On our little farmer-ish homestead, we have two Great Pyrenees that we love to the moon and back. These dogs are just beyond amazing, so intelligent, so stubborn, so loyal, such good friends. We have a female and a male.
Boudica, named for the Celtic warrior queen, is truly a warrior–and also a nana. Yes, that’s her. She is a warrior nana. She is fierce in a way I can’t explain but so sweet and loving at the same time. She protects everyone inside and outside of the house, from chickens to children. She even helped teach Gus how to behave with the chickens and ducks. She is a remarkable being.
Gus, short for Prosatagus, named for Queen Boudica’s husband, really enjoys life. I don’t know how else to put it. He really enjoys life. He smells the flowers, looks at the clouds, and loves to snuggle.
An incident happened last week that that just crystallized for me the beauty of these two dogs and the way they approach their lives.
Our ducks had a hawk visitor last week, and it was scary. The ducks live right near our house, but this hawk still swooped in. I was sitting at the breakfast table when I saw something swoop in right in front of our window. I ran to the back door just in time to see a hawk land in a low branch, not 15 feet from our house.
The ducks were terrified, and I turned to them, quickly counting to make sure we had six still. We did, thankfully. When I turned back toward the hawk, it was gone. I was relieved but so worried about its possible return.
As I stepped back into the house, I was met at the door by Boudica. She was upset and anxious to get outside. She ran out barking, doing her perimeter check immediately. Then, she came around to where the ducks were and sat herself right in front of the duck house. She sat there forever. I finished breakfast, graded some papers; she was still there.
She sat there for close to many hours, until well into the afternoon, protecting the ducks.
At some point, I had to go upstairs for something, and that’s where I found Gus. He was snuggled up in our quilt, settled into to a lovely nap, with not a care in world, just a squinty smile that he always gives, the one that says, “mama, come snuggle me.”
I sat down with him and snuggled. I could relax with Gus. I have Boudica.
I’m just going to go ahead and answer the question of my title right away: The answer is yes. It’s my belief that chickens are, indeed, the gateway farm animal. Right now, all we have on our little backyard farm is chickens, but I’ve got goat fever in a big way. Goats are next.
But it’s my chickens’ fault that I have a need to add to our farm animals, to add to my reasons that I will never, ever sleep late again as long as I live or have to shovel snow out of the chicken run and put down leaves saved from the fall so that the girls who are afraid of touching the snow will have a place to put their cute little feet. I know it’s going to snow again tomorrow, but those babies can’t stay cooped up all day!
But I enjoy every minute of it deep down. Our chickens have been amazing little animals that we let into our lives, and I’m so thankful for them.
Our chickens have been great layers and great friends. They give us breakfast, as well as loads of entertainment and joy. I even enjoy cleaning out their coop. I know it’s going to make their little days to have all that fresh straw to play in, and I lost my sense of smell, so I can’t even smell their poop. I was meant to be a farmer of some kind, right?
I’m not alone in my love for chickens. Backyard chickens are wildly popular in the United States as more Americans work to be more self sufficient and raise their own food. A recent study for the U.S. Department of Agriculture documented the popularity and attitudes toward keeping chickens and estimated a 400% growth in backyard coops in the next five years.
So, since it’s quite evident that chickens are awesome, it’s easy to see how one thing can lead to another, and the next thing you know, you’re thinking, “I wonder how tough it would be to raise goats, milk them, make goat cheese.” It’s well known among the chicken community that keeping backyard chickens leads to more and more and more chickens for many, but it also leads to ideas about different animals.
Before we got our backyard flock, I watched this video and thought surely this was an exaggeration. Nearly two years into raising chickens, I realize this video is exactly right. This woman knows the danger of keeping backyard chickens—you’re going to love them WAY too much.
Now, I want to go to goat school. I love goat milk. And we really need some bees one day. And maybe a pig. I think my husband is a little worried about me, but I’m thinking this is all a good thing. Well, maybe. I definitely have way more pictures of my chickens than my kids on my phone.
So what do you think? Are backyard chickens the gateway farm animal?
If you remember way back to the beginning of the summer, I was doing some major planting in our garden. Because my husband was building a giant fence for our chicky girls, a lot of the planting fell to me and my teenage son, who is not nearly so outdoorsy as the rest of the family. And, after reflecting on my abilities as a gardener, I was pretty worried about this year’s crop. Mainly, my husband had been responsible for all of our vegetable garden successes.
It was up to me, and I was worried. I promised a report later in the summer, and somehow, it’s nearly fall before I am writing about our garden again. I feel like things have mostly been a success, but there were trials—and, boy, were they some trials.
Carrots are very, very, very difficult to plant. The seeds are tiny, tedious nightmares. Add that to the tiny, tedious nightmares biting you to death (black flies) while you plant in May in Maine, and I feel like planting carrots is almost maddening, like a test of wills.
Me versus nature.
This year, I didn’t let nature defeat me. I planted that darn garden despite the black-fly torture, and I think I was most proud when the carrot seeds were in the ground.
No, I was most proud when the carrot seeds sprouted. Every single seed seemed to have come up, and I was excited.
All was well. Or so it seemed.
Two days later, I went back out to the garden to check the progress of the carrots, and they were gone. Every single one of them. I was in shock. I stared at the ground for the longest time, not sure what to think, wondering if I was losing my mind. It was a tough day.
Our neighbor, who is a master gardener, didn’t know for sure what happened. She hypothesized and my research revealed that it could have been a rabbit, but it also could have been cut worms. All I know is that it was definitely a tragedy and a blow to my gardening ego.
But I would not be defeated, so I replanted. I suffered those tiny seeds and those tiny black flies one more time–and then just hoped and prayed.
Thankfully, the second round took, at least mostly, though we still had some seeds not come up. But we had enough, and, thankfully, we now have carrots to eat this fall.
Overall, the garden has been a success—mainly thanks to my husband again. I may have planted and pulled some weeds, but that man is like my gardening hero with the watering, the hoeing, and the bug picking. Thanks to his work, we now have a garden ready to harvest, and I have begun a seed-saving routine that I hope will help us in years to come.
Each spring, we spend quite a bit of money buying seeds, and my newly-found frugality (as well as my inner doomsday prepper) has brought me fully into the seed-saving business this year.
If you’re interested in saving seeds, I think the key is to first focus on seeds that are easy to save and grow. For us, that means starting with the beans, tomatoes, and, yes–carrots.
Here are some helpful tips on seed saving on a few of the basics I think most people will find in their gardens (just be sure to start with non-hybrid seeds):
1. Green beans. In order to save green bean seeds for next year, just leave several bushes of beans to grow big at the end of the season. When the beans are big and lumpy and start to yellow, they are easiest to save. Just shell them and put them in a cool dry place to dry. I have saved green bean seeds for two years, and they work well.
2. Dry beans. Dry beans are the easiest because you are going to get them into shape for saving and storing anyway. We raise French horticulture beans, which are wonderful, and we tried pinto beans this year as well. The beans will get big and fat, and the pods will turn yellow and red. The key is that they need a chance to dry out. We have found that if we have a wet September, it will ruin the beans and cause them to mold. It’s best to pull the beans, bushes and all, and leave them in a place to dry. Just make sure you give them enough space. Mold is always the enemy here. Once the pods start to feel a little bit dry, you can shell the beans and then just spread them out to continue drying. Don’t put them away until the beans are completely dried. Then, in the winter, just make sure you save out enough for growing next spring. We have seed saved our French horticulture beans for three years, and they always come right up. Dried beans are the easiest, I think.
3. Carrots. Carrots are trickier. You can’t get seeds from your carrots the first year. You have to wait until the second year for them to go to seed. Leave a few carrots in the ground this year and then wait. You will want to cover the plants you keep with mulch to keep them warm enough. Next year, when the plants start to seed, let the seeds start to get brown and dry. It kind of looks like a little nest. Then, take the seeds and place them in a brown paper bag to continue to dry. Be careful with containers that trap moisture. Again, mold is the enemy. Once your seeds are totally dry, shake them in a bag to release the seed from the plant. Save them in cool dry place.
4. Tomatoes. We have been seed saving tomatoes before we even tried to. One year, I noticed that places where tomatoes had fallen to the ground and been left all year were growing tomato plants. It’s kind of amazing. But, of course, to do a better job and have great consistency, all you have to do is choose some tomatoes that are big and strong and squish them up. Add water and the squished tomatoes to a glass jar. The water helps the seeds separate. Then, place the jar in a warm spot for a few days. You should see a layer of moldy stuff start to form on the top of the mixture. Once you see the mold at the top and seeds at the bottom, you can remove the icky mold and run your mixture through a strainer to keep your seeds. Be sure to clean your seeds well and let them dry on a paper plate or something the seeds won’t stick to. You don’t want to use paper towels or paper, as the seeds may stick. Then, just store your seeds in a cool dry place like other seeds.
These are just a few of the basics I know, but it feels like a good place to start. As I learn more about seed saving, I’ll definitely share and let you know how it goes. And, if you know how to save some seeds, please share your tips here. It would be great to get a conversation going!
It may seem like a pain to save seeds, but it feels really good to me. I like that self-sufficient feeling, and it really does save money in the spring. Plus, if there’s a zombie apocalypse, all you have to do is figure out how to keep the zombies from crashing your garden, and you’re all set!
In my grand designs to become more self-sufficient or at least a really good maker, I have many skills I need and want desperately to learn—knitting, canning, making jams, and maybe making wood furniture, but I don’t know how realistic that last one is since I’m terrified of even the smallest power tool. It’s like a phobia or something. I hear a power tool, and my heart just races. I worry about my husband all the time.
But I digress…
One of the things I can make is a quilt. Now, I’m not the greatest, though I used to be pretty good, but I can make some decent quilts—at least I can very slowly. Recently, I was actually very slowly working on a quilt for a friend, when I had a quilt emergency: We decided it was time for our youngest to sleep in his own bed. He’s six years old and a pretty big boy, so my husband and I, even in our king-sized bed, were running out of sleeping space.
Now, if you’re one of those people who is going to say “What in the world are you doing letting your kid sleep with you?” let me just say that you can save your breath or text trying to change my mind on this point. We researched it thoroughly, and my husband and I made a conscious decision to let our son start co-sleeping with us when he was little.
We read all the advice from every major theorist and child psychologist out there and settled on this point—we wanted to get some sleep. Also, we believe in the health and bonding benefits of co-sleeping—but mainly we wanted to get some sleep. But, if you’re a new parent and interested in some of the research on the benefits of a family bed, please message me.
Anyway, a few weeks ago, our youngest made the big move to his own room and his own bed. The first night was hard for me, and I cried a lot. But, by the second night, I was like “Oh, this space is lovely.” “Oh, it’s nice not to be kicked in the back.” And, “oh, I love getting to keep the covers on me.”
However, much like his mama, our youngest is afraid of the dark and has a vivid imagination, so I have decided to make him a “good dream” quilt to keep him safe. It will be complete with a shied of love from mama on it. This is definitely a quilt emergency, right?
This is a picture of the plans I sketched out under my son’s direction. It’s all wrinkly from carrying it around at the fabric store.
So, inside the dream tree in the middle, I told my youngest we could put all the things that make him feel happy and safe. Here’s what he chose:
a Pi symbol
a present with a red bow
a pink heart that represents mom and dad’s “love shield” as he calls it
a Pac Man
a Minecraft block
and a green canoe (something our family has wanted for a long time)
It all sounds great, right? I’m so excited just writing about it.
The problem is I barely have time to work on it. In all of my efforts to simplify, I still struggle to get everything done at the end of the day, and I am even, realistically, always a little behind. I still work at least a half day every day, and that includes weekends, and with homeschooling, cooking, planting the giant vegetable garden, and helping to care for the animals, I run out of time at the end of every day. Of course, right now things seem to be worse because the animals are little and the garden planting is a slow, tough process when you’re tilling with a shovel, and there’s just no way to plant carrots quickly. Those seeds are a tiny nightmare!
So I’m determined to make the time. It turns out that, in my efforts to be more of a maker, one of the things I’m going to have to learn how to make is time. Quitting my full-time job helped, but I’m still partially immersed in the academic world, and sometimes, the push and pull between that world and our little hobby farm leaves me with so little time at the end of the day.
But this quilt is important to me because I think it will be important to my little boy. When my oldest son was little, there was one Christmas (my first year of teaching full-time) that I couldn’t afford Christmas presents for him. I made him a star and moon quilt, and he still has it—and seems to really care about it. For his high school graduation, I made him a second quilt because, of course, high school graduations are important. He sleeps under it every night.
Now, it’s my youngest son’s turn. This dream quilt is important, and I am determined to make this quilt for him. It feels representative of my efforts to simplify, make, and find out what’s important. It’s not easy, but it’s what I want. I have my fabric selected. This weekend, I will get this going.
I think the lesson here is that it’s going to be hard for all of us to find balance in our lives. We all have so much going on with work and family and about a million other things we must balance. But I’ve learned that you have to set your goals about what’s important to you and then just take the time—or make the time—if you want to be a maker like I do and still have time to enjoy yourself and your family along the way. Life’s just going to pass us by otherwise, I think.