The Grovestead

Farm, Family, Fun.

Pumpkin patch kids

Pumpkins glowing in the dark

Tonight was pumpkin carving night. We grew our own pumpkins this year which made the event a bit more special.

The pumpkin patch was planted on a whim, in a corner of the yard that was going to be reseeded with grass. It was an afterthought to the main garden. But it turns out the most successful part of our garden this year was the spot that got the least attention. There’s a life lesson in there somewhere.

Huge pumpkins in our pumpkin patch

Month after month we watched on as the vines grew by the foot, sprouting bright yellow flowers that dropped pumpkin after enormous pumpkin. By the end of the season we had about 18 pumpkins.

An early frost this year killed off several vines before the pumpkins fully matured so we had a couple of off-color pumpkins. Of course Ivar picked the green pumpkin when it was time to carve.

Ivar wasn’t a fan of the pumpkin guts. He hid under the table to keep his pepperoni pizza in its place.

Ivar is grossed out by the pumpkin guts

We took turns tracing faces on the pumpkins and carving them out.

Becca carved one of our green pumpkins

Thomas the train pumpkin carving

I lit some candles and set the pumpkins outside to show the kids what they looked like in the dark. They walked outside while I was setting the lids on top and started screaming: “Ahhhh!! Scary monster!!!” And then they ran around in circles and fumbled their way back into the house, giggling the whole way. Inside, I had to hold Ivar in my arms to get him to look at the pumpkins out the window. Even then he mostly hid below the window sill.

Good times and great memories for us all.

Orange and green pumpkins


Colony collapse

Bee hives on our property

We had a bit of a tragedy on the farm recently. To call it a death in the family wouldn’t be so far off the mark. It certainly felt that way.

Dead bees at the base of the hives

Since we got our bee hives this Spring, one hive was always more active than the other. But they both seemed to be thriving (growing). It wasn’t until late Summer that Becca noticed a real problem. On one of her weekly inspections she noticed a pile of dead bees at the base of the weaker hive. Other beekeepers chalked it up to seasonal changes and said not to worry. But when our friend and fellow beekeeper Adam came out to inspect a few weeks later, it was clear there was a serious problem. No eggs were being laid or hatched in the bottom hive meaning there was no queen in that colony. Worse, it was too late in the season to introduce a new queen. This colony had collapsed.

We don’t really know why. Could have been disease or a swarm or most likely just a weaker queen from the get-go. Whatever the reason, it was a major blow to morale. Especially to Becca who has been nurturing these twin hives like her own children for the past several months.

This is unfortunately a common plight. Colony-collapse disorder (CCD) is a hot topic right now. We get articles sent to us about the issue almost monthly. Roughly one-third of all bee hives collapse each year. Losing one of our two hives means we are just below average.

Adam has generously offered to split one of his hives with us next year to help us get going again. Until then, we still have plenty of work to do to maintain the health of the other hive.

Bee hives opened with frames pulled out for inspection

We combined the two hives by pulling the honey-filled frames from the dying hive and placing them into the healthy hive. Becca also applied a treatment for mites.

Becca’s inspection process involves opening the hives and pulling out frames to look at close up. In these pictures you can see “capped” honey. That is, honey stored in the frame cells sealed with wax.

Capped honey

This honey will be the bees’ sustenance through the long winter. We were advised not to harvest any honey this first year as the bee colony is still small and will need as much nutrients as possible to last the winter.

Closeup of bees on the frame

We’re determined though to push through and learn from this experience. Next year we’ll start more colonies and, I hope, harvest a bumper crop of honey.


Tastes like happy

Chickens grazing in the garden

It wasn’t until mid-summer that I made up my mind to try raising meat chickens this year.  Our good friends Jen and Ben were visiting from Montana and I was laying out my case.  We have the freezer space, and we certainly have the land. But the garden, raised beds, apple trees, and blueberry patches were already spreading me thin. Could I handle the extra work? At the end of the conversation I decided yes. We live in Minnesota, after all, where Summer lasts about two months. If I didn’t do it now, I’d have to wait 8 months before I could try again.

So I called a hatchery and placed my order. The chickens arrived in the mail a few weeks later.

The chickens arrive

Before they arrived, however, I had to build a coop to house them overnight. Not locking your birds up at night is the fastest way to lose your chickens (and feed the local wildlife).

Mobile chicken coop

“How do you get them to go into the coop at night?” is one of the most common questions I get about raising chickens. Actually, I don’t do anything. As soon as the sun sets, they instinctively seek out the shelter of their coop. I just shut the door around 9pm each night and open it again in the morning.

Happy chickens

Caring for the meat chickens was a lot more work than our laying hens. There were a lot more of them for one thing–30 compared to 6. And this breed in particular, Cornish Cross, eats a ton and grows like crazy. By the last week they were eating 20 lbs of feed and drinking 5 gallons of water every day. As they got bigger, they made quite the “mess” in their coop each night. So I also spread a layer of clean pine shavings daily. It’s not a ton of work, maybe about 15 minutes a day. But it gets repetitive after 10 weeks.

Mushrooms sprout in dirty chicken coop

One particularly hot and humid day I opened the coop to find that mushrooms had sprouted from the now-composting wood shavings.

The real chore was moving the coop. I decided to build a mobile chicken coop so I could move the birds around to different parts of the yard and garden. Leaving them in one place too long reduces the vegetation to dirt and is generally unclean. I wanted them to have fresh food but also be protected from predators inside a fence. I also wanted them to scratch and fertilize my garden plot after I finished harvesting (which they did). So hitching my riding lawnmower to the coop, I dragged it to a new location about once a week. Then I coiled up the welded wire fence and repositioned it around the coop.

Moving the chicken coop

We started out buying feed from Mills Fleet Farm but found it cheaper at a feed supply store. We ended up buying about 12 50# bags of feed over the 10 weeks we raised the birds. It would have been less but there was a 2-week wait at the place we had them butchered. All told, however, the cost for buying the chicks, feeding, and butchering came to around $9 per bird. For the weight, that’s cheaper than grocery store chicken. But for free-range organic chickens, it’s a steal. Try googling “free range organic chicken prices” and see what you find. Prices start around $20 per bird and go up from there. One farm is selling organic breast meat for $11.69 per pound!

But the value goes far beyond the money. It’s about the experience. To have raised the food that feeds our family and know they were well-cared for… that’s hard to put a price on.

Free-range chickens in the garden

Our last morning together was dreary. Not in the sentimental way, more in the literal sense. It was down pouring and I had to get 30 chickens out of a coop and into my covered truck bed.

Loading the chickens into the pickup truck

Chicken flapping wings

Last goodbye

With Becca’s help I managed to get ahold of each one and load them into the pickup. Then I dropped them off at a meat locker in the next town where they were butchered. We picked them up bagged and frozen the next afternoon.

We have enough chicken now in our freezer to last the winter. We ought to be expert poultry cooks by Spring. So far we have made pan-friend chicken and oven-roasted chicken with garden veggies. Both delicious meals.

Pan-fried chicken dinner

Oven-roasted chicken dinner with garden veggies

Our neighbor stopped over tonight while we were enjoying our roasted chicken. She had watched the birds grow week by week from infancy to gold’n’plump. “So… how does it taste?” she asked. “Happy.” I said. While it can be a bit disturbing to eat something raised by your own hands, it helps to know they lived a good life, were treated well, and as best we can tell, were very happy birds.


That’s a wrap

Harvesting corn and taking down pea trellis

It’s official: the growing season is over. First frost arrived 3 weeks earlier than average as temperatures dropped to 34 degrees overnight last Saturday. I spent the previous afternoon plucking the remaining potatoes out of the ground (60 lbs worth).

Early frost at the Grovestead

The coldest Winter in 36 years followed by a Summer-cut-short? I emailed my friend Paul Douglas to find out what was going on. His reply to my “incredulity” came in print edition of the Sunday Star Tribune. He doesn’t know either.

Chickens out on a cold morning

The close of the season brings out all kinds of reflective thinking. What worked? What didn’t? What would I do differently next year? I have lots to share. But for now it’s nice to know that the heavy lifting is over, a season of rest is coming, and the planning for next year’s garden starts soon enough.

 


Planting seeds

Shelling peas with Ivar and Elsie

Of all the things we grow here, I try to be mindful that our children are the most important crop. My dad (the world’s greatest) once told me that he knew he only had about 10 years to get through to us boys. After that, it would be too late. The Jesuits have a saying in a similar vein, “Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man.”

So when my role shifted from husband to husband & father, I took seriously the job of connecting with my kids, building a foundation of love and trust from the earliest possible age. It’s been said that 90% of success is just showing up. I think 90% of good parenting is just being there.

I’m also continually looking for teachable moments–opportunities to teach kindness, courage, and faith. This farm affords many such opportunities.

Last week while I was home with the kids one evening, we gathered up all the unpicked pea pods which had dried on the vine. Ivar and Elsie were excellent helpers. I would had each a section of vine and they would set to work stripping the pods and throwing them into a paper bag. Elsie seemed more interested in opening the pods and dumping the peas on the ground to which Ivar screamed in protest: “NO Elsie!”

After the pods were picked we sat down at the picnic table and shelled all the peas into a mason jar. I explained that these were heirloom seeds, which means they could be saved and planted next year and we’d get more peas just like we had this summer. It was a perfect Minnesota summer evening spent with my two favorite kids.

Ivar inspects the heirloom peas we just gathered

After we finished with the peas I walked Ivar over to a potted string bean plant which also had some dried pods. Earlier this Spring, I helped Ivar plant this bean plant indoors and we watched it grow daily. Ivar took good care of the seedling, making sure it was watered and getting plenty of sun. Eventually we brought it outside so the blossoms could be pollinated and beans could start growing, after which Ivar mostly forgot about it. But this night Ivar was able to see the fully grown plant.

I picked one of the dried bean pods and asked Ivar to open it up. “Do you know what that is?” I asked him after he had a few brown beans in his hands. He knew they were beans, but didn’t catch the significance. I explained that it was the very same bean he planted all those months ago. We divvied up the rest of the pods, Elsie not to be left out, and ended up with 14 bean seeds. Then I explained to Ivar, “You planted just one seed, but God made it grow into a big plant with 14 seeds. And next year we can plant each one of these seeds and they will grow into more plants with many more seeds. This is how good our God is, he provides for us abundantly.”

Ivar holds the beans in his hands

The lesson of God’s abundance is never more apparent than in a garden. So I’ll keep looking for opportunities to plant seeds and trusting God to make them grow.

 

 


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