Sunday, August 30, 2015

One Lap To Go...

Our son Benjamin is a runner and is a member of the Gulf Coast Hurricanes, a track club in our town. He practiced for months and months, putting in grueling training from September of last year all the way through July of this year.  His events are the 800 meter run, 1500 meter run and the 3000 meter run, with the longer events being his specialty.

Various track meets were held throughout our State as well as Texas, Mississippi, and Tennessee. We attended each meet and cheered the old boy on.  He is a gifted runner and we are proud of him.

Running the Race
In particularly the longer races, runners may lose track of the number of laps that they have left to go in the race.  It is for that reason that there is a pedestal set up that has an indicator on it that communicates to the runners how many laps are left to go in the race.  An attendant stands by the sign and updates it with each lap. When the lead runner has one lap to go,  the attendant flips the indicator to '1' and vigorously rings the bell attached to the bottom of the sign that you can see below. This lets every runner on the course know that "this is it!"  It is time to dig deep and run with all you've got.  Give it your best kick for the finish line is in sight!!

Lap number sign along with Bell
At the particular race that Benjamin was running in on this day, the attendant charged with updating the Laps to Go sign got distracted.  He didn't flip the sign and he didn't ring the bell to let the runners know that they were on the last lap. Only parents who were monitoring their athlete's times, coaches, and/or very attentive runners knew that they were on the final lap.  Many of the runners didn't give it their best because they were unaware that there was only 1 lap to go and as a result, they didn't finish strong.  What a tragedy!

There is a very valuable lesson to be learned here in a spiritual sense, and as I thought about it, it made me think of some verses from the New Testament that are important to me:
Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:1-2
Now obviously, if we are competing in a race, we're going to run it with endurance, wanting to finish strong, but here's the thing, like the runners in Benjamin's race - in our race of life, we don't know exactly when our race is going to end!  Our 'race' could end tonight or tomorrow or if the Good Lord tarries, we could die a ripe, old age.

Or if not in death, our race could come to an end in another way.  My Bible teaches me that the Lord will return one day for His Believers.  The Gospel of Mark states the following:
32 But of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.
33 “Take heed, keep on the alert; for you do not know when the appointed time will come. 34 It is like a man away on a journey, who upon leaving his house and putting his slaves in charge, assigning to each one his task, also commanded the doorkeeper to stay on the alert. 35 Thereforebe on the alert—for you do not know when the master of the house is coming, whether in the evening, at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning— 36 in case he should come suddenly and find you asleep. 37 What I say to you I say to all, Be on the alert!’”  Mark 13:32-37
You see, although there is no one to physically ring the bell to alert you to the end of the race, if you read the Bible, there are plenty of signs to tell you emphatically of His imminent return.  There's one lap to go!  Are you ready?  Are your family and loved ones ready?  If you aren't sure, there is HOPE HERE.

The race is almost over...  Finish Strong!!

And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh.  Luke 21:28


Thursday, August 27, 2015

The State Bird of Louisiana

If April showers bring May flowers, what do August rains bring?  Well, they bring mosquitoes.  Lots and lots of mosquitoes.  One positive thing about a very dry June and July was that there was no water nearby for mosquitoes to lay their eggs, and that meant that although it was hot and dry, you could walk around outside and not be carried away by mosquitoes.  Not anymore.

If you look in the water buckets we have along the drip line of the roof in the back yard to catch rain water, you will see hundreds and hundreds of mosquito larvae swimming around.  According to This Link a single female mosquito can lay between 100 - 300 eggs.  Those eggs hatch and turn into the larvae you see in my bucket below.  Then in 4 to 14 days, depending on water temperature, they go through the full life cycle.

A mosquito can lay between 100 - 300 eggs at one time and between 1,000 to 3,000 eggs in her lifetime.  Although they live for only 2 -3 weeks, they can do a lot of mischief in that short span of time.  I walked through the pasture this afternoon swatting non-stop as clouds of mosquitoes surrounded me, covering my legs as I had shorts on.  Big mistake.  It didn't take long for them to fill with blood.  Only the female mosquitoes bite as they need the blood to develop the eggs.  Darned females! Of course I'd never say any disparaging remarks about human females...

Our local taxes pay the Mosquito Control Board to fly an airplane at night dispensing poison to kill the mosquitoes along with a truck that drives up and down every driveway spraying poison.  This helps keep them in check, but it is theorized that this could be killing some beneficial insects as well as honeybees. Sometimes the most effective thing is just so slap them.

That old girl was full of my blood
Sometimes even when they don't bite you, they'll just annoy you.  There are times when one (or several) will buzz around in our bedroom at night.  You can hear them, but can't see them and you can't go to sleep because you're anticipated them landing on you and biting you.  Some people around here joke and say that the State Bird of Louisiana is the Mosquito, but it is actually the Brown Pelican.  

They're really no joking matter, though, as they carry West Nile Virus and have been known to get so numerous that they'll choke cows and horses.  I have a bug zapper in the barn to combat this when their populations get large, but I'm unsure of how effective it is.  Fortunately, the cows have tails that they use to constantly swat them away.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

A Good Investment

The roller coaster ride that has been the stock market this week has made me think about investments. I have heard people say they are fearful to look at the current market value of their 401-Ks, wondering about what tomorrow might bring and sorrowful to see portfolio gains become losses. ExxonMobil stock, described as a "widows & orphans" stock is down 31% for the year.

I found a good investment in the the garden that I wanted to share with you.  Its value isn't affected by Federal Reserve policy, the Chinese economic outlook, or America's GDP forecast.  A few weeks ago when the foliage on the cucumber plants was lush and green, I somehow missed picking a hidden cucumber.  I only saw it after it was as orange as a pumpkin.  Once they turn even a little bit yellow, they are bitter and inedible, but don't despair, this is a perfect cucumber - for saving its seeds, that is.

This variety is an heirloom, open pollinated Boston Pickling Cucumber variety.  It is not a hybrid and therefore, the seeds can be saved and planted next year or in future years.  Here's how we did it.  First, I allowed the cucumber to continue ripening until the plant itself died and it turned a little soft.

Way overripe and soft
I brought it inside and carefully cut it open, breaking it in half so that I wouldn't cut through any of the seeds.

Exposing the seeds of the cucumber
I used a spoon to scoop out the seeds, placing them in a bowl.  There is some pulp in the bowl along with the seeds, but that is nothing to worry about.  You don't need to pick it out.

I added some water to the bowl and stirred it up, mixing it all up nicely.

Added water to the seeds
Now, I just placed the bowl in the window sill and stir it up each day.  By the third day, it will have a mold growing on top of the water and the fermented cucumber concoction will stink like a rotten possum carcass on a blacktop road in mid-July.  

That's not an optimal fragrance for your kitchen window sill, but that is what you want - you want the cucumber seed to ferment. Fermenting the seeds mimics what happens in nature.  The fruit actually rots and the seeds inside ferment and this makes the seed water permeable, softens the seed coat and increases the germination percentage.

A smelly bowl of rotten cucumber seeds/pulp
I pour this stinky soup into a colander and run water over them.  The water breaks up the rotten pulp and cleans the seeds, allowing the smelly stuff to run on through, resulting in clean seeds.

Then I place the seeds on a plate and put it back on the window sill for a few days to completely dry. Every so often I stir the seeds with my fingers, turning them over and un-sticking them from the plate.

Drying the seeds
After day 2 or 3, the seeds are completely dry.

Dry cucumber seeds
I read somewhere that the average cucumber has 150 seeds in it.  Judging from the seeds in my hand, I'd estimate there to be 100 seeds there.  In the same publication, I read that the average heirloom cucumber plant will yield 2-3 pounds of fruit per plant.  One might think that I have a bunch of seeds in the palm of my hand. Actually, looking at it conservatively, I actually have about 200 pounds of cucumbers in my hand!

Seeds as an investment
There are lots of things that can go wrong between now and the harvest of the cucumbers next spring, but I would say that the seeds are a productive investment, with high yields, nice returns, a nice upside potential of unlimited growth.

Yes, the stock market may be subject to the vagaries of investor psychology, but my little ibuprofen bottle of Boston Pickling Cucumber seeds tucked away in my seed saving drawer will be there for me even if though Social Security won't! 

Cucumber seeds - (take 2 as directed)
Saving cucumber seeds, a good investment.  It also pays great dividends!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Putting the Fall Garden In

It is hard to imagine as I looked at the thermometer on our car showing an outside temperature of 105 degrees in the church parking lot on Sunday, but it is indeed time to start getting the Fall garden planted.  This weekend I made a good start by weeding the areas that I want to plant and then sprinkling some organic fertilizer over the top.

Then, trying something new this year that I learned from Herrick Kimball's Deliberate Agrarian Blog, I'm planting on 30" rows this year.  I think they'll give the plants more room to grow than the 18" - 20" rows that I normally pull up.  As I look at the seed spacing recommendations, the wider rows will give me the ability to plant two furrows on top of each row, giving me a side by side spacing that makes better use of the space I have in the garden.

Using baling twine that I salvaged off of the round hay bales, I measured and marked off the 30" row width and shoveled out the dirt between the rows, allowing the width of the shovel for the walkway between rows.  I may widen the walkway in further years to the two shovel-row width that Mr. Kimball suggests, depending on how this works.  I used a hoe to lightly work the soil and then used a flat rock rake to smooth out and shape the row.  I was pleased with the way the new rows turned out.

One bed ready
It was hot and humid, though, and I completely soaked two shirts before noon just working up the two rows you see below.  I grabbed a stake that I used to stake up some pepper plants a few years ago.  Amazingly, it hasn't rotted yet.  It is the perfect tool to make small trenches in the top of the row measuring exactly 12" apart. Perfectly priced, too!  You can see those indentations in the row on the left below:

The Second Bed is ready with trenches for seed planting
The first plants that I need to get planted before it is too late include some of the cole crops:
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
I plant several different types of each of the above.  For example, I like to plant 'regular' broccoli' and Romanesco broccoli, 'regular cauliflower,' green cauliflower and purple cauliflower.  For starters, I wanted to first plant some bok choy.  Bok Choy is a chinese cabbage that is delicious stir fried.

Chinese Cabbage (Bok Choy)
Because they are in the same family, you must be careful with your record-keeping and labeling your rows as all of the seeds look exactly the same:

Bok Choy Seeds
The seeding instructions are pretty much the same and require the seeds to be planted at a seed depth of 1/8 inch and 12 - 18 inches apart, but I plant them only 4 inches apart to ensure that germination is good.  Once the plants are thriving, I'll thin them out.  I can never bring myself to destroy a perfectly good plant, so I always dig the ones out that I need to thin and move to another location to grow.

I'll continue to plant other fall crops as the days go by, including beets, kale, Swiss chard, turnips, radishes, lettuces, mustard greens, sweet peas, parsley, cilantro, and spinach.  Last night we had a terrific storm that blew through, depositing 2 inches of rain on the garden.  That should have all the seeds swollen and sprouting soon. Unfortunately, it knocked out our power last night for a few hours and I wasn't able to post the blog post on Breaking Clarabelle until the next morning.  

Who knows?  With a local economy hurting due to oil & gas prices and a wildly fluctuating stock market, perhaps seeds and a garden full of fresh vegetables is the smartest investment in my portfolio!  We're optimistic about things.  Cooler weather, lower humidity, and a thriving Fall Garden (hopefully) are on the way...

Breaking Clarabelle

Clarabelle is our little Jersey heifer that was born on June 20th.  She is a cute little thing, full of personality.  Each night we separate her from her mom, Rosie, so that she doesn't get our milk and she plays games, running from us while kicking up her heels.  She is an affectionate little thing and enjoys to have her neck rubbed.

It is easier to 'break' a calf to lead as young as possible and we decided to start breaking her on her 2 month birthday.  I had a goat halter on her, but she is growing so fast that it doesn't fit her anymore, so I purchased a 'breaking halter' specifically for this task.  It has a special ring that allows the tension to be released quickly.  I'll show you why this is important in a minute.

Calves, like people, can be headstrong, stubborn, ornery!  If I put the halter on Clarabelle and tried to make her walk, she would dig in her heels and resist, causing me to pull and strain.  Eventually I'd be able to drag her, but there is an easier way. You just have to be patient.  It doesn't happen overnight. I halter her and tie her about head-height, leaving about 12-18 inches slack in the rope.  We make sure that we're nearby and constantly checking on her as we don't want her to fall and potentially choke herself.

Clarabelle doesn't like this at all!
Clarabelle likes her freedom.  She doesn't like being tied up and try as she may, the Chinaberry tree she's tied to is not going to move.  That's the point.  "Breaking" Clarabelle means exactly that - we are breaking her will.  She will understand, over time, that resistance is futile.  She is not going to win in a tug of war against a tree...

Or a fence post, for that matter.  Each day we'll leave her tied for an hour or so. While she's tied, we talk to her calmly and rub her down, massaging her neck, petting her back, touching her legs and belly.  She comes to look forward to this just as you would if someone would massage your back everyday at a certain time. Despite the lack of freedom caused by the rope, she at least can look forward to the treat of rub-downs and pleasant talk.  The first several days, she pulls mightily against the immovable object, straining with all she has.  Eventually, she doesn't pull quite as tight.

After a while, she doesn't pull at all.  As I mentioned, this takes patience.  We'll continue to do this every afternoon for weeks.  When I untie her and try to walk her to the barn where she is separated in her stall, I hold her with about 12-18 slack and walk her.  At first she walks pretty good, knowing she can't out-pull me, and I reward her with kind words of encouragement.  Then her stubbornness kicks in and she pulls against me.  She gets real dramatic and falls over on the ground in desperation.  I laugh and nudge her to get up and she complies and we eventually make it to her stall. 

For getting to the stall, she gets a good neck massage.  I've read that you can also reward them by feeding them a range cube, but I've not tried that.  

Clarabelle's stall in the barn
We will continue working with her.  As with anything difficult, it is important to be consistent, persistent, and patient.  Perfect practice makes perfect and good habits instilled at an early age will continue throughout her life and like I mentioned, it is much easier to break a 130 pound calf than a 300 pound calf.  The Jefferson Davis Parish Fair will be coming up October 6 - 10th and maybe we'll bring Clarabelle for Benjamin to show if she's walking with a lead rope by that point.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Broody Hen

In one of the nesting boxes in the barn, there is a Black Star hen that is broody.  A hen that is broody simply means that she wants to be a momma.  Most hens will lay their eggs, sing a little song, and then it's up and off the nest and out to the pasture to do normal chicken things like scratching in the dirt, chasing frogs and bugs, and taking dust baths.  Not a broody hen.  A broody hen wants to sit on her eggs and hatch them.  She fluffs her feathers up and makes mean noises when you come around. If you try to lift her up to remove the eggs underneath her, she'll peck you with her beak.

Benjamin's job is to gather the eggs each day.  He was tired of getting pecked and asked if we could let the broody hen sit on and hopefully hatch her eggs.  I said sure.  She has four eggs underneath her and I had Benjamin mark the four eggs with a pencil.  He removes any new eggs that may be laid in her nesting box while she's off her nest each day and leaves the existing four eggs for the broody hen to incubate.

The broody hen is very dedicated to the task at hand.  She only gets up off her nest for very brief periods each day to get food and water.  Then she quickly returns, re-positions her eggs and sits back down on them.  Here is a photo of her all fluffed up and giving me the evil eye!:

The Broody Hen
A chicken egg takes exactly 21 days to incubate.  That means that on approximately September 8th we may have some baby chicks hatching and then maybe not. When it is really warm (which it is) sometimes the chicks develop a little faster and may hatch in 19 days.  There's always the possibility that the eggs aren't fertilized. The proper ratio is 1 rooster for every 10 hens in the flock.  We have enough roosters, but you just never know.  We'll keep our eyes open and ears listening for the first signs of little chicks in the barn.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Higher Ground

There is an old hymn that you can listen to by clicking here, that we sing at our church, and the chorus goes like this:

Lord, lift me up, and let me stand
By faith on Canaan’s tableland;
A higher plane than I have found,
Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.

It is a hymn, really a prayer, in which the songwriter aspires to grow closer to his Savior and by doing so becoming more Christ-like each day.  Rather than low living, the author of the hymn (and the singer of it) chooses to live on higher ground, walking with Jesus.  It's an inspiring song.  It should be our aim to have our feet planted on higher ground.

Our very wet first four months of the year reinforced the fact that our feet need to be planted on higher ground and our garden needs to be planted on higher ground as well!  Over the years I've amended our garden soil with tons of compost and garden soil, but it still needs to be higher to avoid sickly, yellow-leaved, scalded vegetable plants.  In order to combat this, I ordered a load of topsoil and had it delivered near our garden.  It would have been easier to dump it directly in the garden, but I don't have a wide gate leading into the garden area.  Therefore that caused me and my boys to work considerably in this effort.  We got it done, though, and hard work is good for the body and soul, I think!
A load of topsoil
Each day we loaded up bucketfuls of topsoil by shovel, put it onto a wagon and dumped it over the existing rows in the garden. This raises the level of the ground in the garden, but also will still allow the roots of our plants to reach the good, rich, worm-filled, microbe-laden soil that we have worked so hard to build over the years.

You can see the results of our work on about a third of the garden below.  A one inch rain packed it in after we dumped the dirt and smoothed it over the garden rows.  It looks like we tilled it, but we didn't.  It completely covered the existing ground, and the only thing you can see growing is a few stalks of sorghum that came up volunteer.  I'm allowing that to mature and I'll save the grain for seed.

I would assume that our work lifted the ground level in the garden by about three inches and once I pull up rows, the new level should be about 4 and 1/2 or 5 inches higher than it was last year.  I'm thinking that will really help out during future 'monsoon seasons.'  This year I actually had potatoes and beets that rotted in the ground.

In some areas of the garden, especially on the lower side, I had really high rows pulled up in which the ground level was high enough.  In those areas, I simply filled in the furrows between the rows with the topsoil.  
Filled in furrows between the rows
We've almost moved the entire load of topsoil into the garden.  I won't have enough topsoil to build up the entire garden area, and I estimate that I'll have about 1/4 of the garden area remaining, but that's okay.  I'll put that on the to do list for next year as I will be pulling up rows and planting the fall/winter garden over the next couple of weeks and I'm running out of time.  No worries, I'll pull up high rows and fill the furrows with chopped leaves and compost and the rainfall will flow around the garden in the pasture.

Project for next year!
Jennings, Louisiana sits at an elevation of 26 feet, 3 inches above sea level.  Higher ground.  That's what we're looking for - in our garden and in our spiritual lives, too:

I want to scale the utmost height

And catch a gleam of glory bright;
But still I’ll pray till rest I’ve found,
“Lord, lead me on to higher ground.”

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