I don't follow the Chinese zodiac, but no matter what anyone else tells you, this was the year of the rat. And the bird. And the mole. It is unlikely I'll be able to dig up any photographic evidence since it wasn't a situation I took pleasure in.
It began in late summer when something devoured the stem of the tomato plant I'd carefully cultivated after my husband found it abandoned in a parking lot growing out of its styrofoam cup. The tomatoes were large and perfect and green one day, the next day they were dead. The next horror was the second Carbon tomato I was waiting for. The same day it reached ripe perfection I discovered something had eaten the entire back half of the tomato. Yuck. Then the perennial kale clippings that had taken root finally were eaten to the nub.
It continued in October, when THE BIRDS arrived. They ate everything. Everything. But I soldiered on and kept planting, planting, planting in a helpless mix of desperation and optimism. A few things made it for a while. Rats and birds do not prefer plants in the mustard family, but once everything else was gone those went too. The bok choy that had somehow survived the rats' notice and outgrown the birds was decimated by moles in the same bed I had fortified with wire in the fall. They ate away the roots and left the leaves to wilt. It was crushing.
By February I was considering building cages or some kind of electrified fencing when a friend I will refer to from hereon out as the Godfather suggested the obvious. Cats. CATS!!! I needed a barn cat!
Days later I found the cutest pair of rescue cats, and adopted them for what was probably an exorbitant amount of money. It's ok, it was a good cause. We put rat poison out everywhere and it started disappearing. We ordered more rat poison, but we appeared to have reached rat/poison homeostasis.
Life is good again, and just last week I saw one of our cute little cuddly kittens tossing a dead mole around with boundless enthusiasm. It was gruesome, but it sure was beautiful.
This is the strangest vegetable I have ever grown. I couldn't figure out what it was doing or where it was going. It's a very mysterious vegetable the first year. All the permaculturists throw out the benefits of Walking Onion since it is a perennial, and of course I was curious. In the picture above you see the knee-like joints growing halfway up the onion.
Eventually the papery joints split to reveal little baby plants that look, to this viewer, just like something out of the banquet scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Remember the little snakes? Well, at least the onions are much cuter.
Little mini onion bulbs grow from the joints. You can see them close up below. If you leave them on the plant, they fall to the earth, root into the ground, and eventually the onion arm that dropped them there dies and they form their own separate plant.
I wasn't sure how to use them. The bulbs are a little small, and the stems are a little thick, but ultimately they proved to be a pretty useful allium, if a strange one.
No garden has made any fool happier.
Man-eating brussel sprouts. Still waiting for sprouts, but the plant looks really healthy. You can see from the side view where the sprouts will grow, and the leaves must be edible too. So far they've just been chicken food though.
Zucchini is coming up quickly, and hopefully all the other summer squash are not far behind. I learned about pollination recently and now every female plant that comes up I have to wonder if the bees are doing their job. But so far so good.
Last year's itsy-bitsy little walking onion is threatening to take over. I'm still a little confused about the whole walking part, so more on that once I've figured it out. I think the bulbs at the top get heavy, fall to the ground, and root, but I'm waiting to see. And more importantly, when can I eat them and what part??
This is my cheater greenhouse tomato. I bought this in March just in case none of my seeds germinated or I killed them all. I'm leaving that plant in the greenhouse in case the squirrels return and eat everything for the second year in a row.
Another gratuitous garden picture in case you were longing to see it from the other angle.
Chamomile on the left and yarrow on the right. I'm trying to grow more herbs and learn how to use them. The chamomile flowers smell amazing.
Flowering sage on the left. I saw a picture of it on Instagram this morning- someone bought it at the farmer's market and was planning on breading it and frying it. I'm not sure about that. I'll keep watching and see if they post about it afterward. On the right is chocolate mint, my son's favorite. It makes a nice tea fresh or dried.
Green and red shiso. The leaves are still really small, but when they get a little bigger I'll start using them in hand rolled sushi, pickles, and anything else I can think of. They taste similar to basil to me.
I planted the celery last fall and it took FOREVER to grow. I should've started picking it when it was smaller. This fall I will try a pink variety if I can get a hold of the seeds. On the right is a pepper plant. I forgot all the varieties I planted, but I bought them at the UC Master Gardener's sale in early May. It seems like you just can't start peppers early enough!
The beds above I replanted three times. Gophers!!! Three tomato plants and two watermelon plants sucked down from below. I tried the castor oil pellets and one of those annoying stakes that make noise, but in the end I had to line it with a metal mesh. So far, so good. I shouldn't have planted summer vegetables in these beds. They don't get as much sun and they get a lot of wind. I looked back and discovered that I'd make the exact same observation last year. If only I had re-read it in time! I'm trying ground cherries, melons, and Asian winged beans for the first time.
On the left are beans, both pole and bush varieties. Some lettuce, calendula and kale that won't grow and won't die, and a few tomatillo plants, also a first for me. We'll see how they do. The lettuce is pretty happy, so it probably isn't warm enough yet for anything else. On the right are tomatoes, melons, dying pole beans, and nearly microscopic basil. It's a little disappointing and I'm trying not to be impatient.
Our first watermelon. I forgot that I'd planted golden midget watermelons, and just thought it was diseased or dying. But it was golden, and certainly midget. More like a big apple. But we had our first watermelon!!!! Unfortunately, it was as tasteless and bland as it was cute. Maybe the next one will be better.
This was the month of the rat. I've known since last fall that a rodent of some kind has been eating form my garden buffet, but I was unwilling to actually do anything about it. The problem is finding a dead rat or something equally horrible. At least, alive, they scurry away and only come out at night. Dead, they just wait there until you nearly step on them.
But we had company over for a beer on the deck, and it was a little unnerving when the little creatures came out after dark and started climbing our apricot tree. You could hear the leaves rustling, and apparently it ruined the relaxing atmosphere. (Some people!) But the good news was my husband was finally on board to do something about it. The next weekend he set out poison and an electric rat trap.
This, of course, is a good thing. BUT. Now every morning for the last 8 days we are greeted by a dead rat somewhere in the backyard. Instead of finding somewhere quiet and dark to live out their last moments, they must spend it trying to score their last meal. So I go out to the chickens or rabbits in my bathrobe and some flip flops in the early morning, and BAM!!!!! Disgusting dead rat. Idyllic setting destroyed.
Which brings me to our next pest issue. I don't know for sure, but I am 90% certain their is a skunk living under our deck. At the end of June our little dog went outside one night to relieve herself and came running back in smelling like Eau de Skunk. Two weeks of our backyard smelling, stinking, yucky, and of course there's always a dead rat to really drive the point home.
But I believe the skunk went for the bait in the rat trap and got zapped, because one warm night as I slept with the window open, I woke up to the smell of burning rubber. Definitely a skunk. The bait was missing from the rat trap, but no rat. It's been three and a half weeks of stinky-ness and dead rats outside.
But wait! That's not all.
We keep a third rabbit separate from our first two because Bugs, our first rabbit, does not seem to like Ginger, our new import. Silver, the fixed male, seems friendly enough, but even a friendly sniff in Ginger's direction results in Bugs chasing him around for payback. So Ginger has been alone, though we plan on finding her a friend soon.
The beauty and the horror of it all is that rabbits burrow. Remember Alice in Wonderland? The sweet girl who falls down a rabbit hole? There's a lot of fiction in that story, but it appears that rabbits do actually dig holes. Ginger dug and dug, and dug her way right into Bugs' territory.
The results were horrible. Fur everywhere, a torn lip, and a visit to the vet. Rabbits are considered "exotics", which is a ridiculous label for anything that breeds so generously, but we had to go to four different emergency animal clinics before we found a vet who could work with a rabbit. Ginger got two stitches and a week of painkillers and antibiotics. The vet and her assistant both said Ginger was the best rabbit they'd ever met, and clearly I don't deserve her. Poor thing.
A Japanese hybrid cucumber. They were perfect. Only two plants keep us in cucumbers.
An apple melon. This one wasn't quite ripe when I took the picture, but once they ripen... Someone else finds them first. Must be squirrels.
My first sunflower! It showed up July 1st. Hello, summer!!!
Above left you mainly see sunflowers. They will hopefully be supporting some sakata melon vines. In front of them are watermelon vines, and there is a close-up of a tennis ball sized watermelon we haven't managed to kill yet. The calendula, as promised, self-seeded.
The sunflowers in this picture are hopefully going to support apple melons. Swiss chard is planted along the left edge. The front box is freshly planted with bush beans, malabar spinach, lettuces, carrots, beets, Egyptian walking onion, lemongrass, and a tiny little butternut squash plant. All the nasturtiums are volunteers.
This bed is supposed to be all squash and peppers, but there is a broccoli plant from last fall that magically came back to life and I interplanted some Romaine lettuce which has done really well in that spot.
Mixed results in the bed above. I should've added more amendments from the beginning, but it's improving. The Japanese cucumbers I started from seed did far better than the bush cucumbers I sowed directly in the bed. The eggplants finally look healthy, and the peppers and tomatoes are looking a little healthier.
The corn (Blue Hopi) looks taller every day, and much healthier than last year. The green beans to the right might not be getting enough sun now, I'm not sure. They look healthy for now.
Most of my snap peas died. I thought I had some horrible pest at first, but I'm 85% certain the pest is my 7 year old daughter who checks for snow peas every day and probably uproots the plants as she picks. There are worse problems to have, and I planted a mix of peas and beans which may come up quickly. You can see the sprouts in the picture above, right. Wrong season for peas, I guess, so we'll see. There is kale and spinach in the middle. The left side of the box has watermelons, one charentais melon, and yarrow. The melons aren't doing as well in this spot as in the warmer part of the garden.
The bed to the right of the dying peas had a bunch of volunteer potatoes and one tomato plant. I ignored them completely and dug up an accidental 13 pounds of potatoes! That stuff doesn't usually happen to me in the garden, so YAY!
Above left is a "Missouri Bill's Soup Bean" drying out. They were delicious green, and it was nearly impossible to get my daughter to stop picking them. On the right are pumpkins. I think they'll be ready soon. They stopped growing and they've been getting darker every day.
I decided to pick from the garden only once a week if possible and to take pictures. It was easier than weighing it all since I'm getting such small amounts, and at least I have some kind of record now. I try to pick EVERYTHING that's ready, because otherwise some strange hoarding instinct takes over and it stays in the garden and goes bad. This way I'm always clearing room for new things and nothing goes to waste. I try to cook it all right away. I notice that I'm using more herbs now that I'm picking them ahead of time, and I never find rotting things in my refrigerator. I started using more parsley and oregano, and I'm making mint tea regularly. I'm getting 8-12 eggs a day in addition to the vegetables. So far, so good.
Happy fourth of July!
It's such a great time of year in the garden. I love dirt!
Here are my first tomatoes. I cut back a volunteer tomato that had been growing in the greenhouse over the winter and it not only survived but went on to give me tomatoes. Still waiting...
The pumpkin vine really took off, and by the end of the month you can see the pumpkins are bigger every day. These are Cinderella's Carriage Pumpkins.
Progress from the corn over the month of May. All the leaves looked shredded, but they went on to grow decently.
Snow Peas! My daughter's favorite. They grew in spite of the insects that killed half the plants. Next time I will plant them where it is not so windy though.
Loganberries, whatever those are. They look like raspberries but they're not quite as sweet and a little more perfume. Still, even grown in pots they are prolific.
These are surprises from the fall. The kale I had cut down at dirt level and it grew back. The beets had been sitting there since maybe last October. Better late than never!
A lot of carrots that I planted last fall. The best we've had so far. All the weird ones we call 'dancing' carrots. The rabbits love them.
Above left are some citrus trees we inherited and some herbs I started. On the right are Missouri Bill's Soup Beans with volunteer Cosmos.
Garlic I planted last October, and on the right a zucchini.
I came home after a week away and was awakened the first morning by the rooster crowing at 4 am. That sealed his fate. It had been a long time since I'd had an uninterrupted night's sleep, and I wasn't ready to go back to a 4 am wake-up call. Since it is a lot of work and angst to butcher/cull/harvest chickens, I decided that two of my oldest hens who haven't laid an egg in a year or two would meet their maker as well. One of them received a last minute pardon from my nine year old son who claims she is his favorite chicken, but no one cried over the rooster or the mean old hen. (Except my daughter, but only on principal, not because she liked them. She is a tenderhearted girl.)
I think this brings me down to twenty chickens, seventeen of which are middle-aged, if not quite perimenopausal. I think that when they stop laying, their day may also come, most likely early September this year.
I feel a certain amount of fear over the chickens, not because I feel bad about eating them, but because I am so afraid of hurting them or killing them badly. To put this into perspective, I'm also afraid to trim my dog's nails. I finally realized that sometimes you can outsource, and it doesn't need to be a cause for shame. Some people have no problem trimming dog nails, some people can butcher chickens. I do other things.
My father and husband stepped in for the part where I had to look away, but I stuck around for everything else. I have enough trouble touching chicken feet when they're alive let alone grabbing filthy dead chicken feet to swirl a bird in hot water before plucking them.
Once I removed the head and feet I felt much more reassured that the bird was done suffering and the rest really wasn't too bad. In fact, once I saw the quality of the meat I knew I'd be doing this again. So if this is really disturbing to you, don't look, but if you were ever interested in anatomy, keep reading.
Love, sweet love. That's what comes with the breeding season. This is our first time breeding goats, and we're all pretty excited over here.
I am a beginner, not an expert, so I'm sure my account of the whole process is riddles with inaccuracies, but if you are as clueless as I was, this will still be interesting.
Step 1: Your doe must be in heat.
This is not rocket science, but it is a little complicated for a first timer like myself. You look for flagging, which is just some serious tail wagging. Some does bleat themselves hoarse. There may be some swelling and moisture, er, down there. Other goats, even other does, will start mounting the doe in heat. But if you've never seen it for yourself it can be a trifle mystifying. Does go into heat every 21 days, but if you're on a schedule, you can try to hurry things up by exposing them to a male. That will put them into heat.
If you have a lot of land it might make sense to keep a buck, but they have some quirks that make them undesirable for your backyard. First, they have a goat-y aroma that appeals only to other goats. Second, they urinate all over themselves to enhance their appeal. If you are milking, they make the milk taste weird. All bad. So we had to bring our ladies for an introductory meeting at a farm that keeps bucks.
The transportation, at least for my tiny little adorable goats, wasn't too bad. Both girls fit into a big dog kennel with no problem, the only issue being that we had to pick them up and put them in there. (Fortunately, I had help from a very kind backyard farmer since that is not my forte.)
We got to the farm and introduced the girls to the buck. Goats are friendly and it went pretty well. The first trip was to put them in heat, so mostly there was a lot of running around. Roughly five days later the girls are expected to go into heat. It isn't an exact science. I kept checking, and it was really hard to say. There was inconsistent flagging. There was some discharge, but I had to ask myself if I'd ever looked closely enough at a goat butt before to know what it looks like normally. I tried grabbing their tail from on top (the clean, hairy side) and if they stand still for you that is another indication that they are in heat. Neither goat moved, but I don't ever do that anyway, so no way to compare.
Step 2: The doe stands for the buck.
So off we went to the farm again with high hopes of milk in our future. Our first trip out I'd been so excited to meet all the animals I didn't pay much attention to what was happening with my girls, but this time around I stayed to watch because I needed to know if they were bred or not.
At first the buck struck me as really gross. I can see where all the jokes come from about a dirty old goat. He did some weird stuff with his tongue, and his intact portions hung down like engorged udders. Bucks also sample the urine from a doe's urine stream multiple times, and this one was no exception. Not in good taste perhaps, but the girls didn't seem to mind.
In the buck's defense I will say that he, unlike a rooster, was quite a gentleman. If the doe isn't in heat, if she doesn't smell right, if she doesn't want to stand for him to do his business, he leaves her alone. Buttons wasn't in heat. Calypso clearly was, and they followed each other around flirtatiously while he nuzzled her and she wagged her little tail suggestively. There was quite a bit of courtship, but the breeding itself is brief. Blink and you'll miss it.
Step 3: Wait and prepare.
There's a possibility Calypso was bred on her first visit, so I recorded both dates and expect her to kid in 145-155 days. We will supplement her orchard grass with peas for extra protein, and she has minerals available to her. (The minerals are just a bucket of loose sand which almost smells appetizing.)
We will watch Buttons for signs of going into heat and bring her back. We're going away next week and we could possibly miss it, but some time in the next month we hope to get it done.
Incidentally, I finally got over my fear of picking up goats. It turns out that if you hold them from the side their back legs fold up into a neat little goat package and your arms don't come into contact with anything unsavory. I almost like it! Almost.
The goats found a loose board in the fence and made a break for it.
I was running out to my car when I saw some movement out of the corner of my eye and thought, "Oh, somebody has lost their goats."
Goats? Goats? I have goats too, but mine are locked up.
I had a tough time wrapping my brain around it. Fortunately, my dad, also my next door neighbor, happened to see the shadow of a fleeing goat running down the driveway and he came to my rescue. The problem for me is not catching the goats. I am a natural born sheep dog.
I chase the goat down the driveway and round her up from the neighbors ivy-filled front yard. Buttons and I make eye contact.
The problem is picking her up!!!! How do you grab a goat? My dad did it. My sister, my son, my husband have all done it. It seems I'm missing the goat pick-up gene. There is something slippery about goats. They have horns and hooves. I don't want to make contact with anything on the back end. I don't really want to hug the front end either. So I'm stuck. It's that awkward moment when you wish you hadn't gone in for a hug and suddenly you feel like you have extra limbs and you know before it happens that your heads will collide. So I pause, and the goat gets away.
"Pick up the goat," hollers my dad, who is under no small amount of duress and holding Calypso in a firm embrace.
So I try again, but I can't get past the geometry problem in front of me. My two arms, the goat's big squishy belly, the back end, the front end, the hooves. I'll never fit the pieces together. My son rushes over with a length of rope, and suddenly it all feels even more futile. More impossible geometry. A length of rope we had set aside for such emergencies. I start fiddling with it, because I'm pretty sure that if I can remember how to tie a slip knot this could be the first step toward success. Buttons bolts for the ivy.
"Pick up the goat," dad yells again, not sure why I'm just standing there idiotically while his arms are full of goat.
The rest is a bit of a blur, perhaps because my amazing sheep dogging skills all kicked in and I did some amazing goat herding right back up that driveway and into the yard, but more likely I stood there and waved my arms around (still like an idiot) while my dad rescued not just one, but two escaped goats. I really don't remember anything else until it was all over and dad looks over at me and says in the authoritative voice reserved for your grown children, "You have to pick up the goats! Just pick up the goats!"
Not gonna happen, I guess. It's a good thing my dad is also my next door neighbor, because I didn't get the goat pick-up gene.
I think of Clarice Starling and her need for the silence of the lambs on mornings like this, mornings when Buttons won't shut up.
The decision to add goats to my backyard came with a few sleepless nights. It sounds crazy, even to me. Goats sound like a heavy commitment, and when I got them the first comment that dropped from the majority of my astounded friends and family was, "Wow, now you can never go on vacation again!"
The verdict is not in yet. There are still many mistakes for me to make, and so I can't claim to be able to answer the question of whether or not this was a smart move- not yet. But if you're wondering how the adventure feels to me so far, I can answer that.
I'm assuming that like different breeds of dogs, different breeds of goats have their own personality. I have Nigerian Dwarf goats. They are cute, sweet, and little. Their milk tastes like the best, richest cow's milk you have ever tasted. It was not at all goat-y or grassy, although I'm sure it matters what you feed them. For me, the milk is the whole point. I greedily dream of fresh milk, ice cream, yogurt, butter, and feta. Mine are four and a half months old, and at nine months they can be bred. If all goes well, five months later you have kids and milk. Many of the details are still a little fuzzy for me, but I know a super nice lady who has been explaining it all to me step by step thus far. They are little itty bitty goats, but when they give milk I should get from one to two quarts per day. It is entirely possible that this time next year I will get a gallon of milk a day. I am already researching yogurt makers. I can't wait! The adorable goat babies will start out about the size of a shoe, and at eight weeks they can be weaned and sold. Again, I haven't done this part yet, I'm just keeping my fingers crossed.
The goats are very quiet. You have to have two or they cry, but once they made the adjustment they have been nearly silent except for the occasional little "Maah." They do like to climb, which I should have known but never paid enough attention. They are little acrobats. They are also escape artists, so fencing is a must, and my husband went so far as to learn to pour concrete before the goats arrived. A worthy investment of his time! Their droppings look like little black beans, and they're too small and disappear too quickly to collect and compost. I was a little disappointed by this at first, but the good news is that they don't stink! The side of my house doesn't smell at all.
They don't require much in the way of housing but what amounts to a dog house. They HATE to get wet, and they do need shelter from the wind. Since our goats are in a very sheltered spot on the side of the house, we just used a tarp to cover an old play structure, and so far this had been enough... Until this morning.
I came out to lots of heartfelt bleating and a miserable, wet little Buttons. I toweled her down, brushed her, pet her, whispered to her, and loved on her. She was quiet the whole time, right until I walked away.
I sent the kids back to her and the quiet Calypso with apples, carrots, and celery. They were quiet for a few minutes, presumably because they can't bleat and chew at the same time.
Maah, maah, maah.
I love trying new foods, cooking, and gardening. I hope to share these experiences on this site. Thanks for taking a look!