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'll find lots of freebies and bonus material at !

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 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 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 !

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.   

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Recipes for Spring Bounty

Spinach! Asparagus! Then comes Rhubarb! When May rolls around, I’m always surprised, if not outright shocked, by the sheer quantities of spring crops, all rolling in at the same time. When you eat in season, you get used to deciding what’s for dinner by looking at the garden. So starting in April, when the over-wintering spinach comes back to life with a vengeance, suddenly, the bed is busting with leafed-out greens!

I like a handful of spinach in nearly every soup I make, but that’s only handfuls! So, it’s spinach salad nearly every night. My preparation is simple:

Wash the greens thoroughly, and if they’re bigger than baby spinach, tear in two.
Top with thinly sliced carrots, and thawed frozen peas if you’ve got ‘em.

Best dressing with spinach, I’ve found, is balsamic vinaigrette:
In a medium-sized jar, steep 2 finely chopped cloves of garlic in a ¼ c to ½ cup of balsamic vinegar for a couple of hours (most robust and full-bodied flavored balsamic I’ve found is the Kirkland brand from Modena, Italy, at Costco). Before serving, add an equal amount of good quality extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) and shake vigorously. Dress the greens generously, then sprinkle with roasted sunflower seeds. Yum!

Asparagus: Before the spinach starts bolting (soon becoming inedible), the asparagus tips start poking out of the ground. By mid-May, I’m picking 10 to 20 spears every day, and even more during a heat spell. When I go to town, I always bring some to share with family, but between our trips into civilization, our asparagus inventory really builds up! 

Even after you process your asparagus by snapping off the fibrous root ends, which takes care of nearly ½ the spear, you can still find yourself with far larger quantities than you can eat. (And frozen asparagus in my opinion, is yucky.) In an earlier blog, I mentioned how you can use up a LOT of asparagus with roasting with a splash of EVOO, a dash of salt, and a generous sprinkling of organic garlic powder.

My sister Patricia, a wonderful home chef, makes a cream of asparagus soup. Here’s my method, inspired by her recipe. Saute chopped onion, garlic, and celery in EVOO until soft, then remove to a separate container. Simmer a peeled potato and prepped asparagus (amount of your choice) in a small amount of chicken broth. When it’s soft, add the onion, garlic and celery back into the pot, add more chicken broth, and simmer together a few more minutes. Season to taste, then whirl it all together with a hand blender, and finish with an addition of milk or cream. Delish!

Rhubarb, the big challenge: 

Last week, our “main” rhubarb crown yielded nearly 50 high quality stalks. (I credit my big harvest to last fall’s top dressing with composted chicken manure. Which also may have dissuaded our local vole friends from nibbling the roots!) Then last night, I picked our “secondary” rhubarb patch and got another armful. I did ask myself, “Why, oh why did we plant a second patch of rhubarb? But the immediate dilemma was, what to do with 70 stalks of rhubarb? Again, I shared lots with my family, but in the end, it’s just John and me with all that rhubarb. I can’t bake enough rhubarb pies, crisps, and cakes to use it all up.

50 stalks of rhubarb!
On the other hand, this time of year, local fresh fruit is hard to find. The apples have been in storage for months, and show it—and they don’t taste very good either. And while strawberry season is getting closer, it’s still some weeks away. So, why not rhubarb for breakfast?

Granted, rhubarb needs a LOT of sugar to be palatable. While I’m a big dessert fiend at dinnertime, I try not to load up the first meal of the day with too much sweet stuff. This week, however, we ran out of our summer supply of frozen blueberries, and the organic apples at the store weren’t really worth the $2 or $3 a pound price tag, so that left rhubarb.

Happily, I had a quart of frozen marionberries from last summer. I simmered about 6 large stalks of diced rhubarb in maybe a 1/3 cup of water until it was soft but not totally mushy. Then I added the berries, simmered both just long enough to heat the berries through, then to sweeten things up, poured in about ¼ c of maple syrup. I heated the mixture just another couple of minutes, then removed the pan from the stove and stirred in a generous sprinkling of cinnamon. 

I knew the fruit would still be way too tart, so I added 1/3 cup of sweetened dried cranberries, and let them soften in the hot fruit. Once it was cool, I poured the panful into a large jar to keep in the fridge.
For breakie (about a ¾ c serving), I allow the fruit to come to room temperature, then add about a teaspoon of local honey (I didn’t want to cook the honey and lose any of the nutrients). The result: Rhubarb and berry Nirvana!

You may ask, what about the rest of your rhubarb harvest? This is where your freezer is your friend. Washed, diced rhubarb freezes nicely, and if you process it soon after picking, you’ll have all the high-quality ‘barb you need to make Rhubarb-strawberry crisp as soon as the strawberries come in, plus all your other rhubarb delicacies.

Note: best ever dessert I had in Ireland, the land of super-yummy sweets, was rhubarb crumble. I could tell there was more sugar in it then I could ever use in a recipe with good conscience, but heck, I was on vacation!

At any rate, if luck is with you, you’ll be able to use all up your rhubarb before next spring hits you again!

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Grin and Bear It, aka Bears Invade the Orchard

When people ask if we have bears at our place, I’ve always said, “We know they’re around, ‘cause they leave lots of ‘presents’ in the road. But bears have never come into the yard.”

With all that bear scat dotting our woodsy lane, I assumed the bears were perfectly content to limit their explorations to the wilder parts of our neighborhood. But I recently learned I was wrong: bears did indeed get inside our yard. I also learned that if you don’t keep up with pruning your apple trees, the bears will do it for you.

This past apple season was another bumper crop, partly because the fruit set had been phenomenal. But mostly because John and I had gotten really relaxed about pruning our trees. With our 14 overly tall, long-limbed trees, we were overwhelmed with hundreds upon hundreds of apples…even our smaller trees, like the two Honeycrisps, yielded over 175 apples each. That’s a heck of a lot of fruit for two people. Adding to our problem, we’d allowed the trees to get so tall we couldn’t reach the fruit at the top, even with a ladder.

We gave bags and bags of apples away to friends and family, which hardly made a dent; I shared dozens of pounds more with my sister’s three horses. In desperation, I even contacted some pig-raising 4-H groups, to see if their porkers could use some apples! With far more fruit than we could store, we allowed the apples to ripen on the trees way too long.

Our north orchard holds 9 blackberry plants, 2 hazelnut trees, and 3 of our biggest apple trees, surrounded by a six-foot fence. This area includes our last tree to bear, the Florina, a late October apple, and like all the other trees, it was dripping with fruit. By now, 3 months into the harvest, our fridge was full to bursting. We had no place to store the Florina’s bounty—so we had to leave it on the tree.

I left Berryridge Farm for a few days to visit the grandkids in Astoria, Oregon—and when I returned, I noticed something…odd. Our Florina tree seemed to have fewer apples on it—the lower branches looked emptier. Oh, well, I shrugged, and made a mental note to ask John if he’d picked a few. We had so many apples I’d sorta not only lost track of them, but lost interest. Then, busy helping him process firewood for winter, I pretty much put the missing Florinas out of my mind.

Until two days later. When I went outside to take a bikeride, I glanced at the orchard and stopped, shocked. The Florina was completely bare—not one bloomin’ apple left on the tree! I hurried into the orchard and found something even more bizarre: bucket-sized piles of what looked to be partially digested apples. The piles of apple “mash” were so very large that the culprit could only be…yep, a bear. He’d eaten an entire tree of apples in one night!

I rushed to John’s study window and rapped on it. “Honey, you’ve got to come into the orchard!” He threw on his work duds and out he came.

“Only a bear could have done this.” I showed John the piles of apple mash. “I can’t tell which end of the bear this came out of,” I added, “but I don’t think I want to know.”

“Me neither,” said John, and went to fetch a shovel to clean up the “stuff.”  After he was done, he examined the Florina tree. “Would you look at this?” he exclaimed. “That darn bear really did a number on our tree.”

The damage was fairly extensive: the two main branches were broken, and claw marks scarred the bark. The marks wouldn’t kill the tree, but one branch had to be completely removed. John attempted to mend the other break, saying, “This probably won’t heal, but at least I gave it a try.”

“But how did the bear get inside the fence?” I wondered aloud. Although our fence was pretty stout,
Bear under the fence
the tree was even stronger—so you’d think that a bear climbing the fence would have broken that too. However, our fence was intact. Then I looked at the ground and found a four-foot section of loose fencing. Beneath it, the grass and weeds had been scraped away. John and I could draw only one conclusion: the bear had wiggled under the fence.

John resolved to fix the fencing, but I decided then and there on a different approach: the best way to have fewer predators in your garden is to make it less attractive to critters! Meaning, to cut way back on our apple production. “Next spring,” I vowed to John, “we are going to prune these trees hard.”

John and I kept that promise: we’ve spent the last three days pruning all our apple trees more thoroughly than we’ve ever done before. He did end up having to cut off the other broken branch on the Florina—more pruning than the tree really needed. As for all the other trees, after the fruit sets in May, I plan to thin the apples within an inch of their lives!

We are realistic enough to know we can’t build fences high enough or strong enough to keep out the bears. Nor can we depend upon Mr. Bear remembering the bellyache he got stuffing himself with our fruit before he went into hibernation. But we can pick our apples early and often…if only to make sure that next fall, Berryridge Farm isn’t surrounded by the aroma of ripening apples! 

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Free Irish mini-ebook!

Do you love Irish words and expressions?

When I discovered the novels of Marian Keyes and Maeve Binchy, I was entranced by the Irish idioms and expressions they used, and quickly fell in love with books by Irish authors. As I began writing my own novels and stories set in Ireland, I started a list of the Irish expressions I particularly enjoyed, so I could include a few in my books. To help out my readers, I’d add a brief glossary of Irish words at the front of my books, with an emphasis on “brief.”

As the years went by, and I read even more Irish literature, I amassed more and more loose pages of my handwritten glossary. Then I had an epiphany…instead of including only a short list of Irish words in my books, why not type up all the expressions I’d collected and share them with other fans of Irish books!

You might have seen lots of these expressions in books by English or Scottish authors as well—the people of the British Isles share lots of the same language traditions. Keep in mind that with some words, I’ve had to guess a bit with the translation, but I’ve given all my interpretations my best shot. FYI: I recently discovered another Irish author whose novels are filled with really terrific and fun Irish speech: Felicity Hayes-McCoy...I hope you'll take a look at her books.

 In any event, I extend a big thanks to all the Irish authors I’ve read for their inspiration, and helping me “flavor” my stories with Irish speech!

Here's a start:
A head on someone: hangover
Arse: impolite terms for backside
Article: sometimes a thing and other times a person
As the humor takes a person: as the mood takes them
Away off: don’t be stupid
Banjaxed: damaged, injured
Barney: fight
Be a number: dating someone
Bin it: throw something away
Blagger: faker, blusterer, braggart
Blarney: silly or useless talk
Blether: useless talk or annoying speech... for the full glossary, click here
You'll find more fun Irish stuff, including a list of Irish books and movies and other resources, at !

Friday, March 8, 2019

St. Patrick's Day Celebration...Fun Facts about Corned beef...and Vampires?

With St. Patrick's Day just around the corner, I'm inspired to share some fun Irish stuff!
John and me at St. Patrick's Mt. in Ireland

For instance, lots of people in the U.S., whether of Irish ancestry or not, recognize this big day of all things Irish by going for corned beef and cabbage. I recently discovered corned beef is not a traditional Irish dish!

After the English colonized Ireland, they started raising beef...only to export it out of the country to England and beyond. For exporting, the beef was salted and pickled with peppercorns and other spices, i.e., "corned." As a result, back in the olden days, beef became too expensive for most native Irish to eat.

With the Irish potato famine, and the hundreds of thousands of Irish emigrating to America, many of them settled in U.S. cities, in immigrant neighborhoods. Irish folks found themselves living near Jewish delis and butcher shops. With many Irish getting higher wages and standard of living, they could now afford the corned beef they found in the local deli. Naturally, they prepared the beef with familiar foods from the old sod, spuds and cabbage,  and a new
Irish Flag Food
Irish-American delicacy was born!

John's daughter Sasha likes to celebrate St. Patrick's Day in a big way...last night, she created a festive corned beef dinner with green, white and (sort of) orange to represent the flag of what country?!

Now, about those vampires...while vampires definitely have nothing to do with the patron saint of Ireland, did you know lots of vampire lore originated from Irish authors? Bram Stoker, the creator of "Dracula"  was born in Dublin. While "Dracula" is pretty much the definitive vampire of literature, decades before, an Irish writer, Sheridan Le Fanu, penned "Carmilla." Featuring a female vampire, "Carmilla" is the first vampire story I ever read (I go for romantic women's fiction over horror!). But the novella's sense of dread, building suspense, and just good 'ol spookiness was utterly riveting! You can find the story in the QPB Book of Irish Literature.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Hen Attack Update

An update to my last post, "Chicken Molting Madness," is some good news! Buffy has finally rejoined our flock of laying hens.
Buffy (blond hen) feeding with the other "girls"!

The four laying hens that ganged up on poor Buffy, our 5th hen, during her molting process, have apparently decided that Buffy is indeed one of the flock. After more than two months of attacking Buffy on sight, meaning our persecuted chicken had to take refuge in the coop all day long, the Gang of Four are now allowing her to freely partake of the feeder. And hang out with them! This change seems to coincide with Buffy laying again...her eggs are much smaller and lighter in color than the eggs the other four lay, so when these little eggs showed back up in the next boxes last week, we knew Buffy was doing her hen thing.

Interestingly, now that Buffy is part of the flock, she's returned to being skittish with John and me. Not as frightened of us as she was before the attacks began, but now, when we offer her a nosh from the feed container, she won't eat from it like she did before.

I miss that. But in any event, it's a huge relief, knowing that Buffy is once again safe, eating, drinking and regaining her chicken mojo!

Friday, February 1, 2019

Chicken Molting Madness

I thought they were going to kill her.

Cleaning the main hen run, I heard a terrible squawking. Our four chickens had Buffy, our Buff Orpington, pinned against the fence, pecking at her mercilessly. Running at the scrum of birds, I shouted, “Get off! Get off her!” For one horrified instant I watched Buffy go limp, her head drooping onto the ground.

My husband John came racing over from the woodpile. He got to the birds first. “Stop that!” he yelled, pushing the four girls off Buffy.

“Is she dead?” I asked, panicked.

“No,” he said, just as Buffy moved a tiny bit. She slowly got to her feet, apparently uninjured, except for losing some feathers. As John and I chased the other birds away, Buffy made a beeline for the ramp into the coop and disappeared inside. And there she stayed.

The other four chickens had been picking on Buffy for weeks, ever since she started molting. That’s the naturally-occurring process when laying hens gradually lose their feathers, and grow in a new set; it’s also a time that gives a hen’s reproductive system a break…a reboot, as it were.

Buffy had always been a bit of an outsider. She kept her distance from the other birds, and had always been very skittish around John and me. She pretty much wouldn’t come near either of us. She’d also been the first to start losing her feathers, and the other hens had pecked at her thinning spots. I guess a molting hen is sort of a “weak link.” But Buffy has paid a heavy price for playing it cool with her four flockmates. For a few days leading up to this last attack, they’d been seriously ganging up on her. Buffy had proved to be a masterful escape artist, extricating herself and running away, but the other girls’ aggression had stepped up.

After this most brutal assault, Buffy wouldn’t leave the coop. Too terrified to come outside, she wasn’t eating, nor was she even drinking any water. After locking the four attackers in the main hen run, separating them completely from Buffy, I’d open the man door to the coop, and coax, “It’s okay, you can come out.” But she still wouldn’t leave, and would just mill around on the floor.

After several days without eating or drinking, without sunlight or being able to scratch, Buffy was not only losing her hen vitality. She began to look sick. Half of her feathers were pretty well gone; her comb was pale and flopped over, with strange blue spots on it. On Day Four of Buffy not taking any nourishment, I said worriedly to John, “I wonder if she’s going to make it.
John looked bleak. “There’s not much we can do,” he said, “since we can’t guard the coop and run 24/7.”

We talked a little about building a separate run and tiny coop for her. But our budget had been recently stretched when one of our generators died and we had to replace it. Besides the expense, it seemed like a lot of trouble for a situation that might only be temporary. In the short term, we hoped that Buffy could hold on until the molting process had wound down.

I decided to try something new. I locked the other four hens in the third “hen yard” John and I had created last spring. Then I went to the main chicken pen, opened the man door and left it open, which blocked the view of the other hens. I sprinkled some feed in the doorway then backed away. Buffy just looked at the food for a while. Then, low and behold, she slowly came over to the doorway. With the other hens, and me, at a safe distance, Buffy began pecking at the feed.

She didn’t eat for long, and returned to the coop. But I kept trying. Each afternoon I’d open the door, sprinkle some feed on the ground. Each time, she ate a little bit more. But she still didn’t go near the waterer. I’m guessing the feed had enough water in it to keep her from dying from dehydration.
A few days of this, I started to sprinkle more feed further away from the doorway, like a little Hansel and Gretel trail of breadcrumbs, to get her closer to the waterer and the feeder. It worked! She would creep out a bit more into the run. The one day, what do you know! She went to the waterer and drank, then to the feeder.

I could see she was still weak. But with each day that passed, she ate and drank more, and definitely looked a little stronger. Eventually, she slowly ventured into the main hen yard, into the daylight. She really was going to make it!
Buffy "treed" up on the stump

For a long while, she would stay in the coop until the other four hens were locked away from her. This past week, however, she’s been coming outside, into the main run with the others. They’re still attacking her—not quite as savagely—but they still won’t let her alone. John and I can only conclude that the other hens see her as not part of the flock. But she’s figured out a workaround. She’ll somehow get away, and take refuge up on the old big leaf maple stump in the run. She’ll spend hours up there, again, without eating, but at least she’s safe until we can get outside.

Interestingly, Buffy has lost her fear of John and me. We can now come quite close to her, to give her scratch or to clean the coop, and she doesn’t skitter away. I guess she’s figured out we’re not the threat any more.

It’s been a couple of months, and Buffy is once again fully-feathered, and alone in the hen yard, she'll happily scratch in the dirt. So far, the strategy of locking the other hens into a separate yard is preventing more attacks, but it’s not a long-term fix. John and I have been keeping hens for four years now, but we’re still stumped about what to do to keep her safe.

If you have any insights about how to re-integrate a flock, I hope you’ll post them here...

And you can find free ebooks and more about my homesteading memoirs at!