It’s been almost a year since I last posted to my blog back in January when I decided to take a break from blogging. Back then it had become apparent that the winter would be very harsh. The cold weather brought down by the Polar Vortex was going to stay much longer than we usually experience. In early December there was rain mixed with snow. This turned into eight inches slushy snow that froze solidly to my roof and remained in place into April. In the following months we had many consecutive days of below zero temperatures even in the daytime. Life was very difficult for my sheep and chickens that winter.
And I was feeling worn out from writing and researching a complicated technical report I had worked daily on for three months. After I submitted the report it must have landed straight into the trash because I never heard from the client again. I guess it was one of those reports that came to the wrong conclusion (that would be the one supported by observable facts and not an ideological agenda). So it goes. Not the first time, either.
During the time I left off from blogging many things have happened here, some good and some bad. I had actually intended to start writing again in June. But a busy summer with a new job (a mixed bag of good and bad) that included long commutes and long days left me too tired to sit down and write and (barely) keep up with my gardens.
Late Summer, Fall and Winter 2013
In August 2013 I planted 30 rhubarb root divisions in a new patch that I’d been building up with cover crops and sheep manure and bedding for two seasons. I also started a new patch next to the rhubarb for a spring planting of asparagus and continued working on a new site for currant bushes adding more wood chips, old hay and planting with cover crops of buckwheat, oats, wheat, and peas.
The harvest from the main vegetable garden in 2013 was very good considering the fluctuating temperatures and spotty rain during the growing season. My freezers were filled with rhubarb, apple sauce, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, string beans, onions, garlic, and summer squash, enough for more than a year. The Painted Mountain Corn plot (30 feet by 60 feet) yielded about 30 pounds of grain a real improvement from the earlier years. There were 300 pounds of potatoes in the basement. I harvested about 400 pounds of winter squash which is much more than I need. The extra squash was put to good use as feed for the chickens and sheep.
The fall of 2013 was unusually cold but tolerable until November. Hard frosts in September quickly put an end to most of the vegetable garden except for kale and cabbage which were kept under a double layer of frost blankets up to the first day of December. In September, before the weather got too cold, I planted 900 cloves of garlic, and 200 shallot and yellow multiplier onion sets.
Then, beginning in December, the Polar Vortex struck. The first snow was a slushy mess that glued itself to the roof. After that it snowed heavily and often. Temperatures were extremely cold for days on end all winter and often below zero. The snow was deep eventually reaching four feet which spelled disaster for my apple trees. On top of the deep snow meadow voles were able to climb into the upper trunks and branches of the trees and strip off the bark. They even climbed down into the tree guards and ate off bark from the lower trunks. Most of my trees died as a result.
Hay for livestock was hard to come by in 2013. Many people in the area got only one cut from their fields because of low rainfall and cool temperatures. On top of that a lot of hay was shipped to other states where pastures and hay fields were drying up. What hay was left was expensive and sometimes of low quality. Some of the hay I bought contained, besides grasses, sedges and rushes which are a poor forage as they contain sharp silica spicules on the leaves and toxic chemicals. One bale of hay proved to be very bad although it looked fine otherwise. When Aries, my ram, ate from that bale he also ate a piece of sharp plastic trash that was in there. The plastic was from some sort of fireworks (I later found other pieces in the remains of that bale). The plastic cut his rumen leading to an infection that killed him. After that I tore up every bale of hay and checked for trash. All of my other sheep made it through the winter without any serious harm but a few times one of the young rams got his horns stuck in a fence. He seemed to always pick the coldest mornings for that. And there were times when two of the rams locked horns. I managed to separate them with no injuries but it was a little nerve wracking fearing they’d break their horns.
Winter seemed unending and although we didn’t have temperatures lower than -30 F most of the time we did have long stretches of below zero weather. But winter did finally end as spring arrived slowly with cool weather and some more snow in April and again in early May.
April remained cold and after a few days of mild weather that melted a lot of snow and even some river ice we were visited with a bout a half-foot of snow on April 16th. Much of this melted in a few days but the temperatures were still below normal. Willows begin blooming here around the middle of April but this year none bloomed until the first week of May. Even alders and hazels, two more early bloomers, were late.
At last the weather got warm, the ground thawed and life returned. In late May the garlic began to push up through the mulch a full 30 days behind schedule. I had a job offer in May doing botanical data collecting that looked good so I took it. Work on this project would begin near the end of May so I rushed getting vegetable seeds and potatoes into the ground, trellises built, mulch spread, animal pens cleaned, new apple trees planted, and fences repaired. By May 25 I finished planting onions, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, potatoes, carrots, and parsnips in the vegetable garden. Between then and the first few days of June I had also planted squash, cucumbers, corn, beans, and tomatoes in their plots.
When June came I was working full-time on the project collecting data trees and other plants at pre-selected points in forests. Most of these sites were a 2 or 3 hour drive one way from my home. Each weekday morning I got up at 4:00 to feed the sheep and chickens before leaving for work at 5:30. I usually got home by 7:00 PM but still had to check on the animals and gardens as well as get ready for the next day.
In spite of the busy work schedule and a summer with cool weather alternating with hot and long dry spells the harvest was good for most of my crops. But some parts of my garden suffered and are overgrown with weeds and lots of little repair and maintenance projects never got done. More about that and other things that happened over the summer in future posts.