Trellising Tomatoes

Has any tomato cage ever truly worked?  I’ve tried them all and each has sagged, broken, been outgrown, or simply fallen-over by the time the plants are full and laden with fruit.  Last year, we put a T-post next to each cage, but even then, it was more fail than success.

This year I decided to try growing them on a cattle panel.  So far, I LOVE this method of supporting them!  Early in spring, BOF and I placed a 16′ cattle panel (supported by a T-post at each end) down the center of the of the two rows dedicated to tomatoes.  I spaced the plants just 3′ apart on alternating sides of the panel.  In other words, there is only 18″ between each plant!

Why I love it:
1) Easy #1.  If you have a helper, one cattle panel and two T-posts is far faster and easier than 10+ cages, supporting guy wires and props, etc.
2) Cheap. Used T-posts and cattle panel are fine for this and almost free.
3) Stable.  Oh so stable.  The wire is far thicker than any commercial cage and T-posts (pounded 2-feet into the soil) far more firmly fixed than any cage’s shorter, flimsier wires.
4) Easy #2:  It’s easier to access the plants from either side.  (Looks nice too.)
5) Can’t be outgrown.  No matter how long the branches, there’s always someplace to weave the new growth into the trellis.
6) Super romatic.  My trellis writes me personal notes, occasionally sends flowers for no reason, and turns down the bed each night.  No, that’s a lie; HWA does those things.  No, that’s a lie too.

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As the plants grow, I “train” the branches through the rectangles in the panel, which isn’t difficult as long as I don’t let any branch get so long that it has to be significantly bent to get it through.  And, so far, the panels are doing a superb job of supporting the plants – even on our windiest days.  The 18″ spacing may be to close — I’ll let you know.

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So…. it is early in the season yet, but I feel I’ve finally found a solution to supporting tomatoes.  And if it also allows me to grow more plants in the space, it is a win-win-win.

Baby Rose

Great excitement on the homestead this week as our first calf was born.  When the cows arrived in January, the two heifers had already been bred via AI (Artificial Insemination) with one due in mid-June and the other due the end of July.  Sweetpea was due first and, two days after her due date, lay down, grunted, gave one big push and out shot her little calf.  Blink and we’d have missed it!

The calf is a little heifer we’ve named Rose.  (We initially considered calling her Zippy after her sire (Zipper) and her speedy entry into the world, but ultimately decided Rose is a more dignified name for the dairy cow she will grow up to be.)  Naturally we couldn’t be happier that she has arrived, is healthy and that Sweetpea is doing a fine job as a mama cow – and now milk cow as well.

Rose figured out nursing quickly and though the flies are driving them crazy, persists at the teat until she is full, even with mama stomping non-stop.  (I’m seeing a case for breeding for Feb/March babies so the bugs aren’t such an issue.)

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Garden Updates

By now you may have guessed that we are just a little passionate about our garden.  Now that we are at the mid-point of the year, the garden is really looking like a veggie garden.  The pumpkin patch is huge and the pumpkins appear to try to claim more territory every day.  We are attempting to “train” them to stay in their area but, pumpkins being pumpkins, their need to expand exceeds our training abilities.  Some of the pumpkins on the vines are huge.  This is one of the few “surprises” – me being the planner that I am.  Last fall I bought several pumpkins for us to eat, then saved the seeds and threw them into the garden this spring without marking which was which.

The tomatoes did NOT like our wet May but have come good since the flood stopped and the temperature warmed up.  Most of them have small green tomatoes on and a couple of over-achievers have already provided us with some welcome red fruits.

The potatoes, zucchini, onions, cowpeas, pinto beans, Mexican Red beans and greens all look good.  The Bok Choy bolted almost immediately – it is really a cool season crop.  So it has been removed and Okra – a warm season vegetable – planted in its place.

We’ve managed to stay ahead of the pests this year.  Last year the Potato Bugs overwhelmed us because we didn’t realize we had them until they were already well established.  This year we started checking the plants early and so far have prevented an infestation.  We tried an experiment with a clutch of eggs, placing it in a container and checking it each day.  The eggs hatched 8 days after we harvested them.  This is useful information for us as it tells us we have a week to find any new clutches before they hatch.  And that has allowed us to time our scans – overturning every leaf of every plant – to catch and remove egg clusters before they become a problem.  Of course in doing this we often find the parent beetles and remove them as well.

The Squash Bugs were also a problem last year.  Each day I check the underside of every zucchini leaf, looking for bugs and egg clusters and removing both.  So far I’m winning – no nymphs have hatched.

The mulch is working well.  A surprise was how fast the 4″ layer was broken down.  With that came increased weeding and when I realized my “20 minutes every other day” had doubled, I also knew it was time for more mulch.  I downloaded Ruth Stout’s book “Gardening Without Work” to my Kindle and in reading it, realized my 4″ was never enough.  She recommends a minimum mulch layer of 8″!  So, I’m currently killing two birds with one stone – raking out the sheep shelter and placing the contents – spoiled hay mixed with sheep poop – over the garden, one lawn cart load at a time.  The areas I’ve already recovered are now weed free again.

The best update: we are eating salads again.  A handful of freshly picked greens, a few leaves of basil, a couple of tomatoes, a hard-boiled egg and some of my freshly made feta cheese, and we are happy little vegemities!IMG_0698

Farm Dogs

This post is a little different because it is about our dogs, who have come to hold great value to us as farm dogs and unofficial livestock guardians.  The dogs are Tequila (left), a cattle dog mix and Sammie, a Black Lab/Border Collie mix.

Tequila and Sammie

Tequila and Sammie

Since we had poultry before dogs, it was important that they be poultry safe, so we adopted from a rescue organization – one that allowed a home trial first, to allow us to assess their behavior around the poultry.

Sammie was first, and, had we known then that Lab/Border Collie mixes will “never” be good around poultry, we probably would not have agreed to try her.  Fortunately we didn’t know that then, and asked her foster parents to bring her for a visit.  As she wandered the yard, on leash, she sniffed with interest at all the new smells.  A few minutes later, a free-range hen wandered around the corner.  Sammie froze and “pointed” towards it, while the hen spied the threat and ran away cackling and flapping her wings, giving Sammie the perfect excuse to take chase.  However she decided it was of no interest to her, and resumed smelling the far more interesting scent on the ground.  And THAT is as much interest as she has ever taken in poultry.

Tequila came a few months later.  Not only did she show no interest in the birds, she actually tucked her head down and gave them a wide berth when passing, indicating submissiveness and possibly even a little fear of them.

I mentioned here that only three weeks after moving to our homestead, a fox did major damage to the flock.  At that time, the dogs lived up at the house, and were oblivious to the attack.  However following the attack, we moved their dog house into the chicken yard.  In the years since then, we’ve lost only a handful of birds to predators – and none of those losses occurred in the coop or chicken yard.  Our theory is that while the dogs are only there at night, that is the time many predators visit, plus their scent is there even when they are not, deterring those same predators from attempting a break-in by day.

I am asked sometimes “How did you train your dogs not to kill your chickens?”  Sadly, I have no answer.  While training may be possible, I’m not sure a dog that requires training will ever be completely poultry safe.  I think the key is to select a dog for whom birds hold no interest in the first place.  It is not that they have no prey drive at all.  Both dogs will chase rabbits, squirrels and deer every chance they get.  But, whether it is because the poultry live here and are part of their pack, or because birds in general hold no interest for them, I have never had to chastise them for undue interest.  Ever.

By day they are pets, accompanying us when we go out, and enjoying a lengthy session of ball-fetching almost every day.  By night they stay on alert, keeping our livestock safe and, occasionally, getting skunked in the line of duty.  These two dogs, cast away by their original owners, are therefore priceless additions to our homestead.

Wheyst Not, Want Not

Well, you knew I had to do it eventually, right?

The best part about having our own fresh, raw milk – as far as I’m concerned – is learning to make cheese.  I approached this with some trepidation, believing it to be complicated and time-consuming and have been pleasantly surprised to discover it is neither.  The ingredients that go into it are simple and the possible varieties of cheese, seemingly endless.  I’ve now made about a dozen batches of raw milk cheddar and we are thoroughly enjoying them – more and more as I get better at it.

But – as you are probably aware – the by-product of cheese-making is whey.  Lots and lots of whey.  Because it turns out, a gallon of milk yields a small chunk of cheese and a correspondingly large pot of whey.

As I always do when faced with “what do I do?” I turned to the internet, asking the question about how best to use the whey.  There are many, many answers out there.  “Feed it to the chickens”.  “Feed it to the pigs”.  “Feed it to the dogs”.  “Feed it to your tomatoes”.

I’m certain every one of these is a great option.  But my first thought was that if all of these animals like whey so much, why isn’t it fit for human consumption?  So, being the human guinea pigs that we are, HWA and I poured ourselves a glass each and tried it.  And guess what?  It is delicious!

HWA likes his straight.  Good man.  I like mine with a dash of ACV (Apple Cider Vinegar) added to it.  Sometimes I also add a teaspoon of raw honey.  Ahhhhhh.  So good!  The ACV makes it a light and refreshing summer drink and I’ve become so addicted to it that when we run out, I truly miss it.

Recently I returned to google to answer another question: “What is the nutritional value of whey?”  I liked the answer – it is rich in many essential nutrients.  In fact, it is so good for us that I feel practically virtuous drinking it.

So screw the chickens, dogs and tomatoes (we don’t raise pigs).  We’re keeping our whey for ourselves.

Don’t wheyt. Try it and whey for yourself wheyther tart, salty whey isn’t whey nourishing and refreshing on a hot summer day.  Finally, we’d love to hear what you think about this cheese by-product and/or puns.  Please whey in with your comments!

                                            Curds and Whey

Curds and Whey