Rendering lard

I took these pictures when we rendered a batch of lard a month or so ago, and then completely forgot until I was transferring some other images the other day. So you get a random bit of homesteadiness today.

I am by no means an expert at rendering lard, but I’ve done a few batches now, and it is pretty simple. This is the bag of fat as it came back from the butcher, in whatever sizes and shapes they trimmed:

The vast majority of the work is just chopping it up. A well-sharpened knife is key, and some patience. We have aimed for about a half-inch cube based on what I read, but I think finer would be better. (I’ve also heard from one person that you can put the fat through a meat grinder to chop it for rendering, which would be a fantastic labor savings. I’m tempted to give that a shot next year.)

Once chopped, add about 1/2 cup of water to the pot and put it over low heat. Stir as needed to avoid sticking; otherwise just let the fat melt. It always feels like it’s going quick at the start, but it takes a good hour or so on the stove to fully render.

The hardest part of the whole process is deciding when to call it “done”. Too early, and you’ll miss collecting all the fat; too late and the finished lard will smell more “piggy”. When I’ve made the call, I just pour it through a cheesecloth-lined strainer into jars.

The remaining solids are your crackling:

And the clear fat will turn white and set as it cools:

That’s it!

I would have never considered stocking lard before we raised our first pigs, but I was quickly converted. It was the only part of the pig that we ran out of between our first and second pigs – and we were empty for a good six months. Our absolute favorite way to use it was making tamales, but it is also my go-to cooking fat for eggs, greens, popcorn… I swear it doesn’t have a taste, but it makes everything tastes better!

According to the butcher here, they nearly always have extra pork fat to sell for cheap if you’re willing to render it yourself. So if you’re the least bit curious or inspired, I encourage you to give it a go.

The week of pig

The mobile slaughter truck returned early Tuesday morning to take care of the last two pigs. I woke up relieved that the snow had held off overnight so that our driveway was passable. An hour later as we were cleaning the slush out of the nozzle on the hose and watching the skim of ice reappear on a tub of water as we stamped our feet for warmth, I was a little less relieved. They arrived early, before the sun was fully up, and I watched them work for well over an hour, until I couldn’t ignore the summons of my desk any longer. I walked up the driveway juggling an armload full of plastic bins – a couple liters of blood, a liver, a heart – that were deposited in the kitchen on the way to my desk. And so I began, unsuspectingly, the week of pig.

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After the slaughter guys were done and gone on Tuesday, we soaked and then brined the head. After work, we made the blood into a proper English-style black pudding.

Wednesday, we used a (fantastic) local facility to do all the cutting and wrapping.

img_1729 img_1732 img_1733Thursday, we were back to our home kitchen. We got the hams and bacons curing. I made a liver pate. And we simmered a pig head for many hours, picked it clean, and made head cheese.

Friday Dean did the final load of dishes and cleaned the kitchen. And we exhaled. We survived Pig Week 2016. We still have daily care of bacon to do, and smoking of all the cured parts, and lard to render at some point. But for today, I’m just breathing in the relief of having taken care of anything perishable.

It was overwhelming, and I underestimated how much we were taking on. I did not plan for Pig Week; I anticipated pig processing amidst the usual December bustle. In retrospect, I think my blind spot was failing to account for how many things in that scope were completely new to us. Do you have any idea how many ways you can turn pork belly into bacon? How crippling it is to think about a year’s supply of bacon at risk? Yes, I am fully aware that it would be difficult to take homegrown pork belly, apply salt and smoke, and not end up with something that tasted good. But “good enough” doesn’t seem like the right standard for bacon.

It takes so much more energy to learn to do something new than to do the thing – the reading about how to do it, deciding who to trust, which recipe to follow, doubting, worrying, finding the right tools and the efficiency of motion that only comes from practice. In the same span of days, I fought a cold, it snowed, and our kitchen faucet sprung an impressive leak.

And here we are on the other side, with a jam-packed freezer, pages full of notes for next year, and the first traces of learned memory engrained in our hands and backs. I love how much this homestead asks me to learn, and after weeks like this one, I can’t help but wish there was some shortcut to knowing.

And then there were two

dsc_4314And then there were two. We thought all four pigs would be gone today, but decided at the last minute to hold off on the girls because they were so much smaller. So just Wilbur and Zoro left in a truck yesterday. That’s one of them above, hanging next to someone else’s pair of alpacas.

Which means we have a few more weeks of daily chores and Daisy and Lambchop get a few weeks to enjoy life without bullies. It won’t be my first thought on the next dark wet morning, but I really am happy to extend the routine of morning feedings. Like so many things, I feel resistance to pulling on the boots and heading out into the weather most mornings but it’s rare that I don’t return feeling grateful for the ten or fifteen minutes spent breathing morning air and bantering with pigs. It always feels good to get outside first thing and lift a couple buckets, rinse some mud, scoop some grain. And then to give one of them a pat on the head as I head back up to the house, tell them to “have a good day, pigs”, and get on with the day’s agenda.

So for today I’m holding both the ending of pigs’ lives and the reprieve from the ending of our relationship with these pigs. Feeling satisfied to have raised those two pigs that will fill the freezers and feed the families of five friends. And feeling somewhat sheepishly relieved that there are still two waiting for me to deliver breakfast tomorrow.

Homestead update: October 12

dsc_4155The days just keep slipping by without my writing anything here and my last homestead update is from August 8, so let’s start with the basics, shall we?

The pigs are definitely the major ongoing concern of the homestead these days. Somehow after looking like they were never growing quite as much as I expected, they have become full-size animals. We are busy keeping them fed, managing the mud, and getting all the details arranged for their leaving us. Conveniently, the seasonal gluts and abundant gleaning has coincided with their peak appetite.

Our best score of late has been a regular ration of apples. We collect the drops from roadside apple trees in the neighborhood and the pigs love them. Every trip to the garden seems to produce a bucket of goodness for the pigs as well. Carrot and beet tops, cabbage and broccoli plants, the kale leaves that got tough before we got to them… best part of a pig’s day.

The garden mostly wound down early this year. Our backpacking trip the end of August coincided with the hottest weather of the summer and our late summer producers never recovered from the stress. With nothing requiring us to pick every couple days, it has felt like  the garden has been just sitting there, waiting for us to get it put to bed for the season. And yet, somehow, we just keep bringing in buckets and buckets of food from it. I dug the potatoes several weeks ago. The winter squash are just finishing curing and need to find a more permanent home in the pantry. The beets and carrots recently went into the bottom of the fridge for long storage. And after a couple batches of kraut and various kinds of pickles, I think the crock full of curtido (salvadorian kraut) is my final ferment. Unless inspiration hits again, of course, because we still have plenty of cabbage waiting patiently on the stem.

The herb garden has also been quiet of late. It looks an awful mess but there is good reason for that. Several of the annuals that I planted are good candidates for naturalization, so I’m leaving the plants to mature and drop as much seed as possible. Already the couple arugula plants I let go to seed yielded almost two cups of seed and a carpet of tender fall greens. I have visions of controlled chaos which I’m sure is optimistic but hey, I can hope.

I guess the final update is our own orchard harvest. I think we got a total of ten apples this fall, but it was the first ten apples we’ve eaten from our young trees which made them very sweet, indeed. I hope I never lose that feeling of being so rich for having fruit just grow on trees in my very yard.

A bench

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Fair readers.  That last post about that gradual “waning” of summer? I was utterly wrong. I can see now how I was ardently hoping for a (very) gradual transition to autumn and pretending that conditions indicated such but it wasn’t true and summer came to a very abrupt end about 25 days ahead of schedule. And if I’m being completely honest, it threw me into a bit of a tailspin.

So… let’s discuss a bench. Early this summer, when weeks of day job stress were wearing me down aided by the persistent June gloom totally overstaying into July, I was daydreaming about improving our outdoor living space. About having more places to BE outside during the summer, even when I had nothing to DO there. I decided that benches would help. Perhaps a bench near the garden, so that I would take more breaks to lounge there instead of just weeding until I was exhausted and then heading back to the house. Perhaps a bench at the top of the orchard to entice me up to admire the best view from our property. Perhaps a bench on the south side of the house to remind us how we’ll have a patio there someday. There seemed no shortage of demand for outdoor benches.

I found some simple online plans and had Dean pick up the materials I needed to make a pair. I was determined that would be his only contribution, not because he couldn’t make them better and faster than me (he certainly could), but precisely because he could.

It’s a natural dynamic of partnership, I suppose, but I feel especially prone. If Dean is more skilled than I am at some category, he becomes the owner of all tasks in said category. Which seems natural enough, but before long whatever skills I did have whither and die. Which can be less than ideal (for example, it turns out being able to feed oneself is handy). So I decided to reclaim basic carpentry and aim for lovable imperfect benches.

I jumped in on my very next day off and managed to get one almost-square seat frame put together. And then the reality of how many more urgent things I had to do hit and progress slowed to a crawl. Slowly, over the next month or so, the frame was finished (with help from Dean) and then the decking, siding, priming, and painting. It took until the middle of August, but I had a bench! Yes, somewhere in there one bench started sounding totally sufficient. I just needed to decide where it should live.

Before I managed to find its home, though, it started raining every day. So this weekend, we moved it out of the way where it can be a very bright blue reminder of the fleeting days of summer. But NEXT year, I will definitely sit a spell and soak up some extra rays of sunshine. Maybe I’ll even convince Dean to crank out its pair. Sigh.

Homestead update: August 8

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August. Sigh.

It doesn’t seem possible that summer can turn, on schedule, from harried to halcyon, but it sure feels like it has happened again. There are still three weeks left, I know, but so far, August has lived up to her reputation and I couldn’t be more grateful.

We’re bringing in buckets of produce from the garden and spending as much time in the kitchen washing and sorting and dealing with it all as we are in the garden. I snapped the two photos above on Saturday afternoon when I came back from a short stint weeding and watering and was taken aback when I noticed just how much things have shifted. I’m still bringing in the early summer staples of lettuce and greens and broccoli and the last of the peas, but the late summer crops are quickly coming on, the cucumbers and squash and a trickle of tomatoes. (And sunflowers, of course.)

Tomatoes are a bit of a gamble here and with all the cool weather we’ve had, it looks like a very light crop this year. Our 18 plants should keep us in fresh eating but it doesn’t look like there will be many (if any) for canning. On the other hand, the squash and cucumbers look better than any I’ve ever grown. I made 3 quarts of pickles this week and my pickling cuke vines are loaded so I hope that’s just the start. That’s the zen of gardening, isn’t it – always something heartbreaking and something gangbusters, more often than not right next to each other.

The pigs have also been enjoying some garden bounty – they happily fight over kale stems and broccoli trimmings and week-old lettuce that we didn’t quite get to. Pigs are fantastic at allaying guilt about food waste, they are so happy for any mix-ins added to their regular grain slurry or, best of all, a second breakfast of greenage. And they magically turn your tired vegetables and slightly moldy bread into tasty pork!

Garden and pigs, it feels like that’s a short update, but that’s about all the homestead news right now.

Chickenfest 2016

Max’s mama: “Max, where are the chickens?”

Max, age 2: “Fweezah camping!!”

It true, another chickenfest is in the books. Somehow, I failed not only to take any pictures of the big day but also to take any pictures of the chickens in the last month, so you just get a few words today.

I’m trying to soak in the deep satisfaction of competence. There is plenty of room to strive for expertise yet, but after five or six years (we can’t quite keep track) of raising and processing our own chickens, I can say (not quite comfortably, but I can say)… we can do both competently.

Yesterday was easily the smoothest operation for a chickenfest. There were plenty of factors working in our favor – a great crew, a smallish batch of birds, beautiful weather. But from start to finish, we knew what needed to be done next. There was no mental wish list on how we could make things work better next year. We finished a couple hours earlier than expected. We saved all the gizzards! And yes, the chest freezer is loaded to full capacity with plump birds.

I hope that I never stop learning and trying new things. But in this life I’ve chosen that is so crowded with things I wish I could do with more skill or efficiency or confidence, or at all… it feels important to pause and notice when something can be added to the “competent” column.

My bit and bob collection

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Ha! This shot I took right after pedaling through a massive cloud of bugs is cracking me up. I found these photos from a Saturday bike outing on the computer today and it was a bit disorienting – that ride was the beginning of this month but it feels like a hazy memory from another time.

In a way, I guess it was. It’s been an intense couple of weeks at the dayjob – nothing unexpected or indefinite, but a long and stressful couple of weeks nonetheless. I’m feeling the toll of it and noticing all the small ways I cope and adapt. My daily runs have been replaced with a few bike rides each week. I’m spending more of my precious free time reading in the hammock instead of getting out and about or tackling a project. Everything is getting a hard look through the lens of what is truly necessary, and I don’t even want to go near how much housekeeping I can decide is unnecessary.

One of my sanctuaries of the last couple weeks has been my herb garden. Because it’s right next to the house, I can escape to it for a few minutes anytime, as often as needed during the day. And as often as not, I have been grabbing my basket and a scissors when I go, collecting a little of whatever looks good and bringing it in for the dryer.

I know that lots of people have great success air-drying herbs but I never have here, so I rely on my food dehydrator. The size is fine for my small batches and by keeping the heat low at about 100 degrees, it doesn’t seem to affect the quality. When things are nice and crackly, I add each bit and bob to my growing dried herb collection. Most of these will go into tea blends, the calendula will infuse oil for salve and soap… and in the meantime, the jars make for some good eye candy in the pantry.

Red clover
Calendula, lavender, chamomile, lemon balm, and sage
Red clover, calendula, lavender, lemon balm, chamomile, rosemary, and sage

Homestead update – July 4

DSC_4059 DSC_4057 DSC_4086 DSC_4081 DSC_4080Oh, pigs! Equal parts charming and maddening. Impossible to capture a decent photo. These four greet me at the feed area every morning bleary-eyed with bits of straw stuck to their faces like pillow creases but grunting and squawking for me to hurry up with bucket rinsing and feed. them. already. I pour equal amounts of the same soaked grain into each container and inevitably one is deemed superior so that after everybody samples both, all four insist on jockeying for position in just one. Lampchop is still a bit smaller than the other three but she is the fiercest competitor for feed so I have stopped any fretting about her.

They are still small enough that it’s hard to imagine how they will turn into full-size animals by fall, but they are certainly not the little things we brought home anymore, either.
DSC_4066 DSC_4065Speaking of not little anymore… it’s hard to believe these guys were little handfuls of fluff just over a month ago. But Cornish Cross are bred to grow and grow they do. This crew is more than halfway through their training for freezer camp.
DSC_4073The wild berries have been crazy good this year, we must have had the perfect combination of early warmth and abundant rain. After a solid month of feasting on salmonberries each time I transited the driveway, they are finally trailing off but the thimbleberries have picked up right where they left off. And if you venture off the beaten path just a bit, the native trailing blackberries will reward you with sweetness and the red huckleberries are just bursting. There’s one patch of huckleberries I have picked each year for maybe five years now and it yielded three or four times as much as I’ve ever seen – probably somewhat due to more berries but largely I think just because the berries were giant. Mostly I prefer to just eat my fill of wild berries each day I can, but the red huckleberries go in the freezer for adding that special spell of the wild to winter smoothies.
DSC_4090And one quick shot from the gardens. This is elecampane that got knocked over in a rainstorm but seems to be happily blossoming at ground level. I’m really enjoying watching things grow in the herb garden that are completely new to me, being surprised by things like these fabulous blossoms.

No pictures from the vegetable jungle this week. Progress is being made on reclaiming it to a garden but I’m not sure you could tell just yet. A whole month full of rainy weekends means that we got woefully behind on the maintenance and the weeds exploded. Yesterday I excavated a row of tomato plants that were indistinguishable from the mass of green, if that’s any indication.

And with that, I think it’s time to get my work clothes on and head down for another weeding session. The morning clouds seem to be settling in rather than burning off today, but I’m a little sun-kissed from yesterday’s long garden session so it’s probably for the better.

Buried treasure

No, really. I have unearthed everything here in or near our garden. My best guess is that I’m finding remnants of a household trash pit from the days when our lower field was the back reach of a family dairy farm, although I’m a bit stumped because it’s quite a distance from where I understood the farmstead to be. I realize that it’s still just trash, but “interesting trash” seems like a very good definition of treasure.

I was doing a bit of sorting and cataloging this weekend, so I took a few pictures to share with you.

Here’s the ceramics collection – a mix of thicker crocks and lighter dishware, including one intact handle and a doll boot. A porcelain doll boot!

DSC_4025There’s more glass than anything. Some of the bits that I find interesting are the canning jar lids, the almost-intact little apothecary jar, some pieces I managed to fit together to  read “M. Gruenberg” (that once held Old Judge Kentucky Bourbon, based on some quick internet research), and the opaque green bit in front of that:
DSC_4032There are also some odd chunks of metal and a few interesting parts of something…
DSC_4024Mostly, it’s a bucket full of broken old glass… dark green and pale green, brown, pale blue, clear, pretty much the whole range except cobalt. Most of it is pretty thick, but some isn’t.
DSC_4036There’s also a fair amount that has been partially melted.

Along with several chunks of old brick I didn’t photograph, that’s pretty much the whole collection.

I have no idea what I’m ever going to do with any of it, but I can’t quite bear to just throw it away (again). In the right hands I imagine it would make some sweet mosaic, but don’t see me finding the time and patience for that in this lifetime. What else can you do with a pile of broken old glass? No really, I’d love to hear if you have any ideas.


Homestead update: June 1

Four Berkshires: Wilbur, Zoro, Daisy, and Lambchop. (Dean is to blame for those, I would have gone with Kevin and Bacon again.)
Day-old Cornish cross


Potatoes, brassicas, and a couple rows of onions drowning in grass.
Nootka rose petals and buds, dried.

The animals arrived! And the garden is planted! Lots of action in this homestead update…

The pigs arrived a week and a half ago. It’s remarkable how different it felt to be bringing pigs home for the second time instead of the first. We scrambled a bit to be ready, but felt really good as we pulled up with four adorable and reasonably calm pigs nestled in a bed of straw in the truck bed. I grabbed the first one and handed it down to Dean who set him on the ground in his new pen. And then watched as he freaked out and immediately bolted, right into and then through the electric fence and down the driveway.

There was cursing and running and a whole range of emotion thrown into the word “AGAIN?!”. (Dean had an epic chase with our first pigs a year ago, minutes after they arrived.) But we did have a bit of luck, in that this time the pig escaped right onto the driveway and didn’t seem to want to leave it. And we had learned something – so we followed along at a distance, keeping it in sight but not chasing it. About 20 minutes later but we got a lucky break when it bolted into some tall grass and was tricked into thinking it was hidden. Dean made the diving leg grab to end the chase, and soon all four siblings were re-united back in the truck bed.

And then we re-thought the whole welcome plan. A temporary fourth wall turned the generously-sized pig shelter into a cozy pen. The pigs had a safe haven to adjust to their new home and Dean tuned up the fence one more time. We gave them a couple days and when we set them free to roam, they were alternately curious and rooting and skittish, running back to their safe haven. It was so calm, for them and for us, and didn’t involve any testing of the limits of our fence. So chalk that up as another lesson learned, surely the third time is the charm for welcoming pigs without a fugitive…

The chicks have been here less than a week, but they are so easy and familiar that it’s already hard to remember when they showed up. They will be ugly very soon, so I try to enjoy this cute stage as much as possible before it’s gone. We are just raising 25 broilers this year – a routine we know well enough that I could order the exact amount of feed they will need over the whole stretch from memory. It’s nice to notice that kind of knowing in tandem with the fumbling for the pigs, to be reminded how a few short years can turn the new and puzzling into comfortable competence.

And the garden is planted! Well, I’m calling it done because everything on the plan is in the ground, except for Dean’s sunflower row. There’s still a bit of space to sneak some extras in, which I’m sure will happen. Our May weather was just about ideal for the garden, quickly changing from showery to sunny and back again. Which has been great for getting vegetables off to a good start, and also for giving the weeds a power boost. It is definitely time to focus on weed control, but honestly after all of the row prep and planting, weeding sounds awfully good if only because it is something different.

Phew, that was a bit long-winded, but it really has been an eventful couple weeks on the homestead front.

Homestead round-up

(I struggle to write about the everyday goings-on around the homestead because it just seems so… ordinary and boring. But I really enjoy reading other’s regular gardening updates and such, so consider this the first in a semi-regular series.)

It’s that time of year. I’m sunburned and sore in all sorts of imaginative ways and frequently filthy. There’s a perpetual pile of dirt-crusted clothes just inside the front door. The garden could be a full-time job but it’s not paying well enough so we fit in as much time as we can and accept that it will never be as much as we’d like. Dean and I have both been putting in lots of hours prepping ground for planting and trying to address the crazy weed issues in our garden. The bushels of grass roots that we’ve unearthed and raked up and hauled out are humbling. I know it’s only a fraction of what must exist and yet it is really gratifying to see the sheer mass of what we’ve managed to remove. And finally, it seems that there is an end in sight. To the prepping and planting, not the grass or the garden work, of course.

The potatoes and onions and peas that we planted a month ago are coming on. After losing all my brassica seedlings before they ever got started (mice seem the likely culprits), we bought replacements and got the cabbage, broccoli, kale, and chard in the ground last weekend. Yesterday I planted carrots and beets, so we’re down to the heat-loving tomatoes and cucurbits and some odds and ends. It feels like an end is in sight, anyway.

The bees are back in the garden, which makes me happy. Or more accurately, the honey bees are back in the garden; the native bumble bees have been thick on the early flowers for awhile. My hive didn’t make it through the winter, so I brought in a new colony that arrived last weekend. It’s hard to tell if bees are happy or thriving, but it doesn’t stop me from staring at the hive wondering and hoping.

The new herb garden is filling up and looks great, I need to take some photos. I had some extra space this first year so in addition to the herbs, I planted some early greens – just arugula and mizuna. It’s so nice having salad greens right outside the door! Our vegetable garden is several hundred yards away and we don’t have enough soil or sun near the house to relocate it, but this little taste is only reinforcing the idea that we need a few beds of a kitchen garden. It’s on the someday list, along with a hundred other things…

So yes, spring on the homestead. It feels utterly boring and overwhelming at the same time most days. So much to do and so little to say about it. Soon there will be baby animals, so it’s bound to get more exciting!

The necessary things


We returned from the east coast yesterday. As we drove up the driveway after 14 hours of travel and not nearly enough sleep, I was so relieved to be home I almost wept. (I handle overtired about as well as your average three-year-old. I’m not proud of this, but I accept it.)

The impulse to weep may also have had something to do with the grass that had grown at least a foot while we were gone and the garden exploding in weeds and the broken window and everything else that didn’t somehow resolve itself while we were away. I felt the weight of spring on this homestead force the air out of my lungs. I resolved to breathe deeply and figure out a plan of attack only after I had a good long sleep in my own bed.

And then these words from Ben Hewitt landed in my blog feed this morning, words that couldn’t have possibly been more perfectly aimed at me on this day:

There is more to do than I know how to accommodate, or sometimes even consider…

We’ll be ok, of course. Things will get done, and that which doesn’t get done will get done later or ultimately be deemed unnecessary in the first place, and we’ll think to ourselves isn’t it lucky we didn’t do it back when we thought it had to get done, before we had a chance to realize it didn’t need doing at all?

So today I tried expelling the overwhelming to-do list from my brain by putting it on paper. And then I reviewed it, knowing it was an impossible list and plenty won’t get done but that’s ok, because we haven’t yet had a chance to realize what was just unnecessary.

The necessary things really aren’t such a long list. Yesterday we unpacked and got some rest. Today I was back to work and after that, I decided the most necessary thing was to appreciate the rhodies and lilacs that have just started blooming, along with the start of the herb garden that seems to be thriving. Tomorrow? Hard to say.

Bare feet and sweaters

DSC_3945April is cruel. Mostly, I want to hurl curses this morning at this season that feels like nothing but a pile of work and delayed gratification, when everything is bursting with new leaves and blossoms but there is seemingly no end to the same boring meals. April is sunshine and a cold wind, bare feet and sweaters.

Oh, sweaters. It’s the same pile of wool that I was swooning over six months ago, but now every time I need to leave the house I stand in front of my closet with complete indifference. I’m so tired of every sweater I own (and even my wool shirts) that being forced to choose one and put it on feels too demanding.

So, in an effort to combat this cruelness, I bring you a list of hopeful things from this week:

  • Onions and potatoes and peas are planted in the garden and I filled up the culinary herb section of my new herb garden with transplants. I forget every year how much work it takes to get to planting, but there are actual things in the ground and growing.
  • The hammocks are hung! It’s mostly too chilly yet but I’ve tested them out just a little and there are some fantastic summer naps in my future.
  • We planned our first camping trip with friends for May, which means there will be tent sleeping and campfires and outdoor cooking in my life soon.
  • We bought a canoe! Which I think will be mostly for picnic paddles close to home but holds all sorts of possibility.
  • Rhubarb. This wet spring has meant a bumper crop, so there are muffins on the counter this morning and all sorts of ideas for the rest of the bag in my fridge.

And… I’ve run out of steam. Not exhaustive, but that’s enough hopefulness to get me off this computer and into my day.


I took a little walkabout Sunday afternoon and snapped some photos and wrote a blog post in my head… and then promptly forgot about it all until I saw the images on the computer this morning. So consider it a few postcards from my weekend:

The very first dandelion blossom I spotted this spring! There were several more on this walkabout, but this (somewhat bedraggled) one was the very first. Sunshine in tangible form.
… and some very early salmonberry blossoms seem almost over-the-top in their pinkness while everything around them looks mostly dead or bare still.
I started my first seeds! Just a small batch of greens, to try out my new set-up of a heat mat in this cold frame on the south side of our house. I’m pretty excited about the possibilities here…
And my first crocheted rocks! More on this coming soon. Spoiler alert: totally fell down a rabbit hole.

Early spring at the homestead

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All signs point to an early spring here, and I’ve been oscillating a bit between elation at all the signs of life and anxiety about the season putting me behind before we even get started.

But there really are so many exciting signs of life around here right now. The first brilliant tiny leaves on the Japanese maple. Buds swelling on all the trees, including the basket willow cuttings I planted back in January. (It looks like 3 out of 4 varieties took, which I’m thrilled with.) And all the fruit trees in the orchard, which have been getting all sorts of attention these past few weeks.

It really sunk in for me this year that the ideal time for orchard maintenance is very early spring, before the garden is ready to be worked. Trees pruned, mulch added, weeds pulled, it’s all work that can be done now. We’ve given it a good once-over and I was all set to shift gears to focus on thinning alders and chipping them into mulch. I was super proud that I got the chipper running without any help from Dean. And then about six branches in, everything ground to a very abrupt halt. It doesn’t look good. In fact, it looks like the part that holds the whole blade assembly in place rusted through. I’m trying not to freak out about my plans! for chipping the mulch! now!

The most exciting picture for me is the last one, which shows the foundation of my new herb garden. I have thought for years that it would be magical to build a garden around that rock in our yard and I couldn’t wait any longer to make it happen. Maybe the most satisfying part has been how it has come together with things we hardly noticed we had around – borders from the alders that were never bucked into firewood, mulch from last summer’s straw bale archery targets, compost still waiting to be shoveled from our cabin days. Those piles will get spread soon, and topped with soil. I’ve also uncovered a surprising amount of stray concrete hidden away around our yard that I’m hoping will become a couple key walkways. And then of course, there’s all the very important research to decide just what will get planted in that new space. Right now, the trickiest bit seems to be guessing just how much will fit. It’s not a small garden, but neither are many of the herbs I want to grow, lots of perennials that will hopefully settle in and need some elbow room.

And nettles! The first delicious amazing taste of green! Perhaps another batch of nettle pesto to get me through those garden catalogs and herb books…



Do those jars not look amazing? I could stare at them forever, I just find them endlessly fascinating. That is fresh cottonwood buds in (l-r) alcohol, oil, and oil after it’s been steeping for a week.

I first read about cottonwood salve several years ago now and I have wanted to try my hand at making some for just as long. But while it’s a simple process, you need to source your own raw material. Fresh buds require locating the trees, visiting during winter or early spring, and then reaching them (most easily achieved by collecting branches after a good wind, cottonwood is brittle). A simple task once you get all the conditions lined up, but no mean trick to put it all together for the newbie.

About ten days ago I went out with a generous new friend and she showed me the ropes. We spent a couple hours pleasantly wandering a couple nearby parks and I managed to collect a nice bag full of tips which I trimmed up to fill the jar on the right. And I was really excited.

And then Dean and I stopped back at the park a week later and found that a couple of cottonwood trees had been knocked over. The very definition of a windfall. Trees covered in swelling buds, a whole crown full of them, all easily within reach. In half an hour the two of us collected enough to fill two more jars.

So now we wait, anywhere from six weeks to a year, for the buds to slowly give up their goodness to the oil. And then I’ll add in a little beeswax to get the consistency I like and I will have an excellent all-purpose salve, good for pain and soreness, minor cuts and burns, and the like.

It really is folk medicine at its best, which I think is why I’m so drawn to it. It’s simple to make but not exactly scalable to any level of production. It’s useful to have on hand. And did I mention how fabulous all that resin smells?

Frosty morning


We had some glorious frost this morning thanks to the combined effects of fog and cold and I took my camera for a little walk out the driveway and up the lane of the neighboring farm. I’m feeling filled up, grateful for the beauty all around us on this Thanksgiving weekend.

Gold season

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Have you noticed how daylight savings time ended and all felt right in the world again? No? Maybe that was just me. But after the bedlam that was the last month, I think anything would feel like an improvement.

I am a creature of habit. I happily dwell in routine and October disrupted all sorts of them. While I was away visiting New York and North Dakota the end of September, the morning light retreated far enough that when I returned, I could no longer sneak in even a short run before the workday. I also came back to the start of an herbalism class that takes up my Wednesday morning each week, and demands that I find time for homework in the rest of my week. There was all the stress of first-time pig butchery and the end to five-plus months of morning feeding chores (not that I miss morning chores, per se, but I don’t get out many mornings this time of year without a good reason, and I notice that effect). I could go on, but suffice it to say that, in retrospect, I spent the last month desperately seeking routine. But I think I’m on the road to recovery in November.

Amidst all the disorder, I did manage to finish up a couple projects. After pressing my new cardigan into service a bit prematurely, I couldn’t seem to take it off long enough to address the pocket situation. Finally, a few weeks ago, I made it to a knit night to poll the regulars and the consensus was that while it was pretty great as is, it deserved two pockets that were appropriately positioned. I knew it to be so, so I picked out the seam on the first pocket and re-attached it about an inch and a half nearer the center, and sewed the second one on to match. The initial seam had left quite a channel in the fabric but after re-blocking, there’s not a trace of it. I love that about wool knits. And I love wearing this very all-purpose sweater with two pockets.

And in the knitting support category, I finished my second IKEA-and-milk-paint dresser project. It fit perfectly into a bit of unused space in my office and is generally a big upgrade from the collection of old thrifted suitcases I had been using to contain all of my knitting paraphernalia. Of course, I had visions of the dresser swallowing my yarn collection with room for file folders of patterns and drawers of neatly organized needles while in reality it’s stuffed to the gills with yarn even after a serious purge. But it is a huge improvement and the fabulous mustard color is very happy-making.

I also started a new sweater project the first of November, after waiting for yarn the entire month of October. (See what I mean about being adrift? I didn’t even have a steady knitting project!) It’s my first attempt at knitting a sweater for Dean… but it doesn’t fit the color scheme of this post at all, so we’ll talk about that another day soon.

And bacon

The last week seems to have been swallowed up by the same darkness that has settled so resolutely into the mornings these days. My alarm clock slowly brightens for half an hour before it starts chirping like a bird, but the first thing I see is stars outside my window. My morning run is not happening in those conditions so I have to find time to get outside in the middle of the day. I’m not especially good at making that happen, I did today and it was so mild and sunny at midday that even the bees were out shoring up the winter stocks from the feral borage that lingers in the garden.

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An hour later it was gray and wet again, and I was feeling especially satisfied with myself. But I’m jumping ahead with this talk of today; we have some catching up to do. Gah, these photos from making blood sausage seem like an age ago:

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Pig butchering generally went as well as we could have hoped for our first take, but man did it take it out of me. It was physically taxing on a whole different level than say, butchering chickens, in a way that I hadn’t fully anticipated. Which makes perfect sense when you figure they probably weighed in the neighborhood of 250 pounds and there were exactly two of us on the crew… and really more like one and a half if we’re being fair. We spent a full day on the main task of getting them ready for the butcher shop, but there was plenty more that spilled into the next couple days – making blood sausage and curing jowls and burying guts and the piles of laundry.

(The laundry. After two washes of our work clothes with OxyClean and a vinegar rinse and everything else I could think of, they still smelled unmistakably like pig guts. I seriously considered just burning them but sucked it up and bought some Tide. I never thought I would prefer that awful perfume to anything but I can honestly say it was a relief to open the washer and smell anything other than warm innards. They have since spent some long hours outside to mellow.)

So far, the blood sausage has been our only taste. It was delicious, but it’s done. The face bacon will be ready for sampling very soon. And in about a week, we’ll have a whole freezer full. And then I’m hoping I can exhale, and believe that we really did manage to pull it off – from fencing to escapee weiners to the endless hand-grinding of field peas to pig butchery. (Although really it will be when the friends who bought in report back that it tastes good.)

I really am looking forward to that first chop.

And bacon.