-series

Chapter 1

If you’re a creature of habit, rather than impulse, you carry on with your regular routines day in and day out, no problem. However, if you’re keen on routines but at the same time have a tendency to be a bit disorganized, like Emma Carey, recently arrived from Ireland, you might try out all sorts of systems and apps to keep yourself on track. So, although Emma has often struggled to say focused, every time she tried to use one of those organizing apps with their timers and buzzers and flashing updates only made her want to toss her mobile phone into the nearest bin.

Was it that her brain didn’t work like other people’s, Emma wondered, people who had no trouble relying on their mobiles (and adoring them) with a life-and-death ferocity? Or that she’d inherited her short attention span from her mam, who flitted (actually, more like lurched, Emma thought) from one idea or activity to the next without completing any of them? Or that she was, at heart, an old-fashioned girl like her younger sister Hazel? Whatever it was, when Emma started working at Ireland Place, a non-profit hub of Irish arts and culture based near Seattle, she’d been so desperate to create some structure for herself she went old school: she created a chart that she cellotaped to the half-size fridge in her studio apartment, upon which, at the end of each week, she could afix gold stars to the various categories if she stayed on the straight and narrow.

So Emma would give herself stars for doing the elliptical for one hour at the gym Monday through Friday, eating absolutely no desserts except for a gluten-free cookie on Sunday, and keeping her regular hair and nail appointments with Helen at Nugyen’s Salon at a strip mall on the other side of town. The gold star thing was something she’d started for her sister Hazel, when she was little. Given her sister’s tender age, the stars hadn’t anything to do with eating or exercise, but Emma had been desperate to do the right thing for her.

Emma’s most reliable tendency, though, wasn’t one you’d want to reward with shiny stars or even a modest pat on the back. It was the kind you didn’t want to admit even to your best friend, which in Emma’s case was Hazel: she had the unfortunate habit of falling for her bosses.

Emma was like a Swiss train schedule:  you could tell time based on how long it would take her to fall for her male supervisors. Two weeks, max. These blokes didn’t need to be handsome, or charming, but as soon they’d given Emma an approving smile on a project well-begun, a compliment on her progress, even held a door open for her, she was in love…

I plan to have my new gardening guide ready in another week...until then, be well, stay safe, and I'm wishing you all the Irish blessings you can hold.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Homestead Time Management: First in a Series

Whether homesteading is your job, your hobby, or your passion, I should put this out there right away: Folks, there’s no such thing as time management on your homestead.

As someone who writes for a living, I’ve always been fascinated by ways to carve out time/create time/manage time to get more writing done. Convinced you can “take control of the clock,” I figured there was a "special sauce" for the whole idea. So I devoured articles, attended workshops, and created schedules about how to fit writing into a busy life—and if they included special tips, charts or spreadsheets, all the better!

But really, all that effort was for nothing. Because despite a gazillion strategies, there was no getting around  the truth: writing fills the time you allot to it and then some, and you never get as much done as you think you will.

I’ve learned the same about homesteading chores. I’m an optimistic person, but no matter what you’re doing: weeding the beds, chopping wood, caring for chickens, processing your harvest, I have learned every task takes three times as long as you think it will. Sure, you can take that with a grain of salt, and maybe I’m just inefficient or using the wrong techniques. Still, I give you Exhibit A:

The Cider Press Experiment

With 17 apples trees on our acreage, John and I planned for years to get a cider press. Finally, after an insane harvest a couple of years ago, we had come up with the funds and really, we couldn’t hold out any longer! So…what kind of press to buy?

Committed to the “slow life,” we are big on doing things by hand. In the kitchen, we forgo a blender or food processor to chop fruits and veggies or grind nuts with a chef’s knife. Despite my sister’s repeated urgings to get a bread machine, “they’re so easy!” I like to knead bread by hand. We’ve thought about buying a countertop flour mill, and had come across readers in Mother Earth News recommending electric models. The general consensus was that a manual model is far more work than you want.

Still, after pricing cider presses, electric ones seemed way out of our price range. So John bought us a small, manual model: made of a lovely light wood, it was very attractive and old-fashioned-looking, with a tub designed like a fruit barrel. We could hardly wait to put it to use.

So one day at harvest time, with many piles of apples to process, we finally gave our new press a whirl. After washing and chopping dozens of apples, washing the necessary press components,  and filling the tub, I figured we’d devote a couple of hours to our cider project. All that was left was turning the handle!

I tried it first and got exactly nowhere. “John,” I said, “maybe you could get things started.”

John’s a strong guy. He can hand-split massive logs, and harvests almost all our trees with a hand saw. But even he could hardly budge the handle. We took turns pushing and pulling on that dratted handle, but produced only the merest trickle of cider. “The apple chunks are too big,” John concluded.

So we squeezed what we could from the fruit in the tub, and started over with a fresh batch of apples. This time, we cut them up as finely as we could and started in again. Then we did it a third time. We got a tiny bit more traction trying to turn the press handle, and a few more ounces of cider, but even after a couple more hours of hard labor, not making much more progress. Finally, my arms throbbing from exertion, I suggested, “Let’s call it a day.” With both of us really putting our backs to it, just trying to turn the handle had taken all afternoon.

Now, all we had to do was disassemble the press, wash all the parts, soak the cheesecloth filter, pasteurize the cider and sterilize a jar for it. As dusk fell, when all was said and done, we had about 3 cups of cider to show for our day.

How about a Cost-Benefit Analysis? 

To sum up: $150 plus shipping to buy the press, about 7 hours of work, to make less than a quart of fresh, homemade apple cider.

Worst of all: we didn’t drink it. The jar of cider is still sitting in our freezer.

If you have some tips for success with a manual cider press, I hope you’ll share them here!

P.S. For the last three months, I've spent every spare moment working like mad on my latest novel--more news on that soon--but I will be posting here regularly again. Next time: another DIY project that got overwhelming really fast!

Friday, December 6, 2019

Christmas...a Month of Merrymaking

Happy St. Nicholas Day!

Here on Berryridge Farm, John and I start making merry today, on St. Nicholas’ feast day, and continue until January 6th,  Epiphany. I unofficially begin the season the first Sunday of Advent, getting out my three precious Advent calendars (the same ones I’ve kept for several decades). Then, it's off to the closet to pull out my favorite holiday book: Mary Engelbreit’s illustrated collection of holiday songs, scripture and stories. When December 6 arrives, John and I begin the holidays in earnest, with the St. Nick from antiquity. If you’d like to add more holiday traditions to your season, there’s plenty of fun and meaningful celebrations all the way to Christmas Eve and Day… And beyond!

Yule Lads

To me, the absolutely most entertaining tradition (if not exactly religious or spiritual) hails from Iceland: the Yule Lads, beginning 13 days before Christmas. (See my 2016 holiday post.) These 13 mischievous trolls do pranks or out-and-out wreak havoc in your house every day until Christmas…so make sure you’re good, or you’ll find a piece of rotten potato in your shoe!

Counting down to December 25…

In Sweden, St. Lucia’s Day honors this saint on December 13. There's the Winter Solstice—I have friends who set aside a day to observe the event with a special gathering, which this year occurs December 21. While John and I don’t do anything all that special for the solstice, we still rejoice to think of the light on its way, each day bringing the blessing of few more minutes of daylight. We always mark Hanukkah too—on the 22nd this year—so we can say “Happy Hanukkah” to our favorite neighbors.

Tonight, we’ll start decorating the house—set up our favorite Christmas figurines on the dining room table, bring out the other knickknacks and candles, and hang up the two beautiful Christmas tapestries from John. It’s not a lot, nothing like the collectors’ ginormous displays you see in magazines. It seems to me, when every inch of someone’s house is covered with stuff, each figurine or candle or special ornament your child made for you gets lost in the shuffle. John will select the Best Holiday Playlist Ever—full of traditional carols, choir music, or elegant instrumentals.

Since we like a l-o-n-g holiday season, we wait until the second week of December to get a Christmas tree—to make sure the needles will stay on the free well into January! Then begins the cookie baking, the holiday movie watching, music every night, contemplating the lights and the meaning of the season, the gatherings with friends and family… and the magic and wonder of Christmas Eve and Christmas morning.

Christmas Letdown

If you feel a letdown at the end of Christmas day—The food! The gifts! The mess! And the worst, Facing the mall the next day to return gifts!!—here’s a new tradition to think about: the 12 Days of Christmas, as featured in the old carol. The 12 days aren’t the ones leading  up to Christmas, but the ones after. Okay, in our modern time, this stretch of days is no longer all about partridges or pear trees or golden rings or maids a’milking (how many again?), but why not carry on with more celebrating? Music, maybe a Kwanzaa get-together, more contemplation of the meaning of the holidays…until the 12th day, Epiphany, January 6.

Women’s Christmas in Ireland

In Ireland, there’s an old-time tradition on the 12th day of Christmas: “Women’s Christmas,” or Nollaig na mBan, related charmingly here by author Felicity Hayes-McCoy. The men stay home, while females of all ages—toddlers to girls, mothers to elders—get together for feasting and dancing. These days, you might find a Women’s Christmas gathering only in Ireland’s rural areas. Still, you can start your own!

New Year's Resolutions...don't start until January 7!

Even though John and I still miss our chickens, we're grateful for the time we  had them and their abundant gifts of eggs...and resolve to do much better next time. So in this season of gratitude and love and abundance, why not end your holiday season with a flourish…Forget your New Year’s resolutions, and instead, on the 12th day of Christmas, keep the tree up, bake another batch of holiday cookies, break out the bubbly/sparkling cider, and toast the wonderfulness of life!

I hope you'll check out  my website...you'll find lots of freebies and bonus material at www.susancolleenbrowne.com !

Monday, November 18, 2019

Homestead Setback

An Ominous Sign

When I saw the piece of paper attached to our gate the other night, I knew something was wrong. Grabbing  the paper, I started reading in the light of our car’s opened hatchback. It was a note from our nearest neighbors.

We have heartbreaking news about your hens…

I didn’t read any further. Fearing the worst, John and I rushed into the house to grab a headlamp and hurried to the coop. I lifted the vertical shutter and as John held the lamp high, we peered into the interior. It was the worst.

The coop was empty. Our little flock was…gone.
Our hens in happier times

We’d just arrived home late from out-of-town. During our absence, our hen-keeping neighbors were all set to look in on our five girls. What they’d discovered at our place… I had to wait all night to find out.

Our Neighbors' Story

Heartsick and wracked by guilt, I called Gretchen first thing the next morning. She told me her husband Alan had stopped by our chicken compound to say hi to the girls and top off their feed. Instead, he found that three of the hens had disappeared. The fourth one was on a nest, dead. Buffy was still alive, cowering in the coop.

Alan took the dead hen away to bury it, and by the time he returned, Buffy was gone too. “Sue,” Gretchen said, “we feel so bad. I mean, it was on our watch— ”

“Please don’t,” I interrupted her, feeling beyond awful. “What happened was totally our fault. I’m just so, so sorry you had to deal with it.”

I could tell she still felt terrible, no matter how much I reassured her. As she and I tried to piece together what animal or animals had done it—a way to process the loss of the girls—Gretchen said, “The strange thing was, the dead hen showed no sign of trauma.”

“I wonder...if she died from fright," I said slowly, picturing the terror the birds must have experienced.

“Maybe a heart attack or something,” said Gretchen. “We lost three of our birds like that, dying from no apparent reason.”

I thanked her again, for all she and Alan had done for us, and said goodbye. There was no escaping the next step—John and I would have to get a closer look to learn how this second flock had been killed.

The Evidence

We donned our outdoor gear and headed for the chicken compound. Checking the nests, we found two pristine eggs. Then steeling ourselves, we entered the pen. There were no bodies, no chicken parts strewn around, no carnage like the last time, when our first set of hens had been killed.  (Details here ...scroll down to the July post, with the full story in Little Farm Homegrown.)

The only evidence of foul play was a cluster of black feathers caught in the fencing next to the woods, and a pile of white-blond feathers—Buffy’s—at the bottom of the ramp into the coop.

Taking a deep breath, I opened the man door into the coop. More feathers on the floor, but no corpses, no blood. The animal(s) had carried away the hen’s intact bodies. “And look,” I said to John. “There’s hardly any manure on the roost.” I’d cleaned the coop the day before our departure. “This had to have happened the morning we left.”

Back in the pen, we looked around a little more, John mostly silent. The waterer was still completely full, as was the feeder. Who knows—the animal had probably gotten to the birds shortly after we’d driven away. But whenever the killing began, it was due to our complacency. The suffering and death of our hens was our fault, plain and simple.

Bad Decision

After I removed the waterer and feeder—we didn't need any more reminders of our girls—I looked around the woods on the other side of the pen. I had to face how very negligent we’d been. This past spring, John and I had cleared a large area in the woods adjacent to the chicken compound, which he fenced it with 4-foot steer wire. We didn’t have a proper pasture for the hens, but inside this woodsy-brushy area, with some trees and lots of tall thimbleberry, they’d get more area for free-ranging. And besides more weeds and bugs to scratch, they’d have some shelter from hawks and eagles.

Into this fence, John built a little hatch close to the hen door into the coop, just big enough to allow a hen through. It was cleverly designed so you could open the hatch without entering the pen, and let the birds into this larger, wilder area. It was a problem-free solution.

But we got…lazy. It was a hassle, wasn’t it? To go outside every morning and open the hatch, when we both had writing and office work, and homecaring indoors? So we started leaving the little hatch open at night.

The hatch we left open...in the now empty pen
The other reason we’d started leaving it open was for Buffy. She was constantly, mercilessly tormented by the other four hens. They’d gang up on her and pull out her feathers; her comb was permanently damaged from their pecking. If that wasn’t bad enough, they’d chase her away from the feeder and waterer. So, John and I figured, the four hens would have more space, and Buffy more getaway room, if all five girls could freely roam in and out of the pen.

We’d gone out of town six separate times since we’d let the hatch stay open 24/7, leaving the hens to their own devices, and things had been fine. Until they hadn’t.

Trail of Feathers

“Look at that,” I said to John, wishing so badly for a do-over. I pointed to the woodsy side of the fence. “White feathers.”

John and I went through the gate. Buffy had clearly been carried off like the others. There was a trail of white feathers, leading diagonally all the way through the fenced area, then beyond into the denser woods of our acreage. Then the feather trail just petered out. We could find no den, or evidence of chickens. Wherever the hens were taken, we’ll never know.

On the phone, Gretchen had mentioned that cougars—the animal that had killed our first flock—generally carry away their prey to eat in privacy. But the cougar that got our flock four years ago (that we'd first thought was a bobcat) had torn the chickens apart right there in the pen.

“I wonder if it was coyotes that did this,” I said to John. “Remember that night last week, when a pack of them had howled right outside our bedroom?”

“It doesn’t matter,” said John soberly. I knew what he was thinking. Dead is dead.

The Empty Pen

John and I feel doubly guilty about our wonderful neighbors Gretchen and Alan. They weren’t only the ones who’d had to deal with this killing, but they’d had a personal stake in the birds' well-being. Two years ago—almost to the day—we’d bought the hens as pullets from them...at an almost-free price.

After we’d lost our first hens, these five girls from Gretchen and Alan had brought life back to our little homestead, and somehow, possibility.

This setback feels like a big one. We've lost our hens' company, some of our food supply self-reliance, and my pride in keeping a healthy flock. Most of all, I've lost the contentment I'd feel gazing out at our girls.

Our chicken compound is straight across the yard, in full view of the kitchen window. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, so I look out that window many times each day. Now, after death stalked Berryridge Farm for the second time, my gaze still goes automatically to the chicken pen, and I still search for movement as I’ve done for two years, seeking a glimpse of the hens that aren’t there.

All I see, and feel, is emptiness. With a heart heavy with regret.  

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Free Halloween eBook!

My Halloween and Day of the Dead fantasy-adventure for tweens, Morgan Carey and The Curse of the Corpse Bride, is now free! Here's more about the story:

Middle- grade Halloween story
Morgan has chosen the coolest costume ever—a dead bride. But when she finds a strange fortune-telling machine at the mall on Halloween, she has no way of knowing that she has encountered some powerful magic—and entered a world where her Halloween costume has become all too real. The next day, the Day of the Dead, or the Dia de los Muertos, she faces a terrible dilemma…Will Morgan and her best friend Claire be able to break the spell? Or is Morgan doomed to be cursed by the Corpse Bride forever?

This family-friendly Halloween story is suitable for all ages…other Morgan Carey books include Book 2, Morgan Carey and The Mystery of the Christmas Fairies, and a haunted-house novel, Book 3, The Secret Astoria Scavenger Hunt... You can find the "Corpse Bride" ebook at Amazon, Apple Books, or your favorite online book retailer!

Saturday, August 24, 2019

40% off Two Irish Novels!

Do you enjoy tender love stories? My 2 linked Village of Ballydara novels, The Hopeful Romantic and The Galway Girls, have been selected for special pricing at Kobo books' 40% Romance promotion! You can find both ebooks on sale at Kobo through Monday, August 26, and the promo code is 40ROM.
First of my 2 connected Ballydara novels

Right now, I'm into one of Jenny Colgan's older romances, Rosie Hopkins's Sweetshop of Dreams: a novel with recipes--it's a delightful story set in the English countryside (with the extra fun of learning about sweets and candy across the pond). Whatever you're reading on this summer weekend, I hope it's a good one! 

You can find out more about all my Irish novels, my 2 memoirs, and my books for kids at www.susancolleenbrowne.com !

Friday, July 19, 2019

Big Little Farm Hunger Games

The signs were too plentiful to ignore: our little farm had a Big Problem.

It wasn’t just the ever-increasing number of black bits on the shop floor. The incidents at our little homestead were growing by the day. In the space of a few weeks, I’d found:

The back of my work glove, stored in the chicken-feed shed, was chewed away.

In the same shed, a silver-dollar sized hole gnawed in the top of the thick plastic bin where we keep the feed.

Yet another air filter (the 3rd) in our Toyota’s engine, disintegrated into fluff.

In the morning, our strawberry netting would be mysteriously rearranged. And each day we had more and more half-eaten berries in the beds.

Berries littered all over the ground in our west blueberry patch. I looked around, and discovered that
Blueberry hideaway
beneath a nearby lavender plant was a cache of at least a hundred blueberries, single ones as well as berry clusters.

The icing on the cake of this growing season: one day I went out to the shop to fetch the iron sulfate (slug bait) to put around our new seedlings, and discovered the entire bottom of the container had been eaten clean away, and not one pellet of bait remained.

I could go on, but you get the picture: Berryridge Farm had a rodent problem.

John and I had long dealt with mice and voles. He kept mousetraps baited in our various sheds and under the house, and we’d learned that if we wanted to grow any root crops at all, they’d have to be planted in raised, screened beds. But this year, despite arduous fencing and netting, the critters were undeterred. Early in the morning, I’d look out our windows and see them scurrying all over the yard and in the berry beds, making their rounds.

Then came the week we had not one, but two rat sightings. Around dusk, I saw one skulking in the chicken yard, near the maple stump where one of our hens hung out. Then, a few days later, as John and I were ready to go for a walk, I was checking on a strawberry bed and spied a big, fat brown-gray critter caught in the net.

“John,” I yelled. “There’s a rat here!”

He jogged to the shop to grab one of his big sticks (we keep many on hand, for walking sticks, for poking the hornets’ nests in the shop eaves, and just ‘cause we have a lot of wood around), and over he came. He raised his stick, poised to strike, and that stinkin’ rat wiggled out of the net, and "likkety-split" as my North-Dakota dad would say) raced into some dense weeds and disappeared under the house.

Of course, we had no one to blame but ourselves for our rodent issues. First of all, if you try raising food in the middle of the woods, you’re going to have pests. Our biggest mistake was when we started out, not clearing a far larger swath of woods for a critter buffer.

Our second mistake was not keeping up the yard. I’d learned that if I wanted a decent harvest, I had to keep my fruit and vegetable beds weeded and tidy. But I never seemed to have time to tend my perennial beds, and over time, my  5 lovely flower beds had devolved into feral, weed-choked tangles. Perfect cover for critters.

Our third and probably most critical boo-boo started with our hens’ molting season. Buffy, our docile Buff Orpington, had a really hard molt, and the other five girls picked on her mercilessly. (See my February 1, 2019 post.) It got so bad, the way they were ganging up on her, plucking her feathers and damaging her comb, that John and I thought Buffy would die.

She’d learned to jump up to the maple stump, which was swiftly sending out suckers of thick growth, where the other five wouldn’t attack her. All day long, there she’d stay, too afraid to even go to the feeder. So I started leaving a little container of food for her on the stump, along with a pail of water.

Well. I was, in effect, extending a big welcome mat to the rodents, especially the rats: “Come on in, make yourselves at home. And while you’re at it, have a snack of this wonderful organic chicken feed!”

There’s nothing like rats around, to make you feel like you’ve lost any control you ever had over your homestead. But you can try a few strategies for battling rodents. (Emphasis on “try.”)

With the blueberry cache, I assiduously weeded the entire patch, then I cut that poor, innocent lavender bush down to the roots and picked up every last berry. I didn’t even want to know if the perp was a mouse or a rat, but next time it came for a snack, that food, and the food-storage spot, would be gone. (I haven’t seen any evidence the critter returned.)

For the destroyed air filter: Our auto repair tech recommended spritzing some Clorox around the car engine. Not a fan of Clorox, especially if the smell wafts into the car, I’m trying essential oils.

John has bought some rat poison, but hasn’t yet deployed it. (I confess, I’m very squeamish when it comes to poisons at Berryridge Farm.)

Also, I've vowed to try to get our feral flowerbeds tidied up, thus clearing some of the thousands of hidey-holes we have in the yard. These wild spots have made me crazy for years, and these buggers overrunning our place are exactly the incentive I need to get started.

Yet, the story doesn’t quite end here. The one called, “Murder, She Wrote.”

I keep two compost piles in the woodsy edge of the yard—one pile I’m currently adding to, and a second one that’s mellowing, ready to spread. They’re in an area we’ve sort of cleared, at least enough to walk through. It’s a place I enjoy working, turning our kitchen scraps and leaves into magical food for our crops.  

Earlier this week, I was turning my mature compost pile when a vole jumped out of it. Faster than lightning, it leaped away, into a thimbleberry clump. I sighed—it was nothing new. I’d caught these guys in the pile many times before.

But last night, as I was shoveling out some compost to put on my newly-weeded asparagus beds, there was something new: a small creature wiggled out of the compost, with a light brown back and a white tummy. A baby vole!

My brain went into overdrive. What should I do? The animal looked so defenseless, so delicate. But! Within a few short months, it would be reproducing God knows how many more babies, then they would make babies, and so on, and wasn’t our place already being taken over, our crops decimated?

John was gone for the evening. It was up to me.

So I raised my shovel, squeezed my eyes tight, and slammed down on the baby vole. My stomach churning, I shoveled up the spot where I figured the body was, and slung it into the brush. It was done.

Sticking my shovel back in to fill my bucket, I stared in horror as another baby squirmed out of the compost. Revolted, I didn’t kill it outright but flung it after its sibling into the brush. Then another one!

I forced myself to raise my shovel again, toss the body into the brush. Then a fourth baby squirmed up. Once again, I did my murderous deed. Then unable to take it anymore, I shoved my bucket into the wheelbarrow and trundled back to the yard.

I’d never killed an animal before. Sure, I’d smash a slug as soon as look at it, but they don’t count. After killing baby creatures, though, I felt sick to my stomach.

I’ve asked John to turn the compost for me today—I can’t deal with any more vole babies. I’ll carry on with my flowerbed clearing, as best I can that is, in between weeding, watering, harvesting, and putting up the fruits of our labor.

But I’ll never look at my compost pile the same way again.