Chocolate Peppers? Yes Please!

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While at the market this past Saturday I found a merchant selling plants.  I’d been on the lookout for a few peppers since some of mine didn’t transplant well.  Most of the family isn’t fond of spice so I decided to go with sweet.  When I saw the tag on these I couldn’t resist.  Chocolate Beauty!  Why have the typical red, green or yellow when you can have chocolate colored.  DSCF8376

Little Farm Chick insisted on helping.  We got the plants in quickly since it was so hot and gave them a generous helping of water.  I was reading “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” to my girls tonight, and it got me thinking.  Wouldn’t it be amazing if they were actually chocolate flavored? They’d fit right in at the chocolate factory.  They’d be a favorite of the Oompa-Loompas.  Yummy!  Hopefully they will grow well and we’ll get lots of peppers to enjoy!

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The One Who Does the Garden Chores Gets First Pick

After the chicken chores this morning I started watering the garden, when I saw this little red strawberry.  It is nearly impossible to see under the overgrown grape and the sage bush.  I’ve never had much success with strawberries, probably because they are in this bed which is overrun already.  There is one little luscious strawberry that has been produced this year.  I didn’t hesitate when I saw it.  I immediately popped it in my mouth.  It was so sweet and delicious, and a bit crunchy, since I’d forgotten to spray the dirt off it.  Little farm chick came right out and asked if I’d eaten the strawberry.  I had to confess that I had.  She searched in vain for another one, but had no luck.  Luckily I had other garden goodies to share.

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Snow Peas!  I’ve never had much luck with peas.  I usually have planted them too late, or didn’t give them support, but this year they have been very happy.  I usually don’t care for pea pods, but these are pretty good just off the vine.  They are loving their vertical support, and all the rain.  They actually took off when we starting getting some really warm, sunny days.  Little farm chick loves to nibble the sides and then open up the pod.  She thinks the little baby peas inside are just so cute.

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The cherry tree is covered in fruit.  I have yet to have a ripe one though.  Some of them are so close.  Almost every time I look outside there are two to three birds munching happily away at the cherries.  Anyone have ideas on how to keep birds away?  I used to have a fake owl, but I think the neighbor kids may have run off with it. This is what I get for not having a fenced in backyard.

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I’m pretty sure birds may be the culprit for these nibbled radish sprouts as well.  Sigh.  There are some pretty large trees in our neighborhood since all the houses were built in the 1950’s.  I love the trees, and I like birds, but I wish they wouldn’t treat my garden like an all you can eat buffet.

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The marigolds are starting to bloom.  Flowers are a first in my vegetable garden this year.  I am hoping it will not only add beauty but keep bugs away as well.  You can see my tomato plants need some pruning and training if they are going to climb the vertical fencing.  I really need to start feeling better.  Darn zombie cold.

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The amaranth is really taking off, in fact I think I may have a volunteer one a few squares over.  It will be interesting if they try to take over the bed.  I’ve sowed some amaranth in the chicken run and I’m really hoping that it will take off there as well.  With the ground being so compacted though I think we’ll be lucky.  I have seen some little sprouts so maybe it will work.  Here’s hoping.

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Through the Lens of Little Farm Chick

I was doing chicken and garden chores the other night when little chick begged to borrow my camera.  She is 5 and about to start Kindergarten.  She’s my youngest daughter and I sure love her.  I placed the heavy camera around her neck, asked her to be super careful, showed her what button to push, and away she went.  It is fun to see what she captured.

Gotta love fluffy chicken butts.

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Farm chick watering the grapes.  We bought 5 grapes to grow over the fencing and hopefully provide shade for the chickens.

DSCF8280Dreamy Blue Coop

DSCF8286Elephant Head Amaranth.  A new addition to the garden this year.  It may be foolish to plant in the box since these can be huge, but I am still excited to see them grow. 

DSCF8290Our giant grape vine that we planted years ago.  It gave us 20+ pounds of grapes last year, and is lacking the support it really needs.  These past few years it reaches all the way over to our sage plant for support. 

DSCF8304Chicken play time with our escape door in the background.  That’s a story for another time.

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Scooping the chicken poop while being asked to smile big.  I blame the camera angle for the big butt, not the stress related weight gain.  Do you like the cardboard in the feeder.  Not all designs work as planned.  The chickens thought it would make a great roosting bar.  Silly things.

DSCF8305Green, growing things. The spinach has been very happy this year with all the rain we’ve gotten.  The leaves are larger than my hand.

DSCF8294Little Farm Chick’s chicken, Zebra.  She is by far the biggest out of all the hens.  I love her stripes.

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Last but not least, a Cars play mat I found at a yard sale that little farm chick has fallen in LOVE with.  She makes me be Lightning McQueen whenever I give her a bath.  It is getting really hard to think of race stories that I haven’t told before.

DSCF8311Maybe I should give her the camera more often.

The Gardening Experiment for the Year

So many of the posts recently have been all about chickens, but my first adventures into homesteading were actually gardening.  There is just something wonderful about being able to go out to your backyard and pick your own food.  Every year I like to try something new.  I entirely shook things up this year and chose a new method of gardening.  I’m doing square foot and vertical gardening.  I tried some vertical gardening with a few of my tomato plants last year and I had some of the biggest tomatoes ever.  DSCF8194

My husband has built me planter boxes over the years and they are the best.  I love being able to control the soil and it helps keep the weeds down a little. With the vertical gardening I got some very heavy-duty T posts from the Tractor Supply store.  I picked up some 2″ by 2″ fencing from the Cal-Ranch store.  It is the same fencing we used on the run.

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The T posts came with metal clips that allow us to simply attach the fencing to the post.

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To separate the boxes into square foot sections I measured around the box and put a screw every foot.  From there it was easy to string the twine and knot it to the screws.  Voila, a grid!

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I actually got a spring garden planted this year.  I have tried a lot of new things this year since there is a lot of room for planting different crops with the square foot method.  You do need to make sure that you are allowing enough space for your crop.  For example, you can only put one tomato plant per square, but you can plant 12 radishes per box.  The tomato really needs a vertical space to climb up so it can stretch out.  Speaking of radishes, I have really come to love them this year.  They grow so quickly.  I used to hate them as a kid, but it is funny how tastes can change, and did you know that radishes cooked are delicious?  They lose their spice and take on a whole new flavor.  I like them cooked with my eggs.

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Currently in the spring garden I have radishes, atomic red carrots, red beets, golden beets, peas, kale and spinach.

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I’ve never had success with peas, but I think I planted them early enough that we might get some. Here’s hoping.

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I planted several summer plants from seed and for weeks they sat on top of my table soaking in the sun.  Peppers, tomatoes, tomatilos, jelly melon, cucumber, butternut, amaranth, watermelon, and marigolds have all been transplanted.  My square foot gardening book said to plant a tomato every square foot.  I’m a little skeptical.  My tomatoes often take over the garden, spilling out of tall tomato cages, weighed down with fruit.  I’m very curious to see how this patch is going to turn out.  My tomatoes are never red.  I have become such a lover of heirloom tomatoes and I often like exotic colors.  This year is no exception.  I have purple, green, orange and other colors in-between.

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The only thing using a tomato cage this year are my tomatilos.  I ended up with a lot of empty spaces despite all my plants so I’m hoping this weekend to plant more beets, radishes, spinach and kale.  Maybe I’ll even get in some more marigolds.

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The Crazy Chicken Lady is Back!

5f1b40ab8517da02ad5660d9342a047dIt’s been over two years, but I promise I haven’t been in hibernation.  We lost our hens early 2014 due to those darn neighborhood dogs.  We were devastated to say the least!  It didn’t take us long to prepare for a new flock though.  Gardening went on, the new coop was planned, and lots of lots of work took place, and things are still in the works to make our little hill my own special heaven.  I can’t wait to share what we’ve been up to!

Chicken Visitor and Starting Over

DSCF5016For several weeks now we have had a chicken visitor.  Charlotte, as we have come to call her, first showed up one cold winter day.  My daughters were worried about her.  She had been pecked in spots and looked weak.  She ended up heading back home though which isn’t far from ours.  Our neighbor behind us and a few houses over has chickens, and not just a few chickens, LOTS of chickens.  They free range without any real coop.  They make their home under the porch, which is surrounded by hay bales.  Months went by before we saw Charlotte again, but one day she was in our back yard, looking healthier than before.  My three year old kept saying “Oh No” and babbling on about a chicken.  She thought one of our chickens had escaped, but nope, it was Charlotte.

Charlotte likes to peck where our chicken coop has previously been.  She finds bits of feed and loves circling our coop while our chickens puff up trying to look tough.  Charlotte will sometimes try to eat the feed right at the edge of the run door and my hens in return will try to peck at her.  I think as time goes by though they are all growing more comfortable with each other.  My hens are a pretty tight group though and they still will cluck and the uninvited visitor.

I’m not quite sure what to do with Charlotte.  I thought over time the neighbor’s other chickens would wander over as well, but Charlotte seems to be keeping the secret to herself, because day after day she is comes into the yard, all by her lonesome.  When I try to catch her she usually will head back to the fence and hop over.  I caught her tonight, but at a loss what to do with her I gently placed her at the top of her fence so she could fly back into her yard.  While Charlotte is quite cute, I’m worried as she continues to visit that she will find our garden a good source of food.  One of the reasons we keep our chickens in their run is so we can still garden.  We let them free range from time to time, but only with supervision, mostly for their safety.

So I’m at a bit of a conundrum.  Another neighbor suggested we put chicken wire around our garden, but that seems like a lot of work just to protect our garden from the neighbor’s wayward hen.  Do I catch her, knock on the neighbor’s door and tell him his chicken keeps getting loose?  If I do that though what is he going to do?  He hasn’t built any sort of home for his chickens besides placing hay bales.  Do I catch her, throw her in with my hens, and then let the neighbor know he can come get his chicken?  This would be a solution if the neighbor isn’t home, but brings up other concerns.  What if she is sick and gets my hens sick?  What if my hens attack her?  I don’t want to call animal services.  I’m in a bit of a conundrum.  What would you do?

Another problem I ran into this season is my seeds.  I have had very few sprouts come up in my greenhouse. I’m not sure if it has been the temperature fluctuations, but they just haven’t been happy enough to come up.  I did get two zucchini sprouts.  One is looking pretty good, but the other one died after a really cold night.    Feeling discouraged, but not giving up I decided to start some seeds inside this past Saturday.

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Thankfully I hadn’t used all of my seeds with the last planting and had enough to replant my entire summer crop and even planted some herbs.  I watered them thoroughly and covered them with the clear cover.  I think though the conditions at first were too humid and moist because I began to get white fuzz on some of the dirt, probably fungus.  I quickly uncovered them and placed them in the sun.  I also sprinkled them with cinnamon , a tip I picked up from Little House on the Beltline http://littlehouseonthebeltline.com/.  I am just praying I get healthy sprouts soon.  I just planted this last Saturday, so I know it is still early.   I do have one little oregano sprout, but what I’m really hoping for is my heirloom seeds.  I haven’t given up yet, and trust me I won’t, but sometimes I wish things went smoother on the garden front.  I am constantly learning and it can be hard.

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I’ve also run into a problem with the 3rd grade cabbage.  I opened up the green house today before heading into work.  I knew the day was going to warm up which would be devastating for the cabbage if left sweltering.  I flipped the clear plastic up and over the top of the greenhouse, but when I got home I noticed the cover had slid back down.  Sure enough the cabbage was a wilted mess.  I quickly brought in the poor plant and watered it thoroughly.  It is now resting comfortably on the kitchen windowsill.  Surprisingly it has perked up quite a bit, so it may just pull through.  My poor daughter felt horribly guilty, so hopefully she will take a more active role in its care.

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Despite many failures, we have had some success on the garden front.  Everything that has been planted directly outside is sprouting nicely.  The spinach, kale, peas, cilantro and even dill are coming up nicely.  The dill is an especially wonderful surprise.  The seeds were from a dried stalk of dill I had from last year, and I’m so pleased they are coming up.  I love fresh dill with my eggs.  The success with direct ground planting makes me want to skip sprouting indoors altogether.  I think it is probably unwise to go straight to the ground though with the summer crops.  If this next round of seeds fail me though I may just go that direction.  Wish me luck!

Reading with the Farm Chick

I usually work between 40-45 hours a week at my desk job.   Sometimes I’ll be at my desk for 11 hours.  To keep my sanity I really love to listen to audio books. Since I can’t be out working in the garden I often find myself gravitating towards books about farms, or interesting people. Here are some of my favorite finds recently.

Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julie Child by Bob Spitz

Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child

I absolutely fell in love with this book.  Julie Child is an amazing woman and her life fascinates me.  The author does an excellent job immersing you right into her life.  I learned so much about her and in the end she felt like a dear friend.  I actually got teary at the end of the book.  I got so attached to Julia that I went and got her first two cookbooks.  I have yet to find the energy to try one of her elaborate recipes, but I continue to renew the books through my library system.  I haven’t entirely given up the idea.

Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education by Micheal Pollan

Second Nature: A Gardener's Education

 Micheal Pollan is a pretty well-known author, but I stumbled across this book, which was written several years ago.  I really enjoyed learning about how our American style of landscaping, such as our suburban grass, came about.  I especially loved the little personal stories.  I found myself laughing out loud when Pollan tells about his father’s rebellion against the suburban rules of landscaping.  There is a wealth of information in this book, and I really found myself thinking about our relationship to nature. 

Hit by a Farm: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Barn by Catherine Friend

Hit by a Farm: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Barn

Hit by a Farm is the most comprehensive and personal book I’ve found that deals with what it would be like to just start a farm, without prior knowledge or experience.  Have you ever wanted to know what birthing season is like on a sheep farm?  What about raising chickens for meat?  How about planting a vineyard? Catherine goes into intimate details on these subjects and more.  She gets rid of all the glossy ideas of a farm and thrusts you right into reality.  She also discusses her relationship with her partner who is the driving force behind the farm.  Whatever your thoughts are on same-sex relationships I think this book is a great read.

I am always on the search for something new so what do you like to read?

Surprise Cabbage!

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A few days ago my middle daughter came home from school with a plant.  Not just any plant but a cabbage plant, and not a regular cabbage plant, but a “Mega-Cabbage”.  The plant was well watered, but some of the leaves were really drooping, so we snipped the drooping leaves.  Since we couldn’t plant it right away I figured that would help it survive some of the stress. I soon learned after the plants arrival that Bonnie Plants has a 3rd Grade Cabbage program. The letter that came home with the cabbage said “Bonnie Plants wants to share our love of vegetable gardening by giving you a healthy cabbage plant for your garden”.  Bonnie plants actually awards $1,000 scholarships to one student from each state.  The winner is selected through a random drawing of each class winner.  My daughter is pretty excited.  She says she doesn’t have to be the winner, but she really, really wants to grow her cabbage.  You can learn more about the program here: http://bonniecabbageprogram.com/.

It turns out the cabbage can grow VERY large, so large in fact that the it can weigh over 40 pounds.  It also suggests 4 foot spacing around the entire plant.  I was totally boggled when looking at pictures on the website.  While I think it is pretty great that there is a company encouraging kids and their families to garden, I keep wondering where this monster cabbage is going to go.  Frankly it sounds like it would take up almost 3/4 of one of my planter boxes, and I only have 2 of them for annuals.  So the race is now on to find a spot.  Questions have reeled through my mind like “Do we build another box?  I’ve been wanting more boxes anyway”.  Or thoughts like “I have a lot of rocks we’ve unearthed from the retaining wall project.  Do I build new beds along the fence”.  It is a conundrum.  I’m hoping the weather cooperates so we can find a special spot for the surprise cabbage.

The Fourth Day of Spring

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Welcome to the fourth day of spring.  This is my little backyard after being pummeled by snow.  As I shake my fist in the air at the Utah spring, my husband keeps reminding me that my anger is unwarranted.  He keeps telling me that it isn’t uncommon for snow to dump on us in March.  I’m in denial though.  The bad weather was actually one of the reasons this blog began.  I had plans to dig into our retaining wall project this weekend.  We have big plans for the area behind our free-standing garage.

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As you can see though, those plans will have to wait.

Temped by the beautiful weather the previous two weeks I began my seeds.  This really is the time to start many crops if you are starting from seed.  Kale as I have learned from research is actually best started in the winter, but seeing as I only fell in love with this veggie recently it went in the ground as an early spring crop.  As it is exposed to frost and cold weather it actually tastes better as the plant produces more sugar to protect it from the cold, thus making the kale sweeter to eat.  But since my plants are only small seedlings it is good that I had the sense to cover them.  In the same spot of ground I have also planted peas and spinach.

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As you can see this spring snow is blanketing my crops and covers, erasing all signs of effort.

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I did take a risk though planting some crops directly in the ground without any sort of cover.  Kale, spinach, dill, cilantro, and other herbs are unprotected.  None of the seedlings had emerged yet, so they may pull through.  My strawberry plants were starting to awaken from the long cold winter, and I had recently pruned the sage bush, but since they have weathered storms before I hope they will be okay.

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I do worry about these large pots though.  Much too big to bring into the house they will have to fight for their little seedlings lives.  I have Kale in the left and spinach on the right.  They weathered a smaller storm yesterday.  If they make it through I may just have to save their seeds!  I purchased open pollinated, heirloom seeds so it is a possibility this year.  I will take a post to talk about seeds later, but back to my frozen spring wonderland.

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Here stands my pitiful greenhouse.   This was a purchase last year and it has been the staging ground for many of my garden mistakes.  Though the greenhouse was put away into the garage, I didn’t store it zipped.  The plastic has now shrunk and tightened until I am now unable to zip one side.  My attempt to make the greenhouse usable has left me resorting to binder clips, which then allowed for the smallest amount of snow to filter in and land upon a soon to sprout yellow zucchini.  I worry I may need to plant all over again.  It has never stopped my though.  Last year I planted some seeds three times.  Once the greenhouse toppled, easily caught by the wind, spilling dirt and seeds everywhere.  That is why the greenhouse is now secured to my house with blue rope.  Like Anne of Green Gables, I usually never repeat the same mistake twice.  The second mistake was not unzipping the greenhouse on a hot day.  I cooked most of my seeds.  Gardening has been a learning experience.  Most people will start their seeds indoors, but with my limited space it is very difficult to manage.  Hopefully this year’s spring snow will not prove to be another garden mistake.

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Last but not least in my spring saga are my feathered girls.

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The hens have already weathered the winter storms so snow is nothing new to them.  It doesn’t mean they like it though.  They hate stepping in the wet, cold stuff, and I guess I really can’t blame them.  Their little toes are entirely exposed to the elements.

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They do like eating it though.  I know from experience that they will not venture out at all today unless the snow melts enough to expose the grass under their coop, or enough pine bedding falls beneath their coop covering the unpleasant stuff.  Since they are cooping themselves up today I need to make sure that they are well taken care off since they won’t be venturing down to the water down below.  They have a built-in food container attached to the back door, thanks to my ingenious husband.  Water is a more complicated mater.  I don’t want my chicks to entirely rely on snow eating to quench their thirst.

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Instead I take this great little invention, dump the current water that has begun to freeze, and fill it with warm water.  This little bottle has been with us since the girls were little chicks.

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They eagerly peck at the nipple at the bottom getting their water.  It probably isn’t refreshing as their usual water container, but if I were to put a bowl of water in the coop the hens would quickly knock it over soaking their bedding and making their coop a cold popsicle.

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I know that the sun will come up, the snow will eventually melt, and before I know it spring will be in full swing.  Summer I’m sure will be overly hot like last year, and part of me will yearn for white landscapes.  For now though I will say a little prayer over my seeds and if they fail I will replant.  I will never give up.

How it all began

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It is hard to pinpoint exactly when I became so obsessed about gardens and farm animals.  My earliest connection with gardening probably would have been at age four or five.  One year my family, probably prompted by the prophetic council to be self sufficient, grew a garden.  I hardly remember anything about it.  It really is all a blur.  I think I remember the tall corn stalks reaching high over my head, but that is it.  The family garden did not continue.  In fact, not much maintenance continued in our backyard.  It was a sprawling meadow with two peach trees, one cherry tree, and one apple tree.  The rest was a meadow of weeds.   I think my busy father did try and bring some order to the space.  Grass had been planted not long after my parents moved into their brand new split-level home, but behind our house was a huge field, which at various times was farmed. Seeds from the weeds in the field quickly took root in our Magna soil and were as happy as could be.  That was just fine by me, in fact I loved that yard.  I could lay down in the tall grasses, catch bugs, and create my own magical world.  I usually played outside from sun up to sun down, and the backyard was the most fascinating place to spend my time.

I also fell in love with fresh produce.  Thanks to local farm stands, and our backyard fruit trees I grew up on sweet corn, flavorful tomatoes, and the most succulent peaches.  Oh the glorious peaches!  Thanks to the irrigation water that would often flood our property our peach trees were very productive.  Each summer and fall the branches would get so heavy they would droop under the heavy weight from the soft, sweet fruit.  Some years the branches would actually break, because we never pruned.  We just let nature take its course, which lead to many of my first garden follies, but I digress.  The fresh produce, especially those fresh peaches were heavenly.

As I grew up, moved out, and started doing my own shopping I was sadly disappointed at the lack of tasteful produce in the grocery store.  It would be years before I could even attempt to grow my own.  I lived in apartments for the next 7 years and didn’t give much thought to gardens.  I’m sure if I’d had the passion I do now I would have attempted some little patio garden spot, but overwhelmed by life’s responsibilities it never entered my mind.

Fast forward several years to 2005 when my husband and I bought what we thought would be our starter home. A quaint little fifties bungalow, which is just a fancy way of saying small and old enough to need serious repair from time to time. Despite its problems though my little house has grown on me. After all of the years of apartment living I will never again take for granted having my very own space to do my own thing, and make my own. We didn’t start gardening right away and I don’t even know if it was my idea to start out with. I think my husband first mentioned the idea. He dug up some ground in the backyard at the very top of our very sloped hill. Not much grew. The cornstalks were small, and the ears it yielded had just a few large kernels. One year we got spinach and not much else. We let the weeds overrun most of the bed and our anal neighbor so afraid our weeds would somehow drift onto his property applied weed killer to our garden, including the spinach. Thankfully he no longer is our neighbor. His grandmother who owned the house moved and the house was sold. The grandson, our spinach killer, purchased a house up the street and now has his own immaculate yard far away from our less than perfect one.

In 2009, my husband made us a raised bed. We purchased dirt form our local garden store, and hauled it in my father-in-law’s old trailer. It was a dramatic day including flat tires, dirty faces, and sore muscles, but by the end of the day we had our very own raised garden bed. Joyfully we planted blackberries, raspberries, what we thought were seedless grapes, and other herbs. It lay just outside my kitchen window and I fantasized what it would become. I saw myself happily preparing dinner and flitting outside to gently clip herbs for the night’s dinner.

Planter Box May 2009 021It did not work out as perfectly as I would have liked though.  The blackberries and raspberries after a few pitiful years died.  The grape was in fact full of seeds, and the sage liked it’s spot so well it thrived and each year threatens to take over.  It is a work in progress.  We eventually built two beds at the top of the hill to replace our dug out garden and gradually the task has fallen onto me to garden.  Each year the promise of fresh produce, especially tomatoes calls me back to the garden to try again, despite last year’s mistakes.  I even added chickens to my backyard, a story I can’t wait to share.  Each year the desire to spend hours digging in the soil and working outside has strengthened until it is almost like an itch I can’t scratch, especially the days I’m stuck at my desk working long hours.  I view it almost as a fever, a farm fever.  I imagine my next project, lush vistas, my clucking birds, and a simpler life.  I can’t wait to share with you a little bit of what I obsess over, so at least perhaps they can live here instead of invading so much of my thoughts.  I hope you’ll stick around.