Friday, January 25, 2008

Cold Weather Days


We're almost done with January, which is good because, we've burned through about two thirds of our wood, which we figured to be out of by the end of February when we hope to get some more. We can always switch to propane, even though I don't like the central heat because of the noise of the blowers. I also don't care for getting a big burst of heat and then nothing. The wood heat is constant, which, is nice. All seems well with the wood furnace now that the chimney is cleaned. It's drawing very well, and is burning nice and hot, which is good, since it's been snowy and chilly for a while now.

It doesn't seem like there would be a lot to do in winter with the outside, which is kind of true. Right now, it's too cold to work outside for very long unless you really need to. We were hoping to build a new shed for the goats sometime over the winter, but my recent attempt to get some lumber was unsuccessful but still kind of a good story.

We usually scrape through the end of the year on a little bit of our regular wood and on slabwood that we get by the carload from an Amish mill a few miles away. When you deal with the Amish, it is a little weird, because, generally, men don't talk to women, women don't talk if a man is around, and no one says a thing if there is an elder around. They defer to the elders, and if you're doing business with someone, only the main person at the business deals with you. No one ignores me or anything when I go to the mill, but if I were to go there with my uncle or my dad for some reason, I would just expect the men to do business with them and not get all fussy about it. No one really thinks about that sort of thing, and it's not personal. That's just the way it is.

Anyway, for this planned goat shed, my mother has been reading shed books and carpentry books and drawing out plans for months now. She has built a few things like playhouses and a chicken coop, but she wants a nice goat shed. My one thing I've ever built is our current goat shed. It's an embarassment. It's not even close to square, and the roof leaks all the time, and I didn't even really do the whole thing. I got the sides and the roof framed and the floor laid, and my mom roofed it and my sister and her husband nailed up the sides. I've been slapping great stuff and tarpaper on the thing ever since. In my defense, I built it out of scraps from an old shed that was down in the woods, and now that junk is not in the woods anymore. I spent a long time down in the woods getting rid of the old shed, and I had to carry most of the wood out piece by piece, and it's about a quarter mile. Uphill both ways. You know it.

My mom came up with a list of boards that I was supposed to take my substitute teaching check from before Christmas and go out to the mill and buy. I went to our regular mill and showed the list to one of the guys who works there. He said he didn't cut that kind of lumber there, but he told me a mill where they did cut hemlock framing lumber. He gave me really good directions there, and asked me: "Do you need it right away?" I was like, no, just whenever I can get it, and he sent me on my merry way.

This was during the January thaw. and there were amazing amounts of mud on the road where I was supposed to go to find this mill, I went and parked right on the road, because there was about one parking place there and it was about six inch deep mud. I walked up and just kind of generally asked who I could talk to about lumber. There were about five men sitting there and they all kind of point, point, point back to where the mill owner is. I showed him my list, and he had to go and add it up, but, again, he asked me: "Do you need it right away?" And I said again: No. Just whenever I can get it is fine. And he said: "Because I have my mill torn down."

When I looked around, the giant sea of mud was actually a construction site where all the people who were there were getting ready to frame a new building to house the mill. This is actually another very Amish thing, where someone will ask you a question and you answer, and then they might tell you why they asked that question, but they'll wait for your answer first. They also do not argue or haggle. At all. At my sister's yard sales in Erie, it's such a relief to deal with the Amish girls when they come to buy baby stuff. They just pay what's marked and that's it. Those darn Russians in Erie will argue with you for an hour and still not buy anything unless they can get it for nothing. My grandmother is Ukrainian, and the number of times I've had to look at her garage sale treasures and hear her howl: "I got that for a quarter!" you can't even count.

I was kind of amused, and he went to go and figure the costs of the lumber while I get very muddy petting a dirty little dog that hit me with its mud paws whenever I wasn't petting enough and watching the men lay out the foundation for the mill.

They were using "batter boards" which are like squared edges set up a little outside the planned dimentions of the building. You run string between the batter boards to find the corners of the foundation. There was one lonely "anglish" guy and about four other Amish people building the mill, and the Amish guy who was obviously in charge of construction has just had the anglish guy take all the string off the batter boards because it was pulled too tight, and the oldest of the Amish men was following around behind him telling him to make the lines nice and tight. I never found out how the poor anglish guy was going to resolve that one. Anyway, I got a price for my lumber, and when the snow melts and the mill gets running again, I'll head back down there again.

Luckily, the goat shed seems to be holding out for its second winter. We have a lot less heavy snow this year than last year, but it has been cold. I'm not that worried about the goats getting too cold. They have about six inches of hair on them right now, and when the snow lands on them, they are so well-insulated that it doesn't even melt.

The worst thing about cold weather is keeping unfrozen water out for the animals. When it was in the single digits for a few days in a row last week, I would check the water and carry a new bucket around one in the afternoon in addition to running them out water with their feed and hay in the morning and in the evening. The snow is soft, too, so that is nice. The ice when it is hard and sharp is hard on their feet, and the mud is even worse. Last year, the ground never froze, and we battled hoof rot with the goats from September through May, when of course then we had a long dry spell.

I've also been setting out water for the cats who are holed up in the garage. We have a rotating cast of characters out there, usually about three, but I've seen as many as five different cats out there. They sleep in the hay, and I hope they are at least scaring away mice and rats, though mice carried away a lot of the seeds I had saved over the summer.

I've really been doing a lot of bird feeding. I refill the feeder about every other day, and I made a batch of suet cakes recently. I discovered something really cool about the suet cakes. The first batch I made was a little crumbly. I mixed them up to about the consistancy of rice crispie treats. The last couple batches, I've let them stay a little soupier, and they set up better and last longer. I made them really thick, too, and I was getting ready to saw, saw, saw them apart when I discovered a little trick. I flipped the whole thing out of the cake pan and cut through the waxed paper on the bottom. If you score the cakes along the lines where you want them cut, maybe about an eighth of an inch deep, they just break right apart. No sawing required.

Making suet cakes made the house smell nice. Like peanut butter and things like that. Which was good, because when we get a good stretch of below freezing temperatures, there is an unfortunate phenomenon involving the pipe that sticks out the top of the house which is supposed to help make suction in the plumbing. That pipe should be about four to six inches in diameter, but our pipe is not, and in cold weather, it plugs up with frost and condensation. Now, everything still drains and flushes, but the smell from the septic seeps into the basement. the house gets very stinky and sour and smells like a combination of paper mill and farts. Not the most fun ever. One good day of sunshine takes care of it, though.

When it first happened, last year, I was a little worried until I found out about the frosty pipe thing. It's important not to overreact, though. Last year when I was out buying candles to ward off the stink, I popped into the hardware store for milk (don't ask, that's just the way it is) and there was a gentleman buying all new pipe fittings for his sinks. Now, I would bet he had the stinky pipe problem and did something bad to his plumbing or was overreacting and thinking he had a worse problem than he did. Which is my I'm spreading the news about the stinky pipe problem! It's the sort of thing no one mentions when you're getting a house with septic, and it's a really common thing to expect!

Back to the birds, we've been feeding a lot, and there are usually about fifteen to twenty birds at a time at the feeder. A few starlings have found our feeder, and some bluejays, but they aren't too disruptive. Yesterday, I saw either a kestrel or a falcon swoop through the cedars near the house where most of the little birds stay when they are not at the feeder, but I haven't seen many birds of prey lately.

Speaking of weather, our calendar from the feed mill with farmer's almanac forcasts is proving to be more accurate than the weather reports from television. According to the calendar, this weekend fair and cold but warming up with a little rain at the beginning of the week. This seems to match the forecast from the TV, but the TV forecast went from being warm and rainy over the weekend to matching what the almanac says. So there.

I have my own weather prediction methods. We have one of the those weather sticks on the porch that are supposed to point up when sunny weather is coming and down when rainy weather is coming, but it usually points up when it's actually sunny and down when it's actually rainy. For longer term weather, I usually pay attention to my dog who lays under the table when it's going to storm. Also, if the weather is changing with a low pressure front coming, about a day and a half before it changes, she gets very restless and one ear is hot and the other is cold. She's like a canine barometer. During the day, especially in summer, I use the goats as my own personal radar. Right before it rains, they rush out and eat as fast as they can and quit and go inside acouple of minutes before it even starts to sprinkle. They make a great warning system to get wash off the line before it gets rained on.

I did actually get to do some more "real" gardening a few days ago. I have pretty much picked out all my seeds, and that bit of fun is over, and I was able to get some bed composted and planted in cover crop, too. I mulched my lavender before the really cold weather set in. Hopefully, we wont get much colder, because we are approaching the temperatures which will kill off my lavender. Amazingly, I found a zone 4 lavender in one of my seed catalogs which I can't wait to try.

I have long been jealous of the big, beautiful tufts of rhubarb that the Amish ladies seem to have in their yards the second the ground unthaws. How do they do it? I read in a magazine just recently that you can force rhubarb by putting a bucket over the crown and then covering the bucket with manure and straw. I use straw for my compost pile, but I just let the goasts use waste hay for their bedding. I'm leery about using hay in my gardens. Straw is a much better insulator, and hay has hay seeds, and hay seeds are just weed seeds, and if you use hay in the garden as a mulch or as the "brown" material in a compost pile, you're setting yourself up for weed problems. Of course, in the raised bed where I have "inherited" some rhubarb from the previous owner, I can't imagine how the weed problem could be worse, so I just went ahead and buried the bucket in waste hay from the goat shed. We'll just see what comes up better. Weeds or rhubarb.

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