Warm November and the Wasps

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Well, it’s 84 degrees outside right now and the sunshine is bright with not a cloud in the sky. Our dwarf okra plants are loving it, as you can see from the pretty flowers they’re still putting on. What you can’t see from that photo angle is that the base of each flower is crowded with big red wasps, sucking the juice out of the stems and totally ignoring the little butterflies and moths that are perching on the insides of the blooms.

We have had no end of trouble with wasps this year– several different species, and lots of them. Most of our plants that required pollination by bees have struggled this year, because the wasps have been killing any bee that shows her face in the vegetable plots. We have had to wage a total war against them, blasting their nests with wasp spray. The problem has been so bad that I actually went out at noon one day, sprayed and killed a huge nest with about fifty wasps on it, and by the time my husband went out to spray nests at 8pm, there were another 30-40 wasps hanging on the nest, oblivious to the army of their dead on the ground below.

This isn’t the first time we have had trouble with one type of insect getting much too populated for the area– the year that the grasshoppers ate everything right down to our holly bushes was a bad one– but it’s the first time that the bees have been so depopulated. Without bees, we don’t have fruit. So it’s looking likely that we will be purchasing our own hive next year. This means that we will need to continue the war on the wasps, of course, but also that I will have to plant a lot more flowers to make sure that the bees have a steady food supply.

I never complain about an excuse to plant more flowers, though. I am still impatiently waiting for my Sweet William seedlings and alyssum seedlings to really take off. The very warm and mostly dry autumn has made it a challenge to keep everything moist enough for the seedlings to prosper. The Swiss chard and other greens are wilting in the heat. We’re supposed to get a cold  front this weekend, which should help, but that could spell doom for the okra plants. They’re too tender to withstand a norther.

It looks like we will have to launch another attack on the wasps, too. One of them flew into the game room yesterday and took up residence in the ceiling fan. We had to drive it out with a lighter flame before it would leave the inner mechanisms of the fan. If we’d left it, I have no doubt she would have built a nest right in the fan. They’re completely indifferent to human rights. Everyone thinks that it’s roaches that would inherit a post-apocalyptic world, but there would certainly be wasps left to hunt them.

Anyway, those beet seeds didn’t sprout at all, so I need to get to work. Peace out.

Troubles and Tribulations

Things haven’t been going so well with the fall plantings. The hellish heatwave that settled over the central part of the country and just SAT there for weeks was fatal to most of the plants we transplanted, and almost universally fatal to all the seeds.

Out of all the dozens of tomato plants I lovingly nurtured from seed to seedling to transplant, we’ve got exactly 5 weedy-looking tomato plants left.

Two basil plants survived, while literally none of any of the other herbs even managed to get a toehold during the heatwave. Thyme, cilantro, oregano, all wiped out. The eggplants died. The beans refused to sprout. None of the flower seeds sprouted, even the sunflowers. One solitary acorn squash has managed to make it from seed to plant, and I give it props for sheer determination.

There are a few squash and zucchini plants hanging on. Just male flowers so far, but I am hopeful that they’ll live long enough to give us another crop of squash. We missed out on most of the early crop due to our vacation and the Hellhound’s depredations.

We do have a watermelon plant that’s decided to eat the yard. Incidentally, it has a couple melons on it, but its real plan is world domination.

The pumpkin plants are struggling on, despite their patch turning into a grass and weed infested mess– there are several small fruits on the vines. We’ve harvested one pumpkin, and that one wasn’t intentional on our part. Miss Autism decided that the pumpkin was orange enough for her tastes, picked it when no one was looking, and stuffed it into the refrigerator’s vegetable bin. I rescued it and put it on the mantle, where it’s finished turning orange at least. I have a feeling that it’s a strictly decorative pumpkin, though, as those things go.

There are signs of hope– some volunteer bush beans have grown up here and there, and the dwarf okra is soldiering on. We’re still a long way from getting fruit from anything, though, and unless the heat breaks some, I doubt we’ll get much of anything good.

The plan now, with so much empty space in the rows, has changed. I’m just going to keep it weeded down for another two weeks and then plant in a few rows of kale, mustard and turnip greens, and chard. I’ll probably replace the dispirited cucumber vines with sugar snap peas and snow peas, and try to get a couple garlic and onions going. The garlic only does well here if it can overwinter, and we keep a few onions going all winter just to provide green onions for cooking. Even if we do get the rare snowstorm, onions and garlic don’t blink.

I’m pretty disappointed that the flowers didn’t make a go of it, but I have some fall/winter varieties that I can plant soon as well. My poor zinnias have about had it– I’ve got four colors left, and each day the stalks look a little paler and more dried-out. I’ll roll the seeding cart back into the house this afternoon and start again. I’m not sure if I’ll even bother with herbs at this point– I’ve not been using many lately, and the Hellhound has a fondness for tearing them up, plant, root, stem, pot, dirt, and all. Any dog that can casually munch her way through a 4×4 post as a chew toy isn’t going to be particularly daunted by a thyme plant in a plastic pot.

It’s not been a great year for food production, that’s for sure. I’m hoping to get some good basil dried to replace the old stuff, though, if those two bunches stay alive and thrive. And, who knows, the third crop of beans that I planted three nights ago may actually take off and give us a bounty of beans to cook before cold weather sets in. I’d love to see a few pumpkins make it to maturity, and a couple acorn squash would be nice as well. We’re limited in space these days, as everything has to be fenced in securely from the Hellhound, so we don’t have nearly the room we used to be able to utilize. And even with fencing, she still gets into the plots and wreaks havoc. She’s obsessed with the mice and rats that sneak through the pumpkin patch, so one of her main goals in life is to get over or under that fence or through that gate.

I’m hopeful. I guess that’s the main requirement for farming and gardening, though, isn’t it?

 

No, we’re not selling anything at the current time, sorry!

Once again, some other farm has gotten our web address mixed up with ours on some website, so we are getting referrals from that website from people looking for produce.

This has been a huge year for us in terms of family life events– two of our children graduated from high school, and two of them will be going off to university this fall. Our disabled daughter will be learning to help in the farm, but also possibly attending a day program for disabled adults. And, of course, we are still homeschooling the three youngest children.

We took a huge disastrous vacation in June, the absolute worst timing for our plants. The guy who watched the Hellhound and cared for the plants left much to be desired– he picked about 2/3 of the onion crop and left the rest in the ground, then he took the onions in without aging them and stripped off all the skins and washed them! Then he put the skins and stems down our garbage disposal. Boy, my oldest son was pretty ticked off when he had to spend an entire morning trying to get the pipes cleaned out after we got home.

The caretaker also mowed down my entire crop of sweet pea plants and the watermelons, plus allowed the Hellhound to destroy half the squash and zucchini plants. So we didn’t come home to a very encouraging situation, let’s put it that way.

We did, however, come home to about ten pounds of ripe cherry and grape tomatoes in red and yellow, which made delicious fresh pasta sauce, salsa, and salad fixings. We haven’t gotten any more since, however, since Miss Austism takes any opportunity she can to go out to the tomato patch with the Hellhound in tow. The girl just wants to eat those fresh sweet tomatoes right off the vine, and the Hellhound is hoping that she’ll stir up a mouse or a rat or a rabbit for the Hellhound to kill. I’m terrified that the rattlesnakes that live in the mesquite brush behind our place will migrate in and she’ll get bitten. God love her, she would probably try to pick the darn thing up to play with it. So we are keeping a close eye on her and also planning to pull most of those tomato plants out and mow and till the area again. It’s nearly time to plant chard, kale, sugar snap peas, peas, and carrots, cabbages, and broccoli, and we’re going to need the space.

I grew a bunch of fall garden stuff from seed and transplanted it out into the garden last week. This brutal heat wave has made it really difficult for the plants to get established. I went out today with the sprinkler and just soaked it all down until there were puddles standing on top of the soil. (They disappeared pretty quick, alas.) The little squash and pumpkins and cucumbers are still hanging in there, but we’ve lost a tomato plant or two. I may even “cheat” and stick a nursery-grown tomato in a couple of spots. Depends if I find one on sale. It’s really too late to start from seed again. There’s a few eggplant plants holding on, some basil, and I sprinkled about four packets of flower seeds into the spot behind our sole remaining watermelon plant. We’ll see what grows.

But, like I said, it’s been a rough year and we’re not producing enough to sell. Maybe next year will be better. If I can find a Hellhound-proof way to do it, I was hoping to raise a few quail as an experiment. Finding anything that’s Hellhound proof has proven nearly impossible, however. She destroys everything just on principle– plants, tools, toys, fences, you name it. We’ve been keeping her indoors more, but it hasn’t really slowed her down. She has an agenda, and its name is Destruction.

Anyway, if you see someone marketing produce from Black Fox Farms, it’s not us! We’ve been using this same name for 20 years, but never on a large scale and we never bothered to copyright it. Our homeschool has been named Black Fox School since 1995 at least, lol. Yes, we hope to expand to the Waco area Farmer’s Market next year. Yes, we hope to provide fresh produce to our neighbors. But, man, this was NOT the year to do so!

Blessings be upon you all!

Growing Along

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So, Spring in Texas is rapidly becoming Summer in Texas. The bluebonnets and Indian Paintbrush are gone from the roadsides, replaced by Indian blankets, little yellow coreopsis, and Brown-eyed Susans. It goes by so fast, each year I tell myself that I need to slow down and appreciate the beauty while it lasts, but it just zips by anyway. I don’t blame global climate change, I blame getting older. Everything goes by fast.

The flowers in the photo are the very first zinnias that I have ever grown. I am LOVING them as a cut flower– they have great sturdy stems and they last for ages. I have two bushes full of lovely Chrysler Imperial tea roses, and they smell gorgeous, but they last for approximately 3 days and then turn into a browning mess in a vase. I’ve had these zinnias in the vase for 5 days now without a trace of wilting or browning. It’s really nice to have a flower that doesn’t immediately curl up and die once you cut it. If we are going to start growing flowers to sell, zinnias will definitely be in the mix.

It may take some tweaking to get just the right combination of water, soil, and variety, but now that I’ve grown a few plants, I at least know where to start. Growing them from seed indoors really gave them a headstart, and they’re pretty sturdy plants. The Hound of Hell did manage to destroy the end of the rows by digging them up, but before that, she’d upended the little pot we started them in and they survived that just fine. I am pleased. So many of my flower-growing adventures have not survived to even bloom, so it’s nice to have actual flowers to put in an actual vase. There are more out there that I need to cut, too. Overall, very happy. I also have marigolds and petunias blossoming in their pots, which the children claim as their personal plant victory. I guess I’ll let them have it, anything to encourage them in the work!

The squash and cucumbers and pumpkins, ehh, it’s been a bad year for the cucurbit family. Out of all our Straight 8 cucumber seedlings, we have three plants left. The stems were just terribly fragile and our clay soil too tough. The grey zucchini has also been hard hit by disasters– some of them have bad stems (from cutworms or stem worms, I’m not sure) and some of them were eaten. I think it was a rabbit– little boogerheads live in the mesquite-filled pasture behind us and come to our side of the fence for a tasty treat.

We do have some watermelons going, but they’re going slowly. Hopefully, they’ll take off before it gets too hot.

The onion patch is looking good, they’re bulbing up nicely once I went in there and weeded it out. It about killed ME to weed it by hand, but it needed to be done. I am learning, though– I think it’s better to have shorter rows that can be weeded without having to go down through the rows as you work. Sure, it’s not “real farm” standard, but that way I can water everything down before I weed and the weeds come up a lot easier. Then I can weed from each side. As it was, I had to stand and weed the centers of the rows and that just kills my back. Middle-aged farming problems, haha.

The garlic is getting close to being done. Another couple of weeks and it should start turning brown and falling over, then we pull the bulbs up and let them dry.

The tomatoes and peppers are going well, except of course the ones the Hound of Hell trampled and dug up. She’s really a nuisance.

All the kale is finally gone– boy did it smell bad when we pulled them up. A horrible nasty rotten cabbage smell from the stems, but the stems were perfectly healthy. I guess it’s just the variety, which was, of course, NOT the one that I had ordered. We will have to find a new supplier of seeds for next fall, I don’t want the Red Russian kale again. It’s pretty, but the leaf to stem ratio is really bad– small leaves, big stems.

We’ve already been eating yellow squash from the squash patch, though, and the black Spanish radishes are ready to eat. The green beans are blooming, so we should see some beans soon. The grey zucchini is almost ready for the first harvest, and the cucumbers are blooming so will hopefully set fruit. We’ve seen some bees, but not nearly as many as we’d like. Can’t wait to move to a new place where we can keep bees!

It’s really strange not having any chickens. Is it silly to say that I miss my chickens? I do– but not all of them. I think my favorites were the Easter Eggers, oddly enough– they were fairly calm, decently productive, and the kids could carry them around without a problem. I loved my Leghorns, too, but boy were they flighty. Maybe if I had a higher fence!

Summer is coming, but we will enjoy this pre-summer month, as the heat settles in and the plants start producing. Soon enough, it will be so hot that the plants will stop fruiting and just struggle to stay alive. But right now, everything is nice.

 

Planting time

Our seed trays have sprouted forth, so this weekend is planting time for all the transplants. Well, maybe not the cacti that I was trying to get to grow, those are slow starters, but the cucumbers, zucchini, yellow crooknecks, the three kinds of tomatoes, and a bunch of cutting flowers are all ready to go.

It rained some today, so probably we won’t be putting in any new tilled areas this weekend, which limits planting beans to planting bush varieties. I don’t have any fenceline soil prepared for beans yet. Just keeping up with the trays of cucumbers is going to be a challenge! But we need to get those in this week at the latest, as the beans stop flowering as soon as the real heat sets in.

I’m not looking forward to the backbreaking element of the work, but I will be happy to get all these baby plants into the ground. I am really eager to see how these cutting flowers w0rk out for us– I have always longed to have ample bouquets in the house all the time, but of course buying them is expensive. When you’re feeding half a dozen kids, pretty flowers for the table come way after food for the table!

Here’s hoping for a nice sunny day without the wind that was blowing so hard on Thursday or today’s rain. And that everyone keeps their hats on! We’ve already had a couple sunburned necks this year, and it’s not even April yet. But we’ve had bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush blooming since late February, so this year may be a scorcher.

The Cold Weather Finally Makes it South

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We’ve been busy here at the old homestead– our oldest daughter gifted the family with a German Shepherd puppy for Christmas. The Princess Leia has been making herself a part of the family with almost inexhaustible energy and enough cleverness to give us hope that she’ll be a good dog.

Goodness knows, we’ve had nothing but canine train wrecks, figuratively speaking, since 2005 when we had to euthanize our Great Pyrenees dog, Bramwell, due to brain tumors. I am hoping that Leia breaks our bad streak and ends up being another of those dogs that everyone remembers with fondness in later years.

The cold weather finally arrived and quickly put an end to the okra, peppers, and melon plants that were still hanging on. We had a freeze three nights ago that got down to 20 degrees– we had to tarp everything for that one, and we still managed to lose the broccoli rabe. The collard greens, onions, garlic, lettuces, kale, carrots, turnips, and radishes all survived, however. The mustard greens are iffy. I think they may come back, since they were still so small and low to the ground, but I may have to re-seed them.

There were a few frost-damaged leaves on the collards and lettuce, but we harvested those and cooked up a big mess of collard greens, so the plants are rapidly bouncing back. We harvested the first of the carrots, as well. We served them up raw with a dip, crudités if you want to be fancy, and the kids were fighting over them, so I am calling them a success.

If we get a little break in the weather, I have some Simpson lettuce to plant. Nothing fancy, but the rest of the lettuces will be about finished by the time the new stuff is ready to eat. I need to replant the radishes as well. Our daikon radishes are doing well but only half of them sprouted, which won’t give us enough to last. I really want to try some Black Spanish radishes, they sound like fun. I just need to get my hands on some seed.

Speaking of Spanish things, I think I’ve decided on a chicken breed to try, one of the Basque types. And, who knows, I may sneak a few Andalusians in as well. Blue genetics are a pain, since you have about half the chicks hatching out as black or splashed, but they’re just so pretty that I can’t resist. The only thing that could be a disadvantage is their flightiness. If you’ve ever tried to catch a Leghorn when it didn’t want to be caught, then you know the struggle. I have an idea for making a portable grazing pen with netting over the top to discourage those high-flyers (and hawks!) Just need a source for a good bird netting that won’t immediately rot in the Texas sun.

The cold weather brings a whole new set of challenges, but it’s a lot more fun to grow things in the winter than in a Texas summer. You’re not dying of heat exhaustion, mainly!

 

Chicken dreams

We have been keeping chickens for nearly 8 years, but we decided this summer to sell off our entire flock in preparation for an entirely new venture. I have been spending time lately trying to decide what breed we really want to go forward with. We have owned probably fifty different breeds over the years. Some of them we loved, some of them were complete disasters. 

That wasn’t always the fault of the breed. One year, a very large rat snake decided to eat just my Aseel chicks. Out of a flock of 25, it focused each time on the 3 Aseels. By the time we caught the snake, it had gotten the very last one and hastily regurgitated the chick in an attempt to flee. But that put an end to that experiment and I never managed to get any more Orientals in the following years. One year, my naked neck juveniles all decided to huddle beneath an empty water pan during a hot sunny afternoon. That was the end of the naked neck experiment, but it was hardly unexpected. Those particular chicks seemed far less clever than any of the others, and disaster was just a matter of time.

At this point, I am more interested in a breed that will perform well at the fairs as well as in the nest box, without chasing trendy breeds. Heritage breeds are topping the list, for  the most part. 

Our flock of Jersey Giants were interesting creatures, but more than slightly difficult to deal with. If you’ve seen that scene in “Jurassic Park” where the velociraptor jumped up on the metal kitchen counter, you have a pretty much perfect image of what it sounds like when a Jersey Giant rooster jumps on something. If they decide that they’re going to try to flog you, you really have a problem on your hands. 

The Jersey Giant hens laid beautiful light brown eggs, but the heat bothered  them a lot. We have had the same issue with all the different large breed chickens we have owned– Brahmas, Langshans, and Faverolles. Of those, the Favreolles seemed the most fragile and miserable, and we had heat losses. Unless we relocate north, I suspect that we will stick with lighter breeds.

The middle of the road breeds like our Delawares, Wyandottes, and Speckled Sussex all had decreased production in the heat of the summer, too, even if they seemed more comfortable. For hot weather, we haven’t been able to beat the Leghorn varieties for egg production. 

But, of course, all the Mediterranean breeds lay a white egg. I personally prefer white eggs but everyone else around here likes brown eggs. When you’re outnumbered 7 to 1, you really have to stop dreaming about a beautiful flock of Andalusians and try to find something else that fits the bill. 

I grew up hearing stories about my great grandmother’s flock of “Domineckers” so it’s tempting to buy a good quality starter flock of Dominiques and try to keep improving them. I haven’t had much experience with breeding birds for the barred gene, howver, and I will admit that it seems intimidating to try to breed not only for the correct size and body shape and good egg production but also for the right color and size of the stripes!

I guess that it’s time to “hit the books” and read up on color genetics. I have a vague idea for a homebred strain that I would like to see. I just don’t know yet if I can actually get the genetics to work. In the meantime, however, I plan on buying a really nice flock of heritage birds next year and keeping them pure. I may have a few crossbreeding experiments going on, but the new chicken barn that we are going to build should keep any idle roosters in their places. The less I have to deal with a rooster who is protecting his hens from the evils of the rake and the feed bucket, the better!