Blackberry Time!

Blackberries are ready.

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The blackberries have been bright red for what feels like forever. They grow in the fence line which I climb over on my way to the barn so every morning the bright red berries stand out on the green leaves, saying, “Not yet, not yet”. But finally some of the red have turned dark and they are sweet to eat.

We did not plant these berries. We have not watered them. We have not done much for them. It is like free food. Until you start picking them and you are reminded that NOTHING is free. These plants don’t give up their fruit so easily, they bite as I pluck the sweet berries. They have thorns which seem to snag and sink into the skin and hang on.

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But thorns or no thorns, we pick berries, usually as a family. The kids start out with great enthusiasm. But after the first few buckets it starts to get hot, fingers and arms get a little scratched (remember these are biting berry bushes), and there may be a pesky deer fly or two. But Chris and I cheer them on, “We only have to fill our containers, then we can go home.” The younger two might not make it. They often disappear to explore the nearby pond or go sit in the shade of the truck.

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Finally our buckets are full. A drink of cold water, a shower and thoughts of blackberry cobbler with ice cream fill our heads as we pile into the farm truck.

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The cobbler recipe I use comes from The Pioneer Woman. I love her site!

Pioneer Woman’s Blackberry Cobbler #1:

Ingredients:

  • 1 stick of butter
  • 1-1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 cup self-rising flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 cups blackberries (frozen or fresh, even better if you had to pick them yourself)

Preparation:

Melt butter in a microwavable dish. (We do not have a microwave, so we just melted the butter in a sauce pan on the stove top). Pour 1 cup of sugar and flour into a mixing bowl, whisking in milk. Mix well. Then, pour in melted butter and whisk it all well together. Butter a baking dish.

Now rinse and pat dry the blackberries. Pour the batter into the buttered baking dish. Sprinkle blackberries over the top of the batter: distributing evenly. Sprinkle 1/4 cup sugar over the top.

Bake in the oven at 350 degrees for 1 hour, or until golden and bubbly.

Serves 8

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What is your favorite thing to do with blackberries?

 

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Today’s Breakfast

For breakfast this morning I had a quart of Saturday’s milk and a couple of handfuls of black raspberries I picked while moving the cows. The milk was hard work. Hard. Work. Milk doesn’t just magically appear in the fridge. Milking machines don’t clean themselves. Hand or machine milking only happens after your cow has calved. Cows only calve after they spend 9 months pregnant…and they eat the whole time. Cows only get pregnant because they have met a bull or have met your whole arm. You with me on the hard work thing here?

The black raspberries just grow in the field edges. The only “work” involved is picking a path through the poison ivy (which the cows are trying to eat) to get to the berries. Dew berries should start coming on in a couple of weeks.

dew berries

Not yet…

What would someone have to pay for a quart of freshly squeezed milk and a pound of fresh berries? Could you even deliver these berries in any condition? Am I living the dream or what? All I have to do is make my farm payment each month, wake up insanely early every morning, follow the cows around, step in cow pies and give them fresh pasture. We also close them off from their calves for large portions of the day which requires …oh, a little more management. Oh and we have to keep the milking area in the barn clean and fight off the barn cats so we get the milk for ourselves. Then it’s an easy quarter-mile walk to pick berries among the poison ivy and spider webs and horseflies and breakfast is served! See how easy?!?!

Sometimes I’ll have another quart of milk to cool down after morning chores. No time for that today though. Just a quick shower to rinse off the layer of sweat and grime before heading in to the office to work with the cereal eaters.

Walking the Farm in a Spring Rainstorm

According to the very expensive, precise and scientific bucket that was left sitting out, we got a total of 5 inches of rain yesterday, 3 inches in the first hour. When that kind of rain hits the farm I like to put on my raincoat and spend time looking around. I want to know where the rain is soaking in and where it is running off. Is there any soil washing out? Did any lids blow off of chicken tractors? Are the ducks teaching the chickens how to swim? We’ll start at our broken old bridge to nowhere.

Bridge

There is normally a trickle of water flowing through here. The kids crawl through the tunnel and hunt up crawdads or pretend it is a fort. Today it is roaring as water flows through. I’m glad to see that there is not more water flowing through. This tunnel is fed by the overflow from the pond (not much is overflowing yet thankfully), the runoff from the alfalfa field (again, just a trickle) and the runoff from the corn field and feedlot and the ditch across the road (the majority of the water you see). It looks like most of my water is either soaking in or being delayed in reaching the branch. I love it when a plan comes together. But the pond is receiving quite a bit of water and topsoil from the neighbor’s field and then there is that feedlot. Well, not much I can do about that. Following the water downstream I’m concerned the branch will flood the bottom…where the chickens are currently.

Branch

The water was about a foot from coming out of the banks. Too much water for me to cross so I can’t go any further to the North. Within an hour the creek was already receding so I slept soundly believing the chickens to be high and dry…until I heard it raining again about 2:00 in the morning. (Skip to the end: chickens are fine). No choice but to go east. Cows are out in the open east of the yellow house. I’m taking advantage of the cool weather to graze open areas right now. The cooler weather will end this weekend so we’re watching the clock. The cows are so full they are a little hard to move. I’m giving them larger areas right now to get back to the trees in time. We will have a big, square cutout in the pasture that will remain ungrazed until fall. That’s how it goes I guess.

RainCows

Further east the little wash is flooded and we are just about to lose our fence. I stop to adjust the insulator a little bit.

Flooding

This water is either overflow from the neighbor’s new pond or runoff from the eastern half of the alfalfa field. There is a dry dam on the alfalfa field that is making a huge sucking noise as the water rushes through the pipe. It was too dark in the woods to get a good picture but a dead tree was against the drainpipe and it was spraying water in two directions. There was a huge pool of water there. I’ll need to take some corrective measures to heal that forest floor. When I say “corrective measures” think cow hooves. Most of the green you see is poison ivy so it won’t be milk cow hooves.

DamDrainFinally I stopped by a mulberry tree for a snack, something I try to do a couple of times each day. Mmmmm, freshly washed fruit. I’ll get tired of eating mulberries in a few weeks…about the time I run out of berries I can reach. Mulberry trees will grow anywhere a bird can poop. They are tough plants, will take serious pruning, will grow from cuttings and make good firewood. They are all over the farm and I try to visit each one regularly. There are some deep in the woods that aren’t ripening yet extending the harvest season.

MulberriesLet me know if you got any of this rain too or if you have any ideas for preserving mulberries. I don’t care for them frozen and we don’t tend to make jelly. Wine maybe?

One additional note:

The chickens are a long way from the cows and have been for about 2 weeks. The chickens are currently housed in our portable layer houses. That design has worked well for the last year but has its limitations. We will be re-purposing those structures or the components. One severe limitation is the lack of portability over distance. We are moving to a new design on a wagon running gear so we can close it up and head down the road (cause we can’t cross the broken bridge). I have been delayed getting that project finished. Look for pictures soon.

Goumi and Apples

In working to establish tree guilds around the dwarf apple trees I planted I ordered goumi.  Near as I can tell it’s pronounced gwammee, not gummy.

The book Gaia’s Garden lists plants appropriate to an apple tree guild.  The guild includes bee balm, comfrey, daffodils and a few others but let’s just start with what we have.

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I have apple trees already.  Thanks to Sandusky Valley I now have goumi.  They don’t look like much now but they should take off in the spring.  Toby Hemenway suggests you fit Goumi anywhere you can to help establish new trees and boost production.  The idea is that goumi (a nitrogen-fixing plant) grown next to and in proximity of trees will provide nourishment to the trees.  He even suggests you plant your apple and goumi in the same hole, cutting the goumi back each year to half the tree size.

Goumi is propagated by cutting.  The cuttings I got were bare-root and well rooted.  I made a mix of well-composted horse manure, sawdust, perlite and a greensand and planted the goumi at even spaces between the apple trees.  The trees are planted 8′ apart so I planted 2 goumi in a line at the 4′ mark.  This should keep the plants in sufficient sunlight as the guild develops.

Let me know if you have any experience with goumi or recipies you can share.

Strawberries in the Greenhouse

Well, we have this greenhouse…thing…and we’re trying to find ways to put it to use.  So…we’re shootin’ for early season strawberries.  I bought 50 Chandler plants from Ison’s nursery in Georgia.

I marked out another garden row, put down a layer of composted mulch then started digging the hole for the next project, aquaponics.  More on that another time.  I needed to do something with the blue clay I was digging out of the hole so I put down a layer on the strawberry row.  Then I added a layer of composted horse manure and sawdust, jersey green sand and just a bit of aragonite before going to work this morning.

Then the oldest boy and I popped them in the rows when I got home.  Our rows could be straighter but what’s the fun in that?  Plants are 1 foot apart in rows and the rows are a staggered foot apart.  I am loosely following the Missouri high tunnel production plan but I emphasize the word “loosely”.

OK.  Well.  Too much to do to sit around chatting.  Hope this works.  It could be a spectacular failure.  Well, it could be a failure.  It’s not big enough to be spectacular.  Anybody have any tips for me?

Lazarus Blueberries

I found these poor little things on sale for $2.50.  Normally I’m not one to bring home sick, helpless little things but I like blueberries, have a pallet of peat and am willing to try.

The retailer had just about given up on them.  I found 9 that still had green leaves.  I brought them home, filled the pots to the top with peat and gave them a good soaking in a bucket.  Each day since then I have soaked them in about 2″ of water in a bucket until the peat is saturated.  Then they sit in partial sun all day.  We’ll see what happens.  I may have wasted $20.  I don’t really think so though.

I planted two over by the pond about a month ago.  Every day they get a bucket of water and they are doing as well as they are doing.  I dug a big hole for each, mixed in a bag of peat in each hole and carried wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of sawdust.  I should put an odometer on my wheelbarrow…

What about you?  Is there something you just can’t pass up when you see it on sale?  Do you believe you have the touch to bring things back to life or are you at least willing to try?  Have any tips that would help me out?

Quarts of Berries, Gallons of Lotion

We have been picking dewberries for days now.  They are not quite the same as raspberries.  Aunt Marion set me straight on which berry is which.  I keep a volunteer patch near the beach at the pond.  Apparently I keep poison ivy there too.  We are beginning to cultivate this volunteer stand…meaning I mowed through the middle of them last fall separating the brambles so we could really get in there.  This year I’ll mulch them and yank the poison ivy.  Pretty good picking for so little rain.

You know the best part of picking berries?  Eating them.  Most of our berries go to the freezer for later though.  We get about a quart a day which we promptly wash, spread on a cookie sheet and freeze.  Then we use a spatula to pry them up and pop them into a freezer bag and use them later for smoothies or forget them till spring and mix them 50/50 with strawberries in jam.  Maybe toss in a couple of mulberries too.  Mmmmm.

So, trying to put a positive spin on everything, you know the best part of poison ivy?  Hot water.  It feels great.  Soon the poison ivy will clear up and we’ll be left to enjoy the fruits of our labor.

Mulberries, Hay and other Delicacies

Do you have mulberries where you live?  Do you even notice them?  We have them here.  When I was a kid in New Minden we had one in our back yard next to the gate that led to the alley and Mrs. Ruth’s yard.  There was a crotch in the tree just right for a 7 year old to park in and make himself sick eating berries.  I did.

Today we baled hay in the bottom where mulberry trees abound.  I picked a handful while I was walking out to where dad was ready to bale.

I picked another handful when the baler went under a mulberry tree.

I picked yet another handful for good measure.  Don’t mind the hay hook.

I also took inventory of the dewberries crop.  Not as many as I would like to see…

…and the blackberries.

We pick and freeze as many as we can get my hands on but we really don’t go past the edge of the woods because there’s a bumper crop of poison ivy out there every year.  This year is no exception.

Each spring we clean out our freezer and find forgotten gallon bags of berries and make a big batch of mulberry, dewberry, blackberry, strawberry mixed jam.  Yeah.  It’s pretty good…better on ice cream.

So anyway, we were out there to make hay.  I’m a little allergic to hay.  On the third pass I started sneezing.  By the fourth pass my hankie was soaked.  Dad runs the baler clockwise around the hayfield.  Both of dad’s main fields are on a slope so it’s an interesting ride.

Between the two fields in the bottom and the barn lot we put up another three wagons of hay.  We have had an unusually dry spell so this is far and away the best first-cutting hay we have put up in years.  Isn’t it pretty laying in windrows?  That hill made about 65 bales.

Hang on…ACHOOO!!!!

Planting Blueberries

For years we have purchased blueberries from some friends, Mark and Kelly Smith.  This year we thought we should put in a row of our own and see how it goes.  With luck and in time we may be blueberry independent.  We had 2 inches of rain the night before so working on mulch was going to be the only work I could accomplish in the morning.

Now, I know blueberries in central Illinois may not qualify as sustainable as our soil is anything but acidic.  They are something of a guilty pleasure.  I’ll have to work to keep the acidity up.  But we like them, they will provide a little color in the fall, and a windbreak for our garden.  Also, the line we are planting is at the very edge of the parking lot/driveway and will give us a clear border.

I began by laying out some lines that were square with the buildings.  Please note the recycled bailer twine.  I also had a 6″ deep line of aged wood chips and sawdust in place for the last week or so in preparation for planting.

Then I began digging.  I knew my grandpa collected rocks but I had no idea.  I plan to put up a post in the near future about making sure your short-term goals (preventing your tractor from getting stuck) won’t be in the way of future generations…considering the consequences of your vision.


The goal is to dig a hole 1 foot deep and 2.5 feet in diameter.  I stopped mining rock before I got to my goal on the last hole..

Because I took so much rock out I had very little soil to put back into the hole.  I put in a mix of several things to give my plants a good start.  First I put in a few shovels full of unsifted compost.

Then I added in about half a bag of peat to bring up the acidity.  Now, if given the choice between peat and coco coir I would choose the coco coir but this is a special situation.  I bought a greenhouse from a nursery that was going out of business.  He also had a pallet of peat.  Rather than send the peat to the landfill I brought it home.  This isn’t a choice I make every day but I think, in this scenario, you understand.

Next I add a few shovels of rabbit manure mixed with sawdust.  I realize not everybody has rabbit manure but you have to understand, I don’t have soil in this hole.  I’m using the rabbit manure to replace the missing soil mass.  Bear with me here.  I’m not presenting an ultimate solution, I’m just trying to make lemonade.

Then I mix the components and add some water.

Now I replace my string, measure my space between plants (with a 4′ tool handle) and place my plant in the hole.

I’m still short on soil so I continue surrounding the plant with rabbit manure and top it all off with a bit of horse manure.  Yeah, I know…not everybody has horse manure laying around either.  I’m trying to bring up the acidity after mining out a bushel basket of limestone.

Finally, I cover the row with a fresh 4″ of composted sawdust.  As that sawdust breaks down it will provide a weed barrier and raise the acidity of my soil.  Also it will sponge up moisture and provide soil structure as blueberries want to be moist, not wet.

I have done a lot of work over a couple of hours to plant a measly six plants.  As they grow they’ll tell me what they need.  I may have to make some changes or at least a few tweaks before they really take off.  I don’t know.  It is the unknown unknowns (Thanks Talib) that make gardening exciting.

Special thanks to our friends Nathan and Aimee for lending a hand with the mulch.   They thought they were just coming for lunch