Tuesday, December 31, 2019

And then we have lights!

You may remember that we had planned to go see the Festival of Lights over the weekend, but we were thwarted by Gemma's upset stomach.  We decided to try again today as our New Year's Eve celebration.  (Thus ensuring that we can all go to bed at a reasonable time - lol!)

The Festival of Lights is a 2.5 mile display of lights that you drive through.  Traffic was nonexistent this late in the season, so that meant that we were moving a bit too fast for pictures to turn out well.  But I got a few to give you an idea of the types of lighting displays.  I also took a video of my favorite section to give you a better idea of the movement that some of the displays include.

The displays aren't always Christmas-themed.  This one is from the Wizard of Oz - the blurry orange thing in the bottom right is the Cowardly Lion and if you look closely, you can see a witch flying around the castle.
Santa's Toy Co.

And so ends 2019.  Thank you for following along with my journey, as erratic as it can be sometimes.  I really do appreciate every single reader.  I'm always surprised by how much simply writing about a situation can make it seem so much better.  And I really do love writing, so it's wonderful to have a place to share.

Here's to another year gone by, full of experiences that a younger version of myself would never have begun to guess at.  And as difficult as life can be sometimes, I'm still always very glad to be able to participate.  See you next year!

Monday, December 30, 2019

A Fun Way to Track Miles

I first read about an app called Walk to Mordor on Ashley's blog:  https://gopony.me/2018/12/30/walk-to-mordor/.  While I enjoy the Lord of the Rings movies, I have to admit that I haven't read the books and I wouldn't consider myself a huge fan.  But the idea of tracking my ride miles in the context of Frodo's epic journey seemed kind of cool.  So I downloaded the app, and I've been using it all year, with the exception of entering my miles from this month, which I'll probably do later this week.

The app doesn't track your miles based on a GPS-type technology; rather, you just enter your miles manually for a given date.  So it actually works for hikers, runners, bikers, and riders.  What I've been doing is entering my miles every few weeks based on what I recorded in a Traveler's Notebook that I made.  It's kind of fun to watch things add up.

Here are a few screen shots to give you an idea of what the app looks like:

The Home Screen tells you how many miles you have to the end of the journey as well as to the next milestone.
The distance log is where you enter your miles by date.
There is another screen that shows progress by milestone.
You can click on any milestone to get a short narrative.
Because I'm not a hardcore fan of the LOTR trilogy, I'm not sure how accurate the information in the app is.  But one thing I do know is that it is good that the people of Middle Earth are not relying an me and Nimo to get to Mordor, because we aren't getting there anytime soon! (ha, ha!)

Sunday, December 29, 2019

For the love of art

When I first started thinking about homeschooling my daughter, I did quite a bit of research on educational philosophies and even looked at private schools in our area.  The Montessori method is quite popular, but I found myself drawn to the Waldorf method.  I really liked the focus on creativity, experiential learning, and interdisciplinary projects.

So I bought a pre-school curriculum to try.  As it turned out, it was good that I did not commit to more than one year of it, because I ended up hating it.  The exercises were so archaic that it felt like I had been transported back to the 1800s.  For example, we would sing songs about threshing wheat.  Not that threshing wheat is an inherently bad concept, but let's be serious.  We don't thresh wheat now and we haven't for a long time.  I really believe that it is important for kids to be exposed to the language that is used now and the concepts that are used now.  History or maybe science class is fine to learn about the way we used to do things, but I can't see why I need to be explaining threshing wheat to a 4-year-old.

The other thing that frustrated me was the art.  I had gotten this book that was supposed to cover art from Kindergarten through 6th grade.  I was especially excited about trying watercolor painting.  But OMG, the methodology for painting was so complicated that we spent way more time setting up and cleaning up than we did painting.  And Gemma only got to use one color.  Seriously?  Kids want to use all the colors.  They are not going to be happy painting with one color at a time.  I ended up scrapping the whole curriculum after a few months because it was just awful and not a good fit for us.

I did find better curricula for future years, but one thing that was still lacking was art.  Gemma loves to create, and I wanted to make sure I fostered that love.  Eventually I stumbled across a company called Let's Make Art that sells watercolor kits and provides free tutorials on YouTube.  I ordered a single kit back in March of this year and we tried it out.  And we had so much fun!  (This is the tutorial we did:  Rainbow Wish.)

This is my effort.
I've never considered myself artistic.  Quite the opposite, actually.  I've often wished I had more skill at drawing or painting, but the sad truth was that I rarely even doodled because I was so embarrassed about my lack of ability.  Stick figures were about the extent of what I could do.  But I had really enjoyed painting the dandelion, and I figured continuing with the tutorials would be a great way to spend time with Gemma and make sure she got a tiny bit of more formal art education.

Over the next few months, we did tons of watercolor paintings.  Some worked out better for me than others, but I got addicted and soon I was knee deep in Daniel Smith watercolor paints.  We were also getting some liquid watercolors with our Let's Make Art kits, but I found myself wanting to explore and use really high quality paint.  I had previously bought some books by Gina Rossi Armfield, and I was in love with many of her methods, but too scared to try them on my own.  Armed with the knowledge from the tutorials plus Armfield's strong recommendation for using DS watercolors, I built up quite a collection.

And the DS paints are gorgeous.  They create amazing colors on the paper and they do things like granulate and sparkle and separate in cool ways, which gives amazing effects if you learn how to use them.  But I felt like I needed more.  I ended up finding Amy Maricle's website and related Facebook group, which was so helpful.  Her focus on creative self-care was the final push I needed to dive into really creating art, not just doing an occasional tutorial with my daughter or reading books but being too scared to try anything.

In August, I hit my stride.  I started creating something everyday.  At first, it was simple stuff.

The first page in my new art journal.  If you can't read the writing, it says, "I was drawn to horses as if they were magnets.  It was in my blood.  I must have inherited from my grandfather a genetic proclivity toward the equine species.  Perhaps there's a quirk in the DNA that makes horse people different from everyone else, that instantly divides humanity into those how love horses and the others, who simply don't know." Allan J. Hamilton in Zen Mind Zen Horse
Another page in my journal.  This one is original - I used a technique I'd learned in one of the Let's Make Art tutorials and it turned out just like I imagined in my head.  Later I ended up coming back to it and writing in the spaces between the petals (or the wings - not everyone sees the same thing when they look at it).
I made these flowers on 3" circles of watercolor paper.  The flowers are based on a tutorial by Let's Make Art.  They might be my very favorite thing to paint because there is so much you can do with water and paint.  I think I painted at least 20 of these.
Another page in my art journal.  I used gel printing techniques to create the backgrounds.  The photo is from the dressage show I did in July.  The quote is, "Spiritual growth doesn't happen when you're meditating or on the yoga mat.  It happens in the midst of conflict - when you're frustrated, angry or scared, and you're doing the same old thing and then you suddenly realize that you have a choice to do it differently." Andrea Mills
An exercise from Jean Haines' book, Paint Yourself Calm.
This is my attempt to copy one of Jean Haines' paintings.  She is creates stunning work and I cannot stop looking at it.  This painting was so fun to create because I had to work quickly to use the water before it dried and I was using so many colors!
This painting was done with three colors of DS watercolor paint and I based it on a tutorial by Let's Make Art.
Another layout from my art journal in honor of Back to Hogwarts in September.  I'm a huge Harry Potter fan and the quote comes from Sirius Black - "We've all got both light and dark inside of us."  I had a great time designing this layout and finding the right paints to use.
I was terrified to create this painting.  I had this vision in my head that wouldn't go away and I finally got it out on paper.  This is done with one color - Daniel Smith hematite genuine.  I used the paint blowing technique I learned from Gina Rossi Armfield and worked loosely from a picture of a Friesian.  It was so gratifying to see this come from me.
This was another milestone painting for me.  I started with a simple exercise from Jean Haines' Paint Yourself Calm, but it left me unfulfilled, so I started adding things, and it turned out so well.  It still makes me happy to look at it.
Another one color painting.  I think I used Pyrrol Orange.  I remember I had to experiment with different pigments to find one that would react just right to the salt.  The dandelion seeds were created by applying salt to wet paint.  Such a cool effect, and a nod to my first painting back in March.
I became briefly obsessed with painting huge poppies.  This one is probably 10 x 11".
Another exercise from Paint Yourself Calm.  That book is the best at really getting you to explore paint and water.
One day I painted seven different paintings, which were all variations of a single rosemary sprig that I picked from my garden.  It was another exercise from Paint Yourself Calm, and I was so amazed that I could paint something that looked like this that I just kept doing it.
Lest you think I was neglecting my daughter's art education, let me assure you that she was painting right along with me.  I painted this flower based on a tutorial that she designed for me.  She narrated it live (and was definitely making it up as she went along) and I painted based on what she told me to do.  It was really a lot of fun!
And then the day came where I finally felt brave enough to tackle drawing a person.  I found a tutorial by Jane Davenport, and gave it a try.  This was my first attempt.  I was delighted that it did not even remotely resemble a stick figure!  Who knew I had this inside of me!
And then I found an artist named Tamara LaPorte.  She offers mini classes as well as a big year long class called Life Book.  I took one of her mini classes on painting Quirky Birds so I could expand my ability to work with mixed media.  And I was so hooked.  Quirky birds are so fun to create!  The quote on this journal page is, "In a world full of people who couldn't care less, be someone who couldn't care more."
After Quirky Birds, I took the Beautiful Bugs class, also by Tamara LaPorte.  Again, so much fun.  And you guys, I drew this bee.  I'm still in shock that I can draw anything that is remotely recognizable, much less something that actually looks like the reference photo, or in this case reference painting.

Another quirky bird and some practice doodling.  I will note the appearance of a dragonfly in my doodles.  I've never really thought about dragonflies much before.  But all of a sudden, I couldn't stop seeing them.  Dragonflies are often viewed as a symbol for change, although I didn't know that until I kept getting beat over the head with seeing them EVERYWHERE, including one that landed on the railing right in front of me on the deck.  I'm not even sure if I'd ever seen one in person before.  So I started paying attention and did some research.  I don't think there can be any question that all this art was changing me from the inside.  And the quote reflects my realization that it's OK to do stuff even if you aren't the best at it, "The woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang the best."
I started another class offered by Tamara LaPorte.  This one was specifically billed as art for healing.  I don't think I would have done it if it hadn't been free.  And when I started creating this layout, it was hard.  I won't go into the details, but there was a lot of emotional reflection that had to be done before I could create this page.  The quote I ended up choosing was the one that spoke to me the most about the process, "May you have the courage to break the patterns in your life that are no longer serving you."  I need to hang this on my bathroom mirror, because YES, so yes.  I have some patterns that need to be broken.
This lovely reindeer girl is the last piece of real art I created.  I finished it on November 30, and it was a great exercise.  I used collage to make the layers of her scarf and it was amazing.  So meditative.  A lost myself in the process for over an hour the first day I worked on it.  I've never liked collage before or had much luck with it, but it clicked for this lesson.
So you can see that I evolved from a focus on watercolor and more abstract things to working with mixed media approaches.  I really love the mixed media work - the paintings typically take a few days to a week to create, so it feels really rewarding to finish them.  But I've been missing my Daniel Smith watercolors a bit, so I suspect that I'm going to try to find a balance between using mixed media and watercolor.  And the watercolors work great for days when I want to finish something quickly.

I think one reason I felt so stressed this month was because I didn't have any time to create art.  I had gotten used to having it in my life almost every day, and it's absence had a strong impact.  I am definitely committed to keeping the art in my life - it is stunning to see the things I created when I look back on them, and if there is a lesson here, it is that it is never too late to bring art into your life:)

Saturday, December 28, 2019

So you get a picture of my fish...

I had originally planned to post lovely pictures of our annual holiday lights festival.  However, on the way to see said lights, our daughter felt sick and vomited all over the car.  It turns out that there is a limit to how long the average human being can smell vomit without wanting to rip their nose off, and that limit is less than the amount of time that it would have taken for us to complete our journey to see the lights.  And then we would have had to drive through the miles-long light display before going home.  We decided that even though Gemma said she felt much better, we would try the light display another time.

When we got home, my husband handled cleaning up in the car while I got the child cleaned up.  (I totally got the better end of that deal, especially because the car she threw up in was his.  Sometimes karma smiles upon me...)  Then I had to hang out with Gemma for awhile because she said she was feeling sick again.

So the best I can do for you today is tell you a little about one of my fish tanks, which is completely and absolutely unrelated to horses in any way.  We have a male betta named Stanley.  He lives in a 10 gallon tank in our family room, and I think I've had him for a little over a year.  He's a delightful little fellow who never gets upset about anything and will absolutely take food off of the tip of your finger very gently.  He's so chill that I've contemplated the possibility of putting him in with other fish.  Usually male bettas will rip other fish to shreds, but Stanley has never so much as flared a fin at anything and he seems very comfortable with snails.  On the other hand, I worry he might not get enough to eat because he is so gentle.  My rasboras literally attack the food when I put it in the tank and they are tiny pigs about it, so I suspect they would not be good candidates for Stanley's buddies.

Anyway, the interesting thing about this particular tank is that it has evolved (or some might say devolved).  It is a planted blackwater tank, which is common enough to have a few Facebook groups devoted to the concept, but isn't really mainstream yet because it doesn't work well with what most people consider to be an aesthetically pleasing aquarium.  Most people struggle with plants that get out of control and they don't like the tannin-stained water either, even though tannins are really good for most fish.  In my opinion, planted blackwater tanks should probably be the goal for most freshwater fish owners because they have the capability to function as ecosystems and meet fish needs so much better than the sterile and clean environments that most people seem to prefer.  Plus, once they get set up, they typically require less maintenance.  But it can be really intimidating to set them up and most live fish stores don't keep a lot of the things needed in stock, nor do their staff have the expertise to advise new fish owners.

I set my tank up with plants and wood and leaves and seed pods and rocks and then sort of let it go.  It's been fascinating to watch.  I was a little concerned when it went through a crazy algae phase, but an accidental snail infestation fixed that problem.  Then I had the snail infestation, but that resolved on its own as well.  The tank seems pretty balanced now, with a crazy tangle of plants both below and above the water, a few snails, and almost zero algae.  (Who knew aquatic plants could produce purple flowers in their emergent state?)

I feel like the tank is at least in the ball park of what a wild betta could experience and Stanley seems to love swimming amongst all the plants.  Plus the plants handle the nutrient overload from the fish and the snails.  And the snails eat the algae.  As a bonus, I'm growing duckweed on the top of the water and guess who gets the extras when I pull it out of the aquarium?  (Apparently it is called duckweed for good reason!)  So I don't have to do all the water changes and algae scraping that are typical fish tank maintenance activities.  I can just enjoy my lovely fish:)  And I might be strange, but I have come to love the unkept look of the tank.  It seems more like getting a glimpse of a natural habitat than looking at a display.

Hey human, do you have any food for me?

Friday, December 27, 2019

Remineralizing the Soil

One thing that I hoped would happen after I moved the ducks out to our acreage was that I would be spending more time out there and start to feel more comfortable being out there.  I suspected that without the daily draw of the ducks, I would not go out there much.  And I really wanted to put myself in a position to start really seeing the land and planning for a horse barn.

For once, my plans worked out really well.  Because I'm out at the acreage at least once a day, I'm starting to get the hang of the rhythm of the property.  I see what parts stay wet after a rain, which parts really need more soil brought in, and which parts I need to prioritize the next time I rent a brush hog.

I was so inspired by being out there that I ordered a couple of pear trees from a nearby orchard to plant at some point before March.  I also started working on diagrams of where other fruit trees might go as well as figuring out the possibilities for a garden.

As part of my interest in a garden, I remembered an ebook I had purchased quite awhile ago.  It covered the concept of a minibed garden on plastic.  When I first bought the book, I think I had been thinking of using the ideas within the context of the few raised beds I keep in my front yard.  But I ended up putting it away and not really doing anything with it.  Then, all of a sudden, I realized that the concept would be perfect for our acreage.  Unlike the yard at our house, which is uneven and slopes quite steeply, our acreage is reasonably level.  And unlike the yard at our house, which is populated with huge rocks, our acreage has no rocks, so it isn't so hard to plant and doesn't need raised beds to make gardening bearable.  Not everyone is crazy about the idea of using plastic mulch, but I have to admit that after many years of dealing with weeds that seem to grow a foot overnight, I'm ready to try something different.  I would rather get good food using plastic than lose most of my crop to weeds.

When I started re-reading the ebook, I knew I really wanted to try the concept out this coming spring.  I also happened to have another book by the same author, Herrick Kimball, called the Planet Whizbang Idea Book for Gardeners, and I skimmed through that one as well.  Kimball wrote about the concept of remineralizing the soil and he referenced a couple of books on the topic.  I found The Intelligent Gardener by Steve Solomon and The Ideal Soil v2.0 by Michael Astera to be fascinating reading.  One thing that disturbed me quite a bit was the analysis of the nutrients in an apple grown in 1914 as compared with one grown in 1992.  The amounts of Calcium, Phosphorus, Iron, and Magnesium were so much lower that I wonder what the point of eating an apple is.  The way farming has been carried out has damaged the soil so much.  The other thing that I really took away was that simply adding compost to your soil doesn't necessarily do much good.  Soil, especially neglected or mismanaged soil, is more complicated than that.  And if you want to grow nutrient dense food, it is important to pay attention to the nutrients in your soil.  You simply cannot expect to keep growing things and removing the harvest without putting something back in to replace what was lost in a targeted way.

I decided I wanted to put the information I'd read about to the test.  I ended up getting a soil probe, and my daughter and I went out one day to take soil samples with the probe, so I could have a soil test done.

Using a soil probe is harder than it looks!
I mixed up the samples we collected and sent off a package to the soil lab recommended by Astera.  I got my results back really quickly by email.  See below.

One of the most important numbers to pay attention to on the report is the Total Exchange Capacity.  I'll spare you the scientific explanation, but it essentially means how much fertility the soil can retain.  When I sent my results to Michael Astera himself to be analyzed and get fertilizer recommendations, he said that my soil was among the lowest fertility soils he'd ever analyzed.  That isn't surprising actually, because the soil on our acreage is composed of what is considered ancient clay.  This clay has been around for a very long time and with the high rainfall in our area, much of the minerals have been leached from the top soil.  And I already suspected the soil wasn't that good just based on what I've seen growing there, which is a lot of scrubby, brushy things.  These scrubby, brushy things probably have extensive root systems so that they can draw nutrients from the subsoil instead of the top 6-12 inches, which doesn't have much to offer.

What this means is that I have my work cut out for me if I want to make our acreage a productive place for growing fruit trees, a garden, and a horse pasture.  Thankfully, as long as I keep my soil improvements concentrated to smaller areas (like a half acre), the soil amendments that I need to add are affordable.  I really should have limed my field with what might seem like an excessive amount of lime already (1,750 pounds for a half acre!).  This high amount is partly to address the fertility issue, partly to address the pH issue, and partly to address low Calcium.  These three issues are likely connected to each other.  Plus, we have high rainfall, so anything I add will be leached quickly until the soil develops the capacity to retain it.

Typically liming is done in the fall so that the lime can leach through the soil a little before spring.  (And there is a chemical reaction that really needs to happen which takes some time and helps improve the soil's ability to accept additional minerals in the spring.)  Unfortunately, by the time I'd gotten the analysis from my soil test, it was a bit too late.  The ground was alternating between being frozen and wet enough to have standing water.  Neither of those conditions are appropriate for spreading anything.

So I will try to get it done in March, and I'll add the lime with all the other amendments and till it in.  I think tilling is not always recommended, but in my case, my soil is really hurting and if I want to try to grow anything on it besides brush and weeds, I have to get the minerals in the soil.  Plus, when I contacted a local feed store about purchasing lime, I discovered there was a study by Virginia Tech that found that it takes lime about a year to leach down through one inch of soil.  If you can't till because you have pasture or an orchard, you have to live with those slow results.  But I can till, so I can get minerals into the top six inches pretty quickly, although it will still take some time for the chemical reactions that need to happen in order for the soil to actually start improving.

I really like the idea of leaving our acreage in better condition than when we got it, so this spring you will find me behind a spreader and a tiller as I happily distribute minerals throughout my soil:)

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Planting a Fencerow

I'm sure you are familiar with the saying, "Good fences make good neighbors."  You might also be familiar with the one that goes something like, "Good fences are expensive, time-consuming, and often frustrating to build if you do it yourself and even more expensive if you hire someone to build them."  Which is why I thought the idea of planting what is called either a fencerow or a hedgerow was particularly brilliant.  If you don't know, a fencerow is basically a mix of trees and shrubs that are planted along the property line.  It creates a great place for wildlife as well as delineates the property.  In some places (particularly European countries, I think), the fencerow is called a hedgerow and it is a bit more of a formalized process that involves piling dirt several feet high and planting specific kinds of trees and shrubs.  There is also a technique used to basically graft the trees/bushes to each other, which creates a stronger fencelike structure.  Virginia was colonized heavily by European settlers, so that style of property division is common in many areas.  We already have a fencerow on one side of our front acreage, and while I thought it was ugly and messy at first, I've come to appreciate it for the habitat it provides for wildlife as well as the visual and physical barrier it sets up.

The reason a fencerow appealed to me is that it is relatively inexpensive to buy bareroot trees and shrubs and plant them close together to create a fencerow.  Some types of trees or shrubs (like willows) are particularly good because they can be grafted together or even woven amongst each other as they are growing to create an almost impenetrable fence.

So this spring I decided to buy 300 Osage Orange trees as bareroot stock and plant them along the 300+ property line of our front acre.  I choose that type of tree because it is known to create a fence that is "horse high, hog tight, and bull strong."  Its wood is incredibly strong; I learned that it makes longer-lasting fence posts than cedar does, and it is covered with thorns that are big enough to dissuade even the most determined of predators.  I figured it would be a great experiment and I was armed with a few bits of knowledge from YouTube and a diagram from Pinterest, so what could possibly go wrong?

I mean, how hard could it be, given these pictures???
First off, the plants arrived on a Friday right before I had a clinic to go to with Nimo over the weekend.  So I ended up not being able to stay after my rides and watch others.  Instead I had to had over to our acreage to start planting the trees because the box was really clear that they needed to be planted IMMEDIATELY.

There are 300 trees in this box!
Of course, I was completely unprepared and hadn't even marked the property line yet, so that was an exciting exercise in what should be easy but isn't.  We had two end markers from the survey and a middle one.  But we couldn't find the middle one and our string kept snagging on grass and blowing around, so it was hard to get a straight line from end to end.  Finally, I called it good enough.  I was planting the trees about 3 feet in from the boundary, so I figured if we made a minor error, I had some room and the neighbor that owns the property next to us would not be upset if we accidentally planted a tree on his side of the line.

Then I had to figure out exactly how to efficiently get 300 trees planted.  I had watched some YouTube videos where people dug a long trench, but that was too much to do for us.  I had also gotten a couple of recommendations to use a sort of auger that attaches to a drill.  You drill the auger into the ground and then use the slim hole to put the tree root into.  That method sounded logical, so I got the auger, attached it to a drill and prepared to plant a whole bunch of trees really fast.

Yeah, so heavy clay soil is probably not the target for that particular product.  And it might be that it is designed for a hydraulic drill rather than an ordinary drill.  What happened is that I couldn't get the auger more than a couple of inches into the ground.

So I decided to flip the auger over and use the long, straight part that would normally attach to the drill.  I wrapped the tree root around the metal and pushed it into the ground.  My thought process was that I would push the root into the ground with the metal rod and then pull the rod out while leaving the root in the ground.  That worked OK a few times, but I had trouble keeping the root wrapped around the rod while I pushed it into the ground.  And sometimes the root would get damaged in the process.

Take 3 ended up being my husband's suggestion.  I used a shovel to split the ground open, then I tucked the root into the opening with my hands and stepped on the split to close it back up and seal the root in the ground.  That worked pretty well, and after using it over 400 times, I can say that it would be my method of choice in the event that I am ever stupid enough to order 300 trees that all need to be planted quickly.

Now you might be asking, why would you have used it over 400 times when you only bought 300 trees?  That is an excellent question.  Remember I said there was a middle marker that we never found when we were marking the property line?  Well, I found it about halfway through my little project, and I realized we had really screwed up our line.  I ended up going back and pulling out all but maybe 10 or 15 trees that I had already planted and moving them about 3 feet over.  So I planted closer the equivalent of almost 450 trees by the time I was done.

It was not particularly difficult work, but it took awhile to get used to avoiding the thorns on the trees.  Even tiny, bareroot saplings were loaded with evil thorns.  Handling them carefully became my number one priority after touching a thorn the very first time.  I was impressed.  If the fencerow grew as planned, I couldn't imagine anything getting through those thorns.  It was also was time consuming just because of the sheer number of trees.  I got to the point where I could plant about 25 trees every half hour for up to two hours.  After two hours, I would start to drag and really slow down.  So I spread out my effort and went out to the acreage every day for a week and got all the trees planted.  I was pretty proud of my effort.
All my little trees are planted!
I was especially excited when I went back after about 3 weeks to check on them and it looked like 95 percent of them had leafed out really well.  And that was regardless of the method I'd used to plant them.  I had hope that my little trees would be tough enough to withstand my lack of a green thumb and the not-so-great growing conditions.

In late October, we went back out to the acreage to brush hog in preparation for the ducks' arrival.  That is a great time to mow one final time because there typically isn't much growth until spring.  So we went to Home Depot to rent a brush hog and drove out to the acreage expecting to spend several hours clearing as much overgrown grass and brush as we could, so the ducks would have room.

Imagine my complete shock when we got out to the acreage and discovered that it had already been brush hogged.  I realized with a terrible feeling that we should have told one of our neighbors that we had planted trees.  I had left my orange stakes up to mark the approximate location of the trees, so we wouldn't accidentally mow over them, and also so our neighbor wouldn't mow over them.  But he must not have realized the significance of those and in his thoughtfulness, he had mowed both his acre and ours, probably thinking he was doing us a favor because he has a tractor with a pull-behind brush hog that makes short work of an acre.  And he did a really good job.  He got so close to those orange stakes that only a few blades of grass survived.  The only trees he missed were the ones near the road that I had mulched.  I had meant to mulch the whole line of trees, but it was an expensive and time-consuming process, and I kind of gave up on it after I got through about 10 trees.

So the moral of this story is really that good fences do make good neighbors.  It's possible that some of the trees will survive being cut down.  It's also possible that they would have died anyway given that we had a fairly lengthy drought this summer and I didn't have a good way to water them (I do now, though!!!).  In fact, I'm not sure the trees I mulched fared very well even without competition from grass and the mulch helping with water conservation.  I'll have to see what happens in the spring.

In the meantime, I am planning on getting started building a fence this spring.  While I very much appreciate our neighbor's thoughtfulness, I don't really want to have to call him every time I plant something to make sure he won't mow it over, especially because I've got much more expensive fruit trees ordered for spring planting.

I had been putting off building the fence because I was thinking it was going to be this big ordeal.  We'd have to either hire someone (I don't know if I can deal with a contractor again!) or we'd have to rent a hydraulic fence post hole digger and be prepared to dig as many holes as possible and fill them with posts immediately.  Having almost 100 heavy duty fence posts bought and ready to fill holes is a bigger project than I want to think about.

But I recently realized that I could use metal t-posts instead.  I originally expected to use the front field as a horse pasture, but I'm definitely changing direction a bit on that.  It's fairly marginal land and it is going to need a lot of help (I'll post more about that maybe tomorrow).  Plus it has a tendency to be quite wet, which means it isn't going to work well to have horses on it very much, except if we have a drought or during July - September, when we typically get less rain.  For horse pasture, I would have wanted sturdy wooden posts.  But for just regular use like as an orchard and garden, t-posts should work just fine.  And they are much easier to install and cheaper.  And I could literally just do one or two a day over the course of a few months instead of having to put in a concentrated effort.  I could always add an electric component to it in the future if I decided to put horses on it or I could even replace the posts.  The most important thing is that I get the fence set up in some form because I definitely want to get started planting this spring.

And so the adventure continues...:)

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

It's Christmas!

At long last, the destination day is here!  All the presents were wrapped, all the decorations were hung, all the cookies were made, all the cards were sent, and Santa made his annual delivery on schedule.

I'm pleased to report that I got several hours of relaxation and family time in today.  After all the gifts were opened this morning, my husband asked me if all the work and stress was worth it, and I have to admit that maybe it was.  It was so fun to hear Gemma's screams of delight when she saw the giant stuffed rainbow unicorn next to the tree that Santa brought her.  And it was even more rewarding to hear her as she distributed all the presents to all of our pets before she opened her own.  She loves to give as much as she loves to receive, and the dog and cats were delighted with the gifts she picked out for them, although we are still waiting for the guinea pig's assessment of the hay tunnel she got:)

And so, Merry Christmas to all, and to all a Good Night!

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

A Bedtime Story

Once of our Christmas Eve traditions (that we adopted from Iceland) is for everyone to get a book to open.  This year, I found a cute book called Fergus and the Night Before Christmas for my daughter.  She is sometimes not that crazy about new books, but she was excited to have me read this one right away.  In fact, I think I read it five times in a row, she loved it so much!  So I thought I'd share it with you too.  Click on the video below to watch me read the story:)

Monday, December 23, 2019

A Gingerbread House, of course

Last year my husband decided he really wanted to make a gingerbread house with my daughter.  Gemma, of course, loved, loved, loved it, so there was no question about whether they would make one this year.  Me being me, also of course, thought that it would be really cool if we could make the pieces ourselves out of real gingerbread.  And I found a neat-looking silicone mold kit at Pampered Chef, which I bought.  Because how hard could it be to make some gingerbread dough and bake it in the molds?

Well, as the month wore on and I still hadn't made any gingerbread dough, my husband reminded me that he was perfectly happy to go buy a kit, and I absolutely should not stress about making the house from scratch.  But I had my heart set on making the dough myself.

Finally, on Saturday I took the time to make the gingerbread dough with my daughter.  (We used the this recipe, which I had already used to make cookies a couple of years ago.)  And we also baked the dough into the molds.  It really wasn't hard, and the house shapes turned out reasonably well, given that I had a seven-year old who is not a perfectionist helping me.

The next issue was that I wanted to use real royal icing to put the house together and decorate it.  I wasn't sure my husband was up to making it himself, and it sounded like making it ahead of time might be iffy because it can dry out pretty quickly.

So after I got back from my ride yesterday, I whipped up the icing and let my husband and daughter loose with the house pieces, a bunch of candy, and the icing.  I left them unsupervised for awhile and heard some swearing and giggling.  And then I thought I should check on the situation.  There were colored sprinkles EVERYWHERE (including all over the floor) due to an unexpectedly high discharge rate from the bottle.  And one wall of the house had migrated about half an inch to the inside.  Plus gumdrops were oozing all over.  But Gemma was clearly having a blast, so we're counting it as a win, even though I don't think we're ready for The Great American Bake-Off just yet:)

We're calling our decorating style "Holiday Whimsy"
The best news is that I still have a bunch of gingerbread dough in the fridge, so I can make cookies tomorrow!

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Out on the Trail

A conversation with Nimo:

Nimo:  Hello human, it's nice to see you today.  I noticed that you hooked up the trailer, but I have to tell you that I already have a prior engagement with this giant pile of hay, so I will have to decline your invitation to go on a ride.

Me:  Oh, that's too bad.  I have these Stud Muffin horse treats that someone got you for Christmas.  I guess I'll give them to someone else.

Nimo:  Wait!  My schedule just cleared up.  Where are we headed on this delightful day?

I finally got to take Nimo out on the trail today!  I think it's been at least a month since we were last out.  I rode with my instructor for over two hours, and the day was perfect for it.  It was sunny and 50 degrees.  The ground was still a little muddy in places, but the footing was mostly pretty decent.

I have mentioned before that I haven't been able to ride on the trails much during the past few months.  It hasn't been any one thing that prevented me - more a combination of things.

I think I've tried to start conditioning Nimo for an endurance ride at least three separate times this year.  When summer started, I was working with him in a couple of fields at the barn where I board.  I had to spend quite a bit of time getting him used to working on the perimeter of the fields, which are surrounded by trees and bushes.  (Because they are hay fields, we can only ride on the perimeter.)  Nimo always believes SOMETHING will attack him, so it takes a lot of repetition and just walking and then trotting and finally cantering through an area over a period of days or even weeks to get him comfortable.  So I had gotten him desensitized and worked out a four-mile route that could be expanded over time.  The purpose of the route was to work faster than we usually do and include as much canter as I could.  And then we got hit by a drought right after the wettest year ever.  So the farm decided to plow under those two fields and reseed them.  I don't understand why a person would reseed in the middle of a drought, but that's what they did.  And I don't understand why it had to be those two fields instead of any of the other several fields that I wasn't working in.  But the result was that I couldn't ride around the perimeter anymore.

So I regrouped and decided on a different route to use.  It involved going around one of the small ponds, using a small field next to the arena that was OK to ride in, plus the gravel road that runs through the farm.  The trails in the woods had gotten overgrown, so I couldn't really work those in.  Then I put in weeks getting Nimo used to the pond (the first time we rode around it, a turtle popped up and Nimo almost had a heart attack) and developing a routine that he could be comfortable with.  Once again, I was starting to get back on track.

Then, the farm decided that because of the drought, they really needed to use the grass in the field I was riding in for hay.  I totally understand that decision, but it meant that I couldn't ride there for awhile.  And I kind of gave up on trying to condition at the barn.

One reason that I was trying to condition more at the barn was because hauling out for trail conditioning just took so much of the day.  For example, today I left my house at about 9 am.  I got home just before 6 pm.  That's a big chunk of the day gone and it basically cuts my weekend to one day to get things done around the house while my husband is home.  Oh, and sometimes I like to relax.  So a big reason why I haven't been out on the trails is just time.  I can't even fathom how I managed to condition Nimo in the first place.  I remember that sometimes I would haul out for both Saturday and Sunday.  No wonder I was so stressed and exhausted all the time back then!

Another issue I ran into was that I had started doing ride out lessons with my instructor earlier this year, and those came to an end in August.  I really loved doing those lessons and I think my instructor did too, but a former student of hers approached her about having her come out to the student's barn.  Because that barn is about a half hour from mine, my instructor thought it made sense to combine my lesson and the other student's at one place.  Otherwise it was too much travel for her to come for just one lesson.  No one ever really asked me how I felt about it.  Both the other student and my instructor seemed to just assume that it would be fine with me.

To a certain degree it is.  I like the other student a lot, and I enjoy being able to chat with her a little after our lessons.  It's really nice to hang out with someone who understands the Science of Motion methodology and is committed to riding the same way I do.  It's also nice that I don't have to haul as far.  When I was hauling to the covered arena I used to take lessons at, I was hauling an hour and a half each way.  And to do a ride out lesson with my instructor, I was hauling an hour each way.  So having a closer place to ride is nice.  And there are a lot of times when trails are too wet to ride on, so having a lesson at the arena makes sense.

On the other hand, I lost one of my main opportunities to ride out on the trail.  I really love riding with my instructor on trails.  For some reason, Nimo is always so good.  I almost don't have to do any work to get him to move properly and I get to actually have fun riding instead of feeling like I have to manage him all the time.  I only have one other person that I feel comfortable riding with now because Nimo isn't fit enough to go out with my endurance riding friends.  And while I very much enjoy riding with my friend, Nimo walks so slowly compared to her horse that I always worry that it might be irritating to ride with us.

Of course, we could go out on the trails by ourselves too.  And we have done that a couple of times.  But I have a tendency to bail on my plans if I haven't committed to someone else that we will be there.  If I'm feeling overwhelmed or tired, my trail rides tend to be the first things to go in my schedule.

But in September, I decided to try to start conditioning Nimo again.  I kind of had my heart set on being ready for the Blackwater Swamp Stomp ride in March (assuming that it runs next year - it had to be rescheduled from March to October this year due to excessive rain, and I'm not sure how that will impact future rides).  I don't know why I thought that September would be a good month to start conditioning again.  My daughter had a birthday party, plus I had a show, plus she had a show, and I was crazy busy at work.

I tried again in October, and the first couple weeks went well.  The farm cut the hay in the field by the arena, so I could go back to riding the route I had developed.  Unfortunately, Nimo needed to be desensitized again because he, I kid you not, spooked at his own pile of poop that he had left there from the last ride we had done there.  I wasn't sure whether to laugh or just get off and never ride again.  But we kept going and started making progress.  And then the drought ended with more rain and more rain and more rain.  And the whole farm was a muddy mess.  No more conditioning for me at the farm until probably next summer, when things dry out again.

At this point, I feel like maybe the universe is telling me that endurance riding is not in my immediate future.  I hope the message is "Not now" instead of "Not ever."  Although I was encouraged by how fit Nimo felt on the trail today.  We only rode 5 and a half miles, but he felt as energetic at the end of the ride as at the beginning, and I'm pretty sure he could have done the whole ride again.  We didn't go too fast because of concerns about slippery footing in many places, but we did find a nice section of trail in the woods to trot, and Nimo felt wonderful.  He was leading the way and he felt confident and fluid.  It was so much fun, and I was reminded about how much I miss that feeling.  I will have to try harder to get out on the trails more, even if it isn't to specifically condition for an endurance ride.

So I talked to my instructor about the possibility of including an occasional trail ride in our lesson schedule and she was enthusiastic about that.  The weather and footing are likely to be iffy for the next three months, but we'll do the best we can to find opportunities.

I'm so glad that I found the time to ride today.  I did have a few other things that I probably would have done if I hadn't committed to ride with my instructor, so it's good that I had already set up the time.  I'm so lucky to have such a great horse (he even was super brave when we had to ride past inflatable Christmas decorations, which is something that I'm not sure he's ever seen before), and I was excited to discover that his fitness level was a little better than I thought it was.  (Can we say Foxcatcher in April?  Maybe, just maybe...)

Saturday, December 21, 2019

The Joy of Ducks

Back in April of this year, I somehow got it in my head that I needed to get some ducks for our acreage.  I have plenty of experience with chickens, but I've never really given ducks a second thought (or even a first thought).  And yet, there was something so appealing about them all of a sudden.

So I did what I always do when I'm interested in something.  I researched the crap out of ducks.  I bought a bunch of books.  I surfed the net.  I quizzed any random people I encountered about their experience with ducks.  (Which is not a lot, in case you are interested.  Most people do not know anything about ducks, and they think it is kind of weird and awkward when you talk about them...)

And I said to myself, "Self, pretty soon you are going to have a driveway out at your acreage and then you can go out there anytime.  And your awesome ducks could be there."  Well, how could I resist that?

So I ordered ducks from the same hatchery that I have ordered chicks from in the past with great success (it's My Pet Chicken, if you are interested...).  It used to be you couldn't get ducks from hatcheries.  But now, it turns out that I'm not the only one obsessed with them.  So there is actually a really decent selection of sexed ducklings available from multiple hatcheries.  I ended up choosing the Welsh Harlequin breed because of their egg-laying abilities (which is why I want to have ducks) and their slightly calmer temperaments as compared to the Khaki Campbells, which are widely recognized as the best egg-laying poultry, period.  (I read that one Khaki Campbell duck laid 366 eggs over a 365-day period!  Even industrial chickens can't do that!)

When did I schedule these ducks to arrive?  At the end of May, of course.  Because surely my driveway would be built by then.  (insert hysterical giggling)

Although, I assured myself, the baby ducks couldn't move out to the acreage right away anyway.  They'd need to stay at our house until they got feathered out, which would be 6-8 weeks.  No big deal.

Ducklings are so cute!
And, in case you aren't familiar with how ordering chicks and ducklings from a hatchery works, the hatcheries are able to predict pretty precisely when eggs will hatch and they also have a really good idea of what the hatch rate will be.  Soon after the babies hatch, they are sexed, which is kind of complicated and done by a very specialized, highly paid person who determines the sex of the babies for orders that need a certain sex.  Then they are put into shipping boxes with holes and a heating pack and shipped exclusively through the post office to arrive within 1-2 days.  It probably sounds horrifying.  In reality, both chicks and ducklings are born with a reserve of up to 3 days worth of nutrition.  They don't need to eat and drink during that time.  The reason is because unlike in hatcheries that have precisely controlled incubators, mama ducks have less than perfect circumstances.  So eggs hatch at different rates, usually over a period of 2-3 days.  Nature has prepared the ducklings for being the first born and having to wait for up to 3 days before they can leave the nest for food and water.  Thus, the best time to ship them is right after they have hatched and before they've had anything to eat or drink.

Is it stressful for them?  I don't think there can be any doubt.  One of mine died on the way, which was very sad.  I've never had a loss before, so I wasn't really prepared.  But it can be hard to find good breeders (and they won't sell sexed ducklings because they can't afford the expertise to have it done) and feed stores usually don't sell sexed chicks and ducklings, or if they do, they are not as accurate as hatcheries usually are.  Knowing the sex is critical for most small-scale owners because roosters are usually illegal and you really only need one unless you have a large flock.  The same is true for ducks.  The ratio of females to males can make the difference between your ducks living a long healthy life or being overmated and even killed.  The only time the sex might not matter is if you raise the birds for meat, although I think most people probably prefer males because they get bigger.  It's one reason why dual purpose breeds, which means a breed that can lay well and produce a good carcass, are so valuable.  The hens (or ducks) can lay eggs while the roosters (or drakes) can be butchered.

Anyway, back to the story.  I'll try to keep it short enough so that a normal person can actually read this post in less than a week.  Suffice it to say that there were adventures in raising the ducklings.  Like with many things, learning from books can only take you so far.  In particular, I believe that the standard nutrition information that is published is flawed and out-of-date.  Thanks to one person on Facebook, who ran a duck forum for awhile, I got some more updated information.  My drake did have leg issues early on (maybe at three weeks) and I really didn't think he would survive.

I'm almost positive it was because the high-quality feed from a mill I trusted was too high in protein, or at least the wrong kind of protein.  My daughter and I nursed that duck for weeks while he gradually regained the use of his legs.  We fed him a huge amount of soldier fly larvae (commercially available as Grubblies on Amazon of all places) and made sure he got hydrotherapy 2-3 times a day.  To the extent possible, I kept him with the flock, although they started picking on him, so I kept him in a separate small pen within the main pen until he could move around more on his own.

Most people are focused on niacin for ducks because ducks have a higher niacin requirement than chickens.  So if you feed chicken feed to ducks, the ducks might end up with a niacin deficiency.  That deficiency can lead to all sorts of health problems, including leg and wing issues.  But protein matters too.  And most duck feeds for growing ducks are pretty high in protein.  The protein helps with growth, but I think in the case of my drake, it caused him to grow too fast, much like what happens to commercially raised turkeys and broiler chickens.  So, his legs gave out because they couldn't support his weight.  When he stopped eating anything except the soldier fly larvae, he lost weight and gradually his legs and his body got re-aligned.

I will note that adding additional niacin to his diet did not make a difference as far as I can tell, which is why I think it was the protein.  But obviously, the soldier fly larvae are super high in protein.  So why would a feed cause a problem and the larvae didn't?  I'm speculating that it could be the nature of the protein.  Ducks are biologically designed to eat a lot of bugs and fish and worms and snakes and mice.  They do get part of their diet from plant matter too, like duckweed and other forages.  But they don't eat a lot of grains; instead, they prefer insects and fish and worms.  So when we feed them mostly grain with some fishmeal in it, we aren't really replicating their natural diet very well.  It's definitely something I will research more, but for now, I have switched my ducks to the Scratch and Peck chicken and duck grower feed, which has a lower protein level and isn't pelleted.  It's also crazy expensive, so I am looking forward to spring when the ducks can catch some of their own food!

And about a month after my first batch of what had been 5 and turned into 4 ducks (because of the loss during shipping), I got another batch of 3 ducklings.  I had ordered one drake and with only 3 females, I worried that I didn't have a high enough ratio of females to males.  I could have waited to see if it was an issue, but then I'd have to deal with either getting rid of the drake or adding new females to an existing flock.  So I decided to be proactive.  The smallest number of ducks I could order was two, but I worried I would lose another in shipping and then have only one.  The one duckling would be too young to put in with the older ducks right away and ducks raised by themselves tend to have issues.  Ducks are absolutely flock animals.  So I got three.  And all survived and did well, giving me 7 ducks instead of 5.  And you can see how duck math works out a lot like horse math:)

And they lived in our backyard for a really long time.  Because my driveway wasn't built yet.  And then I had my daughter's birthday party and horse shows.  So it was maybe the end of October or beginning of November when I finally got my act together to move the ducks.

I had previously conscripted my parents into helping me build a 16-foot diameter geodesic dome out of PVC pipe from a kit I ordered on the internet.  (Don't all people do that?)  The dome was supposed to be covered in hardware cloth and a tarp and then be moved around each day so the ducks could have fresh grass and I could dump their water and fertilize my sad, sad looking acreage.  This was a great idea in theory.  In practice, putting hardware cloth on a dome is an exercise in creative swearing and being poked by sharp metal bits.  I do not recommend it.  Also, the acreage is off-grid, so no there is no power or well.  And the ducks would need pools of water changed every day, which meant hauling a lot of water.  And it was November, so there was not much to forage either.

What I ended up doing was putting the dome at the end of the driveway to facilitate filling pools with water from a container in my truck bed.  (BTW, shout out to Riding Warehouse for carrying a 100 gallon water bladder.  That thing is awesome - it can dispense 100 gallons in less than 4 minutes!)  And I got a battery-operated pump to help me pump out dirty water away from the duck pen.  The dome stays in one place and I use the deep-litter method with straw for bedding.  So far, no odors and the system is working, although I will be making some changes next year for a more permanent system that requires a little less daily work.

Here's a picture of the set-up now, which is a little more this-looks-like-something-I-made-with-crap-I-found-in-my-garage than I had intended.  But at least it is functional.

Inside the dome - you can see my observation chair:)
The conclusion to this story is that I love my ducks.  I can see why they are becoming increasingly popular with small flock owners and why some people prefer them to chickens.  I adore chickens too, but ducks have some potential advantages.  For one thing, they are incredibly easy to move around.  They all want to be together all of the time.  If one or two get separated, they will do just about anything to get back to their flock.  So moving them as a group is as simple as using your body language in a subtle way (too much activity will panic them).  Chickens will scatter and you usually end up retrieving them individually.

Plus, they can handle cold, wet weather without complaint.  Chickens will get foot issues or grumpy if they have to be wet or out in the rain and mud all the time.  Ducks are absolutely delighted.  They thing mud is fantastic.  They try to catch raindrops in their bills.  They are adapted to handle wet, so our wet climate is easy for them to deal with.

Ducks are pretty much always happy as long as they can swim and forage.  As far as I can tell, all my ducks do is hang out in the water and then occasionally go look for some food and preen themselves.  They never complain if they think I'm taking too long to give them their treats.  They just helpfully jump in the pool and wait patiently.  Unlike chickens, who will sometimes attack a person for not producing food fast enough (ask me how I know...).

Ducks are so calming to watch.  Sitting next to my ducks when they are floating in a pool is so relaxing.  They are so still and quiet.  It's like getting a lesson on finding inner peace (which as you know from yesterday's post is something I very much need!).

Aside from the swimming water, ducks are so easy to care for.  They need less than 5 minutes a day.  If I wasn't dealing with the pools (which I probably won't be for too long - I'll build something more permanent in the future), there would be very little involved with taking care of them.  I just dump and refill their dunking water once a day and scoop some food in their dishes.  And every couple of days, I add a flake or two of new straw on top of their old straw.

And finally, ducks don't need roosting poles.  My ducks like to be on the water at night unless it's really cold (like well below freezing).  I think they feel much safer that way.  Alternatively, they just settle down in some straw near the pool and chill.  And they never hop on my chair.  If I left a chair in a chicken pen, the chickens would hop up on it and poop all over it.  My ducks just leave it alone.

I'm so glad that I went ahead and ordered these ducks back in April, even though I was so unprepared.  My daughter loves them too, and she helps me take care of them.  I love sharing that with her, and I totally count it as part of her homeschooling.  Forget hatching some eggs in a classroom incubator and then giving the ducks back to the farm, she's got the opportunity to learn about them in real life!

I think my husband worries that caring for them will be too much for my already packed schedule, but I think this type of thing is exactly what I need.  I never feel bitter or resentful about caring for them.  And most of the time, I can just stop by on my way out to see Nimo, which I do every day anyway.  It makes me feel more resilient to know that we will have this great egg supply (the ducks will probably start laying in January or February) and I love learning about a whole new species.  I think we have so much to learn from animals, and I really enjoy spending time with these lovely creatures.

If any of you have duck experience, please feel free to share:)