Memorable First Days At Seven Oaks Farm

Even though this is a very busy time of year on the farm, I’ve been extending myself just a bit further on the family end of things so our efforts around the farm have required a large degree of efficiency on my part. Of course there is nothing wrong with efficiency, but lately I think I feel a bit more as if my toes are being held to the fire…OUCH!toesFor instance, never before have I resorted to picking strawberries (or any other crops for that matter) in the rain, but last week, with so little time to work in the fields, I had no option but to pick strawberries in a steady drizzle. And, I found myself doing this not once but twice already this year! Despite my previous complaints about the excessive rain, the berries have been absolutely beautiful this year. YTD we have picked 64.391pounds of berries which is only about 10.5 lbs more than last year at this point but I’m not going to read too much into that since last year I was picking every other day and this year I decided to pick every day. I don’t really invite others to share much in the picking, but Dave had to jump in to help out while I was in California for a couple of days. He did a wonderful job in my absence but I can tell he now has a greater appreciation for this chore.

At this point in the year It takes about 2 hours to harvest the entire patch but when not rushed, I find it rather therapeutic. I pick each row thus: I straddle the rows (which are about 18-24″ wide), bending at the waist, butt in the air and hands all a kimbo in busy-ness. I’m an ambidextrous picker, using both hands at once to pluck the fruits and place them in the waiting pans. I find this method much easier on the knees than squatting and rising every few feet. Although I’m relieved that no one has the view from the rear, I do feel as if this stance often supplies me with the ability to see the ripe berries from more than one perspective and with plenty of blood in my brain so that I have a chance to think!

Of course, I’m always eagerly looking down the row with anticipation of the next ripe group of berries ahead even tho I’m most actively concerned with picking the ones directly beneath me. But let me just say this: the best berries of all to pick are actually the ones that I discover behind me…they are the ones that I missed when looking in the other two directions. These are the sweetest berry finds since they are blissfully ‘discovered’ by looking at things from a different aspect! Wouldn’t it be grand to have the time in our busy lives to discover and savor those ripened morsels that we might have passed up had we not seen it from a different perspective! This I found to be particularly poignant while picking today since it is our 36th wedding anniversary and I found myself particularly sentimental for lots of reasons. Our future together was always exciting, the present was always busy and productive but some of the hind sights of our life experiences together have perhaps proven the sweetest.

Here are what the last two days worth of berries, (approximately 20lbs) looks like as they sit in one of the refrigerators, awaiting my attention to prepare them for future keeping. Each tray is shouting, “me first” so I do what I can as fast as I can since ripe, home grown strawberries do not have a long shelf life. The reason for this is that when picked at a ripened point, the sugars in the fruit are at the highest level and the cell walls begin to break down quickly, making for a mushy fruit if not dealt with quickly. IMG_7958So once the fruit has been harvested, the work is not nearly done. The berries have to be prepared before eating fresh or any manner of preserving so this is another time hog for me.  Last week before leaving for California, I rushed to get the berries harvested and then was hard pressed to get those berries preserved for the future. With a lack of time, I knew not to attempt any jam making so my friend Joan offered to come over and help freeze a large batch. The two of us stood at the sink washing, stemming and preparing large batches of berries for freezing while chatting away. Had she not helped me, these would have been wasted! In return, of course, Joan will have yummy berries this winter to eat!!! IMG_7887After they firmly freeze on the sheet pans, they tumble, rock-like, into freezer Ziploc bags and are layered back into the freezer drawers. Many more of these to come in the next days! IMG_7888While I was doing this, Dave was focusing on the new tomato staking method. This entails “planting” 8 foot tall 4×4 pine posts (untreated, of course) into the tomato field which will be used for plant supports. Dave did this using the new PTO driven post hole digger. IMG_7877So he staked out the field and measured where each stake would go before drilling for them. Anytime you can use the power of the tractor, you are steps ahead! IMG_7883 Then he “planted” the posts IMG_7880and of course wanted them to line up just so! There are 15 in total to support 30 tomato plants. IMG_7879With off and on rain the past several days, Dave has finally gotten the last of the tomato plants in the ground and we will demonstrate the in-line, twine staking method in a future post!

The orchard trees are exhibiting more and more fruit for the summer and fall crops. Here are the peaches…IMG_7986Apples…

IMG_7980Nectarines… IMG_7982And wouldn’t you know it, the newest strawberry plants are already flowering! We might get a berry or two from these yet!IMG_7977One additional bit…here is a little present…left by one of our owl friends and deposited on the top of one of the blueberry nets…2015-05-24 08.23.45

If you didn’t recognize it right away, it is an owl pellet which I find to be fascinating and apparently I’m not the only one to think this. Kate told me that these are actually sold on the internet to biology classrooms for mini dissections. In case this is a new concept for you, owls devour their prey without fully digesting it. Large pieces of skeletal segments and identifiable bones are found in their excrement, which can make for a forensic study of the owl diet. With a large family of local owls, this is not our first pellet, but rather it seemed like a little gift on the top of the blueberry netting!

In the meantime, I’ve been to California and back to help Kate bring baby Coulter to Saint Louis! There were goodbyes galore from many of the Ward’s friends and I was able to meet some of them. Here is the Garland family with whom Kate has had years of interaction by teaching their 4 four children at school. Others, such as Chris Graves, also supplied savory dinners in those last days of frenetic packing.IMG_7918

The prospect of traveling from LAX to STL with a 4 week old infant was a tiny bit daunting but we managed to pull it off despite a very long day of airport travel. Here is Coulter, with a window seat on the plane, blissfully waiting for take off. He was such a trooper! 2015-05-23 13.03.47Upon arrival in Saint Louis, he met his great-grandmother, Momo, who was eager to see his very blue eyes! This little one provided her with a very special day. 2015-05-24 10.37.54We are delighted to have him finally here and we look forward to his continued presence in our lives! He is too cute! Although Farley is a bit jealous, Nana and Gramps are over the moon! IMG_2841-1I promise to give a bee report next time and maybe even a knitting update!

Manna from Heaven…or The First Harvest of 2015

Despite being on the receiving end of more than 2.38 inches of rain over the last two and one half days, we have managed to squeeze in some important tasks. I harvested the first of the strawberries yesterday which was a nice addition to my Mother’s Day celebration. There were just a few to pick, (less than 1/2 a pound) but they were sure tasty for our breakfast this morning. Boy, fresh from the field tastes amazing!


I left quite a few behind in the field to ripen a bit more, so upon inspection this afternoon I was able to pick about twice as many more! Yumbo awaits our breakfast tomorrow!


Talk about wet!!! I’m so glad that we created the berm for the future berries that we planted last week where the patch had a low spot. I was amazed to see the standing rain in the aisles while the new plants are happily above grade…it might be hard to see, but the new dry root plants are greening up on the top of the berm. I’ll evaluate how this works in the future but the best thing we did last year was to add straw to overwinter the strawberries last fall. This was a great way to keep the berries off the ground and nestled onto a bit of a cushion where they are less apt to have their tips subject to rot. I give Dave full credit for this since he went and got the straw and laid it down one cold, sunless day for me! Dave accuses me of favoring the berry crops – the strawberries and blueberries – more than the other veggie crops. Perhaps, I’m guilty as charged! I love all the berries…do you blame me?

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Between spurts of rain we managed to get more mowing done and I tackled some much needed weeding in the Trident Maple areas. I love the little critters I encounter along the way. Look at this little toad…he is so well camouflaged that I jumped when he moved right near my workspace. IMG_7839 (1)

Vegetable Planting so far has included:

  • 10 rows – 3 varieties of Potatoes
  • 4 rows – Peas
  • 3 rows – 3 varieties of Spinach
  • 3 rows – 3 varieties of Lettuce
  • 1 row – Radishes
  • 1 row – Cabbage
  • 1 row – Pak Choi
  • 1 row – Swiss Chard
  • 1 row – 2 Types of Peppers ( more to come)
  • 1 row – 1 of 2 types Cucumbers (more to come)
  • 2 rows – 2 varieties Strawberries
  • 2 Plum Trees (same variety)
  • 2 Pear Trees (replacements- same variety)
  • Grapes – 2 varieties

On deck, ready to plant as soon as the fields allow:

  • 5 rows – Tomatoes – 3 varieties
  • 2+ rows- Eggplants
  • Peppers

I spent the morning with my allergist. Although I have not reported any of my problems with bee stings here, over the last year I’ve had an increased reaction anytime that I was stung. (Beekeepers just have to be cool with stings now and then.) I truly don’t mind these stings, but apparently, my body does! As my skin says ‘no more’, I consulted my dermatologist after my last episodes who sent me directly to my allergist. Although my reactions were to some degree “manageable” I was told that they would only get worse over time. So, today I had venom testing done at my allergist’s office and to no surprise, with the slightest prick of the lowest concentration of honeybee venom, I had quite the localized reaction. (This is not to be confused with a systemic reactions that would require an EpiPen. (Of course we have EpiPens on site at the farm as well as carry them with us in the field as a precaution when working in the beeyards.) So, I kind of looked like a drug addict today but I could not resist a pic of one of my arms (both arms were involved!) while they tested me for various stinging insect venoms besides honey bees which included wasps, hornets, yellow jackets and one other that I just can’t remember!!! IMG_7844

After all of this, I had great news! A venom shot once a week over the next 15 weeks would send me on the way to being desensitized to these venoms! After that, I will taper off with the injections and within a year of working on this, I’ll be totally desensitized! Yeah!

While awaiting my venom results, Dave was hard at work at our equipment maintenance, replacing batteries and repairing tires on some of our implements. He was fairly excited that he eeked out a productive day despite the wet conditions. All in all, another good day at Seven Oaks Farm!

Rain With a Capital “R”

Rain. I think I have a conditional love for Rain. I say that when I reflect on unconditional love for my family…you love them endlessly no matter what the situation. Well, not so with Rain which I want to turn on in my life when I need it and off when I don’t. But Rain from the sky is not a faucet and cannot, despite all our feeble efforts, be lessened in a flood or prodded in a drought. Perhaps it is because I can’t control Rain that I have a much deeper relationship with it; more so, anyway, than most of my acquaintances who mostly go on with their lives with little or no connection to the current weather.

Two weeks ago we were hoping for the proliferation of spring Rain in our area to end so that we could get our fields planted. Our wish was granted…we finally had a couple of gorgeous weeks when the Rain let up, the fields dried out enough for us to get lots of work done, i.e. many crops planted or otherwise tended to. So we toiled away until we were too tired each night to do much more than nod at each other in a congratulatory way, knowing that we had gotten more done, like a team of oxen harnessed together (my dad would have said mules!), than either of us could have imagined had we worked alone…this, because we were Rain free.

Then we heard the prediction of the next Rain to come, the anticipation of which is like an acceleration on ones work ethic! With a day or two to get something done before the next onslaught of Rain, one works tirelessly at accomplishing small and large tasks. No more were we plodding oxen, but rather like squirrels with twitching tails, setting off here and there to get our lists accomplished.

So last week, under gorgeous spring conditions, we managed to plant (as you know from the previous post) the grapes which are doing well with each of the 6 dry root plants now showing signs of life. These plants are very hard to photograph at this stage so you will just have to take my word for it!

In addition to that, we renovated the strawberry field by re-arranging a couple of rows of plants. Ever since we plotted this field, I’ve been sorry that we didn’t plant this crop in raised berms. So, with the idea of adding new strawberry plants on a continual basis to supplement the old, we decided to re-work our two worst rows of plants by digging up the existing, (albeit meager) strawberry sets and transplanting them to higher ground in other rows, and then devising to plant new rows of strawberries after creating berms in that field. LOTS OF WORK TO DO THIS!!! But, here are the two new rows ready to go with one of the rows showing the dry root plants sitting on top, ready to nestle into place. IMG_7820

Our strawberries are all June bearing plants (vs. ever bearing) that we obtained from Stark Brothers. We have been very pleased with these and find June bearing to be the best for our purposes since the crop comes in and we are flush with berries during berry season but then done with this task while the rest of the summer crops demand our attention. The ever bearing type of plant would mean a piddly amount of berries on an ongoing basis that I would find to be a pain while my attention was needed elsewhere. (Our blueberries, by the way, ripen over a 3 month period and demand plenty of attention but are easier in that they keep on the “vine” longer as well as in the refrigerator and are easier to freeze.) Despite renovations elsewhere in the field, the rest of the berry patch has ripening berries! Again, Rain will determine when we can get out to harvest and how fast/long we can wait until picking these!IMG_7822

Here is the link to the Honeoye variety.

Here is the link to the Jewel variety.

The blueberries are also benefiting from the Rain, showing fruits galore on all the plants. IMG_7816Unfortunately, as in years past, we had a dear black snake get caught up in the blueberry netting and we had to cut his lifeless remains out of the mess. IMG_7814Luckily, despite this loss, on the same day I found another relative of his slithering from the driveway to the grass. With an infestation of voles  (ugh!) last year, we are ready for some aggressive predators! IMG_7799The fruit trees are doing well despite the discovery this week of a web of caterpillars in one of the apple trees in the South orchard. Needless to say, they met a quick demise after I punctured their web. I did let out a yelp at this discovery, as you could imagine but quickly disposed of these invaders!  IMG_7810Here are the lovely nectarines on their way to producing future fruits! IMG_7807And the Peaches…IMG_7808The peas and potatoes look like they are off to a great start as well and are enjoying the Rain. Here are some of the potatoes. IMG_7804In addition to fruits and veggies, I worked on the front flower beds to weed and feed them this week as well as plant a few perennials at the side entrance. I realized I had “peony envy” and added these plants….IMG_7821 after plucking these gorgeous blooms from Kate and Jason’s yard this week before the Rain could damage them. IMG_7828The bee report is slim this week after the swarm capture even tho Jurgen did some maintenance and all is well with the bees for now.

The Rain the last couple of days did allow Nana and Gramps to assemble the crib for the Seven Oaks Farm nursery! This was the best part of the Recent Rain condition! Here is the finished crib in the nursery. Note the Rocking Cow to the left, (Williams College mascot, thanks to Kate’s dear friend Robin Young Bliss) which we are safe keeping until the Ward family gets settled in to their new home! IMG_7830 (2)Baby Coulter has a growing fan club so I must include some pics of him here. He was two weeks old last Wednesday and already attended his first volley ball championship which his dad, the coach, handily won with his team. Cal was so excited, they had to calm him down with a binky!IMG_0008 (3)He is such a mellow fellow. Here he is enjoying a recent moment in his monkey-toed onesie!  Those eyes are just so transfixed! We can’t wait to welcome the Ward family here soon! Happy Mother’s Day to all, but especially to new mother, daughter, Kate!  IMG_0012 (1)By the way, it is Raining now, which is why I was able to find time to write this post!

Nancy and Helen’s Bee-Wild-ering Adventure

I have lots and lots to share about what I’ve been up to the last couple of weeks but before I get into all that fun stuff, I thought I’d start out with an incredible bee adventure from yesterday. Dave and I started out our Saturday morning with some early farm chores – ones we can do quietly while the dew dries off the plants – while anticipating stopping in at the Saint Louis Fine Print, Rare Book & Paper Arts Fair in advance of the rest of our planned farm activities. I have a modest collection of antique prints and was looking forward to stopping by this local, annual show to see what some of my favorite vendors would have to offer when I got a call from Jurgen’s wife, Helen. They had just received word that one of the local parks needed help with a swarm of bees and wanted us to help remedy the situation. Jurgen was out of town so Helen called me to see if I would be interested in helping her capture the swarm and relocate it elsewhere. I asked Dave if he minded the interruption in our plans and he kindly allowed me to instantly switch gears. So I donned my bee suit and loaded the truck with all the equipment I could think of (ladders, loppers, saws, etc.) and ran off with Helen to Stacey Park in Olivette, Missouri.

Wouldn’t you know, this is a park where the Olivette baseball practices and games take place for the local grades schools and as luck would have it, this was Team Picture Day, so the entire park was filled to the brim with youngsters and their families, all eager to get their turn in front of the cameras! We found the bee swarm on the lower branch of a small dogwood tree which was ideal, but the location of the tree with the swarm was within a couple of feet of the photo queue! Yikes.

Helen and I wished we had the Ghost Buster movie music ( ) blaring from the truck as we slowly pulled into place and geared up in our bee equipment. Here is what the swarm looked like with little uniformed baseball team groups patiently waiting in the background. I was amazed at how close they wanted to view the swarm. IMG_7770Helen and I assessed the situation and decided to put towels down on the grown below the nuc box that we had at the ready (with frames of drawn comb, of course) to shake the bees into once we lopped off the branch of the tree. The bees are rather docile at this point since they are protecting their queen while they work on a new home in which to live and prosper.IMG_7772We had all hands on deck and moved quickly so there are not too many photos of what happened next. We got the majority of the bees into the nuc box and went back for another, smaller branch of clustered bees as well and drove very slowly off with the captured swarm to install these bees at the Ermel bee yard. IMG_7780Whew, job well done! I saved the tree branch that the bees had been clinging to for Helen to take to her third grade students since the bees had already begun forming wax combs on the branches and leaves which was fascinating! Can you see the beginning of the comb? And the deposits of wax on the branches for future combs? IMG_7781Our satisfaction was short lived as we decided to work on the nuc box and install it into a larger hive box at Ermel’s beeyard and found that the bees swarmed AGAIN!!! This time to a nearby honeysuckle stand! Ugh! IMG_7785Back I went with ladders and loppers to attack this re-swarmed, determined group of bees! Helen and I had our hands full since this time the swarm was about 10 feet off the ground and in the thick of a vibrant honeysuckle stand. We chopped away at the unaffected branches in order to get the ladder closer to the swarm. It took several tense hours and two frustrating tries, but I think we managed to capture most of the swarm of bees into a box and back into the Ermel hive boxes. We hope we managed to capture this second swarm and its new queen and keep them for a future colony!

Between the swarm crises yesterday, we managed to pop over to the print fair and add to our collection. While I dealt with the swarm issue, Dave continued to plant cool season seeds and prepare for the tomato, pepper and eggplant patches. That meant that it was time to buckle down today and get some additional field work and other planting done. I weeded in the strawberry patch all morning. The plants look good and are full of promising fruit but I do plan to in-fill with additional new plants  tomorrow that will be productive for next year.

We also decided, due to time constraints, to put the grapes into the already prepared back terrace beds. It is starting to get a little late to add these bare root specimens to the planting agenda this year if it meant preparing a brand new bed. I suggested using the terrace bed in hopes of getting these into the ground this year with the idea of transplanting them if we wanted to move them in the future. First we soaked the 6 bare root grape plants in a tub that we filled with water. IMG_0004 Grapes actually do well in sub par soil with a great range of acceptable ph, being viable anywhere between 6.0 and 7.5, so we did very little preparation other than digging the holes and popping in the plants. Easier said than done since we found many old tree roots as well as old (not hot!) electrical wire to patiently cull out with our wire cutters. IMG_0009Farley found the whole experience delightful as he just wanted to be in the sunshine and enjoy the day lying next to the hose! IMG_7792Although they don’t look like much yet, here is one of the six grape plants…we will report on progress as we see them greening up! IMG_0008You all must have figured out by now that I’m now back from California where I was so pleased to spend some time getting to meet our adorable grandson, Coulter Allen Ward! IMG_7646I could blog here endlessly about him as he grows and treats us with the future joys of his small life. For now, just a few words and a couple of photos. He is an easy baby who has a healthy appetite but also already sleeps for long stretches.  IMG_7703His parents could not be more happy with this little one… IMG_7697even tho they are leaving this view from their terrace when they move to Saint Louis…sorry, no beaches or citrus orchards here!IMG_7716 Here is Cal, ready to take in his new surroundings in Saint Louis…particularly at Seven Oaks Farm. Love and kisses from Nana and Gramps!IMG_0002