A Spread of Green Growth

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The summer is winding down and I have to admit that with the cooler weather this year, I had been able to begin (but not complete, of course) many projects that have been on my to-do list for quite some time.

We celebrated Midsummer and enjoyed the first great harvests from the gardens.  Our tomatoes have been doing fantastic and we have been eating various greens and herbs since early this spring.  Peas  have come and gone and were replaced with green beans.  Parsnips and turnips have all been pulled from the earth and prepared for storage.  Sunflowers are now tall and shining beneath the sky with their great golden heads bobbing down toward the ground.  It is amazing to see the spread of the pumpkin patch as the vines creep over the garden and the fruit plumps up.

IMG_0757 The herb garden is in full bloom and we added quite a few new varieties to our rotation.  It is a great feeling to know that we have natural (and free!) remedies just outside the kitchen door should we need it.  In fact, I suffered a pulled muscle in my arm just a few weeks ago and used a poultice of plantain that worked fantastic.

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Midsummer and the magic of this night do more than signify the strength of the sun.  It is a reminder that the wheel of the year is ever moving, ever returning to what has passed.  We see this in the continual renewal of our soil and the return of new plants through the careful collection of seeds each season.  Here one of our “greens” beds is in full production.  We will harvest until the bitterness of the late season sets in and then we will allow all of these plants to go to seed.

IMG_0826 Early on, our tomato beds were full and a great color of green.  This is a picture before we staked them up.  Normally this chore is completed just after planting but we did not get around to it until later this year.  We have tried various ways of keeping them up in the past but finally settled on each plant getting its own wooden stake.

While we were busy planting and staking and harvesting, we also had animals that were moving through the season from chicks to adults.  We were finally able to move our flock additions out of the chicken tractors and into the main coop.  This year we added 20 new Golden Laced Wyandots and 10 new ducklings (Wild Mallard) to our land.  Most of these birds were incubated here this spring and after hatching, began the process of moving from brooder to brooder house to chicken tractor.

It is interesting that this year we had a couple of late hatchlings that were born just a couple of days apart.  This was a single duckling and a single chicken.  Since neither had any fellows of their own to grow with, we placed them both in the same brooder to keep company.  As the weeks progressed, we moved them out into the brooder house together and then finally into the main flock.  Now, however, they are inseparable.  The chicken will not leave the duck’s side and the pair wander the fields in a pretty hilarious partnership.  Here you can see them sharing an afternoon drink.

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Pulling Fodder on the Homestead

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As part of my long term planning, I can’t help but think about how I would feed my livestock during times of hardship. This is something that every responsible husbandman should do, but I tend to dwell a little longer on the subject because of my interests. I often wonder how my own ancestors kept their animals fed during the long months of the English winter. What about the lean years when the crop had gone bad? I was considering this aspect of my long terms plans when I came across the idea of “pulling fodder.”

“Pulling fodder” was a harvesting technique that provided the farmer with a source of feedstuff in an area that was often unfit for growing hay. “Depending on the season and the time of planting, the farmer went into his field around mid-August to “pull fodder,” which meant stripping the blades, while the ear, now fully grown and out of the milk, was left on the stalk. The blades were tied into bundles and saved for fodder, the only winter forage from his fields that the farmer had. Cured, the bundles of blades were usually stacked into piles, and covered with the corn tops that were cut next, while the ears were left on the now bare stalks until November or even later when “corn-gathering” began. Corn gathering meant taking shuck and all. Corn shucks were a valuable addition to the animal food supply; a hungry cow would take them along with her nubbins and be glad. Shucks were also used as mud-mats by the door, horse collars and now and then, a doll.”

While we have plenty of fertile, easily rolling land on which to grow hay, this is a very interesting idea that I will incorporate into our end of season task list. Once our own corn is finished, we are in the habit of pulling the stalks and using them in the chicken runs throughout the winter to keep the mud out of the coops. They do make an excellent mat and gives the chickens something to scratch in. With this new idea, however, it looks like we have an additional use that will provide another layer of security to our long term plan for self sufficiency.

 

We used to have carrots and pumpkins.

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“One for the squirrel, one for the crow, three to come up and two to grow.” In years gone by, this little rhyme must have been taught to kids from an early age as part of the training they would need once the family farm had fallen to the care of the next generation. Thinking about what this ditty really means provides a glimpse into the often hard life that many of our forebears faced during the agricultural year. By merging the harsh reality of farming with the play time verses of their offspring, important generational survival wisdom was passed along.

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This summer, I am reminded of this reality myself when I look at my dwindling crop of pumpkin and carrots. The wild rabbits began their invasion early this spring just after I had planted my peas. Peas are usually the first crop to go into the ground and within a couple of weeks I usually see baby shoots coming up from the cold garden bed. This year I noticed that something was very wrong. My peas had come up but they did not seem to be growing at all. Upon closer inspection I found them to be eaten down to the soil. Eventually they bounced back as the rabbits moved on to my beet crop where they spent the rest of the Spring munching on the leaves until all of the plants died.

During the great beet massacre, there were only two or three adult rabbits that I saw very early in the morning. However, as the season progressed into the early summer, I noticed that there were many (many!) smaller rabbits now. They were under the shed and inside of our compost piles. They were nesting in the unused garden beds and hiding in our willow tree. It seemed that everywhere I looked a rabbit was shooting through our fence.

These days they seem to have thinned out a bit. Perhaps it is the raccoons or maybe even a fox that lives out in the woods. My carrots are still disappearing, their leafy tops eaten down to the ground and the very top of the veggies are carved out by tiny teeth. Now, to my dismay, my pumpkins are next on the menu. I noticed this morning that three or four of my biggest pumpkins were ravaged by the little beasts, their sides scored and insides laid bare for my inspection.

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I am thinking about getting a couple of cats to help out with the problem. I let me dogs run loose but I haven’t had much luck with them catching anything yet. The coonhound gets sidetracked by ripe tomatoes. Still, as a part of my crop goes to the local wildlife I can’t help but feel part of this world as I see them hopping about. Maybe I am losing some of my hard work but there is still enough for both of us. At least for now. I just have to remember, “One for the rabbit, one for the crow, three to come up and two to grow.”

The Language of Nature

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garden, homestead, summer, compost, compost pile, self sufficient, small holding

The tide of Summer has deepened and on our homestead we have finally begun to pull more crops than weeds. As the excitement of Midsummer fades into the long, hot days of July, I find myself thinking about nature and what it really means to me and my family.

Enthroned on my wicker chair, only my pipe for a scepter, I can see the layout of my estate from the back porch where I sometimes daydream. This afternoon I took a break from chopping wood and settling into this chair, a blackberry punch in hand, I had a few considerations that would not leave me quickly.

For most of the people in my life, nature seems to be a nuisance or something outside of themselves. It seems that for modern folk, nature no longer dwells inside of them and they do not perceive their own life as being part of nature. Once separated, the worldview of the modern person is forever changed. One immediate difference between country folk and the urban dweller is vocabulary. This struck me earlier in the week when I was discussing different types of fowl with an acquaintance. To this fellow, a chicken was a chicken and the word pullet was quite alien to him.

The secret language of the traditional family is a path that has been made clear to me. Modern life has separated our people not only from nature but from the very vocabulary that describes nature in the most intimate terms.

In days of yore, a farmer owned not simply chickens and horses but “dung-hill fowl, game chickens” and perhaps a “sorrel mare with a white patch on the off shoulder.” Our modern pigs were onetime called boars, barrows, sows and gilts. Walking through a woods would yield wondrous descriptions of the landscape that are not appreciated in our modern day. How often does one wander among the “wind-swept white oaks, the dead cherries or the shag bark hickories?”

To my well educated companion, there are simply known as “trees.”

It is a difficult task to step outside of modern society and slow your life down according to nature’s clock. The secret language of the traditional family is locked inside of old texts and family history, not easy at times to uncover. Yet how much more satisfying is life when you walk along a “rocky cedar ledge” or a “sandy pine ridge” and a “damp cedar bottom.” When dogs are not simply dogs but are “hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, shoughs, water rugs and demi-wolves.”

Returning to a traditional way of life has taken on many more aspects than I ever imagined. I once believed that living a simpler life meant learning forgotten farming techniques and developing the old skills that once made folks self sufficient. I now see that this is not enough. The old traditions of our forebears were rich and full of life. To describe that richness requires new words and new ways of thinking.

Waelburges Night Fires Across the Land

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May 31 brought the exciting eve of May Day, Waelburges Night, here on our homestead.

waelburges night bonfire ancient ritual

The evening was cool as we gathered around a table laden with various pieces of lamb and fish and fresh baked potatoes.  For drinks we had our own homemade strawberry punch and a selection of mead and berry wine.  I stoked up the fire as darkness descended over the homestead and as we watched the flames we considered the magic of this night.  We spoke about how our ancestors had perhaps gathered around a fire just like ours and told stories of their own.

As the fire burned, we were hopeful that the sun would conquer the winter spirits and grow strong so that our crops would yield us a healthy bounty this fall.  Holidays like this really force one to pause and remember just how difficult the past had been when the seasons could bring wealth or starvation.  We toasted our family and our extended kin and as the night grew long, the moon stretched out overhead.  Deep in the woods behind us we could hear the deer and in the distance the coyotes were coming out.

As the flames died low, and we snuggled into our chairs, I finished off our evening with the story of our family.

The next morning we arose early and raised the top of the Maypole.

maypole may day homestead ancient holiday

The day was cloudy and cool but we celebrated May Day as long as possible until a rain pushed us inside.  At this point on the estate, most of our main planting has come to an end and with the exception of some succession planting, it is all weeding and watering from here on out.  For us, May Day signifies this change in our agricultural year and it is a welcome time.  I look forward to the many years to come in sharing these magical holidays with my children.

May was a cool month for us with many welcome rains.  Our herb garden had many additions and while I desperately need to extend it by quite a bit, the current layout was looking rather well.

herb garden spring may day

The lavender seemed to be doing pretty well this year even though it is a pain for us to grow.  In addition, our chamomile really began to fill in.  This is the sixth year of growing the chamomile in this bed and it keeps going without any help from us.  We harvest the blooms and dry them for some excellent tea.

A few of the large projects that we completed this May:

  • Finished the additions to the orchard (6 more trees)
  • Moved all chicks and ducklings outside into the large brooders
  • Bred first round of rabbits (quite a bit behind on this)
  • Completed all primary plantings and all transplants moved into the gardens
  • Began putting in the beds for the cottage garden around the house
  • 2 Rain Barrels installed
  • Second round of hatching eggs placed in incubator (chooks and ducks)
  • 5 new garden beds put in

A very productive month!

The Long Nights Cold Draw To A Close

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Hrafnkell settled the whole of the valley, bestowing lands on other people, on condition of being their chief; and thus he assumed priesthood over them.

As Spring fades away into the summer season, our lazy way of raising chickens has been moving steadily along.  We enjoy taking a natural approach to our flock, providing them with as much space as possible once the cold grey skies of winter have been replaced by the warmth of the fertile season.  Our main flock is primarily comprised of Black Australorpes and Barred Rocks – two hardy types of chook that seem to do really well in our climate.  We picked these two types of birds of course because they are considered “dual use,” that is, good for both meat and egg production.

This year we decided to add some new hens to our flock as many of our other girls are quietly aging.  With egg production dropping off from previous years, we thought that this season would be a good time to bring in some new additions.  Thus, we brought in two new types of bird – Golden Laced Wyandots and New Hampshire Reds.

Here are some of the older flock out on pasture.

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Unfortunately, not many of our eggs hatched out that we had incubated earlier this spring.  Our poor old rooster, while always a fine fellow, seems to be slowing down in his elder years.  This brings our total flock up to about thirty hens or so and three roosters.

Much of our work during the early spring fell to preparing garden beds by heaping on some extra compost and pulling back the fall’s bedding of mulch.  At the same time much of the focus fell to the new greenhouse and working out the plan for seeding, starting seeds and keeping it all fairly organized.  Here is a glimpse of some of the work:


This year we decided to continue to start our plants inside that are not direct seeded.  With so much going on with the homestead, we figured this first year was not quite safe to begin extreme experimentation by starting all seeds inside and then moving them out once they sprouted.  At any rate, here you can see one flat of our tiny tomatoes being moved out into the warmth of the spring sun.

Within a few weeks of this picture, we had the entire floor of the hothouse filled with flats of tomatoes, green peppers, brassicas and onions.  In addition, our entire little growing bed was bursting with assorted greens.  The fertility around us at this time of year is always so regenerating after the long, cold winter.

A poem entitled Spring by Analemma McKee-Schwenke

Sing ye, Heimdall’s kin, a song of mirth,
All ye warmed by the sun, nourished by the earth.
The sky is blue; the birds do sing.
For winter’s through; ’tis time for spring.

The long nights cold draw to a close.
For Sunna bold shall soon disclose-
Her radiant splendour, warmth, and light
To the world give life and growth and might.

The card’nal’s not the only bird
Whose morning song can now be heard.
The long leaf pine and broad leaf tree
Shall both soon green and wakeful be.

Blooms sprout where Freya’s feet do fall.
Frey, crowned in green, is lord of all.
Birch boughs with eggs and hearts are hung,
And wood wights walk new growth amoung.

All things must one day have their end,
And Skadi snow again shall send,
But now a time of light is here.
Ye good folk, Joy! Be of good cheer!

 

The Estate Greenhouse: First Year Experiment Part 1

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Spring 2017 was a season dedicated to new ideas, plenty of experiments and the hope that my ever growing list of projects would finally dwindle to something akin to manageable.

Our first great experiment of the year was to sow seeds in the new greenhouse.  Before we could step foot outside, however, I thought it proper to begin our agricultural year with some coffee that had been ground to a fine powder in this treasure that I purchased over the winter:

traditional grinder hand powered coffe toolsThere is something intensely satisfying about finding a simple way to perform work without electricity.  I suppose one of my great goals in life is to reach a point where we could live comfortably without any interference from the grid.  Sometimes it feels as if electricity is more of a hindrance than a blessing – sort of like the cell phone.  Sure, texting others is much faster and easier than writing a letter but is it worth the ease of use when we lose the ability to compose anything meaningful?

After throwing on a warm flannel and my wool cap, we made our way out to the greenhouse.  At twenty degrees warmer than the outside temperature, I was excited to get seeds into the ground.  We planted a mystery mix of several handfuls of old, expendable seed that had fallen out of envelopes and was laying at the bottom of a storage bin.  There are two things that I simply cannot bring myself to do when it comes to gardening – throwing away seed and thinning baby plants.  There just seems to be something inherently terrible about doing either one.

After two weeks of germination, I was greeted one lovely Saturday (Washing Day) by this sight:green sprouts in a greenhouse homestead greenhouse sprouts

Out of my mystery mix I was able to harvest two different types of lettuce, spinach and radishes.  This crop produced heavily and gave us a very early start on our home food production.  This experiment was successful and now only needs tweaked every year to see how early we can start our greens in this way.

After putting in this early crop we decided to tackle the first big project of the year by beginning to construct 6 new additional raised beds.  Our homestead depends on always expanding the number of beds that we have available and with plans to increase the number of varieties of plants each year, we must stay on goal.  We spent nearly the entire month of March putting in five beds until we finally ran out of compost and dirt on the last one.  We would have to wait until the ground dried up before we could go to our collection area for more bedding material.homestead raised beds

Soon after finishing up the last bed and halting our work, the weather cooled off to the point that we had freeze warnings in our area.  Much of our outdoor work was replaced by a retreat back inside where we fell into a quiet rhythm of reading and napping until another few weeks passed by.  Eventually the cold snap passed and before we knew it April had come and our planting season was full upon us.

 

After Yule the Quiet Begins

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At Yule the Earl gave him a gold ring.

 

Our first planting of the 2017 season was the addition of 6 new semi dwarf fruit trees that went into the ground on a cold day that had brought a light dusting of snow.  It felt good to put something into the ground during a time when we are normally nestled inside among the blankets.  This year we will complete the orchard by filling in a few more empty spots with trees and running a fence around it to protect them from the larger animals.

As with all gardeners, homesteaders and farmers, we never seem to have enough compost despite having many compost piles located around the estate.  Here we are emptying the last of the Kitchen Garden compost to use in the tree holes.

garden compost homesteadI have to admit that we never follow any special formula for making our own compost.  We seem to just always toss on whatever is handy or needs to be picked up, wait a few weeks and turn it over and toss on more plant matter.  Sometimes even turning it over does not happen.  In the end, with enough time it all comes to dirt.

After putting the trees in the ground, I gathered up the final bit of harvest that had been drying in the greenhouse.  So far, this building has been a great blessing for our work on the land as it serves now as multi-use building.  Here you can see that we temporarily stored some odds and ends that needed to be brought in before the mice take a notice to their presence.

Winter Greenhouse Harvest Storage

Winter Harvest Greenhouse Storage

 

Sitting inside at dusk, with the last glow of the sun shining in was certainly a quiet and thoughtful moment.  These moments are the greatest gifts for us.  For our family, these moments are the gold rings.

One of the old traditions that passed by during Yuletide was honoring the orchard and hoping for a productive harvest in the next season.  The elder folk called this wassailing.  If you fancy a try, this song can be used and should always be followed up with a hot cup of wassail to warm the belly and brighten the spirits.

Wassail
Old Apple-Tree, we Wassail thee,
And hoping thou will bear
For the Lord doth know where we shall be
Till apples come another year;
For us to bear well and bloom well,
So merry let us be,
Let everyman take off his hat
And shout to the old Apple-tree;
Old Apple-Tree, we Wassail thee,
And hoping thou will bear
Hats-full, caps-full
Three Bushel bag-fulls,
And a heap under the stair!

To create your own Wassail, here is an old recipe.

• 4 small apples
• ¼ cup unrefined cane sugar
• 1 medium orange
• 13 whole cloves
• 2 quarts hard apple cider
• ½ cup brandy
• 1 tbsp powdered ginger
• 1 tsp grated nutmeg
• 6 allspice berries
• 2 cinnamon sticks
• 6 large eggs

 

 

 

The Good Farmer: a Silent Warden for the Homestead

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Homestead, Garden, Greenhouse, Winter, Chicken Coop, HomesteadingIn a lot of ways, modern society has stripped the traditional family of the tools needed to keep the folk and the land safe from harm or misfortune.  When seeking ways to return to a more simple life, there are definite barriers to shedding the trappings of modernity and working and living as our forefathers did.

One of these barriers has been societal conditioning that induces extreme rational thought in all areas of life, including the spiritual.  Modern society has put enormous pressure on individuals to see superstition or the spiritual as hogwash.  Unfortunately, this has stolen from us many of the ancient folk practices of our ancestors that helped them cope with the difficulties of nature.

There is an observable spiritual failure to the way modern man has lost his knowledge of the land, agriculture and ancestral wisdom.

My journey has been that of regaining the lost farming practices of my forebears – how to preserve my harvest, how to save seed and how to live without electricity.  Yet, there has developed another aspect to my journey that has become just as important.  This new path has been to regain the spiritual wisdom of my ancestors that once warded them against bad luck and misfortune.

So what are these ancient tools that kept the family and farm safe at night?  One of them was the belief in land wights.

land wight, landvaettir, land spirit, tomte, nisseIn general, land wights are spirits from the mythic time that inhabit nature and protect the area around their home.  For the modern homesteader that seeks to live more closely with the land, this is an important concept to consider.  Today I am going to focus on one wight in specific that I believe has an important role in keeping the traditional family healthy and prosperous.  This is the Good Farmer.

The Good Farmer is known in the old world as the Tomte or Nisse and is the wight known to dwell around the farm.  Specifically, the Good Farmer was believed to take care of the farm itself and protect it from misfortune, in particular at night, when the folk were sleeping.

tomte, nisse, land wight, homestead

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is important to note that in some areas, the tomte is called the Haugebonde or “Mound Farmer” and references the ancient burial mounds of our ancestors.  This could provide a crucial clue as to the connection between this special wight and the family itself.

For anyone who has a homestead or small farm, it is easy to understand the importance that an unseen guardian could be to the success of the family.  There has been many nights when I awoke to find a raccoon has tried to gain access to one of my coops or when rabbits have raided my pea bed and destroyed the crop.  Smallholders are faced with a myriad of problems (sick animals, poor harvests) and it is my belief that for many of us, only natural tools are fit for use by the traditional family.  The Good Farmer can be more than an ally is preventing crop failure and bad harvests – he can be a part of the family if treated with the appropriate honor, respect and wariness.

Many sources report that the Good Farmer often appears as a small, old man with a full gray or white beard and dressed as a peasant farmer. Yet there are many folktales where he is described as a shapeshifter and able to take a shape of animals or other natural objects.  In Northern Europe, where he is known as a Nisse, the Good Farmer is seen as beardless, with a red cap.  In any case, this land wight is thought to be skilled in magic and can make himself invisible at will.

For these reasons, it is not safe to assume that a tomte is missing from your own homestead.  These wights are ancient and with a vast amount of strength for their size, hiding from sight and either helping or hindering the traditional family based on how much deference is shown to them.  For example, even though the Good Farmer can be a caring ally for the folk, he can be easy to offend.  Many folktales speak of the tomte being ignored and seeking out retribution even to the point of ruining the farm’s luck.  It is important to keep in mind that the Good Farmer is a traditionalist and does not look on modernity with kindness.

Nisse, Tomte, Good Farmer, Homestead, Farmstead, Smallholding, Land Wight

So how does one invite the Good Farmer to become an active part in the life of the Farmstead?

I believe the first step is to understand that the Good Farmer is but one of many possible wights that inhabit the property.  For this reason, one must learn the peculiars to his own character and what role he plays in the luck of the family and land.

Traditionally, the Good Farmer has charge of all the animals and outbuildings on the property and all farming activity falls under his care.  He will take up residence in the most comfortable building on the farm, often on the highest floor and in the warmest corner of the barn.  The folk is required to please him with gifts.  Specifically, the Good Farmer should be provided with his yearly wage of a bowl of porridge (with a pat of button on top) given during Yule.  We gift our own tomte on the eve of December 25th as part of Yuletide.

Since welcoming the Good Farmer into our own homestead’s daily life, I find myself making small adjustments to the way that I do my own work or behave.  For example, I make sure that none of the boys urinate outside – a grave offense that can drive the tomte from the land.  In addition, I make every attempt to complete all tasks to the best of my ability and refuse to perform shoddy work.  I try to use manual tools when possible and leave small gifts when appropriate.  I try to limit profanity (hard when I constantly use a hammer and my fingers get in the way).  Yet in the end, all of these adjustments should be made whether you believe in the existence of the yard-dweller or not.  That, I think, is the real truth to my short post here.

The tools that our ancestors used were good for them and they are good for us today.  Whether we are talking about manual plowing (keeping us in shape) or believing in the Good Farmer (pushing us to do better work), in either case we are becoming a better individual and a better family.  Embracing the ancient wisdom of our ancestors provides the family with many tools that cannot be replaced by modernity.  Often these have been lost but I believe are not unrecoverable.  To gain access to them once more, we only have to break through the conditioning that the spiritual and the superstitious is not folly but is and has always been an important part of who we are and how we interact with the natural world around us.

So, the next time that mysterious cat wanders onto your property, do not be so quick to shoo it away.  He could have a peculiar twinkle in his eye that hints at something ancient and something knowing.