Tiptoeing into the vegetable garden

Raspberry canes

I’ve been avoiding the vegetable garden. Not out of a lack of enthusiasm. I want to be in the garden. But I’m trying to be strategic about where I spend my time right now. I want to finish the office and I want to give the flowerbeds some attention. The garden has to wait.

I’ve set May as my start date for any serious work in the vegetable garden. I say serious because I can’t deprive myself avoid it entirely.

There are a few things that needed to happen sooner.

First is unwrapping the grapes. I had covered our new vines in burlap last year hoping it would help them survive the winter. Now that the temperatures are warmer and the sun is shining, I wanted them to have the benefit of the nice weather. I’m still not entirely sure how many vines survived the winter, but I feel like at least a few are alive.

Uncovering grapes that have been wrapped in burlap

I planted a rhubarb plant that I stole from my parents’ garden. Rhubarb has been on my list for a few years, so it’s exciting to have our own plant finally. This plant seems quite happy. Transplanting early in the season is working very well for me this year. The ground is wet, temperatures are mild, sun is shining. I’ve been moving a number of plants around and they all seem to be thriving.

Rhubarb early in spring

Matt and I cut up our seed potatoes. We planted our potatoes the first of May last year, and it worked out great, so we’re trying to get them ready. The cool thing about our potatoes this year is that except for one new variety our seed potatoes are all potatoes that we grew ourselves last year. We have Russian Blues, red and Kennebecs. The Kennebecs were our favourite last year and lived up to Karen’s hype. This year we’re adding Basin Gold, which are a big baking potato. Matt had bought these at the grocery store and they happened to sprout before we ate them, so into the garden they go.

I’m not sure where I read about this chitting technique, but this has worked for us the past few years. We cut the potatoes so that each chunk has about one eye. Then we let them dry out for a few weeks so that the potatoes don’t rot when we put them in the ground. I know people say these white stringy sprouts are not desirable, but they worked well for us last year and our plants seemed to grow faster.

Methinks we’re going to have lotsa potatoes.

Seed potatoes

The other exciting garden development–and one which I’ve done nothing for–is asparagus. It’s alive! Our scraggly little plants that we started from seed last year have begat a few slender stalks. Spindly might be a better term. A step up from scraggly, but not quite slender yet. Size does not matter in this case. The fact that they’re alive is a win.

Asparagus

We’re just a few days away from May, so my self-imposed hiatus will be coming to an end shortly. Then it’s full speed ahead on the vegetable garden. I’m excited with what’s to come next.

What gardening have you been doing? Do you have any transplant or potato growing techniques?

Forsythia of ’17

Forsythia blossoms

If you’ve been following the blog for awhile, you’ll know that every year I measure the progress of spring by our forsythia.

Five years ago when we first moved to the farm, we had a huge bunch of blooms at the beginning of April. Every year since then, I’ve snapped a picture on April 2 to gauge how this year compares. This year, I somehow missed that. Oops.

After two years of beautiful blossoms, though, our forsythia floundered. In 2014, 2015 and 2016–the last three years–blossoms have been few and far between.

But this year, they’re back.

Blooming forsythia bushes

It’s a huge improvement over the last few years.

Forsythia through the years

I’m so glad that the forsythia is flourishing again. Even better, there are some extra bushes that I’ve never noticed before at the edge of the front field.

I don’t think I’ve shared this view of the house before. This gives you a sense of where our house sits in relation to the barn and the fields. (To take these pictures I was standing in the front field).

Farm in spring

Forsythia bushes in bloom

I love seeing spring take over the farm.

Sunset visitors

After just over five years of farm living, the novelty of the wildlife lives on and passes through our property has not worn off.

At sunset on the weekend, we had three deer munching in the back field, and much, much closer we had one very chill deer relaxing in the centre field.

Eventually she stood up and trotted away, white tail waving.

The whitetails were waving again on Monday morning when Baxter and I were out for our pre-dawn walk. The white was all we could see as four deer headed away from us through the dark field.

They keep coming back, though, and have been in the back field each evening so far this week. And it’s still exciting every time.

Grey days

Two grey days, exactly three weeks apart.

Snowy field in mid March

I swear as of this week I’m seeing the fields turn green. I can handle grey skies when I feel spring is coming.

Field at the beginning of April

This bird’s eye view is courtesy of a deer stand at the edge of the back field.

Looking down from the deer stand at Baxter on the ground

A great way to see the farm. But too tall for puppy.

Deer stand

As excited as I am for the green, last night we had a few snow flurries. C’mon spring!

What’s the weather like where you are? Are you seeing signs of spring?

Digging in the dirt

Tulips in the garden

Dirt under the nails, dirt on my jeans, digging in dirt. It has started.

It felt so good to get out in the sunshine on the weekend and start to weed the flower gardens.

Considering that last year it didn’t start at all, I had a bit of work to do.

A full year without weeding meant the garden was overgrown 6 months ago. After everything died off over the winter, it looked terrible.

Overgrown flower garden

Two heaping wheelbarrows later, it looks better, but a little bare.

Cleared garden

There’s plenty of room to grow. And it seems like the bushes, irises, sedums, tulips and other plants are all alive. So it should fill in quickly.

How are your gardens looking? Have you done any weeding yet?

Pick up sticks, farm style

Baxter behind a fallen tree

One of the common springtime jobs is picking up the branches and twigs that have fallen into the yard. When your yard is 129 acres, this job goes to another level.

I’ve written before about our trails and how we haven’t done a great job of maintaining them. Early in the winter, a decent size tree came down right across the entry of the west trail.

Cleaning this up will be much more than just picking up sticks.

Fallen tree across the trail

But for now, we’re letting fallen trees lie.

Last week, Baxter and I clambered over it to check out the rest of the trails.

This is actually a magic time to walk the trails. We’re not slogging through snow, wading through (much) water, battling masses of mosquitoes or dealing with overgrown grass and brush.

The trails are wet though. Matt and his Dad had laid a catwalk through the first marshy section, but it floated away a little while ago. We can sneak around on the right edge of the trail, but, of course, a tree has fallen to block the way. It’s a choice of hurdle or limbo and don’t fall in the water.

Hiking through the marsh

Farther along, we have an actual creek crossing. This section never ever dries up and will be deep and fast flowing in a few more weeks. As you can see, the catwalk in this area has also washed out.

Crossing the creek

The willow on the other side of the creek has lost a large limb.

Fallen tree branch

Deeper into the woods, we climb to higher ground and the forest changes to evergreens–including new trees that have sprouted in the middle of the trail.

Hiking through an evergreen forest

At the end of the trail, we reach the east boundary of our property. Looking to the north, somewhere on the other side of this marsh, is the other half of our trail network.

Overlooking the marsh

Baxter and I backtracked so that we could check it out too.

The east trail is not nearly as wet. There’s a creek at the entrance, but an old corduroy road topped with a plank makes crossing easy.

Corduroy road

The east trail has the same tree issues as the west, though. We’ve had a super windy winter, so some fairly large trees have fallen.

Baxter under a fallen tree

Baxter under a fallen tree

I’m on the lookout for a brigade of forest rangers with chainsaws who want to give me a few weeks of free labour.

If they are wearing hip waders that would be great.

Wading in the water

Bax and I did discover a few things that could help with our water issues.

At the edge of the back field are a couple of large piles of tires. Aren’t these ugly? I still think we could upgrade our catwalks using these as “piers” and laying skids across them to make a boardwalk.

Tires thrown away in the woods

Alternatively, we could channel the water with these culverts. I continue to be amazed at what’s been abandoned and dumped on the property.

Culverts

For now, barring the arrival of any forest rangers, I’m happy to just enjoy the farm and our trails. And that’s my plan for the weekend.

What are your plans for the weekend? Do you do pick up sticks at your house in the spring?

 

Sweet and sour saga of syrup making

Homemade maple syrup

Maple syrup. Sap, sugar, sweetness–so much goodness. Our maple syrup making this spring has been great–except for one incident that can only be described as terrible.

I try to be a positive person, so we’ll start with the good.

We tapped five maple trees at the start of this month (about two weeks earlier than last year), and we are having such a good run of sap. Warm weather the first week of March brought 30 litres on a good day–way more than last year.

We were a bit overwhelmed. We have only so many large containers to store sap and the fridge was full of food with no space for sap–thank goodness for the cold cellar. We’re low tech syrup makers, so we boil all of our sap on our stove, which takes a long time. Getting 30 litres of sap down to syrup on an average weeknight has made for some very late nights.

But right from the start the syrup was great. Our first run gave us a bit more than 3 litres of very light syrup. (Syrup gets darker as the season progresses. I only photographed our first 1.5 litres).

Homemade maple syrup

A cold spell put the run on hold for a couple of days, then we started again and got about 80 litres of sap over last weekend. When we finished our full weekend of boiling on Sunday night, we had 2.5 litres of incredibly sweet syrup–magic. (See how it’s darker than the first run?)

Homemade maple syrup

The run continued into the start of this week, and by Tuesday evening we had about another 80 litres of sap on its way to syrup.

And then things took a turn.

Early Wednesday morning–very early, 1 am early–something woke me up. A couple of seconds later, the smoke alarm went off. Matt–and a whole lot of smoke–were in the kitchen when I opened the bedroom door. In fact, the smoke was absolutely everywhere. Syrup was pretty much everywhere too.

It had boiled over the pot, flowed across the stove top, overflowed the stove top, ran down onto the floor, behind the cabinet, under the stove, across the kitchen floor. It was a mess like I’ve never seen.

Matt sent the smoking pot outside, and we started sopping up the burned syrup. I’m not quite sure how to describe the next hour. Sticky. Smokey. Smelly. Not how you want to spend the time between 1 and 2 am. Those all apply.

We pulled the stove out of its spot so that we could mop behind and underneath. I mopped again the next morning before I went to work to deal with the residual stickiness. We scraped the stovetop as much as we could but there’s still a black ring of burnt syrup. I’m sure syrup is behind and under the cabinet, but I’m not moving that. The house still smells like burnt sugar three days later. The charred pot is still sitting on the lawn.

Burnt maple syrup

Burnt maple syrup

At the final minute when sap turns into syrup–around 219 degrees Fahrenheit–it gets foamy and bubbles up in the pan. We had both accidentally fallen asleep and missed this magic syrup moment. So the bubbling and foaming accelerated until it took over the whole stove and a portion of the kitchen.

Checking the temperature on maple syrup

Our frustration at losing so much syrup and so many hours of work is significant. However, we completely recognize that we only lost syrup. The red coals of charred sugar that I saw on our stove when I first entered the kitchen on Wednesday morning remind me that our loss could have been much, much worse.

We’re going to try again, though. Matt insists that we not end our syrup season this way. After sub zero temperatures for the past few days, the sap started running again yesterdays\ afternoon. We have a container of sap that will go on the stove this weekend.

And we have a new plan that all boiling stops at midnight, whether we have syrup or not.

Maple syrup. Sap, sugar, sweetness–so much goodness. Sap, sugar, smoke, spills–so terrible.

But more sweetness ahead.

Dueling DIY – The Final Update

Six weeks ago when I launched this Dueling DIY adventure, I thought, “I got this. No problem. I’ve got six weeks! Sarah’s going down.”

I had a somewhat ambitious list, but I thought it was entirely doable. Now that we’ve come to the end of the challenge and my final report, I’m stiff, I’m sore, I’m proud of what we accomplished… but I’m also a little bummed that I couldn’t cross everything off.

In that respect, Sarah, whose update you saw earlier this week, is the winner.

Here’s my final list:

  • Hang the gate
  • Edge the garden
  • Build raised beds around the perimeter
  • Build trellises for the raspberries, tomatoes and squashes (I have wood and wire, but nothing’s put together yet)
  • Start a few seeds indoors
  • Till in the ash, straw and manure (still only half the garden is done)

And a couple of maybes:

  • Weather permitting, plant grapes and potatoes
  • Run a waterline out to the garden (this one is Matt’s task, so I’m not really feeling too bad that we didn’t get this done)

So I made it just over halfway through my to-do list (56% if you’re wondering).

The perimeter beds were definitely a much bigger project than I anticipated–both in terms of the amount of work and their literal size. But I’m really happy with how they turned out. In fact, I’ve already started filling them up with onion (seeds), sunflower (seeds) and grapes.

Grape buds

Although filling might be a bit of an exaggeration. According to my original calculations when we started this challenge, the perimeter of the garden is approximately 175 feet. The beds are just over 2 feet deep, which means we have 350 square feet in the perimeter alone. I’m not sure Matt and I eat enough food to keep up with this garden!

Rustic raised beds in a round vegetable garden

The outer beds are obviously where I spent most of my time throughout this challenge, but the interior of the garden–or at least half of it–got some attention too. We’re now up to 5 rows of potatoes (who exactly is going to eat all these?). We have three rows of reds, which we grew for the first time last year, and then we have two new varieties that we’re trying out: Kennebecs (highly recommended by Karen at The Art of Doing Stuff) and Russian Blues (another Karen suggestion that I couldn’t resist adding just for fun).

Potatoes growing in the garden

Our sprouts have overcome their damping off and are growing well. In fact, I’ve moved on to the hardening off stage and they’ve spent a few days outside this week. Matt brought home some tomato plants to supplement our own seedlings. Those can probably go in the garden this weekend, but I’m going to let our sprouts grow a bit more before they move outside permanently.

Sprouts and seedlings

Aside from finishing the raised beds, our biggest accomplishment last weekend was wrestling an abandoned hay bale out of the tree line beside our big field (where it and a friend have lived for years)…

Bales of hay stuck in the trees

onto the trailer (seriously, it took us about 45 minutes to get to this point)…

Straw bale in the trailer

and up to the garden.

Straw bale for mulching the garden

I’m going to try the deep mulch method to deal with weeds, maintain moisture and add nutrients to the garden. This bale is going to be my mulch. Hopefully it’s enough because I do not want to go back to get his friend. What a ridiculous way to spend a holiday Monday morning.

So obviously work does not end on the garden just because Dueling DIY has concluded. Trellising and tilling and gating and waterlining are still going to happen. As is planting and growing and (hopefully) harvesting. And I’ll be sharing more garden updates as we go along–I can’t help myself.

The beauty of taking on a project like this Dueling DIY is that in the end we each win. We’ve each made progress on our gardens, and we’re closer to enjoying the fruits of our labour (literally) than we were six weeks ago.

Thanks for the motivation, Sarah. And congratulations on your victory. I may have to send you a potato as a prize. And thanks to all of you for following along, doing your own challenges at your homes and encouraging us.

How’s your big spring project going? What gardening progress have you made recently?