My animals are smarter than your animals

DimsworthAs a farm mama, I have a pretty established routine. I get up at dawn, do farm chores, then usually stake out my favorite kitchen table spot with a cup of coffee and the latest craigslist posting (farm/garden section, obviously). The other day, my morning agenda was rudely interrupted by a loud rapping at the sliding glass door that leads out onto the deck. I looked over to see Dimsworth, who was pressed up against the glass – close enough to make a blowfish face if he had lips. As I stared at him, he started knocking on the door with his beak again. I immediately dragged Gene into the room so that he, too, could witness the miracle of a turkey intelligent enough to knock on the door and ask to come in. When Dimsworth saw us both staring, he immediately doubled the intensity of his knocks. Gene, who had just noticed the nasty pile by Dimsworth’s feet that indicated he had been waiting for us to notice him for quite awhile, demanded I go chase him off the deck. And then hose it down. The scariest part of the whole experience was that Dimsworth wouldn’t get out of the doorway, even when I opened it and tried to come out. I had to nudge him aside, then distract him with a treat to get him away from the door. He either really wanted to come inside, or was disappointed he didn’t get the chance to sell Gene a magazine subscription after knocking on the door for so long.

spider bunnyOddly enough, Dimsworth wasn’t the only one to display supernatural powers this week. Gene and I needed to go into the Bunny Ranch to determine whether or not Milton and Stella were really a boy and girl, respectively (more on that later!). As it turns out, Milton is now Millie, and Stella goes by Stallone. At any rate, Millie was not happy to be examined so rudely, not happy at all. The minute Gene put her down, she started racing around the bottom of the Bunny Ranch at a ferocious clip, then decided the available horizontal space wasn’t up to the task of containing her ire. When she rampaged toward the outer wall, she ran right up it. Literally right up the wall, like some crazy Spider Bunny. She hung there, four feet in the air, right below the cover for her bedroom. Although Gene was impressed, I was scared she had wedged herself against the hardware cloth and the bedroom wall, and was now too scared to come down. He waved a stick up by her head, and she finally dropped down to the ground and took comfort in the big pile of Wheat Thins I set out for her.

I needed to make sure I knew which rabbit was a buck because I found someone on craigslist who had quail for sale. I called himquail and was ecstatic to learn he would trade a bunny for a breeding set of coturnix quail! After making the exchange, I happily deposited three females and one male quail into the recently vacated brooding box. The latest batch of chicks are fully feathered out, and were rather tired of the confinement, so last night they relocated to the main coop. I spent the day today redecorating the brooding box to make it suitable for quail while Gene builds the Quail Sanctuary. They are tiny and fragile, so they have to be kept in a cage. I have big dreams for their new home. Big Dreams. But in the interim, changes had to be made because according to the Internet, quails have psychological needs that have to be met. I added a cozy nesting box, a partial cover for them to seek shelter under, a dust bathing station, and a foraging station stocked with crisp, fresh, greens to eat. That’s in addition to their choice of two feeders and two waterers, plus an assortment of climbing and hiding opportunities. They seem happy, and probably wish I would quit checking on them every fifteen minutes.

shyIn other happy news, the vet came back a few days ago and removed Shy’s sutures. He put up such a fuss about having the bandage taken off the vet decided not to put a new one on. I’m glad, because he seems so much happier with nothing on his head. He healed amazingly well from his surgery, even if he does look a tad lopsided now. Nothing about his personality has changed; he’s still a big sweetheart that loves to be hand fed his kibble and treats. I make sure to talk to him before I walk past him now, so I don’t inadvertently sneak up on him. He spent the entire day today basking in the sunshine and eating all the fallen leaves.

All the critters seemed happier than usual to curl up in whatever sun beam they could happy duckfind. I think they sense that it’s supposed to get to 34 degrees tonight, and the sun beams probably won’t be around for much longer. Lucky duck spent almost the entire day frolicking in the pools; he would zoom around in one, splashing happily for an hour, then run over to the next one and start playing again. I think he’s trying to squeeze every last ounce of enjoyment out of the beautiful fall days before the weather turns rainy again.

Not to be paranoid, but why is the banana tree looking at me like that?

esmerelda cropNow that my latest experiment, a Hibiscus plant called Roselle that is supposed to make wonderful cranberry flavored teas and jellies, has sprouted, I pop in and out of the greenhouse several times a day to monitor the progress of the small sprouts. And to bask in the 90+ degree temperature when it’s in the fifties outside. On one of those visits, I happened to look up into the branches of the banana tree and noticed that it was looking back at me with two green, triangular shaped beady little eyes. After taking an involuntary step back, I looked more closely and realized that what I thought was a branch was actually one of the 400 tiny baby mantises I had hatched back in April. Apparently Esmerelda ate the other 399, because not only is she IMG_0336almost the length of my forearm, but I can’t find any more of them. I know they eat harmful garden pests (precisely the reason I bought the two egg sacs in the first place), but I’m a little worried there won’t be enough pests in the greenhouse over the winter to sustain her rather substantial size. I think this winter is going to be a repeat of Gertrude, the greenhouse spider for whom I bought crickets and lovingly pelted them at her web all winter so she wouldn’t starve. I’m a little scared not to feed Esmerelda, because if she gets any bigger she’ll be able to reach the doorknob. I know she doesn’t look that imposing in the photograph, but keep in mind the banana leaf she’s perched on is almost six feet long. She’s a beast.

Speaking of beasts, I went into the Bunny Ranch today to try and count Cinnabun’s babies. If not for my catlike, lightning quick reflexes, and my ability to defend myself with distractingly tasty Wheat Thins, I would have withdrawn a bloody stump. Apparently she’s not ready to share her babies with the Internet public, but I’ll get some cute pictures as soon as I can.

IMG_0326So after being intimidated by both an insect and an overly protective mama rabbit, all within the same 30-minute time span, I decided I needed a delicious snack to boost my self esteem. I have discovered that fresh, ripe, sun-warmed figs are perhaps the most amazingly juicy, tasty fruit on the planet. My prior experience with figs has been limited to Newtons, which are nasty, but that didn’t stop me from getting a fig tree when they were on sale at my favorite greenhouse. I was so enamored with the experience of eating a ripe fig that Gene said I could go buy another tree! Now I just have to figure out where to put it.

The heart wants what it wants…..

raphaelSince starting our farming adventure four years ago, Gene has grown accustomed to my interrupting his breakfast to ask for $500 to buy a micro-mini pot-bellied pig, or a trio of peacocks, or whatever else happened to catch my eye on craigslist. He doesn’t even humor me anymore by pretending to think about his answer before rolling his eyes and going back to his corn flakes. Not that he never says yes – after all, we do have an immense number of chickens, two turkeys, two guineas, an alpaca, a sheep, an ever-changing number of rabbits, six goats, and sixteen ducks. No one can say I’m not spoiled. While I’m prone to falling in love with anything and everything, Gene is much more reserved with his creature affection. Every once in charlieawhile he’ll come home with a tiny kitten (thus proving that lurking in front of a grocery store with a box advertising free kittens works like a charm), and on one memorable occasion he walked in the door after work with Raphael the rescue ferret. So when he came home from a trip to Petco yesterday, with tales of a Devil Crab that would climb out of its tank and into the neighboring one to snack on the delicious fish next door, I knew he was in love. Deciding that a house just isn’t a home without a thieving crustacean, I went to Petco today to surprise him by bringing home Lucifer.

When I got to the aquatic section and inquired about the Devil Crab, the employees eyes lit up. She said they had gotten three of them in two months ago, two of which hadlucifer (2) sold on the first day. She then spent the next two months chasing Lucifer out of whichever tank he felt looked most delicious at the time. His favorite snack seemed to be the glow fish, which retail for $10 a pop (kind of ironic, considering Lucifer’s personal price tag was considerably less). A few people seemed interested in him, but then changed their minds once they learned he had special needs to be accommodated, such as a climbing ramp so he could breathe air every now and again. And the ramp couldn’t be to either side or the back of the tank, since then he’d presumably climb out and snack on a pet cat, or steal beer out of the fridge. No, the ramp had to be smack in the middle of the tank, which doesn’t seem like a deal breaker to me, but people are weird. Now, there’s two kinds of people that shop at Petco – people that know the basic requirements of their pets and get the bare minimum, and people that get the bare minimum, plus anything else that the pet could possibly ever need or want at any given stage of life. Guess which camp I’m in? I followed the employee around, stocking up on crab climbing toys, crab treats, and crab food, and I’m willing to admit that if she told me Lucifer needed an underwater exercise wheel, my next two questions would have been which aisle and what are my color choices.

Believe it or not, scoring an amazing crab for the tank wasn’t the only good thing to happen today. Cinnabun had her litter this morning! I will post some pictures in the next few days, I don’t like to shove a camera in their faces when they’ve been in the world for less than 12 hours. It seems rather rude.

Screw the weather, I’m planting chards

chardsNow that the summer crops are all harvested and most of the beds have been mulched, and I’ve loaded up the greenhouse to bursting with all the tropical plants, I decided that I couldn’t bear to go another four months before starting my seeds. The need to be growing something new was strong, so I went to my favorite greenhouse and bought some cold weather greens, specifically chard (to replace what the bunnies ate to the ground) and romanescu. I planted them in the front raised beds, and mulched them heavily with straw, so hopefully they’ll actually grow!

In other incredibly exciting news, I’m ecstatic to report that my loofa experiment was a resounding success. I harvested a ripe one loofatoday, peeled it, shook all the seeds out of it, then power washed it with a hose. Three hours later, I had a new sponge! At least one of those hours was devoted to scampering all over the kitchen and living room, picking up seeds that had flown out of the peeled loofa when I banged it against the sink. You’re supposed to hit it against the side of a bucket to knock all the seeds loose, but it was too cold outside for me so I used the sink. I was so thrilled with my new source of free, natural sponges, I immediately hopped on the Internet and ordered two more varieties. I’m going to start them in January so they’ll be ripe closer to the end of August, since they stop growing when it gets cold. I’m sure I’ll be able to get more than one sponge next year, now that I know what I’m doing. I had a bunch of loofas growing, but two got overly ripe and started to mold, and the remaining four that are still on the vine won’t grow enough since the weather turned.

ceriI spent the rest of the evening happily stretched out on the floor, sorting my cubby of 200+ seed packets and organizing my plans for next year’s gardens. Oddly enough, no matter how many opened and unopened seed packets I have, I’m always able to come up with a fairly extensive list of can’t-live-withouts. I’ve decided to try and limit myself to planting just one or two of each thing, and allowing it enough space in the garden so that I can actually harvest with ease months later. We’ll see how long that lasts, because my list of what I intend to plant is fairly long.

My baby’s back!

IMG_0191After a very long four days, the vet brought Shy back to the farm this morning. Although he was scared and skittish when he was climbing out of the trailer, as soon as he realized where he was I could see him visibly relax. All the other critters recognized him right away, and as Shy was exploring the backyard I opened the pasture gate and the stampede began. It was actually a pretty impressive sight – six goats of varying size, plus one woolly sheep all competing to get Shy’s attention first. The turkeys, on the other hand, immediately recognized a stranger in their midst, and started trying to out puff each other in an effort to convince Dr. Bo that he was, indeed, gazing upon the prettiest turkey. I stood back and tried to look at all the chaos in the same way as someone seeing it for the first time – the flock of sixteen ducks moving as one across the yard, quacking angrily that I didn’t have the pink grain scoop in my hand. The sixty-plus chickens that had come to the same conclusion seconds earlier, and were cackling and screeching their annoyance at the lack of delicious kibbles being scattered in their general direction. And perhaps loudest of all, the two guinea howls that were so beside themselves with the lack of treats that they were spinning in tight little circles, screeching their trademark “buck wheat” call loudly enough for anyone within a two-mile radius to agree that I probably should have dispensed delicious morsels the minute I stepped in the backyard. Although he undoubtedly agreed when I told him that we lived in a zoo (at the top of my lungs, due to all the noise), he smiled and added that everyone looked incredibly happy. For his part, Shy seemed to welcome being back amidst all the chaos. He has to wear the bandage for another week or so, then the eye surgeon will return to remove the sutures. He’ll wear a light bandage for another week, then he’ll be considered fully healed. He has a spot on his neck that was shaved to accommodate the injections, so I’m thinking that when the colder, rainy weather comes he’ll definitely need some type of scarf. I figure I’ll buy him a tasteful yet trendy scarf knit from alpaca fiber to keep his neck warm until his own wool grows back.

Why, what do you use your living room for?

avocadoWhen I went out for dawn chores this morning, I was horrified to find frost on the grass. Actual ice crystals, which I hadn’t expected until at least the end of October. Normally I’m not averse to frost, in fact I think it makes for stunning photographic opportunities, but I hadn’t yet had a chance to relocate my precious avocado trees for the year. I have a lot of work invested in those trees – I lovingly sprouted the pits three years ago, and have been caring for them ever since. Normally I have them tucked in for the winter by now, but this year the biggest tree is over nine feet tall (Gene measured), which severally restricts where I can house it. Even the garage ceiling was too low. I did put the six-foot tall tree in the garage, placed right next to the brooding box so that the broody Frizzle can have a room with a view while she sits on her clutch of eggs. Long story short, Gene and I dragged the nine-footer into the living room. I’m still not sure how to arrange around the clock protection for it from the hungry, curious, kitties, but at least it won’t wither in the frost.

Since we’ve had a week without rain, the goats and Woolimina have been enjoying extended prison breaks all day long. Although I’m happy they get a chance to eat all theIMG_0162 blackberries and grass, with the added bonus of those things being a great source of free food, I’m not sure the decorative plantings will ever recover. Ursula, the pot-bellied pig that she is, managed to destroy my three-year-old rosemary tree while I was shooing Princess Fiona out of my rose garden. Shortly after that I gave up, and decided it was much less stressful to focus on how many essential nutrients they’re getting. Seeing all the happy critters taking sun naps in their favorite spots is very relaxing, but it does make me miss poor Shy. According to the vet, his surgery went really well, and he’s been the most well-behaved alpaca they’ve ever treated. I’m ecstatic that he’s coming home tomorrow, because I can’t wait to give him a hug. He’ll be wearing a bandage around his head for at least two weeks, then a lighter bandage after he gets his sutures out, but then he should be back to mostly normal. I’m a little disappointed that the $1,000 price tag attached to his recovery didn’t come with an eye patch, or at least a pirate bandana, but I’m just happy to have him back. And that we have a credit card with room left on it.

It’s getting colder at night, time to panic!

cc (1)After lurking in the pasture at odd hours of the night to treat poor Shy, I realized that time is quickly running out to find warm seasonal housing for all my exotic, tropical, Gene-can’t-believe-I-tried-to-grow-these-here plants. Last year I managed to cram everything in either the big greenhouse or the smaller plastic greenhouse, but my avocado trees had a growth spurt over the summer and are now about a foot taller than the roof of both enclosures. And even if they did fit vertically, the space they occupied last year is now claimed by an entire forest of new citrus trees, all of which are about three feet tall now. Even my papaya is two feet tall! That one stays inside all year round, though, as I desperately try to mimic Hawaiian soil by parking it on a heated mat. I don’t want to bring the avocado trees inside, because house plants tend to have life expectancies measured in mere hours thanks to our hungry and enthusiastically vegetarian kitties. My guess is the trees will end up inside the garage, next to the brooding facility. I seriously can’t remember the last time we even had a car in there.

I spent most of the day today wandering around the front yard, repotting root bound plants and tucking them into the greenhouse for the winter. I needed a distraction from thinking about poor Shy, whose eye unfortunately got worse. The trauma to his eye was more significant than the vet had originally thought, so sadly he will become a pirateeb (1) alpaca. Gene said I can get him a cool eye patch, but I’m not allowed to bedazzle it because he’s a boy. The vet picked him up today, and will bring him back on Monday. I think all the other critters know I’m sad, because whenever I go into the backyard I get swarmed even more than usual. It really is hard to be depressed when I’m outside, though, watching all the content animals going about their various errands. Dimsworth and Hawthorne have uplifted my spirits more than anything, since they’ve recently discovered how much they love hanging out on the deck. I like sitting at the kitchen table and watching them roost on the deck railing, but Gene is going to freak when he sees the softball-sized bombs that mark their favorite napping spots. I would clean it up, but since he hid the spray nozzle for the hose from me because he said I was constantly losing it, I don’t have the proper tools for the job.

Who needs sleep?

ShySo despite the absolutely gorgeous weather we’ve been having for the last few days, things have been pretty crazy around here. During the windstorm last week, poor Shy suffered a pretty catastrophic eye injury, and we had to call the mobile emergency vet. After handing over roughly the same amount as our car payment, I got eye drops to treat the infection. For the first two days, I had to administer them every two hours. The vet said that I didn’t have to give them at night, but if I did, Shy had a much better chance of keeping his vision. Naturally, I set the alarm to go off four times during the night, and administered the meds like clockwork. A few of my friends noticed my zombie-like appearance the second day, and when I explained what was going on, they said it was just like nursing. Which I guess it is, if nursing involved putting on muck boots and chasing your baby around the pasture at two am. Now that it’s been a few days, I only have to give the drops every three hours between 7 am and 10 pm, but there’s two different kinds now that have to be given 30 minutes apart. It’s going to be awhile before I can leave the house for any length of time, but the upside of the whole experience is I learned Shy loves ear scritches. After I get done with the drops, I let go of his halter and scratch behind his ears, and he leans into me and shuts his eyes. It’s quite sweet.

The other thing I’ve learned during the last few days is that Shy has formed very IMG_0164strong bonds with the other critters, most noticeably Woolimina. The first few times I had to chase Shy around the pasture, Woolimina tried to protect him by running along side him and generally running interference. She would make quite the linebacker, I should buy her a football. I was amazed how upset she got when she thought Shy was in distress, and after I’m done she always lays down right next to him and gives him cuddles.

DimsworthBut it’s not all frenzied chases around here, when I’m not medicating recuperating alpacas, I open the gate and let everyone come out and enjoy the sunshine. Dimsworth and Hawthorne particularly love their freedom, and more than anything they love following me around the yard, helping with whatever project I’m doing. I think I created a couple of monsters by hand feeding them Wheat Thins, and now they come barreling up to me demanding treats the minute I step off the deck.

I’m used to doing the chicken dance when I walk through the yard, hopping and jumpinghowler to avoid stepping on any toes while making my way to the treat bin, but I must say the sight of two huge turkeys rushing up to me is still disconcerting. Even the guineas mob me, and they have the horrible habit of springing straight up in the air just as they catch up to me. I’m really glad we got Vinni and Luigi, loud as they are. They are great guard birds, screeching and hooting whenever the falcons and eagles fly overhead. Now that they’re a few months old, their bodies are getting big, but their heads aren’t catching up. Even though they aren’t the prettiest critters in the yard, they’re always joyful as they go about their business.

The busy season has arrived!

canningI know it’s been far too long since my last post, but in my defense fall is the busiest time of the year around here. Even busier than spring, since it’s much harder to yank things out of the ground than it is to put them there in the first place. We are almost done with canning for the season, although the weather really messed up our blackberry harvest. Blackberries have to be picked before the first hard rain, since once they get wet they mold practically overnight. The rains came about a month early this year, so only about half of what we expected to pick got a chance to ripen. Stupid weather.

For the first time ever we are canning lard! We lardsaved it from when the three pigs were butchered, and about fifty pounds of pure porky deliciousness has been chilling in the freezer since then. The first batch is rendering down as I write this. Thank goodness Gene had the foresight to insist upon buying the meat grinder attachment for our Kitchen Aid mixer, because chopping all that by hand would have sucked. After grinding down a third of it, Gene put it in our portable roasting oven and carried it the back porch. I guess some people render it down inside, but we didn’t want our house to smell like the inside of a Frito Lay factory for 12 hours. Once it’s all cooked down, we strain out the cracklins (mmmmmm, cracklins) then pour the clear liquid into pint jars and process it in a water bath for ten minutes. I did some research, and apparently home-processed lard is actually better for you than Crisco, butter, and other processed fats because it doesn’t have the partially hydrogenated fats that commercially manufactured oils do. I’m really excited to try cooking with it for the first time!

dimsworthIn outside news, I haven’t really started winterizing the garden beds yet, but I did open up the big garden for the chickens. Open access to the delicious garden plants is definitely the chickens’ favorite sign that fall is here. Since Shy utterly destroyed all our fruit trees (whoever wrote in the “Alpacas for Dummies” book that alpacas are just grass eaters obviously never owned one), I’ve taken to opening the pasture gate on nice days and letting all the critters have a prison break. Dimsworth in particular has developed a taste for tomatoes, and he spends all day grubbing around the garden, happy as can be.

Now that it’s almost too late, my pepper plants finally decided to grow some actual pepperspeppers. I have no idea if they will ripen in time to use them for anything, but I did find out the hard way that they’re the exceptionally hot kind. When I first noticed the little baby peppers, I completely forgot I’d planted the Fatali variety, which is among the five hottest peppers in the world. I plucked off a particularly succulent looking one and popped it in my mouth, only to drool out liquid fire mere seconds later. It hurt so badly I honestly thought my skin would blister. I ran into the house and chugged goat’s milk, which did nothing, so I debated between calling 911 and checking the internet to see if there’s any other idiots out there like me. I went for plan B, and learned that smearing olive oil on the burning areas and letting it sit for a few minutes worked for some poor soul that cut up a bushel of jalapenos without wearing gloves. I was actually impressed with how quickly it stopped the pain. Now I just have to figure out what to do with four plants worth of peppers hot enough to make Satan himself say, “Damn, that be scorchy.”

ducksWith all the rain we’ve been having, the pasture has once again turned into a flood zone. Although the ducks don’t mind, I got so sick of wading (literally wading) through boot-sucking mud that I asked Abigail to bring down her tractor and scrape all the muck up into one big pile. After building Mt. Dooky, we brought in 8 yards of sandy pit run and dumped that on top of the hard pan. Once that gets packed down a bit, I’m hoping it will solve the flooding issue. Gene and I also bought a huge bag of pasture grass seed, then waited until after dark when the chickens were sleeping and stealthily seeded the entire pasture. Then it rained for five days straight and washed it all away, so we’re going to have to buy another bag.

Because it’s so wet outside, I’ve had to keep the bunnies confined to their ranch. Evenbunny snax though Harvey’s not particularly happy about it, I make it up to them by bringing extra Wheat Thins and carrots out on regular basis. There’s only two baby bunnies left, and all four of them love hanging out together in Harvey’s bedroom. I will be the first to admit I get a little (okay, a lot) melancholy this time of the year, since I can’t spend as much time as I want to outside because of the rain. Then when I am outside, I’m surrounded by dripping water and dying, rotting garden crops. It’s by far my least favorite time of the year, but I distract myself by planning for next year’s gardens, and by looking hard to find beauty in all the dampness.

slugAs I was harvesting some tomatillos, I managed to find perhaps the cutest slug on the entire planet, and he was HUGE. I know slugs are disastrous to crops, but since everything is dying back anyway, I figured I would let him live out his long and happy sluggy life. I even put him underneath the trellis containing all the nasty, not-at-all-as-delicious-as-everyone-on-the-internet-said Mexican Sour Gherkins. Maybe the slug will appreciate the fact that everyone but me is raving about them, and have himself a picnic.