A chronicle of Mike and Julia's adventures creating a home on the Missouri range...

Monday, May 21, 2018

Sweet Success

Our community's new milking cow, Sugar.  

    This spring has sprung us into such busy-ness that I have fallen way behind on posting! But now a sleeping toddler in the backseat of a car is forcing me to sit still for an hour and write. So what is new at Giving Tree Homestead? Looking around me now I see projects in all directions—some completed, some almost completed, and some long neglected… This must be the essence of homesteading, the never-ending parade of projects. Some are seasonal, like planting a garden. Every spring the soil needs to be prepared, the seeds sown, along with mulching and watering and weeding. This seasonal pulse of activity just happened here in the last month or two, demanding my daily attention and considerable dedication. Some homestead projects are one-timers that yield something enduring, such as the porch we just added to our house’s south side. A satisfying check off the list. Other projects just never seem to go away until one day they quite miraculously do! I am thinking here of a long stone retaining wall that has dragged on for years, half done, until one day a week ago we decided to finally finish it; and along with the help of our neighbor Brian, we did just that in less time than we imagined it would take. There are more projects too. A slow-to-start spring sprung a bunch of activity on us all at once. But let me go back to the garden.

     If you aren’t a gardener, perhaps the allure of rolling up your sleeves and sinking your hands in the dirt is lost on you. I can see how it seems like a total waste of time given how cheap and accessible fruits and vegetables from the store are these days. But little by little it becomes something one just does and can hardly stop from doing. My half dozen neighbors who are moving away this season were saying as much when they found themselves starting seeds and planting gardens even though they may not be around for harvest time. Sometime long ago I think I got the urge, perhaps from years of my mother dedicating small patches of our suburban yards to my sister’s and mine gardening experimentation. She would urge us to go through seed catalogues and pick out what we wanted and even when we would yield only dinky-sized pumpkins and watermelon we would feel the thrill of gardening victory. I guess I got hooked. I can remember going to great effort to construct planter boxes when I was in college and had tests to study for, even though nothing seemed to want to thrive in the grimy semi-shade of a city apartment’s back porch (go figure). I have attempted to garden everywhere I have lived, in all sorts of climates, soils, and odds stacked against me. So to finally have a real garden—a big one with full southern exposure and the time to tend it is a dream come true for me.

     Perhaps if you have followed the seasons of this blog, you know a little about our first few years of gardening. We started small while we spent most energy on building, enjoying something of a salad bed really near our tent site. Then we enlisted help of our Amish neighbors to break ground and properly disc and till the soil of a more substantial plot that we carved into raised beds and paths. We started seedlings in trays and stuck them in the ground and things grew, but not that well. We hadn’t amended our soil or learned the importance of mulching, or what pest pressure there was around here. We hadn’t anticipated a drought year where the clay-rich soil would get hard and crack and then a flood year where our garden paths would be submerged under water. There is a seemingly never-ending learning-curve to gardening, but especially so when the irregularities of climate change and thrown in.

    With a few seasons under my belt here, this year I attempted to apply the knowledge of past experience to this season’s garden. For example, last year our toddler got in the habit of poking around in our indoor seedling trays and pulling up signs of life, so this year I arranged a swap with out Amish neighbor Lena who has a small greenhouse (and the greenest thumb around) to caretake our seedlings. Success! Last year our plants were showing signs of nitrogen deficiency, so this year I made sure every bed got plenty of composted manure. Last year the raccoons and other animals destroyed our corn and tomatoes in our unfenced garden expansion, so this year we put up new fencing around both gardens. Last year cabbage worms attacked our broccoli, and fleabettles destroyed our eggplant, so this year I am trying out floating row covers over both crops. Last year our daughter developed a habit of stomping through the beds, delighting in how she could make her parents leap to their feet yelling, so this year, we have focused her attention on her new, kid-sized watering can and how she can be helpful (and if not, banished her to a sandbox nearby). You get the idea. This year will likely bring its own garden setbacks, but for now, before the full force of the season humbles me once again, I am feeling victorious. I am sure it too will pass…

    Our garden isn’t the only thing looking Martha Stewart-worthy this year—our fruit trees are also looking quite proper! Last fall each gangly teenage-sized tree put forth a meager apple or two or three, which was riches to us. So this year, to discover them loaded with blossoms was super exciting. If even half those blossoms become fruit, it would be amazing. After years of planting, and mulching, and caging, and pruning each spring, we had almost forgotten that fruit would eventually be our reward. It has just become what we do. The same goes with strawberries, and blackberries…. After years of pinching off and replanting little strawberry suckers from our paltry little patch (started with some gifted suckers from our neighbor Dana’s patch), I somehow felt totally shocked when I noticed them loaded with little green strawberries this year. And this year we finally got to feast on fresh—like 15 minutes old fresh—asparagus from our own garden… Wow. I am not sure money could buy something that good!

     And in other exciting spring news, it seems like for the first time we are going to have a hive of bees to do the work of spreading pollen around in the garden and orchard! Mike and I took a class on natural beekeeping this winter and got inspired to put up a “bait box” in a tree to see if we could catch a wild swarm of honeybees. Success almost instantly! Fortunately we had just acquired some hive boxes to transfer the swarm to, but a proper bee suit and mask is still on the way so we borrowed a neighbor’s. The transfer went well and we now have a hive of bees on our land, zipping about between pond and orchard and garden. We started them off with some honey and hope to have much more to harvest this fall. And the bait box is back in position, so who knows, we may add a few more hives (for free!) before too long.

     Okay, I should stop raving about our momentary successes and get back to monitoring for flea battles and cabbage worms and tomato horn worms. And bigger projects too. This year, we are ambitiously installing a solar system on our house and embracing a little more electricity into our lives. I am sure to most people, the system we have ordered is quite tiny in size, but to us and relative to our luddite neighbors, it is large… 6 panels (or modules if you want to sound like you are a solar insider!) This process too has brought its own learning curve, which—though interesting—has left me understanding why there is an industry of engineers and installers dedicated to it. I can definitely say this is not a project for every DIYer, but the cost savings and the fact that our neighbors DIYed their system lured us in to the challenge. Stay tuned for an upcoming post about our (hopefully) successful solar installation, coming soon!