It all started on a Monday evening, when my left eye began to feel tired while reading in bed. Typically a minor result of an allergy or a speck of dust in the eye, I washed my face and hands, put a cool compress on the eye for a bit, and went to bed.
On Tuesday morning, my eye was swollen shut. I began my homeopathic detox process. By that evening, no more swelling, but half my face was in a rash.
Wednesday morning, the left half of my face was rashed and puffy, but during the day, nothing seemed to worsen. I felt it had reached its worse and would begin to subside.
Thursday morning, both eyes were swollen shut, my entire face and neck were covered in a rash, and we were off to the Emergency Room where I got a prescription of steroids.
This, one day before I was committed to leave for Bridge Day, where I was helping set up and attend a booth for our local development corp.
By Friday morning, most of the swelling was gone, and the rash no longer itched. But, I was puffy, and my face was red and chapped, badly.
Friday evening, I was in Fayetteville, after loading the truck in the cold, and was standing outside on a mountain porch, covered with wet leaves, myself shivering in the drizzle with others, outside “A Taste of Bridge Day” eating some of the best BBQ shrimp I’ve ever had.
We were up at 4 am on Saturday to make the 5:30 am security check, and the long vendor’s “parade” to our bridge locations. That alone took 40 minutes, and five minutes after we set up our canopy, the drizzling rain began again. Temperature? Mid-thirties. Great weather for chapped skin faces….
At 3 on the dot, the festival ended, and we shot across the median to race to the hotel room’s heat and for a short nap before dinner and the second night of our weekend rental (one night was not an option).
Sunday morning, I packed the truck, we drove home, unpacked my friend in Grantsville then I unpacked myself and home, and came in to a kitchen strung with empty and full chicken noodle soup cans and bowls and sauce pots, and a sick husband on the couch.
Who told me there was going to be a deep freeze that evening. So, in the midst of unpacking, laundry, kitchen duty, nurse maiding AND repacking my bags, I also went to the garden and ripped up 22 pepper plants that still bore not-quite-ripe fruit.
Dump them out on a sheet on the spare bed, and geez I feel hot, but get packed and get going, I’m due in Marietta to spend two days with my cousin, in from California, whom I have not seen in eight years and haven’t spend any real time with in…. 30 years?
By the time I arrived at my Mother’s (who, as scheduling glitches would have it is at the beach), my fever peaked. My cousin was out to lunch, so I hopped in the shower to sweat it out and sterilize myself. We spent the evening in, ordered pizza, and went to bed early, with plans for a trip to Morgantown to do some relocation research for her.
That night, I had cold sweats under the electric blanket, and felt like someone beat me with a ball bat. I was up to urinate every 30 minutes.
Monday morning, I felt better. I wasn’t dead, I had control of my digestive system, a slight cough, and my fever had broken in the night. Off to Morgantown, where we visited the Visitor’s Center, WVU Human Resources, hospitals and had lunch at the fish market and deli, where I had the best shrimp bisque I’ve had in twenty years. I also tasted a sweet potato soup I think I can copy.
Back then to Marietta, for a nap, then a late dinner at Outback with other cousins, whom I haven’t spend a full meal with in… um…. well, years. I had more soup (excellent french onion) and more shrimp, which in Vienna, are not as good as the shrimp I had at Outback last month in Morgantown.
Good company, good meal followed by a good night’s sleep. the next morning I bid my cousin good bye, and returned home to discover – husband still on the couch where I left him, more chicken noodle cans, bowls and sauce pots all over the kitchen, peppers still on the bed, and four days worth of messages, mail e-mail and work waiting.
No freaking out allowed. Wash the bed linens, wash germy clothing from trip, wash dishes, clean kitchen. String any ripe chilis to dry. Fill hot tub with epsom salts for hubby and I to share, catch up with the mail in bed before falling asleep.
And that brings us to….. today.
Husband, feeling better, went to work. Me, still plumb-tuckered, slept in. Then, I turn to face the future — a deadline two days away, a full schedule of tasks and appearances at GSC’s upcoming homecoming, a husband heading off to Morgantown for an audio workshop.
I think, except for dusting, running the sweeper and making hot pepper jelly, I’m almost caught up.
If I have ever given the impression that we are polished farmers or gardeners, I must apologize. This is no where near the case.
This is our second year having our own garden, first year for chickens, first year learning to freeze the harvest, first year using the pressure canner. It’s the first year we’ve really put some effort into producing our own food, and the first year we’ve really managed to follow through on our spring intentions clear to fall.
Although much of our garden did not do well, we have still come out ahead. From our $100 investment in the spring, and the gifts of our neighbors and friends throughout the season, we have two nearly-full freezers and a still filling pantry.
We purchased seed for lettuce, carrots, corn, beans, cucumbers, pumpkins, parsley, thyme, oregano. We purchased plants for tomatoes, peppers, cabbage. We were given additional corn seed, and were given the starts for the sweet potatoes. We purchased a bag of seed potatoes, but then split that with Frank’s mother.
We were given basil, sage, chives, and cotton as plants.
Of all this – the corn failed and the beans brought a very weak harvest. But I still froze 9 quarts of beans, and we were given corn from three different neighbors. I have five quarts of corn frozen, and also used it (and some green beans) in five quarts of vegetable soup.
The tomatoes and cucumbers have been the greatest successes so far, and I have nearly 30 jars of different pickles canned; bread and butter, cinnamon pickles, honey pickles. The tomatoes and flourishing green peppers have so far produced 24 jars of salsa, 16 quarts of roasted pepper tomato soup. Sick of making pickles, I even found a cucumber jelly recipe, and made four small jars of that when I made the season’s first batch of hot pepper jelly – so far, four pints of that.
I have six quarts of carrots frozen, and others cleaned and soaking in water to be pressure canned tomorrow.
I have rosemary, oregano, sage and lavender hanging to dry. I have parsley, thyme, chives and lemon balm preserved in the freezer.
And I nearly forgot to mention the early harvest of leaf lettuce, garlic and onions.
All this from a second-attempt garden that, my most measures, did not do all that well.
The herb bed has been a total success, but the vegetable garden… Well — that could use improvement for sure.
In a year when the value of the dollar has dropped so drastically, our garden, by far, has been our best investment. (Keep in mind, we didn’t pay for our fencing. We scrounged old fence from around the farm and expanded on the fence we had from last year.)
Even the canning supplies and freezer bags were less than a single trip to the grocery store. We’ve been collecting jars for two years, and began buying lids and rings (although we’ve been saving rings too) in March and April, before seasonal demands cause their prices to increase. Freezer bags came from the Dollar Store, which had quarts and gallons, but alas the pint bags I had to get elsewhere.
In the spring, I read articles that noted raising a garden was just as expensive as purchasing those groceries at a store. In our experience, this has just not been the case.
Our chickens have also been a good investment. We purchased four for $20 in late May, spent $20 on grit, mash and oyster shells (We were given a chicken tractor), and since then have spent $12 on more mash since then. I have no idea how many eggs we’ve been through. At least 20 dozen. I know I’ve made $30 from donations from my city-dwelling relatives. (It’s illegal, of course, to sell eggs in West Virginia without an egg permit.)
I suppose you can do the math… The arrived, say, the beginning of June. And, not counting the first two adjustment weeks, the four hens pretty much lay on a schedule that works out to be: four eggs a day, four eggs a day, three eggs, two eggs, then no eggs. So, that’s thirteen eggs, a baker’s dozen, every five days. On average. Some days, they’re off a little, and this winter, they won’t lay as much in summer, but it really is nice knowing that we’ll always have eggs.
Right now, I have eighteen hard-boiled eggs, a dozen pickled eggs of two different flavors, and 12 dozen fresh eggs in my refrigerator. I have sixteen scrambled eggs frozen in the freezer (two eggs per bag, for baking or for breakfast.)
Within the next week or so, I’m going to get four more hens. The man who sold us Daisy Dewdrop, our beagle, is now selling Cocoa Maran hens for $3 each. So, for another $12 I’ll be doubling my flock. The new hens will lay dark chocolate brown shelled eggs.
For the winter, the new hens will live in a hay-bale coop, slowly being integrated with the original four. By spring, when the haybale coop is destructed, they’ll have hopefully set their new pecking order without too much bloodshed and injury.
Next spring, I do intend to get my egg permit. With that, I can sell eggs to the two local mom-and-pop stores in my region, and at the local Farmer’s Market.
I graduated from high school, three different colleges, won association awards, created a magazine.
But the feeling of accomplishment you get when you stand in front of a freezer packed with food you planted, food you tended, food you fed and watered and harvested… Food you washed and prepared and cooked and created and canned.
The feeling of accomplishment is deeper.
When you graduate, or meet a milestone, or win an award — it seems that there is always the implied worry of “What next?” Those are accmplishments that serve as mile-markers to see where you go from there.
But with the harvested garden, you are not faced with worries of the future, but instead a sense of security. You have the rewards of your labor before you, waiting to be enjoyed.
You success is your sustenance for the upcoming months, using methods and manners of a culture and tradition that in many, many places, was almost lost.
Still, with the shelves and freezer filling, I do think about the future. Deer meat, facing the pressure canner for the first time, and what other foods can I produce myself?
Even with my bounty, I impose the “What next” into my life.
When the garden is solid and white beneath snow…
When deer season is past and the freezers and shelves will hold no more…
When we shut ourselves in to endure the chill of winter….
What shall I do next?
I’m going to learn to bake my own bread.
Friday evening, we attended a bonfire in celebration of a friend/columnist’s daughter’s graduation. It started at 9 p.m., and I had no idea how time flew until the teens headed to bed around 1 a.m. I immediately said, “Oh! We have to go!”
We made it from the kitchen table to the front porch chairs before we got caught up in another interesting discussion.
When we finally did leave, it was 4 a.m.
Frank, who falls asleep quickly and knows it takes me about an hour, let me sleep in until 10 a.m. this morning, when the phone rang — my weekly Saturday morning phone call from my mother. About 10 years ago, because my life was so crazy and I often forgot to call her on a regular basis, Mother suggested she call every week at the same time.
It is now a routine part of our lives.
The topic of this week’s phone call, (and much of the party discussion) concerned four laying hens. My new hens. My hens who didn’t get fed this morning until 11 a.m. because I was up all night talking about them and sipping home made wine.
My friend Sue, who hosted the party, is The Farm Queen, Ms. Organic Herself, a woman who (I am sure) has not a single additive or preservative in her entire body. She has several beautiful chickens.
It’s Sue’s fault I have laying hens.
And once we finished celebrating her daughter’s accomplishment and settled down to chat I said, “Sue, I have chicken questions.”
She explained. Hens lay every 28 hours, not 24. They have to have food, PLUS oyster shells (calcium) to make the egg shells hard, PLUS grit which is basically rocks in some part of their throat that helps them chew because they have no teeth. But — that’s not all.
Sue’s also get Olive Oil, to make their feathers shiny. They get garlic every three days to keep away mites, fleas, and other nasties. They get brewer’s yeast for the same reason.
She gives them raw meat (organic) and milk and cream (organic). The layer feed she gives them she makes herself, and it’s 100% natural, not like the 17% natural mix you get at the feed store.
Sue has the most beautiful, glossy, spoiled hens there are. That’s what I pictured when I pictured hens. And then, we went and purchased mine, from a farm overstocked with mixed multitudes of chickens, guineas, ducks — all free range and rather fending for themselves.
We brought them home at night, captured from their roost. When I got a good look at them the next morning, I realized, these were not like Sue’s hens.
They were not beautiful, they were not clucking and cute. They were not pets.
First off, they stunk. I can handle bird poop, feeding schedules, food formulas, egg gathering, care taking.
But I don’t do stink.
At the party, I asked Sue if I could give them a bath. She told me to put out a pan of dirt.
See, if you want chickens to bathe — you give them dirt, not water.
Through this first week, I have seen improvement in my hens. Not being a farm girl, I am not about to judge their former living environment. However, I do think being catered to is much better for them than fending for themselves.
They no longer act like they’re starving, and have already gotten accustomed to my voice and the shaking of their feed can.
Within three days, they established their little “pecking order.” They are now a rather cohesive club, not a bunch of snippy singles.
My favorite, the Barred Rock, is low girl on the totem pole. I’ve named her “Peppa,” as she’s salt and pepper speckled.
Her eggs have a dark brown shell.
In the first week, our four hens produced 12 eggs in all, two of which I dropped.Â (I need a little more practice reaching through the access hole in their pen to grab the eggs.)
I had provided one roost and one nest for them to share (as Sue’s do) but after a day of watching them establishing their pecking order, I broke down and provided a second roost and a second nest bucket so Peppa wouldn’t have to fight so hard for her space.
I put in a second feed container so she wouldn’t have to fight the other three so hard for food.
She must realize I favor her, because she is no longer intimidated by my presence as the others are.
Every morning this week, I have tried to feed them on a schedule, gather eggs on a schedule, uncover and cover them on a schedule.
Today, I blew it. I couldn’t help it, I was up until 5 a.m. for the first time in nearly two years.
Frank went out an uncovered them for me this morning, but didn’t know my feed formula….
So when I fed them, I was four hours late.
They didn’t seem to mind — and had two eggs waiting for me.
I’ll make it up to them tomorrow.
I’m setting up a dirt bath.
I found it nearly impossible to stay inside around the desk today. In fact, once I had my first cup of coffee, I was in the garden.
I went to bed last night troubled by the bare spots in each row where the seed or start basically rotted in the ground after last week’s rain. First thing this morning, I filled all the bare spots with replacement seed. Then I hoed out what I thought would be the three final rows and planted them, blue lake beans and candy corn.
But then Frank began removing half of the fence. He had mentioned expanding the garden, but I didn’t think much about it. We’d already doubled the size of last year’s garden, and by the time Frank finished today, it’s now triple last year’s size.
As I planted rows of half runners and sundowner corn, Frank went to the store for milk and bread — and came home with a dozen sweet pepper plants and half a dozen cabbage starts. We got the peppers in, and the expanded fence replaced around the garden before dark.
We’ve already begun collecting and purchasing canning jars and lids, knowing, come harvest time, they’ll be at least 25% higher in price. Of course, I have most of last year’s jars, but with the garden 2/3rds larger, I suppose I’ll need more jars.
Likely, most of the corn and the beans we will sell the surplus at the farmer’s market this fall. Imagine, fresh half runners, blue lake and tenderette beans. Right now though, I feel I could eat all that corn myself. I can’t WAIT to get a taste of garden fresh corn — or a bite of the garden’s first ripe tomato.
Still we have planted no melons, cukes, or squash, and have decided that only an entirely separate garden will do. We must have cucumbers, as I learned to make pickles last year, and just this month, my father-in-law bought me a beautiful huge pickling crock at an antique store. (Yes, I’ll definitely need more jars.)
I hope to freeze most of the corn, although I’m not sure how I’ll run this winter on freezer room. I’m hoping to pack the freezers with deer meat this fall, after learning that many of my stomach issues were caused by commercially processed red meat.
I’ll also have a full refrigerator hopefully, as soon as we get the new laying hens — hopefully to arrive this weekend.
But the chickens — they’re a whole other story.
Which I’ll share with you soon enough.