With 80 acres to choose from… you have to go there?

I’ve discovered one downside to having a roving herd of chickens happily roaming the property. Despite having 80 acres to wander, they all seem to end up crammed in my dahlia bed. The one spot of decorative landscaping I’ve poured all my efforts into is being treated like the salad bar at Old Country Buffet.

Sigh. This is why I can’t have anything nice.

I can’t possibly kick them out – they look and sound so happy. The raised bed is packed with a ton of sunflowers and dahlias, so it’s impossible to see them in there. But when I walk past it and hear all the delighted clucks and contented coos, it’s impossible to be mad.

We’ve recently started letting the goats wander outside their pasture, and guess where Cocoa invariably makes a beeline for?

Unlike the chickens, she actually does leave a swath of destruction in her wake, which I discovered the hard way after watching her trying to inhale a 3-foot tall sunflower in the time it took me to get from the gate I’d just opened to grabbing her collar. Then she did her best to mow down a baby sunflower while I was hauling her back to greener pastures.

The pigs also got to check out the yard, although it was wholly unintentional. The latch on the barn is a bit sticky, so when I heard it “thunk”, I mistakenly thought it had latched. About 30 minutes later I was online working when Gene looked out the window and announced the presence of two gleefully rampaging hogs. While they didn’t eat the sunflowers, they did come close to trampling a few.

We let them explore for a bit, but when they started heading into the dense underbrush in the wood line it was time to get them back to their pasture. Easier than said than done. As far as the piggies were concerned, it was game on. We tried everything, from rounding them up with the riding mower (moderately successful) to chasing after them with a long lead MacGyvered into a lasso (less successful) until we finally got them cornered in the pole barn and shut the door.

Never have you heard so much grunting, which quickly turned into indignant pig squawks when Chief Big Ham finally blundered into the loop I’d created and I was able to fashion it into a harness. Gene pulled him into their fenced off area, with Porkahantas following close behind to make sure nothing bad was going to happen to her brother. He kicked up such a fuss that it took a bowlful of treats and 3 buckets of fresh water in his pool to console him. He had a snack then curled up in the cool water for a nap, and all was forgiven.

In other news, another monarch hatched out! Plus we’ve got two more chrysalises on the porch, which should open in another few days. Gene and I were over at our friend’s house yesterday where the milkweed came from, and I was searching under the leaves to see if there was a second wave of eggs yet. I stumbled across the biggest tree frog I’d ever seen, a fat fellow just a bit smaller than the palm of my hand. Gene said he got that big from eating all the monarchs as they hatched, which I guess is a good survival strategy even if it does make me shudder.

The transformation is complete!

I can’t believe it’s been over a week since my last post, and I really can’t believe July is almost over. This summer is going incredibly fast, although you wouldn’t know it from the state of our corn. It still looks like it did a month ago, which is 6 inches tall and resentful. It’s going to take awhile, I think, to get the soil built back up.

But in far less depressing news, the monarch emerged today! I’ve been watching the chrysalis like a hawk, because my friend Jennifer told me they turn black, then translucent, right before it happens. Sure enough, last night the cocoon looked really dark, and then this morning I could see the monarch’s wings inside! I reached in the front door to grab my phone off the kitchen table so I could text a pic to Bess Bess, and guess what happened during the 30 seconds that took me? Ya, I missed the Big Reveal by *this much*.

But even though I missed that part, it’s been fascinating to watch as he gets ready to fly away. At first, his body looked like an anaconda that swallowed a soccer ball. Instead of being long and thin, it was smushed up into a ball. He slowly straightened it out and took on more recognizable proportions, and all afternoon he’s been been flexing his wings and just generally chilling on the porch.

Even better, I have one more chance to watch the process from start to finish, as one of Monstro’s habitat mates has made a chrysalis right in the middle of the porch ceiling! Now I can photograph it from all angles.

All of the critters seem to be actually enjoying the warmer weather. The pigs requested a swimming pool in their pasture, which naturally I obliged.

Every morning I dump 2 or 3 buckets of water into a hollow they made, and as soon as they hear the splash they come stampeding over to lounge about in the mud.

Their favorite way to spend a lazy, hot afternoon is sprawled in the wallow, blowing bubbles with their snouts in the muddy water. It’s really cute (and loud) when they both get going.

The chickens have completely gotten over their hesitation about roaming in wide open spaces, and now I look out the window to find them hanging out by the goats, circling the truck looking for bugs, and cheerfully wandering the long driveway. They’ve claimed a wooded gully right by the woodshed for afternoon siestas, and I’ll find them perched on low branches contentedly watching the world go by. Once they start laying we’ll probably miss a few eggs, but they’re so gleeful about exploring the world I think it’s worth it.

Cocoa and Mocha spend their time napping in the sunshine and browsing clover. Cocoa’s favorite part of the day is milking time, because she gets to snack on grain while I milk her in the morning and evening. My friend Angela came up to visit for the weekend and wanted to learn how to do it, so of course Cocoa picked that exact moment to unleash her hidden-up-until-now stubborn side.

Normally the she’ll waltz right up the ramp and settle in to her grain bucket, and I go about my business with zero issues. But the moment she’s got an audience? Power struggle time.

She kicked the container, stepped in it, or tried to sit down on our hands. Of course my T-Rex arms can’t handle that kind of wide load, but you know what they can do? Take away the grain bucket. She quickly put two and two together, and that ended the milking shenanigans.



Our family is growing!

After slightly more than a year without goats, we’ve finally got some again! I’d forgotten how much I love hearing the noises they make, especially when they realize you’ve got carrots in your hand and you’re walking their way. Gene and I went to pick up a mom/daughter duo from a beautiful farm about 90 minutes south of us, and they’ve really taken to their new surroundings.

We renamed them Cocoa and Mocha, mostly because they’re such a beautiful rich brown color (and the Kardashian clan has forever tainted the name Khloe). They are alpine/nigerian cross, and Cocoa reminds me a lot of Buttercup. Gene built a really cool holding pen out of recycled pallets, and they were quite the hit at the gas station.

We fenced off the other half of the pig’s pasture, so they have half the barn to themselves, and plenty of fresh clover and hay to graze. They’ve been exploring for about 5 hours now, and I don’t think they’ve stopped eating for longer than 30 seconds. They’re like fat kids at a huge candy store, running from one tasty flower to the next because it all looks so good.

Once they’re used to the routine here, we will open up the pasture so they can access all the hay fields. In the winter they’ll move into the pig’s quarters, which is furnished with plenty of heat lamps and cozy places to burrow in the hay. By that time the pigs will be at Freezer Camp, so it’s perfect timing.

In other exciting news, we have our first cocoon! I had built a new milkweed station on the porch, since the caterpillars were munching through the amount of milkweed that a little mason jar could hold way too fast. I dragged in a big black storage cubby and filled it with sand, then buried large mason jars up to the rim and filled them with water. I also covered them with plastic wrap, because I’m pretty sure caterpillars can’t swim. I poked a bunch of milkweed into the jars, then placed a variety of branches perfect for cocooning in the tote as well.

The other day I could only find three caterpillars on the milkweed, and when I pointed it out to Gene, he’s all “one of them is hanging right there” then pointed to the rafters. He said it had been there since that morning, and I demanded to know why he didn’t come running to tell me immediately because that qualifies as News.

The caterpillar had attached itself to the window casing, and was hanging in a J-shape, which is what they do right before spinning the cocoon. I was really excited to watch that process, but since it was hanging there doing literally nothing and I had a deadline, I went into my office for about 45 minutes to work. When I came back out, it was done making its cocoon, and was back to doing nothing but hanging there. I was really bummed that I missed it; apparently it takes less than an hour from start to finish.

Of course the caterpillar picked the worst spot possible in terms of photographic angles and lighting, so it’s really hard to get a good shot of it. I can’t move the habitat that’s right in front of his window because it weighs like 100 pounds now. And I can’t climb up on the couch, because quite frankly that’s a lot to ask of fake plastic rattan. Besides, I’m pretty sure the 3 caterpillars we can’t find are cocooning under it, and I don’t want to disturb them.

I figure in about 10-14 days, I’ll wake up to a porch full of Monarchs, and that will be a happy day indeed. Besides, there are still three smaller caterpillars still in the habitat, so hopefully they will avail themselves of the branches I so thoughtfully found for them.

The only other excitement around here this week takes the form of an unassuming $20 Dust Buster that we’ve managed to convert into a weapon of war. Let me back up a bit, just to complain about mosquitoes. They’re huge, they’re numerous, and apparently their goal in life is to get inside our house. We had rolled up newspapers staged in every room, and I’d finally gotten to the point where I could pretty much sleep through the sounds of battle waging at 2 am.

Not load bearing, apparently.

Not so much a picture falling off the wall and my desk breaking because someone decided to step on it in order to reach a particularly vexing winged blood sucker. (And on a side note, what’s up with that IKEA? Take some pride in your cheap mass produced desks why dontcha. It wasn’t Gene’s fault, it’s yours. Shameful.)

At any rate, something clearly had to be done. And since we had a rebate credit at Menards, what better way to spend it than procuring a WMD? Broomhilda (a fitting name for a warrior indeed) has racked up at least a 100 victims, which we can verify because you can see them still buzzing around the filter bag. Even better, it gives us another full foot of reach, so Gene doesn’t have to clamber up and over the furniture any more. I really think it’s going to come in handy this fall, too, to suck up any flies who make the mistake of thinking our warm cozy nest is an inviting place to spend the winter.

Happy 4th!

It’s hot. There, I said it. Not even the baby squirrels are running around. It was the first almost-90-degree day we’ve had since we moved here, and of course it had to fall on the one day I had “all the yard work” penciled into my schedule. But I was really excited to try out the weed eater my dad gave me over the weekend, because our yard was packed full of waist high monsters.

He had an extra one, so that was cool. Slightly less cool was his response to my asking if I could borrow both of them, because if I had a weed eater for each hand it would take half the time. Time management is important, because I haven’t used one since we got here last year. I broke the one we had in Washington, probably due to my “ehh, it’ll cut through that” philosophy. It’s the same way I tend to operate the mower, which for some totally unrelated reason wouldn’t start today.

I drove down to the Twin Cities to hang out with family and friends for the weekend, and I ended up taking my camera to a local park. It had an amazing lily garden, filled with every variety imaginable. So now I have a new dream in life – cultivate a new lily variety. I have no idea how you do it, or if they’ll even grow in Zone 3a, but I really want to have a flower named after me. And now that Gene refuses to let me grow the World’s Hottest Pepper, I need a new calling.

I’ve been taking my camera out for drives around here, too. The wildflowers are gorgeous, especially the lady slippers. They are Minnesota’s state flower, and tend to favor drainage ditches and low lying areas. Which means you’re doing epic battles with horseflies to find them, but it’s totally worth it. They apparently pop up in the same areas over and over again, one of which is right down the road from my friend Jennifer’s house. She gave me detailed directions on how to find them a couple of times, then finally resorted to tying a piece of pink plastic tape to a tree. Once I finally spotted them, I’m… not sure how I missed them. But whatever, the important thing is I got a great pic!

I don’t remember opening an Old Country Buffet…

The other day, Gene noticed that the baby squirrels don’t nap much on the deck anymore. Instead, they just fall asleep right where the food is. That’s some varsity level gluttony going on.

They’ll sleep there for hours, little paws dangling off the side, fluffy tails blowing in the wind… quite the relaxing vista. Although pretty soon I’m going to have to hang the feeder with a stronger rope.

Chupa, of course, is beside himself with outrage at such blatant displays of laziness. When he’s not howling and raging at them through the window, he’ll put his paws up on the windowsill and stare daggers at them. He positively vibrates, it’s really funny. The squirrels don’t even care anymore. They just sit there and stuff their fuzzy little faces, pausing occasionally to chuck a husk at him.

But squirrels aren’t the only thing getting bigger and fatter around here. The Monarch caterpillars are getting HUGE! Gene pretends like he doesn’t care about my daily updates concerning their width and girth, but I’m sure deep down he’s happy to be indirectly contributing to the Monarch preservation movement.

It’s a tad disconcerting that I can’t tell which end is which… both their heads and their butts sport an impressive pair of antennae. They also don’t seem to move all that much; they’re either camera shy or nocturnal. It’s obvious where they’re chowing down though, and where they’ve been.

Fun Fact: Caterpillars poop a lot! And considering their relative size, it’s an impressively large pellet. I don’t recall that Very Hungry Caterpillar kid’s book imparting that little nugget (heh) of wisdom, so I thought I’d share.

In other developmental news, the pigs have found a fun new game. They’re not content to just ram their water bucket to get my attention. Now if I dare let their food bowl go empty for longer than roughly 30 seconds, they’ll carry it out to the pasture and hide it in the tall grass. They obviously think it’s a grand game, because they race around grunting while I try to find it.

Fun Fact: Pigs also poop a lot! I REALLY regretted not wearing muck boots when I went on the great food bowl hunt. Sigh.


How Can Something So Little Eat So Much?

In the last several days, I’ve been having to refill the bird feeders at least twice a day. And every time I glance over at one, there seems to be some manner of squirrel hanging off of them. Usually two or three, in fact. They devour sunflower seeds at an alarming rate, but on the plus side we’ve got wild sunflowers popping up all over the place now. I can’t wait til they bloom!

Besides – they’re adorable. They must have a nest somewhere close, because there are 3 or 4 tiny squirrels rampaging around now. They’re so young they aren’t even afraid of Gene (yet), and one of them let him pet it! Mostly they congregate on the deck, where they flatten themselves out in a most disconcerting manner and take epic sun naps after hitting the trough.

Of course their mere presence drives the dogs nuts, especially Ceri. She would pace in front of the railing for hours if we let her, trying to levitate up there through sheer will power. The adults have gotten used to her, to the point where they’ll fling themselves from tree to tree, about 4 inches from her face right at eye level. Apparently the squirrels of the Northland are jerks like that, because Washington squirrels didn’t participate in such shenanigans. They’re particularly fond of pulling up a chair to the buffet by the window, and gorging themselves while the cats keep tabs on their every movement. It’s actually pretty relaxing to watch them, until Chupa realizes the Squirrel Channel is on and tries to launch himself through the window.

So many butterflies!!!!!!

I have never lived in a place with so many butterflies flying around, so I figured they deserved their own post. So if you’re not into butterflies…. what the heck is wrong with you? Who doesn’t like butterflies?

I’ve even braved tick-infested, knee-high grass in the pasture to stalk a particularly beautiful monarch or yellow swallow tail. Actually, you all should be proud of me. I don’t even freak out that much when I find ticks on my clothes. I just calmly shudder, flick them off, and go about my business. (Not so much ticks in my hair. That’s still a Code 2 emergency worthy of ear piercing shrieks.)

It seems like everywhere I look, there’s a butterfly. They especially like basking in the sun on the gravel driveway, which is all well and good until Ceri spots them. She does love a good chase, but thankfully she has yet to catch one. That would be almost as traumatic as the time I watched an adorable bright green tree frog eat an equally adorable ruby red ladybug. So much vibrant color, mixed with so much tragedy.

Anyway, my ultimate dream is to photograph a yellow swallowtail perching on a white daisy, but they don’t seem to prefer that type of flower. They go more for the lilacs, dandelions, and these pretty little weeds that look like someone dipped a dandelion in bright orange paint.

My friend Jennifer has a huge patch of milkweed that she cultivates specifically for the monarchs, and she let me take home some cuttings with eggs on them! The population of monarchs has seriously declined in the last 15 years or so, so a lot of people are consciously trying to protect the eggs and caterpillars (called “cats”), then releasing the monarchs out into the wild.

And now… I’m one of those people! I’m officially a Monarch Guardian, having hatched out quite a few cats already! I brought home some milkweed cuttings with eggs on them, and put them in a vase of water on our screened in porch. The porch is perfect, because it offers protection from predators, but natural temperature and humidity conditions.

I’m looking at it as a chance to observe first hand the miracle of one of nature’s most spectacular transformations, but Gene’s all, “You’re going to let a bunch of worms crawl around our porch???” I assured him that the cats will stay on the milkweed for about a month, until they crawl up the walls and make their cocoons. So technically, the worms will be suspended above his head until they hatch – and we’re both short, so who cares?

There’s at least 2 feet of wasted space up there, so who better to fill it than hatching monarchs? Once their wings are dried, I can open the door and let them out into the wild blue horizon, and Gene can pry all the dried up cocoons off the rafters once they’ve all flown the coop. It’s a win-win situation!