Tag Archives: Nature

In Search Of Spring?

The calendar says that Spring has arrived, yet nature seems to be telling a different story. Even though we have been seeing Red Wing Black Birds for several weeks and my husband spotted the first Robin of the season about a week ago, the temperatures have mostly been below what is normal for this time of year in Michigan. I can’t help but wonder if the birds regret their early return.

Spring is my favorite season of the year so I went looking for the signs of Spring. Come along, I’ll show you what I found.

Even though we have had some very sunny days, some of the snow has yet to melt               in areas that are mostly shady.

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The last of the ice melted from the pond on Sunday, March 18. It reached 50+ degrees Fahrenheit (10 Celsius) that day but the temperatures have been nowhere near that since. IMG_3813

Today the temperature was around 40 Fahrenheit (about 4 Celsius) when we were at the farm; with the wind out of the North it felt much colder. Trooper didn’t mind stepping in the pond for a cold drink, but while I long to walk barefoot on the sand and dip my toes in the water, today I opted to keep on my wool socks and rubber boots.

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A pair of ducks have also been enjoying the pond for the last two days. They may be looking for a place to build a nest and raise their young, but I am afraid that our pond would be much too busy for that. I am fairly certain that Scout and Trooper will make it clear that they are not welcome here. There are, however, plenty of neighboring ponds that will suit them just fine.

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The daffodils have poked their heads up but seem to be in no hurry to expose their entire bodies to the cold temps. Who can blame them?

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The bees have had several days over the winter when they were able to come out for a cleansing flight. It was during a brief warm spell in February that we discovered that four of our five hives were dead. 80% loss is the biggest winter loss we have experienced to date. The sole survivor was our Warre’ hive.

Even though the sun was out today the bees were not.

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The sap flow has been intermittent. It flows (or should I say drips) on the warmer, sunny days, but many of the days have been just too cold for the sap to flow. While we can see the buds on the trees getting bigger they are not yet ready to open.

We will continue collecting sap and making syrup as long as the weather permits.

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To me the most encouraging sign of spring was hearing the frogs singing. My husband  told me that he heard them for the first time yesterday. We didn’t hear them in the pond area but in this swampy area near the back of our farm.

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I remember My Mom telling me that the frogs have to freeze three times before Spring is here to stay.  I am not really sure how that works. How long does the temperature have to be below freezing for a frog to “freeze”? Is it just when the temperature falls below freezing over night? or does it take a day or more of freezing temperatures? Has anyone ever heard this before? None-the-less I am always happy to hear the frogs singing, and I take this as a sure sign that spring is near.

Are you anxiously awaiting Spring? What do signs do you look for to know that Spring is near?

Making Maple Syrup

It doesn’t seem like a whole year has gone by since we last tapped maple trees and made our maple syrup. Maybe that’s because it hasn’t really been a whole year. While I didn’t remember the exact date that we tapped trees last year I was able to review the post I wrote about it, and I discovered that last year we tapped the trees on February 13th. Last year’s sap flow was considered early and we read that some syrup producers actually missed the season because the were not expecting the season to come so soon.

It was only January 20th according to the calendar but nature doesn’t necessarily go by the calendar. Despite the brutal cold we have had this winter we had been watching the forecast and preparing for the sap season to start. This is only our third year making syrup, so we don’t have much experience to go by, but since temperatures were forecast to be in the high 30’s and low 40’s Fahrenheit (between 3 and 7 degrees Celsius) 7 out of the next 10 days we thought this might be the right time. My husband thought that it would be a good idea to do a few test taps to see if the sap was flowing. So we took supplies for four taps to the farm.

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January 20, 2017

 

The day was very reminiscent of the day we tapped last year. The sun was shining, there was still a thin layer of snow on the ground, and the pond was mostly still frozen.

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Happy Hens

 

The chickens were happy to be out scratching , pecking and even dusting themselves.

 

My husband and I worked together, taking turns drilling the holes and setting the taps.

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First Drop Of Sap

 

When the sap began running within seconds of being tapped we knew we were on the right track. After setting the first four, we went home, gathered the supplies and returned to set the remaining 13.

A couple days after tapping the trees the high temperatures again stayed below freezing so no sap was flowing. Then we had a couple more day where temperatures reached into the 40’s F so the sap began to flow again. By Friday my husband determined that he had collected enough sap to make syrup. We would cook it Saturday.

My husband had the cooking station set up in the driveway. Because cooking sap produces so much steam cooking it the house would be a horrible mistake, and we are not equipped with a sugar shack so we do it much the way we imagine our ancestors  would have – outdoors over a wood fire.

The fire pit is simple – made of two layers of concrete blocks on three side

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He spaces the concrete blocks so that the shallow stainless steel pan sits on the edges of the blocks. We build the fire within the blocks and continually feed wood into it from the open side.

 

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We used a mixture of hardwood limbs and logs that we had cut on the farm and some scrap lumber my husband had picked up from the local sawmill. We began cooking the sap around 11:30 A.M. and by 4:30 P.M. we had reduced the estimated 23 gallons of sap  to the point that we could finish it on our kitchen stove.

Before cooking it on the stove we poured it through a sieve to remove some of the ash that was floating in it. I then brought it back to a boil and continued cooking it until it reached 7 degrees above the boiling point on the candy thermometer 219 degrees F.

Filtering the sugar sand out of the syrup is something that we have struggled with the past two years, so I decided to pay close attention to the temperatures while doing this. I let the syrup cool to between 180 and 190 F. For a filter I used one layer cheese cloth with one layer of felt placed on top of it. I placed the two layers together in my canning funnel then poured the syrup through the fabric lined funnel directly into the jar.

After pouring each jar I needed to change the filter, so I put the pan of syrup back on the stove over a low flame so I could maintain the proper temperature. The syrup flowed easily through the filters. I sealed each jar as soon as it was poured. We ended up with just a very small amount of sugar sand in the bottom of the jars. There is no harm in eating sugar sand as it is said to be made up of calcium salts and malic acid, so filtering out this sand is purely for aesthetic reasons (it does look like muck in the bottom of the jar).

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Even though once sealed the syrup should not spoil, I like to bottle the syrup in wide mouth mason jars, because as long as I leave the proper amount of head space the syrup can be stored in the freezer.  We ended up with nearly four pints of beautiful, sweet maple syrup.

What the rest of the maple syrup season will bring is anyone’s guess. Our weather forecast for the next 10 days shows daytime temperatures below freezing for all but one day, so we are not expecting the sap to run again for a while. When the temperatures do warm again, if the trees bud out quickly the sap will turn milky and is not good for making syrup, so we are grateful that we tapped the trees early and at least have some syrup this year.

I also made an interesting observation as I looked back at my post from last year, “The Sap is Flowing and the Hens are Laying”.   Again this year, as we tapped the maple trees we noticed that the hens have began laying more eggs. For five or six weeks we were getting an average of four eggs a day, this was enough to keep us in fresh eggs through the winter. On January 20, the day we tapped trees, we collected six eggs, then over the next week the amount increased so that we have collected 12 eggs each of the last two days. I honestly expected that the increase in egg production was more related to the number of hours of daylight and similarly to last year would occur in the middle of February. Perhaps it is more about the warmer temperatures we have been enjoying, I’m really not sure, but I do think I will attempt to track these two events in future years to see if they continue to coincide.

Until next time be well. 🙂

 

 

Welcome

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Welcome Friends!

I have to start with a huge THANK YOU to everyone reading this. When I first started writing this blog, about two and a half years ago, I never imagined it would be what it has become. I figured I might have a few people who would read it regularly – friends and family that know and love me. For quite a while that was the case. Occasionally I would look at my stats and see that no one had viewed my blog for several days and I wondered if it was worth writing, then a friend or family member would mention how much they enjoyed reading it. That was all I needed to inspire me to keep writing.

Today I am amazed as I look at my blog stats and see that people from all over the world, 67 countries at last count, have visited my little piece of the internet. Since visiting my blog is often much like a visit to our home or our farm it occurred to me that many visitors probably have no idea where in the world we are at, so if you are curious I will give you some direction. I will start by saying that we are in Michigan which is a state in the USA.

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If you are not familiar with Michigan you can find it easily on the map above. Michigan is the state that is shaped like a mitten, well at least part of Michigan is. Our state is unique in that it is made up of two peninsula’s. The lower peninsula is shaped like a mitten and the upper peninsula, you can see on the above map, is the piece of land to the North that extends Westward or to the left (its upper border is outlined in red). Interestingly, while lower Michigan is bordered by the U.S. States of Indiana and Ohio to the South and Upper Michigan is bordered by the U.S. State of Wisconsin to the West, Michigan’s two peninsulas do not share a common border. They are separated by the Straits of Mackinac, which are a series of narrow water ways that connect Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. To travel from one peninsula to the other, by car, you must cross the Mackinac Bridge, which is nearly 5 miles long and said to be the forth longest suspension bridge in the world.  http://www.mackinac.com/about/mackinac-bridge Because Michigan is surrounded by the Great Lakes and adjoining waterways there are also many islands that are part of our state.

To give you a better idea of where we are in Michigan I would hold up my right hand with the palm facing you and my fingers held tightly together (like a mitten) and point to an area near the bottom of my thumb. Michiganders are known for using their hand as a map. Our little piece of the earth is 7.6 acres of farm land in a rural area North East of  Detroit and South West of Port Huron. Some of it is wooded and some of it is open field. We put in a pond as a source of fresh water in 2012, but have yet to build a house on the property.

Like much of the U.S. this winter has been brutally cold here in Michigan, but I thought today I would invite you to take a walk with me. Don’t worry we won’t have to put on an extra 10 lbs. of gear to survive the freezing temperatures and trudge through the snow, because this part of the post I actually started writing last summer.

During the warm seasons, spring after the snow melts, summer, and fall until the snow gets too deep, I like to walk our back field. We keep a path cut around the outside of the field and two paths that cut across the middle. We allow the rest of the field to grow wild during the summer and we mow it each fall. It’s interesting that each year different plants seem to dominate the field. This field, which many people would view as a field full of weeds, we see as a field full of wild flowers. Not only does it provide habitat and food for countless bunnies, birds, rodents, toads and insects, the deer graze it regularly, and it is home to many plants that our bees love to forage.

I usually start my walks on the East side of the property, heading North and off to our left you will notice a large fenced in area. This is our main garden, where we grow much of our own produce in the summer. We also have 5 apple trees growing within this area and we moved our entire blueberry patch in here as well. It didn’t take us long to learn that fencing is the best way to protect our vegetation from deer.

As we walk toward the field I will look for deer grazing. This will be our best chance to see deer because Scout and Trooper will undoubtedly be with us and will frighten off any deer. The boys have been taught that they can only chase the deer as far as our property line and it has become a game for Trooper. I suspect if the deer ever decided to stay and play he would have a ball with them…but they don’t.

We may see one or two, we may see a mother with her baby(s) or we may see 20 or more deer grazing in the field. On a rare occasion we might witness a scene that feels like something out of a Disney movie. Like this red winged black bird that rides on the back or head of this deer.

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One day when Trooper was walking with me he scared the deer off. The blackbird that had been sitting on the back of the deer began diving at Troopers back, obvious angry at him. The bird never touched Trooper and because the bird was diving at his back he was oblivious to it and bird eventually flew off.

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While the deer are beautiful to watch, are seemingly harmless and our guests get very excited to see them, we have come to see them as a nuisance.  We have invested much money, time and energy to protect our crops against deer. It seems that deer will eat or at least taste anything … except garlic.

When we first bought the farm and we asked a neighbor how he kept the deer from eating his garden he said “plant enough for you and plant enough for the deer.” While his advice sounded good in theory, we quickly learned that it doesn’t work. The deer apparently did not understand the concept; they would walk through the pumpkin patch and rather than eat just one or two whole pumpkins they would take a few bites out of many pumpkins. Thus we concluded that the best way to protect our plants, including young trees, is adequate fencing.

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Beyond the main garden the rest of our property is open fieled. The bright yellow flowers that are blanketing the field at this time are Bird’s Foot Trefoil. The first year we had the farm I notice one small patch of this plant growing in the field. It’s brilliant flowers caught my attention so I did some research to find what it was. Each year I have noticed more and more Trefoil. I suspect that as we cut the field in the fall we are scattering it’s seeds throughout the field. Trefoil is a legume that is used for animal forage, cut for hay, or planted to prevent soil erosion.  https://plants.usda.gov/factsheet/pdf/fs_loco6.pdf One thing we have discovered, that is not mentioned in this USDA fact sheet, is that honey bees like it. This in itself is enough for me to appreciate this plant.

The small white flowers tinged with pink are White Clover. https://plants.usda.gov/factsheet/pdf/fs_trre3.pdf  This is another plant that we highly value as the honey bees feed heavily on the blossoms. While we did not plant the clover in the back field, we have planted a mix of clover and grass seed in areas that we have landscaped. Clover is a nice addition to lawn areas as it can be mowed and it will grow back, and even blossom, repeatedly throughout the summer. It is also nice to walk on barefoot, and we have noticed that it seems to crowd out other unwanted plants like thistle.

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Young Spruce trees line the East and North sides of our property. We began planting these in our second year here. We purchase the 12″ to 15″ seedlings and keep them in a nursery area for one or more seasons to give them time to grow and develop roots and branches, then we transplant them around the farm. Most of these were planted in 2012.

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Canadian Thistle grows sporadically throughout the field and other places on the farm. We mostly consider this plant a menace despite the pretty purple flowers that also have a lovely fragrance, their only saving grace is in the fact that the honey bees like them.

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This white flower with feathery leaves is Yarrow  https://draxe.com/yarrow/ . I have noticed Yarrow growing in various areas on the farm over the past few years but this past year was the first time I noticed it in the back field. According to the above article yarrow is both a culinary and medicinal plant. I not sure why I have not harvested any yet.

IMG_2937In the photo above the Timothy Hay is somewhat camouflaged amongst the other greenery, but if you look toward the top of the photo just left of center you can see Timothy’s long thin seed heads that are a lighter green. Small patches of Timothy are scattered throughout  the field and each year I notice a little more. As we walk past the Timothy I will likely pull on one of the seed heads and as I do the seed head along with the top portion of the stem will slide out of the lower part of the stem. I will put the stem in my mouth and you will no doubt think the I am a hick. I will then pull a second one and offer it to you explaining that Timothy is the best weed for chewing. The end of the inner stem is soft and juicy and even a bit sweet. I lightly chew the end for a while before discarding it later along the way.

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Along the West side of the field is a line of trees that runs the full length of the property and separates our property from the neighbors next to us. The tree line is composed of mature trees, mostly Oak, Maple, Ash, and Hickory, along with various bushes and shrubs and vines that makeup the undergrowth. Unfortunately, the Ash trees in Michigan have fallen prey to, and are being killed off by the Emerald Ash Borer, thus we have cut down nearly all of the dead Ash trees to use for firewood.  As we cut trees down we are also planting new trees. In the above photo you can see the large dead Ash tree to the right and the young Maple that we planted a couple years back in the center foreground. You may also spot some Timothy growing there. Yep, it’s okay to pull one to chew. I knew you would find them as irresistible as I do. 😉

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As we circle back around we are now at the West end of the main garden. This is where we moved our Blue Berry Patch to. Having been in a different location for several years we weren’t sure how well the bushes would adapt to this new environment. They have seemed to do well and while we no longer worry about the deer eating them since they are in the fenced area, we still have to protect the fruit from birds, thus the netting over them.

Well, my friend, thank you for spending this time with me. I hope you enjoyed our walk in the field. If you aren’t ready to leave feel free to hang around and enjoy some more of our farm. You can do so by clicking on the following links.

https://donteatitsoap.com/2017/06/28/pond-pictures-relax-and-enjoy/

https://donteatitsoap.com/2017/08/12/gone-fishing/

https://donteatitsoap.com/2017/05/25/five-hives/

https://donteatitsoap.com/2017/09/05/our-harvest-picnic/

https://donteatitsoap.com/2017/05/22/this-season-on-chicken-tv/

https://donteatitsoap.com/2017/05/31/a-beautiful-monday/

and if you would like to return you can always do so by following my blog. Please feel free to leave your questions and comments below as two sided conversations are much more fun.

 

 

 

 

Our First Apple Crop

This has truly been a wacky year for food production at the farm. Some things that normally grow in abundance have floundered and some things that have never produced before have done well. Apples were among the crops that did relatively well this year.

We have seven young apple trees of various varieties that we have planted in the past six years, three of which we planted in April of 2011 before we even closed on the property. Each year the apple trees have had had at least some blossoms in the spring but they never developed into more than a few apples. Last fall, as an experiment, I put a small amount of wood ash around the base of three of the trees. This spring nearly all of the trees blossomed heavily so I am not certain how much effect the wood ash had.

In May, when the apple trees were in full bloom, we had several mornings of heavy frost. Since the frost damaged asparagus, rhubarb and grape leaves, I am still stumped that our apple trees were unaffected.

Our honey bees were more that happy to do their part in our apple production, flying from blossom to blossom and tree to tree collecting pollen from one blossom and redistributing a portion of it on the next blossom while they collected their pollen from that one.

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Honey bee – too busy to pose for a picture

Being our first apple crop we didn’t know what to expect and it seems that our apples fell victim to bugs, worms and disease.  Then to add insult to injury the crows  decided to make our apples part of their diet.

A couple weeks ago when my husband was tired of watching our apples being destroyed he decided to pick what might still be good before the crows got anymore. He first brought home a bag of red apples and since I was busy that day, probably cleaning garlic, I put them in the refrigerator and half forgot about them. A couple days later he brought home these golden delicious.

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He had been talking about dehydrating apples or making apple chips for a few weeks so I decided to use the useable part of these apple to make chips.

When I peeled the apples I was pleasantly surprised to see that the blemishes, which I have not positively identified but might be apple scab, were only skin deep. Once I removed the peel there was no evidence of disease.

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I peeled, cored and sliced the apples. I placed the slices in a single layer on my dehydrator trays. Each tray held about four apples.

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I filled up all nine trays and realized I had peeled way too many apples. So I needed to come up with a semi-quick or easy way to use the other half of those apples. Since fruit pies are a favorite dessert here and pie filling freezes well I decided to make apple pie filling.

I know that golden delicious apples are not necessarily a cooking apple so I was happy to find a recipe for pie filling that just called for apples instead of “cooking apples” or a specific variety of apples. Not that it would have mattered because I often change up recipes, substituting what I have on hand for what is called for in the recipe. Sometimes it turns out really well and sometimes not so good. The apple pie filling is in the freezer for now but I am certain that we will enjoy the apple pie that it makes.

The apple chips on the other hand are disappearing quickly. They make a nice snack.

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When I took them out of the dehydrator, after about 18 hours, I packaged each tray of apple chips in a sealable plastic sandwich bag. This way I know that the package contains about four apples or four servings. Then I put the bags in jars for storage. It is important to know an approximate serving size because these apple chips are so good that it could be easy to get carried away and eat way too many. I warned my husband that eating a whole bag at one time was not a good idea, and that you need to make sure you drink enough water when eating dried fruit. He told me that this was a lesson he learned as a kid – the hard way.

A few days ago when I was looking for a side dish to go with the stuffed green peppers I made for dinner, I came across the “half forgotten” bag of apples in the refrigerator.

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Stuffed Peppers

I decided to cook up some apple sauce. I didn’t need a recipe for this because I have cooked and canned apple sauce many times in the past. Although many of these apples had bites taken out of them (crows) and a few had worms in them, I was able to cut away enough of the bad parts and cook up a wonderful dish of apple sauce. To make apple sauce, after I peeled, cored and cut away any bad parts, I put the apples in a pan with a small amount of water. I brought it to a boil then turned it to low and let it simmer until the apples were very soft. I then mashed the apples with a potato masher. I then continue to let is simmer and thicken up a little. There was no need to add sweetener. I put it in a bowl and chilled it before dinner and it made the perfect side dish.

Over the next few months we will be researching natural options for controlling disease and insects on the apple trees with hopes of growing even better crops in the future, and who knows we might even build a scarecrow or two. https://www.todayshomeowner.com/scarecrows-in-the-garden/

Our Harvest Picnic

Sunday we invited friends and family to the farm for a picnic. While many of those invited could not make it for various reasons everyone who came seemed to have a great time.

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My husband added some seasonal decorations to welcome our guests.

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The bees wasted no time finding the sunflowers he picked.

 

The chickens roaming around, pecking and scratching, added to the ambience.

 

As summer nears it’s end Black Eyed Susans, Hibiscus and Phlox continue to adorn the farm.

When we host guests this time of year we like to make it a harvest party that includes foods from our garden. Included in yesterdays meal was potato salad – with homegrown potatoes, celery and chives along with our farm fresh eggs; apple crisp – with apples from our trees; pickled garlic scapes  https://donteatitsoap.com/2017/06/15/a-year-in-growing-garlic-part-viii-garlic-scapes/ ; and my garlic and dill chip dip https://donteatitsoap.com/2015/08/14/simple-and-fun-recipes/ . We also had fresh lettuce leaves and sliced tomatoes to top the burgers which were made with locally raised grass fed beef.

While I took many pictures of the scenery before our guests arrived I somehow forgot to take pictures our guests and the activities they enjoyed.IMG_3200Trooper played in the pond early in the day, but later on some of our young guests enjoyed catching perch in the pond and building sand castles on the beach.

I also neglected to get photos of my brother-in-law flying his remote control airplanes. He brought two planes and was able to use the path which we keep mowed around our back field as a runway. He also brought equipment that enabled him to allow others to participate. It’s called buddy boxing. To really explain buddy boxing you probably need someone who understands technology better than I do, but since I’m the one writing I’ll tell you my simplified understanding of how it works. Two transmitters or controllers are linked together and set to operate the plane. The student’s controller is allowed to operate the plane unless the teacher feels the plane is in trouble at which point the teacher has the ability to override the student’s system and take control of the plane.

I think this is a great way to be able to teach kids, or even adults, who want to learn to fly remote controlled planes without having to worry about damaging the plane or endangering objects, people or pets on the ground. Pete was certainly a great teacher and the kids had a great time flying the planes.

Other activities included greeting everyone with hugs, catching up with friends and family, most of whom we haven’t seen in a year or more, my husband gave garden tours and showed off the huge, mammoth sunflower which came up as a volunteer this year. “If it’s not the biggest sunflower you’ve ever seen I’ll give your money back,” he told people. Maybe he should have charged because everyone agreed that it was the biggest they had ever seen.

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While it wasn’t a homegrown water melon, it was among the produce that our grandson (and future farmer) Jackson, enjoyed. He also got excited about watching the chickens eat corn on the cob.

Some guests left with garlic and some with honey and several left with regrets about having to leave so early and hopes of returning soon. It was a great day filled with friends, family, food and love and we are grateful for all those who visited.

Unfortunately we were so busy and having such a great time that we forgot to hold one of our planned events. The rock picking contest. Participants were to be given a milk crate, shown to one of two areas that have been plowed this summer and told fill their crate with as many rocks as possible.  Cash prizes were to be awarded. Oh well guess we will be picking up rocks this week. 😉

Okay, I’m just kidding about the rock picking contest, but we will be picking up rocks this week. Have a great day.