Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Springtime begins on our little homestead while the snow shovels still stand ready for use. It’s not just the calendar that says spring is coming; the animals also know.
It only takes a day in the upper 40’s to allow the honey bees to come out. These warmer days allow them to take “cleansing flights,” for they never soil the inside of their hives. We can see how many hives survived this harsh winter by watching their comings and goings. We’re grateful to see that ten of twelve hives are still busy with bees. We know the queens are already laying brood, and so the bees are depending on sufficient food inside their hives until pollen and nectar are again available outdoors.
The chickens are also delighted to have days where the ground is free of snow. It may be too cold to forage for green plants and insects, but they are contentedly chattering around the barnyard. Although we have an “open-door” policy all year with the Dorking chickens, Ancona ducks and the Narragansett turkeys, the chickens have opted to stay indoors for much of this cold winter.
Having more daylight hours means we get more eggs. However, it won’t be long until some of the hens declare themselves “broody.” That means they will stop laying eggs in preference for sitting on their “clutch” of eggs. We humans may think of eggs as breakfast, but they are potential babies to a hen!
My contribution to the baby-effort comes soon. That’s when I haul out the incubator to help increase the number of these genetically-rare animals. Chickens take three weeks to hatch. Ducks and turkeys take four weeks. Anticipating the eggs becoming chicks, ducklings or poults makes me feel like an excited kid. Spring truly is a time of miracles!
There are plants that also need attention now. Pruning fruit trees is a great way to get outdoors on mild, late-winter days. Apple trees can usually be pruned throughout the winter, but that’s not been a good idea this year. The extreme cold and large-fluctuations of temperatures has made winter pruning too stressful for the trees. I’ve waited until it’s officially March to begin this task.
I’m not sure why I enjoy pruning fruit trees so much. It’s certainly not that I’m confident that I know what I’m doing! The more I read and the more advice I get, the more puzzled I am. My policy is to aim for trees that have good air-flow between the branches, strong limbs and aren’t too tall for me to get to the fruit.
Some of our springtime projects begin indoors. Our little sunroom has been the dog’s haven this winter, but it’s now rearranged for starting seeds. Being able to have our hands in the soil at the end of February is therapeutic! Most of our seeds have been stored in the refrigerator since drying last autumn. We use heirloom plants intentionally in our large vegetable garden so that we can save seeds.
This is too early to begin many crops, but the onions, shallots, leeks, cabbage and broccoli are begun indoors at the end of February. We can then set out the little seedlings before the final frost. We’ll begin another round of the brassica family later on; cabbage, broccoli, brussel-sprouts and cauliflower make wonderful autumn crops.
Towards the end of March, we’ll begin more seeds indoors. All farmers could use a crystal ball to predict ideal planting time, but we’ll begin on faith that those seedlings will be ready to be planted outdoors just after the last frost. Tomatoes and peppers come first to mind, but herbs like basil and fennel are also begun indoors. I admit that I sneak in a few more flowers each year with the excuse that the bees benefit from their pollen and nectar. That is true—but I also love having zinnias, cosmos, coneflowers and daisies for bouquets.
Our other spring project is playing “musical chairs” with the farm animals before their babies arrive. The first Dutch Belted calf is to arrive in mid-March, and so the first two mothers-to-be will move up to the front barn’s lean-to. That means the horses and two miniature donkeys get demoted to the back shelter barn. The two Red-Wattle hogs, Bonnie and Clyde, are again sharing quarters with hopes of piglets this summer. The Narragansett turkeys should begin laying eggs again soon and so we’ve returned their elevated nests to their coop. The two Ancona ducks have been told that they can’t use the greenhouse as their personal spa much longer—seedlings will need that space!
In the meantime, we two people continue to eat almost exclusively from last year’s harvest. Peaches, pears, berries and apples were canned, frozen or dried. The root cellar still contains potatoes, squash, onions, shallots, garlic and sweet potatoes. Meat, cheddar cheese and vegetables are frozen, but there’s always dried beans if we still get hungry! Eating from our small farm makes our work worthwhile because we eat healthful and delicious food. I have been grateful for the slower days of winter, but now spring tempts us to begin the growing cycle again.
Mary Lou Shaw homesteads with her husband near Washington Courthouse, Ohio. Her book, "Growing Local Food" is available from Mother Earth News.