Agricultural Affairs presents: Gardening for Lone Rangers

If you have precisely two hands and one spine to assist in your gardening endeavors, life can get interesting. If the body attached to said hands and spine is not particularly large or buff, then it’s really time to recruit the good ol’ brain for the horticultural efforts.

This farticle (fart·i·cle: /färdək(ə)l/ noun A piece of writing included with others on a blog of precisely zero consequence.) addresses the problem of breaking up the sod in a new garden patch when you are:

a) living alone

b) small or in less than ideal physical condition

c) too piss poor to afford a rototiller

d) lacking any friends or neighbors who might lend you a hand (or a rototiller)

e) lousy at planning ahead

or

f) all of the above.

Lone Ranger had Tonto, but the newly-married pioneer farmer’s wife, like you and I, had nobody to help her. (If anything, she had a toddler or two winding about her feet. Yeah, there was a husband, but he was off building a house or plowing a field for wheat, or what have you. I’m not sexist, but history was. Whatcha gonna do?) So I take a page from her book, when it comes to planting the year’s subsistence garden.

Warning: This is not the most efficient way to do things. One person does not equal efficiency in the world of homesteading, so I suggest you either make peace with that here and now, or get yourself a wife/husband/partner/child/friend/grandfather/volunteer/horse.

The relevant sequence is as follows:

  1. Now, assume it’s spring (or whenever your local planting season is), and your garden bed is just not large enough for your liking. You need more space, but you didn’t have a chance to prepare a new bed last fall because you were too busy stacking and splitting firewood, which is REALLY not a job for a single person of your size/build/health/age/attention span.
    Determine the area that’s to be the new planting bed. (Don’t make it too crazy big- there’s only one of you to feed, unless you’re growing fodder for livestock.)
  2. Get a trowel and make a bunch of holes in the sod, best as you can. Don’t put too much time or effort into it. Save your energy for the remaining zillion other chores that need to be done around planting season.
  3. Plant potatoes in holes.
  4. If you have any livestock bedding, rotted leaves or compost, spread this stuff over the potatoes as evenly as you can.
  5. Let the potatoes grow. You won’t be able to hill the potatoes like you would in normal soil, so you’ll end up with more green potatoes than you would otherwise. (See above warning note regarding efficiency- or the lack thereof.)
  6. In late summer (or whenever your local harvest season is), pick the potatoes. Your soil will be nicely broken up as a result.
  7. For additional goodness, spread more compost, mulch or bedding over the empty potato patch and let that stuff rot over the winter. Next spring, you’ll have a perfectly good garden patch there, ready for planting.
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You can plan your garden a year ahead, or you can improvise- either way, there’ll always be potatoes. How’s that for a nice thought?

Other alternatives to potatoes are turnips, beets and pumpkins (which need to be planted in little hills of compost heaped over the sod), as per other accounts I read or heard. I prefer potatoes, because I’m unfortunately not a fan of beets (anything that pink should taste like berries, and therefore should not be in my stew) and turnips require a hacksaw to cut up for cooking. Besides, if you plant a good storage variety, you really can’t have too many potatoes. (My favorites for the Maritime climate are Kennebec and Yukon Gold, though I hear Russet also works fine. The photo above shows Fingerlings, best eaten fresh.)

The end math is as follows:

  • Work: minimum
  • Backache: minimum
  • Headache: as usual- still need a place to cure the potatoes for storage, etc.
  • Yield: moderate, though even the crappiest soil (ie. anything short of concrete) will give you enough potatoes to make it worth your while, especially given how little time and effort it takes to grow them.

Moral of the story:

Homesteading is best practiced as a team sport, but if it’s just you and your lone arse out in the sticks, you can still feed yourself.

 

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Agricultural Affairs presents: Raising Quail for Eggs, Meat and Drama

The ultimate easy livestock for any homesteader, regardless of their environment, is the Japanese or Coturnix quail. I have successfully kept a trio of them back when I was living in a basement apartment, and they took up as much space as a pair of guinea pigs and were vastly cleaner and quieter than, say, budgies. I only ate the eggs at the time and didn’t breed them (and therefore didn’t end up with a multitude of extra cock quail dubbed Soup or Stew) but it was still a remarkably simple and satisfying way to have fresh eggs while living in the city.

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Stock photo, depicting a potential victim of mariticide

Now Douchebaggery Ranch has chickens, who conveniently recycle grass, bugs, kitchen scraps and some things I don’t want to know about (caught the rooster eating a dog turd from the neighbor’s yard the other day) into eggs. So why keep quail?

Three reasons:

  • My chicken coop doesn’t have a light. I let the ladies take a rest during the winter, because producing something the size of your head out of your ass every day can’t possibly be fun and they deserve a vacation. During that time, I bring a trio of quail into the house in a large rabbit cage, hook up a desk lamp over the cage and let the quail take over the egg duty for a couple of months. Sure, it’s a colossal nuisance to have to break 29 eggs to make a quiche, but Mother Nature never intended for the winter to be a time of convenience.

 

  • Soup and Stew. Now that I have an incubator, I hatch the quail eggs when the chickens are on egg duty. I raise every other clutch, keep or sell the new hens and give the extra boys a glamorous afterlife in the freezer, where they will be used for just about every recipe that calls for chicken. Quail tastes slightly different from chicken, but if I didn’t tell you, you wouldn’t know. There’s also the added convenience that for a single-person household, quail come in perfect portions. One bird makes one pot of soup, or one side serving to go with rice. (Yes, butchering is nasty, gross, messy and a whole chain of other adjectives I could spew off here, but that’s the topic of a different entry.)

 

  • Quail are still rare enough among the homesteading circles in most places that there’s a half decent market for live birds. It’s not a get-rich-quick scheme by any stretch, but it did help the incubator pay for itself.

 

Quail, however, have a Dark Secret that would make horror movie fans shiver with delight. There’s something insidious about these cutesy little birds that no quail book or website every tells you about.

Female quail are all homicidal maniacs.

Regardless of who is in the flock, how much space is available, what their diet is or how many toys they have in their enclosure, quail hens occasionally flip and start attacking anyone within beak reach. The most common victim is the husband, and death due to domestic violence is an unfortunate fact of quail social life. (This, I feel would make a fascinating phD thesis for any aspiring animal behaviorists who can’t think of anything better to do with their brain cells.)

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Stock photo- your friendly neighborhood psychopath

My twice-daily checks on the quail, who currently live in a large barn stall, are generally accompanied by the creepy crescendoing background music stuck in my mind and the thought of “Anyone dead? Anyone bleeding?” as I survey the flock to make sure nobody’s head has been pecked open. On more than a dozen unfortunate occasion, I’ve had to dispatch a (usually male) quail who was pecked halfway to death at a time of day when I was still busy waking up or all ready to go to bed, and I have enough nasty variations of this story to fill the front pages of several cheap tabloids.

No amount of research, dietary changes and supplementations and environmental enrichment has done anything to alleviate the problem of the werequail, who goes from sweet little hen to bloody-minded psychopath over the course of a few hours. For the longest time, I thought maybe my birds were inbred and had the quail equivalent of schizophrenia or some such in their bloodlines, but recently I met a couple of other homesteaders who quietly admitted to having the same problem with their quail.

Moral of the story: quail are douchebags. They are cute, they are pretty, they are the easiest livestock in the world to keep, but they are not for the faint of heart.

Archive of Imagined Conversations presents: Queen of the Night

Premises: Some ungodly hour of the night, the bedroom.

Characters: Lemon the cat (aka. Her Majesty the Queen, in royal italics), and myself the pathetic sleeping human.

The Queen on her throne


– Human?

– …

– Humaaan…

– Mmmh.

– HumAAANN!

– *groan* Whaddyawant?

– We wants attention.

– Holy shit, Lemon. It’s like two in the morning. Which is definitely not morning.

– Fine, then. We wants under the covers.

– Fine. Whatever. Come on in.

– We wants to lie on your chest.

– Have it your way.

– Human?

– Gah. Now what?

– We wants to stick Our whiskers up your nose.

– LEMONNNN!!

– Purr purr purr purr…

Cast and Crew: Gentlemen of an Oinky Disposition

How many roads must a guinea pig walk down before you can call it a farm animal? 

Let me make one thing clear: I don’t eat guinea pigs. Eating a rodent is a little beyond the extent of even my relatively non-selective palate. I don’t judge the folks that enjoy cuy, it’s just a case of to-each-their-own.

This being the case, here is a common question I get from friends and family who know my quasi-obsession with having a job for every resident of Douchebaggery Ranch:

“Why in the name of all creation do you keep guinea pigs??”

Souffle behind his house, with his former buddy hiding indoors after a particularly hearty bickering.

Allow me to explain in a list, because I like making lists.

1) Guinea pigs are essentially instant composters. You feed fruit and vegetable scraps in one end, and get fertilizer out the other end. No waiting for weeks for organic matter to break down, or for the worms to slowly eat their way through your garbage. You can pretty much watch it happen- it’s like magic.

2) Guinea pig manure, like rabbit manure, doesn’t require aging. It can go directly into the garden. Better yet, used guinea pig bedding (which in our case is a bit of wood shavings covered with a lot of hay) makes fantastic mulch, with the fertilizer already worked in. You don’t have to pick through it, dilute it, or process it in any way. The bottom of the cage is upturned onto a suitable patch of earth, and that’s that.

3) Guinea pigs cost practically nothing to keep. Hay is dirt cheap when bought by the bale, and makes up most of their diet. Vegetable and fruit scraps are exactly that- scraps. Wood shavings are also dirt cheap if bought by the horse-sized block, and you don’t need much anyway. (They are too rough a substrate for the guinea pigs’ feet, hence why I cover the shavings with tons of hay. This provides food, bedding and entertainment all at once.) Pellets are no longer considered an essential part of a guinea pig’s diet by most veterinarians, though I still give them a little bit as a treat. Like a tablespoon per day per pig. This, likewise, won’t break the bank.

4) Guinea pigs are wonderfully entertaining. They greet you with oinks when you enter the premises (mostly as a demand for food). They do the “hay dance” every time you give them a wad of fresh hay, rumbling and circling around the hay in unison. They chitter, purr, wiggle their butts (this is called “rumble-strutting” in guinea pig circles) in a hilarious way, and bicker like old couples. When they play, they popcorn (this is a motion that looks exactly the way it sounds). They have politics, for Heaven’s sake. You can watch the drama unfold every time there is the slightest suspicion as to who may be dominant over whom. It’s better than a soap opera.

5) Guinea pigs are snuggly. They will actually sit on your lap and make contented guinea pig sounds for a good twenty minutes before they pee on you.

6) The domestic cavy is a cheap and natural anti-depressant. It is the third-most ridiculous looking creature on Earth, ranking shortly behind the blue-footed boobie and the ezo momonga. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, please pray to St.Google, the patron saint of the lazy and the ignorant.) You can’t stare one in the face and not laugh.

Pecorino, the guinea sheep.

Current guinea pig population of Douchebaggery Ranch consists of Souffle, Mr.T and Pecorino. Souffle is the longest-standing member of DR, predating even the dogs and the cats. He is pushing 7, which is ancient by guinea pig standards. Mr.T is named as such due to his mohawk, which is magnificent enough to make it worthwhile to break the tradition of naming household pets after food. Pecorino is the latest addition to DR and the only purebred cavy (and also one of the few non-second-hand animals on the premises), being a Texel- he is a curly pig, and resembles a sheep crossed with a toilet brush.

Mr.T reminding Pecorino who’s da boss.

The three gentlemen live together, though Souffle currently has his own “apartment” partitioned off- Mr.T likes to bully the old fellow, which I presume is karma, given the years of testosterone-driven harassment Souffle has provided for his previous buddy. Eventually, I might try to re-integrate him with the other two, if this can be accomplished without nipped ears and bloody noses. (Soap opera, I’m telling you.)

Why do I have guinea pigs? Because life would be a lot less colorful without them, that’s why. (Besides, I don’t have a TV and you can’t watch chickens in the winter.)

   

Cast and Crew: Independent Tailwaggers Association

Farm dogs are what you make of them.

The classic picture of the farm dog is the big shaggy mutt that trots around without a collar, generally as a guardian of livestock, property or people. Occasionally the stereotype is replaced by a purebred livestock guardian dog (LGD) whose breed is impossible to pronounce let alone spell- these are often giant, aloof and intelligent animals who wish to have everything to do with sheep and little to do with humans.

At Douchebaggery Ranch, you find neither the easy-going mutt nor the duty-driven LGD. The canine residents of the homestead are Oscar Mayer Wiener and Bonibon, working dogs in their own right. I don’t like to call them “rescues”, as I have not removed them personally from some awful situation. They are, however, both second-hand, like most everything here at DR.

Oscar is a Cairn Terrier that I found in the local SPCA’s proverbial bargain bin. He came with allergies, and stank to high heaven with a yeast infection when I brought him home, despite weeks of treatment at the shelter. He is still an avid nail-biter thanks to chronically itchy feet, but has cleaned up nicely aside from that. Oscar is total chicken shit when it comes to noises like fireworks, thunder, the clothes dryer (I ended up having to rig up an indoor clothesline for fear of giving the poor bugger a heart attack every time I do laundry) and the crowing of the cock quail (who, much to Oscar’s dismay, has to live indoors with his harem during winter months). This year, Oscar spent New Year’s Eve drugged out of his wits, compliments of my neighbors at the adjacent trailer park where the fireworks began at 4pm. He is also known as the Piddlestick due to his habit of pissing in the house when he’s scared- or when it’s too cold or wet for him to want to go outside. Aside from his various working positions at the farm, Oscar’s official title is the Best Thing In the World. That’s because he is.

Oscar and Bonibon getting ready for work.
Bonibon came from a family that didn’t want her any more- it’s a long and stupid story that I won’t get into, because all it would accomplish is to get me mad all over again. She is the archetype of a fufu dog, and I place her pedigree somewhere around a toy poodle crossed with a dish rag. She is elderly, has cataracts in one eye, and is in general a pathetic excuse for a dog. She is also absolutely adorable.

The Fufu being a fufu.
The Fufu and the Piddlestick are full-time bedwarmers. They crawl under the covers with me every night and serve as four-legged hot water bottles. They work night shift year round, with no weekends, holidays or sick days. It’s a hard life, but someone’s gotta do it.

All jokes aside, the dogs probably save me a lot of money in the winter, since I no longer need to heat the house at night. In other words, like everyone else at DR, they Earn Their Keep. They also work part-time as doorbells, and Oscar has the additional job of janitorial services. He waits patiently beside me any time I’m cooking or eating, and dutifully vacuums up any food particles that fall on the floor.

Some day, if Douchebaggery Ranch ever moves to a larger piece of land or a more remote spot where predators become a bigger concern, I might get a LGD (second-hand, of course). Until then, my principle is to not keep any dogs that are large enough for me to ride. (This, mind you, is not difficult, since I’m a tiny person.) Still, I insist that there is room for small dogs in the homesteading life. From the lost art of ratting to the indoor positions of personal space heater or intruder alarm, fuzzy little shits like Boni and Oscar can easily transition from their modern role of “canine babies” to real assets. Not that there’s anything wrong with canine babies, but I have the odd belief that animals who have a job feel more appreciated than simple companions. This is total hogwash, of course- all a dog needs to feel appreciated is a bowl of food, the occasional romp in the woods and belly rubs on demand.

Fauxlosophy Department presents: Problems Worth Having

It has been a sad week of sorts, which goes to prove that even douchebags get the blues. (That could almost be a song title.) The goats, Maddy the Obnoxious and Patrick the Supreme Asshat, have left, and so have my dreams of goat cheese and newborn kids that bound around like they have springs on their hooves. Patrick and Maddy are now living on the farm of a friend of a friend, where they are enjoying their own herd, 90 acres and utter mayhem. (Ever wondered why during medieval times Satan was depicted as a goat? Folks those days may have been way off on many things such as considering baths a yearly necessity, but they got this one right.) Apparently Patrick still shows his affection by head-butting people at groin level, so it is an added bonus that his new humans are not intending to have children…

The Dink and the Fiddlehead

The reason for the goats’ sudden departure is a realization that hit me during a week of feeling particularly lousy, thanks to the evil superpowers of clinical depression: some problems are not worth having. Having half my mind constantly worry about whether the goats are in or out (of the barn, the pen or trouble) is one of those, as is the realization that the cloven-footed devils were sucking up energy that I don’t have in the first place. Walking into the barn and finding out that one asshole quail hen has pecked her husband’s head open is another problem not worth having. (Birds are mean pricks, by the way, in case I haven’t mentioned that before.) Yet other examples are having my barn cat go missing, and finding a drowned chick in the ducks’ water basin. As I said, it hasn’t been the best of weeks.

At least the goats got their happy ending- lucky bastards that they are. I was left with my problems. Given the option between getting overwhelmed and falling into a half-baked kooky mindset of philosophical acceptance, I chose the latter. And I decided that most of my problems fell into this other category: Problems Worth Having. 

Pumpkinvasion- so much for my coffee table…

Allow me to elaborate. For example, baking a blackberry pie and realizing that in a one-person household the only way to finish it before it gets moldy is to eat pie at least two meals a day, that’s a problem worth having. Not knowing where in the name of all creation you’re going to store the 15+ head-sized pumpkins that your single, over-zealous vine produced is another such problem. As is what on earth you’re going to do with 15+ pumpkins in the first place. Not being able to turn in bed because every inch of available space under the covers is taken up by two warm dogs and a snoring cat is also a problem I consider worth having. Being a mile behind cleaning because you’ve been too busy cooking, freezing, drying and canning; having to put a turnip into each soup and stew because you don’t know how else you’ll use them up; wondering why the hell you (quite successfully) grew turnips when you don’t particularly like them; being nearly -but not quite- sick of eating fresh eggs every day; running through postage stamps faster than a bottle of wine because people still write you letters; having your kitchen look like it’s been invaded by red and green aliens because there are tomatoes ripening on every horizontal surface… these, friends, are all Problems Worth Having. I have a shit ton of them at the moment, and I hope you do, too. 

Cast and Crew: Masked Marvels

Douchebaggery Ranch is proud to have its very own superheroes. (And no, I’m not one of them- I’m just the pitiful Human who is trying to keep up with everyone else day after day.) Ladies and gentlemen and everyone else in between, allow me to present Daisy and Daisy, the muscovy ducks.

Named according to the DR tradition (which declares that animals I can’t tell apart get the same collective name), Daisy and Daisy share the title of Chief Asshole of the Coop with the rooster. They are mean to the chickens, and outright nasty to the three not-so-small chocolate muscovy ducklings I acquired earlier this summer (one of which is Donald, their prospective husband). The ducklings are just in the process of growing their primary wing feathers, and after finding them covered in blood from their savaged pinfeathers two mornings in a row, the poor buggers had to move in with the quail who reside in the other, sectioned-off half of the coop. Speaking of husbands, Daisy and Daisy have buried two. (Well, one died from severe bumblefoot that he had when he came, and the other disappeared. No suspects have been apprehended.) I rather hope that the third time is the charm, for Donald’s sake. (And my own. Self-propagation is considered a virtue on Douchebaggery Ranch, as my freezer stock mainly consists of the excess second generation males of various species.)

Daisy & Daisy at work


Then why, you might ask, are these douchebags dubbed the Masked Marvels? Let me tell you a story. My garden is in its 3rd season this year, and peas, beans and brassicas are just making their debut. The previous two crops were utterly decimated by slugs. My options were to put down slug bait (strychnine, a particularly awful toxin, various “safe” products that still come with toxicity warnings, or actually safe products that happen to be completely ineffective), set up beer traps (which require a lot of maintenance, and waste perfectly good beer) or find something that eats them. Enter the Daisies. I soon found out that along with the slugs, they cheerfully gobble up all sorts of insect vermin, including catching flies straight out of the air. Right now, the relevant equation is as follows: slugs + flies + food scraps = eggs + meat. How is this not a superpower?!
For the records, duck eggs taste “earthy” (ie. gross) when fried or scrambled, but they are AMAZING when used in baking. There’s some information out there about the fat content of the yolks and what have you, along with all sorts of stories about French chefs using duck eggs for baking, but all that aside, seriously, they make damn good waffles and absolutely divine coffee cakes in comparison to chicken or quail eggs. As for meat, that is a discovery I made last year, when I actually had a previous  flock of muscovies- one got mauled by a dog, one got ran over (conveniently on a sub-zero day) and two took off one day and never came back. The first two mentioned thus made their way into Freezerland, and were much appreciated on cold winter days in the form of soup and stew. Muscovy meat is nothing like the utility ducks (usually Pekins) I used to roast for Christmas. No fat-filled breast for the muscovy, much to my dismay. However, the meat is dark, and makes a much better substitute for beef than chicken. Duck and barley soup? Duck stroganoff? You name it.

These days Daisy is busy molting and the other Daisy seems to have stopped laying in moral support, so there are no duck eggs in the kitchen. However, two Donaldas are growing up along with Donald, and since they are directly related to the flock-husband-to-be, their fate is yet to be decided. As much as I hate to eat females, selling them is not the favorable option at this point, as most people prefer not to buy livestock just before the winter. It looks like, once again, douchebaggery will prevail. Such is life, and such is the world…

Donald, the prospective patriarch