Friday, September 22, 2017

Chickens 2.0

After we lost our small flock to a cougar several years ago, John and I dreamed of having hens again. But as the months, then years went by, we grew accustomed to not having our girls’ entertaining company, or the freshly-laid eggs they gave us. We learned not to be quite so haunted by their absence, and the way we’d lost them.

Just recently, our neighbors decided to start a flock of laying hens, starting with chicks. Knowing we once had hens, they asked us, “Would you like a few?”

Are you kidding? John and I jumped at the chance to have more laying hens. And this out-of-the blue opportunity seemed like our getting chickens again was Meant To Be. The plan was, our neighbors would set aside 4 or 5 chicks, raise them for 8 weeks, then they’d be ours. Only we had one very big problem…

Our chicken “compound” of the coop and run was a disaster.

Those first weeks and months after the hens were killed, we were too sick at heart to keep the area cleared. And the whole place quickly went feral. As the weeds grew, the chore of weeding seemed more and more overwhelming. Pretty soon, we just gave up. And as the six-foot high fireweed and thimbleberry turned to a dense jungle, the whole chicken
compound seemed like a lost cause.
Scary coop entry area

But now that 5 young chickens will soon grace Berryridge Farm again, we have a lot of work to do. The two pics below are the chicken “exercise” area that John cleared a month or so ago, and the pile of brush he yarded out. The photo at right, taken yesterday, is the coop area/run that I’m taking on.
Semi-cleared chicken area


It’s not going to be pretty.  Watch for more about our chicken reboot in my next post!
Brush pile

Monday, September 11, 2017

Apple Pest (yet another one of the Devil's Spawn) Plus a Free ebook!

Just when I thought it was safe to go outside...

When the wildfire smoke finally cleared, it was time to harvest our champion apple tree, the Akane. This is the one tree that faithfully bears every year, with beautiful fruit and great flavor and crunch, and no whining, sniveling or apple scab! So John and I ventured to our orchard with several big boxes and started picking, already tasting our homemade applesauce and apple crisp.

However, for the first time in the 8 years of bearing, the fruit was covered with little dots, with sort of dimples all over the apple. Well, growing without spray, John and I are accustomed to less than pretty apples, so we figured no problemo. I was so ready for my first taste of the season, so I washed an apple and cut it in half to share with John. I could feel the apple's crunchiness as I wielded my knife, but as the apple fell into two halves, my heart sank.
Coddling moth damage

The middle was full of trails of reddish-brown stuff.

Thanks to Ciscoe Morris, gardening columnist for The Seattle Times, I knew what I was looking at. Those of you who have read Little Farm in the Foothills know what I mean when I write "stuff" in italics. For the uninitiated, stuff in this sense means poo. To be precise, coddling moth poo. Orchard pros call it "frass" but why put lipstick on a pig, I ask you?

For some reason, I thought coddling moths wouldn't find Berryridge Farm (the same hope I'd entertained about cabbage moths but was destined for disappointment). Anyway, we ended up giving the crop to my sister who has 3 horses, who don't care if their snacks are frass-filled. I'm not sure what we'll do about next year's crop--we won't spray, and while I've read about securing a plastic bag around each apple, that seems extremely high maintenance. Not exactly our style, so I'll keep you posted.

In the meantime, we have 3 huge honeycrisp apples on one of our baby trees, and so far I don't see any dots. John and I will have to draw straws as to who gets the third apple!
Free ebook at www.susancolleenbrowne.com !

On a positive note, I wanted to share my redesigned web site, www.susancolleenbrowne.com, where you can find a special offer: a free copy of my short story The Secret Well, part of my Irish Village of Ballydara series...I hope you'll take a look!

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Smokin’ Hot and Mummies—Or, It Could Be Worse

I wish I was here to share the recipe for Texas-style barbecue brisket with black pepper rub that I came across last week. Or to tell you about a cool new archaeological find. But if wishes were horses then we’d all be kings, as the old saying goes.

When it comes to backyard farming, or even life in general, a helpful—maybe even essential—credo may be, “Things Could Always Be Worse.” Take this summer. When our resident chipmunks were hitting our strawberry crop and I spent many hours devising the netting that would finally keep them out (see previous post),  I thought, Now all I have to worry about is Chip getting into our blueberries.

In previous years, Chip and his pals invaded our two blueberry patches, each berry season worse than the last. I’d get under the netting to pick, only to find the pesky critters been there first: half-eaten berries scattered all over the place, decomposing in the summer sun.  This summer, however, Chip seemed to be laying low since I’d thwarted him with the strawberries.

And happily, this year our blueberry crop looked abundant, despite the hard pruning I’d given the shrubs to encourage more upright growth. Earlier this summer, I’d head into our patches to look admiringly at all the healthy fruit set, clusters bursting with swelling white berries, taking on a bluish tinge—the first sign of ripening. Smiling, I pictured the bowls of fresh berries we’d eat, the gallons of berries I’d process for the deep-freeze.

As the days went by, I found a mystery: shrubs that previously had been laden with berries looked…emptier. I’d find berry stems with no berries on them, as if the robins had been gobbling them. But robins are smarter than that—they wait until the berries are blue and sweet, and then start attacking them.

More days passed. Most of my blueberry bushes now held only a middling amount of berries—I’d never seen this before. The fruit seemed to be disappearing before my very eyes. Poking around the shrubs, it was then I saw them: shriveled grayish-white bits on the ground, which once were blueberries.

Blueberries in various stages of "mummification"
I’d seen these tiny white berries before of course—with spray-free blueberries, you’ll find a number of them on every bush. I figured it was nature’s way of preventing the blueberry shrubs from working too hard. But this year, there were way too many to ignore. And many, many berries still on the bush were half-wrinkled, and turning a sickly purple. You’d barely touch them and they’d fall off the stem. Something was definitely wrong.

I’d heard of mummyberry disease—something only other growers get, I said to myself in my Pollyanna way. (The same mindset that got me into trouble with cabbage worms!) After all, I’d faithfully mulched my berries to prevent it—along with the meticulous pruning and watering, my berries got the best of care.

When the numbers of shriveled bits were too alarming to ignore, I made myself Google mummyberry disease. Sure enough, that’s what we had. It’s a fungus—the afflicted berries drop to the ground, looking “mummified.” It gets worse. If you don’t pick up all your little mummies, each one develops into this mushroom-like thingy in the fall and releases like, millions of spores. Thus setting you up for a worse fungal attack next year. Well, if that’s what it took, that’s what I’d do. Every day, I have crawled under the nets and picked up every last one of those little suckers. Fortunately, as blueberry season progresses, the die-off seems to be decreasing. Life—and berry picking—goes on.

At least that’s what I thought until a few days ago. Here in the Foothills, like anywhere else, the weather gods haven’t always been kind: we’ve had windstorms and blizzards and tree-splitting ice storms, along with drought and extreme heat. But last week’s heatwave brought a new twist: smoke.

Up in Canada, in British Columbia, wildfires have burned well over a million acres. Days ago, a summer northeaster wind brought thick smoke from the fires into the entire western side of our state. Here in the Foothills, we’re in Week 2 of the great smoke-out. Meteorologists say air quality is between “marginal and poor.” A thick haze hangs in the still air, and the lovely hills surrounding us are nearly obscured; our iconic mountain has completely disappeared from view. At night, the moon is a bizarre blood-orange color. The landscape feels threatening, almost dystopian.

As a fresh air freak, I feel claustrophobic, having to keep the house windows closed 24/7. Worse is staying indoors all afternoon--being outdoors, the heated smoke makes your throat raw, and creates a bitter taste in your mouth. The undone garden chores are piling up: weeds going unpulled, mulch going unmulched, bushwhacking going unwhacked. And the forecast calls for at least three more smoke-choked days.


So I’ve reached for my Pollyanna-like optimism. Despite our mummyberry problem, I’ve already put up three gallons of blueberries. I caught Chip in the blueberry patch this morning but didn’t see much damage. And while I’ve seen lots of fresh bear scat on our road this week, I haven’t run into any bears. So, yeah—things could definitely be worse.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Critter Wars--Solstice Episode

This berry season, we would finally outsmart Chip. 

That was the idea anyway. In the Foothills, the summer solstice means the strawberries are ripening and ready to start picking! Robins have always been the main perps when it comes to strawberry-stealing. But after a few years of berry-growing, we've discovered birds are the least of our problems. The biggest, most pernicious thieves have turned out to be chipmunks. They can get through 1-inch poultry fencing, wriggle under nets, even slide under nets weighed down with rocks! Trapping them has proved futile—somehow they’ve figured out how to eat the bait without tripping the trap.

So when it came time to net the strawberry beds recently, I decided to create a high-security berry-protection system that even Tricky Chip couldn’t crack. John helped me pound metal stakes into the ground and surround our beds with about $75.00 worth of hardware cloth, which has ½ inch wire mesh. Over the top went the nets. The whole operation took us about three hours. “We’re finally going to foil that little bugger,” I told John.

Wrong. I went out the next day to see if we had any ripe berries. We did… Smashed, half-eaten berries, more whole unripe ones scattered about. Chip had gotten to them first.

Okay. He’d obviously snuck under the hardware cloth. I dragged more of our bird netting out of the shop, and rolled it lengthwise to create a sort of thick rope. After stuffing it all around the bottom of the hardware cloth, I weighed it down with rocks. Two hours of bending over, my back ached, but I surveyed the creation with satisfaction. Perfecto! Let Chip just try to get through this!

Well, he did. He even had the cheekiness to eat his loot on our back steps, in full view! “Look at this!” I told John indignantly when I got outside and saw more damaged berries. “He’s ruined the biggest, reddest ones.”

High-security fence--that failed
John takes a very philosophical view of these things. “You’ve got to expect a few losses,” he said. “He’s just being a chipmunk."

Second round of fencing with one bed unprotected
I narrowed my eyes. No. It was the principle of the thing. I had to prove I was smarter than a chipmunk, if only to myself. I took more rocks, packed them all around the nets. And the next day, found more destroyed berries. Chip had won this round. So feeling stupid—having indubitable proof that Chip was indeed smarter than I was—I dismantled the hardware cloth and dragged it back to the shop. Then I did what we’ve done every other year: drape a net over the beds all the way down to the ground, and weigh that down with rocks. I left one bed of marginal berries unprotected, to hopefully slow down the stealing.

It took me another day to realize Chip had gotten inside again. My vow: if it took every stinkin’ rock in the yard, I was going to keep him out. So I packed more rocks around the beds. And I think it worked!

Of course, it’s probably helped that I’ve taken the attitude, “If you can’t beat, ‘em, join ‘em.” I have strategically left strawberries topped with peanut butter around the woodsheds, Chip’s favorite lair. Hopefully he’s been so stuffed with nut-buttered berries he’ll be much less motivated to try to get 
past the nets. I realize this could be a really bad move—all his aunts, uncles and cousins will be drawn into the yard to steal our berries.

All the rich food may have given Chip a bellyache too—I saw him eating greens (buttercup) out in the yard after he’d eaten the 8 peanut butter treats I'd set out. Well, too bad...whatever happens, I’m going to dial down chipmunk snacking or die trying!


Our other strawberry patch--and yep, every rock in the yard!

Monday, March 20, 2017

Compost: Secret to Food Growing Success!

Mother Earth News confirms what I’ve suspected since I started composting around 10 years ago: When it comes to fertilizer, compost is at the top of the list!  In “Best Organic Fertilizers” (April/May 2017 issue), the magazine discusses all kinds of fertilizers and soil amendments, and the pros and cons...but Mother Nature does it best. For a fertile, productive garden, you don’t need to buy anything; you can make compost at home, for free, with material right from your own kitchen and backyard.

Now that spring is officially here, and your ground is either starting to thaw or already workable, it’s a great time to start a compost pile. There are lots of different ways to go about it. Some gardeners go at the process scientifically; in the book, Gardening When it Counts, author Steve Solomon outlines the precise ratio of carbon to nitrogen-containing materials for optimal compost. Upon reading Solomon’s discussion, I got kinda intimidated—you know that feeling of You’re Doing it Wrong. (A sidebar: I did learn from him that sawdust isn’t the best component—too much carbon. Once I stopped putting sawdust in my pile, my garden’s fertility improved.)

Anyway, you can create your compost in a bin, a hole, a trench, or buy a fancy compost container at your local gardening supply store. I keep my process super basic and not terribly scientific. I dig a wide, shallow hole, about 3-4 feet by 3-4 feet and about 18 inches deep—it’s sort of more like a wide trench. Into the trench goes a bucket of soil, as weed-free and rock-free as you can make it, a bucket of kitchen scraps like raw veggie peelings, apple cores, eggshells and coffee grounds, which provides the nitrogen, and a bucket of dead leaves or other dry leafy material, which provides the carbon. Mix/turn well, keep moist, and let nature do its magic. Every time I add food scraps to the pile, I also add dead leaves or other dry foliage from around the yard.

The secret is in a couple of things: keep your scraps and peelings fairly small, and turn your pile often and well! If you don’t turn it, you won’t get enough oxygen into the pile, and it will soon get a very sour smell, and the scraps take longer to decompose. Turning frequently to speed the breakdown of the scraps also deters rodents and neighbor dogs!

In terms of kitchen scraps and other high-nitrogen materials beyond fruit and veggie material, some gardeners might add grass clippings (as long as you don’t use Weed n’ Feed on your lawn). Others hold the everything and the kitchen sink and beyond philosophy, tossing in stuff like hair clippings, weeds, and newspaper. 

Not me. For one thing, hair’s just gross. And human hair might contain sulfate residues from shampoo. Newspaper? Well, there’s all the ink. I don’t know what’s in it and what I don’t know might hurt my pile. Weeds? Weeds are survivors that can grow through the cruelest winter, through drought,  and basically through thick and thin. I don’t trust the deadest of weeds not to germinate their seeds in my compost. Watch the leftovers you put in too. Maybe some dry toast or something, but material with fat/oil/meat or dairy in your pile messes up the decomposition process. And bits of cooked food will be an open invitation to rats, raccoons, and other critters!  

When we had chickens, I kept a separate chicken manure compost pile, because manure takes longer to break down to safely use on a garden bed. I mixed the manure with sawdust—it’s so high in nitrogen that sawdust is more than equal to the carbon-supplying job. After letting the manure/sawdust sit for 6 months, I would spread it on our asparagus beds in late fall…plenty of time for the manure to decompose before the spring harvest.

Next month, on Earth Day, I'll be teaching "Grow a Homestead-Style Food Garden" at Whatcom Community College. In the class, we'll be discussing compost, sustainable gardening, and much more! 

And if you have any secrets to great compost, please share them here!

Saturday, March 11, 2017

St. Patrick's Mountain High

If you’re looking for a taste of the “real” Ireland, you just might find it in a lovely little corner of County Mayo, on St. Patrick’s mountain. Near the small town of Westport, Croagh Patrick, as the mountain is called in Ireland—also known locally as the Reek—is a far cry from the tourist-crowded streets or shops full of tacky Irish souvenirs in Dublin or Killarney. Instead, there's lovely scenery—the mountain overlooks island-dotted Clew Bay—brisk sea breezes, and quiet.

Traditionally, if you were a sinner, the priest might tell you to make your journey up the mountain as penance. Now, it’s still a place of pilgrimage—there’s even a sign that spells out all the steps to do it properly—with a chapel at the summit. Some of your tougher or penitent trekkers even make the hike barefoot.

Famine Ship Memorial
The June morning John and I visited Croagh Patrick, we took a look at the Famine memorial at the foot of the mountain. It’s a sad, even macabre sculpture, hard to look at, but harder still to look away from. I gazed at it for a long time, thinking of my own Irish ancestors who’d left their homeland. My mother once shared that her grandmother Anne, a McCormack from Cork, was told by her emigrant grandmother, “Don’t let them take you to the poorhouse.” It seemed likely that my great-great grandmother had gone hungry.

We left the memorial to experience the mountain. At 2,500 feet, it’s not immense—there are lots of foothills around where we live of similar elevation. But as I gazed up at Croagh Patrick, bare of trees, with a mist drifting along the upper reaches, I sensed a different, almost mystical vibe. And the summit seemed far too distant to make the journey in a few hours, as I’d heard people did. Still, I figured I’d hike up as far as I could before it was time to leave—and since I was wearing sturdy sneakers, it would be no problem.

St. Patrick's shrine
I began the short climb on a reasonably maintained pathway to the statue of St. Patrick. (Like most other religious sites and shrines in Ireland, there’s a sign asking for a donation, for maintenance.) I was game to climb higher, but the path became treacherous. Instead of gravel,  you had to negotiate either smooth wet stone, or clamber over humps of rock, every surface littered with loose rocks of all sizes. I hiked up about 50 yards further, but found my sneakers and my sense of self-preservation were no match for that trail. Amazed that some people did it without shoes, back I turned—preferring to stay in one piece instead of being able to say I climbed even partway up Croagh Patrick!

If you're looking for Ireland-related entertainment for St. Patrick's Day, you'll find a great selection of Irish books and movies at www.susancolleenbrowne.com Whatever your celebrations, may they be happy ones!

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Hygge = Comfort Living, Foothills-Style

Winter doldrums got you down? A cold or even the flu has you under the weather? The Danish notion of “Hygge,” which many Danes think of as a feeling of coziness, togetherness and contentment, may be just what you need to get through the dark, cold days of February. I’ve just started The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living by Meik Wiking. It’s an whimsically illustrated book that shows how you can embrace “Hygge”—a Danish term that looks like it could be pronounced “Huggee” or with a stretch of the imagination, “Hug Me,” but it’s apparently pronounced “Hoo-ga.” However you say it, now is the perfect time to treat yourself to fresh air, extra light, and comforting food and surroundings. And yes, lots of hugs.

It would be great if “Hygge” happened magically or spontaneously, but it does take some prior planning. Maybe fit some outdoor time into your day—a lunchtime walk, or after work, a ramble in the park with a friend in the dusk. Next time you’re at the store, you might lay in a supply of soup-making ingredients. And of course, some quality chocolate. 

Once you’re home, get out the soup pot, and into your jammies and fuzzy socks. Live flames of some kind (preferably not coming from your stove!) will really lift the spirits—if you don’t have a fireplace, how about candlelight? Have beeswax or soy candles on hand (they don’t emit chemically fumes like paraffin). Instead of lolling on the couch in front of the news, read a fun book or watch a PBS mystery. (Try to steer clear of The Walking Dead or anything similar—the Hygge vibe doesn’t really go with blood and gore.)

Here at Berryridge Farm, you’ve always got an excuse to (or a reason to make yourself) get outside, even in winter. I’ll chop a little firewood, and turn the compost pile to keep it from freezing. In the evenings, John will have a fire going in the woodstove. While I like candlelight as well as the next person, lit candles just remind me of having a power outage. Instead, we turn on a string of holiday lights we keep in the living room window until Daylight Savings Time. For entertainment, John loves nothing better than a Japanese Samurai film...lots of swords, angst, and everyone dies at the end--but with a Zen-like acceptance.

I just finished Marian Keyes' latest Irish comedy-drama, The Woman Who Stole my Life, so for me, it's back to TV. This week, I'm re-watching The Forsythe Saga (Masterpiece Theatre). It’s not Downtown Abbey (sigh…6 seasons just weren’t enough) but a beautifully acted historical drama with Downton-worthy gowns!

Back to soup: a few days ago, John and I were down with the flu, and not up for the 65-mile round trip to the supermarket. The fridge was looking pretty empty—I was down to 3 carrots, a chunk of onion, a potato and no fresh meat. My garden kale was a wreck due to several weeks of bitter cold, and I’d used all but one of the parsnips I’d managed to harvest before the ground froze in December. But thanks to forethought and a bountiful garlic harvest, we had enough staples on hand for what I call:

Cupboards Are Bare Flu Soup:
1 quart chicken broth
½ onion
3 big cloves garlic
2 carrots
1 medium potato
1 large parsnip
½ cup dried green lentils
1 6 oz. can tomato paste

Peel and chop the veggies, and saute in a generous amount of olive oil. If you like a brothy soup (I do), in a separate pot, cook the lentils in a couple of inches of water for 20 minutes or so. After both the lentils and veggies are soft, combine in your soup pot and add the broth and tomato paste. Some garlic powder and herbs from the garden are nice—I used some freshly picked thyme, which grows all winter here in the Foothills. Stir well, and while it’s simmering for 30 minutes or so, give your partner, child, or pet a hug!

The Sunday afternoon before I got sick I made some walnut chocolate cookies (see recipe in my November 2016 post) and still had a half dozen in the freezer. That evening, we had soup with whole grain bread and homemade cookies, and voila—nourishing Hygge food! 

What's your version of Hygge?  I hope you'll share it here!