Saturday, May 19, 2018

Berried Alive

It's a long-awaited dream come true. We have a berry patch!

Since we first terraced the hillside into raised beds years ago, I've known that they were destined to house a host of perennials. This year, we finally had the right setup and no other more-pressing projects in the way. So I went berry crazy!

The bed closest to the house holds blueberries. They're pretty all year, so we put them in the most visible place. We picked highbush varieties because we have the space for the larger plants, and they generally have the most vibrant fall foliage. We're starting with 3-4 plants each of early, mid, and late season varieties, for a total of 10 bushes. That will extend our harvest of sweet-tart juicy berries for as long as possible! The types we planted are:

Early: Spartan, Patriot
Mid: Bluecrop, Chandler
Late: Legacy

We have room for another row of plants, so we'll see which one we like best this year, and then add more next time around.



Across from the blueberries is our future strawberry patch. I gave it a kick-start with about 25 Shuksan and a few Albion, but it's still mostly empty awaiting the end of this strawberry season. We have a patch of strawberry plants currently, which I'll move into their new home after they finish fruiting this year. Strawberries are heavy feeders, so I'm sure they'll appreciate a fresh, well-nourished new bed. And I'll appreciate having a whole additional bed for my annual veggies!

Both of the back beds are full of one of my all-time favorite foods - raspberries. We have a mix of Meeker, Tulameen, and some kind of golden raspberry I wasn't planning to buy but couldn't pass up. There are also a few canes someone shared with me from their garden (plus one lone gooseberry they had on hand.) The canes look so small now that it's hard to imagine they'll ever become the giant tangle I know most raspberry patches to be. I'm so excited to see them grow!

Does anybody know how to separate out raspberry canes that were sold planted together in one big pot?
Because obviously I don't. 

In the rest of the garden, we currently have:

  • Half a bed of lettuce (mixed varieties) - I always intend to succession-plant this so we don't end up with it all ripe at once, but then I can never resist planting every available inch at the first possible second.
  • Half a bed of radishes (mixed varieties) - little red crowns are already peeking out! 
  • Half a bed of sugar snap and snow peas - holy cow do those things grow fast! Every year I plant a couple different varieties to see what I like best, and then every year I forget what I put where, and anyway the vines are so entangled by that point it's impossible to tell what's coming from where anyway. But I've never had one I didn't love, so it doesn't really matter.
  • Half a bed of broccolini! It's my first time growing this, because I get cranky about how much space each individual plant takes up. But I have to say, they're very nice plants. And as a bonus, some volunteer lettuce that sprang back up from last year is loving the shade underneath the broccolini leaves. 
  • A bed of garlic, which I'm hoping can come out soon - we plant our garlic in late fall and let it overwinter, so it's the first thing to pop up in spring. 
  • Oodles of potato hills. I had no idea before I started growing potatoes myself how much fun they are! Once the plants take off, I swear you can actually hear them growing. It happens that fast. Every day feels like a little victory, and yet they barely take any work at all. 
The lavender has also, as promised, nearly doubled in size this year. I'm hoping to have some bundles or sachets available in early fall, so keep your eyes (nose?) peeled for that. 

Up next: the pumpkin and squash patch! Although we grew these plants in previous years, this is the first time they'll be in what we've always intended to be their main growing area.  Lesson from last year: I'll be putting hardware cloth down underneath the soil, so those digging barbarian voles can't upend my precious babies. 


The Garden Guardian, hard at work and in hardcore need of a bath.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Amazing Race: Chicken Edition

If you think being the new kid in high school is tough, you've never seen me try to introduce new chickens into a well-established flock. Imagine that the entire school is one giant clique of Mean Girls (tm) and instead of cutting words, they have literal pointy beaks.

It's surprising to lots of people that chickens don't lay eggs their entire lives. Egg production peaks after a few years, then slows for a few, and then often stops entirely. (Shower thought: does that mean chickens go through henopause?) Our ladies are now three years old. So to grow our flock and plan for a steady flow of eggs in the future, it was time to introduce a few new girls.

I've known from the very beginning that we would eventually need to do this. I was excited to re-live the adorable baby stage, get to know some new breeds, and introduce different egg colors. But I was very, very worried about the well-documented difficulty of introducing new chickens into your flock.

The phrase "pecking order"? Yeah, that's a real thing. Chickens establish a social order, and they don't like to have their places threatened by newcomers. When new chickens are introduced, the existing flock can bully them, sometimes violently. While some amount of jockeying is to be expected, there is a lot of guidance out there on how to integrate new girls as seamlessly as possible.

So here's what we did:

1. We purchased chickens that were already a couple of months old. While this meant missing out on the incredibly adorable fluffy-chick-down phase, it meant several weeks less of keeping them totally separate and under a heat lamp. (They're still tiny and adorable.) We did keep them separate until they were big enough to defend themselves. And we got three so they could help each other out - it can be much harder to introduce just one or two.

2. When we did put them into the coop, we set up a large wire cage/playpen just for the little ones. The two groups could see and hear each other, but with a barrier between them. That way, they could start safely getting used to each other.

3. After a couple weeks, we opened the door! The little girls can still get in and out of the playpen, but the big ones can't. And there's food inside, reducing competition at the feeder. So they're together, but with some refuge. We did the initial introduction in the evening, when the older chickens would be groggy, and we gave them some treats to distract them at the same time.

Sounds easy, right?


I know why the caged bird squawks.

Welllllll....

We were starting Step 2. The playpen was set up. We brought the three new ladies into the run, in a box. Preparing to put them into the playpen, we opened the box.

All hell broke loose.

A tornado of flapping and squawking whirled through the coop as the existing flock erupted into a complete uproar. Henry, our rooster, was so perturbed that he busted right out of the coop! He yanked open a small hole in the chicken wire and ran out into the yard, hollering his head off.

Since we weren't planning on any loose chickens, we hadn't locked the dog inside the house. Our little predator took one look at the running, flapping, yodeling chicken dinner drawing all sorts of attention to itself. Then she looked at me.

Then, still making full eye contact with me, she licked her chops. 

And took off running after the chicken.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? 

Imagine the ensuing scene. I'm yelling and running after the dog. Brett is hollering and chasing around a chicken. All the remaining chickens in the coop are screaming like spectators at a WWE match. Based on the noise alone, I assume all our neighbors now believe we've joined some kind of ritual murder cult.

Miraculously, no actual murder occurred that day. I caught the dog, Brett made a wild dive and snatched up the rooster, and the new little chickens eventually made it into their playpen. Ten minutes later, everyone was happily going about their business, cooing and scratching in the dirt like nothing had ever happened.

Victory crowing.

When I tell this story to people, invariably someone says "Wow, I wish you had recorded that!" I mean, yes, I totally wish we had that on film, but we'll all have to settle for the magic of the imagination here. Like THANKS BUT WE WERE KINDA PREOCCUPIED.

Anyways, the door-open playpen phase is going okay. The big ones definitely still rule the roost, and any little chicken getting in their way gets a big peck on the back. But there's no serious harm and it gets a little better every day. Our little high schoolers are growing up fast!

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Feathering our Nest

Since we finished the upstairs, I've stopped posting (or being productive in basically any other way at all) because I've been spending every free moment basking in the amazingness of my bedroom.

But even as the interior work on the house slows down - for now anyway, there's still plenty to do - spring is springing, and the homestead is calling.

Which brings me to today's big news! Meet the newest members of our feathered family.



The Speckled Sussex is named Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge (aka Duchess). Her eggs will be light brown. Fun fact: apparently this breed gets more speckled as they age. So although she's mostly brown and black now with just a few white spots on her head, she'll get more white spots every year.

The Cuckoo Maran is named Hennifer Lopez. Marans lay gorgeous deep, dark brown eggs. I'm really excited to have her!

And we couldn't resist one more Ameraucana, colloquially called an "easter egger" because they lay blue or green eggs. We named her Blanche to complete our trio of golden girls. (The two easter eggers we already have are Rose and Dorothy. Originally there was supposed to be a Blanche too, but she promptly revealed herself to be a Stanley.)

The new girls are two months old, so they'll hang out in our downstairs bathtub for a few weeks (which we can do! Because we have two bathrooms now! You build a country girl a new bathroom, and she fills the old one up with chickens.) Then we'll put them out in the coop with the others, but separated by a wire barrier for the first month, so that they can see and hear but not touch each other. The purpose of that is to avoid the older girls bullying the smaller ones. I'm a little nervous about the introduction process, so we'll see how it goes.

Love under the heat lamp.
Front left: Hennifer Lopez. Back left: Duchess. Back right: Blanche.
Welcome to the family, ladies!

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Fantastic Floor

It's been a while since our last update, because honestly it's been a while since we got anything done around the house. Between the holidays, travel, new jobs, and spending a month trying to find an electrician who isn't booked until April 2030, progress has been slow. It's been nice to experience what a weekend feels like for people who aren't constantly running behind and covered in dust.A little taste of the future to come for us! (Eventually. Probably. Maybe.) Who am I kidding, as soon as we finish one project we'll decide to start another.

But new year, new motivation... and we're back on track in a big way! Because we have FINISHED THE UPSTAIRS FLOOR. Folks, this one has been years in the making. We knew right when we bought the house we'd need to re-do this floor. It was gross old wall-to-wall carpet full of cat hair, aka Audrey Kryptonite. Ripping that out was literally the first thing we did, the same day we bought the house. We purchased the heated floor mats and all the wood not long after. (The boxes for the flooring are stamped "made in 2013", which made my soul die a little bit yesterday.)

And then it sat.

Until last weekend.

We did lay out the heated floor mats about a month ago, but we had to wait for an electrician to do the final hookup. That took a whole lot of phone calls and waiting. Our original electrician doesn't work on small projects anymore, so he just refused to come back and finish the project he'd started. The new electrician didn't like some of what the first guy had done, so we had to rip out some drywall (again), replace conduit, etc. Sigh. Plus he did such a sloppy job of laying out the lead wires that we had to spend a weekend reorganizing everything. But he did what we absolutely needed him to do, and we were able to work around the rest and get it done.

Heating mats and floor pad laid out, plus a giant stack of flooring and trim in the corner. We're going to have to figure out where that goes soon...
Then it was time to lay the flooring! It's click-and-lock floating floor, which we've installed once before in this house. I was dreading it because the mudroom floor took a lot of brute force to shove into place tightly, and this is a lot more area to cover. But happily, this particular product works a little bit differently, and it goes together easily. This was a good two-person project. We got into a nice rhythm - usually Brett measuring and me cutting, or when there were two different areas to work on, each of us taking a side.

So once we got cooking, it started to go pretty quickly. That means that we also pretty quickly ran into the stuff we'd been keeping on the subfloor - the boxes of unused flooring, the saws, the built-ins that were temporarily pulled out of the closet. So as we worked, we kept having to pause and move our tools onto the finished floor behind us. If you like both jigsaw puzzles and manual labor, this project is for you!


Floor in progress. Note that all the crap has moved to the other side of the room. Not pictured: giant bottle of Advil.
 We definitely made things a little harder on ourselves because of the way we chose to lay out the boards. It's a funky-shaped room in a funky-shaped house, so there probably wasn't really an easy way anyway.


Not standard.
To me, this is the hard part of doing your own flooring. The actual installation isn't really difficult. It's thinking through all the details to minimize your waste and weird-sized corners before you even put down your first board. Once you've laid a couple of rows, you've set the pattern that you'll have to follow come hell or high water for the rest of the room. I'm not a great spatial thinker - I'm your girl if you want an essay, but I hereby issue a heartfelt apology to anyone who has ever tried to follow me somewhere in a car -  so thankfully Brett has this department covered for us.

We decided to start at the top of the stairs - the first thing you see when you enter the room, and also the most complicated area because of the transitions between multiple rooms and corners.

Brett says: "This is my art! Someday I will show this photograph to my grandchildren."
We are going to have some really bored grandchildren.

Two weekends and two extremely sore backs later, the floor is in! And it heats up! Now please excuse me while I go lay down on the lovely new warm floor and moan.

I think she likes it! It took her 9.2 seconds to locate the warmest, sunniest spot and plunk herself down.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Fencing the Goods

As a birthday present, I asked for us to hire some help finishing up the stonework and the fence. Yes, my birthday is in July. Yes, it's now November. That one got away from us a little bit.

Anyway, it's so much fun to see it finally coming together! And it's even more fun to have someone else do the work for a while...

Fence in late summer

Fence in fall
Okay, we may have taken a lot of photos of this scene through the seasons. Monet had his haystacks, I have my fence.

Flagstone pathway

And flagstone stairs!

There are still a million things I want to do in the yard that aren't finished yet, but this visible progress is really nice. And so is being able to walk out of the house without getting mud up to my knees!

Sunday, September 24, 2017

What it All Boils Down To

Shana tovah u'metukah! Wishing everyone a good and sweet new year.

The Jewish new year is traditionally celebrated with sweet foods, especially apples and honey. Combine that with my overwhelming urge to celebrate fall by apple-slash-pumpkin-spicing everything in a three mile radius, and you get my annual habit of making a bit batch of something apple-y to share. This year: apple cider caramels!

Somewhere along the line I stumbled across this recipe from King Arthur Flour. Making candy can sound intimidating, but this really is easy. Basically, you dump most of the ingredients into a pot, heat them up to a specific temperature, toss in a couple of spices, and then pour the whole mixture into a pan to set up overnight. The next day, cut it into individual pieces and wrap them in wax paper.



But this recipe also has - wait for it - a secret ingredient! And that ingredient is boiled cider. 

The recipe just lists boiled cider along with the other ingredients, like this is something everyone has a) heard of, and b) has on hand in their pantry. I had no idea what it was, although it sounded charmingly old-timey. Of course, King Arthur sells a little bottle for some astronomical sum of money. But I'm impatient and cheap, so waiting two weeks for a bottle of liquid gold wasn't gonna happen. I wondered if there was a way to make a substitute on my own.

So I did a little digging, and lo and behold, boiled cider is ... apple cider that's been boiled. Go figure. Basically, it's a gallon of cider that's been boiled down to a pint. It takes several hours on the stovetop over medium heat, but it doesn't take much attention and it makes your house smell amazing. The result is a dark, viscous liquid, almost reminiscent of molasses, that tastes of pure concentrated apple. It's intense and delicious, and I'm already completely obsessed.

Get a gallon of apple cider. Pour two cups into a large stockpot. 

Dip in a wooden chopstick, and mark the level of  the top of the liquid. Then pour in the rest of the gallon and start boiling.
When the level of liquid is back down to the mark on your chopstick, you're done.
Boiled cider!
Used as the main flavoring in the caramels, boiled cider makes them taste like a slice of apple pie. You can put it in baked goods like cider donuts or apple cake to amp up the apple flavor, or just straight up as a topping on ice cream or pancakes. It keeps for ages in the fridge. I'm pretty convinced it's fall's perfect food.

We used a good-quality store-bought cider for this batch. But this weekend we did some apple pressing, and I'm looking forward to trying it again with some really fresh juice.

Hermione guards the apples.
When transporting your cider home in the car, remember to buckle up for safety!
What a delicious way to start the new year! 

Hermie says: Happy 5778!

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Dry Humor

Bonjour! This week we are feeling très français, because the house is perfumed with huge bunches freshly-harvested lavender hanging up to dry.

As the last of the warm, dry weather slips away, we need to wrap up our summer outdoor tasks. One of the most pleasant has been pruning and harvesting the lavender border. This was a truly surprising joy for me!

Commerically-grown lavender is usually harvested in early summer, just before the flowers bloom, when the color and scent of the cut flowers will be strongest. However, we planted ours primarily to attract pollinators to the vegetable garden. So we didn't really intend to "harvest" the flowers - just to let them grow and bloom in the garden, enjoying them right alongside the bees.

Since I've mostly grown vegetables, and moved pretty frequently to boot, I'm not that familiar with how to care for perennials. That's changed a little bit this year as I've learned to tend our strawberries and fennel. (And I'm hoping soon, some raspberries!) But I still had to do some research on how to prepare our lavender plants for fall.

What I learned is that the flowers should be cut off, allowing the plants to invest their energy into developing the healthy roots and leaves that will see it through the rest of the year. And if you do that before the rainy season, you can still preserve the flowers! Basically, if you didn't harvest in summer, pruning for the health of the plant is also a fall harvest.

Actually doing this "chore" makes me feel like some kind of seed-catalog cover model. First of all, it's easy. You just bundle up flowers in your hand and snip the stems off above the leaves. Harvesting the entire plant only takes a few cuts, and every touch releases a wave of gorgeous lavender scent. Up close, I can watch fat, fuzzy bees flitting between the flowers. I left a few of the smaller, late-blooming stems in place for them. (Pro tip: This particular aspect is only idyllic if you watch really, really carefully to make sure you don't harvest a bee. I may have had a few near misses in this area.)

Our plants are still young and fairly small, so I hadn't realized just how many flowers there would be.

This isn't even half! Waiting to be sorted, bunched, and hung.

French lavender, sorted on a marble counter, with the sunshine pouring in ... are you sure I'm not in Provence? 

Sorting and bunching actually took quite a bit of time and effort. And then I had to figure out where and how to hang it to dry for a couple of weeks. Inner MacGyver, activate!

Most sources recommend drying lavender in a dark place to preserve the purple color. Since this was late harvest, however, the color is already somewhat faded and mold and rot are bigger concerns. I decided to hang the bunches in a sunny spot to remove as much moisture as possible. What sunny indoor spot can I take over completely for a few weeks? Ah-ha - the laundry room window. (Wear those socks sparingly, hubby...)

One laundry rack, one basket, one roll of paper towel, and a lot of rubber bands and binder clips later...

Now I have a little time to think about what I want to do with all that dried lavender! I know for sure that I want to make some sachets for clothing drawers. Other than that... lavender bath salts? Selling a few bunches? Suggestions welcome!

A pensive Hermione, probably considering what to make with dried lavender.