February 9, 2009
The iflyer-Birdsong Scanning Wand is one of those great gadgets that combine technology and learning in such a cool way. Open the book to a bird, scan the barcode and it will play that bird's song.
This kit comes with the wand which plays 206 bird songs and 10 frog songs, a 54 page BarCode Scan Book, SongCode labels that you can stick into your field guide at the corresponding bird, and a carry case with a strap. It's a great way to run a nature walk or teach kids about birds. Available from Amazon for $97.99.
January 29, 2009
Here's a happy little chickadee on GardenSnob's bird feeder. This feeder holds thistle seed (niger seed). It's not the first choice of birds around here but they'll eat from it if the other one is crowded. You might notice the sedum on the lower left corner of the photo. We decided to leave it for winter interest and will cut it down as soon as the snow melts. The dark silhouette looks nice against the white snow.
January 22, 2009
Here's a nice change of scenery and a reminder of what's to come for the snowbirds in the North.
(photo via www.flowers.vg)
January 17, 2009
January 16, 2009
January 12, 2009
Why not start the year off with a new endeavor? How about keeping chickens?
These Buff Orpington chicks are the kind we started with. They are adorable, friendly, quite cold tolerant, and lay brown eggs. Fresh eggs laid by chickens that spend the day outside eating grass and bugs in the sunshine have yolks that are orange, not pale yellow. Even some of the grocery store eggs that brag about "cage free" and "free-range" won't compare to your own fresh backyard eggs.
Chickens are fascinating animals and use over 30 sounds to communicate with each other. If you get to know them well, they'll try to talk to you, too, but sadly, there is no language translation book for Chicken to English. You will come to know what some of the sounds mean, though, especially when they are excited about a treat or when there is a hawk or other predator around.
The McMurray Hatchery is a reliable source of baby chicks. They send 24 in a box so they can stay warm while they travel. You'll have to find someone to split the order with or just keep all 24. The post office will call you when they arrive. There is nothing quite like opening that box of fluffy chirping little birds! They are so cute!
December 25, 2008
November 27, 2008
Have a wild Turkey Day!
(Photograph courtesy Gary M. Stolz/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
The wild turkey was one of only two native birds domesticated by the early settlers. The other is the Muscovy duck. Wild turkeys can fly for short distances up to 55 miles per hour and can run 20 miles per hour. Benjamin Franklin suggested the turkey for the United States national bird and was disappointed with the choice of the Bald Eagle because the eagle has a "bad moral character".
Americans ate 235 million turkeys in 2007, and 46 million of those were eaten at Thanksgiving. Turkeys are a great product for the small farm or homesteader. They take approximately 4 months to mature (twice as long as chickens).
For more information about this great bird, click here or here.
November 21, 2008
Parts of New England have already received their first snowfall, but there are still apples being picked and crushed into delicious sweet cider. Now, there is only so much sweet (not fermented) cider one can drink before turning into an apple or before the cider turns to vinegar. You could preserve some by freezing it but chances are there is no more room in the freezer at this time of year because it is already stuffed with pork, beef, vegetables and stashes of flour and cornmeal.
Another delicious way to preserve the apple harvest is to make hard cider. This is an easy process that doesn't require any fossil fuel. Also, the initial investment is low and you make your money back with the first batch.
1. The first step is to buy a carboy which is a glass, 5-gallon container. Water used to be delivered in these until they discovered they could save a lot of fuel by shipping in plastic. A frugal Yankee can still find glass carboys at the dump, salvage yard or antique store. Otherwise, plan on spending $37 for a new one.
2. Find a source of freshly pressed, preferably unpasteurized, cider. Lull Farm in Hollis, NH is the best we've found and they are pressing (and filling carboys) every Friday through December. It costs $20 to get 5 gallons filled directly into your container. This is a savings of $7.50 when you compare buying it in 1 gallon, plastic jugs with expensive stickers on them.
3. Locate the optimal space for your cider to hang out in for the next 10 months. It should be relatively dark, free from funky odors and around 55 degrees F. The basement immediately comes to mind but an unheated closet will work as well.
4. Make a mini-fermenter by putting a cup of warm water, (not hot or you'll kill the organisms) and the packet of yeast into a jar with a cup or so of cider. You might want to add a little sugar to really get things going.
5. After a day or so, "pitch the yeast" or add the contents of the mini-fermenter to the rest of the cider. Also add 1/2 - 1 cup of sugar per gallon of cider. This will make the cider more alcoholic so that unwanted bacteria will not take up residence in your cider while it is clearing and aging over the next 10 months. Notice the plastic gallon jugs in the picture- we found out later that we could have our carboy filled directly.
6. In a week or so, the vigorous fermentation will have stopped but tiny bubbles will still be visible on the sides of the carboy.
Put a rubber stopper and fermentation lock (also called water or air lock) on the top and forget about the cider for a few months.
Notice the different colors of the 2 carboys. The lighter one was pressed on 10/13 and the darker one was pressed on 11/14. Lull Farm uses a variety of their apples to press the cider depending on what is ripe and they don't use "drops" (apples picked up off the ground) so the likelihood of contamination from anything such as wild or domestic manure is extremely low.
7. When the cider has cleared, it's time for bottling and tasting. I don't have pictures of that yet since we haven't done it yet, but you will siphon the cider out of the carboy and into sanitized beer or champagne bottles. At this time, you will decide whether or not you want a sparkling cider or a flat cider. If you want a little sparkle (more fun I think), add 1/2 tsp of sugar to each 12 oz bottle before you add the cider. Be exact when measuring the sugar because adding too much could result in a "loaded" bottle that could explode without warning. Then you might really need some hard cider while someone extracts glass fragments from your eye.
8. Let the bottles of cider sit until they're carbonated. (Try one to see if it is.) Some ciders are good now but some need 3 months of aging in the bottle to really mature. Cider keeps for a year or more if temperatures are cool but, for longer storage, keep them in a refrigerator.
November 3, 2008
Gardensnob bought six Weeping Alaskan Cedars to create a living screen from the road. These trees weigh 450-500 lbs each and would be very difficult to plant without the help of a tractor. After planting three of them, I've decided that the tractor is just about the coolest tool in the gardener's collection. I know, I know, it pollutes and uses diesel fuel and promotes an unsustainable way of living but I LOVE IT!
As a smaller person, I don't have a chance at doing some of this stuff without the help of our Kabota 3010. Figuratively, I have the strength of thirty horses while operating it. In a perfect world, we would live in small communities where everyone would help everyone else and we would team up for the difficult chores. But, for now, I can move 1,500 lbs tree stumps, 1/2 cords of wood and 500 lb trees all by myself.
Here's how the cedars are planted:
1. Mark the final position of the tree on the lawn with lawn/landscaping paint. The lines have to be long enough for you to see when you are on the tractor.
2. Scrape away the sod. This stuff is unbelievably heavy and just gets in the way when you are filling in the hole.
3. Dig a hole 2-2.5 times the size of the root ball on all sides. Turns out our 5' wide bucket is just the right size for these big trees. The depth of the hole should be only as deep as the root ball. Always keep the trunk at the same depth as it is in its pot (or burlap).
4. Measure the depth of the hole accurately by placing a 2x4 over it and taking the measurement at the center of the hole.
After the correct depth has been achieved, add some compost and a few shovels full of peat moss to the hole.
6. Bring the bucket as close as possible to the root ball. Tie a rope around the base of the trunk and hook it to the top of the bucket.
7. Tilt the bucket slightly and raise it 6" or so. The tree is now off the ground and ready to be moved to the hole. (Trees this size are usually planted in clay, not loose, crumbly soil. The root ball will stay intact even with just a small portion of it being lifted by the bucket as long as you also secure it with rope.)
7. Lower the bucket into the hole and tilt it slightly until the back side of the root ball touches the ground. Maneuver the bucket gently until there is slack on the rope. Remove the rope and back the tractor away from the hole.
8. Adjust the tree in the hole. Make sure it's plumb by looking at it from several angles and checking it at the base of the trunk (ignoring the grade of the root ball). If necessary, get in the hole with your back against the side of the hole. Prop up the tree with one foot while shoveling soil at the base to stabilize the tree in the proper position.
Step into the hole and cut the burlap, ropes, cords and any other foreign material away from the root ball. Don't worry if you can't get at the burlap that's under the tree. It will decompose. Then push soil into the hole with the tractor bucket, stopping to add compost as the hole is filled. When the hole is approx. 1/2 full, water it and compact the soil around the tree to prevent air pockets. This is where those Muck Boots really come in handy!
9. Fill in the remainder of the hole so that it is even with the lawn. Put the sod back where feasible and put the rest of the sod on the compost pile. Water thoroughly and water daily for the next few weeks.
Stand back with beverage in hand and admire your hard work. What a beautiful addition to the landscape!
October 27, 2008
If you've raised a pig this summer or bought a half or whole one from a farmer, you might be wondering how you will use all that pork in one year. Or, you might be wondering how you will keep your food from spoiling if the power goes out for an extended period of time, assuming it's all frozen. An easy and alternative way to use and preserve a ham is to cure it in salt and air-dry it. This is called proscuitto crudo ("raw ham") in Italy and it would make a fantastic gift for that special "foodie" in your life. Here's how to do it:
Assemble your ingredients and tools:
1 ham, 10-20 lbs boned or with bone still in
1 plastic or wooden container
50 lbs of coarsely grained sea salt (your local health food store can order it for you)
plastic or wooden board that fits just inside the container
2 bricks or other heavy item weighing approx 15-20 lbs
1-2 yards of cheese cloth
at least 9 months worth of patience and self-restraint
Rinse the fresh ham well with water and towel dry. Setting the ham on a clean counter surface, hand rub salt into all the nooks and crannies and crevaces of the ham.
Fill the container with 1"-1 1/2" of salt and put the ham into the container.
Fill the container with the rest of the salt making sure there is at least 1/2" of salt between the ham and the sides of the container.
Put the plastic cover or wooden board on top of the salt and put the bricks or rock on the board.
The salt will work its way through the entire ham, flavoring and preserving it. The length of time the ham is left in the salt determines how salty it will be at the end. You want to leave it in long enough to be completely preserved, but not so long that it becomes excessively salty. The typically ratio is 3 days for every kilo or 1 day for every 2.2 lbs of ham and then take off a day or two. Our ham this year is on the small size (14.5 lbs) so we will leave it in the salt for 18 or 19 days.
After the ham has been salting for the determined number of days, take it out and rinse it thoroughly under running water. Then pour a wash of vinegar over it and towel dry it. Take a handful of salt and rub it into the cut side of the ham, especially around the ends of the bone. This is where disaster will strike if it's going to. The bone area is more prone to harmful organisms entering and ruining your ham. Occasionally, this will happen despite the most scrupulous handling and attention to details. You'll know because the affected area will be black and smell bad. As heartbreaking as it is, just throw it away (yes, the whole ham - don't take any chances) and try again. There's no use in crying over rotted ham.
After the vinegar wash and extra spot salting, wrap the ham in cheese cloth and hang in a well-ventilated place to dry for at least 9 months. Ours is hanging in the kitchen.
If this is not possible or permitted (the comfort of your ham should be of the utmost importance and should take precedence over any decorating schemes), try the basement or back porch. You'll have to bring it in for the winter so it doesn't freeze. If you live in a mild climate, hang it outside but protected from the rain. You must construct some kind of wire (hardware cloth) box around it, though, because animals will surely devour it otherwise.
While drying, the ham will develop thin layers of mold which are harmless. You might want to unwrap and check on it every few months. At this time, gently brush off excess mold with an old toothbrush and then wrap it back up and hang it. Try to wait as long as possible before trying your ham but at least hold out til the 9 month mark. Some people wait as long as 18 months before they start eating their air-dried ham. Our dried ham from last year has been drying for 12 months and weighs 12.5 lbs (down from 21 lbs fresh). It is ready to eat!
Curing and drying your own ham is quite an unusual thing to do nowadays. It is also a practical and sensible way for the homesteader/do-it-yourselfer to preserve a large portion of food without using fossil fuels.
A note on cheese cloth: Some fabric stores sell "cheese cloth" which is really more like a gauze. The holes are too big and the cloth is not sturdy enough for your ham. Real cheese cloth is a light weight, tightly woven (high thread count) cotton. The easiest place to get it is from Ricki The Cheese Queen's online store, www.cheesemaking.com.
October 19, 2008
It is one of those annual fall surprises - what will our honey taste like this year? Three years ago, it tasted sweet yet not overly floral or cloyingly sweet like clover honey. Everyone loved it and we should have entered it into a contest. I suspect that the fantastic taste was due to the Joe Pie Weed field the bees spent so much time in that summer. Last year, our honey tasted just like maple syrup. Could it have been the potato blossoms just outside their front door? Who knows.
This year's honey is a perfect balance of sweetness, flowers and hmmm . . . vegetables? I don't know, but it is good! It's a small harvest (approx. 25 lbs) but many hobby beekeepers didn't get any this year. We feel fortunate to have the little honey we do because of all the rain, diseases, and the fact that the hive swarmed in May and had to rebuild its population over the summer.
After we spun the honey out with the extractor, we set it outside so the bees could do the final cleanup. I wish they did windows! By the end of the day, the equipment was spotless.
We hope to add another hive or two next year so we can compare them and become more proficient in beekeeping. As one veteran beekeeper told me, "It's not how long you've kept bees, it's how many hives you have that makes you experienced."
The USDA (for what they're worth) considers bees as livestock. This strikes me as so funny because I imagine miniature corrals, fencing, trailers and such. Bees are, by far, the easiest "livestock" to care for considering time, initial investment and ongoing expenses. If you don't mind the occasional sting and aren't unnerved by the buzzing, it's a fascinating hobby that doesn't require a lot of land. In fact, it doesn't require any land. Some city dwellers keep bees on their roof decks and they don't have to worry about bears like we do.
Here's a link to a local bee supply company. We took a bee class from the owner, Rick Reault, through the Middlesex Beekeepers Association. These classes are very inexpensive and are a great way to learn about all the aspects of beekeeping. You will also meet experienced beekeepers who are usually very friendly and willing to mentor new beekeepers.
October 16, 2008
It's always somber after the pigs leave. Everything feels quiet and pensive but edgy. The goats wonder why those smelly creatures that got all the treats suddenly disappeared. It's a good time to reflect on the cycle of nature and how we are intertwined with all other living things. It reminds us that plants and animals die everyday so that we may live and that we need to respect and celebrate this transfer of life.
This is a picture of the pigs' last night with us. It was relatively balmy for mid-October and the almost full moon illuminated everything with a silvery blue wash. They enjoyed the last of many buckets of drops from the neighbor's apple trees and slept on a thick, fragrant bed of hay and red maple leaves.
October 3, 2008
(photo courtesy of Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
Steve Connolly of Sharon, MA is not having any of the problems most pumpkin growers are having this year. In fact, he's preparing to break some substantial pumpkin growing records. But he only has one to worry about. One giant pumpkin, with an estimated weight of 1,878 pounds. Steve has protected it from rain and sun and fed it a special formula of bone meal, molasses, manure and who knows what else, all with the hopes of smashing the current record weight of 1,689 pounds.
Giant pumpkin growing has turned into a big obsession over the last 10 years. There are clubs and contests and prize money all over the country.
Read more at
For information on how to grow your own giant pumpkin, consult Don Langevin's book, "How to Grow World-Class Giant Pumpkins", available from Amazon for $29.35. Sounds like good, clean fun and hours of entertainment over the summer for the cost of a book and a few seeds.