Saturday, July 24, 2010

Garden fresh goodies

It's always exciting when the fresh veggies start coming in from the garden. But, by this time, I've started getting pretty tired of trying to freeze or can or eat everything before it goes bad.

It started a few weeks ago with the zucchini and cucumbers. I always can a few jars of Mark's favorite pickles. They're dill with a clove of garlic and a little red pepper in the jar. This year, he has ended up with a few more jars than I normally make thanks to a bumper crop.

Mom makes wonderful sweet pickles. I don't even know how many jars she cans. I've got to get the recipe. I haven't made them myself, because it's so darn easy to take them to her when she tells me to bring my cucs over and she'll take care of it.

The same is true for the tomatoes. I canned a few jars when we didn't live next door, but she's a canning maniac. She told me a friend had come to visit recently and asked for some of the tomatoes that Mom had piled on the patio table. Mom said she gave her friend some, but she had been trying to save enough to can. I could not believe my ears. I took a huge bag over there. I've since taken tomatoes to work, given some to my friend, Sue, and I still have a huge pile on my table. (The llama poop is the ticket, people.) Tonight, I'm making a tomato tart for dinner. It's a wonderful recipe Sue gave me a couple of years ago. I'd forgotten about until she reminded me of it this week.

We also grow these beautiful little yellow pear tomatoes. I love them. I've been tossing them on salads for weeks now. And, I just spotted a vine in my rosemary that I think a bird lovingly planted for me. (There's a benefit of a different kind of poop!)

Last year, we had one apple on our apple tree, and a deer ate it. This year, there were several more, and we've managed to get a few before the deer got them all. I think they're a little preoccupied with all the neighbors' soybeans.

Now, I'm watching the peach tree. I don't know what kind it is - except later than most. The peaches are there, but they're not ripe yet. They make the best peach preserves, and I didn't get any of them last year either.

The main problem I have with all this garden goodness is what happens to my refrigerator. There's an overlap period when the shelves get full of leftovers and the crisper gets REALLY full.

It happens when there are still a few cucumbers and zucchini in the crisper, but the corn and tomatoes have also started coming in too. Soon, I have a new crop of stuff growing in there... in the bottom of the crisper and in the leftover containers. It's stuff that I can't exactly recognize. It's gray and squishy and hairy.

I know I shouldn't complain. Any food that magically materializes from the dirt is a blessing. The squishy stuff in the crisper is thorns on roses, right?

Happy gardening, canning, freezing and eating. Enjoy those goodies while you can. Soon we'll all be wishing we could get our hands on a real ripe tomato. Oh, and go clean your nasty refrigerator! I know that mysterious crop doesn't just grow in our fridge ;)

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Christine reincarnated

This looks like a photo of a normal man on a normal lawn mower. Neither of which would be true. This is a picture of an insane man on a possessed lawn mower.

My husband has been using this old lawn mower as, well, most people might use a four-wheeler or golf cart on a farm. We retired it as the official lawn mower a few years ago, but he has continued to use it for such things as hauling trailer loads of llama poop and mulch around.

Recently the lawn mower began to rebel. Remember that old, horrible movie Christine, about the possessed car? We've decided she's been reincarnated and has returned in the form of our old lawn mower.

It began with the brakes gradually going out. Then, one day my husband cranked Christine up and it took off - self-propelled - head first into a brick retaining wall - with him on it. He came in the house and told me about it, noting that the hood was now bent so it would no longer close.

Next, he decided to strap a tank on the back of her so he could ride around and spray weeds along the fence. He started down the driveway toward the barn. A few minutes later he called me from his cell phone. "Can you bring the Jeep and come get me?" "Where are you?" I asked. "On the driveway," he said. "Why do I need to come get you?" I asked.

Apparently, the drive belt had broken. "It nearly killed me," he said as we hooked Christine up to a tow strap to pull her out of the drive. Once she was out of the way, he got in the Jeep with me and we started back to the house. We got to the incline directly in front of the front door, and he stopped the Jeep and hung his head out the window.

"What are you doing?" I asked. "This is where the belt broke," he said. "I'm looking for parts. I heard them flying everywhere."

My eyes were wide. He hadn't told me that the drive belt had broken about 300 feet up hill from where Christine had came to a stop. "I told you she nearly killed me," he said. "I think I could race NASCAR now."

Two days later, he finished making a series of repairs on her at the barn. Having tested the brakes and replaced the drive belt, he proceeded to drive her back to the house.

I happened to be on the back porch when I heard a it - Wham! "Mark's trying to fix the hood on the lawn mower," I thought. Just as I heard it a second time - Wham! This time, I stopped what I was doing and headed toward the noise. Wham! I heard it a third time. When I spotted Mark, he was standing beside Christine, rubbing his head. "What are you doing?" I asked. "Running into the garage door," he said. "Why?" I asked. "Well, I didn't do it on purpose," he said. Apparently, the brake repair didn't last that long.

The next day, he worked on her some more. He put the parking brake on and left her running long enough to put his tools up. His plan was to use her for yet another chore. But she had other ideas. When he returned, she was driving around the yard, heading toward the dog lot. I didn't even ask how he stopped her.

Finally, he decided to use this to his advantage. He hitched up a trailer full of llama beans and headed for the garden. He left her in gear with the parking brake on, and as planned, she motored forward at just the right pace for him to shovel the manure off.

Since then, they seem to have come to terms with each other again. He's managed to ride her a few times without any major incidents. Personally, I'm staying clear and out of the way. I'm thinking he wore her down, and it's just a matter of time before he pisses her off again!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Bare, naked llamas

Llama shearing time has come and gone again for another season. Thank heavens. I look forward to llama shearing as much as my annual OB/GYN exam!

We shear llamas in May. With busy schedules, it takes most of our spare time for the entire month. We've sheared before in April, but we tend to have one last cold snap in April. In years past, I've felt terribly guilty seeing shivering bare, naked llamas in the pasture.

Once you shear a llama you get a pretty good idea of how it's going to react to the process each year. This year was the first year we sheared this llama, and he was good as gold. But, it's not above - or below them - to surprise you with behavior the polar opposite of a previous year.

Last year was a good example. Our tallest female decided that after watching all of her barn mates get sheared in a restraining chute, whether they needed to be restrained or not, she was not having any part of it.

The 300-pound plus darling locked her legs outside the chute and forced us into a conversation that went like this:

"Sharon, we've got to get her to go in the chute."

"Mark, she weighs 350 pounds. It's not like we can lift her up and put her in it."

"Well, push her."

So as I pushed, he pulled, but she refused to budge.

"We're going to shear her right here," I said. Mark looked at me like I'd lost my mind, and considering that she was our eighth llama I might have been close to it.

We spread an old sheet under her. I got a bucket of feed and held it under her face while Mark proceeded to shear. She stood perfectly still and snacked the entire time. She was even polite enough to turn around at the appropriate time for Mark to shear the other side.

That was her routine again this year. Amazing. It would be nice if they were all so accommodating. But there has to be one that lifts the restraining chute completely off the concrete floor. This year, after leaving him half sheared for a few days, we got a sedative from the vet to make the process easier on all of us. We conned Darry, a cycling buddy and real-life medical professional, into being our llamas' personal nurse. The previous attempt at shearing this llama had been so stressful, I contemplated taking the sedative myself but decided the llama probably needed it more. The second half of that shearing went much more smoothly, with just the ever-so-slightest bit of swaying and drooling.

The last problem child also got a sedative. We didn't expect him to be such a light weight. He went down in the grass between the pasture and the basement where we shear. While Darry monitored his vital signs, I called the vet for reassurance that he was going to be OK.

Once she had convinced me that he'd come around sooner rather than later, we rolled him around in the grass and sheared him as best we could. He looks like we sheared him with a weed eater.

So there you have it. The sheer joy of shearing llamas. And, no, I'm not even willing to post a photo of the weed-eater shearing job.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Honey, honey

Apparently, Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends have become the times when we harvest honey. They are times I'm really starting to cherish.

Once we remove the part of the beehives that contains the extra honey, we take it into my parents' basement where we extract and jar it. As we do this, Pop tends to share memories of when he worked bees with his father or some other story from days gone by. We also get to sample the freshest honey ever.

As we insert each rack of honeycomb into the extractor, some of the golden goodness oozes onto the tray where we're working. Each of us takes a turn sticking our fingers into that honey, which otherwise will be washed down the drain, to sample the fresh harvest. The absolute best is when Mom emerges from her kitchen upstairs with warm homemade biscuits to eat with the surgery syrup.

It was interesting this weekend to see the difference in the color of the honey that we harvested compared to the one jar we have remaining from the Labor Day 2009 harvest. Here's the picture - the lighter colored one is the spring harvest.

Unlike chickens, where the breed determines the color of the eggs, the flowers in bloom at the time determine the color of the honey. We have been trying to remember what the bees were working to make this light honey compared to the darker fall harvest.

Spring means they largely gathered pollen from clover and persimmon trees. Last fall, we had planted some buckwheat in front of the hives specifically for the bees. That's what made the fall harvest darker. Some people don't care for the buckwheat honey, but I like it. It's got a stronger taste that is interesting to me.

The extraction process involves removing the top layer of the beehive. This requires encouraging the bees to move downstairs to the lower level of the hive. Usually, this is done by blowing smoke inside the hive with a smoker.

The upper level contains several racks of honey housed within the honeycomb. When we extract it, we use an electric, heated knife to remove the top layer of wax or caps off each side of the honeycomb. The racks are placed vertically inside the extractor. When cranked, like an old-fashioned ice cream maker, the honey flies out of the combs onto the sides of the extractor and slides down into the bottom of it. There's an opening in the bottom with a sliding door that you open to collect the extracted honey into a strainer before jarring it up.

It sounds like a complicated process, but you get into a routine and it goes pretty quickly. Plus, just when I think I've heard every old story Pop has to share, he comes out with another one.

Every time I eat a spoonful of honey, I think about the bees and the harvesting process and our time together. Like Dad, I'm finding the memories make the honey even sweeter.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Ring-necked pheasants

The call came early one morning this week. We'd been anticipating it - the call that the post office had a package for us.

Hatcheries send ventilated boxes of live chicks all over the country. We'd ordered some baby chicks and ring-necked pheasants.

As I pulled out of the driveway I saw Pop cutting up a cardboard box and putting sheets of it along the edges of the pheasant cage. I rolled down the window.

"So the birds are here, huh, Pop?" I asked.

"The little shits are jumping out of the cage," he yelled back, obviously irritated. It made me chuckle.

"Need some help?" I asked, stepping out of the Jeep.

"The holes in the wire on the sides of this cage are too big," he said, still cutting the pieces of cardboard that wouldn't stay in place. "I've already had to catch two of them. You got some tape?"

"Not in the Jeep, but I can run back to the house," I said.

Pop asked me to run up to his garage instead, which I did, appearing shortly with a roll of duct tape.

We taped the cardboard walls along the side of the cage to prevent any premature disappearing acts. They'll leave anyway, but we'd prefer it be in a few months. Last year we raised about 10-12. Eventually, they out grew their cage and moved in with the chickens. They hung out around here for several weeks on their own accord before disappearing into the woods.

We had a few good laughs about them before they vanished. One of the neighbors, who knew we had them, stopped by one afternoon to tell what an aging neighbor had said.

"I met him right down there at the stop sign and he said, 'I swear I just saw a pheasant right down there at Bill's mailbox,'" the neighbor said with a grin. "He thought he was seeing things until I told him y'all were raising them."

One day, Dad was working on the bee hives with one of the local bee experts, who looked down the road leading to the barn and asked, "Are those pheasants?" Dad said yeah and had a rather lengthy conversation about them and the quail.

Mom took dinner to another neighbor one day and heard this, "I looked out that window yesterday and saw something I'd never seen before. Right there in the yard, was a ring-necked pheasant."

As I look into the cage at these new babies, I hope they'll eventually make their way out into the wild, find last year's birds and we'll hear a lot more of those stories. In fact, I hope that eventually we'll have a lot of pheasant sightings.

But for now, the best we can hope is that the little shits don't figure out they can fly out of the openings above their recently erected cardboard walls.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

How about them beans

Recently a co-worker asked me what mouse poop looks like. For a brief moment, I paused and thought,
"Why are you asking me this?" Then I realized that I, in fact, know shit.

Seriously, I have a decent amount of knowledge about poop. I not only know what mouse poop looks like, I can identify chicken, cow, llama, rabbit, horse, deer, cat and dog poop.

If you spend much time with llama people, or goat or sheep people, for that matter, you'll probably overhear at least one conversation about poop. We like to talk about it.

By examining poop you can tell all kinds of things. Runny poop can indicate parasites. Normal-looking poop can be examined under a microscope to reveal less obvious parasites. And, there are different types of parasites found in poop.

Llamas poop beans. Think deer poop or Milk Duds. Beans usually hit the ground individually. If they're clumped together like baseballs you either have a llama that needs water or is eating a lot of grass. Color is a determining factor.

Poop is a good addition to compost. Llama poop can also be mixed with water and made into llama bean tea to feed plants or spray on plants to deter deer. That may be true for other types of poop too, but I specialize in llama poop.

Dogs think any kind of poop is a special kind of appetizer.

I have found that shoveling poop is actually pretty good stress relief. I joke that I shovel figurative poop at work and literal poop at home.

I have made my niece a chocolate birthday cake with Milk Duds piled on top and told her it was from the llamas. I thought it was funny. She was not amused.

We've bagged some poop and sold it. Our brand is "Poo-poo-pee-do." Now come on, that's funny.

I once worked a photo shoot that involved exotic birds. I found out that birds lack certain muscles and therefore poop something like every three minutes. They're not ideal creatures for studio photo shoots.

Having realized that I know shit, I withdrew a Post-it Note from my desk and drew my colleague a picture.

"Here," I said. "Here's what mouse poop looks like."

"Hmmm. I was afraid of that," she said, as she walked away mumbling something about the cabinets in her new apartment.

Friday, May 7, 2010

A Canned Ham Camper

On the way to the grocery store one day, I spotted it - a circa 1970 camper. The once shiny white paint is now rather milky, but I had to take a second look at it as I passed by.

It's J. Moore's fault. My friend J. Moore was on a mission a few months ago to find and buy such a camper to serve as lodging for guests visiting her house by the river in South Carolina. During her search, a holiday catalog featured a canned ham-style camper with Christmas lights strung on it. The look reminded me of what she was striving to accomplish. Another friend and I became rather involved in her search. We all went out to look at one on a Friday after work, and we searched Craig's list for the perfect camper with the perfect price. Finally, she found her camper and set it up as her guest house.

So as I passed by that old camper, I began to wonder how I could use such a camper myself. Soon I had convinced my husband to drive back by on Sunday afternoon so he could see it and I could jot down the phone number. I called and told the owner I planned to come back by to have a look.

One day led to another and it was Thursday before I knew it. I still had not been by to peep inside the camper. No sooner had I realized this on my drive home from work than I found myself making a sharp turn onto Grapevine Road. I parked the Jeep and jumped out.

I tiptoed across up to the camper to keep my high heels from sinking into the moist ground. I opened the door and stepped inside. It was OK, but I knew how this would go if we bought this camper. First I'd fix A and it would cost a couple hundred bucks. Then, I'd want to fix B and that would cost $100 and then C. You see where this is going? A money pit.

I was just about back in the Jeep when the owner pulled up. A man, who I'm guessing is in his late 70s, stepped out and we began to chat about the camper and where we used to camp.

"Where you from?" he eventually asked.

"I live across the river," I said.

"Whose your daddy?" he asked.

I told him, but it was only Pop's last name that resonated with him.

I know some people by that name, he said. Often this type of comment leads to Uncle Ace, so I threw it out there to get it on the table. "Oh yeah," he said, adding that he had painted Ace's brother's garage once. Guess who that is.

Knowing my family, the man agreed to sell the camper to me for the lower end of the range we had discussed. Soon, he was asking me about my great uncles and telling me stories about the neighbors who were either my grandfather's or father's friends. I told him where all their kids and grand kids lived.

I glanced at my watch. An hour had passed. I had long since given up on tiptoes, and it was now taking some effort to withdraw the heels of my shoes from the ground. As I pulled my heels upward and out of the ground, I backed into the Jeep.

"There's an auction on Flint Hill Saturday," I yelled as I climbed into the driver's seat. "You should go and catch up with your old buddies...."

The next morning I was telling my Dad about the man and the camper and the lengthy conversation.

My father said, "Well, now I believe his dad was Jake. I think he used to take Uncle Hubert......"

I glanced at my watch.