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Panthers Hollow

Winter Projects

Jennifer QuinnSo maybe you think, now that it’s winter, I can settle down with a good book? Or get busy and finish all those indoor house projects I’ve been putting off? Well, yes and no. It seems there are always outdoor projects hanging around that should have been finished in the fall but never got done. One of these is clearing the forest of invasive hedge (common privet?) that, over the last couple of years, somehow started taking over the bank along the private road.

Earlier on, I had noticed this strange little tree at the corner of my driveway with black, oval berries that nothing seemed to eat. I left it alone for a couple of years, thinking maybe it was some kind of native shrub, though I could never identify it. I finally decided it was probably useless or worse, so I cut it down. Then someone pointed out that the same things were growing all over the bank where I hadn’t noticed them. By that time they were so big I had to get my handyman to take them out with his chainsaw!

That was in 2015. This summer, I noticed that stump sprouts had grown from all of the strange trees he had cut, plus I now had a few big ones growing on the stream bank that had gotten too stout for my loppers. I hadn’t noticed those because of all the weeds and the vines growing on them. During the growing season I get so engrossed in gardening and livestock chores that sometimes basic property maintenance isn’t on my radar!

So, in November, I finally got my handyman over to take care of some things, which included cutting the trees on the stream bank. I had him haul a lot of junk away, too, as well as take one of my 100-lb propane tanks to be filled. After everything else was loaded up, there was no room for the cut-down trees, so here they still are!

Brush for removal_edited-1

My handyman had promised to return, since he needed an extension ladder to clear three years’ accumulation of dead branches and leaves from my garage roof, to bring a boot to put around the stove pipe he replaced in the workshop roof, and to return my filled propane tank. But, like everything here, that was “if the creek don’t rise.” Of course, it did. It has stayed riz ever since.

Meanwhile, I figured I could clear those stump sprouts with my loppers so he could haul that off, too, but this is as far as I’ve gotten:

Brush Pile

All that green stuff you see at the top of the slope still needs to come out. Not an easy job since it involves crawling up a roughly 45-degree slope with my loppers and trying not to slide back down while cutting multiple sprouts from each stump, sometimes with my outdoor cat, Cecil, perched on my back. (He loves that I’m working outside, since it means he has company for a change!)

The other pressing chore for early winter was to check my water line and tighten up any loose connections so I don’t have a repeat of last winter’s experience when the line came apart; it took me weeks to find the trouble and get around to fixing it. Since the line comes from a spring about 800 feet from my house and partway up a ridge, this has always been a daunting project to me. The last few hundred feet of it roughly follow a stream bed, sometimes lying in the stream, sometimes on one bank or the other, often buried under mud and brush. Since I had never walked the entire line most of the work involved clearing weeds, brambles, and small branches so that I could access it without all that stuff poking me in the face. Here’s an example of one of the rougher sections:

Disappearing water line--original

It took me three sessions of an hour or two each, but last week I finally got it all done up to where it connects with my neighbor’s line, tightening several connections as I went. I don’t think I’ll bother going the rest of the way up to the spring, because my neighbor probably checked that part at the beginning of hunting season when he was going to be staying at his cabin. And, while it does make for a scenic hike past the two waterfalls, I have limited tolerance for scrambling up the last 50 feet or so, stepping over rocks and grabbing onto saplings to pull myself up.

Now maybe I can get to finishing that kitchen-painting project!

half-painted kitchen 2

Is There a Future for My Free-Range Flock?

Jennifer QuinnMore Icelandic chickens

When I first moved to Panther’s Hollow, I was warned that it would be hard to keep free-range poultry here with all the predators around. A couple of the locals had tried and given up after all their birds were killed. But having free-range chickens was one of my main objectives in moving to the country, and I had seen them on nearby properties. So I was determined to give it a try.

I’ve written earlier about my problems with predators at Panther’s Hollow ("A Guinea Disaster," "Chicken Challenges," "Predator Problems"). In the two years I’ve had my free-ranging flock I’ve lost at least two-thirds of my birds each year — not an encouraging start! Some of this, though, can be chalked up to lack of experience. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’ve learned a number of lessons about how predators can get at my birds and have found ways to improve security.

This year, some new challenges presented themselves. First, as my new chicks matured, many of them started to think that the large chestnut tree next to the coop was the best place to spend the night. (So did the two guinea keets.) This may have been partly because the mature birds were bullying them, with one hen in particular trying to clear everyone else off the roost. I began shutting the aggressive hen in a pen at night, but that didn’t solve the problem, and I lost a number of young birds that way.

I did think of a few strategies that might have avoided this problem. First, if I placed a second feeder in the coop then I might be able to get all the birds feeding at once and shut the door before any could escape. Now that I’m down to very few birds, I can do this fairly easily. Second, I think removing some of the lower branches might make it hard for them to get up into the tree.

I’ve also been planning to convert another, much larger building into chicken housing, and I think that will work much better. With more space and more perches, the younger birds won’t be as easily intimidated. The building is also closer to the house, which may make predators more cautious, and there are lights I could use if necessary.

The raccoon that I mentioned earlier began coming around again before dark, and this time I had my rifle at the ready. Though I still can barely hit a target, I got as close as I could and fired a few shots at her. Amazingly, the first shot barely caused her to flinch. After the second, she ran off a little way and turned to face me again. Only the third shot was enough to send her running, never to be seen again. Perhaps I came close to hitting her — I don’t know. What I do know is that a new problem soon presented itself.

One day, two birds mysteriously disappeared during the afternoon — my guinea hen and my favorite chicken pullet. This got me thinking that there were two of something hunting together. A few days later, I was in the kitchen when I heard a great ruckus and all of the chickens and guineas came flying out of the woods. I ran outside just in time to see what looked like two coyotes sauntering off through the woods! Fortunately no birds were caught that day, but one day I heard another ruckus and came out to find a coyote walking around the front of the coop and another bird missing. Shyer than the raccoon, these marauders always disappeared before I could go after them with the gun. They did stop coming around, though, for whatever reason.

Occasionally I’ve lost a chicken to a hawk, too, though the guineas are usually pretty good at spotting them and sounding the alarm. Clearly I can’t go on like this — raising birds to feed the local wildlife. It’s not fair to the birds, let alone to me. So I’m hoping my new strategies will help to keep the birds safe, and that the coyotes and the rogue raccoon won’t return.

Having lost all but six chickens and one guinea pullet, I’m going to try raising more chicks next year and maybe a few guinea keets. If I can’t keep the losses to a minimum, I guess I’ll have to give up trying to have a free-ranging flock. I suppose I could get one of those little hen houses with an attached run (it had better be a sturdy one!) and get a few lazy hens that don’t mind being confined all day. But I’m not sure it would be worth it. I really want to breed Icelandic chickens! And I want my birds in the garden, doing pest control and fertilizing the soil!

Honoring Temple Grandin

Jennifer QuinnIn my post on butchering, I wrote about my reasons for becoming a meat-eater again after years on a vegetarian diet. I commented that if we didn’t keep farm animals for meat and other products, they’d only exist in zoos and preserves.

I just watched the HBO movie Temple Grandin, where the renowned animal scientist is beautifully portrayed by the actress Claire Danes. Though Dr. Grandin has practically devoted her life to promoting more humane treatment of animals, she has drawn criticism from animal rights groups for working in the meat industry. But in the movie, while talking about cows, she makes this observation: “If we didn’t eat them, they’d just be funny-looking animals in zoos ... We keep them for us, and we owe them respect.” These are her actual words, which we hear in her own voice in the accompanying feature on the DVD.

Along with Joel Salatin, Grandin is one of the people who have inspired me most in working with animals and thinking about them. I first read about her in a New York Times article in the mid-nineties and was fascinated. The article explored how Grandin’s autism enabled her to understand the behavior of cows and to design more humane systems for moving them, which are now used in over half the cattle-processing facilities in the US.

About ten years later, I was in Barnes & Noble and saw the cover of her new book, Animals in Translation, which I bought immediately. (You will never look at animals the same way after reading this book.) Shortly after, I was offered a temp job working in — of all things — a beef-packing plant. I had previously turned down this offer, thinking this was an industry I wouldn’t want to be involved in. But, after reading about the improvements that had been brought about through Grandin’s innovations, I decided to give it a try. This gave me an opportunity to witness her influence firsthand.

As it turned out, the facility used her system for moving the cattle and had used her training videos. I learned that, due to pressure from animal rights groups, fast food chains like Wendy’s and McDonalds — who were among the company’s biggest customers — required audits to encourage humane practices. I’m not saying the audits were foolproof; they used benchmarks that required fewer than a certain percentage of animals to be prodded or to be found limping, for example. But it was reassuring to know that there were standards that had to be maintained and that minimizing stress on the animals was the goal. While I have my objections to the beef industry on other grounds, I can still appreciate the progress this represents.

Grandin’s achievements in improving livestock-handling practices would be impressive enough, but they are even more so given the challenges she had to overcome as an autistic woman in the 1960s and 70s. She had to learn to function in mainstream society while at the same time dealing with the sexist attitudes of a male-dominated meat industry. The HBO film explores this very effectively, and also touches on her contribution to the understanding of autism. In the 50s, when her condition first manifested, autism was poorly understood, and children with autism were frequently institutionalized. Grandin is widely credited as the first autistic person to speak and write publicly about living with the condition and about the advantages of her highly-developed visual thinking. This latter aspect is illuminated in her book, Thinking in Pictures.

In addition to her teaching at Colorado State University and her work with the meat industry, Grandin now lectures extensively on autism and has written several books on the subject. And the hug box she designed, based on squeeze chutes used in the cattle industry, is now used as a calming device for autistic children. Hats off to Temple Grandin, and to HBO for their excellent movie!

Beef cattle feeding
Photo by Fotolia/ellisia

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