Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Morel season

Last week, I spotted my first morel of the season. Here it is, a moderately sized, half-attached morel. I snapped a quick picture, and that was the last one I thought to take because when I start finding morels, the last thing on my mind is the camera. I revert to the childish delight of a four-year-old on an Easter Egg hunt. I found much prettier ones -- impressive clusters and stately lone sponge-headed grays bursting through the leaf litter. But did I think to take a picture? Heck no! I did give a little whoop or two and do a careful dance of delight though -- watching where my feet landed just in case that morel had a friend nearby.

I grew up in Mississippi River country. We hunted morels in the foothills, along streams and bluffs, and the best morel hunters found huge bags and buckets of them. You could get general advice about finding them, but the old folks who taught me about finding morels are the type who guard their secrets carefully. They'll tell you to look when the mayapples are blooming, on warm spring days after a rain, around old elm trees, etc. They'll give you tips and maybe lead you to an example of the right type of habitat, but they won't take you along to their favorite spots. Don't even ask.

The half-attached morels are edible, but I don't like them as well as regular morels. They're more watery and fragile, and the taste is different. I fried up a few with the others, and they're good that way. Most, however, I dried in the dehydrator for use in soups and sauces later. The fragrance from that type reminds me more of the stronger, woody scent of a shitake. They dry up to almost nothing -- convenient for storage purposes, but a little disheartening when you consider time and effort spent foraging and cleaning them.

Fortunately, we found lots of the gray and yellow morels, too. This is what was left in the bowl after I battered and fried four skilletfuls for my daughter and I to munch on. I'd have cooked more, but the experts recommend that you don't eat too many at once. The recommended limit I've most often seen is a pint per person per day, measured fresh. I've never had any digestive upset from morels, but they're a seasonal food, and I think it's good advice to use moderation with any food that's not a regular part of your diet.

Most of the yellows were just a couple inches tall and were scattered here and there along streams. Two days ago I found a seven-inch gray in our woods. It was a late straggler in a patch that's produce well over the last week. I dried the remaining grays and yellows and stored them separately from the half-attached types because I'll probably use them differently.

Here's how a mess of morels look fresh from the skillet. I soaked the mushrooms for a couple of hours in cold saltwater. Some sources say soak a half hour. Some say overnight, 24 hours, and there are recommendations for time spans everywhere in between. A couple of old-timers write that it's best to take extra care in the field so it's not necessary to wash them. They believe that washing removes some of the subtle flavors. Well pardon me, but I've seen what crawls out of those sponge-like mushroom heads when they're soaking in saltwater, and I'd rather skip the subtle flavors of the bugs and slugs.

After soaking, I rinse gently, cut off of any bad spots, slice them open, and drain. I dipped the mushroom halfs in a mixture of beaten duck eggs and milk, then dusted them with flour seasoned to taste with salt, pepper, and garlic. I fry them until golden brown in vegetable oil, then drain on a cake rack. You can use paper towels to soak up the excess grease. They're also good fried in butter without the egg batter breading.

My morel total for the season thus far is just under 15 pounds. That sounds like a lot when you consider that they're selling in Midwestern cities for $30 to $50 a pound fresh-picked. When I look at the little bags of dried morels in my kitchen, I think I need to find a lot more.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Three weeks old

Their eyes are wide open, and they've found their voices. They bark. They whine. They growl as they awkwardly wrestle and try to pounce. They haven't much finesse yet, but they're cute while they practice playing. They still spend a lot of time sleeping, too.

Notice how intensely both pups are focussed on the bit of black puppy tail -- you can't see it in the photo, but this black one, like all the others has a white tip at the end of his tail. Neither of the sable pups caught the tail, though they sure tried hard enough before Mama Dinah came in and distracted them with the prospect of food. Nothing gets between these pups and a meal.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Bird in the corn

This morning I found this brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) in the corn barrel in the feed room. It stared at me, but didn't move. My father says that's typical thrasher behavior. 'They're weird birds,' he said. It even waited for me to jog to the house, grab a camera and jog back. Or maybe it thought it blended in - a new use for corn, camouflage for color-blind birds. (Note: scientists suspect birds see even more colors than humans because they have additional color receptors in their eyes.)

I snapped some photos, and still it didn't move. So I reached down and lifted it carefully out in my hands. I've done this before with various wild birds that managed to get trapped in the henhouse -- bluejays, sparrows, cardinals, once even a pileated woodpecker. I'd intended to set it on a shelf and give it time to get its bearings and decide to fly off. It decided halfway there and tried to bite me -- no big deal. That long beak is more suited to picking up bugs than pinching down on flesh. Not like cardinals. Those cardinals can bite!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Two sables

Hippo's the one on the right. He's the largest male, the largest altogether of the litter. He was the first to open his eyes, and he's usually the first one headed for mama when she enters the room. The little female pup next to him has the sweetest face, and if she's awake she yips at me when I step into the room. All the pups have their eyes open and can scoot pretty quickly now that they can see where they're going. They still sleep a lot, but they're getting interested in their surroundings. Two have climbed out of their bed and made it out to the hallway. Tomorrow, the gate goes up in the doorway.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Violets in the sand

The common violet is one of my favorite spring flowers. It's fragrant, pretty, tough and prolific. What's not to love? This particularly sturdy violet pushed its way through a layer of sand deposited a couple weeks ago when the creek overran its banks and flooded the crossing we use to access the back fields. A few other plants dot the mud and sand there, but none that are half so beautiful

Thursday, April 17, 2008

More puppy

Same puppy as pictured here, but twice the size now. I wish I'd weighed them all that first day, just for curiosity's sake, and so I could say with statistical authority, 'yes, it's a proven fact. They've doubled in weight.' Oh well. You'll just have to trust me.

We've been calling this one 'Hippo.' He was born the largest and has maintained that status with his blind but unerring sense of direction and quick scrabbles toward his mama's milk. Mama's been eating well on a primo dog food formula, plus fresh farm eggs and cottage cheese. Everyone has shiny, glossy coats. (Even the cat, who's typically curious but also a bit disturbed.) The puppy, after all, is occupying her spot.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Late frost

Last night we had a hard frost, and it nipped a few tender plants and blossoms. As the sun eased over the horizon, I trudged out to the orchard, camera in hand to document the damage. The warmth of the morning sunlight already was melting the frost crystals from the blooms, so the damage wasn't as bad as it might have been had the temperatures dipped even lower and the frost lingered.

This young peach tree was just bursting into bloom. I love the blossoms and admire the little tree's enthusiasm, but the branches aren't strong enough yet to support much of a fruit crop, even if the blooms do survive the frost. Not far from here, though, is a small commercial orchard that might have more to worry about. Last year's crop was lost to a similar late spring freeze. That was a tragedy, too, because there's nothing so lucious as sun-ripened peaches, freshly picked. The summer we moved to this farm, I stopped frequently at the orchard for bags of their ripe, fragrant peaches and made whole meals of them. The memory of that intense flavor teased me when I planned the farm orchard, and probably was the determining factor in my decision to plant four peach trees. I did this mindfully, too, having attempted for more than twenty years to nurture backyard peach crops in this Midwestern zone where they are so vulnerable to late spring frosts. It's proof that hope continues to triumph over experience in the garden sector.

For the record, the average last frost date for this locale is April 5. One can forgive the trees for assuming it was safe to flower, I suppose.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Another goose bucket

Meet Spraddles. This American Buff gosling is about a week old now and having trouble with its legs. Spraddle-legs or splay-legs is a condition often caused when a new hatchling can't get good footing to stand up well. No doubt that's what happened to this little guy (gal?). It's probably my fault, too.

Here's what happened. I checked the incubator as usual before bedtime and noted the tiny cracks where a hatchling had started to peck through a spot in one goose egg. My experience to date with goose eggs is it's usually a couple of days from that point to total emergence. Imagine my surprise when I awoke the next morning to find an empty shell in that spot and a fluffy, demanding gosling on the other side. It was sprawled across a row of duck eggs and gazing up at me with love in its tiny, beady eyes. I held it and nuzzled it for a while -- seriously, who could resist all that soft yellow fuzz and those happy baby sounds? I arranged an old towel across the little brooder box I have for the new hatchlings -- terrycloth offers much better footing than newspaper. I tried the usual tricks I'd used with the occasional splay-legged chick before, but let's face it, a goose is a lot bigger than a chicken, and even a first-day gosling outweighs a new chick by . . . well, a lot. So the early tricks didn't work.

Still, I can't just give up on something this cute. Especially when it thinks I'm its mommy and makes happy noises every time it sees me. So a couple times a day, I haul the little fuzzball out to the cow trough for a swim where the water's deep enough to give those legs a good workout. Physical therapy for the crippled little goose. Sigh. This morning it was just too cold for the cow trough -- and face it, the bathtub would work, but then there's all that scrubbing afterwards. So I had the brilliant idea of just plunking Spraddles into a bucket of warm water for a quick PT session.

Well, you can see how that turned out. The little brat loved that bucket. It hooked its tiny webbed feet on the edge . . . wriggled . . . floated . . . and peeped with joy. It was freakishly hilarious.

So, on to the next experiment. I found a webpage with great pictures for taping tiny chick legs into position to cure splay legs. We're going to try it with Spraddles. I'll let you know how it turns out.

If this goose survives, it's going to be one weird bird.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

At two days old . . .

The genius husband swiped the largest pup of the litter for a while and let it nap on his belly. Puppies make such sweet, happy sounds when they're warm and comfy. Mama Dinah's beginning to relax a bit and spent some time helping us outdoors with chores. She even found the energy for a short romp in the yard with the other dogs. Dinah's good for about twenty minutes outdoors, and then she gets worried and heads for the house. Time to check on the pups.

Dinah trusts us with her pups, but she's not ready to share with the other dogs yet. Normally, she's the lowest in the pack order. Motherhood, however, has mixed things up a bit. She growled and challenged Bebe, her mentor, over access to the room where the puppy bed is located. Ralphie, the sire, is keeping his distance for now. He knows better than to bother a new mama unless it's absolutely necessary. Blue, the old Aussie, is staying out of there, too. Puppies and kittens make him nervous. A kitten crawled under his belly once and tried to nurse, and he's been spooky about the little ones ever since. Outdoors, the pack order remains as usual, but any dog let into the house has to abide by the new order of authority.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Winifred & Number 47

Winifred Goose & her best buddy rooster, out for an afternoon stroll through the woods. The rooster is one of a half-dozen look-alikes that hatched out year before last. He was destined for the soup pot until Winifred picked him as her best friend forever. She followed him around, honking, nagging, persisting . . . she was the worst kind of stalker. At first, the rooster seemed pretty freaked out. She beat up a few big bully roosters for him, though, and he decided she wasn't so bad to have around.

And then one day it happened. We planned a batch of chicken & noodles. We waited for nightfall when all the roosters to. . . well . . . go to their roosts. They're easier to catch then. We picked a meaty-looking one and stuck it in a cage so it would still be around come morning when there was enough light to . . . um . . . dispatch it. Well, come morning, there was a terrible racket in the barn. Winifred wouldn't shut up, and that got the other geese going, which got the guineas started and upset every other thing on the place. I hurried out to the barn and found Winifred, circling Number 47's cage and pitching a fit. I just couldn't stand to break her heart, so I put a leg band on him so we'd always know which rooster belongs to Winifred. He's now known as Number 47, aka Winifred's Special Friend.

Oh, and we had hamburgers for dinner. Shhhh. Don't tell the cattle.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

More puppy pictures

All 7 puppies in a pile, sleeping . . . Mama Dinah's outside, taking care of business.Notice the white tipped tail on the puppy below. I love those white tips, and most of this litter has that marking.
The brown one in the pair below has markings like its grand-dam, who was Bebe's littermate. (Which in people terms means Bebe is Mama Dinah's aunt) Bebe's probably the most well-rounded farmcollie I've owned - she herds, protects, nurtures, and is awesome at rodent removal. Plus, she's gorgeous. See pictures of her here and here.

And now they're all awake . . . wriggling . . . grunting . . . squeaking . . .


At last count, there were seven. The rest are tucked against her belly, dozing and enjoying a bit of milk.
I think she's finished. I hope she's finished. I'll take more photos later. Right now, I hate to risk waking them.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Greenhouse flowers

This winter's tatsoi (mustard greens) crop is in full bloom in the greenhouse. The leaves are no longer yummy, but I've left the plants to flower because the blossoms make me smile whenever I step inside. The seed saver in the neighborhood is hoping there's enough insect activity in the greenhouse now to sufficiently pollinate them and suggested I do a bit of hand pollination just in case.
No, I think not. Two reasons. Hand pollination is tedious, and I'm just not into another tedious task on my to-do list right now. More importantly, how will I know if they'll pollinate themselves inside the greenhouse if I don't give them a chance to do it on their own?
Right. That's it. That's why I'm doing it this way. You believe me, don't you?

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Collards in bloom

Champion collards, planted in the greenhouse September, 2007. Collards, like most brassicas, are biennial - that is, they go to seed their second year. Collards don't keep calendars. They had their warm season and winter, and now it's warm again. So it's the second year by plant reconning.

It looks like little side shoot of broccoli, doesn't it? The taste is more bitter than I like though, probably because it got pretty warm in the greenhouse the day before I took this picture. Broccoli can be pretty strong, even bitter, when harvested in hot weather, right before it bolts.
Each of those little green beads is a flower bud that will open into a tiny bright yellow bloom.

Ornamental Kale - seeded in August 2007, transplanted to a center bed of the greenhouse in late September. It was a weak plant, and I stuck it in the ground, almost as an afterthought because I had a little empty spot. I didn't expect it to live. It did, and while its performance wasn't the least bit impressive, I admire its spirit. Plucky little thing, toughing out the winter despite its rough start and now budding up for blooms. It reminds me of some people I know . . .

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Don't mess with Ingrid!

This is Ingrid's first season as a nesting mother, and she's taking her job seriously. Thirty days, on the nest, incubating and protecting those eggs . . . err . . . those egg-shaped gourds that look a lot like the eggs Ingrid laid, except browner. (Scroll back a few days for the reason she has gourds in the nest.)

Don't mess with Ingrid. She'll yank your glove right off. Just ask my son. That's his gloved hand, and a while later, the goose stole the glove and beat it up. Normally, Ingrid's sweet-natured for a goose and avoids confrontations whenever possible. She's never nipped me, though I think she got my son once when he cornered her in the barn for a cuddle. Sometimes Ingrid hisses at me if I wear the wrong coat to the barn, but all I have to do is sweet-talk her a little and do the goose-goose-goose call. She can't help herself. She straightens up and honks the goose-goose-goose call back at me. Instincts are a powerful force, and her instincts say I'm the Mama Goose. I hand-raised the whole flock from tiny goslings, fed them, watered them, cuddled them and introduced them to the joys of swimming in the cow trough (and don't think I don't regret that now that the geese are huge and make a huge muddy mess every time they bathe there).

Lately, Ingrid and I don't talk much. She's kind of zoned out most of the time, doing the zen of nesting thing. Setting poultry often seem to go into a trance state, calm, serene, and completely motionless. Time is nothing. It's eerie seeing Ingrid in that state. Sometimes she's so still I have to touch her to reassure myself that she's alive and well. I can usually get away with a touch, with or without a protective glove, and maybe a couple of light strokes over those soft feathers.

I'm careful though. See that mouth? See those hard ridges along her beak? Plus, geese are strong, and they understand torque. They know how to pinch down on a big chunk of flesh, hold on tight, and give it a good yank and twist. Do NOT mess with a ticked off goose.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Flash flooding

It rained hard much of the day yesterday, with wind, lightning, thunder, and some hail to keep things interesting. It was a good day to be a duck -- those idiots played outside all day. Their only concession was to tuck their heads under their wings when the hail started. (They could have waddled into the barn, but they have tiny duck brains and apparently didn't think of it.)

A short while after lunch, the wind & rain eased. I had an appointment in town and was facing a dilemma. We'd lost electricity for the second time that day, and I was worried about keeping the eggs in the incubator warm enough. That pile of blankets I wrapped around the incubator would only suffice for so long -- and then . . . well, the next option was the time-proven method used by farm women everywhere -- body heat. Tuck those eggs inside the shirt, and hold them in place however works best. You understand, I'm sure. So, I had to decide soon -- cancel the appointment or risk the eggs. And don't tell me I could have taken them along in my . . . shirt. I could have, but I'm just not going out in public with 4 goose eggs and 18 duck eggs augmenting my figure.I decided to walk around, maybe drive to a neighbor's and assess the situation. If they had electricity, I could leave the incubator with them for a while.

The photo above shows what the yard looked like below the house. That patch of muddy water is the creek flowing two feet above the huge culvert a previous owner put in when building the roadway to the back fields. The culvert is, fortunately, well anchored with concrete and rock walls I didn't know those walls existed until the flood washed away the fill dirt hiding them. Below is what the crossing looked like a couple hours later when the water had receded. There used to be a fence along the right side of the crossing. It's now hanging over the creek about ten feet downstream with a couple of logs wedged in the woven wire.

This morning, the puddles were gone, and the mud had firmed enough I could walk across and survey the damage. That pile of brush in the roadway was hard to clear . . . because it was still rooted in what was left of the earthen bank. The floodwaters had bent the wild rose bush & several saplings flat, then dumped mud & sand over their emerging leaves. I scooped their branches free of the muck and pushed them upright. Maybe they'll live.

This is what the path to the garden looked like a few minutes after I took the photo of the flooded field road. It's a spring-fed branch that runs into the main creek. This time of year, it might be 18 inches wide after a normal rain. By summer it'll be bone dry, and I can drive the mower through pulling a cartload of compost. That flooded section beyond the trees is part of my big garden. Half the peas I planted there week are washed out of their rows, and they'll probably sprout all over the rest of the garden patch and further downstream. I saw a few exposed seeds left in place though. They looked ready to sprout. I'll poke them down into the mud as soon as I can walk to them without sinking to my knees. The greenhouse ditch performed admirably and channeled the runoff away from the greenhouse itself, so that patch of garden is in great shape. It's nicely damp but not mucky. So I can go out there and weed anytime. Oh joy.

By the time I'd had enough of admiring the muddy flood waters, the electricity had come back on. I could leave without worrying about the incubator. This next photo is what I saw when I came around the first corner of the driveway. Probably it was fine to drive through, but I grew up in the hill country along the Mississippi River where we know a bit about floodwaters and take such things seriously. I got out and grabbed the pole I use to clear blockages from the culverts. Walking carefully in my tall boots, I checked to make sure the crossing was intact at the culvert, and then I walked the flooded section, testing with the pole to make sure the water hadn't washed out any holes big enough to swallow my truck tires. Fortunately, all the holes were of moderate size and manageable. The current wasn't a problem for me on foot, either, so I wasn't worried about the truck being swept away.

I put the truck in 4WD though, just in case, and I eased along the driveway, just like Grandpa taught me back in the day when his idea of a Sunday afternoon's entertainment was a tour of the region's flooded spots. I got out to the road with no problem but left the truck in 4WD because when you have it, you use it if there's an excuse. A narrow back road with more mud than gravel makes a fine excuse, if you ask me. The next photo is what I encountered about a mile further. I didn't know it at the time, but there was another spot just as bad over the next hill. Fortunately, the guys in the power company trucks knew an alternate route that was clear -- just barely. Specifically, the water had stopped flowing over the highway about five minutes before.

I'm not sure what the official tally of yesterday's rainfall for our area is. Everyone I asked just shrugged and said LOTS. A neighbor estimated it at 5-6 inches, judging from the accumulation in various buckets he left out. Most of that fell within a couple of hours, hence the flash flooding. Another neighbor who's been in the area longer said it hasn't flooded like this since '93 when he was building his house.

Here's the view of the driveway when I returned a couple hours later. See the log? See what's left of my fence? That's used to be the only fence on the place that could keep my Babydoll Southdown ram in. I didn't worry about him or the goats sneaking out overnight though. They don't like crossing water. They hate walking in mud, and there's a lot of deep, sucking mud out there. By morning, the water was mostly contained within the creek's usual channel. I moved the log, raked the debris out of the fence and shoved it upright as best I could manage, given the soggy state of the soil the metal posts were sunk into. I'll give it the attention it deserves once the ground dries out enough to hold the posts properly. The driveway will need attention, too, more gravel to fill the holes and replace what washed into the pasture. That'll have to wait a few days though. The forecast for later this week calls for a lot more rain. I'd rather wait and just fix everything once.

Besides, my overalls are drenched -- to the knees from wading in the water to clear debris from critical spots, and then all over because I miscalculated a step and fell in the creek. Too bad I don't have pictures of that, eh?