Ever Changing

It’s cold again in our little house. Winter keeps coming and going as it does every year in Texas. Spring makes so many false starts that by the time it actually arrives you are very skeptical that it will stay. By the time you finally believe it, it’s already hot. For now, it’s snowy. Really snowy for Texas.

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We’ve been off grid for three months now. Three. Whole. Months. Though in reality we had no idea how long this would last, I never anticipated going without power for so long. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not upset about it. I’m just shocked. Never in my life did I think I would be able to go a week without a conventional hot shower. The thing is us humans are often a lot tougher than we allow ourselves to believe.

Despite the ups and downs, we are getting past the initial shock and learning curve of living like this, and I love it now. I love not hearing the hum of electricity. I love becoming much more mindful of our resources. I love that our children watch little to no television (only the occasional movie), but scream with excitement when they spot a cardinal or a Black Capped Chickadee out the window. Every day throughout this experience, I notice “I can’ts” being replaced with family brainstorming around whiteboard drawings.

The important change that has occurred is accepting that things are different now. Like the ever-wise, rum-guzzling Captain Jack Sparrow once slurred, the problem was not the problem. The problem was my attitude about the problem. At the beginning of this adventure, I spent a lot of time trying to live like how I had been living. What I really needed was to let go of how it was and accept how it is. The best part of that has been how grateful it has made me and how much less entitled I believe I am. Very frequently, I laugh and shake my head at all the times in the past that I complained about switching over laundry or unloading the dishwasher.  Today, I am just glad if the water lines aren’t frozen and the ground is firm enough that the wheels on the generator actually turn instead of just dragging and collecting mud while I pull it down to the well.

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We knew, going into this, that the process would refine us. I just failed to appreciate how much I needed that refinement. I still have a very long way to go, but I am so relieved that my attitude is improving on a daily basis. Would I live like this again? Absolutely…which is a good thing because it would seem that this adventure may continue for some time yet…

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Too Many Seeds, Not Enough Pots

It’s not just me, right? You completely lost control and bought several thousand seed varieties to plant this season, too, didn’t you? Phew. I’m glad I’m not the only one.

With approximately 62 different species of vegetable and herb seeds to start, I ran into a predicament. I needed to get them going in the greenhouse, but I don’t have 1000+ pots to start them in. I’ve saved every pot from every plant I’ve purchased from the last two years, but my collection still is not nearly what I need. I really didn’t want to order any because I really didn’t want to wait for them to arrive and I’m trying to keep garden costs down.

But then I remembered a handy little device I had purchased years ago, at a time when I honestly had little need of it. Those days, we didn’t own our land and we didn’t have anywhere indoors to start more than five plants at best. But the ease and simplicity of a paper pot maker caught my attention all the same.

I’m certainly getting my money’s worth out of it now.  To make biodegradable pots, all you do is get a newspaper and cut it into strips about 3 inches wide.
Wrap the paper around the pot maker,

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…fold in the bottom…

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…and press it onto the base.

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Now pull it off and you’re done!

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It’s so easy, I often hire the work out to my little ones. The indentation on the bottom keeps the pot from unravelling.

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From one local $1 newspaper, I was able to make about 100 pots which is a whole lot cheaper than a sixteen pot starter tray from the dollar store. If you already get the paper or know someone who wouldn’t mind saving their old ones for you, even better.

These pots can go straight into the ground when it’s time to plant. I have noticed that these pots dry out a little faster than plants in plastic pots, probably because paper doesn’t hold in moisture like plastic does. So keep an eye on that. And to keep them from falling everywhere in the greenhouse, I used cardboard boxes that were cut short into trays. With some luck, the cardboard will also help retain some moisture to buy me a little more time between waterings.

All that remains to be done now is planting!

And the official chick count is…

…FOUR! Four out of five of Mama’s eggs hatched – two black chicks, one yellow chick, and a golden orange one, just for good measure.

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They all seem to be doing very well in Mama’s care. I have never had to care for her chicks myself as she is an excellent mother. Of course, Mama made quite a name for herself last year while she was sitting on her second clutch. We had her in a separate pen and decided to put about twenty 2-3 week old chicks with her. They started peeping and immediately she got off her nest and corralled them into one nesting box to huddle together for warmth. When they quieted down, she got back on her eggs. For days, she would take quick breaks from sitting to teach the chicks to scratch and forage until they got settled into a daily rhythm. And she still managed to hatch her eggs. Best hen ever.

At any rate, while she is up teaching her babies chickeny things, I will be cleaning out the nesting box. Those things get very yucky during the sitting and hatching process. Actually, the whole coop is due for a deep cleaning. Yup, an afternoon of cleaning up chicken poop. Imagine my excitement.

Waking Up

I love spring. But then, who doesn’t? What’s there not to love about brilliant green sprouts, sweet baby animals, and warmer, lengthening days? Spring comes early in Texas. That is, it comes and goes, making so many false starts that by the time it decides to stay you are hesitant to let yourself believe it. Most years, we seem to have about ten minutes from the beginning of spring to the beginning of summer. But there are some years where summer takes its time and we enjoy the perfect, balmy weather for months. We shall see what this year holds in store. In the meantime, I am enjoying spring inside the greenhouse…

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It’s getting full…very full. In the upcoming weeks, all of the brambles and non-citrus fruit trees will be moved out. And the greenhouse will be stuffed full of little pots for new plant starts.

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All the seeds I started about a month ago are ready to move into something larger…

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…especially the pak choy, which I often gaze at with hungry eyes.

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The argula is getting big and it tastes fantastic.

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Baby strawberries growing away…

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Three different types of mint are attempting to take control of the greenhouse. I don’t really mind…

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The blueberry bushes are budding beautifully…

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…as are the figs…

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…and the pomegranates.

Of course, all these greenhouse happenings keep reminding me that real spring could be here any minute. I’d better get to work.

New Baby!

On exactly the predicted hatch date, Fluffy Mama, our most reliable sitter and mother, is hatching eggs! Just one chick so far.

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See how the hen’s wings are sticking out? That’s her way of saying, “If you so much as breathe on my baby, I will take your eye out.” And I believe her. She’d certainly give it her best attempt. So baby gets left alone.

While Mama gets a quick bite to eat, the new baby ducks into the aforementioned chick hut for cover from the feeding frenzy.

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Mama is not done sitting yet. I only let her have a few eggs this time as we’ve had a lot of very cool nights. We’ll have a final headcount in the morning.

A Simple Trick for Introducing New Chicks to the Coop

Whether it’s adding a new breed, increasing the flock numbers, or simply because a hen hatched out new babies, at some point most chicken owners have to add new chicks to their coop. It can be very frustrating and can in some cases result in either the need for  segregation or dead baby chicks. It’s not that chickens are evil, but their mental processes just don’t go much further than “peck”. And if what they pecked responds, well, then, the game is on.

Having a few very broody Silkie hens, we’ve dealt with this issue a lot. About every 9-10 weeks, we have new chicks running around the coop, trying to find their place in the pecking order. (In case you were wondering, a chick’s place in the pecking order is really, really low.)

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Certain hens are great about protecting their little ones from the rest of the flock, but others are pretty dismal at it. I attribute it to faulty pheromone receptors…or something. At any rate, I needed to find a way to protect the chicks without hovering over the coop 24 hours a day.

After some Googling, I noticed that some people were using “chick houses”, little huts that only the chicks could enter in the event of bullying. It sounded like a good idea, but I couldn’t find any pictures or descriptions of these miraculous contraptions. I knew I needed something with a small enough opening to allow a chick inside, but not a full sized bird. It had to resist being flipped over. And most importantly, it had to involve few to no tools as I have the carpentry skills of Homer Simpson.
I’m not exaggerating.

So I pondered the matter as I went about my normal day. Then, as I went to throw another load of clothes in the wash, I found the answer staring me right in the face.

A laundry basket. The kind you’d pick up just about anywhere.

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Forgive the state it's in. My chickens are terrible housekeepers.

The only alteration I made to it was to cut one small piece out to allow the growing chickens to have continued access to the shelter. Other than that, just flip it upside down and set it in the coop. It works like a dream. For the first few weeks, the chicks are small enough to get into it from any direction. And even while inside, the rest of the flock is able to see them. When the birds can see each, they become familiar with each other with risk of the chicks being brutalized. I find this speeds up the acceptance of the new additions. As the chicks grow, there is still the larger hole for them to enter through. But as the bullying usually calms down by then, it is more of a precaution than a necessity.

Many experts will tell you to put the chicks in the coop at night when the flock is sleeping. I would certainly take this approach if your birds stay in the coop round the clock. However, if you let them free range range during the day, I find putting the new chicks in after the flock has been fed and let out to be easier. It also allows me to keep an eye on the situation without staying awake all night.

It’s nothing fancy or particularly ingenius. But with chicken season upon us, I just thought someone may be able to use the tip. Let me know if it works for you!

Rhubarb

I love rhubarb. I love its texture, its tartness, the brightness it lends to a strawberry rhubarb pie. In fact, skip the strawberries and let’s just have a rhubarb pie. And rhubarb muffins. Rhubarb crème brûlée. Rhubarb compote on ice cream and inside crêpes. Rhubarb dipped in sugar and munched on like celery. If there’s rhubarb in it, I want it. All of it. Because one can never have too much rhubarb.

Of course, like all good children of Yorkshire parents, my love of rhubarb began at home, in our garden. Despite raising her family in Canada away from her native land, my green-thumbed mother grew huge rhubarb plants. I remember the leaves of those things being wider than I could stretch my arms. I can still taste my first raw, unsweetened piece of rhubarb. I’m sure my mother enjoyed the scrunched up expression on my face. ‘How on earth could this be in my favorite muffins?’ I would ponder as my sisters and I would giggle at our hats made from the gargantuan leaves. Rhubarb is one of my culinary happy places.

Though native to Siberia, rhubarb is a part of my edible heritage. Wakefield, England, my mother’s hometown, is part of the Rhubarb Triangle which produces 90% of the world’s forced rhubarb. A technique developed in the 1800s, rhubarb is planted there in fields and allowed to grow for two years. Then, after exposure to frost, it is moved indoors to sheds where it grows in total darkness from November to January. Throughout February, the crimson stalks are harvested only by candlelight as to prevent the hault of growth. By March, the root stock in completely exhausted and composted. But this technique creates a more tender harvest which is both shipped worldwide and showcased at the local Rhubarb Festival.

As this culinary wonder thrives in cool, wet environments, growing rhubarb in Texas presents quite a challenge. In my first attempt, I lovingly plopped some crowns from Home Depot into a partially shady spot and figured that would be enough. After all, my mother’s plants seemed to grow like a weed without any care at all. (I obviously spent more time playing with the leaves than paying attention to what she was doing.) The crowns sent up shoots and I starting listing all the delectable things I would make with it. A few weeks later, a hot Texas spring cooked my little plant. To death. Oh, you mean I have to water it? Such a novice.

Well, I’m still a novice, but my rhubarb growing efforts are slowly improving. The new crowns I planted last year are happily growing again in the greenhouse.

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By stashing them under my porch last summer, I managed to keep them alive throughout the oppressive heat of the Texas summer. Like asparagus, you don’t start harvesting rhubarb until the plant is in its second year to allow root establishment. My mother has told me stories of her grandfather growing it under an overturned bucket which I suppose would work much like the forcing sheds. One of the established crowns will be getting such treatment so I can compare the results.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I also planted some Glaskin Perpetual Rhubarb seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. Thirty-five baby rhubarb starts are now happily getting their true leaves in the greenhouse as I write this.

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My intention is to plant them throughout the wooded areas on our property to evaluate under which conditions they will best thrive. I look forward to all the science and nostalgia involved in growing them.

For anyone who has never tried rhubarb, you simply must. Though the beautiful stalks are sour on their own, sweetened they are incomparable. Be warned, however, that the leaves are high in oxalic acid (read: poisonous) so leave them for hat or umbrella making. Rhubarb stalks can often be found in the spring among the vegetables in the produce section. While stalks do not necessarily have to be red to be delicious, they do need to be firm. If you live in a cooler climate, you may even be able to find it growing wild. If that is the case, know that I am very, very jealous.

If you happen to be a rhubarb growing expert, especially in hot climates, I desperately need any wisdom you can throw in my direction! Or you know, just a fresh baked rhubarb pie…

The Rice Recipe to End All Rice Recipes

It’s really that good.

Okay, yes, I’m probably overselling it just a tad. But it is good. And I do think my husband would have it going directly into his veins…if, you know, that wouldn’t completely defeat the purpose of having great tasting food. The point is it’s a fast, easy, and rather delicious rice dish that pairs well with meats and vegetables of all sorts.

It started with a copycat recipe of a Texas Roadhouse side dish. If I had any idea where I got that recipe, I’d give them credit here. But as the recipe I have was printed nearly a decade ago on what is now a rather stained piece of paper with no web address, I’m at a loss. Wherever you are, nameless blogger, thank you.

Now, the original recipe…or first plagiarism, depending on how you look at it…calls for soy sauce. I’ve made this recipe a hundred times that way and it’s great. But this past time, I was out of soy sauce. I did however have Bragg’s Liquid Aminos.

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If you have no idea what that is, it’s basically the health food version of soy sauce. It’s even made with soybeans. (It also happens to be gluten-free if you’re into that kind of thing.) I bought it because I found myself in a quasi-health food store looking for soy sauce, and there was not a bottle to be seen. I could have gone to another store, but having all five of the kids with me… Bragg’s Liquid Aminos will do just fine, thanks. And what a happy accident it was.

Now, I am not the type of person who will insist that you put bean puree in your cookies for health reasons and tell you that it tastes just as good, if not better. I believe such alterations in the name of ‘superfoods’ and whatever gobbledy-goop the health food fad followers are throwing around these days are culinary abominations. I have admittedly bought into those shenanigans before, but never again. I will eat my beans, and then I will eat my buttery, sugary cookies because bean cookies in fact does not taste better. They taste like someone put beans in my cookies.

Okay, end of rant. So I used Bragg’s Liquid Aminos instead of soy sauce and it took the recipe from great to marvelous. I guess Bragg’s Liquid Aminos (are you getting as tired of reading that name as I am of typing it?) is less salty than soy sauce, but still adds all the flavor. Salt is fantastic, but too much is still too much. Even my husband, who has been known to eat some food with his salt, agrees the substitution made a drastic improvement.

So, the recipe. Here we go. What should we call it? How about…

Twice Copycatted Seasoned Rice

Ingredients:
2 cups white rice (You can use brown if you really, really want to, but you’ll have to adjust the stock and cooking time.)
1/2 cup butter
2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 cup Bragg’s Liquid Aminos (or soy sauce, if you don’t have it and don’t want to track it down)
1 large white onion, diced
1 cup fresh chopped parsley
4 cups chicken stock
2 tbsp paprika
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 freshly ground pepper

Add the rice and butter to a medium pot. Cook over medium-low heat for a few minutes, until the rice starts to very lightly brown. Dump everything else into the pot. Increase heat to bring to a boil. Then reduce heat to low and allow to simmer until rice is cooked.

So easy. So flavorful. So good.

Farm Dog

“Quack, quack, quack, quack, quack…QUACK, QUACK, QUACK!”

There’s something about waking to the sounds of a hysterical duck that just says, “Today’s going to be that kind of day.”

Our remaining two ducks live on the pond not far from the house. Often, they waddle their way down to the house to (unproductively) beg for grain or to sift through the mud puddles caused by laundry day for bugs. A few days ago, I found them hanging out in the chicken coop for which they received a stern talking to and were promptly chased home. So while the ducks don’t live around our house, per se, it is not uncommon to see them around here. It is, however, unusual to hear them outside making a ridiculous racket before the sun has fully risen.

“Something’s not right,” I sat straight up in bed, apparently channeling the nurse from the children’s book Madeline. Running to the window, I looked out to see exactly what I had suspected. Our dog had the male duck by the neck and was ferociously “playing” with it. Thank God our female Pekin is the loudest duck on the face of the earth because her buddy was mere moments away from chew-toy death.

Fortunately, our German Shepherd puppy does respond quickly to commands, but it didn’t stop me from wanting to trade her in for a llama. Especially when, later that day, she went after the ducks again…and then the chickens. About a week later, the same chew-toy duck went to chew-toy heaven. Now, I didn’t see our dog actually kill the duck, but I did find her tearing its poor little body up. The evidence is certainly not in her favor.

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What a nice deer skull you have there...

Despite how much I insist upon it after getting virtually no sleep due to her incessant barking, I don’t hate our dog or dogs in general. I just hate having a dog…anywhere on our property. I know that makes me the odd one out in virtually any crowd. I live on a continent full of dog adoring folk, and I respect that. I’m just not one of them. Dogs are fascinating, but so are lions. I still don’t see the logic in keeping one. 

As a child, we didn’t have a dog. We had cats, hamsters, rabbits, guinea pigs, fish, one evil mouse, but no dogs. To my understanding, dogs were like Astro from The Jetsons (which was arguably the best cartoon from my childhood). Well, as it turns out, Astro may have been a poor representation of what dogs are actually like. My dog has yet to carefully bring me the newspaper. She does, however, bring me beer cans that someone oh-so-sweetly tossed along our road or rotting carcasses that you smell long before you see.

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See that dead possum there? Worst. Smell. Ever.

I just don’t get it. As an almost homesteader, it seems required to keep a dog, but for what? I can’t stand the feeling of dog fur, thus I do not find petting a dog, or any animal, therapeutic. I prefer the company of humans to animals, which I would argue is biologically correct. Our dog is a nightmare with the other animals because, well, she’s a dog and she’s genetically programmed to eat small goats, chicken, and ducks. She does bark at raccoons, cats, deer, and armadillos, but she also barks with the same ferocity at floating seeds in the air. And she wards off friends, but is apparently old pals with the creepy guy who decided to shoot intravenous drugs right on the other side of our fence. (Yah, that actually happened.) So she’s hardly a reliable alarm system.

Oh, you know what our dog is excellent at? Licking chicken droppings off the porch. Of course, with that in mind, I have a hard time not hyperventilating when her mouth gets within five feet of my children.

I know she’s still a puppy, but our last dog was no better. But as farms just don’t seem to be complete without a dog, I’m sure I must be missing something. It just doesn’t stand to reason that all the dog owners in America are wrong and I just happen to be the one person who sees the madness in encouraging the wolf’s close relative to sleep on my porch. Surely there is a dog out there that is actually an invaluable asset to their farm? Does anyone have any advice?