Protecting the Orchard III

How are ya, Buds?

The weather forecast says the freezing scare is now past us, at least for the next week. Last night I repeated the sprinkling strategy to apply another coat of ice to the orchard. When I looked out the window at first light, I did not see the icy patch that I expected. I went out to look closer and inexplicably, the hose had come apart from the sprinkler and was lying on the ground. That means it poured out for four hours into the field.

It was even colder last night than the night before and when I got up it was only 26 degrees. I don’t know if this negates the whole experiment with sprinkling because the buds were probably damaged anyway. They look okay to me, but I am far from an expert.

I guess I’ll have to give it a month or so and then we’ll see if any fruit forms.

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Sock repair

Let’s divert from my worry over the frozen orchard and switch over to socks. I have come to the point in my knitting journey in which I make all my own socks. It is fun, a great creative outlet, and a step towards sustainability that makes me feel good.

I have tried a number of patterns and have finally settled into one that starts at the toe and works up. I have enough experience now that I no longer have to look at the instructions and I can judge how to change the counting depending on the weight of the yarn and size of the needles. I found a method of casting off at the end that makes the top stretchy so there is no trouble sliding it over the bendy parts of my foot. It is fun.

One of the early socks I did was a much heavier pattern but quite durable and warm. It takes you back and forth over the sole so that it is double thickness, which was entertaining and a challenge to learn. I’ve only done it once, though, because it’s too thick to wear with normal shoes. I was in a stage where would make the toe in a different color just because I liked it. When I made this sock, I grabbed a ball of black yarn for the toe without regard to its properties. I think it was cotton yarn, with the rest of the sock being wool.

So here is the problem I encountered. The contrasting black toe was way too wimpy for a sock. It kept developing holes that I would have to repair with a darning needle. (My mother taught me to darn socks when I was a child.) After the third time that I slipped them on and found a new hole, I decided it was time to either throw them out or find a way to fix them.

I dug through my bowl of hand-spun mohair and picked the color that most matched the sock, and made a new toe-up section. Then I cut off the black toe with the holes and grafted the new green one onto the old sock. With the exception of the visible stitching, I am really happy with it. Is it my imagination, or is that mohair toe a lot softer and warmer than the original cotton one?

This is what I love about making my own stuff. I am free to do lots of experimental things and it is not a stressful situation of measuring and buying expensive supplies. If something doesn’t work, I will just try something else. When something does work, I feel so clever!

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Protecting the Orchard II

This morning I threw on some warm clothes at 5:45 to go out in the dark and check on the orchard. The grass made a gentle crushing sound as I crossed the frosted lawn. Leaving the driveway and approaching the orchard, it changed abruptly to a crackly crunch and I saw through the first light of dawn that everything the sprinkler had touched held a thick coating of ice. Did I just doom my trees to another year of no harvest?

When my husband came downstairs, I moaned about our big mistake. He told me the internet article that recommended this way of protecting from frost said that although it was counter-intuitive, the ice actually keeps the buds warmer than allowing the frost to settle in:

When you use sprinklers to prevent freezing injury, you are using the energy that water releases when it freezes, and changes from a liquid to a solid, to keep the temperature in the ice right at the freezing point – 32 degrees F.

The article goes on to provide lots of detailed measurements for determining when to turn the sprinklers on and off and on what range of cold this will work. I don’t have the skills or the patience to figure out how to take all these measurements, so I will just go on faith and see what happens this year.

I wish it wouldn’t be such a long wait to find out if this was a good or a dumb move.

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Protecting the Orchard

Ok, last April we knew the last freeze was on its way and we lovingly covered the apple and peach trees with sheets to save them from damage. Three nights in a row. The blossoms stayed on the trees and we felt so smart. By mid-season, the peach tree did produce lots of fruit but the apple trees flopped, four trees producing a total of two apples.

Once again, we are expecting temperatures down to 28 degrees by early morning tomorrow, enough to destroy our chances for apples. I am trying another strategy to win the game this year. We set up a high sprinkler that reaches all the trees’ buds and set it on a timer to spray from 1:30 am to 5:30 am. (I could have set an alarm and gone out in my pajamas, but I think the timer is a better idea.)

Will this work? Who knows. wish us luck!

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Future Tree Dreams

As we have been locked down this past year, we saved a lot of eating-out and travel money and are debating where to spend the savings. We settled on the future. Specifically, we are buying trees and supporting the Arbor Foundation.

We bought three large black gum saplings in the fall and planted them in the pasture to one day provide some shade for the sheep. Then, when we sent a gift to the Arbor Foundation, they sent us 10 little trees, really just sticks, that got our imaginations rolling. Where might the tall grass prairie benefit from some nice trees? Once our tree juices were flowing, we got more ambitious and ordered some more mature ones to plant this spring.

Walnut-lined country road

We ordered a sycamore to put in the field next to a bluebird house. Then we ordered a little grove to border the pond. We mowed the fields for the new growing season but carefully saved the ten-or-so oak trees that the squirrels had planted over the last few years. This week, I took the bucket of walnuts that I had used to dye my mohair for a nice brown sweater, and I planted two nuts each in 36 holes around the farm. Who knows if they will sprout and grow, but what do I have to lose? Maybe one day the driveway will be bordered like this picture. Maybe not.

The sycamore arrived this week, however it turned out they shipped a persimmon tree. The nursery apologized and said we should just keep it and they would send a sycamore. Two for the price of one! I am finding that I love the feeling of heady power I get from designing and nurturing the habitat we wish for. The trees we planted early-on before we even built the house are already tall and beautiful, and that is after only ten years. If we are lucky enough to live here twenty or even thirty more years, we will look back on our early decisions with such pride and gratitude.

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Sock Upgrade

I like knitting socks. They are useful, feel good on my feet, and make me feel self-sufficient. However, I have learned over time how to make them better. I had knitted a couple pairs last winter but didn’t like to wear them because for one, they were too wide and short for me and two, the tops were not stretchy and were hard to slide over my heel. So, these socks sat in the back of the drawer till I thought maybe I should just throw them out. Besides, they looked like they were meant for hobbits.

Before and after socks

Then, my sustainability urge nudged me and said, “Why don’t you just unravel them and try again?” I replied, “Duh!” So, I cut the tight top edge off (because it is hard to undo) and methodically unwound the knitting into a nice little ball, about two inches in diameter, and started over from the base of the toe.

I re-did them from memory (because I’ve done enough now that I don’t have to check the instructions) and now they fit just great. I have also learned a method of binding off the cuff so that it is nice and stretchy and easy to get on and off. How about that?

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A Knitting Lesson Learned

Today’s entry is only likely to relate to those of you who like knitting. Last fall, I picked but a really neat sweater pattern. I had planned to make it from my goat’s mohair, but was unable to spin the right weight yarn to make it work. I had sadly given up on it and just knitted a different pattern, but my husband surprised me by purchasing the right yarn at the local shop so I could try again. I like supporting local merchants, but it is shocking how much store-bought yarn costs! I am so used to making my own from my goat that it really blew me away.

This sweater has more of a story behind it, though. The pattern has this lovely color pattern and also a textural feature to break up the monotony of a smooth surface. I got the bright idea to use the colors in the textured sections rather than just go ahead in solid blue. I loved the way it looked, but when the body was done I discovered that I couldn’t get it over my head!

Apparently, when you carry a second color of yarn along behind so that you can use it here and there, it takes away all the stretch of the knitting. It looked pretty neat on the inside, though. The only way to salvage the sweater was to cut the background yarn and pull it out from all the rows where it wasn’t needed. It was an experiment I wasn’t sure would work.

View from the inside

In the end, success! I did learn a lot from the experience and hopefully these are several mistakes I won’t make again. I am quite happy with my new spring sweater.

Finished product

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Some Serious Snow

February seems to be the big month for hard freezes and deep snow. Last night, we got our biggest snow dump so far and I did a lot of shoveling this morning to make a path for myself out to the barn and for the animals to get to their food.

It was not an unpleasant chore, with the sun coming up and blue skies overhead. The snow was cold enough that it was still fluffy, not too sticky and wet. I enjoyed the two-step process of flinging the first six inches off the top and then scooping a smooth path down to where I had packed it down with my boots over the last couple of weeks.

I looked over the average temperatures in our area and we are colder than normal but not outrageously bad. The good news was that a month from now we can expect to see 40 degree days and a month after that into the 50’s. I can live with this cycle. Someone has pointed out the value of a good deep freeze to kill off insects that do more damage after a light winter. There is nothing to complain about here, as long as we have power and food.

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Remembering to Play

Snow shoe tracks

It’s been cold, 18 degrees at mid-day. Still, I was thinking that Michigan is really a special place in the winter and I need to get out there and quit hiding from it. I am so glad that I forced myself to bundle up, strap on a pair of snowshoes, and explore the six inches of fluffy snow that fell overnight.

I went out without company, because I’m sure the dogs would yank me flat on my face if I tried to juggle two leashes and ski poles. I wanted my husband to come with me but he begged off. I had to get past the crusty driveway first and the grips caught and almost sent me sprawling before I remembered the technique. After that it was just me and the quiet “thwomp, thwomp” as I carefully lifted and set down one snowshoe after the other.

The snow was so fresh that all that was left of the tracks from walking the dogs yesterday were faint dents in the path. There were no fresh tracks from the local wildlife yet. Well, I take that back–the snowmobilers had packed down a trail along the highway. They can hardly wait to get out there when we get a decent snow. Most of my adventure was on our private land, though, under the trees and across the prairie.

I realized when I took off the snowshoes that I’d forgotten how they worked and had gone out with two left feet. Maybe that is the source of some of my awkwardness. I’ll be ready the next time. Maybe tomorrow afternoon I’ll play again.

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Farm Video Day

I took a couple videos of some of the interesting behaviors of our farm animals, and uploaded them to YouTube for those of you who might enjoy them.

One is of the amazing Sandhill Cranes that winter in our area. I feel really fortunate that this is their gathering place because they are beautiful and noisy, circling our skies. I’ve always felt like they are remnants of the dinosaurs grackling their way overhead. Some days the weather conditions rouse them all to flock in squadrons over our heads. Watch till the end and you’ll see the convergence of a whole army.

Another one I was delighted to see was the Shetland Sheep who were pleased to find a day that was perfect for playing. Dot and Cookie have little horn stubs where I believe the buds were stunted when they were babies, but they still have that urge to play at battle, butting one another for fun. When they are in this mood, they run in little vertical hops, which I believe is called “gamboling”. It just cracks me up, and is a rare treat when my visit coincides with them being in the mood to entertain me.

I also have an update on Mickey the cat, who surprised me last week by appearing up in the loft that I thought had no access. I risked life and limb to climb up and carry him down to safety. So, the next day there he was again. I decided to ignore him and go about my business, feeding everyone their breakfast. Sure enough, when I came in from feeding the flocks, there he was eating his breakfast downstairs. I have not been able to catch him going up or down so I am not sure how he does it, but I suspect he hops up on various footholds and cabinets, probably not by the ladder I’d thought he had used. My husband says there are plenty of mice up there, pulling shreds of pink insulation out of the rafters for their nests in the winter. This is probably what Mickey is using for his entertainment and I guess I’d rather not watch anyway.

It was a cold and dark January and we did not do much outside, other than trips out the the barn and back to visit and feed the animals. Last week we were in serious need of a project so my husband and I trudged out to the vineyard to prune down the concord grapes. Last year I wasn’t able to harvest any, and I read that you need to prune them back in the dead of winter so that they produce in the next year. I really missed my delicious grape juice! I did my side of the vines as fast as I could, until my fingers got so cold that the shears started dropping out of my hands as if I had no muscles to grip them. That was my clue that it was time to come in.

My indoor projects still take most of my time, knitting and weaving. I made a set of cotton dishtowels on the loom that turned out pretty well. I gave away three of the best ones and kept for ourselves two that had a lot of flaws. I am getting better at learning to catch mistakes earlier and going back to fix them, so the end product is getting to be more and more respectable.

I am also working on another colorful sweater for which my husband picked out yarn for my birthday. It is fun but now I am into the more tedious part so I took a detour to make some socks. I am getting pretty good at the sock pattern I’ve been using and I no longer have to look at the instructions. I made the last pair for myself and now and am working on a pair as a gift since I have a good idea of how to adjust the size.

The yarn was on clearance at the local yarn shop and is thicker than “real” sock yarn, so it makes a hefty, warm sock, good for the next trip out to the vineyard. It is so fun to create useful things!

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Cats in the Barn

We have a nice catwalk set up so the cats can climb up to the hay loft to sleep in the warmest corners of the barn. Emmie spends a lot of her time up there, watching with her glowing green eyes from her high vantage point. Today, though, something caught my eye and I looked up to the other side of the barn that has no ramp and Mickey had somehow climbed up there.

I don’t really know how he did it, unless he hopped up that ladder that was leaning vertically against the wall. If that was the case, he probably couldn’t get back down. You always see stories of the Fire Department having to come rescue cats stranded up in trees. I considered leaving him there to see if he could figure it out, but what if he was cold and hungry? He wasn’t speaking to me, just watching.

So, I leaned the ladder out at a better angle and cautiously climbed up high enough to reach for him. He let me pull him onto my shoulder and I very carefully stepped down one rung at a time until I was back on solid ground. I really don’t feel secure on ladders, so this was a gift to the little guy. I hope he doesn’t make a habit of this!

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Dark Days of January

This is about as far as we get out into the world nowadays. We took a stroll to the mailbox and listened to the crackle and drip as the heavy ice and snow cover began melting off the trees. We were fortunate that it did not break any big branches this time although the electric company alerted us that some neighborhoods have lost power.

I am content to stay home during these dark gray days, waiting for the sun to fight its way through the January Michigan skies. The goat and sheep are lying out under their big wooden spools, which surprises me. When it was just goats, they preferred to stay dry in their shed. The sheep don’t mind the wetness as much and the three of them are a family now so the goat follows them into the pasture. It’s pretty dreary.

I have been watching videos, reading books, setting up my loom for the next project, and now I’ve started on a knitting project for which my husband picked out the yarn for my birthday. It seems quiet and solemn in the house. That’s ok. It just fits the mood of the weather, the quarantine, and the days waiting for the change in government to turn over. Nowhere to go but up.

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Playing With Fire

We decided to do a little more clearing of brush out by the highway. We generally do this in the spring before the leaves come out, but the pandemic has us searching for interesting things to do at home so we don’t go insane. We hauled several trailers-full of sticks back to form a mountain at the fire ring and fed it until all that remained was a mound of embers that were still glowing softly into the evening. It was an eerie phenomenon, like a living thing.

Just in case the wind picked up overnight, we doused it with the hose before turning in, and this morning I turned the quiet white ash with a pitchfork and found the red coals living underneath that burst with smoke as they were touched by fresh oxygen.

I’ve always been attracted to playing with fire, be it messing with candles at the dinner table or tending a bonfire. As a child, my house was nestled within a huge oak grove and in the fall everyone in the family was forcibly recruited to help rake it all up, haul it to the garden, and burn it away. Tending the fire was the stunning conclusion of the big family effort and had almost a carnival feel to it. It always fascinated me to watch the coals and watch the effect of a sudden breeze or the dump of another bedspread full of new leaves. I learned to judge what was safe and what was the risk of flying ash or creeping boundaries getting it out of control. It was exciting and comforting at the same time. At the end of the day, we’d all come inside smelling of smoke and feeling satisfied with a day well spent.

It comes back to me here on the farm when we cook down the dry brush in our little fire ring. It is better controlled than the leafy bonfires of my childhood and we always have a hose handy just in case, but it brings back all those happy memories of the family all working together.

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Happy Feet – Lamb Style

I finally did the deed I’ve been working up to for months. I flipped my lambs onto their bottoms and trimmed their hooves. It was just as the books say — once they are flipped on their backs they are pretty well immobilized. I was overdue for getting my clippers sharpened and had to pry them open periodically to keep them working, but I powered through it. They now have all the excess cleared off so their feet are relatively flat on the bottoms again. I feel pretty proud of myself!

In this picture I am trimming Dot while Cookie hovers nearby. Cookie is always the braver of the two and I had done her first, but she insisted on crowding close to her sister while I worked on her. They feel much more secure near each other.

Look at their long wool. It is only seven months of growth and they aren’t due to be sheared for five more. I wonder how much of their weight is due to the wool because they were surprisingly heavy for little animals.

I am using this first year to gauge how much work the sheep are to care for. My husband is eager to get the girls bred so we can double or triple the herd, but I want to be sure what I am getting myself into first. I am very interested to see how different the wool is for yarn than the goat’s mohair. Mohair takes on color really well and sparkles with a characteristic “luster.” The yarn is very fuzzy, though, and it would be nice to have an alternative that is a bit smoother, perhaps even a blend to get the best of both.

Here is a picture of my latest sweater – all hand-spun mohair from Eddy. It’s the brown yarn that I dyed with walnut hulls.

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Reversal of Plans

As often happens, my big idea for a sweater flopped due to my inability to make yarn in the right size. That beautiful sweater in my imagination required very fine yarn and although I was confident that I could make whatever I needed it turned out that I am not that good. I kept making swatches with smaller needles until size 1 was the only one that would work and it made a very dense, stiff fabric. It would have felt like wearing a cardboard box!

I went to the local yarn store and they helped me accept that this pattern was not feasible with the yarn I’d made. I went home and searched for something else I could do that would still satisfy my yearning to use the walnut-stained yarn.

Here is the alternate sweater so far. I made the back piece of the pattern and found that the two to three colors of yarn on each row make a tighter, heavier weave than the plain stitch in the body of the sweater. I may try a larger needle size for the colorwork when I do the sleeves just to see if it solves that problem. It takes a lot of time and concentration to finish a block of the design and I just can’t see myself unravelling the work I have already done. I am hoping that after I stitch it all together the unevenness will not be so pronounced..

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Sweater Dreams

I think it may have been a phenomenon of the past, browsing the fabric stores and pattern books for cool new clothes to make. It was a thrill for me, as a teenager, to spend a couple Saturday hours leafing through Simplicity and Butterick books for just the right pattern and then imagining it in different textures, colors, and designs as I slowly paced the fabric aisles touching each bolt, my brain in overdrive with creative power.

I no longer sew my clothes, but in my retirement I have picked up the mantle again with my knitting and weaving. Every six months I shear Eddy, the Angora goat, and I begin again to imagine what I might make with his curly locks and what colors would be perfect for it.

Over the weekend, I decided to try something new, dying the hair with a natural dye from black walnuts I had collected from the edge of the woods. I have a good friend whose mother did a lot of this, and I wish she was still around to pick her brain. Instead, I turned to the internet and found it is easiest to drive over the nuts, pick apart the broken hulls, and soak them overnight in hot water. The resulting extract was dark brown and grimy but created a nice milk-chocolate-colored fiber for a future sweater. (Also shown is a pretty blue and apricot made from commercial dyes.)

As I was working on this, my mind once again went into overdrive, dreaming about the perfect item to be made with the precious hand-spun fiber. I looked through the internet version of the pattern books of my youth, and came up with this sweater that I like. The bulk of it will be the chocolate color, with two or three contrasting colors yet to be decided. I like that it has not only a pretty design but also added texture with different stitches. It will be fun to decide which of my dyed fibers would be best for the contrast, and I will have to experiment with spinning techniques to get just the right weight of yarn so it comes out in the right size once I am done. My spirit is lifted just anticipating the project.

If I’d known in the final years of my career how much fun I’d be having in the freedom of retirement, I’d have been a lot more relaxed anticipating the life transition.

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Glorious Fall Changes

We are surrounded by such beauty this week! It fully compensates for the loss of the leaves and cold, wet days to come.

My little red hen has suffered for months with a late molt that just did not want to grow back. I feared that the other hens were picking out her feathers each time they tried to re-emerge. Finally, though, the cold weather has prompted her body to generate a pincushion of growth and she may get back to her former beauty after all.

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For The Love of Yucky Jobs

“Love” may be an exaggerated term for the relationship I’ve developed with the more disgusting chores of running our little farm. I find I have recently been waxing philosophical more than usual, perhaps because as the world spins out of control around me I try to find the stable center. But today, as I fearlessly dove into some of these jobs, I became aware of how good it makes me feel to take care of the needs of my animals and property even when it smells bad, looks disgusting, or takes surprising muscle power.

When I was a teenager, I deeply resented being asked to do the tasks that seemed “gross!” My mother probably took care of most of these because it was just easier than fighting with her kids who were horrified to have to do the unpleasant stuff. I think my attitude first began to shift as I faced motherhood. Caring for a child, or even a pet, puts the responsibility squarely on your own shoulders for the wellbeing of someone you love. It was a shock and an awesome burden to realize nobody but you was going to take care of the things that had to be done and that if you failed in your duty someone else would suffer. I’m talking dirty diapers, caring for the ill, plugged plumbing, pest infestations, and the whole gamut of nasty, smelly messes that make up a life.

Somehow, magically, perhaps through maturity, I have come to love the feeling of satisfaction that I gave it my all to care for someone or something. I think the degree of unpleasantness correlates to how good I feel about it when I am done.

So, I don’t know — are you waiting to hear what awful things I did? Really, nothing special. I brought the goat into the barn to trim his hooves and give him his worming and lice medications. I noticed the brown mess on his undercarriage that had crusted on his thick curly hair where he pees. I actually got myself a bucket of soapy water and a brush and scrubbed him until it had softened up enough to trim it away, snip snip, so that he can go a few months without that overwhelming stink following wherever he goes. I like to think he is grateful, but yes or no, I have that satisfied motherly feeling.

Then I looked around for other tasks while I had the attitude. The compost heaps were filled to overflowing and slanted like mountains so that any new additions were rolling right off the top. I got out a pitchfork and turned the pile, flattening it out for the next pile of coffee grounds. Underneath were moldy rotting vegetables, starved for oxygen. that I like to think are joyous to have a refreshed environment to decay a bit faster. I scooped several shovels of charcoal from the fire ring over the top for some additional carbon and perhaps some absorption of the smells.

I swam this morning and noticed that the pumping tool that I use to suck up bits of dirt from the floor of the pool had a store of floating goo collected over months of use. I took it apart, brushed it out, and dropped the worst part into a jar of bleach while I swam, to burn clean the discolored rubber. Now it is sparkly white again and ready to begin accumulating new trash.

Ahhh. Several jobs well done and all is right with the world for a while.

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Luxury Winter Accommodations

One benefit of this unfortunate pandemic is the detailed attention we are giving to the farm. A few years ago we constructed a cover for the front of the goat shed to keep out the winter wind and snow. The next year we added a plexiglass window so they could see out, which was promptly shattered by goat battering and replaced with a much thicker and larger one.

This year, we took the old wall out of storage and assessed the way it had been nibbled to death around the edges. We brought home a new sheet of OSB and rebuilt the wall even more elegantly than before. It is mounted for the winter, and the herd seems quite happy with their Hilton Suite. It took no time at all for the sheepies to go in to investigate. While one looked out, the other came around the front and peered into her sister’s eyes through the window. They are less dumb than they look!

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Instant Gum Tree Grove

Last week I mentioned the little grove of transplanted trees we put in. A few days later, I found that all the leaves were gone and I couldn’t even see the stems anymore. I thought the transplanting had failed and felt a bit frustrated that it came apart so quickly.

Last night I took a closer look and found that it was probably rabbits that destroyed my little trees. The stems were still there but nipped off at the tops and where the leaves attached. Those little stinkers! I will leave the electric fence there to keep the goat from contributing to the carnage, and hope that next year the roots will sprout new growth.

In the mean time, we got the three Black Gum trees delivered and planted. They are also protected with an electric barrier and are way too big to worry about hungry lagomorphs. (Yes, I was going to say “rodents” but double-checked and found that rabbits do not belong to the rodent family after all.)

I am imagining a future in which these three trees tower over the barn and a flock of six or eight fluffy sheep lounge peacefully in the shade of the gum grove. Doesn’t it just make you go, “Ahhhh”? If it does, maybe you are an animal farmer at heart, like me.

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