Monday, July 31, 2006

Dig those Rabbits

The rabbits are doing surprisingly well in this hot weather. They have scraped out an area under the top of the dog crate and they like to lie on the dirt to keep cool. They haven't dug any real burrows yet, but they're practicing. The pics today aren't the greatest - sorry about that.

In the back left corner of the dog crate top, you can see a light colored area. That's where they've cleverly dug a back door for sneaky quick getaways. The light is spilling in their back door.

Looking down on the dog crate top, you can kind of see their little back door. Not very well. It doesn't show up as nicely as I'd hoped. But they're digging! This is a good thing, because they'll need a place to keep cool in the summer and keep warm in the winter and have lots of babies with which we can make stew.

The little monkeys dug under the fence in one corner and got out into the big wide world. We put rocks down to block their egress. Thankfully, they're pretty tame and they were relatively easy to catch... twice. The first time we thought we'd found their escape hatch it turns out we were wrong and they just ran out again. This was definitely the escape route. They are pretty darn happy in their enclosure. They groom themselves and run "quick like a bunny" when they feel playful. But we've had some wild rabbits coming around tempting them with promises of rowdy night life. We're looking for a buck...


Monday, July 24, 2006

Spud Muffin

While it's not the Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich, it is Our Lady of Perpetual Astonishment's Yukon Gold potato, grown right here in the Palazzo Rospo garden.

It's astonishing because usually potatos don't look like cacti.


Friday, July 21, 2006

Bulk Food Storage

What with Katrina having caused so much strife, recent flooding in the northeast leaving folks stranded in their homes, and us living in the boonies, we have decided it makes sense to be prepared to hunker down in an emergency situation. One of the things we're doing is stocking our pantry. It's easy to buy cans of fruit and veggies at Sam's Wholesale, but many folks ponder over how to store other items such as dry milk, sugar, oats, etc. This is a fairly frequent question asked on homesteading forums I visit.

Here's how we do it at Palazzo Rospo: we double-bag everything and store it in 5 gallon pails.

I recently got two fifty pound sacks of hard red winter wheat. Buying in bulk saves money: I paid .40 per pound, rather than the normal "discount" price of .49 per pound for a bag containing around five pounds. Wheat berries don't spoil like flour does, so we store a lot of wheat and grind it as we need it.

Now, you don't want to open a five gallon pail every time you need some flour or a cup of sugar, so you'll have cannisters in the pantry or kitchen. My cannister for hard red winter wheat berries is a 7.2 liter plastic container.

I've found it more convenient to bag items based on the size of the cannister I'll be using for my "in use" foodstuffs. That way when I open up the five gallon pail (it's a pain!) one bag will fill my cannister. I could use fewer bags by simply filling each bag full. This is how I did it when I first started. I found that when I got to the last bit in the pail I'd have to open the next pail just to finish filling my cannister. Those buckets are a REAL pain for me to open (I have to turn them sideways, sit on them, and wrestle the lid off with the special lid-opening tool) so I find it worth a few extra bags to know that I have several neat "cannister servings" in my pails. As you can see in the photo above, my wheat cannister is getting low - just about where I'd like to refill it. This is a perfect time to break down my 50 lb. sacks of wheat and put them into long term storage.

I put a bag in the cannister (I just left that bit of wheat in the bottom and opened the bag on top of it), and use a coffee cup to scoop the wheat from the fifty pound sack into the plastic bag until the cannister is full.
I tie up the bag with a twist tie. Then I put the bag in the freezer for 48 hours. This kills any little moths or larva or eggs that might have accidentally gained access to the wheat during harvesting, storage, and shipping. I sometimes do the freezing in stages, depending on how much I have to freeze and how full my freezer is. Some folks use diatomaceous earth (food grade) and some recommend a bay leaf in each bag to prevent unwanted visitors.

After the wheat has hung out in the freezer for 48 hours or more, I put a six gallon plastic bag in a five gallon bucket. Then I drop my bags of wheat in. When the bucket is full I close the six gallon plastic bag with a twist tie and seal the bucket. My two 50 lb. sacks of wheat filled up 3 1/3 five-gallon buckets.

I label each bucket and stack them three high in the pantry. I put the oldest on top. When I get another fifty pound sack of wheat, I'll put part of it in my bucket that's only 1/3 full. I'll put the fresher plastic bags on the bottom and the older plastic bags on the top. I'll edit my label on that bucket to say "Hard Red Winter Wheat 7/06 1/07" or whatever is appropriate. That way I know that is a transition bucket between older and fresher wheat.


Thursday, July 20, 2006

Root Harvest

There is more going on at Palazzo Rospo than flooding and crying. I dug these up a few days ago.

I planted three types of potatoes; the vines for one of the three types is dying back, which means the potatoes are about done. The ones you see came from one vine and I didn't hill it. I did mulch with straw but not super deep - a few inches I guess. That's a pretty good return on one seed potato, I think. The skins are very thin, like new potatoes, and white. The meat is yellowish. I think these are Kennebecs but they could be Yukon Gold. I marked the different types and promptly hid my markers under straw mulch.

I read that if I leave the potatoes in the ground for a couple of weeks after the vines die, the skin will get tougher and they'll store better. I'll probably dig the rest of the Kennebecs (or whatever they are) up and can them this weekend or next, before the skins get tough. I don't have a root cellar and potatoes need a cool moist environment for long term storage.

The onions also need to age for a couple of weeks before they're ready to store, but they are aged in the open air so the outer layers can dry out and form a papery shell. I pulled all the white onions this morning and I'll pull the yellow ones tomorrow. It's too hot to be out in the garden for very long. I'll probably dice the onions then freeze some and dehydrate the rest. Onions like a cool dry location for long term storage. These days, I only have hot humid locations!


Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Jungle Book

I mentioned we'd had a lot of rain. It's rained almost non-stop from mid-May until mid-July. The garden was insane, because it was too wet to get out there and do anything.

The pic above shows the peas and broccoli in the bed on the right. The broccoli has kind of fallen over into the path. The bed on the left has potatoes, also falling over into the path. And weeds galore! This was the scariest part of the garden after the rains, 'cause you couldn't really walk into it to get it cleaned up. I pulled out the rotten broccoli, and the peas, which were pretty well done, and now the bed is ready for another planting. I'm thinking carrots and maybe some greens, and a few test broccoli to see how they do here as a fall crop.

The peas got heavy and my string trellis broke and everything tumbled down. I've learned that although string is fine for pole beans, peas do better with something more substantial, like jute.


Soft Rot in Broccoli

The above photo was taken June 22. We had a lovely crop of broccoli coming along. We had rain from mid-May until mid-July with only a couple of brief breaks. The garden weeds got out of control, some plants drowned, and the corn and peas fell over. The broccoli got soft rot :(

When you notice the head of broccoli changing from a beautiful green color to kind of yellow-brown-green, it's already quite rotted inside. It stinks to high heavens. I harvested all of my broccoli as soon as I realized what was going on. We enjoyed about three meals with fresh broccoli and I froze four or five quarts, but I threw away at least as much as I salvaged.

I left the stalks in the ground, hoping the side sprouts would be okay but they were awful. I pulled all the stalks and tossed them in the compost pile. That was probably a mistake, as soft rot is caused by a bacteria and I don't know if composting will have any effect on it.

In retrospect... I had planted about four plants from transplants, from seeds I started indoors. The others were all planted directly into the garden. The transplants did great and were harvested before the heavy rains, cabbage loopers, and webworms appeared. I'm going to try another planting of broccoli for fall harvest and see how it does. Next year I'll either plant transplants or grow broccoli as a fall crop. I may use BTk to get rid of the cabbage loopers and webworms, too. I'm trying real hard not to use anything other than soil amendments this year, to learn what my pests are and if good guys move in to take care of them. Lots of learning going on in this first-year West Virginia garden!

On the bright side, it's the first time I've succesfully grown any broccoli to harvest.


Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Rabbit Enclosure

I got several comments from folks about housing the rabbits outdoors in an enclosure, saying they'd be more worried about foxes and coyotes than hawks or owls. We have foxes, coyotes, raccoons, bobcats, and probably other predators at Palazzo Rospo that I'm not aware of. We set out to build Fort Lagomorph, and I think we've mostly succeeded, though I do see a couple of weak points. The enclosure is fenced with 4' high welded wire with 2"x4" openings. It has two strands of electric scare wire powered by a solar charger. The scare wires are at 12" and 48" high. You can click any of these photos for a larger view. The one above shows a messy looking corner, because the fence came down the hill then turned a corner and we had to cut and overlap the fence to handle the angle of descent and the turn. In the upper right corner you can see the top of the dog crate they were living in while in our mud room.

At the bottom of the welded wire, we put 2' chicken wire with 2" openings. We brought the 2' chicken wire down the bottom foot of the welded wire and then bent it so it goes out along the ground 1' from the welded wire fence. We put rocks every foot or so to hold it down. Eventually it will get covered by leaves and other debris. The chicken wire is to prevent baby rabbits from unwittingly leaving the protection of the enclosure, and to discourage coyotes and other predators from digging under.

The gate is framed in wood and covered with chicken wire. There is a concrete sill beneath the gate, to prevent dig-unders. I see two points of vulnerability here. One is that the gate is not electrified, so a predator could climb the gate if they realized there's no scare wire here. It should be easy enough to electrify the gate if we need to. The other point of weakness is that we only used chicken wire to cover the gate. I've been told that a raccoon can tear right through chicken wire, and I expect coyotes and bobcats can as well. I plan to put welded wire on the gate in addition to the chicken wire.

A third point of vulnerability is from above. We hear a lot of hawks crying and the occasional owl, but they haven't harmed the rabbits yet. Perhaps they don't like the closed-in feeling of the fence, or maybe the trees and shrubbery in the enclosure make it difficult for them to attack from above. We're considering stringing some bird netting or monofilament across the top of the enclosure anyway.

In the bottom left corner of the last photo you can see the bottom of the dog crate, turned upside down, to provide another temporary shelter for the rabbits. We put their food in there, to keep it out of the rain. We will build a permanent feeding hut after we get some other higher-priority projects taken care of. This does well for now. Their water bottle is hanging from the fence beside the gate but I don't think it shows in any of these photos. They don't drink from it. We check it daily to ensure it's clean and that water is coming out of it properly. The rabbits must be getting all the moisture they need from the grass and garden scraps they're eating, and from licking dewfall off the plants in their enclosure. We run about 80-95% humidity in the summer time here and the grass is soaked in the mornings, so there's lots of moisture available.

The rabbits seem to enjoy life in their enclosure. They sit up and look around, prairie-dog style. They run "fast like a bunny" from one side to another, in fits of exuberance or showing off. They loll about in the shade waiting on someone to peel them a grape -- it hasn't happened yet, but they're confident it's just a matter of time, you can tell.


Monday, July 10, 2006

Chicks at Six Weeks

The chicks look like miniature chickens now. Some of them are clearly roosters with growing combs and wattles that hint at red in the sunlight. Ssome are clearly hens with small compact combs that are pale in color. Some are more mysterious with combs that might be compact or maybe they haven't really grown yet, it's just hard to tell. Click to see a larger view.

Their feathers are beautiful!

They squawk and run away if you grab at one of them to pick it up, but then if you hold the captured one so that its wings are restrained, it soon calms down. If you're squatting down, you can put the calmed chicken on your thigh and it will stay there contentedly for quite a while. This suggests that the trauma is in getting caught, but that captivity itself is not too bad a deal :)

We tore down the old run beside their chicken house last weekend but we've had lots of rain so haven't been able to build a new run. We don't want them to run free until they're a bit older, because they have no mama to teach them about predators, and we have a lot around here. They'll enjoy the run when we get it built.


Wednesday, July 05, 2006


We had a really good salad the other night. I went through the garden and grabbed stuff and threw it in a bowl. We ended up with lettuce, swiss chard, parsley, sourgrass (also called wood sorrel), parsley, english peas, broccoli, borage flowers, and chopped green of an onion. It started out as a "What can I grab today?" project and ended up being one of the better green salads I've ever had.


Monday, July 03, 2006

Rabbits Outside

Well we finally got the rabbit enclosure finished. It's on a wooded hill and measures about 25' x 30'. We took the rabbits out there about 7:30 Sunday morning. We put them in the cardboard box we use for holding them while we clean the dog crate that has been their temporary home. One came out of the box right away, another came out about 10 minutes later, and the last was more cautious and only ventured out after 20 minutes or so. They would explore a bit, then retreat to the box, then explore a bit more, then retreat to the box. They enjoy scampering up the hill but coming down the hill they frequently slide. That's what comes of living your life in a hutch or dog crate. Our dog Rolf had a smilar problem with stairs when he first came to live with us.

We took the dog crate apart and put the top half on the ground to provide a ventilated shelter for them. We put the bottom half upside down on the ground as a solid shelter and put their bowl of food in it. We hung their water bottle on the fence and showed them where it is. They ate plants and ignored their food and water.

We had a couple of hawks flying overhead most of the day screaming and making all kinds of racket. Those white rabbits practically glow against the dark understory of the woods. The hawks didn't try to get the rabbits, though - perhaps because the enclosure is so close to the house, or perhaps because the trees make an attack difficult. The rabbits didn't pay any attention to the cries of the hawk, because they've had most of their "street smarts" bred out of them. They do run for cover when a chipmonk sounds an alarm. Still, we think we will get some bird netting and put it across the top of the enclosure in two or three places. It's way too wooded to attempt covering the entire thing.
When we were building the enclosure, my husband dug out a burrow with a shovel. He fortified the sides with rocks and roofed it with a large flat rock then covered it with dirt. We put a few wood shavings in it yesterday, because that is what they're accustomed to having in the dog crate. We were hoping the wood shavings would say "home" to them. One of the rabbits poked her head way in until only her little butt was sticking out. She did this a couple of times and then the third time her butt wiggled a lot and we could tell she was digging with her front feet. When she was happy with it she turned around and napped a while.

They hang out in the ventilated dog crate top a lot, and they hang out in the burrow a lot. We're hoping they'll dig the burrow out deeper. We're encouraged because the one rabbit dug some her very first day out. If they don't enlarge it much now, they almost certainly will when they get pregnant.It poured rain last night and I had a hard time sleeping, worrying about the rabbits. My husband laughed at me and told me they're water proof, just like cows and deer. Sure enough, this morning when the sun came up they were outside playing in the rain. Then one laid down on the wet ground to rest and nap a bit. They didn't mind the rain at all.


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