Panthers Hollow

A Blogger With True Grit

Jennifer QuinnYou may have read Jim Baker’s blog, The One-Acre Farm, which has appeared on this site from March 2015 through October of this year. Jim and I began corresponding in the summer of 2015, after reading each other’s blogs and realizing that we shared a common perspective. Both in our retirement years, we were in the early stages of single-handedly launching a homesteading venture on a small property.

Jim Baker headshotJim was full of ideas and enthusiasm and showed as much interest in learning about my activities as talking about his own. Partially raised on his grandfather’s farm, Jim had some valuable insights and experience with rural life. His encouragement was a great support to me as I dealt with the challenges and frustrations of managing a poultry flock and a large garden with very limited experience, strength, or know-how. Though we lived about three and a half hours apart, he graciously offered to come to Panther’s Hollow for a day or two and lend a helping hand. As much as anything, I think he was curious to see the place and what I was doing here. He also mentioned another homestead that he wanted to visit if he had the opportunity.

So in the fall of 2015, we planned a visit, but the weather didn’t cooperate. With rain in the forecast, we decided to postpone it a couple of weeks. Then Jim fell ill with what he thought was a case of pneumonia. He kept assuring me he was going to make that visit as soon as he was better, but the recovery failed to materialize. A couple of months later, he was diagnosed with lung cancer.

Not one to give in to discouragement, Jim lost no time in self-pity. Optimistic though he was that he might beat the cancer through faith, drugs, the support of friends and family, and a positive attitude, he still realized that his time might be short. “It is what it is,” he said.

He continued working while undergoing chemotherapy, and his enthusiasm and optimism never seemed to waver. But after a brief period of remission, his condition worsened, and he was able to do very little. It was then that he began planning for the future of The One Acre Farm. His vision was to have it become a community garden, and he began reaching out in many directions to find support for the idea. He envisioned having a 4-H club involved, or a possible Eagle Scout project. Eventually he found someone who was interested in managing it, with the idea of renting out portions to interested groups or individuals.

In early November of this year, Jim was told that the cancer was growing and he had about six months to live. He had just arranged for hospice care when he passed away suddenly. At present, the status of the community garden is uncertain, but anyone wishing to get involved may contact his wife, Cheryl, at crpkvl@gmail.com.

Jim’s enthusiasm, courage, and good humor will be missed by many. May his efforts be rewarded, and may The One Acre Farm live on!

A Reluctant Meat-Eater Learns Butchering

Jennifer QuinnDeer parts

Growing up in New York City, unlike many people these days whose only concept of meat is an amorphous blob sealed in plastic in a supermarket case, I was accustomed to the sight of meat carcasses hanging in a butcher shop's window. Though I loved animals — and hated the thought of hunting — I never gave much thought to the source of my meat until adulthood, when I began to read about the horrors of slaughterhouses, particularly in the beef industry.

For a time I swore off beef, then realized that the conditions for poultry were about as bad. Later, I discovered the appeal of vegetarian cuisine, reveling in brown rice, pita sandwiches filled with falafel or babaganoush, and other delicacies. So I thought, “Why eat meat?” and became essentially a vegetarian for several years.

Eventually, I reluctantly began adding meat back into my diet. This was partly due to health concerns, but there were other, more compelling reasons. First, I had long been interested in sustainable agriculture and had made a tour of organic farms and homesteads, staying for a few days or a week as a volunteer worker and learning about organic farming. I learned that, while not absolutely necessary, animals make an important contribution to our ability to grow and harvest food from the earth.

Second, I had come to realize that any use of animal products — including eggs and milk — requires the killing of animals, if only excess males. For every female calf or chicken born there will be approximately one male, and very few males are needed or can be kept in the flock without male-on-male aggression. Weaker or less desirable animals need to be culled in order to maintain and improve the quality of the herd.

Third, I realized that our beloved farm animals couldn’t even exist — except in zoos and preserves — if they didn’t have a job providing us with meat and other products. In return, we provide them with food, care, shelter, and protection. In the words of one formerly-vegetarian farmer: “I’m giving them the only life they have.”

One of the advantages of living where I do, surrounded by hunting properties, is that one of my hunter neighbors offers me deer meat whenever deer season opens. This is great, because I’m on a rather slim budget and my farm-raised chickens can only supply a small portion of my meat intake. I feel I need some red meat in my diet, and the cost of humanely-raised, grass-fed beef is almost prohibitive for me. This way, I’m eating an animal that got to have a normal life up until the moment it was shot, and that hasn’t been fed hormones and antibiotics or made to spend days or months in terrible conditions — crowded together with strangers and up to its ankles in manure.

When I embarked on my current project of raising my own food, I expected to be killing and processing some of my own chickens. The little experience I’ve had with that so far has been challenging, and this will probably always be my least favorite farm chore. Aside from the daunting task of humanely slaughtering an animal, I’d had no experience with butchering and, except for roasting a few chickens and turkeys, have never had to deal with a complete carcass.

Last year when my hunter neighbor asked me if I’d like some deer meat, I said “Sure!” He asked how much I’d like, and I said as much as he wanted to give me. So, when he had shot a deer, he gave me a call, and I came over with bags and a cooler to where he had the deer strung up. He and another guy were cutting the meat off the bones and throwing it on a table where I could bag it, all except for a portion that he was keeping to make jerky. Even as it was, it took a couple of hours to bag up about 34 pounds of meat, and about five more hours at home cutting it into smaller portions to freeze. But I ended up with a year’s supply of meat.

Imagine my consternation this year when he and a companion showed up at my door — about noon on the first day of muzzleloader season — with a cooler that contained the major portion of a deer cut into about four pieces — bones and all! My inner butcher was about to be born. The entire hindquarters were in one piece, weighing probably 30 to 35 pounds, and I knew that wasn’t going to fit in my refrigerator.

To make a long story short, I spent the next several days in meat-cutting purgatory. In the process, though, I found that butchering is somewhat intuitive and gets easier with practice. Along with another year’s supply of red meat, I ended up with almost a cup of lard and several containers of meat stock, plus a collection of bones, some of which will make good gifts for dog-owning friends.

Deer bones

Now that my freezer is packed and I’ve reclaimed my refrigerator, I can relax a bit. What a relief!

Deer meat in freezer

Fall Gardening — I Keep Trying!

Jennifer QuinnFall garden

When I was a backyard gardener, I made a few attempts at starting a fall crop of spinach. As far as I can remember, none ever came up. I was puzzled by this, but I wasn’t motivated enough to try and figure out why. Now at Panther’s Hollow, I’ve been more serious about making my garden as productive as possible and have read a number of articles and attended presentations on the joys of fall — or even year-round — gardening.

So far my efforts have focused mainly on growing brassicas, since they are cool-season and, I believe, mostly frost-tolerant crops. Well, last year I had a number of cabbages started when the groundhog apparently got in and nibbled them all down to nothing! This year I put a hot wire around the bottom of my fence, but I haven’t seen the groundhog since mid-summer, so I can’t say whether or not that would have helped. In any case, I now have a few decent kale plants (a first for me), a few cabbages, and some very chewed-up Brussels sprout plants to show for my efforts. But out of the couple dozen spinach seeds I sowed, only seven plants have emerged and survived — and these are pitifully small!

On the advice of a neighbor, I set out my Brussels sprout plants in July rather than in May as I used to, but I think I’ll return to my earlier practice next year. With only three weeks left in the growing season, they haven’t developed even the tiniest sprouts. I don’t think it’s entirely due to the dry weather, or the fact that I planted them in a layer of only half-finished compost mixed with a little soil over a kill mulch of cardboard and weeds.

I have noticed, though, that the rows of kale I planted in bare earth grew much better than the ones I planted in the compost mixture, and I’ve since learned that brassicas need really firm soil. I wanted to do the kill mulch because the weeds were so bad, but obviously this was a bad idea for brassicas. In fact, even the few spinach plants that came up in my bare-soil plot have done better than in the beds where I added the above-mentioned compost. It’s those darned wood shavings I use for chicken litter — they take forever to break down! I’m starting to use straw more than shavings, so hopefully in the future I’ll actually have finished compost when I want it. But here’s another thing I’m learning: it’s probably better to add nothing to the soil than to add half-finished compost!

Besides that, I guess I need to start using row covers for my cabbages and Brussels sprouts, since I’ve been plagued with a never-ending stream of cross-striped cabbage worms. I’ve been squishing them almost every day, and there are always more. It’s especially difficult with these two vegetables, since they start in the rolled-up leaves at the top where you can’t see them. I tried draping burlap over the plants, but that didn’t seem to help. I wonder if diatomaceous earth would have worked? Fortunately, the kale plants seem to have escaped their attention for the most part, along with the red cabbages.

Here’s a question about red cabbages: I understand they have to overwinter and will take a full year to mature. Can anyone tell me how this is done? Do I have to mulch them over completely before frost hits, or what?

I made another interesting discovery with regard to the cabbage worms: I’ve noticed a multitude of brownish moths feeding constantly on the marigolds that were blooming at the edge of the brassica patch. I suspect these are the cabbage worm moths, so I’ve since removed the marigolds. The intercropping enthusiasts seem to recommend planting marigolds practically everywhere, but I guess in some situations it’s best to cut them back before flowering. Too bad — they look so nice in the garden!

Gardening With Native Wildflowers

Jennifer QuinnPurple and Yellow Flowers
Ironweed, wild bergamot, and yellow coneflowers

When I was an urban gardener, I was seriously into native plants and wildflowers (as you can see from the pictures included here). During my first few years at Panther’s Hollow, I’ve somewhat neglected this important aspect of my gardening activities. First of all, there’s already such an abundance of native wildflowers and shrubs around the edges of my property. Then, I haven’t had the budget to invest in more nursery plants, and I’ve been focused on establishing vegetable beds and fruiting plants. Still, I’ve been realizing more the need to have enough flowering plants to keep pollinators and other beneficial insects in and around the garden. So I’m currently ramping up my efforts.

In the fall of 2014, I sowed several plots with a variety of wildflowers — purple and yellow coneflowers, red milkweed, ox-eye sunflowers, New England asters, false indigos, Culver’s roots, brown-eyed Susans, bergamot, wild senna, and maybe others — with disappointing results. The first year, all that came up were a few red milkweeds and one purple coneflower!

I hadn’t done a very good job of eliminating weed competition, and I was hoping that many of the seeds were just lying dormant in the soil and would germinate in a later season. Sure enough, late this summer I found several new plants of different species had emerged in one of the plots — New England asters, bergamot, a Culver’s root or two, and purple and yellow coneflowers. Meanwhile, I had given in and ordered three false indigo plants from Prairie Nursery — a white, a blue, and a cream — which I planted in one of the plots where nothing had come up. Imagine my delight when, later in the season, I noticed other false indigos that had emerged in the same plot — holdovers from my 2014 planting.

I wrote earlier about the boneset plants I grew from seed that I collected from the stream bank, which bloomed stupendously in a wet spot in the garden. Now I plan to sow more of them next to the house and next to the garage where water drains off the roof. So I’m looking forward to having an abundance of wildflowers in a few years. Meanwhile, I thought I’d share a few more photos of my urban garden:

blue false indigo
Blue false indigo

flowers and sky-sml file
Brown-eyed Susans and New England aster

Columbine with shrubs--sml file
Wild columbines with native shrubs

asters and St Johns wort
New England asters and shrubby St. Johnswort

My Cat "Family"

Jennifer QuinnBelieve it or not, when I was fourteen I dreamed of having six children. As it turned out, I was denied the privilege of having even one. But all was not lost — now, in my seventh decade, I’ve become a mother to five cats. And finally I understand why some mothers are a nervous wreck!

cats

If someone were to bug my house, here’s what they might record on a typical day:

“Bobcat, leave him alone. He doesn’t want to play.”

“He wants to be your friend, Mahogany. Can’t you be nice to him? Yes, I know he’s annoying, but he can’t help it. He’s a sweet little thing. Can’t you just try to like him?

“I wouldn’t get any closer, Bobcat … you know how cranky he is. He’s going to swat you. See? I told you.”

“What’s the matter, Mahogany … what’s all this crying about? Here, come get on my lap. What’s the matter, dear?”

“No, you can’t get on my lap right now … not while I’m eating.”

“Don’t you dare jump on the counter. Don’t even think about it! Bobcat! You little rascal … Get away from my food!”

“Whaddya want, Squeaky … you just want attention? I’m sorry, Squeaky, I don’t give you enough attention, do I? It’s because you’re so polite … you just sit there squeaking instead of jumping onto my lap and climbing all over me like the others. And you’re so well-behaved — you hardly give me any trouble. You’re the nicest of all my cats — so loving and sweet-tempered.”

“Mahogany, are you being mean to Squeaky? How can you be mean to her when she’s such a good friend to you? You should be very grateful to have such a nice friend — so patient and forgiving. Now, stop bothering her, or I’ll have to separate you two.”

“Good morning, Bobcat. Where’s your brother? Maybe you can find him for me. Go on, Bobcat … see if you can find Spooky.”

“SPOOKY! Where've you been?? I’m so glad you’re home. Here, I saved some breakfast for you.”

“Cecil! Get out of the door … you know you’re not allowed in the house! Yes, I know it’s hard being outside all the time, and I’d love to let you in if you’d just be nice to the other cats, but I can’t have you terrorizing them.”

“CECIL! HOW DID YOU GET IN HERE, YOU RASCAL??? “

“I’m sorry, kitties … I didn’t mean to let him in. Is everybody OK? C’mere, Bobcat … he didn’t hurt you, did he? That’s good.”

“Cecil … are you chasing the chickens? Don’t you dare chase my chickens. Well, you’re scaring them. Come on … I think it’s time to shut you up in your house. Night-night, Cecil … see you in the morning.”

Cecil
Cecil

Mahogany  Sweaky portrait
Mahogany and Squeaky

Bobcat and Spooky 2
Spooky and Bobcat

Chicken-Proof Porches

Jennifer QuinnHen on porch railing 2

One of the drawbacks of having free-ranging chickens is the need to find a way to keep them off your porch, since they can make quite a mess. Awhile back, I tried to solve this problem by covering the railings with the prickly plastic I wrote about earlier with regard to my geese. This didn’t work any better than it did with the geese. It did seem to keep them from perching on the railings for an extended period, but it actually made the problem worse. Instead of staying on the railings, they would immediately jump down onto the porch and roam around it, pooping everywhere instead of just around the edges!

Finally, I thought of a solution that seems to really work. I strung wire a few inches above the railings all around, even across the gates. The latter required installing those plastic gate handles that are used for electric fences, so I have to unfasten that whenever I go in or out. But it works!

Back porch with wire

On the front porch, I had been propping up a baby gate I found lying around that was missing the hardware to attach it, but it would always blow over in a strong wind or the cats would knock it over. So, using the one piece of hardware that remained, some wire, and a screw-in hook, I found a way to attach it securely so I can open and close it and it stays put. What an improvement in my quality of life!

Front porch with wire

The one flaw I found on my back porch setup was a gap between the railing and the house where the chickens could easily slip through. For now I’ve propped up a metal plate to block it, and that seems to work unless one of the cats pushes it out of the way. I realized the wires might make it hard for the cats to get onto the porch. So now I have to remember to leave the gates open at night and close them in the morning. Just another thing to add to my routine. I said the simple life wasn’t simple, didn’t I?

Garden 2016: Mistakes and Challenges

Jennifer QuinnGarden NW July 2016

Well, this was to be the year my garden would really take off, but each year seems to bring new problems and challenges. What a steep learning curve!

First, the good news: I did really well with tomatoes (which I’ve never grown before) even though I started them from seed. I had no idea they were so easy to grow! Maybe it’s because my soil is so high in calcium. I did all right with bush beans this year after totally missing the boat with them last year, and I had a pretty good crop of cucumbers, too. Plus my strawberry bed finally began producing more than two or three strawberries at a time — sometimes as much as 7 ounces in a day! — while my third-year blackberry bushes began producing.

Ripening blackberries

Now for the mistakes: First, I planted about twenty seed potatoes in trenches that I dug over a period of a couple of weeks. What a job that was! I hate digging trenches, but planting them above ground would involve scrounging up all sorts of materials to layer over them, and I didn’t think I’d be able to manage it.

Now, for some reason, it didn’t occur to me that this particular bed might have the same drainage problem as the asparagus bed I wrote about earlier, though it’s at the same level on the slope. So I was rather dismayed when I saw water in the trenches after a good rain. Still, I kept watching for the potatoes to sprout until long after they should have come up. Finally I decided to do some digging, and sure enough, what few seed potatoes I found had rotted. Fortunately, I had a few potatoes planted in other places, so it wasn’t a total loss. But most of those were planted in first-year hugelkultur beds and turned out to be tasteless and watery.

After filling in the potato trenches, I decided to cover-crop the bed and save it for a fall crop of beets, since the few beets I had planted early got eaten by something, probably the groundhog, and the replacements were struggling in the heat. In August, I sowed not only beets but spinach in the former potato bed, but hardly anything came up. I believe it was a combination of the hot, dry weather and the fact that I had tried to improve the soil with half-finished compost full of undigested wood shavings. It really looked almost finished in the compost bin!

Then I made the dumb mistake of setting out my four butternut squash seedlings in the morning instead of waiting till evening. The poor things never recovered from the transplant shock, and I ended up with all of four very small squashes.

This year I decided to start my Brussels sprouts in July rather than in the spring as I used to do. Apparently this is impossible without using row covers. Every day I had to pick off the cross-striped cabbage worms, and the next day there would be more of them. Where do they come from? They seem to spring into birth fully grown, like Athena from the head of Zeus. I think I’ve finally seen the last of them, but I don’t know if the plants will recover.

Brussels sprouts with caterpillar damage

In the spring, I had fourteen nice spinach seedlings growing before the groundhog (apparently) got in and ate them all down to nothing. Finally I got a hot wire installed around the bottom of the fence, but by that time the groundhog had disappeared — probably eliminated by the coyotes that have been hanging around and killing my chickens. So I don’t yet know for sure if my fence is effectively groundhog-proofed. Meanwhile, I’ve been plagued with grasshoppers, cicadas, and katydids almost defoliating entire plants at times.

On the bright side, I had sown some boneset seed (collected from my streambank) in a waterlogged area of the garden, and they’ve taken off amazingly:

Boneset

What you can’t see in this blurry picture is at least a couple dozen bugs on the flowers, mostly mating, which turned out to be Pennsylvania leatherwings. Imagine my delight when I looked them up and read that the larvae eat grasshopper eggs!

A lot of things have simply suffered from the hot, dry weather, which has kept me watering two or three times a day when I’m able. With the water table as high as it is here, it’s amazing how quickly the surface can dry out! And I’ve discovered that, apparently, my soil has a too-high calcium/magnesium ratio, which, among other problems, could account for poor growth.

I’ve been reading Charles Walters’ Eco-Farm (not an easy read) and learned that certain symptoms I’ve noticed could indicate a deficiency of magnesium. Now, my soil report indicated more than adequate magnesium, but as Walters explains, it’s the ratios that are important. It seems it’s sort of a game of musical chairs, where the excess calcium knocks all the other cations off their positions on the soil colloid.

There’s a difference of opinion regarding re-mineralizing the soil versus waiting for the development of organic matter and soil organisms to restore the proper balance. (See Anna Hess’s The Ultimate Guide to Soil, which I’m also reading.) I’ve opted for sprinkling some Epsom salt on the beds most affected by the imbalance in hopes of seeing a dramatic improvement next year. Besides that, I’m planting everything with green manures like oilseed radish, mammoth red clover, oats, and Austrian winter peas, and gradually moving toward no-till gardening and raised beds. By building up the soil, I hope to have healthier plants that will thrive and be able to defend against insect attacks. And maybe next year I’ll have my head on straight and not make any more stupid mistakes!