Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Pickin' Peaches

Palisade, Colorado is known for its fruit - cherries, apricots, grapes, nectarines, and especially their peaches. And every year, anyone who lives anywhere close to Palisade waits rather impatiently for the peaches to ripen, for the trucks to park on every other street corner and sell flats and boxes out of their beds, for farmers to start offering samples of the delicious varieties they sell at all the farmers' markets.

A drive through Palisade is always a pleasant one - cute Victorian houses line the town streets with tidy little yards and flower gardens. But once you get out into the country, streets are lined with rows and rows and rows of peach trees, intermittently dotted with fruit stands and farm houses. But mostly, it's just peach trees.

A friend tipped me off to a farm that's offering U-Pick peaches this year - at $7 a box, I couldn't resist. So the girls and I packed up and headed down the mountain, imagining all the yummy things one can make with peaches. At the mention of "peaches", I swear my daughters' pupils turn into tiny pictures of the fruit, akin to old school cartoon characters.

The trees were loaded. It took half an hour to pick four boxes of peaches - about 100 pounds. Yes, I might be crazy. Or perhaps logic escapes me when I start thinking about peach cobbler, peach crisp, peach smoothies, peach oatmeal, peaches on pancakes, peaches on ice cream..... 100 pounds doesn't seem like nearly enough when you imagine all the ways you could be eating them.

Again with the lack of any sense, I didn't take my camera along for our peach picking excursion. It really was a lovely time. I picked peaches, commented frequently about how it seemed that I was the only one doing any work, and my children wandered among the trees with peach juice dripping down their chins. The farmer told us to be sure to sample them... a couple of times, if we needed to. Two Little Girls took his suggestion to heart. Each one ate at least six peaches while I worked. With full boxes and full bellies, we headed home, having paid only 25 cents per pound. I feel a little bit like I robbed them.

If you're heading to any U-Pick farm, here's a short list of things you might want to pack:

*Plenty of water - that sun gets hot, fast!
*Gloves - fruits and veggies are dirty, but bugs also like to nap on them. Never grab a napping yellow jacket, just FYI.
*Chore boots, or some other water-proof, mud boots. Especially if you're going right after it rains.
*An apron, for each picker - it is much faster to fill your apron with fruit, then occasionally dump it into a box. Alternatively, a basket with a good handle would be useful.
*Extra cash - because inevitably there will be some other fantastic local produce available for sale, and you're going to want some. 
*If you're picking veggies, take along some garden scissors or nippers. It makes neat, easy work of harvesting most vegetables, and leaves the plants intact.
*Check with your farm to see if they offer containers to take your fruits or veggies home in. Most do, but some appreciate it if you bring your own boxes or bags.


Since I didn't get any pictures of our afternoon, my sweet Littlest One drew us a picture so we could all remember:

That's exactly what it looked like. I promise. :o)

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A Walk Through the Garden

 I haven't done much blogging or photographing of the garden this year. This is mostly because I'm disappointed in myself for not having as pretty of a garden as I've had in the past. It looks... well, it looks like a first year garden in a new climate. You know, because it is a first year garden in a new climate.

It's about 30 ft by 70 ft. I wanted it bigger, but tilling turned out to be quite a chore, and this was the most The Man of My Dreams could muster the time and energy to do. And now I'm grateful for that, since it's proving plenty big enough for my first year up here.

This picture is of weeds. Yep - that's how bad it is. I pull a wheelbarrow full of weeds each morning and night, but the bindweed and the goat-heads are just awful. Hopefully a few years of diligent weeding will prove successful. Apparently all the tilling The Man of My Dreams did for me ended up spreading the weeds, making them even worse.

Next year, no tilling.

I've also been disappointed because nothing seems to be growing. But what I've come to realize is that everything is definitely growing, it just all ripens about six weeks later that it did when we lived in The Big City. Six weeks is a very long time for a girl who has been waiting all year for fresh green beans and tomatoes. But we're getting there. 

Next year, patience.

 If there's one thing I can say about living here, it's that pollination isn't a problem. Every flower gets pollinated - bees and wasps abound, and they are doing their work diligently. In The Big City, many tomato blossoms would drop before they were pollinated, between the heat and the lack of bees. Not here though - cooler temperatures and an abundance of buzzing insects means plenty of pollination.
 I'm amused at how things that I couldn't grow for the life of me in The Big City are doing so well here. Broccoli never got a chance to develop a head before, because it would get so hot so fast. On nine broccoli plants this year, the heads weighed out at fifteen pounds, and we're still harvesting from the side shoots nearly every other day. I finally pulled out all the spinach - I put by thirty bags of frozen spinach before it bolted. In The Big City, cucumbers would wilt and shrivel in the dry heat if they weren't watered in the middle of the afternoon, and the fruits would be bitter. Here, the vines are clamboring up my pitiful trellis, and baby cukes are everywhere, shaded in the lush plants. The onions are growing nice big bulbs, thanks to less heat up here. They're big enough to be using, and will hopefully store well this fall, as I've got about 120 of them planted.

Next year, more broccoli.

The beans are growing, finally starting to flower just in the past couple of days. They quickly outgrew and pulled down the bamboo teepees and stuck out there. The ground is so rocky here that it's hard to get any stakes in deep enough to be sturdy.

Next year, stronger trellises and stakes. 

Littlest One planted corn this year. The only year I tried growing corn at the other house, it was a miserable, earwig-infested failure. I'm not sure this attempt will be any better, but it's fun to see her when she goes out and checks on it. It grows quickly, so she sees the changes often.

 Much of what we planted this year is experimenting - trying out new varieties, and growing vegetables we hadn't tried before. Potatoes and cabbage are both new to us, things we didn't have the space for in the past. The cabbage worms are grateful that we've planted so many varieties of brassicas for them to consume. The cabbage heads are big enough now to harvest, though I'm nervous that there are little wormies living inside there that are going to make us not want to eat it.

Next year, row covers.
 In the foreground of this picture are potatoes. I dug a trench as deep as I could go with all the rocks and boulders underground - about 18". I've since filled that back in and hilled up the potatoes another two feet or so, and they're just going crazy. Not sure if there's anything actually growing in there, but they sure are happy plants.

 Next year, potato crates.

And also growing quite well are the turkeys. I'm still fascinated by what neat birds they are. I'm also fascinated by how much they eat. We keep them penned up and feed them commercial game bird feed, and they go through more than I ever thought possible. I'm afraid to let them free range because I've heard it can be hard to get them to come back.
Next year, a moveable turkey pen. 

I have a feeling every year will come with a list of things to do "next year". It's all a learning experience. I'm realizing I need to give up my dreams of perfection in these early years while we figure things out. Nothing is ever going to be perfect, of course - this is farming after all. It will get better though, as experience is gained and routines fall into place. Until then, I will try to embrace the imperfection and learn graciously from the lessons this land has to teach me.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Make Hay While the Sun Shines

It seems like every time I turn around, there is another opportunity to relive a bit out of the Little House books. I would tell you it's for the children's sake, you know, for homeschool, except that I usually enjoy it as much as they do.

We had our hay cut, back about the 4th of July. A neighbor did it. Unfortunately, between the time the hay was cut, and the time it was to be baled, a different neighbor's irrigation water flooded our pasture, so the haying neighbor couldn't bale part of it for a couple of days.... except then he was going out of town for two weeks the next day, at the start of monsoon season. Rain + hay = bad. We could've called around to find someone else to bale the rest, but for the 20 or so bales we would have gotten, we hated to bother anyone.

Which meant that we had a whole lot of hay laying on the ground, all dried out and needing to be put up.

So we called upon our knowledge of Ma and Pa and Laura and Mary, and off we went out to the pasture. Remember when Laura helps Pa bring in the hay in The Long Winter?

 "[The hay] came tumbling loosely over the high edge and Laura trampled it down. Up and down and back and forth she trampled the loose hay with all the might of her legs, while the forkfuls kept coming over and falling... The sunshine was hotter and the smell of the hay rose up sweet and strong. Under her feet it bounced and over the edges of the hayrack it kept coming."

Ma wasn't all too pleased that her daughter was out doing man's work - "She did not like to see women working in the fields. Only foreigners did that. Ma and her girls were Americans, above doing men's work."

But Laura was glad to have been able to help Pa, even being the "Half-Pint" that she was. While I'm not sure my girls have the stamina to keep at it for days, they sure did enjoy it for a few hours! (Here's hoping we have no need to twist this hay into logs for the fire this winter...)

Our experience, of course, was a high-tech version of that. We had a pick-up truck, and instead of Daddy driving the horses, I drove the truck along.

Daddy pitched the hay into the back of the pickup...

And then Two Little Girls jumped and stomped and danced and packed it all down tight.

With their help in doing this, we were able to get most of the hay in only four pickup loads.

And of course, they were rewarded with a hay ride over the bumpy pasture back to the barn.

Huck and Izzy supervised (read: napped in the tall hay)

And Bandit tried to figure out how he was going to reach just a little bit further to get to that big ol' pile of hay by his stall.

We managed to get finished just as the rain (rain!) started to fall. It was the first rain we'd had in months, and it came down like it meant it.

This whole farming thing is a lot of work, the hot and sweaty kind of work that leaves you exhausted... but on days like this, when the work is accomplished all together as a family... well, that's why we're here, doing what we're doing.

“It is a good idea sometimes to think of the importance and dignity of our every-day duties. It keeps them from being so tiresome; besides, others are apt take us at our own valuation." 
 --Laura Ingalls Wilder

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Best Kind of Confident

I realize I'm her mother, and so it is my job to feel this way, but seriously - I love my kid. Sometimes her attitude and her personality just amaze me. Most days, I wish I could learn to be a little more like her. I'm pretty sure she teaches me more than I'll ever teach her, though she might not ever know it.

Watching her at the 4-H horse show and gymkhana this weekend, I was so thrilled with the way she took it all in, never gave in to pressure, was incredibly sportsmanlike, and just had an overall wonderful attitude.

I attribute her awesomeness, at least in part, to the fact that she's homeschooled.  She has no concept of competition. There is no need, in our home, to compete for first place. There has never been a need for her to consider what others might think of her, and so she has this confidence in herself that most kids never experience. My husband was homeschooled, and is exactly the same, and he totally gets her. Me, on the other hand... I find it all quite baffling. Endearing, to be sure, but utterly confusing. A life without comparing yourself to others? Without worrying about whether you're the best? I don't think I'd ever imagined such a thing until I started seeing the person she's turning out to be... and I love it.

My Oldest Girl, on her amazingly sweet and ever-so-patient old horse, had not the slightest chance of winning any events this weekend. But that didn't matter, she wasn't there to win. She was there just to do it, to get some experience and see what it was like and learn some things. When the other kids showed up dressed to the nines in rhinestone chaps, it never occurred to her that her attire was only average. When the other kids had fancy horses, it never crossed her mind that her 22 year old draft/pony cross wasn't up to par. When the other kids raced through the poles and barrels as fast as they could, she never felt like she had to do that. She happily walked her horse through each pattern, doing exactly what she felt comfortable doing. She might have been laughed at for being the slowest, or people might have felt sorry for her, but if they did, she never noticed.

When she was handed her first sixth place ribbon, she was tickled. She'd won something! In her mind, she walked away a winner. She was given a ribbon, and that meant she had been recognized for doing what she was doing. Blue or pink, it didn't matter. There were girls there crying, stomping, yelling at their parents, angry with their horses, because they hadn't gotten the first place ribbon. My kiddo couldn't understand that. She just patted Bandit's neck, told him he is the best horse in the whole world, and cheerfully tied that pink ribbon to her saddle.

The next day, she went on to win four fifth place ribbons, and even a fourth place ribbon. (This was because other girls were disqualified because their horses went too fast for the novice division.) By the end of the two days, she had a whole stack of ribbons. The color didn't matter. Now she has something to hang on her wall next to a picture of her and Bandit together, showing that they went out and did their best together - a cautious little girl and her ever-so-slow pony - working together, enjoying just being out around all those other people in that big arena.

She says next year she'd like to maybe try to win a third place ribbon. There it is again, that homeschool mentality. When you're schooled at home, and competition doesn't exist, the only person you have to compete with is yourself. Her goal for the next year is simply to improve her skills and do a little better next time. In her mind, that will mean she's won.

The highlight of the event came at the banquet, when it was announced that she had gotten first place in her division on the written horse test. A blue ribbon! She won a blue ribbon!  She studied hard for that test, but also spent a lot of time reading her horse books just because she found them so interesting. And she was rewarded for it with a beautiful blue ribbon. I think we were all a little shocked... little Chloe, coming in almost last in nearly every event, walking away with the best score on the test. I told her what she lacks in speed, she makes up for in knowledge.

But at the end of the day, it wasn't that blue ribbon that mattered. The whole stack of different colored ribbons was nice and she's mighty proud of them, but what she kept talking about was how she wanted to go ride some more and practice some of the things she'd learned while she was there. She's sure Bandit can do it, and she can too, with a little bit of practice.

I want that innocence. I want her attitude. I want her confidence. That little girl inspires me, I tell ya.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Horse in Flag Pajamas

 Bandit is having a sleepover with Grammy tonight.

Grammy lives in The Big City. With fair events starting at 8 a.m. tomorrow, we decided it would be easier to board him at her house than to be hauling him back and forth from The Tiny Little Town. And Grammy doesn't charge like the fairgrounds does.

Bandit got a bath today. We spent an hour or more shampooing and scrubbing and rinsing, conditioning his mane and braiding it up, and then The Oldest walked him around and around until he was all dry.

And then Grammy got out some jammies for him to wear.

Because horses in pajamas are just cool. And because it would keep him from getting any dirtier than necessary before tomorrow morning.

 I'm not sure if Bandit's ever been forced to wear such a thing before, but he reacted in typical Bandit fashion - patiently, quietly, and hoping it involved a treat.
 I think he's pretty darn adorable.

He may not be the fastest horse at the fair tomorrow, or the sleekest, or the trimmest, or the spunkiest. But I can guarantee you he's one of the fluffiest, softest ponies that will walk through that arena, and definitely one of the most patient.

Monday, July 9, 2012

For the Love of Spinach

 The memory is still etched clearly into my mind. It was nearing 9 o'clock, well after bedtime. I was still sitting at the kitchen table. The dishes were washed, my father was sitting in his chair reading. In front of me was a now-cold, slimy, sloppy gelatinous green mass that my mother called "creamed spinach." I was sure this wasn't actually food. Who on earth could have actually concocted such a thing? Every so often, I tried to take a tiny taste, and I gagged. I cried. I begged for mercy. But no... I was to sit at that table until I ate that god-forsaken green slime.


I've grown spinach every year since I started gardening. Let me say now that it is definitely not because I like spinach. It is only because I feel compelled to grow it because I know it really is good for us. And to spite me, because I'm sure it knows how much I actually dislike it, every single year the spinach patch grows so bountifully and prolifically that I feel as though it might actually drown me.

And, since spinach has a tendency to sit in my refrigerator until it is an oozing mess, I learned quickly to preserve it. Because hey, whether I like it or not, I'm not about to spend time growing something and have it spoil.

Each year, I experiment a little bit with spinach freezing, trying to find the very easiest way to do it. Freezing spinach can be tedious work, between the rinsing and the chopping and the blanching and the packaging. I cut quite a few corners this year though, and it seems to have worked out beautifully.

Step 1: Fill your sink with water all the way to the tippy top. Dump in all the spinach that is cheerfully taking over your garden and swish it around a bunch.

Step 2: Walk away for awhile. Do a load of laundry, teach a math lesson, take a nap. Whatever. Just leave the spinach to sit for a bit. Then, repeat steps 1 and 2.

By this time, any dirt/debris/nastiness should be settled to the bottom of your sink, and your clean spinach leaves should be floating on top. (Because let me tell you, garden produce is dirty, dirty stuff.)

Step 3: Gently gather a small handful of spinach, being careful not to disturb the sludge at the bottom of the sink. Use a large knife to chop it roughly into 1/2" to 1" pieces. One year, I carefully chopped it into tiny little 1/4" squares. No more. Chopped roughly is fine. You can actually skip chopping altogether if you want, but it saves time later. If you need it chopped finer for a specific recipe, you can do that after you thaw it. Toss the chopped spinach in a big bowl, and do another handful. Keep on going til it's all done.

Step 4: Save the sink water and pour it on your garden.

Step 5: Fill your biggest pot with water and bring it to a boil. When it boils, dump the whole bowl of chopped spinach into it and start stirring. Have the Smallest Child in your house practice counting to thirty.

Step 6: At the end of the thirty seconds (or a minute, depending on how long it took her to count) pour the whole pot through a colander. Save this water, too, and use it on your tomato plants\ after it's cool. It's full of calcium, which prevents blossom end rot.

Step 7: Quickly spray your blanched spinach with cold water until it's cool. This stops the cooking process.

Step 8: Whimper for a moment when you realize that the gigantic heap of spinach that you washed and chopped has now been reduced to a few measly cups. (Or you can celebrate a little, since it seems like there's less spinach to force yourself to eat. Either way.)

Step 9: Divide your spinach into 1-cup portions, pack them into ziploc bags, squeeze out the air, label them, and freeze them.

It doesn't take nearly as long to actually do it as it sounds like it does. I can do five pounds of spinach in about half an hour.

When you're ready to use it, thaw it on the counter for a couple of hours. It thaws fast. One bag is a good addition to soup. One bag per person if you're forcing your children to eat serving steamed spinach as a side dish.

How to use frozen spinach? Add it to soups, stews, dips, quiche, frittata, casseroles, omelettes... pretty much anything.Chop it fine and add it to pasta dough to make spinach pasta, or mix it with cheese and use it to stuff ravioli or manicotti. If you mix it with enough other things, you can generally hide the taste. Just whatever you do, for heaven's sake don't cream it.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Girl and her Horse: The First Gymkhana

My sweet Oldest One can best be described as "cautious". She thinks through things before she does them, considers every possible thing that could go wrong, and then decides whether it's really worth the risk. Most of the time, it's not. While I appreciate her wisdom, there are times I'm afraid she's missing out on fun things because she has a tendency to be a bit overly cautious - like not playing on the jungle gym at McDonald's because she might fall, or not going on some of the rides at Disneyland.

But this life out here in the country has done wonders for her. She's still cautious, and careful, but she's coming into her own and she's gaining huge amounts of confidence and independence. It's thrilling to see her growing this way.

And Bandit has a whole lot to do with it.

This little girl, for the past number of years, has been Horse Crazy. She has spent so much time reading horse stories, drawing horse pictures, learning everything she can about horses, and dreaming about some day having a horse. She took horse lessons, and then joined a horse club, and now she's got a horse to ride whenever she wants to... and it's taken a lot to get her comfortable actually riding him! I don't think she was expecting all that riding really is. Horses are big animals, and while this one is well trained, he still has a mind of his own and occasionally tries to get away with some things. Riding can be hard work, and there is a very real possibility that she could fall off, and she knows it. Since we brought him home, she's just been a little timid about riding him.


Yesterday was her first gymkhana. Gymkhana is "games on horses" - different events set up for kids (and adults) to ride through, and try to score the best time. Cora did the last one, but Chloe missed out on it, so this was her first time.

I was nervous for her. I mean, I was wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night nervous. What if he didn't do what she told him to? What if she hated it? What if she forgot the pattern mid-run, or heaven forbid fell off her horse? It could go two ways - it could be a wonderful experience, or it could be an epic disaster.

I worry too much. I know where she gets it.

So we got Bandit down to the rodeo grounds, got her signed up for all the events. The special race of the day was the Egg and Spoon race - hold an egg on a spoon without touching it, take your horse around a barrel and back to the gate without dropping it. She didn't want to do it. She might drop the egg, she said. I assured her everyone might drop the egg, and signed her up for that one too.

Then it was warm up time.

She was still nervous, but around she went, with Daddy next to her the whole time. Bandit was happy as a clam, but a very calm and relaxed version of happy. He knew he wasn't there to win any races today. His job was to walk around like the best-behaved horse in the whole world, and that's exactly what he did. I think being in that arena with a hundred other people on their horses calmed her. And she felt like she was really a part of something.

Next came a lot of waiting, and watching, and finally it was her turn with the egg. Her very first event. Off they went, at a slow walk, down around the barrel and back...

with the egg still intact at the line!

 This likely has something to do that Bandit has the smoothest gait of any horse I've ever ridden. He's amazing.

After that, the events came more quickly. She did pole bending...

And then flags.
There was nothing fast about this. She walked him all the way through, and whether he wanted to run or not, you couldn't tell. And she learned the patterns, and she built up some confidence.

After much more waiting and several "I'm boreds", she was finally up on barrels. By this time, her confidence was soaring. Which for The Oldest, means she felt like she could trot. And she did. Daddy, Grammy and I stood at the gate calling to her which way to go - I think she forgot the whole pattern once she got in there. But she got it right. And on the way back from the third barrel, she kicked him again and he took off at the sweetest, gentlest lope you've ever seen.

She loped! The only other time she loped, it ended in very scared tears... but this time there was a huge smile on her face! When she was ready to, she slowed him right back down. She had finished all four races, she hadn't fallen off, and was smiling at the end.

Yes, I was jumping up and down and yelling like a crazy person. Or, well, like an excited mama watching her little girl at her first gymkhana. And yes, the other horse parents were laughing at me. But they don't know how huge that was. Oh man, the smile on her face meant the world to me. Such a huge breakthrough for her, such a huge boost to her confidence. No, she didn't win any races. But that's not why she was there. She had so much fun, and she learned so much, and she was a part of something. It ended in great success.

She's come such a long way from when she first started riding, feeling afraid to even get up on the back of a horse even after all that time spent dreaming about it. I'm thrilled for her.


And yes, Littlest One rode too, this time with Daddy lead-lining her through each event. I was glad not to have to do the running this time, and just get to watch.

She kept her egg on the spoon too (which is quite a feat, most of them got dropped!)

She did the flags

And Daddy trotted her through barrels and she didn't fall off this time!

Two Little Girls had such a grand time. I'm glad we're able to let them do this, to have these experiences and create these wonderful memories. And I'm glad we've found a sport that everyone can be involved in, keeping us together as a family and sharing in one another's success.