Category Archives: Garden

We are new chicken farmers!

If you have come around here for very long, you probably know that I get hair-brained ideas and jump before I think.  Well, the other day, I posted this picture and caption to Instagram.

Box of baby chicks
It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission

I didn’t tell Emily I was going to get chicks on that particular day but I thought I was justified.  You see, we were out at the deer stand the other day and I happened upon a rabbit hunter walking in the woods who found a near-starved beagle while out in the field.  We talked a little and he indicated he didn’t want the dog but didn’t want it to starve either.  I didn’t think much of it but later told Emily.  She loves beagles it turns out, so I said I am sure we could get that dog if she wanted it.  We discussed a little and she finally declined saying, “we can’t have a beagle and chickens”.  Since we didn’t get the beagle, I figured that meant I was green-light on chickens.  Seems right, right?

Baby Chicks!
Baby Chicks!

Anyhow, I begged for forgiveness and was eventually granted neutrality.  Emily doesn’t really have a lot to do with the chicks but I am not presently concerned with her smothering me in my sleep.  Of course, that is always subject to change.

Baby Chicks!
More Baby Chicks!

Anyhow, I got a mixed box of 8 chicks…4 from the dark pullets and 4 from the red pullets.  That basically means I probably have female egg layers and they will probably be reddish or blackish in color.  I may be able to better identify breeds once they get older, but being new to chicks, this could just remain a mystery.

Two or three week old chicks
Two or three week old chicks

One of the chicks, I noticed after I got home, had a goobered-up eye.  It was crusty and swollen shut.  I read online a good bit and tried cleaning it many times with a wet cloth.  I could get it to clear but within a day, it got messed up again.  We figured she would be blind in that eye so we named her Hook.  We couldn’t remember if Captain Hook had an eye patch but Hook stuck as her name.  Unfortunately, a few days ago, we discovered she had a broken or maybe dislocated leg.  It was clear she wasn’t right in several ways…so RIP Hook.

Two or three week old chicks
They are growing so fast!

We have named 2 of the remaining 7 birds…one is Hodor and one is Fezzik.  Both birds appear to be big and dumb.  We will name the others as their personalities become apparent.  Ultimately they will be named Soup, but in the meantime, we intend to have a lot of fun with them and enjoy the eggs as well!

Making sorghum – Part 2

The Story of Two Mules – by Emily

Once upon a time there was a mule called “Brother”.  Brother was drafted into turning a cane mill for what seemed like hours on end.  After becoming dirty and dizzy, he began to bray for help.  Another mule called “Wife” heard his braying and decided to help.  With Brother on one end and Wife on the other, the cane mill turned and turned under the hot sun.  Then Wife became tired and brayed, “Why can’t I have a rope to pull this load, why do I have to push?”  The farmer hooked up a rope to the cane mill.  Brother pushed and Wife pulled the cane mill under the hot sun.  Round and round the cane mill went while Brother and Wife became dizzy and tired.  Finally, both Brother and Wife started braying so loudly that farmer had pity on them and hooked the rope to a tractor.   Brother sat upon the tractor and the tractor turned the cane mill round and round under the hot sun.  Wife went back and forth, carrying more cane to the farmer who sat upon the ground.  The two mules said nothing to the farmer about not thinking of the tractor earlier.  However, every time the farmer got hit in the head by the  board attached to the mill’s roller, the sounds of  “hee haw!  hee haw!” were heard throughout the land.

I think her story is hilarious and pretty well summarizes how our day went…

The plan was to process the cane I described yesterday into sorghum syrup.  Basically, the canes are full of liquid with natural sugars and other magical things that give it a distinct flavor.  To extract the liquid, farmer Warren has to crush the cane using a cane mill.  Farmers in the old days used to hitch up horses or mules to a long pole attached to the center roller in the mill.   As the animals walked in circles, the rollers turned crushing cane fed into the mill a few pieces at a time.

Ky cane mill ready to press sorghum
Ky cane mill ready to press sorghum

We reassembled the mill and lagged it to a few sections of old railroad ties.  Old timers used to attach the mill to a tree stump that was quite solid in the ground.  You see, when the rollers are turned in the mill, a tremendous amount of torque can be generated.  If the mill isn’t attached to something solid, it will be spun around…not something I wanted to deal with as a 600 pound block of iron in motion is slightly more than I can handle.

Ky cane mill ready to press sorghum
The board that hit the farmer in the head repeatedly…

So, we got it assembled and rigged a board to the center shaft.  I was the first draft animal to take a turn at the mill.  It was slightly easier than I expected to turn the mill.  It was frozen solid when I got it so nothing moved.  I guess I had an idea that it would be only slightly easier to turn once it was cleaned up.  I had not assembled it even once since restoring it so I had no idea!  Luckily, it turned well so we decided to start crushing cane.  We tried to run a single pieces of cane through it but it didn’t really work.

Ky cane mill ready to press sorghum
Note the fancy pine cones to hold the rollers in place

The rollers are supposed to be spaced at around 1/16th of an inch.  On each end of each roller, there used to be bolts that could be used to adjust the spacing of the rollers.  On my old mill, I was able to free the top bolts but I couldn’t replace them (not for this year anyhow).  The bottom bolts remain frozen in place so I had some ability to adjust the tops of the rollers but the bottoms were set in iron…literally.  We set up the mill under a spruce tree so I grabbed a few pine cones and jammed them into the top of the mill to force the rollers closer together.  Surprisingly, it worked amazingly well!  The spacing at the bottom of the rollers was a little too wide so I had to be careful feeding the cane so that it went mostly towards the top of the joint between the rollers.  That worked just fine but was less than ideal.

Crushing sorghum cane in the cane mill
Crushing sorghum cane in the cane mill
Crushing sorghum cane in the cane mill
Before I got too dizzy
Crushing sorghum cane in the cane mill
That mechanical horse saved lives!
Crushing sorghum cane in the cane mill
But hurt my head…a lot!

So, as I said, I was the original draft animal but I had the vision on how to feed the cane too so my brother, who has a mind well suited for being a draft animal, took over turning the rollers (just kidding…he has a PhD in chemistry).  Really, neither job was too glamorous.  After a few turns, we were both dizzy (and I swear it had nothing to do with the liquid wheat we had nearby) and decided to hook it to the motorized draft animal.  I remained on the ground to feed stalk while Isaac and my brother took turns riding the tractor.  I suppose we ran cane through the cane mill for 3-4 hours slowly learning tricks and getting better at the process.  We had to fight the mill a few times as I got impatient and fed too much cane.  The torque increased and we spun the mill in circles…luckily we kept the mill low to the ground for safety.  Next year, I will mount it higher and more substantially to make it easier to feed cane and to minimize rotation.

Click here for a short video of the sorghum press in action

Sorghum juice flowing from the cane mill
Sorghum juice flowing from the cane mill
Some of the crushed sorghum canes
Some of the crushed sorghum canes

When sorghum juice flows, it is pea green.  Truly, it doesn’t look appetizing and I think it smells like the guts of a pumpkin around Halloween.  Still, we got juice flowing and I was so excited.  The process was working!  We pressed a bunch of cane and had a nice bunch of juice to cook down.  You’ll have to wait until the next post to hear about that adventure (yeah, I lied yesterday…I have to write more than 2 parts)!

My cane mill/sorghum stuff

Making sorghum – Part 1

I am far too excited to write only one post about how the sorghum harvest went this year so please humor me and allow me to write two posts.  You may recall that on a wild hair (or two hairs actually), I ended up buying two cane mills and planting sorghum this spring.  The sorghum grew and I finally got around to fixing up one of the two mills.  My brother and I finally harvested it last weekend.

Cutting sorghum cane
A start on cutting the sorghum cane
Cutting sorghum cane
Stripping sorghum leaves

But let me back up.  The sorghum grew pretty well once it started growing.  I planted a patch around 50’x50′ and it produced a lot of nice canes and beautiful red seed heads.  But, of course, time got in the way and it did what sorghum does when you ignore it and don’t harvest when it needs to be harvested.  It fell over (which is called lodging).  I have read where it might be caused by a number of things but in the end, it adds difficulty to harvesting mechanically and may ruin the canes even if they can be harvested.

Cutting sorghum cane
Sorghum makes everything sticky
Harvesting sorghum cane
We both enjoyed drinking sweet juice from the canes

Luckily, we got into the field pretty quickly after it started so all of the canes were in good shape although we lost all of the seeds that I otherwise had planned to save and grind into sorghum flour.  So, next year I will try to beat the lodging and save the seeds.

Harvesting sorghum cane
The first few sorghum canes

So, my brother and I took turns swinging the machete to cut the stalks at the ground while the other stripped leaves from the cane.  The leaves aren’t harmful to the sorghum exactly but apparently they add a bitter taste to the finished sorghum syrup.  I suppose we spent an hour or two harvesting the patch.  It seemed like a small job but it turned out to be a lot more work than we expected.  It’s also sticky and dirty work as the sugar content of sorghum cane is pretty high.

Harvesting sorghum cane
More cane…still early on but I think it looked really nice

We tied the canes into my brother’s trailer and hit the road to my parents’ house around 4pm…their place is around 6 hours away so we rode sticky and sweaty and dirty and had a long day.  The plan had always been to harvest and process the cane at our place so we could have an old fashioned neighborhood pressing party like they used to do a hundred years ago.  We ran out of time though so decided to have a pressing party at my childhood home where we were planning to visit anyhow.  Still, I was on the edge of giddy as I had my first crop of sorghum cane harvested!

I’ll write more in my next post about pressing and cooking the syrup that was in the cane.  Harvesting, it turns out, was the easy part!

My cane mill/sorghum stuff

Cane mill progress

Earlier in the spring I bought a cane mill to press sorghum stalks into sorghum syrup.  After that one, I bought another (click for “before” pics).  When it was time, I planted sorghum seeds and proceeded to do nothing at all related to the cane mill until the last 2 weeks when I have been working furiously to break down the second cane mill (it’s smaller) and fix it up so it will actually be capable to pressing sorghum cane!  I decided on John Deere green and yellow since this is ultimately a Deere-made mill…clever, eh?  I also decided to paint the inside of the mill as well as the rollers.  Some folks don’t do that but mine were already painted before I got it and modern paint, when dry, is inert so shouldn’t be a food hazard.  I will probably do more research and, if necessary, sand blast the paint if I decide it is a problem.

Kentucky No 0 Cane Mill - by Deere Mansur
Kentucky No 0 Cane Mill – by Deere Mansur
Kentucky No 0 Cane Mill
Kentucky No 0 Cane Mill

Anyhow, you see, like everything, time flies and the sorghum was just doing what sorghum does…grow!  It grew and grew and it seemed like I had plenty of time to get the mill ready.  Here it is almost October and I am not yet ready!  Sorghum is apparently ruined if the stalks are frozen so I have a fairly short window of time left to harvest.  Fortunately, the mill is apart and I was able to run a grinder over a bunch on it to remove rust, dirt, etc.

Gear from Cane Mill
Gear from Cane Mill
Roller from Cane Mill
I decided to paint the rollers…I may undo that later

All in all, I think it is shaping up very nicely.  These pieces each weigh quite a bit (the entire piece weighing somewhere between 400 and 600 pounds…I don’t have a scale that big and there is little info on this model.  I guess I could weight the individual pieces but it doesn’t really matter) so it takes a good bit of work to manipulate them and hold them just right while I run the grinder.  Still, I think the pieces are turning out beautifully.  Of course, I have inhaled a lot of the rust and grime.  I was so excited to just get time to work on them that I forgot to wear a dust mask.  I did wear ear and eye protection though!

Kentucky Cane Mill by Deere Mansur
The bottom of the cane mill..looks like a face to me
Top of a cane mill
Top of a cane mill – also looks like a face to me

So, I may try to harvest the sorghum this weekend or the next but the mill shouldn’t be the hold up.  I’ll show some more pics when we get it back together and when we actually do harvest!

My cane mill/sorghum stuff

Garden whoopee

I remember watching the Newlywed Game when I was a kid.  I guess it was in syndication when I saw it but we watched regularly, and I really enjoyed it for some reason.  The couples were funny and spontaneous and innocent.  It was a different sort of tv I guess.  Anyhow, Bob Eubanks invariably asked the newlywed couple some question about their “whoopee” habits.  I guess I was young and dumb but I knew what they meant but sort of didn’t either…know what I mean.?

Harlequin Beetles mating
Harlequin Beetles mating

That phrase has sort of always stuck with me as catchy phrases about sex tend to do.  So, when I spied some critters “making whoopee” in my garden the other day, I decided that I had better grab a few snapshots (does anyone use that word either?) and call it a new hobby.

Japanese Beetles mating
Get a room!

We built a raised bed and planted a lot of different things in the garden this summer.  It’s somewhere around 4 ‘x 20’.  I love that it is convenient and I barely have to bend over to work it.  I basically planted it square-foot-garden style so I have quite a number of plants in that space.  Perfect space for insect exhibitionists to show off their style!

Broccoli Bell pepper

The good thing is that the plant whoopee that’s been going on in my garden is also paying off.  Insects aren’t the only things reproducing.  We planted broccoli, Brussels sprouts, jalapeno and bell peppers, onions, cucumbers, zucchini and tomatoes and they are all doing great!  We still have plenty of blooms on things so there is more fruit yet to come!

Green tomatoes

I am still not sure I understand what Bob Eubanks was talking about but I do know that this sort of garden whoopee is always welcome and I don’t feel the least bit bad taking pictures of the whole thing!

A quick yard-garden broccoli update

I mentioned a few weeks ago that we converted a bit of yard-space into raised beds for growing food.  We got everything in the ground and it has pretty much all “taken”.  If you have never tried, stuff grown in your own garden  is far superior to food you buy in a store.  I don’t know if it is due to the extra talking-to gardeners give their plants or if it is the extra-special compost we add, but homegrown veggies are just the best!

Backyard garden Backyard garden

Broccoli and tomatoes and Brussels sprouts and peppers growing!

Perhaps my favorite garden veggie and the one that is most distinct in taste from what you buy in the store is that magnificent little delicacy most people call broccoli.  Raw broccoli is better, cooked broccoli is better, and deep-fried broccoli is better!  It is sort of magical as it grows.  The plant first sets really nice leaves that are a little hard to distinguish from cabbage or Brussels sprouts (my second favorite veggie!) or cauliflower.  So, if you garden like I do, sometimes it is a bit of a mystery which plant is which as they become jumbled in the frenzy to get stuff planted.  But one day as you check your garden, you notice a little green bush growing in the center of the stalk of leaves.  It quickly grows into a little broccoli head and then that grows and grows and before you know it, you have a magical head of broccoli!

Growing broccoli!

A baby broccoli growing!

I was so pleased to see the first few heads present themselves and now they are growing like mad.  In a few weeks I will take the first heads from the garden and we will make entire meals of broccoli!  The coolest thing is that when you cut one head, two more come to replace it.  Broccoli keeps making heads to replace the ones that were removed.  The plants looks  a little Frankensteinish after a cutting or two so, to preserve my children’s sanity, I don’t cut too many heads before we retire the plant to the compost pile in the sky.  Until then, however, we delight in the glories of home-grown broccoli!

Converting yard space into garden space

We have chunks of yard at our place, some of which the kids play around in, but most of which we complain about mowing more than anything. In particular, the fenced in back part where the former dog used to stay was a big waste of space. With the dog having run away, the canine treasures returned to earth leaving us once again with usable space.

Digging a ditch Digging a ditch

Digging a ditch builds character…do well in school kids!

As with most of our projects, we decided to go big, heavy and expensive! Actually, we just went with big and heavy but I like the added drama. Anyhow,we decided to turn a mess of a yard into garden space using railroad ties to build raised beds. We spent a few days digging up the apparent underground rock garden that existed before we decided to make a garden in our yard. I leveled out space and added gravel for drainage under the railroad ties and we began to set them. It turns out that our railroad ties are 8’6″ and weigh around 200 pounds each. We used around 17 of them for our space so you can imagine how sore and tired my mule Emily and I were just moving the pieces into place.

Raised bed garden with railroad ties Raised bed garden with railroad ties

Abigail drilled a few of the holes we drove rebar through to bind the ties together.  We used a lot of rebar to make sure they stay in place!

I laid cardboard boxes over the existing ground to keep weeds down and we lined the edges with plastic to minimize the leaching of creosote from the ties into the soil.  The plastic does not cover the entire basin of the garden so water will still drain fine and worms can still navigate upwards without impediment.

Lining the raised bed garden with plastic and cardboard

The cardboard will eventually rot away but not before killing weeds and stuff from coming up through

I read a bunch about creosote and railroad ties before undertaking this effort.  Creosote is pretty bad stuff and eating it would not be a great thing.  I read a number of opinions on the subject and came to a few conclusions.  First, used ties have probably leached out the worst of what is going to leach out already.  Secondly, I didn’t have my soil tested for contaminants to start with and most people do not.  That fact makes it apparent that we don’t really worry about our garden soil anyhow.  Finally, my soil is still almost assuredly better than soil somewhere far away on an industrial farm and my food is not likely to pick up any more contaminants that what food that travels by train car and truck picks up.  I added the plastic liner and have determined that I will not worry about it any further.

Raised bed garden from railroad ties Raised bed garden from railroad ties

Those rocks were huge and buried.  I suppose the digging was easier but only because the rocks took up so much space!

So, we had to buy a bunch of dirt (56 bags of .75 cubic feet top soil to be exact…plus 6 bags of manure) to fill in the space.  It looks awesome and will hold a bunch of vegetable plants.  Isaac, Abigail and I planted it over the course of a few days.  We added marigolds for decoration  and because all gardens are supposed to grow marigolds.  We also have tomatoes, jalapenos, brussel sprouts, broccoli and bell peppers.  It looks so much better than the yard that used to be there plus I get to eat all of my favorite vegetables right out of my back yard!

Raised bed garden from railroad ties Raised bed garden from railroad ties

I cut the angles in the ties where they ended using a chainsaw.  Creosote sawdust down your back will leave a rash!

For now we have some of the rocks I dug up holding the liner in place.  I will eventually top it with more wood and make it look better, but for now, our new garden space makes me smile every morning when I see it…both for the veggies growing and for the fact that I do not have to mow that space!  Yeah gardens!

Way past yellow

We planted a garden at our property this year (we used to garden at Emily’s grandparents’ place) and it was a terrible failure…mostly.  The only semi-success was a patch of sunflowers we planted.  I really love sunflowers (and really, pretty much all yellow flowers) so I was delighted that if only one thing could succeed, it was the sunflowers.

Harvested sunflowers Harvested sunflowers

Sunflowers are absolutely beautiful when in their prime, but I don’t know if you ever noticed just how cool they are when they are done flowering and ready to harvest.  I love looking at patterns that sort of draw your attention and refuse to let you look away…know what I mean?  Ripe sunflower seeds create just such a pattern.

Harvested sunflowers

I don’t know if they are like snowflakes, but if you look at several sunflower heads, each is a little different.  A month or more ago, my Dad and I harvested the seeds.  It was sort of sad to mess up the patterns but I really love to eat sunflower seeds too!  Although the sunflowers are way past yellow,  they are still about the best flowers I know.  I mean seriously…flowers you can eat?!  Awesome!

Green beans. That is all

We love to plant a garden and watch as everything shoots up through the ground.  I don’t think much is any prettier than a recently plowed garden with loads of young plants poking up all around.  We eat a lot of our meals out of the garden in a typical summer.  I am a fairly new vegetarian of the year-round sort but we are all pretty much vegetarians in the summer.  Well, most summers.  Not this summer.  We got off to a rocky start with the near constant rainfall that we had during the planting season.  Stuff was late going into the ground…everything but the weeds.  They thrive no matter what.  Couple all of that with the incredible heat and dryness now and we have found the garden to be pretty pitiful.

Just part of the haul

I guess if I had to pick one thing that would succeed in the garden though, it would be green beans.  I love green beans and could almost live on them and mountain dew.  Luckily, the green beans and corn are doing exceptionally well this year.  We picked and canned 34 pounds of green beans last weekend.  It was a marathon canning session ending somewhere around 2 am…a mere 4 hours before the kids usually get up.  Anyhow, we are in the beans this year for sure.  There are tons more following the ones we picked so it will be another busy weekend.  Of course, it can’t all be smooth and easy.  We planted a bag full of bean seed clearly marked tenderette bush beans.  I have no doubt that some of the seeds were in fact tenderettes.  The majority of the beans, however, are some other sort of runners.

Ain't they purdy?

Bush beans grow in a somewhat compact bush where all of the beans can be picked from individual plants.  Folks usually do not have to manage the plants in particular which is one of the reasons we like them.  Runners, on the other hand, send out vines and are meant to be trellised or otherwise tied up.  Thinking we only had bush beans, we didn’t pay any attention to the beans growing like mad in the garden until it was too late.  So, instead of having nice individual rows, we have a freakin’ blob of bean plants chocked full of beans.  With machete in hand, one can venture into the bean jungle and harvest, but it isn’t easy or fun.

They are prettiest in the jars waiting to go into the canner

There is still plenty of growing time left so we may yet be surprised with what the old garden will produce.  It’s all good though.  Even on my deserted island of a garden, I have to one thing I could not bear to do without…Jack Sparrow needed rum…I need green beans, savvy?


Practically Perfect Pumpkins

We grow all sorts of stuff in the garden…we grow beans and corn and peppers and tomatoes.  We’ve grown gourds and squash and zukes too.  This year though, we tried pumpkins.  Last year we bought an absolutely perfect pumpkin at the local farmers’ market.  We carved it up and roasted most of the seeds.  I saved a few though figuring I would give it a go this year.  Holy cow those seeds made more perfect pumpkins this year!

Most of the garden is pretty well done for us this year.  I expected  that pumpkins would take much longer to develop…you know, so they would be timed right for the coming of the Great Pumpkin (Charlie Brown).  I suppose real pumpkin farmers plant their seeds a bit later than we did.  Anyhow, our pumpkins turned orange and were looking awesome last week so I decided to harvest them.  They are winter squash so I expect that they will last a good long time (’til Halloween at least I hope!)

I have enjoyed thinking about saving seeds and have done it some but this year I was impressed and really see the point of saving seeds from the best fruits.  We’ll keep seeds from the best of these pumpkins again this year.  I’ll be playing Gregor Mendel with pumpkins here in W-by-God-VA.  Mark my words folks…WV pumpkins are gonna be incredible in a few years!  You can say you heard about it here first!  Well, either that or I will end up living in a monastery when Emily gets fed up and throws me out…I am hoping for the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown!