Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Life and Death on the Homestead

Every human has a sliding scale of mercy when it comes to what we are willing to kill and what we are not.  Most humans will kill ants in and around their food.  House flies also die with great regularity in people's homes. Some people refuse to kill meat to eat, but will eat soy products, meaning they are indirectly responsible for thousands of rabbits and birds dying when harvest comes around and the big combines take to the fields, cutting down everything in their path. 

It seems that death is impossible to avoid.  Even plants have been shown to react when they are pulled out of the ground.

I cannot, as yet, shoot squirrels or anything larger, because their mammalian family hierarchy and tendency to frolic and play touches me, so I will relocate them instead of killing them whenever possible.  Squirrels also have the distinction of learning where I do not want them to go.  When I fill in a squirrel hole on our property, the squirrels do not come back.  So I let them have the lower 1/5 of our property, and patrol the rest to gently turn them away. So far its working, but I make no promises as to the future.  But I will, in general relocate before I kill, if I can.  I even catch house flies and turn them back outside, when possible.

I hated killing mice until they became a serious issue around the coops, and then I did so with a very grim efficiency, using a humane electrical trap that killed instantly. With country property comes a greater necessity to (and therefore exposure to) killing vermin.  I don't like it, but some creatures cannot be easily trapped and relocated. And if you have to kill, I think you owe it to whatever you're killing to dispatch it as humanely as possible.

This morning I shot a gopher in the chicken coop.  I went out and noticed the large hole and a small head popping in and out of it, and knew immediately what it was.  Gophers are vermin, carrying fleas, worms, mites, and disease with them, so allowing them near our live food source was not an option, both for the hens health as well as ours.  I stepped inside, loaded Big Ag's .22 with hollow-point rounds, and took it back outside to the coop, standing silently over the hole until the gopher appeared again.  And then I shot.

 The one I shot did not look like this.

It was a clean, quick kill, and I'm pretty sure there was not more than a second that elapsed between the gopher closing his eyes in this world and opening them up in Gopher Valhalla, or wherever gophers go in the afterlife.  I'd love to tell you that I felt regret, or sadness, but as I've done it more and more, I feel those things less.  

I did have the satisfaction of doing it in a way that was quick and humane, but to me there was no question that it had to be done. You cannot relocate a gopher or even trap them humanely.  It's impossible.

Even so, I'm kind of amazed that this city-born and bred girl is able to do something like this.  In the city parks where I grew up, a gopher would have been a curiosity, a creature we would have sat on the grass and observed, talking about how cute he was.  To go from that to being willing to stand over a gopher hole with a shotgun is coming a long way.  I'm not sure if its spiritual progress or not, however. But when your food sources are in danger, you do what you have to do, whether it's black ants in the sugar or a gopher in the chicken coop.

Life and death go hand in hand with growing or even just storing food, and I'm proud that even if I cannot avoid causing death, I can at least bring it to pass in a swift fashion.  Sometimes that's the best you can do, and it has to be enough.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Catching up

Strung trellis wire, weeded as well as weed whacked, harvested radishes and lettuce, trained raspberry and ollalieberry vines to new trellises, watered, spread bark, cleaned, fed and watered livestock.

Oh, and worked at the winery, of course.

I am glad this weekend is over, because since I tend to work Saturdays, Monday is my Sunday.  It will be great to relax, but it is also nice to slowly be getting caught up on spring's chores.  Next week I need to start thinking about planting pumpkins, squash, cukes and green onions -- most plantings will not be in-ground, but rather in the solarium, because it's supposed to hit the 90-degree area mid-week and that's too hot for baby seedlings. 

This is considered unseasonably warm weather, but not totally unreasonable, since that's how spring can go here...we can freeze or we can boil.  Sometimes all in the same week.

Hope spring is finding you caught up, and in a temperate growing environment!

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Red's Near-Death Experience

The thing about animals is that they live totally in the present, meaning what happened to them today, yesterday, or what's going to happen to them tomorrow is of no concern for them.  A few days ago, Red, our Rhode Island Red hen (and my best layer) went too far with me, and it nearly cost her her life.

She's always been prone to attacking Big Ag, Groceries and myself, rooster-style, meaning she gets all puffy and indignant and strikes out at us as we're passing by.  She has drawn blood on shins, ankles, bare toes and arms.  She is truly one of the most miserable creatures I've ever met, and for no apparent reason.  She was held and treated gently as a chick the same as our other chicks were, but whereas they ended up docile and sweet, she's ended up possessed.

But the other day I brought in the two new chicks, Cleo and Chloe, to introduce them slowly to the flock.  While my Buff Orpingtons provided warning pecks when the two little ones got too curious, Red actually made one of her rooster-style runs at Chloe, our sweet and very docile new Barred Rock.

She did this right before I was going into the winery, and so I put the little hens back into their separate enclosure, drove to work and immediately had a heart-to-heart talk with our chef Ben, who is also a homesteader and butcher.

The verdict was unanimous.  Red would meet her end via Ben at the end of the day.  There would be a chicken killing and dressing, followed by some wine and fellowship. I would be sad to see Red's life end, but be happy that she couldn't threaten Chloe's since aggressive hens have been known to kill young chickens, and Red is the very definition of an aggressive hen.

Red's day had come.  Or so I thought. 

As we were discussing it, Ben said something that bothered me.  When I mentioned she was my best layer, he explained to me that she would probably have an egg inside her, which we would find after butchering her.  And that bothered me.  Because although Red is a despicable creature, she is a very good producer of eggs.  And I hate to put a good food source out of business.

So I "hatched" another plan.  When the owner of the winery came in, I asked him if he'd be willing to try her out in his flock.  There's very little human interaction there, and with the distraction of many more hens than we have, I thought Red might be better suited alive and laying, but with the other winery chickens instead of ours.  She has never shown aggressions towards other grown hens, so I know his flock is safe.  And I even think that without so much human interaction, she will settle down a bit.

But if she doesn't, Ben and his ax will be waiting.  Red lives in the present, so she doesn't know this.  She also doesn't know that the people she's been attacking have been willing to go to a Plan B to save her life, nor that she will be moving to a new home as a last ditch effort to keep her in this world.

I don't expect a thank you from her, or even a reprieve from her terrible behavior over her very narrowly missed appointment with death.  That would be asking too much from a chicken. 

 But if she could just behave herself in her new home, I'd consider us even-steven.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Animal Question

When you get married, the first question everyone starts to ask you is, "when are you going to start a family?"  When you buy country property, the question everyone starts asking you is, "when are you going to buy some farm animals?"

We successfully dodged this question for quite awhile by stating we wanted to put in our orchard, vines and berries first, which people pretty much accepted because it was sound logic. The things that will take the most time to accomplish, like raising a tree until it's large enough to produce, should be the first priorities when growing a homestead. Besides, we already had chickens, and as everyone knows, they are the gateway drug to farm animals, so getting more animals was pretty much a done deal.  

But now that the permanent crops are in and growing, we've begun to ask ourselves the question again....when, and if, we should be getting some animals.

I think at this point, it's safe to announce we've decided the answer is "yes" to the when question, and "soon" to the other.  It's spring, so there's lots of goats, sheep, donkeys, llamas, and alpacas available. And our lower pasture area has never been more in need of some critters to munch down the spring grasses, before they dry out and become a fire hazard.

But its an exciting prospect, the idea of being able to head down to the pasture and see some animals grazing.

Rest assured, updates will be published as they happen.

Monday, April 21, 2014


I don't watch cooking shows on television, but a friend of mine said I should watch a show called, "Chopped," because it reminded her of how things happen at our homestead.

Basically, on "Chopped," someone in charge apparently brings in a random set of ingredients to a chef and they have to create an appetizer, main course, and dessert from what's there.

Today, whoever is in charge here (this would be a toss-up between God, chance, and Mother Nature) provided this:

Carrots, radishes, peas, and eggs.  My idea is to make Egg In The Hat with some Ezekiel bread and some eggs, serve the radishes as an appetizer, and sautee the peas and carrots together as a side dish.  I also have some lettuce in the fridge from the garden, so I'll make a side salad, too.

If we want dessert, I guess a souffle or some vanilla ice cream would be the way to go, since we have more eggs than anything else.

Do you have "Chopped" days, where you get a strange set of ingredients and have to make a feast from it? It seems like the norm around here.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Happy Spring Holiday

May you find pookas galore this holiday weekend.

And so another holiday weekend comes.  This one is associated with fertility, growth, new life and new beginnings.  So many of our secular holidays have their roots in Judeo/Christian as well as older Pagan rites, Easter being one of them.  Of course there's Passover and Resurrection Sunday. But going back even farther than those things, and to different parts of the world, there is also colored eggs, bunnies, spirit animals, new chicks, sweet candies -- and hunts through the green, green grasses of spring for the last one of those. Oh, and fertility rites.  A lot of fertility rites.

You could probably pick any faith tradition and find a holiday which happens this time of year, so whatever you are celebrating, I hope it's a happy time for you and yours!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Bad Seed

I recently had a 100 percent failure with a packet of spinach seeds I had bought a few months ago.  I planted them both in my raised beds and indoors in peat pots and and absolutely nothing happened.  Zip.  Nada. Since I remember having trouble with spinach before this, I was tempted to simply write spinach off the menu -- once again -- for the next year, and accept that I can't grow decent spinach here.

But since we're having a long spring, I decided to try again.  I planted, and this time had about 100 percent germination rate instead of a 100 percent failure rate.  Since the first batch of seeds were planted in two completely different environments (one temperate and one cool), I'm chalking my failure up to a bad packet of seeds.

This can happen with potted plants, bulbs, trees and other plantings around our homes and property.  I don't think you can ever "call the game" on a particular type of plant until you've tried it two or even three times and it's failed.  

Of course doing some detective work doesn't hurt either.  If you think the soil is bad where you planted something, move it someplace else. If you believe weather might have been the culprit, wait until next year and move your planting date forward or back a few weeks or a month.

But bottom line, don't "call the game" on anything until you have made several attempts to grow something and failed each time. I'm glad I prevailed and bought that last packet of spinach that sprouted and took hold in the garden.  

When you work the land, it's typical to blame yourself, but sometimes it's not you at all, it's just some bad seeds, bad mojo, bad moon phase or whatever else helps decide what stays and what goes in our gardens. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Laundry Woes

Big Ag and I have a pretty harmonious marriage.  Some of that comes from marrying later in life; when you marry late, you don't change much and it makes it easier to predict exactly who you will and won't get along with in your advancing years.

But we do have some differences, and some of those differences can happen on the homestead front when you're trying to live a chemical and addiditive-free life.  The latest example is laundry.  

And the difference is this: He wants to stink and I don't.

Before you judge, I will tell you right now that what you just read is probably not what you are thinking it is.  Neither one of us wants to smell of body odor.  We love our showers and we love clean clothes.  But here's where we part ways:  Big Ag likes his shirts to smell "fresh" -- fruity, flowery, and what most of our culture considers a "clean" smell, meaning highly-scented, and I like mine to smell natural, also known as "unscented."

And so our Washing Wars began, where he complained his laundry did not smell like anything and was, in fact, "musty," and I battled back and told him his clothes smelled like actual clean clothes, hung on a line in the fresh air to dry, and that he just wasn't used to that, after years of clothes dried in a clothes dryer with scented fabric softener sheets.

Then he told me someone had hugged him at work and made a face.  Whether or not I think this was his imagination or not was unimportant at this point.  The point was, I'd had enough of the critiquing of our laundry, and the fact that he was uncomfortable.

And so I broke down and bought some in-wash Downey "scent booster" (aka super stinky chemical "dots") which you shake into to your wash, and which gives you shirts you can smell from 50 yards away.  I wash his shirts separately from the other clothes now  -- not a very eco-friendly practice, I know -- but they have the extreme scent Big Ag apparently equates with "clean."  

I try not to focus on the fact that I have no idea what's in these little scent dots, what they do in a septic system, a human immune system, or what they are made of.  I keep them out of 3/4th of the rest of the laundry (his underwear, jeans and socks get washed with our regular, homemade detergent, which cleans just fine but which has no scent), and that is our compromise.

When you homestead as a couple, you will find differences in how you want to live, and this is an example of ours.

The bane of my existence.

And now I'm going to go and throw all the windows in the house open because I just washed a bunch of Big Ag's shirts and our entire house smells like a fruity, flowery, chemical candy store.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Chamomile/lavender/mint sun tea

This really is the best cold tea ever. In addition to being hugely refreshing when the weather is warm, it also provides a little tranquility buzz, making it great to have with dinner or in the evening before bedtime, or in the afternoon if your spouse is obsessing about the shop he's building on the south side of the property and wants to discuss every minor detail with you. 

Chamomile Lavender Mint Iced Tea

(makes 14 cups)

A cup of loosely packed fresh mint leaves

2 tablespoons of lavender (I use French)

1 - 1 1/2 tablespoons camomile leaves (or 4 chamomile tea bags)

Mix all the ingredients together, and fill a one-gallon jar with lukewarm water.  Place in sunshine for a few hours.  Remove/strain all tea bags and flowers with a cheesecloth and place tea in fridge for a few hours to chill.  

Enjoy the (legal) mellow feeling.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Waste not, want not

A few months ago, I purchased a bag of dove and quail feed for my pigeon and two doves.  Inside the bag were some pea seeds, which were uneaten by any of the birds, and therefore fell onto the floor of the flight cage, where they remained until I cleaned it out. What a waste.

After being collected and mixed in with the chicken waste and a bunch of straw, I spread the mixture over one of our raised beds to sit and compost for a few months.  I covered the bed with a black tarp, and in a few weeks when I removed it, lo and behold, the peas had sprouted. Not a waste at all.

At that point I decided I could use a good nitrogen fixer in the soil as well as a good cover crop, so the peas got to stay.  They grew and eventually blossomed into gorgeous colors of all kinds -- white, pink, red and salmon.  Definitely not a waste.

They formed pea pods, but the pod casings themselves were too tough for them to be eaten as snap peas.  What a waste.

 But instead I let them ripen and picked them with the goal of shelling them. Not a waste after all.

Tonight I had green peas with dinner, cooked lightly and covered in butter.  Perfect. Now the peas are in my belly and the pods are back in the compost pile, where they will break down and become soil for new plants.  No waste here. Once the peas are broken down by my digestive system, they'll end up being eliminated by my body and head through the septic tank out into the leach field to return to the earth that way, while the pods will stay stay topside and grow some new plants as they decompose.

In the next couple of weeks, I will plow down the pea plants remaining and they will return to the soil to provide nitrogen for the next thing that's going to be planted there.  Perhaps if I'm lucky, a few ripe peas will go to seed and give me another crop of peas. 

Compost, plants, flowers, food, compost.  What a lovely cycle, and not a bit of waste in it, if you just relax and let nature take its own course.

Thursday, April 10, 2014


"Mr. Bob White" up early, singing his heart out on the fence post, looking for a lady friend. Hope he finds her.

And hope you find whatever your heart desires today, too!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014


Not recyclable.

Did you know the Starbucks paper coffee cups are not recyclable?  Although they feel like paper, they are actually lined on the inside with a thin coating of plastic to help stop the cup from soaking through, and recycling places only accept them in bulk.  And since most people leave with their cups, Starbucks does not recycle them, and neither does your regular trash pick up.

The only way to make the whole cafe mocha process more eco-friendly is to go ahead and purchase one of their permanent plastic coffee "travelers" for sale, which are dishwasher safe and can be used again and again.

I'm never one to shill for Corporate America, but I've been taking those stupid Starbucks "paper" coffee cups out of the store for years and carefully washing them and putting them in the recycling bin at home once they were empty.  All for naught, it turns out. In order to be part of the solution, not the problem, we should really have invested in a few of those plastic travelers for purchase and just re-used them.

Oh course if your tastes run more towards the cold drinks, you are safe. The large plastic "glasses" they serve those in ARE recyclable.  So take the cold mocha frappucino over the warm latte, I suppose, until you break down and buy yourself a re-usable hot coffee container.

Of course, I guess we could always show up with a Mason Jar and see if they'd fill that. Might be worth it, if just to see the reaction from the barista behind the counter.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014


It feels good, no question.

Today is a quintessential California day.  It's picture-postcard perfect, 70 degrees, sunny and green.  I've been outside most of the day, loathe to come inside and begin the chores I know I need to do since its my day off.  It's just too perfect outside.  

One of the things I like to do on days like this is take my shoes off and walk barefoot around the parts of the property where it's safe to do so.  I walk on the grass and on the dirt by the raised beds, mainly.  I stay out of the pasture since it's filled with some very un-foot-friendly natural items -- things like star thistle stickers, slivers of wood and goat-heads.

It's funny, because I used to do the same thing when I was at UCLA.  At the time I lived a thoroughly urban existence, but when I would go out and sit on the grass at lunchtime, I always made sure I took off my shoes and let my feet come in contact with the actual ground itself.  When you live in the city, it's possible actually spend months never touching the surface of the planet you live on.  You step on sidewalk, concrete, tile or carpet 100 percent of the time.  It always felt good to stand on good old terra firma, with nothing between me and the earth.

Recently I saw a new-age-y article about a new phenomenon actually called "Earthing."  Earthing is the deliberate act of spending a certain amount of time walking, sitting, and laying on good old Mother Earth, with nothing in between you and her. Apparently, with the majority of humans now living in urban, industrialized environments, most people rarely walk on the actual surface of the planet anymore. In light of my days as an urbanite, I find this very easy to believe.

My electrons are skeptical.

But it's the cottage industries associated with the "earthing" phenomenon that I find so unbelievable. There are companies that are making a profit off this idea, selling cotton earthing sheets and mats (for those people who like the earth but don't want to actually sit on it), as well as little electrical wires that go down into the soil and come up into your house that can connect Earth's "energies" to you.  

These things are all available for purchase, of course.  

There's a lot of pseudo-science that goes along with the earthing idea, specifically the idea that the earth has an electrical current that, when there's nothing between us and it, conducts into our bodies and makes us healthy and happy.  I love walking barefoot, laying on the grass looking up at the sky, and sitting quietly in the yard watching nature, but that's about as far as I'll take it.

Yet, there is no doubt that there's something very, very good about coming in contact with the earth itself that gives one a feeling of well-being and even happiness.

I do think what's sad is that there are earth's surface-deprived people out there who will believe a little electrical wire that comes into your home is an acceptable substitution for getting back into nature.  Nature is more to us than an electrical current -- it's the well-being that's found in natural surroundings, and comes through our eyes, our ears, and our noses. Yes, and our feet.

A wire running to your feet is just a wire.  Unless, however it's also a means for someone to make a profit from, by people who accept the latest fads without questioning the common sense or science behind them.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Planning for Failure

This afternoon, I planted three Ichiban eggplants which will hopefully grow and provide us with lots of great dishes this summer.  Last summer I had three Ichiban eggplants and we were literally swimming in eggplants.  I'm pretty sure I composted and give away more than we ate.  Clearly, we had too many eggplants.

So why did I choose again to plant three eggplants?  Simple.  I always plan for failure.

You can bet that, should I ever actually cut down my initial grow to just two or even one eggplant, something will happen to them and I will end up with less than I need, or worse -- none.  That's virtually guaranteed, with Murphy's Law being what it is.

And so I choose gross excess over deprivation, which would be bad, if it were anything other than vegetables.  Hard to argue that too many veggies are bad.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Holding the hill

Native plants, holding our hill in place.

We've had about 5 inches of rain since the new year, and it definitely shows on most of the hillsides.  All over, there are native grasses, mustard and lupines, along with about 10 other species I can't yet identify.  
Lupines and other flowers amid the raspberry vines.

When the rain comes there are always certain places in California where mudslides are a possibility, but we have chosen to let our hillside remain in its native state, with no plowing down or discing going on. I believe it not only helps the native insects, reptiles and bees in the area, but also the topsoil.  Which can only be good, for us as well as all the other creatures we share the land with.  

Natural beauty with a purpose.

We will whack some of this down once it's gone to seed and turned brown, but for now we're enjoying the green grasses and flowers dotting the hillsides.

Friday, April 4, 2014


When you decide to make a change in lifestyle, such as adopting homesteading practices, the first thing you will need to do is establish boundaries where other people are concerned, because most assuredly, everyone will have an opinion about what you're doing.

Some people will be supportive and others resistant; your job will be to take all the good advice you can get to heart but remember that everyone, and I do mean everyone, has an agenda.  

Usually the goal of people's agendas is to prove they are right. So, to that end, if they're homesteaders themselves they can often offer practical, helpful advice. They'll listen from a point of knowledge or experience and support your efforts by pointing you towards practices or resources which will help you do what you would like to do, and help you get there.

But other people have different agendas. Some times, for whatever reason, their goal is not so much to prove themselves right, but prove YOU wrong. And they will resort to some interesting subterfuge, such as manipulation, guilt, sarcasm, or confrontation, all to see that you are emotionally undermined in what you're doing. They may not de-value you directly, but that is how it feels, even if all the while, they are saying they really are on your side.

But saying it doesn't make it true.

Bottom line, if you're going to get anywhere in life, you'll need to build some healthy boundaries from the naysayers. As well as figure out who the naysayers are.  And this can be difficult because although the naysayers generally say negative things, sometimes your best friends -- with your best interests at heart -- may also not always say exactly what you want to hear. But unlike the naysayers, they do understand you, they do know what they're talking about and they are really trying to help you. Distinguishing between the two can be difficult.

Support comes in many forms, but sometimes the trick is intuiting when it's true support and when it's destructive sabotage. Know yourself, get comfortable in your own skin and it gets clearer.  But when you're making life changes, that makes it more challenging.

Find the grounded people around you and keep them close.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Some more about Spanish wines

As promised, I'm going to do a little write-up on the wines we had at our Spanish Varietals tasting party last week, and provide some brief descriptors on each.  ALL of these wines are relatively inexpensive, and ALL were outstanding.  Honestly.  Usually when we have these parties there is at least one wine where I will seriously say "hmm...not my favorite," (being kind) but this time each wine was a hit for both me and Big Ag.

Spain is a country known for its wide variety of climate and therefore the quality of their wines varies widely from region to region.  In general, the central tablelands and southeast areas of Spain are known for making the best wine, although due to the hilly terrain, great microclimates for growing can be found throughout the country. 

The first wine we sampled was a Cava, or Spanish Sparkling White Wine.  Unfortunately, I did not see the bottle, but I was impressed with Cava if what we had was typical.  Not overly sweet OR dry, it was balanced, bubbly and exactly what you want out of a sparkling wine.

Our first red wine was Garnacha, made by Tapena, 2010.  Although this is a grenache (despite the spelling being slightly different), it was actually a heavier wine and therefore should probably have been served further down on the list with the bigger reds, but no matter.  Garnet colored, smooth, with strong notes of blackberries, it is a full-bodied wine with a lovely finish.

The second wine was the one we brought, Encanto (Charm) Seleccion 2008. (It was a steal at $20!)  This wine was made from 100% Mencia varietal grapes. A clear, ruby coloring, medium bodied wine which would pair well with almost anything you'd normally have a Pinot, Zin, or Grenache with, it had an awesome bouquet of fruit blossoms, and lots of black cherry notes on the palate.  We will be buying this again.

Third up was the Bodegas Vaca Rojo, 2009.  It had a more orange tint to it, a lot of soft lemon in the bouquet, and some nice lemon and orange notes on the palate.  Of all the wines, this was probably my favorite, and I'm thrilled that it is made right here in Paso Robles and on sale at the winery's tasting room downtown. I can't wait to go in and try their other Spanish varietals as well.  And gorgeous label artwork, don't you think?

The last was Romanico, Bodega Teso la Monja.  Made from Tinto del Toro grapes, this had a strong bouquet of cloves, tobacco and french bread.  Lots of oak and smoky notes on the palate, with a lovely, strong finish.  This would be great with pasta,  paella or just a great loaf of bread and some cheese. It's a big red wine.

I should note that at least 4 out of 5 of these are available at BevMo, even though I'm loathe to recommend them because I think it's better to buy direct (but know that's not always possible).  And the Bodegas Vaca Rojo is probably available on Bodegas' website, so you could buy it there since it's from a small boutique winery and probably not in BevMo's huge system.

Either way, Cheers, or as they say in Spain, Te Brindo!