Using a gardening calendar to track annual progress

Spring seems to be taking its time coming this year. A late-season ice storm meant that less than a week ago, the farm was still covered in snow. Conditions in Illinois are the same. Sarah in Illinois uses a calendar to track her annual progress in the garden, and she knows exactly how delayed the season is this year compared to last. She’s sharing her calendar–and lack of progress–today.

For someone who loves spending time out in the garden, this spring has been pretty frustrating.

On April 9 we woke up to this:

I keep a gardening calendar. Every year I write notes on it when I plant certain things, when I till the garden, when I see my first hummingbird, etc. Then each year when I get a new calendar I transfer all of my notes to the new calendar. Here is an example for April:

It is really handy to use as reference for anything outdoor related. However, this year it is really frustrating because I can constantly see how behind I am. Look closely:

Two years ago I tilled the garden on April 16 and last year I tilled it for the SECOND time on April 15. This year weather has prevented us from stepping one foot in the garden.

Now obviously I can’t do a thing about the weather, so I try not to let it upset me very much. Plus there are sure signs that the weather will warm up.

Remember the picture I posted above? Here is that very same tree 11 days later:

Has spring arrived where you live? Do you keep a gardening calendar or something similar? Have you been able to start working in your garden?

Oh Sarah, I feel your pain. We had sunshine over the weekend, and things not only melted, they finally started to dry out. I’m not sure that spring is officially here, but it seems like it might come someday… probably… hopefully.

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Early mornings in Illinois

I would not call myself a morning person, but there is something magical about those early moments in the day. Time to be alone and enjoy the quiet of the farm. Time to be productive and tackle a little bit of work. Sarah in Illinois–also not a morning person–has come to appreciate her morning routine. She is here today, sharing a bit about how she starts her day.

Having chickens requires me to get up a little earlier every morning to tend to them. This isn’t the easiest for someone who readily admits she is not a “morning person.” However, I do enjoy the fact that everything is a little more peaceful just as the sun rises. It also allows me to spend a little one on one time with Blitz. We like to play ball and visit with Ruff the barn cat.

These two have comically become good friends.

I think because it is early morning, and they both are still a little groggy from sleep.

When I leave the barn I usually pat Ruff on the head and her head is always soaked in Blitz’s slobbers.

I have begun to really enjoy this quiet time in the morning. It helps remind me to slow down and look around.

Are you a morning person? What do you enjoy about the start of the day? Do you have a pair of unlikely buddies around your house?

Aww. It’s great to meet your Ruff, Sarah. I wonder how she and Ralph would get along. Baxter and Ralph’s relationship is definitely not as buddy-buddy as Blitz and Ruff’s. I would say Ralph tolerates Baxter. She definitely does not allow him to slobber on her. It’s great that Ruff and Blitz have become such good friends.

Ideas for a beautiful herb garden

Sarah in Illinois is back today with more gardening plans. This time, she’s focusing on herbs and the ever popular herb garden.

I was hoping that this blog post would be pictures of all my plants that I started from seed under my grow light.

I have started a poultry mix (a mix of clovers and alfalfa that chickens like to eat), and I have started some dill and cilantro from seed. Both instances I used my grow light and warming mat and the seeds broke through the dirt and that was it. I think that even though they are on a heat mat, the room is too cool for them to get a good start. So I will keep working on this project and report back later.

What I have been thinking about is what I plan to do with my herb garden this year. I am not sure if I have shared a picture of my herb garden before. Right now it is just brown sticks with that little patch of chives that I showed in my last post.

It is fairly small only measuring 9 feet by 3 feet. For the past two years I have grown chives, salvia, oregano, lemon balm, lavender, peppermint (all perennials), and I usually add in dill, basil, and sometimes cilantro.

I decided that since I have so many perennials that have filled the small garden, I need to set aside a larger and more planned out garden just for my herbs. Of the herbs that I currently have, I mostly use the chives and oregano. But when I look in our kitchen at the herbs that we use constantly, I realized that I really need to add more dill and cilantro and, although not technically an herb, I really need to be growing garlic.

The thing with perennial herbs is they spread. A lot. So if I am going to make a larger garden I need to make sure that I designate an area for each herb to keep any one herb from over taking the garden. Ever grown mint? It spreads like crazy!

One option is to use different sized pots stacked up like seen here. This would be good for someone with a small backyard or maybe just a deck or patio.

Here is an attractive container garden that uses cinder blocks to prevent the herbs from spreading. It has a modern look, and I am sure it needs watered often.

Cinderblock Succulent Planter

Source: contemporist

I am leaning towards creating a more formal herb garden, similar to the one seen here on Better Homes & Gardens. I have recently received my grandma’s birdbath and I need somewhere to display it. Surrounding it with herbs in a tidy layout sounds like something I would like.

However, I can’t help but be drawn to this beautiful herb garden. There is just something about the checkerboard pattern and every herb having its own little square that I am really admiring,

So what style herb garden do you prefer? Any suggestions on taming out of control mint? What are the most used herbs at your house?

Those are some neat ideas, Sarah. Rather than set up a dedicated space for herbs, I’ve spread them around our garden in the raised border beds. The one that’s spread the most is thyme, but we have so much space that I don’t worry too much about it taking over. I did plant mint for the first time last year, and I sunk a large pot in the ground first and then planted the mint in that. It looks like it’s part of the garden, but I’m hoping that the pot helps to contain it.

Hints of spring in Illinois

We are officially a week away from the first day of spring. (Is anyone else boggled by the fact that we’re already halfway through March?) Sarah in Illinois is here today, sharing some of the signs of spring that have popped up at her property.

The temps are still too cool to actually do any kind of gardening outside. But while taking a tour around my yard over the weekend, I could see many signs of spring.

First, right outside my backdoor was a clump of chives that looks like they could be used right now.

The daffodils once again have fought their way through the gravel that we put down.

The lilies are coming up through the old growth and reminding me that I still have a lot of yard clean up to do.

The plum tree has some promise of buds to come.

The magnolia out front has some beautiful buds starting.

Even my mums are reaching for the sunlight.

And finally out in the garden, my strawberries are reminding me that time in my garden is not that far away.

What signs do you have that remind you that spring is coming?

Can I say I’m glad I’m not the only one starting the season with garden clean-up yet to do, Sarah? Your lilies look like they could be any number of spots at our place. We’ve had snow flurries every day this week, so I haven’t done a formal tour yet, but I’m hoping to see some more signs of spring soon.

Chickens by the numbers

It’s been more than a year and half since Sarah in Illinois welcomed her first chickens. She is here today with an update on her flock.

7 – Number of chickens still happy and healthy.

2 – Number of breeds of chickens still on my wish list (Leghorns and Ameraucana).

4 – Number of chickens my stepdaughter put charm bracelets on.

5 – Average number of eggs I still collect every day.

3 – Number of weeks a 50 pound bag of feed lasts.

1 – Number of wheelbarrows of corn I still have left to crack

0 – Number of chickens that will leave the coop if there is any snow on the ground.

100 percent – How happy I am that I decided to take on this adventure.

Between their bracelets, disdain for snow and hand-cracked corn, I think you have some pampered hens, Sarah. (Although I think aversion to snow is fairly common in chickens.) It’s great that you’ve been able to keep them healthy and happy and keep receiving eggs from them. Your enjoyment of them is obvious.

Seed starting plan from Sarah in Illinois

Sarah in Illinois is being very methodical in her garden planning this year. She’s here today sharing how she’s mapping out what she’s going to grow and when she’s going to start planting.

We’d love to hear your tips for starting your garden. What works for you? How do you  plan what you do when?

We still have below freezing temperatures down here, but it hasn’t stopped me from daydreaming about being out in the garden. One way to fill that void is to make a to-do list or game plan for the spring. Here are a few things that I have planned for the upcoming weeks.

1. Make a list of what I want to grow in the garden this year and divide them up into 3 categories: start indoors from seed, sow seed directly into the garden and purchase as established plant.

2. Place order for any seeds purchased through mail order.

3. For seeds started indoors, plan what day I should start them.

To do that I searched online for last frost date for my zip code. One source said April 17 and another said April 14. I decided to just use April 15 since it is an easy date to remember (tax day for us Americans). So for example I want to start my Black Krim tomato seeds indoors. The packet says to start 6-8 weeks before planting outdoors. So I should start it indoors sometime in between Feb. 18 and March 4.

4. Set up indoor seed starting area.

I have mentioned before that I have a lot of trouble starting seeds indoors and transferring them to the garden. So this year I am going to take it more seriously than just throwing some seeds in the dirt. I purchased a seedling heat mat and I am going to set up a grow light. I plan to post about it as I go along both to help others and to get advice.

Do you place seed orders through mail order? Or do you have another source for your seeds and plants? Do you start your seeds indoors? Do you have any advice for me on transferring them outside?

You seem very organized, Sarah. Well done. It’s been great to see your garden evolve through the years. I love how you learn and adjust each season and keep working to improve your approach. I’ll be interested to hear how your plan works out this year.

How to make a shovel scraper

It may still be winter outside, but Sarah in Illinois is already looking ahead to gardening season–or at least her Mom is. Today, Sarah’s sharing how to make a simple tool that can help keep your other gardening tools in good shape.

It’s been two weeks since I posted that we were having such low temperatures and, as I write this, it is the first day that we have made it above freezing. My wood shop is not heated but thankfully I had a super easy, super fast project that I could finish before my fingers got frostbite.

The idea for this project came from the magazine Mary Jane’s Farm. I highly recommend this magazine if you have any interest in farm life, recipes and simple living. My mom showed me this picture from the October-November 2014 issue and said that she would really like a shovel scraper.

It’s a simple concept. Just a pointed block of wood used to scrape the bulk of mud off of your shovel before you put it away. I will give the dimensions that I used, but every single measurement is adaptable to your own needs. Feel free to adjust them as you see fit.

I started with a scrap piece of 2×4 lumber. After taking out old staples I cut the board to 12 inches in length.

I set my miter saw to cut the end of the board at 22.5 degrees. Again, this is just the angle I chose based on what looked appropriate for my use.

I then drew a guideline of where I would cut my handle. Note my crudely drawn measurements.

I then cut along these lines with my jigsaw.

I drilled a hole at the end of the handle to make it easy to hang up and all I had left to do was sand down the corners to make the handle more comfortable and to prevent my mom from getting splinters.

Remember my post back in October where I was longing for a new sander? Well, when my dad told me that he didn’t know what to get me for Christmas I had the perfect suggestion!

I’ve only used it this one time so far, but I am very happy with it. I don’t know if my old sander was really worn out or this Hitachi is that much stronger, but it feels like it has twice the power of my old sander. You can see we went with the hook and loop attachment. I just have to get used to the fact that this is pretty much what the industry is going to.

Back to the project, it didn’t take long to sand down the edges and make the scraper quite comfortable to hold.

I decided this morning after looking at it again, that I am going to coat it with a light coat of linseed oil to protect it just a bit, but other than that, it is ready for my mom.

Have you ever used a shovel scraper? Do you have a quick and easy wood project to try? More importantly, is your project area heated?

Thanks for this tutorial, Sarah. I’ve never heard of a shovel scraper. I think my Dad would appreciate me making one of these for myself. When he taught me how to sharpen my shovels, he grimaced as he looked at the dried mud on my shovels and began the lesson with a lecture on taking care of my tools.

Inspiration and a mantra for 2018

Happy New Year from Sarah in Illinois. I’m very happy to have Sarah continuing as a contributor this year, sharing news of what’s happening at her farm in Illinois. Like us here in Ontario, she’s starting off the year in a cold snap, but she’s looking ahead with optimism. She’s sharing some of her inspiration for 2018 today.

Happy New Year!

Our new year in Illinois has been great, but very, very cold. We have not made it above freezing temperatures in about two weeks. Last night we dropped to -6F (-21C) actual temperature. Keeping water available to the chickens has been my biggest struggle, even with a heated water bowl.

There is one more inconvenience that I am dealing with. Frozen eggs!

I gather them in the morning before work, but by the time I get home and there has been 10 hours of single digit temperatures, I usually find this:

However, relief is on the way. The forecast for the upcoming week shows that we are going to rise above freezing every day and I am looking forward to it.

I am also looking forward to the upcoming year. A new year always feels like a blank slate. For us, 2017 had some good points but a lot of struggles and the promise of a fresh new start is invigorating.

If you remember my posts last year or the year before I used the website My One Word to find an inspirational word for the year.

I decided this year that I want to use a phrase as a sort of mantra for my upcoming year and I wrote it in the front of my new planner.

I am not sure where this phrase originated. I found a version attributed to Roy T. Bennett in The Light in the Heart: “Do what is right, not what is easy nor what is popular.”

I found this quote by David Cottrell: “Doing the right thing isn’t always easy – in fact, sometimes it’s real hard – but just remember that doing the right thing is always right.”

And if you are a fan of Harry Potter then I am sure you remember Albus Dumbledore saying, “We must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.”

No matter who first said it, I think it can be applied to every aspect of my life from what I choose to eat, to getting chores done around the house and barn.

So what about you? Do you have a word or a mantra to start your new year? Or do you write out resolutions? Do you feel like I do and think of the new year as a clean, blank slate?

This is a great mantra for the year, Sarah. I like how it can apply to big things as well as the little everyday tasks. I’m doing a word of the year for the first time this year, and I’ll be sharing my choice in an upcoming post.

I’m curious to here how others are starting the new year. Leave a comment and let us know your resolutions or words or mantras.

Four tips for simple Christmas decorating

Sarah is here to share a touch of Christmas from Illinois. Her front entrance is looking very festive, and decorating didn’t take her a lot of money or time. She’s sharing her tips for easy, affordable and attractive Christmas decorations below.

I love just about everything about the holiday season. One of my favorite activities is decorating our house both inside and out.

We had never done this before, but Steve asked if this year we wanted to decorate with a theme, so we chose “red and gold.” I think this will become a new tradition. It has made decorating much simpler and everything feels less cluttered and classier.

I used this line of thinking when decorating our front step and chose to go with the gold part of our theme. I thought I would share some tips I have when decorating.

This is the sad view that I started with. What you can’t see is the rotten pumpkins that I had just removed from the steps.

I began by going to my parents’ and helped my mom gather clippings from her boxwood bushes.

Tip #1: You don’t have to buy expensive decorations. Branches from pine, cedar, boxwood and other evergreens make beautiful natural decorations.

I gathered my supplies and laid my branches out in the general shape and size that I wanted to hang from my front door. I used floral wire to tie small bunches of branches together.

Tip #2: When wiring together live branches make sure to tie them really tight. The branches will shrink as they dry out.

I used ribbon for decoration and also to hide the wire that I used. I like to use wired ribbon to help it hold its shape.

Tip #3: I always scour after Christmas sales for ribbon. I can often save 50-75% by doing this.

For my lanterns I wired a few branches from my trees to the handles.

Tip #4: When trimming branches from a tree, look at how the branch is hanging before it is cut. If you want the branch to hang down, but it is curved up on the tree, it will be very difficult to force it into the position you want.

I also added some pinecones that my mom’s cousin had given us. Again I used floral wire to tie them together and tied them to the handle. I took some more wired ribbon and tied a knot to finish it off.

To complete the look, I added a really cute dog.

Merry Christmas from Illinois! I will be back after the New Year.

That is indeed a cute dog. Does the craft store sell Blitzes?

Thanks for all of your posts over the last year, Sarah. It’s been great to see what you and Steve are up to in Illinois. I hope that you and your family have a wonderful holiday season!

Trials and errors in Illinois

Sometimes, we cross our fingers and give something a try. We’re hopeful that it will work, but not quite sure how it might turn out. That’s the case in many aspects of life, but especially DIY. Sarah in Illinois is back today to report on the results of two experiments.

There have been a few projects in the past that I have posted about and said that I would report back how they turned out. I thought I’d report back on two of them today.

The most recent was the storage tomatoes. You can see the process I used here. But unfortunately, it didn’t work at all. Two weeks after I put them away, they looked like this:

My best guess is that the garage that I stored them in was too warm. Next year I plan to try again but find a cooler storage spot. I may also try another variety like Longkeeper.

My second follow-up is for the table that we refinished for the deck.

I said in my original post that the epoxy we used stated that it wasn’t for outdoor use, but we chose to use it anyway.

They are a few small issues that popped up after a summer of outdoor use.

There are small cracks appeared in the epoxy which allowed moisture to sleep down underneath.

Also something that sat on the table, possibly a pot of plants, held moisture against the epoxy and made a cloudy ring where it should be clear.

I wouldn’t consider this a complete failure for the project, but it tells me that the finish won’t hold out as long as I hoped. My plan is to see how it looks after using it again next summer then possibly trying a different method to coat the wood.

So unfortunately, both trials didn’t go perfectly, but that is why they were truly experiments for me. Most things in life are trial and error. The best thing to do is learn from it and move on.

That’s about the only choice, Sarah! I’m sure these results are a bit disappointing, but they are absolutely learning experiences.

I have to say I’m bummed about the tomatoes and the table for you. We lost a bunch of our favourite potatoes this year just a couple of weeks after we put them in storage. There wasn’t anything to do but move on, but it was frustrating that we’d had such a good harvest and then so many didn’t keep–and especially that it was our favourite variety that was hit. Also, the last time you shared that table, it was so shiny! 😦