Wednesday, June 29, 2011

It's Good to be Home!

We spent a wonderful week up in Vermont visiting family and participating in the Relay for Life.  Too bad it rained 4 out of the 5 days we were there, but we still managed to have a great time.  Hubs had to stay behind at home due to his not accruing enough vacation days at his new job, so it was just me, my sister and our two kids on this trip.

It took us about 7 hours to get there but luckily, the kids managed to behave nearly the entire way.  It was a beautiful day for traveling--the sun was out, the sky was blue--and we had no traffic worries getting there.  We arrived at Lake Bomoseen to find gorgeous 75 degree weather and had two beautiful sunny days before the rain set in.

We spent the next day going on a hike in the woods and relaxing by the lake.  Only we "girls" went on the hike; the boy decided to stay behind and work on his tan.  We hiked up an old logging trail behind the lake and it was nice to be in the cool, shady woods as the day got hotter.  First nature encounter happened to be with a painted turtle who was strolling down the same path as us.  I picked him up to get a picture and noticed a funny-shaped, dark blob of something on the side of his shell.  At first, we thought it might be some poop (!) but then I noticed it was moving.  My second thought was that maybe the turtle had a crack in his shell and it was his flesh bulging out the side.  Then, we realized it was actually a leech stuck to the turtle's shell!  I managed to pry the leech off with a stick and we sent the turtle on his way.  I threw the leech in the bushes.

The next nature encounter almost gave me a heart attack.  My niece was "on point" out in front of me and my sister was behind me.  Suddenly, my niece started shrieking and jumping up and down.  I looked over her shoulder to see what she was seeing and to my horror, saw a snake on the path in front of her.  Everyone who knows me knows how much I am terrified of snakes.  I started screaming and jumping up and down and my sister was standing behind me going, "What, what?"  Luckily, it was only a little garter snake but it still freaked me out.  The fact that I didn't pass out when I saw the snake I attribute to t.v.'s "The Crocodile Hunter"--the watching of which helped to desensitize me somewhat to snakes.  RIP Steve Irwin

The rest of the hike was pretty uneventful and we returned to the camp ready to cool off in the lake.  Now I have been visiting Lake Bomoseen for over 20 years now and am well familiar with how "warm" the lake gets during the summer.  Typically, it feels as if the water temperature is barely a smidge above the temperature of the water during the Polar Bear Plunge.  So, I decided I didn't want to actually swim but rather just stick my legs in the water off the dock.  Surprise, surprise--the water was 80 degrees!  My sis and niece and the boy got in and swam while I just hung out at the dock.  My sis did freak out a little bit when a fish came a little too close to her but other than that, they had a good time swimming.  Ironically, my niece managed to catch that same fish when she went fishing.  She let it go after catching it but it still hung out in the same area.  Turns out, we found out from Hub's niece that same fish is the one who likes to bite swimmers right there in that spot by the dock. 

The boy made us a fire that evening and the kids enjoyed roasting marshmallows.  The next day, the rain started and we decided to do other activities that didn't involve being outside.  We went to visit one set of my in-laws who live in Ludlow, Vermont.  They invited us to join them for the strawberry festival at Plymouth State Park for dinner, so we did.  Even though it was pouring down rain, we really enjoyed ourselves.  The people were friendly, the kids loved their strawberry shortcake, and even though I lost my hot dog when I slipped in the mud, we had a great time.  The boy went back to spend the night with his grandparents while we returned to the lake.

The next day, my other set of in-laws joined us at the lake for a cookout.  It was really nice visiting with them and it was really a joy to see my mother-in-law looking so well after her recent bout with cancer.  We saw the folks again when we drove down to Rutland to participate in the Relay for Life cancer walk.  There were so many positive people there that day that it really was a celebration in a way.  We walked quite a few laps and spent time visiting with relatives who had also come up for the walk.  Quite a few family pics were taken that day!

Probably the highlight of the trip was taking the kids to the Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Factory up in Waterbury, VT.  Took about an hour and a half to get there but it was a very scenic drive.  I love how folks in New England decorate their yards and houses with beautiful flowers and plants.  I definitely got some ideas for sprucing up the homestead!  The kids enjoyed the tour and got to try a new flavor, "Stephen Colbert's 'Americone Dream.'"  It's a vanilla ice cream with chocolate covered waffle cone pieces and a swirl of caramel.  It was really tasty!  We found that it was cheaper to buy two pints of B & J's ice cream at the supermarket (with a coupon!) than it was to buy the kids cones at the factory. 

We spent quiet evenings up at the camp; the kids played games and cards, while my sis and I worked on a puzzle.  Unfortunately, the one she chose turned out to be nearly impossible to finish so we gave up and started on another one at the last minute--we actually finished that one.

No surprise, the day we left, it was still pouring down rain.  We managed to squeeze in a short visit at the Vermont Country Store in Rockingham (we'd already visited the one in Weston a few days before) before getting on the highway.  We stopped for lunch at my sister's grandfather's house in Ware, MA.  He is 92 years young and still as sharp as a tack.  He made us spaghetti and meatballs for lunch and we had a nice visit with him and Rachel's aunt Millie.  All too soon, we had to hop back in the truck for our trip home. 

We decided to stop in the town where my mom grew up, Brimfield, MA, to see how much damage had been done by the recent tornadoes that hit Central MA at the beginning of June.  I was glad to see my grandparents' former home still standing and looking not much different from when my grandparents lived there 10 years ago.  It looks as if some organic farmers have taken over the place as there were vegetable gardens galore and the yard was sectioned off into different pastures.  We saw that they had horses (as my grandparents did) but they also had a herd of sheep which were shaded in the pattern of holstein cows, and a chicken coop with a bunch of chickens running around.  I was very glad to see that the place was still "farm-like" instead of being "yuppy-fied." 

We then checked out the tornado damage a few miles away.  Even though I have lived in Nebraska, which was known as "tornado alley," I never expected to see the kind of devastation in the area where I grew up that I witnessed that day.  It looked as if someone had taken a giant weed whacker to the forest.  Everywhere we looked, huge trees were snapped in half as if they'd been matchsticks.  Houses were unrecognizable as dwellings and were instead humps of building material with the occasional recognizable door or window sticking out.  Cars were flattened or crumpled up and there was so much metal--it was all bent and twisted around stuff on the ground.  Even three weeks later, the air was still filled with the scent of pine resin.  I felt as if there were two or three of those pine tree air-fresheners in the truck with us.  Around us, people were still cleaning up with chainsaws and pitchforks and brooms.  I felt almost like we were trespassing on their disaster so we didn't stick around too long. 

We ended up spending an insane amount of time getting home due to traffic and the crazy driving habits of people in Connecticut and New Jersey.  I have never seen so many reckless drivers in my life.  First, they'd tailgate the person in front of them at excessively high speeds, and then they'd jam on the brakes in order to avoid the car in front of them when traffic stopped.  All in all, it was a pretty hair-raising trip home and I actually had muscle cramps in my arms from gripping the steering wheel so tightly!

I was happy to see that our garden had been doing quite well during my absence.  There are tons of unripe tomatoes on our vines and I now have some cucumbers growing--they were still flowers when I left.  The ducks were insanely happy to hear my voice and almost ran me down in their eagerness to greet me!  I have never seen them do that before so they must have missed me.  :)  And, as we suspected, we now have two boy ducks and two girl ducks.  Thought we had four girls up until about two weeks ago, but two of them seemed to be turning into boys. 

First, we noticed their voices sound different.  I did a little research and found that only girl ducks truly quack--boy ducks don't.  My friend who also keeps ducks told me the males had raspy voices.  Hubs and I decided to test this theory out so we cornered the little darlings to see who was who.  He, of course, went for his beloved yellow duck Daisy, while I grabbed one of the brown ducks.  Daisy quacked so loudly, I thought she was going to break the sound barrier.  Yep, definitely a girl.  I had Chico (Jeremy's duck) in my arms and he sounded like a duck with laryngitis--a boy for sure.  Then we found that Lily is also a girl, while Delta is a boy. 

Turns out, the boys also grew blue wing tips on their feathers while I was gone, and they are both a lot bigger than the girls.  Hubs is already talking about getting more ducks to increase the amount of eggs we will be getting but I'm not sure about that.  We are already "flying under the radar" so to speak with the neighborhood association and I don't want to push it.  Our neighbors haven't complained yet so I'm hoping to keep everything on the down-low, duck-wise.  I think a large flock of ducks might attract more attention that the four we have now!

So, while it's good to be home, I'm not looking forward to all of the laundry that I have to catch up on, and I still have a lot of projects that I started before vacation that need to be finished.  I sure wish I could have another week off just to catch up on everything!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

My Husband is a Genius! (or, The Benefits of Dirty Duck Water)

Yes, you read that right, I'm officially classifying my husband as a "genius."  What else would you call someone who can come up with some of the craziest innovations you can think of? 

For instance, last summer, after we picked apples, he started craving apple cider.  Not the cider that you buy in a grocery store, mind you, but the cider that they sell at road side stands and produce markets in Vermont.  Being the handy guy that he is, Hubs decided to make his own cider press.  Using an old wooden box my dad had made, a car jack, and a pair of old mesh curtains, he managed to crank out about a gallon of cider.  After having a glass of it, he decided that while it was really good, he was going to make it "better" by letting it turn hard.  Unfortunately, he didn't realize that in order to get "hard cider," you have to add some form of yeast to it, which we didn't do.  The result was some good-quality apple cider vinegar instead.  We're going to get it right this year, I'm certain.

This time, he has really come up with something truly innovative!  As you all know, we moved the ducks outside to their new outdoor pen.  We also bought a kiddie pool from Walmart for them to swim in.  I didn't realize, however, what dirty little girls we have and was dismayed to find out how dirty their "pond" got after a few days.  I didn't like the idea of just dumping the pool out on the ground and wasting all that water.  So, then I started bailing it out, a little bit at a time, with my watering can and with that, I would water the garden.  I decided to do a little experiment in which I watered some of the plants with the "dirty duck water" and the others I watered with plain water.  Not surprisingly, the plants I watered with the DDW ended up growing faster and are healthier looking than the plants watered with just plain water. 

I showed Hubs the results of my experiment and I was not surprised to see the cogs & gears whirring around in his mind as he thought about how he could improve on my little discovery.  I was not disappointed!  A few days later, he showed me his newest invention and I was completely blown away. 

He procured an old above ground swimming pool pump from a friend who was demo-ing his pool and secured the pump to the bottom of the kiddie pool.  He put a bathtub plug in the top of the hole to keep the water inside the pool.  Then, he attached our garden hose to the end of the outtake hose of the pump. 

When I turned the pump on, voila!  I had the double benefits of a) getting the duck pool drained without swamping their duck yard and making a muddy mess, and b) the ability to water the entire garden with DDW, allowing me to recycle the water without wasting it and giving our plants natural fertilizer!  Such a simple thing I know, but for me, a person who hates wasting water and loves to recycle, this little contraption my Hubs invented is amazing.  It just goes to show what you can accomplish when you set your mind to it.

In other homesteading news, we had the state beehive inspector pay us a visit on Monday.  Yes, there is such a person and boy, do I want her job!  All she does is visit everyone's beehives and inspects them for health, sanitation, and disease and writes reports about them.  Our hive passed inspection and she said that Toddy was doing an excellent job with them.  This was good news to hear, as we had found out only a few weeks ago that our queen bee did die, and so we had to get a replacement queen.  Our hive now has a shiny MD State Agriculture sticker on it, showing we passed.  It honestly looks like those stickers the state puts on the gas pumps to show that they are legit. 

The ducks are doing quite well and are the delight of the neighborhood kids who love to come down and help "feed the duckies."  They are fully feathered with no "down" and have finally mastered going up the ramp to get into their pool.  It took me three weeks and a lot of treats to coax them up the ramp so I'm pretty proud of them. 

We have had a lot of fun experimenting on "what the ducks like to eat."  Not only do they enjoy their duck corn, but they also enjoy:  peas, green beans, lima beans, black beans, lettuce, arugula, apples, grass, and onions.  I bought a bag of mixed vegetables (corn, limas, green beans & carrots) and thought they'd eat it all up.  Surprisingly, they ate everything but the carrots!  I was sure that they'd eat them as they love the carrot peels that I give them, but I guess not.  Maybe it was the size or texture of the carrots--who knows?

Like I said previously, the garden is doing very well.  Our cabbages have started to "head up" and we have tiny tomatoes the size of peas.  Speaking of peas, mine are ready to pop at any second.  I will probably have to pick them today or tomorrow.  Last night, while the neighborhood kids were over, I let them each have a pea pod so they could taste the peas inside.  Not surprisingly, none of them had ever seen a pea in a pod, never mind tasted a fresh pea.  They were completely won over and ran around tasting other things in the garden like my herbs. 

I still have a hard time believing that in one generation, for the most part, we've lost the art of providing for ourselves from our own yards and our own hard work.  All of my grandparents kept gardens and some livestock and that is where I've learned most of what I know.  Toddy's grandfather was a big gardener as well and was a wealth of information.  My parents grew flowers and herbs, and sometimes tomatoes, but nothing like what my grandparents did. 

Most of the people I talk to or show our garden to, can't believe that you can grow enough food to feed a family of five.  The trick is, and this is something we've learned from experience, is that you have to eat seasonally.  We didn't do so well on that last summer, but I chalk that up to not planting enough, early enough, and a lack of experience on our part.  If all the lettuce came up at once, then you eat salads every day.  When we got sick of salad, I started mixing the lettuce and arugula in with the ducks' food and they ate less "bought" food.  If you end up with a bumper crop of tomatoes, you make spaghetti sauce, salsa, diced tomates, tomato soup, and you can it all to use for later.  I'm determined not to repeat the same mistakes as last year!  With that being said, it looks like we're going to be eating peas all week...