Updated: Apr 24, 2020
With spring in full swing on the farm, there's too much going on to blog it monthly or even weekly. So I decided to chronicle a single day on the farm, from 8:30 am to 7:30 pm.
I do something different every day; on April 22 I planted some plants and pet some animals. That's the short version: below is the (probably too) long version. Enjoy!
The first thing I do every morning is check on the seedling shelf. Young plants grow astonishingly fast, so every morning brings something new. Some days I thin crowded seedlings, or fertilize, or move little plants into larger containers.
This morning everything was thirsty. I watered the soil blocks from the edges, letting the water soak into the middle, and then watered all the trays of sunflowers and zinnia until the excess water seeped into the soaker trays.
Some seeds grow swift and strong: others do not. I've found warm-weather plants to be more finicky than the cool-weather plants I got used to raising in the winter. The celosia barely germinated; I need to start another round soon. Basil did well, though, and the opal and Thai basil were looking content in their new cell tray. The younger lemon basil was just unfolding its tiny cotyledons in the starting soil blocks.
The gomphrena (globe amaranth) was a little old to still be in soil blocks. I checked under the blocks and found the roots beginning to form a mat. It wasn't too tangled yet, but they definitely needed to be planted up as soon as possible. Today, though, I had other aging plants to attend to.
Some cell packs of watermelon had reached 50% germination, though the younglings were still pale green and half-trapped by shells and dirt. They needed light, but the un-germinated seeds still needed the warmth of the heating pad. Almost all our seeds start on top of heating pads in order to fulfill their temperature requirements for germination. Temperature requirements help plants keep track of the seasons and thus help ensure the young plants don't wake up to frosts. The heat also increases growth rate, which is nice.
Unfortunately, the watermelons and their heating pad were on the top shelf, where there are no lights. The alcove which houses our shelf only has one outlet. I have, through trial and error, found the exact number of cords that this outlet can handle. So, no additional lights: only a shifting puzzle of heat, light, and soil. It took some acrobatics, but I managed to move the heating pad and the watermelons down under the lights.
This caused the strawflowers to arrive at their day in the sun; which is to say, I ran out of room and had to take them to the outside shelf. It was their time, anyways. They had already moved from baby soil blocks into soil trays. Outside, they'll get used to stress of the real world and thus steel themselves for life in the Carolina soil.
Just as I finished with the youngin's (and my tea), Mom called me outside to help move the ducklings.
Ducklings & Co.
The ducklings and this spring's round of chicks have been spending their days in a little fenced yard in our front lawn. At night, we move them into a large tub with a heating lamp, but with ten teenage chicks and two massive teenage ducks, it was time for a new arrangement.
Mom works hard on every aspect of the farm, but her kingdom is the animals. By the time I was eating breakfast, she had already fed, watered, and otherwise cared for two flocks of chickens, baby chicks and ducklings, a donkey, two goats, two rabbits and their six babies, a pond of fish, a cockatiel, a cat, and a hound dog. (To be fair, I am not an early riser.)
The duckies have long nails at the end of their webbed toes and a distinct disdain for being carried. They like being pet and will perch on people with contentment, but the trip down to the pasture left me with scores along my fingers. I didn't mind at all; baby ducks are a delight no mere scratch can touch.
I've handled several generations of baby chicks, so I assumed the duckies would be just the same. There's a million tiny differences, but for one they love water, which is adorable. And also, instead of growing adult feathers while they steadily grow up, ducks just expand rapidly into giant fluff-balls.
Their new, adult home was a yard inside an electric fence (not yet electrified) with a sturdy doghouse. Mom mowed most of the grass so they could walk around, and provided a shallow tub for fun and to wet their beaks and food. (They won't be allowed a deeper pond until they have their adult feathers.)
The ducks freaked out. They ran around quacking their half-formed quacks and barely touched their water. Up the hill in the yard, the ten chicks peeped and cried incessantly. So we brought the chicks to the pasture, too.
Everyone immediately calmed down. With the flock together, they explored their expansive new yard, plucking at crown vetch and insects and grass seeds. I already knew that the chicks adored the ducks because they followed them around like little siblings: doing what they did, stealing food from their beaks, sleeping with their tiny heads tucked into the ducks' expanse of fluff. I'm not sure exactly what the ducklings get in return for being the big siblings of ten tiny, flighty, chicks. But it must be something nice.
I left mom to settle in the duckling flock. On my way past the fence to the second pasture, Gnocchi jogged up and asked to be pet.
Pinocchio "Gnocchi" the Donkey is a mini donkey we adopted a few weeks ago. He was the first resident of our pastures, which are quite full of kudzu. Mom and Dad decided a small herd of goats would be a better way to control the kudzu than constant mowing. The donkey is for variety.
I am not at all familiar with herd livestock. I have a mild fear of horses, but mostly know of cows, horses, and goats as distant denizens of hillsides and fields. When Gnocchi first arrived, with his massive, teeth-filled head and buff, hoofed legs, I trusted him about as much as he trusted me. Now, he loves to be pet as much as I love petting him.
He is struggling to adjust to his new pasture mates, but they weren't around at the moment, so we'll get to them later. I said goodbye to Gnocchi and headed back to my own botanical kingdom.
Planting out Eucalyptus
With the sun rapidly ascending, I attended to the outside seedling shelf. Since it is on the south-facing side of our house, it is normally wrapped with row-cover fabric to tone down the blazing sun. I undid the cover to water all the plants and select the one most in need of transplanting.
Inside, the clock ticks towards baby seedlings tangling their roots in their soil blocks. Outside, the clock ticks towards teenage seedlings becoming root-bound in their cell trays, with the added variables of water stress, sun burn, and frost. I alternate between solving the two, planting up and planting out. Today was a planting out day, and perhaps a little too long overdue.
I chose the eucalyptus. They were the very first spring plants that I started last winter. I made the mistake of starting them in leaf compost instead of starting mix. They were slow to grow; although they were due to be planted out around this time, with the frosts safely past, I reckon they were supposed to be much larger by now. Mine are only 3 inch tall and quite thin-stemmed. Still, I am proud of them and eager to see them to harvest. (This variety in this climate will become little bushes, not towering trees.)
I carried them down the long length of garden to the final row of flower beds. By silent decree, I attend to all the younglings on the shelves. But once they go out into the garden, the vegetables become Lilly's domain. The flowers are mine.
I passed the empty beds awaiting sunflowers and zinnias, the blue-dotted bachelor buttons and the low, pink bank of sweet William. I passed the bupleurum, with its strange sideways stalks just beginning to flower, and the covered rows of young dahlias I had planted a few days ago. I set the two trays down in front of their designated bed, and then I started back up the driveway for a rake.
Last fall, we set all our beds to rest under leaves. (In the future, I want to use more cover crops, but leaves are by far better than nothing. They house roly-polies and fungi and good old worms, and keep the soil from drying out too terribly.) This bed, however, was one of two beds in the whole garden that I had managed to cover crop last fall. Some time in the spring, Mom broad-forked the white clover and lay several inches of compost over top.
When I sunk my fingers in, I discovered no evidence of clover at all, except the dark, pebbly indication of life in the soil.
Of all the tasks I do, transplanting is one of my favorites. I like the warmth of the sun and the sight of pale, loose balls of roots. I like the smell of dirt and, this time, the faint scent of eucalyptus. I like to imagine the young plants spreading their roots out into the new earth. I even like the sting of dirt in my duckling scratches.
With twenty-eight plants in the bed (the four remaining will go into our home garden) I dragged the hose over to water. Actually, I made Mom drag it. It's heavy.
The house could not reach the last half of the bed; the most distant corner of the garden. I watered the eucalyptus with a little bucket, rearranged the soil, wished them the best, and headed back up to the house for late lunch.
Goats & Begrudging Co.
I went back outside when the sun was slanting into gold. This time of year is not yet too hot from me to work at midday, but plants don't like to be disturbed in the heat. Besides, I am training for when midday is one million degrees.
I went to visit the goats, first. The goats arrived yesterday, young Alpine mixes named Boots and Gobi. They are wethers, or fixed males, which are, I am told, the easiest to care for out of all the states of goats. The bigger of the two is nearly the same size as Gnocchi, but their personalities could hardly be more different.
While the donkey is shy, calculating, and intelligent, the goats are eager and... less intelligent. Not to say they aren't clever, but whereas Gnocchi built up trust with us over days, the goats arrived with broad, cavalier affection. Also the goats have way smaller heads and I am much less afraid of their teeth. (Also they bleat as opposed to screaming like a ghost.)
I have left Mom to read all the books on livestock care, but I like to pay a social visit to the pasture at least once a day. All three members of the little herd were raised close to people, and they seem to crave human company. I pet Gnocchi (he likes the inside of his ears scratched) and talk to him about the species of grass and wildflower he's been enjoying. With the goats now it has become quite tense, with them all vying for attention and Gnocchi being both openly protective and remarkably passive-aggressive. Still, they all get their turns being pet, and I figure they'll work out some sort of peace soon enough.
(Gnocchi, don't read this part. Boots has the softest face of any creature ever, it's so dang cute.)
Washing the red clay and goat-smell off my hands, I joined Mom and Lilly at the rabbit hutch. A few months ago we adopted two rabbits, a male and a female... and now we have six baby bunnies. (The male and female are in separate hutches now.) Though the mom rabbit is young, she is successfully raising all six of her children into exquisitely adorably bunnies. They are around four weeks old, so Mom has begun letting them have a few hours in a yard.
I cannot begin to capture the sheer cuteness of a baby bunny. Nothing could do them justice; it hurts just to look at their soft faces and tiny paws. Each of our bunnies is a different shade of brown-gray and all bear unique white marks. Lilly's favorite, the runt, is a blue-gray bunny with a white triangle from its forehead to its nose.
We'll build the bunnies a larger hutch, and give a few of them to new homes. But that is all in the future; for now they are still young enough to need to return to their mom in the evening, when she feeds them. So, we had to scoop the bunnies out of the yard and return them to the hutch.
This was easier said then done, especially since the yard has a low net over it. Of course I was the one crawling about and catching the bunnies. They are not all that wary of people, but once you touch them they assume they are being lifted to their doom. Compared to the ducks they did some real damage. But again, all is forgiven. (Just look at their little faces.)
If you hold the bunnies close, they calm down a bit. So, I got to tuck a few velveteen bunnies under my chin, and then it was off to transplant once more.
Planting Out Statice
This time I selected the tray of statice. Like eucalyptus, this is the first season we've grown statice. It will eventually have papery purple flowers that dry excellently: for now, the plants are a whorl of squiggly leaves.
Since being put outside, some of the leaves turned pink. Although color change can indicate nutrient deficiency, the pink was not patterned along the veins, but more like sunburn. Besides, they were not root-bound and had been fertilized several times with fish emulsion. I figured that the pink was likely anthocyanins produced by the plant as sun protection. (Anthocyanins, purple or reddish pigments, absorb extra photons.) Either way, the pink was a charming shade, and made the wavy leaves even more whimsical.
Lilly, done with her own tasks, joined me to transplant. I extracted the statice from their cells and handed them off to be buried. Their roots looked good, just beginning to swirl dense at the bottom of the cell. And the bed soil felt good, airy with organism tracks. I watered the statice in as the sun went down behind the trees.
I checked on the eucalyptus before leaving the garden. It showed no signs of water stress at all. Leafy transplants often wilt in the hours after planting, even if they are watered in. The eucalyptus's tough, quarter-sized leaves seem very well suited to the heat.
On my way through the vegetable garden, I picked a handful of sugar snap peas. Two days ago, we had harvested, washed, and packed the last of a delivery of peas for the Free Clinic. We help provide produce for their produce prescription program, and this time we delivered peas along with lettuce and herbs. Although mom, Lilly, and I have been gardening all our lives, we've never grown at the scale we are now. It was very satisfying to glean ten pounds of peas from neat rows of trellised plants.
But peas have slim harvest windows. By the time of our next delivery to the Clinic, the peas will have petered out, and we won't have enough to provide. So now the plants are ours to harvest and enjoy. The sugar snaps taste like sugar and crisp dew. I added a few handfuls of strawberries as I swung through the side yard towards the pasture, plucking unprecedentedly large berries from the daughter plants we had transplanted from the vegetable garden to here last fall. Lilly showed me the first turnips she had pulled, harbingers of impending harvest, and a few stalks of asparagus which would be her appetizer to dinner.
I sat at the edge of the goat's fence and enjoyed my own appetizer as the nighttime chill crept in. The goats enjoyed it, too. I split the peas evenly among myself, Gobi, and Boots, so that no one got jealous.
On other days we harvest, or build infrastructure, or attend to a million little tasks. The farm extends into the business and the business informs the farm. Our animals control invasive plants and provide manure for our garden beds; our cover crops and vegetable scraps feed our animals. On spring days like this one, it is nice to be a little cog in the turning world.