Saturday, December 8, 2012

Invasion of Alice and the Jabberwocky

We have 6 kids. Three of them live here on the farm with us. Only now it’s 4 kids, plus one. Last month, right before Thanksgiving, Da Man and I drove out to California to rescue our daughter “Alice” and bring her back to the farm. But, where Alice goes, so goes her fiance, “Jabberwocky”.

A little history here: I’ve known the Jabberwocky for longer than Alice has been alive. He is my baby cousin’s best friend, and has been since elementary school. My first memories of him are of him bouncing off my aunts kitchen walls talking non-stop, or rather, asking questions non-stop. He was one of the most curious kids I’ve ever met in my life. I imagine he must have found a few answers to life though, since now he’s actually rather quiet.

Or maybe he just used up all of his words before the age of 16 and doesn’t have any left.

Now, Alice is called Alice because she is also a very curious individual. One who is more than happy to volunteer to be the first down the rabbit hole in any given situation. If something needs to be tested in real life she’s usually the one with her hand in the air, or just already in motion to go do it. She also has an incredibly vivid sense of the absurd.

Alice and the Jabberwocky won’t be living here forever. They only plan to live here for about a year and half, just until the wedding. Then it’s off to northern California with them.

In the meantime Alice is the acting assistant manager of the farm in order to get hands-on training on farming and gardening, so she can start her own farm someday. She doesn’t want ours... it’s in the desert. Can’t really blame her. Jabberwocky is busy building his IT business online, which keeps him in the depths of his deep dark cave most of the time. He comes out for food once in a while, or to tutor Grossmond on astronomy (a bonding point between them).

So, there it is. You now know who Alice and the Jabberwocky are when they come up in posts.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Names of Things

When talking to some friends recently it came up in the conversation that we have "fancy names" for each part of the property. Some parts, like the Lower Savanna, are large and can be measured in percentages of an acre. One, the Back 40, is measured in multiples of acres. Others are smaller, like the Whimsy Garden, which can be measured in square feet. But it occurred to me that I've never actually listed down the names in the ledger or on the property maps. I am correct this oversight this week.

Since we changed the names of a few this past year I thought I would go ahead and list them here, including what they used to be (for those in know).

  • The Lower Savanna (formerly the Front Yard)
  • The Upper Savanna (formerly part of the Front Yard and part of Green Acres)
  • The Chino Valley Yacht Club 
  • The Orchard (now smaller than it was)
  • The Whimsy Garden (formerly the Climbing Tree Garden)
  • The Arizona Garden (formerly The Wind Break)
  • The Runway (separates the Orchard from the Arizona Garden)
  • The South Field (formerly Mom's Garden)
  • Stone Yard and Wood Yard (formerly the Asparagus Patch)
  • The Party Pit (formerly "That place were we stack wood for the woodstove; where the old barbecue is."
  • The Oasis (smaller than it was)
  • Fantasia (formerly the eastern part of the Oasis)
  • McGuiverland (formerly the Junk Yard)
  • Cane Forrest
  • Lake Swampy (dry now... we just don't have a new name for it yet)
  • Pet Cemetery
  • The Old Chicken Coop (soon to become Snoopyville)
  • The Back 40

We'll be putting up signposts this Spring, and I'll share pictures of those when that happens. We've also changed the name of the property itself to Wolf Gardens... previously no actual name on file with the farms and ranches registry.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

No More Hippies Jumping on the Bed

In early June Hippylady fell down and broke her shoulder. She didn’t just fall down, she fell off her bed, hit her chest of drawers, and then hit the floor. The incident, that would have caused a lesser person to shatter their shoulder, cased a little teeny, tiny fracture in the end of her upper humerus bone. Hippylady is made of sturdy stuff. It sounds like she almost got away scott-free, right? No such luck.

According to three doctors it was in one of the worst possible places to break a bone, especially a large bone like the humerus. She was sent home, but only after they trussed her up in a mobile traction do-dad called an 'immobilization wrap’ and taught me how to manipulate it and deal with it. The idea was that she was not move her shoulder at all. The slightest movement could cause the shoulder blade to knock into the break and make humerus bone come completely apart. The resulting emergency surgery would lay her up not for months, but for years.

This is something we want to avoid at all costs, and so far things are going as well as can be expected. She frustrated; she’s in pain; but she’s behaving... for the most part. I take her to see the specialist in a few days and we’ll see if she can shed the Dreaded Wrap. But, even if she can, she’ll only move on to stage 2 of her treatment, which will be restricted movement and the beginnings of many months of physical therapy. She still won’t be able to travel, or even go on a normal day-long shopping trip to restock supplies.

Right now she’s looking forward to just being able to tag along to go to the local grocery store for half an hour.

And yes, she was officially ordered by her GP, “No more hippies jumping on the bed.”

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Educational Gardening: Healthy Kids Grow

Someone asked me recently what we intend to do with our farm once it’s up and running. The answer is simple, yet complicated. We intend to follow in the footsteps of our friends at Healthy Kids Grow over in Lee, Illinois. Manager, Deborah Lundin Baconnier, has set aside a 100-year-old farm to show kids and adults that having access to fresh fruits and vegetables doesn’t have to cost a fortune. She intends to do this through classes, workshops, and working models of gardens all taking place place on her farm.
Healthy Kids grow

While we’re still at least a year away from fundraising here at Reclaiming The Farm, Healthy Kids Grow is doing it now. They’re gearing up to open in time for the 2013 summer season but they need help. There’s a 100-year-old hog shed that needs to be turned into a large greenhouse for year-round growing and classes, as well as many other things that will make their dream a reality.

What they intend to teach:

  • Gardening 101 - Learning how to grow and produce fruits and vegetables
  • Plant Identification - You would be surprised how many people don't know that carrots grow in the ground or peas grow in a pod.
  • Canning and Preserving - Learn how to make your harvest last the whole year
  • Cooking with Vegetables
  • Raw Foods and Smoothies - Even kids that don't like their veggies will find a way to love them with these smoothies.
  • Composting - Learning to turn your trash into your fertilizer
  • Weeds - Not all weeds are bad and many actually provide valuable nutrition
  • Raising Chickens - Everything to chicken identification to feed and care
  • City Farming - This class will take everything they learn on the farm and modify it to work in a small city yard using creative gardening containers.
  • Recycled Gardening - Using recycled containers to create imaginative gardens

These goals are very similar to our own. Like us, Deborah and her family want to host school field trips, offer educational resources, and provide working examples of gardens to meet any budget or space.

You can learn more about Healthy Kids Grow and make a donation at And keep checking back here for updates on how they’re doing!

As for us, our goals include a community composting project, workshops and working models on water conservation, small farm start-up, working models of urban and suburban gardening ideas, accessible gardening solutions, and more. We’re still working on our business outline and deciding what’s feasible and what’s not for our region. But, we promise to keep you all in the loop.

In the meantime, check out Healthy Kids Grow and get involved. It will be well worth your time!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Saving Seeds 101

For the past few weeks we’ve been harvesting seeds to use to plant more plants. This is an essential skill for all heirloom farmers and organic gardeners to develop, especially with the GMO market constantly encroaching on our daily lives. The only way to know you’re getting organic food is to grow it yourself, and sometimes you can’t tell even then. But, whether you’re trying stay organic, or just want to preserve and/or develop your own strains of specific plants, learning to harvest seeds is important.

There is no one hard and true set of rules for harvesting and saving seeds, as every genus is different, though there are some basic guidelines the beginner should keep in  mind.

The first thing you want to make sure you have is the right storage facility for the seeds you’ll be saving. If you don’t have it then there is no point in saving the seeds, as they’ll go bad before you use them next season. Most seeds require a cool, dry place with good ventilation, such as a paper bag kept in the pantry. But, some ‘seeds’ require refrigeration. These are usually bulbs, and not actually seeds.

Paper bags, clean pill bottles, etc can be used as containers for seeds, but be sure you have the right container for the seeds you’re storing, and that the saved seeds have been properly prepared for storage first. Paper bags are used because the last thing you want in your seed container is moisture. Seeds contain moisture, even when they feel dry. This moisture escapes and can get trapped in the container if the container doesn’t ‘breathe’. The seeds then rot or simply don’t set.

Before saved seeds are stored they need to be ‘set’. This means they need to be cleaned and dehydrated. The manner of cleaning depends on the kind of seed you’re saving. For instance, arugula seeds are in the bean classification, so they should be removed from their husks before storing. Grass seeds, on the other hand, are in the wheat classification, so they don’t need be removed from the husk until planting time. Both, however, need to be dried adequately before storage. In arid climates like we have here at Reclaiming The Farm, we simply leave the seeds out in the kitchen, either by hanging them from their stocks, or by spreading them out on trays. But, in a humid climate you may need to use a dehydrator that has a zero heat setting. Do not, ever, use the heat setting, as this will cook the seeds and render them useless for planting.

How you collect your seeds depends on what classification they fall into. The three most common classifications are: bean (pods), wheat (shafts), and herb (bolts).

  • Bean - beans, or pods, appear after the flower of the plant has died. The typical harvesting method is to cut the stem the pods are on and allow them to dry for a few days, either on a tray or in an open bag. When the pods are dry and brittle place in a paper bag, close it and shake vigorously. The pods will fall off the stems and fall apart, revealing the seeds. They can then be cleaned. 
  • Wheat - Clip stems near the base and collect into bundles. Tie each bundle with a rubber band and hang to dry. Rubber bands are recommended since the stem bundle will reduce in size as it loses moisture during the drying process and the rubber band will constrict along with it, keeping any shafts from falling out. Another way to do this is to put your bundles into a paper bag to catch any shafts or seeds that fall out, hanging the whole thing from the bag, not the bundles. 
  • Herbs - Herb seeds are typically extremely small and easy to miss. Some, such as coriander (cilantro seeds) are large and easy to collect (treat like pods), but in general, herb seeds are barely even visible as individuals. Collect by cutting the mature bolt (seed flower) off the stem and place in paper bag. Leave open and allow to dry for several days. Then close and shake gently. Unlike bean pods, herb bolts produce seeds that are lighter than their stems and husk, so tossing them in a gentle wind is not a good idea. After shaking the bag, carefully remove the stems and husk by hand, then place remaining small particles in a bowl to finish drying and sorting. 

Tips For Storage

  • Paper Bag - Even though a paper bag breathes, moisture can still get trapped between the seeds. Every so often, shake the bag then open it for an hour or two to let leftover moisture escape. 
  • Pill Bottle - As with a paper bag, shake and open every so often. If you think this isn’t enough, put ripped up pieces of clean paper towel or cotton into the top to draw moisture away from the seeds. Change the paper towel or cotton regularly.
  • Envelope - Good for storing a small amount of seeds from a single plant. Treat like paper bags. 
  • Darkness - Finding a dark place is important since sunlight is one of the three main things seeds need to grow (sunlight, moisture, and heat). But, it’s not as important as keeping the moisture and heat away. If you have to choose between ‘dry’ and ‘dark’ choose ‘dry’ every time. Wheat class seeds can even be kept in direct sunlight most of the time, while bean class seeds cannot. 

To help give a better idea of how to go about collecting and storing seeds we’ll write other posts that go into more depth about specific seeds we’re saving, and the step-by-step processes we’re using.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Absent Friends

Today is Memorial Day, and people all across America will be firing up their barbecues and getting their grill on. Someone, a visitor to our nation, once asked we why we 'celebrate' on this day. He pointed out that it might be better, and more appropriately spent, as a day of mourning, spent in somber reflection. It was my honor to educate him...

Memorial Day is the day in which we, as a people, remember and pay respect to those who made the ultimate sacrifice to preserve our freedom and our liberties. Among these liberties is the right to peaceful assembly. Peaceful does not mean 'silent'. It means 'without violence or intentional harm'. We have the right to come together and celebrate anything we want. This is one of the liberties these men and women traded their lives for.  It seems disrespectful to us not to use that very liberty in their honor on this day that we have set aside for them.

It may seem crass or callous to some; to those who do not understand. But these people, these fallen heroes gave their lives so that we would continue to have the right to do as we wish, to spend our time with who we wish, how we wish.

To those who are younger who think this liberty is a given, that we are not in danger of loosing it, I say this... there was a time, not so long ago, when the loss of this liberty was a very real danger. This danger existed within my lifetime, and I remember it very clearly. It was before your time. Before the fall of the Iron Curtain. Before the fall of The Wall. It was a time when the more oppressive elements of communism threatened our shores, and consumed many nations. A time when many people throughout the world did not have the right to assemble in any number for any reason that was not approved by their State. They did not have the right to come together for a good cause, much less for the sake of food, fun, and sun.

This is what our fallen heroes, our absent friends gave their lives for.

Freedom from oppression.
Freedom to assemble.
Freedom from undo persecution.
Freedom of choice.
Freedom to defend ourselves.
Freedom to worship as see fit.
Freedom of speech.

In other words, their lives bought us (and many others) the right to party our asses off any time we want for any reason we want.

Today we choose to party in their honor. And if you have a problem with that, thanks to them, you're free to  leave.

Freedom does not come free.

To everyone else, don't forget to set a place for those we honor today, and lift your glasses for absent friends and those who died to give these rights us.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Ideas for raised beds and accessible gardening plots

Here on the farm we’re working on our handicap accessibility this Spring. Regular fields are impossible for Her Majesty to get into, and I’m certainly not getting any younger. While we do plan to spend the next year bringing the ‘good’ field up to speed we’re also looking at ways to transfer quite a bit of our growing power into raised beds and smaller, more accessible gardening plots.

I spent the morning out planting parsnips and tomatoes into a small bed I put in several days ago. This is the second bed of this kind that we’ve put in so far. They are small enough to reach across, or at least to the center of without much effort, and are surrounded by blocks of broken concrete that was salvaged from an old building several years ago. The blocks not only frame off the area, but add a stable place to sit or brace ourselves when working the plot.

These particular beds are in-ground, meaning we dug up the ground, and back-filled it with real garden soil and appropriate augmentations like peat moss and fertilizer. In-ground beds are good for plants that will end up getting big, like these Burpee Big Boy tomatoes. But, we also plan to do some raised beds as well. These will also be framed in broken concrete, though we plan to re-mill the blocks a bit to make them fit together better when stacked.

Side Note: You can see the Cane Forest in the background of this picture, and that we've used some of the cane as the initial stakes for the baby tomato plants. This cane is another thing we have an abundance of that we plan to utilize. Ever time Hippylady and I go a garden center and see the bamboo shafts for sale for up to $5 each we laugh our tooshes off!  

There are a lot of other ideas for building these kinds of beds. My friend, Jaipi, a sister writer, recently pushed a great article on what she’s doing in her own garden called Cheap alternatives for raised bed gardens. I really like her table garden idea, especially for smaller plants that don’t need as much soil depth, like salad greens and herbs.

Another idea, that Hippylady came up with, is to use old refrigerators by taking the doors off, and gutting the interiors, then putting them on their backs. The outside can be painted or framed in for decoration, and the refrigerator boxes offer insulation to keep the soil a stable temperature. That last is important here in the desert where temperatures can fluctuate between -10 in the Winter and +110 in the Summer.

Other cheap ideas for raised and/or accessible garden beds are:

  • Old tires, stacked or by themselves
  • Wooden milk crates
  • Pallets
  • Dresser drawers
  • Opaque storage tubs
  • Old hats (I’ve seen it!)
  • Reclaimed bricks
  • Salvage lumber
  • Small boat hulls (we plan to do this)

Basically, if it holds soil, can have drainage installed, protects the roots against sunlight, and can be made safe from toxins that might have been used in it’s construction  it can be used. Some things works better than others, obviously. A cardboard box, for instance, can be used, but it wouldn’t last for very long. On the other hand, it will break down and became compost relatively quickly, enabling you to transfer it to a bed, container and all, at a later date.

Saturday, May 5, 2012


Supermoon looking at Grossmond.

Grossmond looking at Supermoon.

In German the words "gross mond" mean "grand moon", more commonly used to mean "full moon".
In this case it refers to twins separated at specie.  

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

When Fire Thorns Attack

Yesterday the girls and I went out and attacked the overgrown and previously neglected Fire Thorn hedge. It attacked back!

We didn’t expect it to be easy. We did expect to get scratches, and took precautions. Long sleeves, long pants, hats and neck coverings, and even face shields. Everyone wore thick gloves with rubber palms, shoes that covered our ankles, the whole nine yards. We were covered head to toe, and used long handled tools as much as possible  in dealing with the debris.

But, these things have something more than a life of their own.  Fire Thorns, also known as Pyracantha, seem to actively fight back. They have brains.

I always thought they got their name from the bright red and orange berries they grow in mass quantities, as well as the fact they have larger and more densely packed thorns than monster Grandfather Roses. I knew that some people claimed they were poisonous, but that modern science says they are not. I found out the hard way that they got their name for what their thorns scratches to do to people with arthritis.

Pyracantha don’t have poison in their thorns; not in the traditional sense. What they have is a ‘hyper allergen’ that only a few people are sensitive to. If you’re allergic to Pyracantha and you get stuck with the thorns you will end up feeling pain in your joints for a few days. This pain can range from a very mild stiffness to sever, agnizing pain accompanied by visible swelling. What it does is begin an autoimmune reaction that lasts for a few days. This reaction attacks the joints, but doesn’t usually cause any permanent damage.

Unless you already have arthritis. Especially if that form of arthritis is already caused by an autoimmune problem, such as RA (rheumatoid arthritis). And yes, that’s means me.

I’m in the very early stages of RA. So far it only effects a few joints, and even then it’s very mild. When it flares it really hurts, but modern science is a wonderful thing and we now know how to slow the progression of RA to a barely noticeable crawl if it’s caught early. Mine was caught early.

Despite the amount of gear I wore I still got a few scratches. If I hand't worn protective clothing things would have been much worse. One, in particular, on my left knee ended up being a bit deeper than the rest. It hurt, but I didn’t think anything of it. Scratches are scratches and, as farm manager, I get them all the time from hundreds of different kinds of plants. I’ve never had a negative reaction to a scratch, even when raked horribly by overgrown blackberry bushes that gave everyone else shingles.

The Fire Thorn, on the other hand, I am now afraid of. Very, very afraid. My left knees feels like it’s in a constant state of explosive expansion, my right hand is so stiff I can’t grip anything with it, and my upper back refuses to bend. These are all joints that I have RA in. Every other joint in my body simply feels like they’re on fire, but at least I can use them. I spoke with my rheumatologist on the phone and he said to take it easy, but don’t become stagnant. Don’t give my joints a chance to completely freeze up. Take my anti inflammatory meds, stay hydrated, and make sure to get up and walk around for a few minutes every hour, and let him know how I’m doing tomorrow. Basically, take two Aspirin and call him in the morning.

It's important to note that permanent damage is extremely rare and usually only happens to people who are already suffering from advanced RA or some form of advanced active brittle bone degeneration. In other words, people who aren’t capable of wielding an 18-volt reciprocating saw with one hand to knock down a 12ft tall hedge in the first place. And since that’s exactly what I was doing when I got scratched my doctor chuckled and told me not to worry too much about it. The only time I should start worrying is if the industrial strength anti inflammatory meds he keeps me in stock of stops working to reduce the swelling.

Since I can’t move much today I plan to do get a lot of writing accomplished. I was considering moving the tomato seedlings into their own 4-inch pots today, but then I remembered that involves bending over to fill the pots with soil, shuffling around the greenhouse, and doing other little things my body won’t currently let me do. And those seedlings can stay where they are for at least another week (or more) anyway.

So, while I have lots of publishers I can be catching up with, I might go ahead and get up a few posts for Reclaiming The Farm today. There are lots of things I’ve been meaning to talk about, but haven’t had the time and brainpower simultaneously to do so. Maybe this is the universe’s way of saying “sit down and write!”.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Reclaiming the Climbing Tree Garden

Climbing Tree Garden ~ After

Climbing Tree Garden ~ Before

We're not finished yet. In fact, we're a long way from it. But, there are those who wanted to see what's happened in the Whimsy Garden (previously called the Climbing Tree Garden) over the last 5 days. This was a lot of raking, mowing, pulling, more raking, more mowing, and we were pulling weeds until the sun went down tonight. Tomorrow morning we'll be up an pulling more weeds, and getting plenty dirty.

In the after picture you can see pathways starting form, and where planting beds will be. A lot of that green stuff in the lawn area is horehound weed, not grass, so it has to go. Horehound is currently the bane of my existence. For those who don't know what it is, horehound is plant with medicinal properties for treating colds and coughs, but it's also one of the most pervasive and pernicious weeds I've ever encountered. Tumbleweeds have nothing on horehound. They are mere amateurs in the sticker-plant world. Horehound, on the other hand, is one of the queens. It's big round stickers cling to everything it touches, especially clothing and hair. Tumbleweeds you can pick up with gloved hands with no problem. Horehound is something you don't touch with anything but tools. 

To deal with horehound the best advice I can give is to mow it down first, then rake it up. Then, if you can, burn it, or mulch it with a lot of straight manure. Enough manure will kill both horehound and tumbleweeds. We're going to grind up the massive piles we've collected over the past five days and use it as organic material to fill a hole that's about to appear in the orchard. The hole will be formed when we take out the stump of an old dead apple tree we cut down today.

The Climbing Tree Garden isn't the only thing getting a make over this month. The entire orchard is.  By the time we're finished the Climbing Tree Garden will no longer be the Climbing Tree Garden. It will be the Whimsy Garden. As you can see in the after picture, the 'climbing tree' is in no shape to be climbed in right now. We had to cut off a lot of dead limbs, and we chose new sprouting limbs to cultivate to replace them. It will take a few years before those limbs are strong enough to stand up to kids. 

In the mean time we're going to hang potted flowers from the extension limbs which are normally used to hold up seats, swings, and tree houses. Whatever the kids' little hearts desire. This particular tree has hosted fun and fantasy for two generations of children so far.  It's time to give it a break and let it rest for a while. 

But, no fear! There are other trees in the orchard that are just right for climbing. In previous years these trees, an olive tree and an apricot tree, were too small for such antics. But now they're both quite large and sturdy. Grossmond has already tested their worthiness several times and given them both her seal of approval. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

What a difference a mow makes

Have you ever heard those jokes "You might be a Redneck if..."? We find ourselves answering yes to a lot of them. Not all, but the ones that involve automobiles hiding in the tall grass or turning off the paved road... oh yeah. Point in case is today's topic: mowing.

We've been getting ready for the last snow of the year by putting down manure. It's good to fertilize your ground before a snow because melting snow carries it deeper into the ground than rain or watering does. We didn't have the money for manure last fall, so we missed out on using the 3-4 snowfalls we had this winter. Which is why it's important to take advantage of this last snow that will be hitting us in a few days.

But first, we have to find the ground!

You're probably trying to figure out what this is. That's okay, so were we! This is actually the rose garden side of The Oasis sitting garden just outside the front door. This is one of the places we needed to get manure put down. But, the problem was, we couldn't find it.

Believe it or not, there are several rose bushes and a few flowering apple trees in there... somewhere.

This next picture is of the walkway on that side, one of the many we have to widen, level, and repave to be handicap accessible. As you can see, the pathway is very narrow, marked by only a few pieces of natural stone. Since we're going to be widening the path from about 18 inches to 48 inches we don't want to fertilize everything that there. There's no point in wasting perfectly good cow poop on pathways that will paved over later.

Now, one thing you have to understand is that the tall grass is hiding more than just rose bushes and spoutling trees. We found all sorts of things in there. I had to go through with a gardening rake and carefully remove everything from the depths of the overgrowth. I raked while Grossmond removed everything I uncovered.

We found an old above-ground irrigation system that I think one of my aunts put in several years ago. One of those Odd Handymen who had worked on the property before we moved up was supposed to be taking care of it, but had decided to let the grass consume it instead. The result was a bunch of broken pipes that had to be removed before we could mow. There was also an old wooden flowerbed boarder that had long since decayed and been swallowed by the grass, decorative stones, an 8lb iron pulley, and many other smaller things. 

All of these things had to go. So, we spent almost an entire day carefully combing through the tall grass for lost treasure, then mowing, edging, and getting up into the rose bushes (once we found them) to clip the grass out with an old pair of sewing sheers. By the time we got the area cleaned up enough to lay down manure I was way too tired to do so. this is what the area looked like by the end of the day though. Compare it to the first picture up top to see the difference!

Last night Grossmond and I spent the evening working out the aches and pains we'd earned and just relaxing  a little bit in hot showers. This morning we went out and finished the job. Remember that pathway? we had to mark off where the new boarders will be before we could fertilize the flower bed. To do this we laid down some old 4x4s and adjusted them as needed until we found the position we wanted. Then we dug out a strip of grass a few inches wide and put other markers in to show us where the pathways would eventually be. 

No, it's not pretty, but it will be someday. Our goal at this point is just to get the manure laid down before the snow hits, and we have several other areas to work on. As if to remind us, Mother Nature sent us a hard cold rain about 5 minutes after we finished flooding in the manure. That was great timing. The flooding would have started the saturation which would help the ground absorb more rainwater as it came down. And plants love rainwater. On top of the manure, which the plants also love, it was a stoke of luck. 
But, the rain stopped a few minutes ago, and there's still a lot more work to do. So, it's time for me to get off the computer, grab the rake, and get back to work...


Saturday, April 7, 2012

101 Uses for Poop

The work is really starting to begin now! While still expect one last big freeze to hit, we’ve begun the heavy work for outdoor planting. We’re short on one key factor in growing a nice healthy crop or garden, but we both want and need food this year, so there’s only one thing to do.

We must adapt and overcome.

Our problem right now is that we’re short on manure. Yep, we’re short on poop; Vitamin-P. Specifically, pasteurized and aged herbivore poop. Since it needs to go into the ground now it needs to be something that is partially composted. Some people claim to keep cows or horses for this reason, the free poop. But, it in reality that’s just a happy side effect. It actually costs more to keep a large ranch animal than it does to buy manure. For the same price as a month’s worth of horse feed and care we can get enough manure to do the entire farm for an entire year, or just the crops fields for 3 years.

We do not, however, have the funds to get enough manure for the one field we’ve been working on for one year. We also have trees to save, and if those trees don’t get a good heaping helping of Vitamin P(oop) this year they will die. We can afford to do one or the other... but not both.

So, what’s a family to do?

As it happens, I’m somewhat of an expert (okay maybe not, but I  have experience) in suburban gardening. This is a whole different beast than farming. In suburban gardening containers and raised beds are king. Everything gets doubled up in those containers or sequestered beds as well. Deep root plants get paired with plants that have shallow root systems but similar nutritional requirements and soil Ph. This is most often seen the pairing of trees and flowers. Flowers that have similar nutrition requirements to a certain tree will be planted under or around that kind of tree. In Phoenix we saw a lot of Palo Verde trees surrounded by Lantana flowers. Evergreens were often paired with roses. In my backyard I paired Concord Grapes with shade loving herbs, like Parsley and Coriander.

The same can be done with the trees and deep rooted plants here on the farm. We choose to grow the majority of our herbs in the greenhouse, but things like tomatoes, bell peppers, chili peppers, green beans & peas, and some of the cucumber plants can go out in sequestered beds strategically placed in and around the farm. We’ll still need to put in a small but official garden for growing Vitamin P hogs like squashes, but almost everything else can be paired with existing long-life deep rooted vegetation for the time being.

So, one of our tasks this weeks has been cleaning out from around the trees we to save. The climbing tree, the almond and pear trees, the big cottonwood that shades the Oasis (what Hippylady calls her rose garden), and the grapes along the front fence. We also have a massive pine tree beside the driveway we call Father Christmas.

Now, Hippylady has asked that I make it clear that food plants should only be paired with food trees. The reason for this is the additives you use for food plants and trees is often different than the additives you use for strictly decorative plants and trees. In a food garden, and that includes fruit and nut orchards, you don’t want to use anything that might be considered poisonous. While that seems like a no-brainer there’s more to it than chemicals or pesticides.

What kind of manure you use counts as well. For food plants and trees you need to use herbivore manure. Carnivore and omnivore manure can host parasites and other nasties that don’t fully die out in pasteurization. These yuckies can be transmitted into your plants, which can then wind up on your plate. Also, you typically give food baring plants different, more specialized plant foods. These plant foods are more expensive, or if you’re using kitchen compost, in shorter supply, so it makes sense to group your plants in the most efficient manner possible.

This year I want to plant tomatoes beside the Climbing Tree, which is a really old apple tree. The apples it puts out aren’t very big, but it drops hundreds of them every fall. We have to cut it back for health reasons, so I don’t expect it put out as many. But, hopefully with all the love and attention it’s getting this year the apples is does put out will be bigger and a little bit sweeter. It makes sense to pair the Climbing Tree with something else that needs tons of love... like tomatoes!

Now, I was planning on posting pictures of the plans for the Climbing Tree Garden, which we have decided to rename the Whimsy Garden, but with all the hustle and bustle leading up to the holiday I wasn’t able to finish the sketches.

So, instead, I’d like to introduce you all to a blog called Cultivating The Wonder, which is written by an old friend of mine from high school. This week she has a how-to series up called The Square Foot Garden that’s really interesting and helpful. She’s provides lots of pictures showing how to make raised planters and some really great tips for doing things like mixing soil in large quantities. Enjoy!


Monday, April 2, 2012

Wind Storms, Cats, and Tree Branches

It's been windy. I mean really windy. This morning the entire house was shaking from the force of it. Trying to get anything done outside was essentially pointless since anything we did would be immediately undone by the raging winds. Da man and I even watched a cat blowing down the pathway earlier. It takes some mad wind skills to move a cat! But, there she was trying to head into the wind and getting knocked aside by it. At one point she turned to head down wind and got slammed into the side of a raised planter for her troubles. Her claws eventually found purchase on a tree root and she used it to scramble up under the porch. The next lull in the wind found her crying at the door to get in. The look on her furry little face upon crossing the threshold said "Don't go out there! We're under attack!"

This brings up the issue of what has to be done after a wind storm. There are the obvious things that people think of, like collecting up all the trash got blown all over the yard when the garbage cans get knocked over. But there are other things that have to be done on a farm. Like binding trees.

Most trees fare pretty well in a wind storm, but some of the more delicate fruit and nut trees don't. Evergreens also tend to suffer, even the more lush elasticy kind that seem to bounce back from everything. Topiary trees and bushes usually suffer the most.

What happens is that the wind hits the branches so hard that they end up getting bent and tangled up in each other. These branches have to be untangled and then tied to the branch next to them to stand up straight the way you want them until the bent sections become strong again. Sometimes they need to be propped up by braces. If you've ever driven past an orchard and seen wooden poles extending from the ground up into a tree this is what you're looking at, a branch brace.

We don't use branch braces here on our farm though. We tend to take a more natural approach. If a branch is so badly damaged that it has to be braced instead of bound we usually just cut it off. While this has a tendency to make a tree look a bit lopsided, it also helps shape the tree in such a way that is better suited to deal with the winds in the area in the future. Also, it takes a lot of energy for a tree to repair a limb that's been damaged that badly. It's better for the overall health of the tree if it's simply amputated.

We have a few topiary evergreens, specifically two giant arborvitae that create a tunnel near the back door. These tend to look very sad after a wind storm. It's almost like someone took a giant wedge and split them both down the center. While they usually look the like they are in the worst condition after a wind storm, they're actually the easiest to fix. The branches sit almost perfectly parallel to each other in the first place, so binding them together is really easy. They don't fight you like other tree branches do.

The pine trees, on the other hand, all look like sickly puff balls.  We have Ponderosa pines, which don't trim well, and the branches sit too far apart from each other to be bound. They tend to lose their tops in a really high wind too, so they end up looking a bit round instead of spear shaped like Ponderosas that grow in thick forests where the trees band together to protect each other. To make matters worse, our pines are on the southern edge of the property, so there is no wind break to protect them. They are the wind break. I don't know who decided to do that, but it was a bad idea. They put out beautiful pine cones though, which can be sold to city slickers over Christmas, and they do a pretty good job of protecting the fruit and nut trees in the orchard from wind, so we're going to keep them.

One of the things I like about a big wind storm in the spring is that the burdenning branches (dying branches) that have to be pruned off anyway, tend to weaken because of the wind and begin drooping towards the ground. It makes it easier to tell which ones have to go without having to wait for the mid-leaf cycle. In the mid-leaf cycle you look too see how thick the leafs are coming in. A branch that's still alive but struggling will only put out a thin greening of leafs, or only at the branch tips (depending on the kind of tree), while a healthy branch will put out a thick greening of leafs that go all the way down the branch. In a really strong wind storm these burdenning branches will weaken all the way down the branch, giving them a droopy appearance as opposed to a healthy branch that's just bent, which will have a kinked appearance. I wish I had pictures for that. Maybe I will by tomorrow!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Greenhouse: Broken panes and dragonfly glass

What do you with glass that looks like it came from dragonfly wings? There are all sorts of things to do with it actually. This glass will probably go into the creation of a sealed mural. Or perhaps it will be used to create a decorative pressed glass wall. That would be where you take to panes of glass and arrange bits of broken glass between them in a pattern to form a thicker decorative wall or door panel. Whatever we decide to do with it we’ll have plenty of dragonfly glass to work with.

This is why. Yesterday Da Man went out to deal with one of the structural problems with the greenhouse. In this case a tree that had been grown from either a seed or volunteer seedling, but then allowed to grow in the greenhouse for far too long. This is one of those things that the Odd Handymen of yesteryear were supposed to have been dealing with, but decided they would rather not.

The tree eventually grew to a size where it competed with the structure of the greenhouse and pushed it’s way through the exterior wall, forcing a path between the glass wall panes and their wooden frames. Yay. So, when Da Man went to remove the tree he found there was no way to do so without the glass exploding into the greenhouse. It was safety glass, of course, so he wasn’t hurt, but it shredded the plastic sheeting on the other side of the greenhouse.

To make matters worse, one of the many reasons the tree needed to be taken out was so that I could get to the underbrush growing beneath it. Now all that dragonfly glass that exploded into the greenhouse has fallen down into said underbrush. Thank the maker of work gloves!

The glass pane was replaced within the hour, so at least that’s out of the way. That’s one of the reasons it’s always a good idea to get and keep extra panes when you build a real glass greenhouse. Especially if you live out in the middle of the boondocks like we do. Buying these panes in bulk is far less expensive than buying them one or two at a time. And when you live this far out it can take days to weeks to get replacement glass delivered.

Once the cleanup is done we’ll get to decide what to do with all that dragonfly glass. Today, however, we’re dawning work gloves and grabbing the bucket. Time to get off the computer and get to work!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Geenhouse Makeover Phase One

Since we can’t be out planting things in the gardens and fields yet, we’ve been working in the greenhouse. But, our greenhouse is in very bad shape, so before we can really do the things we want to in there we have to fix it up. Oh sure, we’ve been getting some seeds, but for what really want to do we have a lot of work to do first.

This was our greenhouse a week ago. It was so overgrown that we could hardly walk through it. Hippylady’s been doing her best, but with her declining health it’s been harder and harder to keep it up. Add to that the odd handyman or two that decided to do their own things (none of which turned out to well), and now there’s structural problems as well.

This is our greenhouse as of this morning. We’ve been working in there, cleaning things up since the snow let up a few days ago, and just the little bit of effort we put into it has made a huge difference. There’s still quite a few things that need to be done, but we’re getting there.

Our goal: For us the greenhouse should be more than just a place to grow plants and start seeds. It should be a place that people actually like to be. It’s also a kind of physical therapy for Her Majesty and myself, as we both have vicious arthritis and the warmth in the greenhouse helps tremendously.

To this end we’ll be installing universal sitting and work areas, along with finishing out the inside wall and greenhouse office. Yes, our greenhouse has it’s own office on the west end, but right now it’s in such bad condition that I refuse to post pictures. I have taken some ‘before’ pictures, and I promise to share them once we have some decent ‘after’ pictures to go with it.

We’ll also be widening the path, which even now, is way to narrow for a wheelchair or walker to go down. We have to keep that whole accessible gardening thing in mind with everything we do. This also means that we’ll be installing pavers down the path, but instead of buying brand new fancy pavers we plan to use old broken concrete that used to be a house foundation (or some such thing) once upon a time.

As you see here in this picture, someone already started laying concrete down, but this is far from what the greenhouse path will look like when it’s finished. We plan to use grass mortar to hold it all together in the end. Of course, we have to take these ones out and level the pathway first. Because we need to allow room for roots to grow under the path we won’t be using normal leveling techniques or leveling sand. We plan to put the blocks directly onto packed soil, then fill the gaps with enriched topsoil. Then, of course, plant grass.

As you can see, there is much to do in our greenhouse. Hopefully you can also see the potential as well. We’ll keep you all up to date on our progress and share the details of the projects we complete. Maybe the blood we shed will help someone else. No, really, Grossmond and I are bleeding today after fighting with the creeping periwinkles. But, that’s a story all by itself!

Monday, March 19, 2012

We’re Prepared for the End of the World (and didn’t even know it)

As I’ve said before, I’m a freelance writer by trade. I have ongoing contracts with several publishers and news agencies and I’m constantly getting guides and prompts from my editors telling me what I should be writing about. I’m not a hard hitting news writer, mind you, I’m proud to be a ‘Fluff Writer”. I write about food, health, gardening, and whatever else I can think of. I write articles like “The Art of Making a Milk Free, Egg Free Coffee Cake” (click the link to read that one). I usually stay away from things like politics, unless I feel very strongly about something.

Every once in a while something comes across my desk that makes me laugh, sometimes hysterically. Like this one prompt that came in from a publisher a few days ago about “Doomsday Prepping”. I don’t write about such things for this publisher, and never really considered writing about it for any publisher (other than the lady that publishes my scifi books). But, I always read the description of the prompt before putting it in the circular file.

This particlar one was described as how to go about storing things like water, food supplies, guns, fuel, etc. I went to one of the suggested source sites and read the list of things they (professional doomsday preppers) say one needs to in order to survive the end of the world. The list included: 200 gallons of water, private well, diesel generators, 3 cords of firewood, one firearm for each person in the family, ammo and relaoding equipment, foot powered sewing machine, 10+ bolts of fabric of different weights and function, an assortment of knives, gardening tools, full set of cast iron cookware, wood burning stove, outdoor and indoor farming facilities, anti-venom, road salts, and more.

As I read the description I forgot what the list was for. It was only when I finished that I looked back at the top that I was reminded “Doomsday Prepping for the End of the World”. My first reaction was “Huh! We do that here. But we call it “preparing for winter”.

It just blows my mind that these things are considered end of the world type stuff. It reminded me of a scene in a book by John Ringo where the kids are playing hide-and-seek in gilly suits they made themselves in school. My reaction to that was “Doesn’t everybody?” And yes, I really did play hide-and-seek in gilly suits, but we didn’t make them at school. We just took old burlap rice sacks and stuck whatever vegetation we could find into them. But that’s just what farm kids do, especially when you have 25 acres between you to play hide-and-seek on.

And the really funny part is, I know that all the city slickers reading this think I’m exaggerating. People, I’m not.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

False Spring

This is what we woke up to this morning. That dreaded white stuff: snow.

I hate snow. Yes, I know it’s pretty, but it’s also cold, and wet, and slippery. I got enough of it growing up to last me a lifetime.

This is the reason we haven’t been jumping on the big market bandwagon and planting new flowers yet, or why we sow our seeds in containers in the greenhouse instead of in the ground,like that packaging says we can. Despite the warm, Spring-like weather we’ve been having for the last few weeks we knew this day was coming. This sudden hard freeze that tries to kill everything in sight.

You see, while other places have “April showers” we have “April snows”. We always have a false spring, which drives the Hippylady mad. She wants to be out working in the soil and putting in plants, but she she knows better. So, she muddles her time killing zombies on the computer, and then rejoices when the snow finally comes. It means the end of winter.

Of course, this is an early snow for us. It’s still March, so we have to wait another month before we can start getting busy in the gardens. Oh, there’s clean-up to do. There are plants that need to be removed that we intend to compost instead of transplant, and there’s the dead tumbleweeds that plague the area. As soon as you clean those up a wind comes along and blows more in from one of the open fields nearby, and you have to start all over again. But it will be another month before we can start putting plants in the ground.

Now, why did I call it the big-market bandwagon? Because, all of the chain stores around here with gardening centers have been bringing in merchandise and opening up said garden centers for big ‘spring sales’. They set up these large displays that extend well into the parking lots so they can try to draw shoppers in and sell them plants and trees during the false spring. You can always tell who’s a local and who’s new to the area by watching what they grab. Locals snap up tools and fertilizer, while our most recent human transplants walk out with carts full of baby plants and garden soil.

The local, independent nurseries and garden shops, however, look like ghost towns. They know it’s a false spring. They know what’s going to happen, and being locals themselves, they aren’t going to push plants onto unsuspecting people who have no idea what’s going to happen to any new planting that’s put in to ground right now. The big markets, on the other hand, are more than happy to do so, and then sell you replacement plants when the first ones die in the April snow.

Now, it’s going to freeze again tonight, and we’ll get more snow. Tomorrow it should start to warm a little, and in a few days we’ll be back up to the mid-70s. It will stay that way for a few weeks. But, in another month we’ll see a weather report that looks like 75, 74, 76, 26... **blink blink** Yes, it will happen that quick. Nature will be playing nice and then all the sudden she’ll say “SIKE!”, and the entire Prescott Area will be covered in snow again.

In the mean time we’ll be patiently (or impatiently) waiting for the first week of May. Until then we’ll keep the snow pants and mittens handy while we refrain from putting new baby plants in the ground.

Friday, March 16, 2012

101 Uses for Milk Jugs

We got quite the response to out last post “101 uses for Mushroom Boxes & Coffee Cans”, and a few of you who contacted us had some great questions and ideas. So, today I’d like to share with you all our philosophy about the Three Rs: reduce, recycle, reuse.

A lot of people today have a hard time figuring out how to achieve these things in their daily lives. But, the way I grew up we had no choice. It was reduce our expenses across the board, directly recycle everything we had into something new with our own hands, and reuse everything as many times as we could (until it died, at which point it was recycled), or starve. I actually find it somewhat humorous that nowadays living that way is considered ‘cool’. I’m all for it... except for the ‘or starve’ part. That just sucks.

To give you an idea of how much someone can get out of a single item lets take the average plastic gallon milk jug. We don’t have a milking cow, but we do have lots of kids, so this is something we end up with a lot of. We don’t save every single jug mind you, but we do tend to keep a running stock of empties. Those that we don’t keep are cleaned, crushed, and tossed into the recycling bin.

The ones we do keep are put to good use. They all get cleaned really well with soap and water. Or vinegar and water, depending on what we’re going to use it for. Some are saved for things like iced tea concentrate or homemade juice mixes. Since they were designed to go in the fridge in the first place they fit nicely, where some drink pitchers are a bit awkward.

We also use them for making things like liquid plant food, various cleaners, and soap solutions for around the home. They also make great watering jugs if you poke a bunch of holes in the lid. In this picture, Her Majesty demonstrates how this works.

Side note: Her Majesty is only mostly confined to her wheelchair. She does have some use in her legs, but cannot extend them fully. Still, to her doctor’s amazement, she learned to walk on her knees in smaller spaces, such as the greenhouse.  

Another way to reuse them is to use them as planting pots. I’ve actually seen quite a few people do this. You cut away the top front, leaving the handle, and poke good-sized drainage holes in the bottom. This is great for hardening off indoor sprouted seedlings before planting them outside, because the handles make all that moving around easier. You can also hang the pots by the handles on just about anything. Just this morning I saw a picture on Pinterest where someone filled them with spilling flowers and hung them on a fence. Brilliant!  We’re going to have to remember that one ourselves.

But, plastic milk jugs don’t last forever. So, what do you with them once you’re finished with their ‘resuse’ and it’s time to actually recycle them? You can either reuse them again if they’re still in good condition, or, if they’er not, break them down to become solids for soil building. The key here is to actually break them down chemically, or they’ll last forever. To do this you simply set them out in the sun for a while until they become brittle. The more sunlight the better. Once they get to the point where you can crush them into pieces with you bare hand they’re ready to go. Once they get to that point they will continue to break down in the soil. Da Man jokingly calls this the ‘jug half life’.

Severely brittle jugs can also be ground into powder and added to cement and other such things as a filler or texture.

This is the way we treat pretty much every materiel thin in our lives. We try not to overdo it on anything so we can reduce spending, then we reuse as many things as we can as many times as we can, before finally recycling it either directly or through the local recycling center. We apply this same process to everything from clothes and linens to plates, cups, and silverware to containers to just about anything else you can think of.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

101 uses for Mushroom Boxes & Coffee Cans

I was planning on telling you all the story of the Sewage Imp today, but it turns out I've over-booked myself (again) and don't have much time. So, I'll save that for when I have the time to give the story the attention it deserves.

Instead, today I'm going to tell you about something we're doing right now: planting seeds.

I know, how much can be said on that subject? Well, quite a bit actually, but I'll keep it to one trick we're using to help save money. It's a direct recycling trick that many farmers are aware of, and one that any suburban farmer can employ.

A few ideas for containers that can be directly reused.
You know all those plastic containers starter plants come in? Those can be reused to plant seeds! All you have to do is take care not to crush or tear them when you remove the starter plants you got them with and store them properly when you're finished using them. A dry dark place is good, as plastic degrades in sunlight and heat. But, be sure it's not someplace that freezes either, as this too will cause damage.

Other plastic items that can be used for this purpose are things like microwave dinner plates and those Styrofoam mushroom boxes. You can actually get many, many years out of a mushroom box, and use them as pots for small plants as well. They're perfect for small house plants that you want to keep next to a single-pane window where the roots might be exposed to freeze in winter. They offer insulation against the cold, and  block light (that can sunburn the roots). When you're finished with them you rinse them out and toss them in the recycling, like you would with a new one.

And you know all those clear clamshell containers that berries come in? they make great little seed starting greenhouses. Just line the bottom with cheesecloth or another loose-weave undyed  fabric and fill with starter soil. We use these for starting the more delicate plants, like cilantro or parsley. We remove the entire bed as one piece by lifting out the cheesecloth and laying directly into the final pot or plot. The fabric breaks down with the soil, and helps the bed hold together until the baby plants grows strong roots.

In the picture above there are several different types of containers that can be directly reused instead of thrown away. Opaque plastic coffee cans are another thing we tend to save and reuse in the garden and around the house. We keep one empty can next to the coffee maker to put old grounds in to be carried out to the plants that love them (which is most, lol). They also make good storage for seed packets and other small gardening supplies you want to keep dry and out of the sunlight. Her Majesty also loves to use them for crayons and markers because while they're big, they have those nifty built in handles, and they stack really well.

Well, that's it for today. I'm off to pick up the child-sized gardening tools for Her Majesty. They went on sale this morning and I don't want to miss them like I did last year!  

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Possessed Pluming: How to Exorcize Water Pipe Daemons

“There’s a new pond forming in the driveway.”

We first heard those words close to two years ago, while we were still living our comfy little lives in suburbia. Hippylady called to tell us that a pipe had burst below ground and she would need help to get it fixed. My first thought was that she was mistaken, and that it was the t-junction beneath a riser. After all, there were no water lines beneath the driveway. Of course, I was still thinking like a suburban housewife at the time.

So, Da Man took the next day, which turned out to be a Friday, off of work. We packed up the kids and the tools, arranged a cat-sitter, and headed north for a long weekend. My brother-in-law, who shall be henceforth referred to as The Cajun, met us there with his own teenagers in tow and few spare shovels. Between us all we could get it knocked out in a day and have the rest of the weekend to barbecue and catch up.

The daemons in the water pipes had other ideas though.

Upon arrival we found that the break was indeed in a driveway, it just wasn’t the main driveway where people park. You see, we have just enough land that we have a service road that goes right down the middle of the property. It was under this service road that the pipe, one of three water 'mainlines’ hard burst... 5ft down. It was about then that our bright shiny shovels didn’t look so impressive anymore.

It took the rest of the day to dig out the line and locate the ruptures, which there turned out to be many of. The pipe was over 40 years old, and was falling apart. It wasn’t even the right pipe for the job. One of the many ‘gifts’ bequeathed to us by the former owners, who had installed all of the utilities in the first place. (this last is important to note for later reference)

Unfortunately, the ground was still mostly frozen and replacing the pipe at that time was not feasible. So, Da Man decided to patch said pipe, and replace it in the summer, when he would be able to dig up the entire line. So the patch was put on, the dirt was thrown back in (but not tamped down), and this took the entire weekend. Much cursing and many blisters later, we loaded the kids back up in the van and headed back down to Phoenix.

A few months later the ground thawed and I began planning the excavation of the water pipe ruins, not realizing they were haunted. As if on cue, Hippylady called to report that the pond had not only returned, but had become a headwater. There was now a small stream running down the service road. She failed to mention the new lake that was forming on the lawn by the front gate because of it.

Side note: As soon as Her Majesty saw it she immediately got excited and asked if we could go fishing. Upon telling her that there were no fish in what she had dubbed ‘Lake Little Big Leak’ she informed me that WalMart had gold fish on sale for 15 cents each, and then promptly volunteered her tooth fairy money for the cause. You just gotta love her optimism!

Back to the daemon... We had come prepared this time. Before coming up I had arranged for the rental of a backhoe and a small army of family and neighbors to assist in the excavation. I had arranged the troops into ‘cooks’, ‘runners’, and ‘tool bearers’ to help Da Man and The Cajun (our valiant knights in greasy armor) get the job done. Even Her Majesty had a job; she’d volunteered to be the official 'drink holder’, and sat on the edge of the ditch with a glass of iced tea in one hand and a soda in the other.

Now, the one thing the Da Man hadn’t been able to get a look at in the winter was the pipe fitting. We had assumed that it was, in fact, held together by fittings, because that’s how water pipes, even mainlines, are attached section to section. Except when installed by the previous owners of the this property. (These people were obviously practitioners of dark juju).

Oh no, they didn’t trust fittings (thread and screw mechanisms) because they might come apart. So, in their brilliance, they had welded five 40ft pipes together as one solid piece. After Da Man and our favorite Cajun stopped laughing (this took a awhile) they disappeared down the road, back to the Home Cheapo to consult the pluming specialist. Since the nearest Home Depot is actually 25 miles away, this took most of the day. The rest of us spent this time firing up the grill and getting lighting set up so we could sit by the ditch and use the tractor as a seat for dinner.

As we were sitting there enjoying our burgers and singing songs that embarrassed every teenager within 5 miles (of which there were many by this time) we heard a groaning coming from the ditch. This was an odd sound for a non-functioning waterline to be making, especially since it had been turned off at the pump. There was no running water to the entire property. Yet, there was that groan. That distinctive sound known by both sailors and plumbers the world over. Metal stressing under the force of extreme water pressure. We double checked the pump and confirmed it was off. We even checked the wellhead to make sure it was reading zero pressure. There was no reason the pipes should make that sound, and yet they did.

We eventually decided to pack it up for the night, but we never did find out what was making that sound. It was then we decided that, even though we were sure there was a perfectly logical explanation for it, that section of pipes would be dubbed ‘haunted’.

The next day the guys managed to banish the water pipe daemon by cutting the line, installing fittings (did I mention The Cajun is a master welder?) and getting the ruptured portion replaced. The ditch was filled and finally tamped down. The pump was turned back on, and all was good.

Little did we know that the Water Pipe Daemon would be avenged by it’s buddy the Sewage Imp the moment we moved in...

Monday, March 12, 2012

Meet the Family

Everyone in the family wanted me to start by telling you about our pluming problems. But, I’ll save that for the next post, and instead introduce you to the players involved in this little endeavor of bringing the farm back to life.

The first thing I would like to tell you is that while I am a member of the media, and by default something of a ‘public figure’, my family has requested some small measure of anonymity. We love nicknames in our family, and everyone has a four or five, which describe the different aspects of their personalities. So, it has been decided that we will use our primary nicknames here.

Mom: That’s me! I think I did a pretty good job of describing ‘me’ in the first post. All I have to add (simply for clarification) is that I’m a freelance writer and special needs support facilitator for a living. I’m the only one in the family who is currently working full time, though that could change at any minute. My family would like me to make sure that you know that I am the designated... erm... ‘witch’ in the family. I have always had a terrible temper, and have, over the years, learned to use it to my family’s benefit.

Da Man: My husband was raised a Marine Brat, and moved around quite a bit growing up. He eventually joined the Navy and served for eight years. Since then he’s worked in the trades for the most part, with a small excursion into IT hardware support over a decade ago. He’s worked in HVAC for the last twelve years, which is a very feast or famine line of work. He is (technically) employed, but currently in a famine period. This is very hard for him, especially since he’s not really sure what to do with a ‘farm’, lol. He doesn’t like not having anything productive to do, and if left to his own devices will take up strange and unusual hobbies. His current hobby is blade crafting, as in making knives, metal work and all. He is exceptionally gifted in the realm of mechanics and engineering, though he would say he’s not. But machines he knows... plants baffle him.

Hippylady: My mother is a tried and true old hippy, and very proud of it. Not to be confused with ‘flower children’, who preached peace, love, and pacifism, a real hippy questions everything and makes a great ‘devil’s advocate’. This describes my mother well. She is also a woman of many talents. She’s been here on the farm for 35 years. Her formal education is in fine arts, and she achieved the level of Master the old fashioned way. But, her current physical condition has left her dependant on others, which is very frustrating for her, because she’s used to being extremely independent. She isn’t used to having teenagers at her beck and call yet, but she’s getting there. She has a vision for the farm, and I see it as our job to make it happen. She has always tried to practice green, organic, sustainable living, since before the current crop of young people in the world were born, much less knew the difference between cloth and disposable diapers.

VJ: Our seventeen-year-old daughter has sever-moderate autism and moderate-mild cognitive impairment. We started calling her VJ when she was ten because A) those are her initials, and B) she turned out to speak fluent VCR. She took great pride in becoming the official family video jockey. She’s one of those people that everyone immediately loves, even animals. She’s always been that way, since the day she was born. She is also a minor prodigy in art, which is more than an autistic obsession with her. She has talent that leaves even Hippylady, who formally studied the subject for 15 years, a little jealous. Emotionally, she is only just now becoming a teenager. She looks forward to living on her own someday, but no day soon. As far as the farm is concerned, she doesn’t like to go outside. It’s dirty outside. There are people outside. Still, we make her go outside. Once a new house is built and she has her own space, she’ll be happier. She just can’t see it right now.

Grossmond: Our twelve-year-old has Aperger’s Syndrome, and is very much a tomboy. She is very mechanically and mathematically inclined, but reading and writing leave her frustrated. She got her nickname, which means “full moon” in German, for the way she is around others and the way she effects them. She is beautiful, powerful, and yet totally disconnected. She has a very strong pull on the people around her, and tends to illicit extremely strong emotions from them. She is simple, and yet mysterious, like the full moon. She is also a tried and true city slicker, so this move has been very hard on her. In her opinion, the farm is a great place to visit, but living here sucks, and she lets us know it in no uncertain terms. No waiting for the teenage attitude with that one. It came right on schedule. Still, she is a very adventurous sort, and loves to go exploring. She examines ‘what is’ in great depth and detail.

Her Majesty: Our youngest, a nine-year-old who was born with deformed thigh bones and an oblique talus in her right foot, got her nickname for the way she commands the people around her, and how she sits in her wheelchair. It isn’t a wheelchair, as far as she’s concerned, it’s a throne with tires. She’s extremely ambitious and very assertive. She’s had to be in order to survive. She’s been dependant on others her entire life, and hates it with a passion. She may, someday, be able to stand on her own feet and walk, but that day is still a long way off. She is, however, an extremely determined individual, and has found ways of doing things that her doctors and experts have sworn she would never be able to do. One would expect that she would be the one person who hates the farm the most, but instead, she is the one who loves it the most. She is very forward thinking and goal oriented, so when she sits out on the ramshackle porch looking out upon 'her domain’ she doesn’t see a bumpy driveway that is dusty dirt when it’s dry and sloppy mud when it’s wet surrounded by dead trees and yellow field grass. She sees beautifully paved pathways surrounded by raised beds spilling over with blooming flowers, trees heavy with growing fruit, and hears the sound of laughter. She’s the kind of person who knows 'what is’, but focuses on 'what will be’ and takes joy in the journey there.

So, that’s us. We’re a somewhat motley crew, but we get along. We may not be the world’s most functional people, but we are very tight as a family. Where one of us falters another will compensate. We don’t make a practice of complaining about what we have to deal with, but instead try to deal with what we have. Every day is an adventure in our house, and here on the farm there are no shortages of surprises to get us started on those adventures.

Our goal, as a family, is to transform this dilapidated five acres of land into something attractive, sustainable, and functional. We plan to build a new house out of mostly reclaimed materials if possible, finish a rain collection system that is currently half finished, and much more. There are so many ideas, and we have so many projects planned and underway that there is sure to be something for everyone in our journey.

Next up: Possessed Pluming: How to Exorcise Pipe Daemons and Sewage Imps!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

How We Got Here

I grew up on a small family farm that was slightly north of central Arizona, in a tiny town called Chino Valley. It wasn’t the kind of farm that most people think of when they hear the word ‘farm’. We only had five acres, and only grew what we needed. We didn’t sell crops to grocers or distributors. We weren’t the kind of farmers who took out loans to get us through the growing season. We were just an average family trying to live a simpler lifestyle.

Like most kids, I left when I was young. I actually had the privilege of going to the Los Angeles area to attend high school, so I got to leave a little younger than most. A lot of people told me I would be back, and like most kids, I said, “never.” That was almost 30 years ago, and now I find myself right back where I started.

My life progressed as lives tend to do. I got married and had kids. I went to college and began a career. My husband and I weren’t rich by any standard, but we managed. We might have done better, but with the children came surprises. Very expensive surprises.

Between us, my husband and I have six daughters. Only the three youngest live with us now, as the rest are grown and on their own. But, those three youngest each have disabilities. The two older of them are autistic, one of which is also effected by moderate cognitive impairment, and the other was a born with type-1 diabetes. The youngest was born with sever orthopedic disabilities, and is, for the most part, confined to a wheelchair. These are things that don’t just cost money to deal with, they change your entire way of life.

Still, we managed. We moved back to Arizona. Not to the farm, but to a cozy little suburb in the north-west Phoenix Valley. We loved were we lived. It had pretty much everything we needed. Sensible shopping that was close, great neighbors, and a back yard just large enough to put in a kitchen garden. Everything was handicap accessible, and we never had any problems taking our youngest daughter, chair and all, out to do anything. In general, we were pretty happy.

Then the economy collapsed. At first we were okay. My husband had a decent job, and I was working part time from home. Then my husband lost his job, and for a moment we freaked out. But, he got another job within two weeks. I began writing full time, still from home, and we cut back quite a bit on our expenses. Still we were doing okay.

Then my mother, who still lived on the farm a hundred miles north of us, had a series of mini-strokes. She could still take care of herself for all the little day to day things, but those things became much harder for her. We spent more and more time on the farm, which hadn’t been worked in 20 years, doing the yearly chores, like weather treating and repairing roofs, fixing porches, and general maintenence. The plumbing was starting to collapse, and we ended up having to replace a water main line. Pipes began to burst both above and below ground. The added cost of helping with all of these things was taxing our already fragile budget, but these weren’t things that we could ignore.

Then the inflation began hitting us. Food, gas, and rent sky rocketed on us, leaving us completely unable to pay our bills. Our cost of living increased by almost 40% in six months, and instead of just barely getting by we were suddenly drowning.

We had already been planning to move back to Chino Valley to take over the family farm and take care of my mother in her golden years, but not until after we were able to put a new house on the property and lay in some needed accessibility items for our daughter, like pathways and ramps. The old mobile home in which my mother lived was a 950sf 2br that was falling apart in ways I can’t even begin to describe. We would be a family of six with special needs... like running water.

But, the day came when we no longer had the luxury of waiting or planning. If we didn’t move immediately we would be evicted and find ourselves homeless. So, we packed up the kids, the cats, and the wheelchair and moved back to the farm. My husband had to quit his job to do so, but I could take mine with me, so at least we had that. That was eight months ago. Now, with a hard, rough, penniless winter behind us we prepare to begin again.

So, what follows now are the chronicles of our efforts to reclaim the family farm and, slowly over time, get it back up and running. It is our hope that our story helps others to find ways of living cost-effective sustainable lives as we do so ourselves. We have chosen to share our trials so that we can also share our triumphs and the solutions we find to the problems that face us.