The Grovestead

Farm, Family, Fun.

Sheep & Apples

Sheep grazing in the background with apples in the foreground

The story of our getting sheep started with a hunt for hay baling equipment. Every year we lose one-third to one-half of our hay crop to delays. We rely on a neighboring farmer to cut and bale our hay, and being one of the smallest acreages on their list, we often miss the best weather for cutting and drying. Needless to say, this has been a source of much aggravation each Spring.

Every year as the farmer comes to chop and haul away the wet, rotting hay I resolve once more get my own baling equipment and start making my own hay. Just a few problems. Baling implements are expensive and my tractor isn’t powerful enough to run them. By the time I’d finished making all the upgrades I’d be $15,000 in the hole. That’s a lot of debt for 3 acres of hay.

So I did what I always do when faced with an unsolvable problem. I prayed about it. The Lord told me I hadn’t done enough research. There were creative alternatives I hadn’t considered yet. That’s when the hints about sheep started appearing. “Little Lambs” started appearing everywhere, starting with Harriet’s shower gifts. She received three lamb stuffed animals from three different people. Then a friend asked if I would consider raising sheep this year because he wanted to buy locally grown lamb. I finally got it.  The creative alternative: Don’t bring the hay to the animals, bring the animals to the hay.

Two sheep grazing

Three sheep grazing

The sheep have been wonderful to keep. They baaa incessantly every time I enter the barn to let them out or shut them up. Although its more of a maaa, as in “maaa! give me more hay!”

They are more skittish than the goats, who are as friendly as dogs. But they are getting more tame over time. Their propensity to waddle through cockleburs, those velcro-like seed pods that stick to everything, means we won’t be getting much usable wool out of them.

Sheep grazing among the apple trees

It has taken most of the summer, training the sheep into various fencing configurations, but I finally was able to fence them into the alfalfa field surrounding my apple trees, which are planted in the corner of our hay field. Its the perfect setup. The sheep get fed mowing the grass around my trees. It had to be sheep, because goats or cows would certainly eat the trees as well!

Sheep's pasture


Back to Eden Garden Update

Garden Update -- Blueberries & Cherries!

It’s a happy day when blueberries and cherries are ripe for picking!

We spent the the evening in the berry patches after dinner. Strawberries have come and gone, blueberries are ripe right now, and the raspberries are a few weeks away from fruiting.


The raspberry canes were cut to the ground at the end of last season and heavily mulched. But the soil underneath is so healthy they have grown to enormous proportions. We’re still enjoying raspberry jam from last year’s harvest but we expect another huge harvest this year.

Garden plot as of July 2016

The main vegetable plot is much smaller this year as I slowly transition to a Back to Eden (deep-mulch) approach. I can only make the space as big as I have wood chips to fill it with.

I first experimented with a Back to Eden plot two years ago. The results were incredible. Minimal weeding, no watering, and much larger produce. But not having more wood chips I decided to go back to the traditional tilling method last year. Despite a herculean effort to keep weeds out (I even used black plastic and mulched the walkways), I was still overwhelmed. I probably spent 3-4 hours a week weeding, but a short vacation in mid-July was all it took for the weeds to gain the upper-hand. It became a lost cause by late summer.

I am happy to report the Back to Eden method virtually eliminates the weed problem altogether. Since planting I have spent no more than an hour weeding all year! Whatever does come up is simple to pull because the woodchips are so porous. I haven’t watered either.

However, I have had the same problems with germination as I did a few years ago, due mainly to woodchips falling back over the soil I had pulled back to plant. Being one of the wettest Springs on record, I also had a lot of problems with slugs (wood ash takes care of that problem… until the next rain).

But the biggest problem has been the overall tepid progress of the garden as a whole. It’s as though the garden is about a month behind schedule. This has been quite disappointing and confusing because I experienced the opposite result when I tested this method out a few years ago. And this time around I even gave the wood chips a full 6 months to break down.

What I was finally able to discover was the difference in quality of compost I laid down before adding the wood chips. In my experimental plot a few years ago, I laid down several layers of high-nitrogen fertilizer (litter from my chicken coop) before adding the wood chips. This offset the nitrogen-robbing effect of the carbon in the woodchips.

Wood chips will eventually break down on their own releasing both carbon and nitrogen back into the soil, but it’s a long process. Many people I have talked to with Back to Eden Gardens have said that it wasn’t until year 3 that they really saw their gardens take off. And each successive year is better than the previous because the soil continues to build.

B2E gardens are definitely a huge time savings in weeding and watering. But if you want a really productive first year,  it makes a difference what kind of compost you use. I know this to be true because of the mammoth growth of our cherry tree planted in our chicken pen.

Cherry bomb

This tree was planted a mere 9 months ago, in the Fall. But it is the most productive vegetation on our entire property, producing a full crop of cherries in its first year and prompting my sister-in-law to say “that’s the healthiest cherry tree I’ve ever seen!”

Here’s what the tree looked like when we planted it:

Cherry tree when planted last Fall

Clearly, the quality of compost makes a difference. Just as Paul Gautschi does with his garden, I have begun harvesting the top layer of this nutrient-dense soil as a fertilizer for the garden plot. But it will take some time to work its way down to the root zone.

Elsewhere in the garden, our Bee-Friendly Garden perennials are beginning to bloom. Purple coneflower, wild bergamot, and blue flowering borage:

Purple Coneflower in our Bee Friendly Garden

Beebalm in our Bee Friendly Garden

Borage in our Bee Friendly Garden

Six weeks with the goats

Goats foraging just outside the barn

It’s been a little over six weeks since we brought goats to our farm.  All in all, it has been very smooth. I was expecting a lot of fence-breaking and otherwise mischievous tomfoolery, but that hasn’t been the case at all. It took a few weeks to establish routine, but since then it has been uneventful. Just the way I like it.

Goats eating down the weeds

The goats have lived up to their species’ reputation by making quick work of a weedy forest. Once they figured out there was no more hay in the trough, they really started mowing down the undergrowth in our woods. I ended up moving the fence to add an extra few hundred square feet and within 2 days I had to move the fence again. In the last 3 weeks the progress has been so effective that I no longer have to mow certain areas around the barn and cabin.

Farmer boy with the goats

Ivar has been a great farm-hand. I’ll find him hanging out with Darcy and Precious on many occasions. They’ve warmed up to their new owners and are quite friendly now, scaling the pen walls to get a pet on the neck (but what they really want is more corn).

Resourceful goats reaching high up

The electric fencing has been fantastic. After the first shock or two, they never test it again. And before you get overly concerned, the shock isn’t bad. Its about the same as rubbing your socks on carpet and touching something metal. More startling than painful. Pictured above I have two strands covering about an acre of woods. The goats are quite resourceful at finding interesting forage, but they never test the electric fence.

It’s been a good six weeks with the goats. Besides the brush control and friendly demeanor, they put on quite a show. It’s not uncommon to find a peanut gallery watching the local entertainment.

Peanut gallery


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