Manage your homestead this summer by following this guide to seasonal chores and gardening.
The Backyard Homestead Seasonal Planner (Storey Publishing, 2017), by Ann Larkin Hansen provides expert advice on what tasks need to be done and when they should be done. The book is broken down into 12 seasons and includes handy charts, checklists, and seasonal indicators to help homesteaders manage their chores all year. The following excerpt is from Chapter 7, "Mid-Summer."
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The garden is in its glory by midsummer. Harvest volume accelerates, and it’s a rush to get everything picked, processed, and stored. As the weather continues to get drier and warmer, maintain mulch and/or cover crops. Keep watering.
As early crops like cabbage and peas are harvested, plant something to replace them: maybe a green manure that can be tilled down when the weather cools off enough to put in more peas and cabbage or some fast-growing root crops for fall harvest. This is a good time of year to test your soil.
With canopy closure, row crops should now be fine on their own until harvest, but small grains are ripening fast. They’re ready to harvest when the grain is brittle hard (it cracks when you bite it) and the stalks are fully brown. Ideally you’ll cut the grain slightly before or just as it reaches this stage, before birds attack the crop or the ripe grain starts falling to the ground.
The average small holder doesn’t own grain harvesting equipment, either antique or modern (swather and thresher or a combine), and it would be a rare thing to have a neighbor with a combine willing to come over for a little field or a garden patch of grain. For most of us, a sickle or scythe is the most practical harvest method. When cutting, be careful to lay all of the grain the same way, so that all of the seed heads are at one end. Place the crop under cover, spreading it to dry or tying it in bundles and hanging them or leaning a group together and tying it so it will stand up with seed heads at the top. The grain can remain there until you’re ready to thresh it (separate the grain from the stalk and hull).
Threshing can be done a few different ways, depending on the grain and the variety. For grains with seed that will fall off easily, holding a bundle and beating the seed heads with a stick or against a wall will do the job. (The traditional tool is a flail, two sections of wooden rod joined by a very short length of chain.) Grain that is tight on the stalk, like wheat, takes a little more work. The best method we’ve found mimics the traditional one of having donkeys or oxen tread on the crop: we spread the stalks on a rough wooden floor and dance on them (doing the twist is the most effective step). Then we pour the grain back and forth with two buckets in front of a fan a few times to blow away the chaff. For a bigger crop, it would make sense to invest in a small-scale mechanical thresher.
Once the grain has been harvested, plant a green manure or a forage crop for hay or pasture. Plant a different small grain to insulate the young forage legumes over the winter (oats with alfalfa is a good combination) and minimize weed competition.
If soil test results recommend you add amendments to the hayfields, add them now before the second crop gets too high. Rain will move the amendments into the soil, where they will be quickly utilized this time of year, when soil life is most active.
Continue adjusting the rotation to the rate of grass growth and cutting weeds. In an average year, the weather is at its driest and hottest from now through late summer, and this slows forage growth. To avoid grazing the grass too short (which greatly slows recovery time), feed hay or add paddocks. You can use part or all of your hay ground for this, but it will mean less second crop hay: you’re making a choice between more feed now or more feed this winter.
Another way to take the pressure off of pastures is to do a midsummer cull: send females that didn’t reproduce, or that have difficult temperaments, off to the processer or the auction barn. This leaves more grass for those animals that are fattening or reproducing or milking.
Summer fruits are ripening now, first those on the outer and upper branches. Enjoy them fresh or make jelly, jam, fruit butter, preserves, or juice. If any poultry, livestock, or wildlife (usually deer) have been in the orchard, do not use fruit that has been on the ground, since it could be contaminated by pathogens found in animal manure. These drops should be picked up and can be fed to the livestock, left in the woods for wildlife, or composted.
This is primary honey harvest time, as honey production slows. When removing filled supers for extraction, be sure to leave a full super of honey for the bees (especially the most vigorous hives), who will need it for food as blossoms dwindle at this time of year.
This is a good time to cull animals that you aren’t fattening for market and don’t wish to carry through winter — those with bad dispositions or that are no longer bearing young. This leaves more pasture for the animals you do want to keep at a time when pasture is usually getting a little short.
If you haven’t been feeding grain and wish to put a “grain finish” on livestock intended for market or freezer, this is a good time to slowly add grain to the daily ration. Grain can be started anytime from before weaning to just a few weeks before butchering, or never introduced at all. Here are a few thoughts to help you figure out what to do on your place.
The natural diet of cattle and sheep does not include grain; it’s all forages. One hundred percent grass-fed lamb and beef can taste fabulous — or awful. To do grass-fed right, you need good genetics (animals that are genetically predisposed to gain weight rapidly on an all-forage diet), great pastures, and excellent pasture management.
Starting grain a week or two before weaning serves a number of purposes: it takes pressure off the mothers, it gives the youngsters a boost ahead of the trauma of weaning, and it’s an easy way to train the young to come into the pens or the barnyard willingly. We also use it as a training aid: the feed bunkers for our cattle are along one side of the holding area for the chute and headgate we use when we need to vaccinate, castrate, load, or sort. After the calves have had a few days to get used to the idea that there are treats in the holding pen, I shut the gate behind them and open the chute. In a couple of weeks, they’re used to exiting through the chute, which makes them much calmer and easier to work with. On the other hand, starting grain that early means a higher overall feed bill, or a bigger grain field to harvest.
Starting grain in late summer, a few months before sale or slaughter, as pastures slow down, is a very effective way of adding desirable fat and muscle. There is adequate time to get animals trained to come when they’re called and be comfortable with handling facilities.
Starting grain two or three weeks before sale or slaughter will add some weight for the least expense, but it will not improve tenderness or taste nearly as much as starting earlier.
For calves in mid-spring, cattle raisers turn the bull in with the cows at this time. For a few animals on a small acreage, it works well to buy a yearling bull and leave him with the cows until the following summer, then sell him. A young bull is easier to handle and will breed the cows twice and be gone before he is old enough to “get an attitude” or his daughters are old enough to be bred by their sire.
If you started meat chickens this early spring, they’re about ready to butcher by now. They should be butchered early in the morning, before the heat wakes up all of the flies. Or you may prefer to start your meat chickens now, to butcher in early to mid-fall, when it’s cooler. If you’re marketing home-grown pastured poultry, you may be butchering every two weeks from early summer to mid-fall.
If you plan to butcher chickens in mid to late fall, start the chicks now, 8 to 12 weeks ahead of your planned processing date. Instead of protecting the chicks from cool weather, as was necessary in spring, now you have to pay attention to the heat — if they get too warm, they will pile in the corners of the brooder and the ones on the bottom will suffocate. If necessary, you could even put them in your cool basement for a couple of weeks until they’re better able to moderate their body temperatures.
After you’ve done the first cutting of hay, get the equipment ready for the next one: blow off or power wash (never power wash the baler — blow it off), lubricate, check tightness and wear of belts and chains, check tire pressures, and look for leaks and loose bolts or other parts.
In regions where wet winters make woods work damaging to soils and dangerous to people, the dry days of summer are an opportunity for harvesting and improvement projects. Have a jug of water along in case of sparks — dry weather always represents a fire danger. Also, a county forester or woodland owners organization can advise you on which species of trees are threatened by insects and airborne diseases in your area. These should not be pruned or cut except in cold (below 40 degrees Fahrenheit) weather.
Turtles like to sun themselves on warm days, but they need to get into the water quickly if a predator appears. A log with one end on shore and most of it extending into the water is a favorite spot, since it offers a clear view around and a quick exit. Drop a couple of such logs in your pond or stream.
If you have a pond, lake, or stream with fish, protect the young fish from older ones by adding coarse rock in the shallows or fish cribs in deeper water. The nooks and crannies in these structures are just the right size for smaller fish, and the big ones can’t get in. In winter you can position fish cribs on the ice, where they’ll drop into place at ice melt. In summer the cribs have to be towed by boat into position, using whatever floatation you can devise, and then sunk. Crib placement is regulated in most areas; contact your state Department of Natural Resources for information before undertaking this project.
Garden and orchard produce can be preserved by home canning, pickling, drying, freezing, or storing in a cold cellar, according to the vegetable and your personal preferences. It’s best to store your vegetables as quickly as possible to produce a better-quality product, but sometimes you’re a little short of both time and storage space.
There are useful shortcuts to take the pressure off in a busy season. For example, if your cold cellar isn’t cold enough during summer and early fall, you can use a second refrigerator instead, or freeze or can some of those vegetables — I’ve found that cabbage and root crops freeze well if you chop them and spread them in a pan to put in the freezer. Once frozen, bag them up. If you have a lot of fruit and not enough time to convert it into jams and jellies, you can make the juice and freeze it until sometime next fall or winter and can the jelly then.
Buy this book from the MOTTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Backyard Homestead Seasonal Planner
Excerpted from The Backyard Homestead Seasonal Planner, © by Ann Larkin Hansen, used with permission from Storey Publishing.
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