Monday, March 30, 2009

Logo Logistics

Introducing...our new Squash Blossom Farm logo!

This was our biggest weekend accomplishment. Rog sketched out the design idea and I goofed around with Adobe Elements to create the full-color artwork (my first computer art!) We were trying to evoke a vintage vegetable crate label.

We aren't totally satisfied with the font yet, but at least now we have an image for creating labels for our sprout mixes.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Greenhouse-Stage 1

My patience waiting for the little walk-in greenhouse at Menard's to go on sale paid off--last week it was on sale for $109 ($30 off.)

It's small (5 x 7) and kind of flimsy, but rather clever. Everything fits together with no tools and the shelves add strength to the structure. There is a plastic cover with a zip-open doorway that slips over the structure to create the greenhouse effect.

It's still too cold to put plants outside here, but I needed a place to put seedlings under lights. So, I set the greenhouse frame up in the basement and suspended lights from the shelves where I will grow the seedlings until it's warm enough to move the works outside. So far, only my gourds are up and under the lights, but I am ready now for those tomatoes and peppers...

Mozzarella a la Barbara Kingsolver

Rog is reading Barbara Kingsolver's book "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" and was was inspired to make mozzarella cheese today, following her instructions ( it's a recipe from Ricki Carroll).

He purchased organic whole milk (not ultra-pastuerized), citric acid and rennet at the co-op and heated on the stove
until the curds separated from the whey and the temperature reached 100 Degrees F.

He strained the curds from the whey, kneaded, put in the microwave for one minute, and kneaded again.

Then he added salt to taste and kneaded it in.

The lovely finished fresh mozzarella. So easy! So fast (30 minutes)! So delicious!

Colombian Breakfast of Champions

Cadence has a brainstorm idea to sell tamales at the Farmers Market, which begins in May, so she decided to do a test run today.

Unfortunately, the market did not have any corn husks, but it did have banana leaves, so she made Colombian-style tamales. In Colombia, tamales are eaten for breakfast, and are considered the "Breakfast of Champions."
She piled the banana with chicken breast, pork , potatoes, corn paste and tomatoes cooked with scallions, garlic and cilantro.

Then she folded up the banana leaf and tied with twine or wrapped in foil.

The tamales are steamed until the chicken is cooked. I can't wait to eat these for breakfast tomorrow!

Gourd Sprouts

The gourds have begun sprouting and are emerging all exuberant and crazy. They are so big!

The plan for the weekend is to set up the greenhouse shelving and hang lights for the started flats.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Wrenching Experience

Last weekend the ground thawed enough that Cadence began tackling the buckthorn in our woods. Buckthorn is supposedly the most invasive plant in Minnesota. It produces gazillions of black berries that birds love to eat, and then excrete the seeds all over tarnation to start new stands which choke out native species.

We are interested in restoring the prairie on the west half of our property, so last fall we invited Kyle Herring to do a site visit. Our prairie has some enormous clumps of buckthorns- the mother plants. Kyle said that in the 1930's farmers were encouraged to plant buckthorn hedges for windbreak and animal habitat - that's probably how it got introduced here. Now huge swaths of the woodland (where the birds like to perch) are carpeted in dense buckthorn brush. We want to remove it before the female plants start bearing seeds.

We'll have to chainsaw down the dozen or so large buckthorn tree clumps and will probably resort to brushing those stumps with herbicide. But for the buckthorn up to 2 inches in diameter, our friend Phil introduced us to the most ingenious tool--the Weed Wrench and kindly lent us his Weed Wrench to use.
The Weed Wrench (here's a better illustration from their website)has a jaw at the bottom that clamps onto the base of the trunk, then you just pull the handle down, and, like a cork coming out of a wine bottle, the tree releases easily out of the soft ground, roots intact. It is a very satisfying feeling.

Working an hour or so a day for the past four days, Cadence has already cleared about 20% of our main buckthorn problem! What once was brushy undergrowth under huge spruce and hackberry trees is now passable, almost park-like. Maybe some wildflowers will have a chance this spring.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Reassuring Signs

It's only 36 degrees, it's drizzly gray, and earlier this afternoon there was even a spattering of snow. Spring sure comes in fits and starts. I just went out with my camera to look for some clear signs of spring. The most obvious one can't be seen in a photograph: It is the melodious chorus of at least a hundred red winged blackbirds trilling in the tall trees surrounding our yard. I don't know why they choose to flock in this yard - maybe because it is set upon the highest hill for miles?

The tulips have emerged a bit further from the soil, but aren't very photogenic yet. Actually, neither is this--a rhubarb sprout! - but I was so happy to see it I had to take its photo anyway. This rhubarb plant originated in my Grandma J.'s garden about 20 years ago and I have divided and moved part of it with me to our old house in Dakota, to our city house in Rochester, and now to the farm. I am overjoyed it survived the move and the winter.

I saved the best news for last--here's one of my wintersowing ziplock bags, with a hollyhock sprouted in it! The hollyhocks are the only ones large enough yet to show up in a photo, but the icelandic poppies and blue flax have also sprouted! How cool is that?!

Monday, March 23, 2009


Cadence made a very locally-grown breakfast this morning - a fried egg from one of our hen's first productions. The verdict was "tasty!"

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Our First Eggs!

When I was giving the chickens fresh water this morning, I discovered two eggs nestled between the haybale and the wall! I have been looking for eggs in the nesting boxes every morning, but apparently the boxes are not inviting enough.

I was warned that the first eggs are usually small and funny-shaped, so I was surprised how big and perfect these were. Here are the eggs, with a teaspoon for scale

We think Hawk may be responsible. I checked her vent, and, based on my inexpertise, it looked like she could be laying. Hawk is the largest, most mature-acting hen.

Louise Nevelson, the Blue Wyandotte, could also be the mom. (Louise is on the left, next to Picasso the rooster.) Yesterday Sara noticed Louise sitting between the hay-bale and the wall, where I found the eggs, unwilling to budge. Perhaps Louise and Hawk each laid one.
Picasso, of course, took all the credit, crowing up a storm. Roosters look so funny when they stretch their necks out to crow!

The Taste of Sweet Success

We have made over 2 quarts of golden, scrumptious, homemade maple syrup so far!

That's not incuding the 2 quarts we made last week, cooking it for five days over a fire. That syrup turned out much darker, with a more molasses-y and very smoky taste: good, reminiscent of camping, but not what we expected.
Some people use outdoor electric turkey fryers to boil down the sap, and I decided to investigate that option. I found this boiler/fryer that seemed to be even better than a turkey fryer because it has more surface area for evaporation and we can potentially use it for other purposes, such as cooking sweet corn for a big picnic, hosting a fish boil, or perhaps scalding chickens after butchering.

It worked fabulously. Much less work and much less smoky than feeding a fire, and much more efficient boiling. When you first pour the sap into the pan it is clear like water, then turns cloudy and gradually becomes deep amber. We filtered out any particles (bark) before boiling and skimmed off the foam. We finished off the boiling in the house, bringing the syrup to 220 degrees F.
We have boiled about 37 gallons of sap from two big silver maple trees and it has taken 1 1/2 tanks of LP gas at $19/tank.
For breakfast this morning we feasted on waffles with our homemade syrup. It is very delicate, intensely sweet, with a slight vanilla essence.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Out of My Gourd

This afternon I went nuts planting six varieties of decorative gourds in flats: Dipper, Martin House, Banana, Bushel, Snake and Swan gourds.

I intend for them to clambor up the fence that surrounds the perimeter of our large yard. I hope to get lots of amusing gourd shapes to dry and use as a sculptural substrate.

Last week, I spent one morning exploring the Arts District of Phoenix, AZ, and happened upon an artist abode with delightful concrete sculptures in the front yard. The artist, Gary Parsel, was watering the plants in his sculpture garden so I stopped. It turned out he is also a painter AND creates whimsical animals from gourds - bison, fish, birds, dogs. I was totally smitten by a large gourd fish he had created, but it was out of my price range and too fragile to take on the plane. Instead, I bought this smaller quail.

I am so inspired! Too bad it will take nearly a year before my future gourds are dry and ready to work with.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Wearin' o' the Green

In honor of St. Patrick's Day, I headed outside with my camera this morning to look for green. First stop was my future vegetable garden, as viewed from the little hill across the driveway. If I squint my eyes tightly, I think I see a hint of green. It is definitely greener than last week, when it was under a layer of snow.

The crocuses are beginning to emerge but haven't greened up yet. There is evidence of rabbits everywhere, but so far the crocuses have escaped being nibbled.

Finally, here's some green! -Moss on the old woodpile I am using up to boil down maple syrup.

Then, I pulled back the leaves covering some hardy pansies I bought last November on super-clearance for just 10 cents a plant and discovered the first real green of spring.

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Saturday, March 14, 2009


Today it was sunny and warmed up to 50 degrees F -quite an improvement from two days ago when it was 5 below zero! The weather was perfect for tapping the trees to make maple syrup. We hung ten buckets on our biggest maple trees to collect the sap.

After drilling a small hole into the trunk, a spout called a "spile," is pushed into the hole. The plastic spiles we are using have a hook for hanging the bucket. Sap began to drip into the buckets immediately. It tastes like faintly sweet water.

We have collected about 4 gallons of sap so far. We are boiling the sap in a large metal roasting pan set on a rack over a wood fire. I fed the fire and simmered the syrup all day to evaporate the water and concentrate the flavor. For sugar maples, it takes 30 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. We only have silver maples and box elders, which also can be used to make maple syrup but the sap has only half as much sugar, so we will have to boil down 60 gallons to get one gallon of syrup. We'll be boiling for days. When it is almost done, we will strain it and finish cooking it in the house over the stove so it doesn't scorch.
A little kitty kept me company while I tended the fire. Yesterday, Cadence and I visited the dairy farm across the road to inquire about the possibility of getting a couple of boy calves to raise as steers. (More about that in a future post.) The dairy farm has innumerable farm cats and kittens, and when we walked home a fluffy gold cat with pumpkin-colored eyes insisted on following us. This morning he was still here, waiting for us in the barn.
The dogs chased him into a tree a few times, but he is a pretty self-possessed little cat and wasn't really phased by them.
I think he has adopted us.

Maybe we need a farm cat. Our two very old cats are pampered house cats.

I don't think the dairy farmers will miss him, but we'll give them a call tomorrow.

While I boiled syrup, Cadence worked on insulating the granary, which she is transforming into a cabin to live in this summer and Rog spread gravel in the mucky parts of the driveway.
  1. First robin in the yard!
  2. 15 crocuses just barely poking through the ground on the east side of the house!
  3. Redwinged blackbirds in the marshy ditch across the road singing Okalee song!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Arizona Interlude

We may have escaped the last clutches of Minnesota winter by flying to Arizona last weekend. Rog was speaking at a conference in Phoenix, so we took the opportunity to also visit my sister and her family in Tucson for a couple of days. It was quite an adventure getting there, complete with our car breaking down as we entered the Minneapolis airport parking ramp, with scarcely a moment to spare, running to catch our plane.
When we left home it was a balmy 5o degrees, but the next day a snowstorm hit Minnesota, so we were happy to be in the sunny desert -- with our capable daughters home taking care of the dogs and chickens and any shoveling.
We had fun with Bunny and Dave and their kids, dined at some amazing restaurants, and managed to fit in a couple of hikes- in Sabino Canyon in Tucson and up Camelback mountain in Phoenix.
Wednesday night we arrived in Minneapolis in our totally inadequate, lightweight spring jackets to 5 below zero temps and a bitter wind. And a broken car. But the trusty AAA truck arrived promptly and towed us all the way back to Rochester.
It's good to be home again, now that the fickle weather has decided to be a bit more spring-like.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Sprouting - Our First Crop

We've been planning to sell our produce at the Rochester Famer's Market, which opens in May. Since we won't have a crop ready yet, we came up with a brainstorm idea: to grow sprouts to sell. Sprouts are fast-growing, extremely nutritious, tasty and nobody else has been selling them there.

I found a fantastic source of organic seeds and information at the Sprout People website and ordered several seed mixes to try. This batch of spicy mix seeds was my first crop. After soaking for 8 hours, the sprouts are rinsed every 12 hours. I purchased a large metal strainer at a restaurant supply store that is perfect for rinsing the small seeds before they have grown much.
For the final rinse, I soak the spouts in water in my salad spinner and scoop out the hulls. Then the salad spinner is fantastic for getting the water out of the mix -very important. For growing containers, I have experimented with deli buckets with holes drilled in the bottom, heavy-duty office in-boxes with a layer of plastic neede-craft mesh for drainage(my own ingenious but imperfect invention), and was finally overjoyed to find some large, plastic colanders which work the best so far. Here are the French Garden mix and the Italian Blend sprouts after their final rinse, set on the counter to green up a bit.

Starting with 6 ounces of seeds resulted in 3o ounces of finished sprouts. The chickens happily devoured the hulls and the stray sprouts that sneaked out of the colander during the rinses.
We have more sprouts now than we can keep up with eating, so yesterday I delivered sprouts in zip-lock bags to a bunch of friends to try. I drove up to one woman's house in my daughter's decrepit old car that was tagged with graffiti from when she was living in Chicago and carried two baggies to the door. When she answered she laughed that it looked like I was delivering marijuana. (I am sure that would be a more profitable crop than sprouts!)

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Spring Fever RX

It seems absurd to purchase flowers when you live on a farm with intentions of growing fields of flowers. But I have spring fever SO BAD I could not resist splurging on a few sunflowers at the grocery store this morning.

I woke up to a Minnesota Public Radio essay where the narrator mentioned his tomato seedlings growing on the window sill. I know it is still a bit early to plant my seeds, but if he is doing it...