Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Glorious Morning!

Today is watering day, so I got distracted with many things in the garden while moving the sprinklers around this morning. I noticed that we have some late bloomer pumpkins, cantaloupe, and various squash developing, as well as a second crop of roma and cherry tomatoes. I guess everything needed a little rest before ending things with a bang. I also noticed that the morning glories are finally going to seed, so I had to grab a container and start harvesting.

I've been growing morning glories for over 15 years, beginning at the ranch. The first year I planted them, I had massive amounts of blooms so I never had to purchase more seeds thereafter. I only had one color though, a deep violet purple. It's really cool to know that some of the current seeds I have were handed down from those original plants. This year I have some new, young plants in the mix. I bought some new morning glory seeds to add to the mix. I really wanted some different colors, so I added magenta, pink, light blue, medium blue with pink stripes, and a very very blue to name a few.

Morning glories are a very prolific vine. If you aren't careful, they can invade other plants. They creep up trees, along fences, and over anything it can grab onto and crawl up. We used this climbing tendency to our advantage however, and encouraged them to cover the fence that separates the neighbor's yard from our own. The fence is open wire and doesn't offer much privacy when it's bare, but it does provide a great climbing structure for the vines. The vines in the backyard get a lot more sun than the ones in the front, so the foliage is very thick.

Morning glories are also fascinating because they close up during the day when the sun hits them. During the morning, you can witness them in all their glory, hence the name, or on overcast days they may stay open until evening! I thought it was interesting to learn that they are a native of tropical America. They can produce up to 300 flowers a day! Morning glories are super easy to grow. They love loads of sun and poor soil. The perfect flower for the black thumb!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Our Visit to the Cheese Factory

Whew, what a day.  We had to drive down south to Marina del Rey today to drop off Lee's camera to be serviced for his film project.  Left the house at 4:15am. No human should be up at that hour, and 12 hours on the road in one day when the temperature is 100F degrees is no fun at all, however, we did end our day with a neat new discovery: Bravo Farms Cheese Factory.

Our attempt to find a non-fast food option for lunch on the way home along 99 was looking quite dire (if you've traveled that way, I am sure you concur), but then I started seeing these funky-cute painted signs on the side of the road every mile or so, advertising everything from handmade cheese, fruit stand, petting zoo, ice cream, cafe, gift store, pumpkin patch... and each one had a little phase at the bottom that said things like, "why not stop in?" "You know you want to stop." "Please, please, please stop in!" I'm a sucker for pumpkins farm animals, so we pulled off on the exit as prompted by the string of signs. Our curiosity was piqued the minute we pulled up and saw the place.
It looked like a mini-western town. It was jam-packed with old antiques everywhere, from the old milk truck full of antique milk bottles, to the coin operated kiddy horse ride that still worked! There was so much stuff to just look at and check out. I could have spent a whole day there.
We had lunch in the cafe which apparently is world famous, according to their brochure. I just loved how they served our water in mason jars. The free chips and delicious salsa were delightful.
I ordered their "Good Ol' Macaroni & Cheese" which was made with their famous handmade cheddar... Oh, gosh, mmm, the best mac & cheese I've had for, well, ever since I usually only eat Annie's.
The decor was fantastic. Like I said before, so much interesting stuff to look at! An oggler's utopia. Very eclectic, yet charming and stylish in an off-the-wall sort of way, which I quite admire.
Out back, there was more western town facade, and a cute little courtyard picnic area that opened up from the cafe. On the other side of the facade was a petting zoo with mini donkeys, goats, sheep, and bunnies. They also had pigeons of all colors. At the end of the boardwalk, there was a cool game room/vintage arcade.
Inside the gift shop were all sorts of goodies, from antiques, to salsas, jams, candies, and of course cheese! I loved how they displayed their wares. Along the cooler where the cheese was displayed, there were buckets full of little iron fish, horsehoes, stars, and various other little odds and ends. We didn't even make it back to the antique store or fruit stand there was so much to see, but we'll be back for sure now that we know it's there.
We sampled most of the cheeses that were available. Lots of cheddar, everything from chipotle cheddar to sage cheddar. We ended up bringing home the premium white cheddar. I look forward to going back, which may be as soon as next week... since we have to make that trip again, ugh, to pick up the camera!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Chicken Scrapbook

Just six months ago, we received a peeping box from our postal carrier (the stork is just a myth folks, it's the mailman who brings babies!) Inside were six little balls of fuzzy cuteness. Unfortunately we lost one of the little Welsummers, but the rest of the girls were strong and healthy and have become a cherished part of our family. They follow us around when we are outside, prefer to eat scratch from our palms instead of on the ground, and look forward to their favorite treats- apple cores and carrot peelings. They all have their own personalities. Salt, our Barred Plymouth rock, is a bully. Pepper, same breed, is her henchman. They must think because they were the first to lay eggs, that they rule the roost. Red, our Welsummer, is the trouble maker, she likes to peck our bare feet, jump up on the trampoline, and chase the cats. Chipmunk, our Easter-Egger is sweet, friendly, and minds her own business and lays the beautiful green eggs. Chilly, our Blue Cochin, is shy and a bit of loner, Salt chases her, but she's our favorite. She has beautiful poufs of green-black feathers and makes us laugh when she runs. Here's a little photo spread of the girls when we first got them, and what they look like today.
After a long internet search, I finally stumbled across My Pet Chicken, the only online supplier I found at the time that would ship small numbers of chicks. I didn't want to just go down to the local feed store and pick random birds without knowing what they were. We wanted birds that were friendly, hardy, and interesting looking. After some research and comparison of breeds, I was able to narrow down a list of birds that would suit our needs. I placed my order and we (im)patiently waited for our little package to arrive, and just a few days after Easter, it did!
We were so excited when the package arrived. The brooder box that we had set up had been ready for about a week before they arrived. Inside the little box was a nest with a little heating pad, and our chicks were all huddled inside. We immediately put them in their new home, and they went straight to their food water and then hunkered down under the heat lamp for a good nap.
We only ordered 4 babies originally, one of each breed. We ended up with an extra Barred Plymoth Rock and an extra Welsummer, because there is a minimum number of birds that can be shipped and this ensures that the chicks stay warm and survive the shipping journey. One of our Welsummers didn't make it, but the others thrived and were quite lively! Early on Red was a very sweet baby, so it's funny that she grew up to be the most persnickety. The two plymouth rocks ruled the roost from day one. They were always popping around and pecking at your hands. Chipmunk was also a little daredevil as a chick, but ended up being sweet and a little shy. Chilly was always shy and sweet.
Baby Chilly entering the awkward teen chicken stage, when the adult feathers start to come in. We named her Chilly because when she was still completely fuzzy, she looked like a baby penguin. We loved her feathery legs and feet. She looks like she has a big pair of feather bloomers on.
Chilly today. Even though she is a Blue Cochin, she turned out all black. 25% of Blue Cochins do turn out black. She's still beautiful though, and her feathers have the most gorgeous green sheen.
Chipmunk at a few weeks old. She started out with fuzzy stripes and puffy cheek feathers like a Chipmunk, hence the name. We had no idea what she was going to look like as an adult, so we were fascinated as her feathers started to come out.
Chipmunk today. She is now a lovely golden color with pretty black detailed feathers on her back and wings. She still has the puffy cheek feathers. She is the only one that we own that has green legs and feet! She has started laying green eggs almost daily the last couple of weeks.
.Little Red. It's hard to believe she was so sweet and shy when she was little. She was a late bloomer. The last of the bunch to get her big-girl feathers. She and chipmunk always looked very similar with the stripes and feather patterns, just different colors
Red today. Miss Sassy! Like Chipmunk, she's acquired some really beautifully patterned feathers. She keeps us laughing on a regular basis with her silly antics.
Either Salt or Pepper as a young'un. They both looked pretty much the same, but the other photo of the opposite chick was blurry. It's hard to see the beak from this angle, but that's how we told them apart- by the pattern of black on their beaks. Salt had less black on her beak.
Pepper today. We thought that she was going to be at the top of the pecking order since she was the first to mature and the first to start laying, but it turns out that Salt is the head honcho. We now tell them apart from their combs. Pepper has a droopy comb that flops over to one side, she's more Emo.
Salt today. I interrupted some important dirt pecking when I took this picture. For the longest time her comb and wattle didn't grow, and we were worried that Pepper might have been a rooster since salt looked so different. We were relieved when Pepper started laying eggs!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Finally, a Farmer's Market!

This summer we tried to hunt down a decent farmer's market in our local area.  For some reason the one in our little town was cancelled this year, we were unable to find a listing for one in Los Banos, and the market in Merced has shrunk in size significantly. The local paper had touted that Firebaugh, a town about 15 minutes from here, had the best farmer's market in the county. What a joke! It wasn't a farmer's market, it was a flea market. There was one produce stand with produce shipped from Mexico! The rest of the booths were cheap toys, clothing and other manufactured goods from Mexico. So we were about to give up on the whole farmer's market thing, since the next closest Market, Turlock Farmer's Market, is at an odd time on an odd day according to our schedules. Then Lee needed to make a trip to Nasco in Modesto to pick up some supplies for the set construction of his current film project, and so we decided to get as much out of the trip as we could and check out the Modesto Farmer's Market.

Our Modesto Farmer's Market fare.
Wow, compared to what we've been experiencing in the realm of central valley farmer's markets lately, we were quite impressed! So much selection! Yummy samples! Friendly vendors! Almost made me want to move back to Modesto (hah!) We brought the kids along on this trip, their first trip to a farmer's market (aside from the Firebaugh experience) and they were a bit skeptical because they thought a farmer's market was just a flea market. They ended up having a great time and had to sample everything. I ran into my great friend and fellow art student Rita while we were there, who told me that she was Crafty Acre's biggest fan and read it religiously. What an awesome compliment! Makes this effort all worthwhile when I hear that people enjoy reading what I write. (And it was fantastic to see you again Rita! Can't wait to catch up with you again in the future!) 

We didn't do any major shopping on this trip since our fridge was already stocked, but we did let the boys pick out a lot of things that they wanted to try. We got the most delicious peaches and white nectarines from J&J Produce (their stand is located on the corner of Geer & Whitmore in Highson.) We sampled all of the honey flavors at the Pure Valley Honey Bees booth, and all voted in favor of buying the blackberry honey, super delicious and fruity! The boys were totally fascinated with the blue potatoes from Zuckerman's Farm, so we picked up a small sack. We stopped by a table full of grapes, every different type you could think of and Rowan shouts,"there's a tarantula in those grapes!"  It was in fact, just a small, fuzzy jumping spider. I'm sure that made the vendors happy¡ Actually, the ladies were quite nice about it, and said that the spider was just part of their natural pest control team. Glad there weren't any other potential customers at the table right then, but I still felt so bad that I insisted we buy more than one bunch of grapes. They turned out to be the best grapes I've tasted this summer, but I didn't catch the name of the farm unfortunately. Liam and I chose some Jalapeno Cheese Bread from Word-of-Mouth Baking Company and it's already gone, as I just finished off the last of it while typing this post- this coming from someone who hates Japapenos and anything else fiery! Speaking of fiery, we got some super yummy basque piperade from Beret Rouge. The boys all voted for the spicy, but I think I prefer the sweet because I have a hard time enjoying the spicy after a few bites. Maybe it's just me, but when my tongue is on fire it's difficult for me to enjoy food. We sampled all of the cheeses at the Oakdale Cheese booth. My favorite was the goat gouda. I am looking forward to getting a couple of Pygoras or Nigerian Dwarfs and testing out my cheese making hands in the future!

There were a lot more booths that we didn't have time to stop by or purchase from, but we do plan to go back. When we asked the boys if they had fun, they were in complete agreement. Liam, who just turned 5, told us that next time we come back we should try all new stuff that we haven't tried yet. Ah, is my influence rubbing off on him? We finished off our day with lunch at Extreme Pizza since they offer a gluten free crust. Poor Rowan's diet is quite limited and he rarely gets pizza unless I make a homemade crust for him, so he and Liam loved it! Nice to see more restaurants are offering gluten free options!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Book Reviews

Finished some books, acquired a new stack, and have even more waiting for me to pick up at the library right now.

Finished Books:
Homemade Contrivances and How to Make Them: 1001 Labor-Saving Devices for Farm, Garden, Dairy, and Workshop was an interesting step back in time! This is a reprint of the original. Though my backyard plot isn't in need of a lot of the things in this book, it was a really fun book to browse over! If I have a bigger farm of my own in the future, I'll definitely add this book to my collection. It's nice to know that this information hasn't been lost. ****
The Urban Homestead (Expanded & Revised Edition): Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City (Process Self-reliance Series) is a must read for anyone who wants to get back to basics. It's a great starter reference for farmers in town. There are ideas for everyone, whether you have a yard or just an apartment balcony. A wide array of topics are covered, from gardening & canning to keeping chickens. I appreciate the writing style, which is really down to earth and down right funny at times. I read the older edition because that's all the library had, so I am not sure what new information is included in the newer edition. *****
Don't Throw It Out: Recycle, Renew and Reuse to Make Things Last had so much information that I didn't finish it word for word. It's one of those books that you just want to have around to digest little by little. It's jam-packed full of really cool ideas to help things last longer, ways to recycle things that you would have never considered before (I was happy to read ways to recycle bike inner tubes, which I had saved thinking that they might come in handy), and lots of money saving tips. Used copies are going cheap online right now, so I may add one to my collection. ****
The Dirt-Cheap Green Thumb: 400 Thrifty Tips for Saving Money, Time, and Resources as You Garden is another one of those books that are nice to have on hand and read a bit at a time rather than page to page. Lots of great tips, but many were things that I had already known. ***
Don't Throw It, Grow It!: 68 windowsill plants from kitchen scraps was a really fun book, but again, another one that you'd want to keep rather than check out because there are so many little projects you want to try that you'll never be able to cover them all in one library loan period. I would like to try out all of the growing projects with Lee's kids. I was also surprised at how many ordinary kitchen items you can grow! *****
The Honey Trail: In Pursuit of Liquid Gold and Vanishing Bees is a fantastic adventure! Not only is this book full of interesting little insights on bees and honey, but all of that information is woven beautifully into a story of a women's travels around the world. ****
The Handmade Marketplace: How to Sell Your Crafts Locally, Globally, and On-Line is an indispensable resource for crafters. The illustrations were done by one of my favorite illustrators, Emily Martin (The Black Apple). *****

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Natural Aphid Control

Lady bug larvae and pupae.
I am happy to report that our garden is currently being overrun, not only with squash, but ladybugs!

When I first moved in, I was unaware that Lee's parents were having the local pest control fellow do routine general spraying until I noticed him poking around in the backyard earlier this year, thankfully before we had our garden planted. I put a stop to that as soon as I found out. Last year when I wasn't here, apparently there had been an infestation of fleas in Lee's backyard and the neighbor's backyard, which may have actually been caused by the spraying. Yeah, the pest control dude is good at getting rid of one thing (ants) but creating another nuisance (fleas).
Lady bug larvae and pupae amongst aphids.
What I have learned is that ants in the yard are a good thing. They eat flea eggs. Fire ants will even eat flea larvae. People just don't seem to understand, or care, that if you spray for a pest you don't just kill the pest- you kill everything, which includes the pest's natural predators. If you kill everything, you are going to end up with infestations of undesirables. I am going to get a pesticide free yard sign, or better yet make one, and hope to set a good example. Who knows, maybe it will even encourage others around here to research going pesticide-free themselves. Some people just don't know that there is another way because the use of chemicals is so commonplace or they have been socialized to believe that all bugs are nasty creatures. It's just not so!

If ants are running across your kitchen counter it can be an inconvenience, but they really aren't a threat. There are natural methods to deter them and keep them outside. Changing your attitude about bugs is a good start. Don't be so bothered by bugs unless they are biting you. Get over the eww factor, and learn to see insects as part of the fascinating world we live in. You can peacefully coexist with bugs, if you learn how. Besides, I'd rather have ants than fleas any day. Now that the spraying has ceased in our yard, I've noticed that we've got quite a super highway of ants along the back fence... but more impressive, we have no fleas!

Unfortunately the ants may also be farming aphids on our squash plants, as we have an over abundance of aphids at the moment, hence the ladybug explosion. I am going to have to do a little more observation to find out if the ants and aphids are in cohorts and whether the ants are bothering the ladybugs. The squash certainly don't seem to be hindered at all. I am just tickled that we literally have thousands of ladybugs in our backyard right now. You can find a dozen or so ladybugs or their larvae on each squash leaf. It's amazing!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Still Eating Squash

As long as I keep finding new ways to cook the mountain of squash we've harvested, we'll keep eating it! Yesterday evening I made Chocolate Chip Zucchini bars, and after having squash once a day at least for the last couple of weeks I was feeling a little ambivalent. I didn't even sample it when it first came out of the oven. It just sat on the cooling rack all through dinner, and thereafter while we watched a film. Halfway though the film, Lee hits pause and says with a big grin, "can we have the dessert now?" I kinda mumbled, "yeah, I guess so." He shot up like a rocket and made his way into the kitchen. Darn sugar fiend.  I thought that I was bad, but he'll eat anything with sugar and/or chocolate in it. I should keep this in mind when serving him the leftovers that he is tired of. From now on, I'll just pour sugar and chocolate on everything. (Maybe someday I'll get brave enough to try his family's chocolate gravy, which they typically serve at breakfast over country fried potatoes, and possibly share the recipe if it's good. Honestly though, I haven't yet mustered the courage. Chocolate at breakfast, let alone on potatoes just seems wrong to me?)
Yum! Chocolate Chip Zuchini Bars.

Anyway, I cut a couple of bars and sat them on a plate, only cutting myself a half-bar. We sat down and started the film. I took a tiny bite, getting ready to cringe, but to my surprise it was really delicious! It was still a little warm and the chocolate chips were soft. I even have to admit that it could have stood for a little extra squash. So, squash is still on the menu!  Here's the recipe, and don't be stubborn like me, try it when it's at it's best- still warm and fresh out of the oven.

Chocolate Chip Zucchini Bars

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup packed light brown sugar
6 tbsp canola oil
1 egg beaten
1 egg yolk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup shredded zucchini
1 cup chocolate chips
3/4 cup old fashioned oats
1/2 cup finely chopped walnuts, toasted*

1. Preheat oven 350F.  Grease 13x9 inch pan.
2. Combine flour, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt in medium bowl.
3. Beat brown sugar and oil in large bowl at medium speed until smooth. Add egg, egg yolk, and vanilla; beat until creamy.
4. Stir in dry ingredients. Stir in zucchini. Stir in chocolate chips. Stir in oats. Stir in walnuts.
5. Spread in pan.
6. Bake 25-30 minutes, when top is lightly browned and springs back when lightly touched.
7. Cool in pan on rack.

*Toast walnuts by spreading on baking sheet and baking at 350F for 6-8 minutes.  Cool.

If you want to get fancy, melt 1/4 cup of chocolate chips and drizzle over the bars.  Allow chocolate to cool and set.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Squash Out the Kazoo!

Our kitchen is currently overrun with gray zucchinis.
We've been mad-busy harvesting veggies and seeds, clearing beds, clearing new ground for new beds for next year, canning, freezing, and keeping up with all of our other house chores and projects... meanwhile trying to keep calm with the holidays looming just over the horizon!

Still haven't finished that darn chicken house either. Here's how it's been: one weekend we realize we need a certain tool and can't finish it. The next weekend we don't have the extra cash for whatever supply we need and can't finish it. Then the following weekend we can't fit the sheets of plywood in Lee's Rav4 and can't finish it. Finally we managed to shove the 8'x4' sheet of plywood into my old volvo wagon though! We both had to lean our seats back low rider style and duck our heads under the plywood, which was leaning on the headrests. Very tight fit, but somehow we did it and got it home. Right now we just need the plywood cut. We don't have a power saw and I forgot to borrow one from my mom when we were at the ranch this last weekend. Lee's dad just lives a few blocks away and has a shed full of tools, but it's really a matter of getting the fire lit under Lee's behind (you reading this Lee?) to motivate him to get over there and borrow them. It's just good that the chickens have a sheltered chicken tractor right now and aren't desperately in need of the new house.

We're currently overrun with eggs and squash. We can't eat them fast enough so our family extensions are benefitting. The mystery squash that grew out of our compost pile and quickly spread over a quarter of our yard turned out to be a gray zucchini. We had bought just one in the grocery store. I had no idea it had any mature seeds inside of it to sprout, but my compost piles have always been magical that way. So now we have seriously harvested close to fifty squash from that one wild plant, and it's still producing and still invading more of the garden! We've had sauteed squash, stir-fried squash, squash soup, added squash to marinara sauce over pasta, crispy parmesan zucchini sticks, zucchini feta pie, zucchini boats, zucchini breads. We are squashed out! Today I am going to try Zucchini-Oatmeal- Chocolate Chip Bars. If they turn out good, I will post the recipe.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Fertilizing the Mind's Garden

I love my library. Without it, our backyard homestead might not exist. Well, I guess the internet is to thank for some of that inspiration too, but anyway I won't go on with a big rant about how important libraries are, you already know that. I also won't go on a big rant about how our libraries struggle, you already know that. What I will say is that you should do all you can to support your local library. I donate my used books to the library's book sale, and I volunteer at least one day a week. Libraries can always use help, so stop by and see what you can do! Suggest hosting a free event on gardening, or guide a children's activity in planting a homemade terrarium. You get access to tons of books for free, so give something back.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Green Eggs!

Yesterday when Lee got home, I asked him to check the old doghouse to see if there were any eggs. We've been averaging 2-3 eggs a day now. Lee looked inside the doghouse, then knelt down and crawled in to reach something way in the back. When I saw the grin on Lee's face, I knew exactly what he had found and I asked excitedly, "did we get a green egg yet!?!"
Chipmunk, our Easter-Egger.
Chipmunk's green egg next to a brown egg.
Sure enough! Chipmunk, our Easter-Egger, laid her first egg! So again, it was a special day!