Love my seeds. They make my food. Hate, hate, hate the little paper packets out in the garden. They spill, blow over, get wet, and otherwise lack field-worthiness. But the paper packets are compact, easy to stack and contain a ton of useful information that I don’t want to discard.
Things like tomatoes and squash get planted once a year, so sorting through those packets is just an annoyance. For the succession plantings, it is a pain that leads to procrastination, which leads to not enough greenery a couple months later. Honestly, if it takes longer to get out the seeds and put them away than to plant another dozen lettuces, I’m going to put it off. How to organize this mess today so we have something to eat in August?
After many failed experiments, I have settled on something that works for me. I use a plastic photo organizer to file our main stock of seeds in their paper packets. I cut down some card stock to make dividers, like tomatoes, brassicas, squash (it’s not perfect: does kale belong under “greens” or “brassicas?”). The plastic bin lives in the refrigerator.
For the succession crops like greens, carrots and beets, I bought this bead organizer at a craft store, probably JoAnn’s. The lid comes completely off each little vial so it’s easy to pour seeds from the packet to load, but there’s also a flip top that lets out just a few seeds at a time and stays attached to the vial so I don’t drop it in the dirt.
Sometimes I dump in an entire packet of seeds at once, sometimes just an amount I think I’ll use in the next few weeks, because this container doesn’t get stowed in the frig as reliably as the larger bin. Heat is not a friend to a seed’s longevity. Some of my seeds are five years old and germinate just fine, which I attribute to keeping them dry and cool.
The vials can go out in the garden in a pocket if I just want to plant one or two things, but the whole organizer fits in a cargo pocket too. I labeled the vials with some removable tape. The seeds are protected from getting wet, and I am much less likely to waste a bunch to spillage. The rest of my seeds stay more stable because they don’t make as many trips out of the frig. But mostly it’s just dang convenient not to fiddle with the packets.
It’s a simple thing that keeps things streamlined, but it works. We have way too much going on right now to do things the hard way.
It’s almost 2 months since the big planting party, when 20 of us put 300 apple trees in the new orchard. In the month that followed, we more than doubled that number. There are still trees and shrubs in buckets on the porch that we may or may not get around to planting. Truthfully, I have about reached my limit on what I can take care of in a day . First priority are the 57 chickens, 8 geese, 3 bitchy goats and 1 cat who has decided that his proper nature is a farm cat but knows nothing about raccoons, dogs or skunks. Keeping him from skunks is particularly worrisome. Second priority is watering the new trees. Third and far down the probability of completion on any given day are luxuries like showers, doing dishes and weeding the garden. We are going to have a great crop of volunteer sunflowers instead of corn unless I spend some time with my hoe very soon.
Wine grapes are planted along the south fence of the Bluebird orchard
At one point, around mid-May when the nursery boxes were piling up faster than we were planting the contents, I made a spreadsheet to keep track of our planting progress. It was bleak, with more undone than done, but crossing items off a list is strangely motivating. As a result, I can now report that we have planted:
297 apple trees
48 other fruit trees (pear, pie cherry, Shipova and plum)
52 nut tree seedlings
30 grape vines
200 Siberian pea shrubs
145 other trees and shrubs, mostly in the edible wind break
100 strawberry plants
If you are an apple tree, your chances around here are excellent. I believe we haven’t lost more than 3, which I consider excellent results for whips (unbranched saplings) only one year from being grafted. Most of the other fruit trees are doing well, although a few of the pears still haven’t broken bud yet, not sure if they will. The apples are showing the kind of growth we expect at this point, at least 4″ on every tree and some are more than double that. Redfield seems to be particularly vigorous for us again (we planted some last year as well with similar results).
The fedge is struggling along. With my attention going mostly to the apples, the windbreak receives what Mark Shepard refers to as the STUN method of care: Sheer, Total, Utter Neglect. Actually, not completely, but it hasn’t gotten watered as frequently as it would like and our losses are commensurately higher. I can tell you that the Staghorn Sumac is doing the best, and a few of the pinons have more than an inch of growth. But I doubt we will get 50% of the hedge through summer. There’s no sense in coddling along windbreak that isn’t ever going to get a whole lot of attention, and the plants themselves weren’t too expensive, so it’s the right place to cut corners.
The strawberries, thanks to the geese, may be a complete loss. Or it could be too hot where I put them. Or they could still be settling in, but I suspect the geese even so. Geese, I can report, also like the new leaves of currants and gooseberries. And corn. And lettuce and sunflowers. Ravenous monsters. Fencing has been reinforced.
The new trees are there, among the nitrogen fixing alfalfa and a dead tree that the town kindly donated to our organic materials collection project. At some point it will get chunked up and moved to a more suitable location. My mistake for not giving better directions on where to put it.
The Siberian pea shrubs fall in the category of serious type 1 error. The idea was to plant them WITH every other apple tree and see if the pea shrub’s nitrogen fixing gave any advantage to the apple. Alas, I didn’t schedule the pea shrubs to arrive in time for planting day. So R and I dug a second hole alongside over 100 apple trees and shoved a pea in it. Later, whenever we planted the other fruit trees, we put in a Siberian pea in the same hole. They all got planted, but my grand experimental design: FAIL. As could be predicted, the back-filled pea shrubs are struggling, our losses will be high. But enough are doing ok that we will have a source for propagation for as long as we need them, maybe forever whether we want them or not. We have so much alfalfa out there I shouldn’t worry about nitrogen anyway, but the pea has other useful attributes, like yellow flowers for pollinators and dropping loads of organic material in the fall. Some sources even say that chickens will eat the seeds, although others disagree. The chickens will let us know what they think about them in a couple years.
The biggest news of all is that, despite the 20° freeze that came right after planting day, we have our first apples on the trees we planted in 2012 and 2013! Ok, maybe it’s only a dozen, but them there are our apples. They are about the size of a large grape. R wants to bag them like Japanese farmers do to keep out the pests. Why not? If all goes well, we might even have our own apples at the third annual Apple Tasting party in October.
Almost 9 inches of new growth on one of the Redfield apple trees
There is so much life out in the orchards now: more weeds than I’d like, and a rabbit that needs to find another home. The bees are starting to show up, and perching birds are finding some of the bigger trees. It’s only going to get better. More diverse, more habitats, more yields. Right now, the odds are looking pretty good.
Mornings aren’t so bucolic at the ranch as they once were. It still starts out nicely, with the belt of Venus dropping behind the cottonwoods to a Hallelujah chorus of songbirds. Slate stretches out across the bed. As my eyes peel open, the peace is shattered by an anemic crow from one of the Jersey Giant cockerels. That starts up the bawking complaints of hens locked in their coop. I get up, pull on some moderately clean clothes and the drill begins.
Slate beats me to the front door, trying yet again to figure out how to work the door lever. If he could only get out before I opened the door, he wouldn’t have to wear his harness. Yes, my cat wears a medium size dog harness. Safety orange with reflective material so we can find him in the dark. Sometimes you just need a handle on your cat. He follows me to the orchard gate and heads off to do his fence testing rounds. Curses, foiled again. The hens’ coop is parked in the orchard this summer; they jump out their pop door like circus clowns coming out of a kiddie car and charge off to find that unsuspecting worm in the irrigation channels.
This week, the 11 week old Jerseys are camping right out side the front door, corralled in movable electric fence. We are moving their paddock by stages, with them in it, into the orchard as well. Inside the electronetting, they have been free to run around like crazy fools since first light. Like all preteens, they are ravenous. Check their food and water, ignore begging for treats, keep moving.
The goslings whoop at me as I open the hoop house door. At five weeks, they still don’t honk, just a sweet whistling “whoot.” Geese, unlike chickens, do not have a crop to store food overnight. Sometime in the night they polished off their grower ration. They are happily excited to get out and eat some proper grass. They are easily pleased. I start the water to refresh their baby pool for their morning bath.
The goats come to the gate. They still have a bit of alfalfa in their feeder, but I’m not going to top it up until evening. Today they are going to work in the orchard. Goats will destroy a young apple tree in minutes, but there is plenty of good feed in the alleys between the trees. Happily, our goats quickly learned to respect the 3000 volts delivered by the electronetting. This week their paddock is set up between the Graniwinkles and the Hudson Golden Gems. I toss a rope around each head, grab ahold tightly and open the gate. “Come, goats!” It sort of works.
We parade past the geese, the hoop house, the Jerseys. Progress stops when the goats notice the hammock stands aren’t in the same place as the day before. “Come, goats!” We march on through the orchard gate, by the hens hoping for a treat, dodging a disgusted cat who doesn’t want to share his orchard with stinky goats, and into the paddock. I can almost hear the goats chanting reminders to each other, “don’t touch the white fence.” With one hand I let go of the ropes as I reach with the other to grab the end of the electronetting and secure it. I pull off the lead ropes and issue the day’s instructions: “go eat something.” I power up the fence and ignore the baleful looks. Before I reach the gate, they have accepted their fate and begun eating.
Last is Carolinus, sadly no longer known as Carolina due to the recent appearance of heel spur nubbins. Poor guy. He is still sleeping in his cardboard box under a dishtowel. It’s kind of like a throwing a cover over the parrot cage, only not so stylish. Now he spends his days between his feeder on the porch and various fence lines, looking longingly at the other chickens. “Won’t you be my friend?” They stare back, “Won’t you be our breakfast?” I minimize the risk of floor ejection by nabbing Carolinus from his box as I lift the towel and carrying him straight out the door to his food bowl. He does emit impressively voluminous squawking for such a short journey.
30 minutes, 44 mouths fed, not yet my own. My stomach may be growling, but my heart is already full.
I came to this place in a smaller cardboard box with 24 other chickies. The hen person who opened the box put us all in a bigger green box and gave us food and water. She had to teach each of us how to drink water, but we figured out how to eat by ourselves.
Jersey Giant chicks (and a brown Ameraucana layer to replace a retiring hen this fall).
When we grew bigger, she put us in a larger blue box. That’s where my troubles began. The other chicks grew faster than me. They were mean. They pulled my feathers. I tried to hide under them to stay warm and so they wouldn’t see my bare naked skin and pull more feathers. The hen person didn’t notice my nakedness right away. I’m glad; I was ashamed.
Eight week old Jersey Giant chicks on the roost
One day the hen person took us all to a new place. It was not a box at all. It had a round top and sometimes the top was blue and sometimes it was black. When the hen person set me free in this place, she saw my nakedness but thought in the new place I could get away from the mean chicks. I hid under the waterer. The mean chicks wouldn’t let me roost on the roosting stick with them. They still picked on me. I was hungry. Hen person put extra food where I could get it without the mean chicks hurting me. Mean chicks are just mean for no reason. They wouldn’t leave me in peace.
Even so, I was mad the day the hen person put me back into the green box, all alone. She told me I would live in the green box while I grew more feathers. I had a lot to eat but I was lonely.
After a few days, the hen person saw I was lonely and tried to put me back into the blue sky place with only a few small nice chickies. They weren’t nice at all.
But now there were birds called goslings living in the green box. So the hen person put me in a cardboard box with short sides. I have my own roosting stick. Now I can see the things in this big house box when they make scary noises. They aren’t so scary at all. I can see the hen person when she roosts in the day. There’s a thing in this big box that makes chirping noises most of the time; she calls it a radio. I kind of like it, even if it doesn’t peep or trill things I can understand.
Hen person brings me foods I never had in the other boxes. I like oatmeal, cooked eggs, scratch grains and chicken. Chicken was the best. I threw the tomato out of my box.
Carolina learning to perch
Sometimes I get to come out of the cardboard box. I learned how to perch on the hen person’s wing. It’s a strange wing, the feathers are different colors every day. At first my legs weren’t strong enough to perch, but now I can hang on while she walks around the house box. Other times I just sit on the hen person while she roosts. She puts me on a special feather thing that I sit on in case I crap.
There’s a rooster person too. He is nice. He fed me from his wing. He chirps a lot with a box called a guitar. He wanted me to roost on him, but I’m not sure yet.
Slate doesn't bother with goslings but he doesn't want to be their friend.
The hen person started taking me out of the big house box that my cardboard box is in. I saw flying birds and felt the wind. Once I saw some really big hens. I wanted to make friends, they seemed nice. But they were on the other side of a net. There’s a cat too. It put its nose right up to my beak, but it didn’t peck me. It is a strange animal.
Now that the goslings are bigger, we all go outside together. The goslings make strange sounds and eat grass and get IN the water instead of drinking it. They ignore good food, like bugs, and they don’t seem to know that you have to scratch the dirt to find the best things to eat. They follow the hen person everywhere, making loud noises. I think they are stupid. I tried to peck one to be sure, but the hen person flapped at me.
Goslings pile up for a spontaneous nap.
Yesterday I remembered how to take a dust bath. The funny thing was that I never did it before, but I remembered it even so. Then the goslings fell asleep in a pile on the ground and the hen person made us all go back to our boxes in the big house box.
My feathers are finally starting to come back. It takes a long time to grow a feather. I have to preen each one every day as it comes in. I’m still small and it’s a big job to do.
Hen person says I have to live in my box until I’m not naked anymore. She says when the goslings get bigger, I might stay with them for a while in their box. Or we might all move to the blue sky box, when the other chickies get evicted. I could have my own apartment there, with no mean chicks taunting me.
Carolina telling her story to the world
Hen person also says it turns out I’m really lucky because the mean chicks will all lose their feathers and go live in a place called freezer box. When I have my feathers back, I get to go live with real hens at a place called Cheryls. But I think the rooster person might want me to stay. I just hope there are nice hens wherever I end up. Hen person is nice enough (except when she makes me go back in the big house box) but she’s not a real hen. I hope to be a hen someday.
If I turn out to be a rooster, hen person says I have a real problem.