Archive for April, 2010

For the Roses

Joseph's Coat climbing rose

Yesterday evening I took my good friend (who also happens to be my tenant) Christy, and we went up the road and across the creek to our friend Shari’s house. Shari is a wonderful, albeit fairly new friend of ours. We have only known her for just about a year, but love her already as though we have know her all our lives.

Shari has very beautiful and well-established old rose gardens and has spent many an hour coaxing their beauty to its full potential. Shari can call her roses all by name, and even describe the flowers and scent in detail even when the plants are dormant. Her landhold is much larger then the front garden of this farm (where I have most of my roses) and her gardens and planting are more extensive and open. Her gardens also many container plantings, whimsical touches and many colorful birds. I will never get tired of visiting with her and looking at them. She always blesses us with a car load of new things to plant and handfuls of cuttings from her roses. Oddly enough, Shari does have an old and deep connection to the front garden of our farm, and has spent much time here in the past, so I guess that somehow makes her family already. The whim of fate would have it that she was a good friend of Natalie, the tenant who rented this farm for many years before I owned it. She and Natalie, I have heard tell, spent a lot of time being “partners in crime” at all the nurseries in town.

Natalie grew a rose garden here. Not only did she grow them, but she was one of those crazy “rose people” who could actually cross-breed them and make new colors.I bow down in awe and respect of people who can do this. I’m good with plants, and have even been accused of possessing a “green thumb” by some, but I’m not so good as to be able to create new colors and types. Natalie could take a brown twig and stick it into a pot of dirt, and I swear it would start to sprout roots while she carried it into the house! The garden she had in the front of this farm was so astounding, people would actually pull over and stop and get out of their cars and stand and stare at it. I have an old photo of it in it’s full glory that I pull out and look at whenever I want to shame myself into getting the front garden in shape every spring – “see what it USED looked like when SHE was here!”- I tell myself. It was what you call a classic “cottage garden” with mostly old English and musk type roses, and completely run wild with thousands of other types of beautiful flowers. It was a riot of colors and textures, and although it seemed random, I know Natalie knew exactly where each and every plant was placed and what the outcome of the planting would be. She was an artist, and flowering plants were her living palette. To this day I whisper a silent thank-you to her for leaving the soil in the garden in such good condition, it has remained this way for this many years because of her hard work and knowledge. To my amazement, the soil even held up to the “tenant from hell” who occupied the house for four years after Natalie, and who let two large unruly shepherd crosses “landscape” for him in the front yard. It took me two solid weeks just to fill in all the holes when I first got here. So needless to say I had to start the garden all over again from scratch, and spent the last five years just getting the “bones” down of my own design and waiting for it to establish itself.

I always had it in my mind that roses were a very difficult things to grow and care for. I was never brave enough to even try until I met Natalie. She assured me that the only real trick to growing roses, just like anything else living that you want to work with, was just to get some, love them, and that they would teach me just exactly what they wanted from me. I have since bought a cloner and learned how to use it, and now have a small collection of my own favorites (that grows larger every year.) I even happily surprised myself at one point the first time I recognized a rose I was familiar with in someone else’s garden. I like to think that at that same moment in time – somewhere out there whereever she is – Natalie looked up and smiled, and did not even know why.

Hatching, continued

My good friend Katie came over this morning with her first goose egg of the season (she has Embden geese) for me to put in the incubator for her. She loves her geese. She is also the duck keeper among us. She sells a lot of duck eggs to people who bake and to people who have allergies to chicken eggs. Katie loves her ducks. Katie loves all ducks. Me, I like baby ducks for about the first 4 days when they are cute, then I hate them. I keep a small flock of Tufted Roman geese and a pair of Mandarin ducks, and that is it for me and waterfowl! Every year one of my teachers will get ahold of some duck eggs from somewhere, and hatch out a bunch and then bring them to the farm, and I will moan and roll my eyes and take them in, and then foist them off to new homes as soon as I can!

I was greeted once again this morning by a peeping incubator with a lovely tray of little warm fluffy balls of new life. I don’t think I will ever get tired of this. Yes, of course there was one who bailed out the back of the tray and I had to retrieve it with the paint stir stick (see yesterday’s rant), but the chick had the top part of the shell stuck on it’s little bottom like a little brown turtle, so it was too cute for me to be mad at.

I will never in my life cease to be fascinated by a chicken egg. Each one is like its own self-contained little space ship. They can be laid on almost surface, left out on a chilly night, kept on the counter for over a week, packed and shipped through the postal service to just about any destination. Then taken and placed in just about any kind of unit that will hold a temperature of around 100 degrees and about 30% humidity, rocked back and fourth, and in exactly 21 days, produce a fluffy little bird that is up and ready to go in about an hour! Think about it- what other organic product can you find that is porous – it can allow air in, yet so sterile that it can be placed in 100 degrees for the better part of a month and not go bad. It still blows me away every time!

I have had much success over the years hatching out quail (they take 18 days to hatch), turkey, pheasant, duck, geese and even 1 peacock egg (they all take 28 days to hatch). But the crowning achievement was a pair of Emu eggs that were hatched two years ago. They took 55 days at a temperature of 97 degrees and 20% humidity. We were surprised ourselves when we first saw them!

Emu babies

For years I use to run what I called a “natural hatchery” that consisted of 8 to 10 broody hens that would set absolutely anything you shoved under them. It was not uncommon to see one of these hens with up to 5 different species of young, in all shapes and sizes, at their heels at the same time. I think the best memory I have is of a guinea hen, who was almost prehistoric looking, proudly protecting her nest box with the cutest little gray-green gosling peeping out from under her. Two very different types of birds, one common goal – hatching!

I had this wonderful system in place with these broody hens for years, and ran at a very high hatch rate, and derived much joy from it, until one horrible fire season a few years ago, when the Malibu fires drove a huge number of predators into our area, who then discovered our beautiful little freerange farm. We were wiped out in two nights. We were heartbroken. All of the broody hens that escaped are now in safe pens for their own sakes, and my idyllic set up is no more. I hatch all my eggs in the Sportsman incubator now, but it’s just not the same. I get good results, but still miss the joy of seeing those dedicated broody hens with their motley clutches in tow.

Incubators, hatching and such

There’s not much else I enjoy more than the sound of a peeping incubator first thing in the morning! I have a clear acrylic door on mine so I can see all the little fuzzy heads bobbing up and down in the hatching tray on the bottom. I love to flip the switch and wait with anticipation as the setting trays right themselves, then I open up the latches and pull the hatching tray out. It always feels like opening presents at Christmas to see what you got! I am in the habit of counting the empty egg shells in the tray first, and then looking to see if there is a coinciding number of chicks in the tray. If not, drat! That means I must pull the whole tray completely out of the incubator because someone has jumped ship out the back, and is on the floor in the dark nether regions of the unit.

The model I have is a GQF Sportsman 1200A, with upgrades of the clear acrylic door and metal mesh hatching tray. It is a good unit and has served me well over the years, despite the fact that I am SURE that they manufacture these things knowing full well that the cabinets are just shy of anyone’s arm length when a chick jumps out of the tray in the back! I have visions of the production team sitting around a conference table at their annual meeting, giggling to themselves and slapping each other on the back about this. Come on GQF! We like your products! We pay a lot of money for your products! Don’t you field test these things? Can’t ANYONE there figure out a way to just make the thing four inches WIDER and not so deep? Would it spoil some vast eternal plan if you changed it? Haven’t any of YOU ever had to crawl around on the floor and try to reach all the way to the back to retrieve a stray chick? Farmer’s tangent- sorry.

Ok, so if there IS a chick stuck in the back, (and there is more often then not) I pull the whole tray out, get a flashlight, and use one of those wooden paint stir sticks that I get free at Lowe’s to scoot the little bird forward far enough so that I can reach it. Otherwise, I am joyful to see my eggs come to fruition after the 21 day wait. No matter how many times I experience it, it never ceases to amaze me.

We have a group of teachers who like to hatch eggs in their classrooms every year. Most of them have those Styrofoam incubators with automatic turners and they work fairly well. I have a “Hatch and return” program set up were I give them fertile eggs and they give me back whatever hatches. They can keep the chicks in the classrooms for a few weeks if they would like the class to watch them develop for a while. The kids all seem to love this!

To the greenhouse, seedlings!

I just moved the first trays of little seedlings from the safe haven of the heat mat in the kitchen, to the big bad world of the center shelf out in the greenhouse. Now as soon as they issue their second set of “true” leaves, they will go from their sprouting trays into their own little pots. So far there are tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelons, and some squash and sunflowers.
I am once again made aware of the jump ahead this little greenhouse gives me on spring planting as I step from it’s warm enclosed environment back into the outside world, and am greeted by the cool morning air against my cheeks. As luck would have it, this has been one of the more mild winter/ springs we have had in a while. There was about 3 weeks of copious rain all at once that made for MUCH mud, and everything smelled like wet turkeys. I did have four really good falls, where I went face down in it, and it was so much so that I had to go back in the house and completely strip off all clothes and put on dry ones. I have an over-sized pair of rubber boots that I can go galumphing around the pens in and keep my feet dry, although I am anything but graceful in them. The nice thing this year is it was not as cold as years past. We sometimes get up to 400 chill hours here. Now I know all of you from back east are saying “Pshaw-wimps!” but hey- this is California! We get to whine when it’s cold! We have the HAPPY cows- remember?
Four years ago we had a 10 year frost that killed my beautiful 60 foot long Eugenia hedge that spanned the front of the property despite my best efforts to mulch and cover it (the only time I have ever wept over a plant).  I had the largest heating bill I have ever had since I owned the place, but did not care! That’s how cold it was!
Three years ago we had a horrible flood, and they actually showed up with trucks to evacuate us (we are down hill from a lake and dam area). The farm behind me had an inch of standing water (they are in the flood plain) and we lost some roads around us, but we remained mostly unscathed. A lot of my neighbors were not so lucky, and lost their homes and land and stock. We are lucky, as this old house is on a raised foundation, and the barn and greenhouse stayed dry for the most part. There were a few days of some confused little goats in dog kennels in the mud room, and the greenhouse looked like Noah’s ark when we crammed all of the poultry into it to dry off and get a reprieve from the mud. We had to navigate “Lake Driveway” for almost a month before it dried up, but there was no loss of any plants or animals that I recall.
This year, I heard we might get a little more rain this week sometime, but I also think we will just slip into a mild weather pattern soon. Still, I will take no chances with my little seedlings, and keep them safe in the greenhouse, and have the row covers and wall-o-waters handy for planting out just in case.

Introduction to gardening by the moon

For those of you who know anything about astrology profiles, I am a Taurus. For those of you who know nothing about astrology profiles, I am a Taurus.”The” fixed earth sign. May born- meaning: strong, dependable, reliable, hard working outdoor people who enjoy doing things with their hands. If you are a person who poo-poo’s astrology profiles, chances are better then not, you might be a Taurus as well. You might want to check. Anyway, whatever your astrology sign is, at least hear me out on this one.
I garden by the moon. I have not always gardened by the moon, but since I started, things have gone much easier for me. I like easier. I am not talking about any kind of magic or the occult, I am talking about the moon’s gravitational pull on the earth and the effect it has on bodies of water and the tides. Most surfers and sailors already know this stuff.  As the moon waxes and wanes every month, it affects the oceans and other bodies of water. Our bodies are made up of about 60% water and plants and animals are made up of a lot of water as well. Do you know where the word “lunatic” comes from, have you ever noticed that people get a little crazy on the full moon?
I have found it much easier to work with this energy then against it. You can just work whenever you want to and get results, but why not try working with the elements and make things go a lot smoother and get the best results possible?
Here are some quick and simple guidelines to go by if you want to start getting in sync with the  phases of the moon. Most calenders come with a little moon table printed right on them. If not, it would be worth it get yourself one that does.
There are 4 quarters to the moon’s phases (see illustrations of each here). In the first quarter plant things that produce above the ground that are leafy, and that produce their seeds outside the fruit. Examples; cabbage, lettuce, spinach, cereals and grains, etc. The only exception is cucumbers, as they do best in the first quarter, even though the seeds are inside the fruit.
Second quarter: plant things that are viney, that produce their seed inside the fruit. Examples: beans, peas, squash, melons, peppers, tomatoes, etc.
Third quarter: plant below ground root crops, bulbs and tubers.
Fourth quarter: I have found this is best left to pull weeds and turn the earth.
So to summarize, during the increasing or waxing light – from the New Moon to Full Moon – plant things that produce above ground. During the decreasing or waning light – plant things that produce underground.
Yes, you can increase your accuracy in timing your efforts to coincide with the natural forces! Take the pebble from my hand young grasshopper!

Chi-Chi Watch 2010

We are now on what we call “chi chi watch” with the does. This starts about a month before our does are due to kid. We start watching for changes in the udders. The does will “bag up” anywhere from 48 hours to a month before kidding. After a while you get to know the way each animal acts, but sometimes they can fool you! I think Bella will go off first…we will see….

Now I will fast forward from my happy young days in the garden, to about the fourth grade and my first goat experience. I somehow ended up at the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona one September day. I don’t even remember who I was with or just how I got there- but I DO remember standing in the goat barn during the dairy goat show. There was a lady who had a larger black and white alpine doe up on a milk stand in the aisle. I stood frozen, only feet away from this big beautiful deer-like creature, the likes of which I had only seen in books (or its squatty, horned counterparts that had chewed my hair at the petting area in the L A zoo.) I was in total awe! And then it happened- right then and there, so clear to me as if it was yesterday- the goatkeeper must have seen the look on my face, recognized it, and then she said those magical words…”do you want to touch her?” I immediately stepped forward and put my hand on the doe’s withers, and slowly ran it down her smooth top line and then over her full capacious belly. Her skin was fine, and the coat had been clipped short and glistened in the sun. The doe looked back at me just then, and blinked her big golden brown eyes and that was it. I was hooked. I have been hooked ever since. People are born to do certain things with their lives. I am, as it turns out, a goatkeeper. It does not matter that I wasn’t raised with livestock or on a farm. I have spent from that moment on knowing that I was a goatkeeper, and that I would not be truly happy unless this was somehow part of my life. It became my destiny, or as I sometimes joke, my density, depending on the day you ask me!