Real life in Illinois

Unfortunately, nothing seems to be going well right now for Sarah in Illinois. But philosophically, she says, “That is life!” She is here today with a chicken, fruit tree and garden update.

I’d love to start this post with a tale of how I walk out into my back yard, with my dog at my side. We walk to the chicken coop where we lovingly pet the chickens, gather more eggs than we could eat, then walk over to the garden. We pick multitudes of strawberries, sugar snap peas, rhubarb and gaze at the full garden of healthy, thriving plants that will soon provide healthy vegetables to all of our meals.

Unfortunately, this is real life. And life doesn’t care about your plans.

This post will be full of things that have gone wrong. But I promise, I am keeping a positive outlook.

Chickens

If you follow me on Instagram, you already know what I am going to write here. One of my chickens died. I don’t know what happened.

Last weekend our neighbor texted Steve and said that she had some type of predator that has been getting in her barn, and it killed two of her young kittens. So Steve went to help her, and the plan was to set a live trap and hopefully catch the culprit.

The next evening I went to close up my chickens and I found the Rhode Island Red dead in the corner of the coop. The other three chickens are perfectly fine.

I inspected the coop and run and found no point of entry. There was no blood and no damage to the body of the chicken. So even though I have been on alert with my neighbor having an issue, I really don’t feel a predator killed my chicken. I think it must have had some problem that I was not aware of. But believe me when I say, I am keeping a much closer eye on the coop.

Fruit Trees

I posted a few weeks back that we had planted two cherry trees. I had ordered them through a seed and plant catalog, and they came bare root. If you have seen a small bare root tree, it basically looks like a stick.

I had confidence that with all the rain (more on that below) I would see some sort of life in our two “sticks,” but after about 4 weeks they showed no sign of life, no leaf, no bud. In fact one was very brittle and Steve was easily able to break the top off.

One day we were at our local “buy everything in one stop” store and there was a 4-foot cherry tree with healthy leaves and even a couple cherries hanging from it.

We decided it was time to give up on our “sticks” and purchase trees that were about 4 years further along in the growing process.

While we were there I told Steve that we should go ahead and pick up a peach tree. They looked healthy and peaches are Steve’s favorite fruit. He looked them all over, made sure the leaves looked healthy, made sure the trunk was straight and we made our purchase. When we got home, we dug a hole and when we lifted the tree to set it in, we saw the tag hanging off of it: Apple Tree ‘Pink Lady.’

We got a good laugh out of how both of us could inspect this tree so closely, look at the leaves that were obviously not peach tree leaves and still bring home an apple tree.

The next day we went back up and picked up two peach trees. We checked and double checked the tags this time.

Garden

In my last post, I talked about how much rain we had.

In 6 days we measured 9.7 inches of rain in our rain gauge. Since then I haven’t kept as close record, but I know for certain we have had at least another 3 inches. I looked online and our average rainfall for the month of May is 4 inches. We have had over three times our normal rainfall.

As I write this, the forecast is calling for 80% chance of thunderstorms tonight and 50% chance tomorrow. So the fact that I have ANYTHING growing in the garden is close to a miracle.

I have had to replant potatoes, but thankfully the second crop has broken ground and is much more likely to make it.

We also replanted cucumbers and sugar snap peas, and they also look much better.

Remember last year when I overdid it on the radishes? We we took a much better approach this year, and my crop is a lot more manageable.

However, our tomatoes and green peppers are showing signs of stress from the excess rain. The leaves are starting to yellow. We planted 2 green peppers on little mounds hoping that would help, but I am still not sure about them.

As you can see, our garden is struggling a little bit. But it is still early and I have high hopes that it will come around. Looking closely at my pictures, you can see I have some weeding to do.

As soon as it is possible we still need to plant green beans, squash, cabbage, watermelons and sunflowers. I will plant pumpkins sometime in early July for an October harvest.

That looks so, so soggy, Sarah. You’ve had some tough breaks. I love that you can still laugh about apple-peach trees and look ahead to a successful harvest.

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.

Second year for syrup

Tapping a maple tree

It’s maple syrup season again on the farm. Or we think it is.

This is only our second time tapping our trees, so we’re still pretty much guessing. Temperatures are supposed to be above freezing during the day this week and below at night. From what I’ve read and what we learned last year, that’s sap weather.

Last year, we were impressed by how easy it was and how much syrup we made. In fact, we still have syrup left. We just don’t eat enough pancakes at our house.

But we’re not letting that stop us. We enjoyed making syrup last year, so we’re going to do it again.

Like so much of what we do on the farm, this is an experiment, so we’re learning as we go.

Lesson #1: Make sure the drill battery is charged (and the back-up too) before you start tapping. Mr. Dewalt had to hang out for a little while until the bit could spin enough to get him unstuck.

Drill stuck in a tree

Matt has picked a couple of new trees. The only issue is they’re not the easiest to access. More incentive to clean up the brush and junk along the edge of the field.

Tapping maple trees

The other three buckets went on our most productive trees from last year. (Can you spot the puppy?)

Tapping maple trees

Now our fingers are crossed that the weather cooperates and the sap starts flowing.

First fire of the season

Saturday, I was outside in a chilly wind all afternoon. Unfortunately, I wasn’t at the farm, so I didn’t have physical labour to keep me warm.

Saturday evening, home at the farm, was all about big bowl of soup on the couch in front of the first fire of the season.

A chilly day spent outside means the first fire of the season

A post shared by Julia (@juliaon129acres) on

 

Sunday, Matt and I rearranged the woodpiles and took delivery of another load of firewood from his Dad.

We have a serious stockpile of firewood this year. It wraps around all three sides of the pool room.

Woodpile

We’ve gotten so much new wood this year that things have gotten a bit jumbled.

The rearrangement on Sunday was about putting the oldest wood in the most accessible spot: stacked on the side patio closest to the kitchen door. Then there is the original woodpile behind the pool room now expanded to four rows–we’ve never had four rows.

Woodpile

The newest wood is on the other side patio where it can dry for awhile–years given the amount of wood we have to burn through before then.

Woodpile

The fireplace is my thing, but the firewood is Matt’s. I gripe a bit about firewood taking over our house, but I appreciate all of the effort he puts into making sure I’m set for a cozy night after a chilly day.

How are you getting ready for winter at your house?

Things I think about while splitting firewood

We’ve been gradually amassing firewood on our side patio.

Unsplit firewood on the side patio

On Saturday, I was away from the farm for a few hours, and when I came home Matt was deep into splitting. In all, he spent 7 hours splitting. I put in 5 hours stacking.

Matt splitting firewood

By the end of the day, we had three rows of wood split–my goal for our annual firewood allotment.

Firewood piles

Of course, by Sunday one of the rows had partially collapsed, but on the bright side I cleaned up most of the wood chips, bark and small branches that had littered the patio.

Collapsed firewood piles

I’ve been thinking about making a little sitting area here.

Cleaning up the side patio

We’re not really good at sitting, especially when we’re outside, but maybe that’s just because we don’t have a spot. That could be, right?

It has nothing to do with spending a whole day splitting wood or the next one picking up bark or weeding the garden or… or… or…, right?

The mosquitoes haven’t been bad this summer, so sitting outside is actually a possibility.

I love this patio makeover from Love Grows Wild. Back in the spring I uncovered some huge slabs of 6x6s that had been bolted together. I wasn’t sure what to do with them, but then I saw Liz’s chunky rustic table and was inspired.

Love Grows Wild patio

I feel like this post has been building to a reveal of a relaxing new patio area… or at least our own rustic table.

Ha-ha. Yeah right. Projects do not happen that quickly around here.

But we still had a productive weekend. Getting that much firewood put up is a huge accomplishment.

What did you get up to this weekend?

Save

Shoe tree

In the city, shoes dangling over the wires mean you might not be in the greatest neighbourhood. Out here in the country, we do things a little differently. Although I’m not sure what the meaning is of the shoe tree.

Literally, a tree covered in shoes.

Shoe tree

There are fancy shoes and casual shoes. Big shoes and little shoes.

Shoe tree

Sandle shoes and boot shoes and fuzzy shoes.

Shoetree

And of course, Canadian shoes.

Shoetree

I think the fact that we have a shoe tree says less about the neighbourhood and more about the people who live here.

Crazy country folk.

Sweet times on the farm

I looooove maple syrup. Growing up, every spring my parents went to a Mennonite farm and bought gallons of pure maple syrup. Then they put it into containers and froze it, so we had it for the whole year. It was always a sad day late in the winter when we ran out of syrup.

Sorry, Aunt Jemima, you’re just not for me.

You can imagine how excited I am to be making our own maple syrup this year.

We jumped right in to tapping our trees with little thought to how we’d transform the sap into syrup. A lot of what I saw online talked about evaporators or cauldrons over fires. Pretty much everything said, “Do not boil sap indoors.”

We have neither an evaporator nor a cauldron, however. Nor did we have a ton of sap, so Matt and I threw caution to the wind and decided we were going to boil our sap inside on the stove. Daring, I know.

We selected some large pots–including our big roasting pan, dumped in the sap, set the burners to high and turned on the exhaust fan to suck out the steam. And you know what? It totally worked!

Boiling sap on the stove to make maple syrup

On an average evening, we found about 12 litres of sap was a good quantity. It fit in our pots easily and didn’t fill the house with too much steam. After boiling for about 3 and a half hours, the sap had transformed into syrup.

At first we just judged by colour and flavour, but Matt progressed to measuring the temperature. He found online that 218ºF (103ºC or so) was the magic number.

Tip to anyone who wants to try making syrup indoors, we used the soup pot as a finishing pot and transferred the sap from the roasting pan into the soup pot for the last half hour of boiling

Boiling sap on the stove to make maple syrup

The ratio for sap to syrup that we found online was 40:1, and that was our experience too. 12 litres (12,000mL) of sap made about 1 1/2 cups (375mL of syrup).

This picture shows another neat thing I’ve learned about syrup. I knew it came in different grades or colours, but I thought it was just the amount of boiling time that determined what grade your syrup was. It turns out it’s early versus late in the season. The jar on the left is from our second boil, and the one on the right is our fourth. See how the colour is subtly darker in the older syrup?

Homemade maple syrup

An aside about these old Crown canning jars. How perfect is the made in Canada label?

Homemade maple syrup in a Crown canning jar made in Canada

I’m loving having maple syrup again. It’s sweetened a lovely pumpkin soup, made a beautiful golden topping on vanilla ice cream (one of my favourite ways to eat it) and of course added just what was missing to my favourite meal of the day, breakfast.

Homemade maple syrup on French toast

I’m trying to be a bit frugal and not eat it all at once. We already have two full jars in the freezer, so I’m hoping to remember my childhood and make it stretch as long as I possibly can.

Are there any other maple syrup snobs out there? Have you ever made your own syrup? Any tips to share–whether for inside or outside boiling? Do you have a favourite maple syrup recipe?