Wine and Cheese Please – Braun Ranch, Gatesville, Texas

Ginger Braun, owner of Braun Ranch in Gatesville, Texas

Ginger Braun, owner of Braun Ranch in Gatesville, Texas

I love surprises!  A few weeks ago I got a comment on my blog from reader Ginger Braun of Gatesville, Tx.  A couple of years ago Ginger read my articles about Making Mustang Grape Wine and Bottling Christmas Wine and she used them to make her own wild grape wine.  She had so much fun making the grape wine she decided to try the recipe to make watermelon, peach and pear wine too.  Well imagine my surprise when she sent me a note last week telling me that she would be passing through Brenham and she would be happy to bring me some of her wine.  How could I refuse?

Ginger used my recipe to make watermelon, peach and pear wine. She also shared two bottles of cider with me.

Ginger used my recipe to make watermelon, peach and pear wine. She also shared two bottles of cider with me.

When we were setting up our meeting I learned that Ginger is not just a hobby wine maker.  She is a bit of a modern day homesteader.  She owns and operates the Braun Ranch.  She raises and sells Nigerian Dwarf goats, homemade bread and farm fresh eggs.  However, her favorite thing on her ranch is serving as milk maid for her momma goats.  She uses the fresh milk to make three types of chevre (goat cheese) and goat’s milk soap.

Ginger truly loves her Nigerian dwarf goats!

Ginger truly loves her Nigerian dwarf goats!

You know how you just hit it off with some people?  Well Ginger was one of those people.  As soon as we met we were talking and swapping tips and stories like old friends.  She is so open and personable and an absolute joy to visit with.  I feel truly blessed that she went out of her way to share her wine, cheese and soap with me.

If you would like some great last minute stocking stuffers I encourage you to go to her Facebook page and leave her a message.  Her soap is amazing.  I used it last night and it felt so good and smelled heavenly.  While I used the “leather” fragrance she also has pumpkin, bamboo, cucumber, lavender and citrus.

I love homemade soap! Ginger's goat milk soap is so creamy and smells heavenly!

I love homemade soap! Ginger’s goat milk soap is so creamy and smells heavenly!

I haven’t had a chance to use the chevre yet but it smells and tasted terrific on the tip of my finger.  She has plain, Jalapeño and chive plus garlic, dill and chive.  My wife makes an amazing chicken breast stuffed with chevre and sun dried tomatoes.  I plan on using the garlic, dill and chive cheese in that recipe.  When I told my daughter about Ginger she told me about a recipe where she roasts carrots in honey and then places them on a puff pastry with a dollop of chevre.  I can’t wait to try this recipe with Ginger’s plain cheese.

Chevre is so creamy and it works so well in both sweet and savory recipes. And of course, fresh homemade is always way better than store bought!

Chevre is so creamy and it works so well in both sweet and savory recipes. And of course, fresh homemade is always way better than store bought!

This has been an unusually hectic month at our house.  We have been so busy that I had not started feeling the Christmas spirit yet. That all ended at 10:30 yesterday.  Thank you Ginger for the early Christmas present, thank you for reading the blog and thank you for reminding me it is time to slow down and start enjoying this most joyous time of year!  Merry Christmas!

Gardening with Delightfully, Daffy Ducks

A couple of years ago we adopted two pairs of Peking ducks – sort of.  In reality the ducks adopted us.  The children of a deceased friend put her ducks on the 56 acre lake behind us.  Soon after the ducks arrived on the lake they started showing up at our house.  At first they simply waddled up to the house, ate whatever fell out of the bird feeders and then went home.  However, it wasn’t long until they discovered the chickens (and all the food they wasted) and their visits grew longer. Now, two years later, these ducks are an adorable part of our daily routine.

peking-ducks

We truly love our adorable, adopted ducks

Each morning around daybreak the ducks line up single file and waddle up to our house from the lake.  They spend their days hunting bugs, eating bugs, breeding (they do a lot of this in the spring), laying eggs and finally resting.  Our favorite duck behavior happens each time we drive up to the house.  When they hear our car coming they run quacking to the driveway.  They sit outside the car and they quack and quack and quack and wiggle their little tails until we follow them to the coop and feed them.  After their evening meal they lounge around a little more and then finally line up again and waddle back to the lake.  Yes, my wife and I have really fallen for our adopted ducks.  Their goofy antics are just downright enjoyable to watch plus, their love for bugs and nut grass (I have heard they love to eat nut grass but I have not actually seen them do it), makes them just as practical and useful as they are adorable.

Each morning our adopted ducks march up from the lake in a single file line

Each morning our adopted ducks march up from the lake in a single file line

While I am sure this will bring some comments, we have slowly come to the realization that ducks are much better pets for gardeners than chickens.  Don’t get me wrong, we still love our chickens.  However, if you love your gardens and you have free range chickens you will quickly understand why I have come to this conclusion.

Over the past three years I have been shocked to learn just how much damage chickens do to gardens.  Most of the articles I read before we got our chickens mentioned their “digging and scratching” behavior.  However, the articles I read kind of glossed over this.  Some tried to sell the behavior as “soil aeration” and other made it sound cute. Let me assure you, it is not cute.   The first thing a chicken does when it leaves the coop in the morning is head to your vegetable garden or flower beds to dig and scratch and dig and scratch and dig and scratch some more.  While I had hoped that my chickens would be different, they were not.  A chicken is gonna do what a chicken has to do.  So, after three years of fighting to keep them from destroying my gardens, I am throwing in the towel.  I have finally accepted the fact that chickens and gardens really do not mix.

chicken-proof-garden

Here you can see some of the defensive measures I have empoyed to try and prevent my chickens from digging up everything in my garden

Over the last three years I have watched our chickens turn newly tilled and mounded rows in flat, shapeless messes.  I have seen them eat freshly planted seeds, new sprouts and dig up every ornamental and vegetable transplant I set out.  I have also watched them kick fresh mulch out of my beds almost faster than I could put it down. I quickly learned that if I was going to have free ranging chickens and lovely gardens I would literally have to change the way I gardened.

Despite the head aches they caused me, we really loved those silly chickens — so I adapted.  For the past three years I have built fences, I have covered my freshly planted rows with chicken wire to keep them from scratching and I have built wire frames to protect transplants and new sprouts.  While I understand this is what chickens do, I have finally arrived at the point were I am tired of trying to beat them.  The good new is, ducks don’t do any of these things.  All they do is roam our gardens and eat our bugs.  Because of that, if I switch to ducks for my free ranging pets, I will never again have to cover my freshly planted rows or build wire frames or temporary fences.  In short, if I confine my chickens and let my ducks roam free I can garden they way I used to.

buff-orpington

Sally and I love our chickens! However, since they are so destructive I am afraid their free ranging days are coming to an end

Before these four adorable birds literally arrived on our doorstops, my wife and I knew absolutely nothing about ducks.  However, since they adopted us, we have become such big fans of these gentle, affectionate and somewhat goofy birds that we have decided to let them be our only free ranging bug catchers and keep our chickens confined to the very lovely and luxurious coop and yard that I built for them when we got them.  If you are a gardener (and I assume you are since this is a gardening blog) and you are considering raising chickens, I highly recommend investigating ducks too.  You can raise and house them in almost the exact same way as you raise chickens.  They lay pretty decent eggs (which make wonderfully dense and moist cakes) and they eat your garden pests without destroying your plants or garden beds.  I have also heard they love nut grass!  If that turns out to be true then everyone I know should get themselves a whole flock of ducks!!!

I share these posts on Our SimpleHomestead Blog Hop.  Be sure to stop by.  The “hop” has tons of great information from gardeners and homesteaders all over the world!

Chicken-Coop

Don’t feel too sorry for the chickens that will soon be confined. They have a very nice coop, run and yard that is more than adequate for their needs

2015 Bluebonnet Report

This weekend the kids all came for Easter.  Sally and I absolutely love it when the kids come for a whole bunch of reasons.  However, one of my favorites is my son in law Ramez Antoun’s camera.  Ramez is a dang fine amateur photographer.  Each time he comes he leaves me with a ton of outstanding photographs.  This weekend the bluebonnets of Washington County were at their peak.  He took tons of great shots of the bluebonnets and all of the other wildflowers in our yard.  I was so impressed with them that I thought I would share.

bluebonnets-lake

Our little house sits on a long, narrow two acre lot.  We have a ranch in front of us and one behind us.  One of the ranches has a 56 acre lake on it.  This shot is from our yard looking toward the lake.  I love the way this picture captures the swaths of bluebonnets that lead down to the lake.

Bluebonnets-yorkie

All of our kids are dog lovers.  Kate and Ramez are the owners of the Yorkie in the picture above (my apologies for the ugly sweater they forced her to wear) .  Our daughter Jessie and her husband own the three labs below. The two black labs are retired guide dogs.  While Jessie was in college she and Cameron worked with a group of people that socialized and trained dogs for the seeing impaired.   They got these dogs when they were six weeks old and kept them for the first year of their lives.  They then turned them over for further training.  Finally, the wound up with a seeing impaired person who loved and depended on them for several years.  When it was time for them to retire, the foundation offered them back Jessie and her husband.  How could they refuse?

bluebonnets-labrador

Here is a great shot of our little guest house/bed and breakfast.  I love the mural that my wife had done last year.  If you are planning a trip to Washington County, Sally and I would love to be your hosts.  Click on the link below to tour “The Nest” and/or book your stay.

bluebonnets-guest-house

 

Finally, bluebonnets aren’t the only wildflowers that are blooming now in Washington County.  I leave you with this great shot of an Indian Paintbrush.

This post has been shared on the HomeAcre Hop!  Stop by the hop and see what gardeners and homesteaders across the country are doing.

indian-paintbrush

Our First Grand Chick

This past Sunday, Sally and I became grandparents – in a manner of speaking.  Our favorite hen, Chicken Little, hatched the first of what we were hoping would be a whole litter of baby chickens.  We started out with five fertilized eggs that we picked up from our friends at Yonder Way Farms in Fayeteville, Texas.   However, one precious little chick is all we got.

Chick-1

Our precious little chick on the day she was hatched.

And that is just fine with us.  We really don’t need a lot of chickens at our house.  Our coop is not set up for more than six to eight birds.  In fact, this is why we waited so long to let one of our hens sit.  We didn’t want a crowded coop.

Sally and I decided to let Chicken Little sit for a couple of reasons.  First, she is the hen at the bottom of the pecking order.  It is hard for us to watch the constant pecking and pushing around that she is forced to endure.  We read on a blog that a batch of chicks had a way of bringing out the mother in all of the hens.  So, we are hoping that this little chick will make the other girls treat Chicken Little a whole lot better.  At the very least we are hoping it will prevent, or at least delay, the bad treatment that Chicken Little is forced to endure.

Chick-2

Our baby is four days old and already getting pin feathers on her wings!

While Sally and I think Chicken Little is the sweetest, bestest hen of the bunch, she does have one little problem – she gets broody – A LOT.  In the past few months she has become broody four different times.  Each time this happened we were forced to quarantine her in a metal cage for a few days.  During that time she didn’t eat or drink much.  Plus it was just hard for us to watch.  So, since she is such a good girl –and she REALLY wanted to sit – we decided to let her.

Chicken-Little-1

Chicken Little is such a good mother! Here, she and baby explore their world.

While we had hoped for a few more chicks, we are absolutely thrilled with our one little baby.  She truly is precious and Chicken Little is proving to be a great little mother.  Plus, the other hens really do seem to be impressed (and they are treating her a little better).  They keep coming up and looking at the baby.  When they get too close Chicken Little blows up her feathers and clucks and they politely walk off.  I truly hope that that this new baby raises her mom’s standing in the flock!

BTW, this post has been shared on The HomeAcre Hop and the Homestead Barn Hop #173.  Be sure to check them out.  They are full of great posts from homesteaders across the web.

Organic Aphid Control

If you have spent much time in the garden, you are familiar with aphids.  These tiny little pests are quite common and quite annoying.  In fact, they are so annoying; lots of people call them plant lice.  Aphids do more damage to agricultural and horticultural plants than any other species of insect.  In fact, one species of aphid almost entirely destroyed the French wine industry in the 1870’s.  They also contributed to the spread of the “Late Blight” fungus that caused the Irish potato famine.

Aphids-1

Aphids do more damage to agricultural and horticultural crops than any other insect. Photo by Bruce Leander

Aphids have modified mouth parts that allow them to drill directly into the phloem and extract all of the rich carbohydrates and sugars that it needs from your plants.  Aphid damage on plants can lead to decreased growth rates, curled leaves, brown spots, low yields and even death.  To make matters worse, aphids are known to spread many different plant viruses.  For example, the green peach aphid is known to spread 110 different viruses.

aphid-rose-2

This rose bud is covered with aphids in all stages of their development. The white things in the pictures are the skins they shed as they go from one phase to another. Photo by Sally White

Aphid also excrete a substance called “honeydew” that is also harmful to plants.  Aphids feed on plants the same way a mosquito feeds on you.  Once they “tap a vein” there is so much food available, and it us under so much pressure, that the unused sap passes through their bodies and onto the plant’s foliage.  This forms a sticky, sweet covering on stems and leaves that is a perfect host for mold and fungus.

Aphids-3

Close up of aphids in various stages of development. Photo by Bruce Leander.

While there are lots of insecticides that you can spray to control aphids, organic control is usually just as effective.  Believe it or not, the most effective tool you can use against the aphid is water.  Aphids are soft bodied pests.  A good hard blast of water can actually cause the aphid to burst open.  Even if it doesn’t burst the aphid, it will knock them to the ground.  The ground is a very bad place for an aphid.  There are lots of things down there that will eat it.  Also, since most cannot fly or crawl very fast, they will often die from exposure before they make it back to your plant.

Effective control with water in not a “one and done” job.  If you want to keep aphids in check you are going to need to spray every three or four days.  Also, since aphids hide under leaves at night and during the hot part of the day, you need to spray upwards from the bottom of the plant.  This is very difficult to accomplish with a water hose.   Luckily there are tools out there that can make this job easier and more effective.

aphid-rose-3

As you can see, my roses are infested with aphids again this year. Photo by Sally White.

The best tool I have found is made right here in Texas.  It is called the MiteyFine sprayer.  The MiteyFine sprayer is essentially a metal tube with a special nozzle that is designed to apply the right amount of pressure (and use the least amount of water) needed to kill aphids.  MiteyFine comes in 46” and 58” lengths.  The light weight shaft makes it easy to handle and the design ensures that the water finds the aphids that hide in those really hard to get to places.

MiteyFine-Sprayer

The MiteyFine sprayer is the most effective tool I have found for organic control of aphids. Photo by Bruce Leander.

I have met several people that are skeptical that water alone can control aphids.  In fact, just yesterday I was telling a friend that runs a landscape business about the MiteyFine sprayer.  He asked “How do you mix the orange oil in with the water?”  No matter how much I swore that water alone was enough, he just didn’t believe me.  If you are like my friend, and you feel like you have to spray something on bugs, then you are in luck.  Orange oil, neem oil and lantana oil are organic insecticides that can all be sprayed on active infestations with great result.  These natural oils kill by clogging the pores that the insects use to breath.  However, just like water, you need to spray every few days and you need to spray under the leaves.  Be aware that there are some predatory bugs that eat aphids that will also be killed by any oil application.

Ladybug-dill

Lady bugs and their babies are voracious aphid predators. Photo by Bruce Leander.

Lady bugs are another organic aphid control measure that I hear a lot about.  While it is true that lady bugs eat a lot of aphids, you would need a whole lot more of them than you can afford to control a good infestation.  I have lots of lady bugs in my gardens.  However, I still have lots of aphids all over my plants.  I am not saying you should not buy and release lady bugs in your garden.  Just be aware that they are not the panacea they are made out to be.

ladybug-larvae

Ladybug larvae are often called “aphid lions” because they eat so many of the pests. Photo by Bruce Leander.

Even though aphids are a nuisance, there is no reason to let them ruin all of those beautiful plants that you have worked so hard to grow.  With a little observation and a little perseverance, you can control your aphid problems with some very effective organic tools.

Ladybugs lay their eggs close to an aphid infestation.  The larvae begin to feed on the slow moving aphids immediately.  Photo by Bruce Leander.

Ladybugs lay their eggs close to an aphid infestation. The larvae begin to feed on the slow moving aphids immediately. Photo by Bruce Leander.

Harlequin Bug – A Real Sucker By Patty Leander

Brassica plants love our fall weather. So do harlequin bugs. And unfortunately harlequin bugs love brassicas.  These colorful bugs are attracted to the large, succulent leaves of various members of the brassica family, including broccoli, cauliflower, kale, collards and mustard. A cousin to stink bugs, the adults are easy to spot because of their orange and black exoskeleton, and if you find one there are usually many more in the vicinity.

Adult Harlequin Bug in curly kale.  All photos in the post by Bruce Leander

Adult Harlequin Bug in curly kale. All photos in the post by Bruce Leander

One of the best methods for controlling this pest is to perform a regular “search and destroy” operation to keep them in check; otherwise they will continue to proliferate in your garden. Monitor your plants for clusters of the distinctive, black and white barrel-shaped eggs which are usually laid in clusters of 10-12 on the plant stems or the underside of leaves. Each female egg has the potential to hatch and grow and lay another dozen eggs in only four to nine weeks, so if you can eliminate just one egg mass you will be way ahead in this game we call vegetable gardening.

This dime shows the relative size – the intricate eggs are tiny and easy to overlook

This dime shows the relative size – the intricate eggs are tiny and easy to overlook

Harlequin Bugs have distinctive egg cases, usually 10-12 barrel shaped eggs laid side by side

Harlequin Bugs have distinctive egg cases, usually 10-12 barrel shaped eggs laid side by side

Harlequin instars – recently hatched; every female has the potential to lay another dozen eggs in less than two months

Organic products, such as spinosad or insecticidal soap, only offer fair control and are most effective in the nymphal stages. Adults become more resistant and harder to control so find those eggs and destroy them! If any eggs should escape your eagle eye, hand pick the resulting pests and drop them into a bucket of soapy water. Row cover can be used to protect plants, just make sure there are no adults or eggs present before covering plants. Another control option is to plant a sacrificial trap crop of mustard or turnips to attract the bugs away from your desirable plants, then pick off the adults or spray the trap crop with insecticide rather than spraying all of the brassicas you plan to eat. Keep an eye out for this pest in both fall and early spring as they can easily decimate a plant if not kept under control.

The colorful adults are plentiful and easy to find; handpick and dispose of them in a bucket of soapy water

The colorful adults are plentiful and easy to find; handpick and dispose of them in a bucket of soapy water

A Wounded Hummingbird

Every once in a while, something amazing happens.  For my wife and I, this Sunday brought us one of those amazing surprises.  While outside mowing the yard, our carpentar stopped her and showed her what appeared to be a half grown, wounded, ruby throated hummingbird laying in the grass.  She was surprised when the she bent down to pick it up that he offered no resistance.  She brought it to our son who took it inside and put it in a box that we had been using as a chicken brooder.  The bird was absolutely alert and alive, but he offered no resistance to our handling. 

Our tiny little friend was barely longer than two joints of Chris's finger

Our tiny little friend was barely longer than two joints of Chris’s finger

Chris brought him a drink in coke bottle lid a helped him get a small sip.  After a few minutes we checked on him and were surprised to find he had flown out of the box.  We decided this must mean he had been healed of whatever ailed him so he took him out and placed him on our deck.  Again, he just sat there motionless.  So, since it not every day you can get this close to a hummingbird, I went in and grabbed the camera.  I was lucky enough to get this truly beautiful shot of this truly amzing little creature.

Pictures like this make me truly appreciate my Canon Rebel

Pictures like this make me truly appreciate my Canon Rebel

After I took these pictures, I felt the little guy would be safer in the Chinese Privet that lines our deck.  So, I picked him up and gently started carrying him to the bush.  Before I got there, he bolted out of my hand and flew directly to the redbud tree that sits at the southeast corner of the potager.  If you think full grown hummingbirds are amazing, you should see one when it is “small”.  He was so tiny.  I cannot believe that God can make something so perfect and beautiful in such a small scale.  Everything from his tiny little feet, to his tiny little irridescent feathers was beautiful and perfectly formed.  It truly was a joy to be able to share a few moments with this amzing creature. 

The irridescent feathers of the Hummingbird are so lovely

The irridescent feathers of the Hummingbird are so lovely

I have seen countless hummers leave our feeders and go directly to that same spot in the redbud that our little friend escaped to. I hope there is something safe and nurturing in that tree that will heal our new little friend so he can join the others of his species around our feeders this summer.