It's been busy ever since we got back as things are warming up and we are gearing up for the gardening and building season. I have a long to do list and with the help of a couple of work exchangers I have been ticking things off. It's really nice to have another person around to help me with gardening so I can focus on other projects.
My little starts have been going for awhile now. In the absence of power for flourescent lights and a greenhouse I have been using a simple coldframe to start my seedlings and it seems to be working great so far. I put the plants out in the coldframe on warm days and bring them in on nights when it is supposed to freeze. The only problem I've had is mice or rats or something coming in and eating a bunch of the brassicas. Fortunately I had already planted out most of the ones I wanted, so it wasn't a total loss.
While my work exchanger, Adam, was working in the garden, I was busy last week building a chicken tractor for my chicken experiment. I plan to put the chickens in the vineyard to naturally fertilize the grapes. The chicken tractor is just a mobile chicken coop. You move it daily so the chickens can fertilize a new area every day. Moving them also allows them to graize new pasture and forage for bugs. Because the chickens are foraging they don't require as much feed and the food they get is much more nutritious. If you've ever had farm fresh eggs, you may know that eggs from the grocery store are literally pale in comparison. When chickens eat bugs and graize pasture, they get all the vitamins and minerals they need to make bright orange yolked eggs that are much more nutritious than factory farmed eggs. The taste is also starkly different. I probably won't be keeping my chickens until they are able to lay eggs because I don't have anywhere to overwinter them yet. I plan to eat them all before winter, that is if something doesn't come and eat them first. In the future if raising chickens seems worth it, I will keep them over winter and get eggs in addition to manure.
We thought that maybe the rain wasn't going to come this spring, but after getting a few garden beds worked up and planted. the deluge came. The village turned to mud and made us all want to speed up the roads project which will turn our wood mulch roads to gravel and grassy pavers and divert rainwater in a more intentional manner. But for the roads project to begin, the rain has to stop for a good while.
The garlic has been growing swiftly and the peas, spinach, and lettuce are up. The strawberries I planted last spring are flowering abundantly and little fruits are forming. I can't wait to have fresh salad and strawberry-rhubarb treats. We will probably make jam.
This season I decided to really raise my garden beds up to combat the spring monsoons. I'm using old barn beams to divide the beds and give me something to walk on. With the help of my work exchangers Adam and Charles I have been adding topsoil and composted manure to the beds. The topsoil scraped off the ground during the digging of the foundation has been sitting in a pile on my warren for a year and a half and I'm determined to get rid of it this season by redistributing it to other places. That will free up the space in front of the foundation for construction. The gardens look great now that the spring rains have taken a rest for a bit and we've been able to work up the remaining beds. I'm finding that the garden is too small for what I want to plant so I'm going to be renting additional garden space for the tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and squash. It seems like a lot of space, but the additional space will be gardened using a no work system that involves sheet mulching and planting directly into the mulch. I'll be explaining this system when I get to it later in the season.
The perennials I planted a while ago are coming back again this spring and flowering, making the house look even more quaint than it already does. I love how the irises smell.
Mary Beth and I have gone out morel hunting a couple of times already and found a couple dozen altogether. They are best sauteed with garlic in butter (cream from the local dairy hand churned in our butter churn).
I've been experimenting a little more lately, this time with refrigeration. I've built a strawbale icebox, so we can keep our food cool in the summer. It's just a wooden box, surrounded on three sides with strawbales, and a door insulated with light clay straw like the kind used in the walls of Wisteria Lodge. We get blocks of ice from the butcher and put them on the top shelf. I'd left the bottom open to the ground but now I'm realizing that the ground is probably sucking the cold out of the icebox and I plan to insulate the bottom too. Another improvement will be foil on the inside to reflect radiant heat. Hopefully with these improvements the icebox will retain cold better.
The grapes in the vineyard are popping up with renewed vigor. After getting established last year, they have plenty of roots and are ready to go. I'm giving them a little help by protecting them from deer grazing with chicken wire cages. I haven't been able to determine the survival rate of the vines from last year to this, but it is very high. I counted around twenty vines out of about 200 that may not have made it. I say may not because with grapes you can't always tell. When I came here I brought a lot of grape plants with me, too many in fact, and I ended up giving them away. Someone here took a bunch and kept them in a shed for a few weeks before planting them out. They waited and waited for weeks and there was no sign of life. It must have been about a month and a half later that a really strong shoot poked out from underground.
I'm excited about the potential for the vineyard. I also plan to visit another Missouri vineyard in June to take cuttings of two varieties I have had difficulty finding from a nursery. I want to add a couple more rows this year.
The clover I planted last fall had trouble getting established, but I replanted it a few weeks ago and it is taking over. I expect the vineyard rows will be carpeted with clover by the end of the season. This cover crop is part of my effort to improve the soil in the vineyard, which before I began was pretty depleted. Decades of conventional corn and soybean farming on the rolling terrain led to erosion and a basically lifeless soil. It will take time to restore fertility and the balance of microbes and fungi. We just got some composted manure from a local farm and dressed the vines to give them a little boost. I will probably get some more and spread it throughout the rows later in the season.