Mary ConleyDear reader,

Do you remember how you felt about gardening at the end of last fall? I certainly do! There was no sadness here when I picked the last green tomatoes before the first freeze. We had grown nearly a year's supply of most produce we eat. It was my goal, my dream, and I was excited to do it. Nevertheless, by the end of fall, when the last pumpkins and squash were processed and put in the freezer, I was ready for a break. I'm sure you know the feeling.

Recently, I realized I needed to get my onion seeds going. We were in deep winter, busy with indoor projects, and I was in no mood to plant seeds. I had to put it on my "to-do" list and make myself gather the supplies. Then it happened. At age 72, there I was like a child, checking every day, sometimes two or three times a day, to see each new baby onion as it peeked out of the dirt. The spring planting fever had hit again. If you are a farmer or gardener, you know that it is as certain as the seasons. Now, to start the tomatoes and peppers!


108 baby red onions started in recycled milk cartons. 


We just spent a few days at the farm sprucing up the old part of the house. It is a cozy, isolated retreat for us. Larry threw some bird seed at the end of the walk so we could be entertained while we ate. On the second day, the wind blew hard out of the North and it snowed a bit. Too cold for the birds to come out, although our pair of cardinals showed up quite early. It is difficult to take a photo of them as any movement sends them off. Do you know that they mate for life and remain monogamous? That makes them special to an old married couple of 53 years like us! 


Mrs. Cardinal: "It is so gloomy this morning."

Mr. Cardinal: "Let's go out for breakfast. I know just the place!”


Mary ConleyDear reader,

In my last blog I told of how harvesting our own fence posts from our little forest was such a gratifying accomplishment. Some things just make you feel good, don’t they? Today I have something else to tell you about that makes me feel that way. If you aren’t doing it already, maybe you’ll want to give it a try.

Our farm was new to us, so actually, almost everything we did was for the first time, interesting, and even exciting. I imagine we did some things wrong, though, and perhaps our neighbors had a good laugh now and then.

We had been cleaning up piles of downed trees and brush in our lower field to make it easier to mow. Larry was having a great time with his chainsaw and newly acquired tractor. You know men and their toys! Anyway, this particular tree had been dead for some time and much of the wood was rotten and full of insects. We hauled the good wood to our growing woodpile, but not knowing what else to do, we dumped the rest into the burn pile.

When Todd heard what we were doing, he suggested that we start a field compost pile instead of burning the unusable wood. We had been composting our kitchen scraps and garden waste for a couple years, but this had not occurred to us. What a shame. The men found a perfect place under some trees and close to the creek, and we have been using it ever since. Someday, someone is going to have a rich source of decomposed material to use on their fields and gardens. It won’t be us, but it still makes me happy to think about it.


The Field Compost

The brown area in the picture is where we started our field compost pile. Anything that doesn’t go through the chipper shredder or onto the woodpile goes here, and it has grown immensely since we started it in 2010. We try not to waste anything, and in doing so, we’ve become like our depression era parents. That’s a good thing!


Mary ConleyDear readers,

Have you done something in your garden or on your farm that makes you feel a little extra proud? Perhaps you started a compost pile, installed a rain barrel, or grew something new. It is a good, wholesome feeling, isn’t it? Well, one time a question on a farming website asked readers to tell about something they had done on their farm of which they were the most proud. I didn’t even have to give it a thought. I just blurted aloud, “FENCE.”

It was the fall of 2010, and Todd, Nancy, and granddaughter Erin were going to move to our farm for Erin’s last three years of high school. Erin was also bringing her horse, three sheep, and some chickens. We needed fence installed, and soon. We also needed the supplies and the knowhow. On the following trips to the farm, we started noticing fence. Do you know, it is just everywhere!

If you’ve read my previous blogs, you know that Larry can pack almost anything into our blue Honda “truck,” as he calls it. So, rolls of wire filled the car on each trip, but posts would have to be delivered. Then Todd discovered that cedar fence posts were growing in our woods! Unbelievable! Sustainability! Harvesting them would be time consuming, though, and a lot of hard work.

It was a hot day, but while Todd cleared a path through our little forest and marked the trees of the right size, Larry trimmed and cut them down. Men are just amazing, aren’t they? How I envied their muscles as I threw the trimmings into the forest to decay, and dragged as many of the trees out as I could handle. The men also helped with the hauling, and were able to use the tractor in one area. When we finished, three exhausted people stood there and admired to no end, our pile of 96 fenceposts. Ninety-six! I only have a picture in my mind of the posts strewn across the slope as we counted them, but it is a scene I’ll not forget, and one of my proudest moments on the farm. Wow! We had actually harvested our fenceposts.

We decided we would use the homegrown posts close to the house because we thought them unique, and order posts for the bigger fields later if we wished. On subsequent visits to the farm, the men dug the postholes, and learned to use a fence stretcher to tighten the high tensile wire. Nancy and Erin also helped with the wire, and we soon had two small pastures ready for the animals.


We were thankful for our newly acquired tractor and posthole digger.


A corner H-brace. The men learned how to make H-braces by checking out the neighbor’s fence.

When a neighbor came to visit, he told us that the cedar posts should last as long as expensive treated posts. For us, it was an experiment, but we were sure happy to hear those words!


The fence changed the landscape. Animals would bring it to life.

How about you? Do you have a special farm or garden accomplishment?




Mary ConleyDear readers, This blog is going to be just like the title suggests, and I am so excited to write it. Tickled is the word I want to use! This very morning, I felt like a little girl playing house as I fixed breakfast, and the following is the winding road I took to get there.

It started when I read a blog on Capper's Farmer Facebook page from Steven Gregersen at http://bit.ly/1fE3bUe who told about making toast, of all things. He lives off the grid, so when he heats his house in the winter and on cold spring and fall mornings, he makes double use of his wood-burning stove and cooks breakfast on it. His problem was the toast. It never turned out right unless you fried it, and that wasn't an option for him. Then he accidentally discovered that instead of just laying the bread on foil, if he folded the foil over the top also, it turned out as good or better than from a toaster. I made the comment on his blog that I would try it just for the fun of it the next time we went to the farm. You never know, it might be a needed and appreciated skill to have someday.

Then a couple days later, I thought, "Why only make toast? Why not cook breakfast on our wood-burning stove like Steven?" Just as a road turns, this got me thinking about skillets. Did I want to use my nice frying pan on that stove? Hey, we have two cast-iron skillets that came from Larry's mom that are just taking up space sitting on a storage shelf! So I retrieved them, but ... what ... a ... mess.

How to clean cast iron:

Good ol' www. After a little research, I chose the smaller and heavier skillet and followed these instructions on how to clean cast iron: Remove the wire racks from your oven, lay a brick on the oven floor, place the skillet on the brick, and set the oven on self-cleaning. The bonus was that my oven needed cleaning anyway. You should have seen the crud on the oven floor when it was finished. (Mostly from the dirty skillet, of course!)

The next step was to rinse off all the rust and residue, and soak the skillet from one to four hours in a half and half mixture of vinegar and water. (Good ol' reliable vinegar.) I soaked it the full four hours and the orange rust floated to the top in little pools. I didn't waste my time while this was happening. No, I kept myself occupied with a nasty cold. After the four hours, I again rinsed the rust off, patted the skillet with a towel, and then put it back into a warm oven for a few minutes to thoroughly dry.

The skillet was still slightly orange, which the instructions said was normal, and Larry was easily persuaded to do the next step, which was to finely sandpaper off the remaining rust. How handsome this skillet looked when he finished! Larry, too!

Oh, but that was only the cleaning. Now for the seasoning. Did you know that when cast iron is seasoned, it stops rusting and becomes nonstick? Yes, a nonstick skillet without the coating that gradually comes off the pan, into our food, and into our bodies. Had you ever heard of such a thing? Amazing!

So, I began the process by rubbing the whole skillet with Crisco. Lard or oil will work, too. (Cooking oil, silly!) Then I placed it upside down into a 400 F oven for about 45 minutes, and added foil to the lower rack in case it dripped on my clean oven. Laying it upside down lets any extra grease drip off instead of making a layer of goo in the bottom of the pan. It turned out shiny and beautiful, and we were amazed as we stared at this ancient skillet that had turned gray and looked as good as new. The seasoning process can be done again if you wish, so I'm going to apply oil and put it back in the oven when I make muffins later today.

cleaned and seasoned cast iron skillet 

The "good as new" cleaned and seasoned cast-iron skillet.

Now for the fun part. That winding road I mentioned above took us on a 4 1/2-hour trip to the farm just so I could cook breakfast and make toast like Steven on our little two-burner wood burning stove. (Kidding!) Our "good as new" cast-iron skillet cooked the bacon and eggs as well as on a stove, and the toast experiment worked perfectly. I'm not a lover of cooking, but I had so much fun! Thanks for putting the idea into my head, Steven. It certainly was a long and eventful road from your blog to toast, but with a yummy ending!

Breakfast on our wood burning stove 

Breakfast on our wood burning stove.

BTW, I thought I would try restoring the other cast-iron skillet, which is larger but lighter, so I brought it along with me to the farm. You see, this oven needs cleaning, too!


Mary ConleyDear Readers, in my last blog, I told you about planting gooseberry bushes. Now I want to tell you about the ups and downs of using gooseberries, and how I landed on the upside in case you might want to add them to your nursery catalog order.

Remember that it was my tasting a gooseberry crisp that started it all, so my goal was getting enough gooseberries to make one. The first "down" was the first year when something ate off the berries. The next down came the second year after protecting the bushes. I was able to harvest enough for my crisp, but it was tedious work since gooseberries have both a stem and a tail. Cleaning two or three cups for a crisp was time consuming, and not in my plans for a happy farm life. It just wasn't worth it, and I was disappointed.

The third year, the bushes were quite large and loaded with berries. Loaded! What on earth was I going to do with all those gooseberries? As usual, the world wide web saved the day, or berries, you might say. The answer was gooseberry jelly. You don't need to take off the stem or tail, and it has a unique and tantalizing flavor. So, I happily landed on the “up" side, and can honestly say that I highly recommend adding gooseberries to your garden. Now, to tell you how easy it is to make this scrumptious jelly!


Although the bushes have thorns, you simply lift up a branch with one hand and grab handfuls off with the other. 


Rinse the berries, and heat them in a pot until they start to release their juices. I chose to smash them a little.


Place the hot berries in a jelly bag and let drip. Sometimes towards the end, I give the bag a little squeeze. Those nasty stems and tails I was telling you about will stay in the jelly bag. Now how simple is that?!

I read several recipes on the web on how to make and process the jelly, but preferred the “Julie Stops By Nana Murphy’s House” short video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dCAVAG_POO8 


For some reason green gooseberries turn into a lovely rose colored jelly. How curious!

A bonus is that you do not need to use expensive pectin as the berries themselves contain it; especially the green ones. However, my jelly is slightly runny. I could have added pectin to the following batches, but didn’t. As the jelly sits on the shelf, it does solidify more, but we just call it syrup. Larry loves it on French toast, pancakes and vanilla ice cream. In fact, he talked me into picking and processing all the gooseberries. When I asked him what we were going to do with all of that jelly, he said that we could give it away. So, if you invite me over, I’ll probably bring you a jar!

Now, be sure to add gooseberry bushes to your catalog order list!


Mary ConleyDear readers, I’ve been wanting to tell you about all our garden beds. So far, we have eight 20 x 30 foot beds on our little hobby farm, and they all took a lot of work. The first one, the kitchen garden, is right across the lane from our sliding glass door. It was already there when we bought the place, and we planted sweet corn in it the first summer. Deer, who love sweet corn and will travel miles for it, walked right on past, and that is why we decided to make the other beds the same size.

I wanted the garden bed to be more practical and usable, so I came up with somewhat of a plan, and Todd went to work on it. In only a few hours, the men had it built. Oh, I love it when they do that!

Raised beds

A half-raised bed continues around the fence, with two long, full-sized beds in the middle. We didn’t put boards along the fence, but packed it with straw. This whole area had already been built up with many rich lasagna style layers, so we only needed 2x4 boards, which also saved us from hauling in so much dirt and other amenities. It snowed during the night, but this bed was ready and waiting at planting time!

The other beds:

Bed two and three are apple orchards.

Bed four is a variety orchard.

Bed five is a berry bed with blackberries and raspberries.

Bed six holds two semi-dwarf cherry trees in the middle and six mostly dead blueberry bushes.

Bed seven has three grape vines down the middle with plenty of room for more garden on either side.

Then there is bed eight. I so want to tell you the story of the making of bed eight!

I once had the pleasure of tasting a gooseberry crisp, so I thought I needed gooseberry bushes. We purchased three from Earl May Nursery and planted them out in the open. Just before harvest time, something ate them off, berries, thorns and all. We debated a few times on how to enclose them before it happened the next year, but couldn’t come up with a solution. Then, I hesitantly told Larry there was something else on my dream list that I wanted to plant, so maybe we could build another 20 x 30 foot bed around the gooseberry bushes. I hesitated because I knew he didn’t care for what I had it mind: asparagus. I recited its many redeeming qualities, such as it is the first garden vegetable ready to eat in the spring, and it being a perennial that lasts for years. Sustainability! Both Todd and Nancy liked asparagus so Larry said he would be a good sport and give it a try.

Fencing is expensive and hard work to install, but one late winter day, Larry and Todd went out in the cold ... and eventual drizzle, and built a fence around three scraggly gooseberry bushes and a potential plot for a vegetable that Larry didn’t even like! Har! Har! Giggle! Snort! I just have to laugh every time I think about it!


A revived gooseberry bush.


Horseradish: Todd also boxed in a place to grow invasive horseradish. We all studied the roots, but couldn’t tell which end should go up, so we planted it horizontal!


The asparagus bed: We filled the left-over space with June-bearing strawberries. You can see them on the far top left corner.


This past spring was a great year for the strawberries, and we picked more than 66 pounds off that small area (about 7 by 30 feet). Nancy did most of the picking and freezing, plus making lots of strawberry jam.

I guess you could say Larry was rewarded for his good attitude and hard work since he loves strawberries. He also discovered that asparagus isn’t that bad. Yes, the eighth bed started out rather crazy, but it ended up full of good stuff. 


Mary ConleyDear friends of farmers, Larry and I just spent a long weekend at our hobby farm located in southwest Nebraska near the Kansas border. We had a nice few days doing inside tasks that have been on our mental to-do list for some time. The weather warmed up and tried to coax us outdoors, but we prevailed. Then, Sunday afternoon, we were startled by a howling wind which we usually can't hear from inside our house. Larry went out to look and then called to me from the front steps. I soon grabbed my camera and took several pictures.

Our house sets low and is sheltered on nearly three sides by trees. So here we were, standing on our front steps in a nearly calm house yard, watching something fierce happening only about 50 yards away. It is winter, but it was not a beautiful, snowy whiteout. No, it was a nasty, dirty brown-out from blowing top soil coming off the pastures and fields northeast of us. The thick dust not only blocked out the scenery, but brought with it scary pictures of the dust bowl era. This land is in its fourth year of drought, and it is a somber time and place.


The beginning: The wind shifted to the north and the temperature dropped 20 degrees in two hours. 


Contrast: Our house yard was nearly calm, but something fierce was happening just 50 yards away.


Nothingness: The dust blotted out the landscape.

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