fire!

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I’ve been asked several times now how I plan our homeschool schedule, and I have to admit, it’s not a very scientific or even a very informed process. I try to plan two to three weeks at a time, choosing a central theme for the week and then building around that topic – library selections, art projects, activities and worksheets, etc. Those themes have mostly been seasonal so far, observing what’s happening in our yard and in nature. However, like so many other school children, we focused on fire safety and prevention earlier this month. I clearly didn’t take very many pictures, but I think the girls learned quite a bit.

We kicked off the week with a visit to a local volunteer fire department. They were having an open firehouse day, so we went to see the ladder truck extend and look at the boots and helmets. I was hoping for more activities and hands-on stuff, so we will have to pick a day to visit another department, but it was still neat to get inside and say hello.

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My usual plan of reserving library books backfired when I realized someone else had the same idea for this week so most of the appropriate titles were already checked out, but we were still able to grab a couple. My favorite was Gail Gibbons’ Fire! Fire! (affiliate link) because it talked about fire fighting in different settings: urban, rural and forest. Most other books I paged through focused on big city firehouses with professional firefighters, and that’s just not our reality so it was helpful to see something relatable. We also liked New York’s Bravest as we’d just finished listening to tall tales on CD in the car – Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, and so on – and so it was nice to tie that aspect into something we’d already talked about. I was able to pick up a couple more books during our regular weekly trip (they’d been returned – hooray!) and the girls enjoyed Stop, Drop and Roll, with Beanie demonstrating the proper technique she had learned from Firefighter Chris at nursery school the week before. Daddy lit a fire in our outdoor fire pit and demonstrated what a fire extinguisher does, and then took us inside to locate and test all of our smoke alarms.

The free printables I found on Pinterest were the real winners for us this week. We used a play phone to learn how to call 911, and reinforced the new skill with coloring pages that are now hanging next to the landline phone, just in case. Both girls liked the number game – rolling the die and coloring the number. I thought it would be over Beanie’s head, but she counted the dots on the die just fine, and only needed a little help identifying the corresponding number.

Since we heat with wood, fire is a very rational concern for us. We are going to extend these lessons and make an evacuation plan as a family, and J is looking into fire ladders for the second and third floors. We practiced all the information the girls would need to give to the dispatcher – street name and house number, mama and daddy’s real names and ages, etc.

Overall, a solid week of learning practical skills. We will certainly need to stay on top of refreshers, but I think they got the basics down. Now to hope they never need to use them.

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we have so much to learn

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We invited a slew of friends over at the beginning of the month to pick apples, hoping to share the bounty while spending time together. It was such a nice day, connecting with each other over potluck dishes in the early fall weather. Our neighbors brought two vehicles: a pickup with multiple plastic tubs in the bed came first, and then the tractor with an antique cider press in the bucket rolled in, and the party really got started. We put the kids to work filling the tubs with apples to be pressed, and everyone broke out their milk jugs and quart jars to take home fresh, raw apple cider. It might be the best cider I’ve ever tasted.

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When I went out the next morning to clean up and collect anything left behind (only a blue soccer ball and a metal soup ladle, surprisingly), I was dismayed to realize the trees looked as if we’d hardly picked anything. We had pressed close to ten gallons of cider, and most families took at least one bag of apples home, and still we were swimming in fruit. It wasn’t until a newer mama friend brought her five kiddos over to pick that we actually made some headway. This crew came prepared with baskets and totes, and they meant business! My girls loved playing with them and helping them fill their bags, and I got to engage in some much-needed adult conversation. The icing on the cake was the selection of home-grown-and-preserved goodies they brought for us, along with a couple of acorn squash.

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About a week later, we asked those gracious neighbors of ours if they’d be up for pressing again one afternoon if we picked the apples and carted them down the road. We were quite excited when they said yes, and so we hitched the wagon to the four-wheeler, and trundled down the dirt road with our apples. This time we took our turn at the crank, and helped strain the liquid while the girls ran around the garden. We left five gallons behind for wine making, and took another five or so home. I froze two gallons, canned one quart and a couple pint jars, gave a jug away and enjoyed the rest. It was just the kind of afternoon I had hoped for when we moved to the country – working together with neighbors and friends, each bringing something to the table that the other doesn’t have, and all leaving richer and happier for the joint effort. Really, really nice.

I think we may finally be coming to the end of what apples we can use. The drops need to be cleaned up still, though I’ve dropped two cases off at the sheep farm, and sent oodles home with a friend for her pigs. Making crockpot applesauce is still a near daily task, but we now need a ladder to pick what fruit is still good.

Because a lot of it isn’t good. A lot of it is bad, and for reasons mostly unbeknownst to us.

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Last weekend we packed lunches and put ourselves in the truck for a drive back up to MOFGA for their Great Maine Apple Day. We had spent the day prior collecting a sample of all of our apples, one from each tree, and numbering them to match a crude orchard map Swee and I had drawn. We paid our $8 admission, and wandered through the hall, tasting fruits and checking out the different varieties. Tucked into a shoebox were our own apples, and I had a really nice conversation with an expert about what we might have on our hands (five Red Delicious trees among them, in his estimation), and then left our fruit and our email addresses with him. A whole team of people will sit down over the next few weeks and try to identify apples brought in from all over the state, and then let us know what they think. I’m excited to see the results.

What I was less excited by is the confirmation that we have several pests to deal with in the orchard: coddling moth, plum curculio, apple maggot, flyspeck, and potentially even a case of fire blight in the pear tree. Woof. It’s a daunting list, and we will need to sit down this winter and decide on our course of action. We know for sure that the trees all need to be heavily pruned, so that’s next on the list of skills to acquire.

Oh, we have so much to learn.

ps: All of this apple exposure has definitely filtered down into the pretend play around here. Just yesterday morning, the girls built their own cider press out of their workbench, complete with “cloth” for filtering. I love it.

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weeks #2 and #3

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A misty-morning leaf walk in our rubber rain boots. A reading of Leaf Man and then the chance to create our own leaf people. Studying the role of chlorophyll with Daddy through a science experiment. Poetry Teatime outside among the falling leaves. Leaf prints on the back porch (that one was messy). You can see our reading list on Instagram (would it be of interest for me to post our chosen books in this space?). Leaf week was a hit. We felt organized and prepared, and the girls enjoyed (or seemed to) the things we had planned.

And then we moved into week #3.

We had a heat wave, and the thermometer on the back porch registered somewhere over 100*F. I doubt it was actually that hot – I’d guess somewhere in the low 90s – but that’s still pretty hot for Maine, let alone in September, and we were miserable. We wound up throwing most of the plan out the window and just did what we could. That turned out to be finger painting and running through the sprinkler, going to the grocery store to enjoy their air conditioning, and jumping in the lake before soccer practice.

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We regrouped later in the week when the heat broke, and managed to bake brownies for Poetry Teatime – and even learned fractions in the kitchen. We read some of our library books, and returned others untouched. And we flew by the seat of our space pants, staying up late three nights in a row to watch the International Space Station pass overhead, and doing a quick mini-unit on space travel and astronauts.

I think I’m probably learning just as much as Swee is at this point as I realize I can’t compare her progress to my own at age five. I went to kindergarten as a strong, independent reader, and she’s downright recalcitrant when I suggest sounding out words. It’s very hard to follow her lead and let her be herself, despite logically knowing that’s a major reason we chose this path – silly mama! That might be the bigger reason last week’s “lessons” fell apart so completely: I was feeling confident after the first two weeks, and tried to step it up, only to have the heat knock us flat on our bums.

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We’re slowing back down this week. Sunflowers and vegetables. We read sunflower books yesterday morning and learned a little about van Gogh, finishing our day with watercolor renditions of our own homegrown sunflowers. I worked all day today, but had Swee do some sunflower-themed copy work on the chalkboard after breakfast, and heard Daddy return to the space station discussion later on, taking it a step further by playing videos on his phone. I’m guessing they did some math, though too quietly for me to eavesdrop from my desk. And they played outside all afternoon while Daddy worked on an overhang for the chicken run. Sounds like a pretty great kindergarten day to me. 

 

on spending a year+ with chickens

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Despite the fact that we continue to encounter new and strange issues with our girls, it really feels like we’ve had chickens for much longer than a mere eighteen months. Amazingly however, it’s only been that long since we picked out six chicks from the brooder boxes in a stranger’s garage and took them home in a cardboard box, completely unprepared for what was to come.

As I sat down to attempt a year+ in review and list the things we’ve learned, I realized it would be a struggle to distill this experience into bullet points, and yet I feel fairly confident in the day-to-day operations of chicken keeping. I suppose we’ve lived our knowledge to the point that it’s been internalized and thus has become our own. Which is nice, but doesn’t make for a super helpful blog post.

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Would we do it all again? Decidedly yes. I think even J would agree with that statement. He’s taken a much more active and willing role in the care of “my” chickens than I ever anticipated, and our little flock has truly become a family responsibility. Our girls are still physically too small to do much of the work, particularly because of where locks and latches are placed, but they love to “be the one” who goes in a looks for eggs, and they help fill feeders and waterers. While J grew up on a working (to varying degrees over the years) farm, I never had much exposure to animals other than our family dog and a series of short-lived hamsters, so being hands on has been quite new for me. I’m still not entirely comfortable in every situation (the lice thing still skeeves me out. We’ve been dusting all the girls’ bottoms with diatomaceous earth, and sprinkling it in the coop and run, but otherwise not stressing it too much), but I’m able to carefully scoop almost any of the hens and maneuver them to do a full check. I can tell for the most part what is normal and what is not, and know where to go to get answers on how to help them.

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We had our first six-egg day last week, now that the youngest hens are laying. Their eggs are small, which is in line with what I’ve read about pullet eggs being smaller at the start (a pullet is a female chicken who is less than a year old), but neither of us remember our very first eggs being this much smaller. We’re chalking it up to the fact that the Salmon Faverolle is turning out to be a smaller breed than our other girls, and so the eggs may never be as large. That makes it difficult to use them for baking, but they scramble up just fine. I’m hoping they make it through the winter alright, knowing that the bigger birds are generally more cold-hardy. I think I’m going to add another twelve chicks in the spring, and this time have them sexed (getting only females) rather than choosing straight run (no idea if they’re male or females). We’ve had a 50/50 ratio in both sets of chicks and while we’ve chosen to keep these two docile cockerels, I’d rather be getting eggs than fancy feathers for the cost of my layer feed! Theoretically, a flock that size would give us 16-18 eggs per day, enabling us to trade them with friends and give them as gifts while still having enough for our family. J and I can eat 5 between us for breakfast, and if I bake or use eggs in a dinner recipe, we easily outpace our production.

As such, I’ve resorted to buying eggs every other week or so. I try to get them at the country store in town; a family we know sells their extras there, but they’re not always in stock. My next choice is our store’s brand of organic free-range eggs, but goodness, do they ever pale (literally) in comparison to our own! You can both see and taste the difference.

Let’s do the math. There is a bit of expense in the startup: building the coop and the run, buying the feeder and waterer, investing in the birds themselves. Once that’s all in place however, our regular expenses are food and bedding. We spend approximately $15 per month on a 50 pound bag of layer pellets (not organic, but a natural recipe) which are carefully formulated to meet the needs of a laying bird, meaning they have extra calcium, mainly. We currently buy bricks of pine shavings as bedding, which are around $5 each at Tractor Supply, though we’re planning to find a cheaper local source. For now, let’s say we spend $20 a month on chicken supplies. If I buy local eggs, I’m paying $4 for a dozen, same as those pale commercial eggs at the grocery store. Even if I only get three eggs per day from my own hens, that comes out to just under eight dozen eggs a month. At $4 a dozen, my own eggs would cost me $32 if I was buying them from someone else, so I’m getting far higher quality at a $12 savings.

Now, tracking it like that is very similar to “chicken math,” but you get the idea, and that doesn’t even factor in the enjoyment we get out of spending time with the flock, or the savings they provide in terms of kitchen scraps. I’d say our girls are more than worth the expense.

We do free range our birds, but have found that we don’t get as many eggs if we let them out of the run first thing in the morning. Whether that means they’re laying them somewhere in the yard, or they’re just not laying, I don’t know. Regardless, we’re having much more success keeping them confined until early afternoon, and then they have run of the property. I read an article that a single hen can eat up to 80 ticks in an hour, though unfortunately cannot now find the source, but living in a state with a rising rate of Lyme disease, I’ll take all the help I can get. We never had predator issues before moving to this new property, but have had a hawk visit twice this summer; it’s far more open here. Each time, the roosters and big girls all went bonkers, sounding the alarm and running for cover. The second time, the hawk was perched on the arm of a lawn chair, facing off with our roosters when I ran out clutching J’s sneakers to throw.

So yes, I am a crazy chicken lady. And yes, chickens are the gateway animal – absolutely. We can’t wait to add more critters to this mini-homestead of ours.

 

 

a (hot) day at the fair

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Our eighth wedding anniversary was this past Tuesday, and we celebrated on the couch with a bottle of champagne because it was too difficult to coordinate an evening out during the week. As evenings in go, it was a really nice one because we were together. However, my mother offered to stay with the girls all. day. today so that we could go to the Common Ground Country Fair, just the two of us. Such a wonderful prospect, to wander at will!

And so we left early this morning, hitting the road just before 8am with the temperatures already edging into the 70s. I changed into shorts before we even got out of the truck, and spent a sweaty day with my love, checking out the pigs and chickens, watching the border collie demonstrations. We sat through several different talks before lunch, listening and learning about organic beekeeping and Maine tree identification. I sipped “blood juice” and watched shaved ice be made with a hand crank. Fedco and Johnny’s and Taproot filled our bag with goodies, and we remarked on how pumpkins feel out of place when it’s 90*.

And when we couldn’t take the heat any longer, we cleared out and treated ourselves to Hibachi.

Three years ago this month, we were taking the first steps toward making this life a reality, packing our stuff and living apart. Two years ago, we had just moved to Maine and barely had the spending money to attend the fair, let alone take anything home with us. Last year, we were still renting, but our first flock of chickens had just started to lay. We looked at the fair displays with wistful eyes but didn’t have the capacity to consider anything more. This year, we walked into the fair with a purpose and a schedule. We attended sessions, bee-lined for specific vendors and spots, and seriously debated the merits of adding goats vs. pigs to our seven acre mini-homestead. I am in awe of what we’ve accomplished in just three years.

(Isn’t that Lavender Orpington just gorgeous? Beautiful baby was next to the blue ribbon winner and looked so sad. I wanted to take her home with me! Know anyone in my area selling chicks???)

A is for apple

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If you follow me on Instagram, then you already know the latest news for our family: we have chosen to homeschool. The idea has been brewing for several years, but with Swee preparing to enter kindergarten, we made the final choice that we’d take the leap and keep her home this fall. There were a lot of very personal reasons behind that move, and I’ll keep most of them private because I don’t know that there’s any way to articulate them without seeming to bash the choices of others (and really, you do you and I’ll do me). There were a few factors that helped make the path clear for us, like the fact that kindergarten here runs a full day, five days a week. That’s a lot for a kid that age, and it would be a lot for our daughter. And then there’s the fact that I really want her (and her sister) to be allowed to be little, for as long as they can. To play freely and follow their interests, to move as quickly or as deliberately as necessary in their learning, to have fun and not lose the joy! I think these desires are understood and appreciated by most mamas (and daddies!) and I do feel fortunate that we’re able to choose this path for our little ones.

Our family already operates on a very non-traditional schedule, so it isn’t much of a stretch for us to work a little more targeted learning into our days. I am with the girls when J is out of the house, and he’s with them when I’m working. The only real changes we’ve made so far are that our library choices are themed and I’m being a little more deliberate in how we structure our time together. Mama and Daddy are both teaching, playing to our natural strengths, though we are somewhat stereotypical in the way they fall: I’m handling most of the arts and humanities while Daddy covers science and math. My own dad has often filled in when my work hours overlap with J’s, so now he is helping us make our way through the library bag and reinforcing what we have been or will be learning.

We’ve already been asked, “How long are you going to do this?” and the only answer I have is that we will homeschool for as long as it works for our family. When it no longer serves us, we will reassess. That may be one year, or it might be five, or it might be all twelve. I’m not going to impose limits or measures of success just yet.

We’ve also fielded a couple of statements (not questions, because opinions were asserted without inquiries being made) on her socialization. Again, I’m calling this a non-issue because our daughter is as social as she wants to be. We play with friends that are her age and have conversations with people of all ages, everywhere we go. We take piano lessons and play on a soccer team. We are teaching table manners and how to order in a restaurant. We attend our community breakfast regularly, and she is participating in a special program for girls here in town. We are deliberate about providing opportunities for her to interact with others beyond what she would be offered in a public school classroom setting.

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And so last week was apple week. Our reading list was all about apples, as were our art projects and our science lesson (what will keep an apple from browning, and the chemical reactions involved). We practiced writing Big A and little a, sorted animals by habitat, and baked apple pie bites to enjoy for poetry teatime. When Thursday struck and Swee didn’t want to even think about apples or letters, and wild animal noises were coming out instead of words, we hopped on our bikes and went for a ride up the dirt road through the corn fields. How wonderful to have the freedom to shift gears like that!

That freedom was also a little daunting at first, and as we got closer to our start date, I panicked a little. How on earth are we going to do this?! The only way I could see was to start small, and start at the beginning. A is for apple. It seems to be working so far.

here’s what’s happening

IMG_9958IMG_9959IMG_9964IMG_9957IMG_9956Bugs. Truly, I am not a fan. They give me the willies, even as I appreciate how interesting they are. I did my best to hide my revulsion (though I’m not sure I was entirely successful) as we took the girls to Bug Maine-ia, a free event all about bugs at the Maine State Museum. There were dead crawlies, mounted fancily. There were live crawlies in petri dishes and aquariums. There was even food made from crawlies (the girls liked the cricket chips, but only daddy would try the chili lime crickets – they still looked like bugs!). We oohed and aahed over the moths and butterflies, listened enraptured to the storyteller and puppeteer, and gaped open-mouthed as a new honeybee emerged from its cell in the glass-walled hive (mama’s favorite part).

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Two weeks ago we welcomed a pair of male barn cats from a local-ish rescue to our little homestead – one orange, one black. Swee quickly named one Pumpkin, and declared that the second name had to be something spooky (since they are Halloween cats, of course) and so he became Poe. We kept them confined for two weeks, as instructed, giving them plenty of kibble and fresh water, and bribing them with leftover chicken and canned food. This past weekend, we let them out of their cubby with the hope that they’d stick around. We haven’t seen them since, though a paper plate of wet food set out last night was licked clean by this morning, and a makeshift litter box was swept together in the loose dirt of the shed floor. It would seem that they’re still here, somewhere. Fingers crossed they become a little more social.

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Winter is coming. We’ve begun to stockpile firewood for the colder months and hope to heat the house with only the living room woodstove. J has been scouring the For Sale posts for good deals and filling the basement with seasoned lengths. We received a housewarming gift of almost a full cord, a hugely thoughtful gesture, and I was able to help him load and unload every piece – what a workout! We haven’t had a frost yet, but it won’t be long now, I don’t think.

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The “baby” chickens are all grown up, and should be laying any time now. Pocket and Pretty Boy have become quite handsome, and are very attentive to their two little ladies, if not gentle. They squawk terribly when separated from the girls, but really give them a vicious peck when reunited. None of the four little ones mingle with the bigger girls, but there’s no open hostility, so I suppose it’s alright. We need to finish covering a portion of their run to protect the space from the snow. I’ve begun to think about how to keep them all happy over the winter, and noticed this weekend that it’s almost time to bring the sunflower heads inside to dry. About half of the blooms have faded and dropped their petals, so I’ll cover them with paper lunchbags shortly as protection from the birds and rodents. When they’re mostly dry, I’ll clip the stems and hang them inside to finish drying. They make a great boredom buster for the chickens when there’s nothing around to peck at but snow.

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The final farmer’s market of the season was filled with pumpkins and squash, and our yard has regularly been filled with wild turkeys. We counted eighteen the other afternoon, bold as brass, marching through the orchard and up the hill. The apples are almost all ready, and I made our first pie this weekend. I have no idea what variety I used, but they made a delightfully tart filling, the kind that keeps you awake rather than being cloyingly sweet. Really nice.

And that’s what’s happening in our little corner of the world. What are you up to these days?