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Panthers Hollow

Wildflowers and an Herb Container

Jennifer QuinnI’ll start with the herbs. Last year I bought thyme and lavender plants (one each) and planted them in my garden as part of an intercropping strategy. Like many herbs, these are supposed to deter various pests, so I planted them at the edges of a couple of my garden beds. The dilemma here is that these Mediterranean herbs are said to do best in poor soil. So, how in the world are you supposed to intercrop them with your vegetable crops, where, of course, you’re trying to make the soil as good as possible?

I tried to resolve this by planting the herbs just outside the vegetable beds, adding some stones and gravel to the soil to make it “poorer.” What I overlooked is that they also need special protection to keep them alive in the garden over the winter. And recommendations for intercropping suggest planting this herb with that vegetable in order to control specific pests. But how can you do that with perennial herbs when you have to keep rotating your vegetable crops?

For this and other reasons I’ve become disillusioned with the whole idea of intercropping as a method of pest control. On the other hand, I do like the idea of growing my own herbs for the kitchen; and since lavender is supposed to repel fleas, I had taken to sprinkling it in the house around where my cats lie. So, after my thyme and lavender died over the winter, I decided to try again, this time adding rosemary to the mix.

I was intrigued with the idea of growing them in a container, and I remembered seeing a stone planter in a shady part of the backyard with some irises that never bloomed (perhaps it was the lack of sunlight?). Anyway, this struck me as the perfect container for my herbs. So I dug out the irises and planted them in a sunny but very wet area of the yard, and commandeered the planter for my herbs.

The spot I finally selected was chosen for both convenience of harvesting and optimal sunlight. This spot right next to the house gets the sun all morning, so it was perfect. It just happened that I was about to seed this area with wildflowers for the second time, after an unsuccessful first attempt. No problem — I would just sow the wildflowers (and some grasses) around it, and the result should be quite aesthetically pleasing.

In the rear of the photo you can dimly make out the two survivors of my original wildflower planting — both red milkweeds — which are actually doing quite well this year. I believe my earlier failure was partly due to me not effectively preparing the soil or removing the weeds prior to planting. So last fall I covered everything but the two milkweeds with cardboard and after removing it in mid-spring found it largely weed-free. I then broadforked it (it was quite compacted!), raked it as smooth as I could, and sowed it with more red milkweed, purple and yellow coneflowers, wild bergamot, black-eyed Susans, ox-eye sunflower, New England aster, and Canada and Virginia wild rye. The last step was to surround it with temporary netting to keep the chickens out so they don’t scratch it all up.

The herb planter was so heavy I had to put it on a dolly to move it! In an effort to recreate the rocky, Mediterranean soil, I filled it about half full with good-sized stones, then dug a lot of gravelly silt out of the stream bed to add to that. Finally, I added some rather clayey garden soil, largely because I got tired of digging silt out of the stream. But I topped that off with more gravel from the very stony soil of my wildflower bed. The result seems to be a good mix, and after several days the herbs seem to be thriving. I haven’t yet figured out how I’m going to protect them over the winter, but I’ll think of something!

As for the wildflowers, it will take a couple of years to see the results, but I’m sure it will turn out better than my first attempt. My other main wildflower planting seemed to be a real bust the first year — only a few red milkweeds and one frail purple coneflower emerged in the spring. But late in the summer I noticed a few other plants emerging, including yellow coneflower, New England aster, wild bergamot, and even,I believe, a Culver’s root.  This year the planting is really taking off, with even more plants than I had noticed before. I’ll share a photo when things start blooming!

herb container

Fruit Crops: Good News and Bad

Jennifer Quinn

Apple trees with blossoms

The good news is that my two old apple trees have been covered with blossoms this spring — the most I’ve seen in the three and a half years I’ve been here. Possibly this is due to my diligent pruning over the last couple of years. Last year I was puzzled when I ended up with only about a dozen blossoms on both trees combined. Only later did I learn that many apple blossoms in the area had been killed by a late frost. I guess I was focused on other things at the time and never noticed.

Anyway, the abundance of apple blossoms has been especially comforting since I’ve had a major disaster with my blackberries. They were looking great just a few days earlier, then I went out one day and found most of the shoots dying back at the tips. Whole sections of the canes were dead while clumps of leaves here and there had wilted, and ants were crawling everywhere. Consulting my Rodale Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, I concluded that they probably had cane blight. I took some cane samples to the county extension office to have them analyzed, and the lab confirmed that was what it was.

Cane damage

Meanwhile I had cut down three of the four plants, since all the canes were affected, lest the problem should spread to the one plant that still looked healthy. Fortunately that one still looks fine almost a month later. Interestingly, it’s the one I got free at a seed swap, while the other three were purchased at a garden store. And now the others have put out new shoots.

I guess you’re supposed to dig up the affected plants and dispose of them, but I can't afford to replace them so I’m just hoping the blight doesn’t return. Still, it’s a bummer because I was really looking forward to a good blackberry harvest!

On the plus side, though, it looks like I’ll have a bountiful strawberry harvest this year. The plants have been covered with a profusion of blossoms and now have many berries developing. So on balance, things aren’t so bad.

Developing strawberries

A Sad Ending for the Geese

Jennifer Quinn

2 Geese at Tignors

Recently I wrote that I thought I had reached an accommodation with my trio of geese (“Hitting My Stride With the Geese”) by letting them out during the day now that they had begun laying their eggs in the shelter. At first they would stay on the property all day rather than heading for the creek and not returning till evening or possibly even the next day. But soon they began making frequent trips down to the creek again, often spending the day there.

At least they would return every evening and head for their shelter to see if dinner was ready. But sadly, one evening the gander returned with only one goose. I wondered if perhaps she had made a nest somewhere down by the creek and would return in a month or so with goslings. I knew the odds of her surviving along with her goslings weren’t all that great, but I was hoping for the best.

After a couple of weeks, though, the creek flooded its banks, and if her nest had been anywhere near the creek she would have been flooded out. I’ve read that once a goose is disturbed from her nest she won’t start another one, so I thought maybe she’d come home — but she never returned.

Meanwhile, the gander and remaining goose seemed to be staying closer to home. I had debated whether to keep collecting the eggs or let her assemble a clutch and have goslings. I wasn’t sure I could handle the demands of six to a dozen more geese, but a friend assured me I’d be able to sell any I didn’t want to keep. Finally, I decided in favor of the goslings.

Here’s where the story takes a sadder turn: One day I was sitting at my computer and I heard a sudden outburst of alarm calls from my chickens and guinea hen, who are in the side yard next to the house. I rushed outside and found the chickens, guinea hen, and gander all standing around looking startled, and no goose. After a quick search of the property, I confirm that she’s definitely gone.

Now, I’ve written a lot about the predator problems here at Panther’s Hollow, which have included occasional visits from coyotes or wild dogs or dog-coyote mixes — I’m never sure which. In fact, I had seen one on my property a week or so earlier just prowling around. So I assume that’s what got the goose. Apparently they’re very quick and efficient, leaving no trace.

That evening before shutting in the gander, I collected five eggs that my goose had hidden in the nest. As for the gander, I started confining him 24-7 since I expected the predator would soon return for him. So I was again trudging up the hill two or three times a day with buckets of water and piles of greens. Still, the poor fellow showed little interest in eating or drinking, and sometimes I’d return to find the food and water untouched.

After several days, I discovered that if I stayed there and encouraged him for a while then he would start to eat, sometimes with great gusto. Then he’d go over to his water pan and start drinking. Clearly this couldn’t go on, though. It was no life for a gander, and he wasn’t any use to me in the shelter. I called the friend who gave me the geese and asked if she thought she could find another home for him. Today she came and got him and said she’d put him back in with her flock, where he’ll at least have a grassy yard and feathered companions.

Obviously I don’t have the proper facilities for keeping geese, what with the predators and all. But I can’t help thinking, for the eight months or so they were here, they had a pretty good life. They had the best of both worlds — a meal of grain every evening in a comfortable shelter and the freedom to roam the meadows all day and go swimming on an awesome creek!

Hitting My Stride with the Geese

Jennifer Quinn

Geese grazing

I’ve written before about the hardships of keeping my three geese confined 24-7 now that the breeding season has begun ("The Challenges of Geese in Confinement"). I’ve vacillated between letting them go — which at first resulted in their disappearing for days at a time — and reconfining them lest one should make a nest somewhere down by the creek and be lost to me, at least for the breeding season. Not only was I concerned for their safety, but I wanted to collect their eggs after the trouble and expense I’ve put into housing and feeding them!

For a while I was concerned because I wasn’t finding any eggs even a couple of weeks after seeing the first mating activity. I thought maybe the confinement was too stressful for them, so I started letting them out again during the day. Then one evening after a long absence, I found them back on my property, lounging in and around an open shed.

As it happened there was some straw on the ground in the shed, and I noticed one of the females setting on a mound of straw. After a while she got up and left, and sure enough, in a depression in the straw, there was an egg. Then I discovered another nest in the straw with another egg!

Still, I didn’t think an open shed was the safest location for nesting, so I placed large cardboard cartons in their shelter that I hoped would make acceptable nest boxes, filled them with straw, and placed the eggs in them. Later I found the eggs rolled out or buried under the straw. But new eggs were laid, not in the nest boxes but in mounds of straw like the ones they had made earlier.

I started keeping them confined again, hoping once they got in the habit of laying in the shelter they’d be inclined to stick around. It seems to have worked. Every now and then I’d let them out for a day if I wouldn’t be around to bring them fresh water and greens. They always came back in the evening. Finally, I started letting them out every morning, and most days they haven’t even left the property. Now that they’re in a routine with their egg laying, they seem to prefer staying close to home, the gander included. And I’m getting a nice, big, goose egg almost every day!

Not So Fast, Jennifer

Jennifer Quinn

First eggs

Earlier I wrote about having the opportunity to raise some pullets for a customer (“My First Chicken Customer”). This would be my first experience using an incubator, but after thoroughly studying the instructions and setting it up in a suitable spot, I didn’t think much could go wrong. My Little Giant Still-Air Incubator® holds about 40 eggs, and I was only setting ten, so I arranged them in a single row around the heating element. After candling the eggs a couple of times (something I’m not very good at yet), I concluded that four of them were infertile. Well — I got three of them right, but when I broke the fourth one, unfortunately it did seem to have an embryo, though perhaps it had died. All the others did definitely seem viable, except for one that I wasn’t sure about.

All seemed to go well for a couple of weeks; then one day I noticed that the temperature sensor, which is supposed to rest on top of the eggs, had slipped off. I didn’t know how long it had been like that, since I hadn’t opened the incubator all day; resting it on a single row of eggs was a little tricky, so it could have been gradually dislodged by the motion of the automatic egg turner. Anyway, I replaced it on the eggs, and to my horror the temperature reading began to climb until it reached over 105 degrees! The correct temperature is 99.5, which is what the incubator was set for. Apparently it gets a lower reading where there aren’t any eggs.

So I removed the cover and let it cool as quickly as possible. Now, you would think it might have occurred to me to arrange some eggs in a square, where the temperature sensor would more likely stay put. But I guess I didn’t have my thinking cap on. Would you believe the same thing happened again a few days later? And this time I hadn’t thought to add water for a day or two, and I think the incubator may also have dried out.

After 22 days no eggs were hatching, so I unplugged the incubator and took the six remaining eggs out to the compost, breaking each one to see what was in it. One did have a nearly-developed chick that had died. But, surprisingly, five of them seemed to have nothing but a yolk. Now, I had retained these in the incubator because, when candling, I saw a large dark area in them, though I couldn’t make out the embryo or network of blood vessels that you’re supposed to see, whereas the ones that I got rid of allowed the light to pass through evenly.

At first I assumed that the five eggs had been infertile, which would make eight infertile out of ten(!) I wondered if the age of the parents was to blame — eight to nine months at the time the eggs were collected. I had read that very young birds can have low fertility, but I’m not sure how young is “very young.” Then I realized I had forgotten you’re supposed to tilt the eggs first one way then the other when you’re storing them, so that the embryos don’t become stuck. Apparently they need to be able to rotate freely in the egg while incubating. So maybe they were fertile after all, but just never developed.

The one (very) experienced chicken breeder I’ve consulted replied that he never tilted eggs until recently, but hadn’t had a problem. Then again, he’s never collected eggs from birds that young, but hatches them early enough so they’re 10 or 11 months old by start of the breeding season. I'll have to research this a bit, but I guess I'll need a more mature flock before I try this again. (And maybe more practice with the incubator!)

Pruning, Tying, and Spreading

Jennifer QuinnWith the early onset of spring, the first thing I’ve had to think about is care of my fruit trees and shrubs. I knew I’d need to prune the elderberries and blackberries, so I had that on my schedule for March. Ideally, that would have been done while the shrubs were still dormant, but with the unseasonably warm weather everything took me by surprise and started leafing out early! Still, I managed to get to them while the leaves were tiny, so I figured better late than never.

I read that elderberries should be hard-pruned in the third year. That’s something I had overlooked until now, with the bushes in their fourth year and not yet pruned. I’m not sure exactly what hard pruning means, but I figured I should be fairly ruthless. There was a lot of dead wood to be trimmed off, and I knew I should get rid of those tall, straight stems in the middle that didn’t have any side branches on them. Then there were all the little branches that were crossed or too close together. I’m amazed what a time-consuming chore this can be — scrutinizing the shrub from all sides and deciding what to keep and what to cut.

I had to spread the work out over two days but finally had all five elderberries done, and I must say they look a whole lot better. Here’s the biggest one after pruning:

Pruned elderberry

Then there were the blackberries. These, I understood, should be thinned by removing the weaker canes, and the remaining ones should be cut back to no more than seven feet. Having done that, I needed to tie them to the ropes and wires since they were falling all over and lying on top of each other. Here’s the result:

Blackberries tied

As for the old apple trees I inherited when I moved here, I gave them a really serious pruning last year so none this year. Instead I’ve been busy spreading cardboard, rugs, and tarps all around them in an effort to kill the weeds because I plan to seed the area with mammoth red clover later on. I learned that the corky spots on the apples are probably caused by a calcium deficiency, and the clover is supposed to mine calcium from deeper in the soil, besides fixing nitrogen which should help them, too.

Last spring I did something that might seem foolish — I bought a yellow delicious apple tree that I saw outside the supermarket. I know you’re supposed to get your trees from reputable nurseries, but I couldn’t afford that and really wanted a new apple tree. I thought: for just fifteen dollars, what do I have to lose? But then I spent about another ten dollars for a planting mix, not having heard the new theory that it’s better not to improve the soil around a tree lest the roots just grow around in a circle and not spread out.

Anyway, the soil seemed rather poor in the only spot I could find for the tree, so maybe it needed all the help it could get. After planting the tree I seeded the area around it with crimson clover, which has grown nicely. And in the fall I planted garlic there, too, having heard that it’s good for apple trees. I’m not sure why — maybe it deters apple maggots and other such pests?

Of course, the tree looked like a fork when I got it, so I set about making spreaders to separate the branches. This I did by lashing two forked sticks together. In some cases I had to hang a jug of water from the spreader to weight it down, since they have a way of creeping up and falling out. It’s especially difficult here in the "holler" because things tend to grow taller than normal. It seems they’re reaching up to try to get more sunlight.

The tree has grown noticeably since I planted it and had some weak growth that needed to be pruned off. I saw where it needed a few more spreaders, too, so I added a couple of those. I think I need one more, but I have to put a ladder in there to get up and reach it. Here it is, though, all nicely spread out:

Apple tree with spreaders

My strawberries are already emerging, so the other day I got the bed all weeded out and planted about 40 onions in there. Looks like I’m pretty well set with my fruit crops for this year!

The Challenges of Geese in Confinement

Jennifer Quinn

Geese confined

Recently I wrote about the need to confine my three geese now that the breeding season has begun, lest the females start nesting someplace outside and become prey to the abundant wildlife here ("The Geese Discover their Freedom"). I was apprehensive about confining them since they’ve recently had the run of several mostly-vacant properties, including a small hayfield and an expansive lawn adjoining a big creek. Only a couple of weeks ago, I spotted them swimming up the creek quite a way from here. And the only place I can confine them is in the roughly 7-by-12-foot shelter where they’ve been spending nights since they came here.

As it turns out, they haven’t taken well to confinement, nor have I. Reluctantly, I’ve been trudging up the hill to their shelter two or three times a day with buckets of water and piles of fresh greens, only to be pecked at by the gander, who seems to resent my intrusion. I’ve been told if he’s becoming aggressive that’s good, because it means the girls are getting ready to start laying and he's defending them.

Well after almost two weeks of confinement they hadn’t laid a single egg, though I’d witnessed a couple of matings (or attempted matings, at least — it’s hard to be sure). And every time I went up there they were pawing at the gate like prisoners trying to escape. It was hard to blame them — I wouldn’t like being confined in there, either, though it’s a nice enough shelter if you’ve never known freedom.

One day I went up there in the early afternoon, and as far as I could tell they hadn’t even touched the greens I brought in the morning or the mix of grain and layer ration I had given them. One of the geese had slipped out earlier when I wasn’t quick enough to shut the gate and was having a grand old time nibbling on grass and dabbling in mud puddles. It seemed to me that when your prisoners go on a hunger strike, it’s time to sit up and take notice. It was a beautiful day, if a little windy, so I gave in and let them out, trusting they’d be back in the evening. You should have seen them run shrieking down the hill with their wings flapping. Boy, were they thrilled to have their freedom!

Evening came, and no geese. After dark, I thought I heard them making their low, chuckling sounds in the woods behind the chicken coop, then there was silence. Next morning when I headed into town, they weren’t to be seen anywhere. I was beginning to fear the worst, but at the end of a long day I was coming back over the swinging bridge when I spotted them on my neighbor’s lawn, near the water’s edge. When I called to them and clapped, they shrieked and honked a bit and started moving toward me, then seemed to think better of it.

The neighbor only uses his property as a weekend getaway, and I haven’t seen him all winter. But I was beginning to think he was in for a surprise — he might just have acquired a trio of geese! Later in the evening, though, I looked out just in time to see three geese strolling sedately up the road toward my driveway. At first they flirted with returning to their shelter but declined to go in, even after I poured out a fresh supply of feed for them. Finally, just before dusk, they capitulated, digging into the bowl of grain with some gusto while I quickly exited and shut the gate behind them.

I’m going to have another go at confinement, hoping this time someone will start laying soon. If one of the girls would make a nest in there and go broody, that should keep them close to home, I would think, since the gander would stay around to defend her. I hope so, because I sure can’t see keeping this up for the entire summer!