Solstice

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Today is the shortest day of the year, and our chickens are celebrating by taking time off of their egg-laying and exploring the last vestiges of fall in the yard.

Our chickens are nearly a year old and are so far making the transition into cooler weather rather well – Wyandottes are a cold-hardy breed and haven’t minded the chilly mornings at all! What they have minded, however, are the decreasing daylight hours. When all nine girls were at their laying peak in late summer, we gathered 39-40 eggs in a typical week – ever since November, our production has plummeted to 30, 25, 20, 15, and, most recently, 5 eggs last week. With today being the solstice, we will hopefully see an increase in production again soon!

(Nothing makes you pay attention to the day length more than having chickens! One watches the sun carefully when you are in charge of letting out the shrieking and clamoring dinosaurs at dawn and ensuring they are tucked away safely from predators at dusk. In June, we were up at 6:15am and in bed at 9:30pm – in December, we are out at 8am and in bed by 5:15pm. How remarkable!)

With the decrease in rain and temperatures, the grass hasn’t bounced back nearly as well as in spring and summer. We’ve parked the coop in a new area of the garden that we need “tilled” and fertilized, so heavy and focused work from the ladies is welcome! The adult birds have quite the tilling power – we have found that two weeks in one location clears most of the growing material (9 birds in 80 sq. feet). To decrease boredom and keep them occupied, we’ve consistently added leaves and straw to scratch through and explore. The straw doubles as insulation in their roosting area upstairs for cold nights (so far nothing cooler than 18 degrees). No dangerous heat lamps here!

This fall, we are celebrating new successes with cool-weather crops – in the past, our seedlings have been mis-timed, struggled with germination, or simply got eaten by pests. This year, there were several successful interventions that we attribute to a steady supply of lettuce greens, kale, and carrots:

  • Seed trays in part, but direct sun, on the back patio (as opposed to germinating lights in the basement)
  • Seedlings transplanted in mid-September (by the moon)
  • Extra seedlings kept in case of failure
  • Mosquito netting added early on to protect from insects and larger pests (rabbits and squirrels)

The pest-netting is still on our crops even as our temperatures hit the twenties – the cabbage moths are gone, but the rabbits and squirrels still regularly patrol the gardens. A thick mulch of leaves have kept most of the greens going strong – the kale is still decently tasty, but the lettuces have turned rather bitter. One frustration is our brassica family – our broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower are big and strong, but did not yield fruit before the freeze and substantial daylight decrease. We shall keep them in the ground and see if they will start reproducing in the spring.

We are especially excited to continue season extension strategies with a new structure on our property! E has installed a new greenhouse structure! It is anchored into the ground for security with long, looped paracord strapping the greenhouse film in place. It keeps everything mildly warmer than outside (we are still exploring and monitoring this) and will hopefully be where we can start our seedling trays in late winter – they do immensely better with true sunlight rather than germinating lights, no matter how bright. Come spring, we will remove the greenhouse film and stretch cattle panel over the top for an epic trellis structure for squash, loofah, tomatoes, and more. Tunnel O’ Squash, here we come!

Happy Solstice to you and yours!

Late Summer glory

Ah, the joys of late summer! So many popular crops come into season – tomatoes, corn, zucchini, summer squash, peppers, and more! For us, this summer has been surprisingly mild and wet, but we are making the most of what we have.

Ah, the joys of late summer! So many popular crops come into season – tomatoes, corn, zucchini, summer squash, peppers, and more! For us, this summer has been surprisingly mild and wet, but we are making the most of what we have.

This season, we find ourselves focused on crop storage and preservation. Being at home at the beginning of spring meant a re-invigoration in cooking at home and experimenting with recipes, and consequently the summer preserves and cabinets became dry and dusty by April. Our diced tomatoes and chicken stock were gone, sauerkraut running low, jams obliterated, storage potatoes long gone to eye, and pickled garlic a distant memory. And yet other freezer items remained untouched, a testament to food items that lost appeal after the growing season. (Frozen corn and I do not see eye to eye…)

So, at a time when the garden is bountiful and grocery bills minimizing, we face the real testament of dedication – setting about preserving the extra food before us.

In typical Kansas July’s, the bog-like humidity and soaring temperatures make it nearly impossible to want to spend time tending the garden beyond a quick dart outside to nab a tomato or two. To this end, we have found that morning routines are essential. Waking up around 7am, letting out the chickens, taking time to exercise and then turning our eyes to the garden has been the easiest way to avoid the stifling heat and still accomplish a lot before breakfast. It then lets us focus on the rest of our day with energy and relief that the chores are done – chickens fed and watered, garden weeded, fruit gathered, pest inspection/eradication completed. This could easily be flipped to evenings depending on your family need – this is just what works best for us when I am home on summer break from teaching and when E mostly works evenings.

This regular garden routines has helped us stay ahead of herbs bolting, vegetables rotting on the vines, and pests that would eradicate early crops, and honestly, this dedication is what we have lacked in recent years. Being proactive was not always our strong-suit, and previous reactivity led to diminished yields in the past. For example, I would do so well as monitoring my basil plants in May and June, only to be forgetful or tired or hot as we drew closer to August. I would finally check over the plants to find them flowering profusely, miserable, and yellowing from lack of attention, so the meager yields I could gather were bitter and sad. This year alone, I’ve done at least three thorough picking of basil heads just before flowers to encourage strong growth. Because of this, I’ve made multiple batches of pesto and enough dried basil to last us at least through the next winter, and here, in mid-August, we are still producing incredible flavor.

Our main “potager”, or vegetable patch – close to 700 square feet of garden beds.

This also means being willing to set aside time to process and can or freeze what we are able – it is so easy to let excess rot, get eaten by birds, or toss into compost, but we are really trying to process as much as we can for storage as we go into this fall. And yes, this means a commitment to heating up the kitchen in the middle of August with boiling stock pots and being willing to spill tomato guts all over the counter – but if it means that I have access to homegrown tomatoes in January, then I need to be willing to put in the time now.

These are some of my tips for processing foods through canning methods:

  1. Create a spill-proof area. When you are ready to can, move your warm jars out of the warm water-bath and line them on a kitchen towel and pull that up close and tight with the stockpot of whatever you are canning. That way, you can quickly ladle in your produce into all your jars and have zero clean up – just toss the kitchen towel into the wash.
  2. If you have a partner to help you, create an assembly line. For tomatoes especially, have on person in charge of a hot/ice water bath to pull off skin, and have the other in charge of dicing/chopping. It keeps the whole assembly line moving.
  3. Pick your favorite podcast, Netflix series, or movie to have on in the background. Time flies when you are having fun!
  4. Use Siri to set timers. Your hands will be sticky and wet and you’ll be preoccupied with all your batches and processes so you won’t watch the kitchen timer. Keep your phone on the counter and ask her (or Alexa) to set the timer without you having to touch a thing.
  5. Read instructions AHEAD OF TIME. Preferably, the day or night before. We like to maximize the time we have with a stockpot full of hot water – once it’s hot, keep it hot, and process as much as possible. To tackle multiple recipes, be aware of the processing requirements and which batches you can overlap. Peaches and tomatoes usually need 10-15 minutes of processing time – but meat can take 50 minutes. So I know that I can make peaches and tomatoes together, but my soup and stew recipes probably need to be processed separately.
Dilled carrots, blackberry jam, pickled beets and carrots, pickled peppers, and fermenting hot sauce.

To help maximize our produce this year, E’s daily monitoring for pests (and subsequent eradication) has been so crucial, and our lovely chicken ladies have been more than obliging to take care of the extra bugs for us. You may recall that our suburban chicken coop setup means that they are in a chicken tractor 24/7 – they are in a controlled free-range setup, but don’t have total access to the garden. Subsequently, they have been delighted by the dessert offerings we will bring them – cabbage loopers scraped off kale leaves, bagworms from the patio, grasshoppers nabbed from sunflowers and hops, Japanese beetles and squash bugs from the vines, you name it. Now that our darling girls celebrate six months in the Epperson household today (happy birthday, chicklets!), they have begun laying the most gorgeous egg yolks thanks to all the yummy protein sources (including what they scavenge) and nutritive content they glean from the yard. We are still working on converting the grass to clover and other nutrient-rich sources that double as carbon-capturing plants, but even so, the quality of their eggs is a huge testament to what lawns have lurking beneath the green carpet.

To my fellow suburbanites out there – your grass is not just grass! There are so many beneficial organisms and life cycles occurring in your yard – it deserves your love and attention, too! (And, you should know, that we haven’t done a single thing to prep the grass areas they roam – it is untreated and unfertilized, and yet they are finding so much good from this green habitat!)

I hope your late summer is proving to be bountiful and beautiful!