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The State Fair

The Florida State Fair is coming up soon! We're planning on going February 7, and we're very excited. There should be plenty of agricultural, art, and craft exhibits, and of course, fried foods on a stick. I've never been before, but Taylor remembers it being pretty cool.

Shell-less eggs

As more of our chickens start laying, we're seeing some really weird eggs. So far we've found two that are completely missing shells. One I squished as I blindly reached into the nesting box, and another was laying on the floor of the coop. It's the weirdest thing, and you surely won't find them in the grocery store!



Almost like fall


The cold weather around here has caused a bunch of the leaves on the trees to fall off. The sweetgum has dropped leaves all over the place, and they make a wonderful crunchy sound when we walk all over the yard. Living in Florida, it's the closest we'll ever come to fall.

Grubs in the Garden


We found a bunch of these beetle grubs in the garden while we were double digging. They eat rotting wood, and there were plenty of old rotting roots in the area. We fed some of them to the chickens, who found them quite scrumptious.

Free county compost

We've recently added an additional 320 square feet of garden space outside, which is awesome. The only problem? The soil is sugar sand. It's nearly white. We think it may have once been a beach, because we've found all kind of shells and oceanic things under the grass. It's the sunniest location on the property, but it's going to need work before we can really do anything with it.

Mr. Dennis told us that the county offered free mulch and compost, and we decided to investigate. There are five locations around Sarasota county that offer free compost for home use, and there's a ton of it. The local park down the street has a huge compost pile, and it's less than three miles from the house. There's going to be residual pesticides and fertilizers, but we don't think it'll be more than you find in the average lawn. We'll go investigate, and if it seems okay, we might go ahead and use it in our front bed.

Some lessons learned



Right now there's not much happening in the garden. We're waiting for seedlings to grow, and don't have much day-to-day maintenance. We've been using this as a time to reflect on our successes and failures over the past eight months, and we feel like we've learned an enormous amount. The most important lessons?


Patience. Whether it's waiting for hens to start laying, seedlings to come up, or not rushing through a weeding job, patience is perhaps the most important skill we've come to work on. Sometimes things seem to take forever--- it was months before we got so much as a single collard to try, and we've had far more failures than successes.


Persistence. Sometimes stuff just doesn't work out as quickly or as easily as we'd hoped. We kept trying different crops, different planting times, different locations, and we've finally found something that sort of works. There's definitely room for improvement, but at least we've made it this far.


Planting times really matter. At first we kind of figured we could follow some vague guidelines, but realistically, a lot of the recommendations are pretty darn close to correct. It's very very important, especially in Florida, to pay attention to local seasonal planting guides. There's a pretty darn good one in "Vegetable Gardening in Florida". I'm not a fan of the rest of the book, which advocates fertilizers and pesticides out the wazoo, but definitely get it for the planting chart and local variety recommendations.






Takin' the bus



Last semester, a group of city-planners came to talk with my Environmental Issues class to discuss future transportation plans in Sarasota. They wanted student feedback, knowing that many of us represented some more environmentally-concious citizens that would have suggestions beyond new traffic lights and expanding roads. Unanimous among our class, we advocated safer roads for bicyclists, as well as more improved public transportation. Starting in January, SCAT agreed to give all students of local schools unlimited access to the bus system for a one-time payment (I think it came out to $1000, which was taken out of our student fee account). So far, the local busses have seen over 500 visits from New College students, with that number rising each day. To get on, we just scan our student ID and take a seat.


I've started taking the bus to school each day. There's a bus stop five minutes from my house that gets a straight trip right to campus once an hour. I do have to arrange my schedule a little bit differently, and every once in a while I have to wait on campus nearly an hour for the next bus, but it's a wonderful time to catch up on my reading. I'm so glad that New College has taken this initiative, and hope it continues into next year!

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Sure, this book's been around ages, but it's always worth another read. I've recently picked it up again, and absolutely love the way Kingsolver approaches the local food movement.



In this story, Barbara Kingsolver, her husband, and two daughters leave their desert town to go live on a farm in Virginia to spend an entire year eating locally. They allow themselves a few exceptions (like certain spices), but otherwise, everything is grown within a short drive from their home.


In one of my favorite little anecdotes, Lily, the youngest daughter at six years old, loses one of her beloved chickens. Her mother attempts to console the wailing child, but with no success. In a last ditch effort she tells Lily, "It's only a chicken." Lily responds yelling, "You don't get it! I love chickens more than you!"


A few minutes later, little Lily comes back with a sheepish look on her face. "Mommy," she says. "I didn't mean that. If I love chickens six, then I love you seven."


This story is a wonderful way to become inspired to grow even a little bit of produce, or visit the local farmer's market. She gives us incentive as a culture to ditch the fast-food industrial culture, while also presenting ecological and environmental perspectives on the problems associated with big-business agriculture.

Loss



Last night, three German Shepards broke into our rabbit pen. Sadly, Farina, Toby, Miura, and Girl did not make it. For now, we're done with raising rabbits, but one day in the future we hope to try again. We've learned important lessons the past six months with them, which we know will help us out next time. This is part of farming, and life in general.

'Coon in the garden



Just after finishing our first bed, a little raccoon visited in the middle of the night. I don't blame him for walking through the soft soil.

Can you dig it?

In our back garden, there were way too many roots to properly prepare the soil using a process known as Double Digging. Instead, we either built raised beds, or just simply loosened the soil using a pitch fork. Neither option was particularly successful, because the soil still wasn't loose enough for roots to effectively grow. Out front, we've employed this wonderful Double Digging method, which seem to have really loosened up our soil. The process goes something like this:

Mark out the area to be dug. We like to go around the edges with a shovel to break up any roots that may trail into the new bed. Dig your first trench at the edge of the bed, putting the soil aside in a wheelbarrow. Loosen the soil in the bottom of the trench with a digging fork.


Dig another trench behind the first one, dumping this dirt into the first trench. Break up any big chunks. 

If there's any roots or anything in the dirt, pull em out. We also found oyster shells, a Tabasco bottle, and an empty jar of spaghetti sauce.


After loosening this new trench with a digging fork, repeat the process. It's kind of slow going, but we try to split up the work. Taylor digs, and I go behind him loosening the soil. Each of our new beds is 3.5 feet by 20 feet, and they take about an hour to do. 



When you're done, you'll have a big raised line of dirt. Use a rake to smooth this out a little bit. We're also going to add compost, and mulch everything with a fine layer of hay. This brings us up to almost 600 square feet of gardening space, which is pretty much awesome.

Makin' some juice

Nina is an expert orange juicer. The first time I ever met her, she was up on the counter squeezing some citrus. Yesterday she helped Taylor and I squeeze a gallon.

We had to stop once our container was full because we really don't have any more freezer space. We're talking about getting a chest freezer. We're going to need one eventually, and it'd be great to be able to save these oranges in the form of juice.

I think later this week we're going to try our hand at making some candied orange peels, because with all of the juice, we have an abundance of them. We're also going to try canning some, dehydrating some (which might be gross, but it's worth a shot), and making some more fruit leather.




Preparations for our new site

After spending the past six months with mixed results in our garden, we've pretty much nailed down our failures to a few factors: too little sunlight, vegetable varieties incompatible with the Florida climate, and less-than-ideal soil quality. We've kind of tackled the plant-variety problem, and now we're on to the other two problems.

We've selected a new site that gets some more sunlight (it's hard to tell from the photos right now because of the way the winter sun moves through the sky, but during the summer the light here is much much better). There were a few bushes and shrubs in the way, but we got permission to pull them out.

The sunlight is definitely much better in our new area, and there are far fewer roots than we have out back, even with those bushes we pulled up. We can actually double-dig this area, which we couldn't do out back. We're going to still maintain our other garden, but use it more for low-light non-fruiting crops like lettuces and some root vegetables. It's going to be a lot of work, but we're very excited.



Nina's Christmas Present

Thursday afternoon, Christmas finally ended. For Christmas, Taylor and I had wanted to let Seleighna go horse-back riding, but at three years old, she was too young to take a lesson anywhere. Luckily, I had a friend from school who owned a horse just a little ways from our place, and she was willing to let Nina come out, go for a ride, and tour the barn with the other horses.

As excited as she was to go meet Jack, we were a little worried that she'd be too nervous to get on and go for a ride when she realized just how big a horse really is. Instead, she surprised us by hopping right on before she even pet him.

Jack was a perfect candidate for the job. He was super friendly, loved getting kisses, and enjoyed all the attention he got from this little girl. Nina was absolutely in love.


Marilyn was absolutely wonderful too. She did a great job talking to Nina, and making her feel very comfortable up on the horse.

Nina absolutely loved getting to ride around on Jack, and it was a wonderful afternoon for all of us.

Our caving trip

We've been back from our caving trip for a while, and we're finally caught up with all of our chores and have just sorted through all of the photos from our trip. We took a few hundred of them! Some highlights from our trip:


The view from our campsite was absolutely incredible. The campsite belonged to a caver who owned a summer cabin on the property. Just a few feet from our tent was a sheer drop off overlooking the small town below, and it faced west, so we witnessed some gorgeous sunsets.


It was very very cold during our entire trip (in the 20's and low 30's most of the time). A fire was absolutely necessary, not just for keeping warm, but also for cooking. Most of our meals were cooked in a dutch oven, a large cast iron pot heated with coals.



The first cave we went to was Rusty's, an absolutely gorgeous cave, with something like a sixty or seventy foot drop to get into it. Since neither Taylor nor I are particularly excellent with our vertical gear, Cole and Stephanie are always there to help out. Here Stephanie is on a bottom belay, ready to yank on that rope if Taylor or I slip on our way down, which would effectively stop us in our tracks.

This isn't to say that we're absolutely horrible with our gear! We've been practicing for the past few months, and hopefully one day we'll be able to take a rope-climbing class.


Rusty's cave is noted for the absolutely gorgeous formations. In many caves, a lot of the formations have been damaged by careless people not concerned with cave conservation. This cave, however, has most of the formations intact, and they're absolutely stunning.


The bats are always cool to see. Most of the time they're just clinging to the ceiling, but occasionally you'll see them flying around.


Climbing out is always a blast too. Frogging (the system we use) is fairly easy, but I always seem to have trouble whenever we're climbing up through a relatively tight opening. Balancing against the rock while still climbing is a bit tricky.

Here we are in Howard's cave, a horizontal cave that receives tons of visitors each year. There's graffiti on nearly every wall, lots of litter, and most of the formations are dead and damaged.


After caving, we headed over to the east part of the state, and camped out at Tallulah Gorge. Our original plan was Blacktop Mountain State Park, but it was further up the mountain, the temperature was predicted to be in the single digits. Instead, we slept in the cars down on the valley. The condensation on the inside of the windows was frozen in the morning, so it was still very very cold.

We also visited the Foxfire Museum. It was really awesome to see the way that people used to live in the area. I liked the antique spinning wheels (the lady that works at the museum as a spinner/weaver wasn't there which was a total bummer). Taylor had an absolute blast playing around on the stilts with Cole and Stephanie.

Our trip was wonderful, and wouldn't have been possible without Dennis and Philip taking care of our chickens, rabbits, and garden, or without Stephanie and Cole there to help us out on our caving adventure. Thanks guys.

A homegrown meal

We've finally got stuff coming out of our garden pretty regularly. Last night we decided to cook up those potatoes from a few days ago. They got chopped up, fried in a little bit of butter, and seasoned with rosemary.

They smelled absolutely heavenly, too.



Then we whipped up a salad with ingredients mostly from our garden. There was a lot of lettuce, tossed with a bit of chard and some baby collards. Topped with homegrown radishes and balsamic-vinegar-glazed walnuts, it made for a tasty dish.


We also made our own salad dressing, which was very very easy. In it, we used a couple of our eggs from our chickens.


Homemade Salad Dressing

Put two whole room-temperature eggs and a quarter cup of vegetable oil in the blender on high for about one minute, or until the mixture becomes thicker and lighter colored.
Add a half teaspoon of powdered mustard seed, and continue to blend. Every thirty seconds add another quarter cup of oil until mixture thickens. You may have to scrape the sides of the blender periodically.
Add a teaspoon of paprika and a tablespoon of lemon juice, and blend until mixed.
While blender is running, add milk until you get the consistency you want. Add onion powder, salt, garlic, and pepper to taste, and mix well.

Radishes

Our garden is looking much better than when we first started. Our collards are chugging along, our lettuces are green, and our radishes are ready to pick! We decided to yank a handful out of the ground yesterday to see how they were doing.

They were just about perfect. They were a smaller variety than the average grocery store radish. We wiped of the dirt, bit into one, and it was absolutely delicious. No harsh "bite" like most of the radishes I've ever eaten. And at just over a month to grow, they were super quick too!

A potato tragedy

The bitter cold has finally found its way down to sunny Sarasota. Everything has done well so far (except our pathetic little eggplant that we haven't had the heart to pull up), but last night's chilly temperatures found our potatoes down and out.

They'd been in the ground a little while, so we decided to dig them up and see what we had. There was no way they were going to recover from the cold anyways.


To our surprise, we actually found a little potato under one of the plants we dug up. We decided to go ahead and pull up the rest, and what we found was pretty awesome.


There were four or five handfuls of dark, dirty potatoes hiding under the plants. We took them in, cleaned them off, and we'll cook them up with some rosemary and butter for dinner.



A brown one!

After months of waiting, we finally have a brown egg! We're up to three chickens laying eggs now (Prius and Spyker, our two Americaunas lay blue eggs). Our latest layer?

Evora has finally started laying eggs. She was one of the first two chickens we got, way back in September. She was 12 weeks old when we got her, which sets her at around 25 weeks. We expect Esprit, another hen exactly her age, to lay soon too.

A lovely brown egg among our blue ones

Our newest project

So after spending my Christmas break spinning yarn, I decided to try another project. On our trip, we stopped at a wonderful place called Rising Fawn Fibers. Brenda, the owner/shepherd, sold us some lovely roving, but my favorite purchase?


I paid about $25 for this raw fleece, still caked with manure, vegetable matter, twigs, dirt, and sheep sweat.


It took about eight rinses in a bathtub under cool water, vinegar, and Ivory soap to get it even remotely clean.

video

The five-pound fleece weighed about 50 pounds when it was drenched with water. It took forever for all of the water to drain out when we picked it up out of the bath.


We still haven't finished getting all of the oils or dirt out of it. I plan to finish cleaning it, and then dye it and spin it raw, without really carding it.