Thursday, March 30, 2006


As frequent visitors to the Palazzo Blog already know, we've not yet been here a full year. Now that Spring is upon us, we are excitedly watching the new life and anticipating blooms.

Along portions of the drive way and the wet river creek there are some flowers coming up. Some of them have long, slender flower buds. Look at the top left "corner" of this plant:
Others have fuller, rounder flower buds.
I pointed out the different flower types to my husband, who was instantly intrigued and excited.
"Perhaps some are tulips!" he exclaimed.
"No, tulips have broad flat leaves, not thin ones like this. These are daffodils."
"Hyacinths, maybe?" he countered.
"Maybe. I think they're all daffodils."

Then I glanced at his face and realized that I was not being much fun. This was not an honest attempt to identify flowers; this was an opportunity for mystery and intrigue and I was letting him down.

I reconsidered the emerging flowers.
"You know, they do look different."
"Perhaps we have a rare kind of tulip that only exists in specialized microclimates." he mused.

Our conversation continued in this vein for a while, and now we are eagerly waiting for our Palazzo Rospo Hyadaffolips to bloom. It should be spectacular. I think Horticulture Today is going to feature us on their cover. It's very exciting.


Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Seedling Update

Earlier this month I had my first seedling sprouting in a seed tray. Several people joined me in celebration (thanks, guys!) Today things are a lot busier. I have four flats that are full to mostly full. Each flat holds 72 seedling compartments and currently I have 0 to 3 seedlings in each little cup. I try to plant 2 seeds per cup in case one doesn't germinate but sometimes none sprout and sometimes I accidentally drop more seeds. And I have a few plants like thyme, oregano, and chamomile that have such tiny seeds I just sprinkled them lightly and now there are tons of little seedlings in those cups (see above, full-sized). Thinning is going to be a challenge.

Because I'd never started seedlings before, I wanted to try some different things and see what works best for me. I began by starting my seeds in three different environments:
  1. Tray on heating pad, no dome
  2. Tray on refrigerator, no dome
  3. Tray with dome, no heat source
I quickly learned that for me option 2 was a no-go. Even though germinating seeds, by and large, don't need light, I found it too tedious to check the top-of-the-fridge tray on a timely basis. In other words, I forgot. The first seeds sprouted and get long and leggy in no time. Keeping the tray under lights works better for me.

I didn't observe any difference in sprouting time for the trays on the heating pad (no dome) and the trays under a dome (no heat source). I've decided I prefer the domed trays for starting seeds, for a couple of reasons.
  1. More consistent water level
  2. More free outlets
The dome creates a little miniature rain forest and the soilless starting mixture stays uniformly moist without drying out or getting soggy. This isn't the best photo - I was using a camera without manual focus and couldn't trick it into focusing on the seedlings instead of the water droplets on the dome, but it shows how nice the moisture is in the domed tray.
I need all the outlet spaces I can get for my fluorescent lights. I don't want to "waste" an outlet for a heating pad.

I arranged things thusly: I have two flats set end to end long ways, with two 48" flourescent light fixtures side by side above the pair of flats. Each fixture holds two bulbs, so there are four bulbs illuminating two trays. This seems to provide plenty of light across the surface of the flats and the seedlings don't lean much. I use regular 40 watt bulbs. I didn't worry about special spectrum grow lights because my reading indicates they don't make enough difference to justify the cost. Maybe next year I'll run my own tests on this and come to my own conclusions.

Once the seedlings are well sprouted, I move them to an undomed tray as shown in the first photograph. I do this for a couple of reasons.
  1. Lower temperatures
  2. Damping off disease
Most seeds germinate around 70-75F but the seedlings like slightly cooler temperatures for growing. This varies from species to species but overall this is the case, so I take sprouted seeds out from under the dome to give seedlings a slightly cooler growing environment.

Damping off disease is caused by a fungus in the soil and it likes a cool moist environment. I use a soilless seed starting mixture. I bought mine but you can make your own - I think you use Peat, Vermiculite, and something else, but Google it. I'm still paranoid, even with the soilless starting mix. My reading indicates that if I allow the "soil" to dry out (even to the point that the seedlings begin to wilt just a little) then the dryness will help deter damping off disease. I don't let my seedlings wilt; I think that will set back their development. I do let the top of the starting mix begin to dry out and then water from the bottom by putting water in the tray beneath the cups.

Once the seeds have sprouted I use half strength Miracle Gro when watering them. I'd like to try fish emulsion but Miracle Gro was readily available.


Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Heiner's Sunny Buns

You know how when you're visiting a new place, and some normally unremarkable thing catchws your attention? Like a restaurant has a brand of Lemon Ginger tea you've never noticed at home, and it's really good tea. So you go to a grocery store and get a bunch and cram it in your suitcase and then back home you make yourself a cup of the remarkable tea and contentedly reminisce about the vacation. That happened to me in Oregon.

Or you go to the one and only local liquor store and find out they don't know what tonic water is. That happened to us when we moved to WV.

Well, here's something that we have in WV that we didn't have "back home" and it's absolutely too delightful to keep to myself. I have to share it. There is a bread company called "Heiner's" which is a perfectly respectable German sounding name. Their delivery trucks proudly advertise "HEINER'S BUNS" which we think is hilarious. We can't eat hamburgers or hot dogs on store bought buns without giggling. We've been here 8 months or more so it's unlikely we'll outgrow our sophomoric reaction to this admirable marketing strategy.


Friday, March 24, 2006


Until recently, I was afraid of making bread. My sister makes bread, kneads it by hand, does marvelous things.

About a year ago, we got a fantastic kitchen appliance: a KitchenAid stand mixer. Yes, it's heavy. Yes, it's barely too tall to fit on the countertop beneath the cabinets overhead. I don't care, I love my mixer! I make bread using the dough hook. I've not yet tried hand-kneading; for some reason I'm afraid of it. I have no clue how to judge elasticity or know if I've kneaded long enough or too long. I do "punch down" the loaf by hand kneading it a little - maybe half a dozen times. I feel this amount of hand kneading is a fine accomplishment and I am proud of it.

Usually I follow the recipes included in the booklet that came with the mixer. I've also tried a recipe or two I got from friends and one from my Backwoods Home cookbook. Most recipes I use make two loaves. That's a good thing, because we eat the first loaf right out of the oven when it's too hot to even slice neatly. I use whole wheat flour, which makes for a heavier, coarser loaf than "regular" bleached or unbleached flour. The whole wheat bread is great for accompanying a meal or a bowl of soup, but is a bit dense for sandwiches (in my opinion - my husband loves sandwiches on the whole wheat). I find that if a recipe makes a heavy loaf that won't rise well, adding about a tablespoon of wheat gluten to a two-loaf batch of dough helps a lot. The flavor and nutritional value of homemade whole wheat is unbelievable. Store-bought bread absolutely cannot compare.

The loaves above are Honey Oatmeal Bread, from the KitchenAid booklet. This bread is a fabulous breakfast bread - excellent with jam, honey, or apple butter. I didn't bother topping the loaves with egg white and oatmeal, but it does make a beautiful loaf if you do that. The dough hook is used for everything, including mixing the dry ingredients.

Honey Oatmeal Bread
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1/3 cup butter or margarine
  • 5 1/2 - 6 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup quick cooking oats
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 packages active dry yeast
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 egg white
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • Oatmeal
  • 1 tablespoon wheat gluten*
Place water, honey, and butter in small saucepan. Heat over low heat until mixture is very warm (120F to 130F). A candy thermometer is good for measuring water temperature.

First place oats, then 5 cups flour, salt, and yeast in the bowl. Mix well.

Gradually add the warm water mixture to flour and mix well.

Add remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time, until dough starts to clean sides of bowl (if using whole wheat flour, let the dough stay a little "sticky") and knead a couple of minutes longer. Be careful not to add too much flour, as this results in a dry loaf. I guess this is where you would hand-knead the dough and gradually add flour if you were going to hand knead, but I'm not sure. Comments from experienced hand-kneaders welcome!

Place dough in greased bowl, turning to grease top. Cover, let rise in warm place, free from draft, about 1 hour or until doubled in bulk.

Punch dough down and divide in half (I divide in half and then hand knead each half a few times). Form into loaves. Place in greased 8.5 x 4.5 x 2.5 baking pans. Cover. Let rise in warm place, free from draft, about 1 hour, or until doubled in bulk. I've had this step take up to 4 hours; wheat gluten helps a lot if your loaves are slow to rise on the second rising.

Beat egg white and water together with a fork. Brush tops of loaves with mixture. Sprinkle with oatmeal. Bake at 375F for 30 to 40 minutes. Remove from pans immediately and cool on wire racks.

* I add wheat gluten because I use whole wheat flour instead of all-purpose, and it helps the second rising.


Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Deer in the Yard

I love where I live. I took this photo today from my back porch. These two deer were right across the driveway from me, just munching away. The grass is really starting to green up. It was odd- we had snow last night and today when it melted the grass was *bright* green beneath. It doesn't look bright at all in the photos. Maybe it was just bright compared to what I've been looking at all winter. :)

There was a third deer with these two, but it was off by itself so I didn't get a shot of all three of them together.


Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Savage Chickens Cartoon

Okay, this is not strictly related to my blog... actually it's not related to my blog at all, but I stumbled across the Savage Chickens blog today and I thought it was hilarious. I think this guy, Doug Savage, is as funny as Gary Larson.

If you really try hard, you could force yourself to pretend that the cartoon I linked to is related to my blog. But you'd have to work at it, and have an open mind, and know we're hoping to get our first chickens next month, and free range them.

Monday, March 20, 2006


Today is the first day of Spring in the northern hemisphere. Spring begins on the day of the vernal equinox, usually March 20 but on March 21 in some years.

Equi-nox means "equal night." On the equinox, the day and night are of the same length. In the northern hemisphere, the short winter days have been getting longer. Today the days are as long as the nights and tomorrow we'll have slightly more than 12 hours of daylight per day.

In the southern hemisphere, today is the autumnal equinox, as the long days have been growing shorter and after today the days will be shorter than the nights. It is the beginning of Autumn in the southern hemisphere. I have a friend in Australia who makes a point of gloating as she plants her garden and watches blooms popping up in October. I think I owe her an email.


Friday, March 17, 2006

The Chimney Sweep

Our wood stove suddenly started smoking like a bad boy. It billowed out into the house in huge clouds and burned our eyes whenever we opened the door. It stealthily crept out of seams in the stove pipe and oozed along the ceiling. It was insidious.

We have a brush to brush out the stove pipe (it came with the house) but upon inspecting the stove we realized the pipe doesn't come straight down into the fire box; the air flows kind of in and around inside the fire box before going up the pipe. So, if we climbed up on the roof and started knocking creosote loose, we figured it'd just fall into the inaccessible parts of the stove and clog it up. We tried removing some parts inside the stove, so the soot and creosote would fall into the fire box where we could shovel it out, but the head of the first bolt just broke clean off. It was about then that we decided to call in the experts.

It took us a couple of days to find someone who would come all the way out to our place and clean the stove pipe. We are not close to any city. He and his helper showed up promptly when they said they would, did a thorough, quick job and left no mess. He stuck a shop-vac in the stove and kind of snaked it up to where the creosote and junk fell down. Duh.

The guy we hired was colorful, as you can see from the photograph. He wasn't shy at all, and when we asked if we could take his picture, all he said was "be sure to get the phone number in there!"


Monday, March 13, 2006

Planting Blueberries

We planted blueberries this weekend. I had ordered them from Stark Brothers in the fall when I ordered fruit and nut trees. I can't say enough good things about Stark Brothers. Last fall they called and said it was the wrong time of year for planting blueberries, and they recommended splitting my order in two and holding the blueberry order until time to plant. They didn't charge me for the blueberries until they shipped. The blueberries arrived Thursday and we planted them on Saturday. They came in a box, well protected and in great condition.

My husband got out the tractor (any excuse :) and dug six holes. We got three Earliblue and three Darrow bushes. The catalogs say to plant more than one variety to increase pollination rates and yield.

I put a lot of peat and some composted manure in each hole, along with most of the dirt that had been dug out. I used a lot of peat because blueberries like acidic soil. I mixed it well with a garden fork.

You can see here how well packaged the blueberry bushes are. Nicely protected from bumps and jarring.

The bushes were nicely moist and the roots protected in a 3" plastic cup and then wrapped in plastic to keep the roots damp during shipping. The boxes were labelled, plus each plant has a little plastic marker inside the box, in the plastic cup. You can't see the marker in the above photo because it's behind the cup.

Once the soil is mixed, the work is really done. Just unwrap the bush and plant it with the soil at the same level as the soil in the pot. I read that it takes three years before blueberry bushes bear, but I'm not sure how old these are. One year? Two? I wonder how long we'll have to wait before we harvest our first berries.


Thursday, March 09, 2006

A sprout!

Wouldn't you know it? I posted yesterday about how there was nothing to see in the seed trays yet, and last night when I went to plant some oregano seeds, lo and behold! A parsley sprout!

What do you mean, you can't see it? It's THERE, I tell you! It's easier to see in a larger version, of course (click the image). Just the little bent stem pushing its way upward, halfway between white marker and tray edge. This morning one of the seed leaves was up and another itty bitty sprout was showing in the cell next to this one. Excitement!

I was surprised, because my reading says parsley should take 21 days to sprout. These guys sprouted in 11 and 12 days in the tray on the heating pad.

I planted greek oregano in the cells directly behind the parsley, which, now that I think about it, probably wasn't the brightest thing to do in the tray on the heating pad because the parsley will want cool growing temps whereas the oregano will want warm sprouting temps. I think the domed tray sans heating pad will be okay because the parsley can sprout 10 days from now (let's stick to the schedule, guys) and the oregano is supposed to take about 10 days, so all should be well in the domed seed tray.

I also planted some greek oregano in a tray that I put on top of the fridge. This year is all about experimentation and learning. I'll compare the sprouting times for greek oregano between the heating pad tray, the domed unheated tray (now under lights), and the top of the fridge tray.

Let me say here and now that oregano seeds are the tiniest things I've ever planted. Here are four seeds on a page from my gardening calendar, next to a penny. I would like to plant a couple of seeds per cell, but it was impossible to even tell if I'd picked any up - I couldn't feel them against my skin. So I put a few in my palm, pinched some up between the thumb and index finger of my free hand, and rubbed my thumb and finger together above the cells. When I saw that a few had dropped, I moved on.

The directions say they should have a "light covering" of soil. Yeah, right. I just pressed them into the surface of the mixture last night. This morning I thought that maybe they need that light covering, so I sprinkled a thin partial layer of seed starting mixture on top of them. I'll fret about the "light covering" until these guys sprout.

The good news is that oregano is supposed to be a perennial in zone 5b/6a so if these little puppies do sprout and thrive, I won't have to worry about working with these itty bitty seeds again next year.


Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Seedling Update (such as it is)

In an earlier post, I talked about my setup for starting seeds. This is the first time I've ever tried it, so I expect a big learning curve.

Not much visual activity in the seedling arena. However, I have learned some things. I'm glad of it, because I want lots of tomatoes and peppers this year, and they have to be started indoors if I'm going to have a decent growing and harvest season for them.

The parsley hasn't sprouted, but it's not expected to sprout for another week and a half. Normally I'd be impatient, but right now I'm thankful because I haven't gotten my act together yet. The tray on the left is still sitting undomed on the heating pad (wrapped in a trash bag) set to low. The tray on the right is still sitting domed without benefit of heating pad, but as you can see I've lowered the fluorescent light fixture (two bulbs) and I keep the light turned on 24 hours a day.

The temperatures on the right hand tray were volatile, ranging from mid 50's to around 70. The temperature in that room is volatile, too. In the two or three days since I lowered the light and turned it on, however, the temperature on the right hand tray has consistently hovered around 70. YES!

I'm going to plant oregano next, and I'm going to use these two trays plus I'm going to put a tray on top of the refrigerator. Temps are much more consistent in the kitchen, and the fridge should provide a little extra warmth. The elevation won't hurt, either.

I think I'll have a fairly good game plan by the time I'm supposed to be planting tomato and peppers.


Monday, March 06, 2006

Double-Digging on Steroids!

We have acquired a tractor. We were going to wait and get a used one that we could pay cash for. But we kept looking around the homestead and thinking "We need to do X but to do that we'll need a tractor" and "We need to do Y but we'd have to rent a backhoe." We need to clear out ditches, put in a couple of drainage pipes, bury an electric cable to the chicken house, get gravel delivered and spread it on the drive... the list is truly never-ending.

We talked to some neighbors and decided that we don't know enough about tractors to be able to determine if a used tractor is a good deal or if it's been dogged and abused. So we opted for a new one with a warranty... and payments. But, we rationalize, we're NOT paying someone else to bury a cable or spread gravel on our drive. Works for us! :)

ANYWAY, now that we have this delightful machine on the property, we are giving it a workout. The modest first year garden plan has been replaced by an over-zealous insanely-ambitious garden plan. What folly!

We are "double-digging" our garden with the backhoe :D We dig the top foot or so off of an area and set that topsoil aside. Then we dump a bag of peat in the hole and fluff up the dirt in the bottom of the hole and mix the peat in well. Then we move the topsoil back into place.

Working the backhoe is fun! My husband is getting quite adept at operating it, and can maneuver it in multiple directions at once. I'm pretty spastic at it still. I occasionally move the lever in the opposite direction of what I want, though not nearly as much as when I first started using the backhoe. My big problem now is pushing or pulling the wrong lever. I'll need to push the right lever, for example, to extend the backhoe, and I end up pushing the left one instead, lowering it.

I spend a lot of time laughing out loud on the tractor in the garden by myself. The deer must be wondering what the big joke is.


Friday, March 03, 2006

Carpenter Ants

We were out cutting a standing dead tree last week. We like to cut those for firewood, for a couple of reasons. One, we don't yet know enough about woodlots to make an intelligent decision about which living tree to fell. Two, we'd have to have twice as much wood storage room - enough for what we're burning this year plus enough for the green stuff that's curing for next year. So for now cutting dead standing wood suits us.

There are, however, drawbacks. One is that sometimes the wood has begun rotting and it's soft and crumbly and not worth cutting and stacking. Another is that sometimes carpenter ants have moved in. I was splitting wood and opened up this nest of carpenter ants. I read that it takes two or three years for a carpenter ant queen to build a colony strong enough to make more reproductives. If you see several reproductives in a colony (the ones with wings) then the colony has been around for a while and is well established. Thus, we had a fairly strong colony in this tree.

You can't just leave the split pieces lying open on the ground until a good freeze kills off the ants. They will go dormant in a freeze and be just as busy as ever when the temperatures warm back up. In fact, you can put ants in your freezer and they'll look dead and lifeless. Take them out and let them thaw, and they'll run around like nothing ever happened.

So now we have to figure out what to do with these pieces of wood with the pesky little invaders in them. My vote: burn them right away! Don't leave them lying around so the ants could infest the wood pile, the wood shed, or -- heaven forbid -- the house.


Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Barn Art

Pablo and OA asked recently about the barn art. As always, click on any of the images for a larger version. This is a great, solid barn. The roof is missing on the other side and we need to replace it pronto, along with some flooring both upstairs and down. Otherwise it will quickly cease being a great, solid barn.

The artwork on the side is all farm animals. There are chickens, a cow, a goose, a pig, goose, donkey, and a sheep. It is done on sheets of canvas double-stitched together. It's hung on the north side of the barn to provide some wind break (the barn is kind of open, like a tobacco barn) and also to cover up where some of the wall boards are missing. It's held in place with nails and washer-type things, and it looks like they've been there for quite some time. Until I took the photos for this post, I thought the artwork was from some feed store, probably used as a promotional device of some sort. Now I'm not so sure. It looks like there are brush strokes, but that could have been mass reproduced. I tried feeling a difference but the canvas is heavy and old, and I couldn't detect any difference in weight or texture so that was a bust. Here's the donkey, and a close-up of his ear and his head. In the full version of the close-ups you can see a little of the brush strokes.

I looked, and did not see any signature or date. I didn't see any company information or brand names either. Thus, the source of the barn art remains a mystery. Thanks Pablo and OA for asking about it.


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