goodnight, garden

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The garden is empty now, save six lone Brussels sprout plants. They are hunkered down, waiting for Thanksgiving. I’ve read that you can leave them in the ground until you’re ready to use them, and that a bite of frost even mellows their flavor, but the way the weather has taken this hairpin turn, I’m a little nervous to risk them. I’ll have to do some more research.

We spent several hours outside last weekend, the girls and I, pulling plants and narrating elaborate games of make-believe. My mother’s birthday was a few days before, and I had hoped to have the girls pick a bouquet for her as the zinnias were still vibrant and strong. About an hour before Gramma was set to arrive for cake and presents, I sent Sweebee and Beans out with a pair of clippers and their Uncle T-Rex, and they sadly discovered that all but the most hardy blooms had succumbed to the black kiss of Jack Frost.

So we stacked bunches of marigolds on piles of zinnias on massive stalks of cosmos, all outside the fence in semi-tidy heaps to be carted off at a later date. Happily, that later date came quickly, and I poked my head out of my office earlier this week to see that T-Rex and the girls had cleaned everything up, including the pile of rocks we picked. Because somehow there are still rocks surfacing. Our neighbor rode the tiller down the hill on Monday night for us to borrow, and by Tuesday, we had freshly turned dirt, ready for amendment. As of this afternoon, the space has a year’s worth of composted chicken manure and pine shavings raked across the top. I’m hoping to do some additional layering before the snow covers things up. We don’t have enough cardboard saved to cover the whole plot, and we certainly don’t have the rotting apples like last year, but might have a line on some free cow manure. To be continued…

In the meantime, I have a lot of squash to manage. There are pumpkins to roast and to carve into faces. Not pictured are the baskets and buckets of apples in my bathroom that we’re hoping to press. Also not pictured are my children’s Halloween costumes. Because they’re not started. Oops. I suppose it will all get accomplished sooner or later!

How are you putting your garden to rest this year? Got any tried-and-true methods for me?

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so much for my apple empire

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Last year was our first fall on the property. It was a season of possibility as we explored our land and watched our orchard produce more than we could ever have eaten. I filled the freezer with jars of applesauce and bags of pie filling. We invited everyone we knew to come pick, and pressed gallons of cider with neighbors. We scooped huge handfuls of dropped fruit, filling two 55 gallon drums, and umpteen buckets for the pigs our friends raise, leaving behind plenty for the deer and bear. We spread apples on our new garden plot and covered them with chicken manure and cardboard to try and enrich the soil over winter. And still apples remained – on the ground and on the branches, long into the winter. I had dreams of pruning, and spraying organically, and supplementing our income with apple sales.

And this year? Goodness, it’s dismal out there.

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Four of our trees didn’t produce a single apple, including the two that were most prolific last year. And we’re down a tree, having lost a big one in the storm last October. Half of what’s on the remaining trees is already nibbled, and there isn’t a single fruit on the ground. That’s not an exaggeration. I walked the orchard today with a mid-sized kitchen trash can, looking for anything I could collect for the pigs. I found little more than poop, both deer and bear. We’ve seen a doe with two fawns in the orchard several times recently, once with a young buck. Thankfully I haven’t seen the bear. Nature’s cleanup crew seems particularly efficient right now.

Through local conversation, I’ve gleaned several theories about the situation. It was the second dry summer in a row, so apple harvests all over Maine are suffering. Fruit trees alternate years, so this is just an off year for our trees. The overabundance of acorns last year led to a squirrel population boom, and those silly tree rats decimated the immature apples early in the season. When you stack all three ideas, it doesn’t bode well for orchards, and I am grateful that our livelihood does not depend on those trees.

I’m bummed for several reasons, and not just that I was unable to enter the apple industry. We had really hoped to feed healthy, fresh produce to our pig for lean, flavorful meat. And expanding on that, our apples would have lowered our friends’ grain expenses, which would have lowered our own payment for the finished pig. It’s a very small but certain example of how everything is connected in a small, local system.

shifting

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The weather is shifting. Our mornings are cooler, and heavy with dew. I’ve begun to throw on an extra layer to visit the chickens, and though last Tuesday was uncomfortably toasty, we won’t break seventy degrees again in the foreseeable future. I’m wearing flannel today, and am really quite happy about it.

The firewood has been cut and split, seasoned and stacked in the basement. In true homesteading fashion, however, there has been a snafu. We hired a local company to inspect and clean our chimney, thinking it only prudent after gumming up the works with our clumsy first attempts. I’m glad we did. The clay tiles lining the main flue are missing some masonry between them, and we shouldn’t use the stove until everything is  repaired. That recommendation came with an estimate of almost $2000 – ouch. We did not plan for that level of investment. They can’t get us in until the end of October, so while I am relishing the cooler temps, I’m also hoping they hold steady until we get the all clear.

I’ve pulled the tomatoes, so the jungle is no more. I loaded up all of the vines in the wheelbarrow, and trucked them down to “the edge,” as we call it – a rock outcropping below the shed, with a drop-off, sort of a natural dump that the previous owners tossed all manner of things into for burning, but that we use only for natural waste materials. Stuff that won’t/can’t go in my compost bin: rocks, big woody plants, rocks, loads of dirt, more rocks, etc. With the vines cleared, I tried to scoop up all of the fallen fruits for the chickens, hopefully avoiding volunteers in the spring, but I’m sure I missed some. There were a lot on the ground. And the basil had completely gone to flower between the “rows.” Lesson learned: space tomatoes further, install cages at planting time.

I think the beans are pretty much done as well. They didn’t produce nearly the way I had hoped – really, it was only the Rattlesnake plants that amounted to anything. We had beans with dinner four or five times, and that was it. Nothing canned, nothing frozen. Disappointing, really. I’ve left a couple of pods on the poles to mature and dry for seed, but I think I’ll also pick up some bush varieties to try next year.

Next up is apples. They still had that “chalky” flavor last week when we walked around testing them, so I’m guessing we’ll be out there next week or the one after. It’s a small crop this year. Several of the most prolific trees last fall are completely bare, and the rest are more sparse – though that’s in line with what we’ve heard about fruit trees alternating. And we learned at the Fair this past weekend that it’s been a poor apple year all around Maine after two consecutive summers of drought. I think we’ll still have plenty for our own use, and to share. And that’s enough, for sure.

 

to the fair

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Gramma came and spent the day with our little girls on Sunday so that we could go to the Fair solo – just the two of us. Our 9th wedding anniversary was last week, and we had hoped to make an overnight trip to Acadia National Park, but we just had too much life happen, and were happy to even get out for the day together and enjoy the sunshine and the animals, the food and the plants.

This was our fourth time as fair-goers. Our first experience was filled with awe and wonder at being surrounded by like-minded people, at actually attending this fair I’d read and dreamed so much about. I totally geeked out. The second year, we knew a little more what to expect, but had the children with us and couldn’t dig into anything, really. Last year, we had just spent the first summer in our new home with our own land, and decided to make the most of the talks and lectures. We took it all in sans children, and were so excited to think big and make plans.

And this year? It was still wonderful, in so many ways. But I think we’re in a weird space this fall. We’ve taken so many baby steps toward the life we’re pursuing that we’re not wide-eyed beginners. We’re not experts – we really only know enough to be dangerous – but we’re not in a position to push forward yet with any major plans. So while we listened and absorbed, we didn’t dive quite as far in as perhaps we would have liked.

Still. You can’t beat a day outside with good food and in good company. It was a good day at the fair.

our lighthouse reading list

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When we spent the day in Portland last month, we fit in a trip to the Portland Head Light – and I couldn’t believe how interested Sweebee was. She pulled us through the museum to look at everything, asking about the models and the photographs, marveling at the original Fresnel lens on display. I was amazed and pleased because now I had an idea for the first week of our new homeschool year.

There was a lot of interest in our studies, so I thought I’d post our reading list for this unit. I do a fair bit of research when we choose a new topic, looking for the great picture books that will coincide with our efforts, which I then put on reserve through our library. Usually, reading lists compiled by others are fairly easy to find – seasons, bugs, specific animals. The lighthouse lists were few and far between, but perhaps because we live in the beautiful coastal state of Maine, our library had plenty to choose from on the shelves. These were our favorites, and the top four were requested repeatedly.

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Keep the Lights Burning, Abbie  by Connie Roop

The Sea Chest by Toni Buzzeo

Ghost Cat by Eve Bunting

Lighthouse Seeds by Pamela Love

Comet’s Nine Lives by Jan Brett

Lighthouse Lullaby by Kelly Paul Briggs

Beacons of Light by Gail Gibbons

Hello Lighthouse by Sophie Blackall

The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge by Hildegarde H. Swift

I’d love to hear your thoughts! Which have you read? Which others would you add to this list?

busy

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When asked how we’ve been, I truly dislike answering that we’ve been busy. There is no glory in busy, no medal for who has done the most, no award for exhaustion. And yet I found myself saying that we’ve been busy on more than one occasion recently, each time with the caveat that I really hate saying it. The response is accurate, however, and it more than explains my absence in this space.

These past six months have marked the final push in our most major efforts to live the simple life we desire. We are in a solid, dependable, forever home. We have spent time exploring and getting to know our land, sketching out ideas and making tentative plans – but not diving into projects willy-nilly. The time for that has passed. Instead, we are carefully choosing and researching what will come next.

 

J is taking final exams today, and will spend a weekend with some like-minded gentlemen to unwind a bit before entering his final ten-week term of nursing school. He will emerge with his Bachelor of Science in Nursing the week after Thanksgiving, and go on to sit his NCLEX exam shortly after. Another calculated choice for our family and our homestead, this time in terms of career. Nursing offers job security, a solid income, and practical skills that will be invaluable should the shit ever actually hit the fan. We are coming out of the most grueling term of his entire experience – perhaps not in terms of academic content, because he’s excelling and his brain is working better than ever, but certainly with scheduling. It’s been incredibly difficult to juggle and maintain everything on the homefront so that he can focus and be present in class and in clinical.

Our girls focused hard this summer on learning to swim. We all have our fears as parents – J worries about burns; I hyperventilate over the risk of drowning. And living in a lakes region, we really see the importance of being strong swimmers. We spent four mornings a week on our town beach with a YMCA swim instructor and lifeguard, plus time swimming and kayaking as a family. They have worked so. hard. And it shows. They have made huge strides since last year! I feel much calmer in the water with them now – still anxious, but better.

And me? I’ve been attempting to hold it all together, and not very graciously at times, I’ll admit. Maintaining multiple calendars has my head spinning, and I have thrown several tantrums out of sheer frustration. I have neglected friendships – the old, hardy ones that I’m trusting will survive, and the tender new ones that still needed to be nurtured, that I’m hoping will hang in there. It’s been a tough season.

I mentioned on Instagram last week that the cooler temps had me feeling a sense of renewal, a desire to tidy and organize – not just my belongings but my schedule, my goals, myself. With the light guiding me from the end of the tunnel, I’ve got some new ideas to execute – and I’d love input from others – friends, family, readers: what would you like to see or know?

Signing off for now. Here is to the end of the busy season, and to the cooler, slower days of fall…

 

 

 

six thoughts

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1. I have a monarch caterpillar living in a large mason jar on my dining room table. I shared a video on Instagram earlier today about how we found him on the tiniest of milkweed plants, down by the mailbox. We would have missed him entirely if we hadn’t been picking flowers for our librarian. The irony of the situation is that we’d just explored the area a few hours earlier, checking the milkweed for caterpillars – but had neglected the little plants in our search. I had initially thought to leave him outside so nature could run its course, afraid that I’d unwittingly murder him by trying to interfere. However, in seeing us pay so much attention to a patch of weeds and wildflowers, the entire flock of chickens thundered over and took an avid interest in the area as well. So after dinner, J and the girls clipped his plant and several others, and we set the little fella up inside, like a centerpiece.

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2. Libraries are wonderful places. I keep seeing this odd meme show up on Facebook, exhorting me to like and share this graphic if I still use my public library. The caption claims that “libraries are dying,” and I use the word odd because our library is thriving – growing even! For the past month, we’ve been attending a weekly program for the kids in our community – stories, crafts and snacks, all free of charge. We’ve been filling out our reading log, and today was the culmination of that program: an event with live, local music and ice cream for all. The girls each got a pass to the fair for turning in their list of books, but really, it was the community interaction that kept us engaged. So great to see all these kids and parents we’ve come to love.

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3. Things are growing around here, though it takes the camera for me to realize it. There are beans dangling down in that picture above, plain as day, and I didn’t even notice them until I sat down to write. Those are the Rattlesnake Beans, and I guess I’ll have a little more in my harvest basket tomorrow.

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4. Speaking of harvest baskets. Tomatoes, cucumbers and eggs today. That tiny brown egg at about four o’clock in the egg basket is the first laid by this year’s pullets, though I’m not certain which of the five it was. We found it in the third nesting box with two other eggs, exactly where it belongs, so I’m hopeful the rest will follow suit. They will be 20 weeks old this coming Saturday, which is several weeks younger than our other birds were when they began to lay. I pulled one more egg from the coop before dinner, bringing our total to 10 for the day.

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5. We’re beginning to look ahead, and make plans and preparations. The first sunflowers are drooping, so I’m on the hunt for a a place to dry them indoors. They will be hung in the chicken run this winter to provide both protein and entertainment for the flock. Last fall, I made the mistake of hanging them in the basement to dry, and lost half my harvest to mold. I’m determined to do it properly from the start this year. Josh and Uncle T-Rex have been running the chainsaw and splitter, hauling loads of firewood up to dry and season. We’ve got over two cords stacked in the basement now, but have another five to go. And I’m beginning to scout locations for the next addition to the homestead. More on that soon…

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6. Inside, I’m slowly taking stock of our spaces – what works, what’s always messy, what needs to be purged or rearranged. Outside, J has been attempting the same – trying to find the best, most efficient means of movement and storage for all manner of items. Winter is always coming, even in the heat of August.