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Month: June 2012

Dig For Victory

Dig For Victory

In the annals of history, there have been many famous battles, many celebrated victors. Few indeed were as grimly fought as on the fields of Fernwood Farm, nor their heroes so unsung. On this weekend beneath a slate grey sky, one man stood alone and said “No! You Shall Not Grow!” to the rising tide of weeds. One man saved the strawberry plants and rescued the onions from the inexorable onslaught of untamed wilderness. One man stepped forward to answer the cries of the smothered peas and wielding nothing but a 29cc mini-cultivator, turned the battle by force of his will.

I might be many things, but a weed isn’t one of them. I am that one man.

 

Thousands Island Summer

Thousands Island Summer

The summer solstice found us sitting on a boat, celebrating a wide expanse of blue sky and cool breezes with happy faces turned to the horizon.  We took my Dad to one of our favourite places, the Thousand Islands in Gananoque, it is beautiful and at the very least worthy of having a salad dressing named after it.  Even waiting for the boat became a fun adventure before we headed off in search of pirates and sharks in the choppy waters of Ontario.

After a week of oppressive heat 30C seemed positively refreshing and combined with the fresh breezes out on the water it felt like the heat and tiredness of the week was being blown away.  Coupled with the freedom of an endless blue sky one day trip felt like a holiday.

I’m sure I must have annoyed the other six passengers on the top deck as I dived from side to side taking pictures of all the lovely houses, tucked away on their tiny islands; the seemed to bask in the glorious day as much as we did and I always find myself wondering who owns them.  All the ones below are those I deemed appropriate as summer holiday homes for my sister…

The one above would be particularly suited as a hobbit run for my tiny sibling, she could a walnut shell tied up to the deck for boating outings to visit friends and a mouse in the stable for long overland journeys.

The boys enjoyed the pirate ship adventures but became a bit restless at about 35 minutes.  Stephen blessed me and Dad with a peaceful 20 minutes up on the top deck as he chased the boys fore and aft below (that’s sailor talk that is).  They returned to us at the end of the trip, listening to Grampa’s stories of high adventure and calamity; way more interesting than the official version piped through the tannoy.

All along the journey I had the feeling that I had stepped into a Mark Twain story, freed as we were from normal life for a brief time, the world seeming endless.  I revelled in mindless gazing, allowing the wind to carry my thoughts away, tossed like wisps of cloud until I could no longer hear them.

As my Dad said, it was a day that will live long in the memory and one I will certainly treasure for always.

Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you. 

~Nathaniel Hawthorne

Battles, Beetles and the Stones

Battles, Beetles and the Stones

June has been rather frantic. As well as stressing about my fantastic hives of bees, my weekends and evenings have been all about the veg. When I planted a 180′ row of potatoes with my Dad back in May, I wasn’t really thinking ahead. For example, I wasn’t thinking about how each row has two sides, so that would be 360′ of potato row to hill up. Twice. Nor did I consider that come the fall, I’ll have 180′ of potatoes to dig up again. That’s assuming of course that the Colorado Potato Beetle doesn’t eat them all between now and then.

 

They are new little buggers to me (sorry for the bad pun) because in the UK we don’t really get them. It’s probably something to do with it being way too wet and them not being very good at swimming. I’m amazed that in the first year of growing potatoes, on land that hasn’t been farmed for 15 – 20 years, they just happened to be wandering past my field. I’m even more amazed that there isn’t a filthy chemical to kill them but like Keith Richards, apparently these bugs have developed immunity to practically every drug invented and are but a whisker away from immortality.

Never one to complain, at first I was just crushing the beetles and eggs as I found them, laughing like some demented god of beetle death. Unfortunately, according to a co-worker, even after a good squashing the eggs will often hatch and wreak a terrible revenge. Seriously, these bugs are like miniature tanks. Of course he could have been winding me up, but why take the chance?

While I’m not aiming for organic certification anytime soon, I am trying to adopt reasonably organic practices. So despite what the beetle can do to a crop, I didn’t want to napalm them with pesticides in the hope of beating the bugs into a retreat. Instead, that means literally bending over and giving it to them. Tonight I’ve inspected 180′ of potato rows to painstakingly pick the beetles off the leaves and strip any I found with eggs laid on them. And I have to do it each week. Twice. Until July.

So instead of Lord of Squashy Death, tonight I transformed into the Merciless Lord of Hellfire. I filled the bottom of a big yoghurt pot with petrol then put every beetle and eggy leaf I could find into it. Having filled my pot, I poured it all out onto a log, doused it with yet more petrol and set the mother alight. Sure, I lost part of my eyebrows and singed my beard but unless I’m massively mistaking them for rare dragon eggs ala Game of Thrones, those little buggers ain’t gonna hatch after being cremated. For now, my potatoes are safe.

Unfortunately, I wish I could say the same for everything else; the thistles, vines and grasses are choking the life out of all my other crops. The peas are losing the battle against the bindweed and my strawberries are wholly submerged beneath a canopy of meadow grass. And the less said about the carrots and rhubarb the better.

However, I’ve invested in more mechanised mayhem to tackle the problem properly this coming weekend by treating myself to a 29cc Troy-Bilt mini-cultivator. That beauty is going to eat up those weeds like they are apple pie and I’ll be able to sit back to revel in my absolute victory with a cuppa and a fat cigar, admiring the beauty of my finely tended half-acre veg garden while the kids play nicely with each other. Or at least I’m hoping it’ll be something like that. Given my unfortunate history with garden power tools, I might take off a toe or two, shout a lot, destroy the parsnips and bok choi and end up settling for a score draw if only the boys would give me 5 minutes peace.

One thing’s for certain: this summer equinox weekend will witness the crescendo of my battle against the weeds and bugs and I’ll be victorious, or otherwise my next blog post will proclaim my shameful defeat and you may all call me Weedy Stephen.

As Sweet As

As Sweet As

On Saturday Stephen went out into the fields all beekeepered up and did some hivekeeping work.  A friend of ours came over to help (our friend is also a beekeeper, we have some very cool friends) and they worked away, intently, in a cloud of smoke at the bottom of Home Field.  Stephen added supers to our brood boxes as we now have a lot of baby bees in there and they really need to move on up and start producing honey for themselves and (hopefully) us too.

During the moving and organising and producing of large billowing clouds of smoke, Stephen apparently had to shave off some comb here and there.  It all became moulded together into the curious ball you see above.  It has a primordial quality that I am fascinated by.  It is so clearly organic, it varies in colour and texture and has a sweet but smoky scent, like summery earth and beeswax.

Shimmering inside those mysterious passageways and caves of wax there is a delicate, sweet substance known as honey.  If you hold the ball in your hand for a minute you’ll end up with tiny beads of the sweet nectar on your skin, you can lick it off and revel in the delicate flavour that is present but also elusive.

I know because I did it.

The taste is a little like maple syrup and a little like flowers.  There are delicate hints of sunshine warmth with traces of green leaves and buds; each drop tastes a little different and is never, ever enough.  It is, perhaps the sweetest thing I’ve ever tasted and satisfies both physically and emotionally.  These are our bees, there will be our honey.  I’m not sure it gets sweeter than that.

Getting Picky

Getting Picky

For anyone who has been living on the moon or hiding in a concrete bunker hoping to ride out the Eurozone crisis with their epic store of feta in tact, it is strawberry season.  On day one of our local pick-your-own we were there, baskets in hand, ready to pick some berries.

Despite some libellous suggestions made to the contrary I do actually allow my Dad to leave the fields and go into the world sensibly dressed and free of shackles.  On a glorious but not overly hot day we made our way up and down our assigned rows, picking the crimson jewels from beneath their shady canopies.  Though the berries are not super sized (which is good for lazy jam makers like me) they are fresh, delicious and packed full of sweetness (good for jam eaters like everyone else in my family).

The boys had a fun time finding the luscious treasures so neatly tucked away beneath the leaves, Neirin spent most of his time running up and down the rows to show Grampa the one strawberry that he had added to his basket since the last time he showed him.

And before anyone starts making any kind of suggestions, the above picture is of my Dad leaning down to stroke a magical puppy that had skipped over to grant him three wishes.  While he was down there he might have picked a few strawberries, but just a few.  Litres.  But only because he wanted to.

Before 24 hours had passed a third of the strawberries had been turned into a double batch of strawberry jam.  It is a recipe I have been faithful to these past few years as it always turns out well and is inhaled by my loved ones.  My jam is very much like me actually, sweet, perfectly formed  but with just the right amount of acidity.  

 

Garden

Garden

As the summer progresses our garden is growing apace.  The earth here has rested for an undetermined amount of years and seems to be enjoying the opportunity to throw veggies out of the ground and a rapid rate of knots.  Stephen has worked so hard ploughing, re-ploughing and planting this last month and his work is really starting to show.

We have peas, beans, carrots, parsnips, cabbages, potatoes, spinach, lettuce, romaine as well as squashes, melons, turnips, bok choi, swiss chard, fruit bushes, garlic, onions, rhubarb and 275 tomato plants.  What’s that you say? 275 tomato plants is an insane amount of tomato plants, one man surely couldn’t have done that himself?

Well you’d be right,

Since my Dad arrived two weeks ago he has been enslaved willingly supported our farming efforts by planting 200 tomatoes all on his lonesome.  Yes the two chaps in this house are indeed farming heroes.  What was a piece of overgrown field set to grow yet more grass is now a blooming wonderland of productivity.  As well as growing food for ourselves we have rows of root veg that the chickens and pigs will benefit from during the winter months.  We are all being nourished by the hard work or our strapping chaps.

And what have I been doing you ask?  Well someone has to eat all that salad.

Park Life

Park Life

After a day of solid rain on Tuesday, Wednesday dawned sunny and bright so we took advantage and headed to a nearby park.  It was lovely to watch the boys play while we soaked up the sun under a beautiful blue sky.

 

Neirin was a pirate, Grampa pushed the swings and Mummy sat on the bench.  Bliss.

Kitchen Time

Kitchen Time

There really is nothing like doing some work in the kitchen to make me feel settled, grounded.  Drifting back and forth for ingredients, trying out new combinations and revisiting familiar ones; all with the joyful anticipation of tasty foods to put in our tummies.

The last two months has seen some quite significant changes in our eating habits and has made me think more carefully about what we are eating and how to get it all done.  Having now two family members gluten free (me and Neirin) has made it essential to find a decent gluten free bread recipe, I’m really enjoying this one and have made it twice now.  I can recommend going for the lower cooking time to produce a more moist loaf that doesn’t crumble too much.

On the recommendation of my naturopath I’m cooking in a more ‘tapas’ style, creating salads and side dishes ahead of time that can be quickly whipped onto a plate for lunch or to add alongside meat or fish for dinner time.  I’ve been making buckets of my favourite quinoa salad, which goes with everything, as well as trays of roasted root veg, egg mayonnaise and of course masses of green salad.  I love being able to have a full and tasty plate of food in front of me in 15 minutes flat and that includes the time it takes to warm up the veg!

With my Dad here I’m also making double batches of granola, the recipe referenced  is from Feeding the Whole Family and I’ve never found a better one, I love this recipe because it is so flexible and can be adjusted according to whatever nuts and seeds I have in the pantry.  To make it gluten free I simply leave out the wheat flour and cook it for the maximum time to make it nice and crunchy.

While changing to a gluten free diet has its challenges I’ve found having ready made food on hand to be the key; plus I can’t argue with how much better I feel and I now have a child who mostly sleeps through the night which counts for a lot!   Plus, the truth is, I enjoy it.  For some this kind of work is a chore, I understand that, after all do you ever hear me talking about my session down the gym or my latest spinning class?  Nope you don’t.  We all have our happy places and this is one of mine, but there are plenty of other things I don’t do, its all about the choices that work for us.

Huwyl and I wove our homeschooling morning around my kitchen work, him sitting at the counter while I mixed granola or chopped veggies.  We are winding down for the summer and only have a couple of school days left, soon our days will be free for our own pursuits for a couple of months before we immerse ourselves in second grade.  To me though, that hour felt like life should, busy with meaningful work but with no rush or stress, just finding our way steadily along our path, nourishing our minds and bodies as best we can.

Maths + Granola = Life.  That’s the kind of equation I can get behind.

Bees, Zombies and The Tragedy Of Being 40

Bees, Zombies and The Tragedy Of Being 40

I remember being a fresh-faced 12 year old walking to school, wondering what the year 2012 would be like. I’d imagined dark storm clouds, flickering lightening, the faint cries of tortured souls whipped away by the ever present cold winds. You see, the year 2012 has long held a dark fascination for me.

No doubt some of you are thinking Mayan End of Days. Perhaps, like others, you’re wondering if I’m obsessed with the upcoming Zombie Apocalypse and have secretly been plotting which of my rare vinyl LPs to sacrifice to save my friends and leg it to the pub ala Shaun of the Dead (best zomcom movie ever).

Well, you’d all be wrong.

After long consideration, I’m pretty sure that the Mayans simply ran out of rock to carve days on and decided to go with the “Fuck it, let’s call it a day at 2012” approach. I mean, even Mayans must get bored of carving rock calendars and want to get a cheeky flyer on a friday afternoon. Also, my vinyl is all stored in my parents dusty attic some 3,000 miles away and besides, it pathetically consists of:

  1. Pinky And Perky – Greatest Hits
  2. Culture Club – Colour By Numbers
  3. The Police – Reggatta de Blanc
  4. Madness – The Rise And Fall and Complete Madness
  5. Michael Jackson – Thriller
  6. Marmalade – The Very Best Of (as opposed to The Nearly Best Of which was quite frankly, utter rubbish and didn’t include the classic Obladi Oblada)

Other than The Police, I’d be prepared to toss all of those albums at a slathering Belgian zombie. I imagine Thriller would do extra damage and chucking Pinky and Perky has to get bonus points. So, no, my dark fascination with 2012 isn’t because of the Mayans or Zombie Apocalypse. It’s something far, far worse. It’s because I was born in May 1972 and have now reached the venerably buggered age of 40 years old.

Let’s set the record straight for anyone that thinks I’m over-exaggerating about this life milestone.  Life doesn’t begin at 40 you morons, it begins at zero and by 40, most of us are half way through which means that at best, I’m now teetering on the edge of the dark slide toward senility and adult diapers. Oh granted, there are some things to look forward to. Proclaiming non-politically correct statements about the French at public uprisings and playing the role of The Dark Lord in amateur dramatic adaptions of Lord of the Rings are certainly highlights still to come in the story of my life. Unfortunately though, my chances of reaching 6’2″ are pretty much over. I’m half an inch off and since my spine is likely to start collapsing now, I’ll never get it without some serious platform shoes which even with my shapely legs, a bearded 40-year old farmer just isn’t going to get away with.

The tradition of getting bought inappropriate bladed weapons for significant birthdays distracted me for a while. For my 20th, I bought myself a fake Swiss Army Knife from Sheffield market. It had a compass built into the end and a corkscrew just in case anyone needed to open a bottle of Chateau Neuf Du Broomhall 1992, but unfortunately I tragically lost it shortly after taking it home. For my 30th birthday, Emma bought me a three-foot “Pendragon” long sword made from Toledo steel which is rather awesome. I still have it and pretend to be Highlander when no one is looking. My Sean Connery impression is legendary and actually gets better with age. It’s kind of a mix between a Scot and a Pakistani Jamaican. Harder than you’d imagine to pull that off and not look ridiculous.

For my 40th birthday, my parents bought me a huge Sthil Chainsaw which can probably do more damage than the long sword, but isn’t as maneoverable in a fight. It’s an appropriate present for a 40 year old. After all, we’re supposed to be sensible now, right?

Well, no. Wrong again. What has lifted me from the doldrums of age-related melancholy, other than my missus and kids, is the arrival of around 20,000 new livestock. I’m talking about BEES! Oh yeah, buzzing bees that are busy making me delicious runny honey and beeswax for candles. I wasn’t sure how I’d take to bees, after all they have the possibility of hurting you in the way that your average Red Sexlink Chicken just can’t imagine. I’ve never been stung by a bee before and so had the added excitement of unknown pain coupled with uncertainty whether I’d go into anaphylactic shock and keel over after the first jab.

With hindsight, I shouldn’t have worried. I like any role that comes with a special hat and beekeeping is no exception. That’s probably why I’ve plotted and dreamed of becoming King – the crown is the ultimate hat. Other than the time I convinced a couple of gullible girls at University that I was the third son of the Duke of Northumberland, my lack of regal status is another travesty I’ve had to come to terms with in these first 40 years. Somehow, I content myself with the roles of Biker (helmet), Builder (hardhat), now Farmer (cowboy). In them all, the hat made the difference.

When I put the beekeeper’s hat on, something magical happened. I fell in love with bees. Not the cover yourself in honey and let them crawl over your scrotum kind of love. No, I fell in love with the ability to harness inherently wild creatures and have them turn sunshine into liquid gold. Real life doesn’t often get more magical than that.

Plus, the thought of our own supply of honey and beeswax opens up three new ways to generate revenue: raw honey, carved and infused medicinal candles and most importantly, Mead.

For those of you that aren’t familiar with Mead, it’s honey wine. The ancient britons used to think of it as the drink of the Gods and when you taste it, it’s easy to understand why. It’s smooth and sweet, has warmth and, like Bruce Lee, can unsuspectingly take the legs out from beneath you if you’re not careful. All round, it’s an alcoholic version of me.

I’ve not had the chance to brew any of this magical elixir yet because it takes an insanely large amount of honey to make a decent batch. But perhaps this year, we’ll have enough from our two starter hives to make an experimental run…one or ten bottles should see me and some select friends through the coming Zombie Apocalypse and End of Days in December 2012.

And if the zombies should still make it through, there’s always Culture Club to see us right.

Walking the Trail

Walking the Trail

Each day (two or three times a day in fact) we walk a now familiar trail across our fields.  ‘We’ is me and the dogs, them bounding, me striding, through the increasingly tall hay in bottom field.  Along the way we check on animals, bees, vegetables; we patrol this place of ours, checking each piece is as it should be.

I wonder, as we walk, about other trails that may have criss crossed this land, faded long since just as ours could so easily fade.  The dent in the grass that shows us where to walk each day would easily grow over, but in my mind is it clear and firm.  I know the only way to keep it fresh is to keep walking, rain or shine, summer and winter.  We walk our trail, making it a little deeper each time; one day it will be gone but not today, not tomorrow either.