Sunday, February 28, 2010

Stink. Stank. Skunked.

So, one of the downsides of having a farm with animals is that they somehow attract other, wild animals. Case in point: Monday night, after having shoveled Bronte and Scout outside to settle the chicks in, I let them back in for the night...along with the distinct scent of something foul. I had smelled it around the house earlier in the evening and assumed it was a skunk. Unfortunately, it was not. It was Bronte, who was sprayed by a skunk. As she waddled through the door, her zaftig body brushed along every surface in the house, dappling it with odor. Choking and eyes burning, I shooed her back outside and tried to stop heaving. Obviously, she wouldn't be sleeping on the bed that night.

Since it was only 17 degrees outside, I lured her into the garage with food and fluffed up an old comforter for her. When I opened the door in the morning, the smell once again blasted me, and I thought maybe a good dose of outdoor life would help those awful molecules lift from her fur.

But come to find out it doesn't really work that way. The smell lessened by day's end, enough for me to let Bronte in the house but not enough for her to get her usual lovin'. By Friday she still stank, and with Mike out of town, I tried to enlist my parents to help hold her down in the tub while I rubbed her down with tomato juice. With my bad back and my mom's bad knees, we were in no shape to handle a slithering wet animal with all of her claws.

Instead I traumatized her and Scout, who had cuddled with Bronte and picked up the smell on her fur,  by stuffing them in cardboard boxes and trekking them 20 minutes over to my parents' house, where a mobile pet grooming van awaited. (While a mobile unit is a fabulous idea and convenient for many clients, I unfortunately live in an area where we have limited services of nearly every kind, despite living near Kansas' No. 1 tourist destination, a popular low-priced furniture store, retail and entertainment mecca, burgeoning world-class water park, baseball park and racetrack. We just got our first grocery store this fall when Walmart opened.)

Bronte popped out of her box five minutes into the drive, and no doubt rubbed herself all over my brand new car. She proceeded to hide under the seat once we arrived to her appointment then hid behind a table when we got her inside. Anna Gepson, local franchise owner of Aussie Pet Mobile, coaxed her out then snapped one of those humiliating plastic rings around Bronte's head, dipped her in the tub, sprayed her down, lathered her up and blew her dry.


Bronte actually handled it quite well, only making a break for it a few times, and came out smelling like a rose...well, like shampoo, although a residual skunky smell remains by her left cheek, which is probably where she took the direct hit and where Anna didn't scrub as much to avoid the eyes.

Six loads of laundry consisting of everything she touched later, the house is back to normal, and I can get back to lovin' on my fur baby. My husband sure is missing out...funny or coincidence?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The chickies are here! The chickies are here!

Babies come from storks; chickens come from the mailman. This answers the question: Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? In our case, it's the chicken.

Our little chickes hatched Saturday and were shipped jam-packed in a tiny box, arriving at the house of a couple we met at a party over Christmas. During that evening, a conversation led to an agreement to split a box, almost as casually as if we were ordering a pizza to share and not 25 live animals. Wanna go halves on a quiche?

The brooder in set up in the basement, and I can already see we're going to need a larger space for them to run around in. It's only been five days since they hatched, but they're already developing their wings!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Junk that's really not

The Flower Lawn & Garden Show at Bartle Hall is one of my favorite places to pick up ideas, garden ornaments, and today, some old fence posts, maybe a few ducklings, almost a pair of dogs, and, oh, yeah, possibly an old camper. Brion Rothlisberger of ClassicScapes blew away the competition with his tribute to unwanted items finding a new use. I hardly had a chance to snap a few pictures because his space was a crowd magnet. Everyone stopped to marvel at the creativity and reuse of beat-up old things...yet I can probably count on one hand how many people would actually put something like this in their yard. Why do so many people love quirky ideas but choose to paint their homes beige and plant a few twigs and ugly bushes?

Idea 1: Camper as outbuilding. Brion salvaged this Scotty camper from a junkyard that still, in our opinion, has many years of life left in it. The interior got a little wet, so the upholstery may need to be cleared out, but it's got space for two beds inside, plus a kitchenette with (turquoise!) cabinets, a fridge and microwave. My dad's always wanted his own caboose -- isn't this kind of similar? We could set this up by our pond with a shaded patio and Adirondack chairs. Who wants to sleep over?!

Idea 2: Dump truck spa. Never underestimate the usefulness of a big hunk of rusting metal. Brion dropped in a liner and ladder, added a deck, complete with car-seat loungers, and created an instant pool. While this one's a bit smaller, shallow and, well, more crude (hey, the guy only had a day to put it together), some Brooklyn designers did a nice job making swimming pools out of some old dumpsters. It's a heck of a lot cheaper than the markup most pool companies charge... 

Idea 3: Tire sandboxes and planters. Who needs to buy pots -- these suckers have the best drainage I've seen yet! Swiped from the side of the road, they make great enclosures for plants, and I visited one farmer last year who lined them up around his vegetable patch to prevent soil erosion and planted peach trees in them.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Spring Fix

Today I attended the day-long 2010 Garden Symposium, sponsored by Friends of Powell Gardens. I knew this event would inspire lust for warm weather in any gardener's heart, but I didn't know it was going to lead me right out the door at lunchtime rather than returning for the second half.

Claire Sawyers gave a great slideshow presentation on creating an authentic garden...when I wasn't concentrating on her massive locks. Smoothing gel emergency aside, she was a fantastic speaker.

Her five principles are:
1. Work with what you have been given.
2. Derive beauty from function.
3. Use "humble" or indigenous materials.
4. Integrate the inside with the outside.
5. Involve the visitor in your garden; develop "audience participation."

I am definitely inspired to incorporate these principles in our own property, yet I'm overwhelmed by the possibilities (with 9 acres and all). Our strongest existing element is our restored native grass and wildflower field. It's on its third season now and is really developing a vivid palette. My ultimate desire would be for it to look like the Lurie Garden at Chicago's Millennium Park -- I just about pitched a tent and moved in last summer when I saw it in full bloom. The above link has lists of all the plants used, when they bloom, which are native, photos for identifying them, etc.

Sassy Stephanie Cohen is truly "The Perennial Diva." I thoroughly enjoyed not only her topic of pointing out easy-care shade and sun perennials but also her personality. Her humor was bigger than the stage. I never realized plants could be considered "promiscuous" or "thugs," but the way she described things was perfect! Read all about her here.

Rosalind Creasy had to follow a tough act, but her lecture was what really got me going. Gardens are made to be beautiful, of course, but her edible landscaping idea adds functionality. Her main point? It's not the plant, it's how you use it.

"Edible landscaping is the practical integration of food plants within an ornamental setting," she explains. "The same design principles of ornamental landscapes are used, but annual and perennial edible plants are substituted for some of the unproductive plant material. While edible landscaping is the mixture of beauty and utility, it does not mean that all plants in the yard are edible."

Her suggestions: weave tulips with rhubarb; asparagus with zinnias. Grow cherry tomatoes, beans and cucumbers over an arbor. Throw in some spring-flowering apple trees and flaming-red fall blueberry bush foliage.

Finally, I'd had enough of salivating all over my notes and left to get going on my own plans. According to my vegetable planting calendar, today was designated as plant-cool-season-crops-if-you're-up-for-an-adventure day, but alas, that crazy phenomenon known as weather was not in cooperation. Yes, it was snowing. Again. So, cancel those plans.

Instead, I stopped by one of my favorite nurseries for a quick flower fix in their greenhouse. I dawdled by the daffodils, fondled the ferns and closed in on the cyclamen. I also picked up some potting supplies for my change of plans to sow seeds currently in the date box referred to as March 13. After referencing multiple calendars and charts, I decided the editors at Mother Earth News, whose office is a mere 54 miles away in Topeka -- and also in Zone 5b -- would have to have one of the most accurate, right? So I deferred to this planting chart and started broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage tonight. At least I'm dabbling in the soil. Even if it is indoors.

Oh, spring, why must you be a month away still?!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

When winter gets long, the antsy get going

Though it is technically winter now, I optimistically consider it the beginning of spring because February is seed-starting time. Yesterday afternoon, I headed out to the coop (really a storage shed until our chicks arrive later this month) to dig up my kits to begin another year of growing. I mean that both in terms of the plants and myself.

I came to the country having never mowed a lawn or planted a flower to preparing seeds and, soon, beds for more than 60 varieties of fruits, vegetables and herbs. Mike ran a lawn-mowing business in high school, so he at least knows the basics of grass.

It surprises me -- and most people who know me -- how interested I have become in gardening and growing food, even though I am an editor of a local home and garden magazine. It's a part of me that has pushed through to the surface of my being and is now as much a part of my skin as the dirt I can't seem to scrub off. I have many hobbies and likes, but one I didn't know I had? That's the meaning behind our blog's tag line: Everything we never knew we always wanted.

So here it is, Super Bowl Sunday, and I'm kicking off my own version of a big game. The Colts' and Saints' seasons are coming to an end (fingers crossed that NOLA gets the win), while mine is just getting warmed up on the bench. Will my garden score big this season? I don't know, but as the coach, I'm putting me in.

The starters: artichokes, celery and leeks. 

I was practically ridiculed last season by a fellow gardener for trying artichokes in our zone, but I continued growing them and they continued growing for me. Mind you they were smaller than store-bought varieties, but they turned out to be Rudys. We steamed and dipped them in butter. Mmmm... Plus, they were about the only plants the deer didn't touch.

Celery is another vegetable local growers said to stay away from, but I'd like to see for myself. Devoid of calories, I imagine they'll be as annoying as players' model girlfriends. 

Leeks must be like the defensive line: hardy. These winter stalwarts are going to keep me away from the harvest goal for seven months. Ref, call them for holding...  

The whistle is about to blow, gotta go!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The best place to start is at the beginning...

Who am I? Four years ago, I lived in the city, went to happy hours and bought decidedly impractical footwear. Today, I look out the window of my renovated farmhouse in the semi-country and have decided that my happiest hours are spent here, tooling around in my galoshes (though they are a pretty plaid) and toiling in the soil.

How could just a few short years make such a huge difference? Turns out that it was a slippery slope. It started with house hunting. My husband, Michael, and I wanted something that we could fix up to suit our tastes. It had to be older and somewhat inexpensive, plus have good "bones" and character to build on. We also didn't want any HOA to tell us what color we had to paint our house or tell us not to hang our laundry to dry. That led us farther away from the city and suburbs. Once we determined that we could have some land, we threw in other criteria: a wood barn, some water (whether creek or pond), good school district (though kids weren't even on the agenda yet) and that Realtor favorite, location, preferably near the airport and between cities that we could find work in. It took us little more than a year, and that was only because a friend's boss knew a guy who knew a guy who might be selling something that could interest us. Turns out it did. Making it ours was just about as difficult as finding it, and remodeling it proved similarly frustrating.

While Michael worked on the house, I turned to the landscape. Though I could kill a houseplant just by bringing it home, I thought I could do better outside with Mother Nature's help. First, I had to tackle the weeds that had proliferated during the house's unoccupancy. I got a high the first time I mowed, breathing in the fresh air and admiring the look of my "green carpet" that hugged the contours of our property. I started reading books and visiting nurseries. Always edging on the tree-hugger type anyway, I devoured information on native plants and sustainable gardening. I connected with the earth when I sowed my first row of lettuce and was grateful when an actual plant emerged, healthy, crunchy and delicious. It became an obsession. After work, I'd tear off my business clothes, jump into something nearing rags and trudge around the garden until I couldn't see a foot in front of me. My husband joked about installing stadium lights; I thought that wasn't a bad idea.

I also read "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" by Barbara Kingsolver and two books by food journalist Michael Pollan: "In Defense of Food" and its predecessor "The Omnivore's Dilemma." I didn't jump on the organic food bandwagon right away, but I did fall off the processed food one. I am a believer in organically grown food, just not if it travels from Chile, slurping up oil on the flight and somewhat defeating the purpose. I prefer it fresh from my own backyard.

Dropping processed foods, as expected, was a challenge, as they are everywhere. During one shopping trip, Michael and I made a pact not to buy anything with more than five ingredients and none of them could be high fructose corn syrup. It took us about an hour, and our cart, maybe half full of food our grandmothers could identify, rang up more than twice the total of the mom in front of us who was stocking up on Captain Crunch and other assorted boxed items. It's expensive to eat right, so we decided to grow money on trees (and plants).

By some estimates, a $50 investment in a backyard garden can save $500 in food bills. We certainly had the room for one with 9 acres but started small by hand-digging two 4' by 20' beds with shovels using a trenching method. We like to do things the sustainable way (without gas or oil), which is to say the hard way, really. The following year, we added three more beds the next spring, followed by three more the following year. Of course, I have plans for expanding and reorganizing the whole thing this spring.

The expansion and success rate, however, have thus far not correlated. I had hopes of canning and freezing surplus food last year, but that did not happen for a number of reasons: a wet spring, mild summer, pest attacks (insects, moles, cats, deer) and neglect. Since both of us work(ed) full-time jobs and like to travel, the garden admittedly was unattended on occasion. Going forward, the things that I can control, I will fix; the rest is up to the whim of the weather.

This year's garden, I already know, will be improved. I've invested in drip irrigation, row covers, beneficial insect seed mixes and fencing. We may also have full-time farm hands since Michael and my father were laid off. We have decided not to wait for someone else to determine our career opportunities; we're going to make our own destiny. Design Farm is the culmination of two ideas and passions: architecture and agriculture. You might wonder what one has to do with the other, but as we've discovered (and will continue to explore), our educations in design have led us to this simpler place. We have great plans for the merging of our lifestyles.

Join us on the journey!