Saturday, March 29, 2014

Is it Really Spring?

Mr. and Ms. B say it's Spring  

The hens say it's Spring

The bees say it's Spring.

Let's see....

The old hay rake is dissapearing again.

The voles have almost finished my kohlrabi.

The Winter Migrating Plastic is going back underground.

And the tennis balls have sprouted.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Trilliums, Flags and a Fairy Slipper Tale

Oregon Grass Iris or Flag (Iris tenax)
Ah, Spring is upon us. The bees are buzzing in and out when the rain stops and the Morel mushrooms will soon be adorning my special white bean soup. We made it through another winter and it feels great!
There are certain flowers on the Homestead that bring me a lot of joy to see peeking above the Dew Berries or weathered grass.

These are what my mom called "Lambs Tongue" but they are also commonly known as White Fawn Lilly (Erythronium oregonum). I spend a lot of time in the early summer trying not to mow their beautiful speckled leaves, which the flowers leave behind to gather sun for next years blooms.

Then there is the illusive Western Trillium (Trillium ovatum) which takes seven years to bloom from a seed. As children we were never allowed to pick these since the act of picking it, killed it. The bulb cannot recover it's strength without its stem and three leaves.

But my very favorite is the Fairy Slipper.

This Western Fairy Slipper (Calypso bulbosa var. occidentalis) is our tiny native orchid. I actually grew up calling it "Lady Slipper" which is what my Mom and Grandma called it. That is why "common names" can be confusing, they tend to be different for the same plant depending on localities and families.

The story of this Fairy Slipper is one of the experiences that helped me overcome my reluctance and brought me back to the Homestead.

I carried this plants' ancestor back to this spot on horseback.

When I was about 10 years old, I rode my horse over to my friends farm a few miles away. It was a rare, warm and sunny April weekend. When I got to my friends house, she caught her horse and off we went into her back woods. Our Homestead is on a rocky mountain top with a few winter springs here and there but the land is fairly arid. Her families property was at the bottom of the mountain and had a much more verdant ecosystem, with strings of ponds and lakes in deep woods.

We loved to ride our horses down to the lakes and let them graze while we hopped from one floating log to another trying to cast our fishing line directly in front of the "lunkers" we could see in the lakes, sunbeams piercing the water.

In retrospect I think we didn't really want to catch the fish on these trips. Catching a fish meant hurrying home. And we wanted to do anything but hurry home.

Anyway, these trips into the forest usually degraded into chasing one of our horses who was tired of waiting around or it turned into a deep woods snoop to find her teenage brothers secret fort.

This day it was the latter. And as we followed rabbit trails through the underbrush looking for tell-tale boot prints or a flash of dropped paper or cloth in the deep green moss floor of the woods I spied a Fairy Slipper in bloom. Recalling my mothers exclamations of joy anytime she spied one of these delicate creatures in the woods, I decided I would bring it to her. I dug it up carefully from the duff with my fingers and set it into a scrap of wax paper. I nestled it under the pommel of my saddle and there it rode for the rest of the days adventures.
When at dusk I rode up our driveway and dismounted, I excitedly pulled the Lady Slipper from my saddle and brought it to my mother.
Her reaction was the opposite of what I had imagined on my long ride home. Being an avid botanist and gardener, she gasped in sadness and chastised me for digging up the delicate orchid. It would surely die now.
Crestfallen I apologized, handed her the plant and went to bed. Of course she was right. Fairy Slippers were rare and that was because they only grew in very specialized niches in the ecosystem.
The next morning my Mom apologized and thanked me for my thoughtfulness. But I had thought about the plant all night and I wanted to set things right. I couldn't return it, since I would never find the spot I dug it up in again.

I asked if I could plant it outside. She smiled and nodded but also expressed her doubt that it would survive.
I wandered around the Homestead clutching the plant. I sought out the damp shady places I knew of, but nothing seemed to be like the place I had found it, until I found the mossy stump. It seemed right to me, but it was only a guess and a hope.

It turns out it was a suitable spot. And to this day, around the first of April there is a 20 foot puddle of these Lady Slipper orchids around the spot where the mossy stump used to be. I had inadvertently established a new colony of the tiny orchids.
And here they are decades later! How such small happenings can effect our lives is difficult to predict but this one event helped shape who I am and what I care about, and what I do to this day.

This tiny treasure helped to bring me back to the land I love. That's a lot like a Fairy Tale if you ask me.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Revisiting The Chicken Tractor Debate

Our Cuckoo Marans' aren't "tractoring" like originally planned. Instead they are set loose to forage every day. Then they're locked up every night for their safety.

When Buck and I co designed and built our "chicken tractor" we were embarking on an experiment. We have had lots of chicken pens and lots of chickens over the years but they were always egg layers in permanent houses. Since we are in transition here at the Homestead, we needed a temporary solution to house our layers but we didn't want it to be wasted effort. What we decided was that we would build the pen we wanted for our future meat chickens and keep our layers in it until we get the hen house ready. We'd read a lot about Chicken Tractors for raising "grass fed" meat chickens and decided to try one out.

We built the house section out of 1"x 2" lumber and tin so it would be light and could be moved easily. We built the run part of it in 4 panels, out of 2"x4" lumber with pressure treated for the ground contacting areas.  We built what we felt was a minimum size for a dozen laying hens (5.3sf per bird) or 24 (2.6sf) meat birds because we were planning on moving it around often to keep the hens in fresh grass.
But despite our intentions, our tractor barely tractored anywhere. By the time we moved it 3 times we had discovered a few good things and a few not-so-good things.

It became very clear early in the process

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Old Barn Rehab Update

I wanted to fill you in on the progress that has happened on the old hay barn. We can't take any great amount of credit for this particular project except that we put it in the lap of our good friend Hank and put our two cents in when needed.
Our friend has, over his life of many projects, reclaimed barns for historical sites and has saved more than a few of our structures here at the Homestead.

He is a true master of this sort of "thinking outside the box" carpentry.

In a throwaway world, where anything that is not deemed extraordinary falls into the "Teardown" category, we have found that we save 30 to 40 percent of the cost of a new building by repairing an old building. And we end up with a structure that is full of character, history and usefulness.
This is a framing style referred to as "balloon" framing. It has no posts to get in the way of hay storage.
It is worth saving these buildings. These old buildings are built from a quality of lumber that we will never see the likes of again. It's true that most of them are not perfect, because they were built by the very same man or woman who used them. And despite the fact that their carpentry skills were not the best in the world, they did not let it stop them from building a hay barn from scratch! Now that is the kind of "can do" homesteader spirit we can all strive to attain.
By the way, I found out recently that this hay barn was built at the turn of the century from recycled lumber out of a Grange Hall that had been torn down! If these old boards could tell their story...

A few inches a month, for nine months pulled the "Board and Batten" East wall up out of the dirt.

Then the sill plate and footings were replaced and the rotten wall edge was trimmed off and tin put in to keep the water and mud out and away from it all.

 The above picture is NOT distorted. The hay loft was really that curved because of the sinking East wall.
By jacking the East wall up slowly and soaking the boards with a hose over the span of 9 months, the hay loft was slowly bent back to a more normal shape.
Here is an old photo of the underside of the barn. I took this when I was trying to figure out exactly what was going on under there, without crawling through the old rusty nailed lumber and the vintage Hamm's cans. It was no surprise to me that the entire East wall support system had crumbled to dust.

This is what Hank found when he moved a lot of junk and pulled up some boards to see what was going on. Look at the dirt right up to the floor. The log that was the support for the East wall had completely disintegrated.

Repaired and flattened flooring.

This was the South East corner of the barn. This is the results of decades of dripping rain from the roof line. There were no gutters on this side of the barn until we put some on it. It was also the uphill side, which means it received more than it's share of rainy Oregon runoff from the hill above it.

If you ever build a barn, don't build it at the bottom of a hill.

Now we just need to give it a coat of paint. 

There is talk about inclosing the addition to the barn to put in a proper wood shop. We'll see about that. Until then,

the Barn Swallows have free rent to raise their families.

Saturday, March 1, 2014


Mr. B shows off the giant Rhubarb plants in my herb bed.  Horse manure is the magic ingredient here.
If you live on a bit of land that has ever had a gardener living on it, there will probably be a Rhubarb plant somewhere in a corner or out on the edge of the garden. Rhubarb holds a special place in many of our hearts and childhoods. There is a reason that Prairie Home Companion features Rhubarb in nearly every episode. It is a plant rooted deep in the Homesteader tradition.
I think the main reason it is treated like a treasure is that even though Rhubarb isn't actually a fruit, all of it's uses treat it as one. For a sour vegetable, Rhubarb is certainly one of our favorite garden sweet treats here at the Homestead. We make crisps, jam and pies from it until we run out. And if we don't use it all up, I slice it, blanch it and put it in the freezer for the holidays, to pair with frozen raspberries or strawberries. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.

Medicinally, I suspect that any lucky family associated with a Rhubarb plant during a famine, as in The Great Depression, was spared the horrible effects of Scurvy because of Rhubarb's high Vitamin C content. Very few could afford exotic Oranges and Lemons at the time. Scurvy is a horrible disease which is directly caused by a lack of Vitamin C. Humans cannot make Vitamin C for themselves and must get it through their food.

A member of the Buckwheat family, this vegetable is low in Saturated Fat and Sodium, and very low in Cholesterol. It is also a good source of Magnesium, Dietary Fiber, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, Calcium, Potassium and Manganese. What more could a Homesteader want from a garden plant after months of dried, frozen and canned food?

It has a wonderful fresh taste at a time of the year when our stored apples have all shriveled and browned beyond edibility. No tree will be producing fruit for another 2 months. But there, in the chill of the very early spring soil are the pink buds of our "Pie Plant" pushing up make it's delicious stalks for the pickin'. Just grab a stalk at the base and pull with a twist. This will break it off in such a way that bacteria and pests will be less likely to enter the plant.


Rhubarb grows from a "rhizome" which is a woody, solid mass. The buds sprout from this crown and if you would like to make more plants, you can take a sharp shovel and slice the crown, keeping at least two buds on each division.
And who wouldn't want more of these generous and tasty plants? Even if you don't have a taste for Rhubarb it makes an impressive, low maintenance and Deer Proof addition to any landscape.
When planting starts or divisions, don't let them dry out, put them in the ground with soil only up to the buds, (like the picture above), and water in. If you are planting in the fall, cover the division with 5" or 6" of mulch to protect it from freezing as long as possible.

The next spring you will have a beautiful plant to look at and a few stems for your own "Be Bop A Rebop Rhubarb Pie. "